Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ Hell would have frozen over before the Vikings traded Percy Harvin. While Adrian Peterson is reportedly recovering nicely after tearing his ACL and MCL last season, the Vikings can ill-afford to trade one of their key weapons – especially at receiver. No offense to Michael Jenkins, who is an underrated run blocker and a decent red zone threat because of his height, but the Vikings don’t have many playmakers at receiver. The idea is to give Christian Ponder more weapons – not take them away.
+ It’s hard to fault Matt Forte for being a little irked at Jay Cutler after the quarterback told the media a few weeks ago that he didn’t think Forte would hold out during training camp. After suffering a season-ending knee injury last year and watching the Bears sign Michael Bush this offseason, Forte has little leverage as it is when it comes to trying to coax a long-term deal out of the team. A holdout is the running back’s lone ace so when Cutler comes out and essentially says that Forte won’t even use his best card, the Bears continue to hold all of the power.
+ It’s going to be fun watching Julio Jones in 2012. He caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns last season when he didn’t know what he was doing. Imagine how he’ll perform now that he’s comfortable and has a full offseason to prepare? That said, the Falcons have to build Dirk Koetter’s offense around Matt Ryan, who had met his ceiling under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. For the past four years the Falcons’ offense has been centered on Michael Turner but for the passing game to mature Ryan has to be the focal point from here on out.
+ Reggie Bush says his role in the Dolphins’ offense will be “a little different from last year,” which is a good thing. The old coaching regime surprisingly used Bush as an inside runner last season and he did rush for 1,086 yards on a career-high 216 attempts. But Bush never was, and never will be an inside runner. He isn’t the type of back that you can send into the meat grinder 25 times a game and expect positive results. Why increase the chances that he’ll either fumble or get hurt? He’s a mismatch on linebackers and safeties so it’s good to hear Joe Philbin plans on using Bush in a variety of ways, including splitting him out wide.
+ It was interesting to read that LaDainian Tomlinson says he spoke with the Broncos before opting to retire. Granted, he and Peyton Manning share the same agent so maybe the discussions were just a courtesy of some sort. Nevertheless, it would have been fun to watch two of the greatest players of their decade try to win a Super Bowl before hanging ‘em up for good.
+ Chris Johnson believes that “a lot of people are going to be back on the bandwagon” this season after he felt that “a lot of people have written me off.” But people haven’t written him off as much as they were turned off by his holdout situation last season. He held the Titans hostage last season and then reported to team headquarters out of shape after they gave him the contract he wanted. He did manage to rush for over 1,000 yards (barely), but the entire situation left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. If he gets back to the Chris Johnson he was two years ago then it’ll be as if 2011 never happened.
+ Nate Burelson said that Matthew Stafford’s arm could be even stronger this season than it was a year ago. Considering Stafford had a laser attached to his right shoulder last season, that’s quite a statement by Burelson. That said, I’m more interested in seeing Stafford string together another 16-game season. We all know about his arm strength but the thing that has held him back up to this point is the fact that he can’t stay healthy. But he played a full schedule last year and if he can do it again while posting another 63.5-percent competition percentage, then he’ll be considering a bona fide top seven or eight quarterback.
+ Randy Moss might be the most intriguing player heading into 2012. I say that because he’s drawn nothing but rave reviews coming out of San Francisco thus far. He’s already being viewed as a starter and some of his teammates say he looks like the Moss of old. And I buy that. Moss has proven time and time again that when he wants to play, he can dominate and it doesn’t matter how old he is. When he gets caught up in everything else (i.e. how much money he’s making, how many looks he’s getting, etc.) he has the innate ability to completely shut down. He did it in Oakland, he did it in New England before he wound up getting traded, and he did it in Minnesota and Tennessee two years ago. But when he’s motivated by being the best receiver in the game, he can be unstoppable at times. He’s one of the few players that can turn the switch on and off.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
- LaDainian Tomlinson hasn’t rushed for over 1,000 since 2008 but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the best running back of the last decade. He’ll retire with 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns on 3,174 carries throughout his Hall of Fame career. He also set a single-season record with 28 touchdowns in 2006 and ranks fifth all-time in yards from scrimmage with 18,456. On top of his outstanding career, LT was a class act, too. I had an opportunity to meet him during an event in New York City and there was nothing fake about him. He was a competitor right through his final carry.
