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Monday, August 8, 2022

Overvalued players on every NFC team: Kirk Cousins, Dalton Schultz top list of capable but replaceable talent

First and foremost, allow me to point out just how insanely difficult it is for any player to make it to the NFL. Fact is, only around one percent of collegiate players will get drafted, only a tiny fraction of those who go undrafted will be signed, and then you must consider the droves of players who aren’t good enough for collegiate (or some high school) programs as well — painting the total picture of what it takes to enter this league. But, once here, there will be no shortage of praise and criticism, and some earn more of the cheers while others, well, they can’t escape the jeers.

All told, every player on an NFL roster has value, period. But it’s also true that not all value is equal, and much of it is tied to perception. In dissecting each of the 16 NFC teams heading into 2022 training camp in July and the regular season to follow, it’s time to discuss who may not be as valuable to their respective franchise as face value would indicate.

Because at the end of the day, not every notable NFL player is irreplaceable. 

When the Cowboys used a fourth-round pick on Dalton Schultz in 2018, they did so with the hopes he’d morph into a starting tight end in the post-Jason Witten era, and he has, but it wasn’t by storm. It took seasons of development along with Blake Jarwin suffering a torn ACL (and eventually worse) to force the Cowboys to test Schultz as TE1 and, to his credit, he’s since become the top target for Dak Prescott. But in attempting to hone his skills as a catcher, he’s also regressed as a blocker — something he’s dedicating extra time to in 2022 — but the current contract impasse with the Cowboys reveals that he views himself as a top TE in the league deserving of a big payday; and that isn’t necessarily true, though he is a notable player in their offense. Schultz does deserve a second contract, but his replacement might also already be on the roster as he potentially prepares to, begrudgingly, play under a franchise tag worth $10.93 million.

If you want to start an NFL argument at a bar, bring up Kirk Cousins. You’ll instantly see several jump up in his defense while pointing at his accuracy as a reason for his latest big NFL payday, but they’ll be met passionately with his detractors who point out his career record of 59-59-2 as an NFL starter and his inability to carry the Vikings (or the Commanders, prior) on any meaningful playoff run. It is true that QB wins aren’t a stat, but given what he’s been and is being paid, it’s fair to wonder how much longer it’ll take for Cousins to either get the Vikings into February or for the club to realize he might never — a head coaching change in 2022 set to truly test his future in Minnesota.

Many in the Bay Area are ready for the Trey Lance era, but they’re instead being met with a second consecutive offseason of not truly knowing if it’ll happen yet. Jimmy Garoppolo continues to recover from injury and is on the roster in San Francisco, and it’s unknown if (at this point) they’ll find a suitor in a trade scenario. Garoppolo has both proven he can win games and that he can be the reason they’re lost, and the former second-round pick has never truly proven he’s in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. His contract has him set to hit the 49ers salary cap for $26.1 million in 2022 and a combined $79.5 million over the next three seasons — bottom line being his production never justified the deal in the first place, and certainly doesn’t now.

Carson Wentz is becoming the living embodiment of “second chance,” as his second has now become a third chance in as many seasons having been traded to the Commanders in 2022. This occurred only one year after the Colts were convinced a reunion with head coach Frank Reich would rejuvenate Wentz, the two having spent time together with the Eagles, but to no avail. Wentz imploded at the worst possible time, delivering a rancid performance in the team’s humiliating loss at the hands of a lowly Jaguars team led by a now-fired Urban Meyer in a win-and-get-in season finale. Wentz was somehow shocked at Jim Irsay’s confession that the move for him was a “mistake,” but the former second-overall pick will have yet another opportunity in Washington.

