NFL Potential Breakout Players of 2012: The Review

The goal: Pick one player on each team to have a breakout year and see where they end up at the end of the season. No rookies. No established veterans. No former Pro-Bowlers (minus special teams). Here was the logic for all 32 players. And below are the results.

The good

New York Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson

In his 2nd year in the league, Wilkerson was a huge bright spot in the Jets’ season. He didn’t have huge sack numbers, but he did apply more than adequate pressure for his position and was the best run stuffing defensive lineman in the game after JJ Watt. Only Watt graded out better overall among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus.

Philadelphia Eagles DE Brandon Graham

Graham struggled with injuries in his first two years in the league and when he finally got healthy he was out of shape from not playing for so long and had gained 20 pounds. He got himself into shape this year and did so well as a reserve that he got veteran Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks the year before, benched and cut. When Jim Washburn was fired and Graham took over as a starter, that’s when he really flourished, with 5 sacks, 3 hits, and 17 hurries in 6 starts, while providing solid run support as well. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end despite only 6 starts and was by far the most efficient pass rusher in the league among players who played as many snaps as he did.

San Francisco 49ers G Mike Iupati

Freakishly talented, but raw as the 17th overall pick in 2010, Iupati was solid in his first two years in the league, but this year he really showed why he was drawing Larry Allen comparisons in the pre-draft process. He still hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations, but he made his first of probably many Pro-Bowls this season and was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked guard.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy

McCoy was very impressive in limited action in his first two years in the league as the 3rd overall pick in 2010, but was often hurt. This year, he played all 16 games and showed exactly why he was such a high draft pick, having a better year than Ndamukong Suh arguably ever has had, impressing as a pass rusher and a run stuffer and grading out as the best defensive tackle other than Geno Atkins on ProFootballFocus. He also led the way for Tampa Bay’s #1 ranked run defense, a unit that had ranked 31st in 2010 and 2011.

Tennessee Titans DE Derrick Morgan

I think the theme is always bet on former 1st rounders who had hard luck in their first 2 years in the league. Like Graham and McCoy, Morgan finally was healthy this season, after tearing his ACL as a rookie and being out of shape in his 2nd year in the league. Morgan played all 16 games and had 9 sacks, 21 hits, and 42 hurries and was decent against the run as well. All in all, he was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked 4-3 end.

Chicago Bears DT Henry Melton

Melton was always a solid player in limited action in his first 3 years in the league, but this year he was given more responsibilities than ever and produced his best year as a pro. He wasn’t great against the run, but you’ll take 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 24 hurries every year from a 4-3 tackle, especially one who plays in a one gap, penetrating scheme like the Bears’. ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated defensive tackle, the Bears franchised Melton this off-season and are currently working on making him a big part of their future.

Denver Broncos WR Eric Decker

Decker was actually Denver’s leading receiver in 2011, but struggled with injuries down the stretch and really didn’t have good chemistry with Tim Tebow once he took over. Fully healthy and with the switch from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning at quarterback, Decker seemed poised for big numbers. Not only was Manning the traditional quarterback Decker worked better with, he’s one of the best traditional quarterbacks of all time and Decker is the exact type of receiver he likes, so much so that he recommended the Colts draft him in the 3rd round in 2010, before the Broncos snatched him up a few spots earlier. Decker didn’t disappoint me, catching 85 passes for 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Kansas City Chiefs OLB Justin Houston

Houston was a first round talent in 2011 before a failed drug test dropped him into the 3rd. The Chiefs drafted him and he was very impressive in 6 starts down the stretch in 2011. Houston carried that over to 2012, starting all 16 games and excelling in all 3 areas of the game, rushing the passer, stopping the run, and dropping in coverage. Only Anthony Spencer, Clay Matthews, and Aldon Smith graded out better among 3-4 outside linebackers this season.

