5 NFC players who could lose their starting jobs to rookies
Sam Bradford will have to fend off rookie QB Carson Wentz to keep his starting job in Philadelphia. Plus, four more position battles to watch.
5 NFC players who could lose their starting jobs to rookies
NFL teams are always looking for ways to save money against the cap. The new rookie wage scale may ensure a more judicial distribution of wealth in favor of veterans, but it also motivates teams to fast-track young players into the starting lineup. This article highlights five NFC veterans who might be concerned about getting the hook in favor of 2016 rookies.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Sam Bradford vs. Carson Wentz
Bradford failed to engineer a trade following Philadelphia’s trade up to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz, only piling further pressure on himself to play well in the offseason and preseason. At least he is fully healthy this offseason (unlike last year), improving his chances of hitting the ground running. He has proven to be an average NFL starter during his career, when he has been healthy, and he is coming off the best-graded season of his career (81.5 grade, 11th among QBs). But he’ll likely need to play at that level or higher to maintain his starting job throughout 2016.
Plenty of elements of Wentz’s game suggest he needs time before becoming an NFL starter. His timing and anticipation need work, in particular. That said, a poor start for the team will likely motivate the coaching staff to speed up his development and get him on the field year one. Wentz’s arm strength, short location and decision-making suggest he’s not too far away from taking meaningful snaps. On a per-snap basis, his passing grade in college topped this class. It’s perfectly possible Wentz will seize the starting job in 2016.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Randy Gregory vs. Charles Tapper
Rod Marinelli is an exceptional defensive line coach, but he needs talent to work with. The Cowboys filled one hole at defensive end by adding Demarcus Lawrence in the second round in 2014. Lawrence took another step forward in 2015, ranking 18th in PFF grades among edge defenders while racking up eight sacks, seven hits and 31 hurries. He has been suspended for four games to start the season, but is appealing and could see that punishment reduced. 2015 second-rounder Randy Gregory is also suspended for four games to start the year. He failed to register a sack as a rookie, but graded positively as a pass-rusher after recording six hits and 15 hurries.
The Cowboys’ fourth-round pick this year out of Oklahoma, Tapper, will have an advantage in training camp because of the two suspensions — and he looks like a particular threat to steal Gregory’s starting job from him.
Tapper was not the most productive defensive lineman in this class, due predominantly to a lack of consistency, but his potential is frightening. He was one of the top performers at the NFL combine, breaking 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he earned solid grades against the run and as a pass-rusher. Tapper will need to adjust his weight depending on his role, but his athleticism should make him well-suited to the Cowboys’ aggressive front.
Los Angeles Rams: TE Lance Kendricks vs. Tyler Higbee
After trading up to draft QB Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick, the Rams set about surrounding him with talented playmakers. Higbee’s off-field indiscretions led to his falling to the fourth round on draft day, but if he’s able to keep himself clean in the pros, he has the talent to make an impact. Higbee ranked third in this class among tight ends in receiving grade. He was only targeted 48 times, but caught 38 passes for 562 yards and eight touchdowns, dropping just two passes.
The incumbent Rams tight ends are unlikely to keep Higbee off the field. L.A. finally got out of Jared Cook’s contract after three underwhelming seasons. Behind him, Lance Kendricks has never fulfilled his potential as a second round pick. He recorded a career-low in receptions in 2015 with just 25, finishing with the No. 56 overall grade among tight ends. With all the guaranteed money running out of Kendricks’ contract starting in 2017, he’s entering essentially a contract year — and it’s likely Higbee takes his starting job from him sooner rather than later.
Carolina Panthers: DT Star Lotulelei vs. Vernon Butler
The Panthers’ decision to double-dip at defensive tackle in the 2013 draft looks like a good decision based on the fact that their second-rounder, Kawann Short, has developed into one of the best players in the NFL at his position. The 44th overall pick had a breakout season last year, finishing with a 90.7 overall grade that ranked eighth among interior defensive linemen. On the other hand, his teammate and 2013 first-rounder (14th overall) Lotulelei finished with a lowly 66.5 grade that ranked 88th. Lotulelei recorded career-low grades both against the run and as a pass-rusher. He has never flashed the ability to collapse the pocket the way one would expect from a top-15 pick.
Butler, Carolina’s 2016 first-rounder, might form the perfect complement to Short. He has the versatility to line up at any position on the interior, and has the ability to either hold his ground or penetrate. Butler ranked fifth in this class defending the run, and eighth in run-stop percentage, but he also disrupted opposing QBs to the tune of 39 combined hurries. His pass-rush grade was top-15 in this class. Butler can immediately compete to be the Panthers’ top backup at DT, and challenge for Lotulelei’s starting spot down the line.
New Orleans Saints: WR Brandon Coleman vs. Michael Thomas
The Saints’ overhaul at wide receiver continued this offseason with the release of Marques Colston. In his stead, New Orleans drafted Ohio State’s Michael Thomas in the second round. Sean Payton values versatility in his pass-catchers – each member of the receiving corps played a minimum of 25 percent of snaps in the slot in 2015 – which makes Thomas an interesting fit in New Orleans. He played outside almost exclusively at OSU, but might be seen as the ideal vertical threat from the slot in place of Colston.
Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, the Saints’ top two wideouts, have the typical size profile of a slot receiver, but each played only around 30 percent inside in 2015. Both were also more effective on the perimeter. Backup Brandon Coleman played well for an undrafted free agent (72.4 receiving grade), but will have a tough task beating out Thomas.
Thomas flashed the skill-set required of a slot receiver with the Buckeyes, with his combination of suddenness in his routes and an ability to catch the ball in traffic. Thomas also possesses underrated acceleration, enabling him to generate separation underneath. His receiving grade in his final year in college was good enough for 11th in the class, tied with Vikings first-rounder Laquon Treadwell. If Thomas plays to his potential, it will be difficult to keep him off the field in 2016.