Five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL
Making an impact at a new job is as much about opportunities as it is talent, hard work and dedication. Based on talent, skill set and yes, opportunity, here are five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
One year after the Jaguars leapfrogged them for the opportunity to snag Justin Blackmon, the Rams foiled the Jets’ plan to select West Virginia sparkplug Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 draft by trading up to No. 8 (one spot ahead of New York). Jeff Fisher doesn’t strike me as someone who would go to great lengths to acquire a player if he didn’t plan to use him right away. Much like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the Rams figure to use Austin as a moveable chess piece in Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. Whether it’s in the slot, the backfield or as a returner, Austin will be heavily utilized this season. And thanks to the different skill sets that guys like Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens bring to the table, opponents may have a difficult time matching personal with the Rams’ playmakers this season.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Last year it was telling how badly the Texans needed another offensive playmaker, not only in their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots, but four weeks prior when they were beaten badly at home by the Vikings in Week 16. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 97 yards but failed to rip the top off the defense with one big play, and Minnesota did a great job limiting tight end Owen Daniels to just three catches for 27 yards. While DeVier Posey was targeted six times, he caught just one pass for a miniscule six yards and Matt Schaub was held to under 180 yards passing for only the second time all season. (He was also held to 95 yards against the Bears in Week 10 due to sloppy conditions.) Enter DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s first-round pick in 2013. Hopkins has drawn comparisons to Roddy White and Rod Smith for his route running ability and ball skills. He doesn’t have elite speed but that won’t limit him from creating separation thanks in large part to his excellent technique. A projected starter from Day 1, he should flourish playing opposite Johnson in Gary Kubiak’s offense. (One could also surmise that he’ll post better production than fellow rookie receivers Robert Woods, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson based on projected quarterback play alone.)
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell has already drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley for his ability to be a three down back and “workhorse” runner, and he figures to play a large roll in the Steelers’ revamped running game because of his pass-catching ability. (He caught 67 passes for 434 yards with one touchdown at Michigan State.) He’s also durable and versatile in that he’s not only a north-south runner, but he has the ability to attack the edge as well. Largely mistaken as a “bruiser” entering the 2013 draft, there’s fluidity to Bell’s game. With no elite competition in Pittsburgh’s backfield, he has an opportunity to post instant production as a rookie.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Browns
Last year, Les Miles and his coaching staff at LSU asked Mingo to play contain more than he did the season before when he racked up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The new role crippled his production, as his sack number dropped to 4.5 and his tackles for loss fell to 8.5. At 237 pounds, it’s unlikely that Mingo will hold up against the run but the Browns figure to use him like the Seahawks utilized 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin last year: As a pass-rushing maven. Mingo is an athletic marvel and if Cleveland turns him loose as a rookie, don’t rule out a six or seven-sack season. (Irvin finished with eight sacks last year after pundits ripped Seattle for taking him in the first round.) Unless he adds weight, Mingo will struggle when opponents run straight at him. But as a DPR, he should turn heads as a rookie.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam projects as the starting safety opposite Michael Huff in Baltimore’s defense, much like Eric Reid figures to start as a rookie for the 49ers. But Elam has better ball skills and more playmaking ability than Reid, who looks stiff in coverage and isn’t always quick to break on passes. Elam’s short but he hits like a MAC truck and has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety in Dean Pees’ scheme. Don’t rule out a 100-tackle season for the former Florida Gator, who also has the ball skills to snag a few interceptions as well.
+ Many of the offensive linemen taken in the first round also figure to make an immediate impact for their respective teams, but I left out players like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel because it’s hard to quantify production for O-linemen.
+ I left off defensive linemen because it’s rare that they make huge impacts as rookies, although Bruce Irvin was the exception to the rule. One of the reasons for their limited production is because they quickly find out that the pass-rushing moves they used in college don’t work against NFL offensive linemen.
+ Some might wonder why I left Jarvis Jones off this list and the reason is simple: Dick LeBeau’s scheme is complicated to learn. It usually takes first timers to the defense a half or even full season to pick up. Players have talked about being lost in their first year but by season two they feel more comfortable. Thus, look for Jones to potentially make an impact in 2014 for the Steelers.