Baltimore Ravens WR Torrey Smith

Smith carried over a strong 2nd half of his rookie season into 2012, catching 60 passes for 1088 yards and 10 touchdowns in 20 games en route to a Super Bowl victory and of course he had an amazing 12 catches for 224 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2 games in a 5 day span following the sudden death of his younger brother.

Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones

Like Torrey Smith, Jones carried over a strong 2nd half of his rookie season in 2012 and put up monster numbers, catching 79 passes for 1198 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season and then another 17 catches for 241 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 post-season games. Jones’ presence in the Falcons’ deadly downfield passing game was a big part of the reason why the Falcons won 13 games and made the NFC Championship game.

New England Patriots RB Stevan Ridley

The Patriots aren’t known as a running team, but they were 7th in the NFL in rushing yards this year and this guy is a big part of the reason why. Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries, finishing the season 7th in the NFL in rushing. Unlike former Patriot running backs, Ridley wasn’t just a product of the talent around him, gaining 2.5 of his 4.4 YPC after contact.

Carolina Panthers DE Greg Hardy

Hardy still isn’t a big name, but he played just as well as big money bookend Charles Johnson in Carolina this season. Hardy was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated 4-3 defensive end, while Johnson was 8th and the duo combined for 27 sacks. Johnson had better overall pass rush numbers as Hardy wasn’t as good as his 13 sacks suggest, but Hardy was also the significantly better run player.

New York Giants DT Linval Joseph

Again not a big name and only ProFootballFocus’ 21st rated defensive tackle, but Joseph was still well above average this season and I’m still counting this one as a win.

Arizona Cardinals TE Rob Housler

This one was tough to count as a win. Housler caught just 45 passes for 417 yards, but I’m blaming that one more on the quarterbacks. His 1.07 yards per route run were just a touch under Larry Fitzgerald’s 1.18.

Cincinnati Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap

Dunlap still hasn’t emerged as an every down player, but he reached a career high in snaps played, playing 601. Though he had just 5 sacks, he played very well overall when given a chance and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th rated 4-3 defensive end, despite still limited playing time.

Oakland Raiders WR Denarius Moore

Moore didn’t quite have the season I was expecting, but you can blame that some on Oakland’s generally terrible season. Moore still led the way among Raider wide receivers catching 51 passes for 741 yards and 7 touchdowns.

The bad

Washington Redskins MLB Perry Riley

Riley was a very good player in the 2nd half of the 2011 season, but that didn’t carry over in his first full season as a starter. While he played all 16 games and was an every down player, Riley still graded out below average overall this season.

St. Louis Rams DE Robert Quinn

His 11 sacks might suggest this was a win, but only five 4-3 ends graded out worse than him on ProFootballFocus as what he did on the rest of his snaps, not just the 11 he had sacks on, was not impressive. He got washed against the run, had very low hits and hurries totals from someone with his sack total, and did all this despite getting very little attention from the defense with Chris Long tying up blockers opposite him.

Jacksonville Jaguars CB Derek Cox

Cox has always flashed when healthy and was very good before getting hurt in 2011, but he didn’t stay healthy in 2012, missing 4 games and playing through injury in countless others, grading out as a below average player overall.

San Diego Chargers DL Cam Thomas

A talented defensive lineman who played limited snaps in 2011, Thomas was due for an increase in playing time in 2012, but ended up playing just 9 more snaps than 2011 and his level of play dipped.

Miami Dolphins DL Jared Odrick

Odrick was another former 1st round pick who had a rough first 2 years that I was expecting to breakout in his 3rd year, but he did not do that. At the end of the day, as talented as he is, he just couldn’t adjust to a position change to 4-3 end and only three 4-3 ends graded out worse than him on ProFootballFocus.

New Orleans Saints CB Patrick Robinson

Robinson is another former 1st round pick, but was an embarrassingly bad choice as a breakout player. A league average player in his first 2 years in the league, Robinson was among the most torched corners in the league in 2012, allowing 9 touchdowns and over 1000 yards and finishing the year as ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible.

