Ultimately, winning in the NFL requires taking risks. Be it through the draft, trades, or being smart about letting your free agents signs elsewhere, NFL teams must take calculated risks if they want to be successful.
Training camp is where coaches begin to find out of those risks are going to pay off, or back fire. In New York, Houston, Minnesota, and Carolina, each team took some risks this offseason. Some were more high profile than others, but each will be crucial in 2012 and beyond.
Will those risks pay off, or will they eventually cost someone their job at the end of the year?
In a draft that could very well decide if both Mike Tennebaum and Rex Ryan have a job in 2013, the Jets could have decided to play it safe and select players with high floors but low ceilings. But New York decided instead to swing for the fences, leaving them with a class that possesses both massive boom and bust potential.
When Quinton Coples was at his best, he looked like one of the best pass rushers in the draft – but he took far too many plays off and questions about his attitude and work ethic followed him throughout the pre draft process. As the Jets look for him to be a player making an impact early, he won’t have the luxury of taking reps off during training camp.
Wide receiver Stephen Hill and linebacker Demario Davis both have tremendous measurables, but also have some legitimate question marks. Davis didn’t play against a particularly high level of competition, and coming out of a spread offense Hill is still quite raw.
Intriguingly, the player with the highest floor wasn’t selected until the 6th round. Terrance Ganaway is a powerful running back, and if Shonn Greene continues to disappoint, Ganaway could start taking short yardage carries away from him this season.
One of Houston’s top priorities during the draft was to address the departure of Mario Williams. Their hope is that first round selection Whitney Mercilus can do just that. He doesn’t bring much as a run defender, but the abilities he showed in 2011 as a pass rusher were great. However, it is concerning that he was only a starter for one year, and he’ll need to display that he isn’t just a one year wonder.
Devier Posey was drafted in the third round to give Matt Schaub an option other than Andre Johnson, however he’s struggled to be consistent in minicamps and the Texans’ flirtations with free agent wide receivers isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in him.
Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks provide youth on the interior of the offensive line. The gem of this class may be defensive end Jared Crick, who was a great value in the fourth round and should be impressive during camp.
With the third overall pick in the draft, the Vikings feel they’ve found their left tackle of the future in Matt Kalil. Barring any unexpected surprises during training camp, he’ll be the starter week one. They added a second first round selection when they traded up to get Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, who will be favored to win the starting job in camp as well.
Josh Robinson isn’t likely to be starting early, but he is likely to contribute on special teams and the nickel defense while he improves his man coverage skills.
Minnesota added two wide receivers to push Percy Harvin and the rest of the Vikes receiving corps. Jarius Wright has the same return skills that Harvin does, and Greg Childs has the size you like to see in an NFL receiver. He’ll have to show he’s on the way back to being 100% after a torn patella tendon in 2010 still hampered him in 2011.
Carolina hit a home run last year when they drafted Cam Newton last year, and although this years top pick may not have the same impact, he was still a solid selection. Barring any sort of major injury, Luke Kuechly should be a key player in the Panthers’ defense for a decade or more.
Offensive guard Amini Silatolu will be making a huge jump from playing at D-II Midwestern State to playing in the NFL. He’s a big upside player, but he’ll have to make a lot of progress during training camp if he’s looking to make an early impact.
Corner Josh Norman will be making a similar jump, as his path to the NFL took him through Costal Carolina. He’ll be looking to show he’s more than just solid depth during the summer.
Top Position Battles
Jets – Wayne Hunter vs. Vladimir Ducasse vs. Robert T. Griffin (Right Tackle)
There’s no question that the weakest position on the Jets’ roster is at right tackle. Wayne Hunter struggled in both the running and passing games throughout 2011. Unfortunately, there’s not much behind him on the depth chart.
Vladimir Ducasse is a former second round pick, but he’s made a habit of having disappointing training camp performances. Robert T. Griffin is a long shot to win the battle, but with such lack luster competition he should have a decent chance.
Texans – Rashad Butler vs. Derek Newton (Right Tackle)
The Texans lost one of their top offensive lineman when right tackle Eric Winston and the team parted ways in free agency. Replacing him successfully will be key factor in determining whether or not 2012 is a success or failure.
The options will likely come down to Rashad Butler and Derek Newton. Butler is a six year veteran who has played primarily on the left side of the line to this point in his career. Newton was a rookie year but saw action in several games, and is going to get a fair chance to win the job.
Vikings – Mistral Raymond vs. Harrison Smith (Strong Safety)
Jamarca Sanford started most of the year at free safety in 2011 and will probably be there again in 2012. That will leave Mistral Raymond and rookie Harrison Smith to compete for the strong safety position.
