During the offseason, I always notice that there are plenty of unrealistic expectations being thrown around on this website (and others). I'm constantly reading things like "If they just draft this player, the WR situation will be fixed", or "If they draft X, we can cut Y". Here's my common sense guide that should be used to temper everyone's expectations for the upcoming year. Some of this is opinion, and some is fact, but it's a compilation of thoughts that I've had when reading other posts.
Injured players don't always come back at full strength at the beginning of the season.
D'Anthony Smith - When he reports to training camp, they'll figure out if he's made enough progress to come back and contribute. If not, they'll probably cut their losses and move on.
Mathis - Was injured in week 10, so he probably won't be back as a starter for the beginning of the season (if he's even re-signed). If he is back, he'll probably be a little slower and uneasy to make cuts on his injured leg.
Kampmann - Probably is done, but he will be evaluated in training camp to see if he can regain any of the burst he used to have.
Chick - Probably won't be at full speed at the beginning of the year, depending on the severity of his injury. As a speed rusher, losing a step might be extremely detrimental to his chance of making the roster.
Robiskie - Didn't get to see him play, but if his issue is not being able to gain separation, he probably won't help too much.
Price - Needs to stay healthy to have a chance at making the team, and even then it might be difficult if we pick up a couple of free agents and draft at least 1 WR
Britton - Should come back at close to the same level as we saw before this year, if the back injury that put him on IR really was just a bacterial infection.
Jennings - Has the best chance of coming back fully healthy, since it didn't seem like his injury even really required him to be on IR. He should come back next year healthy and hungry to prove that he's the #2 back.
Rookie players usually need some development
Drafted players from the 4th round on need more development than most. Usually these are players that don't quite have elite physical tools and/or need more coaching for their mental game and/or played against lower levels of competition. The more game experience they get, the faster they should develop, but it might take 3 or 4 years to really reach their potential. Look at Middleton - didn't seem like he would be a good fit for the outside until this year, when he was able to step in and do pretty well against some good competition.
Rookie WRs - Drafted WRs should only be seeing limited game action in their first year, yes, even if they are a 1st or 2nd round pick. They will need to work on their route running, get used to better coverage in the NFL, and get the timing down with the QB. Look at Julio Jones - not a lot of immediate production early in the season, and he had Matt Ryan throwing to him. They had the luxury of easing him into the game because they already had Roddy White. A.J. Green looked great because he made great plays on the ball, not because he ran the best routes. Seemed like most of his highlights were on go routes where he just out-muscled the defender for the ball if it didn't have perfect placement.
Rookie Offensive Tackles - can usually come in and contribute almost immediately (as a high draft pick), but they are still likely to have some rookie moments. Seems like most often they struggle with speed rushers, just because they're so much faster in the NFL than anything they've had to prepare for in college. Plus, we don't have a great speed rusher on our team, so it's tough to practice against something you don't have.
Rookie defensive backs - Seem to do better in man coverage, especially if they have some good physical tools. Playing zone seems to be a little overwhelming at first, and there will be blown coverages if they don't recognize situations when there's no safety help over the top.
Cutting a 5th round or higher pick isn't usually a huge loss. Gene Smith seems to look at these picks as a chance to grab a player that may be a UDFA before another team can, since UDFAs are convinced by money, or the ability to play on a team that they think they could make the roster on. If they don't work out, it's not a huge problem, since there's probably another UDFA that the team brought in that is exceeding expectations (ex: Cameron Bradfield over Rod Isaac). Obviously you want to hit on all of your picks, but it's pretty unlikely that it happens that way.
There's not a high likelyhood of finding a starter in the later rounds, let alone an immediate starter. Everyone was super excited about Isaac last year, even saying that he'll be starting opposite of Cox. Well, he didn't look that great in training camp or preseason, and then everyone started calling him a "bust". In my opinion, it's difficult to even think about calling a player a "bust" in their first 2 years, unless they show absolutely no development.
Alualu isn't a superstar, but he has done a good job of stopping the run this year. If he can get healthy from this leg injury that he's supposedly been battling all year, we should be able to see what he can really do this upcoming season as a pass rusher from the inside.
