Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 NFL Preseason Primer: Same as it ever was

A tie between the Packers and Bears? Fans in Green Bay and Chicago are already directing a condescending eye my way.

Fans of both teams might not want to admit it, but the Packers and Bears are very similar teams.

Both teams have top-notch offenses, but have question marks on defense. Both teams have been ravaged by injury over the past few seasons. Both teams brought once-prolific pass rushers into town via free agency, poaching the new additions from division rivals.

What separates these two teams? What makes one the 2014 NFC North champion and the other a wildcard team, or worse, a 10-6 playoff spectator, like last year's Arizona Cardinals?

Let's break it down.

Green Bay Packers
2013: 8-7-1, 1st in NFC North

Chicago Bears
2013: 8-8, 2nd in NFC North

Green Bay has a slightly better defense.

The Packers' defense is headlined by perennial All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, who may play regularly behind the line of scrimmage regularly now that Green Bay has someone to rush the passer opposite Matthews.

That someone, of course, is former Chicago Bear Julius Peppers. Despite an average preseason effort, Peppers will have to be dealt with whenever the eight-time Pro Bowler is on the field.

Tramon Williams will line up opposite the vastly overpaid Sam Shields at corner, and the underrated Morgan Burnett may be joined by first-round pick Hasean Clinton-Dix as starting safeties.

There are unproved commodities in the secondary, but Williams, Burnett and Clinton-Dix could be quite the trio if they can repeat past successes and meet their potential.

Chicago's pass rush looks like a force to be reckoned with. Former Vikings defensive end Jared Allen now patrols the Midway, as does former Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston. Outside of Allen, Houston and Lance Briggs, though, the Bears just don't have much to speak of on defense.

Now, this is where it gets interesting ... and I draw a ton of heat.

Chicago has a better offense than Green Bay.

Now, there isn't a debate about the better quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best signal-callers in the league, and Jay Cutler isn't. We know this.

However, from top to bottom, the Bears are better.

Brandon Marshall is one of the three best wide receivers in the game, and the guys you might rank ahead of Marshall aren't named Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb has all the potential in the world, but Alshon Jeffery realized his potential last season. Jeffery's 1,421 receiving yards in 2013 are just 300 yards behind Cobb's three-year career total.

And while Eddie Lacy may very well become one of the league's best running backs, Matt Forte is already one of them. Lacy will have to overcome the recent history of Alabama running backs to suffer serious sophomore slumps to do so - see: Ingram, Mark and Richardson, Trent.

For the sake of completion, we'll state the obvious: Robbie Gould is a much more reliable kicker than Mason Crosby.

With all of that being said, however, I defer to one of my favorite old-school football maxims: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

It's because of defense that Green Bay will celebrate its fourth consecutive NFC North title, while Chicago will finish behind the Packers for the fourth straight season.

The Picks: Both teams 10-6, Packers win division

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm part of the 16 percent

Nobody I know considers me to be an open book.

When it comes to personal details, many of my friends can't say they know a ton of intimate details about me. They have told me so much. My girlfriend has told me she felt there was probably a lot about me she didn't know.

It's just not how I am. I'll talk about sports or music until I'm blue in the face, but when it comes to my childhood, or my personal life, I close up pretty quickly.

Among the things people do know about me, however, is my general disdain for the Green Bay Packers. It's the worst-kept secret going, mainly because I make no effort to keep i
t secret.

Now, this isn't something unheard of in the NFL fan universe. While the Packers are one of the most popular teams in the league, they're also one of the teams with the most detractors. (If you don't believe me, read the comments on articles about the Packers on national websites.) Being among the latter isn't strange, but it becomes some sort of oddity for someone who was born within Green Bay's city limits.

I was born right here in Green Bay, have lived here for 20 years, and always considered the city my home for the nine years I lived elsewhere.When I turned 18, I sped east on Highway 29 for school, and I've been a full-time Green Bay resident since 2006.

