NFL Nation: 2013 NFL draft

Taking stock of 2013 NFC West picks

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
10:30
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Eighty-six of the first 88 players drafted in 2013 remain on 53-man rosters entering Week 1. The two exceptions play for NFC West teams.

The Arizona Cardinals' Jonathan Cooper, chosen seventh overall, suffered a season-ending leg injury during preseason. He is on injured reserve. The San Francisco 49ers' Tank Carradine, chosen 40th overall, remains on the reserve/non-football injury list while recovering from a knee injury.

Twenty-five of 39 NFC West choices this year remain on their original teams' 53-man rosters. That includes all seven picks for the St. Louis Rams and seven of nine for the Cardinals. The 49ers and Seattle Seahawks had a higher number of picks arranged lower within each round, and fewer open roster spots to accommodate them.

Injuries have left six picks from the division on various injured lists. Three of the Seahawks' top five picks will not help the team anytime soon. That includes Harper, defensive tackle Jesse Williams (injured reserve) and cornerback Tharold Simon (reserve/physically unable to perform). Percy Harvin, who cost Seattle its 2013 first-round choice, is also injured.

Five 2013 draft choices from the division landed on their original teams' practice squads. One of them, fourth-round choice Chris Harper, subsequently left his original team (Seattle Seahawks) to sign with the 49ers' 53-man roster.

Three picks from the St. Louis Rams and one from the 49ers are scheduled to start in Week 1. Cooper would have started for the Cardinals if healthy.

Harper wasn't the only NFC West draft choice to land on another team. The 49ers' Marcus Cooper, a seventh-round choice, wound up with Kansas City after the Chiefs claimed him off waivers.
The Arizona Cardinals hope rookie first-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper can recover from a broken leg in time to play the final six or so games in 2013.

The injury was a tough one for the Cardinals. They are rebuilding their long-neglected offensive line around Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the draft. Injuries sidelined multiple starters on the line last season, including left tackle Levi Brown and center Lyle Sendlein. Losing Cooper before he plays a regular-season game reduces the margin for error even though overall line depth is improved.

There is hope for Cooper. Other highly drafted offensive linemen have bounced back from injury-shortened rookie seasons in recent years. Russell Okung, taken sixth overall by the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, rebounded to earn Pro Bowl honors in his third season. Cincinnati's Andre Smith and Atlanta's Sam Baker have been more durable lately after rough early stretches.

The chart below ranks first-round offensive linemen from 2008 through 2012 by most games missed as rookies.

Chris McIntosh, Steve Hutchinson, James Carpenter, Okung and Jason Smith are five first-round offensive linemen from NFC West teams to miss time early in their careers since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions for the 2002 season. All but Hutchinson suffered significant injuries as a rookie. Hutchinson suffered a broken leg four games into his second season.
A quick look at the San Francisco 49ers' 2013 draft class following the team's exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park:

FS Eric Reid, first round, No. 18 overall. Reid served as the No. 2 free safety behind starter Craig Dahl. He played 44 snaps on defense, the fourth-highest total on the team behind Michael Wilhoite (53), Perrish Cox (47), Nathan Stupar (45). Reid stood out for two solid hits. He had six tackles and handled his assignments well, according to coach Jim Harbaugh. This looked like a good first step toward the starting lineup. Reid added four snaps on special teams.

DE Tank Carradine, second round, No. 40 overall. Carradine remains sidelined while recovering from a knee injury. That was the plan for Carradine when the 49ers drafted him.

TE Vance McDonald, second round, No. 55 overall. McDonald had four receptions for 66 yards while playing 49 offensive snaps, the third-highest total on the team behind Joe Looney (51) and Patrick Omameh (51). McDonald dropped a short pass, but I thought this was a solid debut for him. The pass he caught in stride from Colt McCoy produced a 19-yard gain. McDonald also played five snaps on special teams. His 54 total snaps ranked second on the team behind Wilhoite (59).

OLB Corey Lemonier, third round, No. 88 overall. Lemonier was able to pressure the quarterback while playing 28 snaps on defense, the 13th-highest total for the 24 players to get playing time on that side of the ball. Lemonier played 11 snaps on special teams, tied for the second-highest total on the team behind Cam Johnson (12). Lemonier was not credited with a tackle.

