Five faces in new places
DE Jared Allen, Bears: It’s hard to believe Allen has played 10 seasons since entering the NFL as a relatively obscure fourth-round pick by the Chiefs in 2004. After six years with the Minnesota Vikings, Allen signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the NFC North rival Bears. Allen, 32, ranks 12th on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 128 1/2 after recording 11 sacks a year ago, which was a down year for him after averaging 15 sacks a year in his first five seasons in Minnesota. “My play speaks for itself,” said Allen, who has led the NFL in sacks twice, with 15 1/2 in Kansas City in 2005 and 22 with Minnesota in 2011.
DE Julius Peppers, Packers: In the NFC North’s other pass-rush move, Peppers left Chicago for archrival Green Bay. Peppers signed a three-year deal worth up to $26 million, and at 34 years old, it is uncertain how much longer he’ll play. But Peppers led Chicago with seven sacks in 2013, and as one of the best all-around athletes to ever play the position, his versatility to play end in the 3-4 or defensive tackle in the nickel package rushing from the inside can be taken advantage of by defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
WR DeSean Jackson, Washington: The mercurial Jackson was thrilled to sign with NFC East rival Washington after Philadelphia dumped him just two years into a five-year $51 million contract. The word out of Philly was Jackson’s poor work habits and bad relationship with first-year coach Chip Kelly outweighed his production of 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine TDs. Then came the story about Jackson’s alleged association with gang members, something he vehemently denied. Mark Sept. 21 down for Washington’s visit to Philadelphia.
OT Branden Albert, Miami: Albert never felt fully appreciated in six seasons with the Chiefs, and the club drafted Eric Fisher in 2013 to be his successor, so it was pretty much a mutual parting when Albert signed with the offensive-line deprived Dolphins for up to $46 million over five years. Albert, 29, could be in the prime of his career, but he has played a 16-game season just once.
DE DeMarcus Ware, Broncos: The rich got richer in the AFC West, with the Broncos loading up on defense to go with the Peyton Manning-led offense. Ware, a seven-time Pro Bowler, led the NFL in sacks twice (2008, 2010), and is the Cowboys’ all-time leader with 117 sacks and 32 forced fumbles. Even at 31, Ware looks poised to continue to play at a high level and will line up with Von Miller. But that’s not all: The Broncos also added shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib and hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward.
Five rookies to watch
QB Johnny Manziel, Browns: Competition at quarterback is in name only for the Browns. It’s just a matter of time until Johnny Football unseats incumbent Bobby Hoyer, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury. The Browns traded up at the end of the first round to get their hands on Manziel, the most popular and polarizing rookie to enter the NFL since Tim Tebow, and new coach Mike Pettine will succeed or fail with Manziel as his quarterback.
DE Jadeveon Clowney, Texans: The Texans resisted opportunities to trade down and selected the highest-rated prospect with the first pick in the draft. Clowney has off-the-chart pass-rush skills, but must play hard on every down at this level. He will play outside linebacker on the weak side in the base 3-4 scheme opposite former NFL sack leader J.J. Watt and drop down to right end in passing situations. Clowney is learning under a pair of former Chiefs — first-year linebackers coach Mike Vrabel and former head coach and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
WR Sammy Watkins, Bills: The Bills made a bold move and traded Cleveland their first-round pick in 2015 to grab Watkins with the fourth overall pick, but many teams considered him the best player in the draft. Watkins finished his college career at Clemson with 240 catches for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s projected to start on opening day in place of Stevie Johnson, who was traded to San Francisco.
OT Justin Britt, Seahawks: Britt was a surprise second-round pick out of Missouri by the Super Bowl champions, but his versatility was attractive. Britt, who played nearly every position on the line for the Tigers, finished his career as a left tackle but is expected to start at right tackle for the Seahawks if he beats out 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Bowie for the spot formerly occupied by Breno Giacomini.
LB Michael Sam, Rams: Sam, next to Manziel, will be the most-scrutinized rookie — if not player — in the NFL after becoming the first openly gay player in the league. Sam, who doesn’t have outstanding measurables, fell to the seventh round, but he was nothing but productive at Missouri. The co-defensive player of the year in the SEC, he had 11 1/2 sacks, nine pressures and 19 tackles for loss. The Rams intend to use him as a designated pass rusher in the varied packages employed by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Five coaches on the hot seat
Rex Ryan, Jets: Those two trips to the AFC championship game are distant memories for the Jets, who have missed the playoffs for three straight years, but Ryan received a quasi multiyear extension after the 2013 season. The contract fully guarantees his salary only through 2015, so owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik can make a painless change if the Jets continue to wobble in the AFC East. The Jets improved from 6-10 to 8-8 last season, but they lost seven games by at least 10 points and were outscored by 97 points, the largest negative point differential for a .500 or better team since the 1970 merger.
Joe Philbin, Dolphins: What was worse, that Philbin did or didn’t know about the dysfunction that went on in the Dolphins locker room that created the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal? Either way, there was a glaring lack of leadership by Philbin, who enters his third season. The Dolphins missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, and general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman were fired. Miami, 8-8, would have made the playoffs had they beaten either Buffalo or the Jets in the final two games, so Philbin could pay with his job if the Dolphins fall short in 2014.
Jason Garrett, Cowboys: Garrett is nothing if not a survivor. The Cowboys have missed the playoffs for four straight years, and have gone 8-8 in three straight seasons after losing three winner-take-all, season-ending showdowns for the NFC East title. But owner Jerry Jones has remained committed to Garrett despite a 29-27 record since taking over for Wade Phillips midway through the 2010 season. Maybe it’s because Jones is 236-236 as general manager with one playoff win since 1997. “We have been in it the last three years,” Jones said. “We have been in it during his time as head coach … playing for it in the last game the last three years. I’m in complete step with our fans that want more than 8-8.”
Dennis Allen, Raiders: Allen has gone 4-12 in each of his two seasons with the Raiders, and the club has shown little improvement under his direction. Allen, the fifth Raiders head coach since 2007, was the hand-picked choice of general manager Reggie McKenzie, and firing Allen would have set the Raiders back again, not to mention leave them on the hook for paying off another coach. Allen hopes he has temporarily stopped the revolving door at quarterback with the acquisition of Matt Schaub, and also added veterans Justin Tuck, Maurice Jones-Drew and LaMarr Woodley. But the Raiders don’t appear improved enough to compete in the AFC West.
Mike Smith, Falcons: A year removed from his second 13-3 season in three years and a berth in the NFC championship game, Smith could be coaching for his job this year after a 4-12 disaster in 2013. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is itching to reach a Super Bowl, and with a new stadium on the horizon, he wants a championship-caliber team to play in it. With Scott Pioli in the front office, they’ve signed Chiefs disappointments such as Tyson Jackson, Jon Asamoah and Javier Arenas, hardly the path to improvement. We’ll get to watch Smith up close when the Falcons are featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, starting Aug. 5.