Here's a midseason roster of disappointments that few saw coming before the season began.
The concept of “overrated players” can mean many different things. Maybe a team invested too much in a player on the assumption that he could transcend his own scheme-specific performance and be truly special. Maybe his biggest supporters made too much out of a small sample size. But however you slice it, many NFL players are not living up to their preseason expectations through eight weeks. Here's a midseason roster of disappointments that few saw coming before the season began.
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford, Lions
If we re-examine this list at the end of the season, it’s possible that Andrew Luck may be our quarterback. But for now, it’s Stafford, who has had more time in the league to develop his game and certainly more weapons. You give Luck Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and a credible backfield, and he’d probably do better than Stafford’s numbers so far this season: 193 completions on 299 attempts for 2,083 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 picks. More worrisome than Stafford’s stats in any given season is the simple fact that he hasn’t really grown mechanically. He still believes too much in his arm and relies too much on odd delivery angles and outlier plays. Yes, the coaching situation in Detroit doesn’t help, but more can and should be expected from a seven-year veteran with eight-figure cap hits through 2017.
Running back: DeMarco Murray, Eagles
It wasn’t really a surprise that the 2014 rushing champ has found trouble gaining consistent yardage in Chip Kelly’s system, which tends to reward players who can sustain long-developing runs as opposed to Murray’s preference for inside zone and power/counter/trap. Murray was part of a perfect storm in Dallas, but he has now proved that he’s not a scheme-transcendent player. Like most players in the NFL, he needs a system built around his attributes that also hides his liabilities. Not a problem, really, but it certainly disabuses us of the notion that Murray was ever going to be a great back no matter where he was. That’s just not who he is.
Receivers: Demaryius Thomas, Broncos; T.Y. Hilton, Colts
Thomas signed a five-year, $70 million deal with $43.5 million guaranteed in July, contract numbers comparable to those given to Dallas’s Dez Bryant around the same time. And while Thomas is a physical receiver with deep speed, he doesn't have the same otherworldly catch radius that Bryant has, the kind of skill set that defines the league's best receivers. Thomas has seen his numbers wane as Peyton Manning’s productivity has gone south—never a good sign for a franchise receiver. Is Thomas a good to great receiver? Absolutely. Is he in the top 10 in the NFL? That’s harder to claim.
As for Hilton, he is now what he’s always been: a special speed receiver who needs ancillary targets around him. He tends to get shut down by aggressive press coverage, and while his route awareness has improved, Hilton is not in the upper tier in that department. The extent to which top Panthers corner Josh Norman shut him down on Monday night is an indicator of Hilton’s limitations.
Tight end: Julius Thomas, Jaguars
Thomas was a perfect red zone and end zone target for Peyton Manning in Denver’s offense, but the Jaguars signed him thinking they would see the same level of productivity in their own developing system. The weird thing is that while Blake Bortles has made great strides as a quarterback in his second season, Thomas has not been brought along for the ride, catching just 10 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown with his new team. Injuries have been an issue, but even when Thomas is on the field, Bortles has turned to more explosive and reliable targets. The Jags gave Thomas $46 million with $24 million guaranteed over five years, and they’re getting mid-level rookie production in return. Not good.
Offensive line: Detroit Lions
Last season, the Lions allowed 27 sacks and 173 total pressures on 667 passing plays, about middle of the pack in the NFL. This season, they’ve already allowed 12 sacks and 127 total pressures on 372 passing plays. According to Pro Football Focus, only the Chargers’ injury-depleted line has allowed more heat. There’s no question that the tackles are the main problem—right tackle LaAdrian Waddle has allowed more pressures than any other offensive lineman this season, and the team’s insistence that Riley Reiff could be an upper-level left tackle has returned mixed results at best. Center Travis Swanson has regressed, and the guards, led by rookie Laken Tomlinson and the formerly great Larry Warford, have not lived up to expectations. There’s a lot of money and draft capital tied up in this line, and outside of the quarterback it protects, it may very well be Detroit’s biggest disappointment this season.
Defensive Line: Chicago Bears
The thought was that with coach John Fox and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on board, the Bears’ front line would dramatically improve upon the unit that was the NFL's worst in 2014. Certainly the talent was in place for that to happen, especially after the Bears signed former Ravens pass rusher Pernell McPhee to a lucrative deal in the off-season. And while McPhee has played well, the Bears rank dead last or close to it in every advanced defensive line metric. Rookie tackle Eddie Goldman has been okay, but the team had a turbulent falling-out with veteran Jeremiah Ratliff, and formerly good players under development like Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson have struggled. Jarvis Jenkins has 3.5 sacks, but two came against Seattle’s awful offensive line. Perhaps Fox and Fangio believe that they’re going to have to gut this defense and start over, but the talent-to-effectiveness ratio so far is pretty embarrassing.
Linebackers: Lavonte David, Buccaneers; Chad Greenway, Vikings
Yes, David has been a tackling machine since he came into the league in 2012, but like most players in Lovie Smith’s fractured defense, he’s struggling to find a role. David is at his best when he’s on the move, and he’s been asked to hit the hole against run plays too often. It’s probably a matter of scheme fit over a decline in talent, but it's not pretty either way. Greenway struggled through knee injuries in 2014, and he hasn't really come back to the form he used to have. He agreed to a pay cut in the off-season, and he’s amassed just 10 tackles on 195 total snaps this season.
Cornerbacks: Byron Maxwell, Eagles; Brandon Flowers, Chargers
The lesson of Maxwell’s free agency was one you’d think they’d already learned: Don’t pay the No. 2 cornerback of a great defense like a No. 1 cornerback unless you’re absolutely sure he’ll live up to it. In Seattle, Maxwell had a superlative linebacker group in front of him and the best safety duo in football to clean up any mistakes. In Philadelphia’s defense, he’s been undressed by top receiver after top receiver, allowing 30 catches on 40 targets for 410 yards. Flowers’s disintegration this season is harder to explain. He was pretty solid for the Chargers last season, but in 2015, no starting cornerback has allowed a more favorable opponent passer rating than his 136.5. Giving up five touchdowns and matching that with no picks? That’s a real problem.
Safeties: Dashon Goldson, Redskins; Michael Griffin, Titans
Goldson admitted last season that he started playing more passively because he was rendered gun-shy by his high penalty count. The move from Tampa Bay to Washington hasn’t done much to improve his game. This season, Goldson has allowed 13 catches on 18 targets, and has missed nine tackles. Last year, it was 23 catches on 33 targets, and an astonishing 20 missed tackles. Griffin signed a big contract with the Titans in 2012, but in 2015, he has underperformed as many of his teammates have. Fourteen missed tackles to 27 actual tackles doesn't make for a great ratio, and he’s been even more of a problem in pass coverage.
Head coach: Jim Caldwell, Lions
Caldwell got the Tony Dungy Seal of Approval that the Super Bowl-winning coach loves to give to all of his assistants, and it looked like the Lions made the right move by hiring Caldwell in 2014. This season, though, it’s all fallen apart. The decision to re-do the offensive staff seems to be just a shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic, and Caldwell’s comments Tuesday that the media’s negativity toward his 1–7 team is an issue shows just how desperate he is for any message to stick.