WR Quinton Patton, fourth round, No. 128 overall. A finger injury kept Patton from playing. He's been practicing under orders to not let passes sail past him. The idea is for Patton to get reps without risking additional injury to his finger. His preseason debut will have to wait. But with 2012 second-round pick A.J. Jenkins losing a fumble following his lone reception, there could be opportunities for Patton and other young wideouts.

RB Marcus Lattimore, fourth round, No. 131 overall. Lattimore continues to rehab from a knee injury suffered in college. That was the plan for Lattimore when the 49ers drafted him. He probably will not play this season.

DE Quinton Dial, fifth round, No. 157 overall. Dial has an injured toe and did not play against the Broncos.

LB Nick Moody, sixth round, No. 180 overall. Moody played 29 snaps on defense (43 percent) before leaving the game with an apparent knee injury. Moody indicated after the game that his knee was OK. The team isn't counting on Moody this season, but the rookie has enjoyed a strong initial camp relative to expectations for a sixth-round choice. Moody had four tackles on defense and one on special teams.

QB B.J. Daniels, seventh round, No. 237 overall. Daniels played one snap on offense and three on special teams. The utility player did not play quarterback.

OT Carter Bykowski, seventh round, No. 246 overall. Bykowski played 27 snaps on offense. Officials called him for holding on a second-and-2 play. I did not watch him closely enough to pick up much else. Such is the way it goes for offensive linemen. The mistakes tend to stand out.

CB Marcus Cooper, seventh round, No. 252 overall. Cooper played 24 snaps on defense and eight more on special teams. He made one tackle (on defense).
The New England Patriots signed rookie receiver Josh Boyce to a four-year contract, the Boston Herald reports.

The total value of the contract reportedly is worth $2.637 million. Boyce was New England’s fourth-round pick and will compete with several receivers for the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver roles with the Patriots.

New England now has five of its seven draft picks under contract. Second-round pick Aaron Dobson and seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan are the two unsigned picks remaining for the Patriots.
The Buffalo Bills nearly have their entire 2013 rookie NFL draft class under contract.

Buffalo reached a four-year agreement with second-round pick and rookie receiver Robert Woods, a source tells ESPN.com's AFC East blog. Woods was in Los Angeles for the NFLPA's Rookie Premiere this weekend, and is expected to sign the contract with Buffalo in the next few days.

Woods, a USC product, is considered one of the most NFL-ready receivers in this year's draft. He is the favorite to win the No. 2 receiver job in Buffalo opposite veteran Steve Johnson.

The Bills now have contract agreements with seven of their eight draft picks. First-round pick EJ Manuel, who was taken No. 16 overall, remains the only unsigned player from the 2013 class.
Robert Woods, EJ Manuel, Marquise GoodwinGetty ImagesThe Bills are hoping the future is bright for rookies Robert Woods, EJ Manuel and Marquise Goodwin.
Longtime readers of the AFC East blog know I detest grading drafts before rookies play their first NFL game. But there is nothing wrong with examining potential.

The “P” word is exactly what I see when I look at the Buffalo Bills‘ 2013 draft. I see a potential franchise quarterback in first-round pick EJ Manuel. I see potentially two or three good NFL receivers in second-round pick Robert Woods, third-round pick Marquise Goodwin and talented rookie free agent Da’Rick Rogers. I also see an aggressive, potential starting linebacker in Kiko Alonso.

The Bills haven’t tasted the playoffs since the Music City Miracle in the 1999 season. For the past 13 years, the Bills and their fans have been sent home packing after Week 17. They’ve had just one winning season since 2000.

Potentially, Buffalo’s rookie class could lay the foundation for ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought.

“Down the road I think the strength of this draft is going to be in the second round,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl said. “I really like the Woods pick. I liked him on tape a lot. I think Robert Woods is really one of the more underrated players in this draft. ... Alonso is a guy who is an intense football player and a guy who makes a lot of plays. He flies around the field with sideline-to-sideline range, I thought.”

However, Manuel is the centerpiece of this group. The Bills shocked a lot of people by making him the first quarterback off the board with the No. 16 overall pick. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay was among the biggest critics, calling it a mistake and a wasted pick. Most agreed Buffalo took Manuel earlier than it needed to.

