As is the case every year, the 2014 National Football League regular season brought with it numerous fascinating storylines to follow from early August all the way through the holiday season and the start of the new year. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had himself an incredible bounce-back season. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks improved to the point that he has to be considered to be one of the top-tier QBs in the league. Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady both had years worthy of earning Most Valuable Player honors.
At the other end of the spectrum were players and teams that were lackluster throughout the campaign. Included in that list are several rookies who did not meet high expectations that some analysts and fans had for them, two of whom were listed as reaches and risky selections heading into the 2014 NFL Draft. What any of those young men will be as it pertains to the NFL has yet to be known. Nobody should, of course, give up on an athlete one season into his professional career. All of those individuals could, however, be another poor year away from giving their teams draft regrets.
Plenty of quarterbacks burned their teams multiple times in 2014. At least of those men could be moving to a different club if his current team is able to find a buyer, and another continues to be regarded as nothing but a mid-level quarterback who will never be able to win a Super Bowl. Atop the list is a running back who was somehow twice rated to be worthy of a first-round draft pick, a man who literally cannot get onto the field for his team during playoff games. The truth of the matter is that he may find himself out of the league come this winter.
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20 QB Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns
Johnny Football can only be evaluated so much due to the fact that he played in a mere seven quarters as a starting quarterback. That said, Manziel could not win the Cleveland gig over career backup Brian Hoyer during the preseason, and the No. 22 overall pick then flopped when he was given a chance to play. In his defense, Manziel was hung out to dry by a terrible game-plan and an offensive line that fell apart after All-Pro Alex Mack went down with a broken leg. How Manziel conducts himself throughout the winter and spring months should determine if the Browns give him the keys to the offense beginning in the summer.
19 QB Geno Smith, New York Jets
Smith would be higher on this list, but the harsh truth of the matter is that nobody had any real high expectations for him in the first place. The Jets probably would have had a better record had head coach Rex Ryan started Michael Vick over Smith beginning in August, and doing so may have resulted in Ryan remaining with the Jets rather than becoming head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Smith is not a franchise quarterback – at least he isn't right now – and the Jets will have to snatch Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston up in the draft if he falls to them.
18 QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Newton deserves all of the respect in the world from bouncing back from what could have been a life-changing car accident and leading the Panthers to the postseason, and Carolina has to do better in giving the QB more weapons. The quarterback of the Panthers was also banged up going all the way back to the summer months, and it likely would have been better for both player and club had Newton taken some time off in August and September. Get healthy and ready for 2015, Cam, and then prove all of your doubters wrong by having a Comeback Player of the Year campaign.
17 QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
2014 was supposed to be a comeback year for Matty Ice and the Atlanta Falcons. That did not happen. Atlanta could not even manage to back into the playoffs when that opportunity arose, and the team's lousy season cost head coach Mike Smith his job. One of the first tasks for the new Atlanta coaching staff will be to truly evaluate Ryan. He is talented, yes, but is he really a franchise quarterback at the level of a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Of course he isn't. He is not, in fact, even in the tier occupied by Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and others. There are times when Ryan is barely above average.
16 RB Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
Tate was supposed to be the first-choice Cleveland running back and a mentor for rookie running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. The first-year backs instead took carries away from Tate, and the veteran quickly became a locker room cancer who voiced his unhappiness about his lack of playing time to the coaching staff. The Browns didn't even wait until the end of the year to cut ties with Tate, and he was eventually waived by the Minnesota Vikings before Christmas. Tate did participate in the playoffs, signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in January.
15 QB Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
The regular season came to an end with Jake Locker being listed on injured reserve. In other news, water remains wet and the sun is probably going to set somewhere in the west tonight. Locker is, by all accounts, a genuinely good person, and he is well-liked by teammates and by members of the Tennessee staff. Maybe he needs a change of scenery, or maybe he isn't going to last as an NFL quarterback. Whatever the future holds for him, it isn't Locker being the future quarterback of the Titans. The club has already prepared for life without Locker, which is for the best for all parties.
14 WR Eric Decker, New York Jets
What happens when you go from playing alongside quarterback Peyton Manning to being on the same team as Geno Smith and Michael Vick? Your touchdown totals go down from 13 in 2012 and 11 in 2013 to 5 TDs in his first year with the Jets. Decker is only so much of a bust due to the fact that he was hardly playing with a true NFL quarterback this past fall. Still, those 74 total grabs lose their luster when you remember that ten of those catches occurred in the final game of the season when the Miami Dolphins were phoning in four quarters of football.
13 QB Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Who could have possibly imagined that the Buccaneers handing the team's offense over to McCown last offseason was going to end so poorly? Oh yeah. Everybody. McCown did not set Tampa Bay too far back financially, but the team did, in signing him, essentially waste an NFL season. That likely won't happen for a second straight year. Tampa Bay is in a position to grab the quarterback of the team's choice in the upcoming NFL Draft: Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. Either one of them will be holding up a Tampa Bay jersey on the first night on the draft.
12 QB E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills
You know that your season has crumbled apart when you are benched in favor of Kyle Orton in 2014. Things got even worse for Manuel, as Orton out-performed the second-year pro in every facet of the game. With Rex Ryan now in town to lead the Bills, those rumors linking the club with Mark Sanchez have already begun. It is hard to imagine Ryan favoring a quarterback who has been more of a bust than a star considering what occurred with the Jets over the past several years. Sanchez and Ryan reuniting and beating the Jets at MetLife Stadium is a story that writes itself.