It feels like it was just yesterday when the Cowboys released Dez Bryant and attempted to replace him by setting the market with Sammy Watkins, but the latter instead veered to the Chiefs and has remained inconsistent since. He now takes his talent to the Packers, but while Watkins does have value as a rotational talent, if Green Bay thinks he’s going to replace the loss of Davante Adams via trade to the Raiders — having grabbed only one touchdown in 13 starts last season with the Ravens — they’re sadly mistaken. That will take a group effort, but Watkins is still seeing his name placed on lists of highly coveted free agents (as was the case again in 2022), but there’s a solid chance he’ll again find himself there next spring.

It feels weird to even consider Eddie Jackson as being overvalued, and that’s because the thought would’ve been unfathomable as recently as two seasons ago. Arguably one of the best safeties in the NFL to that point, Jackson parlayed his consecutive Pro Bowl seasons (2018, 2019) into a four-year extension signed in 2020, but the former first-team All-Pro (2018) hasn’t been the same since. His production declined over the last two seasons and culminated in a 2021 campaign that saw him grab no interceptions, deflect only two passes and force only one fumble in 14 starts. The Bears need Jackson to find his prime form again in 2022, especially with the cap hits that are coming from his contract (more than $50 million through 2024).

Jamal Adams believes he’s the best safety in all of football, and he’s supposed to feel that way, because every player should carry such confidence onto the field. The reality is that he’s not, nor has he yet shown he has the coverage ability to be a solid one — instead perennially used as little more than a linebacker that lines up in the secondary. Admittedly, he’s one of the best players in the league, but his durability issues, combined with how he’s been utilized in his career with the Jets and now the Seahawks, make what Seattle gave up to acquire him and then to retain him a bit of a head-scratcher. And with changes to the Seahawks’ defensive playing style in 2021, the one thing Adams excelled at (sacking QBs) was literally absent completely, but his two interceptions do count; although that number being a career-high sort of goes to my overarching point.

Oof … this isn’t going well for the Giants just yet, now is it? Kenny Golladay was one of the most sought after free agents in 2021, and it was Big Blue who successfully wooed him to their team, but they didn’t get anything close to what they’re paying for in his first campaign in New York. Inconsistency has been one of the biggest clouds surrounding Golladay over the course of his NFL career, having two 1,000-yard seasons on his resume but also [now] three that didn’t come close. In 14 starts last season, Golladay grabbed only 521 yards with no touchdowns whatsoever, and while you can attribute some of the struggles to the absence of Daniel Jones, you can’t place all of the blame on that or the now-fired Judge, because Golladay is paid to produce … and he didn’t … also evidenced by his career-worst catch rate of 48.7% in Year 1 of a four-year, $72 million contract.

It goes without saying that Russell Gage is talented, but does he bring enough value to the Buccaneers roster to justify what they awarded him in 2022 free agency? That is the real question, for while his three-year, $30 million deal isn’t breaking the bank in Tampa Bay, context matters. He was guaranteed $20 million in the deal (two-thirds of the max value) but enters a WR room owned by perennial All-Pro Mike Evans and a newly extended Chris Godwin, with Godwin on track to be ready for the coming season from his torn ACL suffered in 2021. And yes, Gage is viewed as a slot receiver, but can you argue he’s that much better than Scotty Miller, a player who had comparable TD numbers to Gage in 2020? A healthy Miller will still compete with Gage, and that means maybe, just maybe, the deal given to the former Falcon is a tad rich.

Atwell is a former second-round pick, and you’d think that would mean he’d be looked upon to do more than simply be a special teamer. Alas, that didn’t happen in his first year with the Rams, and he’s now using this offseason to lobby for more playing time on offense. He logged no offensive snaps whatsoever in 2021, and his return abilities aren’t lacking, but they also didn’t deliver any explosive plays for Los Angeles in its championship run. In eight games played, Atwell logged no touchdowns as a punt returner or as a kick returner, his longest returns being 17 yards and 25 yards, respectively. Simply put, given his draft status, more of an overall contribution is needed — ASAP.

