NFL Nation: NFL

Jamar Taylor, Dion Jordan and Will Davis AP Photo, Getty ImagesJamar Taylor, Dion Jordan and Will Davis made a minimal impact as rookies.
Most of the attention over the next three weeks will be focused on the 2014 NFL draft, as each team tries to shape its present and future by identifying the right college players to fill needs.

But for the Miami Dolphins, success or failure this season will depend more on the development of the 2013 draft class. Few teams got less production from their rookies last year than Miami. Only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks had fewer snaps from first-year players -- and those teams, which competed in Super Bowl XLVIII, were stacked with established veterans.

The Dolphins, who faltered down the stretch and finished 8-8, did not have that luxury.

It's time for Miami's second-year players to come of age during an important time for many within the organization. Head coach Joe Philbin is entering an important third year after going 15-17 his first two seasons, and there could be a lot of change next year if the Dolphins aren't successful.

Most of Miami's top picks -- including defensive end Dion Jordan, offensive lineman Dallas Thomas and cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- basically had red-shirt seasons in 2013, thanks to injuries, inconsistency and lack of confidence from the coaching staff. That lack of production was one reason why the Dolphins failed to get to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

"They got less than anybody in the league out of their draft class, and they had high picks. That's a huge issue," ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson said. "But if that group, the corners and especially Jordan, can play up to what Miami thought they were and what most people thought they were, the Dolphins could rebound."

"We have a lot of hope for the draft class from last year," Philbin said at the NFL owners meetings in late March. "A lot of them have been back early, working. You want to see development throughout the course of an individual player's career, but I think all of you guys would agree you usually see a significant jump between Year 1 and Year 2. These are guys we thought highly of a year ago when we drafted them.

"They had some injury issues that kind of curtailed their development in Year 1. So I'm excited about working with them, developing them and seeing them progress here this season."

The 2013 draft class was one point of contention last year between Miami's coaching staff and the front office. Philbin didn't feel his rookies were ready to take on larger roles. Jeff Ireland, then the Dolphins' general manager, believed in the talent of his draft picks and felt they were not being used properly. Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, was perhaps the biggest example.

Due to offseason shoulder surgery, Jordan missed time in training camp and the preseason. He never found his footing in the regular season and he fell behind veteran defensive ends Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby.

Williamson described Jordan as "a ridiculous athlete." He has immense potential but spent most of the season as the third or fourth defensive end and on special teams. He was involved in 321 snaps and had a disappointing 26 tackles and two sacks.

There have also been offseason trade rumors involving Jordan, which Philbin has denied. Miami's head coach expects Jordan to have a larger role in 2014.

"We feel like with a full offseason, with more time devoted to his fundamentals, he will have a better grasp of the position he's playing," Philbin said. "We do want to do a better job with the numbers, rotating him in. ... We want to get him more snaps on first and second down. "

The Dolphins also are counting on young corners Taylor and Davis, who were drafted in the second and third round, respectively. Both had injury setbacks last season and played a combined 104 snaps.

Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes will occupy one starting job, and Taylor and Davis will compete with veteran free-agent acquisition Cortland Finnegan for the other spot. Finnegan, a former Pro Bowl corner, is the favorite to start due to experience. But Philbin is not going in with any preconceived notions.

"I want to see the best player, whoever can help us win football games," Philbin explained. "Whoever performs the best should be the starting corner."

Miami got most of its rookie production last year from unlikely sources. Fifth-round kicker Caleb Sturgis proved to be the Dolphins' best rookie acquisition last season. He beat out longtime Miami kicker Dan Carpenter in training camp and led the Dolphins with 111 points.

The Dolphins also had decent production from undrafted rookie guard Sam Brenner, who made four starts and played 274 snaps. Brenner stepped up following the suspension of guard Richie Incognito in Miami's high-profile bullying scandal.

Brenner's production highlighted the fact that Thomas, a 2013 third-round pick, was too green to step in and be productive. Thomas was rotated between guard and tackle in training camp and never got comfortable in either position. Thomas must find a home at this season in order to provide quality depth.

In fact, it will be vital for Miami's entire 2013 draft class to find roles and contribute next season. The Dolphins used nine draft picks last year, and most have yet to make an impact.

"The Dolphins have a young quarterback [Ryan Tannehill], so they need to build a real core for the long term," Williamson said. "They need last year's draft and this upcoming come to build around Tannehill. They don't need to live for today. A strong core is more important than winning it all this year, although that philosophy can get you fired in Miami if you're 6-10."
History, prior association and a semi-sensational quote tell us one thing. The mock drafts Insider are telling us another Insider. Whom to believe when it comes to projecting the likelihood the Minnesota Vikings would select Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel if he is available at No. 8 next month?

