Chris Burke and Doug Farrar continue their offseason tour, this week focusing on the NFC South. Which players in the division have the most to prove in 2014? See below, with Burke handling the veterans and Farrar focusing on the rookies.
Chris Burke: Steven Jackson, RB
Jackson was a free-agent bust last season, plodding his way to a measly 543 yards on the ground and missing four games to injury. The Falcons may have drafted his replacement, too, in fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman. Still, Jackson, at least for now, holds the top spot on the depth chart, ahead of Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers.
To stay there, he’ll have to be much more productive than he was in his first season with the Falcons. Jackson did score six rushing TDs and caught 33 passes out of the backfield, though even that latter stat is diminished by a 5.8 yards-per-reception average that was among the team’s worst. Falcons head coach Mike Smith spoke at this year’s owners meetings about the importance of having “a big back when you have to get the two or three yards,” according to ESPN.com. Smith may be counting on Jackson to fill that role in 2014, but the expectations are far lower than they were entering 2013.
Freeman — or an increased role for Rodgers — may wind up being the answer. Atlanta finished dead last in rushing last year, hindered greatly by Jackson’s worst professional season. Any hope the offense has of righting the ship starts with improvement there.
Doug Farrar: Ra’Shede Hageman, DE
The Falcons intend to completely redefine their defensive front in 2014, a task that became all the more important when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Leaving behind the base sets of prior years, Atlanta will feature more complex blitz packages and line stunts. Signing former Chiefs end Tyson Jackson to a large contract was questionable, but the selection of Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round of the draft could pay off in a big way. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman has the athletic ability to play everywhere from nose tackle to defensive end, and to do it all very effectively. Where he’ll need to prove himself is in endurance and consistency — in college, Hageman would make one amazing play and disappear for five more.
Burke: Antoine Cason, CB
Even if the Panthers’ front seven remains the same dominant unit that helped guide this team to the postseason last year, someone has to rise to the occasion in the secondary. During that surprising NFC South title run, it was Captain Munnerlyn leading the way. He departed this offseason to sign with the Vikings, and the Panthers responded in part by inking Cason to a one-year deal.
Now Cason, coming off a year in which he struggled to even carve out playing time in Arizona, may take over No. 1 corner duties by default. The gap between that Cardinals secondary and this Carolina one is vast, both in terms of talent and depth.
Cason does have a headstart, having played under current Panthers head coach Ron Rivera when Rivera was the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. Every little bit will help.
Farrar: Kelvin Benjamin, WR
With Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn out the door, the onus is on a new bunch of players to pick up the slack. The top man in that equation is Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s first-round pick out of Florida State. At 6-5 and 240, Benjamin can absolutely dominate in the red zone, which he proved by leading the ACC in receiving touchdowns. However, it’s a lot to put on a rookie to be a team’s primary target, especially when Benjamin still has a lot to learn regarding catch mechanics, ball security and route awareness. Benjamin should make several impressive touchdown grabs in his rookie campaign. The Panthers will be far better for it if he can also be reliable with yards after catch on the slant-and-go and the right angle on the deep post.
Burke: Victor Butler, LB
The Saints appeared to have stolen Butler out of free agency prior to the 2013 season, landing a potential starter for the affordable price of $3 million over two years. Butler has yet to make his Saints debut, however, after suffering an ACL tear last June. A full year removed from that injury, Butler should add another athletic, pass-rushing piece to Rob Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 scheme — a scheme, by the way, that resurrected the Saints defense from a bottom-of-the-barrel outfit to a top-five attack in 2014.
“It’s great to get him back out there,” Ryan said last month. “He looks healthy; I can’t wait.”
Prior to signing with the Saints, Butler racked up 11 sacks in four seasons as a Cowboy, despite starting just two games total. He may have that many starts under his belt by Week 2 this year, if he can win an OLB job opposite rising star Junior Galette. Cam Jordan and Galette combined for 22.5 sacks last season; no one else on the roster finished with more than 4.5.
Butler could be the third piece to the pass-rushing puzzle. The Saints have waited long enough to find out.
Farrar: Brandin Cooks, WR
Cooks flew under the radar at Oregon State, but he led the nation with 1,730 receiving yards in 2013, and he’s an explosive play waiting to happen — especially in an offense as complex and as prolific as the one run by Sean Payton and Drew Brees. And Brees, for his part, sees the first-round rookie as an optimal replacement for running back Darren Sproles, who went to Philly in a March trade. It’s always been Payton’s preference to use his backs in many ways, but Cooks could provide that same versatility from a different position.
“I’ve seen all the highlights, and that gets you excited,” Brees told USA Today. “I think he can do a lot of things. I think he can play outside receiver. I think he can play inside in the slot. You can hand him reverses. You can throw him screens. He can return punts.”
Cooks has the talent to do it. But can he pick up the advanced verbiage and be mistake-free in time for the start of his rookie season? Playing in Mike Riley’s pro-style offense at OSU will have helped. Cooks could be a sleeper Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Burke: Adrian Clayborn, DE
Even though Clayborn bounced back from a 2012 knee injury to start 16 games and deliver six sacks last season, the Buccaneers opted not to exercise the fifth-year option on his contract, meaning that he could hit free agency after 2014. That decision sends a pretty clear message to Clayborn that the new, Lovie Smith-led coaching staff has its doubts about his future — or at least about Clayborn’s value at the $6.9 million his 2015 option would have demanded.
So Clayborn finds himself in a prove-it contract year, though the opportunities should be plenty in Smith’s defense.
The soon-to-be 26-year-old Clayborn is slotted in as the starting left DE for the Buccaneers, with newcomer Michael Johnson on the right side. How well Clayborn performs there ultimately will determine if Tampa Bay deems him irreplaceable or if he will limp into free agency next offseason. The Bucs would be thrilled to see Clayborn prove them wrong, because they have limited usable depth behind him — William Gholston may be ready for a larger role, but Da’Quan Bowers continues to be a disappointment.
Farrar: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE
By selecting Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the first round and pairing him with Vincent Jackson, the Bucs are looking to give new quarterback Josh McCown as many big targets as possible in new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s system. The potential difference-maker here, though, is Seferian-Jenkins, who enticed with his potential and disappointed with his production at Washington. When he’s on and at the right weight, Seferian-Jenkins is a matchup nightmare who can blow past linebackers and test safeties with his physical play. But in 2013, Seferian-Jenkins too often appeared to be running in slow-motion. He wasn’t as strong against contact as you’d like for a player his size (6-6, 262), and he struggled to produce at a repeatable level from game to game. He’ll need to mature on and off the field, and if he does, the Bucs will have as compelling (and gigantic) a receiver trio as you’ll see in the league.