For National Football Authority, we make some outlandish predictions about NFL division winners and playoff teams, MVPs and rookies of the year, and ultimately the Super Bowl. (Good luck, Ravens and Packers fans.) You can read my predictions – as well as those of the rest of NFAuthority staff – here.
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Now that the lockout is almost over, it’s time to start previewing the upcoming season. And in our first post, we want to take a macro look at the league and identify the one player who will leap into the public consciousness this year. Our pick? Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman.
Just two years ago, Freeman was viewed as a project pick in the first round. The Buccaneers seemingly liked him more than any other NFL team, and so they picked him higher (17th overall) than most other teams would have. And as a rookie, Freeman looked a bit like a project, waiting till midseason to take over the starter role. He won his first game as a starter (an upset over the Dolphins), then lost five straight before two late-season wins over the Seahawks and Saints. In his 10 games, he completed just 54.5 percent of his passes and had 18 interceptions to 10 TD passes.
But last season, Freeman took over the Bucs as his own with a star-making season. He led the surprising Bucs to a 10-6 record and had 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions – a remarkable ratio for any player and especially for a starter in his first full season. He threw for 3,451 yards and ran for 368, showing remarkable speed given his massive 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame. Even more impressively, Freeman put up those massive numbers not with a veteran crew around him but with a baby-faced crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were all rookies.
Now the Baby Bucs are primed to mature together. And as they do, Freeman will begin to grow in stature as an NFL star. On-field production is one reason – Freeman will be a major fantasy football factor this year, after being an afterthought entering last season. That alone will raise his profile. But there are other reasons Freeman will break through in the public consciousness:
*Personality – What the Bucs figured out – or made a correct guess about – is that Freeman has the personality required to be a franchise quarterback. He is personable but also able to challenge his teammates to perform, which is essential for a top quarterback. That’s especially important in Tampa, because both Blount and Williams had troubled tenures in college. The Bucs can’t afford them to slip up (as CB Aqib Talib and S Tanard Jackson have). But if Freeman can help them stay in line, the Bucs will have a talented group around their quarterback.
*QB vaccuum – With Brett Favre (hopefully) done for good, Donovan McNabb probably done as an NFL starter, and Carson Palmer possibly sitting out the season, there’s space for quarterbacks to emerge as stars. And our money is on Freeman to do this – even more than guys like Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. If Freeman has another massive season, he’ll break through and become at least a Philip Rivers-level star. A strong playoff push would take him even further up the Q-rating totem pole.
*Style of play – Freeman’s ability to run as well as pass makes him a more exciting player than a fellow young QB like Ryan. Freeman will make big plays on his own as well as by finding teammates, and those highlight type of plays will add to his profile.
Now is Freeman’s time. We hope he likes the spotlight, because it’s going to be focused on him this season and for many to come.
Who do you think will be the NFL’s breakout superstar of 2011? Leave a comment below.
One of the things you’ll see from time to time here at Football Relativity is our outlandish prediction. We’ll analyze things that seem far outside of the realm of possibility and try to decide if they’ll happen.
In this post, we’re going to look at two teams leading the West divisions – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-1 Seattle Seahawks. The thing these teams have in common, besides first-place standings, is massive home-field advantages. But can these home-field advantages lead these teams to division titles? Let’s look at the facts and then try to predict the future for these teams this season – even if that prediction ends up being outlandish.
The Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start thanks to home wins over the Chargers and 49ers, along with a road win at Cleveland. Both home wins figured to be tough, at least when looking at the schedule before the season, so the Chiefs’ record is truly a surprise. While the Chargers and 49ers are slipping enough that we don’t want to read too much into these wins, the Chiefs have a lot more weapons than they did last year. Last season, the Chiefs claimed Chris Chambers off waivers from San Diego in a desperate attempt to add explosiveness to their offense. This year, that explosiveness is there in spades. Rookie slot receiver Dexter McCluster and TE Tony Moeaki have both proven to be dangerous targets (along with holdover Dwayne Bowe), and Thomas Jones adds some solid aspects to the running game while Jamaal Charles remains a threat to break a big run at any time. Those targets have helped Matt Cassel overcome a slow start. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense (under new coordinator Charlie Weis) is a legitimate NFL attack. And on defense, the addition of rookie DBs Eric Berry and Javier Arenas, along with bounceback efforts from former first-round disappointments DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LB Derrick Johnson, have made the Chiefs scarier to face. Tamba Hali, one of the few Chiefs’ first-rounders who had performed OK in previous years, had three sacks last week, and Brandon Flowers continues to be a pretty good cornerback. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has pulled the right strings and made the most of the talent available, which is a good sign.
