10 NFL Stars Who Will Take Step Back in 2014
With the NFL offseason wrapping up, it is time to focus on what matters the most, which is what happens on the field.
Every season, we see big-name players statistically regress for various reasons.
In 2013, we saw Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III struggle due to the ACL he tore in the 2012 playoffs. Former Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub led his team to the No. 1 overall pick, if we're looking at the bright side of the situation (good luck, Raiders).
Quarterbacks aren't the only position that see major drop-off though. Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White struggled with injuries last year. Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Philip Wheeler was the worst player at his position in the NFL, according to PFF (subscription required).
Alright, you get the point.
Part of the reason the NFL is able to give partially guaranteed contracts is due to the inconsistent nature of the league. The brutality of the league leads to undisclosed injuries to everyone on the roster, and atrophy of the body leads to players hitting their prime in the mid-20s, then struggling to play past their prime.
Let's take a look at 10 NFL stars that will take a step back in 2014. Don't forget to leave your thoughts in the comments section, where we can discuss these choices.
Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore Ravens)
2013 stats: 214 carries, 660 yards, 4 touchdowns
By now, it’s likely you’ve seen the disturbing video where it appears Ravens running back Ray Rice is dragging his fiancé out of an elevator. The off-the-field troubles have led to some questioning about Rice’s future in Baltimore, but even without this incident, Rice is facing a critical 2014 season.
After his 2013 season, when Rice logged just 660 yards on 214 carries (just 3.1 yards per carry), four touchdowns and only one run of more than 20 yards, Rice is on notice to perform or have his role be further reduced, or even be released.
The Ravens didn’t hesitate to select Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro in the fourth round, and Taliaferro brings a skill set that could get him on the field early. A solid pass blocker with good vision, he fits the Ravens zone-blocking scheme well and could cut into Rice’s workload.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has more incentive to pass now, with tight end Dennis Pitta returning with a new 5-year contract and former Carolina Panther Steve Smith bolstering the receiver group. Those talented pass-catchers will only devalue Rice even more in 2014.
Cam Newton (QB, Carolina Panthers)
2013 stats: 61 percent completion, 3646 yards, 25 TDs, 15 INTs, 48 sacks
The Carolina Panthers had a wildly successful 2013 season and made the playoffs by going 12-4, saving head coach Ron Rivera’s job and answering some of the questions that doubters had about former No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton.
How did general manager Dave Gettleman build upon the Panthers’ terrific 2013?
He allowed Newton’s receiving corps to remain mediocre at best, and he once again failed to give his quarterback a decent group of playmakers on the outside.
After releasing star receiver Steve Smith and allowing the other top two receivers on the depth chart—Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn (and his family)—leave via free agency, the Panthers lost 58.6 percent of their total receiving yards and 60 percent of their touchdown catches from 2013.
Cam Newton has some incredible, wow moments as a pocket passer mixed in w/some head scratchers. Has to avoid getting locked in on first read— Joe Marino (@TheJoeMarino) May 24, 2014
Now, Smith isn’t young, and neither LaFell nor Ginn are above-average players, but the acquisitions of 32 year-old Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant (12 touchdowns in seven seasons) and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin aren’t upgrades for 2014.
Benjamin displayed immense potential while at Florida State, but as a 24 year-old rookie with major issues with drops and overall refinement, one could argue the Panthers should’ve taken at least one more receiver in the draft.
Compounding the issues at receiver are the changes the offensive line have undergone since last year.
Stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross retired, and swingman Nate Chandler is currently slated to start there. Chandler played well at tackle in his six appearances there in 2013, allowing only one hit on Newton, but he was atrocious when he moved inside to guard.
It’s odd for a lineman to be worse at guard than tackle, so if that’s a sign of things to come, expect Newton to be hammered often from his blind side.
On the right side of the line, if rookie Trai Turner is healthy, he should be a road grader right guard for years to come. His addition will help the run game.
At right tackle, the Panthers will be starting Byron Bell again. He’s about as average as you can be at the position.
With their offensive philosophy being predicated on balance (483 rushes compared to 473 passing attempts), the Panthers enter 2014 with their duo of De’Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart one more time.
Williams, now 31, is likely to hit the running back wall sooner rather than later. Stewart continues to struggle staying on the field, logging just 110 snaps in 2013.
The running back position will have to be addressed in 2015, so it makes you wonder why the Panthers didn’t spearhead the issue early. They instead selected yet another defensive lineman in the second round in Kony Ealy.
Troy Polamalu (SS, Pittsburgh Steelers)
2013 stats: 60 solo tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defensed, 2 sacks
After enjoying a bounce-back 2013 season, Troy Polamalu will have to overcome his surroundings and declining speed once again to have a solid 2014 campaign.
Could this be #Steelers SS Troy Polamalu's last NFL season? Thats' the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's "best guess" according to an article today.— TDdaily (@TDdaily) May 23, 2014
The Steelers addressed their aging defense early in the 2014 draft by selecting Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt, but that might not be enough to keep blockers off Polamalu. With his limited frame and physical traits in decline due to age and injury history, the future Hall of Famer has to be protected by block-eaters up front.