Cleveland Browns WR Greg Little

Little got better as the season went on, but couldn’t kick his drops habit, dropping 6 passes to 11 catches in his first 5 games, including a game winner that would have likely led to a massive upset in Baltimore. He finally regained his quarterback’s trust, dropping just 3 passes the rest of the way and finishing with 53 catches for 647 yards and 4 touchdowns, but I’d hardly call that a breakout year.

Minnesota Vikings LB Erin Henderson

Henderson was arguably the best run stopping linebacker in the league in 2011 and that earned him an every down role in 2012, after coming out in obvious passing situations for a 5th defensive back in 2011. That didn’t last long. After playing every snap week 1, Henderson was done in by injuries and issues in coverage and did not regain the every down role until week 16, when Jasper Brinkley’s issues in coverage became way too glaring. To make matters worse, he wasn’t quite the run player he was in 2011 and overall graded out as just an average player on 767 total regular and post-season snaps. A free agent this off-season, he’s not expected to be retained and will have to settle for two-down work on a one year deal elsewhere.

Buffalo Bills MLB Kelvin Sheppard

Sheppard was solid as a rookie in a limited role and lost weight in an effort to stay on the field on passing downs in 2012. That didn’t help. He played just half of the Bills’ snaps and while he was decent in coverage, he made a below average impact against the run and overall graded out negatively. The Bills are expected to pursue competition for him through the draft.

The ugly

Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Flynn

In my defense, Seattle didn’t have an obvious choice for a breakout player. Rookies don’t count and neither do established players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, or Max Unger. Russell Okung was probably the closest thing to one, finally staying healthy for the first time in his 3 year career. I picked Flynn before the season because I didn’t see an obvious candidate and I figured I might as well go with the first time starting quarterback. Flynn lost the job in the pre-season to Russell Wilson and the rest is history.

Indianapolis Colts WR Austin Collie

I thought Collie and Andrew Luck could put up big numbers if Collie could only avoid concussions. Turns out concussions weren’t his biggest issue. Once he finally got on the field this year after sustaining a concussion in the pre-season, Collie tore his patellar tendon and was done for the season. He’s not expected to be brought back by the Colts as a free agent this off-season.

Green Bay Packers MLB DJ Smith

DJ Smith was a talented reserve for the Packers in 2011 and when Desmond Bishop went down for the season in the pre-season with a torn hamstring, Smith took over as the starter and looked like a solid bet to do good things. The problem: Smith tore his ACL mid-season and was replaced by Brad Jones, who played well and had the type of season I was expecting from Smith.

Detroit Lions WR Titus Young

Well, he’s plenty talented, but he’s apparently also a little crazy. Young felt he wasn’t getting the ball enough so he started purposely sabotaging the Lions by lining up in the wrong spot. He also had numerous verbal and at times even physical altercations with teammates and coaches in practice. The Lions made up an excuse to put him on IR late in the year and then cut him after the season after he went on a tirade on Twitter. The self-proclaimed receiver more talented than Calvin Johnson, Young lasted just 9 days in St. Louis in February and is now an unrestricted free agent generating minimal to no interest.

Houston Texans CB Brice McCain

McCain was one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL in 2011 and looked like he had a chance to leapfrog struggling former 1st round pick Kareem Jackson on the depth chart at some point this season. Instead, McCain was the weak point in Houston’s secondary this year and Jackson was the one with the breakout year, proving once again, always bet on former 1st round picks in their 3rd year in the league.

Dallas Cowboys DL Sean Lissemore

Lissemore played very well in limited action in 2011 for the Cowboys and seemed poised for a bigger role. He got one, but not by much as injuries and inconsistencies limited him to being a well below average player on just 329 snaps.

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Isaac Redman

I thought Redman was talented enough to take the lead back job and run with it after Rashard Mendenhall got hurt. Mendenhall came back quicker than expected, though he was not very good, but Redman’s own injuries limited him to 3.7 YPC on 110 carries on an overall disappointing Steeler offense.




