Biggest NFL Red Flags Heading into 2014 Season
Although they can add an additional element to a recreational game, flags are rarely a good thing when talking about professional football. Red flags can be particularly worrisome when heading into a fresh NFL season.
We're not talking about the kind of flags that can penalize a team on the football field (those are yellow...and sometimes pink). We're also not talking about the red challenge flag (which rarely seems to go your team's way).
We're talking about the type of red flags that have the potential to negatively impact a team's entire season.
In this instance, we're talking about red-flag players. Those players that have the potential to be great but that also carry a heightened risk for injury, off-field issues or suspension.
After all, having a truly special player can dramatically increase an NFL team's chances of advancing to the postseason and beyond. However, that player cannot do a whole lot of good if he is too busy causing distractions or is unable to consistently find his way onto the football field.
Over the next few pages, we will examine the biggest red-flag players heading into the 2014 season.
Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones
Since entering the league in 2011, Atlanta Falcons wideout Julio Jones has developed a reputation as one of the NFL's up-and-coming offensive playmakers.
He produced more than 2,000 receiving yards and caught 18 touchdowns during his first two seasons playing opposite established veteran Roddy White in the Falcons offense.
However, Jones had his 2013 season cut short after just five games with a foot injury. At the time, he was leading the NFL in receiving yards. The unfortunate injury added to the Falcons' struggles during the 2013 campaign (and probably frustrated more than a few fantasy owners).
According to Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, Jones has only recently been cleared to run routes. He has not been cleared for practice.
If he is not ready for the start of the regular season or if he struggles to regain his previous form, Atlanta could again have trouble finding consistency on offense. The uncertainty surrounding Jones' availability is a major red flag for the Falcons.
Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice
Running back Ray Rice played a big role in helping the Baltimore Ravens win a Super Bowl a couple of short seasons ago. However, he took a step back in 2013, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and reaching the end zone just four times on the season (he scored a total of 25 times over the previous two years).
It is off-field issues, however, that really make Rice a red flag for the Ravens heading into the 2014 season. The six-year pro was arrested during the offseason for an assault involving then-girlfriend Janay Palmer.
While successful completion of a diversionary program will allow Rice to avoid jail time, the running back could still face a suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell. According to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, the question is not if Rice will be suspended, but for how long.
Baltimore has other running backs on the roster, like veteran Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (who was also arrested this offseason). Not knowing the future of Rice, however, is a problem.
Denver Broncos CB Chris Harris
While the Denver Broncos did take time to make upgrades to the secondary during the offseason, the team must still be concerned with the health of cornerback Chris Harris.
Bringing in guys like T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib should help bolster a unit that ranked just 27th against the pass last year (254.4 yards per game allowed). However, missing Harris for any significant stretch would hurt, as it did during the 2013 postseason.
Harris was rated the league's ninth-best overall cornerback for the 2013 season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He was lost for the remainder of the postseason when he suffered a torn ACL against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round.
According to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Harris plans to be ready for the regular season opener. However, the Broncos need to be careful with the way they handle his recovery.
Rushing him into action too quickly or failing to adequately prepare for a potential absence could cause major issues to a unit that should be much improved in the coming season.
Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo
The Dallas Cowboys have finished with an 8-8 record in each of the past three seasons. The team's chances of bucking the trend and taking a step toward playoff relevance hinge greatly on the health of quarterback Tony Romo.
Romo missed the final game of the 2013 season with a back injury that required surgery.
According to Kevin Patra of NFL.com, the quarterback does believe he could suit up and play if called upon at this point in his recovery. However, Dallas has to be concerned with Romo's health and his ability to come back and play at a high level at the beginning of the regular season.
Rushing Romo back onto the playing field too early could have disastrous consequences, but the Cowboys don't have a lot of favorable alternatives.
The team signed former Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden during the offseason. If forced to rely on Weeden at any point during the regular season, Dallas will find itself dependent on a quarterback who has completed just 55.9 percent of his passes and who has committed 29 turnovers in just 20 starts.
Cleveland Browns WR Josh Gordon
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon appears to have the potential to become one of the NFL's most lethal pass-catchers for the next several years.
Despite missing two games due to suspension, he managed to lead the league with 1,646 yards receiving last season. He also grabbed nine touchdown passes and averaged a healthy 18.9 yards per reception.
Unfortunately, Gordon already faces another suspension for the coming season.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Gordon could be facing an indefinite ban from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy, though his agent is currently in the process of appealing the ban.
