Cover Two: Critical camp injuries and coordinators under pressure
In this week's Cover Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss which units have the most fine-tuning left to do in the preseason, August's biggest injuries and the factors keeping Tom Brady and Ray Rice off the field.
Which training camp injury so far is the most damaging to the team hit by it?
Chris Burke: Minnesota OT Phil Loadholt—That setback hurts the Vikings in a couple of ways: It robs them of their most imposing run blocker, which is no small issue given their desire to lean on the ground game with Adrian Peterson returning, and it all but eliminates any meaningful depth they had at tackle.
Rookie T.J. Clemmings will slide out to start in Loadholt's place—great for Loadholt's long-term development as a potential anchor, but problematic for the 2015 Vikings given how raw Clemmings can look. Remember, he was playing defense at the start of his college career. Left tackle Matt Kalil already stood out as a potential problem for this offense, given his terrible 2014.
Loadholt has not been a perennial All-Pro in his career, but he is a menace in the run game and at least a solid pass-protector. His injury threatens to throw the Vikings' entire offensive plan off-kilter for a bit.
Doug Farrar: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers. When Benjamin suffered a season-ending torn ACL during a joint practice with the Dolphins on Wednesday, a lot of Carolina's projected passing game went right out the door. In 2014, Benjamin's 145 targets (per Football Outsiders) were the most of any rookie receiver and the fifth-most overall. At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Benjamin provides a combination of speed, athleticism and physicality that the Panthers simply can't replicate with anyone else on their roster. Last year, he caught 73 of those targets for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
Now, Carolina's receiving corps consists of rookie Devin Funchess, second-year man Corey Brown and role players like Jerricho Cotchery. This puts more pressure on tight end Greg Olsen and the Panthers' running game. Olsen can hold up, but with Carolina's current offensive line, that rushing attack could be limited outside of whatever Cam Newton can do with his legs
The loss of Benjamin probably doesn't affect Carolina's odds of winning the weak NFC South, but any postseason aspirations beyond that will have to be tempered pretty severely.
Which position coach or coordinator has the most work ahead of him before Week 1?
Burke: Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: There's no doubt in my mind that it's Fangio, and it probably comes as no huge surprise to anyone on the Bears' staff. In changing over to Fangio's 3–4 scheme, that defense had a difficult chore in front of it—the personnel didn't mesh, especially at linebacker.
Even ex-Raven Pernell McPhee is a work in progress because Fangio wants him to do more than just rush the passer (read more on McPhee's transition here). But players don't learn how to play in coverage or run read plays overnight; it takes time. McPhee found his most success with the Ravens via versatility, lining up inside while Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil played off the edges, but with the Bears, he is essentially learning a new position. Same goes for veteran Jared Allen, also ticketed for a 3–4 role (though he'll play hand-in-the-dirt when Fangio switches to a 4–3 look) and Shea McClellin, who has moved to ILB after struggling outside.
Chicago is undertaking a major transformation on defense. Fangio is going to need more than just the month-long preseason to make it work.
Farrar: Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable. It's been Cable's assertion that he can take marginally talented players with grit and defensive line converts, and make a high-quality offensive line out of those disparate parts. It's worked over the last two seasons as the Seahawks have gotten by on Marshawn Lynch's league-leading ability to break tackles and Russell Wilson's skill in running out of pressure. But Lynch wouldn't have to break so many tackles and Wilson wouldn't have to run around so much if Cable had invested in better talent.
After Seattle's 22–20 loss to the Broncos in Week 1 of the preseason, the issues brought about by that curious talent evaluation were very clear. Right tackle Justin Britt, a second-round pick in 2014, gave up the fifth-most pressures of any tackle in his rookie season and was absolutely abused by Von Miller last weekend. Right guard J.R. Sweezy, the first of Cable's defensive line converts, was knocked off his set by Malik Jackson on a sack, and the line overall was far too leaky in passing and running plays. Backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury.
Cable responded to these issues by moving Britt to left guard on a temporary basis, but this kind of reactive decision-making generally doesn't help. The Seahawks should have been going after linemen with more pure talent, and they may pay for it this season.
“We have to make the strive, we have to be better,” coach Pete Carroll said on Monday. “We can’t go out there and struggle early in games and take some hits that we don’t need to take. We have to get off better than that. So we’ll see. We’ll make it a good hard week for those guys and really challenge them to elevate their play.”
Cable's going to have to coach his way past iffy players if the Seahawks are going to get anywhere near another Super Bowl appearance.
Burke: Brady—We're starting to hear Rice's name surface as teams assess their RB depth in the preseason. Perhaps he winds up on a team in the near future, but if there was a great belief around the league that he could be a 2015 steal Rice already would be on a team. It is going to take a desperate franchise to pick up the former Ravens back, who has not played since 2013 and comes with obvious additional baggage.
Teams are reluctant enough as it is to commit to veteran running backs. What's the draw in handing carries to one with more than 1,900 career touches, who finished with a 3.1 yards-per-carry average the last time he played?
The real use for Rice now is not as a lead back, but as a pass-catching option. His yards-per-catch mark tumbled in 2013, too (5.5, worst of his career by a wide margin), but he has averaged 67 catches over his past five seasons. Backs that can protect the QB and slip out for receptions tend to stick around longer than those only usable on two downs.
Even so, I don't see a Rice signing as imminent.
Farrar: Brady—Whatever happens in his seemingly never-ending appeal process, Brady will be back on the field by the Patriots' fifth game of the season, in Week 6 against the Colts. No question there. Rice's situation is far more complex, and at this point, it has very little to do with the incident with his then-fiancée and now-wife in an Atlantic City elevator some time back.
The real issue with Rice's NFL future is that he simply wasn't that good before he was suspended by the league. In 2013, his last playing season, Rice ran 214 times for 660 yards and four touchdowns—the worst numbers since his rookie season and the least impressive performance of his career. His formerly reliable speed to and through the hole appeared to be just about gone, and his cutting ability and power to extend plays appeared to be a thing of the past. Rice's name will come up every time a team has an injury to a marquee back this season, but even if he is signed at some point, it's not likely that he'll make a major impact.
Teams are not shying away from Rice because of what he did off the field—from Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to Greg Hardy, the NFL has proven over and over that if a player has the obvious talent to help a team, he'll get a shot no matter what reprehensible thing he may have done in the past. Right now, Rice's most prominent sin, at least among NFL teams, appears to be that he's just not good enough anymore.