Quite frankly, stacking and shedding blocks was an issue for Shazier at Ohio State, and Tuitt played injured through much of 2013. Their impact may be minimal early on, and it might not be enough to make Polamalu’s job any easier.
At 33 years of age and with the aforementioned team issues, don't be surprised if Polamalu sees a major drop-off in production and impact for the Steelers.
Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans Saints)
2013 stats: 67.8 completion percentage, 5721 yards, 41 TDs, 14 INTs, 40 sacks
Although still an upper-tier quarterback, Brees struggled at times last year with his usually elite decision-making. As he is 35 years old, the sure-fire Hall of Famer is going to see some decline eventually, and 2014 will be that year.
The Saints failed to upgrade the talent around Brees this offseason, and the biggest blow was trading away one of the most dynamic talents in the league, Darren Sproles.
The diminutive running back provided 80 receptions, 667 yards and two touchdowns last year, but the most impressive feat was the 584 yards after the catch. Brees will miss his elite agility, open field creativity and reliability.
On the outside, receiver Marques Colston is showing signs of decline as well. He produced just 12.5 yards per catch in 2013, notably below his career average of 14.14. His inability to stretch the field puts more pressure on young receivers Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and first-round pick Brandin Cooks.
As good as Cooks can be, rookie receivers generally struggle, and head coach Sean Payton runs a complex offensive system that greatly varies each week. If Cooks can’t handle what Sproles provided, Brees will have to rely on his aging WR group.
Brees will still be a top-10 quarterback, but there were too many plays last year that showed his accuracy and physical tools are declining, such as the two interceptions in the playoffs.
I expect Brees to leave the echelon of elite quarterbacks this season.
Mario Williams (DE, Buffalo Bills)
2013 stats: 22 solo tackles, 14 sacks, 48 quarterback hurries, 7 hits
After the Buffalo Bills lost defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the Cleveland Browns, the team hired former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to develop a talented group of defenders.
Being the fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons for the Bills, Schwartz has the benefit of working with players that have experience in a variety of schemes.
The star of the group is the $96 million dollar man, Mario Williams. Take a look at his statistics last season, when he lined up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense: 14 sacks, 7 hits and 48 hurries.
#Bills DE Mario Williams turned 28 today. At 76.5 sacks in his career. Very well could get to 100 by the time he's 30.— Chris Trapasso (@ChrisTrapasso) January 31, 2014
Under Schwartz, who primarily utilized four down linemen, Williams will once again likely start as a weak-side defensive end, a role he played in his first season with Buffalo. Here are his stats from that season: 11 sacks, 7 hits, 38 hurries.
Here’s the thing with the above sack numbers: Many came in flurries against bottom-feeders such as the Colts (three), Cardinals (two) and Rams (two).
He wasn’t able to get consistent pressure with his hand in the ground. As a 290-pound end, he isn’t able to use his terrific athleticism as effectively because there is far less space to work with than when he can be a stand-up pass-rusher.
Looking at the 2014 schedule that Williams will face, he’s going to be lined up against much better left tackles than last year. Here are the notable tackles that he’ll line up against this season:
Duane Brown (Texans), Joe Thomas (Browns), Branden Albert (Dolphins), Ryan Clady (Broncos), Nate Solder (Patriots) and Matt Kalil (Vikings).
Considering the boost in competition and the scheme change, expect the former No.1 overall pick to struggle more this season than he has in the past.
Antonio Gates (TE, San Diego Chargers)
2013 stats: 77 catches, 872 yards, 4 touchdowns
Despite being as reliable as ever in terms of catch percentage (2013 value was 70.2% compared to his career average of 72%), Gates is going to see a lesser role in 2014 than he has since he was a rookie.
Why is that?
It’s not because he’s no longer the best tight end in the AFC West (that’s you, Julian Thomas).
It’s because he’s no longer the best tight end on the Chargers roster.
Second-year tight end Ladarius Green showed immense potential while in college at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and it didn’t take long for him to adjust to the NFL.
Is there any reason Ladarius Green shouldn't start over Antonio Gates next year outside of career legacy?— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) April 25, 2014
In the regular season, the Chargers’ coaching staff relied on Gates, giving him 996 snaps and Green only 370.
Due to Green’s larger frame (Gates stands 6’4” while Green is nearly 6’6”), elite athleticism and much better blocking ability (Gates ranked 62nd among tight ends as a run blocker in 2013), Green earned 80 snaps in the playoffs. Gates notched just 82.
Entering 2014, expect the coaching staff to utilize Green and Gates in a similar fashion to the playoffs. Gates still brings great athleticism to the table, and as a Hall of Fame player, he’s well worth his cap number, but expect his impact and statistics to regress this season.
