After all the pre-draft roster shuffling, organized team activities and minicamps are offering us a sneak peak at how NFL teams will look in 2017.
We’re getting used to the sight of players in new uniforms, or at least new practice uniforms. Some of these players will excel in their new threads when they step on the field against players who are dressed in a different color.
Brandin Cooks, Patriots
Brandin Cooks’ arrival in New England is in some ways similar to Randy Moss’ arrival 10 years ago.
Although Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, the Patriots haven’t really had elite playmaking wide receivers in recent years. They’ve had reliable, ultra-productive receivers like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, but no one who can scare opponents with his speed.
Cooks, who doesn’t turn 24 until September, can do that. He ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 combine. In 2015, Cooks caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns and followed that up with 78 catches for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns. Coming from New Orleans, Cooks is used to meshing with other talented players on offense. He’s made some eye-popping catches at organized team activities and minicamp, according to NESN.
The Patriots wanted to prove in 2007 that their success to that point wasn’t Spygate-aided, and Moss set a record with 23 touchdowns. All the Patriots have to prove this time around is that there is life after their epic Super Bowl LI comeback, so they bettered themselves by getting a receiver who can take the top off a defense.
Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
When the Patriots build their double-digit leads in 2017, opponents will have to throw the ball into the teeth of a secondary manned by Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler.
The Patriots signed Gilmore, who turns 27 in September, to a five-year, $65 million contract. He’s coming off a career-high five interceptions and he also broke up 12 passes last season. He’s picked off 14 passes and broken up 62 since the Bills drafted him 10th overall in 2012.
Now Gilmore is paired with Butler, whose career will be known for more than just his moment of Super Bowl glory. Butler registered four interceptions and 16 passes defended last season, both career highs. This season, he’s in a contract year. So he’ll have an extra sensitive nose for the ball.
Gilmore has a chance to either rack up the interceptions with quarterbacks avoiding Butler, or earning a true “shutdown corner” badge with quarterbacks avoiding him.
LeGarrette Blount, Eagles
The Eagles have some running backs who can catch passes. There’s Darren Sproles, a proven veteran. There’s rookie Donnel Pumphrey.
And then there’s … LeGarrette Blount?
According to the Philly Voice, the bruising back the Eagles signed as a free agent has been catching passes in practice.
The 6’1″, 245-pound Blount is hard enough to handle for the beefy guys in the trenches. Now linebackers and defensive backs might have to take on that load in the open field.
Not many running backs set a career high in rushing yards the same season they turn 30. Blount did that last year, rushing for 1,161 yards and leading the league with 18 touchdowns.
Eagles opponents have two new receivers to worry about in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. That could open up some daylight for Blount to help keep the chains moving.
Alshon Jeffery, Eagles
Count Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and tight end Zach Ertz among Alshon Jeffery’s fans. Both were impressed with him at organized team activities.
The 27-year-old Jeffery signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Eagles after spending the first five years of his career with the Bears.
Once upon a time, Jeffery was a Pro Bowler catching more than 80 passes a season. In his Pro Bowl season, he caught 89 passes for 1,421 yards in 2013, both career highs. He’s missed 11 games because of injuries and suspensions over the last two seasons, however, and caught just 54 passes in 2015 and 52 last season.
Jeffery enters a better situation in Philadelphia. Carson Wentz’s growth as a quarterback should be aided by Jeffery’s arrival as well as the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Torrey Smith.
Jeffery’s fortunes sank with that of the Bears over the last couple of seasons. In Philadelphia, he could be on the cutting edge of something special.
Jeremy Maclin, Ravens
The Chiefs’ stunningly released Jeremy Maclin earlier this month in a cost-cutting move, but it could cost them if they’re jockeying for a wild-card spot with the Ravens.
In 2016, Maclin caught 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns, all career lows. He also set a new personal floor with 12.2 yards per reception, a 57.9 catch percentage and a long reception of 44 yards.
Maclin goes from the dink-and-dunk Chiefs to the Ravens and arguably the best quarterback he’s played with. There’s no debating that Joe Flacco beats Alex Smith with both his resumé and arm, and the 29-year-old Maclin again could become a big-play threat. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who was his first offensive coordinator when the Eagles took him with the 19th pick in 2009. Maclin transitioned to the NFL fairly smoothly under Mornhinweg, catching 56 passes in his rookie season.
In 2014, his last year with the Eagles, Maclin caught 85 passes. He caught a career-high 87 a year later in his first season with the Chiefs. It will be interesting to see what Maclin can do with a team that knows how to use him.
