I re-watched all of Toby Gerhart's 2012-2013 touches this week in order to re-familiarize myself with the Jaguars' new bellcow. Gerhart lacks top-notch initial burst and giddy-up, but is a hard-charging, north-south, downhill runner with outstanding passing-game chops. We'll hear plenty about Denard Robinson and Jordan Todman during OTAs and training camp, but I think the Jaguars signed Gerhart to be a heavy-volume workhorse. GM Dave Caldwell has in no way hidden the fact that he's building his team in Seattle's likeness. The Jags want to run the football and play tough defense. I think they have a chance to be competitive every week in 2014, and expect them to relentlessly put the ball in Gerhart's belly.
Although the Jaguars possess a top-three overall pick, I expect them to bypass quarterbacks and select Buffalo edge rusher Khalil Mack or an offensive lineman. It's become more and more clear that the media overrated this year's QB class at the outset of the draft process. And I don't believe any of the quarterbacks will be top-five picks.
If the Jaguars indeed play better football going forward, Cecil Shorts' garbage-time opportunities will dwindle. Justin Blackmon is serving an indefinite suspension with no timetable for return. At this moment in time, there isn't reason to get excited about Jacksonville's pass-catching corps. Perhaps that will change after the draft.
Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid would've been my pick for 2013 NFL Coach of the Year -- over winner Ron Rivera -- because of his work with Alex Smith. Almost treating Smith like a rookie, Reid expanded him over the course of last year, transitioning Smith from a high-percentage game manager early on into a passer willing to take intermediate and vertical shots late in the season. It's still worth wondering just how much further Smith can "expand." His skill set is limited, and his weapons are not elite.
Of more immediate concern for Kansas City is the offensive line. Gone are young guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, as well as left tackle Branden Albert. After a dismal rookie year at right tackle, the Chiefs will turn to Eric Fisher on Smith's blind side. Donald Stephenson is penned in at right tackle, with Rishaw Johnson and Jeff Allen at guard. There is significant turnover in Kansas City's front five, with less-than-proven commodities being counted on to fill major roles.
Because the Chiefs had limited cap flexibility during the free agency period, we'll have to wait until after the draft to get a solid grasp on their 2014 offensive outlook. It's possible not much will change. It's also possible Kansas City uses an early-round pick at wide receiver, and intriguing sophomore tight end Travis Kelce gets healthy after rookie-year microfracture surgery. And then we'd have a little more to discuss.
New Fins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has an expansive coaching background. He worked on the Redskins' staff from 2004-2007 under Joe Gibbs before overseeing quarterbacks for the younger Jim Mora in Seattle 2008-2009. Lazor coordinated the offense at the University of Virginia 2010-2012. He spent last season tutoring Nick Foles as Chip Kelly's QBs coach in Philadelphia. Forecasting his offense is difficult, but I suspect that recent success with Kelly's scheme will influence Lazor's approach in Miami.
Lazor's offense figures to differ dramatically from outgoing Dolphins OC Mike Sherman's, in which quarterback Ryan Tannehill was permitted to absorb a league-high 58 sacks as Sherman insisted on a pass-centric system despite the NFL's most porous offensive line. Lazor's history, conversely, has deep run-centric roots. Gibbs' Redskins teams with Lazor on staff ranked 12th, fourth, eighth, and fifth in the NFL in rushing attempts. Kelly's 2013 offense came in fourth.
Hopefully we'll get a better handle on Lazor's offensive design during OTA season. My opinion of Tannehill for a few years now has been that he's best suited to run a play- and boot-action style of offense, like a rich man's Matt Schaub. In Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Charles Clay, the Fins have pass catchers in place capable of stretching the field. What they lack is a quality run-game unit. Even after signing LT Branden Albert (five years, $46 million) and LG Shelley Smith (two years, $5.5 million) to play next to incumbent C Mike Pouncey, Miami needs a starting right guard and tackle. Is Lamar Miller the answer at tailback? The Dolphins' addition of Knowshon Moreno hints Lazor isn't sure yet. An early- to mid-round draft pick could further muddy this backfield picture. Stay tuned.
New England Patriots
Genuinely throwing wide receivers against a wall to see which stick, free agency brought Brandon LaFell (three years, $9 million) to Foxboro as Julian Edelman (four years, $17 million) re-signed and Aaron Dobson underwent March 10 foot surgery. The Patriots guaranteed $2 million of Danny Amendola's salary by keeping him on the roster through March 11. Sophomores Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, and Mark Harrison return to compete for snaps. In an effort to keep as many healthy as possible, my guess is the Pats will select the best four or five camp performers and play them in a rotation. OC Josh McDaniels is going to learn his lesson from last season. Edelman isn't catching 100 balls again. And don't be surprised if New England drafts a tight end early.
