NFL1000: The Biggest Underachievers of the 2017 Season

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2017

NFL1000: The Biggest Underachievers of the 2017 Season

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Nobody wants to be an underachiever in the NFL, but it happens, and there are several possible reasons. 

    At certain positions, the ability to process high levels of information at top speed is of premium importance. Quarterbacks, offensive linemen and linebackers who can't see the field the way they need to and can't adapt to quick changes in opponent tendencies will look a step slow, give up too many plays and make mistakes at crucial times.

    Changes in coaching and scheme can also upend players and reveal their liabilities. A cornerback who needs to play aggressive press coverage and trail his receiver through every step of a route may struggle mightily if he's expected to play bracket coverage in a zone system all of a sudden. An offensive lineman who works ideally in a zone scheme may have issues if a new coaching staff wants him to switch to a more old-school power/counter/trap system.

    Sometimes, the transition from college to the NFL proves to be too steep. NCAA offenses and defenses can buttress their players and hide things that NFL teams will pick apart.

    When determining why a player is not performing to his capabilities, all of these potential issues must be taken into consideration. The NFL1000 team of scouts has come up with 16 players who have had various issues this season, based on tape study and statistical analysis.

    Our team of scouts:
    Lead scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/tight ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive line: Ethan Young
    Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished with a 9-7 record, and second-year quarterback Jameis Winston turned in a mixed performance. Winston completed 60.8 percent of his passes and threw for 28 touchdowns with 18 interceptions, but his ANY/A of 5.98 ranked him only 21st in the league and was below the league average of 6.42.

    Winston produced those numbers with Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Russell Shepard being the team's primary weapons at the wide receiver spot, and Cameron Brate the top tight end.

    Then, the offseason happened. Tampa Bay added DeSean Jackson via free agency and drafted Chris Godwin at wide receiver and tight end O.J. Howard, who drew comparisons to Travis Kelce. They were featured on HBO's Hard Knocks, and were a trendy pick to make the playoffs.

    Then, the games happened.

    Statistically, Winston has improved a bit from his 2016 numbers. His ANY/A has crept up to 6.41. His interception percentage, which was 3.2 in 2016, has ticked down a bit to 2.4. But none of that has translated to wins on the field, which like it or not, is often the only metric that matters when it comes to judging quarterbacks. Even with these weapons at his disposal, and Winston entering his third season as the team's starting QB, the results are not there and the organization faces an uncertain future at head coach and general manager.

    While Winston might have improved a bit from 2016 to 2017, it was not the kind of leap many expected from him, given the talent in place and the weapons at his disposal. The primary reason for this, aside from the shoulder injury that cost him three games, is that he's still a random quarterback, just as capable of the head-scratching interception thrown into double coverage as he is able to make the big positive play.

    No amount of playmakers around him will negate that issue until Winston fixes that himself.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Quarterback: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

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    Stop me if you have heard this before: Joe Flacco is on pace for a historically poor season at the quarterback position. Entering Week 15, Flacco enjoys an ANY/A of 4.40, besting only Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer among qualified quarterbacks. Yes, Trevor Siemian, Tom Savage, C.J. Beathard, Eli Manning and Brian Hoyer all have better numbers in that category.

    Last year, the Ravens were ravaged by injuries, particularly at the tight end position. But both Benjamin Watson and Maxx Williams returned to the lineup this year. They added Jeremy Maclin at the wide receiver spot as well, giving Flacco at least some weapons.

    It's true, they had to deal with injuries on the offensive side of the ball this season, including to Flacco himself, whose preseason back injury may have contributed to his slow start. But regardless, Flacco's 12 interceptions place him among the league leaders in that category.

    His low offensive numbers are in stark contrast to the team's defense, which has been at or near the top of the league for the bulk of the season, at least in terms of DVOA. That high-flying unit has given the Ravens the best starting field position in the league, as their drives have an average starting point of their own 31.7- yard line. While the Ravens are ninth in the league in scoring average, their defense and run game are contributing more to that than Flacco.

    That said, the Ravens are on the cusp of getting into the playoffs, and with that defense leading the way, they could be dangerous. Say, does that sound like any Baltimore teams from the past?

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Running Back: DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

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    The Titans made a great deal out of being a run-first team with an exotic smashmouth offense over the last couple of years.

    They spent two first-round picks in the last four years on offensive tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan, signed one of the league's better blocking tight ends in Delanie Walker and drafted tight end Jonnu Smith, who many draft analysts compared to Walker. On top of that, they have the running threat of Marcus Mariota at quarterback, who can keep the ball on read-option plays or on bootleg play-action fakes.

