Returning Impact Players For Contenders

The NFL’s second half is getting underway this week, and it’s not too early to point to specific games as crucial for playoff positioning, as teams jockey for divisions and Wild Card openings. Last night’s contest between the Saints and Panthers, for instance, could ultimately have a real impact on which team wins the NFC South.

As we near the home stretch of the 2014 season, several teams could get a boost from returning players who have been sidelined for most or all of the year. These players won’t necessarily swing playoff races, but their teams will certainly welcome them back with open arms as a way of fortifying rosters that may be plagued by various injuries and ailments.

Listed below are a handful of players worth keeping an eye on during the season’s second half. These players are on track to return from longer-term injuries or suspensions, and could have an impact down the stretch, perhaps helping to buoy their respective teams into postseason berths. While the returns of other players, like Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, will also obviously be massive for their respective teams, shorter-term absences like Green’s aren’t noted here.

Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert (TE)
Green’s return may have a more significant impact on the Bengals’ offense, but Eifert shouldn’t be overlooked. The young tight end was expected to take on a larger role this season, and had already caught three balls in the team’s Week 1 contest before he suffered a dislocated elbow. Since he received the designation to return when he was placed on IR, Eifert is eligible to practice now and is expected to be activated for the club’s Week 11 game against the Saints.

Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon (WR)
The Browns currently sit in last place in the competitive AFC North, so it’s fair to question whether they’re a legit contender. Still, at 4-3, they’re right on the heels of the division-leading 4-2-1 Bengals, and with a soft schedule and the 2013’s leading receiver due back soon, there’s reason for optimism in Cleveland. Taking into account the Browns’ bye, Gordon’s 10-game ban means he’s eligible to return for Week 12, and it’ll be interesting to see what Brian Hoyer – or, perhaps, Johnny Manziel – can do during the season’s final six weeks with a weapon like Gordon at his disposal.

Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence (DE/OLB)
We’ve yet to see what Lawrence is capable of at the NFL level, since the first half of his rookie season has been wiped out by a broken foot. But this is a player for whom the Cowboys traded up to No. 34 in May’s draft, and the team is looking forward to getting him back this weekend. Dallas’ defense has been surprisingly effective so far, but it certainly hasn’t been infallible, and a player like Lawrence will help fortify the team’s pass rush. It’s also worth monitoring defensive tackle Josh Brent, whose 10-game ban will soon expire — Brent may not see a ton of snaps right away, but the fact that the Cowboys have stuck with him indicates he remains very much in the team’s plans.

Detroit Lions: Kyle Van Noy (LB)
Like Lawrence, Van Noy is an early second-round pick who we’ve yet to see play in a regular season game. Of course, the Lions’ defense has been so effective that the team can afford to ease Van Noy in slowly if it so chooses, but this is a player who was initially penciled in as a three-down starter during the preseason. While he may not receive that kind of workload when he returns this weekend, I expect he’ll become a bigger part of Detroit’s D by December.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Kelce (C), Evan Mathis (G)
Eagles fans and LeSean McCoy‘s fantasy owners alike will welcome the return of this standout duo of interior offensive linemen. Kelce appears ready to return to action this weekend, while Mathis is expected to be activated for the following week, which is great news for an offensive line that has been shorthanded virtually all season. Assuming Kelce and Mathis are both healthy and remain as effective as ever, McCoy should start finding a few more holes and Nick Foles may be a little more comfortable in the pocket.

San Diego Chargers: Melvin Ingram (LB), Ryan Mathews (RB), Manti Te’o (LB)
Few – if any – teams have been hit harder this season by injuries than the Chargers, but reinforcements are on the way. In addition to players like Brandon Flowers and Jeremiah Attaochu being on the mend, the trio noted here is recovering well from longer-term injuries. Ingram, Mathews, and Te’o have each been sidelined since at least Week 3, but if all goes well, all three players could be back in action again following the club’s Week 10 bye.

