Point No. 1: This is a put-up or shut-up season for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
As he went through the NFL Draft evaluation process two years ago, the
University of Delaware star elevated his status with his prototypical NFL size
and arm strength. He also impressed NFL talent evaluators with his unshakable
demeanor, which he talked about during his press conference at the NFL Combine.
"They can say all they want and put all the pressure on me they
want," Flacco said. "I have as thick a skin as you're going to have.
Bring it at me."
Well, Joe. You'll be put to the test this season. Because after the Ravens
traded for former Cardinals wide receivers Anquan Boldin and picked up a pair of
reliable pass-catching tight ends--Oregon's Ed Dickson and BYU's Dennis Pitta--you no longer have any excuses for being a middle-of-the-pack NFL
After Baltimore selected the even-keeled quarterback at No. 18 overall in the
first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the decision paid off quickly. Flacco played
well enough in his debut season to help--but not truly lead--the Ravens to an
11-5 record. And the team came just one game short of playing in the Super Bowl.
Flacco had earned a 17th-place ranking in passing yards (2,971), but threw
just 14 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. And he was sacked 32
times--seventh worst in the league. But if you listened to some of the buzz
coming out of Baltimore and the national media at the time, Flacco was on the
verge of being the next great Baltimore quarterback since Johnny Unitas. When I
looked at his body of work for that season, it was obvious that the youngster
had proven that he was a darn fine rookie quarterback, but no better than an
average NFL quarterback--yet.
During his second season, Flacco showed some improvement in two
areas--passing yards (3,613) and touchdown passes (21). But both marks left him
muddled among mediocrity again. He threw 12 interceptions for the second
consecutive season and was sacked a total of 36 times behind a relatively solid
Ravens offensive line. The Ravens rolled into the playoffs once again, but were
derailed by the Colts in a 20-3 lopsided loss in which the Ravens quarterback
threw for just 189 yards, no touchdowns and tossed two interceptions.
Once again, there was a reason to say, "but...." when evaluating
Flacco's work. Even though the Ravens had once again finished in the top five in
the NFL in rushing, Flacco wasn't playing with a full deck of talent thanks to
the team's marginal No. 2 wide receiver, Mark Clayton and aging tight end Todd Heap.
In 2009, Clayton, managed a mere 480 receiving yards--a 31-percent drop in
production compared to 2008. And he dropped from the second-best target on the
team to fourth-best. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Heap was having problems as
well. While he started all 16 contests, the veteran battled ankle, back, chest
and neck injuries, painfully reflecting the wear-and-tear on his body over the
course of his nine NFL seasons.
With the addition of Boldin, Dickson and Pitta to the roster, while retaining
both Rice and Willis McGahee to keep the rushing attack strong, the Ravens have
set Flacco up for success. So his performance in 2010 will tell us a lot about
whether he's truly on the path to becoming one of the NFL's elite
signal-callers--or merely a competent one.
Point No. 2: Getting fired from your job isn't necessarily a bad
thing. Just ask Alan Faneca.
Over the past year or so, many Americans have lost their jobs for a variety
of reasons. For most of them, it's a devastating and nerve-wracking experience.
But that wasn't the situation for former Jets offensive lineman Alan Faneca,
who was released one day after New York added Vladimir Ducasse to their roster
during the second-round of the NFL Draft.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
When I first heard that the nine-time Pro Bowl player had been released by
the Jets, my first thought was that it was a bad deal for Faneca since the team
had really screwed-up his ability to market himself as a free agent by releasing
him after the draft. My second thought was one of dumbfounded incredulity since
the Jets had guaranteed $5.25 million of his $7.5 million contract for this
Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasted no time getting in touch with
Faneca, a player he had hoped to bring to Arizona two years ago when the
offensive guard was an unrestricted free agent. The veteran lineman had been
coached by Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm--the Cardinal's assistant head coach and
offensive line coach--while in Pittsburgh. They both knew that the 33-year old
player could help Arizona's rushing attack as the team entered its first season
without quarterback Kurt Warner. Faneca reportedly agreed to a one-year
deal worth $2.5 million.
