NFL1000: Biggest Disappointments at Midseason

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistOctober 27, 2017

NFL1000: Biggest Disappointments at Midseason

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    Disappointment factors into every season for every NFL team, even the eventual Super Bowl winner. The NFL is based on high expectations; therefore, the NFL to a degree is designed to let you down. Players, coaches, executives and owners can all disappoint.

    But the most obvious and visible disappointments come from players who have performed at a high level for a number of years and are—for whatever reason—not getting it done anymore. Some downturns aren’t reversible; age is the opponent at times, and it can take anyone down whenever it wants.

    At other times, a player’s fit in a certain scheme (or team) can change. Teammates around the player in question can disappear or regress, leaving a clear truth—that said player was highly dependent on circumstances around him for his own success.

    Quite notably, the efforts of new coaches and coordinators can play a part. When a coach or a coordinator doesn’t understand how to use the skills of his players to their best potential, instead insisting that those players run a prefabricated scheme no matter whether they can or not, disaster often results.

    Our NFL1000 scouts watch tape throughout the season, so disappointment comes up on our radar pretty consistently. The reasons are different from situation to situation, but the factors leading to that conclusion all travel in the same direction: This player isn’t performing up to the standard expected.

    Here, our scouts have chosen one player at each position for whom this has been the case in the first half of the 2017 season.

Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The 2016 Atlanta Falcons finished with an 11-5 record and advanced to Super Bowl LI, and Ryan was a huge reason. Ryan was named the Associated Press MVP after throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He led the league with an Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt of 9.03, and led the league in both quarterback rating (117.1) and QBR (83.3).

    But the 2017 version of Matt Ryan has been anything but magical. The Falcons sit at 3-3, and Ryan’s statistics place him in the middle of the pack. His ANY/A of 6.46 has him ranked 15th in the league, his quarterback rating of 89.3 ranks him tied for 16th, and his QBR of 59.7 places him 11th. Ryan has thrown six interceptions, and only eight quarterbacks have thrown more.

    Some point to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as a reason for Ryan’s regression. There is perhaps an element to this, both in terms of play-calling and game-planning. Both were on display Sunday night against the New England Patriots. Atlanta’s failed 4th-and-1 play at the goal line is an example of a specific play call that was perhaps ill-advised. When you empty the backfield in a short-yardage situation and then bring a wide receiver in motion, the eventual jet sweep might work on Saturdays in the SEC, but it is likely diagnosed by a Bill Belichick/Matt Patricia defense. And it was.

    But there is also a game-planning component. Football Outsiders, which uses its Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic to track not just total defense but how defenses fare against specific receivers by position, ranks the New England pass defense 29th in the league against running backs. But Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were targeted only four times—FOUR—in the passing game.

    Of course, Ryan still needs to execute the plays called, and that too has been lacking. Prior to the failed jet sweep, Sarkisian called a designed roll-out to the right to hit Julio Jones on a crossing route. Ryan’s pass was behind the receiver, allowing Malcolm Butler to break up the play. On Atlanta’s opening drive, it faced a 3rd-and-2 and Mohamed Sanu ran a quick out pattern against safety Patrick Chung. Despite an advantageous matchup, Ryan’s pass was high and outside, and the Falcons could not take advantage.

    Poor play-calling and design can be overcome by a quarterback executing at a high level. Conversely, a brilliant offensive coordinator can mask deficiencies at the QB position. But when both the QB and OC are underperforming, that is a recipe for regression. That is the story of Atlanta’s 2017 season.

    — NFL1000 QB scout Mark Schofield

Running Back: Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

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    It's fair to say the Raiders have yet to get the production they would have expected out of running back Marshawn Lynch. He has carried the ball 72 times for 266 yards and two touchdowns at 3.7 yards per carry. In the Raiders' opening game against the Titans, Lynch showed flashes of the running back that earned the nickname Beast Mode. He had 76 yards on 18 carries in that game, but he has yet to eclipse either total since then.

    His lack of production isn't all on him. The Raiders haven't given him enough opportunities. They're known to be a pass-first offense with Derek Carr at quarterback, but they lack balance. Oakland ranks 30th in the NFL in rushing attempts per game with 21.7, and Lynch rarely plays in obvious passing situations.

    Lynch averages just over 10 carries a game and hasn't carried the ball more than 13 times in a game since Week 1. In his peak years in Seattle, he was averaging nearly double that number each game. With the Seahawks, Lynch had much of his success late in games, after wearing down the defense with his powerful and punishing rushing style, but the Raiders aren't giving him the chance to replicate that.