San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman (LB), Aldon Smith (LB)
Heading into the season, many pundits viewed the Niners as a candidate to fall out of the postseason this year in large part due to the extended absences of Bowman and Smith. The team has hung in there so far though, and should finally be getting their standout linebackers back in November. Even if Smith’s nine-game ban isn’t reduced by a game or two, a rumor which appears increasingly unlikely, he’ll be eligible to return for the Niners’ Week 11 contest against the Giants, and I’d expect Bowman to be back a week or two after that. With December showdowns against the Seahawks, Chargers, and Cardinals on tap, San Francisco could be getting two of its best defenders back just in time to affect the playoff picture.

Greg Hardy Likely Done For Season

10:09am: Hardy will remain on the commissioner’s exempt list until his case is adjudicated, which now isn’t expected to happen until January, a league source tells Cole (Twitter link).

FRIDAY, 9:39am: A representative of the Mecklenberg County D.A.’s office tells Tom Pelissero and Jim Corbett of USA Today that Hardy’s case has not been postponed and remains on the docket for November 17. However, the USA Today duo also hears from a source that the state has postponed Hardy’s case, and office rep Meghan Cooke did acknowledge the date could be subject to change. According to Pelissero and Corbett, the difference “could be semantics,” if the D.A. and Hardy’s lawyers have been told the date will be rescheduled.

THURSDAY, 9:30pm: Jason Cole of Bleacher Report tweets that Hardy will ask the NFL to lift his paid suspension. Cole adds (via Twitter) that Hardy wants to play this season, with some members of his party agreeing and disagreeing with his sentiment.

7:14pm: Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has been sitting on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list since mid-September, and there was some hope that he would play again this season once his mid-November trial for domestic violence was resolved. That now seems very unlikely, as sources tell ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio that Hardy’s trial has been postponed until after the season. Unless the NFL changes their policy regarding the exempt list, he won’t be allowed back on the field until the case is settled, which means his season is effectively over. Florio notes that Hardy could be pressured to accept a plea deal, but the 26-year-old would still face a punishment from the league.

Hardy’s trial was initially set to begin on November 17, during the Panthers’ bye week. There seemed to be general optimism that the Pro Bowler would be back with the team after that, as NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets that Hardy was “confident he would be found not guilty” and would play again this season.

However, there were whispers that some in Hardy’s camp were advising the upcoming free agent to sit out the season and avoid injuries or reduced performance. Florio counters that the defensive end will now be hard pressed to find a big contract. Either way, Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer tweets that Hardy’s career with the Panthers is likely finished.

Hardy made the Pro Bowl last season after he compiled a career-high 15 sacks, and ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) ranked him as the second-best overall defensive end in the league. He signed a $13.1MM deal for the 2014 season.

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Extra Points: Lewan, Adams, Crimson Tide

Let’s take a look at some assorted notes from around the league…

  • Titans first-round pick Taylor Lewan pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges of disturbing the peace and being drunk and disorderly, writes Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com. The writer notes that Lewan is not expected to be disciplined by the NFL.
  • Stephen Holder of the Indy Star details Colts safety Mike Adams long journey to the NFL. Among the notable anecdotes was Adams reaction to a $2,500 signing bonus as a rookie with the 49ers. “Man, they gave me $2,500,” Adams said. “I was thinking, ‘Don’t you mean $25,000? I mean, this is the NFL, right?’ Man, I had to work for that $2,500. And people are calling me from back home asking me for money. Man, I was broke!”
  • Following the trade of Mark BarronBleacher Report’s Jason Cole sat down with Stephen Nelson and discussed the recent lack of success for former Crimson Tide players. The writer believes that Alabama players are “overworked” and subsequently “overvalued” in NFL drafts.

AFC Links: Colts, Titans, Raiders

Colts general manager Ryan Grigson spoke to the media on Thursday and addressed a number of subjects, including the return of owner Jim Irsay, who had been suspended six games for an OWI conviction. Via ESPN.com’s Mike Wells

“With Jim gone, things are pretty well structured. Jim is always there for input, but he never forces anything down our throats. Just his presence, it’s great to see. Got alumni back. Taking a team picture, and everyone’s walking over, everyone’s walking over to talk to him. that’s something you can’t fake. These guys are beaming at seeing him, and hugging him, and he was the same way. Great for our players to see. That relationship goes back years and years, because that’s real. If you play for the horseshoe, you’re family.”

