Same Faces, New Places: Big Names on the Move in 2016
People love new things. This is especially true with NFL head coaches. In just a few weeks these head coaches will get the opportunity to “take their toys out of the box” so to speak, and let their new free agent signings and trade acquisitions loose. New is nice, but it’s not always easy. For some NFL players, it takes time to adjust to their new surroundings. New coaches, new playbooks, and new cities force players out of their comfort zone. There are those who adapt quickly, and those who struggle. I’ll dive into the numbers to find which players with new teams to trust, and which players to be wary of.
RB Lamar Miller
The hype is off the charts for the new Houston Texans running back, Lamar Miller, as he slides into the role formerly filled by Arian Foster. When healthy, Foster was nothing short of a complete workhorse during his time in Houston. In two years under head coach Bill O’Brien, he averaged just over 22.5 touches a game.[lptw_table id=”21471″ style=”default”]
Miller, on the other hand, has only gotten 22 touches in a game twice in that same span, while playing 15 more games. Last season, he only averaged 15 touches a game, one less than the year before.
In the last two years, the Texans as a team have finished within the top five of rushing attempts per game, leading the league in 2014 with just over 34. In O’Brien’s run first offense, the running back will be heavily relied on.
Fans and analysts were somewhat baffled why Miller wasn’t involved more in the offense in Miami, because when he got the touches, he performed. In the nine of the eleven games that he received 12 or more touches, Miller had double-digit fantasy points. Miller adds another threat with his great hands, catching almost 80% of all his targets in his four NFL seasons.
There is little question whether or not Miller will get the opportunity to fill the role of Foster, but a few questions surround his ability to perform when needed.
First, consider all his new surroundings. New playbook, new stadium, new city, but mostly importantly, a new quarterback who is young and unproven. Breaking the bank at four years and $72 million, the Texans brought in former Denver Broncos quarterback, Brock Osweiler, to command the offense. In the seven games he started, his leading rusher averaged about 70.5 yards a game.
Along with a whole new system is a tough schedule that includes the Chiefs (4th against RBs in 2015) in Week 2, Titans twice (5th against RBs in 2015), and trips to the Vikings (7th against RBs in 2015) and Broncos (11th against RBs in 2015).
Miller is not on the same level talent-wise as Foster was in his Houston days, but he will get much more of an opportunity to justify his first round ADP than he did in Miami.
RB Matt Forte
This season, the beloved Chicago Bears RB will don a different jersey for the first time in his 8 year career, heading to the New York Jets. A force in between the tackles and out of the backfield as a receiver, Forte has been one of the most versatile backs since he came into the league. Dealing with injuries, he finished his last season in Chicago with some career lows.
Todd Bowles and his staff believe that Forte still has some life in him, despite hitting the 30-year old mark with numbers trending downward. There’s a hole to fill in New York as Chris Ivory left for the Jaguars, after having by far the best year of his career. Ivory rushed for over 1,000 yards and 8 scores to the sound of 4.2 yards per carry. Bilal Powell, who will be the change in pace back, was much more effective as a pass catcher, hauling in 47 of his 63 targets for 388 yards.
Still a run first offense, the Jets finished 10th in attempts per game with 28. However, a significant amount of their offensive production came from their wide receiver duo, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. The pair combined for almost half of the team’s 44 total touchdowns.[lptw_table id=”21512″ style=”default”]
With weapons like Marshall and Decker, the offense won’t need to go through Forte like it did for so many years in Chicago. Between his age, the mileage on his legs, and the emergence of Powell as a receiver, Forte will not be used as the true workhorse back. The Jets also have a difficult schedule for RBs with matchups against the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Ravens.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict how much production he’ll get in the offense as the Jets are in quarterback limbo. Last year’s starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has yet to re-sign with the team and the two sides are supposedly still far apart. Many Jets have taken to social media to express their desire for the team to get the deal done. If the two can’t find a middle ground, Geno Smith will be under center for the team. Although the former second-round NFL Draft pick has shown improvement, he is yet to find his footing in the NFL.[lptw_table id=”21520″ style=”default”]
If Fitzpatrick is the QB for the Jets in 2016, I will have full confidence that Forte can be productive. If Smith is calling the shots, owners might be punching themselves in the jaw for taking Forte too early (sorry, Geno).
RB DeMarco Murray
As the Eagles try to recover from the Chip Kelly era, they dealt the former rushing champ, DeMarco Murray, to the Tennessee Titans for a 4th Round draft pick swap. It’s safe to say that the Murray experiment was a failure in Philadelphia.[lptw_table id=”21529″ style=”default”]
Murray dropped from a 4.7 YPC to a career low 3.6 in one year with his new team. He now heads to the Titans, whose rushing game last year was a mess of its own. Finishing 25th in rushing yards last season, they used what seemed to be a four-headed puppy dog to carry the rock. To put it in perspective, QB Marcus Mariota was second on the team in rushing.[lptw_table id=”21531″ style=”default”]
They also added Alabama running back Derrick Henry with the 45th overall pick to make this once again a crowded backfield. At this point, no one really knows how head coach Mike Mularkey will utilize both backs, but I think Henry will learn under Murray to help him make a smoother transition into the NFL either later this season or next.
If Murray gets the bulk of the carries then he has a few things going for him. First off, the Titans improved their offensive line. Signing Ben Jones at center and drafting Jack Conklin out of Michigan State will help protect their prized QB and create some more running room for Murray. Their schedule also is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to running backs.
However, he is still on one of the worst offenses in the NFL that has a young QB with some growing pains. The Titans averaged just over 300 yards of total offense a game, finishing only ahead of the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams.