This makes Gordon a major red flag for the Browns because the team simply does not know whether it will have its top offensive player available at any point in the 2014 regular season.
Houston Texans RB Arian Foster
The Houston Texans went from being a playoff team in 2012 to the NFL's worst last season.
Part of the problem was the unraveling of longtime starter Matt Schaub at the quarterback position. Another problem was the back injury that caused star running back Arian Foster to miss the latter half of the regular season.
Per NFL.com's Kevin Patra, new Texans head coach Bill O'Brien plans to utilize Foster as an every-down back in his offense this coming season. The red flag here is that the Texans can't know how he will rebound from his injury and if he can avoid further injury in a substantial role.
For the past few seasons, Foster has benefited from sharing the backfield with Ben Tate, who left in free agency for the Cleveland Browns.
With Tate and Schaub both gone (Schaub was traded to the Oakland Raiders), Houston's offense looks to rely heavily on Foster. The Texans hope he can handle the load.
Oakland Raiders RB Darren McFadden
After managing what appears to be a very solid draft and adding an influx of veteran free-agent talent, it appears the Oakland Raiders are poised to make some on-field improvements in 2014.
The biggest potential improvements may come on offense, where the Raiders may finally find some consistency under center from veteran acquisition Matt Schaub or rookie second-round pick Derek Carr.
That said, Oakland may have to find a way to take some of the pressure off of whichever quarterback wins the starting job to find that consistency, which is where seventh-year running back Darren McFadden comes in.
McFadden, a former No. 4 overall draft pick, possesses immense physical talent and has shown flashes of absolute brilliance during his pro career. Unfortunately, he has also shown a propensity for finding himself on the injury report.
Because of injuries, the former Arkansas star has appeared in only 67 of a possible 96 games since being drafted.
Oakland had enough faith in McFadden's potential to impact the offense to re-sign him to a one-year deal during the offseason, but they also went ahead and signed Maurice Jones-Drew, just to be safe. If he again misses a good portion of the season due to injury, though, the Raiders could find themselves more one-dimensional on offense and McFadden will likely be at the end of his Oakland career.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon
Though he may not open the season as the starter, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a new franchise quarterback in former Central Florida standout Blake Bortles.
What the Jaguars may not have in 2014 is talented yet troubled wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
Blackmon was handed an indefinite suspension last season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He has yet to be reinstated and may not be in the Jaguars' plans at all this coming season.
According to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union (h/t NFL Media's Marc Sessler), Jaguars general manager David Caldwell doesn't feel that having Blackmon is something the team is "counting on."
Having Blackmon on the field would certainly be a boon to Bortles' development, however, as he is an extremely gifted young receiver. The 24-year-old produced 29 receptions and 415 yards in just four games before his suspension last season.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars appear unsure if Blackmon will ever be back with the team. After drafting a pair of receivers in the second round of May's draft, Jacksonville may not even want him back.
San Francisco 49ers LB Aldon Smith
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith missed some time in 2013 while receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.
However, he has yet to receive any league discipline for his off-field incidents that include cases involving driving under the influence and felony weapons charges.
Smith has pleaded no contest to the charges and is scheduled to receive sentencing July 25, according to Associated Press reports (h/t ESPN). The red flag for San Francisco is the potential for Smith to receive jail time or a league-mandated suspension.
As is the case in Baltimore with Ray Rice, Smith could receive a suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell at virtually any time. The 49ers have to at least prepare for the possibility that their star pass-rusher may be unavailable for at least part of the 2014 season.
Cleveland Browns QB Brian Hoyer
We could probably consider rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel a bit of a red flag simply because of his ability to attract the media and for his love of the party. However, Cleveland's real concern should be with quarterback Brian Hoyer, the hometown veteran who hopes to hold off Manziel for the starting job in 2014.
Hoyer showed a lot of promise during his three appearances for the Browns last season, helping lead the team to three straight victories before suffering a torn ACL. That injury put Brandon Weeden back into the lineup and put a damper on the rest of Cleveland's season.
Hoyer will have an opportunity to pick up where he left off last season, provided he can fend off Manziel. He has been named the team's starter heading into training camp, at least.
The problem is that the Browns have not yet allowed Hoyer to be a full participant in practice and have no way of knowing exactly how he will perform coming back from injury.
If he is mentally or physically unable to play at a high level and Manziel is not ready to step into a starting role, then the Browns will probably face another long season of subpar quarterback play.