There is no telling what is truly going on inside the heads of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, two of the three most important people involved in the decision. (The third, general manager Rick Spielman, has pledged to draft players who match the sensibilities of his coaching staff.) We can, however, say this with confidence: Manziel would represent a stylistic departure from the offense played on the teams Zimmer and Turner have coached throughout their combined 49 NFL seasons.

As the chart shows, Zimmer and Turner almost exclusively have played with tall, traditional pocket passers. Only one of them, Quincy Carter on Zimmer's 2003 Dallas Cowboys, has rushed for as much as 200 yards in a 16-game season.

As assistant coaches on many of those teams, Zimmer and Turner had limited influence on the personnel decisions that brought those quarterbacks. But the list represents a near-linear thread of similar players who have informed a lifetime of values, experience and familiarity -- one Manziel would at minimum upend if he were the Vikings' selection.

The closest match from either coach's history is Doug Flutie, a 5-foot-10 scrambler who started for the San Diego Chargers in 2001 when Turner was their offensive coordinator. Yet even that comparison is limited. Flutie was 39 at the time, and although he was still nimble enough to scramble for 192 yards, Turner nevertheless had him throw a career-high 521 passes as part of his well-defined downfield passing scheme.

Another mobile quarterback, Jay Fiedler, had his per-game rushing totals with the Miami Dolphins in 2002-03 drop by 58 percent under Turner compared to the two seasons before Turner's arrival.

Manziel, of course, was at his best in college when scrambling outside the pocket. It's true that he has a strong arm -- stronger than Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or Central Florida's Blake Bortles, according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay -- and there is near-unanimous agreement he won't stay healthy if he runs as often in the NFL.

But if you're going to run a three-digit pocket offense like Turner's, one modeled after the "Air Coryell" system the Chargers ran with Dan Fouts, are you going to be naturally drawn to Manziel? What is Manziel going to look like if you've seen your offense run mostly by Troy Aikman (6.2 yards rushing per career game), Philip Rivers (3.1), Jim Everett (3.8) and Gus Frerotte (2.1)?

That's a question only Turner can answer. But if you're among those who think he'll endorse Manziel, then you must believe he sees him in the same light as those traditional pocket throwers -- or that he is planning a sharp left turn in his scheme and play-calling ideas as he approaches his 62nd birthday next month. Tweaking schemes to fit players is a popular NFL mantra, but is it reasonable to expect it from Turner?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel, the former Texas A&M quarterback who rushed for 1,410 yards in 2012, could see less action outside of the pocket in the NFL.
As for Zimmer, it's true he has spent his career on the defensive side of the ball. He has had little role in choosing quarterbacks and no hand in coaching them. We can't know the details of his personal philosophy on offense, but the three quarterbacks he has seen most frequently start for his teams are Aikman, Andy Dalton (9.5 yards rushing per game) and Carson Palmer (2.7). At the very least, he has almost no personal experience with a quarterback of Manziel's skill set.

To this point, his most important public statement about offense has been the hiring of Turner -- whom he coached with on the Cowboys staff in the early 1990s and who is well-equipped to implement and run a scheme while Zimmer directs his attention elsewhere. When you combine his alliance with Turner with his recent comments about Manziel, you get a sturdy encapsulation of his set of personal and professional values.

In media interviews, Zimmer derisively referred to Manziel's pro day -- which was set to blaring music and included a visit by former President George H.W. Bush -- as a sideshow. Elaborating, Zimmer said it was important to know if Manziel is "going to conform to typically what the NFL is or what everyone else has done before him, including what the great players in the game have done before him? Or is he going to try to be the celebrity man guy that he was maybe a year and a half ago?"

Many have assumed Zimmer was pulling the old Jedi mind trick, attempting to cast public doubt about his interest in a player he secretly hopes to draft. I wonder if that's a case of overthinking about a man who grinded for nearly four decades to get his first head-coaching gig at age 57. After working so long to get this job, will he hinge its success on a player who appears out of his comfort zone?

In total, then, here is a franchise with a coach whose no-nonsense values already have flared. His offensive coordinator has made a successful career out of running the same offense, with a certain type of quarterback, and his general manager doesn't seem likely to impose an unpopular choice. I can't say for sure the Vikings will pass on Manziel at No. 8, but this is one instance where it isn't difficult to come up with a long and relatively formidable list of reasons why they might be inclined to look elsewhere.
The Chicago Bears hold the No. 14 pick in the upcoming NFL draft after finishing last season with an 8-8 record, and by virtue of the frenetic pace the club worked at during free agency, the potential selection in the first round seems wide open at this point.

