Tennessee Titans: 3 Reasons Jake Locker Will Have A Breakout Year

There is growing momentum amongst Titans fans and football pundits, as a whole, that Jake Locker has run out of chances in Tennessee. To that I say, you have to be kidding me.

Why Game One against Brooklyn is the biggest game in Raptors History.

I’m stepping away from my NFL expertise to comment a little bit on what I perceive to be the biggest basketball game in Toronto Raptors history. Yes, more than game seven against the Sixers in 2001, yes more than Vince’s first home game and yes, way more than Bosh’s return as well.

The hyperboles do not start there though. This is by far the best Raptors team in franchise history as evidenced by the 48 wins this season, a team-record.

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What is different from this team than in years past? Well for one, this is a group of young players who adore playing with each other and they thrive off the fact that they have been castaways from previous teams and even to some extent from Raptors fans as well. Trust me, I know having been  fan of the team for more than 15 years, we are as fickle as they came. This is a fan base that LOVES this team. They may not be large in numbers, but the intensity you see from the die-hard core cannot be denied. Just a quick visit to the realgm.com website will show you the dedication that exists. So when I say we are a loyal group, it is very true, but the fickle nature of Raptor fans have led them to love and hate many of the same players on the team, but only because we expect so much out of the team and players.

Many of the qualities that Toronto sports fans have grown to love, qualities that were laid by a foundation of gritty play from the likes of Wendell Clark, Mats Sundin in hockey, to Alvin and Jerome Williams and Charles Oakley in basketball, have set the standard for what a Toronto athlete should be. And you see it in this group. Amir Johnson is a lunch-pale, meat and potatoes kind of guy, who thrives on executing the intricate nuances of basketball that mainstream fans and media will rarely pay attention to, such as setting picks with timely rolls to the basket, hedging on defenders and pogo-stick like rebounding. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan show those same traits with their play this season both ranking in the top-10 in minutes per game, with Lowry ranking first in charges taken. Both players were seen as not fitting part of the ‘tank for Andrew Wiggins’ plan,  which was supposed to net the team a top pick in the offseason. Instead, Lowry and DeRozan have been the most integral factors in the resurgence. And then you have Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, who were jettisoned to Toronto after the Rudy Gay trade; a trade that has yielded an Eastern Conference best 41-21 record since December 6th. Even second year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have felt the wrath of the fickle Raptors fans, who, at times, wished that other players were chosen at their spots. Now, both players, while still young, are playing their best ball of the season, especially Valanciunas, who’s been averaging 15 points and over 10 rebound in his last 10 games.

So what makes this game better than the aforementioned three from years past? It’s the ‘us against the world’ mentality and the sense of Nationalism that the Raptors have finally adopted. No longer are they trying to avoid being labeled as the NBA’s stepchild. They’re embracing it. The Raptors have gone on an extensive marketing campaign (“We The North and the “Northern Uprising”, which may or may not have been taken from Game of Thrones), one that was actually meant for next season’s 20th anniversary of the team’s inception. Drake was heavily involved in it and if you had told me this four months ago, I would’ve laughed at the thought of the rapper representing my favourite team. But this campaign has been nothing short of terrific. It truly encompasses what Raptors fans have been dealing with for years: the fewest amount of Nationally televised games, American players who think coming to Toronto is the second coming of going to Siberia and developing blue-chip talent only to have them leave. This campaign is saying that we don’t care what you think about us We’ve been trying and caring for nearly two decades and have failed. We’re going with what we got and there is no one stopping us. The Raptors are relishing their perception as outsiders in the NBA.

And let’s be honest, the hype around this year’s playoffs would not be as big if we faced the Wizards or Bobcats. Both teams are actually worse match ups for the Raptors as they can match up from a youth standpoint and the Bobcats have a behemoth in the middle with Al Jefferson, who the Raptors have never been able to contain. Somehow, the big bad Nets remain the team that most Raptors fans didn’t want to face. It could be the fact that Paul Pierce can still score 19 in his sleep with limited athletic ability, or that Kevin Garnett, a seasoned veteran and future Hall of Famer, can get into the head of the most focused of players. Garnett is one of the more polarizing players in the league, but he is also one of the most vilified by fans. He attacks lesser known players, yet backs down from one’s that are of his size. Second year centre Jonas Valanciunas will have to avoid all the noise that comes with Garnett’s play.
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The Nets seemingly tanked their final six games in order to face Toronto and they are definitely not denying it. Based off the interviews from general manager Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, they really do not care about the tanking. It’s just another low blow from their friends down south who feel the need to show disdain from a team who finished third in the East and gave the Pacers a run for their money in every game they played them in. In years past, with the old regime led by Chris Bosh, I have no doubts that this team would’ve crumpled at the thought of playing the Nets. They also would’ve let the issue with the tanking become bigger than it is. Now, they used the disrespect as a rallying cry against one of the oldest and slowest teams in the league. Make no mistake about it; The Nets can be beat and this really was the best matchup for the Raptors, who can run circles around Brooklyn with their overall team speed.

Canadian basketball is at its zenith with an NCAA tournament filled with potential first rounders. It is very likely that we will see back-to-back first overall picks from the city of Toronto. Youth ball in the country is at an all-time high and kids are not looking solely at hockey as their sport of choice growing up. This playoff run for the Raptors has propelled the team as the main attraction in the city with the Leafs doing their typical disappearing act in April and the Jays only 15 games into their season. The anticipation is majestic and I know you couldn’t pay me or any other Raptors fan a million dollars to miss this game. The city and crowd have been dying for a winner and to get playoff action and I have no doubt that the ACC will be an absolute madhouse tomorrow.

Giants show aggressive approach in free agency

The Mara and Tisch ownership conglomerate of the Giants have always been big proponents of doing whatever it takes to win. Despite the backing, Big Blue has built its teams from a foundation based on good drafting and the development of young players. Over the course of the last decade, the Giants have been rather judicious with their use of free agent money, as the only really big free agent acquisitions were Kareem McKenzie (2005), Antonio Pierce (2005), Plaxico Burress (2005) from Pittsburgh, Antrel Rolle (2010) from Arizona. Not world-beater type of names to say the least.  However, the last time the Giants made these big free agent signings, it propelled them to Super Bowl titles in 2007 and 2011. It leads credence to the fact that when the Giants do break the bank, they often make good on a volume of moves, and that is the case here in 2014.

After two straight non-playoff seasons, Jerry Reese has used some shrewd maneuvering in order to create the necessary cap space in order to become a major player in free agency. In the process, the Giants let go of key components of their team in guard Chris Snee, receiver Hakeem Nicks and defensive linemen Linval Joseph. Mattias Kiwanuka restructured his contract allowing the Giants to finally “pony-up the dough”. Although it took some time for their acquisitions to matriculate, the last three or four days have been as exciting a period for Giants fans in the off-season, as they made an 11th hour push to acquire some key defensive pieces

The moves the Giants made, the signing of Walter Thurmond, Quinton Demps and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, clearly show the fans and the rest of the league that New York will not take another season of mediocrity. So what if the Giants already had a solid defense. Detractors of the moves will say that the reason for the Giants struggles were primarily on Eli Manning. Regardless, Jerry Reese has positioned the team to make a serious run now and for the foreseeable future by completely bolstering what was originally an average secondary into one that could rank top-five in the league.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos

We’ve all heard the adage: “This is a passing league.” The blueprint to winning the Super Bowl has been set by the Seahawks and everyone is at an arms race for quality defensive backs. What a better way for the Giants to start drawing such a blueprint than by adding a player from the defending championship Seahawks. Walter Thurmond, who many considered the best slot-corner in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Thurmond allowed a paltry .85 yards per snap in the slot and the overall quarterback rating on passes intended his way was 74. When he was covering slot receivers, that rating dropped further to 69. With the way the league is geared towards freeing up slot receivers, Thurmond, on a one-year $3.5 million deal is an absolute bargain.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had an up and down career. He was highly touted in his first two seasons at Arizona, went to Philadelphia and laid an egg, but got a second wind in Denver. Last season for the Broncos, he was rated as the fourth best cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. ‘DRC’ has the length and speed that elite corners need in order to cover the bigger receivers. The term and dollars are fair value for a player who’s arguably among the top ten corners in the league. Rodgers-Cromartie was signed for 5 years at $39 million and will be getting $14 million guaranteed and $16 million in the first two years, making this deal relatively front-loaded. This acquisition relegates the struggling Corey Webster to a 4th or 5th corner and pairs Rodgers-Cromartie with Prince Amukamara, the Giants 2011 first-round pick. Amukamara had a tumultuous first couple of seasons, but is slowly rounding into form as a solid cornerback.

