Every NFL Team's Biggest Roster Enigma
Every team has one: a player who just isn't quite delivering what is expected of him.
They come in all different forms.
Sometimes he's a player who was a high-priced free agent or a top draft pick that hasn't yet produced.
Sometimes he's a player who just can't stay healthy.
Sometimes he's a player who looks like an All-Pro one week, and very average the next.
And sometimes he's a player who is a combination of all three.
That's what makes each of these men enigmas for the front offices and coaching staffs of their respective teams.
And just so we're clear, being "an enigma" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Each of these players may turn out incredible seasons in 2012 and well beyond. But as of right now, they have been something of a head-scratcher.
Note: All of these entries have spent at least one season with their current clubs: There's not much to judge rookies and free-agent acquisitions on when it comes to their current teams.
Green Bay Packers: James Starks, RB
Based on his performance in the 2011 NFL playoffs, Starks really seemed destined for a breakout year the following regular season. That's what happens when you carry the ball more than 22 times in three consecutive road playoff wins.
But Starks didn't exactly follow up that great stretch with a fantastic 2011-2012 campaign.
Sure, he started out with a solid game against the Saints, scoring a huge touchdown in that win, but his production trailed off a bit towards the middle of the season. He never scored again in 2011.
Now, the fact that the Packers throw the ball so often certainly limits his carries and chances for touchdowns, but that's not the chief reason why he's an enigma.
There are plenty of durability issues.
He spent virtually all of his rookie season on the PUP list, and then was hampered by a knee injury late in 2011. Couple those two ailments with the shoulder injury that cost him all of his senior year at the University at Buffalo, and Starks isn't exactly the most reliable running back.
Could he have a monster year in 2012? Definitely. But only if he's healthy, and that hasn't been the case since way back in 2008.
Detroit Lions: Maurice Stovall, WR
This entry is based entirely on one thing: size.
If a team were to build the ideal NFL wide receiver, they'd probably use Stovall's frame. He's 6'5", 220 pounds. And back when he was a prospect coming out of Notre Dame (a school that has put out its share of talented wide receivers), he ran a solid 40-yard dash at 4.5 seconds.
So, he clearly has all the physical tools to be a successful NFL pass-catcher.
But the past few years, he's barely been able to get on the field for offense.
Yes, he's a contributor on special teams and that shouldn't be forgotten, but the coaching staff has to look at him and think, "With that body, why can't he do anything for us on offense?"
Clearly, it takes more than physical skills to be a great wideout.
Chicago Bears: Kellen Davis, TE
With the emergence of more hybrid-type tight ends (Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham), maybe the classic, big-body, bruising tight ends are out of style. (Well, maybe not considering Rob Gronkowski).
Still, at 6'8", 267 pounds, Davis would figure to be more of a threat in the Bears' passing game, no matter what style is in or out.
Yet in three seasons, the former Michigan State Spartan (who caught 32 passes for 513 yards and six touchdowns as a senior) has only totaled 19 catches over the last two seasons, despite not missing a game.
He's extremely athletic (he ran a 4.59 at the combine), but that didn't seem to be enough for Mike Martz to work him into the game plan very often. With Martz gone, Bears fans are eager to see if he can join that burgeoning club of elite receiving tight ends.
Minnesota Vikings: Phil Loadholt, OT
At times, Loadholt is arguably one of the best right tackles in the NFL. He's so big and strong that he can drive-block as well as anyone.
But reliability is key for any offensive tackle, and Loadholt has struggled with consistency.
He's been hit with many false start penalties and has been beaten off the snap because of spotty footwork, something even he admits to (via TwinCities.com):
"You have two or three drives where you look like a pretty damn good offensive tackle," he said. "Then you do something that you don't look like it. Not that I let up, but everybody in this league is so good, you take one bad technique and it can go the wrong way."
Loadholt isn't an enigma because of any prolonged poor play or lack of effort, but because he and the coaching staff know that he is more than capable of being an elite tackle. And he hasn't been, despite starting for three full seasons. As a result, he remains something of an unknown commodity.