San Francisco 49ers extend MLB NaVorro Bowman

When I grade big money signings, I like to do it by comparing it to other recent deals given to players at the same position. The middle linebacker position is an especially interesting one. In today’s NFL, the position is devalued a little as this is a pass friendly league and middle linebackers don’t have as much to do with the passing game as pass rushers and defensive backs. One of the best middle linebackers in the league is Derrick Johnson and he plays on the 1 win Chiefs.

The first big money deal given to a middle linebacker was a deal in May 2010 given to Patrick Willis, a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 29 million guaranteed. Also that offseason, DeMeco Ryans and Karlos Dansby were given sizable contracts. Ryans was given 48 million over 6 years with 21.75 million guaranteed, while Dansby got 43 million over 5 years with 22 million guaranteed. Dansby is still with the Dolphins and while he may be a little bit overpaid, the Dolphins probably don’t regret the move. Ryans, meanwhile, was traded 2 years into his deal, to the Eagles, in a cost saving move by the Texans.

The following offseason, the Jets and Panthers attempted to copy the 49ers, giving comparable deals to David Harris and Jon Beason respectively. Harris got 36 million over 4 years from the Jets and Beason got a 5 year, 50 million dollar deal with 25 million guaranteed. I criticized both of these contracts at the time because neither of those players were on the level of Patrick Willis. They were barely on the level of Ryans and Dansby. Also that offseason, Lawrence Timmons got 50 million over 6 years from the Steelers (undisclosed guaranteed), a deal I liked because, at the time, Timmons was coming off a season in which he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top rated middle linebacker and he appeared to be a top tier linebacker.

Harris and Beason were both 2nd tier middle linebackers and now not even a year later, both of those contracts look like mistakes. Harris is currently ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 52, while Beason can’t even get on the field thanks to injuries. Both are candidates to be cut this offseason. Timmons, meanwhile, has been slowed by injuries of his own and while he won’t be cut or anything, he is slightly overpaid right now.

This past offseason, two more comparable deals were handed out, one by the Cardinals to Daryl Washington and one by the Rams to James Laurinaitis. Washington got 32 million over 4 years (guaranteed money was not disclosed) and Laurinaitis got 41.5 million over 5 years with 23.5 million guaranteed. I once again criticized these deals as neither player was on the level of Willis.

I felt all of these players should have been paid comparable to Derrick Johnson, who got a very reasonable 5 year, 34 million dollar extension with 15 million guaranteed in the middle of the 2010 season. I also cited that 3rd tier linebackers like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively in total money over 5 years this offseason.

Looking back on those deals 3 months later, I stand by what I said about the Laurinaitis deal. Laurinaitis is a talented player and a key part of St. Louis’ surprising young defense, but he he’s getting paid like an elite linebacker when really he’s just an above average player. Washington proved me wrong a little, breaking out into an elite level player this year, his 3rd in the NFL. He’s not Willis, but he’s definitely a Pro Bowler.

However, part of my criticism of that deal was that it was premature and that still stands. Washington had 2 years left on his deal and probably could have been signed to a comparable deal this offseason, even if he became a Pro-Bowl caliber player, given that Willis was only making 10 million per year, with 25 million total guaranteed.

All this being said, it is just possible that the Willis extension was so shrewd that it’s making deals that aren’t so bad look bad by comparison. When the 49ers locked up Willis, they were locking up one of the top-10 defensive players in the NFL (something none of the other linebackers could say) for just about 10 million per year, which comparatively was a bargain. This wasn’t a case of a team speculating that a player would emerge as someone worth this deal in a year (like the Washington deal). This was someone who knew what he was accepting a very reasonable amount of money from an organization who knew what he was.