    From a schematic standpoint, there have been some growing pains. The Raiders ran some inside zone last season, but they were mostly a power-scheme team. Lynch is a fantastic zone running back, and the Raiders have attempted to adopt the outside-zone scheme into their offense. However, the zone scheme is typically run by smaller, more agile offensive linemen.

    The Raiders are full of big, stout, powerful offensive linemen that can overpower defenders in front of them, but they aren't always able to reach to certain blocks that are required for the zone scheme to thrive.

    This isn't to say the Raiders can't get more out of Lynch going forward. He still runs with great physicality and reads out blocks well. It's not as though he's hesitating behind the line of scrimmage and allowing defenders to close in on him. He might not have the same burst he had a few years ago, but he's still running the right tracks and making good reads for the most part.

    The Raiders need to find the right blend of zone and power to get the most out of both Lynch and their offensive line. But most importantly, they need to give him the ball more and allow him the opportunity to wear down defenses, which would take some of the pressure off Carr's shoulders.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock

Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

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    Heading into the 2017 season, no wide receiver in the NFL was poised for a bigger breakout year than Oakland Raiders star Amari Cooper. After a stellar first two years in the NFL, Cooper seemed destined for stardom soon. According to Pro Football Reference, Cooper had the fourth-most receiving yards ever (2,223) before his 23rd birthday (he turned 23 in June). In his first two seasons in the NFL, Cooper posted back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons and caught at least 70 passes both years.

    Entering his third season on what looked like one of the best offenses in the NFL, it's not had to see why so many people were excited about his upcoming season.  

    But through seven games, Cooper has been one of the league's biggest disappointments. He's caught just 29 of his 58 targets so far this season and has totaled just 356 receiving yards, 210 of which came last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.

    There are a few different reasons to explain Cooper's disappointing season in 2017. The first is that he isn't creating the same amount of separation that he did earlier in his career. Per the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Cooper is averaging just 2.4 yards of separation per target this season as opposed to when he averaged 2.7 yards of separation last season.

    Creating less separation means that Cooper has been forced to win in more contested situations. Winning jump-ball battles or at the catch point has never been his strong suit as he's just not that type of receiver. But to make matters worse, Cooper is also fighting the ball some this season as he's tied for the league lead in drops (4) per NBC Sports. Those two factors combined with a lack of confidence have slowed him significantly to start the season.

    But there is hope for Cooper. After a massive game against the Chiefs in which he exploded to help the team pull of the upset win, Cooper could be at the beginning of a breakout streak. The Raiders are committed to keeping him involved in the offense, and by moving him all over the formation, it allows them to scheme him open more than if he was stuck at one starting spot. 

    Cooper is one of the most talented receivers in the league, so expect him to get back on track soon. But to say his season has been disappointing so far would be a massive understatement.   

    —NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher

Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks

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    2017 has been the year of the tight ends midway through the season. From Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce to the emerging a superstardom of Zach Ertz and an excellent rookie class, the position looks as good as ever.

    But one former elite tight end who hasn't played well this year is Seattle Seahawks' Jimmy Graham. Through six games, Graham has just 24 receptions for 230 yards and two touchdowns. For one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history, those numbers are far from acceptable.

    What's the most surprising part of Graham's game is how much the Seahawks are using him. According to my charting, Graham averaged 9.2 yards at the catch point in 2016. But in 2017, that number has dropped all the way down to 5.1.

    He is averaging about the same number of yards after the catch, but he has been reduced to a being a checkdown option rather than a player who can make plays down the seam.

    That could be because of a number of factors including decreased athleticism or a scheme change, but it most likely has to do with the fact that the Seattle offensive line isn't playing well enough for Russell Wilson to consistently get enough protection to throw over the middle of the field. Graham is often asked to chip defensive ends before he heads out into his pass route, and that significantly limits the type of routes he is able to run.  

    But even despite being used more as a blocker, it's clear that he's not the same level of athlete, and it's affecting his production. He's failed to reach 75 or more receiving yards in each of his last 17 games, including the playoffs from last season. We know that he's struggles mightily as a blocker, and if he's not being a dominant weapon in the passing game, he doesn't add much value to the offense. Unfortunately for Graham, this level of play may now be the norm.

