2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

Additions: WR Hakeem Nicks, C Phil Costa, DE/DT Arthur Jones, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, S Mike Adams.

Draft Picks:

Rnd.  Pick# Pos.      Player                 College
2           59        OT        Jack Mewhort                Ohio State
3           90        WR      Donte Moncrief            Ole Miss
5           166       DE       Jonathan Newsome    Ball State
6           203      LB       Andrew Jackson           Western Kentucky
7           232       OT      Ulrick John                     Georgia State

Losses: RB Donald Brown, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, G Mike McGlynn, G Jeff Linkenbach, C Samson Satele, ILB Kavell Conner, CB Cassius Vaughn, S Antone Bethea.

Depth Chart

Analysis:

The Indianapolis Colts’ biggest issue last season was putting together an offensive line that could function in the run and pass game. They wanted to be a power running team but didn’t have the line or the running backs to do so. The trade for Trent Richardson appears to be a flop but it’s still a little early to tell, even if Richardson looked slow and plodding early this preseason.

For some reason, the Colts have decided they want to be a power running team. It’s hard to fault the philosophy because it’s one that the 49ers and Seahawks have had success with, but it seems that the Colts prefer to do it out of the I-formation and with 2 tight ends. The issue is that this invites heavier packages from the defense and sets them up for an “our guys vs. your guys” situation, and the Colts’ guys aren’t good enough to win that battle consistently. If they want to be like Seattle and San Francisco they need to figure out how to execute power runs out of 11-personnel and/or from the shotgun. They have to win in the run game with numbers, not with trying to bulldoze their way over opponents. The Colts did a little to address the OL this offseason, drafting OSU tackle Jack Mewhort in the 2nd round and adding veteran C Phil Costa, but they’re still not good enough up front to be bullies.

Andrew Luck performed admirably last season while under duress. He made a bad OL look better at pass blocking than it really was. His pocket awareness and manipulation kept him cleaner than many other QBs would have been in that situation. He was aggressive in his throws – a little too aggressive at times – and it was both profitable and detrimental to his team. Luck will sometimes see a tight window and make a risky throw instead of taking the easy completion for a first down. He gets away with it a lot but it’s really the only aspect of his game that needs significant attention.

The receiving corps of the Colts is deep. If Hakeem Nicks proves to be anything like he was a few years ago when healthy, Indianapolis will have 3 dangerous receivers starting in Hicks, Reggie Wayne, and T.Y. Hilton. There have been good reports on 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief, and if Da’Rick Rogers (I’m still not sold Rogers is worth the effort) continues to develop, the Colts could have good depth at WR. Throw in Dwayne Allen and Colby Fleener as receiving threats at the tight end position and Luck has an embarrassment of riches to throw to – if he has time, of course.

Shifting to the defense, the Colts weren’t bad on defense but they weren’t good last year either. They ranked 16th in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.

The linebacking corps is the strongest part of this defense. New addition D’Qwell Jackson should provide some consistency and clean up Erik Walden’s misses. Jerrell Freeman is a terrific young player that piles up tackles. Robert Mathis proved he’s still one of the better pass rushers in the game. There’s also good depth with 2nd year player Bjoern Werner and Kelvin Sheppard as backups.

The defensive line is adequate but deep throughout. New addition DT/DE Arthur Jones adds some good punch up front with Josh Chapman and Cory Redding. Ricky Jean-Francois and Montori Hughes provide terrific competition for the frontline and will push them for starting positions. The combination of depth and talent in the front-seven will create a lot of opportunities for defensive coordinator to mix and match his personnel to situations. There is a ton of flexibility here.

Vontae Davis is a very good man-cover corner. Greg Toler provides a great compliment opposite him. There are some concerns about the depth throughout the defensive backs. Darius Butler is a decent option as a 3rd corner but beyond him, there are question marks. The safeties are an interesting group. LaRon Landry played better as a strong safety than I anticipated last year. The major question for this defense is the free safety position. The importance of the FS position is dramatically increased when a team likes to play a lot of man coverage and blitz in front of it. The FS has to be able to diagnose quickly, get to the ball, and not miss tackles. As the last line of defense when playing the deep middle, if the FS misses a tackle it usually results in 6 points for the other team. In Delano Howell and Mike Adams, the Colts have 2 guys who are mediocre players. This is worrisome.

Indianapolis will need to re-evaluate their offensive philosophy if they intend to make a big leap forward. Why have all of those receivers if they plan on running power with the player formerly known as Trent Richardson? Let the young QB air it out and use the run game as a compliment. The weapons are there and now it’s the coaches’ job to adapt to the personnel.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Additions: RB Toby Gerhart, WR Tandon Doss, G Zane Beadles, DE Red Bryant, DE/OLB Chris Clemons, DT Ziggy Hood, OLB Dekoda Watson.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd  Pick#  Pos.     Player                College
1          3           QB       Blake Bortles      UCF
2          39        WR      Marqise Lee        USC
2          61         WR     Allen Robinson    Penn State
3          93        G          Brandon Linder  Miami
4          114       CB       Aaron Colvin        Oklahoma
5          144       LB       Telvin Smith         Florida State
5          159       DE       Chris Smith          Arkansas
6          205      C          Luke Bowanko     Virginia
7          222      RB        Storm Johnson    UCF

Losses: 
QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, RB Justin Forsett, G Uche Nwaneri, C Brad Meester, DE Jason Babin, OLB Russell Allen.