"To come back and play with Russ (Grimm), some guys I'm familiar with on
the team, the system that I'm comfortable with and familiar with, Coach
Whisenhunt--the whole situation was ideal for me," Faneca said during a
press conference this week.
The durable lineman has only missed one start in his last ten NFL seasons.
With the $7.75 million he'll bank as combined compensation from the two teams,
Faneca will make $250,000 more this year than he would have if the Jets hadn't
That's a very soft landing for a guy who just had the carpet yanked out from
under him roughly a week ago.
Point No. 3: When it comes to being a long-ball passing threat, both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are slipping.
During their spectacular careers, both quarterbacks have been respected for
their ability to air it out deep against opposing defenses. But last year, out
of the 11 quarterbacks who attempted at least 50 passes that traveled at least
21 air yards before reaching their targets, Manning and Brady--along with Ravens
quarterback Joe Flacco--were among the least successful.
Over the course of Manning's career, he's completed 35.5% of those long
passes. But in 2009, he completed just 18 out of 63 attempts
(28.6%)--third-worst among the 11 quarterbacks and his lowest success rate since
his rookie season in 1998 (20.6%). What's most alarming about Manning's
completion rate is that it's on the heels of a 2008 season where he completed
just 31.3% of those passes after seven consecutive seasons of completing no
worse than 36% to as high as 43% of those throws.
Meanwhile, Brady's 2009 results were even worse. He completed just 23.4% of
his long-ball attempts (15-64)--the lowest percentage of the 11 players. While
he's posted a career success rate of 29.2%, his 2009 result was his
second-worst performance behind his 15.8% back in 2002. Prior to his
season-ending knee injury in 2008, Brady connected on 43% of his long-ball
attempts in 2007 and 35% in 2006.
By far, the most successful quarterback in this category last year was the
New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, who completed 29 of 56 attempts (51.8%) for
1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns. Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (45.5%)
was second while the Jaguars' David Garrard (40.4%) was third.
Point No. 4: The Vikings should sign wide receiver Sidney Rice to a
new deal during this uncapped season.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The fourth-year receiver really came into his own while working with Brett Favre last season, catching 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. The
veteran quarterback made Rice his favorite target, throwing to him 121 times.
Compare that to Favre's 92 attempts to Bernard Berrian that resulted in 618
yards and the 91 attempts to rookie Percy Harvin that chalked-up 790 yards.
Their combined receiving yards topped Rice's total by less than 100 yards. Yet
Rice's compensation is tiny compared to his peers.
According to an NFL source, the smooth-striding receiver is entering the
final year of his deal with just over $700,000 in incentives that fall under the
league's "not likely to be earned" category, so he could wind up
earning nothing more than his base salary of $550,000. Meanwhile, Berrian is
scheduled to receive $3.7 million in salary plus a $100,000 workout bonus. And
Harvin's combined roster bonus, workout bonus and salary should allow him to
bank nearly $2.6 million.
That's just wrong, especially when you compare Rice's contributions to the
team's success versus Berrian's. Harvin at least contributes some additional
value with his average of 27.5 yards per kickoff return.
Point No. 5: Jason Campbell has already won the Raiders' open
competition for the starting quarterback job.
After signing a one-year, $4.5 million contract extension with the Raiders,
former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell was quoted as saying that team
officials left him feeling as though he was the team's starter for the 2010
But his new head coach seemed to contradict that statement during a
subsequent press conference.
"We have five quarterbacks, we'll have great competition, and we'll have
some decisions to make pretty soon," he said.
On the surface, the remarks appear to indicate that one of them wasn't paying
attention--or worse, had lied. But the two statements aren't exclusionary in
nature. Both may be true.
All you have to do is look at the resumes of the five quarterbacks who are
currently in the Raiders' camp and it's obvious who the lead dog is of that
pack. Campbell is a 52-game starter with a 61.2% completion rate who has thrown
for 10,860 yards and has tossed 55 touchdown passes against 38 interceptions.
While those aren't league-leading numbers, they aren't embarrassing like
JaMarcus Russell's 2009 results. During nine starts, the former No. 1 overall
draft pick threw three touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in his third NFL
season. Bruce Gradkowski and Kyle Boller are solid backups, while journeyman
Charlie Frye has played in just six games over the last three seasons.
