NFL Draft: Sending the Bears an email they don’t want to read

Yesterday gave a us a wild first round. This was yet another night that makes me ponder just how stupid it is for us to try to predict trades when we do mock drafts. The ones that end up happening are never the ones we expect and, yesterday, we didn’t have to wait long before the first crazy trade.

Anyone who knows me is well aware that I love picking apart bad drafting and bad free agent signings. Therefore, I along with most of the NFL audience, was taken off guard when the Bears gave up several picks to swap selections with the 49ers in order to draft this guy:

Mitch Trubisky

So, while I still wanted to write some form of recap, I didn’t want to do the standard winners/losers column. So I’m going to keep it short and send the Chicago Bears an email they really don’t want to read

To: Bears GM Ryan Pace and HC John Fox. 

From: Alexandre Turp

Hey guys, far be it from me to add to the shitstorm you’ve been taking from local and national media for giving up all these picks to grab Mitch Trubisky, but I’m afraid I must. So here’s my question: On a scale of one to ‘what-the-fuck-have-we-done,’ how badly are you freaking out that there are, if you really look at it, eerie similarities between your new QB and Blaine Gabbert?

Now, Mr. Pace, I know you’re sitting there thinking, “What the hell?! Trubisky’s gonna be so much better than that stiff!!” Hear me out.

Nobody starts off wanting to draft the kind of quarterback Gabbert has become, but hindsight is 20/20. We only hate this comparison because we now KNOW what Gabbert is at the NFL level. However, I can’t help but find they have several things in common. Physically, all the tools are there. It’s why they were drafted where they were. I liked the arm strength, the apparent ability to fit the ball in tight windows, the surprising mobility.

Also, they both come from spread offences with simple reads that have little to do with all they’ll be asked to do at the NFL level.

Moreover, there is, in the case of each one, something worrisome about their college resumé. Gabbert’s passing statistics were nothing to write home about, despite his playing in an offence that facilitated big numbers, while Trubisky has only started 13 college games.

Finally, their respective situation coming into the league is positively and similarly atrocious. Both desperately need their supposed number 1 receiver to come through. In Gabbert’s case, we already know that he didn’t, as Justin Blackmon chose to prioritize weed over playing football. And… Sorry, what’s that? … What do you mean, ‘Are you still bitter about this?’ Moving on, shall we?

In your case, you let Alshon Jeffery go in free agency. You drafted Kevin White two years ago but, unless he stays healthy and becomes what he supposed to be, you’ll give your new quarterback a supporting cast about as lackluster as the one Gabbert had in Jacksonville. Plus, if White has another season of quality time with your athletic therapists, you’ve now dealt away picks that would’ve been useful when it comes to surrounding Mitchy with some actual talent. At least, your offensive line is a bit better than the one Gabbert had in Jacksonville. Small victories, eh?

In other words, if you toss Trubisky in there after the first time Mike Glennon throws two picks, he won’t know what’s hit him, and you’ll feel the pain of his being a bust just like I’m still feeling each of the million sacks Gabbert took because he was afraid of throwing an interception.

So here I am, once again, making myself the bearer of bad news. I’m sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, just remember that I’m just a bitter Jacksonville fan who’s trying to recover from the fact that Dalvin Cook, my favourite running back in the draft, the best running back in the draft, might be sitting there at 35 when my Jags pick in the second round, but that I won’t take him because I drafted Leonard Fournette yesterday despite having no O-Line to block for him.

Peace out, guys,

AT

 

Browns and Texans break new ground in the NFL trade game

It’s official: Brock Osweiler is the anti-quarterback. So pitiful was his level of play last year after signing a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed that the Texans and Browns worked out a fairly ground-breaking trade.

There are a few draft picks involved but, basically, it amounts to this: Houston gave Cleveland a second-round pick in this year’s draft in exchange for the Browns taking on Osweiler’s gargantuan contract. In a way, this is a win-win for both parties. The Arizona State product’s $16 million salary for next season is fully guaranteed, but Cleveland doesn’t care. It has so much cap room that it can afford to absorb the cap hit from Osweiler’s release. (Cleveland will… ahem… attempt to trade Osweiler, and will release him if they can’t find any suitors. Now that’s what I call leverage!) The Browns don’t care for or about Osweiler, which given their QB situation, is sadly revealing about the extent to which the Oz has turned off the rest of the NFL with his 2016 performance. What Cleveland really wanted was that second-round pick, and they basically got it for free, given that they have more cap room than they could possibly hope to use on free agents and draft picks.

Denver Broncos vs. Houston Texans, NFL Week 7

Meanwhile, Houston gains significant cap flexibility and probably can make a move for Tony Romo without having to convince him to play for a discount (which Denver will have to do). Injury-prone or not, the soon-to-be former Cowboy will command top dollar in a league where Mike Glennon can make $15 million for a team that willingly released Jay Cutler.

Houston’s new-found cap room should now make them the favourite in the race to acquire Romo, unless he’s really hellbent on playing for Denver. The Broncos and Texans are remarkably similar: they have an interesting set of skill positions players but serious problems on the offensive line; they each have one of league’s two best defensive players anchoring a really good defensive unit; and they’ll both try to keep Romo’s contractual demands in check by arguing that they’re completely OK moving forward with the young quarterback they already have on their roster. To this argument, Romo’s people will correctly respond something along the lines of, “if that were completely true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

If I’m Romo, the Texans have a slight edge for two reasons. First, they can afford to pay him better. Denver’s approach has been to present the opportunity to play for them as a favour, and to say that they’d welcome Romo if he’ll agree to play for a discount in exchange for a better shot at winning. But is it actually a better shot? Denver had run defence issues last year, and they missed the playoffs because they play in what was suddenly a brutally competitive AFC West, which reminds me… Second, the Texans play in the AFC South. The Colts have a lot of money tied up with quarterback Andrew Luck and a lot more owed to average starters they painfully overrated at the time when they signed them. The Titans showed promise last season, but still have to take that next step. Meanwhile, of course, the Jaguars are a complete dumpster fire, and represent two Ws on the schedule before the season even begins. All this to say that, for a healthy Romo, playing for the Texans is a much easier road to home-field advantage in the playoffs than running through the Oakland-L.A-KC gauntlet twice.

