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Pre-Season Power Rankings: Part 2

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

1. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers has one of the best arsenals of weapons in the league and the Packers figure to be in the top 3 in offense once again. Their defense looks to return to 2010 form, though losing quality ILB Desmond Bishop for the season could hurt. The secondary needs to rebound though I’m not sure they did enough to reinforce the talent in their defensive backfield. The Packers will need to find consistency and production in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but they look like a good bet to win the NFC North once again and it would be hard to bet against them in January.

2. New England Patriots – If Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots are all but guaranteed to have a top 5 offense. Adding Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney to an already dangerous passing attack should worry the rest of the AFC field. The Pats might also see more explosiveness from the RB position with 2nd year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen replacing the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ultimately though, the Patriots will only go as far as their defense takes them. Adding Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower looks like it will pay dividends but can their secondary improve from last year’s nightmarish season? If New England can get a good season from a few of their younger DB’s (Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard), they will be nearly unstoppable.

3. Houston Texans – The Texans have an excellent offense and an excellent defense. Man for man, they might have the best 22 starters in the league. However, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson have durability questions and the team’s depth isn’t great. Furthermore, I don’t trust coach Gary Kubiak to win in the playoffs. The Texans should put together an excellent regular season if they can avoid injuries to their top players, but they will need to prove that they can take the next step in the post-season.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers – It seems as if many fans and experts are discounting the Steelers a bit this year and it’s tough to see why. Their defense is still loaded with talent and young players like Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward figure to play bigger roles in 2012. The offense underachieved last year for a number of reasons but the O-line should be improved and the WR corps is still amongst the game’s best if Mike Wallace reports. Even without Wallace, there is enough talent for the Steelers to put up a lot of points if they can do a better job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy. The Steelers are still one of the most talented and best coached teams in football and seem poised for another good year.

5. New York Giants
– It’s tough to know what to make of the Giants. 2012 could see a return of the mediocre and underachieving regular-season team that they’ve been for most of Tom Coughlin’s tenure or perhaps the 2011 Super Bowl champion team of December – February will be on display for a full 16 games. If their key front 7 players are healthy, the Giants have enough talent to repeat as Champions. The big questions for New York are their CB’s, OL and running game without Brandon Jacobs. Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t established himself as a consistent threat and I’m not a fan of 1st rounder David Wilson or backup D.J. Ware. The OL was a big problem last year and hasn’t improved much on paper though, as we saw, they can win with what they have.

6. New Orleans Saints – The Saints would be higher up in these rankings were it not for the suspension of Sean Payton. New Orleans has an incredibly talented roster, elite QB and enough young talent to think that they could improve in many of their weak spots. However, taking Sean Payton off the sideline is a huge loss. He might be the 2nd most valuable coach in the league behind Bill Belichick and it’s tough to see the Saints hoisting the Lombardi without him. Still, the Saints should be playoff-bound and Drew Brees is capable of putting the team on his back if needed. With the Super Bowl being played in New Orleans this year, it would be quite a story for the Payton-less Saints to win it all on their home turf.

7. San Francisco 49ers – Projecting the 49ers at this point in the pre-season comes down to one thing: do you think Alex Smith can repeat his 2011 season? Smith will never live up to his #1 overall status, but there’s plenty of reasons to think that he can continue to be a top third type QB under coach Jim Harbaugh who was superb at hiding Smith’s weaknesses and setting him up for success. The defense is loaded with depth and top-end talent and should remain an elite unit. Throw in a terrible division and the 49ers should be headed back to the post-season and double-digit wins.

8. Baltimore Ravens – The good news for the Ravens is that they were one or two plays away from the Super Bowl last year. The bad news is that it’s tough to see how they’ve improved enough to get themselves to the next level. Losing Terrell Suggs for the season is a huge blow and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are at the very end of the line. As well coached as the Ravens’ D has been, a step back would not be surprising. Unfortunately for Baltimore, they probably cannot withstand a step back from the defense as their offense is simply not good enough to carry the team. Between the timid and overly conservative game plans of the coaching staff and the inconsistencies of QB Joe Flacco, the Ravens offense will be an average unit once again. Ray Rice is good enough to keep the unit from being bad, but the team will not be able to win (or even make the playoffs) without the defense playing up to the lofty standards set by the franchise over the last decade.

9. Detroit Lions – If the Lions can keep themselves out of trouble and avoid taking tons of stupid penalties, they could be a serious contender in the NFC in 2012. Of the teams in my top 10 rankings, the Lions are the team I could see as most likely to flop. Matthew Stafford is clearly an elite QB when healthy – but his ability to stay healthy needs to be proven. The defense has to improve from their 23rd overall ranking (points allowed) if the Lions are to challenge the Packers for the NFC North. While the Lions have some fairly big holes on their roster, an elite QB and disruptive pass rush can take you a long way.

10. Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys have underperformed for awhile and it’s tough to avoid feeling that with a better coaching staff, they could be a consistent double-digit win team. Their DB corps which killed them at times last year has received a big boost in 1st rounder Morris Claiborne and prized free agent Brandon Carr. They still lack a pass-rusher to take attention away from DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant’s problems (both off-field and on) could really affect the offense given the lack of depth at WR. The OL – a perpetual problem in Big D – still looks shaky on paper. Still, the Cowboys have a lot of talent, a top QB and promising young players at a number of positions. The ‘Boys have a brutal opening stretch on their schedule, opening in New York against the Giants and then heading to Seattle before facing Tampa Bay and Chicago at home. After their week 5 bye, they head to Baltimore. If they’re still afloat after week 6, I like their chances for a return to post-season play and a potential Super Bowl run.

11. Atlanta Falcons
– After last year, I’m highly skeptical of both coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan’s ability to win a championship. Smith looked out of his league last year with overly conservative gameplans and a bad feel for when to take chances in his playcalling. The Falcons have a ton of talent with which to work, but seem to lack the killer instinct that great teams tend to have. In many ways, they are reminiscent of the Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs teams of the mid/late 1990’s (or even his Chargers teams of the mid 2000’s). The Falcons should be a contender next year and a top regular season team, but probably not a team headed for a deep playoff run.

12. Chicago Bears – Though I’m not a fan of big contracts for RB’s, re-signing Matt Forte was a must for a team lacking consistency on offense. Adding Brandon Marshall was very smart and will give Jay Cutler a solid, if inconsistent at times, target. Drafting Alshon Jeffery could turn into a major coup though I’m skeptical of Shea McClellin’s ability to have an impact in a 4-3 – assuming he can stay concussion free. While the Bears offense should be better than in recent years, their defense is getting old and still has holes in a number of key places. The offensive line has been bad far more often than good in the last few seasons but little was done to upgrade that unit. With Green Bay still an elite team and Detroit on the rise, the Bears could face an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.

13. Cincinnati Bengals – On paper, the Bengals have a pretty stacked roster. Certainly, they’ve added a ton of big name college players over the last few years. Yet, it’s still tough to pencil them into a playoff spot. One big reason is their division,, another is the growing pains that accompany many young QB’s. Andy Dalton was adequate last year, but his 80.4 QB Rating was worse than Kevin Kolb’s and only slightly better than Mark Sanchez and Tarvaris Jackson. Adding reliable, though mediocre, BenJarvus Green-Ellis could help take pressure off Dalton, though Green-Ellis isn’t a huge upgrade over Cedric Benson. If the Bengals haul of young prospects can step up, or they can find another big-time weapon on offense to complement A.J. Green, Cincinnati could be a big surprise next year.

14. Denver Broncos – The similarities between the Broncos and late 2000’s Colts are numerous: exceptional pass rushers, weak in the trenches, shaky secondaries with some upside, mediocre running backs and a team which will rely heavily upon the right arm of Peyton Manning. If Manning stays healthy, the Broncos should win the AFC West and could win 10-12 games. However, the Colts don’t have a Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne (let alone all 3 in their prime simultaneously) and it remains to be seen how effective Manning can be playing outdoors every week. We’ve seen him have success in bad weather and with mediocre supporting casts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he is very much the Manning of old. However, like the Manning-era Colts, the team will collapse without him and it’s not a sure thing that his neck will hold up.

15. Philadelphia Eagles – The problems with basing an offense around Michael Vick were quite apparent last year: he simply isn’t very good at times and he can’t stay healthy enough to be at his best for more than a few games. Rookie Nick Foles will probably be called upon at some point in 2012 when Vick inevitably gets hurt or benched. There’s a good amount of talent on the Eagles roster and they could contend for the NFC East title, but they will need a lot of luck with Vick’s health and performance. The Eagles’ placing in the middle of my rankings is a direct result of them most likely having to play a few games with Foles or Mike Kafka at QB and they’re probably not good enough to survive with those guys for more than a game or two.

16. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks are right in the middle of my rankings for one reason: I could see them being very good or really terrible. More than any other team, it’s hard to get a feel for whether or not this is an 11-5 type team or 5-11. The QB situation is one big reason why: Matt Flynn is a total unknown and neither Russell Wilson or Tarvaris Jackson strike me as guys that can take a team to the playoffs. The skill position players are a bit overrated but are capable of great things at times. Marshawn Lynch can be a top back at times, and a non-factor at others. Sidney Rice is an excellent weapon when healthy – which has been rare. Seahawks fans seem to love the non-Rice receivers led by Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu but the front office seems to have a different opinion as they’ve seemingly auditioned or signed every washed up veteran imaginable. If Braylon Edwards or Terrell Owens makes the roster and can be a #1 or #2 guy, Flynn should be set up for success. The Seahawks D is steady and well-coached but their depth is questionable and might have overachieved last year. 1st rounder Bruce Irvin will be one of the most intriguing stories to watch this year.

