With the revelation last week by Atlanta third-year wide receiver Julio Jones that he added 8-9 pounds during the offseason, but has lost none of his speed, things might have gotten more difficult for the secondaries on the Falcons’ schedule in 2014. After all, Jones’ running mate, four-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, was already one of the NFL’s most physical wideouts.
White is listed at 211 pounds, but anyone who has seen (or lined up against) him probably knows he is bigger than that. Certainly the massive “guns” hanging out from the sleeves of his uniform jersey make him an imposing figure. And White, who has averaged 93.8 receptions over the past six seasons, has mastered the art of muscling smaller defenders off the ball. And so the specter of lining up against White and Jones, already a daunting task for defensive coordinators around the NFL, has gotten a little more difficult.
The Falcons could boast the league's most physical wide receiving tandem in 2013.
But the Jones bulk-up also points, in its own way, how much bigger wide receivers have gotten in the league in recent years. And how much bigger they consciously want to get, as well.
“Speed, quickness, route-running . . . they’re always going to be uppermost,” White, who checked into camp at 229 pounds, told NFP. “But to be able to (dominate) a guy physically, without having it take away from all those other things, it means a lot. (Cornerbacks) are trying to be more physical, too. You want to be able to match that. Or to ‘overmatch’ it, if you can.”
It’s not just coincidence that all but one of the NFL’s top wide receivers in 2012, in terms of catches, were 6 feet or more and 198 pounds or more. The only “munchkin” in the bunch was the 5-feet-9, 185-pound Wes Welker. Of the others, five were listed at 6-3 or larger. The only other receiver under 200 pounds was Reggie Wayne, who was 198. Three of the top wide receivers, led by Detroit’s Calvin Jonson (6-5 and 236 pounds), weighed 230 or more. “To say that size doesn’t matter at the position, that it’s not part of my game, just isn’t true,” Johnson said.
The trend was reflected to some extent in this year’s draft. Seven of the 10 wide receivers selected in the first three rounds were “bigger” receivers. Four of them were 6-2 or more. Acknowledged one NFC general manager, who chose a bigger receiver, but not in the first three rounds: “It’s always been known as a big man’s game, but not necessarily at (the wide receiver) position. But people want the bigger receivers now, too. If you can get big without sacrificing speed and playmaking skills, why not? And guys clearly are doing it.”
+AROUND THE LEAGUE
*Outside of watching rookies, and the few legitimate battles for starting spots in the league, there aren’t a lot of reasons for fans to pay excessive attention to preseason games, exercises that cost full price and are often little more than glorified scrimmages. But one element that bears watching, and which was pointed out by a few coaches and personnel people this week, is the number of new backup quarterbacks in the league in 2013. Even without the tussle for starting jobs in a few spots, roughly half the NFL’s teams could have new guys in the No. 2 spots this season. And while there are some well-traveled guys in new places – like Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell, and others – some clubs lack much experience at the backup spot. The common denominator: There are a lot of guys who will have to learn new systems, and the preseason offers the best real-life laboratory for doing so. “Even with the offseason stuff, you still want to get it all down in games,” allowed Colt McCoy, the new caddie for Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. “And so (the preseason) is important.”
*There are always plenty of issues to debate in the NFL – we’ve felt for the past few years now that Adderall might be the next hot-button issue, and the substance seems to be getting more attention – but the spate of serious and even season-ending injuries at this very early juncture of training camps is apt to spur lots of talk about offseason training methods. It is notable, though, that while serious injuries have increased over the past five seasons, as pointed out by a recent Associated Press story citing empirical data, there have been season-ending injuries in the first two weeks or so of camp for several seasons now. And that reality magnifies the split of sorts between some team trainers who feel there needs to be an increase in offseason football-related activities (as opposed, simply, to weight room time), and others who suggest the cutback in such work, as mandated by the CBA, has been good for players. Truth be told, most of the season-ending ACL injuries to date were non-contact, and difficult to avoid. The so-called “soft tissue” injuries may be on the rise, with the reduction of offseason work, but there isn’t a large enough sample yet to definitively prove that. With the preseason set to begin, the attention will turn more toward games, not gimpy players. But, rest assured, medical people, trainers, and even league officials, are going to be taking a longer look at offseason training styles – and which teams are more successful in avoiding early injuries – before the start of the 2014 camps. “It won’t be as (extensive) as the (concussion) studies that we’ve been doing,” one middle-level league official told NFP, “but it will be thorough.”