Of course, Romo is the last quarterback you want to have on a team with a subpar offensive line, and so Houston might find itself wishing it still had that second-round pick it giftwrapped for the Browns to convince them to take the Osweiler contract off their books. This sort of trade might also become a semi-regular occurrence in the NFL, but for now, the Texans look bad for having to compete with the team from which they “pried away” Brock Osweiler a year ago in order to acquire his replacement.


While we’re here, I wish to take a moment to make fun of the first two truly awful contracts of this year’s free agency period. What makes them even funnier is that they were both given away by the same team. I’m looking at you, Miami Dolphins!!!

Kenny Stills was their third wideout last year, and he caught a career-high nine touchdowns. If that was their justification for giving him a $32-million contract with 20 of these millions guaranteed, I’d like to offer my services to be their next general manager. Who do they think they have on their hands, here? Emmanuel Sanders? All the advanced stats suggest Stills is in line for a regression next year, and the Dolphins traded three picks during the 2016 draft to come up and select Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo in the second round. Have they already labelled Carroo a bust?

Now, they’ve frozenhim out of any playing time barring injuries, and they’ll pay DeSean Jackson money for Stills, who’s unlikely to give them an appreciable return on their investment. And their bad judgement doesn’t stop there.

With the catastrophic failure of Mario Williams, their marquee free agent defensive lineman from last season, the Phins made sure they wouldn’t lose defensive end Andre Branch, who posted an honest 5.5 sacks in rotational duty last season. To keep Branch, they gave him a three-year, $27 million contract, which seems like a terrific move if you’ve had a head injury.

Now, the exact figures of the contract have yet to come out, and so the less guaranteed money, the less risky the deal. However, we’re talking nine million per year, a comically large sum, for a player who was a bust for the Jaguars before posting decent-but-not-great statistics playing next to Hall-of-Fame talents Ndamokung Suh and Cameron Wake.

Moreover, if the Dolphins plan on making Branch a starter next season, they’ll be reminded that he’s brutally undersized when it comes to holding up against the run, and that having to do so may wear him down and make him less effective on his pass rush.

These moves truly make you question what kind of team Mike Tannenbaum thinks he has here. Yes, the Dolphins made the playoffs, but it wasn’t because they were extremely good. They got a wild card spot no one else seemed to want, and they did so by going a striking 8-2 in one-score games. Sure, because that’s happening again…

Whatever you do, Miami, please don’t change! You are an endless source of entertainment.

NFL Combine: Death of the workout warrior?

Everyone over the age of 10 can still remember at least one. Older NFL fans can still recall the meteoric post-Combine rise of defensive end Mike Mamula. Younger fans were probably old enough to witness the preposterous overdrafting of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey by the Raiders. Jets’ fans still weep as they reminisce the virtual invisibility of edge rusher Vernon Gholston. There have been countless others over the years, but all these draft prospects of yore have in common is that they have earned the unflattering label of the “workout warrior.”

At first, the expression appears to carry a positive connotation. Of course, for an NFL draft prospect, there is nothing intrinsically bad about the ability to run 40 yards in a straight line really quickly; or about the strength to bench press 225 pounds many, many consecutive times; or about looking chiseled out of stone like a Greek God. Several prospects, who’ll turn out to be really good NFL players, will check all those boxes. However, the label isn’t meant for workout beasts who can actually play.

The workout warrior tag is reserved for players whose college resume doesn’t warrant a top pick, but whose workout numbers, at the Combine or at their Pro Day, allow them to be drafted much higher than they should be, and whose lack of actual football skill torpedoes their NFL career once they reach the pros. Bonus points go to workout warriors whose pedestrian college production should have been a red flag for NFL talent evaluators (often how it goes, come to think of it).

The olden days of workout warrior glory

Mike Mamula was the original workout warrior. Originally projected to be drafted in the third round (which would have been consistent with what eventually was his level of play in the NFL) in 1995, the Boston College product decided, along with his agent, to train exclusively to ace the landmark Combine drills, such as the 40, the bench press, the T-Test and the vertical leap. His reasoning made sense: “If that’s what I’m going to be evaluated on, then that’s what I need to prepare for.” Mamula blew scouts away. Carrying a 6-4, 248-pound frame, he ran a 4.58 4o, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times, and had a vertical jump of 38,5 inches. The Philadelphia Eagles started a trend of drafting workout wonders, and selected Mamula seventh overall.

Soon after, however, the flaws in the Eagles’ thinking were on full display, and everyone remembered why Mamula was rated as a third-rounder before the combine. He was a highly productive player at Boston College, but he didn’t play as fast as he timed, and he was too far undersized to beat NFL tackles with power. (In those days, he was badly undersized as a defensive end, much worse than he would be now. Tackles were much heavier, and run games revolved mostly around man-blocking, which is, at its very nature, much more physical than the zone schemes that are the norm today.) Unlike many subsequent workout warriors, Mamula didn’t have a disastrous career. He was, by all accounts, a decent rotation defensive end. However, his Combine performance made several people think he was a franchise player at the position, and these same people were absolutely shocked when he failed to live up to expectations. Still, Mamula set a trend that would have fans trying to spot who the next one would be. He can be credited, if nothing else, for making the draft process more fun for draftniks. They justified their existence by unearthing late-round gems, and issuing stern warnings about the next Mamula.

When prepping for the draft as a fan, it was once part of the fun to hear of the unwarranted rise up draft boards of a “Combine star performer,” scream at your television set or at your computer and to have, with the talking head on the screen, a conversation such as this one:

– ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: This guy would have been lucky to make it into the first round before the Combine, but when he was in Indy, he checked all the boxes.

