NFL

NFL AM: Four Veterans Excited to be Free at Last!

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In a special Independence Day edition of NFL AM, we are highlighting players who are celebrating their newfound freedom this season. Whether by changing scheme or scenery, these men are free at last!

We’ll keep our focus on four players, what with it being the Fourth of July and all.

ILB Jasper Brinkley (Cowboys)

Brinkley signed with the Cowboys on March 16, hoping to build on a promising 2014 campaign in which he appeared in all 16 games for the Vikings (including 11 starts) and racked up 74 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. However, his path to playing time became suddenly crowded on April 1 when Dallas re-signed Rolando McClain to a one-year, incentive-laden deal.

McClain’s return to the top of the depth chart lasted just three months, as on Thursday he was suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

“I apologize to my family, the Cowboys organization, my teammates and Cowboys fans for my mistake,” McClain said in a statement. “I will not break the rules of my profession in the future, and I regret my error. I look forward to returning to the field on week 5, when I hope to help my team beat the Patriots.”

It’s no surprise to see McClain making news for the wrong reasons. The No. 8 overall pick in 2010 has retired twice and been arrested three times, which explains why he failed to net a long-term contract this offseason.

McClain’s loss is Brinkley’s gain, as the South Carolina product has prototypical size, strength and power for an inside linebacker. If Brinkley takes the starting job and runs with it, the Cowboys can free themselves of McClain’s headaches once and for all.

RB Ryan Mathews (Eagles)

Mathews was set up for failure in San Diego. He was never going to fill the massive shoes of the man he was drafted to replace, LaDainian Tomlinson, meaning he was sure to disappoint no matter how well he performed. Mathews’ inability to stay healthy didn’t help matters, either, as he never made it through a full season unscathed.

The sledding will be easier in Philadelphia. Mathews will serve as the Robin to DeMarco Murray’s Batman, which should help Ryno stay healthy. He will also benefit from a stronger offensive line and a fast-paced offense that wears down opposing defenses.

If all goes according to plan, Mathews should get about 10 touches per game and average around 4.5 yards per carry. And if Murray goes down for an extended period of time, Mathews has proven he is capable of being a workhorse back for weeks and possibly months at a time.

More importantly, Mathews will be free of Tomlinson’s looming shadow; he will be an above-average backup instead of a failed heir apparent.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to fill LT’s shoes,” said Mathews when he was still with the Chargers. “I was trying to live up to those expectations — what he was doing in his prime, all the yards he’s getting, all the touchdowns he’s getting, just trying to live up to that. I knew I was the first-round pick, [the Chargers] moved up [16] spots and all that, and I was just trying to do more than what I should have been doing. I think I took all the fun out of it and stressed myself out over it.”

QB Colin Kaepernick (49ers)

Jim Harbaugh oversaw Kapernick’s stunning and sudden rise to success. However, it quickly became clear after that magical half-season run in 2012 that NFL defenses were gaining on Kaepernick faster than he was gaining on them.

Harbaugh did what he could to reverse that trend, working to develop Kaepernick’s skills as a pocket passer, but by the end of their time together it was clear that Kaepernick was thinking too much and ignoring his natural playmaking instincts.

Jim Tomsula, a more agreeable leader and renowned players coach, is looking to build his franchise quarterback back up after Harbaugh spent so much time breaking him down.

“Statistically and all that kind of stuff, people throw those out there — Colin had his best year, OK,” Tomsula said on NFL Total Access. “Colin is working down in Arizona. He’s a great dude. He’s a real good dude. He’s a good teammate. He’s a neat cat. Colin’s going to do real well. Colin’s a great football player and even better person. We’re really excited about Colin.”

This is a critical season for Kaepernick and the 49ers, who endured a a tough offseason that included four starters leaving via free agency and four veterans opting for retirement. If San Francisco’s stock continues to trend downwards, GM Trent Baalke could opt for a full-scale rebuilding project that may not include Kaepernick (who is on an expensive, pay-as-we-go contract).

Tomsula doesn’t want to see that happen. As such, he’ll take the reins off Kaepernick and try to put him in better position to exploit his incredible athleticism and improvisational ability.

QB Cam Newton (Panthers)

For an NFL quarterback, timing is everything. Newton learned that lesson in a major way this offseason, as the timing of his five-year, $103 million extension set him up for a successful season.

If Russell Wilson had agreed to an extension first — likely in the five-year, $150 million range — it would have left Newton and the Panthers at a likely contract impasse. If Newton entered the season on the final year of his rookie contract, he would have been too worried about his health and numbers to play up to his full potential.

Instead, Newton landed the rich deal he desired, complete with $60 million in guaranteed money. That kind of security will allow Newton play freely, which is when he is at his best. That means more leaps across the goal line … more scrambles on third and long … and more plays where he stands in the pocket for an extra second or two to give Kelvin Benjamin a chance to break free down the field.

“We believe he’ll take us to the promised land,” said GM Dave Gettleman.

If Gettleman is correct, then the fireworks can start for real.

Want to talk more about these and other headlines? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.