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Predicting the NFL’s Unpredictable

Forecasting the NFL players whose surprise seasons you are least expecting, with their 2013 counterparts as a guide

Nothing is a surprise in the NFL, even the surprises. Sure, there will be teams that come from out of nowhere and blaze a path to the playoffs, like last year’s Chiefs, but they’re just the latest in a string of teams that rode upgrades at quarterback and head coach to a massive win improvement. Nobody expected Ryan Mathews to be a breakout runner, but he was just the latest post-hype sleeper to take advantage of an opportunity and impress with a rare healthy season. Players can be surprises, but the archetypes and narratives that surround them come up year after year.

With less than one week to go before the NFL season begins, I wanted to run through many of those narratives and project who will fulfill them in 2014. Some of these are inferences based on roster depth and some of the other predictions I’ve made this year; others are just blind guesses from a crowd. Many, if not all, will be wrong. (All will be wrong.) In the interest of trying to project what the NFL will actually look like by the end of this season, let’s venture guesses about who in 2014 will repeat the stories of 2013.

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The competent veteran QB who falls off a cliff, seemingly onto his throwing shoulder

2013: Matt Schaub
2014: Carson Palmer

Teams are so aggressive about going for young quarterbacks these days that there really aren’t many lukewarm veteran starters out there. Not including fungible passers like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Cassel, the only longtime starters who would really fit into this category would be Palmer, Tony Romo, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers. I think a few people might choose Manning from that group, but I’ll be putting him into another 2013 narrative in a minute. Smith could struggle as Kansas City’s offensive line collapses like so many pockets around him, but Palmer has already been playing at less than 100 percent for years now, and the NFC West has to contain the most devastating trio of pass-rushers in football. At 34, he seems like the most obvious candidate as the veteran who will lose his job.

The fading veteran revitalized by a scheme change

2013: Philip Rivers
2014: Eli Manning

I’ve suggested this in the past on the podcast, but it seems like an obvious comparison. Rivers had been declining for years at the helm of Norv Turner’s offense because it no longer fit San Diego’s personnel, as the offensive line just wasn’t good enough to keep Rivers upright for very long. With Turner fired, the Chargers turned to Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt, who installed a West Coast scheme that relied on Rivers’s accuracy and allowed him to get the ball out quickly. The result was a massive improvement.

That’s almost exactly what is happening in New York. Over the past five seasons, Manning’s average pass has traveled 9.24 yards in the air, more than anybody else in football. That was great when he had an excellent offensive line and receivers like Plaxico Burress and Hakeem Nicks, but in recent years, Kevin Gilbride’s downfield passing attack has failed to fit his personnel. With a middling offensive line (one that’s already been ripped apart by injuries this preseason) and smaller receivers, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is … wait for it … installing a West Coast offense that is designed to get the ball out quicker and appeal to Manning’s accuracy. He might not get the same dramatic results Rivers enjoyed last season, but at the very least, it should stave off concerns that Manning’s time in New York is coming to a close.

Oh, and as for that crappy preseason Manning just struggled through? I wouldn’t be concerned. While adjusting to the new scheme during the 2013 preseason, Rivers went 20-of-33 for 166 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions, producing a passer rating of just 48.3. The preseason means nothing, remember?

The innocuous receiver who breaks out in his second season

2013: Alshon Jeffery
2014: DeAndre Hopkins

It seems so long ago now, but Jeffery was actually pretty disappointing during his rookie year. After being taken with the 45th pick in the 2012 draft, Jeffery posted a 24-367-3 line during a 10-game rookie campaign. Enter Marc Trestman. While plenty of people expected Jeffery to improve in his second season, few expected the monster 89-1,421-7 line he posted as a borderline-unstoppable red zone threat in 2013.

Hopkins, Houston’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft, has many of the same factors going his way. In Andre Johnson, he has an excellent veteran receiver across the field to take some of the pressure away, just as Jeffery did with Brandon Marshall. Bill O’Brien, who developed a reputation as an offensive wizard during his time at Penn State, can be his Trestman. And sure, Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t anything to write home about, but if I told you before last season that Josh McCown was going to throw nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s passes, would you have had much faith in Jeffery’s future? Of course not. Hopkins also has less improvement to make than Jeffery did; despite dealing with Schaub and Case Keenum all year, he caught 52 passes for 802 yards while starting all 16 games. A big step forward is in his future.