Analysis:

Shhh. The Jacksonville Jaguars are getting better. They’ve quietly ushered out a lot of untalented players and added some talented ones, especially on defense. Chris Clemons is going to have a major impact from week 1 for this defense. Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood will provide at least some depth up front on the defense, and some versatility, too.

Probably the largest issue of the Jaguars defense is going to be with their run defense. They are built to to get penetration and rush the passer. This leads to poor gap discipline and large holes for running backs. It will fall to Geno Hayes, Paul Posluszny, and LaRoy Reynolds to to fill the gaps and that is a major cause for concern. Hayes is a streaky play who can make a big play as easily as he can give one up. Posluszny is good enough but isn’t a special player. There are some young players behind them that could possibly challenge for starting spots, particularly Telvin Smith.

The pass rush of the Jaguars has looked vastly improved this preseason and that’s going to help the back end. The Jags’ secondary was a little too aggressive last season and that probably had a lot to do with youth and partly due to coaching. Winston Guy is a liability at safety, but Cyprien looks like a good young safety who really seemed to develop well at the end of last season. The cornerbacks lack a shutdown candidate but the scheme and pass rush will help to keep them from getting beaten deep too often. Allan Ball is decent enough, Dwayne Gratz and Will Blackmon are fair as 2nd and 3rd options. Gratz is still developing but looked better late last season.

On offense, it’s only a matter of time before rookie QB Blake Bortles takes over as the starting QB. His play has been impressive this preseason and he looks far ahead of schedule in his development. If he had Justin Blackmon (suspended) to throw to, this offense could actually be very potent because of it’s ability to attack defenses in multiple ways.  In its current state, there are still some weapons to be used but it lacks a true number 1 receiver. Cecil Shorts and rookie Marqise Lee are very good options as 2nd receivers but not ideal to lead the corps. Beyond those 2, the WR corps lacks explosiveness and experience.

Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has more of a “line up and beat them” nature to it than a crafty one. This really puts limitations on how they use their weapons. It’s not really the best offense to be in for Denard Robinson, who would benefit from some creativity in ways to get him the ball in space. This also explains the addition of Toby Gerhart, who isn’t a special athlete but will run downhill and use his size to his advantage. He’ll challenge defenders to hit him straight up, and many seem afraid to. It’s just a personal preference that I’m not endeared to Gerhart’s type of player. He’s a big back who isn’t explosive both laterally or vertically. He offers good vision and is hard to tackle, so there are uses.

The offensive line will need to get better if the Jaguars intend on starting a young quarterback. They’ve given up pressure and missed rushers all preseason. This is likely the main reason that the Jaguars are keeping Chad Henne as the starter for now, not because of the play of either QB. Bortles has handled the pressure fairly well but it’s never a good thing for a rookie QB to start off his NFL career learning to speed up his internal clock.

The Jaguars are getting better. They still may not be ready for the spotlight but this is an up and coming team that has all the right people in place. Gus Bradley is an exceptional motivator and his background is going to give this team the right attitude moving forward.

Houston Texans

Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Andre Brown, ILB Akeem Dent, S Chris Clemons, S Kendrick Lewis.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd  Pick# Pos.    Player                         College
1          1          DE       Jadeveon Clowney     South Carolina
2          33       G         Xavier Su’a-Filo         UCLA
3          65       TE       C. J. Fiedorowicz        Iowa
3          83       DT       Louis Nix                    Notre Dame
4          135     QB       Tom Savage                Pittsburgh
6          177     DE       Jeoffrey Pagan            Alabama
6          181     RB       Alfred Blue                  LSU
6          211     FB        Jay Prosch                  Auburn
7          216     CB       Andre Hal                    Vanderbilt
7          256     FS        Lonnie Ballentine      Memphis

Losses: QB Matt Schaub, QB T.J. Yates, RB Ben Tate, WR Lestar Jean, TE Owen Daniels, DE/DT Antonio Smith, NT Earl Mitchell, DT Terrell McClain, DE/OLB Bryan Braman, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Joe Mays, CB Brice McCain, S Danieal Manning.

 Analysis:

It’s pretty unbelievable that 2 players like Jadaveon Clowney and JJ Watt are going to get to play side by side on the same defense for at least the next 4-5 years. These could possibly end up being the 2 best defensive linemen over that span. Opposing offenses will have to devote a lot of resources to blocking just these 2 players. Really, the only thing that may hold these 2 back is their own defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel. Crennel essentially neutralized a good KC Chiefs defense at his last stop as their head coach.

As long as Brian Cushing stays healthy, the Texans’ group of linebackers should be sufficient behind Watt and Clowney. They’ll have opportunities to clean up broken plays and disrupted passes. It’s important to not forget that if the light can click on for him, the Texans still have Whitney Mercilus who could provide addition pass rushing presence in sub packages.

