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.

 

 

 

NFL 2014 Mock draft (1st round)

We’re only a few hours away from the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, a.k.a. my second Christmas. Therefore, here’s my mock first round for tonight. I’m not a fan of mocks, especially not when the NFL Network tasks their people to start doing them in February. But on draft day, I don’t mind taking a stab at it. You all should know I really let myself go with crazy scenarios. Oh, and yes, there are trades in this mock draft. So, let’s enjoy what remains of the wait with a bit more intense speculation.

 

1. *Atlanta Falcons (trade with Houston): Jadaveon Clowney, defensive end, South Carolina: Clowney will be the first pick. The question is to whom. I think that he goes to Houston if the Texans stay here, but the Texans badly need a quarterback and don’t want to take one here. Meanwhile, the Falcons, a team not nearly as bad as their 2013 record suggests, need an elite pass rusher such as Clowney in the worst possible way. Come on, Tom Dimitroff! Show us them cojones once again!

2. St.Louis Rams: Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M: I can’t accept that someone with Matthews’ ability and polish would go behind Auburn’s Greg Robinson. Every mock draft I’ve seen has Robinson going here, so there might be fire where there’s smoke. However, if the Rams go OT, Matthews would be a better pick here.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Khalil Mack, Outside linebacker, Buffalo: It would be fairly hard for the Jags to go wrong in terms of positional needs, but Mack fits the bandit role in the Gus Bradley/Seattle/ under front defense to a T, and Chris Clemons is not a long-term answer. The Jags haven’t had a consistent pass rusher on the roster since the one year when Reggie Hayward managed to avoid injuries. Do the math.

4. Cleveland Browns: Greg Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Auburn: They may go quarterback here, but with the general value of getting one of the big three here dipping, the Browns make sure whoever plays QB for them next year has a shot at staying alive, and they’ll go from there. They can get a good quarterback at 26, or in the second round.

5. Oakland Raiders: Sammy Watkins, Wide receiver, Clemson: The acquisition of Matt Schaub allows the Raiders to delay their taking of a quarterback. But Schaub needs weapons and Watkins would instantly improve Oakland’s passing game. Besides, he’s a pick Al Davis would approve of.

6. *Houston Texans (Trade with Atlanta): Blake Bortles, Quarterback, UCF: Johnny Manziel would undoubtedly be the popular choice here, given that he’s a local guy and an electrifying player. But Bill O’Brien is an old-school coach who will succomb for the prototypical size – arm strength – athleticism package that Bortles brings and dislike the fact that you can’t confine Manziel to any kind of a script.

7. *Detroit Lions (Trade with Tampa Bay): Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State: The Lions need a corner, and they don’t want to risk passing the highest-rated one by giving the Vikings a shot at taking him.

8. Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr, Linebacker, UCLA: Every year, someone falls unexpectedly in love with a player. Barr tested absolutely off the charts and looks like Adonis to begin with. The Vikes have let Jared Allen go and bet the house on former college start Everson Griffen. Barr offers a rare blend of athleticism and upside. He could develop into the rare linebacker who can rush the passer and drop into coverage effectively, and the Vikings could use him in a Von Miller-type role, as coach Mike Zimmer isn’t afraid to use his backers to rush the passer (the Bengals did sign James Harrison last season). He also gives them an insurance policy should the Griffen gamble fail. He could be another Dion Jordan, whom the Dolphins already regret having taken (and whom my Jags didn’t; take that, Todd McShay!), but he could also be an unstoppable force three years from now.

9. Buffalo: Mike Evans, Wide receiver, Texas A&M: Taylor Lewan is a possibility, but the Bills seem to like Cordy Glenn at left tackle. Meanwhile, EJ Manuel doesn’t exactly have tons of weapons, even with Mike Williams on board to help out the passing game.

10. Tampa Bay (trade with Detroit): Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M: Rumour has it Mike Evans is a lock to go to them if he’s there. I can’t imagine the Lovie Smith regime is sold on Mike Glennon at QB, and Manziel potentially provides Tampa with a unique spark, or gets Smith fired quickly.

11. Tennessee Titans: Louis Nix, Nose tackle, Notre Dame: They would like a pass rusher, because the best one they have on the roster, Jurell Casey, is a three-technique who is a bordeline misfit in the Titans’ new 3-4 defence. However, with Barr, Clowney and Mack gone, the Titans turn their attention to another position of need. Nix is athletic for a nose tackle and renders the Titans less vunerable than they would be with Sammie Hill starting at NT to athletic teams that run outside zone schemes. Moreover, while he doesn’t have an expansive pass rush repertoire, Nix is strong enough to push the pocket.

12. New York Giants: Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle, Michigan: The Giants have an aging, unproductive, downright bad offensive line that can use some serious help. As little as he brings in the running game, Lewan is an athletic pass protector who can protect Eli Manning’s blind side better than anyone they have on the roster.

13. St. Louis Rams: Odell Beckham, Wide receiver, LSU: The Rams have signed Kenny Britt, but he’s so injury-prone that it’ll be an added bonus if he plays a big role. Brian Quick has been less than inspiring and Tavon Austin is strictly a slot receiver who can play a kind of Percy position. What they need is a dependable receiver who runs good routes to allow Sam Bradford one last attempt to salvage his Rams career. Beckham fits the bill.