The mid-round running back who emerges as the best of bad options

2013: Zac Stacy
2014: Lorenzo Taliaferro

Baltimore had one of the worst rushing performances in recent memory last season, as Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, and the rest of Baltimore’s carriers produced just 3.1 yards per carry each time they toted the rock. Rice was felled by a bum hip, but Pierce, who had been promising as a rookie, had no such excuse. There’s no guarantee either of them will be healthy or effective in 2014. Taliaferro, the team’s fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, has drawn raves in camp and profiles as a bigger, stronger back than either Rice or Pierce can hope to be. His scouting report notes that he could be most effective in a zone scheme, which is exactly what the Ravens are reinstalling under Gary Kubiak this offseason. Of course, that also says his running is “monotone,” and I don’t know what that means, but it sounds bad.

The newly acquired running back who appears to be stuck in mud

2013: Trent Richardson
2014: Toby Gerhart

I will happily spare you Richardson’s numbers from last year; you were there, you pointed, you laughed, you get the idea. It’s rare for an offense to build around a back this plodding, but it’s entirely possible the Jaguars could do the same with Gerhart in 2014. Never a speed demon even in a reserve role with the Vikings, Gerhart will be the only back of any note in a Jacksonville offense that will be designed around safe throws for Chad Henne and Blake Bortles. It’s entirely possible he ends up carrying the ball 300 times while barely squeaking over 1,000 rushing yards in the process.

The post-hype first-rounder who finally stays healthy and productive

2013: Ryan Mathews
2014: Mark Ingram

I’m not even sure I believe in this one. This is Chris Wesseling’s bandwagon, and if you believe in preseason performance, you certainly can’t argue with what Ingram’s done. He has looked decisive and quick while averaging 7.1 yards per carry in August, and while I’m obviously skeptical of preseason form, Ingram did finally show flashes of competence during the 2013 campaign, with a 145-yard performance against the Cowboys and a starring role in the playoff win over the Eagles. I’m not sure I’d want to back this one too heavily, but the precedent is there.

The dolt who refuses to play by the league rules

2013: Brandon Meriweather
2014: Brandon Meriweather

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The good news is that Meriweather is one of the worst starting safeties in football when he is on the field, so he might actually be doing Washington a favor by sitting out suspended. And, hey, speaking of safeties who can’t seem to avoid illegal hits …

The free agent who looked much better on the 49ers defense

2013: Dashon Goldson
2014: Donte Whitner

The man who would be Hitner was surrounded by elite players during his run in San Francisco. With the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman among the best cover linebackers in football, Whitner was rarely used in coverage and got to spend most of his time attacking the line of scrimmage as a run-stopping safety. While he is still playing strong safety in Cleveland and should be a sound run-stopper in that role, it’s likely he’ll be used more frequently as a pass defender, when he often makes mistakes and bounces off receivers while trying to make that fateful big hit. The likes of Goldson, Takeo Spikes, and Aubrayo Franklin have all struggled to match their 49ers production after leaving as free agents. Whitner may very well be the next on that list.

The modest cornerback free-agent deal that looks terrible after just one year

2013: Derek Cox
2014: DeAngelo Hall

Cox, a perfectly competent cornerback in Jacksonville, signed a four-year, $20 million deal last offseason to serve as San Diego’s top corner. It didn’t go well. The Chargers had the league’s worst pass defense for most of the year, only getting better after Cox was unceremoniously benched midseason. He was released after the year and has already been cut again by the Vikings in camp, catching on with the Ravens.