    If the Seahawks can improve their interior offensive line over the second half of the season, Graham could bounce back. However, the old Graham that we saw for years on the New Orleans Saints is long gone, and he looks like a shell of his former self.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher

Offensive Tackle: Matt Kalil, Carolina Panthers

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    The Panthers have seemingly had problems at tackle for a while. Ever since Von Miller ripped them apart in Super Bowl L, there has been a void to fill at the position. After trying some patchwork fixes that didn't come together in 2016, the Panthers invested in the position in this free-agent class, bringing in Matt Kalil from the Vikings on a five-year, $55 million deal. The signing raised some eyebrows at the time, as Kalil had missed all but two 2016 games with a hip injury and had been on a downward performance trend the two years prior, but clearly the Panthers wanted to swing for the fences in solving their issues at tackle.

    The move has not panned out.

    Kalil has been an absolute zero in the ground game, and with the importance of the run game in this outside-zone-heavy offense and the heavy amount of capital invested in the Panthers backs, his presence is deflating. His inability to keep his head on a swivel and pick up second-level defenders that should be flashing red on his radar has hamstrung this rushing attack. He hasn't been great in pass pro either. He got beat badly for a drive-killing sack this week on the Panthers' final drive of the game against Chicago, when he overextended on a Pernell McPhee stutter move, which gave McPhee an easy lane to attack his outside hip and bring down Cam Newton.

    And what makes matters slightly more painful is Mike Remmers, the Panthers right tackle Von Miller drubbed back in the Super Bowl, was one of the tackles the Vikings signed this offseason to upgrade their front after moving on from Matt Kalil, and he has balled out for Minnesota (on a smaller contract too). Any way you slice it, this Kalil signing has been one of the most disappointing player acquisitions of recent memory.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young

Offensive Guard: Jeff Allen, Houston Texans

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    Jeff Allen was one of the most disappointing free-agent acquisitions of 2016, grading out as one of the worst guards in our season-long NFL1000 scouting last year, despite getting a large contract. You may be thinking this sounds similar to Matt Kalil's story above, but Allen had a more visceral replacement story than even Kalil has had this year, as the Texans decided to pay him rather than incumbent right guard Brandon Brooks, who went on to put up a Pro Bowl-caliber season in Philadelphia.

    I had hoped that Allen would return to his previous form in his second year in Houston's scheme, as not only was the system a large transition from what he was asked to do in Kansas City, but Allen also battled injuries through most of 2016 that presumably hurt his performance. Instead, Allen has looked even worse this year.

    The most notable change from this year to last is that Allen has lost some the ability he flashed previously to drive defenders off the ball in the run game, arguably his best trait in the past. He has struggled to fire out of his stance and get in a position to engage defenders in pass protection, but that was all over his tape last year too. It's a big reason Deshaun Watson is flushed out and forced to create out of structure so often (luckily, he seems to be pretty good at that). If Houston wants to make life as easy as it can on Watson, it may need to start looking at its depth options behind Allen as quickly as possible.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young

Center: Wesley Johnson, New York Jets

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    Johnson showed off some impressive traits in pass protection last year. His ability to establish leverage outside his frame when protecting whoever was under center for the Jets flashed in limited reps, but it hasn’t shown itself as much this season.

    Johnson has struggled in the run game too. His technique needs some serious work in this regard, as he is prone to coming in with sloppy grapple position that puts him behind the eight ball from a functional strength standpoint. Johnson is not the most explosive or powerful guy in his lower half either, so adding those technical issues causes some ugly reps when facing off against Marcell Dareus, Ndamukong Suh and Calais Campbell.

    He has some technical woes to correct, and thus far he has been disappointing as a result.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young

Defensive End: Robert Ayers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Only one team is making tackles at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield at a lower rate than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is unacceptable for how much they are paying their defensive linemen.

    At defensive end alone, the team has handed over large contracts to both Robert Ayers and William Gholston and also turned in a draft card for second-round pick Noah Spence over the last two offseasons. Per Spotrac, Ayers' contract, worth an average of $6.5 million per year, is tied for the 23rd-most costly among defensive ends, while Gholston's ranks 28th. To put it simply: They're both being paid like above-average starters, either low-end primary pass-rushers or high-end complementary pass-rushers, and neither is performing to expectations.

    According to Jenna Laine of ESPN.com, Spence, who suffered a shoulder dislocation, will now miss the remainder of the season on the injured reserve list. This will put even more stress on both Ayers, who has played 312 snaps this year, and Gholston, who has played 227 snaps this year, moving forward.