When considering that the Giants can now line up Thurmond, Rodgers-Cromartie along with Amukamara, Stevie Brown (who intercepted eight passes in 2012) and Antrel Rolle who had a fine Pro Bowl season, New York surely has the makings of a ball-hawking pass defense. Demps is a depth signing who can help fill in if there are any injuries. His special teams acumen increases his value. Speaking of special teams, the Giants also signed Trindon Holliday who is one of the fastest return men in the league. He should figure into a special teams unit that was 26th and 27th in punt and kickoff returns respectively.

Of course, teams do not win divisions in free agency and we all know teams have added many pieces in the past only to have success not come to fruition. Jerry Reese has added the pieces on the defensive end for Perry Fewell to re-establish his attacking defense. I’ve mentioned many times that the front and back-end complement each other and the bolstering of the Giants secondary can only do wonders to a stalling Jason Pierre-Paul.

It’s clear that Jerry Reese wants the Giants to make a big run. New York Daily News Giants beat writer Ralph Vacchiano had tweeted that the Giants, in the six days of free agency, had signed or re-signed 16 players for a total of over $105 million including the aforementioned Rodgers-Cromartie, Thurmond, Demps, Rashad Jennings and just today, Mario Manningham, the Super Bowl 46 hero who made one of the most improbable sideline catches in history.

If 2007 and 2010 are any indication, the Giants’ moves this off-season could be a dangerous coup against the teams in the upper-echelon of the NFC.

A review of the first week of free agency

A review of the first week of free agency.

A review of the first week of free agency

As the first week of free agency comes to an end, we saw quite a few surprises. Players who we all thought would be gone, ended up staying with their respective teams, while others decided to part ways with their teams, despite being integral components both on and off the field.

We all love free agency because of the real-time action it encompasses. Signings are reported and confirmed within minutes and there is virtually no downtime from the time 4pm hits for the next week.

What we must not get carried away with is the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of free agency. It often takes a year or even more to see the impact that a free agent acquisition had on a team. It’s one issue we as fans and in general, in our society, have now. We want instant gratification on an acquisition and when analyzing it, we will only accept two extremes – the good extreme in which we know the player will perform more than admirably for his new team, or the bad extreme where fans criticize the move as soon as it happens, disregarding any transactions that may come afterwards.

Free agency is the first phase of a long off-season where teams try to improve themselves. Winning free ageny does not equate to being a sure-fire playoff or Super Bowl contender, but if cards are played right, it lays the foundation for future success. I singled out a few teams whose moves, or lack of moves, I wanted to discuss over the last week of free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Love the Alteraunn Verner signing with the release of Darrelle Revis. I originally thought Revis would not be cut when the rumors first circulated. At worst, they get one more year out of Revis, you assume he plays better than he did last year with a better coach in Lovie Smith (although in a scheme that doesn’t fit him) and he’s on a $16 million deal where no money is guaranteed, therefore they could release him whenever they want. Well, they didn’t want to take that chance and went with Verner, a cornerback that had the third lowest quarterback rating in passes intended to his opposing receiver, behind guys like Richard Sherman. Verner signed a nice four-year deal worth $26.5 million with $14 million guaranteed, and at 25 years old with no injury history or recurrent issues with his contract, Verner will pay immediate dividends for Tampa Bay

I also think the Michael Johnson signing is a good value move for the Bucs. A deal of roughly $8 million per season is on the low-end for a relatively good pass rusher who can play the run as well. Johnson along with Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn will form a nice defensive end rotation in Smith’s one gap defensive line system. The move should free up Gerald McCoy from being constantly double teamed. Speaking of defensive ends, don’t sleep on the Clinton McDonald move either. He should free up a lot of room for Gerald McCoy. He was often the big mauler up the middle for the Seahawks along with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.

Finally, I really like the signing of Josh McCown who has some familiarity with Lovie Smith. McCown will have the advent of a great stable of running backs, led by Doug Martin, who has good pass-catching prowess, similar to what McCown had in Chicago with Matt Forte. His receivers in Tampa Bay are more than formidable as well with Vincent Jackson as a five-time 1,000 yard receiver and Mike Williams, an emerging number. Tiquan Underwood and Timothy Wright are solid options as well. For everything critics said about McCown and how he was a system guy that benefited from great talent around him, he falls into a situation with a good quarterback and offensive guru in Jeff Tedford along with talent on offense. McCown will be a nice stopgap until they find their true franchise guy – clearly the Bucs do not believe in Mike Glennon enough.

The Bucs have also added center Evan Dietrich-Smith to the fold. I saw at least eight Packers games last season and Dietrich-Smith was one of the more imposing centers in the league. His acquisition by the Buccaneers will make their running game that much better.

Cleveland Browns: Karlos Dansby was one of the best linebackers last season. His 16 pass deflections were better than any linebacker including guys like Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David. The Browns will play a 3-4 defense under new head coach Mike Pettine, so Dansby will have a chance to flourish in a similar system that he ran last season with Ray Horton in 2012 and Todd Bowles in 2013.

The Donte Whitner signing I am not entirely sure of. You let go of a younger safety in T.J. Ward, who is more versatile. Ward is adept as a box safety, but he can still play decent in coverage when required. Whitner, however, has been a relative sieve in pass coverage, especially last season as he was routinely beat via long passes. You have to like Whitner’s impose vicious hits to opposing running backs and receivers coming across the middle but he also brings experience and a winning attitude to a team that has severely lacked it. Still, Ward is the younger and better player and went to the Broncos with a cheaper price tag.

Ben Tate, who I profiled in my free agency primer for running backs, was the best at the position in this class. It took him some time, but there was never a doubt that the Browns were his number one target. Considering Willis McGahee averaged 2.7 yards per carry behind a solid offensive line, Tate should easily supplant that mark and rush for over 1,000 yards, as long as he stays healthy. Kyle Shanahan has coached in Houston and Washington and he’s always had team that were in the top-five in rushing yards. Look for the Browns to deploy a zone-blocking scheme and for Tate, who’s benefited from such a system in the past to flourish.

Denver Broncos: All In. Those are the first two words  I think of when I look at the moves the Broncos made. Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and the aforementioned T.J. Ward. The Broncos got gashed on defense at certain points last season and they finished 27th in the league in opposing passing yards with over 257 per game. Ware gets added to the fold with a returning Von Miller, which could prove to be one of the scariest pass rushing duos in the league. Talib graded very highly and averaged a 58 percent completion percentage against, a mark that bested Darrelle Revis’ 58 percent. Concerning Ward, the Broncos are getting a true “box-safety” similar to the likes of Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Brian Dawkins, former Broncos safeties that have laid the hammer to opposing wide receivers in the past.  The dollar figures are okay in my books, with Ware and Talib getting $30 million and $57 million deals on three and six-year terms respectively.  The guaranteed figures are $20 million for Ware and $26 for Talib and although the Ware deal carries some risk with his age heading south of 30, you have to believe that a player with over 120 sacks in his career, still has some ammunition left in his arsenal. Talib’s deal is fair as long as he can stay healthy and avoid issues off the field. Ward’s deal, at 4 years, $23 million, is a relative bargain for his age. He’s been a tackling machine every season and his game has improved considerably. The Broncos were porous against tight ends in 2013, which is an area where Ward can factor into.  ‘All in’ seems to be the motto for John Elway and the Broncos realizing that Peyton Manning will not be playing forever. Finally, signing Emmanuel Sanders is a low-risk move that could pay dividends. I’m not impressed with his production though, as he averaged only 30 receiving yards per game in the last eight games of the season. Still, his speed and quickness will be added dimensions to the Broncos offense.

Indianapolis Colts: Ryan Grigson has to be included in a short line of general managers that do not mind rolling the dice. He’s done it with the acquisition of Vontae Davis and Trent Richardson and he virtually started off free agency with the signing of Arthur Brown. Brown, a former Raven will fit in perfectly in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme as a defensive end. Grigson wasn’t done there as he quickly pounced on D’Qwell Jackson, one of the more respected players in the league who was released by the Browns. He also, fits well in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 as an inside linebacker who can plug holes and stop the run.

The Hakeem Nicks move is a solid one, although expectations will need to be tempered. Nicks had a fine 2010 and 2011 seasons averaging just under 80 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers dropped to 53 catches and 850 yards over the next two seasons with only three combined touchdowns in that period. He struggled with injuries in 2011 and 2012 and had questions about his work ethic. There were reports that Nicks didn’t want to undergo his treatments and was often late for practice. The former Tar Heel has the talent to be better than what his numbers indicate, but one has to believe that if he couldn’t produce in a great environment with good veteran leadership and in a strong organization, what motivation does he have to do well with the Colts. At leas the one-year “prove it” deal with incentives gives him some motivation to get back to his 2010-2011 form. For the Colts, it’s a low-risk (base salary at $3.5 million with up to $2 million in incentives) high-reward when pairing Nicks with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. The Colts could have one of the best aerial attacks in the league.

