Analyzing Latest Updates from NFL OTAs
Players are back at work around the National Football League as organized team activities (OTAs) have begun. With the exception of the St. Louis Rams, whose first day of OTAs is on Tuesday, the league’s other 31 teams have each had at least one practice thus far.
The practices are voluntary, which has led to some notable absences around the league such as Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, but most players—even established veterans—participate fully in offseason workouts unless they are injured.
For most players, attending OTAs represents an opportunity to gain ground on the depth chart, while not attending OTAs has potential consequences, such as losing a spot in the lineup or on the roster.
A player’s performance in OTAs might ultimately be considered meaningless, especially if that player has already proved his worth in regular-season games. For a player who is a fighting for his place on the team, however, every practice can have bearing.
There have already been a few unfortunate instances of OTA injuries claiming players’ seasons before they ever truly began, but many other players are already benefiting from getting on the field with their teammates.
Sean Lee Expected to Miss Season with Torn ACL
Most of what happens in offseason workouts will be long forgotten by the time the NFL regular season begins. The knee injury suffered by Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee on the team’s first day of OTAs, however, will have a ripple effect on the Cowboys’ entire season.
Lee tore the ACL in his left knee, an injury that "more than likely will put him on injured reserve for all of the 2014 season," according to Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com.
The fifth-year player, who signed a six-year, $42 million contract extension with the team last offseason, has been no stranger to injuries in his career. Lee has missed 15 games in the past two years alone and has never completed a full 16-game season in the NFL.
That said, Lee is one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers when he is healthy. A rangy athlete and sound tackler who is skilled in coverage, he accumulated 99 total tackles and four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, last season despite missing five games.
Replacing Lee for the entire 2014 season will be no easy task for the Cowboys, who don’t have a clear backup at the position.
The injury could open the door to the starting middle linebacker spot for Anthony Hitchens, a rookie out of Iowa selected by the team in the fourth round of this year’s draft. At this point, Hitchens himself admits he isn't quite there yet when asked if he could step into Lee's spot right away (per DallasCowboys.com):
Honestly, right now, no. But I will get there. It’s going to take time. I’ve still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it’s a good thing we don’t. I have time to get better.
Another possibility could be moving Bruce Carter to middle linebacker with DeVonte Holloman taking his place at weak-side linebacker.
Lee isn’t the only NFL player who has suffered a torn ACL this week. Domenik Hixon, a ninth-year wide receiver signed by the Chicago Bears this offseason, announced on his Facebook page (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com) that he suffered the injury Tuesday.
Johnny Manziel Moving Up the Depth Chart
It seems that just about everything Johnny Manziel does this offseason is going to be covered like a breaking news story, but it’s not uncommon for an NFL rookie to start out on the bottom of his team’s depth chart or for an NFL player to make a weekend getaway to Las Vegas in May.
That said, it appears that one of those scenarios is on the verge of changing already. The Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback isn’t likely to curtail his high-profile social life anytime soon, but the No. 22 overall pick seems to already be working his way up the pecking order on the football field.
After taking third-team repetitions during the Browns’ first week of OTAs, Manziel worked with both the first- and second-team offenses on Wednesday, according to NFL Media’s Aditi Kinkhabwala (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com).
Early on, the Browns have made an effort to deflate expectations for Manziel. Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer went as far as telling 92.3 The Fan’s Bull & Fox that Hoyer is better than Manziel "by a substantial margin."
But regardless of what the team has said or will say about the quarterback competition, the Browns should give Manziel every opportunity to win the job. By giving him time with the first-team offense already in offseason workouts, Cleveland seems prepared to let its dynamic rookie playmaker go head-to-head with the more experienced Hoyer for the job.
Geno Smith Leading Way for New York Jets at Quarterback
When the New York Jets signed veteran quarterback Michael Vick to a one-year contract this offseason, some analysts believed that Vick would supplant second-year signal-caller Geno Smith for the team’s starting job. The early indication, however, is that Vick faces an uphill battle to get that chance.