But yet, my closet is full of purple and black. I celebrated in February 2013, when my favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens, won their second Super Bowl in as many tries.

On bad days, I rank the Packers behind the Steelers and Patriots on my Most Hated Teams list. The question I have received so often: Why?

Why do you hold such ill feelings toward the Green Bay Packers?

This piece has been in the bullpen for a little while, and Thursday's report of top NFL fans by Forbes became the catalyst. According to the report, the Packers have the best fans in the NFL. The report states only 16 percent of adults in Green Bay aren't Packers fans.

That's actually a larger number than I thought. Sixteen percent of Green Bay's population equates to about 16,779 people, using 2012's census data for the city of Green Bay.

So what makes me one of the most outspoken of those 16,779 people?

- Mainly, it's the fans. And not most of the fans - it's only some. The vast majority of Packers fans are fine. Most fans are like Ashley, Dave, Trevor, Mike, and the glut of my friends who cheer for the Pack: They cheer passionately for their team, just like I do for mine.

It's the pig-headed fans, the bombastic chest-beating fans that every team has. I don't have to deal with those particular fans of the 29 other teams (I'm also a Lions fan. Stop laughing - I know they're terrible) because I don't live in the same city as they do.

Here's an example of the type of thing I regularly experience while out and about in my purple and black:

Ashley (my girlfriend, for those unacquainted) and I went out for some ice cream to a popular local establishment she had yet to experience. Donned in black basketball shorts and a purple Ravens performance sweatshirt, I was immediately greeted by the man working the counter ... not by a friendly welcome, but with the following.

*Shaking head* ... "I don't know if I can serve you in that sweatshirt, man."

I get the same response when I run into the sporadic Steelers fan living in the area. I asked if he was a Steelers fan, preparing myself for some mild banter.

"No, I'm a Packers fan. If you don't cheer for the Packers, I can't serve you."

No laugh afterward. Nothing. Said with a straight face.

Also, I don't support accused murderers and domestic abusers because I'm a Ravens fan, just like Packers fans don't support drug addicts, alcoholics and accused rapists.

(Yes, I have been told, on multiple occasions, that I support murderers. That's apparently what you get for wearing a Ray Lewis jersey.)

If these were one-off instances, I wouldn't really care. But I get stuff like this once a month, and have for the better part of a decade. Really, it's been since high school. At least I wasn't the only Ravens fans in town back then.

- Second: The Bears don't suck.

In fact, the Bears (.559) have a better win percentage than the Packers (.554) over the course of each team's history. Chicago also holds a 93-88-6 record against their rivals to the north. The teams have split their two postseason match-ups.

I don't need an explanation as to why some Packers fans say it. I get it, trust me. It just doesn't make any sense.

- The elite players who don the green and gold are not deities, despite their apparent standing in this city. I don't like Aaron Rodgers or Clay Matthews, mainly because they're treated like gods around this city. (I also have other reasons for disliking Rodgers, but they're not relevant to the point.) Julius Peppers isn't the greatest free-agent signing in league history. Mike McCarthy is not the best coach in the league.

Keep in mind, I don't dislike all the players. One of my favorite players ever is LeRoy Butler. I wore number 36 and played safety because of Butler. I also have my sights on a no. 27 running back jersey, and it isn't Ray Rice's, it's Eddie Lacy's.

- To steal a few lines from one of my favorite pontificators: "I don't hate you, Packers fans. I don't even dislike you. I do like you - I like you a hell of a lot more than I like most fans in the league. I hate this idea that you're the best."

There's nothing wrong with having confidence in your team. I try to mitigate the confidence I have in the Ravens, even though they do a pretty good job of doing that for me.

If you ask a minority of Packers fans, there are only two outcomes for a game Green Bay plays: a Packers win, or a referee-induced loss. Nobody actually beats the Packers.

Get real. Every team loses. Regularly.

