Analyzing the Top 10 Hottest NFL Stories right now

March 18, 2012 by

Analyzing the 10 hottest stories in the NFL right now.


1. Manning slow decision: trickle down effect

We expected the most decorated free agent in NFL history to have selected a new team by now. We’re still waiting, and the fate of three franchises – the Titans, Broncos and 49ers – hangs in the air. The longer the wait, the more devastating the failed Manning pursuit will be for two of those franchises – at least in terms of team morale. The Titans risk little by chasing Manning. Having made it clear after the season that they’re entering 2012 with a quarterback competition between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker, the confidence and credibility of their next signal-caller had already been a bit compromised. Pursuing Manning makes little dent in that situation.

The Broncos are a different story. They have an “icon” at quarterback and a rabid fan base behind him. From their perspective, a starting quarterback’s credibility can only be compromised if said credibility actually exists in the first place. There are no official guidelines for what makes up a quarterback’s credibility, though football experts have long agreed that “the capacity to throw” is, like a drummer having arms, an implicit prerequisite. In short, the Broncos aren’t worried about what their Manning pursuit will do to Tim Tebow’s “credibility”.

Tebow, despite his 46.5 completion percentage, might have somehow “earned the right to be the starting quarterback going into training camp” (John Elway’s words), but any zealot who tries to argue that he would have the right to play ahead of a four-time MVP would be burning all the “benefit of the doubt” that their hero’s occasional 2011 magic earned them.

Predictably, the Manning-to-Mile High rumors have incited rumblings that Tebow may now be headed out of Denver. Some have suggested that even if Manning spurns Denver, Elway at this point may still pursue another quarterback. Perhaps Alex Smith. The Niners veteran is in a similar spot as Tebow. He recently recorded a postseason victory with a team that is built around defense and running (i.e. hiding the quarterback’s limitations). But Matt Barrow of the Sacramento Bee writes, “Smith almost assuredly would leave the 49ers if they were to sign (Manning)… there is a growing sense that Smith may not be back even if Manning goes elsewhere. Smith, according to sources, is upset at the 49ers, perhaps not because the monetary offer they made him – reportedly $24 million over three years – but because of the job security it provides. Smith felt the 49ers made a commitment to him as their future starter that was not reflected in the contract offer.”

Smith visited the Dolphins over the weekend and would likely sign there if Manning became a Niner. If Manning became a Bronco, Smith would likely go back to San Francisco, bury the hatchet with Jim Harbaugh & Co. (if there is a hatchet) and try to defend the NFC West title.


2. Matt Flynn & the still-lonely Dolphins

First things first: signing Flynn is a smart gamble for the Seahawks. They got him for a good price ($26 million over three years, just $10 million guaranteed). Their offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, runs a West Coast system that’s somewhat similar to the one Flynn learned in Green Bay. There are five years of Vikings film and another year of Seahawks film that say you can’t muster sustainable success with Tarvaris Jackson as your quarterback. So for Seattle, a change – any change – is worth trying.

There’s a grain of salt, however: It’s possible Flynn isn’t that good. When the Seattle news broke, everyone took to Twitter and ripped Miami for not getting the ex-Packer. But when free agency first began, recall that everyone – everyone – had asserted that a lot of the Flynn mystery would be revealed by how hard his ex-coordinator/new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin pursued him. Well, Philbin’s Dolphins looked at Flynn and chose not to offer anything near top dollar. Does that not, like we originally agreed, tell us something about Flynn?

Apparently, it’s just more fun for people to discard their original analysis and mock Dolphins owner Stephen Ross instead. True, it has been a tough offseason for Ross. He didn’t get his first choice at head coach and, despite even a fan-funded billboard – aka a rich man’s homemade bumper sticker – he didn’t get Peyton to come to South Beach.

And so the Dolphins remain quarterbackless. Some have suggested that Ross could land Tebow if Manning lands in Denver. That’d be great for jersey sales in May-August, but it’d be bad for games in September-December. Tebow fits Philbin’s system like a glove fits a foot.


3. The Other QB’s

Isn’t it surprising how many possible starters have quickly settled for backup jobs? In the first week of free agency, Kyle Orton agreed to be the No. 2 behind Tony Romo. Jason Campbell agreed to become Jay Cutler’s backup (that means another new system for Campbell, by the way). Less surprising but still worthy for this discussion was Rex Grossman returning to Washington (a Pro Football Talk reader brilliantly nicknamed Grossman “RG-3-And-Out”) and former first-round pick Brady Quinn signed in Kansas City (where he’ll need some luck just to have a chance at competing for Matt Cassel’s starting job).

