6 NFL Make or Break Candidates for 2013

Make or break. Sink or swim. Do or die. However you want to put it, there are players every season who face added pressure based on unreached expectations. A lot of times because a player is in a contract year the stakes are raised and it’s time for him to earn his next contract. Joe Flacco was a “make” last year, for sure.

I posed the question on Twitter, “Who is in a make or break season in 2013?” Below are the guys that were the most popular answers. It’s QB and offensive heavy but there aren’t a whole lot of guys on defense that typically are expected to fall into this category.

This is based on success (i.e. helping his team win) on the field and not in statistical (fantasy) production. If a QB is going to throw for 4000 yards but is going to cost his team wins because of turnovers, bad decisions, and poor game management, that’s a break, not a make.

Sam Bradford

Bradford was the number 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. It’s not that Bradford has been bad at the pro level, he simply hasn’t lived up to his draft position. It’s hard to argue that his growth hasn’t been stunted by the carousel of offensive coordinators through his tenure in St. Louis. Bradford has had a different coordinator (and therefore different offensive system) every season he’s been in the NFL. Not many QBs can survive with that amount of instability in the organization. This is the first year Sam will have retained the same offensive coordinator from the previous season. A little continuity should serve him well.

On film, Bradford still exhibits a lot of the qualities that scouts loved about him when he was coming out of Oklahoma University. He’s accurate with good pocket presence. Bradford does well in the presnap phase but he tends to rely on those reads too much. The best QBs will make a presnap read and then adjust off of it after reading post-snap. Bradford is a little too trusting of his presnap read and will sometimes throw into coverage because he makes up his mind too early. He needs to learn to adjust off of those reads faster. Sam has great pocket awareness. He slides and steps up in the pocket with ease while keeping his eyes downfield. I’d like to see Bradford pull the trigger a little faster and put some more zip on the ball. Bradford appeared to lack confidence in his throws at times.

Sam Bradford’s most prominent issue was the lack of talent on the offensive line and lack of weapons as receivers. His receivers failed to get separation with any consistency. Wide receiver Chris Givens is a legitimate deep threat that will go up and get the ball but wasn’t sharp in his routes. Danny Amendola was the only real threat that Bradford could rely on a consistent basis but his size limited Bradford’s ability to be aggressive to Amendola with the ball. Everything the Rams do on offense is based off the run. Sam will likely be given more opportunity to spread the ball out. This could be dangerous as he sometimes looks like he has a muddy picture in reads of the intermediate levels.

Verdict: Make. Adding weapons on offense (Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey), along with adding some talent on the offensive line (Jake Long and Barrett Jones) will be incredibly beneficial for Bradford this season. While I’m not crazy about the fit of Bradford in Brian Schottenheimer’s system, I think a 2nd year in the system will do wonders for him. In the vicious NFC West this season, Bradford will need to pounce on opportunities to play teams outside of his division while focusing more on managing the games within the division.

Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman was the 17th pick in the 2009 draft. He didn’t come with number 1 overall expectations but Freeman played well after becoming the starter in late 2009. In 2010, Freeman completed 61% of his passes while throwing for 25 TDs and only 6 INTs in his sophomore season. He led the Buccaneers to a 10-6 season and barely missed the playoffs via a tiebreaker, causing expectations to skyrocket for the young QB. After mediocre seasons in 2011 and 2012, people are wondering if 2010 was a fluke or if Freeman can get back to that level of production and efficiency.

On the field, Freeman’s offense is built on running the ball and taking deep shots. He benefits from a couple of receivers who attack the ball at its highest point – Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Freeman trusts his receivers a little too much by throwing a ton of 50/50 balls. He has a cannon and isn’t afraid to use it.

Freeman is going to benefit hugely from an improved defense. He was asked to throw a lot more than the Bucs would have liked in 2012 because of huge point totals put up by opponents. Freeman was asked to keep Tampa in games way too much last year. This season, the addition of Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson, and Johnthan Banks should help the Bucs on offense by allowing them to rely more on the run game – which they prefer to do – rather than relying on the big, aggressive arm of Freeman.

Verdict: Make. Due to the design of the offense, it would surprise me if Freeman reached that 61% completion percentage this year but he should certainly be more efficient than his 54.8% completion percentage last season. The main concern with Freeman is that he plays in a tough division. After a high profile offseason, a 3rd place finish in the division won’t cut it for the Buccaneers, but it certainly isn’t out of the question, either.

Kenny Britt

Kenny Britt is fun to watch on film. He’s big, physical, and is a solid route runner. He’s not a burner but has adequate speed and is quick enough to keep a CB’s hands off of him coming off the line of scrimmage. He has strong hands and good body control. There’s a lot to like about Britt.

So what’s killed Kenny? There are multiple answers. Off-field problems and a couple of nagging injuries have limited Britt’s time on the field. Britt has played in 16, 12, 2, and 14 games, respectively, in his four seasons in the NFL thus far. But the biggest issue plaguing the Titans’ wide receiver has been his quarterback. Jake Locker simply isn’t good enough to get Britt the ball on time, accurately, and consistently.

Britt has never topped 45 receptions or 775 yards in a season. He did have 9 TDs in only 12 games in 2009, but beyond that has never posted more than 4 TDs in his other 3 seasons. Those are hardly WR1 numbers.