*On the subject of concussions, the recent retirement of Arizona sixth-round wide receiver Ryan Swope, the NFL official acknowledged, will spur even more study of head trauma, and force teams to re-evaluate the manner in which they assess players with a history of concussions. Swope suffered four or five concussions at Texas A&M and probably would have been chosen in the first three rounds were it not for those injuries. Big, rangy and fast, Swope clearly had his draft status knocked down by the questions regarding his concussions. Cardinals’ general manager Steve Keim noted last week that the team’s medical staff did extensive workups on Swope, and was comfortable with its decision to choose him in April, but, obviously, it wasn’t quite enough. The NFL has done considerable work the past several years in dealing with the concussion issue. “But it’s an (insidious) thing,” Swope said. “I don’t blame anyone. I’m just taking care of myself.” While Swope has “retired” for now, and won’t actively pursue his longtime goal of playing in the NFL, he will continue, at least for a while, to seek remedies and to stay in touch with the Cardinals.
*The addition of first-year offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and the introduction of a more West Coast-oriented design, will, by nature, change some of the priorities for the revamped New York Jets’ running back corps. But coach Rex Ryan still wants to be able to pound opponents, too, and in addition to reworking the backfield unit, the Jets have reconfigured the offensive line as well, and feel they are much tougher inside than they’ve been. Guard play is a lot more prominent in the NFL now than it was 10 years ago, and the Jets will have a new tandem flanking perennial Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, with Willie Colon and likely Stephen Peterman supplanting Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore, respectively.
Slauson and Moore started all 16 games together in 2012 and, while the New York rushing attack improved statistically 10 spots in the NFL rankings, from 22nd in 2011 to 12th in 2012, it still wasn’t what Ryan wanted. The Jets averaged just 3.8 yards per rush, and only four teams were worse. Colon, in particular, has been physical early in camp and some people feel he can be a Pro Bowl-caliber in-line blocker. The former Pittsburgh starter struggled with his inside movement skills at times in making the transition to guard last year. And injuries have blunted his development, with Colon playing only 12 games the past two seasons, but a lot of folks around the league agree that guard is the natural spot for the former Steelers’ right tackle. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable (at guard) than I did a year ago,” Colon said. “We want to be physical, and I think guard gives me an opportunity to play the game the way I like to play it.” Peterman has been slowed somewhat by a shoulder injury, but the coaches seem to like rookie Brian Winters, a third-round pick from Kent State, who eventually could push Peterman for playing time.
The season-ending injury to Dan Koppen has Peyton Manning looking for another new center.
*Five weeks ago in this space, we noted the importance of the under-the-radar signing of veteran center Dan Koppen by the Denver Broncos, because of his familiarity with the up-tempo, check-with-me offense operated by quarterback Peyton Manning. While Koppen had never played with Manning before 2012, we pointed out, he had snapped for Tom Brady for nine years in New England, and the styles of the two players and the two offenses were very similar. Well, Koppen went down with a season-ending left ACL injury in the opening days of camp and, predictably, the Broncos’ first phone call, and Manning’s recommendation, went to ol’ buddy Jeff Saturday, Manning’s longtime center in Indianapolis. Saturday has retired to the TV studio, and is reportedly down to about 240-250 pounds, but he did offer some help by recommending another former Manning teammate, in “retired” lineman Ryan Lilja. And so, while would-be starter J.D. Walton continues to rehab from the left ankle surgery that has sidelined him, Lilja will offer Manning another kindred spirit of sorts. Granted, in his six seasons with the Colts (2004-2009), Lilja never started a game at center. Most of his 59 starts were at left guard, and he never started a game at center until moving on to Kansas City, but he still figures to afford Manning a security blanket. “I know the way he operates, what he expects from people, maybe even the way he thinks about certain things,” Lilja, 33, said last week. “I’m comfortable with him, and vice versa.” True enough. But the Denver offensive line – even though Manning tends to make a blocking unit better than it really is – has suffered some setbacks. The unit is a bit unsettled and, while it isn’t necessarily unsettling to Manning, it’s an element to be watched for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
*For a guy with only 10 starts and 46 catches in three seasons, Philadelphia wide receiver Riley Cooper is getting plenty of (unwanted) attention. Cooper’s insensitive and racially charged remarks at a Kenny Chesney concert, made public last week in a tape from the event, have caused the Eagles’ Chip Kelly more distractions than those that usually accompany a rookie coach. Suddenly, Kelly has to answer more than just those nettlesome queries about whether NFL game officials might slow the hurry-up tempo of his offense in 2013. Kelly has to try to hold together a locker room that could have some fissures. It’s not a sure thing, even with the season-ending knee injury to Jeremy Maclin, that Cooper was a lock for one of the top three wideout spots with the Eagles, maybe not even a roster berth. But the remarks could make it tougher to keep him around, even though Kelly has said the former Florida star will not be released as a result (Cooper was excused Friday from team-related activities, to begin sensitivity sessions), and Cooper will undergo counseling. From a purely football standpoint, the loss of Maclin takes away much of the quickness upon which Kelly was counting. Cooper, a fifth-round pick in 2010, is a big, angular receiver, but is not especially quick. Ditto slot receiver Jason Avant. That could provide someone like second-year veteran Damaris Johnson an opportunity.