In the past, these guys would have hung around the market a little longer in hopes of at least finding a quarterback competition. But players (and their agents) are wizening up. They’re realizing that a dose of humility up front – i.e. the admittance that they’re not likely to keep getting chances to start in the NFL anyway – means more money. Campbell got $3.5 million for a one-year deal. Orton got $10.5 million over three years (practically a lifetime contract in the world of backup quarterbacking). If they’d waited, their price tag would have dwindled as it became more and more apparent that no one badly wanted them.


4. Bills relevant, but realism needed

(from March 16)

O.K., so maybe we didn’t foresee the Buffalo Toronto Bills making the biggest splash in free agency this off-season. As the esteemed Bills writer Mark Gaughan pointed out in The Buffalo News, “In the 20 years the NFL has used an unrestricted free-agent system, the biggest Buffalo signing was a $7 million-a-year deal given to guard Derrick Dockery in 2007.” Williams’s annual salary is more than double that. In all, he’s reeling in $50 million in guarantees.

Consider that the 27-year-old Williams is coming off a season-ending torn pectoral muscle and that he made nearly $60 million off his rookie contract in Houston. Williams, our No. 1-rated defensive lineman in free agency, must be – unofficially – the first N.F.L. player to make over $100 million primarily on potential. The Texans didn’t know for sure what they were getting when they signed him to a mega deal. And now, neither do the Bills.

What the Bills hope they’re getting is a top-five defensive end. Or do they view Williams as a top-five outside linebacker? Williams played the stand-up position for five games in Houston last season, and in recent years Buffalo’s D has changed back and forth from 4-3 to 3-4 the way some people change back and forth from dress shoes to tennis shoes. Whatever scheme the Bills settle on, Williams will be a one-gap player. It’s up to recently promoted defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt to devise attacks that put the pricey pickup in one-on-one situations (Williams’s previous coordinator, Wade Phillips, was excellent at that).

Easy as it is to get swept up in the hype, let’s acknowledge that the addition of Williams does not suddenly make the Bills’ defense elite. They still have a middling linebacking corps (Kirk Morrison at the Mike? Really?). And even with Williams, their pass rush is closer to mediocre than mesmerizing. No player had more than 5.5 sacks for them last season. Not counting 2011 or his ’06 rookie campaign, Williams has averaged 11 sacks a year in his career. Very good, yes. Great? No.

Though not a consummate edge rusher, Williams is a superb all-around run defender, which is probably why the Bills felt they could justify overspending to make him the highest-paid defensive player in N.F.L history. Helping owner Ralph Wilson Jr. and General Manager Buddy Nix was the knowledge that, in a few years, the league’s new television contracts will rain money on all 32 franchises, no matter how small the market. That’s the beauty of the N.F.L. – a team like the Bills can make itself suddenly relevant with one swipe of the pen.


5. Patriots sign Brandon Lloyd (and become borderline unstoppable now)

This news made few waves because it was inevitable. Brandon Lloyd follows Josh McDaniels the way Andy Richter follows Conan O’Brien. Lloyd probably started researching the Quincy real estate market when McDaniels snuck back onto the Patriots staff in January.

But this news’ inevitability doesn’t make it any less significant. Stop and realize that the Patriots got a really, really good wide receiver here. Lloyd has always produced in McDaniels’ system. He’s a sharp route runner, acrobatic elevator and ball-plucker and, most importantly, adequate field-stretcher. Whatever weaknesses were in the Patriots’ passing game no longer exist. Lloyd won’t catch as many balls as Wes Welker, but it’s not impossible that, by season’s end, he’ll be considered New England’s most valuable wide receiver.

This signing, as well as New England’s signing of former Colts first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez, likely means the end for Chad Ochocinco in Foxboro. It was a disappointing one-year stint, highlighted by Ochocinco’s declining change-of-direction-quickness (which had been the crux of his brilliance) and inability to grasp the nuances of the scheme. To Ocho’s credit, he ate his humble pie quietly. The smart move from here is for him to accept his athletic decline and commit fulltime to being a celebrity. No shame in bowing out now – 11,059 yards in 11 years is an excellent career.