ESPN.com's Todd McShay revealed his fourth 2014 mock draft on ESPN Insider today, with this one covering the first two rounds, and his choices for the Bears certainly make lots of sense.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video (Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

The accolades pop off the page. In many ways, Georgia's Aaron Murray is the most prolific passer in the history of the SEC. No quarterback has completed more passes for more yards or touchdowns, and Murray is the only quarterback in conference history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

As the NFL draft approaches, however, Murray is not viewed as a top prospect. His success in the conference best linked to NFL-level play has been trumped by concerns about his size and, temporarily, his recovery from a torn ACL. ESPN's Scouts Inc. rates him a fifth-round prospect , citing his measurements at the February scouting combine -- just over 6 feet, 207 pounds and with 9[-inch hands -- as impediments to throwing from an NFL pocket.

Murray represents the 2014 embodiment of an annual draft debate. What is more predictive of NFL success: college production or projected athletic ability, as manifested in combine measurements?

There are countless anecdotal illustrations of this argument, ranging from the infamous Mike Mamula -- a 1995 combine star whose football skills were more limited -- to Clay Matthews, who produced twice as many sacks as an NFL rookie in 2009 than he did in four seasons at USC. Recently, a group of college professors worked to inject some hard numbers into the discussion via a study of 640 drafted prospects over a three-year period from 2002-04.

Their results were instructive. College production, averaged per game and scaled based on competition level, was at least twice and in some cases three times more indicative of NFL success than athletic ability. In fact, said Georgia professor Brian J. Hoffman, combine numbers added nothing to the accuracy of projections that college production hadn't already accounted for.

"If it were up to me," Hoffman said, "I would certainly [tell general managers] to ignore the combine. Completely ignore the combine. My concern is that, if anything, it leads you astray more often than helps bring you a good player. There are some exceptions, particularly with a player like [New Orleans Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham, who played only one season and so you have less data. But focusing on college performance seems a much more reliable approach. In general, college performance will tell you what you need to know."

This should be no surprise in the business world, where past performance and experience are far more valued than aptitude tests and measurements. In professions requiring physical skills, of course, hiring managers feel compelled to project aptitude. The combine is the primary NFL vehicle for that task, but this study suggests its results are at best redundant.

At the same time, it's important to acknowledge the limitations of this data, which can be viewed in detail here. It doesn't ensure a player will be successful if he put up big numbers at a BCS school, nor does it mean he will flop if he didn't.

Matthews, who managed 5.5 sacks in his college career, is the perfect example. The Green Bay Packers put faith in their physical evaluation of Matthews, as well as their analysis of his play even when he didn't record sacks or tackles, and were rewarded with a pass-rusher who is on a Hall of Fame track (50 sacks in 69 games).

In sum, the study showed that the statistical correlation between college production and NFL success is 0.3, which is about the same as the correlation between high school grade-point averages and college grade-point averages. In other words, NFL teams have plenty of additional analysis to complete beyond college production.

In any event, there are some important thoughts to be gleaned here. First, if the data compiled via the combine's athletic measurements has proved statistically worthless, it seems time to reconsider the nature and substance of the drills. The results, as Hoffman said, are more likely to cause a draft mistake than contribute to a successful choice.

Second, it is another reminder to look closer at players like Murray. Hoffman noted the inherent bias of working at the school Murray played for, but the study suggests Murray's production merits more weight than NFL teams typically assign.

"I don't think this tells us absolutely that a player will do it in the NFL if he's done it in college," Hoffman said. "But it also doesn't make a lot of sense to say they probably can't do it in the league consistently based on these physical measurements. There are always going to be exceptions, but when you look at a guy like Aaron Murray or Drew Brees, so-called undersized guys who were shattering records in college while playing in a pro-style offense, you look at the data and suspect he would have a better chance to succeed than NFL teams might think."

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 
The 2014 season is important for many within the Miami Dolphins' organization. One of those people facing plenty of pressure to perform this upcoming season is third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill
Tannehill was drafted No. 8 overall in 2012. Since then he is 15-17 as a starter and has never posted a winning season. Tannehill has shown flashes of ability but has been unable to end Miami's five-year playoff drought.

ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson caught up with Tannehill during the Adidas football shoot in Los Angeles. Tannehill knows this is an important third season to prove he's the long-term solution in Miami.

"It's huge. I have to make a big jump, I'm aware of that," Tannehill said. "I’m putting in the work, putting in the time to get myself physically ready, mentally ready and learn this new offense that we’re going with this year. So there is still work to be done.

"But I look for a big jump in myself, both in production and wins. That’s what we ultimately play for is wins. So, I’m excited to see what this team does."

The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs by one game. Tannehill and Miami's offense sputtered down the stretch and scored just seven points in the final two games. That led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who was replaced by Bill Lazor.

Miami made several additions to help Tannehill in free agency. The Dolphins added Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert to improve pass protection and new tailback Knowshon Moreno to provide a spark in the running game.

But the Dolphins' season will sink or swim with Tannehill's development. ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian believes Tannehill needs to make quicker decisions.

