Derrick Henry catching passes? Justin Hardy primed for a breakout season? SI.com’s Chris Burke wades through the latest statements flying around the NFL.
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?
Derrick Henry, pass catcher?
“I think he’s been impressive, especially with the one-on-ones. He’s a very good route runner. ... He’s very patient, getting the depths he’s supposed to be getting at, beating guys that are cover guys, so I’ve been pretty impressed with him.” — Titans coach Mike Mularkey, via The Tennessean.
Henry’s illustrious career at Alabama, which concluded with a national championship and Heisman trophy, saw him make just 16 catches over three seasons (11 for 91 yards in 2015). Was that lack of production in the passing game a product of the Alabama offense or was it dictated by Henry’s limited abilities to contribute as a receiver?
Early in the draft process, there was concern about the latter—that Henry may not be a three-down back so much as a high-volume workhorse who had to cede his spot in passing situations. But Henry put some of those fears to rest at Alabama’s pro day, where he ran receiver drills to much acclaim.
Mularkey’s remarks offer another indication that Henry could help in all situations. They are particularly interesting when paired with offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie declaring that the Titans are not opposed to riding a “hot hand” in an emerging backfield committee. This does not come as a shock—the Titans didn’t spend a second-round pick on Henry to glue him to the bench—but it’s apparent that Henry has a shot at a 50-50 workload split, or better, alongside DeMarco Murray.
Murray himself is a capable receiver, having averaged 42.8 catches thus far in his career. He is not exactly explosive in that role, though, as evidenced by his 7.3 yards-per-catch mark last season, which ranked behind 20 or so other RBs.
Buying or selling Mularkey’s remarks: Buying. While Henry never will be confused with a Darren Sproles-type scatback, he shows enough quickness and understanding of defenses to be effective. Dexter McCluster, Bishop Sankey and Antonio Andrews combined for a disappointing 573 yards receiving last season, so Murray and Henry make Tennessee’s offense far more versatile.
We have not seen much in the way of receiving skills from Henry during games (and he has to back his OTA performance by showing well during padded practices), but it’s well within reason that he could help Tennessee there.
Is Justin Hardy primed for a breakthrough?
“It took him a little bit [of] time to get going. He started to click about halfway through the year. He finished strong for us. He’s come back better. He’s come back in better shape than where he started off as a rookie, which allows him to accelerate early in OTAs and not wait until training camp. He’s got as good of hands as anyone I’ve been around. ... I expect Hardy to help us out a lot this year.” — Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan, via the team’s website.
The Hardy hype has been a running theme for Atlanta this off-season. GM Thomas Dimitroff talked up the second-year receiver during the NFL combine, as did coach Dan Quinn. “We are expecting big things from Justin in 2016,” Quinn said. Dimitroff reiterated that praise a month later, then QB Matt Ryan gave Hardy props following a player-organized workout in April.
At this point, anything shy of a massive leap from Hardy’s 21-catch, 194-yard rookie season will have to be viewed as a letdown. The Falcons have raised the bar for him to a potentially unreachable level.
That said, there will be opportunities. Behind Julio Jones, the Falcons’ pass-catching pecking order is wide open, and that’s taking into account newcomer Mohamed Sanu—he caught just 33 balls last season and his career performance hardly hints at sudden stardom. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper should bolster the tight end spot, but few at his position produce in their first NFL season.
Hardy is penciled in as the No. 3 option, and he could climb to the No. 2 spot before long.
Buying or selling Shanahan’s remarks: Buying, to a degree. There is too much smoke to ignore a possible fire, although some of the internal chatter could be aimed at boosting Hardy’s confidence ahead of a 2016 season in which he must play a key role. Just don’t expect Hardy to suddenly be a 1,000-yard receiver. Quinn also commented earlier this off-season that Hardy still needs to get better against man-to-man coverage, which ... yea, that’s a rather large component.
Increased playing time, caused in part by Roddy White’s departure, naturally will bump up Hardy’s stats. He still has a long way to go before he can be as good as the Falcons have led us to believe he already is.
Can the Saints D-line attack?
“We don’t want to sit back, we don’t want to react to nothing, we want to dictate what’s going to happen. So it starts with the front, so we’re going to get off and we’re going to get under their pads and we’re going to knock them back three yards and let the chips fall where they may. ... We’re not going to be two-gapping anything.” — Saints pass-rush specialist coach Brian Young, via the New Orleans Advocate.
