Early Grades for the NFL's Biggest Offseason Moves
Every team in the NFL spent their spring trying to bring in the best talent possible through free agency and the draft, and every team has worked this summer to put its newly acquired players in the best positions possible to succeed.
The expectations for those offseason additions are highest for top draft picks like Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and high-profile free-agent signings like Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib.
Teams who invested high draft picks and/or large sums of money into players this offseason should be looking for those acquisitions to make their teams immediately better.
It’s too early to tell which rookies and which veterans in new places will make the biggest impacts in 2014 and beyond for the teams who brought them in earlier this year.
Training camp and preseason games, however, have provided glimpses into which players look ready to make good on their teams’ investments and which major moves might prove to be mistakes.
Houston Texans Select Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 Overall Pick
In just 29 combined snaps across two preseason games, Houston Texans rookie outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has already recorded three tackles for loss, all of which were worthy of the highlight reels.
Clowney has a degree of explosive athleticism for an edge defender that is rare, perhaps unmatched even in the NFL. At 6’6” and 266 pounds, Clowney accelerates like a sprinter, hits like a freight train and can drive through blockers with power.
The South Carolina product’s first big play came in his preseason debut against the Arizona Cardinals, when he overwhelmed Cardinals tight end Darren Fells to blow up running back Stepfan Taylor for a five-yard tackle for loss.
In his second preseason contest against the Atlanta Falcons, Clowney made back-to-back big plays when he tackled running back Antone Smith for a two-yard loss, then beat left tackle Sam Baker one play later to record a seven-yard sack against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Outside of his big plays, Clowney hasn’t been spectacular. An offensive penalty saved him from what would have been a 13-yard receiving touchdown by Cardinals tight end John Carlson against his coverage in his debut, while Clowney has shown much ability to work off blocks with his hands.
His game is still a work in progress, and he has to prove he can stay healthy, but Clowney has already shown why he was this year’s No. 1 overall pick. That doesn’t necessarily mean Houston made the best selection—shaky play from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick this preseason has created doubt as to whether the Texans should have picked a signal-caller—but it does look as though they have an immediate playmaker and a player who will hold opposing offensive lines accountable on every play.
St. Louis Rams Draft Greg Robinson with No. 2 Overall Selection
If the St. Louis Rams didn’t think Auburn’s Greg Robinson could immediately make their offensive line better, they wouldn’t have selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. However, it’s unclear at this point if the Rams even trust Robinson enough to be a Week 1 starter as a rookie.
Robinson is expected to be the Rams’ starting left guard and is listed as such on the team’s depth chart. He has also been cross-training at his collegiate position, left tackle, throughout the summer and played both left tackle and left guard in St. Louis’ first two preseason games, each of which he started.
But with veteran left tackle Jake Long and guard Rodger Saffold both healthy for Saturday’s preseason game against the Cleveland Browns after each sat out the first two preseason games, Robinson was taken out of the starting lineup, as Saffold started at left guard while Davin Joseph retained his job with the first-team offense at right guard.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Rams won’t put Robinson back in their starting lineup by Week 1. According to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the “Rams are not down on G. Robinson in any way.”
Still, the Rams didn’t bring Robinson off the bench in their Week 3 preseason game—the contest often viewed as the dress rehearsal for the regular season—for no reason. He has been struggling on the field thus far, enough that his overall rating from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) is at minus-7.1 through three games.
The potential that made Robinson the draft’s second selection is clear to see. A 6’5”, 332-pound lineman who runs a 4.92-second 40-yard dash and has tremendous power, Robinson is a rare physical specimen with the traits to develop into an elite NFL offensive lineman.
Fundamentally, however, he’s clearly not yet where he needs to be. He has often looked lost on the field and has missed too many blocks.
It’s easy to understand why Robinson is off to a shaky start. Offensive line is already one of the most difficult areas for a rookie to find immediate success, and the Rams have put the young blocker in a tough spot by requiring him to play both positions.
In light of his preseason struggles, the Rams plan to have Robinson “focus in on left guard from here on out, only using him at LT in emergency,” according to Thomas. But until his skills become more polished and he cuts down on his mistakes, he might not be able to provide an upgrade for the St. Louis offense up front.
Jacksonville Jaguars Make Blake Bortles Their QB of the Future
The Jacksonville Jaguars aren’t ready to make Blake Bortles their starting quarterback yet, but they should be feeling confident about their decision to select the Central Florida product with the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Through three games, Bortles has had an excellent preseason.
Bortles has completed 28 of 45 passing attempts for 435 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He has displayed confidence in the pocket, even when under pressure, and made myriad difficult throws with strong velocity and precise ball placement.
Initially viewed as a project when drafted, Bortles has shed that notion by making it evident that he has improved upon his footwork, accuracy and decision-making within the past seven months.
Even so, the Jaguars are sticking to their initial plan, as outlined by Jaguars coach Gus Bradley to NFL Total Access in May, to give Bortles “a year to develop.” After Jacksonville’s third preseason game Friday, Bradley confirmed that incumbent Chad Henne would be the team’s Week 1 starter at quarterback, according to Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union.