    Despite all the talent that sets the table to run the ball, DeMarco Murray has 3.7 yards per carry on average. He has 151 carries this season for 552 yards. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry averages 4.9 yards per carry behind the same set of blockers. Henry has also seen eight or more defenders in the box on 50.4 percent of his snaps, per NextGen stats, 13 percent more often than Murray.

    For the most part, Murray has only been able to take the yards provided to him by the offensive line. He's occasionally shown flashes of making a defender miss or breaking a tackle, but those flashes have been few and far between. He's too one-paced and lacks the vision and quickness to consistently create his own yards in the same way that Henry has.

    Yet the Titans continue to work Murray more than Henry to the detriment of their offense. If he continues in this fashion, they'll need to make the switch at some point, either in the final few games or in the offseason. As things stand, Murray is underachieving and the Titans are better off with Henry.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

Running Back: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

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    When the Carolina Panthers selected running back Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft, the thought was that he'd be used as he was in college.

    At Stanford, her was an outside runner and moveable chess piece who could motion out of the backfield to any point in the receiver formation, torching linebackers and safeties on everything from curl/flat concepts to deep-seam routes. That version of McCaffrey would have been a devastating addition to Carolina's power-based offense with its read-option principles.

    But the version the Panthers have trotted out this season has been far less effective, and that's more on the coaching staff than McCaffrey. He's run the ball 90 times this season for 319 yards, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and two touchdowns. He's been more productive as a receiver, catching 67 passes on 94 targets for 519 yards and four touchdowns, but with explosive plays in short supply no matter what he's doing.

    The problem is schematic. The Panthers have directed McCaffrey to run inside a great deal of the time, and that's not his best characteristic as a player. McCaffrey can test the edge with great speed and agility, but at 5'11" and 202 pounds, he's not an ideal inside runner unless gaps are schemed and blocked open. And as versatile as he can be in the passing game, the Panthers use him primarily as a target on short and simple routes.

    Hopefully offensive coordinator Mike Shula will find more appropriate ways for McCaffrey to attack enemy defenses. Until then, he's a high draft pick whose deployment on the field remains as mysterious as it is ineffective.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

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    Of all the players on this list, Amari Cooper's season might be the most disappointing. Receivers are supposed to take big leaps forward in their third seasons, but Cooper has done just the opposite.

    After back-to-back seasons of 1,000-plus yards to start his career, Cooper has failed to hit even 500 this season.

    In 12 games, Cooper has just one game above 62 yards. That game came on Thursday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, in which he recorded 210 yards and scored two touchdowns. That game reminded everyone of his immense talent but also showed how disappointing the rest of his season has been.

    There are a lot of things contributing to Cooper's lack of production, including injury, drops and suprisingly sub-par quarterback play. The offense, led by first-year coordinator Todd Downing, isn't as expansive as it has been. But none of that excuses Cooper's inability to use his speed and physicality to get open as he has in previous seasons.

    There is no doubt that Cooper can bounce back in 2018, but his 2017 season is basically over. He's nursing an ankle injury that may keep him out of the next few games. Cooper has the talent to be one of the best receivers in the league, but he has to overcome the drops and apparent lack of confidence.

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Wide Receiver: Zay Jones, Buffalo Bills

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    Heading into the season, many thought Buffalo Bills receiver Zay Jones would lead all rookies in receiving yards. With Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods off to Los Angeles to play with the Rams and no other reliable receiver on the roster, Jones was expected to get a massive workload.

    Jones hasn't been able to fill those shoes, though. Coming from East Carolina to the NFL and into a No.1 receiver role has proven to be too much for Jones. On the season, he has fewer than 300 yards receiving and just two touchdowns. He's struggled with drops and finding ways to create consistent separation against NFL cornerbacks.

    Looking ahead, Jones projects best as a Z-receiver or potentially an oversized slot receiver. He is too raw of a route-runner at this point in his career. He's got the size and body control to produce in the NFL, but it's going to take some time. 

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Offensive Lineman: Germain Ifedi, OT, Seattle Seahawks

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    When the Seattle Seahawks selected Texas A&M's Germain Ifedi with the 31st overall pick in the 2016 draft, it seemed to be a perfect fit.

    Generally speaking, Seahawks line coach Tom Cable prefers unfinished power-blockers who need help in pass protection and with footwork and placement. Ifedi was that in college, and he's been that through two seasons in the NFL, in which he's alternated between right guard and right tackle.