Let’s see what else is happening around the AFC…

  • Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean examines the Titans recent drafts, and attributes the team’s lack of success to their inability to pick good players. Wyatt notes that only two of the team’s 20 draft picks from the 2009-2010 draft are still with the team.
  • Meanwhile, Josh Glennon of The Tennessean opines that the Titans have not been getting their money’s worth from their free agent signings. The writer is particularly displeased with the performance of Dexter McCluster, Michael Oher and Shaun Phillips.
  • Kenbrell Thompkins is making the most of his opportunity with the Raiders after he was waived by the Patriots. ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson attributes the wideout’s determination to being released, and the 26-year-old is making sure that never happens again. “I wasn’t expecting it,” Thompkins said. “But it happened and I have to learn from it. Hard working and becoming a big part of this team is what I’m focused on.”

NFC Links: Ingram, Durant, Barron

As the Panthers and Saints face off on Thursday Night Football, let’s check out some interesting notes from around the NFC…

  • NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport expects Mark Ingram to hit free agency at the end of the season (via Twitter). Meanwhile, Joel Corry of the National Football Post says that the Saints shouldn’t be blamed for not picking up the running back’s fifth year option worth more than $5.2MM (Twitter link).
  • Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant underwent season-ending surgery today, and Calvin Watkins of ESPNDallas.com writes that the 29-year-old’s future in Dallas is uncertain. “I’ll just leave that up to people in front offices to decide, let my agent handle everything that comes with free agency,” Durant said. “I just play.”
  • Mark Barron wasn’t expecting to be traded earlier this week, and the Rams newest safety admitted that he missed the phone call informing him of the move. “I was definitely in shock,” Barron said (via ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner). “I had no idea that any of it was going on. I was most definitely shocked but I am excited about the situation [in St. Louis]. I had no idea I was even available for a trade.”
  • Recently acquired fullback Will Tukuafu is excited about his opportunity with the Seahawks, but the 30-year-old sounds even more excited about blocking for Marshawn Lynch. “I love his style of play,” said Tukuafu (via Terry Blount of ESPN.com). “I’ve been on defense against him. He’s like his nickname — Beastmode. He’s a beast. To be able to block for a guy like that is a blessing. This is real similar to the offense we had at the 49ers. I’m ready to go.”

AFC East Links: Patriots, Idzik, Orton

Linebacker Jonathan Casillas was acquired by the Patriots earlier this week, and the 27-year-old is doing everything in his power to play this weekend. It isn’t easy switching teams midseason, and the six-year veteran realizes that he has a lot of catching up to do (via Lee Schechter of ESPNBoston.com):

“I feel like I’m cramming for a final in college,” Casillas said. “I’m happy to be here and blessed to have this opportunity to play for a great organization.

“This is my fourth [defensive] coordinator in four years since Gregg [Williams], so five [defensive] coordinators in five years, and that’s the tough part — learning all of these different defensive schemes — not really transitioning city to city because a city is a city. I can get acclimated to my surrounding place. My job learning the Xs and Os about what I’m going to do every day and the verbiage and the communication, that’s the difficult part.”

Casillas was also asked how he felt being traded from the last-place Buccaneers to the place-first Patriots:

“Do I really have to answer that question?”

Let’s check out some more notes from the AFC East…

  • Recently released linebacker Deontae Skinner has cleared waivers and is expected to re-sign with the Patriots, tweets the Boston Globe’s Shalise Manza Young. The rookie was released by New England yesterday following the signing of Alan Branch.
  • ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss reacts to the Patriots handling of the trade deadline, writing that Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck could have helped, but the price was likely too high. Reiss notes that he never bought into the Vincent Jackson/Doug Martin rumors.
  • Jets supporters seemingly haven’t been too thrilled with the work of general manager John Idzik, and some fans have created a website called firejohnidzik.com (via John Healy of the New York Daily News).
  • Mike Rodak of ESPN.com examines the Bills options for handling Kyle Orton‘s contract should the quarterback lead the team to the playoffs. The veteran currently has $5.4MM base salary for next season (with a $7MM cap hit), but he has the opportunity to void his contract immediately following the Super Bowl. If Orton decides to stick around, Rodak believes the team’s two options are to either extend him to a long-term contract or offer him a more lucrative, one-year deal.