“He needs to get the ball out of his hands more quickly to hit open receivers,” Polian said on ESPN’s “NFL Insiders” Wednesday. “In doing that it will increase passing-game efficiency and eliminate some of those league-leading 58 sacks.”

In case you missed it, here is my full column on Tannehill entering Year 3.
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News: Nike raises prices on two of its three replica NFL jersey styles. The most expensive version now costs $295.

Reaction A: Greedy pigs!

Reaction B: Good. An adult who wears a sports jersey deserves to be gouged.

Reaction C: Basic economics. Supply and demand. Nike knows people will buy them.

Reaction D: Has anyone heard the term "replica"?

That sums up the views I heard during an impromptu Twitter chat Wednesday morning, a sample of which is included at the bottom of this post.

SportsNation

Will Nike's decision to raise prices of NFL jerseys change your buying habits?

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    71%
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    25%
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    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,630)

Some blamed a corporate behemoth for further distancing its pricing from the presumably average consumer. Others suggested Nike, which doesn't care who buys its jerseys as long as they are bought, must feel confident in its market projections. A few wondered why grown men and women feel compelled to wear game-style jerseys, and many pointed toward the robust counterfeit -- er, "replica" -- market as an increasingly attractive alternative.

I'm no economic genius, but this story seems to reinforce that Nike isn't producing these jerseys for you, the average American consumer. They are for the highest levels of our economic stratosphere -- the people who were already happily spending $100, $135 or $250 on official NFL jerseys and won't care or notice an increase of $15 for the middle version or $45 on the premium one.

The rest of us -- I mean, you -- already know how to find much less expensive options. They are of different aesthetic appeal, and probably lower quality, but quench the interest of most people who want to wear them. I can't quantify how many of you share that view, but I laughed when the first autosuggestion on my "NFL jersey" Google search was "NFL Jersey China," from where alternative jerseys might or might not be available.

What can we say about a league that partners with a company that prices key memorabilia beyond the range of so many customers?

Among other things, we are reminded the NFL isn't necessarily targeting you for many of its products, including memorabilia and on game day. As with jerseys, the prices for tickets, parking and food have outgrown the reasonable reach of the majority of NFL fans. According to Team Marketing Report, it cost an average of $459.65 to buy four tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four programs and two adult adjustable caps at an NFL game last season.

Those prices are responsibly reserved for the financially elite. For the rest of us, the NFL is a television product, free on Sundays but requiring a cable subscription on Monday and some Thursday nights.

Think of it in terms of the airline industry. Nike and the NFL have created a first-class level of customer, based largely on what coach used to be. When you think of it that way, when you realize that you are no longer the market target for the traditional NFL experience, a $295 jersey makes more sense. It's the rubber chicken you used to get in coach, only at the price of filet mignon. Bon appétit!

Return man Devin Hester departed for the Atlanta Falcons via free agency, but it’s clear he’d like to still be with the Chicago Bears.

Hester made that apparent Wednesday with a couple of posts on his Twitter account.

Hester is correct that there’s a good chance his exploits in Chicago won’t ever be duplicated, but he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of eventually retiring as a Bear. From the looks of everything, the sides parted on good terms. When the Bears announced they wouldn’t re-sign Hester, general manager Phil Emery put out a complimentary statement, thanking the return man for his contributions over the years.

One team source even said that “Devin holds a very special place for me. He is loved and well-respected by everybody. This is one of the harsh realities of the business aspect of the NFL.”

“For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization,” Emery said in a statement. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish his family the best.”

In the 2013 season, Hester averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return, and he is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and punt/kick return TDs (18). In all, Hester has produced 20 return TDs, which is an NFL record.
Charles TillmanGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesCharles Tillman and the Bears' defense should benefit from some key additions in 2014.
The Chicago Bears' front office grunted through one of the league's busiest offseason of signings to put the team in position to draft the best player available in May while also minimizing the burden of the potential first-round pick to carry the savior label.

So while the workload won't lighten as the Bears prepare for the NFL draft and the April 22 start of the offseason program, they've unwittingly utilized a core motto of former NFL coach Dennis Green: Plan your work and work your plan. That has led to the Bears signing 30 players since the final week of December, a group that includes 17 returners, 10 unrestricted free agents and three street free agents to drastically improve -- at least on paper -- one of the NFL's worst defenses of 2013.

"I think we'll slow down a tad," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on March 31. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."

Not to diminish the work to be done over the next few weeks, but Chicago's activity up to this point should make things easier moving forward. Headed into the offseason, the Bears needed to address a defensive line that played a major role in 2013 in the defense allowing 5.34 yards per rushing attempt (the league average was 4.10), and did so by signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije, in addition to bringing back Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.

