NFL Players Set to Make a Significant Impact on Their New Teams

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2019

NFL Players Set to Make a Significant Impact on Their New Teams

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    NFL front-office executives might head into each offseason looking for immediate upgrades, but actually securing those upgrades is far from guaranteed.

    Though high-end acquisitions command top dollar on the market and premium draft capital in trades, they're worth the investment if they change a team's short-term trajectory.

    Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams acquired wideout Brandin Cooks and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib via trade. General manager Les Snead also signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a one-year, $14 million deal. 

    In 2018, Cooks caught 80 passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald had his best season while lining up alongside Suh, who absorbed blocks in the trenches.

    More importantly, the Rams sent a clear message: We're swinging for the fences. Los Angeles advanced to Super Bowl LIII but came up short against the New England Patriots. Nonetheless, the franchise had a shot to bring home a Lombardi Trophy. 

    Several star players have also landed in new destinations during the current offseason. They may not all lead their respective teams to the postseason, but these acquisitions should change the dynamic on one side of the ball.

    All of them have a history of production, possess a versatile skill set or add a new dimension to their new teams.

            

RB Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Former New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan vastly improved the team's offense when he agreed to a four-year, $52.5 million pact with Le'Veon Bell. Head coach Adam Gase may not agree with that number for any running back, per the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta, but the two-time All-Pro should elevate this team in multiple areas. 

    During the 2013-17 campaigns, Bell ranked second in yards from scrimmage (7,996). Two years ago, he led the league in rushing attempts (321). Gase can feed the ball-carrier 20 times per contest to establish the ground attack or draw up passing plays for the dual-threat tailback. 

    Quarterback Sam Darnold's skill set increases the versatile playmaker's influence in the passing game. Bell talked about his potential opportunities as a receiver, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini: "Sam is going to make me a better player, just because of the fact that he's so mobile. He's going to create opportunities I wouldn't usually have."

    Darnold can throw on the run and make jaw-dropping completions under duress. In the upcoming season, Bell may become a security blanket when the quarterback needs a bailout. 

    Bell could push for the league lead in yards from scrimmage during the 2019 season. He's undoubtedly the Jets' lead ball-carrier, but the 27-year-old is arguably the most polished pass-catcher on the roster, as well.

    Bell has more career receptions (312) than the Jets' top three wideouts, Robby Anderson (155), Quincy Enunwa (118) and Jamison Crowder (221).

WR Antonio Brown, Oakland Raiders

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    With all due respect to Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, quarterback Derek Carr hasn't played with a wide receiver on Antonio Brown's level—arguably the best at his position. Oakland Raiders general manager Mike Mayock deserves kudos for acquiring that type of player with a third- and fifth-round pick.

    Since his 2010 rookie campaign, Brown leads the league in receiving yards (11,207) and ranks second in touchdown grabs (74). Although his tenure went sour in Pittsburgh, the four-time All-Pro has soaked in precious offseason time with his new quarterback to build instant chemistry on the field, per Kyle Martin of the Raiders' official website:

    "Just days after being traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brown showed up on Carr's doorstep, eager to start training together. The duo found a park close to Carr's home and started running routes to get their timing down. Now only a few days into the first week of OTAs, Carr, and Brown seem to be enjoying the early fruits of their labor."

    Because of Brown's dedication to his craft and new teammates, the Raiders may not have to wait long for Carr and his standout receiver to operate like a well-oiled machine. 

    Brown spoke about the importance of establishing a bond with his quarterback in Martin's report:

    "It's extremely important to have a relationship off the field because playing football, you get mental tired, you get frustrated. You always want to have that respect for a guy to know where he's coming from, know what he stands for and know what's important to him, so you guys can be on the same page and do what you desire to do and desire to win."

    In nine seasons with the Steelers, Brown accumulated the most receiving yards league-wide during two terms (2014 and 2017). Last year, he ranked No. 1 in touchdown catches (15).

