While the majority of the players from this year’s NFL free-agency class will end up being backups or camp bodies with their new teams, a handful will be immediate difference-makers. And it’s not just about talent: A shift to a pass-heavy offense could up the production of a pass catcher, while an aggressive defense could give a pass rusher more opportunities to get after the quarterback. Of course, there are a couple of players whose overall ability will make everyone around them better, too.
So, we present to you The All-New-Team Team, the seven guys who will have the biggest positive impact for their new clubs. They can be found at every position … other than quarterback. Brock Osweiler will certainly be impacting the Texans, but remember: we said “positive.”
Running Back: Matt Forte, New York Jets
We still don’t know who will be playing quarterback for the Jets this year, but it’s obvious that we’ll see a heavy infusion of Matt Forte into the offense after the team signed him to a three-year, $12 million deal this offseason. With the departure of Chris Ivory in free agency, Forte should inherit plenty of his predecessor’s 247 carries, but his biggest impact will come in the passing game.
Chan Gailey’s passing offense is predicated on creating space for its playmakers. As Gailey runs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker downfield, they draw a lot of attention from opposing secondaries and linebackers over the middle, so Forte will find a lot of room underneath for swing passes and dump-offs. Bilal Powell and Ivory combined to catch 77 passes for 605 yards last year, and looking back at Gailey’s time as coordinator in Buffalo, you’ll see a similar focus on backs in the passing game: C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson combined for 77 catches and 676 yards in 2012 after joining forces for 78 catches and 711 yards in 2011.
Forte is still one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, and while we shouldn’t expect anything near the NFL-record 102 catches he grabbed out of the backfield in 2014, his skill set and silky-smooth, effortless style look compatible with late-career production as a change-of-pace, pass-catching running back. He’ll turn 31 before the end of the season, but Forte’s upside in New York could be similar to what Fred Jackson did for Buffalo from 2012 to 2014, during his age 31 to 33 seasons, when he averaged 154 carries, 49 catches, 5.6 touchdowns, and nearly 1,000 scrimmage yards per season.
Wide Receiver: Mike Wallace, Baltimore Ravens
In theory, the two-year, $11.5 million deal the Ravens gave Mike Wallace to stretch the field makes sense. Wallace averaged over 1,000 yards receiving a year with the Steelers and his 17.2 yards per catch average was fourth among all receivers over that period (behind only DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, and Malcom Floyd). But since bolting for a big payday with the Dolphins in 2013, he hasn’t been the same. In two seasons in Miami and one with Minnesota, Wallace has averaged nearly 60 catches per year, but his yards per catch (12.7) are way down — 60th among receivers leaguewide — as are his touchdowns (5.6 per year, versus his 8 per year with Pittsburgh).
Baltimore will be hoping that the drop in production came down to a lack of fit with his previous two teams. Neither Ryan Tannehill nor Teddy Bridgewater was as accurate a deep passer as Ben Roethlisberger and neither team was as prolific down the field, so Wallace’s best skill mostly has been wasted. Joe Flacco’s been very good on deep passes down the sideline since he came into the league in 2008, though, and the Ravens want to chuck it long. With health questions surrounding the rest of Baltimore’s receiving corps, there should be plenty of opportunities for the 29-year-old wideout to go deep. Don’t be surprised if 2016 Wallace suddenly starts to resemble the guy we saw in Pittsburgh.
Tight End: Coby Fleener, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees loves his tight ends. From 2011 to 2014, Jimmy Graham averaged nearly 89 catches and 12 touchdowns a year. And after Graham was traded to the Seahawks last spring, not many expected his backup, veteran journeyman Benjamin Watson, to pick up so much slack and catch 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns.
Watson’s huge jump in production in 2015 was a product of the Saints’ system, and Coby Fleener fits the role even better. While the 27-year-old has been solid-but-unspectacular over his first four years in the league, he’s a much better athlete than Watson and has reportedly already developed a solid rapport with Brees.
The Saints passed the ball 41.7 times a game in 2015 (tied for second in the NFL), 41.2 times per game in 2014 (first), and 40.2 times per game in 2013 (fourth), so there will be plenty of balls to go around. Fleener will play the same part in the Saints offense that helped Watson get 110 targets last year and 138 a year for Graham during his heyday. Wherever Fleener’s number settles in, it’ll be much higher than the 84 targets he got last year will the Colts.