But will it last? Road games at Indianapolis and Houston after this week’s bye will probably drop the Chiefs to 3-2. But K.C. then has home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, along with a winnable road games at Oakland and Denver, mean that winning six or seven of the first nine games is possible. If the Chiefs do that, steal another road game at St. Louis later in the season, and hold serve in five of their six remaining home games, they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6. That’ll be good enough to win the AFC West – to the point that we’ll now make the outlandish prediction that the Chiefs will in fact win their division.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 after a convincing home win against San Francisco and hard-fought win over San Diego this week. This week’s seven-point win is due to Leon Washington’s two kickoff-return touchdowns, which is something the ‘Hawks can’t expect to do every week. Seattle’s offense has been OK, as Matt Hasselbeck has been healthy (which will be easier going forward now that OLT Russell Okung is playing), and TE John Carlson has emerged as a dependable target. Seattle needs receivers to emerge, whether it be reclamation project Mike Williams, promising rookie Golden Tate, or someone else. They also need a run game that produces more. On defense, offseason additions Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons have provided some pass-rush punch, and rookie S Earl Thomas has two interceptions already. The Seahawks have added to their talent base this offseason, although they’re not as far along as the Chiefs are. Still, Pete Carroll has undoubtedly put of jolt of energy into this franchise and the players currently on the roster.
So where does that leave the Seahawks in terms of their division? Seattle is tied with Arizona with a 2-1 record, so the two games between the teams could mean a lot. Arizona is more talented than the Seahawks, but Seattle has more consistent QB play. For Seattle’s playoff hopes, this week’s trip to St. Louis is key, because it’s a winnable road game that can help the “Hawks get to nine wins. Trips to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and San Francisco could also prove fruitful, and if Seattle can win a couple of those and ride home-field advantage to wins against opponents they should beat, big things are possible in Seattle. They’ll likely be favored in every remaining game at home except for perhaps Atlanta’s visit.
But while the schedule looks good, our hunch is that the Seahawks’ lack of depth and premium players will cost them as the season goes along, and they’ll top out at eight wins. Maybe that’s enough to win a flagging NFC West, but our outlandish prediction still leaves Seattle out of the postseason picture.
Fans across the NFL are excited about the free-agent season that begins this weekend, although it will be far different than what we as fans have seen over the past 20 years of free agency. Because there will be no new agreement between NFL owners and players before Friday, March 5 begins a new league year that is uncapped instead of capped.
At first glimpse, this appears to be a boon to NFL fans. No longer will their favorite teams have to limit themselves in free agency. Everyone on the market seemingly becomes an option. And although fewer players will hit the market (players must have 6 years of service instead of 4 to become unrestricted free agents), the fact that a team can spend its way to anyone and everyone on their wish list makes fans salivate.
But what fans don’t realize is that a much bigger cap weighs on teams in this uncapped year, and that cap is cash. And we predict (outlandishly, perhaps) that most teams won’t be enthuisastic to spend their cash reserves with a potential labor stoppage looming larger and larger in 2011.
The uncapped year not only strips the maximum salary expenditure off the books for NFL teams; it pulls the minimums off as well. And many teams are looking to streamline their budgets on player salary this year so that they have the cash holdings to survive a labor stoppage that could cost games in 2011.
For example, the Carolina Panthers chose not to franchise DE Julius Peppers, in the process saving a $20 million expenditure both in terms of the salary cap and more importantly in terms of cash. And it’s hard to see the Panthers dropping that $20 million on a replacement for Peppers (like a Kyle Vanden Bosch) and maybe another player or two. Instead, banking half of that money for a rainy day – in a league with labor storm clouds on the horizon – is a much more appealing strategy to many teams.
Fans don’t like to hear that owners won’t be spending the money from their cash cow teams. Sorry, fans, but it’s time for all of us to unplug our ears and realize just how lethargic this free agent market could be. There is a cap in place for 2010 – it’s just located in the accountant’s office instead of the league office.
Last offseason, we pondered the question of whither Julius Peppers (not once but twice), and then we reflected once Peppers decided to play the season in Carolina for the $18-million plus franchise tag. Now, Peppers is on the precipe of the open market again, and we once again think we know how this whole situation should play out.
If the Panthers want to keep Peppers for another year, it’ll cost 20 percent more than it did in ’09. That $20-million-plus outlay is strong, even in an uncapped year. And since Peppers continues to seem disinclined to sign a long-time deal in Carolina, it seems as though the Panthers’ only choices are the franchise tag or letting Peppers go. And letting him go is what the Panthers should and will do.
Peppers had 10.5 sacks last year, which is solid but not spectacular enough to justify the league-topping salary. And that’s pretty much his average season, since he has 81 career sacks in eight years. He’s an immense talent who is a very good but not great player. Even more, Peppers doesn’t want to be a franchise standard. He’s felt the pressure of being a North Carolina kid who went to North Carolina and then played his career at home, and he’s ready to leave the Carolinas for greener pastures somewhere else.
All those reasons are fine, but if the Panthers didn’t have other options on the free agent market, letting Peppers go would be unadvisable. But this year, even with the market limited by the potential uncapped year, there are pass rushers available. Someone like Aaron Kampman of Green Bay or Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee or Richard Seymour of Oakland or even Adewale Ogunleye of Chicago could approach 10 sacks at a far lesser cost than what Peppers would cost in Carolina. And while Seymour and perhaps Vanden Bosch will get tagged, a couple of those guys will break free. And the Panthers have always shown the willingness to make quick, aggressive strikes in free agency – the kind of approach that could guarantee the arrival of someone like Kampman.
This move would save the Panthers $10 million or more this year, and it could help them hold onto Tyler Brayton, a solid if unspectacular run-stuffer who has started across from Peppers the last couple of years.