    Entering Monday Night Football, there were 68 defensive linemen with at least seven tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Ayers, who now has to be "the guy," was not one of them. Not exactly what you'd expect from the 23rd-highest-paid defensive end in a sport that starts 64 players at the position.

    Ayers entered the league in 2009 as a first-round pick. He spent four years with the Denver Broncos and two years with the New York Giants before signing on with Tampa Bay. In his first five-and-a-half seasons in the league, Ayers posted just 18 sacks. In the second half of 2015, his last year with the Giants before hitting free agency, he recorded eight sacks.

    The Buccaneers, because of his hot streak, handed him the second-largest free-agency contract in the 2016 defensive end pool. The issue is that Ayers, in a year-and-a-half in Tampa, hasn't been able to match his sack total from that half-season hot streak in New York, which is increasingly looking more like an outlier stretch in his career.

    He's simply not the guy the Buccaneers were hoping he'd be, or that the market dictates that he should be. He's an overpaid pass-rusher on one of the worst penetration defenses in the NFL.

    According to Pro Football Reference, 50 NFL players have recorded more sacks than Ayers, who was signed with Tampa to be a primary pass-rusher, since 2016. That's just not going to cut it.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda

Defensive Tackle: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

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    Muhammad Wilkerson was so talented as a collegiate athlete that the New York Jets selected the defensive tackle out of mid-major Temple in the first round of the 2011 draft. Though he's listed as a defensive end on the team roster, the 6'4”, 315-pounder plays much closer to a traditional defensive tackle's role than a pass-rusher's role in Todd Bowles' defense.

    For the first six years of his run with the Jets, he outplayed his draft position. Linemen of his size don't register 380 tackles by accident or without influence on a game-to-game basis. With that being said, there's a significant split between his 2017 play and the rest of his career.

    Here's a breakdown of how many tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage he's made per season, according to Pro Football Reference:

    • 2011: 19 tackles
    • 2012: 16 tackles
    • 2013: 21 tackles
    • 2014: 26.5 tackles
    • 2015: 26 tackles
    • 2016: 19.5 tackles
    • 2017: 3 tackles

    From 2011 to 2016, the only defensive linemen with more tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage than Wilkerson were J.J. Watt, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Bennett and Calais Campbell. Wilkerson went from being a dominant defensive lineman to someone who fell off the face of the Earth almost instantly.

    This year, he's been incredibly hard to find. His effort isn't where it was in previous seasons. Wilkerson signed an $86 million contract in 2016, which means he has the second-highest average salary of any defensive lineman in the sport, per Spotrac.

    What New York has to answer now is this: Is Wilkerson worth a $20 million cap hit in 2018, which he's slated for, or are they willing to eat $9 million in dead cap in 2018 to save around $40 million over the rest of the lineman's deal? We could be seeing the second coming of an Albert Haynesworth situation.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda

Outside Linebacker: Kiko Alonso, Miami Dolphins

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    Linebacker has been a problem for the Miami Dolphins for years. As part of their plan to rebuild the unit, the Dolphins traded for Kiko Alonso in 2016. Some bumps along the way were expected as he transitioned to a new defense in his first year. Alonso made splash plays but was not exactly a consistent force. The Dolphins felt comfortable about him moving forward anyway. This spring, Alonso signed a three-year extension to remain in Miami.

    It was assumed that quality play would follow Alonso’s new contract. That has not been the case. The linebacker unit is in shambles, to be fair, but Alonso is supposed to be the one shining beam of hope in that group, and he is not.

    Alonso’s main detriment is speed. In 2014, Alonso tore his ACL when he was a part of the Buffalo Bills, and he later aggravated the injury in 2015 during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Alonso has never been able to move quite the same way he did when he was a dominant rookie in 2013. Deteriorating health does not explain it all for Alonso, though. He is not as sharp this season.

    In previous years, Alonso was an aggressive gap-shooter. He was a guesser. Since he was a guesser rather than someone with excellent intuition, Alonso’s play was up and down, but the ups were fantastic. Alonso is hardly showing those peaks this season. He has been more timid and unwilling to attack. Whereas he used to run right into the line of scrimmage, he is now doing more waiting. Given that he does not have the speed to recover in the open field, it is not a play style that suits his skill set.

