Five players ready for bigger roles: Offense

Every organization still has holes to fill. And beyond this year’s crop of rookies and free-agent additions, teams are counting on their own homegrown talent to step it up come September.

Here’s a look at five in-house, supporting cast members ready for bigger roles in 2014:
Kenny Stills
1. Kenny Stills, WR New Orleans Saints: Lance Moore and Darren Sproles combined for 108 catches and more than 1,000 yards receiving last season. Neither will be back, leaving Stills as the stand-alone No. 2 wideout alongside Marques Colston. Stills played 708 snaps last season, but saw just 51 targets from Drew Brees. He made the most of his opportunities as a rookie, ranking second in the NFL with an average of 20 yards per catch. Stills can take the top off a defense, but he’s more than just a one-dimensional pass catcher. He’ll be given a chance to do it all for New Orleans.
Ladarius Green
2. Ladarius Green, TE San Diego Chargers: After playing just 450 snaps in 2013, Green is ready for a bigger piece of the pie. We got a taste of his speed and sticky hands during a two-week stretch in November that saw Green haul in seven balls for 161 yards and a touchdown. His 22.1 yards per reception topped all qualifying tight ends last season, while his 9.3 yards after the catch ranked third. His late-season production led coach Mike McCoy to acknowledge self-critically that he should have gotten the tight end involved “a little earlier” in the year.
Rueben Randle
3. Rueben Randle, WR New York Giants: With Hakeem Nicks out the door, Randle is the top option for No. 2 duties alongside Victor Cruz. Wideout looms as a draft need for New York, but Tom Coughlin in March expressed high expectations for Randle. “You’ve seen the plays the guy can make,” said the coach. “We have a lot of belief and stock in his development.” Giants skill players are starting fresh under new coordinator Ben McAdoo, and young receivers tend to emerge in Year 3. Randle’s under pressure to deliver.
Travaris Cadet
4. Travaris Cadet, RB New Orleans Saints: Sproles can’t be replaced by one guy, but coach Sean Payton singled out Cadet last month as a guy he’s counting on. I went back and watched all of the third-year back’s preseason snaps from last season. He needs to do a better job holding onto the ball, but Cadet made tough catches out of the backfield and showed some wiggle in open space. He’ll face competition in camp — and we like Khiry Robinson — but Cadet earned praise from Payton as “someone that is very comfortable in that (Sproles) role, and I think he can run.”
Adrien Robinson
5. Adrien Robinson, TE New York Giants: Big Blue is bound to target a tight end in the draft, but Robinson is worth watching. Giants coaches, per The Star-Ledger, see him “as the Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends due to his combination of raw size and speed.” Foot and knee injuries derailed Robinson’s 2013 campaign, but McAdoo’s presence is a plus after what we saw in Green Bay, where Packers tight ends combined for 133 catches over the past two seasons. Keep an eye on this one.

Barr to 49ers? Carr to Jags? Possible draft-day deals

Mock drafts dominate the NFL conversation in April. (We have an entire page and weekly show just for mocks.) Once the actual draft starts in New York, the most exciting moments are usually provided by trades.

The new rookie pay scale has only encouraged more deals. There were 26 trades during the NFL draft last year, with five in the first round alone.

NFL Media’s former scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks broke down the four trades they believe are most likely to happen on this week’s episode of NFL Network’s “Mock Draft Weekly.” Let’s break them down:

1. San Francisco 49ers trade up for Anthony Barr
Anthony Barr
This makes all the sense in the world, at least on paper. The 49ers need an edge rusher, especially with Aldon Smith’s future in question. They also have ammunition with six picks in the first three rounds. Barr looks like a prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, an increasingly difficult player to find.