Tony Jefferson, Ravens
When Tony Jefferson signed with the Ravens, it was a reminder of the career trajectory of another safety, Ryan Clark.
Like Clark, Jefferson started his career in the NFC and came to the AFC North at a young age. Like Clark, Jefferson has a chance to define his career by what he does in the AFC North.
The 25-year-old Jefferson broke up five passes, forced two fumbles and had two sacks last season in his first year as a starter for the Cardinals. More of a box safety, he brings his physical style of play from a division of haves and have-nots to a division of fierce rivalries with one have-not and three teams perpetually fighting for supremacy.
Clark won a championship and made a Pro Bowl in eight years with the Steelers. That’s a lot for Jefferson to live up to, but according to ESPN.com, he led all defensive backs in 2016 with 13 tackles for loss.
Jefferson could have made a little more money by signing with the Browns, but he didn’t want to wait two or three years to dive into the AFC North fray.
Terrelle Pryor, Redskins
Terrelle Pryor has three things going for him in Washington.
He has a year under his belt as a true wide receiver and not a gadget player.
He’ll be working with a franchise quarterback, or at least one who annually gets the franchise tag.
That quarterback wants him to be involved in the offense.
Pryor caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards from the Browns’ motley crew of quarterbacks in 2016. Now he’ll have Kirk Cousins at the other end of those passes and the two have developed a chemistry during the offseason. Because of Pryor’s experience as a quarterback, Cousins can have conversations with him that quarterbacks and receivers can’t normally have.
With DeSean Jackson in Tampa Bay, Pryor will be expected to fill that playmaking void. And since he’s six inches taller than the 5’10” Jackson, Pryor could be an asset in the red zone as Cousins tries to rack up the touchdown passes and earn that long-term deal if he doesn’t have one before the season starts.
Connor Barwin, Rams
Connor Barwin was a cap casualty in Philadelphia, and he wasn’t among the first wave of free agents to sign in March. The Rams picked him up in an under-the-radar move, but Barwin could emphatically remind people that this deal happened.
New Rams head coach Sean McVay brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as the defense transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4. When Phillips became the Texans’ defensive coordinator in 2011, Barwin had a breakout season with 11.5 sacks. Barwin also hasn’t missed a game since 2011. He went to the Eagles in 2013 and had at least five sacks every year. He made the Pro Bowl in 2014 with 14.5 sacks.
Not only will the 30-year-old Barwin be working with a familiar defensive coordinator in Los Angeles, he’ll have some talent around him. The Rams’ defense ranked ninth last season in yards allowed per game. The Rams could surprise some teams in 2017 with Barwin’s help.
Marshawn Lynch, Raiders
It’s possible Marshawn Lynch is making a mistake. Perhaps his body had enough two years ago when he played in only seven games and ran for 417 yards.
Years from now, people might forget that Lynch attempted a comeback with the Raiders.
But Lynch and the Raiders seem like too good a fit for this to not work out. Al Davis would have loved having this guy on his team, and the 31-year-old has had more than a year to recuperate from his injury-marred 2015 season.
Lynch said that the Raiders’ plans to leave Oakland inspired him to make this comeback. An Oakland native, he wants to help bring one more Lombardi Trophy to his hometown. The Raiders have the pieces in place, at least on offense, to make a deep playoff run. And Lynch seems like the kind of guy who follows through on his missions.
Pierre Garcon, 49ers
Pierre Garcon and Kyle Shanahan are together again in San Francisco.
Shanahan was the Redskins’ offensive coordinator in 2013 when Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions, three more than Antonio Brown. Garcon, who will turn 31 in August, is coming off his second-best season in terms of receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,041). According to Pro Football Focus, Garcon dropped just one pass in 2016.
Jeremy Kerley is the only other 49ers receiver on the roster who has caught more than 29 passes in a season, so Brian Hoyer will have to lean on Garcon, especially when the rebuilding 49ers fall behind in games.
The 49ers’ quarterback situation might not be ideal, but Hoyer could be an upgrade over last year’s Colin Kaepernick-Blaine Gabbert platoon. He’s made a living as a stopgap starter, and Garcon’s 113-catch season came when Robert Griffin III’s career was heading south. RG3 went 3-10 as a starter that season.
Garcon even managed to catch 70 passes from the combination of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins for the Colts in 2011. That team went 2-14, as the 49ers did last season. It wouldn’t be too hard for the 49ers to improve on that mark, and Garcon can help with that.