The club also re-signed starting corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, while adding to the safety position by acquiring M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy.

So is the defense better now than it was in 2013?

"The obvious answer to that would be we're healthier [than in 2013] because nobody's hurt," Emery said. "Also, I think we've added some guys at key points in their career. Jared adds experience, production, leadership. Somebody like Lamarr and Willie add some youth, speed and [physicality]. Really excited about Jeremiah Ratliff this year. He's excited about playing. He wants to finish here. He added so much the last few weeks [of 2013] in terms of leadership; unbelievably mentally tough player. So yeah, I think the collective group, we've gotten stronger and we're headed in the right direction as far as we want to establish as a defensive football team."

Given the financial commitments to Houston, Allen and Young -- all defensive ends -- it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds ways to get them on the field at the same time. Allen is the bona fide starter at right end, and Houston will play on the left side. But it's likely the Bears will take advantage of Houston's versatility and kick him inside to defensive tackle on passing downs while playing Young opposite Allen at end.

Even without the benefit of the upcoming draft, Chicago's defensive line appears to be a more dynamic group than it was in 2013.

"It's up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same time or at different times or different personnel groupings or groupings against personnel," Emery said.

Depending on the direction the Bears take in May in the draft, that task could become more difficult for Tucker. Despite the Bears adding Jennings, McCray and Mundy in free agency, the club could stand to acquire another safety in the draft capable of competing for a starting job; especially with the possibility Chris Conte might miss time at camp after undergoing shoulder surgery.

But the club might see more value in using its first-round pick on one of the talented interior defensive line prospects such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald or Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, as picking a safety at No. 14 might be a little too high for the team's tastes. Surely, the Bears will address safety in the first three rounds, in addition to adding depth at some point at corner and at linebacker.

Emery declined to say whether the signing of Allen or all the work done to revamp the defensive line will change the club's draft plans -- only that "it's always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards winning championships. To do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team."

The Bears certainly added some. In the process, they made the possibility of a defensive renaissance similar to what was experienced on the other side of the ball in 2013 a potentially easier undertaking.

They've planned their work and are working their plan.
NFL general managers gather their smartest people each winter to analyze rosters, assess options and formulate a plan for the offseason marketplace. In 2014, at least, they made quick work of the running back position.

By now it's no surprise to hear or read about the plummeting value of running backs. No one wants to pay them premium salaries or even spend a first-round draft pick on one. To this conversation, I'd like to add an obvious and clear representation for why.

The information in the fancy line graph, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, is similar to the type of analysis NFL teams use. It shows, in pretty stark terms, how running back production drops off after the age of 27. (Hat tip to ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin for generating the graph.)

 
The red line represents all running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 75 carries per season. Overall, we see their careers peak at age 27. Afterward, their rushing totals drop by 15 percent in one year, 25 percent in two and almost 40 by the time they are 30.

Most decision-makers -- whether their background was in scouting, accounting or anything in between -- saw that trend as a bad investment. As with any business, they reserve premium contracts for projected growth in production, not a decline.

For comparison's sake, the graph also includes the receiver position (in blue, minimum average of 50 receptions over the same time period). You'll see some fluctuations, but even at age 31, the composite receiver produced a near-identical yardage total as he did at age 27. In other words, it's reasonable to expect a high-level performance into a receiver's early 30s.

Peterson
Peterson
Running backs get no such benefit of the doubt, nor should they from a strict business sense. Even Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, one of the league's best players at any position, contributed to the curve at age 28 last season. It's true that he had the fifth-most rushing yards (1,266) in the NFL, but he also missed two games and overall fell 40 percent from his 2,097-yard effort in 2012.

That line graph, along with a season that produced its fewest total league-wide rushing yards (57,795) in six seasons, led us to the eye-opening 2014 offseason. Keep in mind that age 27 is the essential point where most players, under the current collective bargaining agreement, become free agents for the first time. At their first opportunity for a payday, the league already views them to be beyond their prime.

As of this week, teams have 177 running backs under contract. Of that group, 128 (72 percent) are 26 or younger. I counted only eight runners over the age of 29. Meanwhile, there was an obvious link between the handful of mid-20s running backs who did receive multiyear contracts this spring: None have been four-year feature backs.

The Detroit Lions will pay Joique Bell (27) the eighth-highest salary for a running back in 2014 ($4.3 million). He has 248 career carries, an average of 62 per season.

Toby Gerhart (27) will receive $4 million from the Jacksonville Jaguars. He has averaged 69 carries per season. Donald Brown (26) also will get $4 million from the San Diego Chargers after totaling 551 carries in five seasons, while Ben Tate (25) will get $3.25 million from the Cleveland Browns after totaling 421 carries in four seasons.