6. Wide Receivers Ruling Free Agency

(From March 16)

If the first three days of free agency told us anything, it’s that the wide receiver position is considered more valuable than ever. Six of our top 10 free-agent receivers are already signed, while several others have been picked up or given new contracts. Traditional thinking has long been that a good offense needs a playmaking star at No. 1 receiver, a reliable possession target at No. 2 and a darting third-down maestro in the slot at No. 3. But look closer at the transactions this week and you’ll see that these roles are becoming less relevant.

It’s still ideal to have a No. 1 playmaking receiver. Hence, Calvin Johnson’s monstrous new contract, the Bucs’ signing of Vincent Jackson ($26 million guaranteed) and the Bears’ trade of Brandon Marshall (a pair of third-rounders given up). But when you examine these deals from both directions, you see the full scope of today’s evolving N.F.L. And that scope reveals that the true No. 1 receiver class is incredibly small – too small to include Marshall and Jackson.

The Bears acquired Marshall because they felt they needed an aerial playmaker once and for all. But why did the Dolphins give him up (and for below market value, no less)? Marshall’s off-field problems were seemingly the final straw, but they most likely wouldn’t have been if not for new head coach Joe Philbin’s system. In Green Bay, Philbin’s system did not center on a No. 1-2-3 receiver pecking order; it centered on creating mismatches out of various formations.

Most of those formations involved three wide receivers and an athletically gifted tight end (Jermichael Finley). Whichever player drew the most favorable matchup became the No. 1 receiver. That’s why Green Bay’s best receiver, Greg Jennings, averaged 73.0 yards per game while Jordy Nelson – a No. 3 receiver in the “old days” – averaged 78.9 yards per game. Jennings was targeted 7.7 times per game, Nelson was targeted 6 times per game and Finley 5.8. There isn’t a “No. 1 receiver” in that group – there are simply three very good targets.

Philbin’s democratic passing offense puts a premium on catch-and-run quick strikes. That’s not a perfect setup for the more methodical Marshall. Thus, when Philbin was hired, the troubled No. 1 receiver suddenly became just a troubled receiver, making him very tradable in the eyes of the Dolphins.

A similar line of thinking showed up in the Vincent Jackson move. The Bucs got a good player and a much-needed jolt to their passing offense, but more revealing is that the Chargers were content to replace Jackson with Robert Meachem. The Chargers know that Jackson is a better player than Meachem (even if Norv Turner is trying to convince the masses that the 27-year-old ex-Saint is a “No. 1”). But in San Diego’s system, Jackson is not $12 million-better than Meachem ($12 million being the difference in total guaranteed money the two players got). Turner’s offense is predicated on generating big plays through five-and seven-step drop passes. As someone who has averaged 16.1 yards per catch in his career, Meachem fits in. That’s all he needs to do – the Chargers know that their system is good enough that their wide receivers simply have to fit in. (This was verified in 2010 when the Chargers, without Jackson for 11 games, without Malcom Floyd for five games and without Antonio Gates for six games, still managed to rank first in total yardage and second in scoring).

Occasionally, the system and the player go hand in hand. With Sean Payton’s system, the Saints need a big-bodied seam-runner in the slot. Thus, they re-signed Marques Colston. Because he fills a niche (and plays with a similar-styled talent in Jimmy Graham), Colston is more valuable as a Saint than he’d be on any other team. The same logic applies to Wes Welker and the Patriots. Both are more valuable to each other than anyone or anywhere else.

The common thread among all these “system teams” is a top quarterback. Miami doesn’t have one, but Philbin’s system derived from Aaron Rodgers’s work in Green Bay. In San Diego, Meachem will catch balls from Philip Rivers. Colston catches balls from Drew Brees; Welker from Tom Brady. This is what the experts are really talking about when they say that the N.F.L. is now a quarterback-driven league. It’s not just about having a star quarterback who can make great plays – it’s about having a star quarterback whom you can build your entire scheme around. When you truly have one of those quarterbacks, your evaluation of wide receivers changes.

These quarterback-driven “system teams” also feature predominantly three-and-four-receiver offenses. As it so happens, they do this out of what’s technically base personnel (two receivers, one tight end). But when the tight ends are guys like Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates, the effect is the same as three-wide receiver personnel: an offense revolving around creating alignment-based mismatches with three viable targets. The Steelers are another example. They don’t have an elite receiving tight end, but they have an elite quarterback and three very, very good young receivers in Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders.