Andre Johnson (WR, Houston Texans)
2013 stats: 109 catches, 1,407 yards, 5 touchdowns
Bill O’Brien and GM Rick Smith are working with and talking to Andre Johnson, hoping to ease his concerns & get him to show. Can’t trade him— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 22, 2014
What leads me to believe Johnson will regress this season has less to do with the player and more to do with what’s around him.
Let’s start with his new quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick is known for being a streaky player, accumulating career highs in 2011 while with the Bills. The peaks and valleys are steep for the journeyman quarterback, however, as he had a passer rating of only 81.2 in his two season starting, prompting the Bills to draft current quarterback E.J. Manual in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
If Fitzpatrick doesn’t hold on to the job, Johnson is still unlikely to replicate his production if backup Case Keenum or rookie Tom Savage play this season.
Former quarterback Matt Schaub targeted Johnson 145 times per season from 2008-2013, which included two seasons with injuries that significantly lowered that number.
Looking across from Johnson is second-year receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who flashed No. 1 receiver potential himself last year. With the torch possibly being passed in the next year or two, the offensive system employed by new head coach Bill O’Brien could feature Hopkins more than the former coaching staff looked to do.
D’Qwell Jackson (ILB, Indianapolis Colts)
2013 stats: 103 solo tackles, 12 missed tackles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions
The 2013 Cleveland Browns were the 8th ranked rush defense for yards per carry, but don’t thank D’Qwell for helping the team achieve that.
This week in madness: There are Browns fans who are still lamenting Karlos Dansby for D'Qwell Jackson. I mean...watch just one game, please.— Ryan Burns (@FtblSickness) March 17, 2014
The soon-to-be 31 year old joins the Indianapolis Colts one season removed from being ranked 42nd among all inside linebackers in 2013, largely because he is a poor run defender. Some are quick to point to his impressive tackle statistics over his career, but many of Jackson’s tackles occur five yards down the field, meaning he doesn’t read and react to plays effectively.
At only 240 pounds and 6’0” tall, he doesn’t have the length or toughness to fight through the trash that the run game creates, creating big holes for opposing running backs to sprint through.
Against the pass, Jackson rarely makes an impact despite his solid athleticism and decent ball skills. The Browns 3-4 defense in 2013 ranked 15th against opposing tight ends, often having Jackson follow in-line threats down the seam.
Although that’s not a horrible ranking, Jackson will be playing in a similar role with a worse supporting cast in the Colts' 3-4 defense.
T.J. Ward (SS, Denver Broncos)
2013 stats: 91 solo tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 passes defensed, 2 sacks
The positives on Ward: As PFF’s 3rd ranked safety, he’s a good player that’s capable of fulfilling his assignments well. If he’s not the best in-the-box safety in the entire NFL, he’s certainly deserving of being in that discussion.
The issue with Ward is in coverage, where his limited size, anticipation and recognition skills put the defense in disadvantageous situations on pass plays.
Since Denver is known for having a somewhat respectable offense, expect opponents to pass the ball more than what Ward saw in 2013 as a member of the Browns. For comparison's sake, the Browns saw 655 pass plays in 2013, while the Broncos defended nearly 700 passes.
Over 16 games, that’s not a big disparity. However, with the Broncos presumably employing more press-coverages with newly signed cornerback Aqib Talib than what the Browns do with Joe Haden, Ward will have to provide adequate security for a secondary that is known for giving up big passing plays.
Ward will have to make a major leap in his pass coverage to be an impact player for the Broncos in 2014.
Olivier Vernon (DE, Miami Dolphins)
2013 stats: 40 solo tackles, 11 sacks, 32 quarterback hurries, 5 hits
Olivier Vernon is a freakish athlete like Wake & Grimes. He'd been poorly coached his whole life. Kacy Rodgers will continue to bring it out— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) May 21, 2014
The local product from the University of Miami (FL) had a breakout sophomore season in 2013, racking up 11 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 32 hurries and 40 solo tackles. Despite the tremendous production, don’t expect those numbers to stay that high.
The Dolphins allowed nose tackle Paul Soliai to depart in free agency and replaced him with former Texan Earl Mitchell, who figures to be a pass-rushing 3-technique that substitutes in behind tackles Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. That leads to more competition for pass-rushing opportunities for Vernon.
What could hurt Vernon’s snap count more is that star defensive end Cameron Wake battled through injury for a good portion of 2013, and if Wake is healthy, he’s easily one of the top defensive ends in the league.
Don’t forget about former No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, either. After coming to training camp late last season and having to heal from a shoulder injury, he couldn’t get on the field often, but when he did, he flashed tremendous upside. Expect Jordan to take the next step in his developmental curve.
Since Vernon struggles setting the edge against the run, Miami will undoubtedly rotate him throughout the game with backup Derrick Shelby and the aforementioned group. Keeping the defensive front fresh and dangerous has been a goal of defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, and now he has to the ability to limit snap counts.
Expect Vernon’s raw stats to decrease, even if he’s a better overall player in his third season.