San Francisco 49ers: Ted Ginn, Jr., WR
NFL history is rife with high first-round wide receivers who turned out to be colossal busts: Charles Rogers, Troy Williamson and Lam Jones, just to name a few.
Ginn probably doesn't belong on this list, especially since he's still an excellent special teams contributor and had a pretty solid sophomore season in Miami in 2008. But he certainly hasn't lived up to that ninth overall selection in 2007, either.
Even the change of scenery, from Miami to San Francisco, hasn't enabled Ginn to become much of a force on the offensive side of the ball: He has only 31 grabs in his two years with the 49ers.
And since the front office spent so much money and energy this offseason on finding Alex Smith another wideout opposite Michael Crabtree (i.e. Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, A.J. Jenkins, even Chris Owusu), Ginn doesn't seem likely to have much of a presence on offense in 2012. Especially since a knee injury has cost him a great deal of work this offseason.
With all that athleticism, so apparent on kick and punt returns, his inability to contribute on offense renders him an enigma.
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb, QB
The way some people tell it, Kevin Kolb had an awful year in 2011, but I don't think that's either a fair or accurate account of his performance last season.
Not only did he have almost no time to digest Ken Whisenhunt's offense, but he also did play well in a handful of games, namely that overtime win over Dallas and his debut performance in a Cardinals uniform, a victory over Carolina.
Still, something must have the Cardinals' front office unconvinced, since Whisenhunt has stated that the quarterback job is up for grabs and that he won't name a starter any time soon.
And since Kolb—for whom they gave up a starter and a second-round pick to acquire, then gave $12 million guaranteed dollars to—is in a battle with a fifth-round, small-college, third-year player in John Skelton, the mere fact that there is competition speaks volumes.
The Cards knew they were taking a chance on Kolb, who only had seven career starts under his belt before coming to town, and after one year the risks haven't diminished any.
Seattle Seahawks: Sidney Rice, WR
Much like the situation regarding the Cardinals and Kevin Kolb, Seattle knew it was taking a chance on signing Sidney Rice to a massive deal last summer.
Not only did Rice have just one great season in Minnesota among three below-average ones, but he was also coming off what seemed to be a major hip problem.
To make matters worse, injuries to both shoulders have resulted in multiple surgeries since joining the Seahawks. As the 2012 season nears, it remains to be seen if he'll be ready for Week 1.
Rice has great height, incredible speed and has proven that (given the right system and the right quarterback) he can be an incredible pass-catcher. But his health (concussions have also been an issue) has also proven to be a major question mark week in and week out.
St. Louis Rams: Jason Smith, OT
On this particular list, there might not be a more frustrating player for his respective club than Smith.
He was the second overall selection in 2009, yet is roving dangerously close to the "bust" label; more importantly, he's repeatedly roved dangerously close to being cut.
Smith has started barely half of the Rams' games since joining the team. Now, some of that is due to concussion issues that he's dealt with in both 2009 and last year, but given how poor the Rams' offensive line has been (133 sacks allowed over the last three years) and the fact that he was expected to be its anchor, the Rams have considered cutting their losses.
The new regime of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead hope that new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau can resurrect Smith's career, and that's why they chose to restructure his massive contract rather than release him.
But after three years, a second overall selection should be counting his All-Pro selections, not his blessings.
New Orleans Saints: Charles Brown, OT
Coming into the NFL, USC tackle Charles Brown may not have been as highly regarded as someone like Jason Smith or Trent Williams, who went fourth overall that year. But he was an All-American and a second-round pick, coming from a program known for great offensive tackles.
So, for the Saints to see him start only five games in his two seasons with the club earns him that curious, even disappointed, look from Saints fans as well as the front office.
Even before the Saints selected him, injuries had plagued his career. Since 2010, he's had a disc injury that needed surgery, a hamstring that slowed him down during his pro day, as well as knee and hip flexor injuries that stifled his development last year.
When he's been healthy enough to play, Brown has been a solid player, filling in admirably for Zach Strief in the middle of 2011. But his repeated trips to the sidelines have to leave the Saints wondering if he's reliable enough to entrust with a starting spot.
Atlanta Falcons: Peria Jerry, DT
Although Charles Brown and Jason Smith can certainly point to injuries as major factors in their lack of growth, they really have nothing on Peria Jerry.