When you don’t have a star quarterback, you’re stuck in the past, evaluating wideouts in the No. 1-2-3 mold. Teams in this spot are really rolling the dice when investing in receivers. Take the Jaguars and Laurent Robinson. Giving a breakout star like Robinson $14 million guaranteed was probably wise given that a paucity of receiving talent completely neutered the Jaguar offense last season. But there is absolutely no evidence suggesting that Robinson is dynamic enough to create mismatches simply by being on the field. Same goes for Pierre Garcon, who got $20.5 million guaranteed from the Redskins – a team apparently so desperate for receiver help that they’re willing to pay guys nearly double what they’re actually worth. Garcon is an up-and-coming player, but he’s also a product of the Peyton Manning system.

The Jaguars and the Redskins, both of whose offenses are built around traditional two-wideout packages, are banking on their new receivers being good enough to build a passing system around. But we see it no longer works like that. As the elite teams have shown, the N.F.L. is now about creating mismatches with three-and four-receiver formations. If you want to build a truly successful offense around the outdated No. 1-2-3 formula, your No. 1 receiver needs to be insanely talented. As the film shows and the market verifies, only three receivers currently fit this bill: Andre Johnson, who became football’s highest-paid receiver in 2010; Larry Fitzgerald, who became football’s highest-paid receiver in 2011; and Calvin Johnson, who became football’s highest-paid receiver earlier this week.

Johnson is the exception to this off-season’s rule. The Lions have a three-receiver offense, but schematically and logistically, it’s an offense built around Megatron. That’s fine. When a player is as gifted as Calvin Johnson, you build around him. What good teams understand (and bad teams don’t) is that Calvin Johnson can play the role of Calvin Johnson, but a merely productive Pro Bowler can’t – even if you give him big bucks. The Calvin Johnsons come around only once every three or four years. Systems are nourished and replenished every year.


7. Cowboys make noise (cap punishment be damned)

What hasn’t been emphasized about the Cowboys and Redskins salary cap punishments is that even if there is some sort of an appeal and Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder win out, irrevocable damage has already been done. Because the NFL waited until the last minute to notify everyone of these punishments, the ‘Boys and ‘Skins had no choice but to alter their 2012 free agency plans. If it turns out the league overstepped its bounds here, there’s presumably no way to right their wrong without dealing some sort of disadvantage to the other 30 teams later.

The Redskins, docked $26 million over two years, may pursue a fight. The Cowboys, on the other hand, don’t seem to have been too tripped up by their two-year, $10 million total cap hit. They’ve signed starting safety Brodney Poole (an ex-Brown and Jet familiar with Rob Ryan’s scheme), linebacker Dan Connor (a solid between-the-tackles thumper who should get plenty of first and second down snaps next to former Penn State teammate Sean Lee), a top quality starting fullback in veteran Lawrence Vickers, a top quality backup quarterback in Kyle Orton, two younger, affordable guards in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau (neither is great but one should be able to fill the shoes of released Kyle Kosier) and, most importantly, free agency’s No. 1 rated defensive back in corner Brandon Carr who, as an expensive but significant upgrade over released veteran Terence Newman, can provide the physical press duties that Ryan’s system demands.


8. Chiefs sign the best right tackle in football

The Texans surprised everyone by releasing Eric Winston, the premier right tackle in football early last week. The rest of the NFL surprised no one by showing interest in Winston. The Chiefs ultimately came away with him, thanks to a four-year contract worth over $22 million. Winston is an effective movement-oriented run-blocker who can land clean contact in space and at the second level. He makes Kansas City’s addition of running back Peyton Hillis more valuable. In pass protection, Winston is not the most consistent force, but unlike a lot of right tackles, he doesn’t require constant help.


9. The Vince Young Watch

Just kidding. There’s no Vince Young watch. He remains unsigned.


10. BountyGate (Vilma angle)

The NFL is expected sometime this week to start announcing the punishments for those who participated in the Saints bounties. Some believe that possible punishment for players could come at a later date. The most vulnerable player for a fine and/or suspension is linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

This isn’t great timing for the soon-to-be 30-year-old. Coming off knee surgery and due to make $5.5 million in 2012, Vilma is ripe for release. The Saints, in fact, hosted free agent linebackers David Hawthorne, Joe Mays (since re-signed with Denver) and Curtis Lofton this week. Hawthorne can play outside but Mays and Lofton are classic ‘mike backers. If Vilma is cut, his looming suspension would be even costlier than the league intended, given that it would impact his market value.

Some have said it’s possible the Saints could retain Vilma. He would make a decent weakside linebacker, though new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme favors big, physical ‘backers. Part of the reason the undersized Vilma has thrived in New Orleans is because he’s erudite and well-suited in Gregg Williams’ scheme. That’s no longer relevant.


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