Veteran Starters on Notice During NFL Offseason Workouts
It may be the NFL offseason but there’s certainly plenty of work going on.
The league’s 32 teams are in the midst or wrapping up another session of OTAs and/or just concluding rookie minicamps.
So what have we learned so far although it’s remarkably early?
Not much. However, we have managed to take some time to point out eight performers around the league who could be in jeopardy of losing their regular spot in the lineup.
Be it a contract issue, a performance problem or a changing of the guard due to either free agency or the draft, these players fit the bill in one or more categories. As the weeks unfold, this list could expand but these eight veterans appear to have the most to worry about at this time.
RT Erik Pears, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills are bound and determined to get out of the AFC East basement in 2014, a place they have resided each of the past six seasons.
A team that ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards in 2013 looks to be even more efficient. No club totaled more attempts that Doug Marrone’s club but the Bills averaged only 4.2 yards per play, tied for 14th in the league.
Erik Pears was a 16-game starter at right tackle in 2013 and while he held his own in terms of pass protection, he was a liability when it came to the ground game. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked 77 tackles this past season and when it came to run blocking, Pears came in at No. 73.
Enter 2014 second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio from the University of Alabama. The 6’5”, 310-pound prospect just signed a four-year contract on Thursday, as reported by Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Sports Radio reported that the massive tackle was running with the first team at this week’s OTAs.
Given the recent additions of rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins and the acquisition of running back Bryce Brown, the Bills continue to add a lot of speed to an offensive unit that scored only 31 touchdowns in 2013.
They are also hoping that Kouandjio makes a very fast transition to the pro game.
NT Stephen Paea, Chicago Bears
Defensively, the “Monsters of the Midway” were pretty unbearable in 2013.
The well-documented issues of Marc Trestman’s team when it came to stopping opponents were addressed heavily in the offseason. The Chicago Bears ranked 30th in the league in yards allowed, dead last in the NFL versus run and tied for last in the league with 31 sacks.
There are plenty of new looks on the defensive line. Julius Peppers was released and signed with the Green Bay Packers. Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games of 2013, signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Bears general manager Phil Emery signed defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young and drafted defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.
So where does that leave nose tackle Stephen Paea? Possibly out of the starting lineup if the 6’3”, 315-pound Ferguson develops quickly. This past season, Paea missed three games with a toe injury and even when healthy, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) pointed out that the former second-round pick has been of a disappointment in three seasons.
Disappointment can't afford to be tolerated in Chicago this season. Since hosting the NFC title game in 2010, the Bears have failed to reach the playoffs three straight years.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals
A year ago, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Giovani Bernard with the 37th pick in the 2013 draft. He was the first running back taken in the 2013 NFL draft and proved to be quite the productive pickup, racking up 1,209 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns.
However, it was veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis who led Marvin Lewis’ team with 756 yards on the ground this past season. However, the former New England Patriots performer caught just four passes all season. Bernard finished second on the club with 56 receptions, turning three of those into scores.
Enter 2014 second-round pick Jeremy Hill, the second back taken in this month’s draft. The former LSU standout was running ahead of Green-Ellis at the team’s recent OTAs, via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com. Rosenthal also stated that it’s safe to say new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is putting his stamp on this unit.
“I can tell it's going to be a lot different. It's going to be a shake, I tell you that,” said Bengals cornerback Adam Jones.
We shall see just how different. Cincinnati ranked 10th in the league in total offense this past season but despite the talented tandem of Green-Ellis and Bernard, the club was a mediocre 18th in rushing.
DE Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys
A year ago, there was no semblance of “D” with the Dallas Cowboys. No team in the NFL gave up more total yards in 2013.
So far this offseason, the same letter stands for devastating.
Owner/president/general manager Jerry Jones opted to slash veteran defender DeMarcus Ware from the team. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is now with the Washington Redskins. And earlier this week, middle linebacker Sean Lee tore his left ACL in OTAs and is expected to miss all of 2014.
“Obviously, it’s a huge loss to our team, especially our defense, but at the same time, guys have got to step up,” stated outside linebacker Bruce Carter to Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. “It's kind of bad to say, but we’ve been in this situation before. Guys have got to step up and just play their role.”
