Analysis  

 

Jay Cutler rising? Offseason moves with potential to surprise

Print

Here's guessing you've heard enough Adrian Peterson news to last you for as many months as he was gone. And you're probably Ndamukong Suh'd out. The Tom Brady saga? We won't go there.

Those stories -- along with the Saints trading Jimmy Graham to Seattle and Darrelle Revis' return to New York -- have dominated the NFL offseason. But so many more developments have gone relatively unnoticed. Case in point: Bengals receiver Marvin Jones, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, and tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed all but one game due to elbow and shoulder injuries, appear healthy and ready to rock for training camp. If you saw who Andy Dalton was throwing to in Indy last January, then you know that's important.

So while Suh landing in Miami is huge, there were other offseason storylines that could have almost as much impact, though they involve one-tenth the money and publicity. Below are five offseason moves that could change the course of the 2015 season in unexpected ways -- under-the-radar plotlines that have the potential to shape the playoff field. While these outcomes might not be anticipated, your thoughts, as always, are ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.

1) The Bears hire Adam Gase as offensive coordinator.

Could lead to: Jay Cutler turning things around -- and Chicago making real noise.

This move certainly qualifies as "unexpected," given that many thought Gase would have a strong shot at the vacancy left by John Fox's "mutual" split with the Broncos, which was itself a surprising development. Gase's presumed ascent in Denver ... didn't happen. Naturally, Fox hired Gase to lead his offense in Chicago. Can the coordinator revive Cutler's game to the point that the Bears can make noise in the NFC North? Can he, for lack of a more creative phrase, get Cutler to care more?

While pretty much everyone considers Green Bay the favorite in the NFC North, the conference's wild-card spots are truly up for grabs. If Cutler -- who, let's not forget, tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions last season -- plays more efficiently and takes better care of the ball, why couldn't Chicago compete with the Eagles, Cardinals, Giants and whoever else enters the fray? And when you think about it, the division isn't exactly set in stone, with Minnesota welcoming Adrian Peterson back to the fold and Detroit capable of splitting with the Packers again.

2) The Bills sign Tyrod Taylor.

Could lead to: Buffalo stunning everyone in the AFC East (or maybe just nabbing a wild-card spot).

Back in March, when the Bills handed the career backup $1.2 million in guaranteed money, nobody thought much of Taylor, who had spent most of his four years with the Ravens holding a clipboard -- Does anyone actually hold a classic clipboard anymore? -- and maybe donning a baseball cap while watching Joe Flacco start every game. Still, Taylor got himself a Super Bowl ring. While he might not get another in Buffalo, he could be the difference in the Bills' playoff hopes. Consider:

A) Coach Rex Ryan is a vocal Taylor admirer, and the team is insisting the QB competition is open.
B) EJ Manuel has impressed no one.
C) Matt Cassel lacks the mobility to run the full cadre of plays new offensive coordinator Greg Roman dials up.
D) Taylor is faster than both Manuel and Cassel. He ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and some reportedly hand-timed him at under 4.5.
E) The Bills will be pounding the rock with the newly acquired LeSean McCoy (with free-agent signees Jerome Felton and Charles Clay blocking), which should mitigate Taylor's accuracy issues.

Most importantly, Buffalo allowed all of 18.1 points per game last season. The Bills need a quarterback who can run the offense, avoid forcing throws and make plays with his legs. Sounds reasonable. Could they go 10-6, maybe? Why not? And if Tom Brady misses four games, why can't the AFC East have a new champ?

3) The Steelers sign DeAngelo Williams.

Could lead to: Pittsburgh avoiding a disastrous start.

With Le'Veon Bell's three-game suspension hanging over the franchise, getting some quality running back depth was hugely important to the club this offseason. If you don't believe me, please go sign up for Game Rewind and watch Ben Tate rush for 19 yards and zero touchdowns on five carries in the Steelers' Bell-less wild-card loss to the Ravens. Pittsburgh kicks off the 2015 season with games against the Patriots in New England, the 49ers in Pittsburgh and the Rams in St. Louis -- not a gimme in the bunch. What's more, both the Pats and Rams boast a stout pass rush. What better way to slow down the attack than to run the ball? What better way to keep pace in a tiiiiiight AFC North than to not start 1-2? The Steelers needed a running back who can play ... like ... now.

Enter Williams, who has nearly 7,000 rushing yards to his name and four playoff games under his belt. He knows what he's doing out there. Carry the ball 15 times per contest, provide some balance -- and maybe, with some luck, Pittsburgh goes 2-1.

4) Jeremy Maclin reunites with Andy Reid.

Could lead to: The Chiefs shifting the balance of power in the AFC West.

OK, so this wasn't as small a story as the others on our list; even casual fans were aware Maclin -- considered the best free agent receiver behind Randall Cobb, who actually re-upped with the Packers before hitting the market -- was available. That said, Maclin's signing in Kansas City seemed to go slightly under the radar, perhaps minimized in the eyes of some by the destination not being New York, Chicago or Dallas. But the move, which gives Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith a reliable pass-catching target who doesn't play running back or tight end, could reshape the AFC West.

Most people, including yours truly, assume the Broncos are one of the top-tier teams in the AFC, along with the Patriots and Colts. But really, wasn't the disparity at receiver -- the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders; Albert Wilson was the Chiefs' second-leading wide receiver in 2014, with 16 catches for 260 yards -- one of the biggest things separating Denver and Kansas City? In the Chiefs' two losses to the Broncos, the leading wide receivers were Dwayne Bowe (40 yards in Week 2) and Jason Avant (30 yards in Week 13). Needless to say, Maclin was a huge get for Reid and Co. With a solid quarterback in Smith, a fantastic running back in Jamaal Charles and a defense that can get pressure, these guys are ready.

5) Dallas lucks into La'el Collins.

Could lead to: The Cowboys staving off catastrophe.

Nothing in pro football ever works out as planned. The Rams were supposed to have one of the top defensive lines in the league -- then Chris Long went down, and St. Louis was held to just one sack through Week 6. Similarly, everyone went into this offseason expecting the Cowboys to once again have the best offensive line in football. But what if they didn't? What if t? Quite simply, Dallas would be doomed. A DeMarco Murray-less backfield would struggle. Quarterback Tony Romo -- who has had multiple back surgeries, and who, during last season's five-sack loss to Washington, was walking around like Gollum -- would be vulnerable. The Cowboys' mediocre defense -- which benefited from the offense's ability to win the time of possession battle last season -- would be exposed.

That's where Collins comes in. He's a potential top-10-caliber player who slipped out of the draft -- and seemingly plopped out of the sky -- to land in Dallas at minimal cost to the team, a first-round prospect who required zero investment of draft capital. And if he's as good as advertised, he could be the key to Dallas' season. If Doug Free goes down again, Collins could step in. If something were to happen to All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, the Cowboys would be OK; Free could slide over to Smith's spot and Collins could line up at right tackle. Heck, Collins could even simply replace the weakest link in the unit, left guard Ronald Leary. If the LSU product proves to be anywhere close to as good a rookie as Zack Martin was last season, forget about Dallas plummeting back to Earth without Murray at running back and with an aging Romo at quarterback -- the Cowboys again will maul opponents, including Seattle, up front.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop