Front Office Insider: How Week 5 reinforcements will help their teams
The discipline the NFL levied upon several players over the past year ends for most this week.
Six starters are permitted to return in Week 5 from league-imposed suspensions. The degrees of importance for each player’s return vary from city to city and by whom you speak with.
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s unit certainly receives a boost by adding linebacker Rolando McClain and pass-rushing specialist Greg Hardy.
Denver Broncos coordinator Wade Phillips, too, gets another piece to add to an already loaded front seven in end Derek Wolfe.
It’s no secret that in the Steel City, Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant gives Todd Haley’s offense another dimension.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers gets his longtime favorite target back in tight end Antonio Gates.
And the New York Jets, one of four teams on a bye this week, will eventually be bolstered by the services of defensive end Sheldon Richardson.
FOXSports.com spoke with several talent evaluators to find out how each player will impact his team on and off the field:
Denver’s D gets deeper: If you wanted to pick nits despite a great start, you could say Denver’s defense has shown weakness against the run at times. Adding Wolfe, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound five-technique, should shore up that problem.
"It will make reads easier for Vick because the middle of the field will be less cluttered."
AFC scout on Martavis Bryant's return
"He’ll bring more stoutness and be more of an anchor than Malik Jackson," an AFC scout said. "Having him coming back will solidify their run defense even more. Their defense is stacked as it is, but he brings that toughness. He’ll add to that. It makes them super scary on defense. They can bring in Malik on passing situations to use his versatility. They can use him as a pass rusher from the end or in the inside, but Wolfe is better against the run than Jackson, and that will help them."
Adding more depth to a stockpile of playmaking defenders should make life rough on the Oakland Raiders’ running game this week (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
Bryant will open up underneath routes in Pittsburgh: The Steelers offense has been in desperate need of a spark since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a sprained MCL. Bryant, a 6-4, 211-pound target, could be the key that unlocks the offense for Michael Vick.
"It opens up things more for Antonio Brown because Martavis can take the top off of a defense," an AFC scout said. "He’s going to require more than one guy because of his ability to stretch defenses. I think in doing that teams are going to have to pick their poison. Adding Bryant in the mix, it makes it difficult because if you try to double both of them it opens up everything. The guy you don’t double is someone that can beat single coverage, so it’s a tough proposition. It will make reads easier for Vick because the middle of the field will be less cluttered. When you have Martavis stretching stuff out, you can get Brown some room to work his magic in the middle with those option routes."
For a sneak peek at how Vick and Bryant could work together, check out their 63-yard preseason connection.
San Diego’s Rivers has "safety blanket" back: Through four games, Rivers has targeted tight end Ladarius Green on 18 (12 percent) of his 146 passes. Last year, Rivers looked Gates’ way a bit more often (17 percent) as the veteran tight end led the team in touchdowns (12) and was second in receptions (69).
"I think (Gates) and Philip have such a chemistry that he’s his safety blanket if all else fails," an AFC scout said. "I think (Gates) will be that piece that Philip can count on if things break down or if there’s really nothing available. Philip has so much confidence in him because he knows where he’s going to be and he knows that he’s reliable."
Gates, 35, has 12 games to prove that he can still perform at a high level before he likely will hit the open market.
Cowboys receive reinforcements: No team has dealt with more attrition this season than the Cowboys. Linebacker Sean Lee has been in concussion protocol since Sunday night’s game against the Saints. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Monday that rookie defensive end Randy Gregory (ankle) likely won’t return until Week 7, after the team’s bye.
Fortunately for Dallas, help is on the way. It’s obvious Hardy and McClain will immediately improve the overall play of the defense on the field. Hardy has 27 sacks in his last 32 games but has participated in only one game in the past 20-plus months. McClain, who finished second on the team in tackles (81) last season, gives the Cowboys some depth should Lee be slow to return.
But the question will be how each player fits in off the field. One NFC personnel evaluator pointed out how Dallas has been able to handle players with character questions: "It seems like the Cowboys have a history of being able to bring those guys in and make them fit in to the point where they aren’t disruptive to the team. For Hardy, he’s a different dude. If he stays on track and behaves, it can be good. But it’s easily something that could blow up in their face because he’s so unpredictable. I’m sure there were more things in Carolina that they were able to keep under wraps that the general public didn’t know about. I would be concerned about him, but if he can behave and maintain, it will impact them in a positive way. He’s kind of a head case, so you don’t know what you’re getting."
New York will have a "nightmarish front": The Jets are enjoying their bye week with the knowledge that Richardson’s return will dramatically benefit an already suffocating defense that leads the league in points allowed per game (13.8). New York looks strong in a tough AFC East.
"Buffalo’s defensive line is hell to deal with, but the Jets defensive line is better than Buffalo’s," one AFC personnel director said. "I think Sheldon coming back will take the Jets defensive line to a whole new level. He has the dual strength of playing against the run and can rush the passer. It’s a nightmarish front for offensive lines to deal with."
Earning stripes in Cincy: The Cincinnati Bengals offense has received plenty of accolades during the first four games of the season. Quarterback Andy Dalton is playing the best football of his career. Wideout A.J. Green is producing at a Pro Bowl level. Tight end Tyler Eifert has emerged as a go-to weapon. The running back duo might complement each other better than any other combo in the league.
The one constant for the Bengals, who play the Seahawks on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX), has been offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. In fact, Jackson and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll have similar career arcs — albeit the latter being 15 years older. Both began their coaching careers at Pacific, a small university in Stockton, Calif. Before Carroll built a dynasty at Southern California, Jackson was the Trojans’ offensive coordinator for four seasons. Jackson, who was fired after one year as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach despite an 8-8 record, has since climbed back up the ranks — from a secondary and assistant special teams coach to coordinating one of the best offenses in the league. After spending the last 15 years in the NFL, would he consider a head coaching gig at the collegiate level?
"I think he would go back to college for the right situation," Jackson’s agent, John Thornton, told FOXSports.com. "I think he’s an excellent leader. His offense is diverse. He runs some spread, zone read, power offense. He has coached some of the most volatile personalities in Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. He was Joe Flacco’s first quarterbacks coach when he came in the league. He’s worked with a lot of people. He recruited Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu to USC. So if there was a college situation, I think he’s still young enough and has the personality to deal with the boosters and go out and recruit. He can do that. It would have to be the right situation, though. I think at some point he’ll get another shot in the NFL, but college jobs come before that because their season ends sooner. Talking to him over the years, he wouldn’t jump at just any job. It would be something that he would consider himself a difference-maker at and a place where people believe in him."
Jackson’s main selling point as a head coach is his work with Dalton. The 49-year-old play-caller wanted the QB to become tougher, more vocal and a better leader though it’s not his true personality. So far, the fifth-year quarterback has done just that.
Missing Sproles? Shortly after being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, Darren Sproles thanked the Saints and said he would be "forever grateful" for his time in New Orleans. Nineteen months later, Sproles will face his former team Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX). The 32-year-old scatback has been one of the Eagles’ most explosive playmakers on offense and special teams this year, averaging 3.8 yards a carry and 7.9 yards a reception.
In March 2014, Sproles’ camp learned that that the veteran running back was going to be released and the news leaked to the media. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis fielded calls from several teams, including the Eagles, Redskins and Falcons. Loomis became aware that there was a market for Sproles and ended up trading him for a fifth-round pick, which was used on linebacker Ronald Powell. The Saints have tried to stay one step ahead personnel-wise, and that type of overanalyzing has caused them to get rid of two of their best offensive playmakers in Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham. This season, they’re hoping that running back C.J. Spiller can make up for the missing juice out of the backfield.
Less is more: While right tackle Bryan Bulaga, a 2010 first-round pick, recovers from meniscus surgery, it’s of note that every current starting Green Bay Packers offensive lineman has been selected in the fourth round or later. Entering last week – before linebacker Alec Ogletree’s ankle injury — each player in the St. Louis Rams’ starting front seven was selected in the top 50, including six first-round picks if you count rotational defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Winning in the trenches and getting to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be a top priority for the Rams on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Chunk plays: When coach Chip Kelly unveiled his innovative offense in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles led the league in explosive plays that went for 20 yards or more. Kelly said last week that the way teams are defending Philadelphia schematically – as opposed to personnel — is the reason the Eagles have far fewer of those plays this season. Entering Week 5, these are the league leaders:
1. Arizona Cardinals, 22
Buffalo Bills, 22
Cincinnati Bengals, 22
4. San Diego Chargers, 21
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 19
The Eagles are tied with the Cowboys, Colts and Giants for 18th with 14 plays of 20 or more yards.
Tough off the bye: Bill Belichick’s Patriots are 8-2 after byes in the the past decade. By Sunday, they will have had 14 days to prepare for Brandon Weeden and the Dallas Cowboys, whose offense has been riddled with injuries. Running back Lance Dunbar sustained a season-ending ACL injury, and Dunbar ranked third on the team in targets. Who figures to see an uptick in work? Belichick should make sure to not lose sight of 5-8, 180-pound wide receiver Cole Beasley, who ranks No. 1 at his position with the highest percentage of receptions per target, catching 18-of-21 intended passes (85 percent).
- A.J. Green
- Aaron Rodgers
- Alec Ogletree
- Andy Dalton
- Antonio Brown
- Antonio Gates
- Arizona Cardinals
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Brandon Weeden
- Bryan Bulaga
- C.J. Spiller
- Carson Palmer
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Cole Beasley
- Dallas Cowboys
- Darren Sproles
- Denver Broncos
- Derek Wolfe
- Green Bay Packers
- Greg Hardy
- Jimmy Graham
- Joe Flacco
- Ladarius Green
- Lance Dunbar
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Los Angeles Rams
- Malik Jackson
- Martavis Bryant
- New Orleans Saints
- New York Jets
- Nick Fairley
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Philip Rivers
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Randy Gregory
- Rolando McClain
- Ronald Powell
- Sean Lee
- Seattle Seahawks
- Sheldon Richardson
- Troy Polamalu
- Tyler Eifert