The Henry/Murray situation is one to really keep an eye on during the training camp and the preseason. Murray will be hungry to prove that he’s a talented runner without the stellar Cowboys offensive line but hunger only gets you so far. His numbers should be higher next year if he wins the job outright, but don’t expect to be blown out of the water.
WR Mohamed Sanu
Former Bengals wideout, Mohamed Sanu, goes from the fifth target on a run-first team to the third target on a pass happy offense in Atlanta. Now the Falcons projected second wide receiver, he should only trail Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman in targets. Coming off his worst season since his rookie year, Sanu seemed to drop off the map after posting all career highs in 2014.[lptw_table id=”21811″ style=”default”]
Matt Ryan finished fifth in passing last season, throwing for over 4,500 yards. His top three receiving targets are returning in Jones, Freeman, and tight end Jacob Tamme, but Sanu has the opportunity to take the targets left by released wide receivers, Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson.[lptw_table id=”21824″ style=”default”]
With little competition at WR2, Sanu should easily win the job and his presence should take some pressure off Jones and Tamme in the receiving game. The yards will undoubtedly be there and early reports from spring workouts are that the Falcons see him as a clear number two.
Although wide receiver handcuffs aren’t coveted as much as running backs, Sanu could absolutely be one. Jones finished with a league leading 203 targets last year and has dealt with multiple injuries in the past. A foot injury caused him to miss the entire 2013 season and hamstring problems the last two seasons made owners worry. In the event that Jones gets hurt, Sanu will see a serious influx in targets.
However, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies for Sanu. In 2014 when filling in for an injured A.J. Green, he struggled with drops in the spotlight, finishing 5th in the league. Sanu has never finished with over 100 targets, 60 receptions, and is yet to eclipse 800 yards in a season.
He’ll also have a lot of tough matchups, having the ninth worst schedule for WRs. Sanu will also have to deal with back to back games in Denver and Seattle, two divisional games against the Panthers, and also face the Cardinals and Chargers. He’s nowhere near talented enough to beat those secondaries with ease and will have to work his best to be productive in those games.
Like most people on this list, the opportunity is absolutely there, but unlike the others, Sanu hasn’t shown enough to prove that he can step up. There’s always a chance he could pay off big time for owners who take him late in the draft, but looking at the numbers, I wouldn’t feel the most confident.
WR Marvin Jones
The other half of the duo that left Cincinnati this offseason, Marvin Jones, took his talents to Detroit where targets opened up in the departure of legend Calvin Johnson. Johnson led his team in targets last season with 149, despite finishing second in receptions. He also caught the most touchdowns which Jones knows a thing or 10 about.[lptw_table id=”21926″ style=”default”]
Missing most of 2014 with an ankle injury, Jones was coming off a 2013 season where he caught a ridiculous 10 touchdowns. Touchdowns are somewhat fluky, but he followed his injury-plagued season with 4. The numbers to look at are his targets and receptions, which have gone up every year in the league. Jones will play opposite of Golden Tate who led the team in receptions last season.
Like Sanu, Jones is coming from a run-first offense to a team that led the league in passing play percentage last season. With very little success in the running game for the Lions, they were forced to throw early and often, finishing 9th in the league in passing yards per game. The team scored 7 of its 42 touchdowns on the ground. Yes, just seven. For a guy like Jones, who has a knack for finding the end zone, those are the type of numbers you’d like to see.
The Lions are right smack dab in the middle when it comes to WR strength of schedule with some cake matchups against Philadelphia and New Orleans, to tougher ones against Houston and Los Angeles. Currently going 99th overall in drafts, Jones has much more of a proven track record than those wide receivers being drafted around him. Markus Wheaton, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Stefon Diggs all stepped up at times last season, but are still question marks.
Jones will see a big jump in targets now that he isn’t behind A.J. Green, and will get the chances in a pass-first offense. I would absolutely take a gamble on him in the 9th Round as he should finish second or third on the team in targets.
TE Coby Fleener
Tight end Coby Fleener has ditched former college teammate Andrew Luck and headed to New Orleans where tight ends are much more appreciated. Sharing a role with fellow tight end, Dwayne Allen, the last few seasons, Fleener has never gotten the chance to really shine and be featured in the offense. Until now.[lptw_table id=”21928″ style=”default”]
Before we get into how much Drew Brees and the Saints love their tight ends, let’s evaluate what Fleener can bring his new team. First, his durability. After playing 12 games his rookie year, he hasn’t missed a regular-season game since. Playing all 16 for three seasons straight is no easy task in this injury filled league. Second, is his athleticism. At 6’6″, Fleener can move pretty well for his size, running a 4.51-second 40-yard dash.
I’ll give you two words that prove how much Brees and the Saints love their tight ends; Benjamin Watson. Last season Watson posted or tied career highs in literally all receiving categories, at 35 years old. His 110 targets, 74 receptions, 825 yards and 6 TDs only trailed Brandin Cooks on the team. Before Watson, New Orleans featured a guy by the name of Jimmy Graham, who dominated the position from 2011-2014. After catching 5 touchdowns his rookie year, Graham caught at least 85 passes every year before being dealt to Seattle. Three of those four seasons he scored at least 10 times and two of those seasons he had more than 1,200 receiving yards.
Fleener is no Jimmy Graham, nor will he ever be, but he has the chance to thrive in the pass-happy offense. Since 2011, Brees and the Saints have been in the top five every year in passing yards. He will also have the fifth best schedule for tight ends.[lptw_table id=”21931″ style=”default”]
All things are shaping up for Fleener to have a serious boost in production. If Watson can post career highs at 35 in this offense, there’s no reason the 27-year-old Fleener can’t too.