Football used to be a game composed of teams until fantasy football went from a nerd-filled niche to a staple of sports fandom. The spread of point-collecting transformed the NFL's population into two groups--skill players and non-skill players, with skill players being professionals who touch the ball. Because of this, part of the sport's focus has shifted from caring about the collective teams in the league to hordes of fantasy anchorites praying for Josh Scobee to score four points to keep them in the playoff race at 4-6 or in a $5 money slot.
This disease is already starting to fester now that July is here and everyone is itching for football. Draft guides are being bought. Mock drafts are abandoned six rounds in. Clicks are being made. People are getting reared up and ready to go. To help out, I've grown my nails out and I'm ready to get to scratching. Here are the five skill players on new teams that I am most excited to gaze upon in 2016.
1.) DeMarco Murray: (RB--Tennessee Titans)
There's no greater crime in the NFL than when a great player is robbed of the finite time he has to play the game because he's forced to play in a scheme that gelds his talents. Murray is the perfect example of this.
|2014||DAL||1,845||13||4.71||382 (1st)||14.8% (5th)|
|2015||PHI||704||6||3.65||-29 (39th)||-12.1% (40th)|
Murray was insane in 2014 behind the NFL's best offensive line. And it wasn't a case of him running through open holes and going down right when contact was made, either. He accentuated their blocks. He broke 51 tackles that year, which tied him for third with a sculpted Eddy Lacy. Aside from talent, what made the Cowboys' run game work was how vertical it was. Murray took the ball and ran down field. He screamed through wide open holes, fluttered his legs to full speed, made one man miss, or made the defender evaporate with a lowered shoulder en route to highlight runs. He ran vertically. He attacked, attacked, attacked.
He was lured from Dallas by Philadelphia last offseason. Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy and brought in Murray and Ryan Mathews. The problem was the scheme didn't fit what Murray excels at. Most of Kelly's runs are horizontal. The zone plays are designed for the back to run laterally and then go over or around the tackle. This leads to the backs running sideways and then cutting up field instead of pouncing through the hole...you know, the exact thing Murary is great at. This was perfect with McCoy, a player who's quick, shifty, and can escape out of a straight jacket--the closest thing the NFL has to Houdini. But not so with Murray. He needs to plummet forward. Most of his runs were him running sideways lost and uncomfortable. As a result, he wasn't anywhere near the 1,800 yard runner he was in 2014.
Now he's in Tennessee, which is buzzing under the neon with "Exotic Smash Mouth" football. The Titans are going to run the ball downhill and into, not around, defenses. Murray won't be playing behind the same caliber of offensive line he had in Dallas. But he will be playing a scheme that fits his style with a group of young talent that has been frustrating and inconsistent. He'll never have a year like 2014 again. But in Tennessee, the days should end where this supremely talented player is the 39th best back in football.
2.) Martellus Bennett: (TE--New England Patriots)
The Patriots are usually ahead of the rest of the league. When the league cracked down on defensive holding penalties and helmet to helmet hits that made offensive players' bones shudder, no one really knew what the game would look like. Except for the Patriots. The new rules opened up the middle of the field. They dominated the league with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and that monster of a man, Aaron Hernandez
In Hernandez's last season, the Patriots' offense scored 557 points (34.8/game), had an offensive DVOA of 30.8% (1st) and won 12 games in the regular season. Since then, Hernandez was locked up for murder. And since then, the Patriots have focused their passing attack on the middle of the field while never finding a real second tight end. Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, Tim Wright, Scott Chandler, and preseason fantasy starlet Zach Sudfeld all failed in their time in New England. That should change with the signing of Martellus Bennett.
With teams doubling Gronkowski on every down, Bennett should be open incessantly in one-on-one match-ups against slot corners, safeties, and outside linebackers. Players who either don't have the size or the athleticism to stay with 6'6, 4.68 40 running Bennett. I mean, just look at his numbers in Chicago the last three seasons. He's been a top fifteen tight end until last season when rib injuries hampered him, cut his season short, and allowed New England to snag him for a fourth round pick.
The Patriots had the fifth-ranked offense according to DVOA last year. That should be even better with Bennett reaping the benefits of Gronk's double teams that can't even contain him. Sometimes I close my eyes and I can still see those 2011 and 2012 Patriots trouncing through the center of the field, pillaging, apocalyptic, with Barrett Ruud chasing after the unchasable. These visions will become a lesser reality of the past with Bennett finally fixing New England's second tight end woes.
