Buying or Selling Job Security for NFL's Most Tenuous Starters
- The current starter is likely to be challenged—or even replaced—by a new addition to the roster
- Despite the starter being a weak option, the rest of the depth chart at their position offers no true threat to their starting role at this time
Training camps are in full swing across the NFL, which means that it's time for lower-level starters to be challenged by new offseason additions and young up-and-comers.
Every NFL team has its own weak link, where a starting job is teetering on the edge of going one way or another. In other situations, teams might have a weak top option at a position but failed to address the need properly in the offseason, leaving the current starter unchallenged.
Which current NFL starters are the weakest links on their teams? Who is in danger of losing their starting spot due to a new arrival? Who is benefiting from a lack of better options elsewhere on the roster?
Let's take a look at some of the least impressive starters around the league.
Why did these players find themselves in this category? One of two reasons:
Vikings QB Matt Cassel
Last year's poor quarterback play in Minnesota led to the Vikings looking for a new signal-caller early in the 2014 NFL draft. But despite trading up to the 32nd overall pick to take Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, veteran Matt Cassel has maintained his status as the team's starter—for now.
According to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, the rookie QB has been "pretty much splitting reps", noting that while the Bridgewater may not be the Vikings' Week 1 starter, he's "definitely more impressive than they expected."
Cassel appeared in nine games for Minnesota last season, making six starts. Formerly a member of both the Patriots and the Chiefs, the former USC Trojan completed 60.2 percent of his passes in 2013 for 1,807 yards, tossing 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski ranked Cassel as the worst starting QB in the NFL, according to Pro Football Talk:
My 32nd-rated quarterback entering the 2014 season is Matt Cassel. Turner’s offense starts with the run game. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield, Cassel’s 66 quarterback rating last year on play-action passes just wasn’t good enough.
Cassel may hold onto the starting gig up until the early parts of the 2014 regular season, but he's nothing more than a veteran bridge with some NFL experience the Vikings are using to make sure their quarterback of the future isn't rushed into action.
Cassel's talent level is much better suited in a backup role, and it shouldn't take long for Bridgewater to show his superiority and take the starting job for himself. I'm selling Cassel as the Vikings starter beyond the first few games of 2014.
Panthers WR Jason Avant
The Panthers surprised in 2013, going 12-4 behind quarterback Cam Newton and a suffocating front seven on defense. But Newton will have a tougher road this season, thanks to the loss of his longtime left tackle, Jordan Gross, and a receiver corps that has been completely overhauled.
The top four receivers listed on currently listed on the Panthers' depth chart weren't with the team in 2013, with veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant currently occupying the starting roles. Neither is a true No. 1-type receiver, though Cotchery caught 10 touchdowns as a part-time starter for the Steelers last season.
Avant, while a reliable third option throughout his career, hasn't shown the consistent production or overall talent to scare opposing defenses. The Michigan product has never caught more than 53 passes in any one of his eight NFL seasons and never logged more than 679 yards receiving. The 31-year-old has just 12 career touchdown receptions in 116 career games.
Carolina also spent its first-round pick on Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, who while being a fairly raw prospect, will likely displace Avant from his starting role due to his natural talent and potential as a playmaker. Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway agrees that the former Eagles receiver isn't much of a downfield threat:
Beyond Benjamin, Panthers management did not do much in finding a replacement. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are currently slated to lead the team's depth chart. While both are respected veterans around the league and have solid seasons under their belts, neither Cotchery nor Avant can stretch the field or realistically lead a top-tier offense.
Avant brings vital leadership and experience to the table, but I'm selling his chances to remain in the starting lineup. With Benjamin's potential, expect the veteran to take a back seat sooner rather than later.
Browns QB Brian Hoyer
Many might view him as the "other" quarterback in Cleveland, but veteran Brian Hoyer remains the Browns' current starter, despite the much-heralded arrival of first-round pick Johnny Manziel.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding "Johnny Football", Hoyer has shown himself to be the clear favorite so far in camp, according to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated:
Early in camp at least, before the preseason games even start to clarify things a little, Hoyer has held a clear edge over Manziel in their battle. In the two days of practices I watched, Hoyer looked much smoother and more comfortable in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system, knows the playbook inside out and has been the sharper and more consistent passer and playmaker. Manziel has flashed at times, but he has for the most part looked like the rookie quarterback he is: The good, the bad, the occasional ugly. His reps have been with the No. 2 offense, and Hoyer has led the Browns’ first team.