However, the Bills fell in love with Manuel’s size, accuracy and athleticism. The rookie has a lot of tools to work with and will compete with veterans Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job in training camp. Manuel can silence his critics by winning the job this year and playing well.

I caught up with Manuel and Goodwin at this week's NFLPA Rookie Premiere event in Los Angeles, which taught first-year players on the business of football and promoted giving back to the community. Count Goodwin among those who believe Manuel will develop into a franchise quarterback with the Bills.

“If I can describe him in one word, he’s A1,” Goodwin said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve been surrounded by, and he’s an even better person. He’s my roommate right now, and I’ve definitely got to know him on a personal level. It’s been great. I text him every day. I talk to him every day. So it’s been great.”

Weidl says Manuel has a lot of physical tools to succeed but still plenty to learn.

“The wild card in this mix is EJ Manuel, and the focus of this draft class will always be EJ Manuel,” Weidl said. “Manuel, when you look at him, he’s everything you want in a quarterback in terms of physically. He’s got size, above average arm strength, he’s got mobility, and when you see how he carries himself, he’s a true professional.

“But the questions I had is on the field off his tape. He wasn’t always naturally accurate and he forces his receivers to adjust at times. And when the bullets are flying, especially under pressure, he didn’t always show the poise I’d like to see at quarterback. He didn’t always get deep in his progressions.”

The Bills have struggled in recent years making big plays in the passing game. Former starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did not have the arm strength to successfully throw deep, and Buffalo lacked big-play receivers.

Enter rookies Woods, Goodwin and Rogers, who all have big-play capability to go with Manuel’s size and arm strength. If Manuel can grow over the next couple of years with his athletic and talented rookie receivers, the Bills could have a dangerous passing offense to go with dynamic running back C.J. Spiller.

“They are great receivers who run great routes,” Manuel said. “The best thing about Robert is he always wins [one-on-one battles]. Marquise, a lot of people talk about his speed, but he runs good routes too.”

New Bills general manager Doug Whaley told the AFC East blog this week that he’s excited about his rookie class — and for good reason. But the team also took on some character risks.

Alonso, Rogers and safety Duke Williams, who will compete for a starting role, all had off-field issues in college. Alonso had multiple alcohol-related incidents while at Oregon and also was arrested for burglary and criminal mischief in 2011. Rogers’ long list of issues include an arrest, a suspension and a failed drug test that resulted in him being kicked out of the University of Tennessee. Williams was suspended three times at the University of Nevada for various incidents. He reportedly got into a fight with a teammate in 2010, which led to one suspension. He also was arrested for theft in 2009.

The Bills said they examined those players’ backgrounds and believe their issues are behind them. That remains to be seen. Buffalo was willing to add good talent in exchange for character concerns.

The Bills also could have their kicker of the future in sixth-round pick Dustin Hopkins, who was a teammate of Manuel at Florida State and set the NCAA record for points scored. Hopkins will compete with longtime kicker Rian Lindell, who is 36 and entering his 15th season. According to Weidl, Hopkins is a good kicking prospect who has a chance to unseat the veteran.

If everything falls into place, the Bills could have a franchise quarterback, a starting linebacker, at least two contributing receivers and a kicker from one draft class. Rarely does everything go according to plan in the NFL, but the Bills appear to have more hits than misses in this draft, which was not always the case for this struggling franchise.

The Bills will not erase 13 years of losing overnight. But in the near future, we may look back at this 2013 draft class as the tipping point for when Buffalo finally started changing its losing ways.
New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith has been a lightning rod before, during and after the NFL draft. The media is following Smith’s every move and analyzing.

The latest will be Smith’s decision to hire a new agent. I was among several reporters who caught up with Smith this week in Los Angeles during the NFLPA's Rookie Premiere event, which has seminars on the business of football and promotes community service for first-year players. At the event, Smith said he’s taking his time on selecting his next representation.

“I interviewed some guys, but there is no rush to make a decision,” Smith said. “I got a lot of time. Right now, my main focus is everything I do inside that [Jets] facility.”

There has been some speculation that Smith will pick hip-hop mogul Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports to represent him. Smith would only say his meeting with the new agency "was good."

Smith also commented on this week’s retirement of quarterback David Garrard, who told the Jets his knee wasn’t getting any better and he had to step away.

