- Think you know how good these key NFC players are? Our anonymous scout offers a reality check.
As the anticipation builds for Week 1, teams (and fans) are finalizing their preparation for another long march through the NFL regular season. But misperceptions abound after a full off-season of hype and coachspeak, setting teams and players up to fall well short of expectations. Luckily, the tape never lies. Which Pro Bowlers are getting by on name recognition only? Which rising stars should be hearing their name more often? A rival scout, whose identity is not being disclosed in exchange for his candor, gives quick takes on the players being overlooked—and the ones being overhyped—on each NFC team entering the 2016 season.
Underrated: Fletcher Cox
Some people questioned his massive six-year, $103 million pay day, but if you listen to football people, they know he’s worth it. The key is that he plays with relentless tenacity and he is a really quality interior pass rusher.
Overrated: Carson Wentz
People talked about all the winning that he did in college, but he was really only a two-year starter. He sat on the bench for three years, and it’ll be a huge leap from where he was at North Dakota State to where he needs to be as the new starter of the Eagles in 2016. Philly fans are going to be tough on him. How will he handle that adversity? He has a hitch in his delivery where his elbow flares out, and he’s kind of a rigid guy in the pocket—mechanical is the word that comes to mind. Everybody talks about how smart he is, but that doesn’t always translate. Alex Smith is a classic example—as smart as he is, he does not make quick decisions on the field.
When you trade away as much as the Eagles did, you leave yourself without a ton of depth. They don’t have a whole lot of options at linebacker and in the secondary, and they are thin at running back as well. They may be two years away from getting back to a competitive level of play.
Underrated: Jordan Reed
Reed is not yet a household name, but he will be after this upcoming year. He’s one of the toughest matchups in football. He can operate out of the slot and he can even spread out wide and run routes like a receiver. Somebody is going to have to plan for him every week. The West Coast style fits perfectly with him as a short and intermediate specialist. His most dynamic ability is to run after the catch. He becomes a running back downfield.
Overrated: Kirk Cousins
Cousins is one of those guys that would really struggle when you take talent out of the equation, and his QB play is not dynamic enough for them to run away with the division this year. [General manager] Scot McCloughan is an intelligent personnel man. He had some reluctance to pay Kirk—look what happened to the Ravens when they had to pay Joe Flacco after the Super Bowl. They had to let a lot of guys move on. The Falcons put themselves in the same boat with Matt Ryan as soon as they paid him $100 million, with no defense to speak of. So I applaud McCloughan for what he’s doing.
Underrated: Dak Prescott
The personnel people in the organization got it right by all accounts with Prescott thus far, and that’s going to be huge. He’s coming from a spread system at Mississippi State, so there were a lot of conversations about how his game was going to translate at a pro level. But he’s been really dynamic. Yes, he had a lot of space throws at Mississippi State when defenders weren’t around, and the windows are tighter in the NFL, and yes, it’s a totally different ballgame once we get into the regular season in terms of effort, physicality and the temperaments that players play with, but the key ingredient here is that Prescott will be able to lean on a strong running game. The Cowboys should be able to stay afloat with him in there.
Overrated: Jason Witten
It pains me to say this, but Witten’s play is on the decline. He’s a solid player but is no longer the go-to on third down or the touchdown-scoring guy who we’ve seen in the past. The biggest difference is he used to be a tough tackle in the secondary, and now he has a hard time getting away from anybody after the catch. He’s almost resigned now to catching the ball and falling down.
Prescott will have a quality supporting cast around him: one of the best offensive lines around in pro football, a difference maker outside with Dez Bryant, and, of course, rookie hotshot RB Ezekiel Elliott. In terms of their running game, this season is back to the future for the Cowboys. Elliott takes the place of DeMarco Murray, and he has better vision and the ability to make a man miss in the secondary. Dallas’s style of play goes back to the formula of the ‘90s with the triplets—with Prescott having to lean on Dez Bryant and Elliott while Romo is down. They should be right there, No. 1 or No. 2 in rushing and I believe No. 1 or No. 2 in time of possession. That’s the way they’ll play. Because of that supporting cast, until Tony Romo gets back healthy, the Cowboys may be able to perform better than people think.
