The Brandt Report  


Tom Brady, Cam Newton among Pro Bowlers to worry about


Each NFL season brings its share of surprises and disappointments -- and sometimes, a Pro Bowl talent will tick off both boxes.

Amid the annual storm of injuries and bum luck that greets each squad in the league, you'd think Pro Bowl players would be one element teams could count on. But even those coming off Pro Bowl campaigns can, for one reason or another, falter.

The 2014 season is still young, but there are already indicators that some of the players who made last season's Pro Bowl will not be back for the next installment of the all-star game. As we approach the quarter mark of the season, I thought I'd list some Pro Bowlers, in no particular order, that I'm worried about -- guys who have failed to live up to expectations or fallen off the pace that marked them as top-tier players in 2013.

Note: Obviously, those who have not seen much (or any) action this year, for injury or various other reasons, were not included.

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

The slow start to Brady's 2014 season -- he has a 58.8 percent completion rate, 82.9 passer rating, seven sacks taken and just three touchdown passes through three games -- is marked most prominently by an alarmingly low 5.5 yards per attempt. Among quarterbacks with at least 14 attempts per game this season, only Derek Carr (5.4) and Ryan Tannehill (5.0) have been worse in that category. But this is of a piece with a downward statistical trend that began after the 2011 campaign. In addition to completing 68.5 percent of his passes for a career-high 5,235 yards that year, Brady averaged 8.6 yards per attempt (also a career best) -- and he's slipped every year since, dropping to 7.6 yards per attempt in 2012 and 6.9 in 2013.

So what's going on with Brady? First, his offensive line has not been as good as it once was; Nate Solder, in particular, did not do very well in Sunday's narrow win over the Oakland Raiders (which might've been a loss if the Pats had been facing a more experienced quarterback than Carr). Consequently, Brady seems to be rushing to get the ball away, and maybe isn't concentrating as much on his mechanics as he used to. Second, he is not working with the type of pass-catching talent -- like Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and a full-go Rob Gronkowski -- he had in 2011. We should point out that Brady's yards-per-attempt number through three weeks last season was also 5.5 -- and the Patriots went on to make the AFC title game. That said, if Brady's numbers don't improve again this year, New England is going to have a hard time winning 10 games, much less the AFC East.

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

Newton's case is an interesting one, as his performance as a passer through two games (he missed the season opener) more or less matches what he did last season. In 2013, he completed 61.7 percent of his passes and picked up 7.1 yards per attempt; this year, he's completing 66.7 percent of his passes and picking up 7.7 yards per attempt. But something just doesn't feel right about him; he seems to lack a certain play-making ability. He doesn't look to be quite as mobile as his normal self, either; consider that he's run just six times so far at a rate of 4.3 yards per attempt, worse than last year's average by a full yard (although a less-mobile Newton is, of course, still above the mean in that category). He's just not executing as well as he did last year. For example, I saw him bounce some balls in Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Of course, when pondering Newton's status, we can't ignore the fact that he underwent offseason ankle surgery and suffered a rib injury in the preseason. I think this is the biggest factor impacting his play. In fact, he might have been better off waiting a few more weeks before hitting the field. As for Newton's receiving corps, it is, on the whole, better than it was last year, and rookie Kelvin Benjamin has shown promise. But the unit lacks an established threat like longtime franchise face Steve Smith, who was jettisoned this offseason. Newton's offensive line also has been a weakness. Back in training camp, I thought new left tackle Byron Bell would be playing much better than he has thus far. I hope I'm wrong about this, but I think Newton might be in for a hard time in 2014.

Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears

Yes, Forte is coming off a season in which he notched career highs in rushing yards (1,339) and receiving yards (594) and tied a career best with 12 total touchdowns. But his yards-per-carry number is down (he had 4.6 in 2013 compared to 3.2 this year), and he has yet to register a play of 20-plus yards this season, either on the ground or through the air. The Bears also seem to be on track to throw the ball much more than they'll run it, if the first three weeks of the season are any indication. Chicago is currently tied for fifth in the NFL in pass attempts (121) and ranks 30th in rushing attempts (56); if this trend continues, the team will attempt about 60 more passes than it did last year and run the ball about 100 fewer times.