Injuries forced Raymond onto the field as a rookie, and while he showed some flashes of talent he needs to be a much better tackle. Smith is the more talented of the two players, but will Raymond’s experience give him an edge?
Panthers – Captain Munnerlyn vs. Brandon Hogan vs. Josh Norman (2nd Cornerback)
Captain Munnerlyn was a pretty good nickleback early in his career, but the promotion to the 2nd cornerback spot last year did not go well. Maybe he’s used 2011 as a learning experience, but he’s going to have to fight for his job in 2012 regardless.
Brandon Hogan and Josh Norman are both unknowns. Hogan was drafted in 2011 but spent the year recovering from college injuries. Norman is trying to make the leap from Costal Carolina to the NFL.
2011: A Fluke or a Preview for Cam Newton?
Cam Newton took the NFL by storm last year, proving his pre-draft critics wrong as a threw for over 4,000 yards and scored 14 rushing touchdowns. Even his debut performance (422 passing yards and 3 total touchdowns) showed that although he’d only spent one year at Auburn he was more than ready to play in the NFL.
Even though Newton’s rookie showing was record setting, the Panthers still only managed to go 6-10. Now Ryan Kalil is taking out ads promising Carolina fans that they’ll win the Super Bowl this year. Are those expectations that Newton can live up to, or was his rookie year just a fluke?
It’d be pretty easy to look the early part of Sam Bradford’s career and come away feeling less than optimistic about Newton’s 2012 outlook. Like Newton, Bradford had a stellar rookie season, throwing for over 3,500 yards and nearly 20 touchdowns. Bradford’s sophomore season was a bitter disappointment however, as he only threw for six touchdowns and missed nearly half the season with injury.
Vince Young is also a cautionary tale. His unique skill set was tough for opposing defenses to adjust to during his rookie year, and it lead to some truly remarkable plays. It appeared that Young was going to be the next big thing. A year later defenses were prepared for Young’s scrambling ability, which exposed the flaws in his game.
Just because young quarterbacks have taken steps backwards in the past doesn’t mean Newton will, of course. He hasn’t shown the same injury problems that Bradford has dealt with, and by all accounts he is much stronger mentally than Young. Furthermore, Newton’s performance in 2011 far surpassed anything Young or Bradford did in their rookie years. Even if there is a regression in year two, he’ll still put up pretty good numbers.
There’s no reason to think Newton won’t have a solid season in 2012. It’ll be difficult to recreate the revelation that was his rookie year, however. The expectations should be tempered somewhat. Teams now have a year of tape on Newton, and his speed will no longer be a surprise.
The key will be the work Newton has put in during the offseason, and what he will continue to work on during camp. If he’s improved his passing as much as he’s claimed, another outstanding season could be around the corner. And if that’s the case, maybe Kalil’s promises aren’t so outlandish after all.
A Big QB Problem in the Big Apple?
They won’t start officially start training camp until today, but already the addition of Tim Tebow to the Jets’ roster has already stirred up several headline grabbing stories. Whether it was as minor as a reporter mistakenly referring to Mark Sanchez as “Tim”, or as serious as Santonio Holmes questioning the two QB system, it’s obvious that the Tebow-Sanchez saga is going to be a circus by the end of the year.
The problem is obvious: Sanchez is a QB who has yet to show the self confidence a NFL quarterback needs. Tebow’s personality and play style draw a dedicated and vocal fan base, as well as equally vocal critics. The New York media and fans are already relentless, and the Jets are under pressure to win big immediately. It’s a perfect storm, and it’s not likely to end well.
Publicly, the Jets insist there is no QB controversy. Sanchez is the starter and Tebow is the back up, without question. But if that were truly the case, why trade for Tebow in the first place? Take away all of the “Tebowmania” he’ll bring, it still doesn’t make sense. Tebow in no way fits the Jets base offense, and at best is just a gadget player for a couple snaps a game.
Putting Tebow in for certain situations will accomplish a couple of things. One, it will help take Sanchez out of any rhythm he’s gotten into during the game. Secondly, if Tebow does well in that limited action, it will only add to the cries for Tebow to get more playing time.
All it will take is one bad pass from Sanchez (and he’s human, so there will be one) and fans will begin clamoring for Tebow. Tebow’s jerseys are selling fast, and a quick glance at Jets message boards make it clear he already has a passionate group of supporters. A rocky start will likely send Sanchez’s confidence into a nose dive. Even if Sanchez plays well for the majority of the year, every loss will be placed on his shoulders.
Unless Sanchez has an All Pro type season, there’s no real way he can win in this scenario. And when the franchise begins to pick up the pieces after this circus of a season is over, trading for Tebow may be regarded as the decision that sealed the fate of Sanchez, Rex Ryan, and Mike Tannenbaum.