2013 Free Agent Preview: Defense

For me, the looming defensive player free agency looks a little thinner. A wealth of defensive backs were cut recently, bolstering the number, but when it comes to defensive line and linebacker depth… well it looks thin.

Defensive Line

Cliff Avril and Paul Kruger headline this group with a couple other names being locked up (Michael Johnson, CIN and Henry Melton, CHI). Both of these guys come with some risks. For me, neither player is marquee guy. If I were an NFL GM, and depending on the situation, I would likely lean towards a Jonathan Abraham or Dwight Freeney to solve my pass rushing needs. Kruger is a situational pass rusher who had a decent year against the run, but has never flourished in that role. If a team is to invest in him he needs to be in a role that will be conducive to his talents, ie rushing the passer.

Avril is more balanced, but is less of a pass rusher at his best and worked with a much better defensive line group. Suh by himself takes a lot of heat off of everyone else.

Beyond those top two, Freeney and Abraham still have talent available for teams looking for a short-term solution. Ricky Jean Francois from San Francisco is a versatile 3-4 guy with excellent run stuffing abilities. The Ravens have been reportedly interested in him, but likely lack the cap room to make a push for him. Mike DeVito is another 3-4 end with some pass rushing skills that has already heard from several teams. Terrence Knighton is the biggest guy in free agency, a mountain of a tackle that could potentially move to a 3-4 nose tackle role.

Linebackers

The inside linebacker group has some solid names in it. Dannell Ellerbe is riding his playoff performance into what looks like a monster contract (apparently seeking Lawrence Timmons money). Jasper Brinkley has been sporadic but has plenty of talent for lesser price. Rey Maualuga has a big name, but his play has been average on a very talented defense. The Bengals would reportedly like to keep him around however. There’s a couple older names on the board too – Bart Scott, Brian Urlacher, and Keith Brooking could have some potential.

Sleepers for me include Barrett Ruud for a Tampa 2 scheme. Gerald McRath is another guy who has a lot of potential in a new scheme.

Cornerbacks

Plenty of corner backs are in this market. Top names include Aqib Talib, Sean Smith, Mike Jenkins, and Cary Williams. All have some defects and are scheme dependent, but in the right situation they could excel. Talib is probably the best of the bunch, but the Patriots are more concerned about his work ethic with a long-term contract. Smith is likely the best press cover corner. Jenkins and Williams are solid coverage guys, but probably number 2 corners at best.

My favorite of this class is Antoine Cason for his elite ball skills (11 picks so far), and in a high pressure defense could thrive on that ability. He’s also played almost every game his entire career and is solid if not spectacular. Could be a very good number 2 guy with potential to be a top corner if the pass rush is good enough.

Superbowl hero Tracy Porter is back on the market, but he’s been floating around the league and likely will see less suitors this time around. Aaron Ross, Darius Butler, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are all high draft picks with a lot of potential.

Safeties

The two best options here were probably Jarius Byrd and William Moore, but both were retained by their teams. Now there is a slew of older players such as Ed Reed, Charles Woodson, Nate Clements, and Adrian Wilson that could intrigue some teams on short-term contracts.

Kenny Phillips is a guy I like a lot, but has a long injury history and will have to convince a team to overlook that. LaRon Landry is a physical beast, but a massive coverage liability. His brother Dawan brings a lot of experience, but not a very impressive skill set (speed is lacking in particular).

Another interesting safety is O.J. Atogwe, who was a big name guy a couple of years back and has kind of disappeared. His talent is pretty intriguing for me.

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2013 Free Agent Preview

With the franchise tags having been applied, it’s time to take a look and see the top players at each position and their grade. We’ll break it down position by position and speculate potential landing places for some of them.

Quarterback

The quarterback market is remarkably thin…. incredibly thin. Made only worse by the perception that the upcoming draft is equally weak at this most critical position. The best player hitting the market this year might be Jason Campbell. He’s got a wealth of starting experience, but has never really put all the talent he has together. Quarterback needy teams could look to him as a stop-gap option while they groom a rookie.

There’s also a plethora of former high draft picks – Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Brady Quinn, David Carr, etc. Most of these guys have had their second and third shots and are likely career backups at this point, but with the read option growing, anyone with some mobility might be interesting as either a backup or a change of pace type of quarterback. Young’s experience with the option in particular, or Josh Johnson’s excellent combination of arm strength and speed will likely find them some landing spots.

Running back

The running back position is fairly deep in talent this year. Steven Jackson could be the biggest name, but has a lot of tread on the tires. Atlanta looks poised to make a play for him, where he could be an excellent addition to an already potent offense. Reggie Bush and Felix Jones bring a lot of potential to the table, particularly Jones whose only concern is his ability to stay healthy. Reggie Bush could be a devastating addition to a spread concept offense like New England, but I haven’t heard a lot of reports of that pairing. Shonn Greene was the horse in New York for a couple of years, but never really broke out. He could find work as a complimentary back. Similarly, Mendenhall couldn’t keep the starting gig in Pittsburgh, but also has some off field running-of-the-mouth syndrome to deal with.

Wide Receiver

Another good group in this years free agency is the wide out group. With the draft seemingly not containing a wealth of prospects, the free agency group looks that much better. A short list: Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Braylon Edwards, and Steve Breaston. These guys should get decent contracts, particularly the top four.

Wallace will have offers across the board and join a line of ex-Steeler WRs who have defected for big money deals. Jennings is a bit old but is such a polished receiver that he’ll find a sizable market. Miami features to be in the mix for both, as well as the Vikings who are looking for a reliable target to see if Ponder is truly their man.

Wes Welker’s best fit is in New England, but the Patriots (for whatever reason) don’t seem very interested in retaining him.

Amendola is the Ram’s top wideout and has been productive if unspectacular and should find a good market for his services.

Another interesting name is now ex-Giant receiver Ramses Barden (a favorite of mine I admit), who has great size (6’6′ 224) He got stuck behind Manningham and Nicks and then the pre-season star Victor Cruz, but with all those elite guys working with him might be worth kicking the tires. Plus that size never hurts for a WR.

Tight Ends

The tight end group has some former big names,. but doesn’t really bring the wow factor in years past. Jared Cook might be biggest name because he was angling for a WR/TE tag like Jermichael Finley did last year. He’s got a great combination of size and speed and already reports link the Bears to him (who bailed on the tight end position for Martz’ offense).

Behind him I like Martellus Bennett. Large bodied tight end with blocking skills and excellent hands, he could shine if given an opportunity to headline instead of splitting time as he did in Dallas and New York.

Another New York product on the market is Dustin Keller, who languished behind Mark Sanchez and the pitiful New York Jets offensive line. He has some elite potential and could blossom if given the chance. A couple other good names: Fred Davis, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Kevin Boss.

Offensive Line

This is the cream of the free agency crop this year. The number of top offensive linemen available is stunning to me. Let’s start at tackle. First overall pick Jake Long is set to hit the market, and while he never lived up to his Joe Thomas comparisons, he is still a reliable pass blocking left tackle, with decent run game potential. He might shift to the right side at his next location, but there are too many teams in need of tackle help for him not to make a decent pay (see Arizona, Oakland, Indianapolis and maybe Kansas City).

Behind him, Sebastian Vollmer is still available from New England. I don’t expect him to leave New England, but certainly will entertain offers from other teams. Bryant McKinnie is going to test the waters of free agency. His playoff run proved he’s still a capable left tackle, but has very, very notorious off-season work ethic issues. He should see a decent salary, but not nearly as big of a market for his services.

Right tackle seems even more wealthy than left, with Andre Smith headlining the group. While Hard Knocks showed a rough start to his NFL career, he has since developed into a mauler of a run blocking right tackle.