    Alonso keeps getting lost in coverage as well. Coverage has not been a strength for him since 2013, but he used to be more functional. A year ago, he had a game-winning pick-six against the Chargers. Alonso is not often showing that type of ability anymore.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen

Inside Linebacker: Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys

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    Jaylon Smith was revered as one of the top linebackers in the 2016 draft class. For years prior to his declaration, Smith was hyped to be a generational linebacker. He had a rare blend of size, speed and tenacity for a linebacker, and he was incredibly decorated throughout his college career. He appeared to be the total package for a linebacker prospect.  

    An unfortunate fate befell Smith in his final collegiate game. Former Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker took a late shot at Smith as he was trying to get up from being knocked down once already. In his tumble to the ground, Smith's knee buckled severely. Smith was escorted off the field.

    The injury was so severe that many questioned if Smith could ever play again. Nerves in his knee had been damaged in a way that would require long, patient rehabilitation just for a chance for Smith to get back to health. As a result, Smith was sidelined for the 2016 season that should have been his rookie year. Smith finally came back to play in 2017, but he has not looked the same.

    Smith is considerably slower and more hesitant than ever before. When in space, Smith often does not make his way to his landmarks and chase players down. Shooting gaps and containing the perimeter were his strong suits in college, but he isn't doing it anymore. He also does not want to attack the line of scrimmage the way he used to. Smith has been reduced to a shell of himself, which is a shame for someone of his talent.

    Given the severity of Smith's injury, it was always plausible that he would never be the same. There is still hope that Smith is knocking off the rust this season and will return next year even stronger. For now, however, Smith is unable to play up to par to the talent he so clearly has.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen

Cornerback: Logan Ryan, Tennessee Titans

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    When the Tennessee Titans signed former New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan to a three-year, $30 million contract, the idea was for Ryan to be a similar stabilizing force in the secondary for the Titans as he was with his previous team. Ryan's ability to play in the slot in nickel formations and kick outside in two-receiver sets is a valuable skill set for a defense that had mostly abysmal cornerback play in 2016 sans Jason McCourty. Unfortunately thus far for the Titans, their decision to make Ryan the 13th-highest-paid corner in the league in terms of average per year has backfired.

    The Titans are a zone-heavy defense as they try to limit big plays and create pressure with their talented front. That strategy has moderately worked, as they're in average in both yards allowed and passing yards allowed per game. As far as his individual play, Ryan has been as much of a problem as he has been a solution for the Titans secondary despite being overshadowed by the poor play of young cornerbacks Adoree' Jackson and LeShaun Sims.

    Per my own charting, Ryan has only been targeted 15 times in man coverage thus far but has allowed seven of those to be completed for 66 yards. That's a low aggregate total, but he's also out of position and ineffective in zone drops. He hasn't provided the impact as a slot corner in coverage with just five pass deflections, or as a tackler, with only 25 total finishes.

    It hasn't helped that McCourty has continued to play well in Cleveland at a much lower cost. If the second half of the season mirrors the first half, the Titans would have been better off keeping McCourty at his previous salary, as the value Ryan has provided is almost nothing. That has to change for his long-term outlook with the team and for this defense to improve.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton

Safety: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers entered the season with huge hopes for their young secondary after the additions of safety Josh Jones and cornerbacks Davon House and Kevin King. Along with the possible development of incumbents Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, there was reason to believe someone would effectively assist 2016 Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and strong safety Morgan Burnett. Unfortunately through seven weeks, the only positive development has come from Jones and House.

    Clinton-Dix isn't to fully blame for all of the issues around him in the Packers secondary. The unit has rotated through corners due to injuries, and neither King nor Randall is a quality player at this point in his career. This has left defensive coordinator Dom Capers to ask Clinton-Dix to cover more than ever before, and he hasn't reacted nearly as well as an instinctive presence over the top as Capers has needed.

    Instead of taking a step forward in a greater role, Clinton-Dix has been hesitant to react, costing the defense dearly at times. His production as a tackler is on pace to match last year's numbers, but the interception total and passes deflected haven't, and for a safety playing deeper and without as much help next to him, his impact hasn't been nearly the same.

    There's a lot being asked of Clinton-Dix to repair a limited surrounding cast around him. He hasn't appeared to be capable of transcending that like an elite free safety can. Maybe it's unfair to ask him to progress to that level, but the unit has needed it, and his first half of the season has been disappointing because of that.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton

         

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