When a team acquires a middle-of-the-road veteran who is just good enough to play ahead of an inexperienced player with potential, NFL front-office men sometimes say the team is “muddying the waters.”
The Jets' quarterback situation looks a little murky then, after the acquisition of Michael Vick. I sat at Rex Ryan’s table at the AFC coaches breakfast at the NFL meetings in Orlando on Tuesday because I wanted to hear his plan for the quarterbacks. He indicated the competition will be open between Vick and Geno Smith, but he seemed to be leaning towards Smith.
“Geno Smith's going to be hard to beat out,” Ryan said. “I've said that for a long time, and that's how I feel about it. But it is going to be great competition.”
Regardless, the arrival of Vick speaks to the Jets’ level of commitment to developing Smith, the 39th pick in the draft one year ago. Even if Smith prevails in camp, quarterback controversies and quarterback developments tend to not go together very well. Almost assuredly, there will be drama under center.
Vick, remember, won Chip Kelly’s quarterback derby last August, beating out Nick Foles convincingly. After Vick was injured, Foles became the Eagles’ starter and performed much better than Vick. Or Smith, for that matter.
As a rookie, Smith had a 66.5 passer rating. Among quarterbacks with at least 224 attempts, that ranked 37th in the NFL. He went five straight games without a touchdown pass. But Ryan is enthused about Smith in part because he came on strong in December, winning three of his last four starts with an 83.6 passer rating over that period.
Smith’s December may have been the beginning of greatness. Or he may revert back to form. And really, that’s why the Jets gave Vick $4 million for one year. They understand that Vick’s know-how and ability at the soon-to-be age of 34 may make him their best quarterback.
It is possible Vick will become a valued mentor to Smith and an effective No. 2. Ryan said he believes Vick’s experience in the league and in Marty Mornhinweg’s offense should help Smith. But that’s not why Vick came to the Jets. Vick came to start. He is a shark as much as he is a Jet, and he smelled opportunity. Everyone around the Jets can smell it.
The Jets have missed the playoffs three straight years. Less than a year ago, Jets owner Woody Johnson asked for patience from fans. This week he said he is not using the word “patient” anymore. Ryan, who has only two years left on his contract after receiving a one-year extension, this week declared, “It’s time to deliver.”
Trying to win now and trying to develop a quarterback are conflicting objectives. The beneficiary could be Vick.
The Jets might be better in 2014 with Vick than Smith, but they probably would be better in the long run by playing Smith. The trend, thanks to Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, is to play the young quarterbacks. If a team isn’t getting something out of a quarterback in his first contract, it is missing out on a significant advantage in terms of budget distribution.
But one AFC general manager cautions against expecting every young quarterback to be like the stars from the class of 2012. “Those guys were anomalies,” he said. “We’re not going to see that again.” That general manager also said it isn’t the worst scenario for a young quarterback like Smith to sit a couple years, which can enable him to learn and gain confidence slowly.
In that context, this move could work out very well for the Jets. Consider this scenario: Vick starts and plays well. Smith gets some time here and there when Vick is injured. The Jets make the playoffs. Smith is more confident and prepared in 2015.
It all will depend on how Ryan handles this.
“Whether Michael beats out Geno or not, it’s about the W's,” an NFC general manager said. “We’re in the survival business. We need to win and win now, more so than ever. You can be protective of draft picks and want to develop them. But it’s much better to have a competition and throw out the commitment to draft picks, or acquisitions, or money, and find the best person. At the end, it’s about making sure the competition is strong and getting the best people on the field.”
If the Jets want to clear up the waters, they won’t be averse to starting Vick if he is their best quarterback. That way, everybody—Vick, Smith and the Jets—might win.
• Word from the NFL meetings is the Texans are trying hard to deal the first pick in the draft. They want to move down and acquire extra selections. Sources say they might have a trade partner in the Bills, who appear interested in moving up. It is unclear who the Bills would want in a trade-up scenario. Some believe they would move up for a quarterback. They also could make good use of an offensive tackle such as Greg Robinson. And it would be something to see them pair Mario Williams with either Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack.
• Signing free-agent running back Donald Brown gave the Chargers value on a few fronts. Most importantly, he gives their offense a changeup to Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead who can account for a significant amount of touches. Then, he gives them depth at the position, which they knew they needed after Mathews was hobbled in the postseason and the offense went flat. And finally, he gives them some potential long-term stability at the position, as Mathews is under contract only through the 2015 season.
• The franchise tag usually is seen as an uneasy compromise and bad solution for both team and player, but for Brian Orakpo, that was not the case. Orakpo did not object to the tag, which will pay him $11.455 million this year. And for the Redskins, the tag was the only way to go. They thought Orakpo’s play in 2013 did not merit a long-term commitment that would have made him one of the highest-paid defenders in football. But he has the potential to play better this season and put himself in that stratosphere one year from now.
• One of the reasons Steve Smith is a Raven is that coach John Harbaugh believes Smith can add to the team’s leadership. In fact, when Smith visited the Ravens he came in with a leadership plan. He told Harbaugh he understands the Ravens already have an established culture and established leaders. Smith said his first mission is to learn that culture and understand it, and then step in behind players like Joe Flacco to help young players. The Ravens believe Smith will raise the competitive bar in practice and help the inexperienced receivers in the meeting room.
The draft class has a number of prospects who are smaller than ideal. Many of these players will be downgraded significantly by some teams, but not by others, because undersized players need to be scheme fits. Here is what NFL front-office men are saying about some of the little guys.
Dri Archer, Kent State, 5'8", 173 pounds, RB
Not many scouts were excited about him prior to the combine, but his 4.26 40-yard dash changed all that. He could be chosen as high as the third round now. One personnel director said Archer has to be looked at as a specialist—a player who can line up in the slot and in the backfield and return kicks.
“He can get used in a lot of places, but the thing is you can’t overuse him,” he said. Archer’s primary value offensively will be on third downs. But if he is too small to pass protect, his value on third downs will be limited. Another scout said Archer is a similar player to Dexter McCluster, “but not as good.”
Chris Borland, Wisconsin, 5'11", 248 pounds, MLB
Short middle linebackers can thrive in the NFL. Among those who have done so are Mike Singletary, Sam Mills and London Fletcher. One scout said Borland is similar to Zach Thomas.
What might hurt Borland more than being short is having short arms. His measured at 29.25 inches at the combine. Scouts estimate he will be chosen somewhere in the second round.
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State, 5'10", 189 pounds, WR
He is smaller than ideal, but he does not play small. A college scouting director said Cooks makes contested catches well. Another college director said, “He’s so fast and explosive and he has functional strength, so he overcomes his lack of size. Defenders bounce off him at times.”
And because he has 4.33 speed, defenders are cautious about pressing him. Cooks looks like a late first-round or early second-round pick.
Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh, 6'1", 285 pounds, DT
Donald has to play in an up-the-field scheme, because bigger blockers can steer him if he’s playing them head on. A general manager said length is a concern with Donald, who has 32.625-inch arms. A personnel director said he thought Donald would be only a situational package player.
But Donald’s combination of production and athleticism make him very intriguing to teams that value penetrating tackles. After impressive performances at the combine and Senior Bowl, Donald looks like a lock to be a first-rounder.
Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State, 5'8", 184 pounds, CB
Two scouts said Joyner probably is too small to line up outside, so he will be best suited as an NFL nickelback. If that’s the case, it would be a stretch to take him before the third round. But one evaluator added this: “He does not play small. He is physical versus big receivers, so he doesn’t have a lot of problems.”
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, 5'11.75", 207 pounds, QB
In terms of ball security, he is helped by the fact that he has big (9.875-inch hands). But given Manziel’s small frame and his penchant for playing outside the pocket and running, one scout said he thinks injuries will be an issue.
“He scares me,” one scout said. “I wouldn’t take him in the first.” Some team is likely to, however.
Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma, 5'9", 165 pounds, WR
Scouts say his lack of size probably means he has to be used as a slot receiver/return man. Given his unusual quickness and speed, he can be valuable in that role. Saunders could be selected in the third or fourth round.
Telvin Smith, Florida State, 6'3", 218 pounds, OLB
Some teams that have no use for smallish linebackers are considering him a safety, but Smith is not likely to play safety in the NFL. His value is as an outside linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme, and he’ll probably be chosen in the third-round range. The problems with thin linebackers is they get knocked around inside, they can’t take on blocks and they can be durability risks.
“He has a thin build and it’s hard for him to put on weight,” a college director said. “But he does not play small.”
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon, 5'9", 174 pounds, RB/WR
Thomas is a little like Archer in that he might not fill a traditional role as much as he will fill several roles. A college scouting director referred to Thomas as “tiny” and believes he is too small to be an every-down player. That does not mean he will still be on the board after the fourth round, though.
Jason Verrett, Texas Christian, 5'9", 189 pounds, CB
Verrett would be best in a nickel role in the estimation of two scouts, and that means he probably won’t be chosen before Round 3. One scouting director said, “His lack of size limits him.” Another said Verrett’s competitiveness offsets his lack of size.
“Do you show up small or play big?” he said. “He plays big.”
• Dan Snyder is so intent on keeping the name “Redskins” that he’s even willing to pay hush money for it. Hey, he is from Washington.
• Turns out Johnny Manziel has some serious hops. He’s going to need them to see over the heads of NFL offensive linemen.
• When Raiders coach Dennis Allen declared (via The Mercury News' Tim Kawakami), “We have a quarterback now that's on par with the quarterbacks in this division," it apparently was fair warning for Canton to start preparing the bust of Matt Schaub.
• Ralph Wilson is gone, but he will live forever in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. RIP, Mr. Wilson.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.