Gosder Cherilus, Phil Loadholt, Sam Baker, and Jermon Bushrod are all available as well. The last two might be left tackles, but I think their best location is on the right side in a pass first scheme, which there are plenty of in the NFL. All should see some excellent deals in free agency.

Past them we still have Chad Clifton, Sean Locklear, Jamaal Brown, Max Starks, King Dunlap, and Winston Justice – all with good potential but have struggled in their careers.

At guard the top of the list is Andy Levitre and Louis Vasquez. Both have become excellent guards and should see good markets for teams in need of some run blockers. Eben Britton should see some value for his versatility and his high draft grade coming out.

At center, reliable Todd McClure and Dan Koppen will get a lot of looks. Another favorite of mine is Jason Brown who thrived in Baltimore and languished in St. Louis. If he can convince a team that Baltimore was his true potential (and I think he handles 34 nose tackles better than most in the NFL) then he should find another home as a G or C.

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We’ll do defense next post, where there is again a decent amount of talent, but more competition against incoming rookie potentials.

Big Money Contracts

We haven’t talked about… we’ll much recently, but the story dominating the news of late has been Joe Flacco’s impending big money deal.

Reports indicate agent Joe Linta is seeking top quarterback money, while the Ravens are hesitant to give him such a deal, particularly with cap concerns as they stand in  Baltimore.

The most recent development is the reported “taking one for the team” contract extension Tom Brady just signed. Let’s dispel those rumors right now. Brady took a significant cash bonus now to drop his cap number. Brady is still getting his money, just in a more cap friendly way. This allows the Patriots to be aggressive in free agency if they like a player out there *cough cough* Ed Reed *cough cough*.

Flacco meanwhile has been getting blasted in Baltimore for not “taking a discount” to help the team. This is a ridiculous notion. The man just won a Superbowl on an expiring contract. The proverbial gamble played by player and team now has to be paid by the Ravens. You don’t underpay a player for doing exactly what you ask him to do.

First things first. I will put the odds that the Ravens non-exclusively franchise Flacco at about 10%. Likewise, if they do that, I’ll put the odds that Flacco signs with another team at about 2%. He fits the scheme and system in Baltimore and going to Cleveland, Arizona, New York, where ever is not an ideal situation, but money can move mountains so to speak.

Secondly, the Ravens are already over 16 mil on their offer. This is because they came to Flacco with a top 5 contract just before the 2012 season and he turned it down. This means that the contract negotiations are somewhere between 16 and 21 mi. The potential cap hit there is huge. If we look to Drew Bree’s contract, which guaranteed 40 million as a base, Flacco is likely expecting guarantees in that ball park.

The rub here is the situation that the Saints currently find themselves in. Drew Brees’ contract has cap hits of 17.4, 18.4, 26.4, and 27.4 up until 2016.  Those are massive numbers to carry with a 123 mil salary cap. Teams have been building these massive contracts for quarterbacks with the assumption that the salary cap will continually jump, but the almost stagnant cap (it will increase by 2.4 mil this year reportedly), has resulted in a much higher percentage of the cap being occupied by one player than originally intended. The Ravens are aware of this situation and currently attempting to predict the cap 5-7 years down the road to create a team friendly contract that still pays Flacco market value.

Another situation is the likely restructuring that Flacco will undergo in any contract of this magnitude. The Steelers have been restructuring contracts for years, resulting in the loss of players like Mike Wallace, a player many teams covet for his talents. The Steelers desire to keep certain veterans continues to cost them promising younger talent, which is a situation the Ravens apparently wish to avoid. The Ravens prefer to sign long-term deals with players that “will finish out their contracts” as Ozzie Newsome stated.

With a major cap crushing contract that will likely need to be restructured repeatedly (like Ben Roethlisberger’s is and Drew Brees’ likely will be), the Ravens need to expect to do the same and plan other contracts accordingly.

This brings me to how I would approach this contract situation. I am not an NFL GM, but it’s always a fun exercise for me to approach situations as if I was.

Taking Drew Brees’ recent deal as a bench mark we have a 5 year contract with salaries of 3 mil, 9.75 mil, 10.75 mil, 18.75 mil, and 19.75 mil. He also received a 37 mil signing bonus which is spread out as a 7.4 mil over the 5 years.

His cap numbers then are 10.4, 17.4, 18.4, 26.4, and 27.4. In the world of the NFL, contracts only go higher, not lower. Which means we should expect at least a 40 mil signing bonus at least. This means we have at least an 8 mil cap hit each year from just the bonus.

If the Ravens want to minimize the damage this year, at the expense of future years, they’ll need to keep his salary low to start and increase it every year for the length of a 5 year deal.

According to Spotrac, a phenomenal website devoted to team salaries, the Ravens are projected to have a cap number of 106 before Flacco is brought on board, as well as any other free agents and UFAs. Add in the 8 mil to start, and we’re at 114 give or take. If we assume the cap number as 123 (still a large assumption), we have approximately 9 mil to work with.

Now to look at other situations connected to this, ie the top free agents for the Ravens – Dannell Ellerbe and Ed Reed. With Reed we have a stronger understanding of his value. He considers himself the best safety in the NFL, though will likely not seek a salary that high. Polamalu currently receives the highest salary at 7.5, while Weddle just signed a contract with a 6 mil salary. Weddle got 13 million as a signing bonus which is 2.6 spread out of over 5 years. I’ll make the assumption that Reed won’t play 5 more years, so he’ll be looking for a deal 3 years or less. The Ravens can pay Reed a base of 1 mil with a 9 mil signing bonus, which would be about 4 million against the cap, which is means we’re down to 5 million left in the cap for Ellerbe and Flacco’s salary.

Ellerbe is tough to determine his value. I’m going to utilize Jameel McClain, who just signed a contract with the Ravens a last year and looks comparable in talent and production, and Desmond Bishop of Green Bay who seems to have a similar role and skill set.

McClain signed a 3 year 10.5 mil contract with 3.6 guaranteed, while Bishop signed a 4 year 19.5 mil contract with 3.2 signing bonus. Both of these are doable with some room left for free agents. If the Ravens really trust Ellerbe (questionable as he is reportedly hot and cold with Harbaugh), they can lock him up for 5 years 20 mil and a 4 mil signing bonus which would be a hit of 800 k a year plus salary. If they don’t it can be a 3 year deal similar to McClain’s, perhaps at 12 mil at 3.6 which would be 1.2 over 3 years.

Looking at the bigger hit, we have 3.8 million for Flacco and Ellerbe’s salary. Now we’re working on how much each wants in salary. If Flacco is willing to take less than Brees and sit at 2.8 while Ellerbe takes 1, the situation works well. If Flacco demands 3 or higher, then Ellerbe may need to settle for less (600 – 800 k).

Still, this shows that the Ravens can handle this contract without destroying some of their defensive chemistry and lock up their hall of fame safety for his career. If Ed is willing to shoot for less than he’s worth, it will open up even more doors for them, unfortunately they won’t know that until Flacco is locked up most likely, but with preliminary figures for what Linta is seeking, they can approach Ellerbe and Reed’s (eventual) agent with some speculative figures to gauge interest.

Combine Feedback: Medical

Thought I’d start a combine feedback section for stock ups and downs.

As anyone who watches the combine coverage, or the resulting news coverage knows, the combine is not that big a deal to NFL executives.

These guys spend months working on developing their boards, which are likely 90% finished by the time the combine hits. The combine’s biggest features are the interviews, the positional skill drills, and the medical results. In that respect teams get to meet the players and spend some real-time with them, watch for any anomalies in the skill drills, and get a very, very in-depth look at medical notes.

Look at defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end / outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.