“I texted David and I just wished him well. I know how these things are,” Smith said. “I understand he wanted to be part of the team. But his body was breaking down and he made the decision that was best for himself.”

New York’s quarterback race is now down to four: Smith, Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy and Matt Simms. The Jets are implementing a new West Coast scheme under new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. The quarterback who adjusts to the new offense the fastest will have the inside track.

“Mornhinweg is a guy who is going to press the issue. He wants to score points and we all want to score points,” Smith said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, and we have to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
You might recall our March discussion from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference regarding NFC West team-building strategies.

St. Louis Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, addressing conference attendees, noted that his team expected to stock its roster with young, affordable talent.



"When we did the RG III trade a year ago, we looked out and said, 'In 2014, we will have 12 players who were first- or second-round picks under the new rookie wage scale,' " Demoff said at the conference. "Twelve of our best players will make less than $25 million combined in 2014, which meant on the remainder of our team, we could overpay a few guys in free agency, we could make a few mistakes here or there and we would have a pretty good nucleus."

The thinking is sound. And as the chart shows, the Rams have selected eight players in the first two rounds since the wage scale went into effect for 2011. That figure ranks tied for the NFL lead with the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots.

The Rams' plan to have 12 such players on their roster in 2014 requires a slight revision. The team is scheduled to have 11 such players on its roster after trading its 2013 second-round choice to the Buffalo Bills in the move to acquire Tavon Austin with the eighth overall choice.

I find it interesting to see the Seattle Seahawks listed so low in the chart, with only four players selected in the first two rounds since 2011. They're known for building effectively through the draft, but they have selected players with only two first-round picks and two second-rounders under the new labor agreement.

Seattle has used a league-high 26 picks in the final five rounds during the period in question. Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright and Russell Wilson were among the players they selected with those choices.

Can a team beat the system by stockpiling later-round picks? I don't know if that's a sustainable strategy. It might not even be a strategy in this case. The trades Seattle made could have appealed to the team for unrelated reasons. Either way, it's pretty tough to question the Seahawks' drafting results.

Whatever the case, the contrast between Seattle and two of its division rivals, St. Louis and San Francisco, has been pronounced.

The 49ers have still managed to use 21 picks in the final five rounds over this span, allowing them to have it both ways, in some aspects. The Rams have used 17 picks and the Arizona Cardinals 19 of them over the final five rounds since 2011.

Seattle traded its 2013 first-rounder to the Minnesota Vikings in the Percy Harvin deal. The Seahawks traded their 2011 second-rounder to Detroit with the 157th and 209th picks for the 75th, 107th, 154th and 205th choices. They took John Moffitt, Kris Durham, Sherman and Pep Levingston with those selections.

We'll think through this one a little more. First, though, a diversion courtesy of Sherman, who has outlived his fifth-round status on the field and on Facebook.
NFC West teams naturally expect more from earlier draft choices such as 2013 first-rounders Jonathan Cooper, Tavon Austin, Eric Reid and Alec Ogletree.

All four of those early choices could wind up starting in 2013. It's an upset if they do not.

Last year, 92 of the 135 players (68.1 percent) drafted in the first four rounds started at least one regular season. Twenty-five of the 118 players (21.2 percent) drafted in the final three rounds found their way into the starting lineup.

