Tuesday July 12th, 2016

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Sorting through the NFL’s hyperbole can be a challenge during the summer months, when OTAs, mini-camps and training camps give rise to sweeping declarations about a player’s progress (or lack thereof). Each week, our new “Truth Detector” will attempt to guide you toward reality.

Which remarks are to be believed, and which are merely off-season fodder?

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Are the Giants really a playoff team? 

“Yeah, definitely. We added some great players in the offseason. We were aggressive in free agency, but still have a lot of our core guys, especially on offense, back and I think we made some good moves on defense. We’re getting some guys back healthy. It’s just a matter of, hey, the talent is there, can we put it together, can we find a way to win the games and play our best football when we need to?” —Those were Eli Manning’s response to the question above, via the New York Post.

Last year, the Giants finished a disappointing 6–10 for the second straight season and under .500 for the third year in a row. Out went Tom Coughlin and up to head coach went Ben McAdoo as embattled GM Jerry Reese launched a full-scale assault on free agency.

But are the Giants actually better?

Reese’s aggressive approach provides a lot of optimism on the defensive side. Last season, New York ranked dead last in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed. Reese responded by re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul and adding Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Keenan Robinson via free agency. He also drafted first-round CB Eli Apple and second-round safety Darian Thompson.

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Thompson is especially important because the Giants could use a starter next to safety Landon Collins. It’s also a key, potentially, because there is extended history showing that free-agency spending sprees do not often pan out well, so the rookies and incumbents will have to glue everything together.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has to figure out how best to utilize Harrison, Pierre-Paul, Vernon and Johnathan Hankins, while also keeping Owa Odighizuwa in the mix and covering up a rather weak linebacking corps.

The offense can ease the burden by maintaining an upward trajectory. Eli Manning has thrived under McAdoo’s system, and this year he has shiny new receiver Sterling Shepard to pair with Odell Beckham Jr. (and maybe with Victor Cruz). Another rookie, Paul Perkins, could jumpstart the run game provided the O-line is more imposing than it was a year ago—file that under “unknowns” for now.

Buying or selling Manning’s remarks: Selling the notion that this is “definitely” a playoff team. Buying that the Giants could emerge from a jumbled NFC East to claim the crown at 9–7 or 10–6. Washington will have more of a target on its back now after capturing the division in 2015, Dallas is tiptoeing through some significant questions on defense, and Philadelphia has undergone its own radical changes this off-season. There is not an obvious world-beater in there. Should the Giants’ defense prove even average, this team has a shot.

‘Back to normal’ for Le'Veon Bell? 

“I’m going to be ready. The biggest thing for me is getting mentally ready for getting hit and things like that, and I don’t think I’ll really get tackled until a preseason game or maybe in the regular season. ... But cutting, running routes, picking them and putting them on my feet, everything is back to normal. ... I know my knee is strong enough now. I know it’s probably stronger than it ever was, my legs are.” —Le’Veon Bell on his status for training camp, via ESPN.

The Steelers sure hope all that’s true. Bell suffered a multi-ligament injury (MCL, PCL) in Week 8 last season and has been rehabbing ever since. DeAngelo Williams was a godsend replacement for him, posting nearly 1,300 total yards on a dirt-cheap contract as Pittsburgh made the playoffs. But still, he’s no Bell. When at his best, Bell is arguably the top running back in football and he is a perfect fit within the Steelers’ scheme.

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Bell went on to say that the big challenge for him will be mental. Will he be overly cautious about taking a low hit, to the point that he is a shell of his former self? Because of that internal battle, it would not be a surprise to see Bell come out a little sluggish early on during the 2016 season before taking off again. Take Adrian Peterson for example: Off his own knee injury, Peterson topped 100 yards just once in Minnesota’s first six games of 2012; he averaged 159.8 yards during games seven through 16, en route to a 2,000-yard campaign.

Of the greatest interest in Bell’s quote is that “everything is back to normal” when it comes to cutting and running routes. Bell’s bouncy running style relies on lateral movement, so any loss of confidence in his patient side-to-side approach could limit his effectiveness. QB Ben Roethlisberger also leans on him as a pass-catcher, as evidenced by Bell’s 105 targets and 83 receptions during the 2014 season.

Buying or selling Bell’s remarks: Buying. Maybe not that he is stronger than ever—though how scary is that possibility for opposing defensive coordinators?—but that he can bounce back and be the player he was. His injury is of a different nature than Peterson’s ACL tear, but the Minnesota RB certainly proved it is possible to recover. 

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Just how valuable is Patrick Peterson? 