The referees beat the Packers once - we've all heard of the Fail Mary game. That's the exception, not the rule.

Now, I will say this again, mainly for emphasis: The majority of Packers fans, like those close to me, as well as thousands upon thousands of others I have or have not met, are totally normal fans.

Unfortunately, the minority of fans I take issue with are also the loudest. Therefore, they ruin it for everyone. Most of the people who found this link via social media are nothing like that. However, a few of my Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers are.

There's an old customer service maxim that, generally, reads something like: A customer who has a good experience will tell one person they know, and a customer who has a bad experience will tell 10.

That same maxim applies here.

And, between you and me, I'll still root for the Pack behind closed doors more often than not. I'll shout support from the rooftops when they line up against the Steelers, Patriots or Jets.

Seriously, though ... can you let the Lions win one every now and again?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

2014 NFL Preseason Primer: New Coach, Same Disappointment

There is a decided chasm between the Have's and the Have-Not's of the NFC North.

Found on one side, seemingly all alone, are the Minnesota Vikings. Green Bay was atop the heap, and last season, it looked like the Bears and Lions had gained significant ground.

Chicago has. Detroit? Not so much.

Injuries played a big part in Chicago's fall from the top of the division. Poor coaching led to the demise of the Detroit Lions. After years of failing to meet expectations, the Lions finally said goodbye to Jim Schwartz, handing the reigns of the Motor City Kitties to ...

Jim Caldwell.

The same Jim Caldwell that was fired after leading the Colts to a 2-14 campaign in 2011. Caldwell hitched on with the Baltimore Ravens, and in his first season as offensive coordinator, led the Ravens to the 32nd-ranked DVOA offense. 

In case you've forgotten, there are only 32 teams in the NFL.

My favorite team cleans the Caldwell stench off itself, only for my second-favorite team to bathe in it.

Detroit Lions
2013: 7-9, 3rd in NFC North

The 2013 Detroit Lions were the perfect illustration of the entire Jim Schwartz Era.

Armed with arguably the best Lions team in recent memory, Schwartz continued with his loose grasp on sportsmanship and on-field maturity as Detroit did everything they could to give away an NFC North crown practically gift-wrapped for them by the Bears and Packers.

Detroit lost its last four games, and six of its final seven contests, to turn a 6-3 record into a 7-9 finish. The collapse cost Schwartz his job, a change long overdue.

Instead of picking up one of the league's premier coordinators, the Lions settled on Caldwell. Supporters of the move will likely point to the three Super Bowl trips Caldwell has made (twice with the Colts, once with Baltimore) and the pair of rings Caldwell brings to the Motor City.

If that isn't enough, take a look at Exhibit B. Caldwell is 28-77 as a college and professional head coach without Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Neither of his Super Bowl rings have come with Caldwell as head coach. And if recent history is any indication, Caldwell will drive Detroit's high-octane offense into the ground.

In reality, this may be the final year we see the Detroit Lions as we know them. Ndamukong Suh is the topic of repeated rumors, most of which have the former All-Pro defensive tackle skipping town after this season. Suh's partner in crime, Nick Fairley, is in the final year of his rookie contract with no extension in sight. There's no telling how much longer Calvin Johnson will want to stay on the sinking ship he has spent his entire career trying to save.

2014 won't be pretty in Motown. The Lions are the third-best team in the NFC North, and they're not close to Green Bay or Chicago. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are healthy. Three of Detroit's non-divisional opponents made the playoffs last year, and three others barely missed the postseason in 2013. That's not to mention the games again Atlanta and Tampa Bay, two teams likely to improve on disappointing campaigns last season.

Needless to say, the window is closing quickly on the Detroit Lions we know. With Jim Caldwell at the helm, the window is about to be slammed shut.

The Pick: 6-10, 3rd place in NFC North

Monday, August 11, 2014

2014 Preseason Primer, Part 1: The Basement

It won't be long now.