In Lotulelei’s case, medical results picked up an irregular heart condition. He was pulled from working out at the combine in order to receive more tests. Now the immediate coverage was very pessimistic about his stock, and rightly so. This could potentially be a serious condition, but after additional tests they’re opptimistic that the result at the combine could have developed from a number of other factors (including dramatic weight loss as Lotulelei apparently lost ten pounds in the week before the combine. His stock is currently all over the place. He’ll continue to do evaluations and has been cleared to work out, but teams are definitely going to keep an eye on his evaluations. Until they can determine what the exact reason for his condition is, teams will definitely be on the cautious side. I would expect that he is out of the top ten without a medical clearance.

In Jarvis Jones’ case, the same issues that kept him from attending USC are popping up again. Jones has a stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal column. Most reports indicate that Jones’ spine has not worsened since ’09. While this is good news, there may not be a more strict process for talent evaluation than the NFL Draft. Spending millions on a player who can’t stay healthy is a major no-no for NFL owners and GM’s looking to keep their job.

Media members have reported that multiple teams have both removed him and cleared him on their boards. Let me put an example out there for Jarvis Jones’ case. Rob Gronkowski entered the draft as a physical specimen. 6’6″, 258 Tight end with 4.62 speed, and that was after dropping some weight. He’s a mismatch nightmare, but the Patriots don’t take him til the 2nd round. The reason being he lost his ’09 season due to a back injury before entering the draft. Reports are that the Baltimore Ravens removed him from their board for medical reasons, while the Patriots cleared him. He’s still ultra talented, but has continued to find the injury bug.

Jarvis Jones has plenty of talent and all he needs is a team to love that potential to draft him. The good combine report is a good step in that direction for getting that partner in the draft.

Those two are the major news on medical concerns coming out of the combine. Next we’ll look at some positional drill results.

2012 All-Pro Team As Voted by NFL Am

Here’s our All Pro selections this season:

Quarterback – Tom Brady, New England Patriots

I get the argument for Peyton Manning because he had such a great season, and even for Aaron Rodgers because of how he is that offense, but Brady was simply unstoppable down the stretch. This offense is the best of the best in the NFL.

Running back – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota

There’s no argument here that could be made for anyone else. He came 9 yards short of the all time record and had perhaps the greatest single running season ever despite missing that record. Coming of an ACL tear this is simply the Year of Adrian.

Full back – Vonta Leach, Baltimore

The full back is so under-valued and used in the NFL that there’s not a lot of options here. Watching Leach blow up linebackers, and sometimes defensive linemen is a joy to watch for any old school fan and is part of the reason the Ravens still manage to run a bit behind old man Matt Birk.

Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson, Detroit // A.J. Green, Cincinnati

Despite the AP, this should have been unanimous. Calvin dragged the Lions to every win they got and makes that team a constant threat. Often without help from a run game, defense, quarterback, or additional passing threats. He makes Ryan Broyles, Nate Burleson, and Titus Young look good. Green, meanwhile, makes Dalton look good. These two receivers are easily the best jump ball receivers (with Larry Fitzgerald) and know how to get open in clutch time.

Tight End: Jason Witten, Dallas

He set a record for receptions, played through life threatening injuries, and generally makes Tony Romo look competent. Witten has been finding holes and seams in defenses for years now and deserves recognition for how much he does for this offense and team. Witten is the cog here, not Murray, Bryant or Austin.

Flex: Andre Johnson, Houston

The Offensive Flex is our way of recognizing that the NFL is evolving. We’re reserving it for the best player of a RB, TE, or WR variety beyond the traditional formation. Andre Johnson is basically the only thing keeping Houston from being the Vikings. Sure they can run the ball, but if you cannot keep a defense honest it can only take you so far (as far as Adrian takes them essential, or Foster in this situation). Johnson makes sure 8 man boxes aren’t a constant.

Offensive Tackles: Joe Thomas, Cleveland // Ryan Clady, Denver

These two have been on this list for a long time. Thomas is everything Jake Long has not been – consistent, dominant and reliable. Clady, meanwhile, kept a very busted up Peyton from re-injuring himself or furthering any nerve damage. He also led a very solid rushing attack, which goes for Thomas as well.

Offensive Guard: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore // Jahri Evans, New Orleans

Evans is a more traditional guard, dominating defensive tackles and getting to the second level. Their run game is what it is because of Evans. Yanda is simply the most important lineman for the Ravens. He keeps the line in tact, is scheme versatile, and dominate in both run and pass. These two are the best in the business, with Mike Iupati and Logan Mankins right behind them.

Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh basically has one reliable player on that offensive line currently (with Adams, DeCastro up and coming). Very much like Yanda, Pouncey does a lot of things for this line that are invaluable. Nod goes to him ahead of Unger because Pouncey is working with a fluctuating line and less talent.

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Defensive End: J.J. Watt, Houston // Justin Smith, San Francisco

Watt is the defensive player of the year because he is dominant against both run and pass. Imagine counting knockdowns with sacks as basically the ball does not advance the line of scrimmage and Watt has 20.5 Sacks and 16 PD. That is at minimum 37 pass plays that resulted in 0 or less yards. It doesn’t factor in his disruption on the run (Rotoworld gives him 56 defeats in the run game), nor how much free runs he allows other players. Justin Smith is like Haloti Ngata, a hybrid DT/DE who we’ll put here for his versatility and what he does with the freedom Aldon Smith gives him, and freedom he gives Aldon Smith. The two of them make that defense very tough to defend.

Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
Nose Tackle: Vince Wilfork, New England

With the rise of the 3-4, we’ll be specifically highlighting the nose tackle, which is also valuable in the 4-3 but less critical. Wilfork was explosive this season, completely destroying many vaunted rushing attacks by himself. Anyone looking to be a nose tackle needs only look at how he plays. Atkins dominated out of a 4-3, providing solid pass rush up the middle and shutting down the run impressively. He makes both their ends look a lot better than they perhaps actually are.

Outside Linebacker: Von Miller, Denver // Aldon Smith, San Francisco

These two guys are going to be going at it for years to come. They are both elite pass rushers from different schemes. Miller’s bend on the outside is impossible. I thought Ware’s was preposterous, and Miller can get even lower. Smith is a bonafide beast as a stand up linebacker. He’s solid in coverage, but really shines pushing tackles around left and right. Both these guys provide a ton of one-on-one match-ups for the rest of their players.

Inside Linebacker: Patrick Willis, San Francisco

With Ray Lewis retiring this year, Willis has already aptly taken his spot as best linebacker in the NFL. The man is ferocious against the run and one of the few elite pass covering linebackers. Doesn’t hurt to be behind such an elite defensive line and have such help as Smith and Bowman standing up with him.

Flex: Cameron Wake, Miami

The defensive flex position is for the best front seven player, recognizing that diverse schemes mean different positions are on the field for different teams. Cameron Wake is a premiere pass rusher, stuck in a declining defense. He didn’t beat out Smith or Miller, but provides that defense a threat against opposing quarterbacks.

Cornerback: Charles Tillman, Chicago // Jonathan Joseph, Houston

Charles Tillman took the best receiver in the NFL, having one of his best seasons ever, and shut him down twice. If that doesn’t prove you are elite, nothing does. Meanwhile Joseph took a very weak pass defense and has made it a ton better. Throw out the Patriot game where everyone got burned (even though he was not awful there either) and you have a solid corner. I will say Joe Haden would have taken the second spot were he healthy.

Safety: Eric Weddle, San Diego // Earl Thomas, Seattle

Weddle has been long overdue, hidden behind Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. But with Polamalu being hurt most of the year and Reed having a remarkably mediocre year without any pass rush in front of him. Weddle is great in coverage, securing the back-end reliable. When Earl Thomas came out, I predicted Eric Berry would take the mantel of best Ball Hawk from Ed Reed, and Thomas would turn into more of a Polamalu style player. Instead Thomas has become a terror in the back. His ability to close on deep balls and his elite hands have ruined several quarterbacks afternoons.