– Me: Blah, blah, blah…

– Kiper: He weighed in at 315, he ran 4.87, he had 30 reps at 225 pounds. Now, I’m hearing echoes of him being drafted in the Top 10.

– Me: Wha… What the hell?! Guy’s a stiff!!!

– Kiper: He now has scouts really high on his upside as a pass rusher…

– Me: So how come that “upside” never materialized in college, you dipshit?!

– Kiper: A scout that I talked to said this guy’s build and movement skills reminded him of Warren Sapp.

– Me: Blasphemy! In what universe?! Where did this guy get his crack pipe?! There aren’t enough ‘roids in the galaxy for him to get even a glimpse of Sapp!! Whoever drafts him that high is JUST MENTAL!!

Perhaps my father, my brother and my friend Gab Flewelling will have recognized me losing my cool after hearing “Kipe” sullying the great Warren Sapp’s name by putting it in the same sentence as that of Dewayne Robertson, a Kentucky defensive tackle drafted fourth overall by the Jets in 2003*. (Hmm… Them again… I sense a recurring theme, don’t you?) A year later, after a supremely underwhelming rookie season for the Jets’ second coming of Sapp, we were hearing ESPN’s football reporters, hoping any footage of them praising Robertson had been destroyed, telling us something like this, and prompting the following reaction from me:

– Reporter: Last year, the Jets tried to play Robertson as a three-technique to give him more pass rushing opportunities, but that doesn’t really suit his game. This year, they’ve moved him to a one-technique role, where he can do what he does best, which is soak up double-teams and stuff the run**…

– Me: SO WHO THE HELL IS BEING PAID TO DO THE SCOUTING AROUND THERE?!?! Me and my ZERO years of scouting experience could have told you Robertson is no 3-tech! Don’t you think this is the sort of thing a team would want to find out about BEFORE taking the guy at fourth overall?! Because you can bet that last slice of authentic New York pizza that the Jets never draft him fourth overall in a million years if they think he’s a one-tech! How about just watching the damn film?!

I know it doesn’t look like it, but those days were fun. You just had to look at 40 times to know which player would sucker a team into taking him far too early. You just hoped it wouldn’t be your team. Then, when they did, you hoped you were wrong about the guy. You usually weren’t. Back then, teams would make picks so reprehensibly dumb you’d feel really smart calling them out on it. Except when the Jags picked Matt Jones*** in the first round in 2005. Then I lost my shit.

Robertson selected fourth overall

Where have they gone?

So, a few days ago, “The Ringer NFL Show” hosts Robert Mays and Kevin Clark were having this debate about the significance of the Combine. The strongest stance came from Clark, who argued that there is no such thing as a workout warrior anymore. Teams, he suggested, should pick the guy who destroys Combine workouts because, he says, they’re better off grabbing the guys with upper-echelon athleticism and coaching them up to be competent NFL players.

His opinion is not completely without merit. The true workout warrior flops are indeed much rarer than they used to be. Workout freaks like Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, JJ Watt and Jadaveon Clowney can really play. We do, indeed,see less of the Gholstons, the Robertsons, the Troy Williamsons, the Ashley Lelies, the Donte Stallworths as we did about 15 years ago.

So how did this happen? I can offer three ideas as to why we do not have the overdrafted workout warriors we once had.

The first reason is this: teams have gotten much smarter in how they interpret combine data.  We got a perfect illustration of this just last year. When he arrived at the Combine, Chargers’ defensive end Joey Bosa was considered the 2016 Draft’s premier defensive line prospect. Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay even had Bosa ranked as the draft’s top prospect. Then, Bosa ran a pedestrian 4.86 40-yard dash. 15 years ago, Bosa’s subpar 40 would probably have sent him spiraling down to the 20s. Instead, because this was 2016, the Chargers didn’t panic. They went back to the tape and likely said to themselves, “who cares about what he ran? We don’t see 4.86 on tape.” Bosa went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and to record 10.5 sacks despite missing significant time. This is a powerful and essential message, and it’s why even the Browns are unlikely to be stupid enough to let themselves be scared off the draft’s top prospect, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, if he runs 4.72 instead of 4.55.

So when Clark says tape is more misleading than Combine results because it can mask the fact that a dominant college player might not be athletic enough to play in the NFL, he’s right to point out that this danger exists. This is why the Combine’s physical tests are not a complete waste of time. A cornerback who runs a 4.6 40 probably can’t hang with AJ Green or Julio Jones in man coverage. But whereas Combine results were once the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, despite GMs claim to the contrary, they now serve as a means of confirming what the tape shows about a prospect. This is, by any standard, a much more sensible way to use Combine data.

Thus, is Clark right to suggest that the Workout Warriors as we knew them are a thing of the past? In short, no. The second reason why they seem less numerous than they once were is this: Given that teams do a much better and complete job of figuring out a given prospect’s true abilities, they are far less likely to spend high draft picks on old-school Workout Warriors. Let nobody doubt it: the higher the draft pick, the higher the expectations. Ergo, a high draft choice will always get more chances to justify his draft status than a low-round pick will get to outplay his. If an old-fashioned workout warrior were to be drafted in the third or fourth round, nobody would make much of a fuss about the fact that he can’t play. These are the rounds that recent 40-time dynamos such as Kenyan Drake, Dri Archer, Cardale Jones or Clive Walford (all players whose testing numbers were better than their college careers) now occupy. Different expectations mean a different perspective on a player’s career. Imagine if Dewayne Robertson or Johnathan Sullivan had been drafted in the third round. Most likely, their respective teams don’t try to wedge them into playmaker roles they aren’t suited for, they slowly work their way into being perfectly suitable rotation players, and never do they become the laughing stocks they are now.

This leads me to the third reason: As teams get better at evaluating prospects, agents and college coaches come to realize it. Coaches can now spend three or four years telling players that, if they can’t play, that fancy 40 time will do them very little good. And agents, most of whom send their clients to high-priced training compounds during the Combine preparation period, have started sending them to places where the football skill-to-track technique ratio is more favourable to the former than it would previously have been. This becomes a must when positional drills become as scrutinized as the 40 time. It also has made players better because they spend the better part of three months, if not more, working on skills they’ll actually use beyond the Combine.