Underrated: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
He gives up some plays, but everyone does. In New York, any blemishes are put under the magnifying glass, but Rodgers-Cromartie is a quality NFL cornerback. He can play man, he can play zone, he’s capable of matching up with teams’ No. 1 receivers and doing a good job on them. The guy is athletically gifted, and all of this is without much of a pass rush. This was the worst defense in the league last year. They had a revolving door of safeties, but it’s unfair to put the brunt of that on DRC. When you study the film, he was one of the lone bright spots on that defense a year ago.
Overrated: Olivier Vernon
He had 7.5 sacks last year and he’s getting paid $84 million? He might as well be a leprechaun who found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He’s talented, but he’s not on the level of Von Miller or J.J. Watt. Absolutely not. He’s not a difference-maker in our league. In Miami, he had Cameron Wake on the opposite side and Ndamukong Suh inside. Who is getting double-teamed? Wake, Suh, or Vernon? It’s probably not option three. He had a number of single blocks and he did do some good things, but it just seems like a rich price to pay for the production he’s put on tape to this point.
Everybody thinks that because former offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is now the head coach, there will be continuity, and there are expectations that they can win immediately with the argument that he’s been there for two years as a coordinator. In this scenario, though, it almost works against him. Coach McAdoo is keeping different things that former coach Tom Coughlin set in place. That can be dangerous because some players may feel like, “Get your own act. This is Coach Coughlin’s deal. What are you bringing? How are you different?”
Underrated: Akiem Hicks
Hicks is 6' 4" and long as the day. He’s a monster. It's uncommon to see big guys hustling like he does, and it’s not often you see someone of his size be a three-down player who can rush the passer as well. I was surprised New Orleans traded him. Maybe it was for cap reasons, but he was a handful for people while playing in New England. He's really one of the better interior defensive linemen that nobody in the country knows about.
Overrated: Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery is a talented individual, but he doesn’t work at the game the way you should, and that was an issue when he was coming out in 2012. He showed up heavy at the combine and didn’t run as well as what he should. The best ability in football is availability—you’ve got to be on the field. He’s a good player, but he’s not a difference maker. There’s been chatter about the contract, and he feels like he should be paid at the upper echelon. Listen, you performed at a high level for a year. Let's put two, three, or four highly productive years together before you start pouting.
They are building these current Bears in the image of what the Monsters of the Midway were—adding pieces like Danny Trevathan, Hicks, Jerrell Freeman. They are really trying to get back to the basics of playing great defense.
Underrated: Damarious Randall
Randall is a juco transfer who went to Arizona State and played safety. Give credit to [Packers general manager] Ted Thompson and his scouts for seeing what they saw in Randall to make him a first-round pick and move him to cornerback, a position he never played before, because Randall was a Day One starter in 2015. He had some rough patches, but for a rookie he held his own, and now he's poised to come into his second year and show what he can really do. He has shown great ball skills and the ability to challenge receivers and has great hands, which might be a product of his baseball background. He's a really talented young corner.
Overrated: Randall Cobb
It was eye-opening last season when Jordy Nelson went down last and the attention turned to Randall Cobb. He just couldn't win 1-on-1. The Packers’ offense was much more manageable for defenses than they have been in recent years because they didn’t have the presence of a downfield threat.
[Defensive coordinator] Dom Capers takes a lot of criticism for giving up a couple more points than his defense used to. But people need to realize that teams prepare for a game against the Packers feeling a lot of pressure to put points on the board because they know they are going to come in bunches from Aaron Rodgers. To think Dom Capers just fell off the turnip truck and somehow forgot how to coach football is highly incorrect. He's among the best defensive minds in our game, and he does a heck of a job. It's almost like having the presence of a great quarterback like Aaron Rodgers is a gift and a curse. We'd all love to have him, but it puts more pressure on everyone else.
