NFL All-Redemption Team: Players out for more than participation awards
For NFL players, piecing together a long career is as much about surviving adversity as anything else. How will someone respond when injury, an extended slump or some other hurdle stands in the way?
Our All-Redemption Team highlights seven guys who failed to meet expectations last season but could bounce back in 2015.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
What went wrong in 2014: Just about everything shy of a zombie apocalypse localized in Jacksonville. The Jaguars hoped to ease Bortles into the starting lineup, only to give him the nod midway through Week 3 when Chad Henne faltered.
Chalk up the final 13-plus weeks as a painful learning experience. Bortles threw 17 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns, took a league-high 55 sacks behind a miserable offensive line and posted a QB rating of 69.5—just behind Josh McCown, Jake Locker and Jimmy Clausen.
A series of injuries to the Jaguars' receiving corps only amplified the issues. Cecil Shorts, Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee missed 12 games between them. The run game was touch and go, too—Bortles actually ranked second on the team in rushing yards with 419.
Why 2015 will be better: Even though Shorts left for Houston and Lee continues to fight the injury bug, Bortles has more weapons at his disposal. Robinson and surprise 2014 contributor Allen Hurns form the 1–2 punch at receiver, and rookie Rashad Greene—a potential fifth-round steal—has a chance to contribute. Free-agent pickup Julius Thomas made for a splashy signing. He's expected to reurn from a broken hand in time for Week 1.
Ideally, the offensive line also will provide more protection. Jacksonville spent big bucks on right tackle Jermey Parnell and also brought in veteran center Stephen Wisniewski.
Beyond the personnel alongside him, though, Bortles had the benefit of knowing he was the starting quarterback this off-season. That may not sound like much, but there is no discounting how beneficial several extra months as the focal point of Jacksonville's offense will be to him as a young quarterback.
Not surprisingly, reviews out of Jaguars camp have Bortles looking far more comfortable than a year ago. Translating preseason results to the regular season is a challenge, but he did show composure that he had been missing in 2014 during Jacksonville's preseason opener. Better blocking, healthier weapons and improved decision-making all should add up to a stronger showing in Year Two.
Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers
What went wrong in 2014: To hear Davis tell it, the blame for his 2014 regression falls on the strategies of former offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “It was just game planning. And nothing really ever opened up,” Davis told the Sacramento Bee. “But I wasn’t really ever a factor in the offense last year. ... The first game, yeah. But the second game, the tight ends [weren’t] really involved as a whole.”
The numbers back Davis's critique. His 50 targets were his lowest number since 2008, and his season totals of 26 catches, 245 yards and two touchdowns marked significant drop-offs across the board.
Why 2015 will be better: Roman is out, replaced by Geep Chryst, who is expected to get his 31-year-old tight end more involved. When healthy, Davis still has the athleticism to create mismatches in the passing game. He scored 13 touchdowns just two years ago and is more than capable of stretching the field vertically.
Torrey Smith's arrival should work to Davis's favor, as well. Smith gives the 49ers the downfield burner they had been lacking, someone defenses will have to account for with both cornerback and safety coverage. If Smith and Colin Kaepernick develop any sort of connection, Davis and the rest of San Francisco's pass-catchers will have more room to operate on intermediate routes.
Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers
What went wrong in 2014: Allen's sophomore campaign was not poor per se, but he definitely slipped from a spectacular rookie season. While his receptions increased (71 to 77), Allen was far less dangerous with the ball in his hands—he averaged a pedestrian 10.2 yards per catch and scored just four times, half his 2014 total.
Injuries slowed Allen late in the season; his own success may have gone to his head before that.
“I started to realize how the NFL worked,” Allen told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It may sound cliché or corny or whatever, but [how] you practice [is] how you play, for sure. The work you put in is what you [get] out.”
Why 2015 will be better: Work ethic can go a long way for a player with Allen's talent baseline, and the third-year receiver has worked to drop a few pounds and recapture his quickness. Quite frankly, that might be enough. Philip Rivers targeted Allen 121 times last season—up from 105 looks in 2013—and he figures to be a go-to option again.
There's also the presence of Melvin Gordon. San Diego finished ranked 30th on the ground last season, as an anticipated three-headed attack of Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown never materialized. Better balance would draw attention from the Chargers' aerial show.
Jake Matthews, OT, Falcons
What went wrong in 2014: In an ideal world, Atlanta would have opened 2014 with Matthews on the right side and veteran Sam Baker holding down Matt Ryan's blind side. A season-ending knee injury suffered by Baker in the preseason changed those plans and forced Matthews in at left tackle. Matthews then injured his ankle badly enough in Week 1 that he required an MRI and had to sit out Atlanta's second game.