If we accept that premise, I can’t criticize this deal. NaVorro Bowman is not as good as Patrick Willis, but he still deserves this 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal with 25.5 million guaranteed (more than Willis). As a player, he’s right now on the level of guys like Daryl Washington, Derrick Johnson (who has proven to be well worth the deal the Chiefs gave him 2 years ago), and the injured Sean Lee, not Patrick Willis, but not 2nd tier guys like DeMeco Ryans, Karlos Dansby, Lawrence Timmons, and the emerging young Bobby Wagner and Brandon Spikes.

He does have two years left on his rookie deal (including this season), but this isn’t a speculative extension like Washington’s was. Bowman arrived last season and has backed it up with his play this season. This move wasn’t as shrewd as the Willis extension, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good move. As long as Willis doesn’t mind that his “little brother” got more guaranteed money than he did (I doubt it), this is a good move.

Grade: A




Tampa Bay Buccaneers trade CB Aqib Talib to the New England Patriots

Trade for Patriots: I absolutely love this trade for the Patriots. They desperately need cornerback help. They have a few young cornerbacks, but none of them are playing well. Tom Brady is 35 so their Super Bowl window is closing. They need a short term solution so they don’t have to rely on developmental cornerbacks like Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and the recently released Sterling Moore. This might be the missing piece in their Super Bowl puzzle. They were contenders before this trade, but now, they’re even deadlier as they’ve upgraded one of their only weaknesses. Any time you can potentially acquire the missing piece to a Super Bowl team, it’s a good trade, especially for a mid round pick.

The Buccaneers gave up on Talib because he’s in a contract year and because of his off the field issues, but he’s still a proven cornerback. He’s still got 2 more games left on his suspension for adderall, but the Patriots will have him around for the stretch run which is what matters. He will start opposite Devin McCourty, who will probably be moving back to cornerback when Patrick Chung returns and help a pass defense that ranks 29th against the pass right now. Between McCourty (a better cornerback than safety), Talib, Patrick Chung (when he returns), and talented rookie Alfonzo Dennard, this secondary is going to look a lot better in a couple of weeks than it does now and shore up their only real weakness.

In 2010, he allowed 35 of 59 (59.3%) for 502 yards (8.5 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 2 penalties. In 2011, he allowed 28 of 51 (54.9%) for 479 yards (9.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. This year, he’s allowed 24 of 36 (66.7%), 399 yards (11.1 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties. Getting Talib and a 7th round pick for a 4th round pick is yet another one of Bill Belichick’s smart bye low deals. The difference between a 4th round pick and a 7th round pick is barely anything, especially for a team like the Patriots who frequently find contributors in the 6th and 7th round.

Grade: A

Trade for Buccaneers: Greg Schiano has made it a point to makeover the team and the locker room culture since being hired before this season. Getting rid of Talib is yet another part of that and so far, it’s worked. This was a talented team that won 10 games in 2010 and they started 4-2 last year before Raheem Morris lost control of the team. Schiano seems to have gotten it back and the Buccaneers are playing well, sitting at 3-4 with a +32 points differential. They probably won’t make the playoffs this season, which is why they could get rid of Talib, who probably would not be back after the season, so this move makes sense. It also gives them a chance to see if young cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and EJ Biggers can be long term starters. I like this move for both sides, but I think the Patriots got the better end.

Grade: A




Jacksonville Jaguars trade WR Mike Thomas to Detroit Lions

Trade for Jaguars: Mike Thomas caught 63 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns as a 23 year old receiver in 2010, but it’s all gone downhill since there and he has just 13 catches for 80 yards this year, buried behind Justin Blackmon, Cecil Shorts, and Laurent Robinson on the depth chart. Given that he’s owed 8.61 million over the next 3 seasons, I’m surprised there were able to get anything for him, though only 1 million of his 2013 salary is guaranteed. I don’t know how they got the mid round pick they reportedly received.

Trade: A

Trade for Lions: I don’t get this. I get that they’re taking a chance on Thomas bouncing back with a real quarterback, but I don’t understand giving up a mid round pick and taking on his salary. Besides, it’s not like they really need another wide receiver with Calvin Johnson, Titus Young, and Ryan Broyles.