    Head coach Jon Gruden favors wide receivers who run crisp routes and have the ability to line up in all three spots at the position (X, Z and the slot). Brown checks those boxes, and his long history of production suggests Carr will look his way often.

    As we've seen in the past, Brown will beat single coverage, physical cover men at the line of scrimmage and double-teams downfield to put up huge numbers in Oakland—and, eventually, Las Vegas.

WR Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Some people may have forgotten about Odell Beckham Jr.'s exceptional talent. Over the last two years with a struggling New York Giants team that only won eight total games, he's missed 16 contests because of ankle and quad injuries.

    Remember, Beckham came into the league on a tear, registering 1,300-plus receiving yards in each of his first three terms. He averaged more than any pass-catcher (108.8) in that category as a rookie while posting a 70 percent catch rate

    The Cleveland Browns acquired Beckham through an exchange with the Giants and sent over the 17th overall pick (interior tackle Dexter Lawrence), the 95th overall pick (outside linebacker Oshane Ximines) and safety Jabrill Peppers. While Big Blue may reap the totality of the trade benefits in a few years, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield will have a No. 1 wideout right now.

    Beckham will command double-teams downfield and stretch short plays with his speed, sharp cuts and field vision. Frequently, he turned completions on crossing patterns into long gains in New York.

    Although Beckham didn't spend much time around his teammates during organized team activities, he appeared to be on the same page with the offense at mandatory minicamp. Head coach Freddie Kitchens attempted to dispel any exaggerations about what the wideout missed during the spring in an open media press conference:

    "Odell looked good – moved around good, in good shape, picking up the offense. ... He missed a lot—he understands that—but he did not miss as much as you really think because he has been studying every night just like these other guys; he just had not been here. Alright? He felt it was more compatible for his body to get in good shape and be at the best that he can be when he got here. Alright?" 

    Mayfield and Beckham need the reps, but the two have plenty of time to build their rapport over the summer.

    The upstart quarterback took over the starting job in Week 4 last season and threw 27 touchdown passes with a 63.8 percent completion rate while learning on the job. His new receiver will boost those numbers in the coming years.

WR DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Don't allow DeSean Jackson's age (32) to fool you.

    Following the end of his first tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, he's poked holes in pass defenses with the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the last five years. In three seasons (2014, 2016, 2018), Jackson led the league in yards per reception with 20.9, 17.9 and 18.9, respectively.

    Eagles safety Godwin Igwebuike quickly found out defenses should bring help over the top to cover the 11-year veteran, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Dave Zangaro:

    "You might need to show a little more over the top. Even so Carson [Wentz] knows, 'OK, maybe I shouldn't … I see the safety cheating over there, maybe I shouldn't take that gamble.' But DeSean's going to do what he does regardless. You kind of just stay at the top and help that corner out and hope for the best. ...

    "He still says he's the fastest out here. There's no doubt in my mind that he is."

    Wentz also realized Jackson still possesses top-notch speed.

    "Obviously I've learned he's pretty fast," the Eagles quarterback said, per ESPN.com's Tim McManus. "He's a pretty smooth runner. People might say he's getting up there in age, but he can still go."

    For his career, Jackson averages 17.4 yards per catch; he's an explosive playmaker on any given down. As a speedy deep threat primed to rack up chunk plays, the electric wide receiver provides a dimension to the aerial attack that Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz cannot duplicate on a consistent basis.

DE Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs gave their front seven a makeover, specifically on the ends. The front office traded Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers and released Justin Houston, but general manager Brett Veach didn't leave the cupboard empty. He acquired premier pass-rusher Frank Clark via a deal with the Seattle Seahawks.

    Clark recorded at least nine sacks and 10 tackles for loss each of the last three seasons. He's not just a big body prepared to win battles in the trenches, either.

    During OTAs, quarterback Patrick Mahomes recognized the defensive end's ability to diagnose plays and react with his quickness to reach certain spots on the field.

