St Louis has always been known as the gateway to the best. After a terrific offseason by the Rams, Seahawks, 49ers and to certain extents, the Cardinals, the NFC West may deserve the moniker of being the gateway to the best in the NFL this season.
The mediocre days of the western division of the NFC are long behind us. Each team has a similar blue print. Build from your defense, draft well and develop good young quarterbacks. Trent Baalke, Les Snead and John Schneider are quickly becoming three of the best young general managers in the game and have built their teams to last.
Though I try to avoid bias, this was one primer that I was really looking forward to writing.
The St. Louis Rams were a fun team to watch last season. Casual fans may not pay much attention to them, but slowly but surely, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
I typically start these blog posts by talking about the offense, but the Rams shine with a young attacking defense that was tied for first in the league in sacks with 52. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are absolute studs and fit perfectly with the type of defensive ends that Jeff Fisher likes. Robert Quinn is the speed rusher while Chris Long is more of a run stuffer and complete defensive end. Howie Long’s song has finished in the top 3 in the last 4 years in total sacks, hits and hurries that he earned, according to Pro Football Focus. Both Long and Quinn are able to terrorize quarterbacks and make it virtually impossible to double-team either of them. Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers round out a front four which, in my book, is at the top of the league. Both 3-techniques can move piles and keep those disruptive defensive ends clean when they come around the edges.
Where the Rams truly shine is the way the front and back end compliment each other. Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan do not get enough publicity as one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Jenkins is a ball hawk who scored three interception returns for touchdowns, two in one game against the Cardinals. He can play undisciplined and gamble too much at times but, as he grows as a corner, he will learn when to bait receivers and when to be more conservative. He has a lot of potential. Finnegan is as feisty as they come as a corner. He backs down from no one and can play press-man or zone with the best of them. It is an added bonus when your best corner can also be one of your best tacklers and Finnegan provided such production to the tune of 83 tackles. I was disappointed that they did not go after a safety, as that is still a position that is in flux and needs to be better especially with the loss of Craig Dahl to the 49ers.
The linebackers are led by James Laurinaitis who has been a solid contributor during his time with the Rams and is establishing himself as one of the more complete middle linebackers. Although he does not possess the athleticism of the new wave of middle linebackers, Laurinaitis has a tremendous presence of what will transpire at his position, as evidence by his 117 solo tackles, and is always in the right spot to make plays, whether it is versus the run or the pass. Jo-Lonn Dunbar also had a tremendous season with 4 1/2 sacks and over 100 tackles as well. You add in Alec Ogletree who has the speed and quickness of a safety and we’re looking at one of the best linebacker corps in the NFC. Sideline to sideline, you will be hard pressed to find a better combination of Sam and Will linebackers.
The special teams are in adequate shape with Greg Zuerlein, who was 7-13 on kicks that traveled over 50 yards. Chris Givens, who I will mention shortly on the offensive side, is explosive as a return man and will be counted on to provide solid field position for the offense. Tavon Austin should factor into the return game as well.
If the Rams are going to make the playoffs, this is the year Sam Bradford must take the reigns of the offense, from a leadership and production standpoint. He has struggled throughout his career when pressured. That problem should be rectified with the addition of Jake Long to protect his blindside. This move was predicated on the plethora of pass rushers in the NFC West such as: Aldon Smith and Bruce Irvin. Long has performed well throughout his career, although many believe he can still reach that elite level, which he has failed to do consistently. Roger Saffold and Harvey Dahl, round out an offensive line that has been on steady upswing in the last 3 seasons, which is music to the ears of their quarterback. Nevertheless, Bradford must improve his accuracy and completion percentage. For a quarterback who was pegged for his ability to deliver the ball with precision, completion percentages of 60%, 53% and 59% are frankly mediocre and more must be demanded from a former number 1 overall pick.
Of course, many will agree that Bradford has not always had the necessary weapons to achieve such levels of production that are expected of a blue chip prospect. In fact, since Bradford has been drafted, the leading wide receivers for the Rams have amassed 689, 683 and 698 yards: Pedestrian numbers to say the least. Gone are slot demons Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. Enter in the incredible speed and quickness of first rounder Tavon Austin, who the Rams traded up to select. Austin racked up over 1200 yards receiving and 600 yards rushing and displays the same type of dynamic playmaking ability that Percy Harvin possesses. This is not your typical slot receiver who consistently runs 3 yard slants or drag routes. Austin can beat you in a myriad of ways, whether it is deep, intermediate or short and it would not be a shock if he won the offensive rookie of the year award. So far, reports indicate he has absolutely dazzled the Rams in mini camp. Stedman Bailey somehow did not get drafted in the first round. While West Virginia played in an offense predicated on a high volume of passes, 1600 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns is nothing to sleep on. His size and lack of top end speed may have turned off some scouts. Ultimately, Bailey and Austin could become a tremendous duo in year one.
Chris Givens and Brian Quick round out a very young wide receiver corps that has the potential to blow the top of the Edward Jones Dome. Givens has elite speed and was seen catching a 50-yard pass during a 5-game stretch early in the season. Quick was disappointing last season, but has great size and many believe he would have a stellar rookie campaign last year. At 6-4, 220 pounds, he is the total package, but must learn the playbook and subtle nuances of the position.
Finally, Jared Cook and Lance Kendrick’s form a tight end group that can be one of the best in the NFL. Cook truly is one of the great mismatches in the game, as he can lineup at split end, flanker, tight end or even H-back. Bradford will be pounding the ball down the seams of defenses to Cook’s direction with reckless abandon, as he will be too quick for linebackers and far too physical for safeties. Kendrick’s is your more traditional tight end who can block, but provide some much needed help as a pass catcher.
Steven Jackson was jettisoned out of St. Louis and while he made a name for himself as one of the most underrated backs in the league, it was time to go. Isaiah Pead and more notably, Daryl Richardson, who looked awfully good in a few games against the Dolphins and 49ers, has the talent to be a feature back, despite his diminutive size. Look out for Zac Stacy who is a stocky runner who is in the mold of a Doug Martin and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Overlook the Rams all you want, but they are talented and they are young. If a playoff birth is not on the horizon this season, it will surely not be that much longer until the Rams regain the dominance that they had a little less than a decade ago.
The Arizona Cardinals did well eradicating the remnants of the Kevin Kolb era. In short, for two seasons, they paid Kolb $20 million for a total of 15 games, a little over 3000 yards, a completion percentage of 58% and 57 sacks. An absolute bust in every stretch of the imagination and as such, it was a factor in Ken Wisenhunt losing his job.
New GM Steve Keim has been with the organization for years and immediately after he took the position, it appeared quarterback was a position that was going to receive a makeover.
Carson Palmer comes in after a trade from the Raiders and a tumultuous time in the Bay Area. Last season, I felt he played admirably despite an inconsistent and at times non-existent running game and unpolished receivers. He still has enough arm strength to get the ball down the field in Bruce Arians’ offense that is predicated on the deep ball. So far in mini camp, Larry Fitzgerald appears very happy with the acquisition and Palmer has drawn rave reviews.
Fitzgerald had a woeful season, but of course that can be attributed to having a quarterback who does not push the envelope and utilize his abilities, which is the downfield and aerial attacking game. As a side note, he only recorded 798 yards last season. In 2011, he had over 1400, with John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. Carson Palmer simply needs to show up and Fitzgerald will be back to his typical production.
Andre Roberts, who had a nice season as a slot receiver, played really well through spurts and was second on the team in catches (64) and targets (114). With improved quarterback play and more deep throws to Fitzgerald, safeties will roll over his way, freeing up room for Roberts to better his numbers. Michael Floyd was drafted in the first round to take pressure of Fitzgerald and he had a disappointing season at nearly 6-5 and over 210 pounds, he has the size and stature to dominate the aerial game, similar to his Pro Bowl running mate. Wide Receivers generally have a tough time adjusting to the NFL game as rookies, so we expect Floyd, with the advent of a better quarterback, to post better numbers. The tight end is typically an important aspect in the offenses that Bruce Arians has run, which is opposite of the last few seasons in Arizona. Jeff King and especially Rob Housler, who posted decent production, should have more catches and get more attention this season.
All of that is moot if the offensive line does not hold up. Levi Brown is back, which will help Palmer’s blindside and the drafting of Jonathan Cooper was a wise move to shore up that interior offensive line. Still, I have questions about how they will pass block, especially the way Kevin Kolb was battered and bruised in the last two seasons.
The backfield becomes more crowded with the defection of Beanie Wells and addition of Rashard Mendenhall. Both have been injury prone and dealt with knee issues in the last couple of seasons. Wells only played in less than 13 games once in his career, but he seems to always be fighting injuries. Mendenhall was never a burner and with a torn ACL, it would not be shocking to see him as even less of a factor as a back that can bounce on the outside, but more so as a straight line, one cut runner which suits his skills. Ryan Williams has a lot of talent and terrific straight line speed as a runner, but when given the chance to leapfrog Wells and even utility man/special teams star Larod Stephens-Howling and rookie William Powell, he simply did not deliver and ultimately only played 5 games. He has to stay on the field this season or his time in the desert may be done. Andre Ellington is of a long line of speedy Clemson runners and he may have a beeline on a position that is wide open.
The offense can only go up from a 5th worst ranking last season. If Palmer plays just a tad better than last season with the Raiders, where he threw for over 4000 yards, the Cardinals can at least be middle of the pack offensively. This offense benefits Fitzgerald greatly and he will definitely have a bounce back season.
On the defensive side, Arizona looked great during the first four games of the season when they started 4-0. They falter afterwards, but retained their ranking as 4th best in the league in passing yards allowed.
This season, the Cardinals were dealt a massive blow when Daryl Washington was suspended for the first 4 games of the season due to a violation of the substance abuse program. As a middle linebacker, he amassed almost 100 solo tackles and recorded 10 sacks. He is as dynamic a linebacker as you will find in the league and his presence will be missed for the first four games.
Aside from Washington the linebacker crew is solid but unspectacular. Lorenzo Alexander is a good outside linebacker snatched up from Washington and Sam Ache has potential to be a good player. Jasper Brinkley, who was signed in the offseason, will take upon the leadership role while Washington is gone and he played very well last season recording almost 100 total tackles.
The Cardinals defense was able to make a drastic jump due to the evolution in Patrick Peterson’s game. If you have not seen him play, please do yourself a favor. He was absolutely lights out last season, to the point where his pears voted him as the 33rd ranked player of 2013 and the number one ranked corner. High praise considering the season Richard Sherman had. Obviously, the players factored in Peterson’s incredible return skills (4 return touchdowns in two seasons), but his 7 interceptions last season and coverage skills garnered the attention he deserves as a top-flight corner. Both players are elite at their position, but Peterson may have an edge with his ball skills and the fact that his highlights make it easier to rank him higher, like it or not. The opposite side of the ledger features Antoine Cason who was signed from the Chargers as a free agent. He is a good tackler and provides solid depth as a second or third corner. He will be in the mix with former Colt Jerraud Powers.
Tyrann Mathieu is listed as a safety before training camp. His skills are plentiful as a player who can provide help from a nickel standpoint or as a box safety that can blitz and provide assistance against the run. I can very easily see Mathieu having a great rookie season if he is given free-reign, like he was given at LSU. If you want a potential comparison, look at the way Charles Woodson lines up all over the field. Mathieu was used in a similar fashion in College and the Cardinals would be well advised in using him in a similar fashion. Where he truly shines is in the return game and in special teams. As a gunner, he has the speed and instincts to be a terrific tackler as well. I would not be shocked if Mathieu had a defensive rookie of the year type of season.
Despite the loss of defensive coordinator Ray Horton to Cleveland, the Cardinals will still employ a 3 down line front. Calais Campbell has established himself as one of the best 5-techniques from the 3-4 position who, as per Pro Football Focus, has ranked as a top 10 3-4 end since 2009 and during that time frame, collected at least 6 sacks, which is terrific for a 5 technique defensive end. We all know how good Darnell Dockett is, despite his years in the league adding up. It is surprising that they were not better against the run, as they boast some solid talent in their front 7.
Ultimately, the keys for the Cardinals are consistent quarterback play and the ability to actually establish a running game. Defensively, they have enough talent to be average.
The Seattle Seahawks had a tremendous season, considering everything they were up against (with a rookie quarterback and young defense) and the prognostications they were dealt with. They finished fourth in total defense and third in rushing yardage. Their rookie quarterback was sensational with a quarterback rating of 100. They were undefeated at home and beat the likes of the Patriots, Cowboys, 49ers, Vikings and Packers at the “C-Link”.
What is even scarier is that they have the potential to be better than last season. Top to bottom, we may be talking about the most complete team in the league.
Russell Wilson had as good a rookie season as any quarterback in the league. While he did not have as many passing yards as Andrew Luck, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell structured game plans around a terrific running game, while still allowing Wilson to take chances at certain moments. What impressed me the most about Wilson was his moxie and leadership. His teammates swear by him and he is the unquestioned leader of that offense, at 24 years old. His performance during the Wild Card round and Divisional playoff matchup against the Falcons, in which he threw for over 380 yards and two touchdowns, was breathtaking and showed that this season, when Bevell gives him full reigns of the offense, the sky is the limit for a quarterback who 74 teams passed up on last season.
Marshawn Lynch had his best season as a pro, recording just under 1600 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. He has established himself as an elite runner with his bruising style. It will be interesting to see how the new crown of the helmet rule will affect Lynch, as he often delivers punishing blows to his opponents. I was really impressed with Robert Turbin who has a similar type of running style to Lynch. The drafting of Christine Michael could pay dividends in a few seasons. He had some off the field issues at Texas A&M, but from all accounts, as a 5-11, 210 pounds back who can run a near 4.4 40-yard dash, he has tremendous ability. The depth at the running back position, for the Seahawks, is as good as you will see.
The receiving corps gets a big boost with the addition of Percy Harvin. Wilson and Harvin could form some terrific mismatches and combinations with the read-option, but what the Seahawks finally have is a consistent playmaker on offense and special teams. Harvin was never a great long catch or deep ball receiver, but that could easily be attributed to average quarterback play. His game is predicated as a slot demon and catching hitches and running them for big gains. He has also spelled Adrian Peterson for small moments at the running back position, which he played sparingly at Florida. He compliments Sidney Rice and Golden Tate beautifully, who will fittingly slide into more suitable roles as 2nd and 3rd wide receivers. Rice appears to be slowly creeping back to his level of play in 2009 when he had a breakout season with Brett Favre at the helm. Tate had some big games when the offense started taking more chances and giving Wilson more control of the offense. Zach Miller has been disappointing in his two seasons as a Seahawk, recording a combined 629 yards. However, he was Russell Wilson’s most reliable receiver in the playoffs catching 15 passes for 190 yards. If he can provide the type of production that he displayed in the playoffs, it adds another dimension to Darrell Bevell’s offense.