While Manziel has reportedly struggled to get a firm grasp on the playbook, Hoyer has excelled in practice. The veteran signal-caller is coming off a torn ACL, but he's eager to prove he has fully recovered and can lead the Browns while Manziel develops.
With Josh Gordon's suspension adding to the media circus in Berea, Hoyer seems to be the type of presence who can keep the team grounded and focused.
I'm buying him as the Browns' starting QB for the time being.
Jaguars QB Chad Henne
The Jaguars spent the third overall pick in this year's draft on quarterback Blake Bortles, but that doesn't mean they're ready to hand him the keys to the offense just yet.
Incumbent Chad Henne still holds the reins as the starter, hoping to give the talented but raw Bortles time to develop. But though head coach Gus Bradley is still adamant that Henne is the top dog, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch acknowledges that Bortles is already making great strides, referencing an impressive two-minute drill, according to USA Today's Jim Corbett:
That was a drive that was unscripted, and Blake just played ball, audibling to that touchdown, which was pretty cool. That's what I've seen with his growth. He would have just done whatever I called for him in the spring. But now he's audibling and threw that touchdown against man coverage. The ball is coming off his hand better. Sometimes when you're over-thinking, you grip the ball tighter. He's gotten rid of the mind clutter.
Henne started 13 of the Jags' 16 games last season, throwing for 3,241 yards but notching more interceptions than touchdown passes.
The plan is obviously to ride with Henne as long as possible to give Bortles time to grow into his full potential, which sounds great in theory. But if Henne struggles over the first few weeks of the regular season, expect the pressure to build for inserting Bortles into the lineup. I'm selling Chad Henne's chances to finish 2014 as Jacksonville's starting quarterback.
Buccaneers G Oniel Cousins
Carl Nicks had hoped to make a return to the starting left guard spot when the Bucs opened training camp last week, but his toe injury has proved too serious, causing the team to mutually part ways with the two-time Pro Bowler.
This leaves an even bigger hole at the guard position, a unit that was already of some concern heading into the 2014 season. Tampa Bay has been experimenting with different combinations of bodies on both sides, with veteran free-agent acquisition Oniel Cousins getting first crack at the starting spot across from Jamon Meredith.
There will be an open competition to win either of the starting guard roles, and according to Roy Cummings of The Tampa Tribune, general manager Jason Licht says he's willing to explore all of his options:
You can look across the league and find a lot of guys who found their niche or their groove later in their careers, and that could happen here with some of the guys we have. If not, there are going to be a lot of avenues for us to add to this mix. And one of them is right here on our own roster, because I really do think we’re going have some options there. We have some guys there that have really taken a good step from June until now just in terms of their technique and knowing what they’re supposed to be doing. We’re excited about that so let’s just see how this works out.
Cousins has made just nine starts over his six NFL seasons, making him a shaky first-team option at best. Meredith should lock down one spot, but younger options like Patrick Omameh and 2014 fifth-round pick Kadeem Edwards are likely to push Cousins, with one of them supplanting Cousins by the end of training camp.
Cousins' veteran experience may be giving him the first shot at starting, but I'm selling his chances of remaining there. Expect Edwards Omameh, or perhaps even a new addition to be the Bucs' other starting guard when Week 1 rolls around.
Jets QB Geno Smith
The Jets made a clear statement by drafting Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 draft, despite having Mark Sanchez as their starting quarterback at the time.
But after one season with Smith at the helm, the Jets made another curious move at the position this offseason, signing Michael Vick as a free agent. But despite rumblings of the former top overall pick starting ahead of Smith—who definitely had his rookie struggles last season—Vick knows and embraces his current role, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:
Vick has done a masterful job handling his new role with the Jets, mentoring the man with the job that he would love to have, rising each day believing that his time will come again ... here or someplace else down the road. He is a changed man, a humbled man and a man who knows exactly how to defuse a potentially combustible situation.
Many Jets fans are likely to clamor for Vick, especially if Smith shows signs of struggling early in the regular season. But regardless of any potential pressure, it's vital that the team sticks with the younger Smith, allowing him to take his lumps and keep developing.
Smith might not be perfect, but benching him now for Vick would be a huge step in the wrong direction. Vick seems to understand and accept his new role as the veteran mentor, which could make him invaluable to Smith as he continues to grow.
I'm buying Smith to remain the Jets' starter through Week 1 and beyond.