17 Days Until The Draft: More Random Draft Musings

April 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Two and a half weeks to go and at this point there isn’t much news to report. 90% of news that you read between now and April will either be a fabrication (either by team sources blowing smoke or by “experts” looking to generate clicks/views). Almost all prospects have been graded, watched endlessly on tape, dissected, worked out, run through medical tests and had their character evaluated thoroughly. If you’re a die hard draftnik, or spend your life evaluating talent, your board should be about set by now. With that in mind, here are 17 quick hit musings – one for each day until the draft:

1. Running back David Wilson might have tantalizing athleticism, but don’t confuse him for a 3-down back just yet. He has a long way to go in pass protection and route running before any team uses him in obvious passing situations.

2. I previously mentioned Boise State’s Shea McClellin and Doug Martin as possible late 1st rounders who are flying under the radar (though NFL Network featured both as potential 1st rounders last week, so I guess the cat is out of the bag on these guys). Their teammate, Billy Winn, could be the best of the trio if he lands in the right scheme. Winn is a well-balanced 4-3 3-technique who could play 5-technique in a 1-gap attacking scheme. I don’t like him quite as much for a 2-gap scheme, he’s probably stout enough to anchor in the run game, but he’s just a bit undersized compared to what the (few) remaining 2-gap 3-4 defenses like in their 5-technique DE’s. With the prevalence of 3-4 schemes, I doubt Winn gets out of the top 50 picks.

3. Cincinnati DE/DT Derek Wolfe looks like a 2nd rounder who is a bit tough to project to an NFL scheme. He has the length to succeed as a 2-gap DE but his weight fluctuations this offseason have been borderline alarming. Somehow, he managed to lose 15 lbs between the Combine and his pro day. If he can bulk up, and stay bulked up, he could be a solid contributor in the NFL but he will have to get by on effort more than athletic ability. He appears to be a better rotational/backup type than a long-term starter.

4. Coby Fleener is being touted as a potential first round prospect, and it’s understandable to some degree. He projects as a quality receiver who can do enough in the blocking game to be a full-time player. That said, guys like Fleener remind us how rare Rob Gronkowski is. One would have to think that a TE with Gronkowski’s physical tools, blocking ability and hands would be a sure-fire top 15 pick this year.

5. Dontari Poe seems to have fallen out of favor of some lately. With good coaching, he could be an absolutely dominant player for a long time. That said, it’s tough to teach instincts and Poe seems to really lack them. Any GM that talks himself into drafting Poe is doing so with the hope that the massive DT’s lack of awareness is a matter of being raw rather than a fundamental lack of football IQ. Drafting guys with questionable instincts is a good way to ensure you don’t stay employed long in an NFL front office. GM’s on the hot seat would be best served to stay away from Dontari Poe.

6. It’s curious that 3 months ago, when NFL mock draft season began in earnest, UNC LB Zach Brown was being mocked to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the #4 pick. With less than 3 weeks to go, most mocks have Brown being available when the Bucs come on the clock in the 2nd round. While Brown didn’t blow people away at the Combine the way some thought he might, he hasn’t done anything this offseason to warrant such a wild swing in opinion. If you liked Brown in January, it’s tough not to like him now. If you saw him (like Poe) as a guy without the mental tools to make in the NFL a few months ago, he should still be off your radar. I still think he is worth a 1st rounder, though not in the top half of the round.

7. I’m surprised that more teams don’t take shots on mid/late round QB’s. While these guys almost never work out, it’s much tougher to find a “hidden gem” QB on the waiver wire than it is to find career backups and special teamers – which is what most 3rd-7th round non-QB’s turn out to be.

8. If there is a “WTF” moment of the 1st round, I expect it will involve a linebacker. One name to keep in mind: Mychal Kendricks. Few players have seen as meteoric of a rise in their draft as he has. The incredibly weak LB crop has convinced some people that Kendricks is worth a top 40 pick. Kendricks is often being projected to an inside spot, but his lack of size leads me to think that his best spot could be WILL in a 4-3 scheme. Drafting him as a MIKE in the top 50 picks would be a mistake in my book.

9. A guy who will go earlier than you might think: Bobby Massie. Don’t be surprised if he is the 4th OT, maybe even the 3rd, off the board. He has late 1st round value and could be a steal in the early 2nd round if he lasts that far.