So that’s what the Panthers should do, and that’s what we expect they will do. Panthers fans, say goodbye to Peppers – and hope that a Vanden Bosch or a Kampman is on his way to Charlotte ASAP.
The Carolina Panthers have a quarterback crisis on their hands. After a six-turnover meltdown against the Cardinals in the playoffs last year, Jake Delhomme had a deja vu performance with four interceptions and a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in Week One against the Eagles. Delhomme apparently can’t handle pressure anymore, and teams that have seen that are sure to pin their ears back and hit Delhomme as often as possible. Delhomme simply doesn’t have enough confidence, enough arm, or both to make teams pay now, and his disturbing tendency to frequently turn the ball over in the face of the rush. Even though he signed a big new deal in the offseason, his time in Carolina should be done.
But the Panthers are sticking with Delhomme, at least for this week. They did add A.J. Feeley, the former Eagle, as a veteran backup with starting experience to replace backup Josh McCown, who was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season. But can Feeley supplant Delhomme? Which will happen first – will Delhomme win a game or be benched for good?
When I was watching the Panthers/Eagles game on Sunday, I kept having flashbacks to 2003. That year, Rodney Peete, who had a solid season the year before the Panthers, entered the season as the starting quarterback in Carolina, beating out Delhomme, a free agent who had a terrible camp. But in the home opener against Jacksonville, Peete struggled, and head coach John Fox went to Delhomme, who led an improbable comeback and threw the game-winning touchdown to Ricky Proehl in the game’s waning seconds.
Throughout the game Sunday, I kept waiting for Fox to make a similar move. Like Peete, Delhomme has a good history in Carolina. But like Peete, Delhomme is done. Still, Fox didn’t pull Delhomme Sunday until the game was out of reach. And that was a mistake.
The outlandish prediction? Delhomme will have to be benched before he wins a game. The next two games for Carolina – at Atlanta and then at Dallas – provide hostile environments and enough pass-rush pressure to keep Delhomme’s meltdown at Code Red levels. And eventually, John Fox will have to turn to Feeley, who might have seen what was coming enough to turn down the Eagles’ offer to be a backup in the short term for the chance to become a starter in Carolina in the longer term.
Jake Delhomme will be benched before he leads the Panthers to another win. Panther fans just have to hope that the benching comes sooner rather than later.
Time for an outlandish prediction, or if you’d rather, a little preja vu…
The future arc of the Indianapolis Colts has been brewing in my mind for a while now, ever since Tony Dungy decided to retire after the 2009 season. And as the offseason has gone on, I’ve become more and more convinced that the horseshoe that has been pointed up for so long in Indy is going to turn downward. I’ve said as much in private email conversations for a while now, and now I’m goin’ public.
To leave the land of the metaphor and say it plainly, here’s the prediction:
The Colts won’t win 10 games this year.
That’s a big deal, because the Colts won at least 10 games in each of the 7 years of Dungy’s tenure (2002-08). In fact, Indy won at least 12 regular season games in each of the last six years.
But that run will come to an end this offseason. And here’s why:
*Jim Caldwell isn’t up to it – We’ve gone into this at great detail here on the site. (You can read here how I compare the Caldwell hiring to others this offseason and read here what I don’t like about Caldwell’s career path.) I lived through the Caldwell experience at Wake Forest when I was a student there, and while he is a very nice man he’s not a good coach. He came to Wake Forest with a Joe Paterno pedigree, and he gets this Colts job with a Tony Dungy pedigree. But a pedigree is not a guarantee. I simply can’t believe in Caldwell as an NFL coach.
*Staff turnover – The Colts apparently hired Caldwell as Dungy’s successor in waiting to preserve staff continuity. But that didn’t work, because the Colts will have new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. The offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, retired (along with OL coach Howard Mudd) in fears of losing pension money. Moore and Mudd will remain as consultants, and their replacements – Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator and Pete Metzelaars as line coach – have been in Indy for 7 and 5 years, respectively. But losing Moore and Mudd cuts the staff’s overall experience, and something will get lost in transition. Even Peyton Manning has questions about how it’s going to work.
On defense, the Colts wanted a more aggressive scheme than Dungy’s patented Tampa 2, and so they encouraged coordinator Ron Meeks to resign. (He landed in Carolina.) That smacks of a new coach’s arrogance in trying to implement his system and his way. The Colts’ defense wasn’t great, but it was OK, and the personnel fit it. But Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has a reputation of being blitz happy from his previous stops. There’s no way the current personnel – which haven’t been upgraded on defense – can take a huge step forward with the new scheme with the current personnel. Instead, I expect a step back, if not two. And the fact that Coyer and Caldwell used to work together makes me wonder if cronyism, not strategy, prompted the move.
Caldwell also cut special-teams coach Russ Purnell loose. That’s not a big deal, except it’s another sign that Caldwell is trying extremely hard – too hard, in our opinion – to put his own stamp on the team. The team was winning 12 games a year, and a failed college coach wants to put his stamp on it? That’s just not a good idea.
