Evan Silva

Offseason Low Down

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Top 16 Skill-Player Groups

Friday, April 19, 2013

1. New England Patriots

QB: Tom Brady > Ryan Mallett > Mike Kafka
RB: Stevan Ridley > Shane Vereen > Brandon Bolden > Leon Washington
WR: Danny Amendola > Donald Jones > Julian Edelman > Michael Jenkins
TE: Rob Gronkowski > Aaron Hernandez > Michael Hoomanawanui > Jake Ballard

Skill Player Overview: The Patriots have morphed from one of the league's pass-heaviest clubs into the most play heavy. Running the NFL's fastest-tempo offense on borrowed concepts from Chip Kelly's speed-spread Oregon attacks, New England paced the league in 2012 snaps from scrimmage. The Pats were second in rush attempts and fourth in pass attempts. And they accomplished the feats with great skill-position talent.

At age 35, only Brady's deep-ball accuracy has noticeably faded. He's more of a dink-and-dunker now, but remains the premier field general in the game. No quarterback is more composed in a collapsing pocket. The Patriots play pick-your-poison offense, shredding defenses with quick-footed power back Ridley when opponents drop eight into coverage. Gronkowski beats double teams in the passing game and has developed into the league's best blocking tight end. New Z receiver Amendola may prove an upgrade on outgoing Wes Welker with similar tools in the slot and better diversity as an intermediate threat. There isn't a more elusive NFL tight end than Hernandez with the ball in his hands. The Patriots will add a vertical stretcher in the draft (Oregon State's Markus Wheaton?) but are capable of playing league-best offense even if they don't.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Vereen. The 2011 second-round pick will replace Danny Woodhead as the Pats' passing-down back, adding a new dimension to an already unstoppable offense. Though used sparingly, Vereen averaged 6.4 yards per touch in 2012 and scored seven touchdowns, including the playoffs. We're going to see an awful lot of Vereen because passing-down back in the New England offense is no small role. Vereen has a chance to approach 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 2013. Two-down back Ridley only played 44 percent last year.

2. Atlanta Falcons

QB: Matt Ryan > Dominique Davis
RB: Steven Jackson > Jacquizz Rodgers > Jason Snelling > Antone Smith
WR: Julio Jones > Roddy White > Harry Douglas > Kerry Meier
TE: Tony Gonzalez > Michael Palmer > Tommy Gallarda > Chase Coffman

Skill Player Overview: The rich got richer when GM Thomas Dimitroff signed Jackson, then convinced Gonzalez to return for a 17th NFL season. This is a Super Bowl-caliber skill-player group. Ryan's game reached new heights in Dirk Koetter's 2012 offense, and the duo now enters its second year together. Still running with outstanding power and short-area explosion at age 29, Jackson gives the Falcons an ability to sustain offense with the run as well as put opponents away in fourth quarters. They didn't have that last year. Quizz is a change-of-pace back only, but one of the better ones in the NFL. He is elusive in space with deceptive pop on contact.

Jones is a complete receiver, able to burn defensive backs vertically and break off chunk yards after the catch. At age 24, he flashes physically dominant talent and still hasn't reached his ceiling. White is an ideal complement as one of the NFL's crispest route runners with some of the surest hands. An early-career deep threat, White has successfully transitioned into a later-career short to intermediate dynamo. Gonzo doesn't run down the seam like he used to, but boxes out defenders and has learned to rely more on his timing and power. He is very difficult to defend on third down.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Jackson. Running backs entering their age-30 seasons aren't typically considered breakout candidates, but Jackson should be. His yards-per-carry average and touchdown totals were held hostage in St. Louis by league-worst line play and easy-to-defend offenses. For many years, Jackson was the Rams' only threatening skill-position player. Now, he'll be all but an afterthought as opponents spend weeks game planning to stop Jones, White, and Gonzalez. No longer facing eight in the box, Jackson could be headed for a career-best season.

3. New Orleans Saints

QB: Drew Brees > Seneca Wallace > Luke McCown
RB: Darren Sproles > Mark Ingram > Pierre Thomas > Chris Ivory
WR: Marques Colston > Lance Moore > Joe Morgan > Nick Toon
TE: Jimmy Graham > Ben Watson > Michael Higgins

Skill Player Overview: The Saints had a bad record in 2012, but their skill group returns fully intact and remains elite. This is an explosive, at-times unstoppable unit. Brees threw too many interceptions last year while attempting to compensate for the NFL's worst defense, but shows no signs of decline at age 34. Colston is a slot machine and offensive mismatch as an inside receiver with a massive catch radius. Moore is one of the league's most versatile, reliable, underrated underneath wideouts. Rising burner Morgan averaged 37.9 yards per reception in 2012 and didn't drop a pass from Week 6 on. He's ascending in the old Robert Meachem role.