Grade: D




Dallas Cowboys extend S Barry Church

If you’re wondering who Barry Church is, don’t feel bad. He’s a 2010 undrafted free agent who has made 4 career starts and is currently on IR after tearing his Achilles week 3. Apparently, the Cowboys felt it was urgent to give him a 4 year extension worth 12.4 million with 3.9 million guaranteed before actually making sure a player who less than 3 years ago went undrafted could actually play. I don’t get this move at all. I get that they see him as a starter in 2013 once he returns from injury, but at least make the guy prove it first. He’s not an unrestricted free agent until 2014.

They made a similar move signing one time future starter Orlando Scandrick to a 5 year, 27 million dollar extension worth 10 million guaranteed before he proved anything in 2011. He struggled to nail down a starting job and the Cowboys gave up on him before the 2012 season, signing Brandon Carr to a 50 million dollar contract and trading their 1st and 2nd rounders to move up to grab Morris Claiborne so Carr and Claiborne could start for years to come, leaving Scandrick as a depth corner in sub packages. They may be making a similar mistake here, albeit with less money.

Grade: D




San Diego Chargers extend WR Malcom Floyd

Malcom Floyd was in a contract year this year and only making 2 million dollars. When I heard the Chargers had signed him to a 3 year extension, I was worried they overpaid. Yes, he’s the #1 receiver by default right now, but he’s never really proven he can be a consistent top option, even with an elite quarterback throwing him the ball. He’s also missed 9 games in the last 2 years and is already 31 years old.

However, then I found out this deal pays him just 11 million over 3 years with 8 million guaranteed. How the hell did they do that? This is their #1 receiver. He’s an underrated player who has produced when healthy, catching 125 passes for 2196 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last 34 games, just over two seasons.

He’s had some issues with his consistency and with injuries and he’s not getting any younger and I’ve always felt he was a marginal receiver being made more productive by a great receiver and he’s not a big YAC guy, but this is a bargain for him. This 3 year deal pays him less than the 13.5 million dollar one they gave to Eddie Royal and is less than half the size of the 4 year, 25.9 million dollar deal they gave Robert Meachem. Floyd has almost double the yardage those two have combined (121). Those two are overpaid, but this is still a bargain and given that the other two aren’t very good, they had to lock him up going in a contract year.

Grade: A

Dallas Cowboys extend 3-4 DE Sean Lissemore

Lissemore was a 7th round pick in 2010 and had 2 years (including this one) left on his rookie deal. The Cowboys have tacked on an extra 3 years, 6 million onto his deal, with 3.1 million guaranteed. This is the 2nd time in as many seasons that the Cowboys have attempted to get ahead of the curve and give a player an extension before they broke out because the team felt they were headed for a breakout year. Last year, they gave Orlando Scandrick a 5 year, 27 million dollar extension with 10 million guaranteed.

This deal is far less head scratching. For one, it’s far less money so they’re taking a far smaller risk if Lissemore doesn’t pan out like they think he will. Two, Lissemore is coming off a strong season as a situational player, whereas Scandrick struggled some on the slot in 2010, before getting his extension. For some reason, the Cowboys thought that made him a good bet to be a long term starter at cornerback.

However, just one year later they were proven wrong as Scandrick failed to take the next step and the team had to use a lot of resources to add two new cornerbacks in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne this offseason. Now Scandrick is stuck behind those two for the foreseeable future and the Cowboys are stuck being an average slot cornerback a lot of money yearly. In the opener, he played just 27 of 56 snaps, which is about what you can expect from him long term.

Lissemore, however, played very well as a situational player last year. In 2011, he had a 13.8 rating on just 283 snaps on ProFootballFocus. He wasn’t much of a pass rusher, but he had 18 solo tackles, 8 assists and 16 stops on just 119 run defense snaps, while missing only 2 tackles. He was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd rated 3-4 defensive end against the run, behind Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey. He played all over the line, both end spots and nose tackle, and will have a bigger role this season. We’ll see if the added playing time will help or hurt him, but I named him as my potential breakout player for the Cowboys early in the season.