Smith worked ahead of Vick as the Jets’ first-team quarterback during the team’s second OTA practice and first open to the media, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. Cimini added, however, that the two quarterbacks shared the repetitions in practice, with Smith getting 14 and Vick getting 12.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been adamant that Vick will have a chance to win the starting job, according to Dom Cosentino of NJ.com: "There is competition—there's no doubt. We've got two guys who are really pushing to be a starting quarterback."
Vick himself, however, has stated that the Jets’ quarterback battle is "not an open competition," according to Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger.
Regardless of how true the competition is, the job should absolutely be Smith’s to lose. Smith’s performance in his rookie season has been oft-criticized, but as long as the West Virginia product makes satisfactory progress this offseason, the Jets should favor starting a 23-year-old potential franchise quarterback over a 33-year-old on the back end of his career with a one-year contract.
That won’t stop Vick’s supporters or Smith’s critics from making a case for the 2001 No. 1 overall pick. Pro Football Hall of Famer and legendary Jets quarterback Joe Namath, according to Cimini, is among those who have campaigned for Vick to start.
If Mike's healthy, I think he's the better player at this point. Now, Geno's got some talent, no doubt, but we've obviously seen Michael and what he can do. To have some knowledge of [offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's] offense, I think that's an advantage, too, for Michael to make the transition. It's a matter of how sound he is.
Jeremy Hill Ahead of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Bengals Backfield
BenJarvus Green-Ellis has started all but one game at running back for the Cincinnati Bengals in the past two seasons, but it already seems the team is looking to make a change at the position.
The Bengals made that clear when they used their second-round pick in this year’s draft (No. 55 overall) to select LSU running back Jeremy Hill. When Cincinnati opened OTAs on Tuesday, Hill was the Bengals’ second-team running back behind second-year playmaker Giovani Bernard and ahead of Green-Ellis, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.
Green-Ellis is known for being a solid, reliable between-the-tackles runner, but "Law Firm" doesn’t have much big-play ability. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and had just one run of more than 20 yards this past season.
Hill isn’t the type of back you’d expect to break away for many long runs either, but he’s a bigger, stronger runner with more burst.
If the Bengals believe that Green-Ellis has plateaued at 28 years old, it makes sense to replace him with the younger Hill. With a $3 million cap hit and only $500,000 in dead money as he enters the final year of his contract, he could be a candidate for release this offseason.
By combining Bernard’s agility and multifaceted game with Hill’s size and power, the Bengals could quickly establish one of the NFL’s top young one-two punches at running back.
That could lead to Green-Ellis, who should get another shot as a rotational back if he is released, being cut in favor of a cheaper third-string option in Cedric Peerman or Rex Burkhead.
Markus Wheaton Lining Up as Starting WR for Pittsburgh
Following the free-agent departures of Emmanuel Sanders to the Denver Broncos and Jerricho Cotchery to the Carolina Panthers, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a wide-open spot at wide receiver in their starting lineup opposite star No. 1 wideout Antonio Brown.
The early indication is that Markus Wheaton, a 2013 third-round pick, will have the primary opportunity to earn that spot on the field. The team opened OTAs with Wheaton opposite Brown in the first-team offense, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Wheaton’s first NFL season, in which he caught just six passes for 64 yards, was a bit of a letdown.
Nonetheless, the former Oregon State wideout has the skill set to take advantage of the opportunity for increased playing time. He’s a small receiver, listed at just 5’11” and 184 pounds, but he has a very good combination of deep speed, open-field agility, strength and toughness.
If he wants to be Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver, Wheaton knows he is going to have to earn it, according to Fittipaldo. "There are a lot of us chasing that spot," Wheaton said. "It’s not mine. There’s a lot of good competition."
Challengers for Wheaton’s starting spot could include rookie Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick, and free-agent signee Darrius Heyward-Bey. Another free-agent addition, Lance Moore, is likely to be the Steelers’ slot receiver but could also factor in as competition for Wheaton.
Kyle Fuller No. 3 Cornerback for Chicago But Lining Up Outside
First-round pick Kyle Fuller is expected to be the No. 3 cornerback on the Chicago Bears’ depth chart in 2014, but that doesn’t mean the rookie will play in the slot.