In fact, in 23 short days, the Seahawks and Packers meet in Seattle in the first of 256 NFL regular-season games. The season begins in earnest three days later, when the bulk of the league begins their season with sights on Glendale, Ariz., and a February 1 date with destiny.

Like last year, the Online Jargon will count down the weeks leading to the season opener with a Preseason Primer. 

I set the bar pretty high last year, jinxing Aaron Rodgers a month before the season began, nearly sinking Green Bay's playoff hopes. There's a lot to live up to in 2014.

Instead of breaking down story lines, I will break down the NFC North, place by place, until crowning a champion during the final week of August.

There's only one place to start: The Basement.

Minnesota Vikings
2013: 5-10-1, 4th in NFC North

Every division has a last-place team. Unfortunately for our neighbors to the west, its the Vikings. Again.

After a dismal showing in 2013, the Vikings' ship needed to be righted.

Christian Ponder finally lost his spot as starting quarterback, a move that came at least a year too late. Pricey veteran defensive end Jared Allen was allowed to leave via free agency. Most notably, Leslie Frazier was shown the door, and the head coaching duties were handed to former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

All signs point to Ponder's back-up last season, Matt Cassel, starting the season opener in St. Louis. For the first time in years, however, the future looks bright at quarterback for Minnesota, as rookie Teddy Bridgewater waits in the wings to take over for Cassel and lead the Vikings into the future.

Unfortunately, the future is all Minnesota has to look toward. The Vikings failed to bring in a suitable replacement for Allen, further hindering a defensive unit already in dire need of help in the front seven. While the future looks bright for wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, offensive weapons are hard to find outside of all-world running back Adrian Peterson. All three of Minnesota's NFC North rivals are healthy and reloaded after an injury-riddled 2013 campaign.

It's not all bad news, though. Norv Turner replaces the departed Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator, which is great news for Bridgewater and Cassel. Turner is a notoriously effective quarterbacks coach, and also helped spring the breakout season of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. Turner will look to do the same for Patterson in 2014.

The future provides guarded optimism in the Twin Cities. Early returns indicate Minnesota's last two draft classes earned high grades. Patterson is a chic pick as the next big thing in the league, and Bridgewater was a steal at pick no. 32 in this year's draft. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes came on strong at the end of last season, and training camp reports surrounding first-round pick Anthony Barr have been positive.

2014 will resemble 2013. The division's worst team will play like it, but the cupboard isn't bare. The future appears to be bright for the Vikings. Turning that future into the present will be the tough part.

The Pick: 5-11, 4th place in NFC North

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

One night in Natal: John Brooks' arrival for USMNT

Jurgen Klinsmann faced overwhelming criticism for filling his 2014 World Cup roster with young prospects, overlooking the old guard, and, allegedly, looking ahead to 2018.

It looks like Klinsmann knew what he was doing all along.

John Brooks, one of those young prospects, and one of five German-born players on the United States' World Cup roster, confidently struck home a Graham Zusi corner kick in the 86th minute, capping off a 2-1 American victory over Ghana in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup.

Calls for the experienced old guard, most notably Landon Donovan, rang louder than ever when striker Jozy Altidore suffered an awful-looking hamstring injury in the game's 21st minute.

Instead, another of Klinsmann's young guns - Iceland-born Aron Johannsson - took the world's biggest football stage in place of the Sunderland man.

Klinsmann was tasked with growing a United States national program which had grown stale under the leadership of former coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. Klinsmann came under the microscope when leaving Donovan at home, and grew further criticism when taking Brooks, Johannsson, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green instead of veterans such as Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Clarence Goodson.

Despite questions surrounding Klinsmann's strategy, it was Brooks - playing in his first-ever game with the U.S. senior squad - who stepped up to help give the Americans an absolutely crucial three points Monday night in Natal.

While it's certainly too early to christen this the Golden Era of American Soccer, the future is looking fantastic.

