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 quarterback.
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.
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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 year.
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 released him.
That's a very soft landing for a guy who just had the carpet yanked out from under him roughly a week ago.
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.
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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 season.
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 coach.
"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 release.
"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 linebacker.
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 weekend.
"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 blocking ability.
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