The offensive line was in flux for a few years, but they finally came together last season. Russell Okung finally stayed healthy and had one of the better seasons from the left tackle position in the league, appearing in his first Pro Bowl. Max Unger also made the Pro Bowl last season and is an underrated center, which did not get the same notoriety that other premier centers get, until he made it into NFL Networks top 100 players of 2013 list.
On the defensive side, Seattle’s defense is devoid of the leadership of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley who was the architect of a defense that has been in the top 10 of the league in back to back seasons. Defensive line coach Dan Quinn will fill in that role, basically allowing them to use most of the same schemes that they excelled upon under Bradley.
The Seahawks will have another dominant season on defense with a defensive line that has tremendous depth, with the additions of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who both had 9 and 9.5 sacks respectively this past season. The additions of two more defensive ends were made necessary after the ACL tear by Chris Clemons against the Redskins during the Wild Card round. Let us not forget Bruce Irvin (who will only be available in week 5 due to substance abuse), who was dominant at times as a rookie defensive end with 8 sacks, playing mostly on third downs. At this point, I have not even mentioned the interior defensive line yet, which features two behemoths in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane, who all together, are virtually impenetrable. The loss of Alan Branch will hurt, but look for Tony McDaniel, Clinton McDonald or 2013 draft pick and Penn State standout, Jordan Hill to fill in immediately in his shoes. Depth at the defensive line position is crucial in the NFL and Seattle has it in abundance.
The linebackers are young but talented led by Bobby Wagner who had 140 tackles last season and K.J. Wright who continues to improve as a strong side linebacker. They are allowed to make plays and roam free with the dominance of their defensive line, most notably Mebane and Bryant who take on blockers with ease.
Where the defense makes its mark is in the secondary. Richard Sherman had arguably the best season of any corner in the league with 8 interceptions and Brandon Browner was terrific as well. They will out match you on the outside and knock you out when you cross the middle. Sherman and Browner are such mismatches with their size and strength, especially Browner, who when you see him, you cannot believe that he can effectively run with the elite receivers because he is so big. They can cover big or small receivers and run with any of them. Sherman has gained a reputation of a player who runs his mouth, but can back it up with his play. He is more technically sound than Browner, but can play press coverage as well as anyone in the NFL. Earl Thomas made the Pro Bowl last season and fits the mold of the new athletic safety that can make plays all around the field. His acumen is more renown against the pass than versus the run with his terrific range. It will not be a stretch to see him becoming a top 3 safety in the league as he has finally put it all together with his overall game Kam Chancellor is a box safety who stuffs the run as well as anyone in the league. You do not want to be caught hot-dogging a catch in the middle of the field or Chancellor will lay you out.
What Seattle has done is set the blueprint on how to build a great defense. Draft young and fast linebackers, collect depth on your defensive line and draft a tall secondary to go against the bigger receivers in the league.
It is hard to say exactly what Seattle needs to do to better their success from last season. There are very few weaknesses on this team from top to bottom. Their defense cannot lay an egg like they did in the playoffs last season and Russell Wilson needs to take the next step and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, that every media publication is intent on asking him about. On paper though, you will be hard pressed to find a more talented overall team.
We finish off with the San Francisco 49ers that came 5 yards away from winning the Super Bowl. Like the Seahawks, they are right there in the upper echelon of teams who are on the cusp of a championship.
Unfortunately, the news that Michael Crabtree injured his Achilles is a devastating blow considering the chemistry he displayed with Colin Kaepernick when he was inserted into the starting lineup. In 8 games with Kaepernick, Crabtree recorded 665 yards and 6 touchdowns compared to only 3 touchdowns and 440 yards with Alex Smith at the helm. The addition of Anquan Boldin helps, but like Crabtree, he is not a burner. Boldin excels making the clutch 3rd down catches when the game is on the line, as he did during last season’s Super Bowl run with the Ravens and he also needs very little separation to haul in passes. The key for this receiving corps will be for them to develop a true deep target. Randy Moss proved to be far too washed up to make a real difference. A.J. Jenkins, who played sparingly last season, is a burner who has apparently looked really good in mini camps. He did not catch a pass last season, despite injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, which did not result in more playing time. Marion Manningham will be a key figure in the offense as long as he is recovered from a torn ACL and Kyle Williams will have an opportunity be prove he is more than just a return specialist. Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette are rookies to keep an eye on, especially Patton who displayed great skills at the combine. Vernon Davis will also need to have a bigger impact on the offense. His receiving abilities are virtually second to none at his position, but he goes through stretches of inconsistency. The loss of one of my favorites, Delanie Walker to Tennessee, will hurt, as he was a terrific special teams player and blocker. Niners fans will not miss his hands of stone though.
Obviously, Colin Kaepernick could play even better than he did last season and make the point moot with regards to which receiver needs to step up. If we just assume Kaepernick plays relatively the same as he did last year, which would mean over 250 yards per game and a 98 passer rating, the 49ers passing game will flourish, especially with the way John Harbaugh and Greg Romain scheme and use a myriad of formations. No team does a better job of running any type of passing play from different formations. The 49ers could put a big set with two tight ends and no receivers and run the read-option from the pistol on one play and two plays later, from the same formation, throw a deep ball to Vernon Davis. They also do misdirection better than any team in the league. I have seen plays where their guards pull to one direction and the running back goes in another.
As good as Kaepernick is in the passing game, the scheme he is in is tailor-made for his read-option skills, which accounted for 415 yards rushing in those 7 starts, most notably the gashing of the Packers. When you factor in Frank Gore who, two years in a row, has avoided nagging injuries and managed to play all 32 games, you have what amounts to a top 5 rushing attack. LaMichael James was explosive during stretches and with Kendall Hunter back from injury, you have another back who can break it for 80 yards on any given play. The rushing attack is spearheaded by, in my opinion, the best offensive line in the league led by Pro Bowlers, Joe Staley, Alex Boone and Mike Iupati. They are athletic, they are strong, they can move well in this system and they are equally effective via the pass or the run.
The defense is just as good as any in the league and features one of the best front seven’s in the NFL. Justin Smith is an absolute warrior who does not get enough credit for the amount of pressure he alleviates from Aldon Smith. Losing Isaac Sopoaga to Philadelphia is a crushing blow, but they added former first round Glenn Dorsey who had been a solid contributor with Kansas City, but did not live up to the potential. Ray McDonald is on Smith’s opposite side and is a good complimentary player. All three are talented and versatile enough to play all positions on the defensive line.
As mentioned, their three down-line sets compliment their terrific linebacker corps, which has been recognized as the best in the league. If you ask me, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are virtually equals in terms of their ability as middle linebackers. Bowman has stepped his game up and makes plays all over the field, similar to the way Willis does. Both players can read the play at a moments notice; have the strength to shed blockers and the speed to attack the ball carrier. They are physical, but can also be terrific against the pass.
On the outside, no one has recorded more sacks than Aldon Smith over the past 2 seasons, with 33.5. His speed off the edge is tremendous, but as Pro Football Focus has alluded to, he is a very good inside rusher as well. Obviously, his success has to be attributed to Justin Smith with the way he can take on blockers and that was evidenced by Aldon Smith’s inability to register a sack as soon as Justin Smith was injured in week 15 against the Patriots. As per Pro Football Focus, Aldon’s pass rush grade (a metric that measures the frequency of pressure generated by a defender) was -4.8 compared to the 17.2 grade he scored before Justin Smith’s injury. Clearly that had an impact on Aldon. With Smith back, although a year older, both Aldon and Justin Smith will desperately need each other to continue their amazing production. Ahmad Brooks provides solid, yet unspectacular production on the opposite side. He is more of a run stopper. Keep an eye on Corey Lemonier who was drafted this year out of Auburn. He could provide some solid pass rushing production from that position.
The secondary will need to improve from their terrible performance against the Ravens in the Super Bowl. I like the pick of Eric Reid, but it will be very difficult for him to come in right away and replace the production of Dashon Goldson. Donte’ Whitner is a very good player, who complimented Goldson perfectly. Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown are a solid group, who may or may not benefit from the addition of Nnamdi Asomugha, who virtually laid an egg during his two-year career with the Eagles. It is fair to say Philadelphia did not have the scheme nor players to compliment, Asomugha and I suspect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will find ways to utilize him, potentially as a safety and against bigger corners. Regardless, the secondary is still above average and as long as their front 7 can get to the quarterback, they can remain simply an above average unit.
On Special teams, David Akers is gone after a disaster of a season in which he was below 70% accuracy. Phil Dawson, has been one of the best kickers in the game, was at 93% accuracy. Impressive considering he played 8 games in the brutal Cleveland weather and the rest of the cold climate AFC North. Transitioning to the great weather of San Francisco should not be a problem.
While punters get very little notoriety, when you have a defense as good as the 49ers do, paired with their defense, you will consistently win the field position battle.
The 49ers were so close to winning the title and like Seattle, are virtually complete from top to bottom, that the difference between each team will be so minute. Their secondary will need to be better than last season, which will be tough considering the defection of Dashon Goldson. As long as Kaepernick can play to the same level as he did in 2012 and they can develop a consistent deep passing threat, they will likely find themselves in a position to take the Lombardi trophy again.
The NFC South has to be considered one of the hardest divisions to predict before training camp. Every season, all four teams have the potential to take home the division crown. If you want receivers, this division has a plethora of them. If you want quarterbacks, two are in the top 6 pivots in the league, one is on the cusp of the top 10 and the other has all the tools to join such a discussion. My series of primers continues with the NFC South.
The New Orleans Saints were historically bad on defense. They got torched, barbecued, sautéed and charbroiled. No, this is not Rob Ryan’s favorite ways to cook his meat. This was how badly their secondary and defense performed all season. They were last in rushing yards allowed per game and second last in passing yards allowed in total.
Ryan will replace Steve Spagnuolo and will implement his complex 3-4 schemes. The first aspect that will be noticed the most by Saints fans, will be the return of an attacking and opportunistic style of defense, similar to the one they had when Gregg Williams was running that unit. Rob Ryan is very boisterous and he will bring energy and accountability to a team that allowed an NFL record 7,042 yards.
The one lasting image I had in almost every Saints highlight package was Roman Harper chasing a running back or wide receiver down the field because he or another one of his teammates blew an assignment. Kenny Vaccarro, will come in and make plays instantly. He has range and speed, which will allow him to easily cover receivers and tight ends. The rest of their secondary, which features the solid play of Jabari Greer, and up and coming Patrick Robinson, will need to play better than they did last season. The new scheme, which will be predicated on pressure from all positions, will help compliment the pass rush with the back end.
As much as the scheme will put players in a position to succeed and attack the quarterback, you still need players to get to the quarterback. Apart from Will Smith, there truly are no reputable pass rushers on this team. Victor Butler was signed from the Cowboys and has some skill, but he underachieved in his time in big D. Junior Galette will surprise a lot of people. He is on the shorter side, but is a physical and an underrated athlete. He was quite disruptive during stretches last season.
The offense gets a much-needed boost with the return of Sean Payton. We were wrong in assuming that Drew Brees’ presence alone would be enough to keep the Saints afloat without their coach. In fact, Brees was prone to the giveaway (19 interceptions) and a completion percentage of 63% that was a far cry from his previous three seasons where he posted 70.6, 68.1 and 71.2.
With the return of Payton, not only will this affect the game planning, but he also has a significant role in play calling, even if the primary duties will be relinquished this season. The Saints appear to want to feature the run game more and with Mark Ingram continuing to improve, Pierre Thomas a terrific all around runner and Darren Sproles as an outlet out of the backfield, this will create countless opportunities for their passing game.
I need to say this, as not enough people know how good he is, but Lance Moore is the team’s best receiver. He has the best hands and is one of the best receivers in the red zone. He s a machine on third downs and he stands to gain the most from Sean Payton’s return.
The Saints still have the type of firepower on offense to win the division. Their defense absolutely cannot be as porous as it was last season, however. The health of Jimmy Graham’s wrist and hopefully more of a reliance on the run game will be the keys for Drew Brees to reduce his turnovers.
I am slightly concerned with their offensive line, but that is a unit that they have developed well. When they lost LeCharles Bentley a few years ago, they recovered. When they lost Ben Grubbs, they recovered as well. I am confident they will find an adequate replacement for Jermon Bushrod.
The Carolina Panthers have made very apparent improvements since the drafting of Cam Newton in 2011. Their first season was truly a rebuilding year in which, despite Newton, there was not much of a talent base. After a good draft, in 2012 with the addition of Luke Kuechly, who had a tremendous defensive rookie season, the Panthers still only finished 7-9. However, the team showed strides after a mediocre start, winning their final 4 games.
The fortunes of this team depend on number 1. He is their charismatic leader, although he does not have the captaincy yet, he has requested such a title for the upcoming season.
Newton dazzles us with his elite arm, extremely quick release and his ability to run as freely and smoothly as a running back, despite his 6-5, 250 lbs. frame.
His weaknesses are aspects that are easy to curb. Maturity needs to improve, as he was the victim of terrible press conference body language last season. The celebrations are nice, but just further purport a diva personality that many seem to think he has.
Hopefully Newton seeking a captaincy role is joined with increased maturity and an ability to realize they win and lose as a team. During their winning streak, he appeared much more mature.
Decision-making and accuracy are traits that most young quarterbacks struggle with during their first couple of seasons. Ultimately, Newton needs more help to truly be one of the elite quarterbacks that we all envision he can and will be.
The rest of the offense is still a work in progress. Steve Smith, who had over 1100 yards receiving, is entering his 13th season and while he is still as tough as they come with the same bulldog mentality, he is getting up there in years.
In the interim, a true number two wide receiver is needed as Smith still commands double teams, but long-term, it will be soon time to ponder a replacement. I like Brandon LaFell who has had good games, but consistency is still an issue. The Panthers are hoping to get something from the oft injured, yet talented Dominick Hixon.
Greg Olson is becoming one of the better tight ends in the NFC and had a career high 69 catches for over 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. It will be very interesting to see how the defection of Rob Chudzinski, to coach the Browns, will affect Newton and Olson. Coach “Chud” is known to have an offense that is geared towards a multitude of looks towards the tight end. It will be imperative, with the Panthers having an average corps of wide receivers, for Olson to stay involved.
The offense line is solid featuring two Pro Bowlers in Ryan Kalil and veteran Jordan Gross. Byron Bell is a big right tackle that has a lot of potential.
In terms of the running game, this needs to be the season in which Newton is not the leading rusher. While his dual threat capabilities make him so dynamic, allowing your quarterback to take this much of a beating is akin for an eventual injury.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have not always meshed well in the running game, despite the propensity for most teams in today’s NFL to feature two running backs. Ideally Stewart, as the younger back, should start to take ownership of that position. He is a more complete running back and is built to take on a heavier workload. Having said that, Williams has outperformed Stewart in back-to-back seasons. If you factor in Mike Tolbert, you have a running back situation that is eerily similar to the one in New Orleans. The Panthers do not need to look far to see how a team can properly utilize 3 talented runners.