Kicker: Kai Forbath, Washington

He didn’t start as their kicker, but was perfect once he did. As a rookie that’s impressive. He ended up 17 of 18 with more than half of his kicks coming 40+ yards. Honorable mentions to Blair Walsh in Minnesota for similar start, and Justin Tucker because of several game winning kicks.

Punter: Mike Scrifers, San Diego

Scifers was again elite, finishing 4th in total yards, 3rd in average, and 7th in kicks inside the 20. Andy Lee was a close second.

Return man: Jacoby Jones, Baltimore

For winning at least 2 games by himself and for a ridiculous number of return yards and scores. JJ was the best the NFL has seen since Hester’s impossible season.

 

NFL 2012 Predictions

Welcome to another NFL season. We’ll be trying to get this blog back up and running, and to start we’ll do a prediction page here. Belated I know, but we’re all busy with life, etc. Just be happy we got this together for you!

 

Standings:
AFC East:

1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

This is a run away for the Pats this year. The Bills are improved, but I don’t trust Fitzpatrick still and offensively there isn’t enough firepower to surpass the Patriots, who look to be running the most sophisticated offense in the NFL again this year. The Jets will quickly devolve into a media circus as calls for Tebow distract the team, and Miami is not remotely close to winning this year. The only question will be the Patriots defense, which should be improved from last year.

AFC North:

1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Cincinnati Bengals
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns

This is a down year for what has been the toughest division in the NFL the last couple of years. The Ravens defense looks very, very old and the loss of defensive coordinator (now Indianapolis Head Coach) Chuck Pagano appears to be significant. While the defense is regressing, the offense looks poised to finally surpass the defense as the primary unit on this team and Flacco to Smith might be a fantasy sleeper combination. The Steelers, to their credit, tried to address the offensive line issues, but with DeCastro going down, it appears the same unit will run out there. Big Ben and the defense will keep them in games and they should have a winning record, but I see them struggling to make a wild card. Meanwhile the Bengals continue to improve their roster and the combination of AJ Green, Andy Dalton, and Jay Gruden appears set to challenge in this division. Meanwhile the Browns will continue to flounder behind a mediocre defense and lacking offensive weapon offense.

AFC West:

1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Kansas City Chiefs

Peyton Manning should come in and sweep this division by storm. The Bronco defense is excellent and with improved offensive play they should have no problem coming up with a winning record (and isn’t that all you need in the AFC West?). The Chargers will compete for a wildcard, but Norv Turner continues to struggle to achieve expectations. The Raiders will depend on how Carson Palmer looks, while Pryor continues to impress behind him, and the Chiefs are dependent on Matt Cassel, who I don’t trust in the least.

AFC South

1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are my Superbowl favorite currently. Their roster is stacked (although I would have kept Mario Williams), and their defense is elite. If Schuab can stay healthy, their offense has the weapons to be impressive. The Titans are a talented roster with a young quarterback. If Locker can be solid, and CJ2k returns to form, this is a team that can run with the best. If Locker looks like a rookie than their season is merely preparation for 2013. Jacksonville has looked better offensively in the preseason, but their defense has several holes in it. I see them making strides, and improving as the season goes, but not enough to challenge in this division. The Colts will work Andrew Luck in while setting their sights on next year. Their defense is going to undergo a major overhaul, and their offense is lacking in weapons.

NFC East

1. Dallas Cowboys
2. New York Giants
3. Washington Redskins
4. Philadelphia Eagles

I think this is the best division in football this season (for once). The Superbowl champion Giants will be good again this year, but duplicating their passing success will be tough. Their defense still relies on constant 4 man pressure, which ebbs and flows throughout the season. The Cowboys, on the other hand, sound poised for a run this year. They won’t win the division by much, but their offense has had a year to click, and Rob Ryan finally has the corners to be more aggressive with his scheming. Washington should be wildly improved from last year, and with a defense as elite as their should be, I would expect them to challenge for this division. They’ll depend on their running game and Griffin’s maturity at the helm. The Eagles will rely on Vick to stay healthy and a defense to actually stand up to opposing offenses. All in all, these four teams should be within 3 games of each other top to bottom.

NFC North

1. Chicago Bears
2. Green Bay Packers
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

I’ll be blunt. The Bears scare the crap out of me. Their pass rush / Tampa 2 style defense is taking a more aggressive approach, and with very legitimate receivers their offense is perhaps the most dynamic in the NFL. The Packers return most of their starting offense but they’ll need to improve on defense to maintain their division crown. The Lions are very solid, but their lack of DB depth and offensive line / running game concerns should keep them out of the division talk. Their wild card hopes are alive and well however. The Vikings will continue to develop Ponder, but should keep Adrian’s workload to a minimum and prepare for next year as a big jump year. Their offensive line, and defense in particular need work.

NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. Arizona Cardinals
4. St. Louis Rams

I’ll go with the 49ers again this year due to their defense and the fact that they’ll be getting a lot of bad quarterbacks. Alex Smith should play better, but it will depend on how his receivers step up. The Seahawks spent a ton of money on Matt Flynn, with T-Jack already on the roster, and still go with the rookie Russell Wilson. All I’ve heard about Wilson sounds good, but I think a year on the bench wouldn’t have hurt him. The Seahawks have an underrated roster, but enough holes on offense to keep them out of the playoffs. The Cardinals will continue to flip-flop quarterbacks while their defense shakes their heads. The Rams are a wildcard, because if Bradford returns to form this can be a scary offense. Their defense has not improved enough to concern me and will hold them back.

NFC South

1. Atlanta Falcons
2. Carolina Panthers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Wow. Julio Jones is making the Falcons look smart in preseason. If he can continue that success, this team is scary good on offense. Their defense is getting old fast, however, and will be the concern going forwards. Cam Newton has the Panthers poised for a very successful year if he can continue to make progress as a passing quarterback. Their defense has some injury concerns, but should be better than last year and with that offense it might be enough to challenge for a wildcard. The Saints will either be very good, or struggle due to outside pressure. Sean Payton’s influence on the offense cannot be underestimated, but Drew Brees should keep them in the top part of the league. The defense will be solid, but it just doesn’t feel like the Saints year. The Bucs, meanwhile, will continue to retool this defense and develop Josh Freeman. They’ve improved enough to be a threat to all three other teams, but not enough for me to take them as a wildcard team.

 

MVP: Peyton Manning

He’ll return and take that team deep into the playoffs. His numbers probably won’t be as elite as they used to be, but as the season goes he should get better.

Offensive Player: Ray Rice

With Flacco stepping up, Rice should see more holes and fewer defenders. He’s already getting about 2000 yards a season, it’ll be scary to see what he does with a legitimate quarterback behind him.

Defensive Player: DeMarcus Ware

Ware is poised to explode in a new, aggressive system from Rob Ryan. Expect close to 20 sacks at minimum. JPP is a close second and Von Miller is third.

Offensive Rookie: Robert Griffin

I think Luck doesn’t have the weapons or defense to win this, while RG3 will have a lot to work with this year.

Defensive Rookie: Chandler Jones

The Patriots defense should be better and Jones is the pass rushing specialist on it.

 

 

Rumor Has It…. potential draft trades

A look at some teams that want to make moves and the possible moves they could make.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers move up to 3 to select Trent Richardson.

Tampa is a playoff caliber team, supposedly, and if they truly believe that they are close, making a small move like this could get them over the hump. I don’t believe it because their defense is full of holes currently and their running game wasn’t necessarily the problem last season. Still, Schiano is supposedly enamored with Richardson and wants a more ground and pound attack.

Jacksonville going….somewhere.

The Jags reportedly like Justin Blackmon and Fletcher Cox and Melvin Ingram.