New England's running back snaps are similarly up in the air. While LeGarrette Blount continues to wallow in free agency, Shane Vereen is backed up by fumbling Stevan Ridley, middling Brandon Bolden, and ex-Dolphins practice squadder Jonas Gray. If Blount doesn't re-up, I'm going to support Ridley as a 2014 middle-round value pick. Regardless of free agency or draft pickups, Vereen's role is secure as New England's passing-down back. Across 10 games last season, including playoffs, Vereen rushed 53 times for 259 yards (4.89 YPC) and a touchdown. He added 54 receptions for 502 yards and three more scores. That's a 1,218-total yard, seven-score pace, with 87 catches.
New York Jets
Tony Pauline reported in early March that the Jets planned to "lessen the load" on shaky second-year quarterback Geno Smith, restricting him to "under 20 passes per game." That number was never realistic, but the story is an indication Rex Ryan has every intention of restoring the Ground 'N Pound offense. The Jets have been connected to Maurice Jones-Drew in free agency. If it can't land MJD, Gang Green figures to seriously explore mid- to late-round running backs.
Chris Ivory possesses BeastModian running talent, but has and very likely always will be injury prone. Bilal Powell and Alex Green can pass protect, but are just guys. Mike Goodson is a very gifted back, but tore his left ACL last October and a month later was indicted by a grand jury on weapons charges. The Jets need more backfield reliability.
Even with Michael Vick's superior playmaking under center, the Jets' passing game will be hard to trust. Vick's performance was wildly inconsistent in his first go-round with OC Marty Mornhinweg, so much so that Mornhinweg was rumored to have no interest in Vick when he came available last offseason. Eric Decker will be stretched as New York's No. 1 receiver -- facing Darrelle Revis, Brent Grimes, and Stephon Gilmore in the AFC East -- while Jeff Cumberland and Jeremy Kerley return as underwhelming complements. Vick could flirt with lower-end QB1 numbers for as long as his body cooperates, but in all likelihood the Jets are headed for another quarterback carousel. A borderline WR1 with Peyton Manning at the controls, Eric Decker would do well to reach 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in his new digs. He'll be a Hartlinian WR3 with a few more TDs.
The Raiders are all in for 2014 as beleaguered GM Reggie McKenzie tries to save his job. Littering an otherwise young, talent-deficient roster with late-career veterans, McKenzie executed a whopping 12 signings during the free-agent period, not including his March 21 trade for quarterback Matt Schaub. The average age of Oakland's nine newcomers will be 30.8 years old when the season starts. This is textbook hot-seat GM maneuvering.
In fairness to McKenzie, his offensive line finally looks halfway formidable on paper -- and will be coached up by Tony Sparano -- while Oakland's rebuilt defensive front now sports LaMarr Woodley (two years, $12 million) and Justin Tuck (two years, $11 million) to the exterior of tackles Antonio Smith (two years, $9 million) and sophomore Stacy McGee. With Sio Moore at Sam 'backer, the Raiders have a chance to field a legitimate pass rush. Teams that pressure enemy quarterbacks have a shot to win every single week.
From a fantasy perspective, Oakland remains a Black Hole. Over 33-year-old (in June) Schaub's last 16 games, he's completed 366-of-578 passes for 3,861 yards (6.68 YPA) and a 13:19 TD-to-INT ratio. Schaub has tossed a mind-boggling five pick-sixes during that 16-game stretch. Even in his absolute prime, Schaub was a quarterback who required a top-notch run game and defense to pull off being an effective starter. Now far removed from his best seasons, I think it's more likelier than not Schaub stays the quarterback he's been for the last 1 1/2 years than before, surrounded by a rag-tagish receiver corps and built-on-the-fly offensive line and defense. This passing game is destined to struggle.
In the backfield, 2013 fifth-round pick Latavius Murray should have every opportunity to unseat surprise returnee Darren McFadden (one year, $1.75 million), who clearly isn't the Raiders' tailback of the future. It'll be a camp battle to watch.
The Steelers are a "kick the can" salary cap team, but remained active in 2014 free agency. They transition tagged outside linebacker Jason Worilds (one year, $9.754 million) before releasing LaMarr Woodley, and made a splash by signing free safety Mike Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million deal. Retained were third safety Will Allen (one year, $955,000) and reserve center Cody Wallace (three years, $3.5 million). Brought in were defensive end Cam Thomas (two years, $4 million), slot receiver Lance Moore (two years, $3 million), and linebacker Arthur Moats (one year, $795,000). Pittsburgh has also flirted with free agent running backs, hosting LeGarrette Blount and Maurice Jones-Drew for team-facility visits.
The Steelers maintain continuity from a 2013 offense that finished 20th in yards and 16th in points. Under returning OC Todd Haley, the philosophy won't change. Ben Roethlisberger is the field general of a high-percentage, quick-hitting passing attack that will continue to make heavy use of every-down back Le'Veon Bell in order to limit Big Ben's exposure to hits. The Steelers are very concerned with preserving 32-year-old Roethlisberger's body. Their veteran tailback flirtations stem from a desire to add depth behind Bell, where practice squad type Alvester Alexander currently sits No. 2 on the depth chart. Pittsburgh isn't targeting a true backfield committee.