Knighton should be much better with managing his weight this offseason, now that he'll have access to the Jaguars nutritionist and strength and conditioning staff. The trick will be to maintain a weight where he's heavy enough not to be moved easily, but quick enough that he can make some moves to collapse the pocket in passing situations.
Austen Lane will have to step it up this year. He has the physical tools, and has played ok when he had to step in for injured players, but has not produced enough as a starter to be comfortable making the roster. He needs to show that he's improving to keep his roster spot.
Marcedes Lewis was a big disappointment this year, but that doesn't mean that he can't turn it around. When left to his own training, he was working out MMA style, which obviously didn't help his hands. We'll most likely be bringing in other TEs to camp this year for competition.
Shorts needs to show some development throughout the offseason, but I think his spot on the roster is safe for now. He'll probably take some time to really show what he can offer, since he's coming from a lower level of competition. His development might have been stunted last year by trying to get him to return punts early in the season.
Gabbert...well, it's really too early to tell, especially with the horrible set of circumstances he came into. It really was a perfect storm of not getting any coaching during the lockout, not getting decent coaching during the season, Garrard being injured, the WRs not finishing the routes and not catching the ball, the TEs not catching the ball, the starting RT being injured, one of the backup RTs being injured (Haslam), the other backup RT being a turnstile, last year's starting LG showing up injured, the backup LG (Spitz) being injured, and the 3rd LG being a rookie making a position switch. This sounds like a long list of excuses, but they're all true, and all could be extremely problematic for any rookie, let alone a rookie who has such a crucial role on the offense. Luckily he had MJD to bail him out, but one player can't help with everything that was going wrong.
Free agents are used to immediately upgrade a position, assuming you are looking at the top tier of free agency. They are used to patch major holes in your roster when you have evaluated the players that you currently have, and you recognize that you don't have anyone who will be able to develop into a starter within a single offseason. They also can be used to provide a "consistent" backup to inexperienced or frequently injured positions. The key with that consistency is that it can be consistently good, or consistently bad. Since the player has already been in the league for a few years, you have a good idea of exactly what they are going to do when they are inserted into your lineup.
The tough part of evaluating free-agents is that they are coming off of a "contract year", in which they are highly motivated to do everything they possibly can to receive a big payday as a FA. It can sometimes be tough to determine if a player has had a breakthrough in their play, if they were working harder because they wanted to get paid and then slack off again, or if they were just lucky enough to inflate their stats over previous years.
Generally if a player comes into the league with a weakness in their game, it will always remain somewhat of a weakness. For example, a WR who starts off with bad hands might be able to pull together a good year without too many drops, but they will likely have to continue to work on their hands in order to maintain that level of play. If the player isn't very motivated to keep working that hard after receiving a large sum of guaranteed money in free agency, their play will start to revert back to the level of their natural ability. Obviously there are examples where this isn't the case, but there are plenty of examples of this happening.
Indications the GM isn't happy with a position
Gene Smith tends to start bringing in UDFAs, waiver wire pickups, PS signings, and FAs for positions that he's not happy with. Last year it was LBs (Bosworth, Norris, Lockley, Lutrus, Cutrera). This year it was TEs (Rucker, Onobun, Oordt, Cloherty), OLs (Bussey, Robinson, Baldridge) and WRs (West, Price, Robiskie, Sims-Walker, etc). He also signed a bunch of CBs, but a good portion of that was just plugging holes, since we had so many guys on IR.
This generally means that he's planning on drafting someone to fill a weak position, or will sign a FA to come in and contribute immediately (if necessary). Last year he didn't find any decent patches at LB throughout the season, and the position required immediate production, so he signed 2 pricey FAs in Poz and Session. The same thing happened with the FS and SS positions. This year he was looking for someone to push Marcedes and/or replace Miller as a pass catching TE, and he might have found one in Cloherty (too early to tell), so he might not draft a TE this year. If Marcedes continues his slump next year, look for us to spend a higher pick on a TE in 2013 or sign a decent FA.
Hopefully this has been educational and informative, or at least thought provoking. This message has been brought to you by "citizens for realistic expectations".