Thus far in OTAs, the Bears have been playing the No. 14 overall selection outside while kicking starting cornerback Tim Jennings inside in nickel packages, according to ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Chicago will roll those players in those same positions when the actual season begins—it could just be a possibility the team is experimenting with in OTAs—but it’s a formation that would make sense for all parties.
Jennings is the Bears’ best cornerback and should be a lock to start, but Fuller (6’0”, 190 lbs) has a distinct height advantage over Jennings (5’8”, 185 lbs).
Fuller is an experienced slot cornerback who projects to play along the sidelines in the long term. Jennings could continue to start for the Bears outside for years to come, but he was dominant in slot coverage last year, allowing just one reception in 27 snaps inside, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It’s likely that all three of the Bears’ top cornerbacks, including Charles Tillman, will see at least a bit of playing time in the slot this season.
But regardless of how the team expects to ultimately line the three players up in nickel packages, it makes sense for Chicago to enable Fuller to obtain more experience playing outside, as he would be the first to step into the starting lineup should Tillman or Jennings go down with an injury.
Sio Moore Moved to Weak-Side Linebacker for Oakland
Sio Moore had a promising rookie year at strong-side linebacker for the Oakland Raiders defense, but that won’t stop supremely talented No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack from displacing Moore at his most natural position.
Mack, a rookie from Buffalo, will likely end up in Oakland’s starting lineup one way or another. Moore could remain in the starting lineup if he can transition adequately to weak-side linebacker, where he has opened OTAs on Oakland’s first-team defense, according to CSNBayArea.com’s Scott Bair.
Moore, who had 50 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble in his first year, is more naturally suited for the "Sam" linebacker position than the "Will" in Oakland’s 4-3 defense. That said, he has enough athleticism to drop into coverage, and he gained experience on the weak side during his collegiate career at Connecticut.
Incumbent starting weak-side linebacker Kevin Burnett has been a no-show for OTAs, according to Bair. Moore will have to beat him out in training camp and the preseason to take his starting spot, but he has enough talent to make Burnett regret skipping the voluntary workouts.
Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, according to Bair, said he has not made any decisions yet on which linebackers will line up where.
We’re going to take a look at a lot of different people in a lot of different areas because we got a lot of new players on this football team. And so as we get a better feel for these guys and we get a better opportunity to work with them, we’ll settle in more on positions as we move along.
That said, it would behoove Oakland to have both Moore and Mack, two young players with huge upside, in the starting lineup and on the field as much as possible. Burnett, on the other hand, is 31 years old and could be a candidate for release as he enters the final year of his Raiders contract with a $4.1425 million cap hit and just $642,500 in dead money.
Dolphins DE Dion Jordan Bulking Up
The Miami Dolphins made one of the more questionable moves of the 2013 NFL draft when they traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to select Dion Jordan, an edge defender from Oregon. Those questions have been left unanswered going into 2014 after Jordan was largely a non-factor in his rookie season.
Noted for his all-around athleticism and pass-rushing potential as a draft prospect, Jordan’s upside failed to translate to the field in his rookie year in which he played just 339 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and recorded two sacks.
Jordan would have been better cast as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense than he is as a defensive end in Miami’s 4-3 scheme. Although he showed promise as a pass-rusher, he has consistently struggled against the run due to a lack of size and point-of-attack strength.
In an effort to make him more effective in that capacity, the Dolphins have apparently worked on having Jordan bulk up. According to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald, the 6’6” Jordan has increased his weight to "a little over 265 pounds."
If Jordan can keep his additional weight and translate it into strength without losing his athleticism in the process, he’ll have a shot to be much more effective as a defensive end and be significantly more productive in his second NFL season as a result.
"I was definitely too light to go out there against some of those offensive tackles," Jordan conceded, according to Salguero.
Not everyone, however, thinks that adding the necessary weight to stay at defensive end is the right career move for Jordan. Bleacher Report’s Ian Kenyon described Jordan as a "square peg in [a] round hole," while Dolphins coach Joe Philbin even acknowledged, according to Salguero, that "the team considered using Jordan as an OLB this year but decided against it."
All measurables and stats courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.