I'm interesting to see whether the Steelers pursue a "big receiver" in the first round of May's draft. They selected burner Markus Wheaton in the third round last year, return No. 1 wideout Antonio Brown, and signed Moore to replace Jerricho Cotchery in the slot. Texas A&M's Mike Evans isn't lasting until No. 15, but Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin should be available, and this class has a number of first-round-caliber tight ends. If Pittsburgh bypasses top-end "big" pass catcher talent, I could envision Heath Miller as a sneaky double-digit touchdown bet for 2014. Brown is 5-foot-10 1/8. Moore is 5-foot-9 1/4. Wheaton would be the Steelers' biggest three-wide receiver at 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds.
San Diego Chargers
Second-year GM Tom Telesco remains hindered by the A.J. Smith era in terms of cap room, and was consequently limited during the 2014 period. The Bolts did re-up inside linebacker Donald Butler (seven years, $51.8 million), left guard Chad Rinehart (two years, $6 million), special teamers Darrell Stuckey (four years, $7.6 million) and Seyi Ajirotutu (one year, $795,000), linebacker Reggie Walker (two years, $1.8 million), and cornerback Richard Marshall (one year, $855,000). Added were committee running back Donald Brown (three years, $10.5 million), backup quarterback Kellen Clemens (two years, $3 million), inside linebacker Kavell Conner (three years, $2.7 million), blocking tight end David Johnson (two years, $1.7 million), and cornerback Brandon Ghee (two years, $1.65 million).
While Keenan Allen's role is secure as Philip Rivers' go-to guy, the Brown signing is a reminder that San Diego transitioned into a run-heavy team down the 2013 stretch and will continue that approach. Leaning on two-tight end sets featuring Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green to force defenses into sub-package alignments, the Chargers created "numbers" advantages and played smash-mouth football. They piled up a combined 215 rushing attempts compared to 153 passes across their final six games, winning five. Ryan Mathews wore down on the workload and was a non-factor in San Diego's playoff loss to Denver. The addition of Brown indicates coach Mike McCoy will slice up the backfield pie more in 2014, in an effort to keep his backs healthy over 16 games. It's worth noting Telesco is a former Colts executive and has obvious familiarity with Brown. Mathews will remain the lead runner, but won't necessarily be utilized as a workhorse.
You're going to hear a lot about Green as 2014 breakout candidate this summer, and for good reason. At 6-foot-6, 240, Green is built like a basketball wing player and runs like one, clocking a 4.45 forty at the 2012 Combine. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Green's stat-leap candidacy is McCoy's run-first philosophy. Green was regularly employed as a blocker last season, and the 2014 Chargers are shaping up as a team that could push for the league lead in rushing attempts. Increasing San Diego's chances of maintaining a run-dominated offense will be an improved defense keyed by the healthy return of outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney.
Cap constraints prevented GM Ruston Webster from making the same high-dollar free agent moves he did last offseason, but Webster still found room for right tackle Michael Oher (four years, $20 million), inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard (four years, $15.75 million), nose tackle Al Woods (two years, $5 million), gadget back Dexter McCluster (three years, $9 million), outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (two years, $6 million), and backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (two years, $4 million). Left end Ropati Pitoitua (three years, $9.6 million), safety Bernard Pollard (two years, $6.3 million), defensive lineman Antonio Johnson (two years, $2.35 million), tailback Jackie Battle (one year, $855,000), and return men Marc Mariani (one year, minimum) and Leon Washington (one year, minimum) were retained.
It's only a matter of time before the Titans cut or trade Chris Johnson, paving the way for an early-round draft pick at running back. As Tennessee boasts a talented offensive line highlighted by second-year RG Chance Warmack and $47 million LG Andy Levitre, this will be an ideal landing spot for a rookie. Only aging plodder Shonn Greene and role player McCluster are serious contenders for backfield snaps on Tennessee's current roster. New coach Ken Whisenhunt twice used top-40 selections (Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams) on running backs in Arizona. If a power runner like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde lands in Nashville, his fantasy stock could skyrocket.
In 2013 breakout star Kendall Wright (94-1,079-2), explosive sophomore Justin Hunter, and tight end Delanie Walker, the Titans return formidable pass-catching talent. Whether Wright can improve on last year's numbers and Hunter is ready for a second-year leap will likely depend on quarterback play and Whisenhunt's offensive system. Jake Locker remains atop the depth chart, while gone is former OC Dowell Loggains' spread attack, which he installed to complement ex-backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick's strengths and resulted in heavy doses of box-score production. A run-foundation offense seems far more likely in Whisenhunt's first year as Titans head coach.