The secondary should see the same benefits as the linebackers. Time to throw by opposing QBs will be reduced to minimal amounts. Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph are good corners and should be able to take advantage of it. Brandon Harris and AJ Bouye are the backup cornerbacks and Bouye has played well in the preseason. There are safety concerns with DJ Swearinger being young and way too aggressive. He flies to the ball but lacks discipline and can be manipulated by good quarterbacks. Kendrick Lewis wasn’t particularly great as a free safety in Kansas City, but the Texans are going to give him a try. It’s possible that Chris Clemons, the safety added from Miami, is the best option at either free safety or strong safety. He would provide some stability next to a player like Swearinger but can also show some versatility with more discipline in place of him at strong safety. If Clemons isn’t starting at some point during the season, that’s a good sign for the Texans as it means the other 2 are doing a good job. Don’t be surprised to see some 3 safety packages from the Texans on defense. If offenses figure out how to block Clowney and Watt, they’ll have a lot of deep shots available. Swearinger and Lewis will see to it.

The Texans’ wide receivers are a talented group. Andre Johnson is still one of the better receivers in the league and DeAndre Hopkins isn’t a 1-year wonder. DeVier Posey is a long, lanky receiver who can stretch the seam or play on the outside while Hopkins moves into the slot. The biggest issue with this group of receivers is that they lack a very good quaterback to throw them the ball.

The current depth chart at QB reads: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Tom Savage. Fitzpatrick’s sole job will be not to turn the ball over and let the defense and run game do its job. He hasn’t been very good this preseason. Keenum jumped out to a hot start last year but when teams got enough film on him, he began to regress in his productivity. He has tools but he needs to develop faster to prove he can play in the NFL. He also hasn’t looked good this preseason. Savage is a strong armed rookie out of the University of Pittsburgh that had some scouts raving. He’s very rough around the edges as a passer and probably isn’t ready for the big leagues yet, but he does have potential. He also hasn’t looked very good this preseason.

The offense will rely on the run game to hit paydirt. This is a veteran offensive line that is still very good. Arian Foster will be the bellcow back this year and should handle a large amount of carries. His health and production will mean a lot to this team. Without a good run game, the Texans could be picking in the top 5 again next season.

Tennessee Titans

Additions: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, OT Michael Oher, G/C Eric Olsen, NT Al Woods, DE/OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Wesley Woodyard.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd   Pick#  Pos.    Player                        College
1          11          OT       Taylor Lewan             Michigan
2          54         RB       Bishop Sankey            Washington
4          112        DT       DaQuan Jones            Penn State
4          122        S          Marqueston Huff       Wyoming
5          151         LB       Avery Williamson      Kentucky
6          178        QB       Zach Mettenberger    LSU

Losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt, WR Damian Williams, OT David Stewart, CB Alterraun Verner, K Rob Bironas.

Analysis:

QB Jake Locker looked much better than I had ever anticipated last season before injury. He was about to make a believer out of me before, like has happened too many times already, he hit the shelf with another injury. Locker has picked up where he left off this preseason. He seems sharp, smart, and pretty accurate with the football. If he continues to be able to show this level of play, the Titans could be a good team. If the inevitable happens and Locker gets hurt, he has Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger backing him up.

The offense is retooled a bit under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The offensive line looks pretty beefy on paper and even has some good depth with rookie Taylor Lewan currently on the depth chart as a backup. The problem is that it’s not yet a cohesive unit in that they’ve never all played together. Shonn Greene and Bishop Sankey should have some room to run behind Levitre and Warmack, while the 2 Michaels – Roos and Oher – anchor the edges. Locker hasn’t been pressured much in the preseason because of the good showing by this OL so far.

Delanie Walker is a very good do-it-all tight end but there isn’t much depth behind him at the position. The same goes for the Titans’ receivers. Nate Washington is technically the #1 receiver. Kendall Wright is the #2 but displays more of the physical skills that a team wants in a receiver. Justin Hunter is a promising prospect but still is raw and has some learning to do, though he’s probably been the best looking receiver of the bunch. Beyond those 3, the position is made up of mostly special teamers.

The real gem here is the defense. Under new Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton, this should be a very versatile and multiple defense. They lost stud corner Alterraun Verner to the Buccaneers but Jason McCourty has shown he’s capable of being a shutdown-type. Coty Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson aren’t ideal as #2 and #3 corners but I think the pressure that the front line can generate can make them even better. The safeties, Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard are a good fit and should have good seasons within Horton’s scheme – that is, if Pollard can stay on the field and not end up suspended because of illegal hits.

Jurrell Casey is a guy that every fan should know. He’s the anchor of this defense much the way Vince Wilfork was back in the 2000′s for the Patriots. He allows the rest of the defense to be better because he’s so good. Sammie Hill has looked terrific this preseason at DE. The Titans signed Wesley Woodyard from the Broncos to be a leader in the middle of this linebacking corp. Derrick Morgan is a good at just about everything he does while Kamerion Wimbley is likely going to serve as a pass rushing OLB.

Overall, this is a team that looks to be able to play good defense and run the ball effectively. They aren’t going to be able to compete in shootouts with the good teams but if they can keep scores low, they’ve got a shot to be solid.

Division Outlook:

Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

Having Andrew Luck at QB makes all the difference, but I am not as high on Indianapolis as most seem to be. A weak division saves them. The winner of this division may finish 8-8.

Houston Texans (6-10)

Like the 2 teams below them, will have to rely on defense and run game. Texans’ defense and run game is slightly better than the rest.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

An improved team heading in the right direction. Taking it slow with Bortles is the right thing to do, but he’ll be in sooner rather than later.

