The dog days of the NFL offseason are here, which means players will be lining up at practice and working on their game for the next few months. Teams will be working on everything from pass protection to rushing the quarterback with everything in-between, but these 13 players have one area to focus on improving.
From Cam Newton to the NFL’s sacks leader in 2016, Vic Beasley Jr., the following list of players need to work on a particular skill set this offseason in order to take the next step this upcoming season.
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Carson Wentz: Mechanics
Wentz got off to a great start last season, seemingly putting an end to the conversation about him being a raw prospect who wasn’t ready for the NFL. That discussion resurfaced fairly quickly, though, after Wentz began to struggle. His mechanics were the main factor for his bad stretch of games in the middle of the season, and it remains the biggest aspect of his game that he needs to improve.
Wentz’s footwork is OK – although he needs to stop pretending his feet are stuck in cement at the top of his drop – but his arm angle can get him into some trouble. His wonky release causes passes to sail on receivers, leading to easy interceptions for safeties over the middle. It’s something the Eagles will have to work diligently on this offseason.
Andrew Luck: Decision making
Luck was a prodigy when he came into the NFL – the next big thing. He was a Peyton Manning-type player at Stanford, boasting good size, intangibles and arm talent. The past few years, though, his decision making has been suspect, and not just when throwing the ball.
Far too often, Luck puts himself in a position to either get injured or simply take a big shot from a defender. He doesn’t like to slide and get out of harm’s way, which is why he missed so much time in 2015. This offseason, the Colts’ coaching staff has to keep harping on the fact that Luck needs to preserve his body.
When throwing the ball, he does need to make better decisions. He sometimes trusts his arm too much and makes throws that have very little chance to be caught. Luck has a great arm, but he tries to force throws more than he should.
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David Johnson: Ball security
There isn’t much Johnson can do better after he put together a historically great season in 2016, but one aspect of his game could use work: ball security. He’s a workhorse who’s involved in all aspects of the offense, so he touches the ball more than most players in the NFL, but his five fumbles last year were concerning.
Additionally, he had four fumbles in 2015 on just 161 touches. Johnson is a dynamic playmaker who can do everything for the Cardinals, but he can’t afford to keep giving away the ball at the rate that he has the past two years.
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Tyrod Taylor: Throwing over the middle
If you look at a heat map of Taylor’s throws, you’ll see that the majority are on targets outside the numbers. For one reason or another, Taylor doesn’t feel comfortable throwing over the middle, which limits the number of plays the coaching staff can call. That has to change if Buffalo’s offense is going to expand under Rick Dennison.
Moving pockets and throws on the run are great for a mobile player like Taylor, but that can’t be his only game. He has to be willing to stand in the pocket and deliver strikes over the middle. Having a guy like Zay Jones in the slot should make that easier for Taylor, but it won’t be the cure-all solution.
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Todd Gurley: Field vision
Gurley had one of the most surprising seasons of any player in 2016, averaging an abysmal 3.2 yards per carry on 278 attempts. The Rams’ awful offensive line was a big reason for Gurley’s regression, but he didn’t do enough to create yardage on his own. Far too often, he would attempt to run through a hole that wasn’t there, resulting in early contact and short gains.
In 2017, Gurley needs to do a better job of seeing openings on the line and taking advantage of them. He seemed undisciplined in his reads last year, and when he did commit to one gap, he would be slow to get through it. That needs to change next season if he wants to rebound. Gurley has to do a better job of making plays when provided the opportunity.
Vic Beasley Jr.: Run defense
Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, a staggering number after he struggled prior to last season. As great as that number was, he struggled mightily against the run. He was among the worst edge defenders against the run, ranking 82nd in that department by Pro Football Focus’ standards.
That’s not entirely surprising, considering Beasley isn’t built like a run-stopper, but that doesn’t stop Von Miller from being an all-around great outside linebacker. I’m not suggesting Beasley needs to become Miller overnight, but he absolutely needs to improve against the run in order to take his game to the next level.
Cam Newton: Accuracy
Among qualified passers, Newton had the worst completion percentage in the NFL. He completed a miniscule 52.9 percent of his throws, which was by far the lowest in the league, and the worst of his career.
