When Jared Allen signed with the Chicago Bears on Wednesday, he received more than job security and a great deal of money -- he also got a fresh start.
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This is not a unique phenomenon. Sometimes a player simply needs a fresh start, whether because he would benefit from a change of scenery or because his team feels he's no longer fitting in. These dramas often play out in the offseason, when disgruntled players can be more easily traded and when free agents can be lured to more appealing locales.
With that in mind, I thought I'd look at four players in position to thrive after getting a fresh start -- plus two who could use one.
FOUR PLAYERS GETTING A FRESH START
Steve Smith, WR
Smith is one of the most competitive guys you'll ever be around. His approach is infectious; what he brings to the table will make everyone around him play better. Last season's total of 64 catches with the Carolina Panthers might not seem that impressive -- until you consider that he was more or less working without any kind of true complementary receiver. In Baltimore, Smith won't be the only offensive threat, and I think he's got a chance at finishing the season with something like 1,000 yards and seven or eight touchdown catches. He truly has that kind of ability.
He's surely going to take his release from the Panthers personally, and I expect him to do everything possible to be a better player than he was last season. I'm not sure how he'll do that, as he was already working as hard as anyone, but I'm sure he'll find a way. I've said before that receivers hit the wall at 31, but I'm not sure that the 34-year-old Smith will hit the wall even when he turns 40. He's a fantastic, wound-tight guy who has the fire of a much younger player.
Matt Schaub, QB
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The Raiders' trade for Schaub could go down as one of the great acquisitions in recent history, given that they gave up just a sixth-round pick. Yes, he had a bad 2013, but he's just one year removed from a heckuva 2012 campaign, during which I had him rated as the 11th best quarterback overall. I don't think we can say he's in decline based on last season; though he didn't help matters by throwing 14 picks in 10 game, he was on a Houston team that played poorly all around. A guy who's an A-rated player one year doesn't suddenly become an F-rated player the next. Oakland coach Dennis Allen was on the Atlanta Falcons' staff in 2004 when they drafted Schaub, so he should have a pretty good idea of who he's getting.
The Raiders might draft a quarterback in May, but Schaub is going to be the starter, and I don't expect him to relinquish that role anytime soon. I think he can be a catalyst for this team to be pretty good and could end up being a steal. In fact, if I were the Raiders, I would now think about trading down and possibly nabbing a signal-caller late in the first round or early in the second.
Darrelle Revis, CB
This is a match made in heaven. I don't know of anybody who would have more incentive to excel this season than Revis, who will be looking to prove himself on what is essentially a one-year deal with the Pats. After a torn ACL limited him to just two games with the Jets in 2012, he went to Tampa Bay, which, it turned out, was kind of in disarray. And while he did go to the Pro Bowl after his only season with the Buccaneers, his reputation seems to have taken a hit; he's not held in quite as high esteem by observers as he once was.
Now, after being released by the Bucs, he's headed to a great organization with a chance to remind people about what he can do; if there's such a thing as a shutdown corner, Revis is that. Bill Belichick is very good at evaluating risk. If Revis is fully healthy, the Patriots will have picked up one of the 10 best players in the NFL.
DeMarcus Ware, LB
Denver was an ideal landing spot for Ware, because the Broncos will likely make a third-down player out of him. Instead of having to grind for 65 plays per game, he'll come in for 15 or so and rush off the edge. Remember, it's tough to rush the passer. If Ware has more of a specialist's role than he had in Dallas, he'll stay fresh, which means I could see him reaching double digits in sacks -- if, that is, he stays healthy.
Of course, that would seem to be a relatively big if, given that Ware was hampered by multiple injuries in 2013 and will be turning 32 in July. When a player at that age ends up dealing with a series of ailments, it can spark concerns that his body might be breaking down. Moreover, Ware's sack totals have also declined over the past three seasons; after notching 19.5 in 2011, he had 11.5 in 2012 and just six last season. He simply did not play that well last year, though that might have been related to broader problems with the defense in Dallas, which was the league's worst. But if he can contribute something like 12 or 13 sacks with the Broncos, this will end up being a good move.
TWO WHO COULD USE A CHANGE
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Jackson is obviously a great player and a talented guy, an electric presence. In just six years as a pro, he's already racked up more receiving yards than any Eagles receiver since 1990, and he can play in the slot or outside. In 2009, he became the first player in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl at two different positions. He's also coming off one of his best seasons yet, a 1,332-yard, nine-touchdown effort. So if Philadelphia is or wastrying to trade him this offseason, there has to be something else going on -- and there's a good chance it's related to money, given Jackson's comments in January suggesting he wants a new contract.
Maintaining the right locker-room mix can be a delicate balancing act. For example, players don't usually mind when someone holds out or tries to get more money, but they'll start to resent a guy if they perceive he's going through the motions on the field as a form of protest. Someone who complains or is combative all the time can wear on everybody in the organization, from the players to the coaches, and sometimes a team is better off if that guy is removed, regardless of how talented he might be. When I worked for the Dallas Cowboys, that's the conclusion we reached regarding running back Duane Thomas, who we ended up trading away. It was unfortunate, because he was a very good player, but he just wasn't in step with the team.
I honestly don't know how the Eagles are going to find a buyer for Jackson, especially since he's not likely to be flexible regarding money. That said, if he stays in Philly -- and he reportedly told teammates earlier this week that he would -- I think it'll be tough for both sides to move on. Entering his seventh year with the team, there's a lot of water under the bridge. The last time Jackson was negotiating for a new contract, in 2011, he skipped part of training camp, was benched during the season and generally had a poor year, with 961 yards and just four touchdowns. If he's with the Eagles in 2014, it's tough to say how he'll react; he might be motivated to show everyone he's worth the money, or he might handle the situation poorly. Ultimately, he would likely be better off heading to another team, staying quiet and playing well.
Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
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Last season, Johnson did not produce well for a guy set to make $8 million in base salary in 2014, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and posting just two 100-yard games, but I don't think he's lost any of his talent. During his best years in Tennessee, he had good tackles in front of him in Michael Roos and David Stewart, who have both declined considerably since then -- in fact, Stewart was released earlier this month. Johnson is not an inside runner; he's an outside runner, and he just couldn't get outside with the recent tackle play in Tennessee. He has to hope the Titans -- who are trying to shop him -- ship him to a team with good tackles who will enable him to get back to playing his game. If he lands in the right spot, he can zoom right back up there in terms of production.