Brooks is a force. He impressed in his defensive play against Ghana Monday night, and he'll only get better with more appearances for the Yanks. Yedlin, a year Brooks' junior, has a bright future, and can pair with Brooks to form a formidable defensive duo for years to come. Johannsson has proven his ability to impact a match, though he did not impress himself upon Monday night's match. And Julian Green, the coveted Bayern Munich forward who nearly signed on with the German national side, is now tied to America. Should he reach his potential, Green may become the first true American soccer superstar.

The immediate future, however, is a little more daunting. Waiting Sunday in Manaus is an angry and wounded Portugal team, one that entered the World Cup ranked third in the world.

At the head of the Portuguese attack is reigning Ballon D'or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Fabian Johnson looks poised to draw the Ronaldo assignment, as DaMarcus Beasley looked vulnerable and lost against the Ghanaian attack. Certainly, Johnson will have his hands full.

Despite the uptick in talent, three points lie at midfield for the Americans to steal. Portugal will be without Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida thanks to injury, and Pepe will be on the bench thanks to an entirely unnecessary red card. If any Portugal team is there for the American taking, it is this one.

Though the full three points isn't necessary to American advancement in this World Cup, a victory over the world's third-ranked side would clinch a second consecutive trip to the knockout stage for the United States.

The only true doomsday scenario would be failing to grab any points from the Portuguese. A draw, though bland in the headlines, does wonders for American dreams of advancing in this tournament. A pair of draws might look underwhelming on paper, but the two points would likely send the United States through to a probable date with Belgium on July 2.

There is plenty to do in the days leading up to this weekend's match, and the workload will be just as heavy as the air in Manaus Sunday afternoon. A result against Portugal, without Altidore in the starting lineup, may seem like a dream. It is a dream, however, that is absolutely within reach.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

2014 NFL Draft, the way it SHOULD happen

After all this time, the NFL Draft is almost here.

The NFL Draft is anything but an exact science. Oftentimes, teams must take what the draft gives them instead of taking the player they covet, since said player has already found his professional home. Other times, teams sit atop the draft, unsure of what direction to take.

As always, you will not find a mock draft in this space. Instead, you'll find the draft order complete with a team-by-team breakdown of the direction I believe each team should take.

Let's get to the picks.

1. Houston - Khalil Mack (OLB, Buffalo)
There are plenty of rumors surrounding this pick, but very few of them mention Buffalo's Khalil Mack. According to various reports, the Texans aren't sold on Jadeveon Clowney's fit in the 3-4 defense the Texans run. The versatile Mack will fit anywhere, and by joining J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, will join one o the most talented front sevens in the league.

2. St. Louis (via Washington) - Jake Matthews (OT, Texas A&M)
While Auburn's Greg Robinson may be the pick in most mocks, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews is widely regarded as the safest pick in the 2014 draft. Matthews, the son of Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, and the cousin of perennial All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews. Football success is in Jake Matthews' genes.

3. Jacksonville - Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina)
The Jaguars have plenty of problems, but defensive line may be chief among them. Jacksonville's pass rush was pathetic, mustering a league-low 31 sacks last season. Jadeveon Clowney will be an immediate upgrade. Gus Bradley may also be the perfect coach to get the most out of Clowney, who comes with motivation questions.

4. Cleveland - Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Pegging Johnny Manziel here is the chic thing to do, but Fox's Jay Glazer shot that report down confidently earlier this week. It's starting to look like Cleveland might be headed in the right direction, and the Browns can continue move forward by snagging Watkins, arguably the best receiver prospect since Julio Jones. Watkins can team with Josh Gordon to make up one of the most fearsome young receiving duos in football, or provide insurance in case Gordon finds himself in trouble again.

5. Oakland - Greg Robinson (OT, Auburn)
In this instance, the Raiders would be best served trading back and grabbing some extra picks. Oakland is said to be high on current tackles Menelik Watson and Austin Howard, but Robinson has higher upside than both of them. The Raiders could do a lot worse than stocking up on talented lineman.

