Analysis  

 

San Francisco 49ers head teams to watch in offseason workouts

The release of the 2014 NFL schedule is still at least a few days away, but the new season really begins next week, when every team will be back together for the start of offseason workouts.

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The seven teams with new coaches this season are already nearly two weeks into their programs. These workouts are -- in theory -- entirely voluntary for players (thus explaining why DeSean Jackson was tweeting from his vacation island when the Washington Redskins were starting their program). But in reality, there's a huge emphasis from teams, most of which have had at least three months off, to get started again.

The long rest period is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement struck in 2011. Even three years later, the reaction of teams to the extended break -- they still don't like it, with one team's personnel executive calling it a "disaster" -- is probably the best evidence of the importance coaches place on even the beginning stages of the workouts. At this early stage, with weeks to go before the new draft picks are made, the focus is on physical conditioning -- but also on mental preparation. This is when playbooks are studied, new systems start to be installed and chemistry is created. The illusion that this is a relaxed, carefree time is just that: an illusion.

"We get a lot out of any time we can get with our own players in the offseason," the personnel executive said.

But some teams have to get more out of these early days than others, even if the activities are as tightly controlled as possible (no live contact is allowed throughout, for instance). The Seahawks probably can afford to bask in the glow of their Super Bowl victory just a little bit longer, whereas the 49ers have some major decisions to make right off the bat.

1) San Francisco 49ers

There likely isn't another team more desperate to end the offseason than the 49ers, if for no other reason than they will be better able to keep tabs on everybody's whereabouts. It's been a brutal few weeks, with Chris Culliver, Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith all involved, to varying degrees, in off-field situations. Smith's long-running woes (there is a court date for DUI and felony weapons charges later this month) and the team's May 3 decision on whether to exercise an option for the 2015 season or not, will loom over everything the 49ers do this spring, including who might step into his job if he misses time because of a suspension -- or if drafting a pass rusher has to become a priority.

But the most interesting (and almost certainly most important) thing to come out of these workouts is the tone the franchise leaders -- owner Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh -- choose to take with the entire team. The braintrust had been publicly supportive of Smith until his incident at Los Angeles International Airport last Sunday, but this fresh embarrassment is likely to change the tenor of the brass' relationship with him. Other players will be watching that dynamic closely to gauge the limits of the franchise's patience with a player who, only one week ago, appeared to be one of the long-term cornerstones of a championship-caliber team.

The glimmer of good news for the 49ers: Because all of this happened so very early in the offseason, there is plenty of opportunity for Harbaugh and Co. to fix what ails the team and move on before too much season-impacting distraction sets in. And more good news for at least one player: Nobody is going to pay much attention to Jonathan Martin's return to the NFL right now.

2) New York Jets

General Manager John Idzik's pace in free agency has been maddeningly deliberate, but lo and behold, the Jets return with two new badly needed offensive playmakers (Eric Decker and Chris Johnson) and one of the most intriguing quarterbacking situations in the NFL.

The Jets specialize in intriguing quarterback situations, of course. See: Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, Geno Smith and now Michael Vick. Vick knows offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's system, so even in these very early days, Smith will not have a significant advantage in familiarity. Make no mistake: If this is a legitimate competition, then Vick should give Smith a real run for his money. After all, Vick outplayed Nick Foles last offseason before getting hurt and losing the starting job. But it goes beyond that. Vick is a natural leader and commander of the locker room; he quickly became a deeply respected member of the Philadelphia Eagles despite previously being incarcerated. Smith is a more reserved sort -- at least he was during his rookie season. The Jets will want the second-year pro to embrace his role as a team leader, starting immediately, but that could be complicated by Vick's presence.

Watching how Decker and Johnson are integrated into the offense will be fascinating when the team gets on the field. How are the touches divided among the running backs, considering the Jets ranked sixth in rushing last season? And how does Johnson, who complained when the Titans signed Shonn Greene last year, handle what is almost certain to be a greatly diminished role from the one he had in Tennessee? He is considered by some executives around the league to be high maintenance, with a higher regard for himself than he should have. Will Johnson also have a role catching the ball out of the backfield, the way Mornhinweg used LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia?

How does Decker, viewed by most talent evaluators as a No. 2 receiver, perform now that he's been forced into the No. 1 role? And how will he fare in fielding throws that are definitely not being hurled with Peyton Manning's renowned accuracy?

3) New York Giants

Until a few days ago, this was supposed to be a fairly straightforward offseason program in which the Giants would learn new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system while also absorbing more than a dozen free-agent acquisitions (particularly cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie).

And then Eli Manning had surgery on his ankle and the teeth-gnashing began.

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Missing any of the offseason program is not ideal. Manning had a miserable 2013 season and would have benefited from as many chances as possible to work with his receivers in a new offense. But the timetable has him back by the latter part of the offseason, for the on-field practices and for the June minicamp. He will, of course, take part in the classroom work before that.

The fallout from Manning's surgery is what will make this offseason program worth watching. On Wednesday, New York signed Josh Freeman -- once thought to be the savior of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before he was cast aside by Greg Schiano and then thrown to the wolves in an ill-fated appearance for the Vikings last year (coincidentally, against the Giants). This is probably more than a camp-arm signing. The Giants ideally want to carry just two quarterbacks this season -- Manning is remarkably durable, having not missed a start since he got the job in the middle of his rookie season -- so Freeman has a chance to resurrect himself if he can beat out Curtis Painter and Ryan Nassib for the backup role. Freeman's swift fall from grace has been stunning; the fact that the market for him took so long to develop is telling. This is his chance to prove that he is still a viable option, that his decline was largely hastened by Schiano and poor handling in Minnesota.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs have already been at work for two weeks, which is good because they have a lot to do. New coaches. An everything-old-is-new-again defense. Lots of new players who are being paid a lot of guaranteed money.

The offseason headlines mostly centered on the release of cornerback Darrelle Revis. Now it's time to pay attention to what will matter most in 2014: new starting quarterback Josh McCown and how quickly he can build chemistry with Vincent Jackson. That's going to be particularly important, because the Bucs don't currently have a viable No. 2 wide receiver on their roster. (Keep an eye on that in the draft and then in rookie minicamp.) Coach Lovie Smith already has said he will lean on running back Doug Martin, who is working out after returning from a torn labrum he suffered in October.



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Massive free agency overhauls often don't work, but the Bucs' offseason could provide a case study in how a team with a lot of leftover talent (Jackson, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David) integrates a new regime and a flood of new players to try to make a quick strike.

5) Philadelphia Eagles

Let's not even pretend there is anything more interesting here than the offense, which just lost its best playmaker in DeSean Jackson, but gained one of the game's most electrifying and versatile players in Darren Sproles. Virtually everything that goes on with the Eagles is really about coach Chip Kelly, though. How his team embraces life without Jackson -- the lack of outraged comments coming from his former teammates suggests either fear of upsetting Kelly or a quiet acknowledgement that Jackson was a handful for him -- will tell us plenty about how it will run this season.

Nick Foles' continued maturation -- now that he's without his deep threat -- will be a critical element of this early work, especially if the Eagles draft a receiver they hope to insert immediately. And of course, once Philly gets on the field for something resembling a practice, it will be intriguing to watch how Kelly uses Sproles, and if Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin can fill the enormous void left by Jackson's release.

Right now, the Eagles are not as good as they were with Jackson. That could change, and this would be the time and place for that change to start.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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