It begins

In my opinion, Workout Warriors have not disappeared. Rather, as teams have refined their evaluation methods, these testing freaks who can’t play now get exposed as such before, as opposed to after, they hit the field for the NFL team that drafts them. They are usually drafted lower, and have infinitely less significant expectations placed on them. Yet, the Workout Warriors will never be completely purged. If Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has not in any way shown he’s ready for the NFL, gets drafted in the first round, it’ll be because of his Combine workouts (he’s already said to have impressed new 49ers’ GM John Lynch). If USC’s Adoree Jackson is picked in the first round by a team that thinks it’s getting a true starting cornerback, it’ll happen because his athleticism (read 40 time) was “too much to pass up.” If Miami (FL) tight end David Njoku is picked before Alabama’s OJ Howard, you can bet your last dollar Combine numbers will have something to do with it.

Whatever happens ends up happening, however, it’ll be a blast to watch it unfold, as it always is. Good news, draftniks: our second round of Holidays is upon us. Draft season is here. Enjoy it! I know I will.

 

* That year, Robertson was part of a defensive tackle class that was meant to be one of the greatest in NFL Draft history. The group became something of a disappointment. Robertson, who was a huge bust at fourth overall, was followed off the board two picks later by an even more egregious workout warrior of a defensive tackle, Georgia’s Johnathan Sullivan (6-3, 313 lbs, 33 reps, 4.81 40-yard dash, and just could…not…play… for shit!). Also disappointing were Penn State’s Jimmy Kennedy (bounced around the league as a rotation player after going 12th overall to the Rams), and Miami (FL)’s William Joseph (a mortally inconsistent player who is now in prison for an identity theft tax return fraud scheme). This doesn’t, for a single second, excuse the Jets for taking Robertson and the Saints for (trading up and) taking Sullivan. The Saints could have drafted Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, whom they desperately needed (yup, even then, they were incompetent in the secondary). Meanwhile, the Jets could have gone for Oklahoma State DT Kevin Williams (ninth overall to the Vikings, and one of the five best DTs of the past 15 years) or for Texas A&M’s Ty Warren (who tormented the Jets while playing for the Patriots). And if pass rush is what they wanted, well, a no-name guy by the name of Terrell Suggs, who had run a pedestrian 4.77 40-time, was picked at #10 by the Ravens (of course). Meanwhile, the Jets decided, three years later, that they needed a franchise pass rusher and picked Vernon Gholston with the sixth selection. But, hey, Suggs ran a bad 40, so what the hell… He’s only going to be a Hall-of-Famer. Sometimes, cheering for the Jets truly is the suckiest gig in all of fandom. Oh, and by the way, since we’re laughing at bad organizations, back in 2003, the Cardinals, who needed a pass rusher in the absolute worst way, traded down from sixth overall where they could have had local guy Suggs (from Arizona State; coming off an NCAA record 24-sack season… Who the hell wants that?!), and wound up picking two workout warriors in edge rusher Calvin Pace (decent career, but not with the Cards) and wide receiver Bryant Johnson (slow as molasses on the field and couldn’t separate, but ran 4.37 at his Pro Day, predictably went back to the whole no-separating deal in the NFL)

** Turns out, Robertson couldn’t even do that in the NFL. 

*** Jones played quarterback at Arkansas, but was a really sporadic thrower who did most of his damage with his legs, so he moved to receiver in the NFL. Ergo, the average fan and the competent team might (rightly) deem it risky to spend a first-round pick on a guy who’s switching positions upon arriving in the league. But, hey, leave it to the Jags to be completely hooked at the sight of 6-6, 242 lbs, a 4.37 in the 40 and ONE crazy one-handed grab during the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl practices. 

 

Bradley and bowl-skipping backs

Gus Bradley is now the former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I applaud that they gave him as much time as they did. We all saw his sacking coming, but the timing of it was just so weird. After the Jags allowed the Tom Savage-led Houston Texans to pull off a comeback that felt inevitable the entire time, Bradley was basically told he was being let go as he boarded the plane back to Jacksonville. This strikes me as a blatant lack of both professionalism and competence on the part of the Jaguars’ organization.

Surely, Bradley is too smart to be surprised by the news of his firing, but for the team to let him know at that point and to condemn him to a flight home with his players and staff during which every coach on the plane was aware of the news seems cruel. And THAT, Bradley hasn’t deserved.

Say what you will about the team’s incompetence on the field during Bradley’s tenure, and there is indeed much to say about it but, as head coach of the Jags, the man has not behaved unprofessionally one time. In fact, his ability to use his upbeat nature to deflect some of the attention off some of the more disgraceful performances of his players, of which there were several, was always amazing to me.

On that front, firing him with such cruel and impossibly illogical timing is a poor way to repay him.

Meanwhile, we have heard players expressing their unhappiness with Bradley’s firing. Personally, I don’t have a shred of interest in what they have to say, and haven’t since the first Tennessee game. Their collective performance on that day, a Thursday night game at that, a.k.a. the only sniff of prime time they were going to get this year, was such a goddamn disgrace that I remain convinced that’s the day the decision on Bradley was made. I was convinced they were trying to get Bradley fired, so lackluster, inept, incompetent, piss-poor, effort-bereft, cowardly was their showing in that game. Every single one of them got a paycheck for that game. Not a single one of them earned it. Not one. So go on with the public expressions of support for Bradley, lads. Just know that from the outside, your support for your coach on the field – where it matters – was, well, less perceptible.

As for the organization, I fail to see what is gained from firing him now, instead of two weeks from now, on the aptly-named “Black Monday.” It’s not as though they get a jump on hiring anybody of any worth. Who is it the Jags want? Jeff Fisher? Otherwise, you can’t communicate with hot coordinators who are still in the playoff hunt unless you do it through their agent, which you could do on the down-lo with Bradley still coaching the team. So unless they’re going to go after a college coach stupid enough to leave wherever he’s having success to try and reboot this mess of a franchise, you’ve only brought further embarrassment to the franchise by firing yet another coach in a way that looks so profoundly improvised.

