Biggest Roster Scenarios to Watch in NFL Offseason Workouts
Let the NFL position battles begin.
With free agency, the NFL draft and the addition of other rookies and veterans, no roster from the 2013 season will look the same in 2014.
So, among the 32 teams, where are the most interesting battles in terms of starters and reserves going to take place? Who will be left out of roster spots?
We have picked eight teams and the position that not only appears to be the most intriguing, but the one with the most questions attached.
Why these eight teams? We tried our best to give a complete cross section of the league and attempted to focus on as many different positions as possible. We also put an onus on areas that were some of the biggest topics of discussion this offseason and also emphasized some units that were undergoing a complete overhaul.
Some of those answers may come, or at least move closer to being answered, during the teams' numerous workout programs.
Perhaps that’s only fitting, as all 32 clubs hope their decisions work out in the long run.
Chicago Bears: Cornerback
Key Players: Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, Kelvin Hayden, Kyle Fuller, Isaiah Frey
Last season’s issues surrounding the Chicago Bears' defensive unit have been well-documented.
Only two teams in the league allowed more total yards, no one gave up more yards rushing, and Marc Trestman’s squad allowed a whopping 478 points—201 more than in 2012 (277).
Be it a massive wave of injuries or just a lack of performance, it was very un-Bears-like to see the team from the Windy City struggle on this side of the ball.
As for the secondary, health and the lack of a pass rush made for a long season. Veteran Charles Tillman missed eight games, and reserve Kelvin Hayden never took the field in 2013 after suffering a torn hamstring during the summer. Former Pro Bowler Tim Jennings had his ups and downs, and young Isaiah Frey, who made six starts in 2013, had his issues as well.
All told, Mel Tucker’s unit totaled only 31 sacks—tied for the fewest in the NFL in 2013—while allowing 25 touchdown passes. Unfortunately, you can find Tillman, Jennings and Frey closer to the bottom of Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 2013 cornerback rankings than the top.
At the very least, rookie Kyle Fuller figures to the team’s top nickelback and has already impressed Tucker. “‘From day one (of rookie minicamp), he’s a very intelligent player,” said the Bears defensive coordinator to Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s got good size (5’11”, 190 pounds). He’s got good speed. He’s a willing and aggressive tackler and a high-percentage tackler. He’s got excellent ball skills and great awareness.”
Regardless, the Bears defense needs all the help it can get these days.
Forecast: Fuller was the first cornerback drafted in the first round by the Bears since Walt Harris in 1996. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him work his way into the starting lineup by late November in place of Tillman, who returns for his 12th NFL season but signed just a one-year deal in March.
Cleveland Browns: Wide Receiver
Key Players: Josh Gordon, Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett, Miles Austin, Travis Benjamin
It has seemingly been all downhill since the Cleveland Browns made their second selection in the first round of the 2014 draft.
The drafting of quarterback Johnny Manziel on May 8 was tempered by the report that Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon could be facing league discipline for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, per ESPN.com's T.J. Quinn and Don Van Natta Jr.
Still, as Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, the league leader in receiving yards in 2013 is expected to participate in OTAs, which begin on May 20. This past season, he totaled 87 receptions for 1,646 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games. He was suspended for the first two weeks of 2013.
Despite the news of his potential absence, the Browns did not draft a wide receiver, which surprised many people. Instead, the team recently added veterans Miles Austin (Dallas Cowboys) and Earl Bennett (Chicago Bears), who were both released by their teams. Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson were signed as free agents earlier this offseason.
So who exactly will Manziel and, more significantly, starting quarterback Brian Hoyer be throwing to this season? The Browns' starter behind center in 2014 may be a battle worth noting this summer. But for now, sorting out the team's pass-catching corps, one that may or may not include Gordon, is by far the bigger issue.
Forecast: As reported by Chris Mortensen of ESPN, Burleson broke his arm during a recent minicamp but should be healthy this summer. Assuming Gordon does miss the start of the season, the starting receivers may be Burleson and Austin, with Hawkins as the third option. Benjamin could see more action as a receiver in 2014, so don’t be surprised if Bennett is the odd man out come September.
Dallas Cowboys: Defensive Line
Key Players: DE George Selvie, DE Anthony Spencer, DE Jeremy Mincey, DE Demarcus Lawrence, DE Tyrone Crawford, DT Henry Melton, DT Nick Hayden, DT Amobi Okoye, DT Terrell McClain
We won’t bother with the obligatory “There’s no D in Dallas these days,” because the franchise is addressing the issue.
In this year’s draft, the Cowboys made nine selections, seven on the defensive side and three of those on the defensive line with second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence and seventh-round selections Ben Gardner and Ken Bishop.