+ After building two Super Bowl teams in the past 13 years, it’s hard to fathom why people continue to doubt Ozzie Newsome. Once Ed Reed signed with the Texans last week and joined the likes of Dannell Ellerbe, Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard and Paul Kruger as players that will no longer don purple and black, people started to question Newsome’s decision making. But he reminded everyone that he’s one of the best GMs in the NFL when he inked Elvis Dumervil to a five-year, $35 million contract over the weekend. Dumervil’s cap hit this year will only be $2.5 million, which is why Baltimore was able to fit him under the cap. Granted, his contract will still add up to $35 million over the next five years but for the time being, Newsome displayed shrewd maneuvering by landing the top free agent on the market in the same offseason that he gave franchise quarterback Joe Flacco a massive new deal. Dumervil will return to outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense after leading the NFL in sacks from that same position in 2009. The Ravens, folks, are going to be just fine.
+ Ted Thompson once drafted Justin Harrell in the first round. Ozzie Newsome invested top selections in Kyle Boller and Mark Clayton. Jerry Reese whiffed on Aaron Ross. The best GMs in the NFL all miss – it’s part of the gig. But Buddy Nix’s lack of foresight in the past two drafts could ultimately cost him his job. Since Nix drafted him with the 34th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Aaron Williams has struggled mightily in coverage and is entering a make-or-break season. For those that need a refresher, Williams was selected ahead of both Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. It’s hard to blame Nix for passing on Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder in the first round that year, but Kaepernick could have been a perfect fit in former head coach Chan Gailey’s system. Nix also selected former NC State receiver T.J. Graham ahead of Russell Wilson in the third round last April, and we all know how that turned out for the Seahawks. Again, it’s not completely fair to criticize Nix for passing on Dalton, Kaepernick or even Wilson, because a lot of GMs of quarterback-needy teams missed on those players, too. But when you miss on those guys because you handed Ryan Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract and now you have to play Russian roulette with Geno Smith, Matt Barkley or Ryan Nassib, you leave yourself open for condemnation. It’s not all Gailey’s fault for the current mess that resides in Buffalo.
+ Whether they wait until Nnamdi Asomugha and/or Charles Woodson’s market value drops even lower or attempt to out-draft Craig Dahl (that shouldn’t be difficult), it’s hard to imagine that 49ers GM Trent Baalke is done upgrading his secondary. But I also don’t think San Francisco is overly concerned about its defensive backfield. When Justin Smith tore his triceps against the Patriots last December, the 49ers were victimized for 443 yards through the air and their secondary was never the same after that point (neither was Aldon Smith for that matter). It’s not the back end that makes San Francisco’s defense so dangerous, but its front seven. That’s why its understandable that Baalke didn’t want to invest $40-plus million to retain safety Dashon Goldson, who signed with the Bucs two weeks ago. Baalke has a knack for finding bargains in free agency (see Carlos Rogers in 2011), so look for the Niners to sign a stopgap like Asomugha and then invest heavily in their defensive line in next month’s draft.
+ The Bengals have been reluctant to hand out big money deals in the past but they would be wise to lock up franchise player Michael Johnson now. Based on the deals that Elvis Dumervil (five years, $35 million) and Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) just signed, Cincinnati is overpaying Johnson this year at his $11.2 franchise number. That’s not to suggest that the 26-year-old pass rusher isn’t worth the investment because he is. But if the Bengals view him as a core piece of their defense, then it behooves them to work off of the contracts that Dumervil and Avril just signed. Otherwise, they risk having Johnson’s price tag go up when Jared Allen, Justin Smith, Justin Tuck, Michael Bennett, Matt Shaughnessy and Brian Robison hit the market, too. This the shrewd decision that has often eluded Mike Brown and his front office in years past.
+ As much as it pains Chicago fans to admit, it’s time for the Bears and Brian Urlacher to move on. If anyone wants to question what Urlacher meant to the Bears’ defense over the past decade, all you have to do is go back to 2009 when he missed 15 games due to a dislocated wrist. Nick Roach was forced into the starting lineup and the entire unit suffered because opponents had success attacking the middle of the field. But under new head coach Marc Trestman and second-year GM Phil Emery, the Bears are undergoing a facelift and part of that process is saying goodbye to aging vets. Urlacher’s play last year dipped dramatically and Trestman may not want to stick with the Tampa 2 scheme that Lovie Smith installed when he took over in 2004. Simply put, why invest money in a player that is no longer the focal point of the franchise? (Sentiment isn’t a good reason.) For better or for worse, Emery is building a team around Jay Cutler, which is one of the reasons why he hired Testman and invested over $7 million a year in blindside protector Jermon Bushrod. It’s understandable that Urlacher still believes he can contribute and it’s disappointing that he feels as though Chicago disrespected him with a $2 million-per-year offer. But Emery has to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears – not for Brian Urlacher. This is a painful, yet logical time for both parties to part ways.