14. Chicago Bears: Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Safety, Alabama: Dix is a versatile player who brings athleticism and physicality to the Bears secondary. They might go corner, but Dix is the better value at this spot.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Darqueze Dennard, Cornerback, Michigan State: The Steelers defence is becoming a geriatric ward. They must get younger and better. This is a perfect match. Dennard is a physical corner who played for a ruffneck school with a ruffneck scheme and who excels in press coverage. Just what the doctor ordered for the Steelers.

16. Dallas Cowboys: Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh: Another perfect fit. Cowboys’ D-Line coach Rod Marinelli is the league’s top gap charge specialist, and Donald, with his explosiveness off the snap, hand violence and varied pass rush repertoire, is a guy Marinelli can mould into an inside pass-rushing force à la Geno Atkins.

17. Baltimore Ravens: Zach Martin, Offensive Tackle, Notre Dame: The Ravens are the ultimate “best player available” team, so at this point it could be anyone, but Martin is up there and makes a lot of sense with the departures of Michael Oher and Bryant Mckinnie. He can either take Oher’s right tackle spot or play inside and allow another player to move out and fill the hole left by Oher’s departure.

18. New York Jets: Marqise Lee, Wide Receiver, USC: My, my, my, does this team need receivers. Eric Decker, recently signed for too much money, is a number 2 guy at best. As for the rest, well… yeah… Lee has just enough speed, along with rare change-of-direction skills and technical polish, to be a productive number 1 receiver in the NFL. The Jets will gladly take him.

19. Miami Dolphins: Eric Ebron, Tight End, North Carolina: At this point, Ebron is the best player on the board, gives a really promising player to the Phins at a position where they have next to no one right now, and would be another weapon for a staff trying to maximize the production of QB Ryan Tannehill.

20. Arizona Cardinals: Calvin Pryor, Safety, Louisville: They might be tempted to go quarterback here, but they stick to a best player policy and go with Pryor, who also plays a position where they need reinforcements.

21. Green Bay Packers: Kyle Fuller, Cornerback, Virginia Tech: Jason Verrett and Bradley Roby might be better pure talents, but Fuller’s ability to play physically and dependably will be a huge plus for the Packers, whose defence stinks and who have to play the tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery as well as Megatron Johnson twice a year.

22. Philadelphia Eagles: Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, Oregon State: The Eagles lack star power at the receiver position following the departure of DeSean Jackson, and surely Chip Kelly will find creative ways to use Cooks’ speed, route running, and change-of-direction ability.

23. *Cleveland Browns (trade with Kansas City): Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Louisville: The Chiefs might think long and hard about taking Bridgewater themselves, but the Browns, insecure about KC dealing the pick to another team looking to leapfrog them for Bridgewater, pull the trigger themselves and come up to get him.

24. Cincinnati Bengals: CJ Mosley, Linebacker, Alabama: The Bengals need an athletic player to complement the thumping power of Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. Ryan Shazier might fit that bill better physically, but Mosley is too good to pass up at this point, and while not quite the same athlete, is a better pure football player.

25. San Diego Chargers: Bradley Roby, Cornerback, Ohio State: The Chargers have nobody at cornerback. This is a no-brainer.

26. Kansas City Chiefs: Timmy Jernigan, Defensive tackle, Florida State: Jernigan offers a nice blend of explosiveness and power at defensive tackle, and he played in a hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme at FSU. Moreover, he’s the best player on the board at this point, and he can help the Chiefs as a depth player during his first season and eventually dethrone one of their starters because of his ability to play the nose or the 5-technique spot.

27. New Orleans Saints: Dee Ford, Outside Linebacker, Auburn: The Saints took care of the back end of their defence in free agency with the signing of Jairius Byrd, and now they add to their ability to rush the passer with Ford, a high-motor player who plays with ideal intensity and nastiness.

28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, Wide receiver, Florida State: The Panthers were already extremely thin at receiver before they lost Steve Smith. Now that Smith is a Raven, the Panthers desperately need to give Cam Newton some weapons. Benjamin is built like a power forward, has a massive catch radius, and is a great vertical threat despite not having awesome timed speed.

29. *Jacksonville Jaguars (trade with New England): Derek Carr, Quarterback, Fresno State: Wishful thinking? Nope. Let’s be honest: who would bet against New England dealing down? Meanwhile, the Jags don’t get Carr at 7 in the second round, and he’s a guy who would benefit massively from the redshirt year he’d get behind Chad Henne. This is an investment pick, and Gus Bradley can afford it; he’s not getting fired even if the Jags are terrible again this year. The Jags have 11 picks; so what if they give up two?

30. San Francisco 49ers: Rashede Hageman, Defensive tackle/5-technique, Minnesota: The Niners under Jim Harbaugh are not afraid to be unconventional, as they weren’t afraid to “reach” for a player with upside like Aldon Smith. Hageman is an immense talent whose physical skills suit the 5-technique position he’d be asked to play. And Justin Smith is 35.

31. Denver Broncos: Jason Verrett, Cornerback, TCU: They badly need athleticism and talent at cornerback and linebacker, but Verrett is a guy whose talent warranted a much higher pick. He instantly upgrades their pass defence with the kind of man-to-man skills coordinator Jack Del Rio especially covets.

32. Seattle Seahawks: Stephon Tuitt, Defensive end, Notre Dame: Having lost his weak-side two-gap defensive end Red Bryant to the Jags, Pete Carroll reinforces the position with a player whose size will allow him to withstand double teams and whose athleticism is far superior to that of Bryant.

 

 

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