“I don’t need to be boastful or brash. ’Oh, look at me.’ I’m all about the team, I don’t want to take that focus away from the team. At the end of the day, I know I’m the best. I know I can get in the face of the receiver and I mean much more to my team versus those guys to their team.” — Patrick Peterson, via USA Today

What should we make of Peterson, a three-time first-team All-Pro, as he enters his sixth season? Is he the best cornerback in football? At $14 million per year, is he appropriately paid for his value?

USA Today’s Lorenzo Reyes precedes Peterson’s above quote by mentioning Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, two cornerbacks “who are more outspoken [and] may get more publicity” than Peterson. Does Peterson “mean much more” to his team than Sherman does to Seattle or Norman, now with Washington, did in Carolina?

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Reading between the lines (and digging beyond the bravado), this appears to be an argument for cornerback usage. Peterson has been a remarkably versatile piece for Arizona’s coverage, shifting all over the field to match up with receivers. Contrast that with Norman, who made an early push for defensive MVP last season within Carolina’s Cover-3; and Sherman, who usually sticks at left corner. There are variations to every rule, but those are the basics.

And at least in that respect, Peterson may have a point. When it comes to handpicking a matchup, Peterson provides more flexibility than Norman and, to some extent, Sherman. 

This is not the first time Sherman has been called out for his role either, directly or indirectly. Antonio Cromartie had this to say on Sirius XM in June of 2015: “Go play in a defense where you don’t have two All-Pro safeties. Go follow the No. 1 receiver. Follow him around for a whole entire game and see what you can do. Darrelle Revis has done it his whole career. I’ve done it, Patrick Peterson has done it, Joe Haden has done it. He’s the only defensive back that hasn’t. There’s no point in critiquing him. If you want to label yourself as the best corner in the NFL, follow the best guy on every single team.”

Perhaps it is also worth pointing out here, as well, that Pro Football Focus graded Peterson slightly below Sherman overall last season and one spot behind Norman in coverage. Cian Fahey of Pre Snap Reads also wrote this, during a deep dive into Peterson’s 2015 performance: “It’s unclear if he was significantly better than Revis, Sherman, Chris Harris, Desmond Trufant or Aqib Talib, but we can say for sure that Peterson wasn’t close to a Shutdown Cornerback if we accept Revis and Sherman’s standards for one.”

Buying or selling Peterson’s remarks: I'm going to do both again. To say that Peterson is more valuable than Sherman undercuts how much of Seattle’s defense is predicated on what he can do outside. And while Carolina obviously capped the perceived value of Norman, eventually pulling his franchise tag, he was instrumental in its Super Bowl run last season.

That said, there is no question Peterson has developed into a premier man-to-man cover cornerback. At just 26 years old (as of Monday), he should maintain that status for several seasons to come.

The Arizona defense is about as progressive as it comes with interchanging parts—moving Peterson or Tyrann Mathieu or Deone Bucannon around to maximize the unit’s production. Peterson has earned the staff’s trust so that they will swap him from right to left, or drop him into the slot. He is an elite cornerback right now. But when compared to the other top-tier defenders, he has not necessarily pulled himself onto another level. 

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Can Broncos' defense survive free agency losses? 

“That’s why they were successful last year. We had guys that didn’t play, we missed guys for games last year. Those kinds of things came up, and we just go forward. Work hard and try do the right things, and good things happen for you.” —Wade Phillips on the Broncos’ ability to mix and match defensively, via ESPN.

The reason this topic came up: Denver lost Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan to free agency and spent OTAs without Von Miller (contract), DeMarcus Ware (back) and Aqib Talib (gunshot wound).

Phillips is stumping for two factors here: depth and the Denver scheme. Even with their free-agent losses, the Broncos still have enough on the two-deep to feel content. That all could change if a) Miller holds out, or b) Ware misses extended time again. Ware finished second on the team in sacks last season with 7.5, despite missing five games, and he dropped Cam Newton twice in the Super Bowl. Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett are the main support players outside, but neither is a one-for-one replacement for Ware and certainly not for Miller.

Another possible headache could arise at linebacker, where Todd Davis looks to be first up as Trevathan’s replacement. Phillips asks his LBs to be very involved on all three downs, often tasking them with taking on running backs or tight ends. Davis has to show he can handle all that Trevathan did.

There are no doubts that the scheme works. Phillips generates constant pressure, backed by a physical secondary. But that does not mean every single position is plug-and-play.

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Buying or selling Phillips’ remarks: Buying, assuming Miller signs at some point. He is the best player on this defense and the centerpiece of said pass rush. Without him, teams would be able to key on Ware and force Ray into being a signature performer. A great scheme is paramount to success in the NFL, but it still takes players to execute it and, usually, at least a handful of those players must be standouts. So long as the Broncos have Miller, Chris Harris, Brandon Marshall and one or two other core parts, Phillips can mix and match to his heart’s desire.

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