    As Seattle's right tackle through the 2017 season, Ifedi has been the clear liability on an offensive line that has improved through the year, especially after the trade for former Texans left tackle Duane Brown. Sadly, Ifedi has not caught any of that overall improvement. Two years into the NFL, he still struggles with the hand placement that would allow him to use his power, he lapses when turning the corner against edge-rushers and he appears to be bewildered when he's presented with stunts and games along the defensive line.

    Moreover, and this showed up more than once in Seattle's Week 14 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ifedi racks up penalties because he gets too aggressive and he's unable to keep his head in the game.

    Some of Ifedi's lack of development can be placed on Cable's coaching skills, but the primary responsibility is his.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Offensive Lineman: Matt Kalil, OT, Carolina Panthers

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    While many predicted that the big contract Carolina gave to Matt Kalil last offseason would not be worth it, he has actually managed to play so badly that he still easily makes this list. His play has been anemic this year, and he has somehow been a downgrade for a Panthers team that has had turnstyle-level play at tackle for a few years now.

    What's been Kalil's problem? Well for starters, he's lost some of the foot quickness he relied on to mirror opposing EDGE rushers with his injuries over the years. While movement skills are not vital to success up front, and some linemen can play into their late thirties with no problem, losing that ability can certainly hurt a guy with dull hands who relies purely that skill like Kalil does. His loss of athletic ability has exacerbated his lunging problem in pass protection as well, which has led to more ugly reps.

    Kalil has been a zero in the run game for the majority of this season as well, as his newfound stiffness has limited his ability to climb to the second level and find work in space.

    If the Panthers want to get any sort of return on their investment, they need to do everything they can to find a way to rehab the bevy of injury wear and tear Kalil has accumulated throughout the years.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Defensive Tackle: Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona Cardinals

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    Occasionally, there are those draft prospects who flash so much raw talent, teams can't resist picking them, despite obvious issues that can blow their potential to bits before they even get started.

    When the Arizona Cardinals took Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche with the 29th overall pick in the 2016 draft, I understood exactly why they found him so appealing, regarldess of off-field dings and a disturbing penchant for not finishing plays on the field.

    In college, when Nkemdiche was on his game, he looked like the best defensive player in his draft class. His combination of gap-splitting power and speed off the snap made him just about unblockable. And in any 4-3 or four-man hybrid scheme, he was going to be just as tough to deal with in the NFL, if he filled out his array of techniques and kept his head on straight.

    Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. Nkemdiche's NFL career has been derailed to a point by injuries, but when Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians called the rookie's maturity and work ethic into question in November, 2016, that was a real red flag.

    Nkemdiche has played 14 games in his pro career, and he has not yet logged a single sack. You'll see flashes of what he could be every so often, when he stands up a guard with one hand and tackles a running back with the other, or when he uses his startling speed to blow by a blocker and create pressure. If Nkemdiche is able to string those plays togethermore consistently, he still has the potential to be one of the most dominant one-tech/three-tech hybrid linemen in the league.

    So far, he's been more frustration and potential than results.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Defensive Tackle: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets

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    Among all defensive linemen, Muhammad Wilkerson has the second-highest average salary, per Spotrac. At 28 years old, with an $18 million cap hit, Wilkerson was not supposed to hit the wall this season. Consequently, the Wilkerson-Jets divorce seems to be on the horizon.

    Earlier this year, Wilkerson was suspended for nearly a full quarter for a violation of team rules just one year after he missed a walk-through and a planned birthday celebration with the team, per Mike Garafolo of NFL Media. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News now claims a source told him that Wilkerson is "gone." The Jets can save a boatload of cap space over the next three seasons if they cut him. 

    Based on the defensive end's production this year, no one should blame New York. Here's how many tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage Wilkerson has recorded in each of his NFL seasons so far:

    Basically, Wilkerson has been a headache off the field and has been producing at about half the rate of his four-year average (2013-2016) coming into the season, all while taking home large checks. He will be a risky signing next offseason (assuming he's cut). He clearly needs the right cultural fit to get it clicking again.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

EDGE: Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons

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    Last year, the Atlanta Falcons only played 27 snaps on defense when down by more than seven points, the second-lowest total in the league, according to Pro Football Reference. The 2016 Falcons also played 475 snaps on defense when up by more than seven points, again the second-best mark in the league.

    Atlanta's high-flying offense put its defense in a great position last year, and pass-rusher Vic Beasley was just as much of a beneficiary of Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan as Julio Jones. When the Falcons were up by more than just a touchdown and an extra point, Beasley recorded 9.5 sacks in 2016, more than 50 percent better than Tennessee's Brian Orakpo and Green Bay's Nick Perry, who tied for second place behind Beasley with six sacks apiece.

