By Jeff Risdon
I sat down here to do an initial 2014 NFL mock draft, but in the process of initiating that tedious task I found a problem. I struggled to figure out the order at the top of the draft. That got me to thinking: who is going to earn the ignominy of picking first?
A couple of obvious choices came to mind, but I decided to do a little research to clear my own biases. So I checked with a couple of different sports books to investigate the over/under win totals to get a better idea of what teams the professionals believe will rack up the fewest wins.
To no surprise, the lowest over/under number belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Between a new coaching staff, their ongoing quarterback issues, the injury question regarding Maurice Jones-Drew, and top receiver Justin Blackmon’s suspension, the line is set at +/- 4.5 wins. That’s fair for a team in the early stages of a major overhaul from being a mediocre (at best) franchise for most of the last decade. The odds-on favorite to be the worst team seldom disappoints, and it’s almost inarguable that no team needs the No. 1 pick more than the Jaguars. The harder part to ascertain for the Jaguars is whether they would pick Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater or South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney. The optimistic Jaguars' fan can point to the tantalizing proposition of having either highly talented player while not finishing dead last.
The Jaguars are far from runaway favorites to be the worst team, however. Three other teams feature an over/under number less than six. The Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders are all at +/- 5.5 or less, and it’s easy to see why the bookies set the low totals for those three.
I’ll be honest. The Raiders were the team I penciled in at the top of my list, and if I decide to get my gamble on this year, I’m going heavy on the under at 5. Oakland is suffering the unfortunate repercussions of the late Al Davis’ horrible mismanagement in his last few years, which caused a major depth chart purging. That has left the Raiders painfully short of talent at all sorts of positions. I don’t know how they are going to protect the winner of their QB derby (my early pick is rookie Tyler Wilson), how they will rush the opposing passer, or stop the run. If I’m Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, my choice at No. 1 in 2014 is Clowney, arguably the best defensive end prospect since Bruce Smith.
Buffalo is another strong candidate. The Bills face uncertainty at quarterback, where a battle royal between castoffs Kevin Kolb, Tarvaris Jackson, and incredibly overdrafted rookie EJ Manuel will slug it out to play behind a line that lost its best player in Andy Levitre. The defensive depth chart is also loaded with castoffs from other teams, disappointments like Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson, and Mark Anderson. Mario Williams and his massive contract is a huge albatross. The new head coach, Doug Marrone, comes from the college ranks at Syracuse and his NFL experience was with Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, and the high-flying Saints. He doesn’t have nearly that sort of weaponry in Buffalo, which could make the coaching curve a steep one. Also, the non-divisional schedule features the AFC North and NFC South, both chock full of dangerous foes. Still, the Bills do have appreciable talent at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary and could rise above picking in the top 10 if one of the quarterbacks (likely Kolb) steps up.
Cleveland also suffers from a lack of confidence in the quarterback, though at least they have a clear-cut starter in Brandon Weeden. The Browns also feature a rookie coach and are dramatically changing both the offensive and defensive schemes, which is often a recipe for hardship. I happen to think the Browns are going to cruise to at least 7 wins, but I buy the argument that they could tank with all the changes and pick at or near the top again. They would be picking Teddy Bridgewater if given the chance.
Then there are the outliers, teams which I could see plummeting under the right, or rather wrong and unfortunate, circumstances. The San Diego Chargers have already lost their 2012 1st round pick Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL. They have scads of underperforming high draft picks across the defensive front, and they have major injury questions at wide receiver and running back. The offensive line remains a huge problem even with taking DJ Fluker in the first round. But it would take a continued precipitous drop by QB Philip Rivers for the Chargers to earn the top spot. He’s well on that path, and if the new regime and team loses confidence in Rivers early, I can see this team bottoming out and selecting a new franchise QB in the next draft.
Arizona plays in a brutally tough NFC West, where the Seahawks and 49ers are, on paper, the two best teams in the NFC and the Rams are poised to make a big leap forward as well. They also have QB issues, taking a risk on Carson Palmer resuscitating his career behind a shaky OL (two rookies will start at guard) with no discernible running game to help him out. That combination pushed the Raiders to the brink of the first pick a year ago, and like the 2012 Raiders the Cardinals also have big questions in the pass rush department. The Cardinals are one of the few teams to already see betting line movement; Arizona began at +/- 6.5 and is down to 6 at one book and 5.5 at another. The big money sees impending doom. It will be interesting to see if new coach Bruce Arians can work the magic like he did with the Colts a year ago and keep this team from contending for the worst record in the league. Should the Cards sink to that depth, they would be wise to consider Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews as well as Clowney and Bridgewater.