6. Atlanta - Taylor Lewan (OT, Michigan)
The Falcons could use some help in the defensive backfield, but sixth overall might be a little high for the likes of Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard or Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert. Keeping quarterback Matt Ryan upright is just as important, and few players in this draft are built to do so like Taylor Lewan. Some blindside insurance, and a healthy corps of receivers, will go a long way for the Falcons' plans to bounce back from a nightmare season in 2013.

7. Tampa Bay - Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M)
Wide receiver wasn't a strength of Tampa's going into the offseason, but the trade of Mike Williams leaves a gaping hole across from Vincent Jackson. Pairing Jackson with the deceptively quick Mike Evans would give the Buccaneers two big-bodied receivers, something new Bucs quarterback Josh McCown found quite comforting in Chicago last season.

8. Minnesota - Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville)
All of the pre-draft, post-season nonsense about Teddy Bridgewater is outrageous. Bridgewater was the consensus top pick throughout the regular season, and fell because of things he did in shorts and a T-shirt. Bridgewater is intelligent, he commands the offense from the line of scrimmage, and he's a winner. There aren't any quarterbacks currently on the Vikings roster that can say they're one of those things, much less all three. Thursday night is the perfect time to change that.

9.  Buffalo - Zack Martin (OL, Notre Dame)
Martin may not be a proper top-10 prospect, but the Bills badly need help up front. Martin doesn't have the size teams look for in a cornerstone tackle, but Martin's versatility can help an offensive line in dire need of any help it can get.

10. Detroit - Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State)
Like Buffalo, Detroit has a glaring need, and might need to stretch a little to address it. Justin Gilbert is a physical corner, and though he didn't regularly face elite receivers during his college career, Gilbert has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. The Lions could stand to add a receiver, but if they can't cover the guys division rivals Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota are trotting out, it won't matter how many points Detroit's offense scores.

11. Tennessee - C.J. Mosley (ILB, Alabama)
Many mock drafts have C.J. Mosley coming off the board somewhere in the 20's, but the Titans should grab the former Alabama standout before another team gets the chance. Mosley was the on-field general of Nick Saban's dominant Crimson Tide defense, and Mosley's experience and talent would be a great fit in a Tennessee front seven sorely lacking both.

12. New York Giants - Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
I'm still not sold on North Carolina's Eric Ebron, but many people in the league are enamored with his upside. While the Giants have needs more pressing than a tight end, the position is a fairly significant need. Ebron, the draft's top tight end, projects as a matchup nightmare and compares favorably to San Francisco's Vernon davis.

13. St. Louis - Hasean Clinton-Dix (S, Alabama)
Can you name either of St. Louis' starting safeties? Neither can I. With a secondary featuring one good player (and Janoris Jenkins is a very good one) the rams must address this need early. Clinton-Dix has been tied to the Rams for a long time, and for good reason - he's the draft's top-rated safety on most boards, and can be a potential difference-maker for St. Louis right away.

14. Chicago - Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh)

This is a steal for Chicago. Aaron Donald is shooting up draft boards leading into Thursday's draft. Donald was a world-beater for a pedestrian Pittsburgh team often overmatched in games all season long. His presence immediately fills a need for the Bears, and his playmaking ability up front will be welcome alongside new Chicago defensive end Jared Allen.

15. Pittsburgh - Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State)
Once upon a time, Pittsburgh's defense was as vaunted as they come. Age, however, catches up with everyone. The cupboard is thinning by the year, and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard can step in to help a secondary suddenly lacking any youth. Learning the ropes from perennial All-Pro Troy Polamalu wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen to Dennard, either.