2. St. Louis Rams trade down in the top 10
St. Louis Rams
The guys kept this prediction purposefully vague because they can imagine St. Louis still picking up tackle Jake Matthews, tackle Greg Robinson or wide receiver Mike Evans. The Rams are in an incredible position in this draft with the No. 2 and No. 13 overall picks. It’s the most talented first round we’ve seen in a while. Matthews and Robinson are both far more talented than the top two picks in last year’s draft, both tackles.

No matter whom Houston takes with the top pick, the No. 2 overall pick should be popular. If Houston takes Jadeveon Clowney, any team targeting a quarterback could want to hop above Jacksonville. If Houston takes a quarterback, everyone will go after Clowney.

There is also the ever-so-slight chance the Rams could shock the football world and deal quarterback Sam Bradford in a mega-move. There have been some whispers that the Rams have interest in Johnny Manziel. We’re rooting for this scenario if only to make draft week more fun.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars trade back into the first round for Derek Carr
Derek Carr
The distance between the “big three” quarterbacks (Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles) in this draft has been closing, at least if you listen to conventional wisdom. Carr, AJ McCarron, Tom Savage and Zach Mettenberger are among those who could sneak into the back of the first round or go somewhere in the second round.

Teams like the Jaguars, Vikings, Texans and Browns could look to move up from the second round if they pass on signal-callers at the top of Round 1. The Jaguars staff coached Carr at the Senior Bowl, so they know him well.

4. New England Patriots trade back into second round for Austin Seferian-Jenkins
ASeferianJenkins
A player who has been compared to Rob Gronkowski for years could potentially joink Gronk in New England. The Patriots want more flexibility in their offense, and nothing increases flexibility like a tight end who can block and catch passes.

Sidney Rice agrees to one-year deal with Seahawks

Sidney Rice is headed back to the Super Bowl champions.

NFL Media’s Albert Breer reported Wednesday that the veteran wide receiver has agreed to a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks, according to a source close to the deal. The move comes on the same day Rice visited with the New York Jets.

Rice confirmed the news of his deal via Instagram:
Sidney_Rice
Rice, 27, was released by the Seahawks on Feb. 28 in a salary-cap related move. The door was always open for a return, however. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has spoken positively about Rice’s recovery from ACL surgery and Seattle has a vacancy at outside receiver.

Health is the biggest question mark. Rice has battled knee issues for several years — he traveled to Switzerland to undergo platelet-rich plasma therapy in August before suffering a torn ACL in October. He’s missed large portions of two of the last three seasons after signing a five-year, $41 million contract with Seattle in 2011.

Rice, who was cleared for football activities this week, still presents a nice fit in Darrell Bevell’s offense. Now Rice just needs to stay on the field long enough to prove it.

The NFL’s Next Big Thing Isn’t Really Big at All

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But Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins has the strength to outmuscle linebackers and the speed to leave cornerbacks in his dust. Can this potential top five pick break the mold, or will he just end up breaking a general manager’s heart?

Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is either going to be a prospect who changes the game when it comes to evaluating receivers for the NFL draft, or he’s going to reinforce long-held beliefs about the position.

When you picture the most physically gifted and dominating receivers in today’s NFL, the list goes something like this: Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Andre Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas. They are the best of the best, true nightmare matchups, players for whom defensive coordinators must tailor their game plans.

What do they have in common? They are all extremely strong on the ball in contested scenarios, and each is a perfect blend of size, speed and overall athletic ability. And did I mention size? All of the aforementioned but Bryant and Andre Johnson measured 6-foot-3 or taller at their respective combines. And those two—who aren’t exactly smurfs at a combine-measured 6-foot-2—have vertical jumps of at least 38 inches (not to mention 34-inch arms) that allow them to play even bigger.

Watkins is being talked about as a sure-fire top-10 pick in next month’s draft, perhaps even a top-five pick, which means people are expecting him to have the same impact as today’s top receivers. Yet he stands a mere six-feet and three-quarters of an inch, with 32-inch arms, and has a pedestrian 34-inch vertical. Which means Watkins will have to break the mold in order to live up to the hype.