    "He's extremely smart," Mahomes said, per The Athletic's Nate Taylor. "It's good to see that when we're on the field. He's taking away some of my hot throws, some of my adjustments, because he's just playing football (instinctually). Those guys are the ones that are really special." 

    Clark logged six pass breakups and an interception through four seasons in Seattle. Don't expect new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to drop him into coverage frequently, but he can disrupt the short passing game with split-second reads on the quarterback.

    Lastly, Clark's arrival should take some pressure off Chris Jones on the interior, assuming he and the team come to an agreement on a new deal. Regardless, double-teams on the outside will create opportunities for the team's defensive tackles.

DE Dee Ford, San Francisco 49ers

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    The 49ers revamped their defensive line on the perimeter; general manager John Lynch acquired Ford and selected Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft.

    During OTAs, Bosa suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain, which raises some concerns because he's coming off a core muscle injury that required surgery and shortened his final collegiate campaign at Ohio State to three games. 

    Coming off his best season, though, Ford seems ready for action.

    According to Joe Fann of the 49ers' official website, defensive line coach Kris Kocurek expects the team's wide-9 scheme to allow his group to focus on specific duties.

    "Beyond the aggression Kocurek expects from the 49ers defensive line, he also hopes to simplify the game for his players," Fann wrote. "Dee Ford noted that he expects to drop into coverage less than he did with the Chiefs." 

    Despite Ford's prior coverage duties with the Chiefs, he ranked No. 1 league-wide in quarterback pressures (78) last year, per Pro Football Focus. Now, he comes to San Francisco with a narrower concentration.

    While Bosa needs to shake off the injury bug and grasp the speed of the pro game, Ford will likely lead the charge for the pass rush on the perimeter. He'll complement interior tackle DeForest Buckner, who recorded 12 sacks last year. 

    The wide-9 scheme will position Ford outside the offensive tackle and allow him to use speed to beat his assignments around the corner. When he reaches the quarterback, the 28-year-old knows how to dislodge the ball. The five-year veteran tied Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt with a league-leading seven forced fumbles in 2018.

OLB Preston Smith, Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers signed Za'Darius Smith to a four-year deal worth $14 million more than Preston Smith's contract (four years, $52 million), per Spotrac, but the latter can help this unit in coverage on passing downs.

    Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine talked about the two additions and how their skill sets differ in a media press conference: "Preston has dropped more into coverage and can be more—I don't want to use the word 'finesse,' but Za'Darius is more of a power-type rusher and also has the flexibility. You can move him around."

    Through four seasons in Washington, Preston recorded four interceptions and 13 pass breakups in addition to 29 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks. Za'Darius logged just five passes defensed over the same period. 

    On 3rd-and-long, Pettine can use Preston to shadow tight ends and chase down pass-catching running backs out of the backfield. He could lead the team in sacks and become a solid component of the pass defense. The use of spread offenses across the league increases the premium on second-level defenders who can cover in space.

S Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs

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    It's difficult to find what Tyrann Mathieu can't do on the field. He's a versatile defensive back who's comfortable in either safety position, as a slot cornerback and close to the line of scrimmage.

    Through six seasons, Mathieu has registered 351 solo tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 49 pass breakups, 13 interceptions and seven sacks. Here's what you cannot see in his statistics: natural football instincts, closing speed and smooth athleticism. Those characteristics allowed him to become a do-it-all defensive back. 

    Seth Keysor of The Athletic highlighted Mathieu's shrewd playmaking ability with commentary on his unique versatility:

    "Players are often utilized all over the field because coaches aren't sure what they do well. In Mathieu's case, he's utilized all over the field because he does everything well. His hips, feet, recognition and closing speed in particular make him an obvious candidate to play free safety for the Chiefs. However, he could line up anywhere and make an impact."

    The Chiefs needed a replacement for safety Eric Berry, who brought some of the same qualities in his early years before Achilles and heel injuries limited him to three regular-season appearances since 2017. Younger and healthier, Mathieu will sew up the holes in the team's midfield pass coverage and erase drives with takeaways at free safety.