The NFL offseason can be an enormous force for change. Naturally, players who move to a new team see their roles, performance, and compensation often altered dramatically. Other times, a player can see his lot improve or decline without leaving town at all. Take DeMarco Murray over the past couple of years. Murray had exhibited above-average play during his first two seasons in the league, but the Cowboys made offensive line a point of emphasis during the 2013 and 2014 offseasons. By using first-round picks on center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin and restructuring the deal of Doug Free (as opposed to cutting the struggling former left tackle), the Cowboys created a totally different context for Murray. The result was a breakout 2014 and a massive contract for the star rusher, albeit with the division rival Eagles.
Murray is an extreme example, but there are plenty of players we can look at who either got a ton of help or had their riding buddies leave town this offseason. These shifts aren’t going to make or break top players, but they could very well be the difference between a young player stagnating or taking a leap to that next level, as Murray did a year ago. Today, I’m going to run through five players who got all the help they could have asked for this offseason before I flip the tables and identify five more who might very well be nostalgic for 2014.
Keep in mind that I’m not talking about these additions in terms of value, which is usually my primary concern when discussing free-agent signings or draft acquisitions. This is strictly a consideration of the talent and/or coaching around a player now versus the situation that surrounded him one year ago. As an example, while I wouldn’t say the Bills were smart to give up an extra first-rounder to draft Sammy Watkins last year, adding the former Clemson star was one of the best things that could have happened for Buffalo’s nominal starting quarterback at the time, EJ Manuel.
Of course, that didn’t help. Which is why I’m sitting here again and thinking that one of the players who got everything on his Christmas list this offseason was …
EJ Manuel: Watkins didn’t do very much for Buffalo’s second-year passer, who lasted only four starts before badly blowing a lead over the Texans on a brutal pick-six to J.J. Watt. That led then-coach Doug Marrone to turn the reins over to Kyle Orton. Manuel didn’t throw a single pass the rest of the way.
Since the end of the 2014 regular season, though, just about everything has gone in Manuel’s favor. Orton retired, and the Bills replaced him with the likes of Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor, neither a clear choice to start. Marrone, who clearly soured on Manuel during the 2014 preseason, quit to pursue other head-coaching opportunities and ended up as an offensive line coach in Jacksonville, which had to feel good for Manuel, if only for spite’s sake. New head coach Rex Ryan is used to having a mediocre quarterback, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman is expected to install an offense that should put Manuel in the shotgun more frequently and contain read-option elements, which should help Manuel deal with pocket pressure behind a subpar Bills line.
Manuel also picked up a few new weapons. You already know what Percy Harvin and LeSean McCoy can do. In addition to whatever they offer as athletes who can break big plays, Harvin and McCoy are each valuable options in the screen game, which should help Manuel get the ball out quicker and with safer throws. New tight end Charles Clay should be another intermediate option for Manuel. And Watkins, who was hobbled at times last season, should take a leap forward in his second year.
Of course, all of this matters only if Manuel wins the starting job. When the 2014 season ended, it looked like he had no hope of sniffing meaningful playing time and no offense around him to do much with if he ever got the chance. Now, that’s no longer the case.
Mike Evans: One of several rookie wideouts to outplay Watkins last year, Evans emerged from early-season woes to stand out as one of the most dangerous deep threats in football. While Evans wasn’t able to post consistent yardage totals, he was an absolute touchdown machine. Twelve of his 68 catches resulted in touchdowns, which means that one out of every 5.7 receptions produced a score. The last rookie receiver to post a touchdown rate better than that (minimum 50 catches) was pretty good: Randy Moss scored once every 4.1 catches in 1998, which is the third-best rate for a wideout of any age since the 1970 merger.1
Tops on the list is Jerry Rice’s insane strike-shortened season in 1987, when he caught 22 touchdowns on 65 passes in 12 games.
The bad news is that touchdown rate heavily regresses toward the mean. Even if a player is a freak outlier with the skill set to dominate downfield like Moss (or Evans), it’s just impossible to turn 17 percent of your catches into touchdowns on an annual basis. The good news is that Evans should be able to make up for that by being a dominant receiver without needing to score 12 times. With the Buccaneers moving Vincent Jackson around the formation this year, Evans should be locked in as Tampa Bay’s no. 1 receiver. And he’s on this list because the Buccaneers made what could be a historically large upgrade at quarterback, replacing the combination of Josh McCown and Mike Glennon with first overall pick Jameis Winston.
Even if Winston struggles as a rookie, he should still be better than the replacement-level talent Evans was working with last year. A healthy Evans could be one of football’s most devastating wideouts in 2015.
Jordan Matthews: While the first two players will benefit from additional help around them, Matthews may emerge because he’s the last man left standing. Also a rookie last season, Matthews emerged as a valuable weapon in Philadelphia’s offense. During the final eight games, Matthews’s 559 receiving yards were tied for 14th-best in the league, ahead of bigger names like Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin.