Tennessee Titans (5-11)

The Titans could end up being really good if Locker plays well. Or really bad if he doesn’t. Based on injuries and previous performances, it really isn’t smart money to bet on him.

On a side note, it would not surprise me to see any team in this division win it. So many question marks and only 1.5 good QBs (Bortles is a half because it’s too early to tell).

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2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC West

Denver Broncos

Additions: C Will Montgomery, WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Aqib Talib, S T.J. Ward, DE DeMarcus Ware.

Draft Picks:
Rnd.   Pick#   Pos.  Player                       College
1          31         CB    Bradley Roby           Ohio State
2         56         WR   Cody Latimer          Indiana
3         95         OT    Michael Schofield   Michigan
5         156        LB    Lamin Barrow         LSU
6         207       C      Matt Paradis            Boise State
7         242       LB    Corey Nelson           Oklahoma

Losses: RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Eric Decker, G Zane Beadles, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, DE Jeremy Mincey, OLB Wesley Woodyard, CB Champ Bailey, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, S Mike Adams.

Analysis:

The Broncos have a plan. They added where they needed to add – along the offensive line and along the defensive secondary. Aqib Talib is an upgrade at cornerback if he can stay healthy. Demarcus Ware may be a step slower but he’ll add some presence in the pass rush  after Robert Ayers departed. Don’t discount the addition of T.J. Ward at safety as it gives the Broncos a consistent presence at the position.

The losses of Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker should prove to be minimal as Peyton Manning can cover up just about any shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball. Manning still has plenty of weapons in Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders. Look for Sanders to be a major contributor here with his terrific deep speed.

The offense will roll along with Manning at the helm, but the defense lost some key contributors, most notably Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard was a rock for the Broncos last year and a special teams contributor. Fellow former Kentucky Wildcat, Danny Trevathan, will look to step up in a similar role at a LB.

Overall the Broncos are still the team to beat in the AFC. Everyone else is just trying to dethrone the kings. As long as the Sheriff is still in Denver, it seems like the race in the AFC West is for 2nd place.

San Diego Chargers

Additions: QB Kellen Clemens, RB Donald Brown, ILB Kavell Conner, CB Brandon Flowers. 

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick#   Pos.  Player                        College
1         25         CB    Jason Verrett           TCU
2        50         LB    Jeremiah Attaochu  Georgia Tech
3        89         G      Chris Watt                Notre Dame
5        165        DT   Ryan Carrethers       Arkansas State
6        201       RB    Marion Grice            Arizona State
7        240       WR  Tevin Reese               Baylor

Offseason Losses: QB Charlie Whitehurst, FB Le’Ron McClain, NT Cam Thomas, CB Derek Cox, CB Johnny Patrick.

Analysis:

Adding CB Brandon Flowers is a major upgrade for the San Diego Chargers. He’s a guy that can move around and provides a good #1 option at the position for the Chargers. Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall provide a great 2-3 option behind Flowers, while Jason Verrett is a good 4th option, as well. The safety duo of Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist should be a good combo that will allow the Chargers to mix and match coverages based on the opponent and tendencies.

Corey Liuget is a legit presence up front and makes the other guys around him better. Kendall Reyes is a decent option at DE but Sean Lissemore at DT is a little cause for concern. Together, they provide a target if teams decide to run the ball. Kwame Geathers may end up being the starter at some point, but is still not the best option. Defensive tackle might be a position of focus next offseason for the Chargers.

The linebackers are a solid group of youth and experience. The starters consist of Melvin Ingram, Donald Butler, Manti Te’o, and Jarrett Johnson. If Dwight Freeney has anything left in the tank, he’ll provide a good boost for pass rushing sub-packages. This team looks built to defend the pass but not necessarily the run.

The entire offense revolves around Philip Rivers. He was a top 5 quarterback in 2013, and one could make the argument that he was one of the top 2 or 3. The Chargers are loaded with weapons around him – Ryan Mathews, Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Ladiarius Green, Vincent Brown, and if they still have anything left, Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal. With offensive guru Mike McCoy calling the shots, there should be no shortage of points in southern California this season.

The only cause for concern might be the offensive line. DJ Fluker is a bulldozer on the right side and Nick Hardwick is a steadying force in the middle. Left tackle King Dunlap has good days and bad days and needs to become more consistent as a pass blocker. Chad Rinehart is a good option at left guard but the Chargers will be starting rookie Chris Watt at right guard. It’s not ideal but Watt has shown promise and it looks like he should be able to hold his own in the NFL. There is concern about depth here. If anyone goes down, it could open up a big hole along the line.

As long as the Chargers can keep Philip Rivers upright and healthy, this is a team to watch in 2014. It may be tough to unseat the Broncos from the top of this division but the Chargers have everything necessary to do so – pass rush, good secondary, and an offense that can keep pace with the Sheriff and his guns. San Diego is a lock to finish (at least) 2nd in this division and make it into the playoffs. It’s possible they tally the same record as the Broncos and potentially win the AFC West.

Kansas City Chiefs

Additions: G Jeff Linkenbach, DT Vance Walker, ILB Joe Mays, CB Chris Owens. 