- When Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars agreed on a five-year, $30.95 million deal back in April of 2009, both sides assumed that he would live up to his contract. It’s not surprising that he went out and rushed for over 1,300 yards in his next three years, including his league-leading 1,606-yard performance in 2011. But what is surprising is that MJD now wants more money. It’s not like the Jaguars stiffed him on his ’09 contract. Both sides agreed that it was a fair deal and now that MJD has lived up to the contract he wants more? Yes, teams can cut players at any point and players need to make as much as they can, when they can. But this was a bad move by MJD and his agent, who are highly unlikely to sway the Jags into paying them more.
- It’s only June but John Harbaugh has to be concerned about his offensive line. Jah Reid, who spent most of this week’s mini camp at right tackle because the Ravens told Bryant McKinnie to focus on his conditioning instead of practicing, was carted off the field on Thursday with a leg injury. Center Matt Birk also missed camp after undergoing surgery to repair a varicose vein in his leg and former Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs is now in New Orleans after signing a free agent deal with the Saints. Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda are entrenched at their spots but the rest of Baltimore’s O-line is a major question mark right now.
- The Falcons will wind up regretting not bringing in outside options at left tackle. The hope is that new offensive line coach Pat Hill can restore Sam Baker back to his early days, but what does that entail? Baker was a second-round prospect back in 2008 but the Falcons drafted him in the first because GM Thomas Dimitroff panicked when he saw all of the tackles flying off the board. (And he needed a left tackle to protect his prized position in the ’08 draft, quarterback Matt Ryan.) Since then, Baker has been average at best and a complete disaster at worst. He’s in a contract year so maybe he’ll play well, but “well” for him at this level hasn’t been nearly good enough. The Falcons should have at least kicked the tires on Demetress Bell, King Dunlap or Anthony Collins this offseason.
+ Assuming the Cardinals defense makes significant improvements from last season (and it should), Ray Horton will become one of the hotter names in head coaching circles next offseason. His defensive influences come from Dick LeBeau’s scheme in Pittsburgh, so the system works if every player understands his role. As I wrote last week, there was a ton of confusion among Arizona defenders last year in Horton’s first season as coordinator. But now that everyone has a better grasp of the system, Horton will likely become a sought after commodity next year.
- Speaking of the Cardinals, Arizona Republic’s Kent Somers writes that he “couldn’t make a clear call on” the competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. That’s not good for the Cardinals, who don’t want to have competition at quarterback. They acquired Kolb and paid him all of that money so that he could solve their issues at the position. Instead, he’s only added to the problems.
- If I were the GM of a team that needed an upgrade at backup quarterback, I wouldn’t hesitate to send Cleveland a sixth or seventh rounder for Colt McCoy. The Browns did what they had to do in drafting Brandon Weeden. McCoy doesn’t have the arm strength to win in Pittsburgh or Baltimore in late December with the playoffs on the line. But he isn’t without ability. He’s mobile, accurate (or at least he was accurate at Texas), and he can run a NFL offense. Looking around the league, many teams could do worse than add McCoy as a backup, especially for the low cost of a late round pick.
- The Panthers are another defense that should improve upon last year’s effort (although how could it not, after last year’s Carolina team gave up the most total yards, passing yards, points and touchdowns than any squad in its 17-year history). Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was at such a disadvantage last offseason because of the lockout but players are starting to get a better feel for his scheme in Year 2. Getting Jon Beason (Achilles’ surgery) back certainly helps and Luke Kuechly was viewed as one of the safest picks in his year’s draft. Granted, outside of Chris Gamble (who was solid in coverage last season) the secondary is a major question mark but there’s little doubt that Carolina’s outlook is bright for 2012.