    In 2017, Atlanta has played 142 fewer snaps than the top team in the league in reps when up by more than seven points on the defensive end. That, along with a hamstring injury that has held him out of two games and limited him in others and the fact that he's playing more linebacker, is why the 2016 sack leader hasn't been able to replicate his 15.5-sack season this year, as he has just four.  

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

EDGE: Taco Charlton, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Cowboys took Taco Charlton, the former Michigan defensive end, with the 28th pick in the 2017 draft with the hope he'd be a big part of a defense that needed a more consistent pass rush. Charlton had been hidden on the depth chart until the Wolverines went with a 4-3 defense in 2016, fitting his talents more specifically. Charlton racked up 10 sacks in 2016 and made a name for himself prior to the draft. At 6'6" and 277 pounds, he projected well as a multi-gap guy who might present a problem for tackles as a defensive end and slip inside on passing downs.

    Charlton flashed on his college tape to a point, but the two thoughts I kept having when I watched him were: height and pad level. More often than I would have liked, Charlton got washed out at the line of scrimmage despite his talent and size because he didn't hit blockers low enough to get under their pads. A lot of his natural talent was wasted in the trenches.

    Fast-forward to Charlton's rookie season with the Cowboys, and he has two sacks on the season as a role player. That's not uncommon—many rookie defensive linemen struggle to find their way against more practiced blockers as they round out their own skill sets. In Charlton's case, he's developing a nascent rip move to get past tackles and tight ends, and he'll occasionally get into the backfield with raw speed. But more often than not, Charlton is still losing leverage battles, and until he learns to adjust his pad level to increase his power, his potential will be limited.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Linebacker: Kiko Alonso, Miami Dolphins

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    Kiko Alonso cashed in last offseason. After just one year as a Miami Dolphin, Alonso inked a three-year, $29 million extension with $18.5 million in guarantees. The Dolphins were banking on Alonso to have more flash plays and be more consistent with another offseason. Alonso's assumed progress has yet to come to fruition.

    Experience and familiarity in Miami's defense have not helped Alonso. In fairness, Vance Joseph was the defensive coordinator last season and did so well that he earned a head coaching job with the Denver Broncos. Matt Burke, Miami's linebackers coach last season, is now in his first-ever season as a defensive coordinator. The defense as a whole has taken a step back in the absence of Joseph. However, that still does not excuse Alonso's poor play.

    Alonso is a clean-up run defender. Rather than consistently flowing toward plays on time, Alonso gets caught a step or two behind. As a result, he racks up bushels of tackles late in downs, doing nothing but pad a useless stat column. More surprising, however, is Alonso's incompetence in coverage. He has struggled to keep up with tight ends and carry running backs vertically. Offenses have picked on him at will. Whereas Alonso had recorded at least one interception in every prior season, he has yet to intercept a pass this year.

    There is no way out of Alonso's contract. The Dolphins committed to Alonso through the 2020 season without any built-in options to relieve themselves of the contract. Of course, it is possible that Alonso rebounds next season and shows true growth. Until Alonso shows that progression, it will be difficult to feel good about his recent extension.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Linebacker: Jatavis Brown, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Late-round draft picks are lottery tickets. By that point in the draft, every prospect is clearly flawed or incomplete. To get any production or value out of those picks is a success. If a team can find a starting-caliber player in the late rounds, that is the ultimate jackpot. The Los Angeles Chargers appeared to have struck gold with Jatavis Brown last year.

    Brown posted an impressive rookie season. He flashed excellent speed and ample aggression. In the same way Telvin Smith and Lavonte David can knife through an offensive line despite their size, so could Brown. He appeared to be a quality starting linebacker with potential to grow into something greater.

    Despite a fantastic rookie campaign, Brown has not been spectacular this season. He opened the season with a few lackluster performances. At the time, they could have been chalked up as a slow start or a random stretch of poor play. Unfortunately, Brown then suffered a minor foot injury during a Week 4 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown has yet to look the same since then.

    The confidence and quick reactions that propelled Brown as a rookie are seemingly no longer there. He has been abnormally slow, and his undersized frame has been exposed as he's been washed out of plays by offensive linemen. Likewise, Brown can no longer keep up in coverage. Brown was never a stellar pass defender to begin with, but once he lost a step athletically, he struggled in space.