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.    Pick #  Pos.     Player                                    College
1          23       DE       Dee Ford                                 Auburn
3          87       CB       Phillip Gaines                        Rice
4          124     RB       De’Anthony Thomas             Oregon
5          163     QB       Aaron Murray                        Georgia
6          193     G          Zach Fulton                           Tennessee
6          200     OT       Laurent Duvernay-Tardif   McGill

Losses: 
WR/KR Dexter McCluster, OT Branden Albert, G Jon Asamoah, G Geoff Schwartz, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, ILB Akeem Jordan, CB Dunta Robinson, S Kendrick Lewis, S Quintin Demps. 

Analysis:

In his 2nd offseason with the Chiefs, GM John Dorsey has proven he is a Ted Thompson disciple. He let a lot of good talent go in Branden Albert, Jon Asomoah, Geoff Schwartz, Tyson Jackson, and Akeem Jordan, while only adding a few pieces via free agency.

Clearly the offensive line is the first concern with the Chiefs as they let 3 of 5 starters leave. Eric Fisher moves to left tackle, Donald Stephenson is now at right tackle, and there are a lot of question marks in between. Rodney Hudson is a good center but he’ll have a lot of turmoil handling new guards on either side of him.

Alex Smith proved last year that he can throw the ball heavily when called upon, but that’s not what the Chiefs want to do. They want to rely on a good defense and an electric running back in Jamaal Charles to handle the load. Backup RB Knile Davis is a great combination of size and speed and could prove a good bruising sidekick to Charles.

Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce, and Demetrius Harris provide exceptional options and depth at the tight end position – something that Alex Smith needs to be successful. Dwayne Bowe is in better shape and looks crisper in his execution in the preseason so far. Beyond the tight ends and Bowe, there are concerns about the talent level at receiver. Donnie Avery is good enough but not exactly a guy the Chiefs will want to rely heavily on. He’s their #2 option. Their #3 options is either AJ Jenkins, Junior Hemingway, or Kyle Williams (though I’d expect Williams to be cut soon enough). That’s not a great set of options.

On defense, the Chiefs added Dee Ford as a pass rusher with their first round pick, CB Phillip Gaines in the 3rd round, and added CB Chris Owens via free agency. This helps bolster the corners, but doesn’t help to address the free safety issue that plagued the Chiefs last year. Eric Berry was a swiss army knife at strong safety but the lack of speed and tackling behind him caused the Chiefs a lot of issues against deep offenses. Current starter Husain Abdullah will need to up his game to prove that he’s the guy to help fix the issue.

Upfront, the Chiefs are still well suited to put pressure on the passer and handle the run. Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey, and Mike DeVito will cause problems for any offense. Toss in Ford, Hali, and Justin Houston rushing the QB and this defense has the ability to force a ton of negative plays for offenses. Derrick Johnson still mans the middle but he’ll have ILB Joe Mays to cover for. Mays is an average player who should help in the run game but the Chiefs don’t really have another exceptional inside linebacker behind him. Look for Mays to see a lot of snaps on the sideline because of the multiplicity and sub-packages that DC Bob Sutton will use often.

The Chiefs look to have another exceptional year ahead on special teams. D’Anthony Thomas looks like a threat to take the ball to the house on every kick return. The Chiefs have built a sustainable model that doesn’t have to rely on the QB to win the game for them. It’s a smart approach as QB can be the hardest position to find.

While the Chiefs didn’t get worse, they didn’t improve enough this offseason to keep pace or catch up to the Chargers and Broncos. The glaring hole at wide receiver as well as question marks along the offensive line are supremely concerning. They also didn’t do much to address the free safety issue or cornerback depth. This spells out a team that will have to pressure the passer and run the ball to win. If they fall behind by any significant margin in any game, it’s unlikely they have the firepower to comeback or keep up. Add in that they’re playing the NFC West this year and a tough schedule makes for a season somewhere around 8-8, 9-7 at best.

Oakland Raiders

Additions: QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, OT Donald Penn, OT Austin Howard, G Keith Boothe, DE Justin Tuck, DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, DE/DT C.J. Wilson, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.    Pick #  Pos.     Player                       College
1          5          LB        Khalil Mack               Buffalo
2          36       QB       Derek Carr                 Fresno State
3          81       G          Gabe Jackson            Mississippi State
4          107     DT       Justin Ellis                 Louisiana Tech
4          116     CB       Keith McGill               Utah
7          219     CB       Travis Carrie               Ohio
7          235     DE       Shelby Harris             Illinois State
7          247     SS        Jonathan Dowling     Western Kentucky

Losses: 
RB Rashad Jennings, WR/KR Jacoby Ford, OT Jared Veldheer, G Mike Brisiel, DE Lamarr Houston, DT Vance Walker, CB Mike Adams, CB Tracy Porter, CB Philip Adams. 

Analysis:

The Oakland Raiders apparently decided to get older and not as good this offseason. I’ve stuck up for GM Reggie McKenzie saying that he deserved this year to be able to use the cap space he created after taking the Raiders out of salary cap hell. I’m relenting on that opinion as the Raiders decided to load up on veterans with very little left in the tank, while pairing that with an iffy draft.

I like the additions of Justin Tuck, James Jones, and Donald Penn. Matt Schaub is a decent addition in that he’s now the best QB on the roster and the only one that I believe is capable of helping the Raiders win games this year. Lamarr Woodley seemed slower in Pittsburgh last season and that’s actually the general theme I get with this Raiders defense – they’re Pittsburgh last season. Old veterans who (sometimes) win with experience but depleted skill sets.