Oakland Raiders: I’m not entirely sure where the Raiders are going here. Last season, it looked like they were rebuilding trying to get younger. This off-season, they appear to be confused as to what they want to do. As a Giants fan, my admiration for Justin Tuck will never waver. The guy was a great leader and a very solid player against the run and pass, but he along with the acquisition of Antonio Smith, Lamar Woodley and Tarrell Brown suggest that there really is no vision for this Raiders franchise. Many of these players are already past their prime, probably with the exception of Smith who still had a strong season as a 3-4 defensive end opposite the side of J.J. Watt. Woodley has been brutal with a combined 9 sacks in the last two season and Brown, who 49ers fans will give you many testimonials, is a guy who gets beaten in coverage a fair amount of the time. The Raiders would have been better served keeping players like Lamaar Houston and Jared Velderheer.

Speaking of which, the debacle with Roger Saffold is the type of gaffe that could cause a general manager his job. To completely whiff on Saffold’s physical, lose your own left tackle, one that is on the cusp of being a premier player, and be left with nothing in the process, is the stuff of amateurs. The worst part of it all is that Saffold is a player with no real position: not nimble enough to be a left tackle and struggles against speed rushers on the right side. He’s also quite injury prone having deal with knee issues for most of his career. The Raiders, who had offered a 5-year $42 million deal, ended up voiding the contract after the failed physical, which propelled Safford to sign back with the Rams for $11 million less. An utter embarrassment of a situation for Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders wound up blowing up in their faces.

Miami Dolphins: The ‘Phins came into the off-season with a clear need at offensive line. Ryan Tannehill was sacked 58 times, which was the highest total in the league. The lack of protection has been a thorn on his side, stunting his growth towards being an upper-echelon quarterback from the studded 2012 quarterback-heavy draft. The Dolphins acted fast signing former Chiefs tackle Brandon Albert to a 5-year $47 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. Albert was a candidate to be traded to Miami last off-season before finally being franchised by the Chiefs. As a pass-protector, he’s one of the better tackles in the league, although he struggles as a run-blocker. Nevertheless, he was among the best left tackles available on the open market and the Dolphins filled a massive need. They also signed Rams guard Shelley Smith to bolster up the line.

New general manager Dennis Hickey has made it a point to improve the secondary. They already re-signed Brent Grimes, who graded as a top-five corner last season and they picked up solid veterans in Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas. Randy Starks, who anchors their run defense, was retained. Starks will miss having Paul Soliai, as both have been studs up the middle of the defensive line, but his return is imperative for the Dolphins to continue to be a physical force against the run.

New England Patriots: We had to figure that the Patriots would be up to something as soon as Aqib Talib signed with the Broncos. Word was quickly spread that Darrelle Revis would be an option in Foxboro and after some quick negotiation, the five-time Pro Bowler signed on for a one-year deal worth $12 million. As good as Talib is, he is no Darrelle Revis, who’s arguably been the best corner in the league in four of the past six seasons. The Patriots have always had that one lockdown corner that they can trot out there, from Ty Law, to Asante Samuel, Talib and now Revis. Forget the fact that their numbers are the same, Law and Revis have skill sets that are very indistinguishable, as they both possess the size, physicality and smarts that have made them top corners. I look for Revis to challenge Richard Sherman as the best corner in the league playing for Bill Belichick’s scheme.

The Patriots also added the imposing Brandon Browner. The former Seahawk will miss the first four games of the season as he was suspended for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Browner is the perfect number two corner who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt routes. Along with Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots have, potentially, the best secondary in the league.

Carolina Panthers: The off-season started off on the wrong foot with the retiring of long-time player Jordan Gross. Gross has been a three-time Pro Bowler and has gotten better as his career has progressed. There were then reports of Steve Smith being a locker room distraction. Apparently, he was lauding his work ethic too blatantly to other players, and they became tired of the same speech every year. Whatever the issue, Smith (now signed with Baltimore) was released after a 12-year career in Carolina, which he appeared in five Pro Bowls. The Panthers opted to not retain the services of their other three receivers, as Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon signed respectively with the Patriots, Cardinals and Bears, respectively. While I can see them needing a new receiving corps, it is quite baffling that they have let go of all their starters and have no made any significant moves to bolster that part of their offense. Cam Newton is still a developing quarterback and while he has made strides, analysts and fans alike have all witnessed a player who is doing a lot with a lesser core of receivers.

The move that I hated was the Panthers letting go of Mike Mitchell. I thought Mitchell was one of the most underrated safeties last season. He was great against the pass and solid versus the run, recording 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions, helping the Panthers become one of the best defenses in the league. The decision to not retain him is a move general manager Dave Gettleman will soon regret. Mitchell (who signed with the Steelers) was a complete safety, often coming down into the box and supplying more than adequate run support. The Panthers opted to go after a player, six years Mitchell’s senior in Roman Harper. Injuries and poor play have relegated Harper to a mediocre safety that cannot cover anyone in the deep third of the field. Harper can still lay ball-jarring hits with the best of them, but he’s too slow-footed to make any real impact in coverage.

Other free agent moves

I love what the Giants did in bolstering their secondary with the signing of Quentin Demps, Walter Thurmond and possibly Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie…Speaking of New York; the Jets got a bargain for Decker. Regardless whether his numbers were aided by having Peyton Manning as a quarterback, Decker, who had production that mirrored many number one receivers, was signed for five years and $35 million, with $15 million guaranteed. In an era where receivers are getting $56 million and nearly $30 million guaranteed, for paltry results, the Jets got a great deal for Decker…Not too sure about the Jason Hatcher deal. The dollars are fine, at 4 years $27 million, with $10 million guaranteed, but I am weary of his lone great season coming in a contract year. He’s always been solid, but he suddenly became a Pro Bowler out of nowhere, at age 31. I’m also curious to see where he will play. He produced his best season as a 4-3 three-technique and in Washington; he’ll be a 3-4 defensive end. His 11.5 sacks does lay credence to the possibility that he can fight through double teams and continue to get pressure in a 3-4, but I would temper expectations if I was a Redskins fan…Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro? Good luck to the NFC South teams. Byrd has 21 interceptions in three seasons and Vaccaro had a strong rookie campaign. Rob Ryan is jonesing for the season to start…Although not a free agent signing, Darren Sproles’ trade to Philadelphia should make for some amazing offensive shenanigans from Chip Kelly. LeSean McCoy and Sproles are two of the best juke artists in the league and they are tremendous as pass catchers (52 and 71 catches a piece) . This is a big-time move by the Eagles…Julius Peppers to the Packers is a great fit. Look, he’s not the 6’6, 280 pound 4.4 40-yard dash running monster from his early years, but he can still rush the passer or help support the run. He’ll play defensive end in a 3-4, but it’ll be very interesting to see him as a standup linebacker opposite of Clay Matthew. Havoc will be raised with Peppers being let go by his former team and new division rival, the Chicago Bears…Speaking of Peppers, his exit meant the signing of Lamaar Houston, who could be everything Peppers was as a towering defensive end. His sack totals are low, but he is a complete player who can stuff the run, provide pressure to the quarterback.

This was one of the most interesting years in free agency because every position had depth. There are still a bevy of players available on offense, but it was clear that defense was the primary focus for many teams in the first week of free agency. Tune into the Pick Six Live Podcast with Rob Grosso, Rick Dieudonné and myself as we look at all the free agent moves of the week.

Free Agency Primer: Pass rushers and defensive linemen

There’s a very good group of free agent defensive linemen that will hit the open market on Tuesday. As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, teams must find the blueprint in order to stop the great quarterbacks in the league. Everyone is trying to copy the Seahawks model, which entailed getting depth on the defensive line and combining that with battering ram safeties and corners who can move and stand as tall as trees.

The difficulty in rating defensive players, especially one’s along the front seven, is the way players are designated. If you go by their actual positions, designating a defensive end like Michael Bennett in a 4-3, compared to designating one in a 3-4, like Arthur Jones, is unfair. For the purpose of this article, I will designate the top five pass rushers, be it 4-3 ends or 3-4 outside linebackers and the top 5 interior lineman. A player like Jones would easily fit in the latter.

Top-5 edge rushers

With Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds having been tagged, most of the premier free agent edge rushers are now mostly coming from 4-3 defensive schemes.

1. Lamaar Houston: Many of you may not know who Houston is, unless you’re a fan of an AFC team. Houston is incredibly versatile and can play all over the front seven. He had a great season recording 69 tackles and six sacks for the Raiders. His ability to play as an interior lineman or a defensive end in the 3-4 or 4-3 will make him a hot commodity. There’s even been enough talk that he could also play as a standup linebacker in a 3-4. Houston is a 6’3, 300 pound behemoth and at 26 years old, is entering the prime of his career. An athletic specimen of his nature will have teams lining up for his services.

