Takeaways from offseason workouts
Mailbag: OTAs, minicamps showed where rookie QBs stand, revealed trends
Inside The Huddle With John Clayton
The May draft and the quick pace of the OTAs and minicamps has created a hurry-up-and-wait attitude in the NFL.
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Officially, players are off until training camp. Coaches and general managers cross their fingers that their players don't get into trouble during the idle time. Coaches will tell you the new CBA has created an offseason in which they spend less time with their players than college coaches do. There are only 10 OTAs and one minicamp to prepare a team for camp, and contact is a no-no.
Plenty of unfinished business remains, but plenty has been accomplished. Let's review seven things we learned from the offseason programs.
1. Rookie quarterbacks aren't ready for prime time: Despite some good work from the quarterback class of 2014, coaches are planning to go with the veterans. Matt Schaub will start in Oakland but will be backed up by Derek Carr, who made excellent progress in the offseason program. Teddy Bridgewater might be the most ready of the rookie quarterbacks, but Matt Cassel has the edge in Minnesota. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start in Houston instead of Tom Savage. Johnny Manziel may be having fun away from the game, but Cleveland heads toward the season with Brian Hoyer in charge. Chad Henne is expected to get the whole season as Jacksonville's starter while Blake Bortles learns the offense.
2. Kenny Britt could be a factor in St. Louis: Jeff Fisher has been trying to surround quarterback Sam Bradford with talented young receivers, but the Rams' best move might be gambling on Britt. Britt was a handful for coaches in Tennessee, but he's been on his best behavior in St. Louis. He's a big, talented target. If he's turned his life around, he could provide a big boost to the Rams' offense.
3. Players may be training better when they are on their own: This offseason has seen some major injuries -- most notably to Sean Weatherspoon and Sean Lee -- but the amount appears to be down from last year. The new CBA keeps players away from coaches and trainers from the end of the season until late April. A year ago, players were going down with ACL and Achilles tears at an alarming rate. This year, the injuries haven't been as frequent.
4. Halfbacks could be the new slot receivers: Over the last couple of years, teams have turned tight ends into wide receivers by putting them in the slot or flexing them outside. This year, more teams are moving running backs into slot formations. In a game of matchups, offensive coaches are trying to be more versatile.
5. More offenses are picking up the pace: Philip Rivers had a great 2013 season while working the Chargers' offense at a quicker pace. More teams this year worked with a faster pace in OTAs and minicamps. The Philadelphia Eagles are still at the forefront when it comes to speed, but more offensive coaches are trying to find ways to run more plays and score more points.
Inside The Huddle with John Clayton
John Clayton is joined this week by Falcons HC Mike Smith. Plus the Seahawks Percy Harvin and the Rams Jared Cook
6. A different Joe Flacco is being created: New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has brought his rollout offense to Baltimore, and it makes Flacco a different quarterback. Flacco is getting rid of passes out of three-step drops and while on the move. Flacco has been a pocket passer, but Kubiak is making him do more on the run.
7. The league is thinking big at cornerback. Other coaches are copying what Pete Carroll has done in Seattle. Look at Kansas City, where defensive coordinator Bob Sutton wants his corners to be at least 6-foot. In a cap move, the Chiefs released Brandon Flowers (5-9) after he went to his first Pro Bowl. The Chiefs have plenty of pass-rushers, which they feel will allow a bigger set of corners to be better as a group.
From the inbox
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Chuck Noll was more than a football coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Hall of Famer relished his role as teacher, too, John Clayton writes. Story
Q: Why did Chuck Noll's drafts go south? Noll drafted all his great players from 1969-74. Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood came in '69. Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount in '70. Jack Ham, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White in '71. Franco Harris in '72. Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster in '74. From 1975 on, most of Noll's draft picks were mediocre, if not total busts (there'd be the occasional diamond like Mike Merriweather). The 1975 draft produced zero starters for the Steelers, and the only player of consequence was first-rounder Dave Brown, who went to Seattle in the expansion draft a year later.
Tom in San Francisco
A: What happened to the Steelers is what happens to every great, winning football franchise: They become victims of their own success. Instead of drafting in the top 10 and getting impact players, consistent winners draft toward the bottom of rounds. It's a tough cycle. Eventually, average players are asked to replace Hall of Famers. Naturally, there was a big drop off from Greene, Greenwood and White to the next group of defensive linemen. As needs are created, the teams drafting toward the bottom of rounds take gambles, and often they don't work out. Noll and the Steelers didn't lose their eye for talent. They were in the same position as they were when they started to build the Steelers dynasty. A great quarterback can carry a team through such a transition, but once Terry Bradshaw faded into the sunset, the Steelers were in a tougher position. Look at 1983, the kind of deep draft that gives these dynasties the chance to get top players. Noll went with defensive tackle Gabe Rivera, who had Greene-like ability, in the first round. The Steelers could have taken Dan Marino. Rivera's career ended early because of a car crash that left him paralyzed. Marino had a Hall of Fame career. Regardless, you can't take away the success of one of the greatest coaches in NFL history.
