Sorting through the NFL’s hyperbole can be a challenge during the summer months, when OTAs, minicamps and training camps give rise to sweeping declarations about a player’s progress (or lack thereof). Each week, our Truth Detector will attempt to guide you toward reality.
Which remarks are to be believed, and which are merely off-season fodder?
Case Keenum, Week 1 starter?
“Case is our starter right now, so Case needs first-team reps. So to give Jared [Goff] an opportunity [with the first team]—and Sean [Mannion] for that matter—it’s easier to evaluate. So we’ll change things up. And once we get in there, we’ll make some decisions as to who plays when and how much in the preseason.” — Rams coach Jeff Fisher.
Give the Rams this much: They’re really sticking to the whole Case Keenum thing.
Keenum won three games in December last season, over Detroit, Tampa Bay and Seattle, and since then both Fisher and GM Les Snead have insisted that he is their No. 1 quarterback. Until he’s not, of course.
The inevitable will happen, with Goff leapfrogging Keenum to take over the offense. When it happens remains a mystery, but this is mostly just coachspeak for the time being. Relatively smart coachspeak, as it were—as Fisher noted within the same press conference, the worst thing Los Angeles can do is drop Goff into a bad spot when he’s not ready. There will be pressure to play him immediately, given his status as the No. 1 pick and the team’s relocation, but patience is an underappreciated virtue when it comes to rookie QBs.
This boils down to how quick a study Goff is, because there is almost no chance that Keenum straight-up outplays him in the preseason. Keenum likely can maintain his starting assignment only by Goff showing that he’s not ready for it.
Buying or selling Fisher’s remarks: Selling with incredible gusto Fisher’s mention of Sean Mannion as being in the mix. Buying the Goff part. I’m still expecting Goff to push his way into the Week 1 starting lineup, but it is within the realm of possibility that Keenum sticks for a couple games. If we’ve seen anything from the Fisher regime, it is that it is not afraid to stay the course.
Will Sammy Watkins have some help this year?
“Robert Woods has made huge strides, big time. He has changed his running form. I know he was injured last year and you can see after the surgery he is a different player.” — Bills wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, to WIVB.
“I think Dez Lewis for my money [was one of the best WRs this off-season], I think Dez Lewis consistently has done a great job. Here is a guy, a young man that came in from a small college, but man has he really taken off.” — Bills coach Rex Ryan.
After being sidetracked a bit by an ankle injury, Sammy Watkins finished the 2015 season on a tear after publicly calling for the ball more. He inched across the 1,000-yard plateau, but no other Bills receiver came close. In fact, Watkins and Stevie Johnson (now with the Chargers) are the only two Bills to have topped 700 receiving yards since 2010.
Could that change this year? It should.
The realistic candidate to break through the ceiling is Woods, who fell one yard shy of 700 two seasons ago. He dipped back to 552 yards on 47 catches last year, before sitting out late with a groin injury which required the off-season surgery Lal mentioned.
His role with the team was up in the air for a bit—back in January, GM Doug Whaley said in a radio interview that he would “love to [have a bona fide No. 2 receiver],” a spot that had belonged to Woods by default. Since then, Whaley, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Ryan and now Lal have sung Woods’s praises.
Lewis better fits the description of a “spring superstar,” in NFL terms. The No. 234 pick in last year’s draft, Lewis spent almost all of 2015 on the practice squad. His size (6' 4", 214 pounds) provides some intrigue, especially if the Bills want Woods to see reps in the slot. But when Whaley talked in January of piecing together a No. 2 receiver from the current parts, he named five potential options at the position, none of them Lewis.
Buying or selling Lal and Ryan’s remarks: Buying the Woods love, heavily, but selling on Lewis being a major producer in his sophomore season. I’m not the only one who has been waiting on Woods to blossom as a pro since he starred at USC, and this is a fork in the road for him—his rookie contract expires after this season, so he could cash in on a big year. A second season in Greg Roman’s system and having Taylor locked in at QB should work in Woods’s favor. He has the talent to be a 70-catch player.
Lewis has upside of his own, but let’s pump the brakes on expecting him to be the No. 3 receiver, even within a thin group. Marquise Goodwin, rookie Kolby Listenbee and a couple of veterans (Greg Little, Leonard Hankerson) will be fighting him for playing time come July and August, when he’ll have to prove he can maintain his off-season momentum in pads.
Is Justin Britt the Seahawks’ answer at center?
“He’s done a very good job now. He’s really embraced the role, and he’s the guy that’s been around the most and we hoped he would take the leadership up there making the calls and all that. He’s done that. He loves playing the spot. He’s looked very, very comfortable, really adds to the pass protection, he’s so long and all that he fills up a lot of good space for us.” — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Does Seattle truly believe Justin Britt is its answer at center, or is this a last-gasp attempt to salvage something from an underachieving former second-round pick? Perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B.
