Evan Silva

Offseason Low Down

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Top 16 Skill-Player Groups

Friday, April 19, 2013

11. New York Giants

QB: Eli Manning > David Carr > Curtis Painter
RB: David Wilson > Andre Brown > Da'Rel Scott > Ryan Torain
WR: Hakeem Nicks > Victor Cruz > Rueben Randle > Louis Murphy
TE: Brandon Myers > Bear Pascoe > Adrien Robinson > Larry Donnell

Skill Player Overview: The Giants' skill-player corps isn't far off the top seven or eight, but Eli and Nicks are both returning from down years and the group faces turnover at tailback and tight end. Gone are Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett, replaced by explosive 2012 first-rounder Wilson and ex-Raider Myers. In coordinator Kevin Gilbride's vertical passing attack, X receiver Nicks is the straw that stirs the drink. In hindsight, it's not surprising the unit struggled with Nicks playing through a debilitating left knee injury. The offense thrives only when the X wins on isolation routes on the perimeter. Lacking lower-body explosion, Nicks couldn't beat man coverage last season. He had the knee scoped in February, and the hope is he'll regain his burst.

The Giants' contract offer to Cruz -- $7 million annually -- indicates how they value him. The franchise envisions Cruz as a top-end No. 2 receiver, but not a No. 1. Nicks is the No. 1. Randle flashed in limited doses as a second-round rookie and his role will grow. At 6-foot-3, 210, Randle ran forty times of 4.33 and 4.37 at his Pro Day and is a field stretcher with great hands. He has similarities to Nicks. Myers is an efficient possession receiver near the line of scrimmage, but he is a significant downgrade from Bennett as both a blocker and playmaker in the passing game.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Wilson. The 32nd pick in last year's draft, Wilson proved too raw to be counted on for a feature role as a rookie. He wasn't taught how to pass protect in college, and ball-security woes kept Wilson behind Bradshaw on the depth chart. Just 21 years old -- he turns 22 in June -- Wilson instead put his dynamic talent to use on special teams, leading the NFL in both kick return yards and returns of 20-plus yards. As a ball carrier, he averaged 5.04 YPC and scored five touchdowns on only 75 offensive touches. Wilson runs with power and explosion, both vertically and laterally. He has a chance to take the league by storm.

12. Indianapolis Colts

QB: Andrew Luck > Matt Hasselbeck > Chandler Harnish
RB: Vick Ballard > Donald Brown > Delone Carter > Davin Meggett
WR: Reggie Wayne > T.Y. Hilton > Darrius Heyward-Bey > LaVon Brazill
TE: Dwayne Allen > Coby Fleener > Weslye Saunders > Dominique Jones

Skill Player Overview: Wayne is entering his age-35 campaign, but by and large this is a young, up-and-coming skill-position group. Luck, 23, ranked seventh in the NFL in passing yards (4,374) and second to only Drew Brees in 20-plus-yard completions (65) in his rookie season. His efficiency should increase this year in new coordinator Pep Hamilton's more high-percentage offense behind an improved offensive line. Hilton and Allen are 23, while Fleener and Brazill are 24. Free-agent deep threat addition Heyward-Bey is still only 26. The arrows are pointing up.

Ballard is only 22, but he is the weakness of Indy's skill group. A workmanlike talent, Ballard lacks big-play ability and averaged only 3.86 yards per carry as a rookie. The Colts could really use an injection of speed into the backfield. Former first-round bust Brown isn't the answer, and Hamilton will run the ball more than outgoing playcaller Bruce Arians did. Hamilton needs another horse.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Hilton. A 2012 third-round gem out of Florida International, Hilton flashed sensational versatility and playmaking ability in his first NFL season. Despite playing rotational snaps behind Wayne and Donnie Avery, Hilton posted five 100-yard games and averaged 17.2 yards per reception -- the NFL's third highest clip among players with at least 50 catches. (Vincent Jackson was No. 1 and Cecil Shorts was No. 2.) From Week 11 into the playoffs, Hilton racked up 34 catches for 572 yards and five touchdowns over the final eight-game stretch -- numbers that extrapolate to 68/1,144/16.8/10 across 16. Hilton can play in the slot and burn outside corners with 4.37 speed. His snaps will leap with Avery gone to Kansas City.

