Overrated to underrated: NFL stars who have experienced the career shift
Hype can be a double-edged sword in the NFL. A player must create that buzz for himself, either via production or potential, but once it's there, it's challenging to continue living up to it for the duration of a career. But usually, somewhere along the line, reality falls short.
For the handful of players listed below, though, the criticism of them being "overrated" has gone so far that it clouds the ability they still offer a team, forcing the pendulum to shift back toward the "underrated" column.
Mike Wallace, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Blame the contract Wallace signed before the 2013 season (five years, $60 million with $30 million guaranteed) for his disappointing Dolphins career. Wallace averaged 70 catches, 892 yards and 7.5 touchdowns from 2013-'14—respectable numbers, but hardly worthy of that money. Among all wide receivers only Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant (if he signs his franchise tag) currently make more per year than Wallace.
The Vikings had the cap space to absorb Wallace's bloated deal and managed to acquire him at minimal cost, and Wallace has said that he believes the Minnesota offense is a better fit for his skills. On the surface he has a point—offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes to stretch the field vertically, which is ideal for the speedy Wallace.
Minnesota also should have no preconceived notions of Wallace being a true No. 1 receiver—at least not in the way that Johnson and Bryant are. The contract is still there, but the expectations will be reduced. That's good news for all involved.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: Injuries prevented Mathews from reaching his full potential in San Diego, though he came close in 2011 (1,546 total yards) and '13 (1,444 total yards, including 1,255 rushing). Philadelphia has DeMarco Murray to handle the bulk of run-game duties and Darren Sproles figures to remain a critical piece in the passing attack, meaning Mathews' role will be more of the pick-and-choose variety.
While less snaps usually equals less production, that approach also should help keep Mathews on the field. So, too, will Chip Kelly's reliance on sports science, which has helped keep the Eagles among the league's healthiest teams the past two seasons.
"[Mathews is a] big, physical running back," said Kelly, per Philly.com. "He's explosive. When he sees a hole, he can change gears and accelerate through it. We're using him a little bit on kickoff return, I think because of taking advantage of that speed. There's not a lot of guys that have that speed to go along with that size."
Mathews may not wind up as a return man—Sproles can be electrifying in that role and Josh Huff averaged nearly 30 yards per attempt on kickoffs last season. But the Eagles exploring their options with the ex-Charger hints at what could be for Mathews in his new digs.
Dashon Goldson, S, Washington Redskins: Goldson was a Pro Bowler for San Francisco in both 2011 and '12. He parlayed his performance into a five-year, $41.25 million contract with Tampa Bay ... where he promptly bottomed out on a rebuilding squad.
Like Wallace, he was acquired on the cheap this off-season—Washington gave the Bucs their sixth-round pick in 2016 for Goldson and a '16 seventh-round pick, though Washington did absorb the remainder of Goldson's contract. And like Wallace, the change of scenery ought to serve Goldson well. He will start at one safety spot, with either Jerron Johnson or Duke Ihenacho next to him. While Washington is counting on Goldson to lock down his role, he's not going to be viewed as a game-changer like Tampa Bay saw him two years ago.
Don't be surprised to see a bounceback season from a motivated Goldson.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Bortles gained valuable experience while starting 13 games as a rookie. Unfortunately, that's about all that went right for the former No. 3 draft pick in his debut season. Bortles took a league-high 55 sacks and threw 17 interceptions, and his coach recently revealed that Bortles suffered from "dead arm" late in the year.
Some out there already have labeled Bortles a bust, to which we'll say: Slow down.
Sure, he was overwhelmed in 2014 but how many quarterbacks would have succeeded behind the Jaguars' miserable O-line and with all the injuries they suffered at receiver? Not many. If the slump continues into year two and beyond, feel free to let the judgement fly. However, there is a legitimate chance Bortles takes a step forward come September, especially with a new running back (T.J. Yeldon) and two more key additions up front (OT Jermey Parnell and rookie G A.J. Cann).
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is Martin finally ready to get it back? The 2012 first-rounder shined as a rookie, falling just shy of 2,000 total yards, only to miss a combined 15 games the next two seasons and slide to the cusp of roster irrelevance with Tampa Bay. Healthy again (for now), Martin has every opportunity to reclaim the lead-back role with he now Jameis Winston-led Buccaneers offense.
As is the case with many of the offensive players who slide from overrated to underrated, Martin's drop-off was fueled by frustrated fantasy owners. His 2012 performance turned him into an overnight star, a praise he could not repay in subsequent years.
There's still talent here—maybe not enough to reach the bar Martin set for himself out of the gate, but plenty for Martin to reclaim a full-time starting job.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Two seasons is about the maximum amount of times all high draft picks get to prove themselves before the public jury reaches a verdict. After being selected No. 17 in 2013, Jones responded with 3.0 total sacks in 2013-14. Between that subpar work and Bud Dupree's arrival, Jones appears to be running low on chances with the Steelers.
Except, it is fair to ask how much of a shot he's actually had thus far? Jason Worilds and Lamaar Woodley limited his rookie playing time; a fractured wrist kept him to seven games played last season.
Ideally, the Steelers would like to play Dupree on the left side, leaving Jones and veteran James Harrison to scrap for snaps on the right. Harrison will see action, although he is without question best suited to a part-time, pass-rushing role at 37 years of age. Jones should handle the majority of the work, if he proves capable.
Thus far, Jones has been an injury-prone, overmatched defender off the edge. Let's wait and see what happens when he's playing heavy minutes at 100% health before writing him off entirely.
B.J. Raji, NT, Green Bay Packers: Remember him? Raji missed all of the 2014 season with a torn biceps and has struggled to be an impact player since early in his career. He is back healthy for 2015, and, perhaps more importantly, he's back playing nose tackle, which is the spot from which he enjoyed the most success as an NFL player.
Even though it feels like he's been in the league forever, Raji turns just 29 this month. He should be fresh, thanks to the injury-induced year off, plus the one-year deal Green Bay handed him in free agency will provide Raji motivation as he seeks a new deal for 2016.
Raji was the ninth-overall pick back in 2009, recorded 6.5 sacks in '10 and was a Pro Bowler in '11. Should he find even a semblance of his old self, the Packers' defense will be thankful to have him back.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions: Life can be rough for rookie tight ends. In the Super Bowl era, a mere two first-year players at the position have topped 55 receptions (Keith Jackson and Jeremy Shockey), and no rookie TE has ever hit the 900-yard mark. Ebron was not even in the ballpark for either stat—he wrapped a miserable 2014 with 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown. Hardly justification for being selected No. 10 overall and far from the impact Detroit hoped for inside the red zone.
The 2015 season should be better for him, incrementally if not exponentially. Ebron, who has been working with QB Matthew Stafford this off-season, again will join Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria in the Lions' TE rotation. Pettigrew remains a block-first option while Fauria failed to follow up on a surprising seven-touchdown rookie year.
Ebron has a chance to be the go-to tight end on a team desperate for another downfield option alongside Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.