Predicting Which NFL Players on New Teams Will Make the Biggest Impacts
As we look ahead, across the vast expanse between the end of minicamp and the beginning of training camp, let us pause and reflect on free agency.
This year was not much different than any other in the free-agency era, save the immediacy of knowledge and 24-hour news cycle assaulting us with information in a way we could not imagine 10 years ago. Players changed teams—some in dramatic fashion, others in a predictable manner—and we dissected each move.
Which players will make the biggest impact for their new teams? These are not the ones who are attempting to fill shoes—Robert Meachem is not going to make a mark largely because he's arriving in Vincent Jackson's wake.
These are players whose impact will be felt.
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The Bills got off to a fast 5-2 start last year only to see their season fizzle to a 6-10 finish. The main culprit in the collapse was a porous defense that allowed a staggering 32.3 points per game (PPG) in losses.
Injuries were involved, yes, but every team deals with them. It was the Bills inability to create a consistent pass rush that hurt everything else—they were tied for 27th in the league with just 29 sacks last season. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks is inversely proportional to the amount of pressure those quarterbacks put on the secondary.
Ergo, the Bills secondary was exposed in large part to their defense's inability to get to the quarterback.
Mario Williams changes all that.
The stud defensive end signed a massive contract this year to provide the pass rush the Bills need across from fellow signee Mark Anderson.
That's instant pass rush.
Not only will Williams be a huge impact as a pass-rusher, but switching back to a 4-3 defense and sticking Williams and Anderson outside will move Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus inside where they are a better fit.
Buffalo will go from having one of the worst defensive pass-rushing fronts to one of the best, and it is all thanks to the former first overall pick.
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One unit whose effectiveness was not diminished by a poor pass rush was the Cowboys secondary. They were poor all on their own.
Rob Ryan's unit fell far short of expectations, particularly when defending the pass. It allowed the 10th-most passing yards and was near the bottom of the league in net yards per pass and first downs allowed.
The DBs were also below average, allowing 24 touchdowns and intercepting 15 passes. Terrence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick simply did not get the job done at cornerback.
Enter Brandon Carr, who allowed a 49.4 completion percentage and 61.7 NFL rating on passes thrown his direction.
Though he may not be considered elite alongside the likes of Darrelle Revis, the Cowboys paid a pretty penny for the talented cornerback, signing him to a five-year, $50.1 million contract with a $25.5 million guarantee.
He has been worth it thus far, though we are only in minicamps.
Coupled with rookie Morris Claiborne and incumbent Michael Jenkins—who was the best of Dallas' tepid trio last season (assuming they do not trade him)—Carr will dramatically improve the defensive backfield.
Quick...name the last Bears receiver to top 1,000 yards receiving.
Devin Hester or Bernard Berrian? Perish the thought. Johnny Knox? He nearly made it there in 2010, but fell short with 960 yards receiving.
The last man to surpass that number was Marty Booker back in 2002.
That the Bears' last 1,000-yard receiver came along a decade ago is telling–but it is not an aberration. The team has rarely enjoyed success at the position. Chicago has only seen five 1,000-yard seasons in the past 25 years, and 10* in their entire 91-year history.
Contrast that to Brandon Marshall, who has gotten over the 1,000-yard hump in each of his past five seasons, and it's easy to see what kind of impact he will make for the Bears in 2012.
The Bears not only got a highly talented receiver when they traded two third-round picks for Marshall, but they got one with chemistry and a rapport with their starting quarterback. Cutler had over 4,500 yards passing and Marshall over 1,250 yards receiving the last time they played together in Denver.
Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery represent an incredible upgrade for Cutler—giving him viable weapons in the passing game—assuming they steer clear of trouble and stay focused.
Marshall, in particular, will step right in and produce for the Bears, who have not seen a receiver of Marshall's caliber in quite a while.
*In 11 different instances—Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham did it in 1995.
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At first blush, Vincent Jackson might be a tempting choice for the biggest impact for his new team in central Florida.
A closer look will produce Carl Nicks as the answer to that question.
Indeed, Jackson will be a boon to Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay receiving corps, but that is a quietly talented unit, and Greg Schiano will run the ball quite a bit.
Outside of right tackle, where Jeremy Trueblood was bloody awful, the Buccaneers offensive line was not terrible last season. Nicks is special on the interior, though—he would be a big upgrade to just about any offensive line.
Nicks was a big reason why the Saints rushing attack had been quietly effective over the years. Considering what Schiano wants to do with the ball, this was a wise signing for the Buccaneers—one that will have a ripple effect on the entire offense.
J.P. Forbes/Associated Press
The Rams were decimated by injuries on defense last season, particularly at defensive back.
Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Brian Jackson and Al Harris all made it onto injured reserve (IR) at various points of the season, starting in Week 1 with Fletcher, who played just four snaps on the season.
You can imagine what resulted on the Rams defense, though, oddly enough, their run defense suffered more—they allowed the second-most rushing yards in the league. That the defense gave up the seventh-fewest passing yards in the league is deceptive—they had the third-fewest pass attempts against (484) largely due to that porous run defense.
St. Louis set out to upgrade their cornerback position this offseason, and they took a big first step when they signed Cortland Finnegan to a five-year, $50 million contract.
The Pro Bowler might not be the league's best cover corner, but he's a tenacious, physical defender with a knack for getting in opposing receivers' heads. He instantly upgrades the defensive backfield, past injuries notwithstanding.
Utilized in concert with Fletcher—who will be back from injury—and rookie Janoris Jenkins, Finnegan and the St. Louis defensive backfield will be sporting a wholly improved look from a year ago.