He may be just the player to do it, because he’s so different from any prospect I can remember seeing. Watkins’ closest NFL comparables are Donte’ Stallworth (the 13th overall pick in 2002) and Torrey Smith (the 58th pick in 2011). Neither of those two has ever earned a Pro Bowl nod, although Smith has developed into a very good player and would be a top 20 pick in a redo of his draft.

Like Watkins, Stallworth and Smith are just a shade over six feet. And all three can run—Watkins clocked a 4.43 in the 40, while Stallworth and Smith, respectively, posted a 4.22 and a 4.41. If there’s one big difference, however, it’s that Stallworth and Smith have much better vertical leaps (39 and 41 inches).

But it is Watkins’ build that could prove to be the next step in the evolution of wideouts. For a player of his height, we have yet to see his kind of physical package on an NFL field. While Smith and Stallworth were skinny coming out of college, about 200 pounds each, Watkins weighed in at 211 pounds—and he plays even stronger. He’s essentially a young Anquan Boldin, with speed to burn.

Watch Watkins bowl over an Ohio State defender after catching a short pass; watch him block for a teammate; and watch him catch a pass falling out of bounds with a defender all over his back. These are rare qualities to see in a prospect at the nascent stage of his pro career. Even better is Watkins’ ability to catch the ball with his hands—instead of trapping it against his chest—and make receptions outside the frame of his body. Again, these are elite-level qualities for any receiver, let alone one who turns 21 on June 14.

Then there’s Watkins’ ability to use his speed to take the top off a defense while making over-the-shoulder catches seem so natural. Here are but two examples of that speed: against Syracuse and against Georgia.

Last but not least, Watkins’s production was outstanding in college. He finished with 240 receptions, 3,391 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns against good competition—and with a quarterback throwing to him who won’t be playing on Sundays anytime soon. That Tajh Boyd is even being talked about as an NFL prospect is a testament to Watkins and the rest of Clemson’s impressive group of receivers.

Watkins is almost like a hybrid receiver/running back with the ball in his hands, given his strength, ability to break tackles, and field vision. He can do the same on kickoff returns as well.

So, yes, all that you’ve heard about Watkins is accurate. He’s largely a complete, polished and outstanding prospect worthy of high praise at such a young age. Watkins shows the potential to be a good route runner, and he appears to play with football intelligence, toughness, competitiveness and, at times, a bit of a nasty edge. There’s little doubt he’ll make his next team better.

But there are a few questions NFL teams should be asking: How high is his ceiling? How does that factor into our decision-making? Does that even matter anymore?

In watching eight of his games from last season, I counted 41 of 80 receptions by Watkins coming behind the line of scrimmage, meaning 51.3% of his catches weren’t contested by defenders and were schemed by the offense, with the blocking set up. That is definitely not going to happen in the NFL.

Being a dynamic playmaker in the NFL requires more than simply running past opponents. That will happen on occasion, likely due to a busted assignment, but that’s not how the elite receivers earn zeros-laden paychecks. The best show a consistent ability to beat man coverage. Watkins, thanks to his strength and some shiftiness, appears to have good potential, but he hasn’t come close to proving that just yet. Almost all collegiate pass coverage (save Alabama, which Clemson didn’t play) lines up anywhere from five to 10 yards off the receiver. Watkins has also flashed some ability to win 50-50 balls and make plays that seem virtually impossible, but he still has far to go in this regard, which really separates the very good from the dynamic playmakers.

Elite NFL receivers have height, length and/or jumping ability to help them make game-changing plays. Watkins lacks those qualities. But his vast strengths, which some of the league’s elite receivers don’t possess, may compensate for any perceived deficiencies.

So, too, might changes in NFL offenses.