Still, what role is in store for former Pro Bowler Anthony Spencer, who missed virtually all of this past season? The team re-signed the unrestricted free-agent defender to a one-year contract this offseason. As Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News reported, the Cowboys may not be seeing the former first-round pick anytime soon.
Dallas used seven of its nine draft choices this year on defensive help, including defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence (second round) and Ben Gardner (seventh round) and defensive tackle Ken Bishop (seventh round).
Like Ware and Hatcher, Spencer's days may eventually be done with the Cowboys as well.
OLB Ashlee Palmer, Detroit Lions
There were plenty of good signs when it came to the Detroit Lions defense this past season.
Only five clubs in the NFL allowed fewer yards rushing. And the Men from the Motor City (376) were the only team in their division not to give up at least 400 points in 2013.
Still, a tepid pass rush managed only 33 sacks, while the Lions totaled only 22 takeaways.
Enter second-round draft choice and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The talented defender amassed 26 sacks, 62 tackles for losses and 11 forced fumbles in four seasons at BYU.
And as Kyle Meinke of MLive.com stated, you get the impression that Van Noy will be a starter sooner than later for head coach Jim Caldwell.
That adds up to bad news for left outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer, who racked up a mere 33 tackles and recovered just one fumble in 16 games this past season.
CB Brandon Flowers, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs’ recent OTAs did not bring veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers.
And it’s safe to say that head coach Andy Reid won’t be singing any love songs.
Remember, this is a Kansas City defense that collapsed badly at the end of 2013 and then proceeded to blow a 28-point lead in a 45-44 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. It is worth noting that Flowers was one of the several key players injured in that game, enabling the Colts to pull off the comeback.
Sean Keeler of Fox Sports Kansas City spoke about the absence of Flowers while Joel Corry of CBS Sports had some interesting figures when it came to what the cornerback’s release could do for the Chiefs’ financial situation.
@Saverio34 The Chiefs would pick up $3.5M in cap room by trading or releasing Brandon Flowers prior to June 2 ($10.5M-cap # vs. $7M-dead $).
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) January 20, 2014
Keep in mind that San Francisco 49ers’ rookie castoff Marcus Cooper saw plenty of action a year ago. This offseason, Kansas City added cornerback Christopher Owens via free agency and drafted Phillip Gaines in the third round earlier this month.
OLB Kevin Burnett, Oakland Raiders
Youth is being served in every walk of life these days and the NFL is no exception.
So what does that mean for veteran linebacker Kevin Burnett of the Oakland Raiders?
Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com reported that the well-traveled defender (who has played for the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Raiders) was a recent no-show at the team’s OTAs. And given the team’s recent decisions via the draft, it will be interesting to see what role the nine-year veteran remains in this upcoming season.
In 2013, Burnett finished second on the team with 105 tackles. He also forced three fumbles, totaled 2.5 sacks and picked off one pass. Still, the team added linebacker Sio Moore in the third round a year ago and he responded with 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks. This year, general manager Reggie McKenzie opted for outside linebacker Khalil Mack with the fifth overall selection in the draft.
Could Burnett actually wind up on a fifth NFL team in 10 seasons this fall?
RB Shonn Greene, Tennessee Titans
Could another veteran running back be singing a different tune other than in the Music City in 2014?
This offseason, the Tennessee Titans parted ways with three-time Pro Bowler Chris Johnson, he of 2,006 yards rushing in 2009 and at least 1,000 yards on the ground in each of his six seasons with the franchise.
Johnson is now with the New York Jets, the former home of current Titans’ running back Shonn Greene. In his first season in Nashville a year ago, he finished second on the club with 295 yards rushing and four scores.
With Johnson gone, Greene is or was expected to take over, teaming with free-agent pickup Dexter McCluster and giving new head coach Ken Whisenhunt a potent and versatile punch.
However, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean speculated that Greene may be envious of the fact that his supposed starting job in the backfield is in jeopardy. The Titans used a second-round pick this year on Bishop Sankey, the first running back taken in this year’s draft.
Will Greene also be first on Tennessee’s running back depth chart this fall?