I. Alex Smith is a solid fit for Andy Reid’s offense in Kansas City and he truly was the best option available this offseason. Geno Smith doesn’t scream “franchise quarterback” and it would have been a tough sell to the fan base to re-install Matt Cassel as the starter while patiently waiting for a better option to come along. Smith was that better option.
That said, a second-round pick and a condition third-round selection that could turn into another second-rounder was a steep price to pay for Smith. Yes, he was having an excellent season before suffering a concussion in mid-November and yes, he should be able to effectively run Reid’s West Coast Offense. But the reason Jim Harbaugh stuck with Colin Kaepernick last season when Smith was healthy is because he knew the Niners were more explosive offensively with Kaepernick under center. Granted, Kaepernick adds another dimension by running the Pistol offense but Smith will prevent Reid from threatening opponents downfield on a consistent basis. Can the Chiefs win with Smith in the time being? Sure, but this move only delays the inevitable, which is that at some point Kansas City will need to draft and develop a young franchise quarterback for the long term.
II. Now that we know the annual average ($20.1 million) of Joe Flacco’s new deal, as well as the guaranteed portion ($52 million) and how much he’ll receive over the first three seasons of the contract ($62 million), there’s absolutely no reason why the Falcons shouldn’t re-sign Matt Ryan well before the end of the 2013 season. Flacco has eight more postseason victories under his belt, but it’s not as if Ryan is on the decline – on the contrary, he’s only going to get better. He posted career numbers last season with Michael Turner barely churning out 3.5 yards per carry. Imagine what Ryan could do against a defense that also had to worry about stopping Steven Jackson (or any other running back that didn’t have cement blocks for feet). The new floor for contracts involving franchise quarterbacks as been set following Flacco’s agreement with the Ravens. The Falcons would be wise to be proactive because with Ryan set to become a free agent in 2014, there’s no sense to wait.
III. Jake Long isn’t going to get the $11 million that he/his agent is asking for on the free agent market. He’s coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons and has also dealt with various injuries over that span. Granted, he’ll be 28 by the start of the season so if he can stay healthy he still has plenty of good years left in the tank. But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, this was a bad year for him to hit the open market. A team would either have to be crazy or desperate to fork over $11 million per year after what Long has shown the past two seasons.
IV. This situation involving Darrelle Revis and the Jets is ugly. It’s believed that he’s seeking $16 million annually and $60 million guaranteed on his next contract, which would make him the highest paid defensive player in the league. If he holds out this summer, then the final three years of his contract won’t void and he’ll be “stuck” in New York until he becomes a free agent in 2017. Meanwhile, the Jets only have him signed through 2013 and former GM Mike Tannenbaum left the team in cap hell before he was let go at the end of the season. Thus, the Jets could trade Revis, but his value couldn’t be lower coming off knee surgery. Plus, from a scheme standpoint, Revis means more to Rex Ryan’s defense than any other player on the Jets’ roster. If you’re trying to win, it behooves you not to get rid of its best defensive player. Then again, it’s not as if the Jets are going to compete any time soon. Not with Mark Sanchez under center and an overall lack of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. If new GM John Idzik wanted to start fresh, trading Revis, saving the cap space and acquiring a couple of picks might not be a bad idea. (Even if the Jets aren’t getting max value on their return.)
V. The Falcons’ decision to release John Abraham, Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson turned heads last week but it’s simple cost versus production. Turner no longer has the ability to create on his own and managed just 3.6 yards per carry last season. Robinson is coming off his best year in Atlanta but he’s maddeningly inconsistent in coverage and the Falcons probably could get better, cheaper production out of Brent Grimes assuming he’s healthy and they re-sign him. After racking up 10 sacks, Abraham was clearly the most productive of the three but he’s no longer an every-down player and GM Thomas Dimitroff recognizes the need to find younger pass rushers. By releasing these three players, Dimitroff created roughly $18 million in cap space. That money can be used not only to sign Matt Ryan to an extension, but also get younger and/or better at running back and up front defensively.
From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.
1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.
According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.
2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.
No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.
3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.
Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.
4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)
The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.
In one of the more entertaining games in Super Bowl history, the Ravens held on to beat the 49ers, 34-31. Here are some quick-hit observations from Baltimore’s upset.