13. Baltimore Ravens

QB: Joe Flacco > Tyrod Taylor > Caleb Hanie
RB: Ray Rice > Bernard Pierce > Anthony Allen > Bobby Rainey
WR: Torrey Smith > Jacoby Jones > Tandon Doss > Tommy Streeter
TE: Dennis Pitta > Ed Dickson > Steve Watson > Alex Silvestro

Skill Player Overview: Operating on the notion that Cam Cameron's low-percentage, vanilla offense was at the root of Flacco's previous inconsistencies, the Ravens are banking on the idea that Flacco's best football is ahead of him. Cameron was fired on December 10, and Flacco went on to complete 138-of-231 throws (59.7 percent) for 1,919 yards (8.31 YPA), 18 touchdowns, and two picks from Week 14 into SB47. If stretched across 16 games, the TD-to-INT ratio is a Brady-esque 36:4. While Baltimore could still afford to upgrade opposite Smith, the loss of Anquan Boldin will have less of a negative effect than popular opinion insists. Boldin deserves kudos for a stellar playoff performance, but has just seven touchdowns over his last 33 regular season games and his playmaking ability is evaporating going on age 33. Boldin spent three years in Baltimore and never reached 1,000 yards. He regularly vanished in games due to an inability to separate.

One of the immediate changes made by new playcaller Jim Caldwell down the stretch was an increased emphasis on using Rice and Pierce as a one-two backfield punch. Pierce delivered, racking up 487 yards on his final 88 runs (5.53 YPC). Rice will remain an all-purpose workhorse, but the Ravens now have the best running back depth of Flacco's career. Pitta will also see more consistent targets with Boldin in San Francisco, serving as Baltimore's go-to guy over the middle and down the seam. Pitta only had three drops among 90 targets during the 2012 regular season.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Streeter. A height-weight-speed freak out of Miami (FL), 2012 sixth-round pick Streeter was clocked in the 4.34-4.40 range at 6-foot-5, 219 during last year's Scouting Combine. Streeter took a redshirt as a rookie, but should have every opportunity to unseat Jones for the No. 2 receiver role across from Smith. At this year's NFL Owners Meetings, both coach John Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti brought up Streeter when asked about Boldin's replacement. "(The coaching staff) liked Tommy Streeter's development by the end of the year," Bisciotti said. "They thought that he finally started to get what it was like to be a pro."

14. Detroit Lions

QB: Matthew Stafford > Shaun Hill > Kellen Moore
RB: Reggie Bush > Mikel Leshoure > Joique Bell > Devin Moore
WR: Calvin Johnson > Nate Burleson > Ryan Broyles > Mike Thomas
TE: Brandon Pettigrew > Tony Scheffler > Nathan Overbay > Dominique Curry

Skill Player Overview: The Lions boast the best wide receiver in football and arguably the NFL's premier arm talent in Stafford. The Bush acquisition was both savvy and logical; one of the league's top passing-game backs joins the game's pass-happiest offense. Stafford's mechanics were an issue last year -- OC Scott Linehan needs to clean them up -- but there would be far fewer complaints had the Lions simply gotten better luck. Megatron was tackled at the goal line six times. Titus Young had a mental meltdown and tried to sabotage his own team. Burleson and Broyles suffered serious injuries. TEs Pettigrew and Scheffler each had career-worst seasons.

In all likelihood, we'll be able to reexamine the Detroit offensive skill-player group a year from now and consider it top ten. Bush adds a new dimension. Stafford is the best bounce-back candidate in football. Johnson, inevitably, is going to score more touchdowns. If Broyles' latest ACL recovery goes smoothly, he can be the reliable possession receiver Detroit sorely needs. Plodding in 2012, Leshoure should regain some burst another full year recovered from his 2011 Achilles' tear. This unit is conservatively ranked only because so many members are coming off bad seasons.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Bush. Coach Jim Schwartz has openly spoken of getting Bush 80 catches, and there probably isn't a better bet to lead running backs in receptions this season than Detroit's new feature back. Playcaller Scott Linehan skews heavily toward the pass. If Bush stays healthy -- something he struggled with in New Orleans but accomplished with Miami -- he could be headed for a career-best season at age 28. You're gonna want him in your PPR league.