16. Dallas - Anthony Barr (OLB, UCLA)
DeMarcus Ware was the only good player Dallas had in its front seven, and now he's playing in Denver. The Cowboys need to draft defense early and often, and must start by grabbing the best defensive player available. Anthony Barr, a converted fullback, has only played defense for two years, yet he still became a playmaker at UCLA.

17. Baltimore - Calvin Pryor (S, Louisville)
If any defensive back in this draft fits with the Baltimore Ravens, it is Calvin Pryor. The former Louisville standout is a ball hawk at free safety, and pairs those ball skills with a mean streak. Pryor isn't afraid of contact and physicality in the run or the passing game, a trait he will put to good use in the ultra-physical AFC North.

18. New York Jets - Brandin Cooks (WR, Oregon State)
Brandin Cooks was a standout at middle-of-the-road Oregon State, putting up huge numbers on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, last season. Cooks impressed scouts across the league during the Combine with his motivation, understanding of the game and football IQ. He will be a great addition to a suddenly competent Jets offense.

19. Miami - Xavier Su'a-Filo (OG, UCLA)
Much like the Bills, the Dolphins have major issues up front and need immediate help, even if it means reaching a little. Xavier Su'a-Filo grades a little later in the first round by most accounts, but Miami needs to look past that and address a need integral to any success they hope to have in 2014.

20. Arizona - Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)
If you've followed the blog for any extended period of time, you know how I feel about quarterbacks who shoot up draft boards after their season ends. Bortles has plenty of flaws, and cannot afford to start right away. Bortles would benefit most from sitting for at least a year, something he can do while Carson Palmer continues to start in Arizona. Reports say Cardinals coach Bruce Arians compares Bortles to former protege Ben Roethlisberger. With at least a year on the bench, Bortles can learn Arians' system and take over when he is ready.

21. Green Bay - Ryan Shazier (OLB, Ohio State)
In a perfect world, the Packers would fall into Hasean Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor, but that doesn't seem all too likely. While Green Bay selected an outside linebacker in last year's first round, Nick Perry isn't the all-around player Ryan Shazier is. Shazier is a versatile, three-down linebacker capable of rushing the passer as well as dropping back in coverage. He's also a relentless tackler, much like fellow former Buckeye and current Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk.

22. Philadelphia - Odell Beckham, Jr. (WR, LSU)
Much has been made of DeSean Jackson's departure, and the hole it leaves in Philly's offense. Jeremy Maclin will return after missing all of last season with a knee injury, but the Eagles could still use some help. Odell Beckham is a versatile player, capable of making a difference in the passing game and on special teams. He'll be a great fit with the Eagles.

23. Kansas City - Marquise Lee (WR, USC)
The cupboard is pretty bare in Kansas City outside of Dwayne Bowe, and Alex Smith could use some more help. Marquise Lee is the perfect complement. Lee is a burner capable of stretching the field and making defenses pay. Lee's presence may also open up some lanes for Bowe.

24. Cincinnati - Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech)
Corner is the call for Cincinnati in the first round, but which one? Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller is the pick, thanks to his versatility and high football IQ. Fuller is less susceptible to mental mistakes, something that plagued TCU's Jason Verrett throughout his college career. The Bengals need more guys like Fuller, who may push Terence Newman, who is starting to grow long in the tooth, for a starting spot opposite Leon Hall.

25. San Diego - Louis Nix (DT, Notre Dame)
The Chargers could use some help on all levels of the defense. Louis Nix, who is a space-eater at nearly 340 pounds, plays light on his feet despite possessing all the necessary traits of a true nose guard. Nix has the potential to anchor San Diego's defense, making life a little easier for the second and third level players.

26. Cleveland (via Indianapolis) - Jason Verrett (CB, TCU)
Almost every mock draft you've seen will have the Browns taking a quarterback here, likely Fresno State's Derek Carr. There is only one team, however, looking for a quarterback between this pick and Cleveland's next selection at no. 35. Verrett is an aggressive corner capable of making the highlight-reel play, and his game-breaking potential would be great across from the dominant Joe Haden.