Underrated: Ziggy Ansah
Ansah is a known commodity, but he doesn't get the credit he deserves. Guys speak of Von Miller and J.J. Watt, but they need to throw Ansah into that same conversation. He causes left tackles fits. His physical testing numbers were special, but he brings them to the field with him too. Some guys have the height/weight/speed but can't move and react. Ansah has come a long way in a short period of time.
Overrated: Marvin Jones and Golden Tate
Both these players are solid No. 2 receivers who have demonstrated to this point that they can play with great players—Jones with A.J. Green in Cincinnati, and then Tate has had his best years as a Lion with the coverage tilted to Calvin Johnson’s side. But they’re not even in the upper echelon of No. 2 receivers. Neither offers that same type of catch consistency or ability to attack the deep area of the field.
Matthew Stafford's comment that the Lions will be better this season without Calvin Johnson is a bunch of baloney. When you lose a difference maker like that, it has an impact on how defensive coordinators think when they are game planning on Tuesdays. Johnson kept many of those guys up trying to figure out how to solve his riddle. Tight end Eric Ebron isn't ready to be that guy yet. Even put all together, these players don’t equal the type of explosive playmaker that Johnson was on his own. I get that Stafford was likely just trying to compliment the teammates he has now, but I almost felt it was disrespectful.
Underrated: Everson Griffen
Griffen is the Vikings’ best player on defense. When you turn on the tape, this guy jumps off the screen. He is sudden and has speed to the corner on the edge. He’ll creep up and disrupt something in the backfield. When our coordinators are gameplanning, Griffen is the guy they are talking about. We have to give our left tackle a little help.
Overrated: Trae Waynes
Everybody is looking for these taller corners now—Waynes was the 11th pick last year. He played on a good team at Michigan State that had a good pass rush and it seems like he benefited from that. Last year, Waynes was underwhelming by every single standard you can imagine—he couldn't take that job from Terence Newman, he couldn't be the nickel or the fourth corner, and then he didn't play a whole lot of special teams because he's a thin, skinny guy. Now, coming into this year, he's behind on the depth chart again. In college he was really handsy. He hasn't left that behind. He's real quick to tug and grab receivers. The book's not yet written on him, but to this point he's been quite underwhelming.
The big story here is Teddy Bridgewater’s brutal season-ending injury. It's tough. The Vikings have a really strong roster and are deep at a number of positions but the substantial knee injury to Bridgewater obviously changes things. Minnesota clearly sees something in Sam Bradford, as it gave up a first-round pick (and a conditional fourth) for the QB. Perhaps Bradford will finally have a big year, but even if he struggles again, the Vikings’ defense will keep them in games. If you think about it, they haven't really had good quarterback play since Brett Favre was there. When you have the best running back in football on the roster, and a defense with depth up and down the lineup, and a defensive mind like Mike Zimmer, they are still going to be a tough out.
Underrated: David Johnson
He came on the radar for me after running for 199 yards on Iowa State as a junior. He’s the best receiving back in the NFL, or at least a close second to Le’Veon Bell. He is able to win against safeties and linebackers. He had always been categorized as a finesse running back, but he changed his stripes in that playoff game against Green Bay.
Overrated: Mike Iupati
He hasn’t played with the same fire and physicality wearing Cardinal red as he did while wearing 49er red. I’m not sure why ... they paid him a good bit of money to get him in the building. It doesn’t seem like it carried over to having the type of physical run game they envisioned when they brought him over.
It seems like all along Bruce Arians’s career, he’s been knocked for not being conventional enough in his approach. It was curious that the Bears didn’t hire him, and he ended up being one of the last dominoes to fall that off-season. But now that he’s gotten his big coaching opportunity, everybody finally sees him as not only a great football mind, but also an effective communicator, an effective leader of men and an effective head football coach. The Cardinals are one of the bright lights of the NFL—one of the model franchises that show the correct ways to build a team.