But owner Shad Khan and GM David Caldwell need not worry about embarrassing the team’s fans. They’re used to it.


Two star college running backs are skipping their respective team’s bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft. After LSU’s Leonard Fournette indicated that he wasn’t going risk injury to play in what amounts to a glorified exhibition game, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announced that he would do the same.

And from there on, it was a matter of cuing up the predictable reactions. Most members of the media were supportive of McCaffrey and Fournette, although there were exceptions (see ESPN analyst Danny Kanell as well Kirk Herbstreit). Most former players thought Fournette and McCaffrey were making the wrong decision.

Going back to the media, I fully take their point that last year, Notre Dame linebacker had his draft status crushed by the knee injury he sustained in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, an injury which also cost him his rookie season in the NFL and, on aggregate, anywhere between 17  and $19 million. And no, the insurance policy he took to cover for his injury doesn’t cover the money he would have made as a Top 10 pick.

Skipping a bowl game that won’t lead you to the National Championship to preserve your earning power is the rational thing to do. I get it; I really do. I also hope that their draft stock isn’t affected by this, but I doubt that it will. Several columnists have rightly gone on to say Fournette and McCaffrey’s decision puts the bloated NCAA bowl system on trial, although it will survive, but that’s a topic for another day.

So again, the two RBs’ decision completely makes sense. My only issue is when I hear people suggest that they aren’t worse teammates, or that they aren’t placing themselves above their teammates, for making it.

Sorry, but… yes, they are. Don’t tell me anything about their teammates supporting them. Don’t tell me about the power and earning imbalance between the NCAA and its players. All of it may be true (in the case of the power imbalance, we all know it is), but none of it alters the fact that these two players have chosen to desert their team before their respective seasons are over. There can be no disputing this.

For me, it comes down to principle. Football is a team endeavour. As such, each players is responsible for their teammates’ aspirations, and vice-versa. Fournette and McCaffrey were as valuable to their respective teams as any player in the country. By leaving now, they are forfeiting this responsibility and jeopardizing the aspirations of the teammates they agreed to support by accepting team membership for 2016.

The facile argument according to which they have nothing left to prove seems wobbly at best. How is that any different from before the season? Both players were considered as candidates for the Heisman Trophy last year. By that logic, why wait until bowl season to start the draft preparations? Why come back to their respective schools at all?

For me, it’s about principle. Starting what you finish, being there for your teammates, taking pride in helping them achieve their aspirations of winning a bowl game that most likely means a hell of a lot more to them than it means to us as viewers, and so on… You don’t have to lecture me on the arguments to support McCaffrey and Fournette. I didn’t have anything close to their talent. I couldn’t have aspired to playing in the NFL. I don’t have a young daughter (as Fournette does). I know the bowl game is essentially an exhibition game with perks. I also know principle isn’t going to earn Jaylon Smith the money he lost because of the injury he sustained in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and that the NCAA is fully exploiting these young players.

I just struggle with the two RBs’ decision because it would not have even crossed my mind. You can call it outdated, out-of-whack morality (football people have made themselves guilty of that from time-to-time). You can call it naive. Perhaps all of it is true. I get why they did it, and I understand it “makes sense.” But if I were a teammate of Fournette’s or McCaffrey’s, their decision would be hard for me to accept.

 

 

 

 

 

The First Round Mock Draft

So, the draft is today. And since I turned the intro to my mock draft into a separate article, I’m not making you wait any longer, so here goes.

1. Los Angeles Rams (from Tennessee): Jared Goff, Quarterback, California:  I won’t be shocked if the Rams go Carson Wentz, but everything coming out of L.A. points to Goff, who is considered the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft. What tips the scales in Goff’s favour for me is the fact that Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead are fighting for their jobs and need to win now.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (From Cleveland): Carson Wentz, Quarterback, North Dakota State: Philadelphia has made no secret that it wants whichever quarterback the Rams don’t pick, so Wentz falls to them here. There is no way the Eagles don’t go quarterback here, even though they have the Sam Bradford saga to begin with.

3. San Diego Chargers: Laremy Tunsil, Offensive Tackle, Ole Miss: This has turned into the draft’s pivotal pick. The Chargers are believed to be looking at Tunsil and FSU’s Jalen Ramsey. We’re also starting to hear the name “DeForest Buckner” lately, which leads me to think smokescreen. I think they go for the franchise left tackle.

4. Dallas Cowboys: Jalen Ramsey, Defensive Back, Florida State: Without a quarterback to tempt them, the Cowboys get back to noticing they have an atrocious defensive backfield. Ramsey can act as an eraser in the secondary who can shift around between corner, nickel and free safey depending on the week. The Cowboys need an edge rusher, but the guy worth picking here is Ramsey.

5. Miami Dolphins (From Jacksonville): Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Ohio State: Word on the street is the Dolphins are looking to move up to get Elliott ahead of other teams who might want him. With Jalen Ramsey gone, there is no one Jacksonville really wants who is worth taking here. Therefore, the trade happens. Elliott is one of the rare running back worth taking so high, and he instantly upgrades the position for a team that lost Lamar Miller and missed out on CJ Anderson.

6. Baltimore Ravens: DeForest Buckner, Defensive End, Oregon: The Ravens may be tempted by Ronnie Stanley and Joey Bosa. Compared to these two, though, Buckner is a bigger need than Stanley (Eugene Monroe starting at left tackle is not a liability) and a better system fit than Bosa. Baltimore is the ultimate “Best Player Available” team, so who the hell knows, but Buckner figures to be really close to the top of their board, and he fills a huge need.