2. Michael Bennett: One of the best quotes of the off-season was from Bennett, who was asked if he would take a hometown discount from the Seahawks.

“There is no such thing as discount,” Bennett said last month when asked if he’d give the Seahawks a break in negotiations. “This is not Costco, this is not Walmart — this is real life. There is no discount really because you go out there and you don’t give a discount on effort; you go out there and you give the best effort every day and you fight for your teammates, and you want to be compensated for the way that you perform and the kind of teammate you are.”

I’m all for players getting the most that they can and from past contracts to players of similar production and talent, such as Charles Johnson ($8.5 million base salary) and Bennett’s Seahawks teammate, Chris Clemons ($7.5 million base salary), Bennett should command around that much with a decent chunk of guaranteed money. Unlike Michael Johnson who has been inconsistent, Bennett has produced great numbers, while being a pass rusher on a pitch count. Bennett played only 643 snaps, which was less than the likes of Charles Johnson (725 snaps, 11 sacks), Chris Long (916 snaps, 8.5 sacks, $13million base salary) and the aforementioned Michael Johnson (940 snaps, 3.5 sacks, $11, million franchise tag salary). There’s no doubt Michael Bennett will get a higher salary with a lengthy term. He’s had two good seasons, back-to-back, and when you prorate his production based off the snaps that other players get, he should easily be able to get 13-14 sacks. As evidenced by his play in the Super Bowl, he’s soon becoming one of the better pass rushers in the game.

3. Jared Allen: The “mullet” has been on a slight decline over the past two seasons as age has caught up to him. Still, his 11.5 sacks in 2013 meant that for a seventh straight year, he’s eclipsed double-digit sack totals. His 128 career sacks are starting to help him garner Hall of Fame potential as he turns 32 next month. With still a lot left in the tank, Allen is by far the most accomplished in this group. He’s never been a premier athlete, but his long arms and tenacity have allowed him to be one of the best at his craft for nearly a decade. With the Vikings re-signing Everson Griffen to a long-term deal and Allen looking to get somewhere close to the $11 million he’s been making, the Vikings will have officially turned the page on the veteran defensive end. Allen should now look to find a team that can contend and there are rumblings of a potential move to Philadelphia or New England, who could surely use more depth at the defensive end position.

4. Justin Tuck: Boy, did Tuck look terrible in the first half of the season. He looked slow and battered. Thanks to a matchup in the second half of the season against Washington and right guard Tyler Polumbus (who’s one of the weaker players at that position in the league), Tuck was able to record four sacks in that one game. In total, in the final six games of the season, Tuck had 9.5 sacks. He finished the 2013 season with 11, which was more than his 2011 and 2012 seasons combined (5 and 4). Regardless of who or when they came against, Tuck is an accomplished player who is equally good as a run-stopper. Tuck has always played the right defensive end position, which is usually where the in-line tight ends starts out and that has been a testament to his prowess against the run. From a leadership standpoint, the former Fighting Irish defender is as good as they come, captaining the unit since the departure of Michael Strahan.

5. Michael Johnson: After a stellar 2012 season with 11.5 sacks, the former Georgia Tech defensive end had a mild sack total of just 3.5 in 2013. Johnson was given the franchise tag last season and the Bengals opted to give a long-term deal to Carlos Dunlap instead. With the depth they still have, along with the highly regarded Margus Hunt waiting for his turn, Johnson will be looking for a new home as of Tuesday. The reality is that the Bengals have key players on the way to making some serious money over the next two years: Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict to name a few. What concerns me about Johnson is not his physical attributes. The guy is a 6’7, 280 pound athletic specimen, who has good pass-rushing instincts. But it just feels like you are always yearning for more with Johnson, who last season, a contract year, was the only time he amassed over 10 sacks. That could be due to the Bengals employing a heavy rotation with their defensive ends throughout the years, but Johnson, who will definitely cash-in will need to provide much more production if he is to live up to his big contract. Being re-united with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota would be a great fit for Johnson, as Jared Allen’s days appear to be over.

Best of the rest

Shaun Philips had a nice season with 10 sacks after being released from San Diego. At this point, he is strictly a rotational pass rusher, who can provide production as a 4-3 end or from a 3-4 standup position. After the loss of Von Miller, Philips to suspension and to injury, the former Purdue Boilermaker was one of the Broncos more valuable players. A veteran laden team that needs a pass rusher will definitely give Philips some looks.

Corey Wootton has the size of a Julius Peppers with the potential to reach the same sack totals as the former North Carolina Tar Heel. As a rotational pass rusher, Wootton has compiled 7.0 and 3.5 sacks in the last two seasons respectively. Wootton has dealt with hip issues, which may prevent certain teams from acquiring his services. From a talent and potential standpoint, he could very well be a breakout player. Depending on  the Bears ability to snag Michael Bennett (he is the brother of Bears tight end Martellus Bennett), Wootton could still be an intriguing option for Chicago

Top-5 interior defensive linemen

1. Henry Melton: Melton’s ACL injury was so unfortunate. One because, from his standpoint, he had rejected a long-term deal prior to the season and secondly because the front-seven Bears got literally run over at any opportunity once he was injured. Melton had a fine 2012 with over 40 tackles and six sacks. He had established himself as the perfect three-technique for Lovie Smith’s one-gap, cover-two defense; solid against the run, with the pass rushing instincts to command double teams from offensive linemen. I could still see him getting decent term on any deal he signs, but the dollar amount may not be what he wants and surely, the contract with be heavily incentive laden.

2. Linval Jospeh: Joseph was a revelation for a Giants team who struggled on the defensive line all season. At 25 years old, he is one of the younger players in this group. From a production point of view, his 59 tackles and three sacks placed him as one of the better run stopping interior linemen in the league, last season. His name was routinely called during Giants games last season and he was one of the strong forces in an otherwise disappointing season for that unit. He has the versatility to play in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. I’m shocked that the Giants appear keen on letting him go, but I can understand as it appears he will command more money than they have the cap space to give. Look for teams like the Redskins, who desperately need a 3-4 one-technique or three-technique in their lineup.

3A. Randy Starks: Interior linemen often do not get enough credit for their defensive impact. That is due to their sacks number being understandably low, and their tackle numbers as well. When talking about Randy Starks, he will not wow you with great numbers, but as a three-technique, he is so solid and crucial to the success of a defense. In this case, the Dolphins benefited from Starks’ solid play for many years. The former Maryland Terrapin takes on double teams and creates penetration at will, freeing up linebackers and pass rushers like Cameron Wake, whose production can definitely be attributed to some extent to Starks.

3B. Paul Soliai: Let’s not forget about Paul Soliai, who is the other half of the tremendous duo in the interior line for the Dolphins. His game is very similar to Starks, although he gets to the passer at a slightly lower clip. Both players cannot be measured solely by their stats as they do things that numbers cannot put in evidence. Together, they formed one of the best run-stopping duo’s, which helped the likes of Olivier Vernon and Wake perform at superior levels. No doubt, wherever they go, the team that signs them will greatly improve their run blocking and pass rushing as well.

4. Jason Hatcher: The move to a cover-two defense proved quite beneficial to Hatcher who, in 2013, recorded a career high 11.5 sacks making his first Pro Bowl appearance in the process. Considering the injuries to the Cowboys defensive line, his production was quite impressive. As Hatcher became more noteworthy for an offense to scheme against, he saw more double teams from offensive linemen. No matter though, as he continued to be a terror. Should teams be worried that his production came off a contract year? Hatcher is also 31, which may worry a few teams but ultimately I see him getting a nice deal from a team that one’s a one-gap system on the front line.

5. Antonio Smith: J.J. Watt gets all the attention on the Texans defense, and rightfully so, but Antonio Smith should garner some attention as well. Very few people will know who he is, but he was integral to the Texans 3-4 defense. Smith will be 33 by the time the season begins, but his combination of size, strength and ability to stop the run are tough components to replicate for teams running a 3-4 defense. As an added bonus, Smith has recorded at least four sacks in each of the past five seasons. For a three-technique in a 3-4 defense, that is very good production.

Best of the rest:

Arthur Jones has made a nice career for himself as another 3-4 interior lineman. Over his last two seasons, he’s recorded 47 and 53 tackles, with a combined 8.5 sacks combined. As mentioned with 3-4 defensive ends, their impact cannot be measured by statistics. Jones provided avenues for Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to rush the passer and kept the Baltimore linebackers clean from engaged blockers. The former Syracuse Orange defender is a perfect fit in a 3-4 and could easily be the best from this underrated bunch.