Underrated: Frank Clark
A number of teams wiped him off the board completely in the draft because of the domestic violence issue—which is fair, as a DV issue is something that is unacceptable—but the Seahawks did their vetting. There are at least five teams that had him on their radars and targeted him as a late second-round guy or early third, hoping he would drop. As Bruce Irvin moves on, Clark is now in the equation as a third rusher. He’s got a very similar play style to Michael Bennett in the way that he can play all across the front. If you put Clark inside on a guard, that’s a mismatch. That guard isn’t nearly as athletic. I see a breakout season for Clark in 2016.
Overrated: Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson is not an elite quarterback. Pete Carroll has created an environment where he encourages individuals to be themselves and also demands his men to be their best and pay attention to details. It’s that setting, as well as a great defense, that has everything to do with the success the Seahawks have had over these last few years. Don’t get me wrong, Wilson has had a hand in this too, but he moves the offense because of the scheme and because they win the field position battle week in and week out. His style of play does not transcend the system. His career could have gone the opposite way elsewhere.
We had a very high opinion of Thomas Rawls when he came out of college in 2015. He’s an undervalued commodity, and is a physical, downhill, violent runner who refuses to be tackled. But we didn’t trust our gut or what we saw on tape, and instead, he went undrafted. When he ran for 169 yards against the Bengals, I was pissed off because I know what he could have done for us.
Underrated: Todd Gurley
Yes, everyone knows how good Gurley is, but I can’t tell how much publicity he’s getting coast to coast—it should be as much as possible. He was one of the best players coming out of the draft in 2015. Most teams do running back by committee these days, and in my view that’s not by choice, it’s because they don’t have a guy who can do it all. Well, Todd Gurley is a bell cow. He has a rare skill set. When this guy sticks his foot in the ground to accelerate, it really flashes back to Bo Jackson, Eric Dickerson and some of the bigger backs who had that rare combo of great size, strength, explosiveness, and dynamic speed. And even after a great rookie year, he’s far from being a polished project. You love that kind of guy because you don’t know where his ceiling might be. He was a dominant player and he’s only scratching the surface.
Overrated: Tavon Austin
This guy is dynamite in a bottle when you get the ball in his hands. The problem is: How do you get him the ball? Is he a receiver? A running back? He lacks the instincts and details of route running, and it doesn’t seem like that is going to change. He’s pretty much a gadget player. Given what they envisioned when they took him at No. 8 in the draft, he hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The Rams are a year away, kind of like what we are seeing in Oakland this year. Their philosophy is similar in terms of not taking many risks. Keep your eyes peeled for Tyler Higbee, their rookie tight end from Western Kentucky. He was the best tight end I saw all season and has similarities to Travis Kelce. If he stays healthy the guy is going to be dynamite.
Underrated: Carlos Hyde
Hyde is a big physical running back with a great instinct for the zone. He's not a traditional fit, he’s a little bigger and more powerful. But he has a unique blend of finesse, quickness, power and strength. Combine that with his great vision and really great feet and cutting ability, and he’s a really talented runner. He was going to have a breakout year last year but got dinged up a couple of times. I don't see him as being a scheme fit in the Chip Kelly offense, but he's versatile. He has a natural feel and instincts. I think he'll be a pleasant surprise for the 49ers.
Overrated: Colin Kaepernick
He got a lot of credit when his team was winning, but during that timeframe, he had a dominant defense and running game. He hasn’t been the same without that, as is clear by his current role as the No. 2 quarterback behind Blaine Gabbert.
If they were in a different division, these guys might be able to turn it around and have a good year. [General manager] Trent Baalke is a top-flight football person. You have to look at the circumstances of what happened to get them from making three straight NFC Championship Games to where they are now, which is a team coming off of a 5–11 year. It was a perfect storm. It would be crazy to move on from Baalke, to make him the scapegoat for all of these unusual circumstances that occurred over 18 months. Another ownership group would snap him up in a minute.