*The divisions are labor – The Colts have made hay in an AFC South that is traditionally a so-so division. Jacksonville and Tennessee have each been good at times, but rarely at the same time. But Tennessee should be tough this year, and Jacksonville (who always gives the Colts problems) should bounce back. Plus, Houston continues to get incrementally better. It will be hard for the Colts to get to 4 wins in the division. The Colts play the NFC West out of conference, which will help the win ledger, but drawing the entire AFC East plus a road game at Baltimore is no bargain. (Thanks to Andy for starting my thought process on the schedule.)
*Roster rut – If you look at the transactions ledger, the Colts have only added one free agent from another team – backup linebacker Adam Seward. They have lost some key players, including P Hunter Smith, DT Darrell Reid, CB Keiwan Ratliff, and most notably WR Marvin Harrison. The problem is that marginal draft picks will have to replace most of these guys. While that long-term strategy works, in the short term that could lead to some growing pains. And this is a team with too much in flux to afford many growing pains.
All in all, I see the Colts slipping noticably this year – even with Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, and the other stars there. The personnel depth has always been so-so because the Colts had so many stars, and that will show up negatively especially as the defense attempts to change schemes.
And remember how fortunate the Colts were to get to 12 wins last year. Over the first half of the season, the Colts were 3-4 including two white-knuckles wins over Minnesota and Houston that could have easily gone the other way. The Colts will not be good enough this year to turn those white-knucklers into wins, and the difference will show in the win/loss record. The horseshoe isn’t lucky enough to save the Colts in 2009.
After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.
Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Stafford vs. Sanchez, where Michael Crabtree fits, and what Aaron Curry’s upside is (and is not). We also looked at the offensive and defensive positions that are most likely or least likely to produce busts in the first half of the first round.
Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.
1. Lions – QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia
If you’ve been reading the relativity, you know that I think Mark Sanchez will be a better pro than Stafford. In fact, I would probably pick Sanchez at No. 1 this year were I the decision-maker. But that’s a minority view, and so the preja vu projection is that Detroit takes Stafford. Stafford has a big arm and he got better each year he started at Georgia, both of which are huge check marks on his resume. Plus, there’s a pretty significant sample size of data for Stafford even though he left as a junior. So while this pick is a bit of a gamble, it’s not a gamble on the level of San Francisco’s Alex Smith pick a few years back. If this was a quarterback-rich draft, I would recommend the Lions passing on a quarterback at No. 1 and instead taking Jason Smith, but since there is no high-level quarterback option beyond Stafford and Sanchez, the Lions all but have to go quarterback first. There will be a tackle available at 20.
2. Rams – OT Jason Smith, Baylor
Smith projects as a top-level player in the NFL, and he would be a godsend for the Rams. St. Louis has the experience of drafting Orlando Pace and not having to worry about left tackle for a decade, so there will be a comfort level among the fans for investing in a tackle this early. Plus, left tackle is a core building position, which makes this an especially valuable pick. The Rams wanted Jake Long last year but missed out, which again points to a left tackle here. Everything is lining up for Smith to be a Ram.
3. Chiefs – LB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
The draft will start to be in flux at this pick. Eugene Monroe would make sense at this pick, but because the Chiefs picked Branden Albert and started him at left tackle all season last year, we’re not anticipating that possibility. Still, it is worth noting that Albert played guard in college, and so a Monroe selection isn’t a complete impossibility. Also, if a team is absolutely in love with Sanchez, this is the spot they’ll have to get to in order to absolutely ensure that they get him. Most teams are probably hoping to trade up to 10 or 8 to get Sanchez, but I have a hunch that won’t be high enough. But if the Chiefs stay put, my guess is that they don’t overcomplicate things. Curry will be a 10-year starter inside in the 3-4, and he’ll be a stalwart of the middle level of the defense. While I don’t think he’ll ever be a breakout superstar, he’ll be a good run-stuffer, a good coverage ‘backer, and a solid citizen. That recipe adds up to a core player in K.C.’s still-massive rebuilding project.
4. Seahawks – QB Mark Sanchez, USC
The Sanchez shoe is going to drop early, folks. There’s too much buzz about him right now for him to have a Brady Quinn/Aaron Rodgers type of slide into the 20s of the first round – or even a Ben Roethlisberger slide into the early teens. While there aren’t a ton of QB-needy teams in the top 10, Sanchez’s value is too much to pass up. We’ll slot him to the Seahawks because Matt Hasselbeck is closer to the end than the beginning and coming off an injury-plagued season. But this is also a trade possibility. Regardless, I see Sanchez coming off the board in the top 5 because someone will be desperate to get him. And whoever drafts him – even in the top 5 – will end up being glad that they did.
5. Browns – WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
Crabtree is the other talent who simply can’t stay on the board too long because he’s too good. And if the Browns were to deal Braylon Edwards, which is of course a hot rumor, then they would frankly be stupid to pass on Crabtree. Crabtree might actually end up being better than Edwards, which is saying something. He’s a big possession receiver who can catch the ball in traffic and make things happen after the catch. When you’re being compared to Larry Fitzgerald — and I’ve heard Crabtree in such a comparison on Jeremy Green’s ESPN podcast — you’re in really good company. Cleveland should feel comfortable building an offense around Crabtree and OT Joe Thomas regardless of who the quarterback is. This would be a great value pick.