The defensive line is a shell of older players with good but young and inexperienced linebackers playing behind it in Sio Moore and Khalil Mack. There are certainly going to be some big holes and missed coverages as the LBs are learning where they’re supposed to be.

I admire the signing of Charles Woodson even if it’s not a pragmatic one. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are more names at the cornerback spot than they are efficient players.

The offense is led by the epitome of QB Purgatory himself, Matt Schaub. Except now Schaub has fallen below that level and with less talent around him in Oakland, it shouldn’t be expected for him to look or play any better. The Raiders drafted Derek Carr who has looked lackadaisical so far this preseason with his lazy mechanics. That concerns me because I know that OC Greg Olson holds specific parts of OTAs and preseason to address those exact issues.

The offensive line might be the best unit on the offensive side of the ball for Oakland but it still has plenty of question marks. Schaub will likely see a lot of pressure from the interior and running backs will find it tough to find a hole up the middle. At best, these guys are inconsistent.

Unfortunately, the Raiders are destined to find themselves at the bottom of a tough division again. With the schedule including the NFC West, the Raiders will likely find themselves picking in the top 5 again next offseason. But it will probably be a new GM and head coach making those picks.

Final Standings:

Denver Broncos (13-3)

The Broncos solidified some spots they needed to for a run at the Super Bowl.

San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Dangerous team. No one will want to face this team late in the season or in the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

The Chiefs are still a good team but the AFC West turned into a solid division. KC will be on the playoff bubble.

Oakland Raiders (2-14)

2 wins may be generous here.

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Gambling on a Gambler

Johnny Manziel is one of the hardest evaluations I’ve ever encountered. Even before ever turning on the tape, the sort of pop culture fame that has followed Manziel creates preconceived notions that must be ditched before evaluating his play on the field.

Before evaluating Manziel, it’s important to get rid of all of the biases that surround him. Remove the hype. Remove the personality off the field. Tear down the portrait of idolism that some fans have of him. I want to focus on specifically what he is on the field and what traits he possesses that are translatable to the NFL.

It’s also vital to point out that I won’t evaluate who Johnny Manziel is off the field. I don’t know him and I’ve never met him. All I’ve ever seen are a few interviews and some TMZ reports and none of that is enough for me to extract any kind of an opinion on the type of leader, drive, work ethic, or person that Manziel is. I’ll leave the personality evaluating to the professionals.

Hype and personality are what caused the Broncos to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round of the NFL draft. Instead of evaluating how Tebow was as a passer – the most important trait of being a quarterback in today’s NFL – they liked that he was a winner and a leader. These traits are important, but there has to be a base level of proficiency as a passer for a quarterback to be successful.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the important part: evaluating Johnny Manziel on the field.

I’ve watched a lot of “film” on Johnny Manziel. Unfortunately, it’s mostly been broadcast footage as I’m not privy to the all-22 film that NFL teams have access to. It’s incredibly hard to grasp the defensive concepts and coverages when I can’t see what the safeties and deep coverage players are doing.

It’s also hard to evaluate route concepts and combinations when I can’t see the full route of every wide receiver. These combinations identify how an offense wants to attack a defense. They can cause a quarterback to have to go through either a very simple or very complex progression reading to determine where he wants to throw the ball.

This process starts in the pre-snap phase where a quarterback will try to identify the coverage and pressure concepts of the defense based on certain cues or tells. Knowing what the defense is going to do before snapping the ball is a major advantage, and it’s something that every great quarterback can do on a regular basis.

In the post-snap phase, the quarterback will have a key defender or two in which he will read at the snap. Based on the defender’s movement, it will either solidify his pre-snap read or alert him to a shift in coverage or pressure. If a defense shows one coverage pre-snap but drops into another coverage post-snap, then it is on the quarterback to quickly adjust his read, know the routes his receivers are running, understand how they match up with that coverage, and then know where the open receiver will be.

Without the use of all-22 film, it is extremely difficult to identify all of these elements on every single play. This means that I am limited to a small sample of plays to evaluate the complexity of scheme and Manziel’s proficiency of reading defenses and responding to the intel that they give him. I can infer based on experience, but even then, it’s a small jump that incurs some assumption on my part.

Instead of going through the positives and negatives of Manziel as in a similar format as most NFL scouting reports, I wanted to go game by game so that I can more clearly present some of the main points I see on film. But first, I like to look at some statistics of the player to get a general feel for the player that I’m about to evaluate.

Formulating a Foundation

I’m not a huge statistics guy. Stats can lie, and they often do. Volume statistics like yards and touchdowns can vary greatly based on other aspects of football that have nothing to do with a player’s skill set. With those metrics, style of offense, time of possession, and leading or trailing can dictate how high or low those numbers go.

Instead, I’m more interested in efficiency stats. I don’t want to know how much the quarterback does his job, I want to know how well he does his job. Because Manziel started in both 2012 and 2013, I can also compare these numbers to see if there are any indicators of growth or any red flags.

Manziel threw 434 passes in 2012 and completed 68 percent of his passes, with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt. In 2013, he threw 429 passes, completed 69.9 percent, for an average of 9.6 yards per attempt.