Lissemore played 27 of 56 snaps in the opener and only one defensive lineman played more. He’ll probably see slightly fewer snaps when Jay Ratliff returns, but if he continues to play well, as he did in the opener, he could lock down that 3rd starting defensive lineman job next to Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff by season’s end, something they desperately need someone to do, and if he does that, he’ll end up being well worth this contract long term. If he doesn’t, it’s not a huge risk and Lissemore could still end up being a valuable rotational player.

Grade: A




Arizona Cardinals extend MLB Daryl Washington

Washington was Arizona’s leader in tackles last season and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker, grading out above average against the run, in coverage, and as a blitzer, adding 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures. Heading into his 3rd year in the league, he has a good chance to make his first Pro Bowl in 2012. Washington, a 2010 2nd round pick, still had 2 years left on his rookie contract, but, with no players of note heading into contract years, the Cardinals decided to lock him up now.

I’m not normally a fan of when teams give players a new deal after just 2 years in the league and they’re also overpaying him a little bit. He’s getting an extra 32 million of new money over an extra 4 years, though no word yet on the guaranteed money amount. Similar caliber players like Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively over 5 years. In a passing league, non-rush linebackers like Washington just aren’t worth that much, with rare exceptions.

Look at the deal Patrick Willis got 2 years ago. Willis got 7 years, 53.51 million with 29 million guaranteed. Washington is getting more yearly than him and he’s only played 2 years and never been a Pro-Bowler. The Cardinals are taking a big risk here projecting that Washington will continue to improve and jump from above average to elite. With 2 years left on his rookie deal, there was no real reason to make this move now. Make him prove it first.

Grade: C




St. Louis Rams extend MLB James Laurinaitis

James Laurinaitis is a very talented linebacker. A 2009 2nd round pick, he has graded out positively overall over the past 3 years as a starter and ranked 14th overall among middle linebackers in 2010 on ProFootballFocus. He’s managed 100+ tackles in each of his first 3 years in the league, good for a combined 376 tackles, a whopping 310 of which were solo. Heading into the final year of his rookie deal, the Rams were known to be working on a long term extension with Laurinaitis and agreed to terms with him today on a 5 year, 41.5 million dollar extension with 23.5 million of that guaranteed.

The issue is that middle linebackers just didn’t get paid that much money this offseason or even historically really. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, and David Hawthorne got 27.5 million, 25.5 million, and 19 million respectively over 5 years. Laurinaitis gets 41.5 million, with a whopping 23.5 million guaranteed. Is Laurinaitis really that much better of a player than those guys? In a passing league, that is just too much money for a non-rush linebacker, with rare exceptions. Look at the deal Patrick Willis got 2 years ago. Willis got 7 years, 53.51 million with 29 million guaranteed. That’s less money per year than Laurinaitis. Willis did get more years and more guaranteed money, but he’s a significantly superior player.

The only recent deal that compares to this one is the 5 year, 42.5 million dollar deal to the Browns gave to D’Qwell Jackson this offseason and that deal looked pretty bad at the time too and even worse when guys like Lofton, Tulloch, and Hawthorne got significantly less. Jackson also got just 10.4 million guaranteed. Laurinaitis’ deal is worse because of the larger amount of guaranteed money and because the Rams had 3 deals to similar caliber players to use as a reference point. The Rams simply overrated Laurinaitis, paying him on the level of Patrick Willis, whereas the Browns’ mistake was just signing Jackson too quickly and not letting the market set the price.

The Rams were smart to lock up Laurinaitis now because the franchise tag value is inflated for linebackers because of rush linebackers, so the Rams would have probably had to guarantee Laurinaitis upwards of 9 million in 2013 if they tagged him (the tag was worth 8.8 million for linebackers this season). That wouldn’t have been a realistic option. However, giving Laurinaitis over 8 million per season over 5 years, with more than half of that being guaranteed, is not much of a better option. In fact, it may even be worse because it’s for a longer period of time.