The bottom-ranked defense in the NFL in 2013 was hurting for certain throughout the season. After totaling 13 sacks in the first three weeks of the season, Dallas totaled only 21 sacks in its final 13 contests. With DeMarcus Ware now a member of the Denver Broncos and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher now a member of the Washington Redskins, it’s rebuilding time for Jerry Jones’ defensive front.
While the team managed to re-sign defensive end Anthony Spencer, who missed nearly all of 2013, it's no sure thing that the former Pro Bowler makes it back by the end of training camp, per Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News.
As all football mavens know, new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s specialty is the defensive line. His reputation as a specialist in that area is outstanding, and it’s little surprise that two of the team’s offseason additions, defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye, played for him in the past.
But can the veteran defensive coach fix all that ails the Dallas defense? Stay tuned.
Forecast: It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Melton and Okoye as the Week 1 starters inside due to their familiarity with Marinelli, with them being spelled on occasion by McClain and Bishop. They will be flanked by Selvie and Mincey, the latter on a rotating basis with Lawrence and perhaps Spencer if he can return to the field. After last season’s issues, it will be interesting to see how many defensive linemen the Cowboys keep.
Houston Texans: Quarterback
Key Players: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates, Tom Savage
Here’s a sobering statistic if you're a fan of the Houston Texans.
In 2013, the team’s quarterbacks combined to throw 22 interceptions, five of which were returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Houston defense picked off just seven passes in 16 games.
While the latter is a big issue, the quarterback position for new head coach Bill O’Brien has to be priority No. 1. Those 22 interceptions came courtesy of Matt Schaub, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates, who combined to throw for 19 scores but were also sacked 42 times and committed nine fumbles (three lost).
Fast forward to 2014, as Schaub is now a member of the Oakland Raiders, Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed in the offseason, Keenum and Yates remain on the roster, and the Texans made University of Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage a fourth-round selection this month. The team's quarterbacks coach, George Godsey, updated Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle on the rookie signal-caller's performance at the team’s recent minicamp.
“Tom himself will determine how long it takes him to catch up (to the other quarterbacks). There are only so many hours in the day, but you've got to put in the time and he seems willing to do that,” Godsey said. “Every quarterback that's here right now is going against himself, trying to absorb as much information as possible and doing the best they can do. It's really not a looking-over-the-shoulder kind of deal for any of them.”
Forecast: In 11 games with the Tennessee Titans this past season, Fitzpatrick threw more touchdown passes (14) than interceptions (12) but also fumbled nine times, losing two of those balls. He figures to start the season, with Keenum being the first off the bench and possibly Yates being left off the roster. Savage will be a work in progress and figures to see most of his playing time during the preseason, unless he proves to be a very fast learner.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver
Key Players: Cecil Shorts, Ace Sanders, Mike Brown, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Denard Robinson, Tandon Doss
No team scored fewer points in the NFL last season than the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose offensive unit produced just 23 touchdowns in 16 contests in 2013.
In case you are wondering, this wasn’t just one bad season for a club that is a combined 11-37 since 2011. Over the course of the last three seasons, the Jaguars offense has combined to score 69 touchdowns, while the team has totaled a mere 745 points (15.5 points per game).
Compare that to the record-setting 2013 Denver Broncos, who scored 71 offensive touchdowns and 606 points this past season alone.
Over the past three years, Jacksonville's passing attack shoulders much of the blame for the team's struggles. The Jaguars have averaged exactly one touchdown pass in their past 48 contests.
This past year, Cecil Shorts led the team with 66 catches, followed by wideout Ace Sanders with 51 receptions. Former undrafted free agent Mike Brown totaled 32 grabs. Former first-rounder Justin Blackmon totaled 29 catches for 415 yards and a score in four games, but the league then indefinitely suspended him due to repeated violations of its substance abuse policy.
All told, Jaguars wide receivers accounted for eight touchdown receptions this past season.
Forecast: Shorts has been a real find for the Jaguars and has somewhat taken the sting off not having Blackmon, whose NFL future is in doubt. Still, while Shorts caught 11 more passes this past season than in 2012, his average per catch went from 17.8 to 11.8 yards per reception, and he caught just three touchdown passes (seven in 2012).
While he figures to hold onto one starting spot. don’t be shocked if rookie Marqise Lee grabs the other. Sanders figures to be much better in his second season, and all-purpose threat Denard Robinson didn’t catch a pass during his rookie campaign. Like Lee, Allen Robinson was also a second-round pick this year, as the Jaguars look to put the disappointing Blackmon era in the rearview mirror.