6. Bengals – OT Eugene Monroe, Virginia
The Bengals have a history of drafting talented players with questionable character, which is why so many mock drafts connect them to Alabama OT Andre Smith and his baggage. But if Sanchez catapults up the draft, someone has to slip, and I think that will be Monroe. If that happens, the Bengals will rejoice. Like Andre and Jason Smith, Monroe is a talented tackle who has the ability to be a bookend for many years. He’s probably not an elite Orlando Pace/Jonathan Ogden/Walter Jones level player, but he’s good enough to be a reliable, above-average starter a la longtime Bengal Willie Anderson. Monroe would be the kind of pick who could help the Bengals move forward, which is exactly what’s needed in Cincinnati.
7. Raiders – OT Andre Smith, Alabama
Most mock drafters have the Raiders taking Jeremy Maclin, and maybe they know something I don’t. But while Raiders maven Al Davis loves speed, this pick may fit his pattern even more. The Raiders have done the best job of accumulating talent when they’ve taken players who were passed over by risk-averse teams who were concerned about character. That’s the situation Andre Smith is in. He was the most dominant offensive lineman in college football last year, but his bowl-game suspension and then his combine/workout follies have dropped the bottom out of his stock. But he’s still a really good player who will be a top-level right tackle in the NFL and could be an elite left tackle. (Addendum: Remember that Tom Cable, the Raiders’ head coach of the moment, is an offensive line guy.) My hunch is that the Raiders overlook the concerns about Smith and go for the best football talent on the board.
8. Jaguars – CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
This pick is a real X-factor in the draft, for this reason. Last year, the Jaguars leapt up to the No. 8 spot in the draft to take DE Derrick Harvey, and then they couldn’t get him signed until September. So it seems that this year, the Jags don’t have the stomach to pick (and pay) a player this high again and would like to trade down. But if Sanchez is off the board already, what player on the board has enough value that someone would trade up fro him? So a trade might be difficult. Then consider this: After taking DEs Harvey and Quentin Groves in the first two rounds last year, Jacksonville isn’t really a candidate for any of the ends who fit in this area, and the franchise’s utter failure taking first-round receivers (from R. Jay Soward to Reggie Williams to Matt Jones) makes Maclin seem like a bad projection as well. The needs chart says that Maclin, B.J. Raji, and Malcolm Jenkins are fits here. We’re going with Jenkins, a top-10 prospect pre-combine who slipped after running a slower-than-expected 40 time. He’s a big corner who can play physically and tackle, and that seems to fit Jacksonville’s personality well.
9. Packers – DE Tyson Jackson, LSU
Green Bay is moving to a 3-4 defense this year, and so they must get a player who is friendly to that system. Pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Aaron Maybin do, as does Raji, who might be big enough to be the Jamal Williams/Vince Wilfork/Casey Hampton nose tackle. But Raji’s character concerns make me put Jackson in this spot. Jackson can play 4-3 defensive end, but he’s big enough to move inside a tick and play end in the 3-4, a la Richard Seymour. Jackson can hold up against the run and provide some pass rush even from that interior position, and it’s harder to find a top guy with those qualities than it is to find the glamorous pass rusher, so Jackson is the fit.
10. 49ers – WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
Instead of winding up in Oakland, we see Maclin ending up across the bay. Maclin is a dynamic receiver who has decent size and blazing speed, and he can be the playmaker the Niners have lacked at receiver since T.O. whined his way out of town. With Isaac Bruce coming back for a year, Maclin would have an ideal mentor, as well as a little less pressure in ’09. He would also fill a need, because unless Brandon Jones takes three quantum leaps forward, the 49ers have no game-breaking threat in the passing game. San Francisco would be a great situation for Maclin to move into, and he would be a good value for the 49ers at this point.
11. Bills – DE Brian Orakpo, Texas
Over the past few years, the Bills have drafted more for need than any other team. They have “reached” for players and picked them over their rating because (a) they were at positions of need and (b) they were convinced the players would be good. So we looked closely at the team needs list before predicting this pick. The trade of Jason Peters gave us pause and opened the possibility that OT Michael Oher would be the pick here. But pass rusher is also a need, and none of them are off our board now. While Aaron Maybin may be a bit more highly rated, Orakpo is a little bigger and little more suited to a 4-3 defense, at least in a John Abraham type of role given his size. So he’s the pick here.
12. Broncos – DT B.J. Raji, Boston College
The Broncos are moving to a 3-4 defense, and they need tons of help on that side of the ball. After trading Jay Cutler, it would make sense for the Broncos to take Mark Sanchez if he falls to them, but there’s zero chance of that happening. (You can quote me on that.) And given the proliferation of defensive needs the Broncos have, trading their two first-rounders to get Sanchez just isn’t wise. So we have them staying put and taking 3-4 friendly defensive players. They start with Raji, a true nose tackle who is big enough to play the pivot in the 3-4. His stock has slipped a little because of character questions, but he’s not getting past this spot. Another reason for the downward trend is the difficulty of getting it right at defensive tackle early in the draft, as we discovered in defensive portion of the draft bust research project. If Raji (or Tyson Jackson) is there, the Broncos will spend their first pick on the front line and then look for an OLB pass rusher at No. 18. If Raji stays on the straight and narrow, he would be a great building block for the Broncos to get at this point.