They might need to move up for Blackmon, but could land Cox at 7. Ingram is reportedly the player they want, but feel its a bit early at 7 for him. Arizona would sacrifice a goat to get a hold of Michael Floyd, so if he gets to Jacksonville and the price is right they could make that move from 13.

 

Arizona wants Michael Floyd…. badly…

…And I’m not sure why. Floyd to me is another Larry Fitzgerald. Neither has deep speed and their roster isn’t exactly build with a lot of burners on it. Sure it can work, because it did with Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but to me it’s too much of the same. Still two dynamic receivers never hurt an offense.  7 might be too high to go, but if he gets to 10 or so, Arizona will make a play. I feel pretty confident about it.

 

Dallas Cowboys covet Mark Barron

Barron is a big time box safety that Dallas likes. Everyone says Dallas won’t get a shot at him where they are. If Buffalo truly likes a couple of offensive tackles (which is the rumor currently going around to contradict the Barron rumor that made sense to me and thus is going to screw my mock draft), they’ll look to trade down a couple of selections for a Martin or Glenn or Reiff (though they reportedly don’t like him as a tackle). Dallas might be willing to move up to 10 from 14 to secure Barron… if Tampa Bay doesn’t really like him to, which I’ve heard in passing.

 

Baltimore does not think this is a deep draft class. The Ravens believe they are close to a Superbowl

Those two factors usually mean a team is willing to shop some picks to maneuver up in a draft. The question becomes for whom? Dont’a Hightower might not make it to them at 29, so that is a logical option – particularly if they believe Pittsburgh wants him. Stephen Hill is another target they might like to add. Hill has been projected as high as Tennessee at 20, but most have him going to Cleveland or Houston. If Baltimore really likes the wide receiver from Georgia Tech, it might be a good year to make a move.

 

 

Happy draft day Everyone!

 

Doomed to Fail Mock Draft – 2012 Edition

Welcome to the mock draft of 2012. I took a brief look at last years and while I started strong, I quickly trailed off the track. I did pick it up late in the round but hey that’s mock drafts for you.

I will admit right now that I have never felt so lost about a mock draft. The variables here are staggering this year and it’s all due to Minnesota and Miami. The Vikings are the first swing piece. With Richardson on the board and a couple of teams in love with him, they’re desperately trying to move down. Along with that, they seem to have fallen out of love with Kalil and are moving in a playmaker position with Claiborne and Blackmon. If the pick were kalil, I’d feel confident that Richardson, Claiborne and Blackmon would all follow quickly. If it’s Claiborne, Tampa becomes a wild card…. and well you get the idea.

Meanwhile the Dolphins are the team supposedly set on Tannehill, but how much so? Are they worried about losing him to a quick move by KC? Or maybe it’s a smokescreen for a pass rusher they like? It’s hard to tell with them denying everything even remotely mentioned about them. My guess is Tannehill is the guy here, but it would not completely shock me if they go for a pass rusher at 8 instead. Tannehill is all potential right now and they’re looking for something more immediate with ticket sales declining.

Anyway, Lets get Part 1 out, and here we go.

1. Indianapolis Colts Select Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford

This is one of those rare years where the front-runner last year ended up as the guy this year. Luck has achieved all expectations and looks like a future pro bowl quarterback. The Colts still have a lot of work to do to get him the required weapons, but Luck will set the franchise back on the right path after last years disaster.

2. St. Louis Rams trade the 2nd pick: Washington Redskins Select Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor

This one also looks to be a lock. The Redskins gave up a king’s ransom (and the Rams were very fortunate to find themselves in such a powerful position) to get their guy and RG3 looks like it. He’s got huge upside and great character so it looks like a smart move (for once) by the Redskins here.

3. Minnesota Vikings select Morris Claiborne, Corner Back, Louisiana State University

Here’s where the draft really starts. The Vikings are rumored to be picking between Claiborne, Justin Blackmon, and Matt Kalil (some reports have them down to Blackmon and Claiborne). Of those three prospects, Claiborne is the best. Of those three prospects, Claiborne fills the greatest need. And I think the Vikings have to be fed up with selecting corners and watching them fail. Also they face Calvin Johnson twice, Greg Jennings twice, Aaron Rodgers twice, Matt Stafford twice, Brandon Marshall twice, Jay Cutler twice… you get the idea.

4. Cleveland Browns select Trent Richardson, Running Back, Alabama

This looks to be a set pick for most people. Richardson has been called the best player in this draft, and the best running back since Adrian Peterson. He’s physical, fast, reliable and explosive. And it helps that Cleveland wants to run the ball more and has a decent line to do so. This should pay huge dividends early and often.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Stephon Gilmore, Corner Back, South Carolina

The Bucs would love to get Claiborne, and will be all over him if the Vikings go with Blackmon or Kalil. With him off the board they have to chose between the next best corner (and one that Greg Cosell calls the best in this draft), the top tackle in Matt Kalil, or a power safety in Mark Barron. While the other two will be intriguing, the frustration with Aqib Talib and the age of Ronde Barber should push them towards Gilmore.

6. St. Louis Rams select Justin Blackmon, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma State

The Rams are reportedly between Blackmon, Floyd and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. While Fischer would love to land such a player as Cox, this draft’s strength is on the defensive line. They’ll be able to find a nice defensive piece with their 2nd round selection. Meanwhile it is not a terribly deep receiver class, and Blackmon is elite. I suspect the Rams also have loved Blackmon from the start and are thrilled he’s still available.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars select Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver, Notre Dame

This is an uncharacteristic selection for Jacksonville. As Mike Mayock has pointed out the Jags tend to be “risk averse,” but with new ownership and a desire to start building a franchise (finally) they need to get their passing game to a realistic level. Floyd isn’t a big speed guy, but his ability to go and get the ball in the air is best in this draft.

8. Miami Dolphins select Ryan Tannehill, Quarterback, Texas A&M

I’m going to believe this is not a smokescreen and that owner Stephen Ross has given marching orders to take a quarterback. It doesn’t hurt that Tannehill is familiar with Joe Philbin and his offense. This team is probably not going anywhere this year so they can sit Tannehill for a year, groom him and build this team for next season. If they bring him in late this year it should build momentum for those season ticket sales that have been floundering of late.

9. Carolina Panthers select Fletcher Cox, Defensive Tackle, Mississippi State

The Panthers are thrilled here to find Cox still around, and don’t rule out a Philadelphia move up to select him. They’d have to get to 7 or 8 and both teams would be willing to drop a few spots I suspect. Since Mayock and I agree, I’ll defer the rest of my time to him. ” Love this pick. It’s been an offensive draft so far, so they get one of the top-ranked defensive players. Can play inside, can play outside. Boy, will he help Carolina. ”

10. Buffalo Bills select Mark Barron, Safety, Alabama

I’m not completely sold this is the selection. Matt Kalil is still on the board, I know, but the Bills are setting the agenda by taking on the team at the top – New England. The Patriots run a very tough scheme with duel tight ends, and the Ravens showed that you can hold them down with strong safety coverage. Barron is a decent answer for the likes of Gronkowski (but would be burned by Hernandez) and remember this is a fairly deep offensive line draft.

11. Kansas City Chiefs select Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Boston College

Kansas City is building an All Star linebacker group. Justin Houston, Kuechly, Derrick Johnson, and Tamba Hali look phenomenal. Kuechly is an elite coverage linebacker and a trash cleanup guy. Johnson is the ground game specialist and they have two dynamic pass rushers on the outside. A good recipe for success.

12. Seattle Seahawks select Matt Kalil, Offensive Tackle, University of Southern California

The fall could stop before here easily. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Tampa Bay select Kalil, or Buffalo certainly, but as Kalil is not quite as good as Joe Thomas or Jake Long, this feels about right for him. I still consider him a blue chip player, and a long-term answer at left tackle, but his run blocking certainly could use some work.

