The NFL's Most Unheralded Starters
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Congratulations. You made it.
You will not endure one more Sunday in 2012 without NFL action. I like to look at depth charts this time of year. Ourlads provides really good ones. Some names pop up in significant starting offensive roles that may or may not be familiar to you. These are the NFL's most unheralded offensive skill position starters.
For NFL teams, the season has started. Let me assure you. Play books are being installed, and personnel groupings are being closely observed. Teams need to know what they can reasonably expect out of a position in order to integrate that role properly into the playbook, which does not change once installed.
Anyone who has read Take Your Eye Off The Ball knows that game plans change, but the play book does not. There is simply not enough time in the week-to-week hustle of preparing for the next opponent. In this hurried preparation process, you install weekly variations of your firmly set play book in order to best match up with an opponent. That is a game plan.
This is why reps matter in camp. This is the playbook and you want a big role in it. These are some lesser-known players who are set to play roles in 2012 that are most commonly held by NFL stars. Offensive skill position players. Whether you know these guys or not, they are currently getting the reps that their respective teams' play books are being crafted around.
Chaz Schilens, Wide Receiver, New York Jets
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New Jets WR Chaz Schilens is the kind of receiver that the late, great Al Davis loved: Tall, athletic and physical. Schilens never lived up to his potential as an Oakland Raider, however, mainly due to injuries. He is currently penciled in to start opposite Santonio Holmes for the Jets in 2012.
At 6'4", 225 pounds, Schilens most certainly has the body to step into the roster spot previously occupied by Plaxico Burress. While the comparison to Plax seems obvious, Jets head coach Rex Ryan compares Schilens to another former Jets WR:
"He’s one of the top blockers as a receiver in the NFL, kind of like what Braylon Edwards did for us. And he’s done a nice job catching the football. He made some deep catches and he’s a big target that runs fast."
Jets QB Mark Sanchez is digressing as a passer, and a big-bodied, rangy target in the passing game is an inaccurate QB's best friend.
The Jets used their second round draft pick in 2012 on Stephen Hill, a raw WR prospect from Georgia Tech who has enormous potential and absolutely blazing speed. The issue with Hill is the same issue that Denver WR Demaryius Thomas faced coming into the NFL. Georgia Tech runs a triple option offense that does not require any refinement of route-running ability.
Schilens has signed a one-year deal with the Jets, and in the worst case, will serve as a temporary Band-Aid while the young Hill learns the intricacies of an NFL playbook and gains a real-time understanding of the route tree. In the best case, I believe the Jets would love to move Santonio Holmes into the slot and line up two 6'4" beasts at the X and the Z. One a physical blocker and dependable target, the other an over-the-top burner.
Armon Binns, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
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Armon Binns was signed in 2011 by the Jaguars as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati, but he never caught on in Jacksonville. There wasn't much "catching" going on in any form in Jacksonville last season.
Binns was cut by the Jags during the 2011 preseason. He was then picked up in September by the Bengals, who placed him on their practice squad.
Now a member of Cincinnati's active roster, Binns finds himself occupying the position that was held last season by new Vikings WR Jerome Simpson.
I view Binns as an upgrade. I spoke with Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer while covering the NFL Combine this year. He told me that team brass viewed Simpson as no better than a No. 4 option at the WR position. When Reedy asked Bengals OC Jay Gruden about Binns at rookie camp, the sentiment was decidedly different. Larry Fitzgerald comparisons are generally a good sign:
"I love Armon... I noticed how last year when he was going against the defense every day, he was Larry Fitzgerald every week and making all kinds of good plays. I was thinking, why isn't he playing for us? You know? He really made his mark last year in practice and he is taking advantage of the reps he's getting now."
Binns' main competition for the spot opposite A.J. Green will come from former Patriot Brandon Tate, who the Bengals claimed off of waivers last season and used predominantly on special teams where he shined as a returner.
Donald Jones, Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
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Who will line up opposite Stevie Johnson in 2012? Bills head coach Chan Gailey says the battle for the starting Z position in Buffalo is a wide open competition coming into camp, but apparently third-year wideout Donald Jones is the odds-on favorite.
The Bills as an organization are hardly oozing with confidence regarding Jones' role. It was common knowledge during the past offseason that the Bills were interested in courting proven free agent WR options such as Vincent Jackson and Robert Meachem. While Jones possesses a smooth, almost effortless change of direction ability, the fact is, he hasn't done enough at the NFL level to provide an adequate sample for projection moving forward.
Originally signed by the Bills as an undrafted free agent out of Youngstown State in 2010 as a potential future replacement for Lee Evans, Donald Jones only saw the field on special teams for the first half of his rookie season. Through the second half of Buffalo's 2010 season, he was employed intermittently at WR in a reserve role, having little impact. This trend continued in 2011 as Jones was only able to rack up 231 yards and two touchdowns over the course of eight games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Donald Jones' most likely competition comes from players such as Derek Hagan and Marcus Easley. It's not exactly a heavyweight bout. While Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson are both noted fan of Jones, the true "No. 2" WR in Buffalo this season is sure to be David Nelson. Nelson can operate out of a variety of sets, and has the versatility to create linebacker mismatches while taking safety help away from Stevie Johnson in motion formations.