7. San Francisco 49ers: Myles Jack, Linebacker, UCLA: Yes, I know the 49ers have been burned by health concern linebackers. However, the Niners also know that when they were dominant defensively, it started with the inside duo of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Right now, Gerald Hodges is slated to start next to Bowman. San Fran knows that a healthy Jack is one of the five best players in the draft, and new coach Chip Kelly takes a chance on him here.

8. New Orleans Saints (From Cleveland through Philadelphia and Miami): Joey Bosa, Defensive End, Ohio State: So Cleveland is in asset-stockpiling mode, and the Saints need a quality end to put opposite the excellent Cameron Jordan. New Orleans knows that Tampa Bay needs a quality edge rusher, so they use the fact Cleveland doesn’t need any of the top guys who are available here to come up and grab Bosa, who not only helps in terms of production but also in terms of leadership.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronnie Stanley, Offensive Tackle, Notre Dame: With Joey Bosa gone, the Bucs reinforce their offensive line. Donovan Smith was a pleasant surprise last season, but he’s still better suited for the right side. Stanley provides true left-tackle-quality protection for second-year QB Jameis Winston.

10. New York Giants: Leonard Floyd, Edge Rusher, Georgia: OK, I’m not gonna lie… This is one where I’m allowing the media to influence me. I’ve been hearing Floyd to the Giants if he’s still there for the past week or so. This pick makes absolutely no sense to me. Right now, Floyd is an overrated project type of player who reminds me of Dion Jordan, who is warming up the bench in Miami after being picked third overall. I know his athleticism is enticing, but his lack of production really worries me. The question of system also comes to the mind, as Floyd is a quintessential 3-4 linebacker. This might be the draft’s best smokescreen, but if Floyd does go to the Giants, it’s a major risk.

11. Chicago Bears: Jack Conklin, Offensive Tackle, Michigan State: The Bears’ roster is really bereft of talent in many places. Among the Bears’ many needs is the left tackle position, following the release of Jermon Bushrod. Thus, the Bears could go in a number of directions, but at this point, Conklin is the best player who fills a need for Chicago, and he fits the Bears’ mentality.

12. Cleveland Browns (From New Orleans): Jarran Reed, Defensive Lineman, Alabama: Last year’s first-round pick, nose tackle Danny Shelton, was not enough on his own to paper over the cracks of Cleveland’s run defence. In a division where everyone can run the ball, Reed is added to one of the end spots and gives the Browns another run-stuffing lineman.

13. Jacksonville Jaguars (From Miami through Philadelphia): Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback, Florida: The Jags are ecstatic to find a cornerback who can, at worst, give them some kind of depth in the secondary. More likely, Hargreaves is a factor as a starter or as a nickel. For a team whose secondary was a dumpster fire a year ago, this is a terrific catch.

14. Oakland Raiders: Reggie Ragland, Linebacker, Alabama: The Raiders continue to add quality pieces to their defence, this time reinforcing the inside linebacker position. They will give Darron Lee and his athleticism some thought, but the hard-nosed Ragland is another player who fits the Raider mentality, and who fills Oakland’s need for an in-the-box player.

15. Tennessee Titans (From Los Angeles): Taylor Decker, Offensive Tackle, Ohio State: All mock drafts before the Titans traded down to this point had them taking Laremy Tunsil. Thing is, the Titans need more help at right tackle than left, so they’re elated to see Decker drop to them. Pencil him in there at right tackle for the foreseeable future.

16. Detroit Lions: Sheldon Rankins, Defensive Tackle, Louisville: The Lions love upfield rushers, and while Haloti Ngata claims to enjoy the role, he’s not a natural for it. Moreover, since losing Ndamokung Suh, the Lions don’t have a true interior pass rusher. Rankins, an explosive player in the mold of Geno Atkins, fits the bill.

17. Atlanta Falcons: A’Shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Alabama: The Falcons could use help at linebacker, but Robinson helps them a great deal because he can either line up on the nose, or at the two-gapping weakside end position in the Falcons’ Seattle-inspired defence. Wherever he plays, he helps with the Falcons’ run defence.

18. Indianapolis Colts: Noah Spence, Edge Rusher, Eastern Kentucky: Someone is going to take a stab at Spence, a talented player with significant character concerns. In the end, though, Spence is the draft’s only true blue-chip edge rusher, and that’ll make him too tempting for Indy to pass up.

19. Buffalo Bills: Shaq Lawson, Defensive End, Clemson: After losing Mario Williams, the Bills need to replace the pass rush he gave them before he spent last season looking uninterested. Buffalo will 100% have a discussion about taking Paxton Lynch here, but in the end, they go with the more immediate need, and with the player who has a much higher floor in Lawson.

20. New York Jets: Paxton Lynch, Quarterback, Memphis: Is anything the Jets do these days NOT a tactic to pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick into signing at a discount? Even if Fitzpatrick returns, he is not a long-term solution. However, the Jets could use him while they groom Lynch, who has much to learn in order to be a functional pro quarterback. Besides, when he does mature, he can allow the Jets to avoid the struggles typically experienced by teams who throw a rookie quarterback to the lions.

21. Washington: Darron Lee, Linebacker, Ohio State: Washington can’t quite believe Lee has made it this far, but they won’t complain. Their inside linebacker group could use his athleticism, and he figures to become one of the leaders of a unit severely lacking in star power.

22. Houston Texans: Corey Coleman, Wide Receiver, Baylor: The Texans are crying for a receiver to help out All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. Coleman runs a very limited arsenal of routes, but has blazing speed, a trait that complements Hopkins’ all-around game. Brock Osweiler will love having the speedy Coleman in Houston.

23. Minnesota Vikings: Josh Doctson, Wide Receiver, TCU: Receiver is one of the rare holes on the Vikes’ roster, and while they may hesitate between Doctson and Laquon Treadwell, they end up going with the TCU product because he posted better timed speed than Treadwell, and he’s the best receiver in the draft at pulling down jump balls.

