Truth Detector: Is Mike Wallace set up to thrive with the Ravens?
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 new Truth Detector will attempt to guide you toward reality.
Which remarks are to be believed, and which are merely off-season fodder?
A Mike Wallace resurgence?
“I’ve probably run about 10,000 post routes and go routes since when I first came into the league, so maybe [I’ve lost] just a step, a half a step. ... But I can still get it done. I think I’ve gotten better, even though [the] numbers don’t say so. I think I’ll get better this year, and I’ll show some people I have a lot up my sleeve.” — Baltimore wide receiver Mike Wallace, via ESPN.com.
Wallace—or at least the idea of what Wallace is supposed to be at his best—fit the Minnesota offense just fine. Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to stretch the field vertically when he can, and Wallace remains a speedy deep threat.
But the soon-to-be 30-year-old receiver did not mesh with the quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater lived in short and intermediate windows last season, throwing 60% of his passes 10 yards or fewer and attempting just 48 passes (an average of three per game) deeper than 20 yards. Wallace never was more than an afterthought. In his lone Vikings season, he posted career-low numbers across the board: 39 catches on 72 targets, 472 yards and two touchdowns. He topped 80 yards in a game just once.
So Minnesota released him, rather than give him $12 million this season, and Wallace landed with the Ravens. Again, it appears on paper to be a decent fit. Joe Flacco is at his best when he has a downfield threat who can go run under deep balls—see Smith, Torrey. That element was absent from the Baltimore attack a year ago, when Flacco averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt (tied for 28th among starters).
Does that set up Wallace for a bounceback season? Sure, but ... well, how high can he bounce? At some point, fit aside, playmakers have to make an impact, and it’s been a rather steady decline for the veteran WR. While he did post 10 TDs for Miami in 2014, Wallace has not hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark since 2011, with Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger. This will be his third team and third system in three years.
Buying or selling Wallace’s remarks: Buying, in that Wallace should surpass last year’s miserable totals. I wouldn’t take it far beyond that. The Ravens have a clear need out wide, what with Steve Smith fighting back from an Achilles tear and Breshad Perriman still in limbo. Wallace should find targets, especially when Flacco wants to stretch the field or opts for a bomb over a checkdown.
There is a dwindling amount of evidence, though, that Wallace can provide much beyond the go-long-and-get-it option. Baltimore has a space for just such a player, but the deck is stacked against Wallace suddenly becoming a 1,000-yard guy again.
Is J.J. Nelson primed to explode?
“I believe J.J. Nelson’s going to have a great year. He had a great, great spring, showed some flashes. I can’t wait to see what he’s going do here if he can keep that momentum going into summer camp because I’ve seen it happen a number of times.” — Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson, to PFT Live.
This is not the first we’ve heard of a potential J.J. Nelson ascendancy this off-season. Arizona coach Bruce Arians struck a similar cord during earlier workouts, as did GM Steve Keim during February’s scouting combine.
“You talk about Bruce Arians and his style: attack the vertical game,” Keim said. “You have Michael [Floyd] and Larry [Fitzgerald], your big, physical receivers, and then you have John Brown and J.J., who can either play in the slot or be perimeter threats down the field. That’s what Bruce loves. Bruce loves speed. With our style of offense, there is no question J.J. can continue to improve.”
The talking points in many ways are similar to those discussed above with Wallace. Nelson is a burner who can hurt defenses over the top, playing within an offense that loves to takes big shots. Glimpses of the potential came in spurts last year—Nelson caught three passes for 70 yards in Week 8, then caught four for 142 yards and a touchdown in Week 11.
The question is if he can be more consistent, which goes hand in hand with asking if he can be more than a straight-line speedster. His size (5' 10", 156 pounds) will dictate some of what Arizona can do with him, as he will never be a real physical presence on the outside. Instead, his duties could expand as a slot option, or even as a playmaker Arians goes out of his way to find opportunities for over the course of the season.
Is Arians willing to feed Nelson at the expense of Fitzgerald, Floyd, Brown and the run game?
Buying or selling Peterson’s remarks: Selling, until 2017. Change could be coming to the Cardinals’ receiving corps in the near future—Fitzgerald and Floyd both enter the season on expiring contracts, and Fitzgerald could be headed into his final season before retirement. An eventual Fitz departure is what really would fling open the doors for Nelson. Fitzgerald has remade himself as a star slot receiver, which is the spot Nelson will have to thrive. An uptick on Nelson’s 11-catch rookie season should happen, but there are too many mouths to feed for him to really break loose in 2016.
Avoiding another Andrew Luck letdown
“Injuries aside, I was not playing very good football—before [the injuries] happened. I’ve got to be better. Toward my last couple games, I felt like I was playing much better, trending in the right direction.” — Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, via NFL.com.
It some circles it may have been borderline blasphemous to suggest it, but Luck was average to below average at times during his injury-plagued 2015 season. Sure, he wasn’t helped much by his offensive line nor by an underachieving receiving corps. Luck’s reputation calls for him to rise above any issues around him.
He didn’t. Not enough.