And that's pretty much the list. What about Knowshon Moreno, who is 26 but has 845 career rushes? He got a one-year deal from the Miami Dolphins. Maurice Jones-Drew? He's 29 and has 1,804 career carries. His contract with the Oakland Raiders guarantees him $1.2 million for 2014. He'll earn $2.5 million, assuming he makes the team.

It's fair to expect the trend to continue expanding to the draft. NFL teams didn't draft a single running back in the first round in 2013, and at the moment, ESPN's Scouts Inc. doesn't project one to be selected in the first round this year, either. (Their highest-rated runner, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, has a mid-second round grade Insider.)

The message is clear: Running backs of this generation picked, well, the wrong generation to be running backs. Teams want them young, cheap and fresh -- and the data makes it difficult to argue their point.
During the course of the 2013 season, DeMarcus Ware was asked about the business side of the NFL. We’re not talking about handling his money, the conversation was about how NFL teams treat its players.

Ware
Ware has a keen understanding of what that business is. He could be cut at any moment and the team wouldn’t care about what he did for them in the past

The Cowboys released Ware in a salary-cap move and partially because of his injury history. Ware is now with the Denver Broncos and he’s still thinking about the business side of things.

But not about what a NFL team might do to him because, well frankly, the Cowboys, the only team he’s ever known, cut him.

Ware is thinking about life after football.

In an interview with MMQB’s Robert Klemko, Ware talks about going back to school. Ware attended the NFL’s Player Engagement program, held on the Notre Dame campus last week about becoming an entrepreneur.

The programs are held at other college campuses.

Check out what Ware had to say about his post-NFL life here.

Which team signs Chris Johnson?

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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The Tennessee Titans released running back Chris Johnson on Friday.

The Titans will save $4 million with the move.

2014 minicamp, OTA schedules released

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
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The Chicago Bears hold the No. 14 pick in the 2014 NFL draft after putting together an 8-8 record under head coach Marc Trestman and missing the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons, in part because of a traditionally strong defense finally realizing its mortality.

So, similar to the way the club retooled the offense going into 2013, the Bears plan to work diligently on the defense, with the draft most likely focusing on cornerback, defensive tackle, safety and perhaps even linebacker additions.


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NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
10:01
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video
Let’s turn back the clock, way back to, say, 2011.

John Fox is in his first season as coach of the Denver Broncos, and John Elway in his first season as the team’s top football executive. After five weeks, the Broncos are 1-4. Kyle Orton gets benched, the Broncos put Tim Tebow in at quarterback, and Denver goes 7-4 to finish 8-8 and win a tightly clustered AFC West on the basis of tiebreakers.

The San Diego Chargers also finished 8-8, as did the Oakland Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs were 7-9.

All four teams piled together in a bit of a mediocrity club. Not too good, not too bad.

And then, in March 2012, the balance of power didn’t just shift, it was tilted by the weight of a future Hall of Famer when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. The Broncos have followed with two more division titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and one Super Bowl appearance.

In all, the Broncos have gone 33-10 since moving Tebow and then Manning into the starting lineup. But the Broncos lost a Super Bowl by 35 points, looking physically overwhelmed while doing it, and Manning just turned 38. The clock is ticking on his storied career, and three teams with head coaches and general managers all hired since 2012 hope there is opportunity.

“You know they’re working their tails off to change things," Fox said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but your first goal always is to win the division; that’s the only guaranteed way to get in the tournament."

The Broncos were the most active of the four AFC West teams in free agency in recent weeks, but as Chargers coach Mike McCoy put it, “We’re grinding away. That’s the solution, just keep grinding."

The four writers who cover the AFC West for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Paul Gutierrez in Oakland, Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Eric D. Williams in San Diego -- offered their insights on closing the gap on the Broncos and some other key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which team is closest to catching the Broncos in the AFC West?



Paul Gutierrez: Is this a trick question? Sure, the Broncos excel at losing Super Bowls in blowout fashion like no one else this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings. But when it comes to the division in which they reside, the Broncos got better defensively in free agency by adding DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Since the Chargers were the only ones in the AFC West to beat the Broncos last season and have had a better run than the Chiefs in free agency, I'll go with the Bolts. While Kansas City lost three starting offensive linemen, San Diego essentially stayed the course. Quarterback Philip Rivers enjoyed a renaissance season under first-year coach Mike McCoy and figures to spread his wings (and bolo ties) with a year of experience. As far as the Raiders are concerned, there are simply too many questions and new faces at this juncture to think they will make a quantum leap in improvement, though stranger things have happened. Think Tony Sparano and the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who improved to 11-5 a year after going 1-15. And, yes, Sparano is on Oakland's staff.