While the big and fast receivers still dominate the NFL, the trend toward using more multiple receiver sets and spread offense tactics has raised the profile of the multidimensional receivers. The Rams took 5′ 8?” “receiver” Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick in ’13, a clear departure from traditional top-10 receivers. While Austin’s initial impact was minimal, the shift in NFL thinking at the position was real. Watkins represents a true tweener, between the Tavon Austins of the world and the position’s long-established prototype.

Sammy Watkins just might be the right guy, at the right time, to change the game at receiver.

Anonymous NFL exec calls Jadeveon Clowney ‘spoiled’ and ‘lazy’

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Ah, yes, proof that the NFL Draft is near: The anonymous bad-mouthing has begun. In the days and weeks leading up to biggest spectacle of the offseason, an event that by its very nature is unpredictable, the one certainty is that unnamed NFL front-office types will have less-than-laudatory things to say about those players destined to be early first-round picks.

This year, former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finds himself the unwitting target of some shadowy NFL executive, whose words almost certainly have less to do with the truth than impacting Clowney’s draft stock.

“He’s spoiled, and he’s lazy,” an NFC personnel man told NJ.com. “He’s never worked hard a day in his life, now all of a sudden you’re going to give him a bunch of money and expect him to work hard. I don’t see it.”

Uh-huh. And you, mysterious talent evaluator, have no ulterior motives. Like, say, hoping your very public observations play some role in Clowney’s draft-day slide in the hopes that the team you work for might be in position to take him. Or perhaps it’s just coincidental.

Wherever the truth lies, the personnel man has more.

“Oh, he’s going to be a high pick,” he continued. “Some team will fall in love with him. But wait and see, just wait and see. I just don’t think you can count on him. I’m betting the under on him.”

Duly noted … and promptly ignored.

Unlike Nolan Nawrocki’s sometimes harsh scouting reports, which sometimes rub folks the wrong way, the NFL executive hides behind anonymity. You may not agree with what Nawrocki writes but at least he’s willing to put his name on it and face the criticism.

(Incidentally, Nawrocki didn’t speak in glowing terms about Clowney, but he didn’t go so far as to call him spoiled or lazy, either.)

As PFT.com’s Mike Florio points out, “Lies get told all the time in the NFL, and the pre-draft process contains the highest concentration of them. The audience needs to understand that when trying to assess the value of such observations. Here’s the answer, in a nutshell: There is none.”

Just something to keep in mind as we make our way to Radio City Music Hall for the draft on May 8.

New York Jets pulled out of ‘Draft Day’

One of the least credible aspects of “Draft Day” is that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hold the No. 1 overall pick.

As it turns out, veteran director Ivan Reitman desperately enlisted the Seahawks as a fallback option when the New York Jets dropped out of the movie at the last minute.

To hear Reitman tell it, the Jets grew concerned about their own quarterback controversy with embattled incumbent Mark Sanchez — fresh off the “butt fumble” incident — in danger of being pushed out the door by freshly drafted rookie Geno Smith.

In the original script, the Jets trade the No. 1 overall pick to the Browns, passing up the opportunity to draft a can’t-miss field general.

“They were having something of a quarterback dispute,” Reitman said, per the Los Angeles Times, “and the team said that this is just going to incite our fans a little more to criticize us, even though it’s all fictional.”

As producer Ali Bell notes, the flick’s storyline about front-office politics “might have hit a little too close to home” for some NFL teams.

An alternate explanation is that the Jets’ priority was protecting their image as well as their fan base.

A source familiar with “Draft Day’s” team-selection process has told ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini that the Jets were hesitant to participate because the script portrayed their fans in a negative light.

These fans? Surely you jest.

What’s the NFL Draft without Jets diehards expressing their displeasure with the team’s high-profile blunders?

San Francisco 49ers, Brandon Lloyd talk deal

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After a season out of the NFL, Brandon Lloyd could be returning to the team where he started his NFL career back in 2003.

Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that Lloyd has been in talks with the San Francisco 49ers about restarting his career. The 49ers have sniffed around many names in the free-agent market at receiver, but haven’t made any moves other than bringing Anquan Boldin back. It’s been a quiet offseason overall in San Francisco.
Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v New England Patriots
Lloyd would represent a low-risk gambit to improve the group with a veteran. The Niners have made similar moves with Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards and Mario Manningham in recent years to minimal effect.

Lloyd sat out of the NFL in 2013, reportedly turning down a few chances to go to training camp. He gained 911 yards with New England in his last NFL season in 2012, but the Patriots didn’t want him back.

San Francisco needs a vertical threat at wide receiver, but Lloyd isn’t exactly the speedster the team is looking for. A top trio of Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Lloyd would be a slower-than-average group.

Ken Whisenhunt: Titans won’t draft RB in first round

Following the release of Chris Johnson, general manager Ruston Webster acknowledged the Tennessee Titans will “definitely” look to select a running back in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Titans fans shouldn’t expect that draft pick to come in the first round.

Although coach Ken Whisenhunt echoed Webster’s sentiment that the backfield is a need area, he told NFL Media’s Randy Moss on Wednesday that the Titans will not select a running back at No. 11 overall.

Given the diminishing importance of the position and the lack of an Adrian Peterson-level talent in this year’s draft class, a second- or third-day pick is more realistic.

Any rookie would be added to an underwhelming mix that includes Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster and Jackie Battle.

Build your own mock draft:
Make your best guesses here for all 32 picks of the first round of the NFL Draft and you could win a trip to attend the 2014 NFL Kickoff game. Play now …

Even with the loss of Alterraun Verner, Whisenhunt warned Moss not to expect a first-round cornerback, either. The Titans think highly of young corners Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh, Tommie Campbell and Khalid Wooten.

After picking up linebackers Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard, right tackle Michael Oher, nose tackle Al Woods and McCluster in free agency, the Titans feel comfortable with a “best player available” approach to the draft’s first round.

You can catch Moss’ interview with Whisenhunt on Wednesday’s edition of “NFL Total Access,” beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

In the latest edition of the “Around The League Podcast,” the guys begin the offseason Roster Reset series with the AFC West and dive into the ATL mailbag.

NFL players, coaches, executives meet about conduct standards

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Nearly two dozen players, coaches, owners and top league and NFL Players Association officials met at the league office in New York for about three hours Tuesday to discuss respect in the workplace — on and off the field.

According to people in the meeting, during the gathering, the coaches and other representatives of teams — which included Giants owner John Mara, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson — led a candid conversation with players that focused on the role of coaches in setting workplace conduct standards and helping everyone understand and be accountable for living up to those standards.

The meeting, also attended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, was the outgrowth of concern about workplace behavior that was cast into the public spotlight by the investigation into the dynamics of the Miami Dolphins. Ted Wells’ 144-page report on this misconduct saga revealed that players and coaches were involved in inappropriate actions and banter directed at other players and team employees.

The emphasis on creating a more professional work environment has become particularly urgent with the anticipation that former Missouri star Michael Sam will become the first openly gay player to be drafted in May, and the expectation that the handling of Sam’s arrival by his new team and the rest of the league will be watched closely by even those just casually interested in football.

Last season also saw a dramatic rise in taunting penalties. Last month, Mara said there was concern among team officials that on-field behavior had reached “almost unacceptable levels.” That is particularly worrisome to the NFL, because of the image that taunting projects and the trickle-down influence it has on younger players.

“It was a very productive discussion about how we can work together to ensure that the conduct of all NFL personnel, not just players, consistently meets the highest standards on and off the football field,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

More discussions are planned.