Jerry blew up his knee as a rookie in 2009 and it took him almost two years to fully recover. So, 2011 may well have been his very first season in the NFL.
Still, the Falcons really didn't get much out of the former first-round pick: He played 16 games but recorded just 10 tackles.
His roster spot seems to be secure—via ESPN.com, Mike Smith recently said they are "committed" to him—but that doesn't mean the team has any idea what it will get from him in 2012. Even if Corey Peters is injured right now.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy, DT
Do you see a pattern developing here? High first-round picks who cannot stay healthy are naturally going to occupy an enigmatic spot on their club's roster.
Teams spend those high picks (and tens of millions of dollars) because they expect tremendous production. So when that production is clouded in injury, it's hard to know exactly what you have.
And McCoy is yet another example.
He was the third overall pick back in 2010, and when he was on the field during his rookie season he showed flashes of true dominance.
But torn biceps in both arms have limited his play and lead to serious questions about what he'll be able to contribute in 2012 and beyond. How effective can a defensive tackle really be if his upper-body strength is hampered?
That's a question Greg Schiano and his new staff will soon find answers to.
Carolina Panthers: Jeff Otah, OT
Although Cam Newton may seem (and act) like Superman, he's not made of steel. Therefore, the Panthers have to protect him in and around the pocket.
For years, Carolina thought it had the ideal front-side tackle to anchor its offensive line: That's why it spent a mid-first-round selection on Pitt's Jeff Otah.
But Otah has been beset by injuries since 2009. He's only played in four games the past two seasons. And despite hopes of a full recovery from last year's knee injury and being ready to contribute on day one, the club has held him out of a huge chunk of the offseason workouts in order to avoid any further complications.
He's finished the last three seasons on IR, so the team is doing everything possible to prevent a fourth. That makes for a pretty delicate status of Otah's roster spot.
New York Giants: Ramses Barden, WR
Every NFL team has a project: a raw, undervalued player that the coaching staff thinks it can mold into a fine player.
For the Giants, that player is Ramses Barden.
He didn't play big-time college ball and was only a third-round pick back in 2009, but he has such tremendous size (6'6", 225 pounds) and athleticism that the Giants have given him ample opportunities to get on the field. It hasn't really worked out, however.
Not only did the undrafted Victor Cruz swoop in and take his place on the depth chart, but Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan have also been drafted comparatively high, and Domenik Hixon has been brought back as well.
All seem to have the inside track on grabbing more catches than Barden now that Mario Manningham is gone and Hakeem Nicks is injured.
Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick, QB
This list is filled with players who I've labeled enigmatic because of perpetual injury and inconsistency concerns. They all take a back seat, however, to Michael Vick.
Perhaps no player in recent NFL history has ever been tagged with a more endless string of "ifs" than Vick.
Since joining the Eagles, he's had some incredible moments, moments that suggest he would finally live up to all the hype that followed him from Blacksburg to Atlanta. Remember, back in 2010, there was a time late in the season when he was a legitimate MVP candidate.
But everyone wondered if he could follow up that fantastic season with a strong one in 2011. And for the most part, he didn't, because of rib, hand and concussion issues. (He also wasn't nearly as turnover-free as he had been the previous season.)
If an enigma is something that is hard to gauge, a mystery yet to be solved, then Michael Vick—"old" or "new"—is the very definition. At any given time, he's equally likely to throw for 300 yards, rush for 100, commit multiple turnovers or sit on the sidelines while nursing an injury.
Dallas Cowboys: Felix Jones, RB
Maybe it's just me, but once I saw the Cowboys release Marion Barber back in the summer of 2011, I really thought Felix Jones would have a monster season, the type of year that led him into the discussion for All-Pro status.
After all, he was a first-round pick, had showed an explosive ability (averaging nearly six yards per carry back in 2009) and was coming off the first season of his career where he wasn't riddled with injuries: In 2010 he played in all 16 games.
Not only was 2011 a down year statistically for Jones (and one in which he suffered more nagging injuries, this time to his ankle and hamstring), but he also saw rookie DeMarco Murray completely steal his thunder...and carries.