With that disparity in mind and with rookie camps having concluded Sunday, I've singled out five late-round picks from 2013 with a shot at making at least one start as a rookie, in my view. Who else comes to mind from your vantage point?
  • Jesse Williams, DT, Seattle Seahawks. Williams, taken with the fourth pick of the fifth round (137th overall), was the first player any NFC West team selected over the final three rounds. He has a relatively clear path to the starting lineup after the Seahawks decided against re-signing veteran Alan Branch. Seattle did select another defensive tackle, Jordan Hill, in the third round. However, Hill projects more as a pass-rusher at this point. Williams projects more as a run defender on early downs. Free-agent addition Tony McDaniel could be the player standing between Williams and the starting lineup. McDaniel has five starts in seven NFL seasons.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams. The Rams plan to use a committee of running backs. They traded two sixth-round picks to Houston for the fifth-round choice (160th overall) they used for Stacy. The team lacks an established starter after parting with Steven Jackson. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects more as a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, will also compete for playing time. There's a chance Stacy will emerge as a primary back on early downs. Terrance Ganaway would be the other power runner on the roster.
  • Luke Willson, TE, Seahawks. Wilson was the third of three fifth-round picks for Seattle and the 158th player taken overall. He is not going to beat out starter Zach Miller. However, Willson has a shot at emerging as the No. 2 tight end. And if that happens, he could find his way into the lineup for games when Seattle opens with two tight ends. Coach Pete Carroll singled out Willson as one of the more impressive players at the rookie camp.
  • Stepfan Taylor, RB, Cardinals. Arizona has Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams at running back. Both would presumably start ahead of Taylor if healthy. However, Mendenhall missed 10 games with Pittsburgh last season. Williams missed 11 games. So, at least on the surface, Taylor could have a shot at starting through injuries. He's the first running back the Cardinals have selected under coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
  • Spencer Ware, FB, Seahawks. Ware still has to earn a roster spot. There are no guarantees that will happen. If he does, however, Ware might be the only fullback on the roster, which would give him a clear path to the starting lineup whenver Seattle opened in a two-back personnel grouping. I wouldn't rule out Seattle finding a way to keep incumbent fullback Michael Robinson as well as Ware if the decision made sense from a special-teams standpoint and if the team felt it could go lighter at another position, such as linebacker. Carroll sounds high on Ware, but the team also values Robinson.

Video: Evaluating Manuel, Woods

May, 11, 2013
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New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith was not the only rookie quarterback in the AFC East to have his first NFL practice Friday. The Buffalo Bills also hosted their rookie minicamp, which saw the debut of touted rookies EJ Manuel of Florida State and Robert Woods of USC.

ESPN's John Clayton discusses the performance of Buffalo's first- and -second-round picks.

The Geno Smith era with the New York Jets began Friday with a lot of fanfare and media attention. Smith has been a lightning rod for criticism over the past few weeks for various reasons before and after the draft. New York selected Smith in the second round, which only ramped up the attention.

But Smith completed his first practice with the Jets during rookie minicamp and put up solid numbers. According to ESPNNewYork’s Rich Cimini, Smith was 17-for-25 passing combined in team drills and seven-on-seven drills Friday. A 68-percent completion rate would be measured a success by any NFL team, despite the fact these were non-contact drills.

As we wrote earlier in the week, Smith’s best chance to silence critics is to prove people wrong on the football field. Smith spent too much time answering critics with responses in the media. Touchdowns and victories are the easiest way for Smith to prove he can handle the rigors of being an NFL quarterback.

Smith will compete with four other Jet quarterbacks this summer, which includes Mark Sanchez, David Garrard, Matt Simms and Greg McElroy.
BradyElsa/Getty ImagesThe path to a fourth title for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, left, will be considerably tougher in 2013.

The championship window for the New England Patriots will not be open forever. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are entering the tail ends of their respective careers -- meaning that the time for this Hall of Fame pair to win a fourth championship together is now.

New England was one game away from reaching the Super Bowl last season, suffering an upset at Gillette Stadium at the hands of the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens.

Can the 2013 Patriots win it all? Here are five reasons why this season's Patriots are neither better than nor as dangerous as last season's:

Reason No. 1: Too many changes at receiver

Analysis: New England had the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 4 passing game in 2012. If it's not broken, why did the Patriots make so many changes? New England opted to let go of starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for an astounding 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Rest assured, the Patriots will not get that kind of production from their 2013 replacements. Danny Amendola will start in place of Welker. Amendola doesn’t have anywhere near the same production and durability as Welker -- he missed more games (20) the past two seasons with the St. Louis Rams than he played (12). The Patriots desperately need their new No. 1 receiver to play 16 games, which is a risky proposition. After Amendola, who will be New England's No. 2 and No. 3 receivers is unknown. There will be competition among Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins and rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson to fill those roles. New England's receivers won't strike fear into opposing defenses this year. Look for the Patriots' passing game to take a step back in 2013, particularly on the outside at wide receiver.