Much like in Buffalo, the pass rush was not Tennessee's strong suit last season. The Titans recorded the second-fewest sacks in the league with 28.
Defensive tackle Karl Klug had a quarter of those with seven, and no other player cracked 4.5. Derrick Morgan led the charge with a whopping 19 quarterback hurries at defensive end—good for 36th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Simply put, the Titans needed help.
Wimbley, meanwhile, recorded seven himself, but he did so while playing outside linebacker in a 4-3-based scheme. He put his hands in the dirt on third downs, however, and he will bring those pass-rushing skills to Tennessee, where they're sorely needed.
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The Denver Broncos did make the playoffs last season by the hair on their ankles, even surprising non-Denverites with a victory over the Steelers. Unless your name rhymes with Chip Payless, however, questions about the long-term viability of Tim Tebow as a starting quarterback lingered.
John Elway dismissed them in a two-pronged, masterful stroke when he landed free agency's biggest prize, Peyton Manning, allowing him to trade Tebow away without a fuss.
While Manning brings no guarantees, he does bring a winning pedigree and a career completion percentage well north of 50.
Manning will be a huge impact on the Broncos no matter what happens to him this season. If he returns to form—or close to it—he will keep the Broncos contending or better in an AFC West that figures to be a tough division.
If his health fails him, it will set Denver back—they may have Brock Osweiler, but he's a project quarterback who is supposed to sit and learn while Manning rides his career into the rocky mountain sunset.
Mike Ransdell/The Kansas City Star
A solid offensive line is vital to success, and the Kansas City line seemed vaporous at times last season, at least when it came to run blocking.
The right side of the line was particularly woeful, manned by Barry Richardson and Jon Asamoah. Richardson was particularly bad, earning the dubious distinction as the second-worst tackle in the league, according to PFF. He earned the worst rating as a run blocker.
Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles and friends must be singing Scott Pioli's praises today for bringing in Eric Winston to wipe away the stink at right tackle.
While he's not regarded as elite, Winston has quietly been one of the league's best offensive tackles over the years. His style of play suited Houston's zone-blocking scheme (ZBS)—where he's more comfortable—and the Chiefs will be switching to the ZBS this season. In other words, this was a match made in the heart of America.
Winston was fourth in run blocking and 11th overall last season according to PFF (third and sixth at right tackle, respectively), where he has perennially garnered good ratings. He will make the right side of that line what it should be along with Asamoah, who ended the season strong.
When you think about elite receivers, Laurent Robinson is probably nowhere near that list.
When comparing him to the likes of Mike Thomas and Jason Hill—Jacksonville's starters from last season—he looks like the next coming of Jerry Rice.
Hyperbole aside, Robinson represents a big upgrade for the Jaguars. He may not have been the free-agent prize that Vincent Jackson or Stevie Johnson would have been, but an upgrade nonetheless.
Robinson had his best season by far in Dallas, albeit having Tony Romo throwing him the ball after bouncing around teams with bad or rookie quarterbacks may have had something to do with that. He had 858 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns; 83 and seven more, respectively, than Thomas and Hill combined.
Blaine Gabbert must have heaved a sigh of relief when Robinson signed, and another when Justin Blackmon was drafted. Hopefully, the latter can stay out of trouble and help Robinson upgrade an atrocious receiving corps.
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One of the reasons the Dream Team had a nightmarish season was their soft defense—particularly in the middle.
The Eagles gambled when they inserted undersized Casey Matthews in the middle of their defense to start the season. The house won, punishing the Eagles with a horrendous run defense in the middle. Things did not improve much when Jamar Chaney replaced Matthews in the middle, though the team did fare better against the run in the latter part of the season.
Philadelphia saw a need, and they fixed it by trading a mere fourth-round pick to the Texans, swapping third-rounders as well.
He may be coming off his worst full season as a pro, but Ryans will be a massive upgrade to the defensive unit as he transitions back to his natural position. The talented linebacker is better suited as a true mike linebacker, and that's where he will be playing for the Eagles.
Philadelphia is primed to make good on the promise of a year ago, and Ryans will be a big reason on that defense.
Robert E. Klein for Boston.com
You might be wondering how, exactly, Brandon Lloyd will make a big impact on an offense already running on jet fuel.
Simple: He will be what Randy Moss was to this team—to a certain extent.
Lloyd is no Moss by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, opposing defenses did not have to worry about Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez when Moss was in town. Lloyd might be a poor man's Moss, but he's much better than what the Patriots have had over the past couple of seasons in Brandon Tate and aging Deion Branch.
Receivers not named Wes Welker have not topped 706 yards receiving individually over the past two seasons. Lloyd aims to change that, giving the Patriots a legitimate threat on the outside.
If he can build chemistry with Brady, the high-octane offense is going to combust.
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What is this list without Tim Tebow?
The media darling landed in the media capital of America (apologies to Los Angeles, but they do not call it an East Coast bias without reason). Considering his new team already had a starting quarterback, there should be minimal impact coming from a backup quarterback and personal punt protector who was acquired for a fourth-round pick, right?
Woody Johnson knew what he was doing when he pushed Mike Tannenbaum for the Tebow trade, though he insists it was strictly a football move. While Tebow might bring great leadership and competition at quarterback, Johnson's team is getting plenty of attention as a result, and the move seems to have stoked the fires under Mark Sanchez.
Whatever happens this season for the Jets, Tim Tebow's presence on the roster will have an effect, even if it's merely perception. If Sanchez thrives, the trade motivated him or Tebow's leadership skills shined through. If he falters, Tebow will have an opportunity to bring Tebow time to the Jets offense on a full-time basis.
At the very least, the circus has pitched its tents in northern New Jersey, and that's impact enough already.