And then there is the completely irrational choice, the shocking candidate that nobody expects to stink. My choice here is the Pittsburgh Steelers. No, I’m not hating on the Terrible Towels. It would take a fairly complex series of events for it to happen, but they are not all that improbable when taken separately. Say Big Ben gets hurt again and misses the bulk of the season. So does Troy Polamalu once again. Nobody steps up at wide receiver to replace Mike Wallace, and Heath Miller is unable to fully recover from his 2012 injury. They miss James Harrison more than expected, as neither Jason Worilds nor Jarvis Jones proves capable of more than 3.5 sacks and LaMarr Woodley has another disappointing season on the other side. The young offensive line fails to gel, a bad situation in a division loaded with excellent defensive lines in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and even Cleveland. If even half those issues, with Roethlisberger and the pass rush paramount among them, all converge, I can see the Steelers unexpectedly hitting rock bottom for a year. Of course the Steelers are currently at +/- 10 wins for a reason, and I highly doubt they finish with less than 7 wins again. But it’s not inconceivable. I have to think they would take Clowney even though he is a natural 4-3 end and the Steelers run a 3-4 defense.
Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Draft
By Jeff Risdon
May is the slowest month of the year for the NFL, but that doesn’t mean the football world stops. Here are some quick thoughts on some recent developments.
--Geno Smith impresses in minicamp. All reports from the New York Jets' rookie camp were glowing in praise of Smith, who unexpectedly fell into the second round of last month’s draft. Smith appears to be seizing his opportunity, holding players-only meetings in the team hotel and impressing all viewers with sharpness and velocity on his passing reps. The cynic in me wants to say, “well of course he’s impressive compared to Mark Sanchez and Greg McElroy”. And there is probably more than a little of that going on here; the Jets' media and fan base knows some bad quarterbacking from recent times, so anything resembling competence is a refreshing change. But I am a more ardent believer that Geno Smith can emerge as a very good NFL quarterback in time. I still prefer that he tutor behind David Garrard for a few games, if for no other reason than to set the bar a little lower, but it sure appears as if Geno Smith will start Week 1 against Tampa Bay.
--Chip Kelly is changing the culture of the Philadelphia Eagles. Gone are Fast Food Fridays, unhealthy eating, and passive practicing. In are customized smoothies, carefully choreographed music during practice sections, and a frantic no huddle offense and practice system.
This is a radical change from the Andy Reid era. After more than a decade of the same routine, Kelly isn’t just rocking the boat, he’s torpedoed it. I happen to think that’s a very good thing. The Eagles appeared complacent and uninspired last year. Kelly is pumping up the intensity, improving the physical fitness and conditioning, and bringing something new and fresh to the NFL. Nobody knows how it is all going to work for Kelly with Philadelphia, but I admire the Eagles for giving Kelly the chance to try such a radical experiment. It’s a far better option than using a retreaded coach with a philosophy that got him fired from some other NFL team recently. Successful coaches instill a defined culture to a team, and that is exactly what Kelly is doing in Philadelphia. It might rankle some veteran feathers, but this franchise was unlikely to fly again without serious changes.
--The Arizona Cardinals released QB Brian Hoyer. Can we finally put an end to the mystique of the Patriots backup quarterback? Hoyer was cut by the Patriots at the end of the 2012 preseason. The Steelers, who were down to Charlie Batch as the starter with no backup thanks to injuries, signed Hoyer in late November but quickly discarded him as soon as bodies became healthy. The Cardinals lapped him up in a desperate attempt to rectify their desperate quarterback situation. In two games he managed to not completely stink, but didn’t show enough to merit any sort of commitment; the Cardinals signed Drew Stanton and traded for Carson Palmer. Now they have chosen Ryan Lindley over Hoyer as the third option.
Let that sink in for a second--the new regime in Arizona feels that Ryan Lindley is a better option than Hoyer. Just as Matt Cassel proved incapable of being a good starter after looking fantastic playing behind Tom Brady, Hoyer is much less desirable once stripped of the Patriots luster. In fact, Hoyer wasn’t as good as Cassel in his limited opportunity. No doubt Hoyer will get yet another chance somewhere, but here’s the plain truth: if Hoyer had never been a Patriot, his career would be over. Sadly, we will go thru this same cycle with Ryan Mallett in another year or two. For the record, I’d take Hoyer over Mallett any day.
--Titus Young gets arrested. Again. I wrote extensively about this at DetroitLionsDraft.com, but here is the Reader’s Digest version: Titus Young needs help. The story is not funny anymore. Here’s hoping that Young can turn his life around, if for no other reason than to be a father to Titus Young Jr. Football is irrelevant at this point.
--There is growing momentum from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that rookie Mike Glennon has a very good chance to unseat incumbent Josh Freeman as the starting quarterback for the Buccaneers. Glennon had a very strong minicamp and has impressed the coaches with his quick knowledge of the offense. He’s also a competitor and not afraid to show a little emotion, boxes in which Freeman often fails to check off.
Aiding in Glennon’s case is that Freeman is entering the final year of his contract and there is little reason to pay him big money if he continues to plod along. Other than about two months of his four year career, Freeman has been a below-average NFL starter. His penchant for poor decisions and relative apathetic persona has rubbed Bucs fans--and some coaches--the wrong way. Glennon offers change, and does so inexpensively. Don’t think that doesn’t factor into the equation for the spendthrift Bucs, who have ranked in the bottom 5 in payroll for years. I’m admittedly not a Glennon backer; he was my 11th rated QB in April’s draft with a grade equivalent to a 5th-6th round pick. I worry about his sloppy foot mechanics, his alarming tendency to drop his eyes when pressured, his propensity to fabricate pressure, and lack of velocity on his throws. But if he can seize the day with a better supporting cast, the Bucs are better for it. However, I sense the endgame the Bucs really want here is for Glennon to push Freeman into being the guy who nearly wedged the team into the playoffs back in 2010 with a brilliant finish to the season and not the guy with a 3-12 record with 24 INTs in games beyond Week 8 the last two seasons.