Miami Dolphins: Offensive Line
Key Players: LT Branden Albert, LT Billy Turner, LG Shelley Smith, LG Nate Garner, C Mike Pouncey, RG Dallas Thomas, RG Danny Watkins, RT Ja’Wuan James, RT Jason Fox
When the Miami Dolphins beat the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 of 2013, the starting offensive line featured left tackle Jonathan Martin, left guard Richie Incognito, center Mike Pouncey, right guard John Jerry and right tackle Tyson Clabo.
Just 16 weeks later the left side of the unit saw tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Nate Garner as the starters, with Pouncey, Jerry and Clabo as incumbents.
Now, in large part due to the bullying scandal that ravaged the Dolphins' locker room last season, only Pouncey and Garner remain of the aforementioned 2013 starters. Free agency has brought tackles Branden Albert and Jason Fox as well as guard Shelley Smith. The first round of the NFL draft earlier this month brought University of Tennessee tackle Ja’Wuan James, who was the 19th overall pick.
In 2013, only six teams in the league ran for fewer yards, and no team in the NFL allowed more than the 58 sacks permitted by the Dolphins.
Forecast: Albert and Shelley will man the left side, while James hopes to fend off Fox for the right tackle job. Pouncey was a Pro Bowler in 2013 and figures to open next to Thomas, who played in seven games as a rookie this past season but did not start a contest.
The Dolphins used a third-round pick two weeks ago on North Dakota State offensive lineman Billy Turner, who has the ability to help the team at both tackle and guard, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. John Benton, the team’s new offensive line coach, must be happy about not be forced to deal with last season’s mess.
Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback
Key Players: Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater
What’s in a name?
To date, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has lived up to his last name in three seasons.
While Matt Cassel has had his moments in the past with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, and played respectable football this past season with the Purple Gang, he has not always been a king.
Hence, for the second time in four years, the Vikings selected a quarterback in the first round of the draft. In 2011 it was Ponder, who has thrown 38 touchdown passes and 34 interceptions and lost nine of his 20 fumbles in 36 games with the team. The former Florida State Seminole was also sacked 89 times in those contests.
There’s a new regime in town with head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner calling the shots. The Vikings didn’t have too many problems putting points on the board (391) this past season, but they were far from sharp, committing 32 turnovers in 16 games.
Fixing the club that allowed the most points in the league in 2013 is Zimmer’s first order. But getting the quarterback situation solidified is priority No. 1B.
Forecast: We will make this simple. Cassel will start the season, and if the team remains in contention, he has more than an average chance of remaining the starter. But don’t be surprised if Bridgewater wows Zimmer, Turner and the rest of the team during the preseason.
General manager Rick Spielman didn’t trade back up into the first round to keep the former University of Louisville star on the bench for long. Spielman recently spoke about the 32nd overall selection’s progress on the Dari and Mel show on ESPN Radio.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Linebackers
Key Players: ILB Lawrence Timmons, ILB Ryan Shazier, ILB Vince Williams, ILB Sean Spence, OLB Jason Worilds, OLB Chris Carter, OLB Jarvis Jones, OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Jordan Zumwalt
Where have the big plays gone in regard to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense?
The problem as of late is that opposing offenses are making them, and Dick LeBeau’s unit is not. Consider that in 2010, the team’s last appearance in the Super Bowl, Mike Tomlin’s club totaled 35 takeaways during the regular season. Over the past three years, the Steelers have forced 55 turnovers in just 48 contests.
The Pittsburgh pass rush has also been quiet. After amassing at least 47 sacks in three straight seasons from 2008-10, Tomlin’s club has totaled 35, 37 and 34 sacks, respectively, the last three years.
Over the last three offseasons, the team has parted ways with James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is the only starting linebacker remaining from the Super Bowl XLV squad.
In 2013, the Steelers ranked 13th in the league in total defense and a very disappointing 21st versus the run.
Forecast: Versatility is the key to LeBeau’s defense, and 2014 first-round pick Ryan Shazier from Ohio State should provide that, as discussed by Scott Brown of ESPN.com. Jarvis Jones is the wild card here.
The first-round pick in 2013 didn’t provide the pass rush that the team was hoping for, but that’s not unusual for a rookie in this defense. Having Timmons, Jones, Shazier and Jason Worilds on the field at the same time could be interesting, unless you’re an opposing quarterback.
Carter and Spence hope to play bigger roles in 2014, as the latter is finally healthy after two lost seasons. Moats adds depth, and Williams saw plenty of time as a starter as a rookie.