B.J. Raji was considered one of the better nose-tackles in the league following the Packers Super Bowl run in 2010.  That season, he recorded 39 combined tackles and 6.5 sacks. The next season he made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance. Since then, his game has eroded and he has’t been able to stay healthy or on the field consistently. The Packers are wise to offer Raji a one or two-year “prove it” type of deal to see if Raji can recapture some of the success he’s previously had. Any team who risks a lengthy term with big bucks on him will need to ensure that he’s back to the 2010 and 2011 form that made him one of the better 3-4 nose tackles.

 

Free Agency Primer: Wide Receivers

I really like the free agent receivers that are available this season. There are no sure-fire Hall of Fame players in this list, but there’s some talent to be had and teams will be able to formalize their receiving corps by picking up one of these players. This is a great crop for teams in like Lions and Browns who have bona fide number one receivers, but not much else afterwards. Both teams would be well versed in getting a solid player like Emmanuel Sanders to relieve some pressure from their stud pass-catchers.

Here is my list of top 10 receivers in free agency.

1. Eric Decker: The unquestioned best receiver in this class is Decker, who has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 32 touchdowns (only Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson have more) over the past three seasons. Of course, the questions regarding how good Decker would be without the advent of Peyton Manning are valid, but going by the numbers, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher has the pedigree to be considered a number one receiver. Decker does not come without his weaknesses, as he’s struggled in the past against press coverage. He can also disappear during certain stretches when he is not fully engaged. I’m also a little weary of his hands, as his seven dropped passes were amongst the highest in the league.

Whether he is a true number one or number two receiver (Decker always defers to Demayrius Thomas as the number one guy), it doesn’t matter. Mike Wallace isn’t a true number one in my opinion, yet he got paid $65 million with over $25 guaranteed. Decker should be able to closely match Wallace’s production, even without Manning. As it stands now, it doesn’t seem like the Broncos, who have over $24 million in cap space, will bring back Decker. They must make decisions on free agents Knowshon Moreno, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Zane Beadles (who’s become one of the best guards in the league) to name a few. Decker’s deal, depending on what he might command (I’m assuming he will command Mike Wallace type of money based off production), may tie up more money than they are willing to give up.

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at a graphic that current player agent Joel Corry wrote on CBSsports.com this past week.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 1.54.44 PM

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 1.56.24 PM

Peyton Manning factor or not, Decker’s numbers speak for themselves when comparing him with his peers. What’s different with Decker is that he is not a one-trick pony like Wallace.  According to Pro Football Focus, Decker had over 100 receiving yards from six different routes.   Look for teams like the Colts to make a big pitch for him on March 11th.

2. Hakeem Nicks: From a pure talent perspective, Nicks should be the first-rated free agent wide receiver. Unfortunately, talent alone does not make a great player and in Nick’s case, his decline since his sophomore and third year has been well evident. Whether it is injuries, poor chemistry with his quarterback, Eli Manning, or defenses simply catching up  to him, Nicks has been a bit player over the last two seasons. His three touchdowns in that same time frame and having averaged 54 catches and 850 yards , are poor totals for a player who in 2010 and 2011, averaged 75 catches and over 1,000 yards with a combined 18 touchdowns. What’s so worrisome is that:

a)during a contract year, the former Tar Heel’s performance dipped even more than in 2012 and

b) Nicks, a big receiver, should be able to dominate in the red zone and as a possession receiver. He has some of the biggest hands in the league too, yet has struggled with drops during his entire career.

Nicks, is only 26 years old and should be entering the prime of his career. I would not sign him to top-dollar, but rather a one-year “prove it” deal to see if he can raise his numbers and get back to the level of play he reached in 2010 and 2011.

3. James Jones: Some might say this is a little high for Jones and from a talent perspective; he’s probably on the lower rungs of this list. What I love about Jones is that he is a hard worker and a solid a receiver whether it is out wide or in the slot. Contrary to Nicks, Jones is terrific in the red zone, where it helped him corral a league-high 14 touchdowns in 2012. Last season was a trying year for Jones who struggled with injuries, but he somehow still managed to catch for over 800 yards. The former San Jose State Spartan will be hard-pressed to ever consistently catch for 1,000 yards, but as a number two or 2-A receiver, who is versatile enough to line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage, he can be good contributor to a team that desperately lacks receiving help. Jones was on NFL Network all week lobbying to stay in Green Bay. Undoubtedly, much of his success could be attributed to having Aaron Rodgers as quarterback. The chemistry that they share, whether it is via a back-shoulder catch or the quick slants that Green Bay is so adept at, cannot be ignored and surely Rodgers will want Jones to stay, as long as it is at a relatively decent price tag. History has shown that the Packers have no qualms with letting go of players, as evidenced by Greg Jennings’ departure last year. Jarrett Boykin’s ascension may make Jones expendable too. Ultimately, with Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson showing they are not the most durable players and Jermichael Finley’s return in question (be it due to injury or  free agency), keeping Jones is the safe move to ensure enough depth is at the Packers disposal.

4. Julian Edelman: After the departure of Wes Welker, we all thought Danny Amendola was going to step in and be the slot demon that Welker was. As has been the case for his entire career, Amendola got injured, multiple times, which allowed Edelman, who’s been waiting patiently for his chance, to garner a key role in the offense. His 105 receptions and 1,056 yards were easily career highs last season. Edelman displayed the quickness and smart route running that made Welker so successful for the Patriots. It’s hard to say if the for Kent State Flash could have the same production without Brady as his quarterback. One thing that is certain, teams are running more three-wide receiver sets and it is imperative to have a good slot-man. Whether it is with New England or not, Edelman should find a good market for himself.

5. Golden Tate: I’ve said many times that Tate reminds me so much of Steve Smith. Tate is a receiver of small-stature, but he packs a huge punch. At 5’11, I’ve seen him make plays over defensive backs twice his size, while even being double-teamed. Like Smith, size has never been an impediment towards making big plays. Aside from their penchant for jumping over bigger defenders, both are also tough, hard-nosed players who will let you hear it after they just punked their opponent. Tate is not close to a number one receiver and it is questionable if he can be a bona fide two. But he’s improved every single year and posted career highs in yards (898), catches (64) and touchdowns (5). He’s also great as a return man in the special teams department. The Seahawks don’t win Super Bowl 48 without Tate’s big plays throughout the season when Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice went down with injuries. I’d love to see Tate sign in Carolina, where Smith would do wonders for his career as a mentor.

Best of the Rest

6. Emmanuel Sanders: Sanders was signed to an offer sheet by the Patriots last offseason, but the Steelers matched that offer. He was supposed to make Mike Wallace expendable with the outstanding Antonio Brown on one side of the field. This season, Sanders caught a career high 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns but bringing it every single game was an issue. In the second half of the season, he averaged 30 receiving yards per game. And for a guy who’s known for being a burner, his 11.0 yards per catch were a pedestrian number. I look for the Steelers to move on from him, with the impressive Markus Wheaton waiting in the wings. Sanders appears headed to Detroit, which would be a good fit next to Calvin Johnson. He’s strictly a number two receiver, who struggles with consistency in his routes and hands.

7. Lance Moore: This was a shocker to me from the Saints. I understand how cap-strapped they were, but Moore had such a big impact as a slot receiver for the Saints. I’ve always said that Moore is the best red zone wide receiver. He was always somehow able to find holes in the zones. Moore’s been a solid contributor and will find a job in no time. He’s scored 10 touchdowns once and eight twice in his career with a 1,000-yard season in 2012, so he clearly has a lot left in the tank.

8. Danario Alexander: It’s easy to forget about Alexander, who came onto the scene in a big way in 2012 with a monstrous second half for the Chargers. In 10 games he caught seven touchdowns and averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Alexander is a big, lanky receiver at 6’5, 217 lbs. He’s able to move down the field quickly and has the leaping ability to high point the ball with the elite receivers in the league. The issue with Alexander is that he’s already gone through two ACL injuries in his career and a third would likely make a return to action near impossibly. Alexander won’t command much money, but if doctors can prove he is fully healthy, he can be had at a bargain price, with possibility of out-performing anyone on this list.

9. Brandon LaFell: The former LSU Tiger never really lived up to his potential coming out of the 2009 draft. LaFell come out as a big receiver who can run, but was raw and had to hone his skills. Although he’s shown some improvement every season, his growth has been slow and now as a free agent, it is unlikely he will be retained by Carolina. LaFell never topped 49 catches or 700 yards and his hands have been suspect as he’s dropped 15 balls during his Panthers tenure. LaFell was drafted to be a number two next to Steve Smith and eventually supplant the five-time Pro Bowler. Now, as he becomes a free agent for the first time, teams must look at him strictly as a number three receiver.