--Former Chargers RB Chuck Muncie passed away. He was 60 and died of an apparent heart attack. I loved Muncie’s rough and tumble running style, sort of an early predecessor of Jerome Bettis. As a prematurely bespectacled child, I also loved that Muncie wore glasses while he played. Alas, there was more to the Chuck Muncie story than just his powerful running.
Muncie had a couple of very prominent strikes in his NFL career. After toiling for some truly dreadful Saints teams, he pouted and sulked his way into a trade to the Chargers. This was one of the earliest cases I can personally recall of a disgruntled player forcing a team’s hand, and that bothered me as a naïve young fan. A handful of years later, Muncie was banished for a cocaine addiction that cost him his career. He even served prison time for it. That could have been the sad ending to a tragic story, but Muncie chose to write a different ending.
Chuck Muncie became a widely respected advocate and agent of change for troubled youths. His foundation gave kids a chance to avoid the drug-and-thug lifestyle, and did so with compassion and personal commitment by Muncie himself. He mentored scores of young athletes, steering them on the right path and teaching them about making the smart choices he failed to make in his early life. His final years were a source of redemption and virtue, and that is what Chuck Muncie should be remembered for as much as his on-field success. RIP Mr. Muncie.
New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots
By Zack Levine
Every NFL season features several running backs that quickly become household names either during their rookie season or after a year or two of development.
Last season, there was rookie Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins who recorded over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Trent Richardson also had a great season for the Cleveland Browns by rushing for 950 yards and making 11 end zone appearances.
There are three scenarios that stimulate the possibility of a running back having a breakout season.
The first is if it is the rookie season of the player. Rookie tailbacks have a high chance of being breakout candidates because despite all the scouting and film-watching, coaches don’t really know what they’re getting until he gets on the field.
A fresh start could also indicate that a player will have a breakout season. Sometimes, a new place and a new look can create an entirely new opportunity. An example of this would be how Michael Turner became of the NFL's most valuable running backs for the Atlanta Falcons immediately after leaving the San Diego Chargers and the shadow of LaDainian Tomlinson.
The third place to look for a breakout candidate is in training camp when there is a battle at the running back position. The player that steps up and wins the starting job should be able to continue that momentum going into the season.
Here are several 2013 breakout candidates at the running back position:
Chris Ivory, New York Jets
Ivory is one of those backs that has been given chances due to the players ahead of him getting injured. Whenever the Saints gave Ivory carries, he always ran like he was finally getting his big break. The Saints never made him their feature back, however, and now he has a chance to be one with the Jets.
The Jets' offense currently is filled with uncertainty, with no solid starter at quarterback or running back. Ivory will certainly have the opportunity to earn the starting job, and if he runs like he did when he got his opportunities with New Orleans, there’s a good chance he has an excellent year.
Giovanni Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard is a dynamic player out of North Carolina who was the first running back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. You’ll have trouble finding a more patient runner who waits for blocks to develop before he attacks the hole. In the open field, Bernard is shifty and his low center of gravity makes him difficult to bring down. He has the ability to score every time he touches the ball and is even a dangerous weapon in the return game.
The Bengals currently have BenJarvus Green-Ellis plugged in as their starter, but he was inconsistent last season and uncharacteristically struggled to hold onto the football. If that trend continues, don’t be surprised to see Bernard get substantial playing time early in the season. He certainly has the skills to be a breakout performer for the Bengals.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
This is scenario number three, where there will be a battle during training camp and throughout the preseason that will determine the week one starter. The Dolphins let Reggie Bush walk this offseason and picked up rookie Mike Gillislee from Florida in the draft. That means that Gillislee, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller will be competing for the starting running back job this summer.
Miller should be able to beat out the rookie and the injury-plagued and inconsistent Thomas. When he does, he will be able to truly showcase his talent and expand on the good things he did last season. Although he only carried the ball 51 times in 2012, Miller averaged an excellent 4.9 yards per carry. If he becomes the Dolphins’ starter and keeps his yards per carry average that high, he will be a tough problem for defenses to deal with throughout the season.
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh finally gave up on the Rashard Mendenhal and decided to look for a running back in the draft. They found former Michigan State standout Le’Veon Bell. A physical yet athletic runner, Bell should fit perfectly into what the Steelers try to do with their running game.
Another reason Bell could be primed for a breakout season is that Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to be too thrilled with any of the backs currently on its roster. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey have all been effective at times, but never consistently. If Mike Tomlin gives Bell significant carries, the rookie could have a season similar to the one Alfred Morris enjoyed last year.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff Demps, Tampa Bay; Ryan Williams, Arizona; Daryl Richardson, St. Louis.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets
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