He also gained more yards during that time span than either DeSean Jackson or then-teammate Jeremy Maclin, who both left Philadelphia in recent offseasons. With Chip Kelly placing an emphasis on drafting bigger, stronger receivers, it’s no surprise that he coveted the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Matthews in the second round of the 2014 draft. And while the Eagles did use a 2015 first-round pick on USC’s Nelson Agholor, they didn’t add any veterans who should take meaningful targets away from Matthews. With Maclin’s 143 targets leaving town, Matthews is the most likely player to lead the Eagles in targets — and receptions — this year.
Calvin Pryor: Another 2014 rookie, Pryor basically spent his debut NFL season in a professional hellscape. After being drafted with the Jets’ first-round pick and being told by Rex Ryan that he would be lighting opponents up as a strong safety, injuries and sheer desperation forced New York to play Pryor out of position at free safety. It didn’t go well. Pryor quickly got in over his head, and with injuries (Dee Milliner), disappearing acts (Dimitri Patterson), and Kyle Wilson being Kyle Wilson afflicting the Jets at cornerback, the Louisville product basically had a lost season.
Things will be better this year. Nobody improved their secondary this offseason more than the Jets, who used their oodles of cap room to sign three above-average or better cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine. Safety Marcus Gilchrist isn’t quite as pedigreed, but he at least slots in as a natural free safety, allowing Pryor to move back into the box as a run-plugging strong safety. And while Ryan is one of the foremost defensive coaches in the game, nobody has gotten more out of unique skill sets in the secondary over the past few years than Todd Bowles, who happens to be Pryor’s new head coach. Pryor looked like a bust in 2014, but it would have been hard for anyone to succeed in that spot. Now, he should have every opportunity to shine.
Blake Bortles: Let’s finish up with another first-round pick from last year. Bortles had an uneven rookie season that combined flashes of brilliance with sloppy play and a tendency to make rookie mistakes. As a result, his 21.9 QBR was worst in the league by a considerable margin; the next-worst quarterback was 32nd-ranked Geno Smith, and his 35.4 QBR was closer to 25th (Brian Hoyer) than it was to last.
Some of those problems were clearly Bortles’s fault. His mechanics were erratic. When things broke down, he would try to do too much and often make a bad problem worse. He forced throws that you simply can’t make in the NFL. But he also got little help from a porous offensive line and a group of young receivers who were also learning on the job. On a per-reception basis, the average Jaguars receiver was just 24.6 years old last year; only the Dolphins (23.7 years old) were younger.2 And overall, the Jags had the youngest snap-weighted offense in football.
Per the totals for players listed at running back, wide receiver, and tight end on Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The young guys will get better, and they will be helped by a series of offseason additions. Bortles wasn’t great anywhere on the field, but he was particularly brutal in the red zone, where his QBR remained last in the league but fell to an almost-impossible 3.2 rating. He’ll be aided in 2015 by the addition of Julius Thomas, who is a dominant weapon inside the 20. Over the last two seasons, Thomas was fourth in red zone receptions (27) and third in red zone receiving touchdowns (17). That was with Peyton Manning, but Thomas deserves some of the credit, too.
General manager Dave Caldwell also tried to make things easier for Bortles by investing in a running game whose best weapon at times last year was its quarterback. Jermey Parnell should solidify things at right tackle, where the Jags had one of the worst situations of any team at any position. Former Raiders starter Stefen Wisniewski could be a valuable utility lineman on the interior, and second-round running back T.J. Yeldon can’t possibly be worse than Toby Gerhart.
There are no guarantees these moves will work out. Many of Jacksonville’s low-ceiling signings from 2014 that were designed to replace black holes with competency failed to launch: Gerhart was a disaster, Red Bryant and Dekoda Watson have already been released, and rumors say Zane Beadles might be on the chopping block. I can quibble with the price paid for this year’s additions, but the most important thing for the Jaguars is developing Bortles. They’ve made strides to ensure that will happen in 2015.
Marshawn Lynch: It was a fruitful offseason for Lynch financially, as Seattle’s star running back earned a contract extension before becoming a video-game character in the upcoming Call of Duty. (OK, one of those is probably more lucrative than the other.) But in terms of how the team changed around him, Lynch can’t be thrilled. While the trade for Jimmy Graham gives Russell Wilson what should be his first legitimate no. 1 receiver, any added passes should come at the expense of Lynch, who was fourth in the NFL with 280 carries last season.
More disconcertingly, there are major questions about the offensive line. While the Seahawks sent a first-round pick to New Orleans in the Graham trade, they also included center Max Unger, a two-time Pro Bowler who has been one of the best pivots in football while healthy. They didn’t draft or acquire an experienced center during the offseason, with reports suggesting they’ll convert sixth-round pick Kristjan Sokoli, a college nose tackle, to a developmental prospect at the position. Left guard James Carpenter never developed into the player the Seahawks expected after taking him out of Alabama in the first round of the 2011 draft, but the combination of backup Alvin Bailey and fourth-rounder Terry Poole should be a step down after Carpenter left in free agency for the Jets. And right guard J.R. Sweezy, himself a converted college defender, stagnated as a starter last year.
Lynch, as you already know, is capable of making his own holes by running through the defenders standing in his way. It’s still a lot better for him to make those amazing moves five yards downfield rather than in his own backfield. Tom Cable is a great offensive line coach, but he’ll have his work cut out for him this season. So will Lynch.