The No. 6 pick endured a brutal season from there. Matthews allowed seven sacks, 36 QB hurries and was flagged for 11 penalties, all team-worsts.
Why 2015 will be better: The key change for Matthews and possibly the Falcons' entire offensive line comes in the switch at offensive coordinator from Dirk Koetter to Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme counts on its linemen to be effective on the move, which in theory works to Matthews's advantage. The book on Matthews coming out of Texas A&M was that he was a versatile, athletic blocker.
As is the case with Bortles, simply heading into the off-season knowing his role should have helped. Matthews did miss time earlier in the summer following Lisfranc surgery, but he returned weeks ago and played in Atlanta's preseason opener.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Saints
What went wrong in 2014: He played hurt, for one. Vaccaro revealed in May that he dealt with two quad tears and a hamstring injury last season. The Saints' other injuries in the secondary did him no favors, either, particularly the torn meniscus that sidelined running mate Jairus Byrd.
Pro Football Focus graded Vaccaro 85th out of 87 safeties last season. His struggles were shared by the rest of the Saints' defense, which finished 28th in points allowed and 31st in yards.
Why 2015 will be better: The Saints are counting on Byrd's return, although for the moment the $56 million man remains a ghost at practice. Assuming he does in fact get back on the field, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would be able to employ Vaccaro more often in the box. That's what Vaccaro did best back in college, and that still appears to be the ideal fit for his skill set. (Should Byrd remain out into the regular season, Rafael Bush likely would take his starting spot.)
Vaccaro's own health is also worth tracking. If he was as banged up last season as he says, it would explain a lot about his inability to finish plays. As a rookie two years ago, he was a much more disruptive force on defense against both the run and the pass.
Melvin Ingram, OLB, Chargers
What went wrong in 2014: The Chargers are still waiting for their 2012 first-round pick to play up to that status. He was unproductive as a rookie, tore his ACL in '13 and then missed nearly half the '14 season with a hip injury. Even with that hip issue, he still posted career bests of 4.0 sacks and 29 tackles.
San Diego's linebacking corps struggled as a unit a year ago, from Donald Butler and Manti T'eo in the middle to then-rookie Jeremiah Attaochu on the outside. Ingram's four sacks placed him second on the team, behind only Corey Liuget's 4.5.
Why 2015 will be better: Again, being healthy obviously helps—Ingram shed 20 pounds this off-season and reportedly has been sharp throughout much of camp. Coach Mike McCoy also praised him following the Chargers' preseason opener, for reasons beyond his actual play.
“It was great to see his focus the entire 60 minutes of helping the younger guys out and celebrating when they came to the sidelines,” McCoy said. “That’s the next step he needs to make, being a leader and doing what he did.”
The Chargers lost Tourek Williams to a broken foot last week, and Dwight Freeney remains a free agent, but they still enter 2015 with better overall depth at linebacker than they had a year ago. Fifth-rounder Kyle Emanuel hit the ground running at OLB, while fellow rookie Denzel Perryman can add a hammer inside that T'eo and Butler failed to provide last season.
Ingram finally started flashing his full potential last season. San Diego believes he can carry over some of that momentum to 2015.
What went wrong in 2014: Peterson learned during the year that he suffered from diabetes, a condition he blamed for his regression. There is no question Peterson was sluggish.
Often asked to shadow opposing No. 1 receivers, Peterson allowed a completion percentage of 56.6 and a QB rating north of 95 on passes thrown his direction, per Pro Football Focus. He did match his 2013 total with three interceptions, but his total passes defended tumbled from 13 to seven. Peterson surrendered eight touchdowns and a bevy of big plays.
Why 2015 will be better: Peterson's inclusion as a Pro Bowler last season sort of highlights the reputation-based nature of those selections, but he earned his All-Pro status in the first two years of his career. The Cardinals lined him up as their top cornerback last season because he had shown the ability to handle such responsibilities in the past. Now that he has better control of his diabetes, his game should see an uptick.
For a time during the second half last year, he was making progress. Peterson turned in a gem of a performance against Calvin Johnson, then followed it up with two interceptions against the Rams. There were still a few rough spots—the Falcons scorched him—but Peterson slowly regained his swagger.
Expect more help from the Arizona pass rush this season, too. Former defensive coordinator (and new Jets head coach) Todd Bowles had to reach deep into his bag of tricks to pressure opposing quarterbacks. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher has several extra bodies at his disposal, including rookie Markus Golden, veteran LaMarr Woodley and an underrated Cory Redding.