On defense, the Panthers added much needed youth at the defensive tackle spot, with the drafting of Star Lotulelei. If not for concerns about a heart condition, Lotulelei would have easily been a top 5 pick. He combines terrific strength and nimble feet. He will be a force as a pass rusher and versus the run.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson form one of the better bookend duo’s at the defensive end position, both combining for over 24 sacks last season
The linebacker corps is as good as there is in the division, when healthy. Luke Kuechly played as well as a rookie linebacker could have played, leading the league in tackles. He will be a perennial Pro Bowler for years to come. Jon Beason unfortunately has only played in 5 games over the past 2 seasons. When healthy, he is one of the more intimidating linebackers and most productive in the league. He will be changing positions as Kuechly is firmly entrenched at the middle linebacker position. If his teammate Thomas Davis, who also has endured a plethora of injuries over the past few years can bounce back, Beason surely can as well.
The secondary is weak, especially with the release then retirement of Chris Gamble. Chris Godfrey is virtually the only position that is set in stone before camp opens in a little less than a month. The fact that none of their draft picks were used to improve the weakest aspect of their defensive unit is head scratching to say the least. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore are veterans who will help out, but they should only be considered in nickel situations.
The talent is there for Carolina, both on offense and defense. If Cam Newton becomes an elite quarterback, that could be enough to propel them to a wild-card birth, despite their deficiencies. Ultimately, that secondary will need to be sound, with the big money receivers in this division and quarterbacks who love spreading the ball around. Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, who replaced Jimmy Johnson in Philadelphia after his passing, leads the Panthers defense. He has always favored an attacking style of defense and will need to compensate for a young and inexperienced secondary.
The Atlanta Falcons were 10 yards away from reaching the Super Bowl. After a terrific season, the disappointment of not making it all the way must still sting for the likes of Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
As soon as the offseason opened, general manager Thomas Demitroff went straight to work. Tony Gonzalez was convinced to return, Osi Umenyiora was signed to provide a big presence in the pass rush, Steven Jackson was added to be the finishing touch at running back and their secondary was given a makeover.
The Falcons will live and die by their offense. I have been a critic of Matt Ryan for many years, but he demonstrated he finally belongs in the upper echelon of top tier quarterbacks. He improved his deep ball passing, which was previously a weakness of his and his ability to read defensives and throw with pinpoint accuracy made him an MVP candidate. He posted career highs in completion percentage (68%), passing yards (4,719) and touchdowns with 32. I would not be surprised with an even better running game; those numbers improve with more opportunities.
Ryan must take the next step and continue to win playoff games and come through in the clutch if he is to become a perennial elite quarterback. The loss to the 49ers was not his fault, but now that he is established, he cannot revert to being simply an above average quarterback, which is what happened to the likes of Philip Rivers and Michael Vick after Pro Bowl seasons.
Remove any bias you have, regarding who has the best wide receiver duo in the league. Roddy White and Julio Jones take the prize and by a wide margin. When you factor in Harry Douglass who is a very solid slot receiver and Tony Gonzalez who continues to defy the test of time with his terrific production, you have the makings of a top 3 overall receiving corps in the NFL. White continues to move the chains and can beat you short, deep, intermediate or catch a hitch and turn it in 7. Not much more can be said about Julio Jones during his first two seasons. He is an athletic marvel who made spectacular catches all throughout the season. White is still the man though. Jones is great to watch as he makes all the flashy plays, but White is the go to guy when it matters the most. Regardless, all 3 will combine for over 3000 of Matt Ryan’s yards again.
Matt Ryan now has Steven Jackson as his featured back. I made a blog post a few months ago regarding running backs turning 30 years old. While Jackson has always been in tremendous shape, he has taken quite a beating in his career and runners going into the wrong side of 30 typically break down rather quickly. As long as he can remain solid, he will provide better and more consistent production than Michael Turner who is generally useless in the passing game, contrary to Jackson who has caught 90 passes in a season already, albeit almost 6 seasons ago.
Dirk Koetter is one of the best offensive coordinators in the league and he will absolutely find a way to best utilize Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who was explosive in spurts last season. The offensive line is made for pass blocking, which makes sense as they throw the ball the 8th most amount of times in the league and ran it the 6th fewest.
If you watched any Falcons games last season, you knew that their short yardage offense was one of the worst in the league. Whether it was Turner or the offensive line, there was an inability to consistently get enough of a push on 3rd or 4th and short situations. That is possibly why Mike Smith went with the quicker Jacquizz Rodgers during those moments.
Defensively, the Falcons had some issues with defending the pass. Brent Grimes being out for the season surely did not help. In addition, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel do not cover like they used to. Due to their misfortunes and lack of pass coverage last season, they drafted two corners with their first two picks. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford can both run and have high upside as coverage players.
The combination of safeties is not an issue for the Falcons though. Both William Moore and Thomas Decoud had 10 interceptions between them and they each made over 70 tackles. Decoud and Moore complement each other so well because they can both play the pass, but also help stop the run and are not confined to the strong safety and free safety label that many back end players are confined to.
The pass rush will be asked to provide much more production than the 29 sacks recorded last season, which was 28th in the league. Gone is John Abraham, who accounted for 10 of those. The latter was quite impressive despite the fact that he virtually was only on the field on 3rd downs and obvious passing situations. Osi Umenyiora, who is an Atlanta native, will have the pressure of having the most acumen as a pass rusher. It will be interesting to see how he fares on a team that does not have as much depth on the defensive line as the Giants did, apart from Jonathan Babineaux who is one of the more solid 3-techniques.
On special teams, Matt Bryant remains one of the most consistent kickers. He showed that during his big kick against the Seahawks during the terrific Divisional round game.
The Falcons have all the necessary elements to be Super Bowl contenders, at least offensively. Despite what all experts say, their defense is still a weakness and they need to add more depth to their front four. A possible return by John Abraham would not shock me at all. Their back end has the potential to flourish on the strength of their safeties. If Trufant and Alford can come in and immediately make an impact, that will provide a huge boost. It will be tough with the amount of great receivers in the NFC though.
Once again, they will be favored to take the NFC South, but it will not be easy with the coaching return of Sean Payton and improvement of the Buccaneers.
I saved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for last because they made the most noise during the offseason. Not only with their acquisitions, but Greg Schiano made some bold statements as well.
Last season was a tale of 3 Buccaneers teams and 3 versions of Josh Freeman. During their first four games, in which they combined for a 1-3 record, Josh Freeman had a quarterback rating of 75.2 with 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
They went on to win 5 out of their next 6 and Freeman exploded with a rating of 110.6. He was making all the throws and what had plagued him in the past (the bone-headed turnovers), was non-existent as he threw for 16 touchdowns and 3 interception during that span. Conversely, Doug Martin came into the scene and exploded showing why he was the best rookie running back last season.
The final 6 games was a return to mediocrity for Josh Freeman, with a quarterback rating of 67.2. The Buccaneers lost 5 out of 6 and were never close to a playoff spot.
All that was to say their fortunes are virtually tied to which Josh Freeman we see. When he is on, his arm strength and ability to consistently get the ball downfield are as good as anyone in the game. When he is off, however, turn off the lights because he can be brutal.
The Buccaneers brass of Head Coach Greg Schiano and GM Mark Dominik challenged Freeman not only by drafting quarterback Mike Glennon, but also proclaiming that Freeman still has a lot to prove before he is given a long-term contract.
The weapons are there with Vincent Jackson who had a big season and Mike Williams who established himself as a perfect complimentary receiver.
Doug Martin, as mentioned before, exploded with big games against the Raiders and Vikings amassing back-to-back rushing days of over 200 yards He finished just shy of 1500 yards rushing and amassed 11 touchdowns. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield is an underrated trait and will help Freeman to curb his turnover issues.
With the return of David Joseph from injury, you would be hard pressed to find a better offensive line, which also features Carl Nicks and Donald Penn. It would not be a shock if Doug Martin bettered his numbers of a season ago.
Defensively, obviously Darrelle Revis’ addition will make all the head waves, but the core of that defense, even before the Revis addition is young and stellar. Gerald McCoy is a top ranked 3-technique who has the tools to get up to double digits in sacks on a year-to-year basis. Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborne (returning from injury) need to step up however. With the defection of Michael Bennett to Seattle and his 10 sacks, the two former first-round picks need to show a higher level of production.
The linebacker corps, which has been a sore spot for the Buccaneers since the retiring of Derrick Brooks, is finally returning to form. Lavonte David had an elite type of season and he looks poised to be one of the best weak side linebackers in the NFC.
I do not know if there is something about NFC South pass defenses, or maybe it is due to the great quarterbacks in the division, but the Bucs lead the way in atrocious pass defenses, ranked 32nd in the league, with the Saints (ranked 31st) and Falcons not too far behind. Obviously, this gave way to the Bucs trading their 1st round pick to Darrelle Revis and giving him a big contract, albeit with no guaranteed money. On the surface, Revis and Eric Wright make a formidable cornerback duo, as long as Wright stays out of trouble and regains his form of a few seasons ago and of course, Revis is fully recovered from a torn ACL.
The safety duo of Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson is what I am actually really looking forward to seeing. Goldson was the best safety outside of Jairus Bird last season. He can lay the hammer and provide lullabies to opposing receivers as good as anyone, but he is also a hawk against the pass.
Barron is young and still needs to prove himself, but he also is a force as box safety. The potential is there for this secondary to be as good as any in the league. Health and the way they mesh will be key, however, as this will not be the first time a team has loaded up their secondary in the offseason, yet failed miserably (The Eagles are one example).
The Buccaneers are the wild card of the division. Typically the Falcons and Saints are the teams that are thought to be the front-runners, but top to bottom of the roster, if everything falls into place, the Buccaneers may have the most formidable team. The talent is there at virtually every position and if the front and back ends can compliment each other and Josh Freeman reverts back to his 2010 season, where he posted a 95 quarterback rating, we are looking at a 10 win team at the very least.
On my next series of primers, I look forward to talk about the division that has made all the raves this offseason: The NFC West.
Few positions have been more synonymous with tradition and excellence in the NFL than middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher are a relative who’s who for the position that takes this blog’s namesake. The first two are in the hall of fame, but what about Urlacher who announced his retirement earlier this week?
Traditionally, middle linebacker was a position known more for making all the defensive play calls and being more of a force against the run than versus the pass. They are sure tacklers and typically bring the most intensity than anyone else on the defensive side of the ball. However, they are not always known as 3-down players and when opposing teams opt for passing the ball, they are usually on the sidelines.
For Urlacher that was not the case, as evidenced by his 22 career interceptions and 85 pass deflections. His 41.5 sacks are tied with Ray Lewis for their careers, although with both retiring, Urlacher will have played in 4 fewer seasons.
We can easily talk about his 8 Pro Bowls in 12 seasons, 5 All-Pro selections, 6 plus seasons with over 80 solo tackles, his unbelievable, award winning rookie of the year season and his Defense Player of the Year Award in 2005. Urlacher was a linebacker unlike any other and he absolutely revolutionized the position as a 6-4 258 lbs who, in his prime ran a sub 4.6 40-yard dash. He made the type of plays that you did not expect from the mike position.
A Brian Urlacher highlight package is what separates him from many of the middle linebackers that came before him. Some of his interceptions were a thing of beauty, showing the skill and finesse that you would see from a defense back (Let us not forget he was a safety at New Mexico). He could rush the passer better than any middle linebacker that ever played and his acumen when playing sideline to sideline was terrific. Not only did he never give up on a play, but as a runner, you would be hard pressed to weave passed him as his speed was legendary for the position. His pass coverage may have been his best trait. A mike linebacker in the Tampa 2 defensive scheme, is responsible for the deep middle of the field; essentially acting as a third safety. Urlacher had the speed to make plays when dropping into coverage, but he also more than held his own in man coverage.
Urlacher was synonymous with Bears teams that have always been known for takeaways since the start of the 2000′s. In fact, since his rookie season in 2000, the Bears have been top 10 in takeaways per game in all but 2 seasons (2004 and 2009).
Is he better than Ray? Urlacher does not think so and I would agree with him as well, although reluctantly, but he was not far behind. Yes, Urlacher had the advent of a Tampa 2 system that was tailor made for him, but Ray Lewis consistently played with premier players especially at the 3 and 5-technique spots with the likes of Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Haloti Ngata. Having the benefit of great defensive tackles in front of you, typically means less engagement with blockers and more of an allowance to roam free and make clean tackles. Winning two Super Bowls also helps Lewis’ cause and Urlacher, having played and lost in Super Bowl 41, does not have the repetoire of post-season success that many of the other great linebackers have. Being on a team with inconsistent quarterbacks (Shane Matthews, Jim Miller, Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler) and offenses, surely did not help, but ultimately this should have little to no bearing on his résumé.
Urlacher never truly had a consistent force in the middle. Ted Washington was a load, but he played with Urlacher only towards the end of his career and Tommie Harris’ career was mired in injury, forcing him to retire at the age of 29. For Urlacher to do what he did, despite a defensive line that was average, is something to behold.
He did not exude as much fear on opponents as did Lewis, Singletary or Jack Lambert. Urlacher was still a terrific leader and was able to put his players in the right positions at the right time. Ultimately, he will be remembered for brining a different level of athleticism to the game and along with Ray Lewis, they brought new levels of requirements for the middle linebacker position. If you see your favorite team opting more for an athletic linebacker, it is more than likely in the hopes of finding the next Brian Urlacher who can give you 90 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 10 pass deflections per season as those numbers are becoming the gold standard for playing the mike linebacker position.
As a fan, Brian Urlacher was a joy to watch and he will be greatly missed by his former team and everyone that loves the NFL.
In my continuation of division offseason previews, we move on to the NFC North, which has been virtually dominated by the Green Bay Packers in the last 2 seasons. Each team has made the playoffs at least once during that same time frame, so there is a good amount of parity in the Black and Blue division. Featuring a trio of gun slinging quarterbacks and elite receivers, the NFC North is one of the best divisions in the NFL and is continuously competitive every single year.
As per usual, every team apart from the Packers was busy during Free Agency as Green Bay continues with their motto to improve solely in the draft. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to dethrone the back-to-back division champs.
The Chicago Bears moved away from Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher and appear to be changing their image from a defensive to an offensive team.
New head coach Marc Trestman will put more focus on pass protection and ball security of the for Cutler. The drafting of first round tackle Kyle Long, will go a long way (no pun intended) in insuring that Cutler is kept upright and those 6-10 sack games will be a thing of the past.
The signing of Jermon Bushrod will be a huge upgrade for the Bears as he is one of the better tackles in the game. The key factor for this offensive line to truly flourish is Gabe Carimi. He was drafted expecting to be a mauler and he has battled injuries and inconsistency and has simply not been able to adjust to the pro game.