The 28-year-old Forte, who is in his seventh pro season, just doesn't seem to have the same kind of quickness he's had in the past three years. Unless there's some kind of injury factor we don't know about, I'd be worried. Even slightly losing a step can be the difference between making a play and not making a play at this level.

Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

Through the first three weeks of his breakout 2013 campaign, Quinn racked up four sacks, three hurries, 12 pressures and 11 tackles. Through three weeks this year, he has zero sacks, zero hurries, three pressures and seven tackles -- quite a significant drop-off. His first step doesn't seem quite as quick as it's been, and he's not making the hustle plays so far that he did last season. And while we must acknowledge that one of his three games did come against a top-flight tackle in the Dallas Cowboys' Tyron Smith, the other lines that Quinn faced (those of the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) aren't exactly known for their excellence.

Yes, I'd expect the absence of fellow defensive lineman Chris Long to have an impact on Quinn's performance, but not to this extent. That said, I'd still figure that Quinn -- who signed a big-money contract earlier this month -- has the ability to rack up double-digit sacks this year, but his early showing is cause for concern.

Joe Haden, CB, Cleveland Browns

Haden's struggles are tough to understand. Like Quinn, Haden is young and has a proven track record, yet he's been something of a disappointment in 2014. Through three games, Haden, who also received a huge deal recently, has been targeted 19 times -- and he's yielded catches on 14 of those targets, for a burn rate of 74 percent. This does not compare well to his burn rate of 35 percent through three games last season. Haden also has just one pass defensed this season after recording 20 in 2013. In the Browns' most recent loss, Haden allowed veteran Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith, who is 10 years his senior, to snag what was essentially a game-clinching catch in the closing moments. This week, coach Mike Pettine acknowledged that Haden has "not played well" at times.

Alterraun Verner, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Verner, who was one of the Bucs' big offseason acquisitions, has not played up to expectations. In 2013, Verner had 22 passes defensed and five interceptions; so far this year, he's been shut out in both categories. Also, his burn rate of 75 percent (nine out of 12 targets) through three games this season is disconcertingly higher than his mark through three games last season (40 percent). Of course, he did change teams this offseason; having to learn the Bucs' system is obviously a factor, one that might partially account for his dip in performance. The bottom line is, he's part of a pass defense that has struggled greatly, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 70 of 91 pass attempts -- a 76.9 percent completion rate, worst in the NFL.

Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh Steelers

Polamalu has had a great 12-year career in Pittsburgh. In fact, I think he'll be the first player with No. 43 on his jersey to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But while he's still a factor against the run (compiling 23 tackles in his first three games), he's no longer the dynamo he once was in space. The 33-year-old's age seems to have caught up with him; where he once used to beat the ball to its destination, he's now getting there a second late.

Logan Mankins, G, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Like his former quarterback in New England, Mankins is off to a rough start in 2014. Tampa Bay's offense hasn't moved the ball much at all, ranking 30th in total offense and last in passing offense. The 10th-year pro was acquired by the Bucs to shore up a patchwork offensive line, but he hasn't looked very explosive this season. Mankins doesn't seem to be dominating anybody, and appears to be getting overpowered.

Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans

The 33-year-old Johnson is a seven-time Pro Bowler, but he's also in his 12th NFL season. And while he is still the Texans' leading receiver this year with 16 grabs, there are worrisome signs, starting with his per-catch average of 11.9 yards. He's also caught nine fewer passes than he had at this point last season for 67 fewer yards. He still catches the ball well and runs good routes, but he seems to have lost some of the explosion he once relied on to gain separation.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.



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