Tom asks which NFC West team will have the best offense this year. I think the 49ers have a chance to score more points than the Seahawks. I think the Rams, who were fourth in the division in scoring last year, will make the biggest jump. ... Mike C. in San Diego knows this is a quarterback-driven league in which passing is flourishing. He notes franchises are responding by placing a premium on cornerbacks and pass-rushers. He wonders when the pendulum will swing back to the running game. That will take time, and I can't forecast that happening in the next six years. Colleges are spreading the field with receivers at the expense of the run. Because college is the feeder system for NFL talent, the NFL has to work with what colleges provide. Hence, passing will only increase over the next few years until colleges make a change.
Q: I think the Bears set a bad precedent by signing Jay Cutler to a seven-year deal with $50 million in guaranteed money. He has won only one playoff game, and now B-rated quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Alex Smith are practically demanding they be paid like Cutler. I understand a franchise wanting stability at the QB position, but I don't feel Cutler's play was worthy of the deal he received. Do you see this becoming a trend in the NFL, and do you think it's a good thing or bad thing?
John in Naperville, Illinois
A: Paying a quarterback like Cutler $18 million a year is the price of trying to win in the NFL. Unless they had a cheaper alternative as talented as Cutler, the Bears had no choice but to pay him top quarterback money. You notice his salary is the same as that of Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo, who have similar playoff records. Quarterbacks who win in the playoffs received $19 million a year or more. Those who have talent and struggle in the playoffs get $18 million. That's the trend, and I don't see it as a bad thing. Cutler has shown he can get the Bears to 10 wins and maybe more. Most other quarterbacks would only get them to eight.
Q: As a Saints fan, I also hope the Colts don't lose draft picks because of their owner's transgressions. The Saints lost two second-rounders in Roger Goodell's folly bounty farce in addition to coaching suspensions. Envision the Saints with those two second-round picks starting in two of their weaker spots.
James in Biloxi, Mississippi
A: The transgressions are clearly different. The bounty scandal affected the safety of players. Jim Irsay endangered his life and the lives of others by allegedly driving under the influence, but it wasn't a football transgression. Once his case is resolved, Irsay will face fines and suspensions, but the team shouldn't lose any draft choices. You are right about the damage the draft penalties did to the Saints. Seattle and San Francisco are the most talented teams in the league at the moment, but the Saints aren't too far behind. Hitting on those two second-round choices might have put the Saints among the three or four most talented teams in football. For talent, I think they are in the top seven now. The season-long suspension of Sean Payton was probably too severe.
Q: I see this flap about New England potentially having obtained a copy of the Jets defensive playbook, possibly from Nick Saban. Even if it's true, what's the effect? New England coaches have undoubtedly broken down and analyzed every play the Jets have run for the entire Rex Ryan era. They've got years of accumulated data. Every play, every player, from every set. That's their job. Yeah, there might be wrinkles from week to week and season to season, but still, the Rex Ryan defense is a known quantity in Foxborough. Even if the Patriots have the Jets' book, what's really in there that's new or unknown to the Patriots?
Matt in Las Vegas
A: I agree with you. Any impact is probably overrated. Ryan won three of his first five games against the Patriots. The Jets have lost five of the last six. If the Patriots had a Jets playbook, it would give Bill Belichick an organized look at how Ryan puts his defense together, and that would be an advantage. But I don't think it would have changed the outcomes. The Jets had declining talent after going to the AFC title game for two consecutive years. The Patriots had Tom Brady and a better team.
Q: Too often in the NFL, an elite-level player signs a long-term deal after a good season or two and ends up on a team with four or five wins only a few years later. This leaves players such as Andre Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Calvin Johnson wasting their prime and finding themselves stuck rebuilding their teams (OK, maybe the Lions aren't rebuilding like the others, but it has to be frustrating). Could you see the elite players with leverage signing contracts with a clause built in that they could opt out if their team has, let's say, three or fewer wins in a season?
C.J. in Nashville, Tennessee
A: I couldn't see the competition committee or Roger Goodell going for such a contract because it would affect the competitive nature of the game. The NFL wants parity. If elite players were allowed to move to better teams by opting out, the losing franchises would lose forever.
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