Not only will Trestman focus on better pass protection, but he will use Matt Forte in and myriad of running plays. The Bears, with Mike Tice as the offensive coordinator, used Forte in isolation and run-up-the-gut runs, which didn’t truly utilize his skillset. The new regime wants to use tosses and zone blocks, as Forte is one of the best cutback runners in the game. His game reminds me a lot of Arian Foster the way they are so smooth with their running, vision and using jump cuts to find the open spaces. They allow blocks to materialize before they decide on their next move. It makes sense for the Bears to give Forte more room to operate considering his terrific vision.
Jay Cutler needs to have a big season. Not only is he due for a new contract, but also there should be no more excuses driven by the media or even Cutler himself. The team has surrounded him with a true number one receiver and finally shored up their offensive line. In a system that has always been good to quarterbacks (Trestman has worked with the likes of Rich Gannon, Steve Young, Bernie Kosar among others), Cutler should make big strides with his ball security, accuracy and decision making. One of his main issues was locking on to Brandon Marshall far too often last season (as evident by his 194 targets last season), which meant forced passes and easy interceptions for the opposition. The addition of Martellus Bennett, who can line up in the slot or at wide receiver in certain situations, should provide help for Cutler and Marshall, but they desperately need further development from Alshon Jeffrey, who looked good in the first couple of games before disappearing for most of the season. Marques Wilson, who was projected as having first round talent, fell to the 7th round due to accusations towards his coach at Washington State. If he can keep his cool, he has enough talent to be a solid player in his first year.
It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks and Cutler has never been a great read and react quarterback. He will need to change his ways and actually scan the field to read his progressions or he will have another interception-laden season.
Defensively, this Bears team is old, but still have the necessary playmakers to be a force. Peppers, Briggs, Tillman, D.J. Wiliams and Jennings are all approaching 30 or have already hit the wrong side of it. Tim Jennings and especially Charles Tillman were absolutely terrific in coverage, which led them to the 8th best pass defense in the league and a league-leading 2.8 takewaways per game. They will again be relied upon to give the offense more opportunities or even score themselves with their ball-hawking nature.
New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has worked in different schemes in his time in the league. The Bears will most likely still run a base 4-3 defense, but employ the 3-4 at certain stretches. What may change is their reliance on the Tampa 2 defense that has been a mainstay since Lovie Smith has been coach. Regardless of the defensive system, the Bears will be able to get after the quarterback and make plays to help their offense. The key will be how they adjust without Brian Urlacher. While his skills were eroding, he was still the unquestioned leader of the defense and made all the calls at the line of scrimmage. His knowledge of the game is a huge aspect for a team that goes after the ball and creates turnovers at an alarming rate. They will have to adjust without him on and off the field. Jonathan Bostic was drafted in the 2nd round out of Florida and he is a big, physical linebacker. It will be interesting to see if he can outperform D.J. Williams who did not play much last season in Denver.
In their 6 losses, the Bears only recorded 7 offensive touchdowns. That is simply not good enough and a big reason why, when they faced talented teams like the 49ers and Houston Texans, they did not materialize any pressure on those defenses. As a consequence, a 7-1 start turned into a 3-5 finish, where, they had a chance to still make it into the playoffs on the last day of the season, but did not control their own destiny. Marc Trestman has worked with Cutler before, 9 years ago during his pre-draft workouts. He knows what Cutler’s base skillset looks like and will be able to get the best out of him. I expect a solid season out of Cutler, with a lower amount of bone-headed turnovers. The defense should still be stout and provide many opportunities to score for themselves and give the ball back to the offense.
The Detroit Lions have been known more for off the field issues than their play on the field. The players who have been distractions have either been jettisoned or are on a very tight leash.
You will be hard-pressed to find a team that went from having so much potential based off the previous season’s playoff performances and faltered in a big way. They wasted a historical season from Calvin Johnson and the coach and general manager regime of Jim Schwartz and Mark Mayhew will need a bounce back season for their contracts to be renewed.
We know with the Lions it begins and ends with their QB-WR duo. They were very prolific last season, despite Stafford having very little receiving help aside from Brandon Pettigrew. Calvin Johnson had league high 204 targets last season, but that should decrease with the return of Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles who were both injured last season and the signing of Reggie Bush who always factors into the passing game. Stafford had somewhat of a down year after posting over 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2011 and his struggles can be attributed to a bad defense that meant they were always behind playing catch up, an inconsistent running game and as stated, a scarcity of weapons outside of big 81. Over 700 passing attempts is a ridiculous amount of throws, regardless of how good your quarterback is. I expect him to bounce back in a big way in 2013.
As mentioned, Reggie Bush signed a 4-year deal, worth roughly $16 million. Along with Mikel Leshore and Joique Bell, Bush will lead a solid running back core. With Miami, he proved that he can handle 200 plus carries in a season and you can look for him to be the starter for the Lions, with Leshore and Bell being change of pace bruisers. It will be important for Bush, who is average in pass protection, to improve his blocking skills, as Stafford throws a whopping 85% of his passes out of the shotgun. But the most important factor is that Bush provides a dynamic weapon out of the backfield, one in which the Lions have not had since Jahvid Best went down with concussion issues.
Defensively, the Lions lost Cliff Avril to free agency and Kyle Van Den Bosch to retirement. I am not entirely sold on the drafting of Ziggy Ansah, although it made sense from a need and raw talent standpoint, his lack of production and playing time means this could be a boom or bust pick and it needs to boom quickly for the Lions.
The interior of their line, featuring Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, will be counted on to create the lion share of the pass rush and defend the run. Suh is a dominant player (and at times dirty), but every time I have watched him, he is inconsistent with his gap coverage and can get lost from time to time when defending the run.
Stephen Tulloch is a terrific linebacker, but that position is bare with the loss of Justin Durant to Dallas.
Where they will need to make drastic improvements is in pass coverage. Statistically, they were middle of the pack, but they did not garner many takeaways. Retaining Louis Delmas was important as he is a good playmaker with range, but he needs to stay healthy. The signing of Glover Quinn from Houston will also provide a nice piece in the back end.
I loved the pick of Darius Slay who will step in immediately and be asked to shut down the top receivers in the division. He has perfect size and great speed and I presume he will start opposite Chris Houston once the season starts.
We rarely talk about kickers, but Jason Hanson retiring is a big loss for the Lions. Considering how valuable the kicking game is, Hanson, who has been one of the most accurate kickers of all time, will need his usual reliance to be replaced.
Ultimately, the fate of the Lions will still rest on Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. They were close in many of their games and at best, could have easily been a .500 team. Subtle improvements in the draft and via free agency to their secondary will be important in a division where their competitors each feature elite wide receivers. Ziggy Ansah must be good right away in order for the pass rush to compliment the back end and the offensive line is still a major question mark with the retirement of Jeff Backus. If their pass defense remains middle of the pack and Stafford develops better chemistry with other receivers aside from Johnson, they should be able to compete for the division crown. Simply put, more discipline is needed and that is a direct reflection on the head coach of the football team. Detroit was 4th worst in yards per infraction and they will need to be more disciplined in all facets of the game, especially with a young defense.
The Green Bay Packers came off a 15-1 season with a team that dealt with a plethora of injuries. They led the league in adjusted games lost (a metric that measures how much teams were affected by injuries) with 108 (Via FootballOutsiders.com). Despite the injuries, they still managed to sneak into the playoffs and grab the division title.
One of the reasons for the Packers continued success, or should we say THE reason is of course, Aaron Rodgers. Despite being sacked 87 times over the last two seasons and 51 in 2012, he has managed only 14 interceptions in 2 full seasons versus 84 touchdowns. He is undoubtedly the best quarterback in football and his 108 quarterback rating, despite injuries all season to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson coupled with a shoddy, old and inconsistent offensive line, are a testament his talent.
You can pencil in Rodgers to have another terrific season, but it will be imperative for him to get rid of the ball in situations where he cannot make a play. As he alluded to during the opening of OTA’s, the blame with regards to the sacks cannot all simply go to the offensive line. He is too valuable to be sacked 51 times and as such, they drafted two tackles in the fourth round in David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter. The latter however broke his ankle and will be sidelined for several months. Aside from that, Chad Clifton retired as did Jeff Saturday, who was ineffective last season. Bryan Bulaga, who is considered the team’s best offensive linemen, will move to the left tackle spot in a move that will improve the entire depth of the line.
Another way to alleviate hits to the quarterback is avoiding the amount of drop backs he takes. Although they were 16th in rushing attempts per game, their ground attack was very inconsistent. James Starks and Alex Green both showed flashes after Cedric Benson was lost for the season, but looked average at best. From what little I saw from DaJuan Harris, most notably in the season finale against the Vikings, he looked like a jitterbug type back with quick moves and terrific speed. I look forward seeing him in the upcoming season and will be a sleeper pick to have a very solid season. With the drafting of Eddie Lacy, who features a similar running style and build to Trent Richardson and Jonathan Franklin who is more of a speedster, the Packers finally look set at the running back position with much depth to spare.
At the receiver position, while the loss of Greg Jennings will hurt, Rodgers will have no issues finding a new favorite target to throw back-shoulder passes. James Jones cured his propensity for drops and had a great season with 12 touchdowns and Randall Cobb proved that he is not just a gimmick receiver. He can play the slot or out wide and he should get 60-75 catches this season. Jermichael Finley needs a bounce back season being in a contract year. He is continues to be one of the most frustrating players. He has all the talent in the world, but has not been able to put it together. His drops have seemingly gotten worse every season and at times, he lacks the necessary concentration to be a premier tight end, which he has all the raw physical tools to be. Look for him to get more responsibility with the move away from Greg Jennings. Finley actually taking that increased role is still to be determined though.
Finally, I have heard good things about 7th round pick Charles Johnson from Grand Valley St. and although there may be some questions about the competition regardless of whether it is Division I or Division II, 31 touchdowns in two seasons is quite impressive. Johnson appears to have terrific speed clocking in with a 4.40 40-yard dash and he has good size.
Defensively, they were also battered and bruised as Desmond Bishop, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry all missed significant time with injuries. The loss of those players, notwithstanding, they still managed to finish 16th in total defense thanks in large part to key fill-ins such as M.D. Jennings at safety, Brad Jones at inside linebacker and Erik Walden at outside linebacker.
The release of Charles Woodson was not unforeseen, but Jennings and Jerron McMillan have shown enough flashes that the Packers opted to not even take a safety in the draft.
The Packers will need Tramon Willams to continue to ascend towards one of the best cover corners in the league. I thought he took a slight step back last year. Morgan Burnett is one of the more up and coming players though and is one of the best tackling corners in the game. He plays similarly to Charles Woodson by dropping to the box and is an adequate blitzer from the back end.
As long as Matthews can stay healthy and they start to get valuable production from former first rounder Nick Perry, the Packers, with a great defensive front to keep the linebackers off blockers have the makings of one of the better young defenses in the league. B.J. Raji is one of the best nose tackles in the league and Ryan Pickett has made a name for himself as a 5 technique that can contain the edge and stop the run. The return of Desmond Bishop will be key as well in a 3-4 defense that is reliant on its linebackers.
Mason Crosby must have a bounce back season, as he was absolutely putrid in the kicking game. I would attribute it to simply a bad season, as he has consistently been one of the best kickers since he has come into the league.
The Packers still have a load of talent and continue to show a commitment to building through the draft, in fact more so than ever. Dom Capers has the type of scheme that requires pressure from all positions on the field and the personnel that they employ with the players returning from injury, will allow the Packers to be more than adequate on defense again.
For the Minnesota Vikings, their entire season could be summed up with a few plays: Isolation run up the gut to Adrian Peterson, off tackle run to Adrian Peterson and toss to Adrian Peterson. Simply put, in my 15+ years of watching football, I have never seen the type of season Peterson had. He came off an ACL injury, yet was actually better than before. His cutback ability, vision and ability to take it 50 yards to the house were the formula that repeated itself numerous times as evidence by two games with touchdown runs of over 60 yards and two games with touchdown runs of over 80 yards. Oh and do not forget 7 games of over 150 rushing.
This upcoming season, he has set a goal of 2500 yards and while that is as lofty an expectation from a running back as you will see; do not count him out on having another near 2000-yard season to help propel the Vikings to a winning record.
Of course, the key to that will be Christian Ponder. The former Seminole had 3 games with less than 100 yards passing and 5 games in which Adrian Peterson outgained him.
The criticism has been far greater than warranted, though. No one wants to mention that Ponder started the season with back-to-back games with quarterback ratings above 100 and started 4 out of the first 5 games with a rating above 83, which is solid but not spectacular. Yes, when Percy Harvin went down, there was more reliance on Adrian Peterson. Conversely, this affected Ponder and with Kyle Rudolph as the only viable passing threat, it made sense to take away the reigns from Ponder and rely solely on a dominant running game. Give Ponder credit though as there is simply no chance that the Vikings win the season finale that propelled them into the playoffs, if Ponder doesn’t have the terrific game that he had.
With Greg Jennings in the fold, you have an experienced receiver that can line up in any position and truly be more of a complete receiver than Harvin. Kyle Rudolph will soon ascend to being one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league. Jairus Wright showed some flashes in the last game of the season against Green Bay and Cordarrelle Patterson has all the tools to be a dominant receiver and return man. At 6 foot 2 inches and over 220 lbs., he will lose very few battles in the air. The key with him will be how he learns and adapts to the NFL game and if he will be able to hone and improve his raw receiving skills. Nothing more to be said about Peterson except for the potential for more touchdowns with what we can assume will be an improved offense and a more consistent Christian Ponder.
The offensive line, which got very little attention despite Peterson’s near record-breaking season, is one of the best in the league. Matt Kalil was dominant as a rookie and will be making Pro Bowl’s for years to come. John Sullivan is one of the most underrated centers in the league and Phil Loadholt is the prototypical right tackle with behemoth like size at 6-8 to anchor the strong side/running side. In fact, Adrian Peterson compiled most of his 2,097 yards towards the right amassing 594 yards.
One underrated aspect of the offense is the signing of undrafted rookie Bradley Randle. Although he is diminutive at 5-7, 190 lbs., he provides a different aspect as a running back that can catch passes out of the backfield, which is an aspect of the Vikings offense that has not really been apparent since Peterson was drafted. That is not to say that Peterson is a liability as a pass catcher, but it is not his strongest asset and such a dynamic is always important to have especially in passing downs. If he makes the team, he can add a different dynamic from the backfield that has not been apparent for quite some time.
Defensively, all the attention goes to Jared Allen, but Chad Greenway is the best player on that team and one of the best strong side linebackers in the league. Paired with him are Erin Henderson, who the Vikings felt was good enough for them to bypass drafting a middle linebacker and giving up a brief flirtation with Brian Urlacher. Most draft pundits agreed that was a need for the team, but Henderson is solid enough, although he lacks to required athleticism that you normally look for in a mike linebacker for the Tampa 2.