13. Redskins – DE Robert Ayers, Tennessee
The Redskins apparently are lusting after Sanchez, so don’t be surprised if they leap into the top 5 to get him. But if they don’t trade up, they’re in position where they need help on the lines. After Jason Taylor didn’t work out last year, a pass rusher is a special need, and Ayers is the purest 4-3 defensive end available at the top of the draft. He’s sturdy enough to hang in there against the run and has shown flashes of great pass rush ability. He has the ostentatious potential that appeals to owner Daniel Snyder, so the pick makes sense from that perspective too.
14. Saints – OLB Brian Cushing, USC
The Saints simply have to draft defense, which remains the biggest problem on their to-do list. The offense is good enough to win right now, but the defense isn’t. And since the Saints are in a 4-3, the undersized pass rushers left on the board (Maybin and Everette Brown) don’t really work. So we’ll give the Saints Cushing, a legit outside linebacker who can become a stalwart run stopper and coverage guy. Cushing is the best of the three Trojans’ linebackers expected to be first-rounders because he’s the most versatile and most consistent. He could team with Jonathan Vilma to begin to stabilize the middle level of the Saints’ defense.
15. Texans – OT Michael Oher, Ole Miss
Oher probably isn’t a wonderful value at this point, but offensive tackles tend to move up the draft board at the end because it’s such a need position. Oher (subject of the wonderful book The Blind Side) is a physical specimen who played well but not exceedingly well at Ole Miss. While he’s not a sure thing at left tackle, he would be a beast of a right tackle, and that’s a need spot for Houston as well. So we’re projecting a run and taking Oher off the board before most experts are prognosticating.
16. Chargers – DE/OLB Aaron Maybin, Penn State
The Chargers are a strange team in that they don’t have pressing needs because of strong organizational depth. But given Shawne Merriman’s injury and contract concerns, and given the importance of pass rushers in the 3-4 system, Maybin makes sense here. He would be a great value for San Diego and would help immediately, even if he only played a bit role as a rookie. My guess is that GM A.J. Smith might even crack a smile if Maybin fell in his lap.
17. Jets – WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland
This is another flex spot in the draft. Do the Jets want Josh Freeman? Will they roll the dice on a receiver? Or do they play it safe? It seems like a little bit of risk is warranted, given the Jets’ dearth of offensive playmakers. So we’ll project them taking Heyward-Bey, a big strong receiver who was productive in college even if his performance was spotty at times. It’s a risk, but the Jets need to take such a risk to upgrade their mediocre receiving group.
18. Broncos (from Bears in the QB Jay Cutler trade) – DE/OLB Everette Brown, Florida State
We’ve already given the Broncos a front-line defender for their new 3-4 scheme; now it’s time to upgrade the edge. Brown was a beast on the field for the Seminoles, and he has the kind of speed that projects well to the outside linebacker/pass rusher spot in the 3-4 defense. While a Raji/Brown combo isn’t sexy, it would set the Broncos up to take a leap forward defensively in ’09. Of course, it would also put the onus on Josh McDaniels to keep the offense humming along, but that’s going to happen anyway.
19. Buccaneers – MLB Rey Maualuga, USC
The Buccaneers are another team in flux, especially on defense. Longtime stalwart Derrick Brooks is gone, and the team needs to find a new defensive leader. Maualuga can be that guy. He’s a productive inside ‘backer who takes some chances but delivers on his fair share of them. He also has the personality of a leader, which is needed in Tampa right now. The Bucs have invested in their offense in the offseason market by adding Byron Leftwich, Derrick Ward, and Kellen Winslow, plus new deals for Michael Clayton, Antonio Bryant, and Donald Penn. So it makes sense for the Bucs to invest on defense in the draft, which again points to Maualuga.
20. Lions (from Dallas in the WR Roy Williams trade) – OT Eben Britton, Arizona
If I were putting the Lions together, the approach would be to take the quarterback at the top of the draft and then build the offensive line. (Call if the Falcon plan, after Atlanta drafted Matt Ryan early last year and then traded back into the first round to take Sam Baker.) The plan works best for Detroit if Michael Oher falls to 20, but if he’s not there, it’s probably still wise to take an offensive lineman here. At almost every other position, the value that’s available at 20 is very similar to the value at 33, but not at offensive tackle. That’s why Britton is slotted here.
21. Eagles – DT Peria Jerry, Ole Miss
The Jason Peters trade completely changed Philly’s approach to this pick. Instead of taking a luxury like Knowshon Moreno with one of two first-round picks, the Eagles will likely buckle down and play it safe with their single top pick. That points to a defensive lineman, because the Eagles seem to take a DL every year early. This year, there’s one defensive tackle (after B.J. Raji) with a true first-round grade in Jerry, and he actually will fit an attacking 4-3 scheme well. So Jerry’s the guy for Philly.