24. Cincinnati Bengals: Laquon Treadwell, Wide Receiver, Ole Miss: This is a dream come true for Cincinnati. A receiver of Treadwell’s quality will benefit from AJ Green’s defence-stretching ability, and will work his magic on short-to-intermediate routes, which is what he’s best suited for anyway. Treadwell is the perfect complement to Green home run ability, and will be a far superior second option to Marvin Jones or Mohammed Sanu.

25. Pittsburgh Steelers: Eli Apple, Cornerback, Ohio State: This is just a Steelers kind of pick, isn’t it? Apple fits the rugged Pittsburgh mold of defensive back, and since Pittsburgh now plays much more Cover 2 than they did under Dick Lebeau, Apple’s tendency to give up the occasional big play figures to be hidden better than it was at Ohio State.

26. Seattle Seahawks: Ryan Kelly, Centre, Alabama: If Seattle wants Russell Wilson to play longer than six years, they are going to have to start taking better care of him. Before last season, the Hawks dealt star centre Max Unger to the Saints, and their offensive line never really recovered. This pick is a great opportunity to start fixing a problem they have been neglecting for some time.

27. Green Bay Packers: Vernon Butler, Nose Tackle, Louisiana Tech: It seems the Packers are drafting a D-Lineman every year. BJ Raji’s departure leaves them extremely thin at the nose tackle position, and the help Butler can bring is sizable in every sense of the word.

28. Kansas City Chiefs: William Jackson III, cornerback, Houston: After losing Sean Smith to divisional rival Oakland, the Chiefs pick Jackson to give themselves a top pair of young cornerbacks along with last year’s outstanding rookie Marcus Peters. Throwing against KC figures to be mighty inconvenient.

29. Dallas Cowboys (From Arizona): Kevin Dodd, Defensive End, Clemson: With no one they especially like here, the Cardinals trade back to the early second round, thus enabling Dallas to come up and grab the pass rusher they decided to skip at #4 when they picked Jalen Ramsey over Joey Bosa. Hopefully for the Cowboys, they don’t have to give up too much.

30. Carolina Panthers: Will Fuller, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame: Sure, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Sure, he’s very reminiscent of Ted Ginn in that his deep speed is about his only calling card. But he’s the top player on Carolina’s board at this point, and the Panthers would do well to remember that their receiver group overachieved last year. It can’t hurt not to go all-in on it happening again. Cam Newton can certainly benefit from having a new weapon to work with.

31. Denver Broncos: Andrew Billings, Nose tackle, Baylor: As critically-acclaimed as that Denver front was last season, it was bereft of a true nose tackle. Billings still being there at 31 is the ideal opportunity add such a player to the roster. Billings, a powerful player who can get off the ball and push the pocket, can serve as a setup man for Wade Phillips to run his crazy blitzes and twists.

NFL Draft Top 10 storyline overview, or an exercise in overthinking

The 2016 NFL draft is in 10 days and, as usual, the storylines are legion. Taking up most of the spotlight are the Rams, who have acquired the first overall pick in a blockbuster trade with the Titans that had people thinking back to 2012, when the Rams traded out of the second overall pick and allowed Washington to grab Robert Griffin.

We should be thankful that we’ve heard the last of the Rams telling us they’re confident in their ability to win with Case Keenum at quarterback. They are taking a signal caller with the first pick. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t picked the best season to swing for the fences on a QB. Their choice is between North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and California’s Jared Goff.

In an ideal world, both of them would sit next year, although we all know that’s never going to happen. Conventional wisdom suggests a significant adjustment period awaits the two of them. Wentz played FCS football, so we can imagine the speed of the game will be another universe for him. However, the system he played at NDSU is recognized by most as rather similar to what he’ll be asked to do in the NFL. Meanwhile, Goff has faced top competition in the Pac-12 Conference, but comes from an Air Raid offence that features very different reads from those he’ll have to make at the NFL level.

Ultimately, there are two lenses through which to view the Goff/Wentz debate. The first is about upside. Here, most people agree the nod goes to Wentz. Goff has terrific pocket presence, a quick release, and a good arm. However, Wentz has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles because of his large build, big arm, and sneaky running ability. Some have even made parallels between Wentz and Cam Newton (a strong exaggeration, at least in terms of running ability).

The second is about the aforementioned learning curve. For some, playing in the Pac-12 has prepared Goff to deal with the speed of the NFL. Moreover, the beating he took during three years of bad O-Line play at Cal while still making great throws is an enticing prospect for teams looking to stick him into a bad lineup. On the other hand, Wentz backers care more about the adjustment to an NFL system, which they say, favours the NDSU product. It’s fairly clear Wentz would be the uncontested no.1 in the eyes of most people had he played in the FBS, so how much does the level of competition really matter if Wentz checks out all other boxes? If the passing concepts, the reads, and the audible systems are similar to what he’ll see in the NFL, does the jump in level of play become somewhat overstated?

The information coming out of L.A. seems to indicate it’s going to be Goff. Given that Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams’ head coach and GM, are trying to save their jobs, picking Goff makes sense if we accept that the Cal pivot is the most pro-ready of the two top quarterbacks. However, smokescreens are key during draft season, and this is just my gut, but I can’t help but think there is an appeal to an all-ball guy like Wentz to someone like Jeff Fisher. As they say on television, to be continued…

The two best players

Meanwhile, the trade at the top of the draft also creates some uncertainty for the draft’s top offensive lineman and my second-rated prospect, Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil. He is the best blend of size, strength, and athleticism to enter the NFL at the tackle position in several years. Before the trade, draft experts were almost unanimous in their belief that Tennessee would take him first overall. Now, it’s a virtual certainty the Rams haven’t traded up to get him, and Cleveland – who owns the second overall pick – isn’t in the market for an offensive tackle unless they trade Joe Thomas.

That leaves the Chargers, holders of the third overall pick, as the likeliest team to pick Tunsil, but it’s not a given. They could very well go in the direction of my favourite player in the draft, Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey. I’m not saying this just because I’m an FSU diehard. Ramsey’s ability to play at a high level at both cornerback and safety means that the only potential limit for him will be his defensive coordinator’s creativity. As Charles Woodson retires, Ramsey could become the new Woodson: a guy who redefines how NFL defensive backs are used.