Offensive Line: Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons
There’s a reason Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn were willing to make Alex Mack the highest-paid center in the league. The Falcons are an outside zone team — and Mack is the ideal outside zone center
Atlanta ran off the left and right end 46 percent of the time — most in the NFL. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the center position is absolutely integral in these wide zone runs. They don’t obliterate a defensive end at the point of attack, but what they do in the middle of the field turns typically short gains into explosive plays.
Just watch Mack from Cleveland’s Week 17 game against the Steelers last year:
Ryan Shazier (no. 50) flows with the direction of the play, but instead of fitting into the open gap and making a tackle, he’s tangled up by Mack (who adds in a little veteran jersey tug), and Isaiah Crowell finds daylight and picks up 15 yards.
Here’s another example:
With a little help from the guard, Mack is able to reach and completely seal Cameron Heyward from the play. I mean, just look at where no. 97 ends up at the end of this run; he’s completely neutralized.
These are two of the hardest blocks a zone center can make — on both, Mack has to reach and block a defender already shaded toward the play’s direction — and he makes them look easy.
As Mack goes from one wide zone running team in the Browns to another in the Falcons, there shouldn’t be much of a learning curve. With Mack holding down the inside of the line for Atlanta, the Falcons running backs will have plenty more opportunities for explosive runs as their center seals off interior linemen from pursuit down the line and takes out second-level defenders. Wherever they are right now, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are probably both smiling.
Defensive Line: Olivier Vernon, New York Giants
The Giants are trying to get back to their roots, and becoming a fearsome defense starts with building an elite pass rush. Despite picking up just 7.5 sacks in 2015, Olivier Vernon just signed the largest deal ever for a defensive end. That might seem like a massive overpay by New York, but sacks only tell part of the story.
Vernon ended last season with 81 pressures — second only to Seattle’s Michael Bennett among 4–3 defensive ends — and he got better as the year wore on. After Cameron Wake tore his Achilles halfway through the season, Vernon became the guy on Miami’s pass rush, and he didn’t disappoint. He amassed 57 pressures from Week 8 on: eight sacks, 24 hits, and 25 hurries. For context, only 10 4–3 defensive ends managed to produce that much pressure over the entire season.
Vernon is just 25 years old, so he’s entering the prime of his pass-rushing career. With some intimidating combination of Damon Harrison, Johnathan Hankins, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Owa Odighizuwa set to line up with him on the Giants’ defensive front, the pieces are in place for Vernon to match, or perhaps even eclipse, the pace of production he set during the second half of last year.
Linebacker: Bruce Irvin, Oakland Raiders
After picking up eight sacks as a rookie with the Seahawks in 2012, Irvin spent the rest of his Seattle career as a strongside linebacker on early downs, dropping into coverage and setting the edge against the run. Irvin’s opportunities to rush the passer were mostly limited to obvious passing situations on third down, and his chances for sacks and quarterback hits diminished greatly after his first year.
That’s not gonna fly in Oakland. They’re paying him an average of $9.25 million per year — or, in technical terms, “go get us sacks” money.
He’ll rush the passer in a number of ways for the Raiders, both standing up from the linebacker spot (where he’s currently listed) and with a hand in the dirt from the defensive end position. Irvin might be just as explosive as his new teammate Khalil Mack, but he’s not anywhere near the pure pass rusher that Mack has turned out to be. However, since Mack is the bigger danger, Irvin should get plenty of chances to go one-on-one and improve upon his 5.5 sacks from last year.
While the combination of Chicago’s free-agent signings of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman may end up having a bigger collective impact than Irvin, no relocated linebacker is better positioned to explode in 2016.
Defensive Back: Josh Norman, Washington Redskins
When the Panthers rescinded their franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman in April he became, as Redskins GM Scot McCloughan made sure to emphasize, “the first player ever to be named All-Pro and become a free agent — ever.’’ It was an unbelievable turn of events; elite defensive backs of Norman’s caliber (not named Darrelle Revis) almost never become free agents, so when he hit the open market, Washington pounced, handing him a five-year, $75 million contract without thinking twice.
It remains to be seen how Washington plans to use him: Will he travel to both sides of the field and cover an opposing team’s top receiver, or will they just stick him on the right and let him do work like he did in 2015?
Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter: His receiver pattern recognition is elite, he has great ball skills (18 passes defensed, four picks, three forced fumbles in 2015), and he plays with a combination of aggressiveness and confidence. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, Norman also has the size needed to defend the NFC East’s top wideouts, Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr. (Can you believe we get four of these matchups this season?) Most important, though, he fills a major need position for his new team. If Washington repeats as division champs in 2016, Norman will be one of the biggest reasons.