With regards to their defensive line, you still have to respect that front-four despite the aging right side. The drafting of Shariff Floyd was an absolute steal. The Vikings got a player who many predicted would be a top 3 pick and was number 1 on certain draft boards. The pairing of Floyd and Kevin Williams, who can still lay claim as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, will remind Vikings fans of the days of the Williams wall when Pat Williams and Kevin Williams anchored the middle. Floyd dropped mostly due to his short arms, but let’s not forget that Hall Of Famer John Randle was barely 6’0 and had over 130 sacks as a defensive lineman, possessing short arms as well.
One of my few correct mock draft predictions was the drafting of Xavier Rhodes by the Vikings. As a big, fast and physical corner, he is perfectly equipped to defend the bigger receivers of the division such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and James Jones. With or without the loss of Antoine Winfield, help at corner was desperately needed.
Not many people know of Harrison Smith, but he proved to be a solid strong safety, amassing over 70 solo tackles. And Chris Cook will be counted on to supplant the production Winfield provided. He was a sure tackler and tenacious cornerback. It is hard to ask a young corner to step in and replace that type of tough-nose style, especially at a position like cornerback, but Cook will need to deliver in a hurry. Jacob Lacey, who played well for the Colts, was signed to play the position of slot cornerback, which Winfield played for most of 2012. The rest of the secondary is inexperienced and untested. They will need to be better than ranked 24th in pass defense, especially in a division that boasts Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.
When the Vikings offense sputtered, Blair Walsh bailed them out. He was easily one of the best kickers in the game last season and depending on Ponder’s improvement, Walsh will be counted on for another season to provide points if the offense stalls inside or outside the red zone.
The NFC East has been one of the toughest divisions to predict over the past 4 to 5 seasons. Teams that we assume are favorites to win the division, end up underachieving and vice versa. This is a testament to its parity, but also for the incredible inconsistency of each team.
As we are approaching mini camps, here is a quick rundown of each team and what needs to happen for them to be division champions.
The Philadelphia Eagles with Chip Kelly will be employing an up-tempo offense that will be predicated on the run game, quick plays and a lot of misdirection. I do not envision it being a carbon copy of his Oregon offense, where the quarterback is running at least once per every 3 downs but regardless of whether the Quarterback is Nick Foles, Matt Barkley or Michael Vick, there will some read-option employed.
Kelly’s offense is predicated on getting rid of the ball quickly. That was an aspect of Michael Vick’s game that has been lacking and he has been underwhelming at best at identifying the blitz (As determined by his 49.6% completion percentage when the hounds are released). It was a common occurrence to see Vick get absolutely flattened by a corner blitz on his blindside and in turn, it resulted often time in an interception, sack or a fumble. With the return of Jason Peters to the left tackle spot and the drafting of highly athletic tackle, Lane Johnson, Vick has two bookend tackles to protect him better than he would have been last season.
Of course to alleviate Vick getting consistently flattened, the best course of action for any quarterback is increased reliance in the running game. With a thoroughbred runner in LeSean McCoy, he should be expected to have an increased workload and over 320 touches this season, as long as his slender body type holds up.
Defensively, the addition of Connar Barwin will be much needed as he fits nicely with the movement towards a 3-4 defense.
They also expect a lot from former first rounder Brandon Graham who will need to improve on his 8.5 sack total in 3 NFL seasons.
I love the addition of Isaac Sopoaga who will be stout up the middle and Cary Williams and Patrick Chung, both respectively come from great programs in Baltimore and New England and are more than solid players at the corner and safety positions.
The Eagles are rebuilding right now and have competitions at many positions. Michael Vick has the edge as the week 1 starter considering his experience, but do not be surprised if Matt Barkley gives him a run for his money. Barkley has great moxie and is a relentless worker and student of the game. As stated, Kelly’s offense will be more predicated on quick passing and no-huddles, therefore him being able to run with the ball will not be a necessity, but as Kelly said, a running quarterback is only an added bonus. Regardless of who is playing quarterback, protection will be key.
The New York Giants did not make any earth shattering moves in the offseason, but that is as per their typical method of operation. The defection of Chris Canty to Baltimore will hurt tremendously as he helped their run defense as soon as he came back from injury.
Mike Patterson is undersized, but athletic enough to make plays. He will be a nice rotational player as an interior defensive lineman in passing situations. It also helps that he has played in the NFC East previously with the Eagles.
Staying with the defensive line, Justin Tuck had an underwhelming season. There has been much talk about him needing a bounce back year, especially after registering only 4 sacks and being corralled by right tackles. It will be key for him to bounce back with the loss of Osi Umenyiora and be his normally typical stout self in the run game. The Giants do not have the depth at the defensive end position that they typically are accustomed to having, but with the additions of linebackers Dan Connor and Aaron Curry, look for Mathias Kiwanuka to move back down to his natural defensive end position and compliment Jason Pierre-Paul as an athletic defensive speed rusher. This is the type of move where small additions can shore up your entire defense.
Another key defensively will be the development of Prince Amukamara. He has shown flashes, but he still has a long way to go before he lives up to the hype that made him a first rounder. And with Corey Webster struggling mightily last season, and Terrell Thomas coming from back-to-back ACL injuries, it will be imperative for the secondary to return to form. I was extremely impressed with the play of Stevie Brown who made Kenny Philips expendable. He flat-out made plays last season, accounting for 8 interceptions and I expect another big year of ball hawking. Antrel Rolle, however, struggled for most of the season as he is getting up in age and cannot cover the way he used to. There may need to be a Stevie Brown-like mid-season player who can come up and supplant Rolle, in case he gets banged up or continues to struggle.
Offensively, it will be business as usual for the Giants. Eli Manning needs to continue to make good decisions and avoid reverting to “bad-Eli” where he dazzles you and makes you scratch your head at the same time.
I do not envision the Victor Cruz holdout to last much longer and a healthy Hakeem Nicks will free up even more room in the slot. Look for either Reuben Randle or former Raider and Panther Louis Murphy to take ownership in the 3rd wide receiver spot, opposite of the field to Nicks.
Although Brandon Myers cannot block a lick, he will catch 70 passes and is more of a pure tight end than Martellus Bennett with better size
The offensive line is getting younger with the drafting of Justin Pugh who will move in easily on the right side. Will Beatty was re-signed by the Giants and was one of the best-left tackles in the NFC last season.
David Wilson and Andre Brown are the x-factors. It is not a given to be able to replace the steady and reliable production that Ahmad Bradshaw brought to the table. Conversely, if you cannot pass protect in Kevin Gilbride’s system and most importantly in Tom Coughlin’s eyes, you will not see the field and that was one of the issues that plagued David Wilson and reduced his playing time. It is why I envision Brown being named the starter in training camp and Wilson eventually taking over as the lead man, but make no mistake about it; Wilson is the home run hitter on the team. The Giants have a player on their roster that can be a four-down player and a wizard in special teams. Look for him to backflip his way to over 10 total touchdowns this upcoming season.
When the Giants have their backs against the wall, they are always liable to make a run. Last season, it seemed that such urgency was missing and they faltered at the end. Blowout losses against the Bengals, Ravens and Falcons, all on the road, virtually derailed their season and their playoff chances. It will be absolutely important for them to get off to a fast start and avoid the ebbs and flows that often take them from playoff and Super Bowl contenders, to needing a win on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the post-season action.
The Washington Redskins are coming off a surprising division championship after a terrific rookie season from Robert Griffin III. Assuming that he is ready for training camp, it will be interesting to see how he develops as a quarterback. We all raved about his accuracy, but few people realize that of the started quarterbacks in the league, he had one of the lowest amount of attempts of passes that traveled 20 yards or more (36). The offense was structured for him to have 1 to 3 step drops, with quick reads predicated on a short passing game and getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible. Of course, when he does throw the long ball, he connects on roughly 50% of his targets, which was one of the best in the league. I would be remise if I didn’t mention that his receivers dropped more passes for him than receivers did for any other quarterback in the league. All that is to say, RGIII is really good and should be even better next season, with more focus on being a pocket passer and another year in Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s systems.
Alfred Morris had a great season and it helped to be in the zone-blocking scheme that has made many unknown and undrafted running backs into Pro-Bowlers. With no defections on the offensive line (A line that is very underrated led by Trent Williams, Tyler Polumbus and Kory Liechtensteiner), look for the Redskins to continue to be a top 10 rushing team, despite our pre-conceived notion that Griffin will run less. The Hogs absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage and pounded teams to the tune of 169 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, I cannot wait to see Brian Orakpo back. His return is like a free agency acquisition for the Redskins. He was an absolute terror in his rookie year and will dramatically improve a team that was in the wrong side of the 20′s in the sack rankings last season.
Schematically, Jim Haslett runs a terrific system that covers a lot of the weaknesses of certain players. He knows how to apply pressure and despite low sack numbers, Ryan Kerrigan and Lorenzo Alexander were top 20 in the league in QB hits. This scheme also masks some of the deficiencies they have in the secondary, with Brandon Meriwether and Reid Doughty, who are both average in coverage.
The return of DeAngelo Hall was needed and while he does not run as well as he once did, he is still a solid cover corner. On the opposite side of the field, Josh Wilson can make plays and is a good tackler.
The Redskins fortunes will rely on the growth of RGIII and their continued dominance in the run game. Their 30th ranked pass defense will have to be better in order for them to repeat as division champions.
Was there some amount of luck that factored into their division win? Possibly, as the Giants and Eagles both had underwhelming seasons and the Cowboys did what they usually do and choke away in the waning game and moments of the season. Everything needs to fall in place for the ‘Skins and they will need players like Pierre Garçon, Fred Davis and Orakpo to stay healthy.
The Dallas Cowboys have been the biggest enigma in the league over the past 4 seasons. They have not made the playoffs in that time frame and despite talented teams; they have seemingly choked and faltered in back-to-back NFC East season ending finales.
The way their seasons have ended would normally lead to a large exodus in players and coaching. The latter portion was true with Rob Ryan replaced with Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan being the primary play caller in place of Jason Garrett.
We have no clue how Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense will translate to the Cowboys. Will it be a true Tampa 2? Or will there simply be sprinkles of the scheme being implemented. The Tampa 2 is a defensive system that is predicated on simplicity, discipline and virtually running the same play over and over.
Personnel wise, on the defensive line, they have the talent. If you thought DeMarcus Ware was a terror in a motorcycle stance, rushing from the outside, imagine him being closer to the line, with his hand in the dirt, timing the snap count against opposing quarterbacks. Pencil him in for over 14 sacks, with relative ease. Anthony Spencer is the perfect left defensive end to go against the right tackles of the NFC East. The right side of the offense is the running side and your defensive end on that end of the spectrum, needs to be stout enough to hold off blockers and contain the edge to free up the outside linebacker. Spencer will do that and then some with his pass rushing talent.
The other parts of the defense, with regards to the Tampa 2 are still to be determined. Will the corners play the half and the safeties play two deep? That would be a waste of Brandon Carr’s and Morris Claiborne’s man-to-man skills.
The safety position has already been extremely important in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. Ideally, you want one player to be a battering ram hitter and the other to be a ball-hawking machine. The safeties will need to be rangy and physical and there is a lot of inexperience there with the retirement of veteran and long time Cowboys, Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys passed on drafting one of the top 4 safeties in the first round and seem keen on going with players that have already been on their roster. The position has not be properly filled since Darren Woodson retired and Roy Williams started getting demolished in coverage on a week-to-week basis, which led to his release in 2008. The audition begins with the likes of Will Allen, Danny McCray, J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Brandon Underwood and Micah Pellerin as per Mac Engel of the Dallas Star-Telegram. A cast of characters that will need to prove that they can make plays and be solid against the pass and the run.
The linebackers will need to be fast and athletic. Sean Lee fits the bill and is a perfect Tampa 2 mike linebacker. That position has always been a key cog in providing help to the safeties by dropping back in a 5-10 yard hook zone and covering the seams. Justin Durant, signed from the Detroit Lions, is a solid linebacker who will play Sam linebacker and I presume Bruce Carter will have a weak side role with his speed and athletic ability that can cover the athletic tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. In other words, he will have the Derrick Brooks role on the defense. I presume the defense will be fine for the Cowboys. The talent is certainly there to be a mid-level team. Of course, most Cowboys fans are worried about….
How maddening are the Cowboys? All the talent at the skill positions, but there is a failure to make plays when it matters most. Much of the blame goes to Tony Romo, but the same amount of reproach needs to go to the play calling, in particular, Jason Garrett.
When Romo is forced into situations where he needs to throw the ball on virtually every down, he gets into trouble and forces bad throws into tight spots. Because his offensive line is still in flux, once he gets pressured up the middle, all best are off. The drafting of Travis Frederick was much maligned, but interior offensive line help was much needed, regardless of his perceived draft grade.
A decision was finally made on Doug Free who struggled for most of the season at the right tackle spot. He will need a bounce back year in order for their running game to flourish.
Speaking of the running game, DeMarco Murray has all the talent to be a top 5 back, but he needs to stay healthy. His inability to stay healthy and Garrett’s play calling, resulted in the Cowboys finishing the season 31st in the league in rushing and that must improve.
That is already two injuries in his first two seasons that have kept him out of action. The Cowboys lost the ineffective and inconsistent Felix Jones to Philadelphia, but I love the drafting of Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have struck well with Big 12 players over the last few seasons and this is another solid addition.
Dez Bryant appears to finally have his life in track and off the field issues are the only impediments to him turning into an elite top 3 receiver. He is that good and we saw it during games against the Redskins (11 catches, 145 yards) and Saints (12 catches, 224 yards). Miles Austin’s best years seem to be behind him, but the drafting of Baylor speedster Terrence Williams, will be a welcomed addition for the oft-injured 2-time Pro Bowler who despite playing in all 16 games, struggled with hip injuries throughout the season.
The change in play calling for the Cowboys can be a positive one and still allow Romo to put up huge numbers. I do not anticipate a reduction in his throwing attempts, but rather better situational play calling something, which Jason Garrett, in my opinion, is one of the worst coaches at in the league. Rarely did he call the correct plays in the correct situation and such decisions not only put un-needed strain on your team, but even more on your much maligned quarterback.
Now that the first two days of the draft has settled, it is now time to see which teams can come out with confidence and which teams should still be scratching their heads regarding their overall strategy.
We must keep in mind with so many trades for future picks and players being taken as projects, ideally, you want to rate a draft 2-3 years down the line after the developmental aspect of the players has passed and you can truly rate their impact on their respective teams.
Regardless, here are my thoughts on the first two days of the draft.