The two games where Luck looked most like the NFL’s Next Great Quarterback came in matchups with a pair of the old guard: against Tom Brady in Week 6, and against Peyton Manning in Week 9. Combined over those performances Luck threw for 564 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions—the Colts lost to the Patriots by seven but knocked off the Broncos in overtime.
If he can stay healthy, those are the types of outings he should have far more frequently. We’ve seen them from him in the past. Help arrived this off-season, too, in the form of first-round center Ryan Kelly, whose presence alone should help Luck settle in from week to week. The Colts spent three more draft picks up front (Le’Raven Clark, Joe Haeg and Austin Blythe), hoping to leave their depth issues behind.
There always will be a faction of NFL fans who deem Luck overhyped, and there have been stretches where he has looked it. However, let’s not forget that he led the league in touchdown passes two seasons ago while guiding Indianapolis within a step of the Super Bowl.
Buying or selling Luck’s remarks: Buying. Now entering his fifth NFL season, Luck still needs to become a smarter, more efficient quarterback—he has thrown 55 interceptions in 55 career games. Beyond that, he absolutely should be capable of delivering a 2016 that helps erase 2015’s memory.
Hearing him note his subpar performance is a good sign, as well. He easily could have blamed the entirety of last year on his injuries, comfortable in the knowledge that he’s locked in as a long-term starter. To really improve, though, Luck still needs to go back and learn from what he did wrong on the field.
Can the Bengals’ offense do more?
“I think it can be really, really good. I think it can be better than last year with Tyler [Eifert] coming back healthy, with him continuing to pick up where he left off last year; A.J. [Green can] pick up where he left off last year, Andy [Dalton] also. All those guys come back and start the season the way they finished, and also the young guys like [rookie Tyler Boyd], myself, the new guys around here, come in to fill in the roles that guys left and going out there and making plays for us and not being a burden to this offense, just being another piece to help this offense achieve.” — Cincinnati WR Brandon LaFell, via Cincinnati.com.
The obvious, before we go any further: LaFell was not on the Bengals last season. In the spot he now occupies were Marvin Jones (now with the Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (Falcons), who combined for 98 catches and upwards of 1,200 yards.
Also no longer around is former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who now has the top job in Cleveland. That’s no minor footnote. Over his two seasons as the Bengals’ playcaller, Jackson coaxed Andy Dalton into his best play as an NFL quarterback, then managed to keep the wheels on when AJ McCarron had to step in for an injured Dalton. New offensive coordinator Ken Zampese (who had been Cincinnati’s quarterbacks coach since 2013) will try to maintain the status quo, by leaning on the run game and working Dalton into favorable situations. He faces a significant challenge.
That said, personnel-wise, LaFell is on to something. He was abysmal for the Patriots last season but has shown he can be at least a capable NFL receiver. Boyd has the upside of a high-volume, versatile weapon in the offense. Together, that duo very much has the potential of improving upon the performances of Jones and an utterly replaceable Sanu.
Eifert’s health is an X-factor—he required off-season ankle surgery and is considered questionable for the start of the year. He reeled in 13 touchdown passes last season and was one of Dalton’s favorite safety nets. Any absence from him may be too much to overcome. With him, the Bengals will be formidable again.
Buying or selling LaFell’s remarks: Buying, but with several caveats. One is that Eifert gets back on the field by mid-September. Two is that Dalton returns from the thumb injury which ended his 2015 and, if nothing else, maintains his prior level of play without Jackson. Three is that LaFell himself shakes off the dust he gathered during a 37-catch 2015 to step in as a legit complement to Green.
In other words, there are a lot of moving parts. The foundation is solid, with an experienced line setting the table for running backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Any significant step back from the offense would be a massive disappointment.
Extending the Sammy Watkins timetable?
“You never know. Right now I feel good, but I got to go back and train and rehab. Hopefully it feels good when I run and everything like that. I haven’t ran in three or four weeks. Hopefully I’ll feel good about it and I’ll be on the field in training camp.” — Sammy Watkins, to ESPN.com, on if he will be ready for camp next month.
The second straight appearance for Watkins and the Bills’ receiving corps in our Truth Detector ...
Watkins’s comments are noteworthy if only because they came about a week following him telling TSN this: “For training camp, I think I’ll definitely be available. I might sit out two or three days. It’s all about how I feel within those days. The goal is to come back and be prepared for training camp.”
There still is no apparent reason to panic about Watkins’s off-season foot surgery. However, any delay that pushes his return closer to Week 1 does raise a little concern.
The initial reported timetable on his recovery from that April procedure was two months, which would have put him at 100% right about now. GM Doug Whaley then said in May that while Watkins should be a go for Week 1, there was “no timetable” for his return to practice.
Watkins still has a month-plus to get running again and test that foot before the Bills open camp on July 30. He also should have enough of a comfort level within Greg Roman’s system, and with Tyrod Taylor at QB, to buy him a few off days as camp drags on.
Buying or selling Watkins’s remarks: Buying. The name of the game is patience right now for Buffalo. Having Watkins at 100% in late June does nothing. The Bills need him raring to go by the time Week 1 rolls around, and anything he can pitch in beforehand is gravy. For now, there is no reason to think he won’t be ready by September.