NFL Players Due for a Reality Check in 2014
Not everyone can be successful every year.
When predicting which NFL players could be in for a down year, several factors must come into play. Sometimes it's a player who took advantage of favorable circumstances to enjoy a breakout year; those circumstances may not be the same every season.
Other times, an individual goes from great surroundings to a less-than-perfect setting that might not allow him to be as productive.
A player can even be subject to a reality check when he plays "over his head" for a while—meaning he performs so well that he couldn't possibly keep it up forever.
Whether it's any of those situations, a combination of them all or something completely different altogether, any number of players will be given a harsh dose of reality this season. These ones need to watch out for a potential step back in 2014.
Calvin Pace (New York Jets)
The New York Jets had two defenders who reached double-digit sacks in 2013: young stud Muhammad Wilkerson and elder statesman Calvin Pace.
Wilkerson was a disruptive force on the line, penetrating gaps and wreaking havoc in the opposing backfield. Pace, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of the stellar play of his teammates, including Wilkerson and rookie defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
Pace's career-high 10 sacks came mainly as a result of "cleaning up" the sacks after his teammates had already created pressure up the middle and flushed the quarterback out of the pocket. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pace ranked 22nd out of 41 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers in terms of creating pressure on a per-snap basis.
To make matters worse for Pace, the Jets have signed veteran pass-rusher Jason Babin to a two-year deal, according to Kim Jones of NFL Network. Babin is a considerable upgrade over Pace in terms of pass-rushing ability and should take away some of his opportunities to make an impact in the Jets defense.
Julian Edelman (New England Patriots)
It took five years, but Julian Edelman finally proved what he can do when he stays healthy and gets a chance to produce as a wide receiver.
His numbers were elevated quite a bit due to the lack of firepower in the New England Patriots offense last season. Several key players (tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Shane Vereen and wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Danny Amendola) dealt with injuries over the course of the year.
Gronkowski will be ready to go for Week 1, as will Vereen, Thompkins and Amendola. The Patriots have also added former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell this offseason as a free agent, further bolstering the weapons at the disposal of quarterback Tom Brady.
Make no mistake: Slot receivers will always be a vital piece to the puzzle in the Patriots offense. Also, Edelman still looked like the top receiver on the field during the team's offseason workout program. There were times last season where Brady locked on to Edelman even with other talented receivers on the field.
However, if everyone is healthy and the Patriots offense is working at its maximum efficiency, Edelman may not reach the lofty numbers he put up last season.
Knowshon Moreno (Miami Dolphins)
When the Miami Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno to a one-year deal this offseason, most pundits met the signing with high praise. The Dolphins sorely needed an effective running back for passing downs who can catch the ball out of the backfield and understands the concepts of blitz protection.
What most pundits did not know at the time, however, was that Moreno was dealing with a knee injury that needs surgery, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. This may have been the reason why no other team wanted him in free agency, even after he enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2013 with the Denver Broncos.
As it stands, third-year running back Lamar Miller is still ahead of Moreno on the depth chart and could remain there for the foreseeable future. Now, it seems like it's up to Moreno to claw his way up from the bottom, and he may have to do it on one leg.
Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)
Cam Newton will be an interesting case study in 2014. He had the best season of his career last year, putting up career highs in completion percentage (61.7 percent), passing touchdowns (24) and passer rating (88.8) while leading four fourth-quarter comebacks.
Things will be much different this year, though. How will the Carolina Panthers' young signal-caller respond to being stripped of his favorite receivers from 2013? Wideouts Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon have all left the fold, leaving Newton with only tight end Greg Olsen and running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert as familiar targets.
Newton is not alone in this plight. In 2013, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lost his five favorite targets from the year before, and the future Hall of Fame trigger-man took a step back as a result (as well as losing the weapons he had been provided).
The Panthers have added a few targets to their arsenal, with the selection of big-bodied Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, as well as the signing of veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. If Newton can quickly get on the same page with these new weapons, he could avoid the reality check. Otherwise, last year's red-hot Panthers could start cold in 2014.
Eric Decker (New York Jets)
The New York Jets have not had a wide receiver with Eric Decker's skill set and talent level in some time. In fact, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver.
Likewise, Decker has been catching passes from Peyton Manning for the past two years, and with the help of Demaryius Thomas on the other side, the attention was not focused as closely on Decker in Denver as it may be in New York. Needless to say, catching passes from second-year signal-caller Geno Smith may be a bit different from doing so with Manning.
With the appropriate skill set of size (6'3", 214 pounds), speed (4.54-second 40-yard dash) and route-running ability, Decker appears to fit the mold of a No. 1 receiver in an offense. Things are not always as they appear, though, and he will face a new set of challenges in New York, with defenses focusing on shutting him down as the key cog in the Jets pass attack.
Eli Manning (New York Giants)
Last season was a reality check for Eli Manning and, subsequently, the New York Giants as a whole. Manning's reality check may not be finished, however, as the two-time Super Bowl champion signal-caller faces another set of unfavorable circumstances in 2014.
Never mind (or mind it, if you wish) the fact that he threw only 18 touchdowns and a league-leading 27 interceptions in 2013. He was sacked a career-high 39 times behind some of the worst offensive line play he's ever seen and had little help from one of his top targets, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.
For Manning's entire career, he has only known one offensive coordinator: Kevin Gilbride. With Gilbride announcing his retirement, however, Manning will be playing in a new offense under coordinator Ben McAdoo. Where Gilbride ran a run-and-shoot offense, McAdoo brings a West Coast offensive philosophy to New York that will ask Manning to be quick with his reads and to spread the ball around to multiple receivers.
The Giants still have not extended Manning's contract, which expires after the 2015 season, and more poor play from the signal-caller could create some apprehension among the front office when it comes time to pay the man who led Big Blue to two Super Bowl victories.
Nick Foles (Philadelphia Eagles)
After throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 13 games under center as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, Nick Foles is on the best trajectory of any young quarterback in the league.
As with most young quarterbacks, the wake-up call is most likely waiting for him right around the corner. There were only two games last season in which Foles completed less than 60 percent of his passes and earned a passer rating of less than 100 (not counting a one-pass effort in Week 2).
Foles looked untouchable in his first year as the signal-caller, but with more exposure in the NFL comes a heightened awareness from defenses as to the tendencies of a young quarterback. Not to mention, he will be dealing with the loss of one of his favorite targets from last year, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who will now be playing for the division rival Washington Redskins.
Foles is still set up for success in Chip Kelly's offense, but with less firepower at his disposal and more tape for defenses to analyze, he may not put up the otherworldly numbers he did last year.
Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans)
Entering the final year of his rookie deal, quarterback Jake Locker is coming off a Lisfranc injury that ended his 2013 season. His return is accompanied by the departure of former head coach Mike Munchak and the arrival of new head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Several quarterbacks have been successful in Whisenhunt's aerial offense, including the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, Arizona Cardinals' Kurt Warner and San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers.
One commonality between those three quarterbacks is that they are all at their best as pure pocket passers (with the exception of Roethlisberger, who is just as good on the move as from the pocket). According to David Climer of The Tennessean, however, Whisenhunt may plan to make Locker into more of a traditional pocket passer than the frenetic scrambler he's been in his time in Tennessee. That proposition comes with more than a fair share of imagery involving square pegs and round holes.
Locker has never been the most accurate passer from the pocket, and his mobility has been his greatest strength at times. He has yet to prove himself as "the guy" for the Titans at quarterback and may have a hard time doing so in a system that is not tailored to his strengths.