22. Vikings – QB Josh Freeman, Kansas State
This is the answer to the Josh Freeman question. I don’t believe he’s good enough for a team in the teens – Washington, the Jets, Tampa – to pick as their QB of the future. But I do think Freeman will be a first-rounder after a team trades back into the round to take him. (See Joe Flacco, J.P. Losman, and Jason Campbell as examples.) Minnesota is a logical candidate to trade back, and here’s why: They need a center to replace Matt Birk and receivers. There’s depth at both of those positions through pick 40 or so. So the Vikings could trade back, pick up an extra pick or two, and still get what they need. One more consideration: It wouldn’t shock me for the Vikings to stay put and take Freeman, given the massive questions that remain around Tarvaris Jackson. All those things together make this Freeman’s spot in the draft.
23. Patriots – DE/OLB Larry English, Northern Illinois
The Patriots often seem to overdraft players above their spots because they know who they want and because they believe in their evaluation system. So it will be no surprise to see a surprise here. English isn’t rated this highly on most boards, but he’s a quality pass rusher as an OLB who was productive in college. That’s a need area for the Pats, who have lost Mike Vrabel this offseason. I think the pick will be defense regardless, with a corner like Darius Butler or Alphonso Smith also a possibility.
24. Falcons – MLB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
This is another pick that might seem like a bit of an overdraft, but remember that Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is a Patriots disciple and that his “overdraft” of Sam Baker last year worked out OK. After Keith Brooking left, a middle linebacker who can solidify the defense is a necessity for the Falcons. That’s what Laurainitis is. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, but he’s a solid, Chris Spielman type who will anchor a defense for 8-10 years. As the Falcons continue their rebuilding project, they’ll sign on for that.
25. Dolphins – CB Darius Butler, Connecticut
A lot of the ESPN types have been hyping the fact that UConn’s still-new football program is going to produce three first-round picks this year. That’s a Bristol, Connecticut, stretch, but Butler’s a legit first-rounder. He has good size and speed, which moves him ahead of Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith and other candidates. The Dolphins had a solid season last year, but they don’t have enough playmakers, and cornerback’s a place where they need that kind of help. So Butler fits in as Bill Parcells’ big grocery purchase this year.
26. Ravens – RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
Running backs seem to slip most years in the draft, and often they end up with unlikely teams because the point comes when the value of the player is too good to pass up. (See Steven Jackson to the Rams when they had Marshall Faulk or Larry Johnson to the Chiefs when they had Priest Holmes.) That’s what I see happening to Moreno, a top 15 talent, this year. But there will come a point when a contender like Baltimore that has good but not great running backs will have to go ahead and take him. If Moreno ends up on such a contender, he’s going to be a difference maker, and with enough chances will be a rookie of the year candidate. In other words, he would be great value, even if he’s not at a need position. NOTE: This pick is rumored to be going to Arizona for Anquan Boldin.
27. Colts – OLB Clay Matthews, USC
The Colts are moving away from the Tampa-2 defense, but they don’t have the talent to make that transition smooth at all. So I think defense has to be the pick here, even though Indy has broken conventional wisdom before and loaded up on offense. Matthews is a try-hard guy who’s a good athlete and a good leader – the kind of guy you want to build a new defensive system around. Because this late in the draft there aren’t dominant players left, a guy like Matthews is the best option for a leader to help the Colts recast their defense.
28. Bills (from Panthers in the ’08 draft-day OT Jeff Otah trade via Eagles in the Jason Peters trade) – TE Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
As we said before, the Bills have been known to reach. If they try to replace Jason Peters here with a tackle, they’ll be reaching for a Phil Loadholt or William Beatty. But since they have a tight end need, getting Pettigrew at this point would be nice value. Pettigrew is a good pass catching tight end with good size – the kind of offensive complement that seems to fit the Buffalo weather. Getting Pettigrew plus a pass rusher would be a nice first-round haul for the Bills.
29. Giants – CB Vontae Davis, Illinois
This pick is still in flux because it’s at the center of the Giants’ trade discussions for a receiver like Anquan Boldin or, more likely, Braylon Edwards. If they keep the pick, they could look receiver at someone like Hakeem Nicks or Kenny Britt. But last year we saw that receivers can slip in the draft because they generally contribute so little as rookies. So we’ll look at another Giants need and give them the most talented cornerback on the board in Davis. Davis’ performance isn’t always up to snuff, but he has worlds of talent, and the Giants’ culture would affect him positively. He’d be a great addition for New York.
30. Titans – DT Ziggy Hood, Missouri
Orginally, I had Percy Harvin slotted in here. It would be very out of character for the Titans to take a wide receiver, because that’s been a long term need for them that hasn’t been addressed in the draft’s opening round. But here’s why I can see Harvin fitting in this year: Chris Johnson. Remember last year that Tennessee picked the fastest guy on the board (Johnson had run a sub-4.3 40) and then figured out how to use him. Harvin is like Johnson, only with more receiving skills. Having both players on the field at the same time would make the Titans offense suddenly frightening. But the closer we get to the draft, the more problems seem to come up with Harvin. So we swapped this pick to Ziggy Hood, a defensive tackle who is rising up the draft board. The Titans haven’t been afraid to take risks on guys like that, and more often than not the organizational professionalism has rubbed off and affected the players for the better. (See Albert Haynesworth as Exhibit A.) But there’s just too much smoke (pun intended) for them to take Harvin. As for Hood, after the loss of Haynesworth via free agency, he would fit it at a position that’s obviously a need area for Tennessee. Plus, it’s hard to pass up a guy named Ziggy. So we’ll say that Ziggy zags to Nashville. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
31. Cardinals – RB Chris Wells, Ohio State
The back they call “Beanie” has been projected as a top-15 pick, but a foot injury has raised some questions. Couple that with the fact that running backs usually get drafted a tad later than expected, and I think he’ll be available for the Cards at the end of the first round. He’d be a great fit for Arizona here, especially since Edgerrin James is still a potential salary-cap cut. (James actually wants out to try to find a new home that will come with more playing time.) Wells would be a lead back who could combine with Tim Hightower to provide a stronger running back than the Cardinals have had in recent memory. At this point, the Cardinals need to take the best guy on the board, and Wells is among that list.