Minnesota Vikings: I would be remiss if I didn’t start with the stars of the first round, the Vikings. Minnesota was able to begin the draft with the 23rd and 25th overall picks and immediately filled two needs at Cornerback and Defensive Tackle. Rhodes is a big corner who can move and Floyd, who surprisingly dropped, is a terrific value pick who was projected as a top 5 pick for most of the draft. Cordarrelle Patterson was picked with the 29th pick that was acquired from New England for Vikings’ second- (No. 52); third- (No. 83); fourth- (No. 102) and seventh-round (No. 229) picks. His upside is high, but he is very raw. His athleticism will allow him to make big plays, until he polishes his route running and catching to be a more complete player. Overall, the Vikings had a terrific first 2 days filling out 3 major needs. Look for them to select an interior linebacker today. Grade: A
Kansas City: The Chiefs either wanted to give some high drama to the draft by waiting so long to make their pick, seemingly deciding between Fisher or Joeckel or they were waiting for someone to come and take that pick out of their hands. In any case, Eric Fisher was taken first overall and from all reports, the Chiefs got their guy. The differences between Fisher and Joeckel were minimal, but former Eastern Michigan offensive lineman had a higher grade due to his athleticism. This trade will allow the Chiefs to either trade Brandon Allen for a future draft pick or they may keep him and have a formidable combination of tackles. Travis Kelce, drafted in the 3rd round fits a need position at tight end with Tony Moeaki dealing with injuries. I like the pick of Knile Davis in the in the same round. He had mediocre production in 2012 and sat out for a whole season in 2011 , but he did rush for 1300 yards in 2010. His combine results were electric where he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash as a big 220 lb back and recorded 31 repetitions on the bench press. Grade A
St Louis Rams: The Rams made a trade with the Buffalo Bills to move up 8 spots and select Tavon Austin. It was a move that many felt would come to fruition considering the Rams had two first-round picks. Austin has been often called a “four-down player” and has tremendous upside as a returner and slot receiver. He fills an immediate need with the departure of Danny Amendola. Alec Ogletree was selected with their 22nd overall pick, which will give them a formidable linebacker corps of James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lunn Dunbar and Ogletree. More of a sideline to sideline guy, Ogletree will be able to run and chase which is his strength as opposed to being a point of attack and engaging linebacker. Off the field issues or not, he was going mid-to-late first regardless. In the third round, they selected free safety, T.J. Macdonald and Steadman Bailey, filling their needs further more. Les Snead is positioning this team as one of the underdogs of the NFC. Grade A-
Jacksonville Jaguars: It is hard to not be a winner two days after the draft when you have the top two picks in each of the first two rounds. The Jags were the beneficiaries of Luke Joeckel and now have two very solid bookend tackles for years to come with Eugene Monroe. The pick of Jonahan Cyprien is a very solid one and it fits a need. Cyprien could have easily been the second safety taken in the draft. Dwayne Gratz leads a UConn contingent that had 3 picks in the first 3 rounds. A smart player, he knows how to play angles and plays good coverage. A great first two days for Gus Bradley and the Jaguars. Look for them to fill glaring holes at defensive end in the later rounds. Grade B+
Buffalo Bills: I loved the Bills drafting of E.J. Manuel at 16 via the trade with the Bills. Kurt Warner, Mike Mayock and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah rated him as the second best quarterback in this draft rated Manuel. He interviewed better than Geno Smith and teams liked his decision-making and overall talent better than anyone in this class. He is adept at playing under center at FSU, which is always an asset for a quarterback entering the pro game. With their second round pick, they selected Robert Woods. I personally felt that the former USC Trojan had the most pure skill in this draft from the receiver position. Woods has terrific hands, often considered the best natural hands catcher in the draft and he also runs crisp routes. Not a speed demon, but he will be a perfect complement to Stevie Johnson. Kiko Alonson fills a need at linebacker and they selected track and football standout Marquise Goodwin from Texas. The former Longhorn dazzled scouts at the combine with a 4.27 40-yard dash. He is raw, but he can be a terrific run after the catch and special teams player. Grade: B
San Francisco 49ers: Entering into the draft with 13 draft picks, everyone knew the 49ers would be wheeling and dealing to move up into the draft. Via a trade with the Cowboys to move up to the 18th pick, they filled a need by selecting safety Eric Reid. The former LSU Tiger has the talent to fill the role as a banger at the position that Dashon Goldson vacated when he signed with the Buccaneers. Reid is a complete safety who will be able to come in and make an immediate impact. With their second round pick, they selected Tank Carradine. A great value pick, Carradine was projected as a late first round pick in many draft boards. The former Seminole has concerns about his health but despite only starting one season, he is an accomplished pass rusher with very good technique. The 49ers can afford to be patient with him. The rest of their draft slots were filled by drafting tight end Vance Macdonald and outside linebacker Corey Lemonier in the second and third rounds. Grade: B+
Oakland Raiders: Reggie McKenzie comes from the Green Bay Packers front office where drafting is the modus operandi of running an organization. Trading down to get more picks was the right move to fill many needs. D.J. Hayden, picked at 13th via a draft day trade with the Dolphins, would have been a great pick in any regime and any slot. He was considered by many as the best corner in the draft and with the losses they incurred this off-season, this was a pick that was needed considering how bad their pass defense was last season. They also selected in the second round, Menelik Watson who is as raw as they come. Mike Mayock had the line of the draft regarding Watson: “He is so raw, he has no idea what he’s doing”. Still, he believes he can be a starting left tackle in the league because of his athleticism and ability to move laterally. This was a huge need for the Raiders as Khalif Barnes is getting up in age at right tackle. Sio Moore is a smart and physical linebacker, but lacks great speed. He is a productive player, nonetheless and will fill in nicely with the losses of Phil Wheeler and Rolando McClain. Grade B-
Cincinnati Bengals: At first glance, I felt a safety here was the pick to make for the Bengals at 21, but I have grown on the selection of Tyler Eifert for the Bengals. I understand the profilferation of teams wanting to utilize two-tight end sets with the success the Patriots have achieved. In this case, the Bengals are trying to help Andy Dalton. They want him to take that next step and become a playoff winning quarterback by filling the roster with young offensive talent to go along with A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham. I love the selection of Giovanni Bernard in the second round who is very quick and can catch passes and return picks. He will be a great compliment to Benjarvis Green-Ellis. The pick of Margus Hunt is a terrific selection as well. Hunt is a freak of a nature at 6’8, 280 lbs and ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the combine. There is no better place in the league right now to come in as an unheralded defensive player and develop than in Cincinnati. Hunt will have to improve his pure pass rush skills and rely less on the speed rush, but Mike Zimmer will find ways to utilize his skillset. With their 4th round pick, the Bengals filled out their need for a safety by taking Shawn Williams. Grade B
Pittsburgh Steelers: Everyone in the world knew the Steelers would pick Jarvis Jones 17th overall. Burn the combine tape and forget about his measurables; you know Dick LeBeau will turn him into a solid player. I like the pick of Le’Veon Bell in the second round who is a bruising running back who can hit the hole and grind out tough hards (a staple for Steelers backs), while also having underrated pass catching ability. Markus Wheaton is a solid receiver who had a great career at Oregon State. I always side with good fundamental receivers who lack top speed and athleticism and Wheaton fits that mold. The Steelers can expect 30-40 catches from him in year 1.Grade B-
Atlanta Falcons: While they only had two picks so far, the Falcons have made good use with them selecting two athletic and physical corners in Desmond Trufant in the first round, via a trade with the Rams and Robert Alford in the second round. Trufant has the great bloodlines having two brothers in the NFL and Alford impressed at the Senior Bowl. Both picks fill out a need with the losses of Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson. Grade B-
Dallas Cowboys: The head scratcher of the first round was the Cowboys selecting Center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick, via a trade down with the 49ers. There were various reports that teams had him in a range between the 3rd and 7th round on their draft boards. While it is admirable to go after the player you feel is the best on your board from the available pool of players, it is simply bad management to not try and trade even further down and parlay that into more picks if there is a remote chance the player can be selected at a later round. The Cowboys did not address one of their biggest needs of Right Tackle and only picked a safety in the 4th round with the drafting of J.J. Wilcox. The picks of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams are solid value selections. Escobar has terrific hands and is the best blocking Tight End of the class, but he does not possess good speed. Terrance Williams, who could have been a first-rounder, has tremendous speed and good size, but must increase his physicality. Grade C
New York Jets: What can be said about the Jets? Many pundits do not like the pick of Dee Millner as it is virtually trading a medical red flag in Revis for another medical red flag in Millner. The thought process here is that you want to get a good corner, controllable at a low cost for the next 3-4 seasons. Millner is a terrific player out of a great program and will fit in right away in a scheme designed perfectly to defend the pass. With the run on pass rushers, the Jets were not able to find an outside linebacker to fit their 3-4 schemes with the 13th overall pick. Instead, they did the next best thing taking Sheldon Richardson. While he does not fit an immediate need, he fits well in a 3-4 defense, better than the other Defensive Tackles in the first round. He has enough athleticism to be a pass rusher out of the 1 or 5-technique spot, but still stout enough to help out against the running game. He has great reaction skills and understands gaps and assignments very well. The Jets filled out the rest of their draft with Guard, Brian Winters in the third round but the head scratcher was Geno Smith in the second round. Considering Tim Tebow was not even released yet and Mark Sanchez still has a year left at a little over $8 million, the Smith pick just adds to the media circus in New York. Smith is a good value pick for the Jets, but they had more pressing needs than adding another quarterback to a team devoid of skill position talent. Ultimately, the former Mountaineer was picked where he should have been. The pressure to succeed as a first rounder is gone, but in New York, he may be thrusted in the fire very soon. Grade C+
Likes, Loves and Hates
Love the Tyrann Mathieu pick for the Cardinals in the 3rd round. It fits a need with the loss of Greg Toler to the Colts and there is a familiarity with Patrick Peterson as they both played together at LSU. Mathieu is a terrific player regardless of size. It is rare to find corners who can blitz, be physical and play great man coverage. He can supplant Peterson in the return game as well. As long as he stays drug-free, which I think he will, Mathieu will thrive in Arizona.
Love the pick of Matt Elam by Baltimore, who will be my early pick for defensive rookie of the year. His height will not matter and if you think it does, please remember Bob Sanders. Elam will make plays all over the field, can play the box or in space. A terrific haul with the 32nd pick in the draft. Dallas will be regretting not taking him the pick previously at 31.
Like the pick of Dion Jordan at number 3, but feel the Dolphins could have improved their offensive line by selecting Lane Johnson especially with the loss of Jake Long. The former Oregon Ducks defender is not close to a finished product, but has the potential to be a great player. He will need to add a considerable amount of weight, especially if he will have his hand in the dirt and play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
Like the pick of Manti Te’o to San Diego. The Chargers just released Takeo Spikes and in their 3-4 scheme, they now feature two solid interior linemen in Te’o and Donald Butler. The former Notre Dame standout is knows coverages and offenses as well as any linebacker in this draft which, despite his limited athleticism, makes him a terrifc player against the pass. San Diego is not a huge media market and location wise, is very close to his family. This was one of the better fits for Te’o. I am just wondering if D.J. Fluker should have been the only offensive lineman take in the first round, considering they allowed almost 50 sacks last season.
Hate the pick of Bjoern Werner for the Colts. He lacks the speed and athleticism to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker and is too small to play the 5-technique as a 3-4 defensive end. Datone Jones would have been a great pick here as he fits much better as a 3-4 outside linebacker and the Packers agreed with me.
Hate the pick of Ziggy Ansah for the Lions. Athletically, he is a behemoth of a player with great speed and quickness. I am worried about his low production and lack of overall experience. Ultimately, you knew some team would be too enamoured with his height, weight and speed combination, but number 5 is way too high in my opinion. It does fit a glaring need with the losses of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, but I would have went with a player with more experience in Barkevious Mingo. General Manager Mark Mayhew and Jim Schartz are banking on Ziggy being the “Ansah” or else they may be out of a job with their contracts up after this season.
With the talent in this draft being so even from rounds 1 to 3, it is truly hard to rate this draft and how teams did. Players who were drafted in the second round, could very easily have been first rounder’s. As many predicted, this was the draft to get offensive lineman (3 of the first 4 picks) and pass rushers ( 3 of the first 6 picks) in the first round.
It will be interesting to see where Matt Barkeley and Ryan Nassib go, as both are still available with the start of the 4th round, despite having both low first to second round projections.
Okay, so I am stepping into the foray of Mock Drafting. I do not have a 10-15 part series of mock drafts like Mel Kyper Jr. has, nor do I have multiple predictions of possible draft day trades.
The best way to do a Mock draft, in my opinion, is to completely factor in needs. There is no point in imagining who the best player of the draft will be. There are simply too many factors that come into play when a team is on the clock and choosing which player they will covet. Conversely, a team may opt to draft outside of their primary need at an earlier round because they know they can fill that need with a player they like in a later round. Again, those types of thought processes are only available to the general managers and scouts in respective draft war rooms.
My mock draft will provide the primary need, secondary and if possible, third needs of the team.
So without further ado, with the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft:
1-Kansas City: With the Chiefs on the clock and their primary need supplanted by the arrival of Alex Smith two months ago, their attention now turns to improving their offensive line with the defection of Eric Winston.
Their secondary need is one of an outside linebacker opposite Tamba Hali, or they could get some help for Brandon Flowers at the second corner spot. Since I do not account for trades, Luke Joeckel makes perfect sense for the Chiefs with the return of Brandon Allen. Either player can play the left or right side bookend tackle spot.
2-Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars truly have a primary need at Quarterback but as I alluded to a few weeks ago, the number two pick is simply too high for Geno Smith. The Jags have not had an elite pass rusher for a very long time, to the point where J.J. Watt had more than their entire team. Thus, their need for a guy to consistently get after the quarterback is crucial. Dion Jordan is the pick here. He fits the mold of a tall and lean pass rusher, similar to Jason Taylor. He can play at the end or at outside linebacker with very solid range to play pass coverage.
3-Oakland Raiders: The Raiders completely jettisoned their defensive tackles, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. Their primary need is a disruptive and athletic 3-technique that can stop the run and rush the passer. However, they could also desperately use some corners having ranked 20th against the pass. Sheriff Floyd will ultimately be the pick here. Considered by many as a can’t-miss prospect, he has the athleticism and strength to be stout against the run, but disruptive as a pass rusher too. There is slight concern that his short arms could cause some problems in the trenches, but that is a minor weakness. Every single mock draft has the Raiders selecting Floyd. Personally I am shocked there is not a bigger movement for him as the best prospect in this draft.
4-Philadelphia Eagles: I will not make fun of the dream team, but I will say the Eagles are not very talented. They could use a myriad of players but their primary need, especially if Chip Kelly continues with the Michael Vick experiment, is an offensive lineman. They could also go after Geno Smith, as he fits the mold of an athletic quarterback who would run the read-option system Kelly employs, especially considering Vick is creeping up in age. I am actually going to go off the board and picking contrary to most analysis. Dee Millner is the pick here. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Denver and Nnamdi Asomugha, both not good anymore and with San Francisco, the Eagles really need someone who can cover the likes of Pierre Garcon, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Millner is the consensus number one corner in the draft and has terrific 4.4 speed and great size and instincts. He would come in immediately and be a factor on the back-end for the Eagles.