Before enduring his own crippling leg injury, Murray was on the fast track to superstardom, rushing for more than 750 yards during a six-game stretch. That performance has many believing that Murray, not Jones, is the future of Big D's ground game.
Both Murray and Jones will be back in 2012 and there's no reason why they cannot co-exist. But given Jones' experience, his resume and first-round draft status, Jerry Jones and his staff have to shake their head at Jones' apparent inability to earn the job outright.
Washington Redskins: Trent Williams, OT
Most people know about Williams' substance abuse issues. According to one report by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, he failed as many as 10 drug tests during a two-month stretch in 2011.
The fallout from those failed tests yielded a four-game suspension at the end of the season and probably a big, cozy spot in Mike Shanahan's dog house.
But even without those issues, there has to be some trepidation about Williams' ability to contribute in Washington.
The former fourth overall selection in the 2010 draft has had multiple knee and ankle injuries since coming to the Redskins.
Truth be told, Williams is still very young, capable and not necessarily debilitated by those lower-body injuries. So, there is no reason he cannot become an elite tackle in the NFL, starting with the 2012 season.
But (as is the case with the Rams' Jason Smith) considering how fast some of the other high-end first-round picks at the position, such as Joe Thomas and Jake Long, have instantly become starters and barely missed any snaps along the way, the Redskins have to see Williams as something of a riddle.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, QB
There are absolutely no injury issues with Joe Flacco: He basically hasn't missed a snap since joining the team in 2008.
So what makes Flacco, the team's unquestioned, unchallenged starter for four consecutive playoff seasons, an enigma?
Well, his play, of course.
There have been times when Flacco looks Pro Bowl worthy. Take his two wins over Pittsburgh last year for example.
And then there are times where he seems to deserve all the bashing that he gets through the media and the fans. Consider his awful performances against the Jets and Jaguars, or the pick he threw late in the AFC Championship game.
The Ravens are clearly committed to Flacco (at least for now, considering they haven't given him a long-term contract extension), which makes his place on the roster so complex. Yes, they have faith in him, but only up until a point.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Willie Colon, G/T
Injuries are the cause of this entry, but not necessarily the reason for it.
Colon has missed essentially the last two seasons with injuries, derailing a career that really had great promise. At just 25 years of age, he was a major contributor to a Super Bowl-winning offense.
But triceps and Achilles injuries, as well as the emergence of Marcus Gilbert, have prompted the Steelers to try to see if Colon can fill the team's much-needed spot at left guard.
It would be a major challenge, and somewhat risky, to move a 100 percent, fully healthy tackle inside to guard, especially since the Steelers' offense is already changing now that Todd Haley is on the job. It's an eminently more difficult proposition given Colon's two-year absence from the field.
Can he play guard? Can he play at all, given his hiatus? Those two questions leave Colon the most enigmatic player on the Steelers' roster.
Cincinnati Bengals: Taylor Mays, S
There are two reasons why I've listed Mays as the Bengals' enigmatic player.
Here's the first.
A year ago, around this time, the 49ers tried as hard as possible to dump Mays, finally sending him to Cincinnati in exchange for conditional draft choices. And during the ensuing NFL season, Mays played almost no role on the Bengals' emerging defense and was limited to special teams duties.
Yet this year, he's being touted as the front-runner for the starting strong safety job. That's quite a turnaround. How exactly are we supposed to read that? I'm not sure the Bengals know either.
The other reason why Mays is so intriguing yet so difficult to categorize or quantify as a known commodity is his size. He's a "tweener" in an unusual sense; not like a hybrid tight end/wide receiver or defensive end/outside linebacker. No, he's something of a tweener linebacker/safety.
Given his great height (6'3") and size (230 pounds), there was talk of moving him to linebacker last year, instead of the spot he played at USC and with the 49ers.
Just the fact that the Bengals aren't (or at least weren't) quite sure what position, linebacker or safety, he fits suggests he doesn't quite fit into either one.
Cleveland Browns: Mohamed Massaquoi, WR
As a rookie in 2009, on a team that had plenty of offensive deficiencies, Mohamed Massaquoi had a fantastic season, catching 34 passes for 624 yards.