Graham is healthy after ankle and wrist injuries hurt his efficiency last season. He is the most dynamic pass-catching tight end in football. Back from his Bounty Scandal suspension, coach Sean Payton has publicly vowed to make a renewed commitment to the run. Expect to see Ingram take on more of the rushing load after a quietly productive 2012 campaign. Sproles is used sparingly as a ball carrier, but remains an invaluable part of New Orleans' passing offense as a chess-piece weapon with big-play ability. Thomas is probably the best No. 3 back in the NFL. The Saints are trying to trade Ivory. There is not a single legitimate weakness in this skill-player corps.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Ingram. Payton insists New Orleans' ineffective 2012 run game played a major role in Brees' 19 picks. “When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I’m telling you the quarterback’s job description is entirely different,” said Payton after the season. "You get one-dimensional, you find yourself in these games where you’re not controlling the game.” Ingram quietly racked up 468 yards and four touchdowns on 109 carries (4.29 YPC) over the season's final nine games and is headed for an expanded role.

4. Seattle Seahawks

QB: Russell Wilson > Brady Quinn > Josh Portis
RB: Marshawn Lynch > Robert Turbin > Derrick Coleman
WR: Percy Harvin > Sidney Rice > Golden Tate > Doug Baldwin
TE: Zach Miller > Anthony McCoy > Sean McGrath > Cooper Helfet

Skill Player Overview: Dual-threat Wilson got better with each passing week during his rookie year. He is an aggressive, accurate downfield thrower who gashes defenses for long runs when his receivers are covered. If Adrian Peterson is the NFL's premier power back, Lynch is No. 2. No one runs angrier. Turbin's rookie year provided every indication that he'd be a strong spot starter if Lynch went down. Turbin averaged 4.43 yards a carry and can play in the passing game.

Harvin was Seattle's big offseason addition. He'll have no trouble absorbing the offense because he played for Darrell Bevell in Minnesota. Harvin is the best slot receiver in the NFL. No wideout breaks more tackles on a per-touch basis. It seems like Rice has been in the league forever, but he started young and is only 26. Tate will play in all three-receiver sets, and speedy Baldwin gives the Seahawks quality depth. Miller was great in January's playoffs, but is more of a blocking than receiving tight end. Seattle could use competition for McCoy in the pass-catching No. 2 TE role.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Wilson. The Seahawks put training wheels on their rookie quarterback out of the 2012 gates, but Wilson's statistical performance took off when he was unleashed. Over the first five games, Wilson completed 79-of-125 throws (63.2 percent) for 815 yards (6.52 YPA), a 5:6 TD-to-INT ratio, and no rushing scores. Across the Seahawks' final 13 contests -- including the playoffs -- Wilson went 212-of-330 (64.2 percent) for 2,875 yards (8.71 YPA), 24 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. He added five rushing TDs, all in the final five weeks. It's safe to say the training wheels are off for good now. And that Harvin guy can't hurt.

5. Green Bay Packers

QB: Aaron Rodgers > Graham Harrell > B.J. Coleman
RB: DuJuan Harris > James Starks > Alex Green > Brandon Saine
WR: Jordy Nelson > Randall Cobb > James Jones > Jarrett Boykin
TE: Jermichael Finley > Andrew Quarless > D.J. Williams > Matthew Mulligan

Skill Player Overview: Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. Even after losing Greg Jennings, the Packers return the league's top three-receiver package east of Denver. Cobb is the movable-piece playmaker. Although not quite as physical as Harvin, Cobb can do similar things, playing productive snaps at tailback and having his way with slot corners inside the numbers. Cobb is better along the sidelines than Harvin. Nelson and Jones primarily play outside. Drop prone early in his career, Jones has developed into a consistent player and led the league in touchdown catches (14) last season. He regularly beats defensive backs for contested balls. Nelson is the deep threat. The Packers' No. 1 receiver in 2011, Nelson is back healthy after a disappointing 2012 season plagued by hard-luck injuries.

Tight end and running back are the wild-card skill positions in Green Bay. Supremely gifted, Finley is every bit capable of making a Jimmy Graham-like impact, but is seemingly annually working to gain Rodgers' trust. 2013 is Finley's contract year and time for him to make a leap like teammate Jones. The draft may bring a starting-lineup upgrade on Harris, who at 5-foot-7, 214 is smallish for a feature back role. Harris is not particularly talented, but runs hard, fights for yardage, and can play in the passing game. Most likely, Harris will wind up as a change-of-pace back this season.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Harris. Of course, there's also a chance the Packers don't draft a running back high. GM Ted Thompson hasn't selected a back in the top-two rounds since blowing the 63rd overall pick on Brandon Jackson in 2007. And even if Harris' ideal role is as a complementary piece, he's no slouch. The 24-year-old began seeing regular carries in Week 14 last season, and wound up rushing for 257 yards and four touchdowns on 62 attempts (4.14 YPC) including playoff games. Harris was signed off the practice squad on December 1, before bypassing recent Thompson picks Alex Green and James Starks on the depth chart with ease.

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

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