Underrated: Keanu Neal
When Atlanta chose him at No. 17 in the 2016 draft, it was a curious choice, because we didn’t have him rated that highly—we saw him more as a box safety who had issues playing Cover-2 or deep middle or in space. He was more like a linebacker. But when you dig down deeper into the reasoning behind the pick, it makes a lot more sense. Atlanta plays more three-deep than anyone. Kam Chancellor is the straw that stirs the drink in that scheme in Seattle—a guy who can enforce in the box in the run game and punish tight ends or slot receivers over the middle. Atlanta didn’t have that guy. It may not have made much sense for many teams in the league, but if Keanu Neal can do just 60% of what Kam has done, it’ll be a heck of a pick.
Overrated: Patrick DiMarco
He went to the Pro Bowl last season as a fullback, but he is an average player who’s not much of a threat. There are favorable matchups for the defense when he is on the field. He’s a nice kid who can catch the ball, but is he really a Pro Bowler? Absolutely not.
Underrated: Kelvin Benjamin
He missed all of last year, so many may have forgotten the rookie season he had in 2014. Yes, he was unpolished, but when that ball was up in the air, he could always go up and get it. Without Benjamin last year, the Panthers lost that crucial red zone target. How many times did you throw your hat down because Ted Ginn dropped a long bomb?
Overrated: Star Lotulelei
The Panthers’ first-round pick in 2013 is a good player, but he gets a lot of credit for being the backbone of their run defense when he hasn’t played nearly as many snaps down in and down out as Kawann Short has. Lotulelei is more of a two-down player who doesn’t give you a whole lot in pass rush. You can connect the dots in terms of how people in the Panthers’ building feel about the situation when you look at how they picked defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the 2016 draft. They’re not going to be able to pay both Kawann and Star, and I know that if I had to let one of those two go, it would be Star.
There’s a misconception that Cam Newton is a selfish player who just cares about himself. He’s not old-school, but his style of leadership is something that resonates with his teammates. Those guys go to war for him, and we see that week in and week out.
Underrated: Coby Fleener
If you look at the production tight ends have had in New Orleans, it’s easy to see that Fleener is going to be able to thrive in this type of system. You also have to factor in the departure of Marques Colton—who are those balls going to go to now? Fleener will be a key addition to this offense.
Overrated: Drew Brees
Brees is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s no longer capable of carrying his team to wins, and his arm is not as strong as it once was. He’s still putting up 4,000 yards a year, but the problem is that the team isn’t winning. He’s throwing the ball so often because he’s so often playing from behind. A lot of people look at him as being selfish because he’s making the team pay him $24 million. Two of the best quarterbacks of this era, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, didn’t do that. They were on the books for about $18 million. They understood that if you demand $24 million from the franchise, then their teams would have to cut $6 million worth of quality players who would contribute to help winning a championship. I think Drew has to see now that his salary has led to the departure of key players—which has in turn led to him not playing at the high winning level that he has in the past.
Underrated: Lavonte David
David is the kind of guy you love to have in your building. He started at Northwestern High School in Miami, went the community college route, then went to Nebraska in late June, won the job, and never turned back. David is a quiet guy, but he has the respect of his peers across the league. He’s similar to Derrick Brooks in the way he plays the game, particularly when it comes to his instincts, speed and the way he hustles and sprints to the tackle. You see him passing teammates on the way to the football.
Overrated: Roberto Aguayo
Yes, he turned his preseason around, but don’t let that distract from the truth: The Bucs could have waited on Aguayo and still gotten him much later in the draft. There were a lot of good football players left in the second round at that point. I’m sure [general manager] Jason Licht feels justified in making that decision, but my feeling is he went far too early. We’ll see how it plays out in 2016.
This is a team that can make the playoffs right now. They aren’t a year away. Licht has done a good job adding talent. He’s had a clear plan—he’s spent time around some great people in New England and then in Arizona with [Cardinals general manager] Steve Keim. Usually I don’t expect much from a first-year head coach but Dirk Koetter is able to effectively communicate with his team, and he’s a guy who’s held in high regard by all the players and coaches he’s been around.