That campaign had to instill plenty of confidence in both the former Georgia Bulldog and the Browns' front office. After all, Massaquoi is built like a top-caliber wideout at 6'1", 210 pounds.
But the past two seasons, his numbers and overall production has dipped considerably, so much so that rookie Greg Little and (let's face it) special teamer Josh Cribbs greatly outperformed him.
Recently, Mike Holmgren suggested that the string of brutal concussions Massaquoi endured was a major reason why that has been the case, saying he was more cautious on the field, according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com.
Regardless of the cause of his decline in 2010 and 2011, however, Massaquoi has the talent to be the reliable receiver the Browns sorely need. The 2012 season will be a chance, maybe his last, to prove that once again.
Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno, RB
From one Georgia Bulldog (Massaquoi) whose injury concerns have interrupted a promising career, to another.
Moreno had a fantastic rookie season in 2009, even better than what his former teammate Massaquoi turned in. He rushed for 947 yards and seven touchdowns on 247 carries. He followed that up with a solid sophomore season that was a bit underrated, considering the fact that he also added 37 catches for 372 yards.
But 2011 saw him take a major step backwards, as he missed chunks of time with hamstring and knee injuries. In the end, Moreno played in just half the Broncos' games, carried the ball just 37 times and underwent ACL surgery late last year.
Things only got worse as he was arrested for DUI in February.
Recently, there has even been talk of the club releasing the former first-round pick, per Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post (via Rotoworld.com).
It's been quite a fall for Moreno, who went from featured back in Josh McDaniels' offense to (at best) a third-down back in this new regime.
Still, the club has hung on to him, and since he participated in OTAs, there has to be some sentiment within the organization that he has upside.
San Diego Chargers: Larry English, OLB
The Chargers are loaded with talent at the outside linebacker position right now, so English will probably be fortunate just to earn a roster spot. After all, they have Shaun Phillips, who was a Pro Bowler back in 2010, Jarret Johnson, the big-time free-agent acquisition from Baltimore, as well as first-round stud Melvin Ingram.
Throw in Antwan Barnes, who had 11 sacks in 2011, and the Chargers might not have room for English.
But, as is the case with so many first-round picks who struggle or struggle to stay healthy, the Chargers seem to want to give him every opportunity to pan out.
And that's a fair approach, considering why English has not yet had a chance to live up to his potential. He missed most of 2011 with a broken foot, and missed a good deal of the previous season with another foot injury.
According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, those injuries are reportedly healed up. But a minor groin injury cost him part of OTAs, and he's again going to have to try to prove to the Chargers' defensive staff that he's capable of earning playing time. Or just staying healthy.
Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden, RB
But for all his promise and all the flashes he's shown, he has repeatedly found himself on the sidelines instead of in the huddle.
Problems with his hamstring, toe, foot, as well as that orbital bone injury have forced him to miss plenty of practice time and 19 of the Raiders' possible 64 games over the last four years.
Those injuries are a critical part of why the Raiders have to find his routinely "probable/questionable/doubtful" statuses frustrating, but the reason why he's truly enigmatic is the fact that he's so productive when he's healthy.
Over the past two years, he's averaged nearly 90 yards per start, was one of the team's leading receivers in 2010 and averaged over 5.3 yards per carry.
The organization has to be thinking (no matter who the head coach is) that if it can only get him on the field for all 16 games, the Raiders are a playoff team.
But no one has had a chance to test that theory yet.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tyson Jackson, DE
Unlike Larry English or Gerald McCoy or Peria Jerry, injuries aren't really the cause of Jackson's place on this list. He's only missed a few games during his three-year stay in Kansas City.
No, like a few other names on this list, Jackson has a complicated role with his club because of his high draft position and low output.
It's too early to consider the third overall pick in the 2009 draft a bust, but it's not too early to consider his play sub-standard.
Not only is he so physically gifted, but he's also been in a system that really enabled him to excel at the NFL level. Derrick Johnson, Glenn Dorsey and especially Tamba Hali should have drawn enough attention away from opposing offenses for Jackson to have made more plays.