10. Andre Roberts and Kenny Britt: I put two players at 10 for different reasons. Roberts has been a nice slot receiver for the Cardinals for a few seasons. Britt has been a huge disappointment battling off-field issues for most of his career. Still, he has so much potential at only 25 years old. Britt is a rare physical specimen with the body and size of a tight end, but the athleticism of a receiver. Both players are at opposite ends in terms of their effort and willingness to improve. Roberts was never highly regarded, but has put in the work needed to become a solid player. Britt’s commitment has never been a strong point and his work ethic was always a question for the Titans. Add to all that, and he’s been injury prone for his entire career. Roberts will find that is a great market for his services, as slot receivers are more sought out than ever. Britt will get a chance to revive his career because he is too talented and still relatively young. We’ll see if his head is screwed more tightly this time around to take advantage.

The rest of a deep list of free agent receivers is rounded off with the likes of Ted Ginn, Jason Avant, Sidney Rice and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Teams can find players to fill out their receiving corps as well as specialists in the return game where Ginn, Devin Hester and Dexter McCluster are the top three players in special teams.

Free Agency Primer: Running Backs

There’s over a combined 12 seasons worth of 1,000-yard rushing campaigns for the stable of running backs that are available via free agency on the eleventh day of March.

There is somewhat of a risk with free agent running backs, especially with the bevy of players being selected on a yearly basis in the second round of the draft as tail backs. The league has moved away considerably from absolutely needing the blue chip running back with the Heisman pedigree. Running backs are no longer being taken in the top ten picks on a consistent basis, nor are they getting paid top-dollar. That could be attributed to their lack of longevity (the average NFL career length for a running back is three years).

So why spend decent coin on a runner? Well, this year’s crop, which has an average age of 27, has some relatively young players. What you get out of these players, for the most part, is the sense that they can be relied upon as pass-protectors, and durable runners, both aspects that rookie running backs have a hard time getting acclimated to. Buyer beware though, as if there is one recurring trend with this year’s crop of free agent runners is the fact that they are very injury prone

For general managers and teams looking for runners on the first day of free agency, my only advice is to tread lightly.

Here are my top 10 free agent rushers.

1. Ben Tate: I struggled putting Tate as my number one free agent running back, but when you factor in his production/talent and age ratio, combined with the lack of a pounding he’s taken, Tate should have a lot of mileage left in his legs. Tate’s rookie season was in 2010, but missed the entire campaign with a knee injury. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, he rushed 175, 65 and 181 times respectively. In contrast, Arian Foster rushed 351 times in 2013. Tate has a nice combination of speed and size and he’s a tough player, having played the second half of the 2013 season with broken ribs. But it is quite concerning the limited amount of games he as played due to injury, and it will surely make teams weary of acquiring his services. From a skills standpoint, he has top 10 talent. His receiving acumen could use some work and he doesn’t have the same amount of vision and cutback ability that Arian Foster has, but if placed in the right situation, such as a zone-blocking scheme, he could thrive like he did in 2011 backing up Foster.

2. Knowshon Moreno: One of my favourite runners to watch is the under-appreciated Moreno. He’s your typical run-of-the-mill move the chains type running back that will not dazzle with blinding speed or crazy juke moves. What Moreno does is find the right holes, by utilizing his very good vision. He can adeptly pitch in as a pass-catcher and has established himself, with very little doubt, as the best pass-blocking running back in the league. No other quarterback will display a running back’s talent to pass block than Peyton Manning. The latter, especially on 3rd and long’s on shotgun, will most of the time leave the running back in the backfield to protect the quarterback. Moreno has footed the bill with regards to protecting the proverbial “derrière” of the league’s Most Valuable Player and he’s done that more than admirably.

Moreno isn’t without his faults though, as he’s dealt with some injuries in the past, most notably, a torn ACL in 2011. In 2011 and 2012, Moreno played 15 games and totaled 175 carries, a number that couldn’t even eclipse any of his other individual seasons on their own.

To me, the fit is just so perfect with Denver. I understand they have Monte Ball, Ronnie Hillman and they really like rookie C.J. Anderson as well, but Moreno’s grasp of the offense, his willingness to share the workload (an underrated aspect of a running back), and how he is endeared by many of his teammates would lead me to believe that most of the players want him back, especially the aforementioned Peyton Manning. Moreno carries a $3,2 million cap hit, with a base salary of $1,7 million. Teams that want to add a veteran ball carrier, who can be a an every-down back, yet split carries, will love Moreno. Miami would not be a bad fit as they had issues running the football in 2013.

3. LeGarrette Blount: You can make an argument that the “Blount object” was the Patriots second best offensive player in the second half of the season. In a season in which Tom Brady had his trials and tribulations with his youngest, yet weakest set of receivers in almost a decade, Blount churned out a respectable 772 yards and, 5 touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry. He got the break he needed with Stevan Ridley struggling with ball security and Shane Vereen injuring his wrist in the early part of the season. Blount is always a wild card, as he’s dealt with character issues in the past, but his talent is unquestioned. At nearly 260 lbs., he can run over and around defenders and by all accounts, according to the Patriots coaching staff, he’s greatly improved his pass-protection

Like Moreno, the fit just makes so much sense. The Patriot way has also included being stingy with players over the last few years, but Bill Belichick must realize that Ridley still isn’t a reliable back and Vereen is too much of a pass-catcher to handle the full-time running back duties. Blount is a perfect “move the chains” back that can fit in many roles. I listed him, but I’d be shocked if he was not retained.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew: The last two season’s have been absolutely horrendous for “Pocket Hercules”, to the point where I cannot see ‘MJD’ staying in Jacksonville. It started in 2012 with a contract dispute that saw the 3-time Pro Bowler sit out all of training camp.  Although he came through and ended up starting the season, he looked out of shape and subsequently was shut down for the season due to a foot injury after only six games. This season, despite the advent of a full training camp, Jones-Drew never hit his stride, only hitting walls of defenders; partly due to a weak offensive line, that traded its best player, former first round pick Eugene Monroe to Baltimore, but also due to MJD creeping up in age.

At his zenith, Jones-Drew combines a small stature, which makes him incredibly hard to tackle due to a powerful lower body. Combined with his freakish speed and you have a running back that has recorded three seasons of over 1,300 yards (including a league-leading mark of 1,606 in 2011). He has 79 touchdowns in eight seasons, although he has not reached double digits since 2009.

Jones-Drew will be 29 at the end of this month and precedence of older running backs as well as his obvious decline in talent does not bode well for his future prospects. Depending on the right system though, with a mauling offensive line, MJD could possibly thrive. There have been some rumblings about a return home to California, possibly in San Francisco, but with Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter (not to mention Marcus Lattimore), Jones-Drew isn’t really needed. I’m not ready to say that his days as a feature back are over because he has been healthy enough during his career to garner such a label (he played 15 games in 2013). However, there are few teams I can envision trying to do what the Falcons did last year, which they failed miserably with; sign a 29-30 year old running back, and assume he will reach his mean career production. MJD may have a tougher market than we think, despite his pedigree.

5. Darren McFadden: Nobody is more saddened by the current state of McFadden as an NFL running back than I am. I loved him coming out of the University of Arkansas and thought he’d be on his way to reaching or even potentially bettering the numbers that Adrian Peterson showed.

McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season and only has one season of over 1,000 yards. He has missed a combined 29 games in his six NFL seasons. TWENTY-NINE! That is nearly two full seasons amortized through six years. That’s an average of nearly 5 missed games per seasons.

When he is on the field, his power and straight line running ability are as good as they come, evoking memories of Bo Jackson. Injuries to his hamstrings have hampered him, however, he still displays tremendous speed in the open field despite the myriad of lower body ailments he has dealt with. Unlike other free agent running backs, Darren McFadden has proven that he cannot be an every down back. His high point in carries was 223 in 2010, which was also the only season he had over 1,000 yards. Wherever he goes, he must be capped at about 130 to 180 carries, in order to keep him healthy and fresh. I can easily see him being the home-run hitting type of running back that can be deployed about 11 times a game. As long as you’re not running a zone blocking scheme and asking McFadden to make too many reads – he’s strictly a one cut downhill runner who explodes into the hole – he can still be a force. Hue Jackson, the Bengals current offensive coordinator, held the same position for the Raiders in 2010 when McFadden had his best statistical season of his career. That would not be a bad fit with Gio Bernard already in the fold.

6. Andre Brown: Andre Brown is yet another runner who has dealt with many injuries in his limited time in the league. Brown doesn’t have the explosiveness of some of the other backs, but he is a solid chains move that can find holes and pass protect. The Giants have an unfortunate situation where their 2012 first round selection, David Wilson is coming off neck surgery and his status is murky for training camp. Conversely, Andre Brown has been injured too many times to be completely relied upon. He missed all of 2010 with a ruptured achillies tendon. In 2012 and 2013, he could only play a combined 18 games. Any team that will attempt to acquire Brown will need to go through their due diligence to ensure he checks out medically.