These numbers indicate a significant growth from 2012 to 2013. Manziel not only increased his completion percentage, but he did it while throwing farther downfield. This seems to show that Manziel progressed in his passing proficiency from one year to the next.

This then leads me to see how often he turned the ball over. While Manziel threw 11 more touchdowns in 2013 than in 2012, he also threw 4 more interceptions. This seems to imply that he began to take more risks in his sophomore year over his freshman year (after a redshirt year).

Risk versus reward is a common theme with Johnny Manziel.

Finally, looking at his rushing stats, Manziel ran significantly less in 2013 – about 25 percent less – and finished with slightly over half the yards in 2013 than he did in 2012.

There could be a couple of different explanations for this that only watching the film could reveal the answer: either teams played more containment of Manziel so that he couldn’t run (his yards per rush dropped by 1.7 yards), or Manziel chose to be more of a passer than a runner in similar circumstances (increased productivity in the pass game).

Overall it looks as if Manziel grew as a passer and played slightly more from the pocket than as a runner. This gives us a baseline on which to form an opinion. Now it’s time to reverse engineer from those results to see how they were achieved – and without allowing any biases to influence our opinion.

The Film

I like to watch film of the most recent year first so that I get a better impression of who the player is right now. This is just a personal preference but for me it is harder to let my evaluation and opinion of a player evolve as quickly as his play does. But by starting with the most recent season, I can form an idea of the player now and then go back to previous seasons and see where the player has grown or regressed with more distinction.

I try to watch games against the best competition and always make sure to try to include the player’s best and worst statistical performances. All of this allows me to get a well-rounded picture of the player. The evaluation starts from a very high level and then begins to narrow to a clearer definition of who that player is based on these games.

By looking at the best and worst statistical performances, the idea is that I will get to see the player at his best and at his worst. I can see the gap between those performances and it also helps me to delineate different characteristics where a player fails and succeeds.

Most importantly, it helps me to identify the situations and circumstances where a player performs well and doesn’t perform so well. For the poor performance, I ask the questions, “Why did he perform poorly in this game? What did the opponent do to cause this? What did the player do to cause this? What did the coach and scheme do to cause this?” For the good performance, I ask the same questions but framed so that they allow me to attribute accountability to the proper place. It also helps me to project a player into the NFL with a slightly better focus because I can identify the likelihood that a defense will replicate these conditions of poor performance and how likely the individual player is to overcome them.

2013 – Texas A&M vs. Alabama

Alabama has the best defense in the country. I know that Johnny Manziel is an athletic quarterback. I always assume that these coaches are smarter than I am so I want to see how Nick Saban game planned against Manziel. Did he try to keep him in the pocket with containment? Did he play mostly coverage concepts or did he blitz? How did it all work?

I’m also a huge fan of this game because it’s shot from a high camera angle and basically functions as an all-22 angle.

Manziel’s first pass was a go-route down the right sideline to Mike Evans from the opposite hash mark. Alabama showed a single-high safety in pre-snap, which meant that Manziel could easily identify that Mike Evans was in a one-on-one situation on the outside.

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This is an easy read for Manziel and at the snap he knew where he was going with the ball. He took a quick drop and lofted the ball down the sideline for Evans to go up and get it. Manziel’s 50/50 ball was slightly underthrown but still allowed Evans to go up and win over top of a corner who could never get turned around to find the ball. Because Manziel threw the ball to the outside shoulder, the safety was never an issue.

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It should be noted that Mike Evans is a high-caliber receiver and one of the best at high-pointing the ball when it’s in the air. Depending on an evaluator’s overall opinion of Manziel, they could say that Evans was the reason this pass was completed or the person may attribute credit to Manziel for trusting a big play receiver like Evans and putting the ball in a place where he could win over top of the corner.

But this is the very first play we’ve evaluated. We shouldn’t be looking for an answer, we should let the answer find us. It’s important to see this type of play happen many more times (and it does) and when we have a large enough sample size, the answer will reveal itself.

Two plays later we see the same look from Alabama. The view of the deep safety is obstructed by the lineup graphic but he’s there in the middle of the field. This is basically the same play as the last one. Bama blitzes their inside linebackers with a single deep safety. The visible safety drops down into man coverage on the slot receiver. Mike Evans streaks down the sideline on a “go” route.

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Manziel against wastes no time after the snap. He immediately turns and throws the deep ball to Evans who has beaten his man by a step. This time, instead of the ball being slightly underthrown and Evans have to jump for a contested ball, Manziel makes a throw that leads Evans up the field, in stride, and down the sideline. Perfect placement.

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Manziel follows this play up with a short throw to the tight end (after running into his own running back on the play action) in the end zone for a touchdown.

While the throws on this first drive against Alabama were really good, I haven’t seen Manziel have to read through a progression yet. All of the reads – if you could even call them that – were very simplistic. See Mike Evans with single coverage on the outside? Throw him the ball. No read necessary.

So far we’ve seen some very good physical display from Manziel but we haven’t seen him tested mentally yet. The two runs that Manziel had on this first drive were called runs so there were no pocket-escape plays. Manziel has also gotten rid of the ball so quickly that he hasn’t had to deal with any type of pocket movement.