The Saints employed the league’s train-wreckiest defense last season, leaving defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (promoted to the job after Rob Ryan’s mid-2015 firing) no choice but to consider major changes. Shifting from primarily two-gap assignments to one-gap up front falls under that umbrella.
The goal of that approach is, as Young says, to attack. Allen will ask his linemen to penetrate upfield, rather than worry about clogging lanes. He may just have (some of) the personnel to make it work, too. Free-agent addition Nick Fairley, rookie Sheldon Rankins and Cam Jordan all are players capable of disrupting in more straight-line fashion, even more so if they’re all unleashed together as should be expected.
The question is if there is enough behind them to make this plan work. The 360-pound John Jenkin, a 12-game starter last season, always has been more of a true nose tackle than anything else. Bobby Richardson, Obum Gwachum and others also must continue their progression if the Saints hope to be more than a two- or three-man attack. Losing Hau’oli Kikaha to a season-ending knee injury will sting.
And turning loose the entire D-line on a repeated basis can put more pressure on the linebackers and secondary, should that initial push leave openings. Are the pieces there good enough to hold up when the line misses its marks?
Buying or selling Young’s remarks: Buying. With Rankins and Fairley in tow, the Saints should be athletic enough up front to cause issues on a consistent basis. At the least, it’s worth leaning on that group given the possible deficiencies elswhere.
C.J. Anderson taking command?
“I think C.J. is ready to be an every-down guy. Just watching him, I think his condition level is the best that I’ve seen it since I’ve been here. He’s had a really good offseason. He’s getting pushed. ... C.J. is responding to that.” — Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, via the Denver Post.
When Kubiak had a healthy Arian Foster in Houston (an all-too-infrequent) occurrence, he ran him into the ground. Take the 2012 season: Foster carried the ball a league-leading 351 times and also caught 40 passes.
Anderson, 25 and the new owner of a four-year contract extension, has yet to come close to those numbers. And, frankly, why should Denver ask him to do so? The Broncos still have Ronnie Hillman, who was more effective than Anderson in large stretches last season, and the team just brought in versatile rookie Devontae Booker.
Whether it be Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian at quarterback for the Broncos, it’s obvious that the game plan will be to lean on the run game and defense. Anderson will need help, and he appears to have it.
Buying or selling Kubiak’s remarks: Selling, in that while Anderson very realistically could be primed for a career year, Hillman and maybe Booker are going to see work. This is not going to be a Foster-esque situation where 75% of the run plays go through one back.
Is this Ryan Tannehill’s year?
“He’s always been a leader on this team, but this year I feel like he’s bringing more to the table, more than he ever has before as far as pushing guys and getting guys ready to go. I’m just glad he’s our quarterback. He’s the first one in the building, last one out, and that’s something you have to appreciate at that position. … We think he’s going to be really good.” — Center Mike Pouncey, to the Miami Herald.
We talked about Tannehill last month when we debated which players had the most to prove in 2016. Time is starting to dwindle for the fifth-year QB, who will turn 28 next month. He technically has five years left on a $77 million contract, but he has just $10.4 million guaranteed after this season and that number drops even further ($4.6 million) ahead of 2018.
Adam Gase’s presence increases the now-or-never feeling surrounding Tannehill. Gase has a long history of helping NFL quarterbacks max out their potential, including as the Bears’ offensive coordinator last season—Jay Cutler enjoyed a resurgence under Gase’s watch.
Gase already has said he would like to give Tannehill more autonomy on the field, so Tannehill showing that extra bit of leadership off it will not go unnoticed.
Buying or selling Pouncey’s remarks: Buying, with an asterisk. The real test of an NFL quarterback is not necessarily how he conducts himself during May and June but what happens when the going gets a little tough in September and October. If the Dolphins struggle out of the gate, will Tannehill show enough resolve to lock himself in as the long-term starter? Or will he crumple, thereby starting to punch an inevitable ticket out of town?
Tannehill has been an average quarterback in this league, occasionally hinting at the prospect of more. The pieces are in place for a bump to occur this year, so it stands to reason that Tannehill would have a little more fire during off-season activities.