    Brown's snaps have been significantly cut over the past few weeks. The coaching staff realized it could no longer trot out a player who is a shell of himself. That being said, Brown's struggles appear to be more injury-related than anything. It is not fair to assume Brown devolved as a player when there is evidence that he hasn't been healthy. Brown should be able to recover this offseason and get back in the action next year.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Cornerback: Vernon Hargreaves, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay's offense has been a severe disappointment this season. The Buccaneers rank 15th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted offensive metrics despite the addition of receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and tight end O.J. Howard in the draft. But the biggest disappointment—and the primary reason the Bucs are 4-9—is a pass defense that ranks 31st in FO's metrics in pass defense. Only the Raiders are worse.

    Part of the problem is schematic, as the Bucs use a lot soft coverage, allowing for easy completions underneath. But the main issue is the play of the secondary, and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is one of the primary problems. The 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Florida, Hargreaves had one interception in his rookie season and has had none since. He's been out since mid-November with a hamstring injury, but he was a disappointment on the field when healthy anyway. 

    At 5'10" and 205 pounds, Hargreaves plays pretty well as a slot defender—he's quick to recover and diagnose on two-way go routes and other option concepts, and he can follow slot receivers on sweeps. But as an outside cornerback, he's frequently overmatched in physical battles, and with his height and relative inability to diagnose and time his jumps, he may be stuck in the slot as a more permanent designation. Not what you want from a high first-round pick.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Cornerback: James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers

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    In 2016, James Bradberry looked like the ideal rookie steal in the draft, as he replaced Josh Norman credibly and helped the Panthers defense stay strong in Norman's absence after Norman accepted a giant free-agent contract from the Redskins. Bradberry, a second-round pick from Samford, used his size, speed and coverage ability to take receivers through the seam and up the boundary. He allowed an opponent passer rating of 85.5, ranking third in that category among all rookie cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

    Bradberry hasn't been horrible in his second NFL season—he picked off Case Keenum in Carolina's upset win over the Vikings on Sunday—but we haven't seen much growth, either. Bradberry is still good when he's asked to challenge receivers on contested catches and on vertical routes, but teams are starting to exploit his inability to change direction quickly and in short spaces on more angular routes. And when he's asked to play off coverage, he's not always as quick to the receiver to limit yards after catch as you'd like to see.

    These aren't unfixable issues, and the 9-4 Panthers will need Bradberry to regain his status as a top upcoming cornerback if they're going to make any noise in the postseason.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Safety: T.J. Ward, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers passing defense has been one of the league's worst this season, hemorrhaging yards with a conservative scheme that's supposed to capitalize on their athlete linebackers underneath and playmaking safeties deep. The 2016 Buccaneers defense improved as it shoehorned safety Keith Tandy into the lineup midway through the year, but the Buccaneers didn't see him as the answer. When veteran T.J. Ward was released by the Denver Broncos, the Bucs pounced, signing the box safety to a one-year, $4 million deal.

    Ward dealt with a hip injury early in the year, but has since failed to make any impact on the defense. Despite making three starts and appearances in six more games, he has just 27 total tackles. More importantly, the coaching staff has used him as a situational piece more than a valuable cog on the unit, as he's logged more than 50 percent of all defensive snaps in only four games this year.

    Considering the front office addressed the unit with Ward and second-round pick Justin Evans, there seems to have been a disconnect between the coaches and front office regarding Ward's potential impact on the unit. Tandy has barely played despite his strong showing last year, and Ward has been unable to overtake incumbent starter Chris Conte. The 31-year-old Ward has failed to make his presence known, which is a major difference from what he accomplished in both Cleveland and Denver previously.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

Safety: Reggie Nelson, Oakland Raiders

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    Rarely are there high expectations for a 34-year-old safety in the NFL considering it's a young-person's game, but instinctive, opportunistic safeties have had success at advanced ages before. That hasn't been the case this season for Oakland Raiders safety Reggie Nelson, who has quickly deteriorated into a replacement-level player. He's one of several starters on the Raiders defense whose underachievement has contributed to the team's regression from 2016.

    Last season, Nelson forced turnovers and was a sure tackler. He had five interceptions, along with 12 pass deflections, proving to be a playmaker across from then-rookie Karl Joseph. Entering their second year together, it was expected Nelson would put together a respectable, solid season before the team handed the reins to younger talent. Instead, Nelson has been a no-show in 13 games, as he's failed to log an interception for the first time since 2009 and had just two pass deflections and zero forced fumbles.

    The Raiders have won two of their last three to put themselves back into the playoff discussion, but as seen in Week 14 against the Kansas City Chiefs, this team lacks the difference-makers it needs on defense to overcome below-average talent. It's a defensive unit that relied on Nelson to be one of its few savvy players. The Raiders will be able to pinpoint Nelson—in what could be his final season—as one of their biggest disappointments and underachievers.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton

    Note: Snap counts via Pro Football Reference