His receivers did him no favors, but Newton needs to be more accurate in order for the offense to have success. A team can’t move the ball when its quarterback is completing only half of his attempts.
Newton needs to take easy completions when they’re there, and pull the trigger when his receivers find holes in zone coverage. The most concerning part about his game last year was his inaccuracy on short passes, which he should be completing at a rate above 70 percent.
Marcus Mariota: Limiting turnovers
One of the biggest knocks on Mariota out of Oregon was his inability to hold onto the football in the pocket. His ball security was below-average, and that trend has carried into the NFL. The last two years – 27 total games – Mariota has fumbled the ball a whopping 19 times.
For whatever reason, Mariota can’t seem to retain possession when getting hit by defenders. He has big hands, but the ball always seems to come loose – more often than it should.
He’s fumbled it as many times as he’s thrown interceptions, which is a concerning trend that needs to be addressed. Mariota needs to do a better job of protecting the football, especially with the number of fumbles he’s committed in the NFL.
Dez Bryant: Expanding route tree
Bryant sometimes gets a bad rap for being a poor route runner. He’s certainly not as precise or technically sound as Antonio Brown or Julio Jones – mainly because he doesn’t have that sort of quickness – but he’s far from a bad route runner. Where he can improve, however, is with the depth of his route tree.
Bryant typically sticks to a handful of pass patterns: Go, dig, hitch and corner. That’s not entirely his fault, but the Cowboys don’t typically ask him to do more than that. Yes, he runs some slants and out routes, but not nearly enough. The routes he runs allow him to use his physicality and leaping ability to make catches over defenders, which he can’t necessarily do on slants and outs.
Still, the Cowboys need to work on expanding his route tree to keep defenders guessing, which Janoris Jenkins claims he never has to do when covering Bryant.
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Jared Goff: Deep passes
Goff has all the makings of a franchise quarterback who can win from within the pocket. His most accurate comparison is Matt Ryan, who took a few years to develop, himself. Goff, however, struggles when asked to push the ball downfield. He settles for underneath routes, and even when he does pull the trigger on short throws, he’s inaccurate.
Goff was reluctant to take shots down the field last season, opting not to take chances with receivers who couldn’t make plays on the ball. This offseason, the Rams’ new staff, led by Sean McVay, needs to encourage Goff to drive the ball down the field. He doesn’t have elite arm strength, but it’s good enough to throw 15-yard outs and posts over the middle. Goff just needs to be more confident in his abilities, and more accurate, as well.
Stephon Gilmore: Hand use
The Patriots signed Gilmore this offseason, giving them yet another great cornerback in the secondary. And while he’s certainly capable of shutting down receivers, he does need to get better when using his hands on receivers. Sometimes, Gilmore gets handsy, tugs jerseys and gets flagged for defensive holding. He was flagged for it five times last season, which was the most on the Bills and tied for the third-most in the entire league.
Gilmore is a prototypical press-man cornerback who loves to bump receivers off their routes, but he has to stop getting flagged for holding them. This became a real struggle this past season, but Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ coaching staff should be able to straighten him out.
Terrelle Pryor: Route running
Pryor is coming off his first full season as a wide receiver, and it went about as well as it could have. He caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards with four touchdowns, proving he can be a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Where he needs to improve is in his route running. That’s completely understandable when taking into account how little experience he has playing the position, and it’s something the Redskins coaching staff will preach heavily in practice.
Pryor is a physical specimen with all the tools to succeed in the NFL, he just needs to do a better job of creating separation for his quarterback. He can do that with sharper cuts and more precise routes, particularly when going over the middle.
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Jameis Winston: Cutting down on interceptions
Winston is a gunslinger. There’s just no way around that. If he sees a throw he thinks he can make, he’s going to let it fly and try to make a big play happen. Sometimes it works, and other times it costs him with a pick-six. Mistakes like that cost the Buccaneers down the stretch with Winston throwing six interceptions in the last three weeks with Tampa Bay going 1-3 in those games.
He has to do a better job of protecting the football and taking what the defense gives him. If it’s Cover 3, there’s no need to take a shot deep down the sideline. Take the underneath throw and let your playmakers go to work. That’s what Dirk Koetter and the coaching staff have to harp on in practice.