That decision has already been scrutinized by many and will only continue to be questioned if the Jaguars lose games early with Henne at the helm. Bortles’ play has been far more promising this August than the proven mediocrity of Henne, and it will surprise few and delight many if Bortles takes over the starting job at some point during the regular season.
Only time will tell whether the Jaguars are making the right decision by keeping Henne in the lineup for now, and three preseason performances don’t prove that Bortles can be a great quarterback in the regular season. Nonetheless, the Jaguars’ decision to draft Bortles is looking like a smart one thus far.
Buffalo Bills Trade Up to Select Sammy Watkins
In arguably the boldest move of the 2014 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills traded their first- and fourth-round picks for 2015 in order to move up five spots, to No. 4 overall, so they could select Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins has only recorded three catches for 21 yards this preseason—all in Buffalo’s second preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. He did not have a catch in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game, and he suffered a rib injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers that kept him out of Buffalo’s most recent game Saturday versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Those statistics don’t mean much, however, and Watkins has reportedly made a number of spectacular one-handed catches in training camp, such as this one captured by WGRZ’s Jonah Javad and this one Vined by WGR’s Sal Capaccio.
As long as he is healthy—he returned to full participation in practice Monday—there’s little reason to be concerned about whether he can translate his skills to game action and be a playmaker for the Bills offense.
It remains very questionable, however, whether Watkins will prove to be worth the investment the Bills made in him. That won’t only be determined by how well Watkins plays individually, but whether his addition leads to an immediate improvement in results in 2014.
If the Bills’ playoff drought extends to 15 years and they end up sending a high draft pick to the Browns, Watkins truly must emerge as one of the NFL’s elite wideouts to justify the cost of moving up for him.
Both his ability to do so this year and the ability of the Bills to be a winning team are heavily reliant upon the play of quarterback EJ Manuel, who has averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt and thrown more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one) this preseason.
As the Bills first-team offense has struggled this August, early indications are that the addition of Watkins might not be enough for Buffalo to be a serious contender this year.
Oakland Raiders Trade for Matt Schaub to Be Starting QB
Since trading a sixth-round pick to acquire him from the Houston Texans in March, the Oakland Raiders have been adamant that they believe in Matt Schaub as their starting quarterback for the 2014 season.
So far this preseason, however, Schaub has done nothing to instill that belief in outside observers.
The Raiders are counting on Schaub to bounce back from a disastrous 2013 season with the Texans, in which he averaged just 6.5 yards per passing attempt and threw 14 interceptions despite starting just eight games.
The early results haven’t been promising. Through three preseason contests, Schaub has completed 24 of 47 passing attempts for 218 yards—just 4.6 yards per attempt—with zero touchdowns and one interception.
Schaub appears to lack confidence and has struggled to throw the ball downfield. Making matters worse, Schaub missed multiple practices this week with elbow soreness, according to ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson.
Dealing for Schaub wasn’t the only quarterback move the Raiders made this offseason. They also used their second-round pick in this year’s draft to select Derek Carr, who threw for 5,083 yards and 50 touchdowns last year at Fresno State.
Raiders “coach Dennis Allen said Schaub is still on pace to be the starting quarterback when the Raiders open the season at the New York Jets on Sept. 7,” according to Williamson.
But if Schaub continues to look more like a has-been than the steady starting quarterback he once was, the Raiders might have to consider making a switch to Carr, who is a work in progress but has much more arm talent than Schaub, or even to third-string quarterback Matt McGloin.
To be fair to the Raiders, they didn’t make a huge investment in Schaub. They only gave up a late-round pick and are not on the hook for any guaranteed money next season, according to Spotrac. Still, the team’s decision to hand the keys to the offense to Schaub is looking questionable at best on the cusp of the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sign Josh McCown to Start at QB
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ signing of quarterback Josh McCown to a two-year, $10 million deal was far from being one of the flashiest or most lucrative free-agent contracts in the NFL this spring. It became one of the most significant, however, when Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith confirmed after McCown’s signing that the team signed him to start at quarterback.
Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay’s third-round pick in the 2013 draft, was arguably the most impressive quarterback in last year’s rookie class, ahead of more highly drafted counterparts EJ Manuel (Buffalo Bills) and Geno Smith (New York Jets). Despite that, the Buccaneers have handed the reins of the offense to McCown, a 35-year-old who has been in the NFL since 2002 but has never been a 16-game starter in a season.
An impressive run filling in for injured signal-caller Jay Cutler with the Chicago Bears last season, in which McCown started five games, completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards and had a 13-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, made him a valid choice to bring in as a starter.
That said, the preseason hasn’t brought much clarity to whether McCown can duplicate that success for a full season with a new offense.
McCown has an impressive completion percentage of 74.1, but a vast majority of his completions this August have come on short, simple passes. He has also had some ugly misses and has thrown more interceptions (two) in just 27 attempts than he had all of last season.