13. Arizona Cardinals select Melvin Ingram, Defensive End/ Outside Linebacker, South Carolina

The Cardinals would absolutely sprint to the podium if Michael Floyd or Matt Kalil hang around here, but with both off the board, the Cardinals will look towards their pedestrian pass rush.

14. Dallas Cowboys select Michael Brockers, Defensive End / Defensive Tackle, Louisiana State University

The Cowboys may think long and hard about moving up to get a hold of Mark Barron, but only if he gets past Buffalo. I think it would be too costly to get any farther than that for Jerry Jones. Reportedly they’ve liked Dontari Poe, and his boom or bust potential is a possibility here, but I think another high potential player like Brockers will intrigue them more, particularly for his pass rush ability. He has a chance to be another Richard Seymour.

15. Philadelphia Eagles select Jonathan Martin, Offensive Tackle, Stanford

The Eagles would love to get a hold of Fletcher Cox, and Michael Brockers is probably a strong candidate for 2nd. Beyond him they’d love Luke Kuechly if he lingers. Unfortunately for them, all three are gone. Corner is a possibility if they like Dre Kirkpatrick, but he doesn’t fit their scheme very well. On the other hand, they just lost their right tackle to a serious injury. Some people aren’t has high on Martin as I am, but he’s a better fit for Philadelphia than Rieff. He can play left or right and is a very balanced tackle.

16. New York Jets select Chandler Jones, Defensive End / Outside Linebacker, Syracuse

Jones is flying up draft charts, but I’m sure Rex Ryan has had his eye on him for his tall frame and pass rushing potential. The Jets would love Trent Richardson or Mark Barron or Michael Floyd here, but all three are gone. Of the three, they might consider a move for Richardson if he gets a little lower (and without much need past Tampa Bay there’s a possibility of it occurring). Without that happening, Rex will look for a pass rusher because his team simply cannot get to the quarterback. The Dark Horse pick here is Dontari Poe, who might remind Ryan enough of Haloti Ngata to take him.

17. Cincinnati Bengals select Dre Kirkpatrick, Corner Back, Alabama

The Bengals miss their dynamic duo of Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. Nate Clements is okay, but Kirkpatrick has a chance to be an elite corner back. They also won’t get a shot at another one this round, unless they like Janoris Jenkins.

18. San Diego Chargers select Quentin Coples, Defensive End / Outside Linebacker, North Carolina

At some point in the first I suspect someone will like Coples enough to overlook some massive character concerns and take him. I’m guessing San Diego. They need a dynamic pass rusher to put with Antwan Barnes and Coples has the skill set. They just have to hope Norv Turner can get the most out of him.

19. Chicago Bears select Whitney Mercilus, Defensive End, Illinois

I am a bit biased here because for some reason this just seems right. Mercilus opposite Julius Peppers scares the crap out of me and it should scare the NFC North. Offensive line is a strong option if they like Jonathan Martin or Rieff enough.

20.Tennessee Titans selectCourtney Upshaw, Defensive End / Linebacker, Alabama

The Titans would love either of the two options in front of them, but as both are gone quickly, they’ll try Upshaw out. He’s a bit of a tough fit in both schemes, but plays hard and is tenacious. He also has a history of attacking the passer so moving to defensive end instead of forcing him to be a 3-4 linebacker should work better for him.

21. Cincinnati Bengals select David DeCastro, Guard, Stanford

With the board as it is, I’m torn between Rieff and DeCastro. The former provides insurance for Andre Smith and can play guard this year I think. The latter is the best guard in this draft and one of the better ones to come out in the last few years. I’m figuring they’ll take a safer options in DeCastro here.

22. Cleveland Browns select Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver, Baylor

The Browns got a big time runner in Richardson. There’s some speculation that this pick could be Branden Weeden, but I think that he’ll hang around until the 2nd round where they can go get him if they feel the need. Wright will provide a deep option to pair with Greg Little and if they can get decent production out of both, this unit will start to look pretty good.

23. Detroit Lions select Riley Reiff, Offensive Tackle, Iowa

The Lions would love a secondary upgrade here, but the first round corners are all gone. Therefore they’ll look towards their offensive line. Reiff will push Backus or Cherlius for a starting job week one, and is an upgrade at guard if he can’t beat them both out.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers select Cordy Glenn, Guard / Tackle, Georgia

This is a tough pick for Pittsburgh. Hightower is available but a bigger need is on their offensive line. If their oft injured line goes down like it did last year (when they barely had enough linemen on the roster to play appropriately), they’ll be in serious trouble. Glenn is a mauler guard, and has experience at tackle if they need him to slide out.

25. Denver Broncos select Dontari Poe, Defensive Tackle, Memphis

Another prospect who could find a home much earlier, or later, he slips because of lack of production. The potential is nearly limitless however, as he’s in the mold of another dominate defensive tackle – Haloti Ngata. Poe will fill a massive void in the Broncos defense and has the power to plug a massive 350 pound hole. The other option, which is incredibly tempting, is at receiver, where Peyton might like a player like Stephen Hill.

26. Houston Texans select Stephen Hill, Wide Receiver, Georgia Tech

An unpolished project receiver, the possibility for Hill is very high. He could easily develop into Calvin Johnson, and with Andre Johnson there to show him the ropes, he shouldn’t want for coaching. This should help out Schuab and really make this team elite… not that it already isn’t.

27. New England selects Shea McClellin, Defensive End / Linebacker, Boise State

The Patriots snag a pass rusher to put in their hybrid scheme. McClellin is versatile and instinctive. He also constantly make plays. Don’t get Mike Mayock started on him because he loves this kid.

28. Green Bay Packers select Nick Perry, Defensive End / Linebacker, University of Southern California

The Packers need to address this defense which quickly went from elite to pitiful. They need a safety due to the unfortunate loss of Nick Collins. They need a defensive end to replace Cullen Jenkins. And they need a pass rusher to pair with Clay Mathews, At this point, Perry’s the best fit of those needs.

29. Baltimore Ravens select Dont’a Hightower, Linebacker, Alabama

The heir of Ray Lewis finally arrives. Hightower could easily go higher than this, and Baltimore will be thrilled if he’s available. The Steelers will seriously think about him, and I suspect the Texans, Patriots, and Packers will consider him. If he is gone, the Ravens will debate Mike Adams or Reuben Randle here.

30. San Francisco 49ers select Coby Fleener, Tight End Stanford

He knows Jim Harbaugh and Harbaugh knows him. They’ll try to duplicate New England’s duel set with two very fast tight ends.

31. New England selects Harrison Smith, Safety, Notre Dame

Reports have the Patriots trading one of their two 1st round selections and most suggest the 31st as the pick to move. I think they might hang on to both this year (unless they can get a future 1st rounder) and the reason being that this draft is not particularly deep. Snagging a player like Smith, who is a big need and one of the better safeties in this class. They could also move up if they covet a particular player earlier.

32. New York Giants select Doug Martin, Running Back, Boise State

We finish the first round with the Giants selecting a running back to pair with Ahmad Bradshaw and continue their running back by committee.

Rumor Has it…and sleeper prospects.

A quick reminder that we’ll be live tweeting the draft tomorrow and hopefully Friday (subject to work on that one) so check in with us for some spot on analysis.

Here’s a couple late rumors.

 

Dolphins LOOOOOVE Tannehill…..according to the Jaguars.

Funny how the Jags also pick right in front of the Dolphins. As far as draft plays go this is pretty abysmal. They didn’t even try to sugar coat it. Look, the Dolphins do like Tannehill, and from the sounds of it will take him at 8 (look for mock draft later), but they also aren’t going to panic and spend a mess of picks leapfrogging the trade hungry Jags. Jacksonville has only one chance to get out of 7 from the looks of it and that’s through someone coveting Tannehill. Kansas City is really the only viable candidate so I don’t think this will be happening.