Reason No. 2: Too many injury concerns

Analysis: The Patriots are entering the 2013 season with major injury questions. With so many changes at wide receiver, they expect to lean heavily on their two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But should they? Gronkowski is headed for his fourth surgery on his previously broken right arm, and it’s questionable if he’s going to be ready for the start of the regular season. It's also uncertain if Gronkowski's arm will ever be the same and whether this will be a recurring issue. Hernandez also has been out after major shoulder surgery this offseason and aims to return for August training camp. Backup receiver Julian Edelman, meanwhile, just had another procedure on the same foot to which he suffered a season-ending injury in 2012. Edelman hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsTight end Rob Gronkowski might not be ready for the regular season -- and his durability is a major concern for New England whenever he returns.
Reason No. 3: Tom Brady is a year older

Analysis: Patriots fans have become spoiled by the consistent greatness of Brady. He is expected to put up Hall of Fame numbers every year for New England to be successful. But I’ve seen a major problem with New England for the past few seasons. The Patriots rely on Brady too much and too often, and eventually that will start catching up with the team. Brady, who will be 36 in August, is a year older with a year of more wear and tear. Can he match his 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns of 2012? He’s playing with all new receivers and his two tight ends are recovering from injuries. If Brady cannot match his 2012 numbers, that will be another step back for New England. There is also already talk of Brady “seeing ghosts” in the pocket as he reaches the tail end of his career. The older he gets, the less Brady wants to get hit. Brady was sacked 59 times the past two seasons, which is the highest two-year total since 2002-03.

Reason No. 4: Tougher schedule

Analysis: For the past several years, New England has taken advantage of one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. It won't get that chance this season. The Patriots are going from the 32nd-ranked strength of schedule in 2012 to the 14th-ranked strength of schedule in 2013. The Denver Broncos, Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers are on New England’s 2013 slate. It will be harder for the Patriots to surpass last year’s 12-4 record.

Reason No. 5: The AFC East is stronger

Analysis: New England hasn't had much in the way of solid competition in the AFC East lately. No division team beside the Patriots finished with a winning record in 2011 or 2012. That should change this season. Both the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are improved and will push the Patriots harder than they have in the past. Miami, in particular, has made closing the gap with New England its primary offseason objective. The Dolphins added dynamic receiver Mike Wallace, receiving tight end Dustin Keller, former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and starting linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Miami added plenty of talent in the draft, led by No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill also is expected to make the jump in his sophomore season to compete with Brady. The Bills could make waves, too, if they get solid quarterback play from Kevin Kolb or rookie EJ Manuel this year. Overall, the AFC East won’t be the same cupcake division for the Patriots it has been in recent seasons. The Patriots remain the favorites in the AFC East. But one or two additional division losses could make a difference for New England when it comes to trying to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Final prediction: Health permitting, this year’s Patriots will still make the postseason. But they will not be a favorite to win a Super Bowl like last season. Denver, Houston, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are stronger, while the Patriots have taken a step or two backward. New England’s defense is improved, but it’s still not good enough to dominate games alone. The Patriots’ success, as usual, will depend on the offense’s ability to match or surpass last year’s production, when New England led the NFL in total offense -- and that won’t happen in 2013. Last year’s Patriots missed a golden opportunity -- playing at home in the AFC title game -- to win another Super Bowl, and the 2013 season will end without New England taking home the Lombardi Trophy.
Football Outsiders continues their red flags series Wednesday, hitting on the AFC South.

Tom Gower takes on the biggest remaining issue for each team.

Houston Texans

Gower says wide receiver: “Considered about the most pro-ready receiver in this year's draft, the Texans are counting on (DeAndre Hopkins') relatively polished route-running skills and natural hands to let him step in as a starter immediately. Most late first-round receivers of late have been eased into the lineup, but the Texans need Hopkins to be a high-impact player immediately.

Kuharsky counters: Sure, Hopkins’ development is a big storyline going forward. But the right side of the offensive line is more of a lingering issue and didn't add a first-round pick. Right tackle Derek Newton is recovering from major knee surgery, and could lose out to third-rounder Brennan Williams. Veteran Ryan Harris could be in the mix as well. Second-year right guards Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks are promising, but also need to prove they are going to be better and solidify a line that needs more consistency on the right side.

Indianapolis Colts

Gower says cornerback: “(Greg Toler) ranked in the top 10 in success rate and yards per pass. However, those stats are heavily dependent on Toler's role. His career history suggests that Toler can be a good nickel or dime corner, as he was in Arizona last year, but that he struggles when asked to play a full-time role.”