Practice Squad Updates: Thursday

We’ll track today’s practice squad signings and cuts, in this space. Here’s the latest:

  • According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times (Twitter link), the Seahawks‘ practice squad is full again at 10 players after the team signed tight end Brett Brackett and wide receiver Chris Matthews, cutting tight end Rashaun Allen to make room.
  • The Patriots have formally confirmed the signing of offensive lineman Chris Barker to their practice squad, a move which was reported yesterday. To make room for Barker, New England has cut defensive lineman Ben Bass.

Earlier updates:

  • The Browns have signed former Seahawks wideout Phil Bates to their practice squad, cutting defensive back Marcus Cromartie to make room, tweets Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun. Danny O’Neil of 710 ESPN in Seattle first reported yesterday (via Twitter) that Bates, who was cut this week by Seattle, had cleared waivers and was headed to Cleveland.
  • After waiving him earlier this week to sign veteran safety Charles Godfrey, the Falcons have re-signed safety Sean Baker to their practice squad, the team announced today in a press release. Baker, who was on Atlanta’s taxi squad for nearly all of September, takes the spot vacated by safety Kimario McFadden, who has been cut.

Minor Moves: Thursday

We’ve been tracking Thursday’s practice squad signings and cuts in a separate post, and we’ll use this space to keep tabs on minor transactions relating to teams’ 53-man rosters. Here’s the latest:

  • When the Rams acquired safety Mark Barron and made a handful of other roster moves this week, the team was bumping up dangerously close to the cap. To create a little wiggle room, the team has restructured the contract of tight end Jared Cook, according to Brian McIntyre. McIntyre tweets that it’s a straightforward restructure, with a portion of Cook’s 2014 salary turned into a signing bonus, freeing up about $900K in cap space.
  • Tight end Tom Crabtree continues to shuttle on and off the Saints‘ active roster. After being re-signed earlier this week, Crabtree has been cut again, per McIntyre (via Twitter). In his place, linebacker Todd Davis has been promoted from New Orleans’ practice squad to the team’s 53-man roster.

Newton Not Interested In Kaepernick Contract Structure

2011’s first-round picks became eligible for contract extensions last offseason, and a handful have already signed new deals, including J.J. Watt, Tyron Smith, and Patrick Peterson. While No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton has yet to re-up with the Panthers, the team has made it clear it views Newton as its franchise quarterback, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. And, as Rapoport tweets, Newton has informed the club that he’s not interested in a contract structured like Colin Kaepernick‘s extension.

Kaepernick’s contract appeared on the surface to be extremely lucrative, with a base value of $114MM and substantial guaranteed money. However, most of those guarantees turned out to be for injury only, leaving the Niners on the hook initially for only about $13MM in fully guaranteed money. That gives San Francisco the opportunity to get out from the pact within a year or two without taking on much dead money, if the team so chooses.

After Andy Dalton signed a similarly structured long-term deal with the Bengals, it became fair to wonder if the next wave of QB extensions would follow the Kaepernick model. However, in my view, those were unique cases, given Kaepernick’s relative lack of starting experience and Dalton’s lack of success in the postseason. Neither player was a first overall pick like Newton or Andrew Luck, and neither player had won a Super Bowl like Russell Wilson, so it stands to reason that those three young signal-callers shouldn’t have to settle for Kaepernick-esque extensions.

According to Rapoport, Matt Ryan‘s contract with the Falcons may serve as a point of comparison for the Panthers and Newton. Ryan’s deal has a smaller overall value than Kaepernick’s, but it’s for one fewer year, and features much more fully guaranteed money — the five-year pact is worth $20.75MM annually, with $42MM guaranteed.

For now, the Panthers have Newton under contract for the 2015 season for a salary and cap number of $14.666MM, after exercising his fifth-year option. The team would also have the opportunity to use its franchise tag on him in 2016, though I’d expect both sides will be interested in working out a more permanent arrangement sooner rather than later, so perhaps negotiations will intensify during the coming offseason.