Speaking of former second-round picks, Andy Isabella knows all too well the expectations that come with being a top selection on Day Two of an NFL Draft. To his credit, though, unlike Atwell above, he’s actually contributed to his team’s offense. But, that said, he’s also not come close to what has been expected of him thus far in Arizona. Adding insult to injury is the fact the Cardinals are clearly not looking to wait for him to become what they want, hence the signing of an aging A.J. Green last season and the trade for Marquise “Hollywood” Brown this past April. Isabella remains a possible trade piece, but the Cardinals might (key word) hold onto him until DeAndre Hopkins returns from suspension, allowing Isabella what might be his last several chances to have a breakout stretch.

Stop it, already. The days of “Minshew Magic” in Jacksonville were certainly fun, but it now feels like it was a million years ago since he’s done anything of note at the NFL level. Minshew lost his job to an incoming Trevor Lawrence after stretches of poor play and inconsistency pushed him to the bench and, as such, was he eventually traded to the Eagles in 2021. Of course, because of his established following who want nothing more than to believe he’s capable of being a franchise QB, the move led to rumors of Minshew being a possible replacement for Jalen Hurts if Hurts was to struggle. Fast forward to 2022 and Minshew remains the backup QB, having showed that while he’s capable of being a solid backup, at least for now, that’s all he’ll be. So let’s finally drop the pom poms.

Hill was once convinced he had the ability to be a QB1, and that bubble was popped with a cannonball in 2021. In the wake of losing Jameis Winston to a torn ACL, the Saints struggled mightily at the QB position in what became the final year for head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans. With defensive coordinator Dennis Allen ascending to the role of head coach, Hill is now being moved to tight end to try his hand there — a player who has gone from being a Swiss army knife to one desperately looking for a position to hang his hat on after failing to do it at quarterback when given the chance. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more durable player in the NFL than Brockers, and that’s a strong value to have. The problem is that for all of his availability, there’s a glaring lack of consistency in his pass production. His first year with the Lions saw him rack up 16 starts but only one sack, and this was after signing a three-year deal following a trade that sent him from Los Angeles [Rams] to Detroit. As a former 14th-overall pick, Brockers entered the league with a metric ton of expectations and he’s never truly matched them with his production. As a rotational talent, at best, he’s worth having on a roster, but the Lions need him to perform like an impact starter, which is why they kept starting him — although that ship may have sailed for him with the addition of Aidan Hutchinson and Co. for 2022.

I get it, you’re not overvaluing Darnold, and that’s smart. You know who is, though? The Panthers, or they would’ve never made the trade for him in the first place — thinking head coach Matt Rhule could do for him what Rhule couldn’t do for any QB he’s coached at the NFL level yet — and/or they’d stop playing coy with the Browns and trade for Baker Mayfield right now. Darnold is a former third-overall of the Jets who is on his second team and still playing like he was picked up on the side of the road after a CFL practice. Not even a reunion with wideout Robby Anderson has helped him elevate his game, and being the best QB on the current Panthers roster might be a feather in his hairnet, but it’s nothing to poke a chest out about. His salary will cost the Panthers a robust $18.86 million in 2022, and the fact he’s still QB1 with that pay in the face of his struggles is just … not smart, Carolina.

Much like the situation between Darnold and the Panthers, it’s not fans of the Falcons or analysts who are valuing Mariota too highly, but instead the franchise itself. It’s time for the first season of the post-Matt Ryan era, and everyone who believed Ryan was the problem might soon find out, and harshly, that he wasn’t. Mariota is another high-profile draft prospect who flamed out before his fire could reach the curtains, having been jettisoned by the Titans and never actually challenging Derek Carr’s seat with the Raiders — now signed by the Falcons as what they hope will be more than a bridge to the future. But there’s a chance he’s not even the bridge itself, let alone the road after it, but at least he’s not being paid the money Darnold is, and that means if he does fail to make the Falcons competitive in 2021, it won’t financially be a big deal at all.

That is unless he fails and he’s still on the roster in 2023, when his cap hit leaps from $4.25 million to $14.5 million, making for a very, very different conversation.

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