Brandon LaFell, Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
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Panthers third-year WR Brandon LaFell is an impressive player to analyze. He can get off the press, create separation and high-point the ball in a manner conducive to relative NFL success at worst, and sheer dominance at best. LaFell enters camp as the heavy favorite to man the ship solo opposite Steve Smith with the departure of Legedu Naanee to the Dolphins.
LaFell has been the recipient of significant praise throughout the offseason and training camp. As Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told The Charlotte Observer:
"The one thing I didn’t want to do last year, I wanted to keep the carrot in front of Brandon. I didn’t want him to feel like he’s arrived. I think the thing that Brandon has to always keep in front of him is the big picture, and that is his continual growth. I hope he never, ever feels like he’s arrived."
The "carrot" that is being dangled in front of LaFell is the potential to break out in an offensive system that is young and explosive in an NFC South division where a lot of points are scored. Last season, Jonathan Stewart, a running back, had more receptions than LaFell. LaFell made the most of his opportunities, though, ranking 17th among all NFL receivers in yards per catch.
LaFell can do it all. He is not scared of crossing routes, he is a natural hands catcher, and he exhibits the prototypical physical characteristics of a very special breed of NFL WR a la Michael Crabtree. An explosive possession receiver with the ability to break huge plays via his athleticism alone. Louis Murphy (a favorite of the Raiders' old coaching staff, but apparently not the new one) has been acquired by the Panthers, and will provide competition at the position through camp along with David Gettis.
Stevan Ridley, Running Back, New England Patriots
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Mike Loyko is reporting from Patriots training camp that one of the NFL's biggest personnel question marks coming into the 2012 season has a clear answer. Not only will second-year RB Stevan Ridley lead the Patriots rushing attack, he will do so looking "head and shoulders" above his competition in Shane Vereen.
With the departure of Benjarvus Green-Ellis to Cincinnati, and the recent release of newly signed veteran Joseph Addai, Ridley is the far-and-away leader in a three-man race to tote the rock in Foxboro. Danny Woodhead will be operating in the traditional "Kevin Faulk role," being used on third downs, hurry up packages and in the screen game.
Ridley runs hard. He isn't necessarily a "big" running back, but he plays like a big running back and carries a load at 5'11", 225 pounds. He keeps his feet moving through contact and appears far more elusive, and honestly, faster than the prospect we saw coming out of LSU last season. He is not afraid of contact, and he keeps his shoulders square to line with no wasted motion as a runner.
Ridley's biggest liability happens to be the biggest attribute of the recently departed Green-Ellis. Ball security. Green-Ellis wasn't great at much, but at least he didn't fumble. Literally. Green-Ellis never fumbled in his career as a Patriot. The same cannot be said about Ridley, who was benched for the playoffs after fumbling issues cropped up down the 2011 regular season's home stretch, just as he was beginning to show explosive breakout potential.
Ridley, according to Loyko, has been lackluster in pass protection during drills, another issue that was an initial concern. We all know that the Patriots are not a run-first team. They are a win-first team, adopting constantly evolving methods to attain this goal. As long as Ridley can hold onto the ball, he will be the Patriots go-to guy on first and second downs, at the goal line, and in frequent mop-up duty to protect leads in a season where the Pats only face four teams who had winning records in 2011.
Doug Martin, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Doug Martin was one of two Boise State players that I watched closely and charted during Senior Bowl practices. I called one a first-round talent and one (to much criticism) "undraftable." The Bucs traded up into the first round to acquire RB Doug Martin. The other player I charted was QB Kellen Moore.
Many believe Doug Martin has striking similarities to Ray Rice, who new Bucs head coach Greg Schiano coached at Rutgers.
Martin has arrived in Tampa atop the depth chart, despite the presence of a serviceable incumbent in LeGarrette Blount. Martin has a compact, "Mighty Mouse"-type of body. His trunk looks like a muscular "V," drawn by a cartoonist. While the Ray Rice comparison seems easy, as does likening him to other "bowling ball" runners like Maurice Jones-Drew or Michael Turner, I see the distinct attributes of another current NFL player in the rookie.
Martin reminds me most of Frank Gore, and when I told him this, his face lit up. He is the same size as all of the aforementioned backs, but holds his weight most like Gore, who looks the "skinniest" of this bunch for lack of a better word. Martin also runs with a forward-leaning gait on the balls of his feet that I will always refer to as the "Frank Gore Prowl."
Like Gore, Martin is decisive in his cut and keeps excellent gap discipline. Both runners go stubbornly to their assignment and show great burst through the second level, but lack third level breakaway ability. Both get small through the line of scrimmage, and hide behind blockers sneakily in the screen game.