+ There’s no question that Jimmy Smith held Michael Crabtree in the end zone on that fourth-down play. We’ve all seen cornerbacks flagged for less and if there’s a penalty on the play, then throw the flag, period. (That statement is in reference to those suggesting that the refs were right by “letting the players play.”) But a game is never decided by one play. Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio’s defense gave up 34 points after surrendering the second-fewest points during the regular season, and the Niners saved one of their worst performances for the biggest game of the year. They have every reason to be upset with the non-call on Smith, but they were also in control of what happened for 58 minutes prior to that play and they simply didn’t do enough to win the game.
+ The power outage was a disaster for the NFL. Millions of people had to wait 30 minutes for someone at the Superdome to find the fuse box and this was after waiting for what felt like an hour for Beyonce to wrap up her halftime show. Considering the NFL has priced out its fans at local stadiums and doesn’t allow any business to utter the words “Super Bowl” without wanting a fee in return, the delay was embarrassing for Roger Goodell and Co. The situation was most likely unavoidable, but embarrassing nonetheless.
+ Of course, I don’t know which corporation should have been more embarrassed during the outage – the NFL or CBS. The network supplied 10 hours worth of pre-game coverage but all of a sudden it had nothing to say during a 30-minute delay. Steve Tasker played the role of Monty from the “Major League” movies, painfully giving TV viewers his best play-by-play of the scene. If this situation didn’t expose television sideline reporters for how useless they are, I don’t know what will. To be fair, it’s not as if CBS was planning on having a 30-minute show four minutes into the third quarter. But something tells me FOX would have handled the situation with more aplomb.
+ There was one good thing to come out of the power outage: Twitter. People’s tweets during the delay were 10-times funnier than any commercial that was aired during the game. And it isn’t even close.
+ It’s going to be debated ad nauseam whether or not the power outage allowed the 49ers to settle down and avoid what seemed to be a surefire blowout. And hey, maybe it did. If they go three-and-out following Jones’ kickoff return, maybe Baltimore wins the game running away. Instead, the delay stunted the Ravens’ momentum and allowed the 49ers to regain their composure. Then again, it’s not as if San Francisco hadn’t shown the ability to battle back from double-digit deficits before. Two weeks ago it looked like the Falcons were going to soar into the Super Bowl after building a 17-0 lead in the first quarter of the NFC title game. It’s hard to quantify how much the delay meant to the Niners, but they’re not a team that’s easily rattled. Outage or no outage, the 49ers weren’t going to waive the white flag after trailing by 22 points and an entire second half yet to be played.
+ By completing 73-of-126 passes for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, Joe Flacco had one of the most impressive postseasons by a quarterback in NFL history. And now that he’s a Super Bowl MVP with a dazzling 9-4 postseason record, he’s worth every penny the Ravens will pay him this offseason.
+ Considering he’s never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdown passes in a single season, there’s an argument to be made that he still doesn’t belong in the same category as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. But he holds tremendous value to a team like the Ravens, who evaluate talent as well as any franchise in the NFL and who contends on a yearly basis. Baltimore needs a quarterback that can win in the postseason, which Flacco has now done for five straight years. He may continue to battle with consistency throughout his career, but given his contributions in the postseason he’s proven that he’s a franchise player. And in this day and age, franchise quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings can command $17-plus million a year.
+ Imagine how much money the Ravens could have saved had they paid Flacco at the start of the season instead of waiting to see how the year panned out. Stupid hindsight.
+ What was most impressive about Flacco’s performance was his ability to extend plays. There were multiple times during the course of the game where you would have thought he was gearing up to throw the ball 20 yards into the stands and instead, he chucked it downfield for huge, drive-sustaining completions. For as much as the Niners’ secondary was exposed the past two games, it’s not fair to ask defensive backs to cover receivers for 20 seconds downfield. Flacco consistently put pressure on San Francisco’s defense throughout the game.
+ For as well as Flacco played, there’s an argument to be made that Jacoby Jones deserved MVP. Had the power not gone off at the Superdome, his kickoff return to start the second half may have spurred a Baltimore blowout. Flacco’s longest touchdown pass was a pass that he under threw to Jones, who made a great adjustment and had the wherewithal to get up, make a move on Chris Culliver and sprint to the end zone for a touchdown. Considering that was the only catch Jones made, the MVP award probably wound up in the right hands. But Jones’ contributions cannot be understated.