Houston Texans: Kevin Walter, WR
Speaking of players who have tremendous talent opposite them, thus suggesting plenty of opportunities to make big plays, there's Kevin Walter.
In the form of Andre Johnson, Houston has one of the game's most respected and feared wide receivers in today's NFL. Yet since 2008, they haven't had a player step up and produce in a way that takes pressure off of Johnson.
Walter has been the team's second wide receiving option for years now, and in 2007 and 2008 he put up really solid numbers, roughly 60 catches and 850 yards each season. But since then, his numbers have dipped.
Now, part of that is due to Johnson's injuries—he's missed 12 games in the past two seasons—and part of it is due to the enormous rise in production from the running game. In short, you might say that Walter's opportunities have probably diminished a bit.
But the other half of the coin is this: Johnson's absence and defenses zeroing in on Foster and the running game should increase, not decrease, his opportunities to make plays.
Clearly that hasn't happened. And since he's shown in the past that he can be an above-average pass-catcher, the fact that he hasn't been one recently should confound Gary Kubiak a bit.
Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson, RB
Everyone assumes there is a very simple explanation as to why Chris Johnson—arguably the best back in the NFL—had such a miserable season last year. ("Miserable," of course, being a relative term: When you rush for 2,006 yards in your second season, dropping down to literally half that number in your fourth is troublesome.)
Last summer, Johnson held out to protest his contract, and as a result he missed a huge chunk of training camp.
He returned to the club 10 days before the start of the regular season and was in uniform for Week 1 (and every other game that season), but the Titans' running game finished the season with the second-worst totals in the NFL.
Now, that isn't entirely Johnson's fault, and the fact that he missed so much of the preseason (while a new offense was being installed) is largely to blame. And it's a good bet that his numbers will rebound considerably in 2012.
But don't forget just how short the half-lives of NFL running backs are. Johnson is a player who touched the ball 1,062 times in his first three years, and a player who isn't built (5'11", 195 pounds) quite like Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner or even Maurice Jones-Drew.
It was enigmatic that Johnson had such a mediocre year in 2011; if he follows it up with another substandard performance, the reasons might not be such a mystery.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Marcedes Lewis, TE
Conspiracy theorists might not have such a hard time explaining why Lewis followed up a Pro Bowl year with a comparatively bad season. Two words: contract year.
Lewis was set to be a free agent after the 2010 season, and in order to get paid handsomely he needed a great season, which he had, posting career highs in catches (58), yards (700) and especially touchdowns (10).
So, the pessimists out there assume that once he landed his big pay day, he could rest on his laurels, count his checks and not have to work so hard.
That's a pretty spurious and overly simplified way to look at things.
But the timing is curious, especially since Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing in 2011. There should have been more opportunities, not less, for Lewis to catch passes, especially in the red zone, even if there was a rookie quarterback under center.
Most people, especially those inside the Jaguars' organization, hope that Lewis' down 2011 was an aberration and that he'll rebound in 2012. But considering how dominant those hybrid tight ends (like Lewis) have been recently, it stands to reason that his numbers would go up, not down.
Indianapolis Colts: Jerry Hughes, DE
Hughes was never really put in a great position to excel with the Colts, at least not until now.
Coming out of TCU, he was a 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker, so when the Colts tried to mold him into a 4-3 defensive end, it was a tall order. And the results were predictable: He contributed almost nothing, occasionally earning the undesired "healthy scratch" label prior to kickoff.
So, how exactly is he considered an enigma and not just a plain-old bust?
Well, for one, it's only been two years. Barring major injury concerns a player really needs three seasons to consider whether or not he's a true "bust."
But more to the point, his place on the Colts' roster today is intriguing yet impossible to gauge because the team will be installing a scheme he is familiar with: Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 from Baltimore to town.
So, soon enough, the riddle will be solved: Was Hughes failing to succeed simply because he was a 3-4 player in a 4-3 scheme, or was Hughes failing to succeed because he just isn't an NFL talent?
Time will tell.
New England Patriots: Brandon Spikes, LB
I'm not quite sure what to make of Brandon Spikes' place on the Patriots' roster. And not just because Bill Belichick has a penchant for parting ways with players who seemed to have much more value (Richard Seymour, Brandon Meriweather, Randy Moss) than he believed.