Bottom line, the Raiders may have told Campbell during that phone
conversation that there would be an open competition while also pointing out
their obvious situation with their depth chart. End of controversy. The former
Redskins quarterback appears to be off to a good start with his new head
"Very smart, seems to be very poised...doesn't seem to let anything
bother him," Cable said about Campbell during a press conference on
Saturday. "If he makes a mistake, he's quick to want to know how he can fix
it and move to the next play. So I think there's a lot of maturity there."
Meanwhile, Russell fielded questions from the media about rumors of his
"This is a business, and I don't really have nothing to do with
that," he said. "My thing is to keep coming out to work until they
tell me not to. Until then, I'm going to keep coming out and compete for the job
and work my tail off."
With Russell due to earn a $9.45 million salary in 2010 and the Raiders free
to jettison his more than $14.9 million in prorated bonus money--with no salary
cap implications this year--his short-term future with the team is no less
obvious than the fact that Jason Campbell is the team's starting quarterback.
Point No. 6: The New York Jets dramatically improved their pass rush
during this year's NFL Draft--without selecting a defensive lineman or
With their first-round pick, No. 29 overall, the Jets snared cornerback Kyle Wilson out of Boise State. The 5-foot-10, 194-pound defensive back was arguably
the top cover-corner in this year's draft class.
The pick was undoubtedly a shock to onlookers who expected the Jets to add a
pass-rushing defensive end or linebacker to their defensive arsenal, but adding
Wilson to a cornerback depth chart that already includes Darrelle Revis, former
Charger Antonio Cromartie and Dwight Lowery was a shrewd move. Whenever the Jets
have a nickel or dime package on the field, opposing quarterbacks are going to
have a tough time finding an open receiver. And that's going to force them to
hold onto the ball just a little bit longer--giving the defensive linemen and
linebackers more time to collapse the pocket and bury the passer before he can
get rid of the ball.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan was asked by the media about his expectations for
Wilson, who worked out at the nickel spot during the team's rookie camp this
"Well, I was a rookie and my expectations were pretty high last year.
And my expectations for him are that high," he said during a press
conference on Saturday. "He's coming in here to be the starting nickel on
the best defense in football, and I think he's going to be great."
Point No. 7: Don't overlook these six undrafted players who line up on the
offensive side of the ball.
The NFL is filled with roster players who were never drafted, including
running backs such as Green Bay's Ryan Grant, Buffalo's Fred Jackson, and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas. And don't forget about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo,
Browns receiver and returns specialist Josh Cribbs, and Dolphins wide receiver
Davone Bess, who were all deemed to be unworthy of even a seventh-round pick by
all 32 teams.
While I don't know if any of these players will rise to the heights of some
of those veteran players, here are six who should at least have a job with an
NFL team by the time September rolls around:
- QB Jarrett Brown - The former West Virginia quarterback told me that
he had really connected with 49ers quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson, so it's
not surprising that San Francisco grabbed him.
- WR Jeremy Williams - The former Tulane star landed in San Diego, and his
versatility as a receiver and in the returns game will give him a legitimate
shot at sticking.
- WR Ryan Wolfe - The former UNLV receiver wasn't able to work out until
late in the pre-draft process due to a foot injury, but the Falcons had him
high on their radar prior to the draft. Wolfe's 283 catches set a Mountain
West Conference all-time record.
- RB Rashawn Jackson - At Virginia, Jackson proved that he's not just a
fullback, he's a running back who also has good hands out of the backfield.
The Carolina Panthers will be hard-pressed to release him if they give him a
true shot during training camp.
- OG Jeff Byers - Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll brought three of his
former USC players onto the roster following the draft. Byers, who can play
guard or center, really impressed me at the Senior Bowl with his work ethic
and scrappy attitude. He'll put all that he's got into every snap.
- TE Logan Paulsen - Pursued by eight clubs after the NFL Draft ended, the
39-game starter opted to reunite with Redskins tight end coach Jon Embree
since they had worked together at UCLA. Teams really like his size and
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