- I truly believe Jeff Fisher will not be a bust hire for the Rams, but he’s got issues at outside linebacker. They missed an opportunity to land Mychal Kendricks, Zach Brown or Lavonte David in the second round of this year’s draft and while they gave the impression that they were fine with Lo-Jonn Dunbar starting, they just signed free agent Rocky McIntosh on Thursday. A combination of Dunbar, McIntosh and Mario Haggan doesn’t scream reliability and chances are outside linebacker will be atop their needs list next offseason.
- The Titans avoided a major scare earlier this week when Kendall Wright’s X-rays showed no structural damage to his shoulder. Because of Chris Johnson’s struggles and Kenny Britt’s knee injury, this is a team that lacked playmakers last season. After investing a first-round pick in him this April, the Titans can ill-afford to lose Wright.
University of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) scrambles away from the University of Florida’s Christopher Coleman during the secopnd quarter of their NCAA football game in Gainesville, Florida October 17, 2009. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)
Here are some interesting NFL reports via Rotoworld:
GM calls Ryan Mallett the “Charlie Sheen of the NFL draft
According to FOX Sports.com, at least one NFL GM doesn’t buy into how Mallett is being billed as Tom Brady’s eventual successor in New England. “Just knowing Bill, I can’t see him truly believing Mallett is their future,” the annaoymous GM said. “I can see them getting him right off the field, showcasing him in the preseason for a couple of years and then getting some trade value for him and stock-pile more picks.” Because of Mallett’s alleged drug and alcohol issues, another GM went as far as to say: “We thought he was the Charlie Sheen of this draft.” Ouch.
Reid denies that there’s an offer for Kolb
Andy Reid is denying reports that the Eagles have an offer on the table for quarterback Kevin Kolb. This comes a day after SI.com’s Peter King said the exact opposite and wrote that an “unnamed team” has offered a first round pick in exchange for the QB. The Cardinals, Dolphins and Seahawks still remain possibilities for Kolb once the lock ends (and assuming the Eagles and Reid are willing to part with Kolb).
Vikings want to bring in veteran to compete with Ponder
Even though head coach Leslie Frazier told the media following the draft that Christian Ponder will have the opportunity to start as a rookie, he also confirmed on Tuesday that he’s looking to add a veteran to come in and compete with the first round pick. “If we went that route, we’d probably want a guy that could compete to start,” Frazier said. “I don’t know if I’d want a ‘coach-type’ guy.” There’s still a possibility that Donovan McNabb could wind up in Minnesota for a year or two while Ponder learns Bill Musgrave’s offense.
L.T. concedes starting RB job to Shonn Greene
LaDainian Tomlinson conceded that Shonn Greene is ready to take over as the Jets’ feature back. L.T. noted that he’s been the best running back in the league and now wants to be the best third-down back in the NFL. He still figures to have a predominant role in the Jets’ offense.
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It’s the playoffs, where team matters more than individual players. But there are several key players that hold their team’s hopes in their hands this weekend and we’ve listed eight of them (one for each team) below.
In no particular order…
1. Terrell Suggs, Ravens
The Ravens have been waiting for this guy to return to form and he finally has. Suggs looks hungry, motivated and determined to get the Ravens to a Super Bowl. If Baltimore’s front seven is able to take away Rashard Mendenhall and force the Steelers to be one-dimensional this Saturday, then Suggs needs to get after Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Wallace is a true homerun threat and can score from anywhere on the field, so Suggs and Co. can’t give Big Ben time to throw. Getting pressure on the quarterback is always vital in football, especially in the postseason where one or two plays can decide the outcome of a game.
2. Troy Polamalu, Steelers
I realize this is an obvious one but I don’t care: Polamalu is the key to whether or not the Steelers will be playing in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. He’s vital to their defense because when he’s not on the field, it’s a completely different unit. When the Steelers and Ravens met in Pittsburgh late in the season, it was his forced fumble of Joe Flacco that set up Pittsburgh’s offense to score the eventual game-winning touchdown. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word but he’s also been battling an Achilles/ankle injury so he’s not 100 percent. If he’s able to fly around the field and create havoc like he normally does, then Baltimore will have a tough time moving the ball this weekend.