Blount will clearly be part of the RB tandem in Tampa this season, and I fully expect Doug Martin to experience growing pains. What we do know is that Blount seems to run into tacklers on purpose, is a huge, upright target for defenders to tee off on, and has fumbling issues. There are a lot of new faces in Tampa this season, and the new face of the running back position is Doug Martin.
Isaac Redman, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers
We know three things for sure about new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He will look like a Lake Tahoe ski bum on the sideline, he will develop wrinkles in the playbook that make productive use of the X receiver, and he will pound the rock in the run game. Enter the Steelers' new starting RB, Isaac Redman.
Redman finds himself in the starting role as a function of Rashard Mendenhall's ongoing recovery from the ACL tear sustained just over six months ago. The general rule with ACL injuries is that a full recovery takes at least nine months. This means, even if Mendenhall can return to action in 2012, it won't be until the second half of the regular season. Even then, he will likely be worked back in slowly.
Redman has shown flashes of high-level NFL ability in small spurts, but anyone who has at least four of their original fingers can count the number of times he has received more than 10 carries in an NFL game on one hand. With that said, his ascension through the Steelers' ranks has been slow, steady and promising. Originally an undrafted free agent out of Bowie State, Redman bounced from the Steelers' active roster to the practice squad for two years prior to 2011 when he officially joined the 53-man roster, and eventually got his first start.
The Steelers added the best interior lineman the NFL Draft has seen in many years when acquiring Stanford's David DeCastro. While I am not sold on their other O-line pick, Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams, it is clear that the Steelers have a plan, and it involves the ability to protect QB Ben Roethlisberger when they go no-huddle, and to create some semblance of a running lane every now and then.
But this is more about what the Steelers didn't do. Despite having absolutely no RB depth behind Redman, the Steelers didn't pursue any of this offseason's big-name free agent running backs like Michael Bush, Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Tolbert, Ronnie Brown or Peyton Hillis. This, to me, says more about how the team views Redman than anything else.
Kellen Davis, Tight End, Chicago Bears
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Bears TE Kellen Davis caught just 18 balls in 2011. Five of those 18 catches went for touchdowns, though, enough to lead the Bears in receiving TDs, sadly.
This is not your father's NFC North. Actually, if we're talking about our fathers, we should say it is not their NFC Central, but that makes things confusing. What I am trying to say is that the "black and blue" division, the hard-nosed, "run it down their throats and kill them with defense" division that we grew up watching has transformed into an air raid.
Thanks to competition including QB-centric offenses that feature the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford, Chicago has done all the right things during the offseason to keep up. As he returns from injury, Bears QB Jay Cutler will have a stable of new offensive weapons to utilize in WR Brandon Marshall, rookie WR Alshon Jeffery and RB Michael Bush. He will also finally have use of a receiving tight end once again.
Former Bears OC Mike Martz seemed stuck during the 2011 season. Stuck in an age where stretching the field vertically produced the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis. Martz' offensive play design obviously involved specified patterns for tight ends, but rarely, if ever, as the first read. Davis was the third read on this 2011 scoring play.
In a Mike Martz offensive system, a tight end's value is based on blocking, and in keeping linebackers near the line of scrimmage while keeping safeties honest. The league has developed a different mantra recently: Go get big athletic tight ends and exploit the mismatch in coverage. Let them run seam routes to the spot where you think the hot read might come from. Split them out wide, put them at the H-back, or line them up flexed. It started with Antonio Gates, then along came guys like Jimmy Graham. Along came Gronkowski.
Welcome Kellen Davis, a 6'7", 265 pound beast to the club. The Bears made sure to get Davis re-upped and under contract for the next two years prior to this year's NFL Draft, and with Jay Cutler seemingly acting as the co-offensive coordinator with new OC Mike Tice, the Bears' aerial attack seems to finally be evolving.
Brandon Myers, Tight End, Oakland Raiders
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The more things change, the more things stay the same. Unless you are the Oakland Raiders. The change that took place following the death of a legend in owner/GM Al Davis has been anything but static in nature. New GM Reggie McKenzie came in and did what the previous regime feared most. He gutted the place.
New head coach, new coordinators, even a new scouting department.
Raiders QB Carson Palmer has recently stated that despite the recent uptick in Oakland's receiving game, the Raiders will most certainly be a run-first team in 2012, leaning heavily on RB Darren McFadden.
I was able to address new Raiders head coach Dennis Allen in depth at the Combine, and one of the things that stuck with me the most was just how much he loves Run DMC. He told me that he was the hardest player that he ever had to game plan for when he was defensive coordinator of the Broncos.
For this reason, third-year TE Brandon Myers finds himself in the catbird's seat to win the starting tight end job in Oakland this season. The 6'3", 255-pound Iowa product is generally thought of as the team's best run-blocking tight end. He was able to start a handful of games in 2011, filling in when Kevin Boss got injured, and will likely remain just as "unheralded" to the average fan in 2012 as a starter as he was previously in a back up role.