10. You might have never heard of him but University of Regina DT Akiem Hicks could be a guy we are all talking about as a huge steal 5 years from now. He has a lot working against him – off field issues, poor level of competition, sloppy technique – however, he flashes game-changing ability. From a purely “tools” standpoint, there isn’t much difference between Hicks and Poe. At 6’5 325 and with an explosive burst off the snap, Hicks could be a dominant player in the league if he lands in a situation with a strong defensive coaching staff and veteran leadership.

 

Is The 2nd Round The Best Place To Find A Quality RB?

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

(Originally posted by me at Mocking The Draft)

The success of recent 2nd round picks Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice combined with the devaluation of RB’s league-wide has led a lot of draft observers to conclude that the 2nd round is the “sweet spot” for finding a RB. You get a good player, without using a 1st round pick on a position which is less valuable (in many minds) than it used to be and has a short shelf life. The 2012 draft is fairly weak in terms of early RB talent, especially once you get beyond sure-fire top 10 pick Trent Richardson and likely 1st rounder Lamar Miller(assuming he declares). But there are still a few decent prospects who should hear their name called in the 2nd round. What’s the likelihood that 2012 will produce the next Forte, McCoy, Jones-Drew or Rice?

It’s too early to judge the 2011 crop of 1st and 2nd round RB’s (Mark Ingram, Ryan Williams, Shane Vereen, Mikel LeShoure, Daniel Thomas), but the previous 10 (2001-2010) drafts give us plenty of data from which to draw some conclusions. First, here’s the overall production:

Early_rb1_medium

Not so surprisingly, the 1st round RB’s put up significantly more yardage than their 2nd round peers. In fact, the difference between a 2nd and 3rd round RB has been nearly half that of the difference between a 1st and 2nd round RB. One thing that stands out here is that the production difference comes mostly from rushing, and not receiving. In other words, either 1st round RB’s tend to be bad receivers or successful 2nd/3rd round backs tend to be especially good receivers.

Another way to look at the production of these RB’s is by their per-game rushing & receiving yards. Take a look at the number of RB’s, by round, to average 70+ total yards from scrimmage per game:

Early_rb2_medium

As you can see, more than half of 1st rounders and less than a third of 2nd round RB’s drafted between 2001-2010 have put up 70+ YPG. Other than the 4 aforementioned 2nd rounders, only Clinton Portis, Travis Henry and Ben Tate have achieved this milestone. In the same time period, there have been 12 2nd rounders and 5 1st rounders who have averaged less than 50 YPG.

And while the success of 2nd round RB’s has been greater in the last 5 years, finding a quality RB in the 2nd is still a 50/50 (or worse) proposition. Check out the 2nd round RB’s from 2006-2010:

Early_rb3_medium

People focus on the top 4 guys but seem to forget all about the 6 (7 if you include the perpetually hurt Hardesty) duds.

As far as the 2012 draft goes, here are 3 guys who, if they declare, I expect to see go between picks #33 and #64:

David Wilson (Virginia Tech) – Unlike most of the successful 2nd round backs of the last 10 years, Wilson doesn’t have much experience as a receiver.  However, he does have an attractive skillset which is sure to get his name called fairly early in next April’s draft. Wilson is likely to be the fastest RB at the combine, with the speed and explosiveness to be a big play threat every time he touches the ball. He’ll draw some comparisons to both Jahvid Best and Chris Johnson, but his running style reminds me most of Ahmad Bradshaw. He has some untapped potential as a pass-catcher and should be able to help out immediately on kick-returns

Chris Polk (Washington) –  While Wilson is flashy and will generate plenty of buzz at the scouting combine and pro days, Chris Polk will likely fly under the radar a bit. He’s a well-rounded back who doesn’t really catch your eye in any one area. He’s got good size but isn’t the prototypical power-back. His speed is adequate, but  some scouts and draft experts will consider him to be lacking the needed burst to succeed in the NFL. His lateral agility is pretty good for a bigger guy but he’ll never remind anyone of Barry Sanders. His hands are solid but his lack of explosiveness and poor route-running make him an underwhelming option as a receiver. That said, Polk is a productive back who could make an excellent #2 option in a 2 back scheme. He does enough things “pretty well” to have a good shot at NFL success and while he doesn’t have the best physical tools, he’s got good awareness and instincts which allow him to get through holes quickly and break the occasional long run.

LaMichael James (Oregon) – Most people are familiar with the diminutive James by this point. Listed at 5’9 185, James will get dismissed as too small to withstand the rigors of the NFL. Which is probably accurate. While Jones-Drew and Rice are also small backs, James lacks the frame to put on weight and his lower body isn’t nearly as thick as theirs. It’s very unlikely that James ever becomes an every-down back, or even the primary guy in a multi-back scheme. He’s a true change-of-pace guy in the Darren Sproles mold. If he can stay healthy, James should find success in the NFL as a receiver, returner and occasional runner.

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