The Chargers are tough to read on the Ramsey front, though, because they have Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett at cornerback, they’ve brought in Casey Heyward as a potential nickel and they have Dwight Lowery at free safety. Stick Ramsey anywhere in there, and he’s an upgrade. Yet, whether San Diego decides to go with him or not depends what the plan for him would be, which is what makes evaluating Ramsey’s draft prospects so hard. Meanwhile, Tunsil would serve as an upgrade over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap’s improvement during his NFL career has been nothing short of spectacular, but he still struggles a bit with the league’s elite edge rushers. If the Chargers go with Tunsil, Dunlap would be an improvement, athletically at least, over Joseph Barksdale at right tackle.

Dallas doesn’t need Tunsil at all, but is a strong suitor for Ramsey given their need for help in the secondary. If they were to go in another direction, Jacksonville would surely have a hard time passing on a player who could help revitalize a secondary that was subpar at best last season. With the release of Sergio Brown, the Jags are likely buyers in the defensive back market. They couldn’t find a better one than Ramsey. However, they are far from certain to get him at five.

The Jags’ fifth pick becomes a real point of interest for the neutral fans (and a point of depression for Jags’ fans) if Ramsey is gone but Tunsil is still there. This situation would force the Jags to think long and hard about their confidence in Luke Joeckel as their starting left tackle. After being picked second overall in 2013, Joeckel struggled mightily early in his career, but has looked increasingly competent ever since. His lack of upper-echelon athleticism will likely prevent him from becoming the force he once was projected to be, but if the Jags think they can win with Joeckel at left tackle, they’re getting into coin-flip territory in terms of whom they pick. Do you go for the draft’s other versatile defensive dynamo, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who’s coming off a season-ending injury, or bring in even more D-Line help with Joey Bosa? Or do you trade down a few picks with someone who wants to leapfrog Baltimore for Tunsil and try to grab Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the bottom half of the top 10? (Note: If Laremy Tunsil falls to Baltimore at six, Ozzie Newsome is doing celebratory backflips in the Ravens’ war room.)

The interesting case of Dallas

Dallas sits at four. They need Ramsey… something fierce. Their secondary is atrocious, and if he’s when Dallas pick, it has to be Ramsey.

UNLESS…

Do we know, and I mean KNOW, that Dallas ISN’T in the market for a quarterback in the first round? We know Jerry Jones has said so, but again… draft and smokescreens, brother and sister… The quarterback is such a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ current predicament. With a high draft pick, an ageing-and-injury-prone-but-not-yet-washed-up quarterback, and a roster that’s better than their pick in the draft would indicate, especially on offence, you couldn’t find a better scenario to pick a quarterback that would benefit from sitting out a year or two. Avoiding a dropoff because they’ve prepared Tony Romo’s successor before Romo retires has to be on the cards for Dallas.

One big problem, though: St.Louis trading up, coupled with the increasingly widespread rumour that Cleveland is looking to trade down, is a paradigm changer for Dallas. When Tennessee was picking first, there was no way Goff and Wentz were going one and two. Suddenly, that scenario becomes a probability. Therefore, if Dallas wants the quarterback the Rams don’t take, they very well may have to become Cleveland’s trading partner at two. If you’re Jerry Jones, do you pull the trigger on that trade given your (many) needs on defence?

Besides, that quarterback could be a guy like Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Hackenberg’s case is especially interesting. The physical tools are outstanding, but mentally, whichever team takes him will have to rebuild him from the ground up. Dallas may decide they can afford to go defence in the first round and groom a player like Hackenberg behind Romo.

However, the risk with a guy like the former Penn State star is far greater than with Wentz or Goff, both A+ personalities. Some talented college players go through rough patches and never recover, and there’s something about Hackenberg that emits that sort of vibe. As for Cook, there’s no guarantee he’s a better player than Kirk Cousins. I can’t say I’m a fan.

If Cook/Hackenberg doesn’t work out, that means you’re going back to the drawing board and drafting a rookie to start, and we all know the perils of that situation. Take Jacksonville as an example. The Jags were encouraged by the improvement of Blake Bortles last season, but he still made too many mistakes for them to be a playoff contender, and let us avoid reminiscing about his god-awful rookie year. Besides, if Dallas were to put a rookie in Romo’s place two years from now, that rookie may learn on a similar curve to that of Bortles, but he could also be the new Blaine Gabbert.

If they go defence, Dallas could also opt for Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, although the risks of that proposition have been listed by yours truly in a previous post. If neither Baltimore nor Dallas takes Bosa, it could set up the former Buckeye for a mini-fall.

Afterwards…

Baltimore is the ultimate best-available-player team, so the only question is, what does their draft board actually look like? Oregon’s DeForest Buckner makes a lot of sense for them, given their lack of both depth and quality on the defensive line, but projections like this one can go out the window if a player like Ramsey or Tunsil slips to six.

Baltimore could also accelerate the run on offensive tackles (there is a big dropoff after the top four at the position) if they take Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley at six. Tennessee not picking first overall (and likely drafting Tunsil) would seem to hurt the chances of it happening, but if the Ravens do pick the Notre Dame standout, we’re probably looking at Michigan State’s Jack Conklin slipping into the Top 10. That would leave Ohio State’s Taylor Decker as the only tackle worth taking in the teens with several teams picking in that range who could use him. Lots of interesting trade prospects there at that point.

So, 1,800 words later, all I can think of is Stewie Griffin tapping Brian on the leg repeatedly, and shouting, “Oh, this is fun!” I’ll see you in a few days with my mock draft, dear readers.

 

 

The Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

A word on Peyton Manning, and a question about Charles Woodson: was he better than Deion?

Into the sunset

This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.

In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.

Just how great was Charles Woodson?

Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.

The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.

I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.

Just a moment…

Almost there…

And we’re back.

Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.

But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.

Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?

How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?

And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.

It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.

It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?

Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.

As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.

 

 

 

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