Kuharsky concurs: A cornerback pool of Vontae Davis, Toler, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy really could have used one more solid entry, perhaps between Davis and Toler, but certainly between Butler and Vaughn. Cornerback depth is an issue for most teams, and it was more than a bit surprising that the Colts didn’t add one in the draft. It’s good they didn’t reach, but they might still be on the lookout for some additional help.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Gower says quarterback: ”It is very hard to win games with quarterback play as bad as the Jaguars have had recently, and generally requires a strong defense (the Jaguars ranked 28th by Football Outsiders in defensive DVOA in 2012) and a strong running game (the Jaguars ranked 27th by DVOA there). The addition of (Luke) Joeckel and the return to health by Maurice Jones-Drew should mean an improved running game in 2013, but another season of (Blaine) Gabbert and/or (Chad) Henne behind center likely means another high draft pick for Jacksonville in April 2014.”

Kuharsky counters: Gower, pretty much agrees with my thinking here. Sure they need a quarterback. But I don’t see a move they should have made that they didn’t make, and neither does he. Wait a year, build elsewhere, make things better for the next quarterback in a year. So setting quarterback aside, my concern is the pass rush, where they really haven’t added anything on the edge and don’t have sufficient depth.

Tennessee Titans

Gower says defense: “The Titans seem to be counting on a lot of internal improvement, better coaching with the addition of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams (though Jerry Gray returns as defensive coordinator) and an offense that can do a better job of sustaining drives. While Tennessee fielded a particularly young defense in 2012 and some internal improvement is likely, most defenses that improve quickly devote more resources to adding better players.”

Kuharsky specifies: You can’t have too many pass-rushers, and counting on dramatic improvement from multiple holdovers seems shaky. So I’d narrow Gower’s category to defensive end. The team could sign John Abraham or Israel Idonije, two veteran ends who have visited recently. Adding one would make me feel a lot better about the team at end beyond Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley and fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards.
Many fans were surprised when the Denver Broncos took Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball over Alabama running back Eddie Lacy in the second round of the NFL draft.

So, it was no shock that the question was broached when Denver decision-makers John Elway and Matt Russell held a conference call with some fans Tuesday.

“We liked both these backs, we had them very similar on the board," the Denver Post reported that Russell said during the call. "The issue with Eddie Lacy was we were worried about a toe injury that he had, which is probably what caused him to slip. And we really felt great about Montee Ball. We feel we have a career back in Montee Ball."

Elway told fans that Ball reminded him of the running back Elway won two Super Bowls with as a player -- Terrell Davis. Interestingly, Ball said at the NFL combine that the player he modeled his game after was, indeed, Davis.

In other AFC West notes:

The Chargers have “parted ways’ with one of the undrafted free agents they had agreed upon a deal with.

NFL.com took a look at Oakland’s draft.

Here is a look at the mandatory minicamp schedule for all NFL teams. All four AFC West teams will hold the camps in June.

 
On the topic of super-early roster projections, we take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles and the cornerback position, with the help of our friend Sheil Kapadia. He's got newcomers Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and holdover Brandon Boykin as sure things to make the roster, with two spots left for a group that includes Curtis Marsh, Brandon Hughes, Trevard Lindley, Eddie Whitley and 2013 seventh-round pick Jordan Poyer, who's an interesting wild card who could threaten Boykin's nickel corner spot if he comes quickly:
Poyer has a really good shot of sticking because of his wide array of skills. Poyer has experience playing inside, outside, safety and special teams (returner and coverage). Of course, if Chip Kelly and the coaches determine that Poyer is not particularly good at any of those skills, he could be let go. But at this point, he’s got a good chance of making the team.

Also working in Poyer's favor is that the current staff is the one that drafted him, where a few of these other guys are holdovers who might not impress Kelly's staff the way they impressed Andy Reid's once upon a time. You have to figure free-agent signings Williams and Fletcher are the projected starters right now, with Boykin penciled in for the nickel role. But minicamps and the summer program will help sort out Boykin's chances of a larger role, and the chances of someone like Poyer -- who in the end is a seventh-round flyer for a reason -- to make an impact on this year's team.

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