Hall has a much higher profile, but he also has a long history of failing to live up to his free-agent deals. The Raiders cut Hall months into a seven-year, $70 million deal in 2008, only for Hall to catch on with Washington and deliver decent work over the remainder of the season. That was enough for him to earn a six-year, $55 million deal from Washington, but Hall totally failed to develop into anything more than a speedy guesser on the outside and earned his release in 2013. He failed to catch on elsewhere and took a one-year, $1.3 million deal from D.C. last season, producing above-average value at that modest price tag. Having seen Hall deliver twice on short-term deals and fail to offer an appreciable return twice on long-term contracts, Washington … gave Hall a four-year deal worth up to $17 million. Football!

The athletic tight end who is supposed to break out and then doesn’t

2013: Jared Cook
2014: Ladarius Green

To be fair, the 2014 candidate could have been Jared Cook, but I just did that joke with Meriweather. Cook received $16 million guaranteed from the Rams and picked up 141 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1, but he finished the year with just 51 catches for 671 yards and five scores, a line that mirrors his oft-disappointing campaigns with the Titans. The athletic ability is still there, and Cook has been blessed with a brutal run of quarterbacks throughout his career, but he is the perennial breakout candidate who never breaks out.

Green hasn’t been around enough to develop a reputation as disappointing, but the hype machine is off the charts for a player who will likely struggle to deliver on those promises. Green is an athletic freak who can stretch any defense up the seam, but as I mentioned earlier, the Chargers are now built around a West Coast offense that makes shorter, safer throws. Green doesn’t really have the refined ability to run those shorter routes and maintain consistent timing to be a safe target for those throws. He is going to be the fourth receiving weapon on his own team behind Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and fellow tight end Antonio Gates, and even during his breakout 2013, he caught only 17 passes, albeit for 376 yards.

The free-agent acquisition who is such a terrible fit for his new team that he gets cut before the season is out

2013: Ed Reed
2014: Donald Brown

I don’t really understand the Donald Brown move for either side. The Chargers, who have gaping holes on their offensive line and in the secondary, used what small amounts of money they had to invest in free agency on … a third-string running back? San Diego is already set there with Mathews and Woodhead, but they gave Brown a three-year, $10.5 million deal to focus on “grunt work.” That seems to indicate things like pass protection, but Brown is legendarily bad in pass protection.1 Brown is better than that, as he has developed into a home-run hitter with some shiftiness in the open field, if not necessarily a player worthy of being taken with the 27th pick in the 2009 draft. It’s a bad fit, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the relationship end sooner rather than later. This might also work with LeGarrette Blount in Pittsburgh.

The wide receiver whose production gets cut down to size as the man in a bad passing offense

2013: Mike Wallace
2014: Eric Decker

Long have we warned you against expecting that the WR2 in a great passing offense is capable of becoming a valuable WR1 for a bad one. Wallace was closer to 1-A next to Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, but with Ryan Tannehill beat down by opposing defenses, Wallace never found a rhythm with his new quarterback and had a mightily disappointing campaign.

The Jets don’t have as much to lose with Decker because they didn’t pay anywhere near the sticker price; Wallace had $30 million guaranteed in his deal, while Decker’s contract guarantees him half that. It is also going to be a much bigger drop-off, though, as Decker goes from Peyton Manning and quite possibly the greatest offense in NFL history to the most Geno Smith offense in NFL history. The Jets threw the ball 195 fewer times than the Broncos did last year, so even if Decker is getting thrown the ball a higher percentage of the time, it is unlikely he’ll get as many targets as his 136 attempts from a year ago. Now, do you want to talk about how accurate those passes are going to be? Decker averaged 1,176 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns during Peyton Manning’s two seasons in Denver; it would be a surprise if he picked up three-quarters of those figures (885 yards and nine touchdowns) with Smith and Michael Vick at the helm in New York this year.

It is a simple fact that most of these will be wrong. The small sample size and the high attrition rate make the NFL harder to predict and subject to wider variance than any other professional sport. The stories are actually consistent and repeat throughout history. The identities of the people in those stories? That is where the surprises actually arrive. 

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Eli Manning, DeAndre Hopkins, Carson Palmer, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Toby Gerhart, Mark Ingram, Brandon Meriweather, Donte Whitner, DeAngelo Hall, Ladarius Green, Donald Brown, Eric Decker

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell