Sink-or-Swim Predictions for NFL Veterans Facing Rookie Challengers in 2014
The last thing you want to be doing when you’re an NFL player is treading water.
The National Football League is a bottom-line business. That line is winning, and if you’re lucky enough, you wind up being a part of a team fortunate enough to raise the Lombardi Trophy.
But time waits for no man. So we we are taking a very early look at eight NFL veterans who could be pressed for their starting jobs due to the influx of talent from last week’s draft.
In this format, we will use a “sink” or “swim” scale, the former meaning that veteran will lose his job to a rookie and the latter meaning he has fended off the challenge.
Detroit Lions OLB Ashlee Palmer: Sink
You keep expecting more out of the defensive unit of the Detroit Lions, but it never seems to come.
Perhaps things are getting ready to change in the Motor City.
The Lions invested a 2014 second-round pick on outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a college teammate at BYU of Detroit defensive end Ziggy Ansah, the club’s first-round pick in 2013.
In four seasons with the Cougars, the big-play defender totaled 26 sacks, 61.5 tackles for losses and forced 11 fumbles. Van Noy had a better junior year than senior campaign, but the tools are there.
The Lions are looking to upgrade at left outside linebacker. Five-year veteran Ashlee Palmer, who has spent the last four years in the Motor City after entering the league with the Buffalo Bills in 2009, did not fare well this past season. The former undrafted free agent totaled only 33 tackles and recovered just one fumble in 16 games (10 starts) in 2013.
Those numbers paled in comparison to his fellow starting linebackers. Stephen Tulloch handles the middle, and this past season he amassed a club-high 135 tackles and also totaled 3.5 sacks. Right outside linebacker DeAndre Levy rang up 119 stops, picked off a team-high six passes and tied for the club lead with 15 passes defensed.
Meanwhile, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is hoping Van Noy can annoy opposing offenses.
“This guy is very versatile, very productive,” said Mayhew via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “When you put him on, he’s going to be chasing down ball-carriers, he’s got a lot of range, makes plays on the ball in the passing game, sacks the quarterback. He’s just really, really productive and versatile. I think he’ll be a great fit for our defense.”
Look for Van Noy to be an instant hit and a Week 1 starter versus the New York Giants.
Philadelphia Eagles ROLB Trent Cole: Swim
Year 1 of the Chip Kelly era in the City of Brotherly Love proved to be a success.
Year 1 of new defensive coordinator Billy Davis' regime with the Philadelphia Eagles remains a work in progress.
The Birds ranked 29th in the league in 2013 in total defense, and no team in the league allowed more passing yards per game.
Veteran Trent Cole has always made a habit of getting to the opposing quarterback. Now he'll have to do it at right outside linebacker in Davis’ scheme. The former Pro Bowl defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), graded out as the league’s seventh-best 3-4 outside linebacker this past season. Cole was solid against the run and totaled a team-high eight sacks.
It should also be noted that all of those quarterback traps came in four games and all in the final eight contests of 2013. The numbers say he also had his issues in coverage, but that’s something that could improve with experience.
The optimistic point of view says that Cole, who turns 32 years old in October and is entering his 10th NFL season, may be ready to bust out at this position this upcoming season.
That means fending off a possible challenge by first-round pick Marcus Smith, who totaled 14.5 sacks in his final season with the University of Louisville. But the former Cardinals performer will have to wait his turn for now.
Chicago Bears NT Stephen Paea: Sink
Three-year veteran defensive tackle Stephen Paea was one of those numerous Chicago Bears defensive players that failed to remain unscathed in 2013. The 6’1”, 300-pound defender missed three games during the season with a toe injury. Even when healthy, his play this past season was disappointing, as shown by Pro Football Focus, and his overall performance has been underwhelming throughout his brief career.
As we've all heard plenty about by now, Chicago’s defensive unit ranked 30th in the league in yards allowed and dead last in the NFL when it came to stopping the run. With only 31 sacks in 2013, the Bears wound up tying for last in the league in this category as well.
Understandably, Chicago general manager Phil Emery put his focus on addressing this area not only during free agency but also the draft. Free agency brought defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, but not a lot of help on the interior.
Enter second-round pick Ego Ferguson via LSU, who not only has the size (6’3”, 315 pounds) to shove around opposing blockers but enough tenacity to push Paea out of the starting lineup. The Bears also drafted Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, which means the team could be a whole lot better up the middle if Paea steps forward and veteran Jay Ratliff shows off his former Pro Bowl form from his days with the Dallas Cowboys.
Cincinnati Bengals LCB Terence Newman: Swim
Once upon a time, veteran cornerback Terence Newman was the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft. He was the first player selected by Hall of Famer Bill Parcells during his four-year stint with the Cowboys.
The former Kansas State standout now enters his 12th season in the league and third with the Cincinnati Bengals. His career resume includes 36 interceptions and a pair of Pro Bowl invitations. Over the last two seasons, he’s played and started in 28 games for Marvin Lewis’ team, collecting a total of four interceptions.
Meanwhile, it is still somewhat of a mystery as to why Michigan State University cornerback Darqueze Dennard lasted until the 24th pick last week. But the Bengals, who collect first-round cornerbacks like the New England Patriots collect AFC East titles, were more than happy to grab him.
“I don't think the Bengals expected him to be available,” said Mike Mayock of NFL Network during the first night of the draft. “Dennard is the best press cornerback in this draft. He fits what defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to do. He is one of best pure football players in this draft.”
Cincinnati has now drafted four cornerbacks in the first round since 2006 and also has Newman and Adam “Pacman” Jones on the roster.
So if Dennard performs as advertised, how long will it be before Newman says hello to a reserve role? It will be interesting, but not likely, to see if the former Spartan bounces the onetime Cowboys defender out of the lineup. More realistically, the addition of Dennard simply makes the league’s third-ranked defense of a year ago that much more formidable.
Houston Texans LG Ben Jones: Sink
Ben Jones’ career as the starting left guard of the Houston Texans might be over before it begins.
As a rookie, Jones started the final 10 regular-season games and a pair of playoff contests in 2012 at right guard. Understandably, the rookie from the University of Georgia had his growing pains. This past season, he started just one game at right guard but wound up playing 157 snaps on the left side, spelling starter Wade Smith.
This offseason, Jones became the heir apparent at left guard as Smith was not re-signed.
But a new year, a new draft and a new head coach in Bill O’Brien bring obvious changes. The Texans took just one offensive lineman with their 11 picks last week but invested the first selection in the second round (33rd overall) on UCLA guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, whom Mike Mayock of NFL Network seemed to think would be an instant hit.
“(He) played some tackle, but when they kicked him inside (to guard) it was a completely different picture,” Mayock said, via NFL.com. “He is a plug-and play guy; a day one starter.”
It is very hard to argue the point as the Texans look to retool after a devastating 2-14 showing in 2013.
Atlanta Falcons RB Steven Jackson: Swim
Even when the Atlanta Falcons were busy becoming the top seed in the NFC in 2012, something didn’t seem quite right.
Despite a 13-3 record that season, head coach Mike Smith’s team struggled to run the football and had its issues stopping it as well. How can we forget that the Falcons owned a 17-0 second-quarter lead at home in the NFC title game, only to see the San Francisco 49ers stick to their game plan and rally for a 28-24 win?
This past season, injuries and philosophy came to a head. No team gained fewer yards and totaled fewer rushing attempts in the NFL, and only the Chicago Bears were more inept in stopping the run.
Veteran running back Steven Jackson joined the Falcons in 2013 after nine seasons with the St. Louis Rams, the final eight which saw him rush for at least 1,000 yards. The three-time Pro Bowler missed four games and ran for only 543 yards and six scores. Jackson also caught 33 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown.
When it was all said and done, Smith’s club totaled 321 running plays and gained 1,247 yards on the ground. The latter figure was surpassed by seven players in the league in 2013.
But gauging by free agency and the draft, the Falcons are looking to reverse their fortunes in a few ways. On defense, they signed defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai and they used seven of their nine selections in the draft on the defensive side of the ball. On the offensive side, they grabbed talented tackle Jake Matthews with the sixth overall pick and three rounds later added running back Devonta Freeman from Florida State.
Mike Mayock of NFL Network likes what he sees from Freeman, who plays bigger than his size would indicate.
“This kid for his size, is incredibly physical,” said Mayock, who also stated that there's “not a lot of tread on his tires” when referring to the 5’8”, 206-pound runner.
Jackson remains the starter with the Falcons and will look to bounce back from a disappointing year, as will the entire team. But you also get the feeling it will be tough to keep Freeman off the field.
San Diego Chargers LG Chad Rinehart: Sink
In a league where the focus is seemingly always on the quarterback, the San Diego Chargers showed this past season that there is still room for a little nostalgia.
Head coach Mike McCoy and then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt made life easier for quarterback Philip Rivers, who appeared to be on the downside of his career after a pair of mediocre seasons in 2011 and 2012. But the coaching duo was able to cure what ailed the veteran signal-caller, and Rivers wound up earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
One of those fixes was a ground attack that ranked 13th in the league in rushing in 2013—a big improvement from the previous season, when only five teams gained fewer yards on the ground than the Bolts.
With running back Ryan Mathews coming off a career campaign and San Diego general manager Tom Telesco adding Donald Brown for depth in the backfield, the ground game figures to be even more of a factor in 2014. The team’s balanced attack—one that finished fifth in the league in total offense—was a headache for teams that couldn’t get Rivers and company off the field.
Chad Rinehart, signed last offseason as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills, made a total of 12 starts in 2013, including the playoff split with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. According to numbers from Pro Football Focus, his play was erratic at best.
Meanwhile, the Chargers used a 2014 third-round pick on University of Notre Dame guard Chris Watt. At last week’s minicamp, the former Golden Domer lined up at right guard. This after playing on the left side during his final three seasons with the Fighting Irish.
“It was a little different,” Watt told Tom Krasovic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. “But I was able to pick up on it, I felt like, pretty good.”
The pickup of Watt could mean Rinehart, re-signed by the Chargers this offseason, may be relegated to swing duty in 2014.
Minnesota Vikings LDE Brian Robison: Swim
It’s little wonder that the Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer to be their newest head coach.
This past season, only the Dallas Cowboys surrendered more total yards per game, and no team in the league allowed more points.
There are plenty of changes on the defensive front from 2013. Gone are veterans Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion. In are free-agent additions Linval Joseph and Corey Wootton, while the Vikings hope that second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd comes into his own.
Meanwhile, Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman appeared to be very excited about one of the team’s 10 selections in this year’s draft.
“In the third round, when (defensive end Scott) Crichton was sitting there…that was a no-brainer for us,” Spielman said on Dari & Mel on ESPN Radio Saturday morning. “We thought he was a very good football player…You watched him and the motor and the energy he plays with.”
Defensive end Brian Robison is now the elder statesman of the team’s front four and has totaled eight or more sacks in each of the last three seasons, including a career-high nine sacks in 2013. Will he be facing a challenge from Crichton this upcoming summer?
It’s not likely (yet) and the rookie should become part of a very young, talented defensive line rotation—one that figures to thrive under Zimmer.
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