Holding on to the ball too long has also been an issue for McCown thus far in Tampa Bay. He has been sacked four times and fumbled thrice as a result.
It’s understandable that McCown has not played as well early. He’s only been with the Buccaneers offense for five months; when he stepped in to play last year, he was in his third season with the Bears.
Nonetheless, he must step up his level of play once the regular season begins to establish that the Buccaneers are making the right choice in choosing him to start ahead of Glennon.
Denver Broncos Sign Aqib Talib to $57 Million Contract
Signed to a contract with a six-year value of $57 million, no free agent to switch NFL teams this offseason received a deal worth more total money than that of cornerback Aqib Talib’s agreement with the Denver Broncos.
As a result, Talib’s deal has also been one of the most scrutinized decisions of the offseason. While Talib is a skilled, physical defensive back who had been the No. 1 cornerback for the New England Patriots since they acquired him during the 2012 season, the 28-year-old will have to play the best football of his career to be worth the contract—which includes $25.5 million guaranteed, according to Spotrac—the Broncos gave him.
Talib hasn’t seen a great deal of playing time this preseason (56 snaps across three games) but he has been solid when on the field. He recorded a pass breakup in coverage versus San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree during the second week of the preseason. He has suffered no bad beats in coverage and has been physical in seeking and making tackles.
According to Sports on Earth’s Dan Pompei, Talib also performed well in training-camp practices.
“New CB pickup Aqib Talib has been killing it; very consistent in all phases of camp,” Pompei tweeted earlier this month.
It should come as no surprise that Talib has performed well. When he is at his best, Talib looks to be one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.
He will have to be at his best to live up to the lofty value of his contract; whether he does so could come down to his health. The reason for concern with Talib has nothing to do with his play but rather his durability; he has been in the NFL since 2008 and has yet to play a full 16-game season.
Given that, it’s far too early to judge whether the Broncos overpaid for Talib, one of a number of high-profile free-agent signings they made this summer. At the least, it appears that Talib is ready to be a great starting cornerback in the Denver secondary, where he will start opposite returning starter Chris Harris Jr., who is working his way back from a torn ACL.
New England Patriots Sign Darrelle Revis to One-Year Deal
After losing Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots responded quickly and in a big way by signing cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The Patriots’ signing of Revis comes with far less risk than the Broncos’ deal with Talib, as Revis’ contract will only pay him $12 million (unless the Patriots make the unlikely move of picking up his option for 2015, which would pay him another $20 million, according to Spotrac).
Whether New England will keep Revis long-term remains to be seen, but for at least the 2014 season, they have added a player who ranks as one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks. As a result, the move has been widely praised by NFL analysts; Bleacher Report’s Alessandro Miglio ranked it as the best move of the NFL offseason.
Revis has played 42 snaps over the course of two preseason games and has only given up one catch—an 11-yard slant by Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in New England’s most recent preseason game Friday—according to Pro Football Focus.
As one would expect, the three-time All-Pro has also stood out in practice this summer, according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.
“In my opinion, Revis has been way more of a difficult challenge for [Patriots quarterback Tom] Brady at practice than Aqib Talib was,” Howe tweeted July 31. “Revis will be lights out in '14.”
The Patriots aren’t necessarily going to isolate Revis on opposing No. 1 wide receivers throughout games like he had with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a practice that earned him the nickname “Revis Island.” But as long as Revis stays healthy in 2014, he should be able to prove—with a talented defense around him—that he is still one of the league’s best cornerbacks and worthy of a mega-contract next offseason.
New Orleans Saints Sign Jairus Byrd for $54 Million
The only free agent to land more guaranteed money than Aqib Talib this offseason was Jairus Byrd. The free safety netted $26.3 million in total guarantees within the six-year, $54 million contract he signed in March with the New Orleans Saints.
Byrd establishes himself as one of the NFL’s premier safeties during his five-year tenure with the Buffalo Bills, but his new stint with the Saints got off to a slow start when he underwent back surgery in May.
Durability might be somewhat of a concern for the Saints’ prized addition—he battled plantar fasciitis and missed the Bills’ first five games last season—but he appears to be healthy now, as he returned to full practice participation last week and made his preseason debut Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts.
Byrd displayed good burst to the ball in his first game action in a Saints uniform, but there weren’t many plays that came his way in his 19 snaps in his debut.
It appears that Byrd is healthy and ready to emerge as a standout in the New Orleans secondary, and he could form one of the NFL’s top safety tandems with Kenny Vaccaro, a rising star at strong safety who was all over the field as a rookie last year and has been again this preseason.
Because of his late return to the field, there hasn’t been much opportunity to evaluate what Byrd’s role will be—and how capable of excellence he is in the Saints defense—yet this summer.
That said, Byrd has already “lived up to his reputation as a ball-hawking turnover producer” in practice, according to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, and he also “may find himself using his wheels to field punt returns on occasion,” according to Jennifer Hale of Fox Sports New Orleans.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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