There was speculation that this meeting could touch on other topics, like potential playoff expansion, but the focus remained on workplace conduct. This was also a dominant theme at the NFL Annual Meeting last month, taking up a large chunk of space in the Competition Committee’s report to owners and consuming much of the time spent in meetings. Coaches and team executives heard a powerful presentation about workplace culture by Wade Davis, a former NFL player who came out as gay after his playing career ended. And the Competition Committee, which had pondered but ultimately decided against a new rule that would have imposed penalties specifically for the use of racial slurs, emphasized that a crackdown on disrespectful behavior — among players, as well as between players, coaches and officials — would begin immediately.

Taunting penalties jumped from nine in 2012 to 34 in 2013. St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the co-chair of the Competition Committee, said at the NFL Annual Meeting that tapes would be put together to instruct everyone to change conduct on the field. At the time, Fisher said these tapes could be distributed as early as offseason workouts, which already have begun for teams with new head coaches.

“The discussions between owners and players about a professional workplace were positive,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said after Tuesday’s meeting. “We will continue to work together to set the highest workplace standards for everyone in the business of football.”

NFL Draft 2014: Latest Eagles news and rumors

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The 2014 NFL Draft is a little over a month away, and which roster position the Eagles will address with their first pick is still very much up in the air.

In many ways, that’s a good thing — it shows this team has done a good job through free agency at not leaving one glaring hole. It also leaves other teams guessing — something that’s always wise.

Bits and pieces of information on the Eagles draft plan have come out, however, and Tommy Lawlor of Iggles Blitz did a nice job compiling a list of all the known visits by draftees to Philadelphia. A player going to the NovaCare Complex is not always a sure sign the team will draft him, but it certainly shows a level of interest.

Here is a list of all the known visits to Philadelphia:

Player: Deone Bucannon, Washington State
Position: Safety
Size: 6-1, 216 pounds
Breakdown: Bucannon is not known for his coverage skills, but he’s one of the hardest hitters in the draft. He could be a nice backup to Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen next season, and he’d also be a good long-term compliment to Jenkins as a starter. Projected to go in the second-round.

Player: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Position: Wide Receiver
Size: 6-5, 231
Breakdown: Evans likely won’t be there at No. 22 when the Eagles go on the clock, but by bringing him in, they show they either think he might be available or that they’d be willing to trade up to get him. Using their first-round pick, and possibly trading other picks as well, to land a wideout is probably not a great use of the team’s resources, considering their depth at the position. Evans is a special player, however, and he has the size Eagles head coach Chip Kelly loves.

Player: Taylor Hart, Oregon
Position: Defensive end
Size: 6-6, 284
Breakdown: It wouldn’t be draft time if Kelly and the Eagles weren’t being linked to a member of the Oregon Ducks. Hart is expected to go somewhere in the fifth or sixth round, and he would battle for a roster spot. The Eagles do need some size along the defensive line, so Hart would be a nice addition should he make the team.

Player: Trey Hopkins, Texas
Position: Offensive guard
Size: 6-3, 305
Breakdown: The Eagles don’t need to draft a starter on the offensive line, but they would be wise to start drafting for the future of the unit. Hopkins is starting to see his stock rise, although, since he was projected by many to not even be drafted, there wasn’t anywhere else to go but up. Hopkins could be this year’s Michael Bamiro, the offensive lineman who was on the practice squad all of last season for development.

Player: Jaylen Watkins, Florida
Position: Cornerback
Size: 6-0, 194
Breakdown: Seeing the team draft a player like Watkins in the second or third round is probably more likely than seeing them take a cornerback in the first round. The Eagles already have two starters, and although maybe they aren’t the long-term answers, teams generally like their first-round picks to have a shot to start. Watkins is projected to go as late as the third round, and he could be a role player for the Eagles this season before taking over the job next year.

Player: Cody Latimer, Indiana
Position: Wide receiver
Size: 6-2, 215
Breakdown: Although he had issues with drops at Indiana, Latimer would be a nice value pick for the team in the later rounds. Latimer is considered a strong blocker in the run game, and his size would be a bonus for the Eagles. Here is a look at Latimer in Indiana’s game vs. Missouri.