Britt, taken with the No. 64 pick in 2014, started all 16 games of his rookie season at tackle. He didn’t have the quickness to live outside, though, so the Seahawks moved him to guard last season, and he chalked up another 16 starts. That was hardly a success, either. Pro Football Focus (whose John Breitenbach labeled Britt “not of NFL caliber”) attached eight sacks, 14 hits and a staggering 71 QB pressures to Britt’s blocking over 2014 and ’15.
His style as more of a mauling type does fit better inside, on paper, but struggling at guard does not foretell of a great future at center. Just last week, Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said that 2017 draft prospect Johnny Caspers is “the only player I’ve ever been around” who pass blocks better from the center spot than he does at guard. You’re taking many of the challenges that come with playing guard, then adding snaps and line calls.
Last year’s plan to replace Max Unger did not turn out all that well, hence Britt’s presence in the first place. He is competing with Patrick Lewis, who started nine games last season at center, and Kristjan Sokoli, a second-year college defensive lineman. (Seahawks O-line coach Tom Cable has become a bit notorious for transitioning defensive linemen over to the other side of the ball.)
Britt has one year remaining on his rookie deal, but he’s already stumbled at tackle and guard. If he does the same at center, he will be looking for a new home.
Buying or selling Carroll’s remarks: Selling. As of May, Britt still was seeing reps at tackle along with center—a hint that the coaching staff is still trying to figure out where he works best. Given Britt’s forced positional versatility and the Seahawks’ troublesome O-line situation, it might behoove all parties to use Britt in a swing role, picking up starts at center, guard and tackle along the way.
Rookie Germain Ifedi will start at guard, and Garry Gilliam has the inside track at left tackle. Otherwise, the Seattle line is wide open. Anchoring it with an inexperienced, potentially overmatched Britt at center wouldn’t do anyone any favors.
Darian Thompson emerging for the Giants?
“That kind of probably says a lot that he is up there [getting first-team reps]. I said this before, he is still doing it, he is assertive, he is vocal, he is not afraid to make a mistake. I think the first thing that you need to do at that position when we ask you to make calls is not to be afraid of making a mistake and to be vocal.” — Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Thompson,via the team’s website.
To some extent, the Giants are throwing as many bodies at the safety spot as possible, hoping one steps up to win a job alongside Landon Collins. So far, so good for Thompson, although, again: Wait for the pads.
A remarkable playmaker at Boise State with 19 career interceptions, Thompson saw his draft stock dip at the combine when he ran a sluggish 4.69 40-yard dash and did not really stand out in any other drills. New York made for an interesting landing spot because Collins’s presence could help cover up Thompson’s weaknesses, but both players are better closer to the line.
Fighting him for a starting job will be Cooper Taylor, Nat Berhe and Mykkele Thompson. The Giants’ other Thompson was a 2015 fifth-rounder who was en route to decent playing time as a rookie before tearing his Achilles.
Buying or selling Spagnuolo’s remarks: Buying. Thompson checked in as a top-20 prospect on our 2016 draft big board, despite his speed and coverage concerns. There is not a clear standout from the remaining group of options at his position, thus it makes complete sense that the rookie could secure a significant role.
Can D.J. Hayden salvage his Raiders career?
“Really, D.J. Hayden had a really good spring. He really did. He got a little tweak yesterday, but nothing major. He has terrific foot quickness. He’s intelligent. Those things are definitely factors that help you in that slot.” — Raiders coach Jack Del Rio.
A critical training camp awaits Hayden, who finds himself on the roster bubble in his fourth NFL season. The Raiders declined their fifth-year contract option on the former No. 12 overall pick, so it’s make-or-break time.
ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez included Hayden in a 53-man roster projection Monday, hedging the bet a bit with this line: “[W]hile it would shock few if Hayden were to get cut, it would be just as unsurprising were he to win the slot corner gig.”
Said slot corner gig currently belongs to T.J. Carrie, a 14-game starter last season. He, David Amerson and big-ticket free agent Sean Smith are penciled in atop the depth chart in the secondary (O.K., Smith’s name is in pen); Hayden may have to bounce Carrie to stay in silver and black. If he doesn’t, Oakland easily could decide to spend time developing the likes of Neiko Thorpe, Keith McGill, Dexter McDonald and others rather than committing a roster spot to a soon-to-be free agent in Hayden.
Hayden made 13 starts of his own last season, finishing with 70 tackles and an interception. A great performance? No. An improvement on his first two, injury-riddled seasons? You bet. But it still was not enough for Oakland to count on him as a starter or lock him down for 2017.
Buying or selling Del Rio’s remarks: Buying that Hayden looked good during these OTA and minicamp drills, when the most athletic players usually stand out. Selling that he will win back a starting job come training camp. Hayden could spring a surprise—he has the raw talent necessary to be an NFL contributor and should be more confident coming out of 2015. It just feels like the writing is on the wall for him in Oakland, though.