 

The Jets LOOOOOVE Trent Richardson.

And frankly they should. Rex wants to run and Richardson is very,very good at that. But the New York Football Jets pick at 16 and to get him must certainly move up with Minnesota. If Minnie really wants some extra draft picks, they can lower that price tag considerably and drop to 16 for a couple 2nd rounders perhaps, but odds are they’re going to try to get a similar deal to the Rams. I doubt the Jets pull the trigger on that, but if for some reason Cleveland and Tampa Bay and a slew of other teams don’t think much of one of the best players in this draft, you can bet Rex will be screaming to get him.

 

Mark Barron is a much sought after safety.

Supposedly the Cowboys love him, the Eagles like him, and the Bills are thinking that he’s worth that 10th pick. Adam Schefter reported this afternoon that Barron will not make it to 14 where Dallas picks, which also ruins the Jet’s hopes of snagging him. Barron is a beastly safety. His coverage skills are not elite, but his tackling is sound, his vision is great, and his deep safety play is good. I’ll have to come down somewhere on who gets Barron, but it certainly looks like he’ll be a top 15 pick this year. If I had to guess, I would bet Buffalo right now only because Dallas doesn’t like making big moves on draft day as far as trades go.

 

Who is this Chandler Jones character?

Jones is a brother of Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who is slated to compete to take a starting role on a very vaunted defense this season – so he has some pedigree. He’s also a pass rusher in the JPP model. He’s tall and lanky right now, with terrific arm length and speed. Like Shae McClellin, he has slipped under the radar somewhat, but is bursting on in a hurry right now, and with good reason. His production wasn’t elite at college, but it was solid and consistent. His potential is incredible. Several mocks have him going as high as the Jets who should be in the market for a new pass rusher. A couple draftniks have called him a top ten pick, but I haven’t seen anyone pull the trigger on that yet.

 

Speaking of pass rushers, where’s all the top 10 defensive ends this year?

Plummeting. Melvin Ingram is the consensus top pass rusher available, but teams aren’t quite sure where to put him. He’s got short arms and is undersized as a 4-3 end, and hasn’t wowed teams working out as a 3-4 linebacker. Quentin Coples is in draft free fall over his effort and production last season. It’s hard to overlook a player who flat-out tells you he quit on a season with his draft stock on the line. Shae McClellin and Chandler Jones have risen into the void left by these guys, and players like Michael Brockers offer some options, but I cannot remember a year where the board was so varied. All it will take is one team to love the potential of Coples or Brockers and draft him on it, but teams are all over the place on these prospects. There really is no consensus elite prospect and I think that’s starting to scare teams away from some of these pass rushers, particularly with recent failures of Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin staring them in the face.

 

How does this draft rate out overall?

The more I look at it, and the more I look at the coming draft class, this looks like a very mediocre class. The top part of it looks excellent with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, Morris Claiborne, Luke Kuechly, Mark Barron, Stephon Gilmore, and David DeCastro (those are my blue chip prospects btw). Yet looking past it, there’s a ton of questions. Sure there’s some prospects with really high upsides, like Michael Brockers, Quentin Coples, Janoris Jenkins, etc… but teams are looking for more sure prospects. Deeper in the draft it becomes even murkier. I like a lot of mid-late round running back prospects, and there’s depth at offensive line and defensive end, but even still GM’s probably aren’t looking forwards to this as much as usual. Next year looks like a well-rounded draft class at this point (though that’s always subject to change) and much deeper.

 

5 Late round sleeper prospects (And I’ll include some more on Friday)

1.  Markus Zusevics, T/G, Iowa

He’s not nearly as well-rounded as teammate Riley Reiff, but his run blocking is scary good. If a team can develop his pass blocking to a solid level they could find a very nice right tackle here. As it is, I think he figures to be an elite guard down the road. Probably a 3rd – 5th round prospect, but I think a steal late.

2. Philip Blake, C/G, Baylor

With so many teams running a 3-4, centers who can handle nose tackles are at a premium. Looking at Blake, he has the potential to be such a center. He’s as physical as any nose tackle in this class and will take on big bodied defenders at will. He struggles a little with his hands, allowing defenders into the body, which must be corrected for that potential to shine, but his mean streak and footwork should make him an interesting 4th – 6th round prospect.

3. Brandon Bolden, RB, Mississippi

He’s a tough physical runner who earned his reputation in a tough SEC. He’s a good change of pace back, and actually has some pass protection abilities already. He’s a good zone blocking back as he hits the hole hard and runs angry when he wants to. That is of course the down side because he has disappeared on occasion and has several bad games on his tape. A nice late pickup in the 6th or 7th rounds.

4. Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State

Another SEC back, Ballard has shown more with his abilities. He’s got great size and good speed. His vision is excellent and his two years as the work horse yielded 2000 yards. He’s not as tough a runner as people might like, but if they can get a little more bruiser out of him he should be a very nice back to pair with a speeders. Probably can be had between the 3rd and 5th rounds.

5. Ryan Lindley, QB, San Diego State

If you know me, you know I love development quarterbacks. I don’t know what, but I see potential in a QB and I want to put him out there. Lindley has tremendous potential. He has great size at 6’4 215, and an excellent arm. When he’s on he’s tough to stop. He’s also worked a pro style system and has worked it for 4 years, which should speed up the learning curve. The problem is his accuracy, and that’s due to suspect mechanics. He can make a beautiful deep ball one throw and miss a wide open cross the next. His completion percentage hovered around 55 for all four years and never really improved, which is also concerning, but if you are a quarterback coach who thinks he can coach one up a bit, this guy should intrigue you. And as a 3rd to 5th round guy, it’s a low risk, high reward prospect.

Team Needs Part 2

Here’s the conclusion of team needs:

 

Oakland Raiders
1. Defensive End – Seymour is the only note worthy pass rusher on this team. Shaughnessy has potential and Lamarr Houston is okay, but a real presence could go a long way.

2. Linebacker – Wimbley is out, Currey is in, but the jury is still out on his career (I missed big on that pick apparently), and Rolando McClain has had some legal trouble recently. A good outside linebacker would be helpful, particularly since they’ve lined Wimbley up as a pass rusher on nickle formations.

3. Offensive line – Left tackle is an issue and their interior could use some juice.

 

San Diego Chargers
1. Pass rusher – Antwan Barnes began to step up late and finished with the team lead in sacks, but there’s nothing on the other side of him. Larry English is a bit of a bust, Shaun Phillips has been declining and there’s not much else.

2.Offensive Tackle – Jared Gaither is taking over at LT, and he’s a good pass rusher, but he’s proven unreliable in the past. They could use help on the right side as well so it wouldn’t hurt there either.

3. Wide Receiver – Vincent Jackson is gone, and his presence really opened up the field for Gates to work. Malcolm Floyd is good, but they could use another big time target for Rivers.

 

Chicago Bears
1. Offensive line – This unit just is not consistent. They can get it going on occasion, but under Martz they were killing Jay Cutler. JaMarcus Webb is only a serviceable tackle and they could use new talent at Guard and Center.

2. Defensive End – Peppers is elite but heading towards the end of his career. It would have been incredible to see them land Mario Williams and watch that duo tear the NFC North a new one, but they lost out to Buffalo (really Mario? Buffalo?). Whitney Mercilus, Chandler Jones, or Michael Brockers could be options in the first.

3. Defensive Backs – Safety and corner are concerns. Major Wright is a major liability (see what I did there?) and their corners are aging fast and not gracefully. Both positions need to be addressed.

 

Tennessee Titans
1. Defensive End – Long gone are the glory days of contract year Albert Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch. This unit lacks much presence at all. Jason Jones shows flashes but disappears and Derrick Morgan didn’t shine immediately.