-Update (4/24): Now that reports of Dee Millner having gone through 5 surgeries have surfaced, the pick here is Star Lutolelei. An absolute beast at the defensive tackle position, Star has the type of power and physical attributes to be an anchor to fill that defensive end position for the Eagles. That position is imperative in ensuring the edges are contained when running a 3-4 defense.
5-Detroit Lions: Their primary need, with the retirement of Jeff Backus, would be a stout left tackle to go toe-to-toe with the elite pass rushers of the NFC North. The Lions have a desperate need at cornerback, but that will have to wait till the second round. Ultimately, you need to protect Matthew Stafford who has had rotator cuff injuries in the past. Eric Fisher, who many teams and scout have graded higher than Joeckel, is the pick here. He is a very athletic tackle with great feet and good technique. He will be stout for the Lions and start for a decade.
6-Cleveland Browns: The Browns primarily could use a corner opposite Joe Haden, but that position will have to wait until the second round. That makes quarterback as a bigger priority in the first round, with Brandon Weeden seemingly lacking the confidence of the new regime. In real life, if the first 5 picks went this way, this is the perfect scenario to draft the best player available. Since I am not privy to the Browns scouts and war room, let’s go with the primary need and take Geno Smith. Rob Chudzinski made great work of Cam Newton and could do wonders for Smith. He is not blessed with the arm or physical attributes that Newton has, but he is talented and a good student of the game. He should do fine to erase the mistake of the previous season of drafting a 28 year old quarterback with in the first round.
7-Arizona Cardinals: When you allow 58 sacks in 16 games, you know your absolute, a-number-1 need is at the offensive line. The NFC West boasts some of the best pass rushers in the league with Aldon Smith, Chris Long, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Robert Quinn. This is a no-brainer of a pick. One of the blue-chip left tackle prospects will fall into the Cardinals lap in any mock draft. Lane Johnson is the pick here and he dazzled scouts with his 4.71 40 time at the Combine. He showed great athleticism and a guy that can come in and dominate right away. He will be a fixture in Arizona for a long time.
8-Buffalo Bills: The primary need for Buffalo is still quarterback. Kevin Kolb, in the interim, fills a need as a stopgap quarterback. They can go wide receiver as well to help out Stevie Johnson on the outside. Their linebacker corps is also aging and can desperately use some athleticism. Ultimately, with the familiarity to Doug Marrone and it appearing more and more likely that they are indeed enamored with him, Ryan Nassib is the pick for the Bills if there is a trade-down scenario. I would be shocked if this does not happen. Nassib is not a first round talent. Since we do not take that into account in my mock draft, Tyler Eifert fits a desperate need for a pass catching tight end. I like Scott Chandler, but that position needs a jolt of offense and fresh blood. Chandler is more of a blocker and redzone player. Eifert is a great athlete and is considered by many to have better athleticism than Kyle Rudolph, who was the Vikings first round Notre Dame tight end in last years draft. His blocking skills are very solid and will also pitch in with the running game.
9-New York Jets: Pure talent at the skill position is the primary need for the Jets. They could use a quarterback, wide receiver, running back, offensive lineman, cornerback with the departure of Darrelle Revis and the list can go on and on. This is the toughest pick in the top 10 to predict because they could go a myriad of ways. D.J. Hayden, the cornerback out of Houston, wowed scouts at his pro-day showing 4.38 speed is the pick here. He is supposed to be as good a corner as Millner and according to Mike Maycock, he has better ball skills than the former Crimson Tide standout. The cornerback position is so crucial in Rex Ryan’s defense. They have to be left on an island and play man coverage at least 40 to 50% of the time.
10-Tennessee Titans: This is an easy one. Although they can use a cornerback as their primary need or maybe a pass rusher, ultimately Ron Munchak wants to bring back the run game in a big way. The Titans acquired Andy Levitre from free agency at right guard and the pick here of Chance Warmack makes perfect sense. The middle of that offensive line will be as secure as they can get. Warmack was a dominant force and although he is not as athletic as Jonathan Cooper–who is Warmack’s running mate to be the first guard taken in the draft—he has tremendous size and an Alabama pedigree that all general managers love these days. He completely manhandled the competition, including Manti Te’o who was neutralized in the National Championship game.
11-San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers was battered and bruised to the tune of 49 sacks last season, so it is obvious that the primary need is a left tackle. The defense needs to get younger in a hurry as well, especially at outside linebacker with the release of Shaun Philips and middle linebacker with Takeo Spikes defecting. The issue here is that after the top 3 left tackles are gone but ultimately, Jonathan Cooper is the pick here. He is not the big-time left tackle that they covet, but he will help improve a bad offensive line. Cooper is very athletic and will come in right away and help anchor the middle of that offensive line. Having good guards can help you move around your offensive line and ultimately improve several line positions even with the addition of one player.
12-Miami Dolphins: Left Tackle is a position that is virtually gone at this point of the draft and there are no running backs good enough to take this high. Make this the 2nd cornerback taken off the board with Dee Millner. He measured terrifically at the Combine and was the best corner in college football last season. His stock will fall because of the numerous surgeries he has had and troubles with his shoulder. Ultimately, he is too talented to pass up at a need spot for the Dolphins. If the rumors are true that Brandon Allen is a potential target for the Dolphins, it would make sense to fill the need for a cornerback first.
13-New York Jets: The Jets, via the Darrelle Revis trade, acquired another first round pick. This time, it would be wise to use it on Barkevious Mingo. This fills a huge need, as they have not a 10-sack season from any of their players since John Abraham in 2005. Mingo has great athleticism, but is still a little raw and is slender for a player of his size. As far as pure pass rushing skills, he is still quite advanced. You are drafting a player who will only be a major impact player in 2 or 3 seasons as he continues to fill out his frame. A lot of people have the Jets taking a tight end or wide receiver, but I simply do not think those are significant needs for this team at this moment.
14-Carolina Panthers. Carolina has needed defensive tackles for the last 5 years. Remember how stout their defense was when they had Kris Jenkins?. They could also go with a cornerback with the release and retirement of Chris Gamble. Wide Receiver is also a position of need here. Steve Smith is still as feisty as they come, but he is getting up there in age. Brandon LaFell is at best a temporary solution as a second wide receiver. At the end of the day, the Panthers come out of the draft with Sheldon Richardson who is the third best defensive tackle in the draft. Richardson has prototypical size to be a terrific pure defensive tackle. He stands in a 6’3, 294 lbs. with terrific athleticism for his size. He may end up being a better pass rusher than run stopper, so he will need to be able to concentrate on both aspects.
15-New Orleans Saints: Defense, Defense and more Defense. The Saints were historically putrid on defense and there is nothing more that can be said. They could desperately use a pass rusher here with them moving to a 3-4 defense, but a corner to help mitigate the a 32nd rated pass defense would be ideal as well. When you consider how anyone of Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Josh Freeman can pick them apart at any point, you realize how badly their defense needs a playmaker. This is a tough one, but I will go with Ziggy Ansah. A behemoth at 6’5, 270 lbs., he has long arms and can run a 4.7 40-yard dash. His productivity was low at BYU and he is raw, but so was Jason Pierre-Paul. Rob Ryan likes athletic outside rushers and Ansah fits the bill well, at least with his measurables.
16-St Louis Rams: I love how the Rams have built their team around defense. But it really is time for them to spend assets on their offense, in particular at wide receiver where they lost Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. They could also use another safety, but at this position Tavon Austin is the pick. Austin has received a lot of publicity about his triple threat capability as a runner (643 yards, 3 TD’s), a receiver(1289, 12 TD’s) and in the return game (978 1 TD). At about 5’8, 170 lbs., he has 4.3 speed and is as elusive as anyone in the draft. This pick will allow the Rams do get an adequate replacement for Amendola not only in the slot, but also in special teams.
17-Pittsburgh Steelers: James Harrison is gone and there is a big need for a pass rusher. Wide Receiver, while still a big need, can be filled in the second round for Pittsburgh. They could also use a running back and while they will draft one, the first round has no backs that are worth drafting that high. The Steelers will need to improve their secondary very soon with aging Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polaumalu, but the pick here is Jarvis Jones. Jones measured really poorly at his pro-day, running a 4.9 40-yard dash as 6’3, 245 lbs. edge rusher. He will need to at least bulk up to endure the rigors of the AFC North, but I would forget his Combine stats. This is the type of player that, on tape, just flat-out produces despite his athletic misgivings. The Steelers will mold him into the type of player that fits their system and he will thrive.
18-Dallas Cowboys: I love the move going to a 4-3 for Dallas. They will need to shore up their linebackers to help with that Tampa 2 scheme that Monte Kiffin will run. A huge need for Dallas is at the offensive line where Doug Free has struggled over the past season at Right Tackle. Tony Romo struggles mightily when he is rusher up the middle and drafting good guards will allow Romo have time and step into throws in the pocket, as opposed to getting rushed. Safety also has not been properly filled since the departure of Roy Williams and even Darren Woodson. A true 3-technique to play the Warren Sapp position of the Tampa 2 defense would be a valuable addition here. This is a tough position, but ultimately if Free returns, which seems to be the case, right tackle will be filled. Therefore, the pick here is Sylvester Williams. He has a tremendous first step and will be able to take double teams away from DeMarcus Ware. A strong player, he has a variety of moves for a defensive tackle. Will need to be more consistent as a run stuffer though.
19-New York Giants: The Giants have major needs at offensive line with an aging unit. They also have not properly filled their linebacker corps in a few years. Will Beatty is entrenched at the Left Tackle spot for a long time and is one of the better players at that position in the NFC. D.J. Fluker is the pick here and he possesses great size to play the right tackle spot. This fits a huge need for Big Blue.
20-Chicago: Manti Te’o is an uneasy pick here but he fits the need for the Bears who do not have a middle linebacker with the release of Brian Urlacher. Overall, that defense is aging all over the field so they could potentially go with a corner or even a defensive line. Te’o has great instincts, although he is a little undersized and lacks ideal speed. I disagree regarding the notion that he is not a 3 down linebacker. He had 7 interceptions last season for the Fighting Irish and shows terrific ball skills.
21-Cincinnati: As many of the teams in this draft, the Bengals could use players at various positions. The Safety positions, currently manned by Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson, could use some youth. With the addition of James Harrison, the outside linebacker position, which was a need and still is, may not be as pressing. They could fill that need in the second round. Kenny Vaccarro makes so much sense. His 4.6 40-yard dash time is not truly indicative of the athlete that he is. He is more of a 4.5 type of guy and can do it all. If you need him to play the slot against bigger wide receivers, be the 8th man in the box or range and cover a lot of ground, Vaccarro is the premier safety in this draft, in a year filled with them.
22-St. Louis: The Rams need to fill a need a safety really badly here. Jonathan Cyprien is the pick here and he will fit in perfectly with great size and athleticism. Many like him as the best safety in the draft, especially after a terrific Senior Bowl and Combine.
23-Minnesota Vikings: Despite the addition of Greg Jennings and then the defection of Percy Harvin, the Vikings still have a big need at Wide Receiver. The cupboard is bare after Jennings and if they do not fill this position, he will see the same fate that plagued Harvin and the Minnesota passing game: double teams and Christian Ponder struggling to find secondary threats. Cornerback is a secondary need and with Antoine Winfield gone, the Vikings will need to desperately find ways to defend the likes of Johnson, Cobb, Nelson, Jones and Marshall. Thus, the pick here is Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes is a big athletic corner (6’2, 217 lbs.) who plays press coverage and is feisty. He fits the bill of the new-age cornerback that needs to be big and this is a perfect fit with receivers like Marshall and Johnson in the division, who are over 6’4. Good luck finding many 210 pound corners who run sub 4.4 on the 40-yard dash and can jump over 40 inches. Rhodes fits the bill and then some.
24-Indianapolis Colts: The Colts made some great additions in the offseason, including Laron Landry and some offensive line depth in Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas. Dwight Freeney has been an anchor for them as a pass rusher for almost a decade, but he is gone and did not fit the bill of a true outside pass rusher of the 3-4 mold. Could they use a running back? Definitely, but I have said ad nauseum that there is no running back in the first round this year. Damontre Moore is the pick here. He had a terrible Combine with only 14 reps as a 6’4, 250 pound outside linebacker and he did not run a good 40 at all. He had terrific production, being one of the top sack-men in the SEC. But his work ethic has been questioned with a poor Combine showing. Considering he was likely a top 10 pick before the Combine, finding him at the 24th spot is still a steal.
25-Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings get Seattle’s pick here and take Cordarrelle Patterson. Technically speaking, he is definitely an unfinished product as a receiver. He does not run crisp routes, nor does he appear to be a natural hands catcher. In his interviews, he seems immature and from the research I have gathered, teams get that sense as well. What he does possess is freakish athleticism as a player who can run a 4.4 40-yard dash with elite size at 6’2 and 220 lbs. Rumors persist that he also has a hard time learning the game. This is a big need for the Vikings and he is a top 2 player at his position in the draft.
26-Green Bay Packers: When you get sacked over 45 times, throw 42 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions, there is no doubt you are the best quarterback in the league. But you must protect your most prized possession. The offensive line has been in flux for years and it is time to fix this position. They could use a safety, but you can find more one in the second round. The Packers select Justin Pugh here, who many consider one of the smartest players in the draft over the last 12 seasons. He has short arms, so he may have to move to guard as opposed to the left tackle position that he played. Ultimately, he is a good value pick here and will improve their offensive line.
27-Houston Texans: Houston needs wide receivers in the worst way. Kevin Walter is gone and they have no replaced Jacoby Jones’ limited production. I know a lot of people like Keenan Allen, but I loved Robert Woods’ ability at the Combine. From a pure wide receiver skills perspective, he looked like the most polished. He does not run fast, but he will step in right away and catch 50 passes. He fits the type of passing game Kubiak runs to a tee.
28-Denver Broncos: When you get to this point, you start looking at the best player available. The needs would be a middle linebacker and defensive end after the loss of Elvis Dumervil. With the advanced age of Champ Bailey and loss of Tracy Porter, a corner could be used here as well. Datone Jones ultimately is the pick here. He could be a hybrid 3-4 outside rush linebacker, but could very well stick his hand in the ground and be a down lineman. He has terrific size at 6’4, 285 lbs. and ran a 4.75 40-yard dash. He plays an aggressive style and should fill in nicely for the departure of Dumervil.
29-New England Patriots: I would say that a wide receiver would be a pressing need for New England, but they never take wide receivers high. They have stocked up on a lot of positions over the past few drafts and have made terrific selections in that span. They could bolster up their safety position here and possibly go defense again. The Patriots run several variations of a 3-4 and 4-3, therefore they could go many different ways. I will go off the board and select Keenan Allen. He plays very physically and many have compared him to Anquan Boldin. It is time for this position to get some much needed youth and not be filled solely with slot receivers.
