Predicting the NFL's Top Offseason Battles
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
It’s said that competition for the job can only make a player better.
As usual, we’re about to find that out as all 32 teams in the NFL get ready to show off their prized new acquisitions, be it via free agency, trade or the 2013 draft.
But how many of these new faces will make an immediate impression? And who will beat out who for those prized starting jobs in the league?
Hence, we’re taking a look at more than a handful worth of mano-a-mano battles (give or take a few manos) that have caught our eye as teams prepare for the upcoming season.
And we’ll find out soon enough if the general managers and coaches pushed the right buttons when it came to filling those holes and making their respective teams better.
All contract information for the players in this piece comes courtesy of www.spotrac.com.
Arizona Cardinals: Running Back
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
No team in the NFL ran for fewer yards in 2012 than the Arizona Cardinals.
Just how few? The team totaled 1,204 yards on the ground last season, a total exceeded by 10 different players in the league last season.
So how did the Arizona brain trust attempt to resolve the problem? The team signed free-agent running back Rashard Mendenhall, who saw limited action with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season due mainly to a knee injury he suffered in the 2011 regular-season finale at Cleveland.
But Mendenhall, who Cardinals’ head coach Bruce Arians knows from both men’s days in Pittsburgh, signed only a one-year deal with the team. And the former first-round pick will face competition from former starter Ryan Williams, who has been limited to five games in two seasons, as well as highly-regarded rookie Stepfan Taylor, a fifth-round pick from Stanford.
Now wouldn’t it be interesting if it was a Cardinal that wound up fixing the Cardinals ground attack?
Buffalo Bills: Quarterback
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Instead of doing things by the book, the Buffalo Bills opted to use their new Manuel.
And will we see former Florida State prospect EJ Manuel behind center in Week 1 of the 2013 season?
Most expected the Bills and new head coach Doug Marrone to select a quarterback early in the draft. But the betting money was on his former Syracuse pupil Ryan Nassib, who wound up staying in New York after being taken in the fourth round by the New York Giants.
Manuel will vie for the Bills’ starting job with Kevin Kolb, who is perhaps happy to be out of Arizona after a rough 2012, which saw him sacked 27 times in the six games he was able to play. Last season, Buffalo allowed just 30 sacks all season and running back C.J. Spiller ran for 40 more yards (1,244) than the entire Cardinals’ team (1,204) a year ago. Veteran Tarvaris Jackson is in the mix as well.
Of course, EJ handing off to C.J. would be…OK?
Chicago Bears: Left Guard
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
In recent years, the Chicago Bears have spent a lot of time retooling their much-maligned offensive line.
The tweaking still isn’t finished.
This offseason, the Bears signed two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans Saints) to play left tackle. They also added free agent Matt Slauson (New York Jets) at left guard.
But in the first round of the draft in April, they opted for offensive lineman Kyle Long (Oregon), an intriguing but inexperienced prospect who could be groomed at either guard or tackle.
New head coach Marc Trestman knows that keeping quarterback Jay Cutler upright is a priority. But will he opt for the experienced Slauson or roll the dice with the rookie?
Let’s see how “long” we have to wait for an answer.
Cincinnati Bengals: Strong Safety
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
As we saw last season and especially down the stretch in 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals have quite the defensive unit.
In the team’s final nine games a year ago, including the playoff loss to the Houston Texans, Mike Zimmer’s unit allowed just nine offensive touchdowns and no team scored more than 20 points against Marvin Lewis’ team.
The Bengals have reached the playoffs three of the last four seasons and much of the credit should go to this side of the ball. But with a new season comes changes and a few tweaks.
Taylor Mays started three games at strong safety for the Bengals a year ago. But the one-time San Francisco 49ers’ performer could face a very stiff challenge for the job from rookie Shawn Williams (Georgia), a third-round pick in 2013 who can bring the lumber.
In any case, an already excellent Cincinnati defense figures to be even better.
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
Green Bay Packers: Running Back
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Apparently, the Green Bay Packers have solved their issues at running back via the draft.
Now let’s see if their best-laid plans wind up paying off.
After grabbing Eddie Lacy (Alabama) in the second round, the Pack also added Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) in the fourth round. They now join a backfield that includes incumbents James Starks, DuJuan Harris and Alex Green, the latter the team’s leading rusher in 2012 with a mere 464 yards.