Jeff Legwold: Everyone in the division, including the Broncos, carries a significant question in tow this season. For the Chiefs, it's their secondary; for the Chargers, it's their offensive line; and for the Raiders, their search for a get-it-done quarterback has now landed on Matt Schaub. The Chiefs were closest in the standings last season, powered by their defense, but the Chargers were closest on the field, with a win over the Broncos in the regular season and a hard-fought loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs return the guts of that defense, and even with the questions in the secondary, they are poised to duplicate a double-digit-win season in coach Andy Reid's second year. The Chargers played the Broncos tougher last season, and if Philip Rivers has another quality year, they will be in the playoff conversation. But they have largely sat out free agency with a draft-built approach. That puts them on a timetable to need one or two more drafts to be in position to win the division.

Adam Teicher: The Chargers finished last season in that spot, and though they lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, I don't see how much else has changed in that regard. The Chargers were competitive in their games against the Broncos last season, something the Chiefs and Raiders couldn't manage. San Diego also has the division's best quarterback and, yes, that includes Peyton Manning. The way the Chiefs finished last season, losing six of their last eight games, makes me wonder which way their program is headed. Their 9-0 start was a long time ago. The Raiders should be better than in 2013 but still haven't come far enough to be a serious part of this discussion. They had a huge pile of money to spend, but for the most part I don't agree with how they used it. While Matt Schaub is better at quarterback than the guys who played there for Oakland last season, he's still fourth among the four starters in the division.

Eric D. Williams: The Chargers offer the best challenge to Denver's throne in 2014. San Diego is the only AFC West team to defeat the Broncos since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012. The Chargers held Denver's offense to 24 points a contest in three games last season, 14 points lower than the Broncos' NFL-best average of 38 points a game during the regular season. San Diego is the only team that returns its entire offensive line from 2013, and the defense should improve with the return of a healthy Dwight Freeney along with the development of young players like Shareece Wright, Jahleel Addae and Manti Te'o.


Second Down

The AFC West had three teams make the playoffs last season. Can it happen again?



Gutierrez: Sorry, can't see it happening this season. Besides the fact that the Broncos are still the class of the division, even if they lost Eric Decker and Wesley Woodyard, and the Chiefs and Chargers are stuck playing catch-up, the rest of the AFC's wild-card chasers -- the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens -- won't be down for long. Plus, it's such a statistical anomaly for a division to gobble up three of the six playoff slots in a conference. Since the 2002 realignment, it's happened only five times -- in 2006 with the NFC East (Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants), in 2007 with the AFC South (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee) and the NFC East (Dallas, New York and Washington), in 2011 with the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) and last season with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. Then there's this: The AFC West next season plays the tough NFC West, which went a combined 42-22 last season, compared to the AFC West going 37-27. They will beat up on each other a bit, allowing other AFC teams to grab playoff berths.

Legwold: That's a tough sell. When the division had three teams make the postseason in 2013, it was because the Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins -- who finished 8-8 -- lost a spot on the final day of the regular season. For the second consecutive year, Miami has tried to buy improvement in free agency, the Jets waved the checkbook around, and the Steelers and Ravens continued to trust the draft-first formula that has served them well on the way to multiple Super Bowl wins. It's a stretch to think all four of those teams won't cross the .500 mark in 2014 or that somebody won't come out of the AFC South. NFL personnel evaluators continue to say Houston's roster isn't that of a 2-14 team and that, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, their turnaround could come quickly.

Teicher: It can, but it won't. That Denver, Kansas City and San Diego all made the playoffs last season was a factor of the AFC West teams getting some extremely favorable scheduling. AFC West teams played against teams from the AFC South and NFC East. Only two of those eight opponents finished with a winning record and included were games against three of the worst teams in the league (Jacksonville, Houston and Washington). They won't have such luck in 2014. The common opponents from outside the division include four teams that won 10 or more games last season (New England, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona). So all three of last year's playoff teams from the AFC West will find it difficult to beat or even match their records from last season. Few if any gimmes are built into this year's schedule.

Williams: While I believe the AFC West will remain one of the most competitive divisions in pro football, three teams will not make the playoffs again. The Chargers needed several things to go their way on the final week of the regular season, including Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop missing a relatively easy 41-yard field goal, to sneak in as the final AFC wild-card team. Other teams like Houston, Pittsburgh and Tennessee should improve, making it tough for three teams from one division to get into the postseason for a second straight year.


Third Down

Peyton Manning is the obvious top choice at quarterback in the division. Which of the other current starters -- Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Matt Schaub -- do you think will have the best 2014?