Verdict: Leaning break. If I could sit squarely on the fence here, I would. Britt’s biggest hinderance has been his QB play and at some point this season the Jake Locker experiment ends, and Ryan Fitzpatrick takes over at the helm. Kenny Britt’s success this season depends a lot on how early that happens. If Locker gets hurt, expect Fitzpatrick to jump in and take over the starting job and never relinquish it. This is a positive for Britt as Fitzpatrick is the better throwing quarterback.

Ras-I Dowling

Ras-I Dowling is a player who is hard to watch on film. It’s not that Dowling isn’t a good player, it’s just hard to find games that he’s actually played in. In 2 years, Dowling has only recorded snaps in 9 games. Injuries have plagued the 25 year old cornerback in New England. He was the 33rd overall pick of the 2011 draft. Even further discouraging is that Dowling has recorded a total of 7 tackles and 1 pass defensed in his 2 seasons in the NFL.

It’s a make or break year for Dowling because he was essentially a 1st round pick for the Patriots and was expected to become the number 1 cornerback opposite Kyle Arrington. Instead, because of the concerns about Dowling, the Patriots made a risky trade for Aqib Talib (which has worked out fairly well, thus far) and have moved 2012 7th-round pick Alfonzo Dennard ahead of Dowling on the depth chart.

Dowling is a sizable cornerback at 6-1 and 200lbs. He is long and can play well in press man and also in zone. He doesn’t have a great feel for zone but reacts well to the ball and can jump routes with consistency. He’s not shifty and only mirrors adequately in coverage. His length allows him opportunities that a lack of agility would prevent for a smaller corner. Dowling’s size was a benefit because it was said that if he didn’t turn out to be a great corner he could easily make the transition to safety. He hasn’t seen the field enough to be able to evaluate that ability yet.

Verdict: Break. Dowling has the skill set to succeed as a cornerback in the NFL, but a skill set is useless if a player can’t stay healthy enough to play on Sunday. Dowling’s place on the New England depth chart is also concerning as he’s, at best, the 3rd corner in the hierarchy. He’s probably more of the 4th option at this point. Even as a 4th option, I think Dowling is the type of cornerback that is more fit to be on the outside and can be exposed when covering shifty receivers out of the slot. This will cause New England to have to adjust the rotation when Dowling actually does see the field.

Jon Baldwin

When I look at Jon Baldwin on film, the first thing that sticks out to me is his size. He’s 6-4, 228lbs. of muscle and tested well at the combine. Just by looking at him and his athleticism, Baldwin should be a monster at wide receiver. He’s the type of receiver that offensive coordinators salivate over and cornerbacks don’t want to face.

Somewhere between the lines, that size and athleticism hasn’t translated. Baldwin simply hasn’t looked physically superior to anyone that he’s faced. Baldwin shows flashes of being a receiver that will go after the ball no matter where it’s at. He’s been a bit stone-handed in his two years in the league, though I give him a little bit of a break as his quarterbacks rarely threw balls on target or on time. Football Outsiders has Baldwin at a 43% catch rate in 2012. It’s hard to continue to make excuses for Baldwin as he was out performed by fellow Chiefs receivers who possessed far less physical talent.

Verdict: Make. After all that, I still think Baldwin will come through this season as a success. There are two major reasons aside from his physical make-up: coaching and quarterback. Alex Smith will easily be the best quarterback that Jon Baldwin has played with in the NFL. Smith isn’t a world-beater by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s smart and he’s accurate. Just as importantly, Baldwin will finally get the NFL coaching that his physical skills deserve. For as much as Andy Reid is known as a QB guru, not enough attention has been given to how he consistently churns out good wide receivers. Freddie Mitchell should have been thanking Reid and not his own hands for any success he had in the NFL.

Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews is coming into an important year for him. With a new coaching staff, Mathews no longer has any leverage to retain his starting spot at running back. He may be grandfathered into the role through training camp, but that doesn’t mean that he will keep it.

There was a lot to like about Mathews (6-0, 220lbs.) before the Chargers selected him with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft. While that spot was a little high, his ceiling doesn’t make the position of the pick absurd. Mathews is another guy who has had trouble making it through an entire season. He’s averaged 13 games per season in his 3 years in the league. Beyond that, Mathews was supposed to be a smooth, balanced, and patient running back that possessed above average explosiveness.

In 2012, Mathews showed an ability to stay low to the ground and remain upright even after contact. One of Mathews’ best traits is his balance. He wasn’t overly shifty but had good agility to skip gaps and hit the cutback lane when it was there. Mathews lacked good vision and didn’t do a good job setting up his blocks. He was hesitant, indecisive, and shied away from contact at times.

Verdict: Leaning break. Last season, Mathews flashed some of those skills that so many loved so much coming out of Fresno State. But those flashes didn’t come nearly enough. It looked as if Mathews was playing in slow motion. He rarely exhibited any of the explosiveness that he’s proved he had in 2011. He was slow to read, slow to hit holes, slow to get up to speed, and even running routes he looked lackadaisical. New head coach Mike McCoy is an absolute master at tailoring his offense to fit his personnel’s strengths (he even won a playoff game with Tim Tebow as his QB!), but if Mathews isn’t interested in playing hard, even McCoy can’t help him out.

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