On the next drive however, Manziel displays his athleticism and speed when Bama’s C.J. Mosley shoots through a B-gap untouched on a blitz. Manziel turns and runs to his right and gets the edge around Mosley and another defender for a gain of about 12 yards and a first down. This is the first non-designed run of the game for Manziel.

On this next play, this is a good display of a “hole shot” throw where Manziel has to fit the ball in between a dropping cornerback and a safety in deep-half coverage. The ball must have some velocity and good trajectory or else it could bring either defender into the play. Manziel lays it in perfectly.

On the next drive, Manziel has a play where he waits patiently but is then flushed from the pocket to his right. He doesn’t sprint out, but instead keeps his eyes downfield. He waits until he sees Mike Evans break from his route where he then throws to an open spot on the field and gets a big gain. The play looks great on Manziel. He was patient, kept his eyes up, and the result is a big play. It’s easy to attribute this all to Manziel but the throw wasn’t really great. Evans had to come back about 7 yards on the throw to get it. There wasn’t a lot of zip on the ball either.

Take a look for yourself here at the 2:29 mark:

On the replay you can really see how far back Evans had to come for the ball. It’s a good play on both parts but I don’t walk away from it going, “Wow, what a play by Johnny Manziel.” Instead, I think, “Good play, but any receiver not as intelligent and athletic as Evans and that could have been a pick.”

Again, maybe Manziel understood who he was throwing to and that was a calculated risk. At this point in the evaluation, it’s hard to know.

A few plays later, Manziel makes another throw off his back foot that sort of sails showing a real lack of velocity on the ball. This keeps showing up. If Manziel doesn’t have room to step into his throws, his velocity really suffers. With a clean pocket and space to step and drive, his arm strength is good enough.

The issue that I have with this is that in the NFL the pocket gets tighter, spaces get smaller, windows get narrower, and coverage gets better. I highly doubt a few of the throws he’s made in this game are completed in the NFL, and more likely, end up intercepted.

And then there’s this play at the 5:36 mark:

Alchemy.

It’s important to note that it’s 3rd and 8 on the Alabama 34 yard line. We haven’t gotten that far in the evaluation of Manziel, but one thing that stands out to me is that he always seems to be aware of the situation. I don’t think he attempts that throw in a different part of the field, but again, that’s an inference.

After the snap, Manziel has a receiver open to his right 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. He forgoes that opportunity which I think is an alright move considering they need 8 yards on 3rd down. Manziel then makes a u-turn in the other direction. I’m not sure why he spun because there wasn’t anyone bearing down on him. This is a sign of poor pocket tolerance by Manziel.

The u-turn takes him into a defender who really has a shot at getting Manziel down for the sack. Manziel backpedals and somehow escapes the grasp of the defender, a la Eli Manning in the Super Bowl helmet-catch play. Manziel then rolls right and throws what is essentially a jump pass into 2 of his own wide receivers and 3 Alabama coverage guys. Amazingly, Edward Pope comes down with the rock and the play goes down in football lore.

And here is where the hype can dilute the facts. This is an amazing play to watch as a football fan. It still gives me chills to watch it unfold. Even the announcer gets into the hype with, “Can you say magic?!” The problem is that as scouts, we should be evaluating every element of the play to determine who gets credit, who is at fault, and what really matters in the play.

Too many fans are stuck on the result. It was a completion and a big play on 3rd and 8. But was it a good decision? Was it the right play by Manziel? The result doesn’t negate everything that happened before it. Results can be fluky while a solid decision making process can lead to more consistent results.

What I notice on this play is that even though Edward Pope came down with the ball, that’s not who Manziel was throwing it to. He was throwing it to Mike Evans – his safety valve.

This shows up on film over and over and it’s where people will begin to diverge on their analysis of Johnny Manziel. This was a calculated risk by Manziel because he was throwing a jump ball to a guy he trusted to come down with it. Instead of Evans coming down with it, Pope just happened to get there first. See how stats and results can lie?

The biggest issue that I have with this play is the way Manziel threw the ball. He was falling (jumping?) backwards when he threw it. His body and the way he flung the ball up in the air tells me that it was a prayer more than a calculation. While there was some thought involved in whom he was throwing to, it was more of a hope than a calculation.

That’s taking a lot of inference out of that play based on cues that I’ve identified. This is where scouting gets subjective. When scouts are reasoning why players took certain actions, the scout is now leaning on his own opinion of the events that occurred. This is where evaluations split off and 2 people watching the same film can extract two different evaluations.

That’s the problem with evaluating Johnny Manziel. Only he knows why he did the things he did. Everyone else is just guessing. All we can do is evaluate his play on the field and try to pinpoint who he is going to be in the NFL.

Manziel is a gambler. He takes risks. But just because he hits on 20 and gets an ace doesn’t mean that it was the correct decision.

The decision that teams will have to make is whether they are comfortable with who Johnny Manziel is on the field or not. If they’re not comfortable with him gambling so much, do they believe that they can change his DNA as a player? How much can you rein in a player like Manziel without inhibiting his instincts, which in my opinion, are extremely advanced? Or can you rein him in at all?

In a league where the structure comes before the player, it will be interesting to see if anyone takes a shot early on in the draft with Johnny Manziel. If they do, are they falling victim to the hype or are they believing in the film? Would you be willing to gamble on a gambler?

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