Gutierrez: The knee-jerk reaction is to go with Rivers, who, as mentioned above, experienced enough of a rebirth to be named the NFL's comeback player of the year by The Associated Press, an honor that usually goes to someone coming back from injury. But let's think outside of the box and put on our silver-and-black-tinted glasses. Schaub had a nightmarish season in Houston last year, with visions of pick-sixes dancing through his head. But if a change of scenery is all the doctor ordered -- and Darren McFadden stays healthy enough to make the play-action pass a devastating weapon for Schaub, and the Raiders' rebuilt offensive line gives him time, and a playmaking receiver emerges -- then Schaub might be the guy. That's a lot of ifs, but we're just talking here, right? I'm not saying that translates to wins, but with an offense tailored to his strengths and confidence, might Schaub be the second straight QB from the division to win a non-injury related comeback player of the year award?

Legwold: The Raiders were quick to pour on the optimism at the recent league meetings about Schaub's arrival and what he could mean to their offense, and the Chiefs believe Smith will be better in his second season with Andy Reid. But after Manning, Rivers is still the most accomplished passer among the other three, and he, too, will be better in the second season with McCoy. With former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's departure to be the Tennessee Titans coach, Rivers is facing at least some transition, but with McCoy's presence and the promotion of Frank Reich from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, it should be fairly seamless. If the Chargers can protect Rivers, they will benefit from the results.

Teicher: Rivers. He was rejuvenated in Mike McCoy's offensive system. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Whisenhunt's departure has on him. Smith had a strong finish last season, even if the Chiefs didn't. Things should run more smoothly for him in Year 2 in Andy Reid's system, but it's troubling that the Chiefs lost their best offensive lineman in left tackle Branden Albert and two other regulars on their line. They have yet to add to their meager collection of offensive threats, though I expect they will in the draft. Their inability to sign Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency will haunt them. I have little in the way of expectations for Schaub in his first season with the Raiders. It's a bit much to ask him to thrive in his first year in a new system with unfamiliar teammates.

Williams: Rivers has the best chance to repeat his success from 2013 for one reason: continuity. The Chargers will return almost every starter from one of the best offenses in the NFL last season. San Diego added Donald Brown in free agency to bolster an already potent run game led by Ryan Mathews. Young playmakers Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green should get better. Look for San Diego to add another playmaker in the draft, along with a player or two to bolster an aging offensive line.


Fourth Down

What is the dark-horse free-agency move in the AFC West that will have the biggest impact?



Gutierrez: Seems to me that there have been few, if any, dark-horse signings in free agency; they've all been pretty big names, especially among the top three teams. Even the Raiders' signings have been relatively well-known names. Perhaps, then, the most surprising signing that could have an impact in the division is the guy who was thought to be long gone: Oakland running back Darren McFadden. When he's healthy and used to his skill set -- think early 2011, before a Lisfranc injury ended his season -- Run DMC looks like a league MVP candidate. With the zone-blocking scheme all but scrapped in Oakland, McFadden figures to benefit from the change back to a power-blocking mantra. The Raiders re-signed him to a relatively cheap, incentive-laden deal, so that qualifies as a dark-horse move. Whether he has a breakthrough season will determine if the signing is impactful enough to help decide the division.

Legwold: LaMarr Woodley will turn 30 in November and Justin Tuck turned 31 on March 29, but if the two have a little something left in the career tanks, then they can have an impact in Dennis Allen's defense with the Raiders. If not, well, then they are the first steps toward some salary-cap dead money when they can't play out their contracts. But overall, Emmanuel Sanders was the Broncos' last big splash in the opening days of free agency, and he's the guy who could make a significant jump in the Broncos offense. One of the league's better receivers in terms of yards after the catch, he is now with a quarterback whose greatest strength is getting the ball to players on short and intermediate routes in the best place to do the most with it. Sanders' 67 catches in 2013 were his career best, but his 11.0 yards per catch from '13 figures to jump with the opportunities he will get in the Broncos offense.

Teicher: This probably doesn't qualify as a dark-horse move, but when Sanders didn't sign with the Chiefs and instead joined the Broncos, it further tipped the balance of power in the division. Sanders would have been a nice fit in Kansas City's offense. His ability to line up in the slot or split wide would have given the Chiefs a fast receiver to use in a variety of ways. The Chiefs, for the time being at least, are without a proven slot receiver after losing Dexter McCluster to free agency. Their best hope at this point for that position is Weston Dressler, who was signed this year after putting up big numbers for several seasons in the CFL. Sanders, meanwhile, appears destined to catch 80 or more passes for better than 1,000 yards and several touchdowns as Eric Decker's replacement in Denver.

Williams: While some league observers consider San Diego signing Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal a reach because the team needs more immediate help in other areas, I believe the Chargers made a good decision for a couple of reasons. Brown is a known commodity because of general manager Tom Telesco's familiarity with the University of Connecticut product from their time together in Indianapolis. Brown is a perfect fit in San Diego's offense with his ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Brown strengthens something the Chargers already do well: running the football. With Brown, Mathews and Danny Woodhead, San Diego has the most talented running back group in the AFC West.

 

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