30-Atlanta Falcons: Many consider Atlanta to be one of the favorites to win the NFC next season. There is talent everywhere, but they could still use some youth at some key positions. Gone is John Abraham who was replaced with Osi Umenyiora. They could still use another pass rusher or a cornerback. Bjoern Werner is the pick here. He has dropped quite a bit since the Combine, but this is a good need pick with that position being on the older side of the spectrum. Today’s NFL means that you simply cannot have 2 defensive ends playing the entire game. You must be able to rotate a multitude of players and Werner will be able to rusher the passer and defend the run. Players like Werner get left behind because of average athleticism. Along with Jarvis Jones, both are the types of players whose production should never be overlooked despite their performances in the underwear olympics. Werner was terrific at Florida State and in the right scheme, can be a very solid player.
31-San Francisco 49ers: This team has so few holes that it is hard to pinpoint a true need. The loss of Dashon Goldson will hurt tremendously and needs to be filled. Matt Elam is a terrific player. A little on the smaller side, at 5’10 and 208lbs, he had over 70 tackles last season, 4 picks and two sacks. A complete player, he can play in the box or he can be a rangy safety and defend the deep pass. From everything I have read, Elam is easily the best safety in the draft if he was a little taller. I love players like him because they flat out play regardless of their height. Think Bob Sanders.
32-Baltimore Ravens: With Bernard Pollard gone as well as Ed Reed, the safety position still needs to be filled opposite of Michael Huff. There are some terrific safeties in this draft, although it is not always a prime position despite the need. Eric Reid is the pick here at safety. Although not great in coverage, he has great size and could be terrific playing the role of Bernard Pollard being that 8th man in the box player.
So here is my mock draft. Most of my selections came from what little I saw from the College Football season, but more so research of the players, team needs, pro days and the Combine.
Certain players who will surely be first rounders like Menlik Watson and Zack Ertz did not make the cut on my Mock. I simply had no spot to put them, especially Ertz. Tight Ends like are never primary needs for teams. You can always find them in the later rounds. Unless they are can’t-miss elite players, my draft philosophy on tight ends is to wait until the later rounds.
After some deliberation, Matt Barkley will be the best quarterback in this draft. His leadership and mental makeup remind me of Russell Wilson. Many scouts have said that he has a terrific head on his shoulders and they love the leadership he displayed during trying times at USC. His arm is good enough to make most of the NFL throws. He would be terrific for a team like the Texans.
These are such a crapshoot because we are not privy to the discussion about players and the medical records that ultimately drop players’ grades. The big day is tomorrow and I am not holding my breath that even 50% of my picks will be right. This is simply a primer to the draft and who I think would be the best picks based on the stated criteria.
I may update these picks before 4pm tomorrow, so check back periodically if you care about my draft insight.
The blockbuster deal between Darrelle Revis, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally came to fruition.
Early this morning, there were numerous reports of a deal coming close and later in the day, with Revis officially in Tampa Bay for a physical, all speculation quickly became a reality.
The key parameters of the deal are simple: The Jets will get Tampa Bay’s 2013 first round pick and a conditional draft pick (most likely a 3rd rounder in 2013, if Revis is not cut) for Revis. The latter also reached an agreement on a 6-year contract worth $96 million, although none of that money is guaranteed. On the onset though, if you are getting Darrelle Revis at his best– which is still a question mark–you can only go up from there.
Say what you will about the compensation the Jets received as it was not as high a coup as originally thought , but it was a deal they had to make to ensure the proper rebuild of a team that is a mess and devoid of talent at numerous positions. They can now use these assets to fill needs for a pass rusher, tight end or offensive lineman or they may try and trade up to get a player they covet.
For the Bucs, this marks a trade that gives them the potential to make some noise in the extremely competitive NFC South. Revis now forms a secondary that can challenge as one of the best in the league, with rising star Mark Barron, Eric Wright, the recently signed 2-time Pro Bowler, Dashon Goldson and Ronde Barber who is still mulling a return to the only team that he has played for in 15 NFL seasons.
The NFC South features a plethora of great receivers, with the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. The bolstering of the Buccaneers secondary was desperately needed considering they ranked 32nd in pass defense a season ago.
That is all fine and well, but if their pass rush does not improve, most notably Da’Quan Bowers who has only registered 4.5 sacks in two seasons in the league, as good as those additions are, they may not completely live up to their potential. Adrian Claiborne, who had 7.5 sacks in 2011, will return from an injury and should help that pads rush.
The front and the back end must always work together; especially in the new pass happy NFL. You can have the most talented corners in the league, but when you finished 30th in sacks and lost your best pass rusher in Michael Bennett, quarterbacks cannot be able to count 7 to 10 steamboats without being pressured or that will leave your secondary in a rather precarious position. Just look at the Eagles who had good corners, but zero pass rushers and finished 27th in the NFL in sacks. Unless you have a built-in scheme that doesn’t require elite pass rushers, you can potentially get away with leaving your corners on an island. And that is what the Jets did and it worked, but the Buccaneers do not have a Rex Ryan or a type of scheme that can hide such deficiencies. We will see if Revis alone can be the key.
The rest of the Buccaneers front four has potential. Gerald McCoy is a beast and his continued growth as a 3 technique will be imperative for Bowers and the rest of the front four to gain pressure.
On paper, as much as this move screams a massive improvement in the Bucs overall defense, especially against the pass, expectations must be tempered until we see how this secondary works as a unit and more importantly, how their down lineman develop a consistent pass rush.
Offensively they have a lot of talent at the skill positions and a big offensive line featuring Davin Joseph and Donald Penn. Last season’s rookie sensation Doug Martin dazzled us with his speed, elusiveness and tough inside running. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are a formidable duo of wide receivers that have the potential to be one of the better pairings in the NFC.
The key will be Josh Freeman and if he can regain his 2009 form, where he was stellar with a 95.6 quarterback rating, throwing for just under 3,500 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. He has the talent with regards to arm strength to make all the throws an NFL starting quarterback needs to make. However, over the last two seasons, he has lacked accuracy and his decision-making has wavered, throwing 39 interceptions over that stretch.
It will be imperative for Freeman to revert back to his previous form where he was one of the rising young pivots in the league. In a division where Drew Brees and Matt Ryan were top 10 in pass attempts last season and Cam Newton is one of the budding superstars at the position, that leaves Freeman as the lone quarterback who has yet to establish himself as a bona fide starting quarterback that can lead his team (Okay, the jury is still out on Newton as a leader, but you get my point). That division for a long time has been about the quarterbacks and their passing prowess. The Bucs have all the talent on offense and they have improved the foundation of their defense enough to best the Panthers and potentially challenge the Saints and Falcons. They finished 6-10 in 2012, but they also lost 3 games by a combined 5 points, so the cup is not bare by any stretch. However, all the additions in the world will only make the Buccaneers paper NFC South champions if they cannot get consistent play from Josh Freeman and their pass rushers.
Ultimately, Greg Schiano is the type of coach that will not accept mediocrity from Freeman and he has already unofficially challenged him, with the report coming out that he is not convinced Freeman is the guy to lead the Bucs at the quarterback position. It will be interesting to see how this motivates Freeman, as he is due for a new contract at the end of the 2014 season.
The Bucs and Jets will not waste time in seeing how Revis fares against his former team, with Tampa Bay travelling to New York for week 1 of the NFL 2013 season. In the immortal words of Bart Scott: CAN’T WAIT.
No other major sports league has the gall to have a schedule release show, spanning three hours with analysts speculating about the record of teams that have not even held their draft yet or done training camp.
Yes, the NFL is that big and it can get away with it.
If any more proof was needed that the NFL is the crown jewel of all major sports, tonight’s announcement was a prime indicator, with the Twitterverse hashtagging and debating which matchups are the most compelling.
The NFL knows drama and they are by far the best at re-creating storylines, with the way they schedule rematches of previous playoff games and players returning to their former teams. I do not think I have ever seen an NFL schedule, that features more storylines of players and coaches returning to play/coach teams they left for greener pastures.
Key Games to Watch
The Broncos will start the season at home against the Ravens, a rematch of the AFC Divisional playoff round. Rahim Moore will hopefully have a chance to redeem himself after the blunder that propelled the Ravens to a Super Bowl run. Elvis Dumervil will also face his former team after that weird fax machine snafu that ended his Broncos career.
The Texans travel to the Charm City to face the Ravens in Ed Reed’s return to Baltimore. Reed will take his ticket to paradise back home, where he was one of the best ball hawks in the entire league. This will be a major test for the Texans as they hope to become a major force in the AFC with the Ravens in re-tooling mode. What will surely be an emotional game, Reed and the Texans will be extra motivated to prove the Ravens wrong. Reed was never a blue-chip athlete, but his cerebral understanding of the game and how Joe Flacco plays, will be a great matchup to analyse.
You knew once the schedule was released that the NFL was going to make sure Peyton Manning, Indiana’s prodigal son, returns home to Indianapolis against the team that originally drafted him. Last year, the story of the offseason was Peyton Manning’s impending release from the Colts and signing with Denver. Manning should get a standing ovation, in what will be a terrific game featured on Sunday Night Football in week 7.
Peyton Manning will lead the league in marquee matchups and in week 2, which may be one of the best weeks of the season in terms of marquee matchups, he will face little brother Eli in the Meadowlands. In a game which will surely feature at least 20 to 30 camera pans on Archie and Olivia Manning, sitting in a press box, this will be a great test for a Giants defense that was pourous against the pass. Regardless of who you root for, Eli versus Peyton is always high drama.
Kansas City travels to Philadelphia in week 3 for Andy Reid’s return. This will not be a warm welcome for Reid who, despite his success, was never able to win a title in a town that is dying for a Super Bowl. Do not underestimate this Chiefs team. There is solid talent and Reid will be extremely motivated to win this game. Very underrated matchup.
The Seahawks and 49ers will renew acquaintances and try to live up to all the offseason hype as being the best rivalry in football. Both teams matched each other offseason move for offseason move, seemingly improving their teams solely for the purpose of besting each other on the field. Even better than the way they play tough and physical defense, is how both Quarterbacks are young, athletic and are coming off terrific “rookie” seasons where they mastered the read-option. This two-game set begins at home for the 49ers in week 2(SNF) and concludes in week 14 with the rowdy 12th man.
Speaking of the 49ers, they have a rematch against the Falcons, on the second to last weekend of the season. Atlanta is widely considered as favorites to be the NFC representative this season with the return of Tony Gonzalez and signings of Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, among others. The Falcons were 10 yards away from reaching the Super Bowl, so it will be interesting to see how their receivers match up against a team that lost Deshon Goldshon.
The Saints have not been the same since Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks euthanized them. Finally, they will be traveling to “C-Link” for the first time since the 2010 Wild Card round. This will be a terrific matchup with a much improved Seattle pass rush and Drew Brees who throws the ball around the yard to a plethora of receivers. Look for this to be a high scoring affair, with terrific matchups including Seattle’s corners and the Saints receivers.
The NFC East teams always draws the ire of most NFL fans. As mentioned, they get the most primetime games (Washington has 5) and the storylines are always endless. Will RGIII be ready for week 1? Will Tony Romo finally win a playoff game for the first time since 2009? Chip Kelly talks fast and coaches even faster, but will his up-tempo style mesh well with Michael Vick and the Eagles? And is this the year the Giants finally run out and be an elite team, without needing controversy to fuel another Super Bowl run?
While this reads like a 1970′s Batman tagline, the NFC East games and teams will be on the same Bat-channels you usually find them and will once again bring about compelling matchups all across the board.
The are countless other games on the mend. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are back at it to renew their, decade long, rivalry in week 12 in NBC. New England at Carolina could be an underrated matchup with Cam Newton facing Bill Belichick for the first time in his career. St Louis is the sexy pick to be a 9 or 10 win team this season and they have great back-to-back matchups in week 2 at Atlanta and at Dallas.
Thankfully, the Monday Night Football Schedule has the potential to be better than last season’s (which featured many blowouts), but the Sunday Night fixtures are absolutely mouth watering. Apart from the matches mentioned above, you have: New England @ Atlanta (Week 4), Redskins @ Cowboys (Week 6), Green Bay@ Minnesota (Week 8) Dallas @ New Orleans, (Week10), Atlanta @ Green Bay (Week 14), Patriots @ Baltimore (Week 16).
There has never been a better slate of Sunday primetime games in NBC’s history of broadcasting in this timeslot. Virtually every game has great storylines, a current or budding rivalry or marquee matchups with the biggest stars of the game.
The schedule release is another step towards football. September cannot get here fast enough.
Which games are you looking forward to?
In an era where commentators like Gus Johnson and Kevin Harlan are lauded for their, at times, exaggerated exuberance, Pat Summerall was a true throwback.
Very few people knew that, in a day and age where players played multiple positions, Summerall was a very solid defensive end, tight end and make a name for himself as a kicker with the Giants.
After his playing career, he moved on to the broadcasting booth with CBS and then with FOX, both times pairing up with the legendary John Madden. Together, commentating on CBS and FOX, they became the voices of NFC football.
My earliest memories of Summerall were from the EA Sports Madden NFL series and as I started watching football, I was absolutely enamored with his voice, elocution and football knowledge. Summerall was so subtle with his speech and the way he called games. He was not flashy, nor loud, but he exuded a certain class in the way he called the game. He was just so cool and smooth that he could say three or four words to make a touchdown call and it would still be flawless. “Touchdown, Michael Irvin”: It was short, it was sweet, it was not loud or obnoxious, but it was effective.
We make fun of Madden and his love affair with Brett Favre, but those two had terrific chemistry and worked so perfectly together. Summerall knew his role and let Madden be the one to educate us about the game of football, while he sat back and offered a narrative style of play-by-play. When Madden went to NBC and paired up with Al Michael, I felt the chemistry simply was not there. Michaels tries far too often to be an analyst with his commentating style. He forces his thoughts on the game in a way that alienated Madden and ultimately made it feel like there was two colour commentators. Summerall never did that and his style of play-by-play always ensured that Madden was the main focus.
When Summerall was calling a game, you absolutely knew, without a doubt, that it was the best game of the week. Their pairing made me a fan of the NFC. There was just something about them calling New York versus Dallas games or San Francisco games. But whenever they called the Cowboys against Packers, the aura that Summerall brought resonated on my 16” television like no other. There was no announcing tandem that could’ve done a better job at canvassing the premier rivalry of the 90’s to its viewers.
I consider him a pioneer in announcing football games and sadly, analysts like him are few and far between. He excelled not only in football, but he commentated The Masters as well as the US Open and the NBA Finals. A veteran of 16 Super Bowls (and over 41 years of football broadcasting), I can safely say that Summerall definitely made the big game a bigger spectacle than it was if it was on other networks than the one he is working for. All you need to do is read how the likes of Troy Aikman, Jerry Jones, John Madden and countless others speak so highly of Summerall. “Royalty in the broadcast booth”, as Jerry Jones stated regarding Summerall, does not even begin to tell the story about the type of football man he was.