3.) Lamar Miller: (RB--Houston Texans)
I hate giving running backs beaucoup dollars. If you are going to, Lamar Miller is the perfect back to hand it out to. He is 25 years old. He has touched the ball just 755 times the last three seasons. Miller has had the ball in his hands more than 254 times only once. He's young, fresh, versatile, and fast. In 2014, he was 3rd in DVOA with 17.8% and 4th in DYAR with 246. He was around 15th in both categories last year while receiving more than 50 pass targets during that same spate of time. It's exactly what you want from a young running back you pay a little more than $6 million a year to.
He produced because of a precious combination of quickness and vision. Texans fans were spoiled watching Arian Foster set up blocks and slice and dice through the offensive line with a flurry of cut backs and stutters into the hole. Miller doesn't have Foster's or McCoy's vision, but he does have a great pair of peepers.
When he cuts back on outside zone plays, Miller makes the right decision. Additionally, he waits until the last moment to go across the grain. Then when he does cut back, he has the burst of acceleration to explode past the first level, the quickness to make defenders miss at the second level, and the speed to run past defensive backs in the open field. I mean, the guy made Ryan Tannehill do the freaking Michael Jordan shrug in the 35-0 halftime rout the Dolphins put on the Texans.
The only fear to have with Miller is also what makes him the perfect back to sign. He hasn't been hit enough. No one really knows if he can handle 250 carries a year to keep Alfred Blue on the bench. It remains to be seen if Miller can touch the ball 300 times in a season. If he can, he'll be devastating, if he can't, he will be a time-share to go along with Tyler Ervin and Alfred Blue, which is a perfectly fine situation.
4.) Robert Griffin III: (QB--Cleveland Browns)
I still can't fully be done with RGIII. If you ignore the clowns and the twins conjoined at the head, there is an interesting player underneath it all. In his rookie season, he was the future of the league. Griffin was a dual threat who could use his legs to set up easy downfield throws. Then disaster struck in the playoffs when he tore his already injured LCL against the Seahawks. Despite him hobbling around like a gut-shot buck, Mike Shannahan forced him to stay in while he floundered around, helpless. It was disgusting.
Then the next season, he didn't play a snap in the preseason. He still started the first regular season game. He was rusty, corroded and awful, which made sense. He didn't get the summer reps and was coming off a horrendous injury that zapped him of the athletic ability that made him great. Griffin spent 2013 injured and sad. Washington won just three games.
The next season, new head coach Jay Gruden forced Griffin to stay in the pocket and play some West Coast football. He threw a buffet of safe curl routes and short passes. It was like watching a 7th grade offense. Gruden suffocated him into dropping back into the pocket, and never allowed him to play like he's supposed to. He dislocated his ankle in Week Two before coming back to start Week 9. The crowd chanted for Colt McCoy shortly afterwards.
It 2015, it only got worse. Jay Gruden Nancy Kerrigan'd him into a concussion by getting him bombarded behind a third-string offensive line in a meaningless preseason game. He did this because Daniel Snyder wanted RGIII to start and Gruden wanted Kirk Cousins. Since Gruden couldn't pull him, he had him knocked out. RGIII never played a regular season game in 2015 and spent the entire season watching from the bench, subtweeting while Cousins led Washington to a NFC East title.
But now RGIII is in Cleveland. The Browns were able to gather a plethora of picks for the future by trading back and took a chance on the past "future of football" in a season with zero expectations. They'll be able to pair him with a great quarterback coach in Hue Jackson who can set up an offense around Griffin to make the most of his skills. He'll play behind a commendable offensive line and have a decent set of skill players around him. And if the athleticism is there, which is possible, there's a small chance RGIII could be a real quarterback. Past mishandlings, misfortune, and the small chance of him regaining his athletic upside that made him the remarkable player he was in 2012 make him interesting in a new setting.
5.) Mohamed Sanu: (WR--Atlanta Falcons)
Sanu is a fine player. He's a great deep threat and can make things happen on screens. But Sanu himself isn't why he's on this list. Julio Jones is. The second receiver on the Falcons last year was Leonard Hankerson, a replacement level player. Jones had zero help from his receivers. The best pass catcher they had aside from him was running back Devonta Freeman. Jones was Atlanta's entire passing offense.
|Next Best||97 (Freeman)||73 (Freeman)||657 (Tamme)||3 (Freeman)|
|% of Team||32.9%||33.17%||40.6%||38%|
Despite it all, Jones was the second best receiver in the league behind Antonio Brown while fighting through double teams and zone coverages focused on him. Sanu will cut into his counting stats some, but he will be more efficient and possibly even better with a real human being playing across from him.