NFL Stars Who Need to Wake Up in OTAs
Organized team activities are underway across the National Football League, as rookie and veterans alike gather for the first time together to begin preparations for the 2013 season.
For some teams that means more than others. Some clubs aren't making any sweeping changes, while others are conducting complete overhauls under new coaching staffs.
However, one thing is constant. On more teams than not, there's a player who is going to have to step up his game this season if his team is going to have a successful year.
It's wake-up-call time for those players, including the ones listed here.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys missed the playoffs again in 2012, due in no small part to an anemic rushing attack that ranked 31st in the NFL at just over 79 yards a game.
That poor ground game wasn't helped by another injury-marred season from third-year pro DeMarco Murray, who missed six games with an injured foot and didn't top 100 yards on the ground in a game after Week 1.
That's been the story of Murray's brief NFL career to this point. Flashes of brilliance darkened by far too much time on the shelf.
2013, is going to be different, at least according to Murray. The 25-year-old recently told Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that "I am going to play all 16 (games) this year, and I’m excited. It’s going to be a great year for us.”
Of course, the fact that Murray said this while sitting out practice with a hamstring injury doesn't inspire a ton of confidence.
However, star tight end Jason Witten told Hill that it's vital the Cowboys get their starting tailback onto the field and off of the trainer's table:
I think it’ll be huge for us. He’s a guy that plays hard and runs hard. I think we’ll do a better job offensively running the ball. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on that. He’s a dynamic back who can create a lot of things for you. He’s got to be healthy and out there. He’s worked hard to get there, and hopefully we’ll get to see him here in these OTAs. A lot of that has been tightened up. We can’t be in those situations that we were last year. It’s just too hard to overcome.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
There may be no player in the NFL on a hotter seat heading into the month of June than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
In 2010, Vick resurrected his NFL career with the Eagles, accounting for 30 touchdowns against only nine turnovers and winning Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Now, two seasons, a fat contract, 33 turnovers and a benching later, Vick's career is once again at a crossroads.
The 32-year-old QB took a significant pay cut to remain in Philly, and Vick must now battle Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley to be the starter under center in new head coach Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense.
Vick has been taking the majority of first-team reps in early workouts, but according to Lauren Moranor of the Sports World Report Kelly is no hurry to name Vick the starter:
Why do we need to name a starting quarterback in May? I mean, we're going to take the full amount of time that we have to make a thorough evaluation of what we do. When you make big decisions like that, I don't think you want to make a rash decision. You want to give everybody the opportunity to see what they do.
If Vick is going to maintain his edge and win the job, then there's precious little margin for error. Vick will need to bring his "A" game throughout OTAs and into training camp.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
We might as well stick with the quarterbacks for a bit.
It wasn't that long ago that Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers was considered one of the elite passers in the NFL, but given the way he's played over the last two seasons, period of excellence feels like it was a million years ago.
Over those two years, Rivers has turned the ball over a staggering 47 times, and his 3,606 passing yards in 2012 was Rivers' lowest output since 2007.
Granted, some of the blame for Rivers' struggles can be laid at the feet of a shaky offensive line and a so-so cadre of receivers, but with the eighth-highest base salary in the NFL in 2013 (according to spotrac), this is a make-or-break season for Rivers in San Diego.
The good news is that it appears Rivers has an ally in new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com:
One of the most exciting things for me after a tough year in this offseason is working with Philip. His knowledge of the game is incredible. He has a very good football mind, and he loves football. He's very passionate about it. It's great to have input from him on what he likes, what he's seeing, what he's thinking. And in putting that together, it's been a great part of the process.
The bad news, as Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com points out, is that given how inexpensive young quarterbacks are in today's NFL, the Chargers aren't going to keep paying a turnover-machine $10-plus million a year.
Jake Ballard, TE, New England Patriots
During the New England Patriots decade of dominance in the AFC East, it seems that whenever one player goes down, another has always been ready to step into that breach.
If recent news has been any indication, then the Patriots are going to need tight end Jake Ballard to do just that.
Star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has already had four operations on the broken forearm that cost him five games in 2012, is now set to go under the knife for back surgery later in June.
That leaves Gronkowski's status for training camp (and even Week 1) very much in doubt, and places considerable pressure on Ballard to pick up some of the slack.
With that said, Ballard isn't exactly the picture of health either.
The 25-year-old, who had 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns for the New York Giants as a rookie in 2011, missed all of last year with a torn ACL.
According to Paul Perillo of patriots.com, Ballard is still running with a "discernible limp," although Ballard told Perillo that his rehab is proceeding as scheduled:
I’m not full-go for the whole practice. It’s not like they’re just throwing me to the wolves. I’m talking to the trainers and coaches and they tell me what I’m limited to do and what they think I’m going to be able to do and we just gradually improve from there day to day and week to week.
With all the uncertainty facing Gronkowski at this time, Ballard's first year on the field in New England could begin with the Patriots asking him to play a significant role offensively.
Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks were one of the big winners of free agency in 2013, adding wide receiver Percy Harvin via a trade with the Minnesota Vikings and signing a pair of free-agent defensive ends, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
At the time, it appeared that the Seahawks were hoarding defensive linemen, but in retrospect it looks like a very shrewd move.
With 2012 sack leader Chris Clemons rehabbing from a torn ACL, and second-year pro Bruce Irvin now suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season, Avril immediately becomes the most proven pass-rusher on the Seahawks roster, with 29 sacks over the past three years.
Unfortunately, Avril is now battling an injury of his own. The sixth-year pro has plantar fasciitis in his foot, and will be sidelined at least a "couple of weeks," according to ESPN.
Once Avril is back on the practice field, he has plenty to work on before Week 1. Of the 62 defensive ends who played in the 4-3 system last year, as graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only three performed worse against the run than Avril.
Anquan Boldin, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Anquan Boldin is a pro's pro, so he really doesn't need a "wake-up call" per se.
He may, however, think this whole offseason has been one big, weird dream.
After a phenomenal run in the playoffs helped win the Baltimore Ravens the Super Bowl, the team rewarded Boldin—by trading him. To the team they beat in Super Bowl XLVII.
Wait, there's more.
It appeared that Boldin would be finishing his career as the second wideout for the 49ers, a complement to Michael Crabtree.
Then Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon, and just like that Boldin became the top wide receiver for the defending NFC champions.
The injury is a huge blow, but Boldin told ESPN that he's ready to step up.
I guess I'm looked at as being able to step in right now and make plays. And that's what I want to bring. I want Kaep to be comfortable. I want the other quarterbacks to be comfortable enough to, even if it doesn't look like I'm open, just give me a chance. I'll make a play for you.
The 32-year-old may not be the player he once was, but if the 49ers are going to get back to the Super Bowl, they at least need Boldin to be the player he was in last year's playoffs.