32. Steelers – OT Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma
Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, the Steelers have a pretty significant issue on the offensive line. So look for them to spend this pick on a lineman who can plug in and play immediately. While most mock drafts have the Steelers taking a center such as Alex Mack or Max Unger or Eric Wood, center is another of the positions where players tend to last longer than expected. (That’s how the Panthers got Ryan Kalil a few years back.) So we’ll project the Steelers to take another tackle, and since Mel Kiper is guaranteeing that Loadholt will be a first rounder, we’ll opt for him over William Beatty.
So there you have it. More than 4,000 words of preja vu predictions that will likely look foolish by Saturday night. We’ve pushed wide receivers and running backs down the chart and offensive tackles up the chart, so we’ll see if those trends hold on Saturday.
We’ll self-evaluate this mock after the weekend, and we’ll also be posting quick thoughts on the draft and a relativity comparison on how teams did next week. So stay tuned, and if you have mock draft predictions (and if you’re still reading), post them as comments below.
Let the bias begin…
As a Wake Forest grad, I watch a lot of Demon Deacon football. That’s especially true over the last three years because we (I paid that school enough dough to use that pronoun) have actually been good. It’s been a little surreal to see Wake go to three straight bowl games, given that during my college career the football team won six games. (Yes, that’s a total.)
Now, the Deacons have produced one of the best players available in this year’s NFL draft — LB Aaron Curry. Some have called Curry the most complete prospect in this year’s draft. For example, Curry was at the top of Mel Kiper’s March 26 Big Board. Such ratings have put Curry in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick. But is Curry worth that lofty investment? Time for another outlandish prediction…
Curry is a three-year starter and four-year contributor who was a playmaker at OLB for the Demon Deacons. He won the Butkus Award in ’08 as the country’s best linebacker after recording 105 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and an interception. That followed an ’07 season in which he had 99 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 4 picks, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He had 83 tackles as a sophomore starter, including 8.5 tackles for loss. So he’s been productive throughout his career, and he’s gotten better and made more plays as he goes along. He’s a thick, solidly built guy (6-2, 250) who has good speed and instincts. He can play middle linebacker, strong-side backer in the 4-3, and could even play outside ‘backer in the 3-4. He’d be more of a Lamarr Woodley than a DeMarcus Ware in that scenario, but that could still work.
So Curry is versatile enough to play just about anywhere at linebacker, and he’s unlikely to bust out and become dominant at any of those spots. But is that worth the top overall pick? Linebackers who aren’t pure pass rushers usually aren’t worth top 8 draft positions. Keith Rivers (9th) and Jerod Mayo (10th) were the highest such picks last year; Patrick Willis (11th) was the highest in ’07; A.J. Hawk (5th) and Ernie Sims (9th) were the highest in ’06. All of those players have played well, and Willis and Mayo were defensive rookies of the year. Hawk isn’t measurably better than Mayo or Willis, even though he was picked five spots higher. Most players of this ilk seem to fit as great values in the draft starting with the ninth pick or so.
Still, pure linebackers who make their way into the 9 through 12 stratusphere typically pan out. (Remember, we’re omitting pass-rush OLBs like Vernon Gholston or DeMarcus Ware from this discussion.) Curry is a safe pick, and he would be great value on that tier. But those linebackers typically aren’t eye-popping impact players either. They’re more like clean-up guys who make the tackles they should and occasionally make a big play.
And that’s why, to me, Curry isn’t worth the No. 1 overall pick. He’ll be a good player, but he won’t be the kind of impact player that you’re looking for from the top overall pick. He’d be a lot like Russell Maryland, a DT who Jimmy Johnson made the No. 1 overall pick in 1991. Maryland was never a star, but he was a solid player who contributed to Dallas’ standout defenses in their three Super Bowls in that era. Maryland made just one Pro Bowl and never was a top-3 player at his position.
That, to me, will be Curry’s fate as well. He’ll be a very good player in the NFL, but not a great one. And in a year where quarterbacks and left tackles are available at No. 1 overall, that upside simply doesn’t justify the No. 1 overall pick. The Lions need to take either Matthew Stafford, Jason Smith, or Eugene Monroe, and the Rams should take one player out of that group as well. Curry doesn’t make much sense until Kansas City goes on the clock at No. 3. For the Chiefs at 3, the Seahawks at 4, or the Browns at 5, Curry would be a solid if unspectacular pick. He’ll be a good player wherever he goes. He just won’t be quite good enough to make a team forget that it passed on a burgeoning superstar with a top draft pick.