Spikes was a second-round pick from a great college program (Florida) who has been outstanding at times, yet the Pats don't really seem all that committed to him.
Clearly, one of their middle linebacker spots belongs to Jerod Mayo, to whom they gave a huge contract extension back in December, but the other inside backer spot remains such a mystery.
This is, of course, assuming they even continue to run a 3-4, which they abandoned during parts of the postseason. They drafted Dont'a Hightower, signed Bobby Carpenter and they like Dane Fletcher. Where exactly does Spikes, who had a tremendous postseason in 2012, fit into that scheme?
Who knows, especially with Belichick calling the shots.
In the end, Spikes will probably be in the Pats' long-term plans, but since he's not terribly reliable (he's already had ankle and knee issues along with his substance abuse suspension as a rookie) that's certainly not a given.
New York Jets: Mark Sanchez, QB
Part of that is just the nature of the beast. Not only is he an NFL starting quarterback, but he's also an NFL starting quarterback in New York, where the scrutiny is white hot and where Eli Manning has won two Super Bowls in five years.
But what makes Sanchez an enigmatic player is his current speed: neutral.
Sanchez looked like he was destined for NFL greatness after stepping right in as a rookie in 2009 and leading the Jets to an AFC Championship game berth. Maybe he wasn't exactly the second coming of Joe Namath that rookie season, but he played well enough to lead the Jets to their best season in 11 years.
A year later, he showed some improvement and the Jets again reached deep into the playoffs. But last year (never mind the stats), he took a step backwards. He was really inconsistent, especially in games the Jets really needed him to perform well in: seven picks during their season-ending three-game losing skid.
Every quarterback, especially a young quarterback, is entitled to a down season or at the very least a bad stretch. But it's hard to believe that the Jets feel 100 percent secure in Sanchez's role as the San-chise, and that's pretty strange considering his rise just two years back.
Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller, RB
When the Bills spent the ninth overall choice in the 2010 draft on Clemson's C.J. Spiller, they knew it wasn't a slam dunk or a home run: No pick, whether it's first overall or Mr. Irrelevant, is guaranteed NFL stardom.
Still, the franchise (and specifically GM Buddy Nix) had to be surprised to see an undrafted former NFL Europer and AFL-er from tiny Coe College easily earn (retain, really) the starter's job over Spiller.
But that's how it has played out each of the past two years. Fred Jackson has been the Bills' workhorse with Spiller serving as a complementary runner.
Jackson missed a good chunk of the 2011 season with a leg injury, during which time Spiller saw plenty of additional touches. And for the most part, he filled in admirably. That's why it's a bit surprising that the Bills chose to give Jackson, who is 31 years old, a contract extension back in May. Do they not think Spiller is cut out to be a featured back?
The stats (446 yards rushing, 86 carries in the team's final six games) and Spiller's tremendous athleticism (4.35 40-yard dash) suggest he can.
But if the Bills' staff thinks otherwise, it's quite a surprise and something of a mystery, considering how physically talented Spiller is and how high-profile his selection was.
Miami Dolphins: Steve Slaton, RB
Slaton went from the penthouse to the outhouse pretty quickly in Houston. He was a 1,200-yard runner in his rookie season back in 2008, then injuries, fumbling concerns and, of course, the emergence of Arian Foster quickly made him expendable.
That's how he wound up in Miami, where the situation isn't terribly different. He's still behind Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas and maybe even rookie Lamar Miller.
Although he doesn't have very many carries under his belt (just 442), the spinal/neck/shoulder injury he suffered in 2009 suggests that he might be "damaged goods" and therefore not a real threat to be a routine ball-carrier.
Nevertheless, he's on the Dolphins' roster, and according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald, head coach Joe Philbin said that he might be an ideal back in their zone scheme.
Is that just bluster from a head coach, perhaps talking up trade bait? Probably not, considering few teams would really go after Slaton at this point. So maybe he does have a future in South Beach.
But that all depends on whether or not he can a) stay healthy, b) protect the ball and c) somehow steal carries from Bush, Thomas and Miller.
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