7. James Starks: Starks was an imperative cog in the Packers 2010 championship run. He never gets credit for how well he played during that postseason. Maybe it has something to do with how his career has fizzled up and down like the stock market.

When healthy, Starks reminds me a lot of Ahman Green, the former Packer who had a Packers record of 1,800 yards back in 2003. Starks is a big back, at 6’2, 218 lbs. and he can cutback like a 5’9 scat-back. Last season, he spelled Eddie Lacy admirably while he was dealing with a concussion. He rushed for 20 carries and 132 yards against the Redskins.

Ideally, the soon to be former Packer is better suited in a timeshare, but this could be his opportunity to gain a starting gig. If not for past injuries, he may have already had it, which leads credence to the type of talent he has.

8. Rashad Jennings: Before this season, Jennings was a bit player on a bad Jaguars team, struggling starving for carries from workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. At 28 years of age, he’s one of the older rushers along with MJD. Jennings though, has only accumulated a combined 163 carries in his four seasons as a pro, so you can make an argument that he has fresh legs with much left in the tank.

At 6’1, 233 lbs., Jennings combines a tremendous combinations of speed and size. He’s been known as a great finisher of runs, as he always fights for extra yards and moves piles forward. Jennings won’t be offered any big contracts due to his age and history of concussions, but he can easily be in a timeshare situation like in either New York based teams.

9. Toby Gerhart: The time is now for the former Stanford Cardinal to make the leap from Adrian Peterson’s backup, to a potential starter in the league. Please avoid any stereotypes when analyzing Gerhart, who is a very athletic player, who ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, which is above average for a running back. Gerhart, despite his limited carries, has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career on 276 total carries and over 1,300 yards. An underrated aspect is his pass-catching ability, as he was often the third-down back in place of Adrian Peterson in many situations. From a pure talent perspective, Gerhart would’ve been ranked higher on this list, but his resumé is rather thin. Still, look for him to garner interest as a starter from some team looking to take a chance on him.

10. Donald Brown: How weird is it that Donald Brown had the last four years to establish himself s the bona fide starter in Indianapolis after the team let go of Joseph Addai. Brown could never get going as he either dealt with injuries or an inability to adjust to the pro game. He was the type of player in college that thrived only because he was faster than his opponents.

Fast-forward to this season and one would assume that when Trent Richardson came from Cleveland, that Brown would’ve been relegated to the bench. Little did we know that Brown turned out the best performances of his career as a Colts player, as he outperformed Richardson from a yardage (507 to 458), yards per carry (5.3 to 3.0) and touchdown standpoint (6 to 3) after the Cleveland trade. It is easy to say that the trade motivated Brown, and it may have lighted a fire in a player whose game was relatively soft as an NFL running back. Brown should be a good bet to join a two or three-man backfield, but don’t look for him as a starter, despite his 2013 success in Indianapolis.

That’s it for the list of free agent running backs. This is as talented a group as there has ever been since free agency has been implemented in 1993. What worries me is the nearly 200 combined man games lost between these 10 players, which is why many of these players will need to be on pitch counts.

Free Agency Primer: Quarterbacks

The days of premier top-tier quarterbacks being available in the free agent frenzy period are absolutely over. The game has changed so much and it is imperative that your blue-chip signal caller – even if he isn’t as great as advertised (see Joe Flacco) – be signed to a long-term deal.

Now, the current set of quarterbacks that hit the market are typically players who are either signed as stop-gaps to usher in a younger quarterback within a season or two, or signed as a backup insurance policy.

This year’s crop fits the bill with some guys who are likely looking for their last or second to last contracts, or simply trying to rekindle some old magic from yesteryear. Here is my list of the top five free agent quarterbacks available.

1. Josh McCown: Look, I can put a disclaimer on McCown considering that known quarterback whisperer, Marc Trestman, has been known to prop up average quarterbacks into solid players. And, yes, McCown was the grateful beneficiary of the New Monsters of the Midway in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Despite the question marks on his ability to repeat his stellar performance backing up the incumbent Jay Cutler, you cannot deny his numbers:

8 Starts, 13 touchdowns, 1 interception, 66.5 percent completion and 1,829 yards.

The above stats corresponded to a 110 quarterback rating, which, to my recollection is very good.

Is it worrisome that McCown never came close to those numbers in his previous 11 seasons as an NFL quarterback, yes, somewhat. But he was also never given an opportunity. And regardless of the factors that were in his favour, if you saw his games, you’d see a player with great fundamentals, a strong arm, the ability to push the ball down field and two aspects that Jay Cutler has never been able to master: looking off Brandon Marshall and avoiding the big mistakes. McCown, unlike Cutler, is not totally dependent on Brandon Marshall and it was evidenced by Alshon Jeffery’s performance when Cutler was sidelined.

Don’t get me wrong though. There’s no guarantee McCown will even be a starter next season. If he signs with a team like Oakland, Cleveland or Houston, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he’s not brought in primarily as a backup, as those three teams are likely to select quarterbacks in the first round. But I could also see a team signing him as an outright one or two-year starter, similar to how the Arizona Cardinals brought in Carson Palmer. McCown would also be a perfect fit in Cincinnati to help push Andy Dalton, but also potentially supplant him if he reverts to his nemesis, “Bad Dalton” (or “Bad Andy”). My belief in McCown is based on what he showed me last season, and the tape does not lie.

2. Michael Vick: Vick does not get commended enough for how he handled as situation that would’ve frustrated most veteran quarterbacks. Most players would’ve felt a sense of entitlement despite a new coaching coming into the fold. Vick’s been on the team for three seasons, he has the respect of the entire team and is a known commodity. When Nick Foles threatened his job in training camp, he took it in stride and embraced the competition. When he lost his job due to a strained hamstring, he supported Foles and never became a distraction to the team. Now, Vick is set to become a free agent, and he’s made it very clear that he wants to be a starter and believes in his capacity to contribute to a team.

Vick still has his issues though: accuracy on short throws makes him and erratic passer and he is also prone to bad turnovers, especially those of the strip sack variety. The key for him is to stay healthy, but there is a catch-22 with that proposition. He’s still athletic enough to be a top five rusher at the position, however his propensity for injury is heightened the more he escapes the pocket. After 13 years in the league, the fact that he still does not know how to slider does not alleviate things.

There’s been a lot of talk of reuniting Vick and Marty Mornhinweg in Florham Park, New York. Geno Smith, the incumbent starter, won’t be given the job free of charge and Vick will provide enough insurance in the advent that Smith’s poor play does not subside. Vick can spot-start or sit when needed as he’s checked his ego out the door.

3. Matt Cassel: The former USC Trojan had somewhat of a revelation as the starter for the Vikings. A player who looked done last year with dwindling arm-strength and diminishing overall skills, displayed the talent that led him to an 11-win season in 2009 for the Patriots. He has stellar games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia, where he threw for two touchdowns in each game and combined for only one interception in that period. There have also been games where he’s struggled such as his three-interception performance against Cincinnati.

Considering an unimaginative offense and a lack of playmakers, I thought his 11 touchdowns and 81 quarterback rating were respectable. Cassel, like many of the new-breed free agent quarterbacks, must be adept at spot starting or, in other words, being able to start at a moment’s notice. Cassel never possessed the big arm, or the plus athleticism, but he is a solid player who can go off from time to time. His veteran pedigree will serve him well in any situation he sets foot in. He’s in the category of quarterbacks who likely won’t be signed in mind to be a starter, but will be a great insurance policy for a team with a questionable backup quarterback, i.e. Aaron Rodgers. Keep in mind; he left nearly $4 million on the table to opt-out of his current deal with the Vikings.

4. Chad Henne: From a talent perspective, Henne is easily the lowest of this bunch. Surprisingly though, he had a pretty good season and he’s been able to build chemistry with Cecil Shorts in Justin Blackmon in 2012 and to a lesser extent, Ace Sanders and Mike Thomas in 2013. He was able to win a quarterback competition, twice, against Blaine Gabbert (say whatever you want about that), so he has proven that he can come in a spot-start if need-be. Over his final five games, he managed to finish the season with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He combines a solid arm, with the ability to push the ball down the field, while also showing confidence and moxie as a tough competitor. Henne though, is best suited as a backup. He’d be a great addition for a team like Atlanta that has never had a proven backup, unless you want to count Chris Redman, which I don’t. Of course, the teams that have clamored for a decent backup for years, such as the Packers, Bengals, Bills and even to some extent, the Steelers, would be well versed in acquiring Henne.