Drew Brees: The flip side of that trade saw Brees lose his star receiver, and it also came without much of a replacement. The Saints intend to use third-year tight end Josh Hill as Graham’s successor, and while Hill had five touchdowns on 20 targets last season, it would be a miracle if he turned into anything resembling Brees’s former top target. Even worse, the Saints traded third-year receiver Kenny Stills, reportedly over concerns that he clashed with Brees, and didn’t draft a wide receiver or add anyone more notable than Josh Morgan in free agency. Left guard Ben Grubbs might have been overpaid, but it still hurts that the competent veteran was traded to Kansas City.
This appears to be part of a plan for the Saints, who used their draft picks and limited cap space to upgrade elsewhere on the roster in an attempt to build a more balanced team. Their defensive upgrades were much needed, and you can understand the decision to use one of their first-rounders on Stanford tackle Andrus Peat, but the choice to spend significant money on running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller still seems questionable at best. If the Saints really are moving toward a run-first approach, their offseason decisions will begin to marginalize their star passer. And with New Orleans using a third-rounder on Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson, it’s fair to say they’re thinking about life after Brees.
Peyton Manning: Speaking of veteran quarterbacks who appear to be marginalized, welcome the greatest passer of all time to this support group. While it has flown slightly under the radar given the relative chaos in San Francisco, Denver has quietly had a very dysfunctional offseason. The Broncos unexpectedly changed coaches after their postseason loss, replacing John Fox with Gary Kubiak, who has promised to install a run-first offense that will push the immobile Manning under center more frequently. It was hard to imagine anyone changing Denver’s attack after that incredible 2013 campaign, but after going run-heavy with an injured Manning during the end of the 2014 season, a C.J. Anderson–led attack doesn’t seem quite as crazy.
Manning also lost key personnel and gained few replacements. Julius Thomas left for Jacksonville, and while Owen Daniels has made a career with Kubiak, he’s not going to be the weapon that Thomas was. Demaryius Thomas isn’t going anywhere, but he still hasn’t signed a contract extension and didn’t show up for the team’s minicamp on Tuesday. Wes Welker is gone and Emmanuel Sanders will pick up some of his workload in the slot, but 2014 second-rounder Cody Latimer appears to be in the doghouse after an anonymous rookie season.
Even worse for a quarterback with injury and mobility concerns, Manning’s offensive line is in shambles. Beadles and Orlando Franklin have left in consecutive offseasons, cast-offs from Miami (Shelley Smith) and Baltimore (Gino Gradkowski) are penciled in to start on the interior, and left tackle Ryan Clady went down for the season with a torn ACL last month. He’s still Peyton Manning, so this will work out, but Denver’s ceiling on offense is nowhere near as high as it was 12 months ago.
Tre Mason: Being a running back in the NFL simply isn’t any fun. Consider poor Mason, who took over from Zac Stacy and quickly emerged as the best option in St. Louis’s backfield last season. The rookie third-rounder wasn’t a star, but he exhibited competent play for a team that really didn’t have much of a passing attack with which to scare opponents. With Mason not turning 22 until August, it was reasonable to consider him a useful weapon for an organization that badly needs its young skill-position players to take leaps forward.
Since then, just about everything has gone against Mason. The Rams dismantled yet another disappointing offensive line this offseason, releasing Jake Long and Scott Wells before allowing Joe Barksdale to leave for peanuts in free agency. While they used second-, third-, and fourth-round picks on offensive linemen, it’s hard to believe that the Rams will suddenly get much better at finding and developing young linemen after years of disarray.
Even worse for Mason, the Rams drafted a better running back. Todd Gurley is coming off a torn ACL, and Trent Richardson remains the cautionary tale for treating any star college running back like a sure thing, but the Georgia star exhibited a freakish combination of size and speed during his final two years at school. Gurley might have issues as a pass protector, but that’s also where Mason struggled most as a rookie. While Mason should take the September snaps as the starter, no matter how well he plays, he’ll likely learn what it felt like for Stacy to be benched.
NaVorro Bowman: Let’s finish up with a player coming off an even scarier knee injury than Gurley. Bowman hasn’t played in nearly 17 months, missing the entire 2014 season after tearing multiple knee ligaments during San Francisco’s NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle. While the 49ers were right to rest Bowman during what ended up as a lost 2014 campaign, the knee is reportedly still giving him trouble.
It’s unfair to expect Bowman to be the monstrous All-Pro inside linebacker he was before the injury, especially at first. The one thing the 49ers seemed able to count on was that there would be plenty of help around Bowman. That’s no longer the case. The unexpected retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland took two excellent partners away from Bowman, and while Michael Wilhoite has been a useful rotation linebacker, he doesn’t have the Pro Bowl tape of those departed stars. Justin Smith’s retirement has also taken away a once-dominant defensive lineman who kept blockers off Bowman, and stud defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left after being passed over for the team’s head-coaching gig.
There were already questions around Bowman. Now, the 49ers will need him to be an answer, and they won’t have the luxury of waiting very long to see if he can be one in 2015.