Two things stood out to me while whipping up this week's edition of NFL Stock Watch. (Bulls! Bears! Oh my, etc.) First off, what a week for FSU quarterbacks, huh? The guy who helped Florida State succeed last year is already back from a minor knee procedure that looked sure to keep him out longer than just a few weeks; EJ Manuel will start under center for the Bills in Week 1 against the Patriots. Meanwhile, the guy who's leading Florida State this year, Jameis Winston, had one of the all-time great debuts for a rookie quarterback in college football history. He's a ways away from being relevant from an NFL perspective, but if Lane Kiffin can recruit 14-year-olds we can stare at freshman, right? And should the Jets already get excited for their 2015 "Lamest For Jameis" campaign?
But back to Manuel, because both he and fellow rookie Geno Smith are Week 1 starters. That means, barring injury, they'll likely be Week 2 starters. This is great news for ... the Patriots, who get the Bills in Week 1 and the Jets in Week 2. (And for Ryan Tannehill, who is now the second-most-grizzled starting quarterback in the AFC East.)
Bill Belichick matched up against rookie quarterbacks isn't fair in the first place; he might have the best defense he's had in a few years and could cause some serious havoc for both Manuel and Geno, who will be seeing formations and schemes the likes they've never seen before. It's trial by fire, and once we're left with nothing but coals, there are pretty good odds that the Patriots are left standing at 2-0.
EJ Manuel, QB, Bills -- What a turnaround for the Florida State quarterback from injury, huh? He suffered a knee issue in the Bills third preseason game and Buffalo was suddenly staring at, best case, getting its rookie quarterback back by Week 3. When Kevin Kolb went down it forced Buffalo to trade for Thaddeus Lewis, sign Matt Leinart and face the prospect of starting undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel. But Doug Marrone named Manuel the starter Wednesday and it should pay immediate dividends. Manuel is the better fit for Marrone's up tempo offense and immediately gives the Bills a fighting chance against the Patriots. No offense to Tuel, but Chandler Jones and company were going to have a shot at teeing off on the UDFA. Manuel -- coupled with C.J. Spiller and the rest of Buffalo's weapons -- should make this a much more interesting game to watch.
Jameis Winston, QB, FSU -- The redshirt freshman quarterback who's filling Manuel's shoes in Tallahassee isn't just destroying autocorrect around the world. He's also coming off a game where he completely shredded Pittsburgh's defense and got scouts and GMs drooling. Winston started out scorching in the first half and just kept pouring it on, eventually finishing 25-for-27 for 356 yards, four passing touchdowns and another rushing score. Those are video game numbers, even if you might run up against a tougher matchup in Madden than you would the ACC. Famous Jameis is a long way from being draft eligible -- he has two years left at FSU, minimum -- and he'll eventually face much tougher competition, but suffice it to say plenty of people are already taking notice around
the league. In fact, an unnamed scout told theMMQB's Peter King it was the best performance he'd ever seen from a freshman. Yes, Mack Brown could receive the requisite "stock down" option here as well.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots -- As noted in this very space last week, Gronk is clearly on track to return sooner than expected. Avoiding the PUP list to start the season was critical; Gronk won't be banned from practice or games for the first six games of the year now. The guess here is that Bill Belichick still takes his time bringing the tight end back. There's nothing to gain by rushing his return for a Week 3 game when Gronk will pay the biggest dividends and make the largest impact in January. We'll get an early glimpse of what New England's offense will look like without him though, and Buffalo should be a good test for Tom Brady. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is Rex Ryan's former right-hand man and has helped give Brady and crew fits for years. Scheming without Gronk is more difficult, but if Brady, Danny Amendola and his assortment of other weapons look impressive early on, it's possible Gronk will be paced even more. Regardless, the tight end returning to practice is a VERY welcome sign for everyone in and around Beantown.
Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals -- Atkins was finally rewarded for his impressive play with justifiable financial compensation, as the Bengals handed "Geno Sacks" a five-year, $55 million contract that will pair he and Carlos Dunlap on the defensive line as a potentially dominant duo for the long-term future. Atkins, honestly, might've been the best defensive player in the NFL last year (non-J.J. Watt division). He was hands down the best defensive tackle in football, showing impressive ability to get after the quarterback from a position that doesn't traditionally produce sacks. Atkins piled up 12.5 though, and added two pass deflections, four forced fumbles and 54 tackles. At just 25 years old, this is an ideal, win-win contract that lets both sides avoid a nightmarish franchise-tag situation next offseason and get down to the business of fulfilling expectations. Even though he just got paid it wouldn't be a stunner if Atkins ended up as the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
NFL Players Association -- On Wednesday morning the NFLPA took a major step towards improving a major problem in the NFL (and, really all of professional athletics and the whole world): drunk driving. The union announced a partnership with Uber, a personalized driver service. Using Uber's smartphone app, NFL players can request a ride from the company in "any of Uber's international locations, including nearly 20 U.S. NFL team cities and Pro Bowl host Honolulu." Riders request the ride via the app and then GPS tracking shows how far away the car is, keeping anyone from jumping the gun and deciding they can't wait for the safe ride. Additionally, NFL players will be given "keychain cards" with Uber ride credits and the information about who's being taken where (and perhaps more importantly, ahem, from where) will be "discreet." It's a major step towards curbing drunk driving by professional athletes, provided the players will actually use it. Other major sports unions should take notice of this smart play.
Matt Flynn, QB, Oakland - What an absolutely brutal pair of training camps Flynn has had the last two years. First he's beaten by rookie Russell Wilson, and now he's snaked by second-year project Terrelle Pryor? Yes there's some consolation for the former BCS champion -- he's probably the richest lifetime backup quarterback in NFL history. And Flynn will likely get a chance to take snaps in Oaktown at some point. No matter how good Pryor is, the Raiders are going to lose games. That should eventually give Flynn some sort of look under center, although there's no guarantee. Is it possible he ends up heading back to Green Bay in a year?
Heisman Winners -- Fortunately for the esteemed Heisman Trust, proprietors of America's favorite popularity contest, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III are still doing what they do. Because the list before them is quite sad: Tim Tebow, Matt Leinart, Jason White and Troy Smith (four out of the last seven winners) are already out of the NFL, possibly for good. Too bad they can't even count Reggie Bush among their ranks. At least they still have Charles Woodson ('97!)!
Mark Sanchez, QB, Jets -- Not to go all quarterbacks here but man, have things somehow gone more south than usual for Mark Sanchez. He has got a shoulder injury -- suffered in the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason game that the Jets were somehow trying to win -- which has caused him to lose his starting job to Geno Smith. Somehow that shoulder injury is worse than expected and could reportedly keep Sanchez out for a few weeks. But there will no mercy even for the injured: according to a report Tuesday, Woody Johnson wants to make Sanchez "earn every cent" of his contract, even if that means spending the entire year sitting on the bench eating hot dogs before becoming a tackling dummy when things get really ugly. It's going to be a long year in New York.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina -- Just mixing it up with a little college football on this side too. As I wrote in Sorting the Sunday Pile this week, the hype surrounding Clowney was absolutely stupid. How was he expected to meet the expectations that people had for him this season, especially going against a likely first-round pick in UNC offensive lineman James Hurst? He wasn't. The pendulum swing from "Clowney will eat Larry Fedora's children tonight!" to "Jadeveon is SO out of shape!" And that's not fair. But Clowney didn't really live up to realistic expectations, though he did flash plenty of impressive athleticism and force UNC to alter their gameplan. He's got plenty of time to get the hype rolling and this is nothing more than a natural cool down.
John Boyett, S, Colts -- Do you know who John Boyett is? You better if you're trying to arrest him because he's a member of the Colts, dammit! Er, was a member of the Colts. Boyett was dumped by Indianapolis following a Labor Day Eve arrest that saw him tell the police that they couldn't arrest him as he was a player for the local professional football team. As you might imagine, the police didn't care one lick what Boyett said. And the Colts cared even less, dumping Boyett the day after.