3. James Starks (Packers)
The football world is now enamored with this young man – and for good reason. The past two games, Starks has given Green Bay something it’s been searching for all year: balance. The Packers have already proven that they can win when Aaron Rodgers has to throw the ball but it’s much tougher on a defense when they can’t sit back in coverage on most downs. In the first meeting between the Packers and Falcons, Atlanta didn’t have to respect the run. But after Starks rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries last weekend against the Eagles, the Falcons may not have the luxury of dropping extra defenders into coverage.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play in the huddle in the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on December 6, 2010. The Patriots defeated the Jets 45-3. UPI/Matthew Healey
Matchup: Jets (11-5) @ Patriots (14-2)
Kickoff: 4:30PM ET, Sunday
1. Can the combination of Sanchez and Schottenheimer top Belichick?
Earlier this week, Jets’ coach Rex Ryan essentially told the media that this game will come down to whether or not he can raise his level of coaching to match that of Bill Belichick. I understand what he was saying, but I disagree with him. This game won’t come down to Ryan – it’ll come down to whether or not Brian Schottenheimer can raise his game. While Ryan certainly has his hands full trying to figure out a way to slow the Patriots’ offense, Schottenheimer must design a game plan that will top Belichick’s defense. Outside of a couple of throws, Mark Sanchez did not play well last weekend in Indianapolis. It was the Jets’ running game and defense that propelled them to victory. So first off, can Sanchez play better? If he can, will his offensive coordinator put together an intelligent game plan so that he can exploit the very few weaknesses that the Patriots have?
2. Will the Pats overlook the Jets?
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Patriots are the better football team in this matchup. They have a tremendous coaching staff, they’re always prepared and they have the best quarterback in the league in Tom Brady. But in Week 9, the Pats were beaten by the Browns because they started reading their own press clippings. They did it again in Week 15 after rattling off five in a row and were set to face an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team at home. Matt Flynn nearly beat them that night, as New England’s defense looked flummoxed in a narrow 31-27 victory. With all the trash talk the Jets have been doing this week, it’s highly unlikely that the Patriots will overlook their most hated rivals. But they also beat this team 45-3 just over a month ago and it’s human nature to think that things will play out the same way. Belichick needs to remind his team that the Jets have already beaten them once this season and they’re not going to be caught unprepared like in the last meeting.
3. Can the Jets get their running game going again?
The Jets beat the Colts last week because they were able to run the football in the second half and leave Peyton Manning on the sidelines. They have to do that again if they’re going to pull off another upset. It’s a pipedream to think Sanchez will out-duel Brady, so the Jets need their defense and running game to be as good, if not better than they were against the Colts. A couple of costly turnovers by Sanchez hurt the Jets in their 45-3 loss to the Patriots in December. He must protect the football so the Jets don’t fall behind early and are forced to throw in order to get back into the game. New England has given up 108.0 yards per game this year and an average of 104.0 YPG over the past three weeks. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene won’t be able to run all over the Pats this weekend, but they might be able to control the tempo again like last Saturday.
4. How will Woody’s injury affect the Jets?
Damien Woody was arguably the Jets’ best run-blocker, so losing him for the season could be catastrophic. New York needs to be able to run the ball on Sunday if it’s going to pull off an upset and without Woody that could be difficult. Plus, you have to figure that Belichick will figure out a way to exploit the injury and cause some havoc for Sanchez. There’s no other way to put it: Wayne Hunter (Woody’s replacement) must step up this weekend.
5. Can the Pats stop Keller again?
I the Jets’ 28-14 victory over the Patriots in Week 2, Dustin Keller caught seven passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. In the teams’ second meeting, he caught just three passes for 27 yards and was only targeted four times. You can probably bet that Sanchez will look his tight end’s way more this weekend in effort to spread the ball around and keep New England’s defense guessing. Keller has long been a hidden weapon in the Jets’ passing game and he’s killed teams over the middle this season. New England can’t fall asleep on this guy because he can hurt defenses.