Lacy is obviously the odds-on favorite to be the starter, but the versatile Franklin has his fans, most notably Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller, who rated him the number one running back prospect on the board this April.
In any case, the Packers hope they have remedied the situation (they tried last season with Cedric Benson, but he was injured). It’s just a matter of which prescription(s) they wind up choosing.
Indianapolis Colts: Wide Receiver
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Oakland Raiders’ loss could be a major gain for the Indianapolis Colts.
As we saw this offseason, the Silver and Black jettisoned a number of former Top 10 draft choices in safety Michael Huff, linebacker Rolando McClain and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.
While Huff and McClain both wound up with the Ravens, Heyward-Bey signed with the former Baltimore resident, the Colts. There’s no denying his talent, but the speedster did have his ups and downs (especially early on) in Oakland.
Now Heyward-Bey joins the up-and-coming Colts, who also have an emerging wideout in T.Y. Hilton. Last year’s third-round pick caught 50 passes for 861 yards and scored a team-high eight total touchdowns.
Regardless who emerges as the starter, the team has added an element of speed (and hopefully, consistency) in Heyward-Bey.
And the winner is…quarterback Andrew Luck.
New Orleans Saints: Left Tackle
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Yes, most are painfully aware that the 2012 New Orleans Saints gave up the most yards in a season in league history.
But this offseason featured the free-agent departure of left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears. And if the team doesn’t resolve the situation before the start of the season, it could be a painful year for prolific quarterback Drew Brees.
Former second-round draft pick Charles Brown appears to be the man for the job. But is he the right man to play the left side and keep Brees’ blind side out of harm’s way?
The Saints drafted only five players in April but one was tackle Terron Armstead, a third-round selection from Arkansas Pine-Bluff. He will vie with Brown for the starting left tackle job.
And somehow, it would only be natural that a Jermon would be replaced by a Terron.
San Francisco 49ers: Right Cornerback
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The San Francisco 49ers defense had its issues down the stretch and in the postseason a year ago, most notably when it came to stopping the pass.
Many of those issues have been blamed on the injury to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith, which seemingly hampered the abilities of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith to get to the quarterback.
Now fast forward to 2013. The Niners lost two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson in free agency to the Buccaneers this offseason, hence the first-round addition of Eric Reid, out of LSU, in April.
But the focus here is cornerback and the addition of veteran Nnamdi Asomugha, who comes off of two very forgettable seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He will vie with Tarell Brown, who tied for the team lead with 14 passes defensed in 2012, for the right side job.
And it will be interesting to see which Asomugha we’re getting ready to see. Perhaps a return to the Bay Area will evoke memories of his three-time Pro Bowl days with the Oakland Raiders.
Tennessee Titans: Wide Receiver
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
It never hurts to stay close to home.
And hopefully for the Tennessee Titans, former University of Tennessee wideout Justin Hunter lives up to his second-round status.
The speedy performer would give quarterback Jake Locker another target as the young quarterback continues to find himself.
So what about talented wide receiver Kenny Britt? When the former Rutgers standout is on the field, he’s obviously hard to ignore, averaging 16.1 yards per receptions and scoring 19 touchdowns. But those totals come in 45 games, now 64 contests. And Britt hasn’t played a full season since his rookie campaign in 2009.
Is Hunter ready to step in and claim the job? Time will tell. And so will Britt’s ability to stay on the field.
Washington Redskins: Secondary
Al Bello/Getty Images
Could we be looking at a major overhaul in the Washington Redskins secondary?
Here is what we call a major food for thought scenario. Mike Shanahan’s team finished 30th in the league last season in pass defense. Some of that was the result of an ineffective pass rush hampered by the September losses of defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
But the bottom line is that the Redskins gave up almost as many touchdown passes (31) as they totaled sacks (32) in 2012. And since Carriker and Orakpo are expected back healthy, the rest of this unit has been addressed.
Cornerback E.J. Biggers, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, comes over via free agency while the draft added cornerback David Amerson out of North Carolina State and safeties Phillip Thomas (Fresno State) and Bacarri Rambo (Georgia).
Could Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett have something major planned for the defensive backfield? Corners DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty will have something to say on the matter.