Grade: C




Blue Chip/Red Chip (Defense)

Every year, Michael Lombardi at NFL Network does a list of “blue chips” and “red chips,” meaning the top 5 players at each position, “blue chips” and then players 6-10, “red chips.” Normally, this is a pretty good list, although this year I had some major disagreements, especially the placement of Red Bryant as a blue chip defensive end when he has 2 career sacks in 5 seasons. I don’t care how good you are at stopping the run. Defensive ends get paid to get to the quarterback (in addition to stopping the run). If you can’t get to the quarterback, you’re not a blue chip. You’re not even a red chip. If a player was a great pass rusher and couldn’t stop the run, I would feel similarly (although in a passing league, I prefer the one dimensional pass rushers over the one dimensional run stuffers). Anyway, here’s Lombardi’s list on defense. And below is mine for the defense.


Blue Chips

Geno Atkins (CIN)

Jay Ratliff (DAL)

Kevin Williams (MIN)

Haloti Ngata (BAL)

Sione Pouha (NYJ)

Red Chips

Richard Seymour (OAK)

Cullen Jenkins (PHI)

Alan Branch (SEA)

Marcell Dareus (BUF)

Kyle Williams (BUF)


These are 3-4 nose tackles, 4-3 defensive tackles, but not 3-4 defensive ends.


Blue Chips

Justin Smith (SF)

Jared Allen (MIN)

Jason Pierre Paul (NYG)

Julius Peppers (CHI)

Cameron Wake (MIA)

Red Chips

Calais Campbell (ARZ)

Trent Cole (PHI)

Ray McDonald (SF)

Mario Williams (BUF)

Jason Babin (PHI)


Blue Chips

DeMarcus Ware (DAL)

Von Miller (DEN)

Clay Matthews (GB)

Aldon Smith (SF)

Tamba Hali (KC)

Red Chips

James Harrison (PIT)

Brian Orakpo (WAS)

Terrell Suggs (BAL)

LaMarr Woodley (PIT)

Daryl Smith (JAC)


Blue Chips

Patrick Willis (SF)

Brian Cushing (HOU)

Derrick Johnson (KC)

Ray Lewis (BAL)

NaVorro Bowman (SF)

Red Chips

Stephen Tulloch (DET)

Lawrence Timmons (PIT)

London Fletcher (WAS)

Brian Urlacher (CHI)

Paul Posluszny (JAC)


Blue Chips

Darrelle Revis (NYJ)

Brent Grimes (ATL)

Cortland Finnegan (STL)

Lardarius Webb (BAL)

Brandon Flowers (KC)

Red Chips

Brandon Carr (DAL)

Ike Taylor (PIT)

Asante Samuel (ATL)

Nnamdi Asomugha (PHI)

Leon Hall (CIN)


Blue Chips

Troy Polamalu (PIT)

Ed Reed (BAL)

Eric Weddle (SD)

Adrian Wilson (ARZ)

Jarius Byrd (BUF)

Red Chips

Earl Thomas (SEA)

Michael Griffin (TEN)

Kam Chancellor (SEA)

Kenny Phillips (NYG)

Tyvon Branch (OAK)


Blue Chips

Bill Belichick (NE)

Mike Tomlin (PIT)

Mike McCarthy (GB)

Tom Coughlin (NYG)

Jim Harbaugh (SF)

Red Chips

Pete Carroll (SEA)

Sean Payton (NO)

Andy Reid (PHI)

John Harbaugh (BAL)

Jim Schwartz (DET)


Notice, 4 of the 5 blue chippers have won Super Bowls. The only Super Bowl winning coach not in there is Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season.

Jim Harbaugh takes the spot of Payton, winning out over long time coach Andy Reid. Reid has had a great career, but doesn’t have a ring and Harbaugh has a better chance of getting one in his coaching career than Reid.

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