15. Houston Texans

QB: Matt Schaub > T.J. Yates > Case Keenum > Stephen McGee
RB: Arian Foster > Ben Tate
WR: Andre Johnson > Lestar Jean > Keshawn Martin > DeVier Posey
TE: Owen Daniels > Garrett Graham > Jake Byrne > Phillip Supernaw

Skill Player Overview: This group looks respectable on paper, but it's fair to wonder if the Texans' window is closing. Schaub and Johnson are entering their age-32 seasons, and the former is showing signs of decline. Playing shell-shocked and hesitant ever since Houston's Week 14 smackdown loss to New England, Schaub completed 147-of-220 throws for 1,551 yards (7.05 YPA), and a 3:5 TD-to-INT ratio over the Texans' final six games. He was a checkdown machine, regularly throwing short of the sticks on third down. Schaub is not capable of going toe-to-toe with the NFL's top passers. It doesn't help that the Texans lack a viable No. 2 receiver. Jean flashes in practices and preseason games, but couldn't unseat Kevin Walter last year. Walter was cut this offseason. Posey tore his Achilles' in the playoffs and almost certainly won't contribute in 2013.

Another area of concern is Foster's piling-up workloads as his yards-per-carry averages regress. No player has handled the football more than Foster over the past three seasons, and his YPC has steadily dropped from 4.94 (2010) to 4.40 (2011) and 4.06 (2012). Last year's struggles can be partly blamed on Houston's offensive line downgrades, but Foster led the NFL in rush attempts (351) and it's time to begin wondering just how many big seasons he has left. In 2012, defenses were often content to let Daniels rack up short catches over the middle in favor of double-teaming Johnson and filling the box against Foster because Houston was so painfully short on playmakers.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Tate. The Texans don't have a great breakout candidate on the current roster, so 24-year-old Tate is just as good a bet as any based on Foster's alarming recent usage. While Tate is returning from a disappointing season marred by foot and hamstring injuries, he is capable of running with power, explosion, and some shake when healthy. Tate's career stat line so far is 240 carries for 1,221 yards (5.09 YPC) with six scores and 24 catches.

16. Carolina Panthers

QB: Cam Newton > Derek Anderson > Jimmy Clausen
RB: Jonathan Stewart > DeAngelo Williams > Mike Tolbert > Armond Smith
WR: Steve Smith > Brandon LaFell > Domenik Hixon > Ted Ginn
TE: Greg Olsen > Ben Hartsock > Richie Brockel > Nelson Rosario

Skill Player Overview: Carolina's skill group is long on talent and potential, but putting it all together has been elusive. Consistency is a big issue at quarterback, while durability has proved the backfield's kryptonite. Newton possesses physical tools to be a legitimately dominant football player, but hasn't yet turned in a full season of efficient play. He starred as a passer in the first half of 2011 before tailing off down the stretch. His 2012 first half was a nightmare before a red-hot finish. Stewart is versatile with power, elusiveness, and long speed, but was a shell of his usual self last year while attempting to play through injuries on both feet. Stewart had his left ankle scoped in January. He's only 26, but it's fair to question whether Stewart will ever maximize all of his talent.

The Panthers probably would've released Williams if not for a sizable cap hit. Williams is 30 now, with running skills that have eroded to the point where he can no longer create on his own. It's still possible Williams will be cut after the draft on a post-June 1 designation, although doing so would push dead money into 2014. Carolina already projects to be in more cap hell next winter. Smith is still a premier NFL receiver, but is 34 years old. LaFell was a disappointment at No. 2 wideout last season and may be pushed for his starting job by Hixon or an early-round rookie. Olsen is a rock-solid tight end coming off career highs in catches (69) and yards (843). Along with Newton, Olsen was one of ex-GM Marty Hurney's few positive offensive additions.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Stewart. It all comes down to health. Stewart is immensely gifted, young, and excels in the passing game. He went into 2012 averaging 4.83 career yards per carry and is still at 4.69 despite the worst year of his career. Whereas Rob Chudzinski became obsessed with the read-option to the point that it had a restrictive effect on Carolina's offense, new OC Mike Shula will focus on a simplified, power-based run game where Newton plays consistently from under center. Assuming he is healthy, Stewart will have a chance to be the bellcow back.

Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
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