2. Cornerback – Cortland Finnegan is gone leaving Jason McCourty alone. A second is needed this season against Matt Schuab and Andre Johnson.

3. Guard – This unit also regressed from a few years back. They’ll need to add a couple of bodies to keep up with CJ.

 

Cincinnati Bengals
1. Cornerback – Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph were a great duo, but they let Joseph go in favor cast offs Nate Clements and Pacman Jones. Both were once very sought after prospects, but they need a youthful CB to pair with Hall.

2. Running back – If you live in the AFC North you play a form of 1950’s football. Hard to do that without a good running back. Benson is pretty average at this point in his career and they could find some good value in the 2nd and 3rd rounds (ie Polk or Wilson).

3. Defensive End – Another position they’ve signed some once promising players, they picked up Jags cast off Derrick Harvey and Jamaal Anderson but lack a really dynamic defensive end. They should have some options with their 2nd first round pick with rumors that defensive ends are falling down the boards.

 

Atlanta Falcons
1. Offensive Tackle – If you’re starting left tackle is getting benched, you have a problem at tackle. He might be a solid RT or G, but I think it’s clear they reached when they moved back up for him (got that one right at least). They won’t have a pick until the 2nd round so that might not be fixable this year.

2. Defensive end – John Abraham wants a new contract, but at 34 he’s got a tough sell. They need someone next to Ray Edwards.

3. Center – Is it just me or is the entire crop of NFL centers about 33? McClure is 35 and they could use a new body in there.

 

Detroit Lions
1. Offensive Tackle – I’ve been saying that for years the Lions must protect Matt Stafford. Instead they continue to defend Jeff Backus (who might be a solid RT or G, but is not a LT). Stafford has finally made it through a season and they made the playoffs, should be obvious what they have to do.

2. Secondary – Delmas looks solid at FS, but they don’t have much with him. I’m sure they’re drooling over Mark Barron to pair with him, but he’ll be long gone by then. Same can be said of Stephen Gilmore and Morris Claiborne. Kirkpatrick is an option as is Janoris Jenkins if they feel they can overlook that Marijuana thing (they have before obviously).

3. Defensive End – Cliff Avril will stick it out one more year at least (and working next to Suh isn’t a tough gig really). They need a nice pass rusher to get after Aaron Rodgers and Cutler to help this secondary.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers
1. Offensive line – This unit is awful. And injured constantly. Max Starks went down last season, Willie Colon as well. Marcus Gilbert is expected to play one tackle spot next to whomever is healthy, but this unit simply needs bodies. Other than Pouncey, there’s not a top talent in the group. The best that can be said about them is that they never quit trying to block while Ben runs around back there.

2. Middle Defense – This means Nose Tackle and Inside linebacker. Casey Hampton is very old and James Farrior is 37. Larry Foote will hang around at 31 for another year next to Timmons, but a replacement wouldn’t hurt. Donta Hightower and Dontari Poe could be available for them when they draft in the 1st.

3. Running back – Mendenhall is very average and their backups are journeymen. If they could get a dynamic player here it could really help this offense kick it into high gear.

 

Denver Broncos
1. Defensive Tackle – They cut a bunch of defensive tackles last year and passed on Marcel Dareus (don’t get me wrong, it worked out really well for them) . They really need to get a dominant defensive tackle in there.

2. Wide Receiver – They got Peyton, but I’m sure he’d like some better targets. Eric Decker has flashed some potential, as had Demaryious Thomas, but a real number one could help.

3. Cornerback – Champ Bailey continues to play phenomenal, and Andre Goodman is serviceable, but there’s not much depth. They need a future player here.

 

Houston Texans
1. Wide receiver – Andre Johnson does it all by himself year in year out. They’ve tried Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, etc and haven’t gotten much production out of any of them. Kendall Wright, Reuben Randle, or Stephen Hill are all good-looking options to pair him with.

2. Nose Tackle – The Texans played their 3-4 with 4-3 personnel last year and looked phenomenal. Add a real 3-4 rush linebacker and a power nose tackle to the mix and this is a scary unit. Isn’t a 1st round need, but if they can find some talent in the 2nd, 3rd or 4th rounds it would be great.

3. Linebacker – DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams (part of one of the best draft classes in the last decade) are gone. Both were 4-3 guys and the Texans have announced that they’re committed to the transition. Brooks Reed looks good at one position and Cushing seems solid at inside, but an upgrade at either of the other two would be good.

 

New Orleans Saints
1. Defensive End – Spagnolo will want some dynamic pass rushing ends that the Saints don’t currently possess.

2. Safety – Mark Barron would look nice, but it’s not going to happen. Malcolm Jenkins has shined as a FS, but a big body safety would be a nice boost to this unit.

3. Cornerback – They lost some depth in free agency and they’re going against Cam Newton and Matt Ryan a couple of times a year.

 

Green Bay Packers
1. Rush Linebacker – Clay Mathews’ production slipped dramatically last season and he really looks like he could use some help from either in front or on the other side.

2. Defensive end – Speaking of help up front, BJ Raji is the only presence left and his belly dance can’t do it all by himself. They really need some 3-4 ends.

3. Cornerback / Safety – Nick Collins may not play this year or ever. If that’s the case, they can extend Charles Woodson’s career by dropping him to safety, or getting a new one. Either way a secondary piece is needed.

 

 

 

Baltimore Ravens
1. Linebacker – Ray Lewis doesn’t appear to be quitting anytime soon, but his body is starting to. He’s lost a couple of steps at this point, but his instincts are still incredible. Pairing him with a Hightower or Kuechly would be nice, but they might not be there. Suggs is also by himself with the departure of Jarret Johnson to San Diego. They’ll try Paul Kurger and hope for Kindle, but if a dynamic pass rusher like Shae McClellin is there it might be tough to pass up.

2. Offensive line – Michael Oher is a RT. Yanda is a versatile RG or RT. Matt Birk is ancient (another ancient center?!), Ben Grubbs is in New Orleans, and Bryant McKinnie is a stop-gap. The Ravens went from one of the top offensive lines to a patchwork mess. If Jonathan Martin or Mike Adams is available in the first, they’ll seriously consider him. There should be options at C or G for them to select in worst case scenario. Unless….

3. Wide Receiver – Anquan works best out of the slot. Torry Smith has two routes – go and post. They need a true number one and could see that potential in Stephen Hill or Reuben Randle if they’re available.

 

San Francisco 49ers
1. Wide Receiver – I wont write off Michael Crabtree yet, but Vernon Davis is clearly the best receiver on this group. They need an elite talent for Alex Smith to wing it to.

2. Cornerback – Carlos Rodgers is back, but this is a thin unit still. If they think they can deal with Jenkins, it might be worth a look a la Jimmy Smith last year.

3. Pass rusher – Aldon Smith burst onto the scene, but wouldn’t hurt to add another either at DE or OLB.

 

New England Patriots
1. Pass Rusher – The Patriots really have felt the loss of Mike Vrabel. Andre Carter was solid but a young Aldon Smith type player would be a welcome addition to this unit.

2. Safety – Or Cornerback. Pats fans should never want to see Julian Edelman on Anquan Boldin again.

3. Defensive line – It’s not a bad unit, but they need more hybrid players if they want to keep rotating between a 4-3 and 3-4

 

New York Giants
1. Offensive line – This is more for depth than anything because the unit is strong currently. They’re also very old. It wouldn’t hurt to start grooming some backups.

2. Tight End – This group is all hurt. Ballard went down, Beckum torn his ACL in the super bowl and won’t be available next season. Eli likes his tight ends so a Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen late could be an option.

3. Running back – Coughlin likes a run by committee approach and has lost most of his committee. Ahmad Bradshaw will be back but Jacobs has bolted for San Fran. Doug Martin is a well-rounded option at 32, or they can address the need later with a Polk or someone else.