5. Josh Freeman: Where to begin? He was absolutely dreadful in Tampa Bay, averaging a 45 percent completion rate in three games in pewter and red. Freeman’s game has been on a steady decline since a 25 touchdown, 6-interception campaign in 2010 for Tampa Bay. Not only has his game eroded but also character issues have risen, with reports of poor work ethic and clashing with coaches, although, I am willing to give him somewhat of a pass with the Greg Schiano fiasco. Schiano was never made to be a headman in the NFL as his style of coaching wore out too many veterans and seemed far too confrontational to be successful.

Still, it is hard to find a positive aspect for Freeman. He had the opportunity to go to Minnesota and they even gave him a chance to start a week after he came onto the team. The result was even more pathetic, as he went 20 of 53 with an interception against the Giants in his lone appearance for Minnesota. It is not only mind-blowing, but quite concerning that a player who was competing against Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, was not able to distance himself from a talent standpoint. The Vikings must have seen something they really didn’t like to not offer Freeman another chance at starting, especially while their season was in the dumps.

At 25 years of age, Freeman has the benefit of youth being on his side. He is still a very talented player who possesses a strong arm and the big stature that scouts love from quarterbacks. His inability to read defenses and go through his progressions has stunted his career considerably. Those are two aspects that will lead to perpetual failure in the NFL if they cannot be improved considerably.

The question now remains: which team is best suited to revive Freeman’s career? Well, his offensive coordinator in 2010 was Greg Olson, who holds the same position now for the Raiders. Olson could try to re-kindle the success Freeman achieved three years ago in Oakland. Based off the uncertainty of where he would land and his recent struggles, I had to put Freeman as the fifth rated quarterback. His talent, however, is still intriguing and if he can find the right situation with a head coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator that can hone his skills; he may be a reclamation project worth fixing

The best of the rest: As some of you may know, many players end up getting released near, at or after the first stages of the free agency periods. Roster bonus deadlines are factors that may lead to a team cutting a player with many years left on his contract. As such, we know quarterbacks such as Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub and Jason Campbell will likely get cut. Sanchez and Campbell will have a hard time initially finding work; Campbell because the market for his services will regulate itself once the first wave of contracts are signed, Sanchez because he’s been an abomination at the position for the last three season.

Schaub should definitely get another chance to start. I know he was plagued heavily by the pick-six last season, but he is still, as recent as 2012, a former 4,000 yard passer who’s posted five-straight seasons with a quarterback rating of 90 or more. Although he lacks any type of mobility and his arm strength has diminished, but very few player can ball-fake a play-action pass better than Schaub and he is still has good accuracy. I remember in his prime, he would throw those intermediate deep-crossing patterns and hit his receivers perfectly in stride. Schaub must have the advent of a very good offensive line, as he is very stationary as a signal caller. Schaub signed a 4-year deal worth $62 million in 2012, which included $29 million in guaranteed money. His base salary for 2014 and 2015 would be $10 and $12.5 million respectively. He would be a great backup to help inaugurate a Johnny Manziel or a Blake Bortles but unless he takes a pay cut or a salary restructure, he is as good as gone.

That’s it for my free agent primer for quarterbacks. This is as big a crapshoot as any other position to predict in free agency. Lookout for my next free agency primer, as I take a look at a terrific stable of running backs who will potentially look for new teams in 2014.

Taking the Combine and its Results In Stride

I just want to re-iterate how much I love the underwear Olympics. Forget the weird innuendo in which one enjoys massive dudes moving at amazing speeds in tight Under Armour clothing. The Combine encompasses both the love we have for the sport of football, as well as our need as a football society to critique and scrutinize every aspect of a player, despite none of us having ever dawned the professional football field.

I must say though, please, take the Combine in stride. Often, we overreact to an amazing or underwhelming 40-yard dash time. Even worse, is seeing a big lineman post sub-par bench press numbers as if the latter is an integral part of the game of football.

There is no doubt that you can take aspects of the Combine and use them to evaluate a player. Should it be your end all be all? Absolutely not. The conclusions that some analysts are making such as Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel  declining to perform in drills is preposterous. As if Clowney going through a gauntlet of blue pillows with swim and strip moves will prove anything. Analysts and fans alike fail to consider the amount of pressure agents put on their players to skip combine drills in order to preserve their “draft stock” (players who are already penciled in as high first round picks have very little to gain and more to lose).

In fact, the late Derrick Thomas, who’s pass rushing prowess landed him in Canton, Ohio, never attended the combine. He forced players to come to his pro day (an annual event hosted by individual colleges to showcase their own players to scouts and player personnel). For Manziel and even Teddy Bridgewater, who did not participate in any of the combine drills (including the 40-yard dash and passing drills), showcasing their passing acumen at their pro day allows them to control the elements of the drill. Being able to throw to their own receivers, run their own plays and practice in an environment they are accustomed to is a monumental advantage. In an era where people overreact to combine results, a bad drill, a bad 40 and an overall poor performance could cost a player millions. Why not control as many aspects as possible and limit your ability to, well, lose money. Many players are now opting to showcase more of their skills at their respective pro days and less at the combine.

As for Clowney, yes, there have been players in the past who lacked motivation in college, which then translated itself to the pro’s. I, on the other hand, have a different take on it and it is due to the exploitation of being in college, where the NCAA, a multi-million dollar industry is pumping out cash at the expense of these players. Who gets motivated to play for the Gator Bowl, or the San Diego Credit Union Bowl.  Conversely, we put far too much stock in the 40-yard dash as well. Lets we forget players like Jerry Rice and just recently, Keenan Allen who had 40-yard dash times above the 4.60 mark – a number that most current linebackers can easily reach.

When you get enamored with 40-yard dash times, like the way the Oakland Raiders did with Darius Heyward-Bey, teams get burned, no pun intended.

Don’t get me started on those Wonderlic tests either, or the interviews during the combine. They ask questions that employers in most “normal” jobs would be fired for. For the Wonderlic, a score of 50 is considered phenomenal as the highest possible mark, whereas a score of 10 or below would suggest a player is illiterate.  Frank Gore, Dan Marino, Julio Jones and A.J. Green scored 6, 15, 15 and 10 respectively. The outcry once these scores are released is downright crucifying for a player, yet once their game on the field is displayed, we never hear of these scores again. Only when player screw up their careers royally, like the way Vince Young did, do we go back to the Wonderlic. Is anyone mentioning Blaine Gabbert and his 42 score? Nope.

The Combine should be used to validate what you see from a player in his game tape. You will often hear Mike Mayock – who is by far and away the premier draft analyst in the business, talk about “checking off boxes”. What does that entail exactly? Well, generally, you rate a player based off his production and the ability he shows in his game tape. You study how he reads coverages, how he dissects players and how his skills pertain to his position. None of these can be seen via the combine, unless you are validating what said player does in his game-tape. Does X player show plus athleticism running a go-route? Does player ‘X’ show the ability to move fluidly? Well, his combine performance will allow you to validate what you see on the game tape and allow to check off those boxes. If not, then you need to go back to the tape. Maybe said player possesses better in-game speed and explosiveness than in a Combine like setting. Maybe the player is injured and simply having an off day. Or even, he was playing against poor competition.

The point here is to not put too much stock in the underwear Olympics. We simply cannot make conclusions based off a 4-day event where players are not even in their pads. I don’t want readers to come away thinking that watching this event is fruitless – that is not the case. I love the combine and I love the ability to do my own scouting of players’ raw skills. What I don’t love is the armchair general manager in all of us, drawing grades of players, we likely never seen because:

a) They record enough repetitions on the bench press. Just a small note, Warren Sapp recorded 16 reps in the bench press in 1995, five shy of the total fans are scoffing at from Jadeveon Clowney

b) A defensive back or receiver has a poor 40-yard dash time. Again, the Heyward-Bey’s and Taylor Mays’ of the world, who were workout warriors, have burned us enough times. Players who are athletically gifted, with limited skills at their respective positions, will be like Dee Ford said about Jadeveon Clowney, “playing like a blind dog in a meat market”.

That is why “checking the boxes” is so important. The validation of what you see of a player on tape, vis-a-vis his combine performance, confirms any assumption you may have of him. If you’re viewing tape of a player who gets consistently pushed around in the trenches, but then racks up 30 reps on the bench press, may have been cursed with poor coaching and developed bad technique. Good tape, but a poor combine performance, means you have to go back to other game tapes of the player.  On the flip side, poor tape, but a good combine performance forces a talent evaluator to re-assess what he sees on film and find out why a certain player, based on scheme or other factors, doesn’t shine during game time.

The NFL draft is the best part of the off-season and the combine encompasses all that is great about talent evaluating. No other professional sports league promotes it’s respective grand daddy of talent evaluation like the NFL. But let’s remember that it is not the mecca for judging players, nor should solely determine a players’ draft ranking without taking all factors into consideration.

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