11 QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals were wise to not marry the franchise to Dalton when the club “paid” him. Early returns seem to show that Dalton is the opposite of Joe Flacco: Dalton is good enough to take the Bengals to the playoffs, but he is not going to show up in a big way once January rolls around. Dalton is the third-best quarterback in his own division, and he will need to take the next step forward in 2015 to justify the Bengals moving far into the future with him as the team's offensive leader. Think there are any Cincinnati fans out there who would take Brian Hoyer over Dalton this winter?
10 QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick was a letdown for the 49ers during what was a tumultuous year for the club, one that saw Jim Harbaugh leave San Francisco for the University of Michigan. The player himself would not deny this, as he is working out with Kurt Warner this January. Some of the criticism sent Kaepernick's way is ridiculous, as he was not the only person responsible for the 49ers falling apart in 2014. He does, though, have to do better than have an average of fewer than two passing touchdowns per regular season game in a league that heavily favors those who play the quarterback position.
9 The New York Giants offensive line
You wouldn't know it because “ELOLI” makes for better Internet comments and entertaining headlines, but New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning actually had himself a solid year. The problem for the Giants wasn't the player who lined up behind the center. It was that those tasked with protecting Manning failed him again and again for the second straight season. Big Blue needs multiple upgrades on the offensive line and fast, as Manning is not getting any younger. His window for winning a third Super Bowl isn't shut yet, but it is slowly but surely beginning to close at the start of the team's offseason.
8 CB Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns
Critics can hit out at Johnny Manziel until their faces turn blue. It is Gilbert and not Johnny Football who is, this January, the biggest bust of the 2014 NFL Draft. The young man who was the top-rated cornerback of his draft class had a tremendous training camp, but he was an absolute liability in the Cleveland secondary when the games began to matter. Gilbert was even benched by head coach Mike Pettine after the rookie broke team rules. Just think, those of you who are Cleveland fans: You could have had Odell Beckham, Jr. or Mike Evans over Gilbert. Dare to dream.
7 QB Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
A second torn ACL in under 12 months kept Bradford off of the field for the entire 2014 regular season, another crushing blow to a talented quarterback who just can't stay healthy for any significant amount of time. Head coach Jeff Fisher has claimed that he wants to move forward with Bradford as his starting quarterback one last time at least, but doing so may be foolish. Bradford has the arm and the mind to be a superstar quarterback. His body has betrayed him multiple times, however, and the Rams have to bring in a veteran who can compete with Bradford during training camp.
6 WR Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns
“Just wait until Gordon returns from suspension,” they said. “He will change the offense of the Browns,” they said. Gordon did change the Cleveland offense, but not for the better. Brian Hoyer regressed once the superstar wide receiver was back in the lineup, and there were rumblings coming out of northeast Ohio that Gordon was not close to being in football shape when he returned from his ten-game ban. The situation is now at the point where some smart football minds believe that the Browns have no other choice but to release the troubled player, as they wouldn't get anything for Gordon via a trade.
5 QB Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Injuries and poor play from/injuries to members of his offensive line are not why Foles makes this list. Foles possessed a quarterback rating of 81.4 in eight games. He had 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in half of an NFL regular season. Mark Sanchez played better than did Foles, and it has been heavily rumored that head coach Chip Kelly has already mentally moved on from Foles. Will Kelly mortgage the future to move up and grab Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota? The next player showcased on this list serves as a warning for Kelly as it concerns a hypothetical trade that could ultimately cost the coach his job.
4 QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
RG3 can't stay on the field. He reportedly lost at least some, including the team's coaching staff, within the locker room of the Redskins. The owner still loves Griffin, but even he may have to see the writing on the wall and ship the quarterback out of town for the good of his franchise. There would unquestionably be buyers for RG3 were he to become available; the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams are two teams that immediately come to mind. While Andrew Luck is leading the Indianapolis Colts to Conference Championship Games, Griffin could be making a move to a different franchise. What a disappointment.
3 QB Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Of course Cutler threw more interceptions (he and Philip Rivers were both picked off 18 times) the season after he was guaranteed $54 million by the Chicago Bears because, well, he's Jay Cutler. Chicago has since pressed the reset button, and it is believed that the Bears will be looking to trade Cutler as soon as February. That is understandable, but the question has to be asked: What team would give anything of merit up for Cutler at this stage of his career? Cutler is a headache on and off of the field, and I would not, if I was a general manager, touch him unless he came at a massive discount.
2 DE Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
No team in the league would have passed on Clowney in the 2014 NFL Draft despite the red flags that popped up during his college days. He is, on paper, that special of an athlete. Clowney was a massive letdown in his debut campaign, playing in four games until he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Clowney may be out of action up through September, and there are already some out there throwing around the “bust” label for the first overall draft pick. It is a bit early for such comments to be made, but there are individuals within the Texans who are concerned about Clowney's future.
1 RB Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts gave the Cleveland Browns a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, making Indianapolis the only team in 2013 believing that Richardson was worth such a high selection. Richardson has not only failed to impress the Colts since linking up with the club. He has been relegated to special teams duty, and he was inactive when Indianapolis went out west and defeated the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Richardson has been a disaster over the past couple of years, and it seems that it is a matter of “when” and not “if” he will be released by the Colts.
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