27. New Orleans - Dee Ford (DE, Auburn)
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made a huge difference last season, turning a mundane defense into one of the more effective units in the league. Despite the improvement, the Saints still need to add players to their defense. Dee Ford isn't the biggest defensive end in the world, but he is incredibly athletic and effective pass rusher, something Ryan will surely use to his advantage.

28. Carolina - Morgan Moses (OT, Virginia)
The Panthers are equally desperate at wide receiver and on the offensive line, but the receiving class is one of the deepest in years. Moses is one of the last starting-caliber lineman, so Carolina must strike before the chance passes. Moses is built to succeed at tackle, and if he realizes that potential, Moses could be the heir to former Pro Bowler Jordan Gross.

29. New England - Jimmie Ward (S, Northern Illinois)
If Bill Belichick loves anything (and one has to wonder sometimes) it is a versatile player. Jimmie Ward is just that. He can play all three positions in the secondary, and does it with a very physical style. Strong safety is a position of need as it is, and drafting to fill a hole while adding another versatile defender is as good as it gets for The Hoodie.

30. San Francisco - Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State)
Trades are always going to happen in the first round, and if you're looking for a candidate to trade up, it's the 49ers. Almost as likely as San Francisco trading up is the Niners using their pick, wherever it may be, to grab a corner. Bradley Roby was once considered a potential top-10 pick before the 2013 college season, a testament to his talent. Playing for Jim Harbaugh is one heck of a way to realize your potential.

31. Denver - Timmy Jernigan (DT, Florida State)
Everybody knows about the free-agent signings Denver made, but there are still areas for the Broncos to improve. Defensive tackle is one of them, and having a playmaker like Timmy Jernigan fall all the way to 31 is a blessing. Jernigan is a dominant force in the middle who made plenty of noise, and plenty of plays, for the national-champion Seminoles.

32. Seattle - Cyrus Kouandjio (OT, Alabama)
Unfortunately for Seattle, a few of the guys on last year's Super Bowl championship team decided to head out of town after collecting their rings. This leaves areas of opportunity, and tackle is one of them. Cyrus Kouandjio comes with a few questions - his motivation is suspect, and his technique slides. If any coach can get the most out of a supremely talented, yet inconsistent, prospect, it is master motivator Pete Carroll.

Is there a name you expected to see and didn't? Make sure to check out the sidebar for my take on the draft's most polarizing prospect.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The quarterback conundrum

There are two types of teams in the NFL: Those which have a franchise quarterback, and those looking for one.

Most teams without that coveted franchise signal-caller are usually at, or near, the front of the line to draft the latest blue-chip college quarterback. Almost all pick in the first half of the first round, before playoff teams start making their selections.

It is then safe to conclude those teams drafting quarterbacks early in the first round of the NFL draft won't stay there long. After all, quarterbacks taken early are game-changers. Those teams' fortunes are bound to turn.

Right?

The success stories are well-documented, as are the historic busts. However, there are plenty of players that fall somewhere in the vast chasm between elite success and catastrophic failure. And, believe it or not, quarterbacks taken by non-playoff teams are more likely to fail, especially in recent memory.

There are eight starting quarterbacks in the league who have won at least one Super Bowl: Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Only three - Roethlisberger and the Manning brothers - were taken in the first half of the first round. Wilson, Brees and Brady weren't taken in the first round at all.

In total, 32 quarterbacks have been taken in the first half of the first round since Peyton Manning went first overall in 1998. Only 15 of those 32 made a Pro Bowl, a list which includes the likes of Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Jay Cutler.

Winning a Super Bowl is hard enough as it is, but if a team is looking for the next Manning or Brady, there's a pretty good chance he won't be found early on. The last time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback was taken with one of the first 16 picks was 2004, when Eli Manning was taken first overall and Roethlisberger went 11th.

Teams are more likely to find a dud than that rare talent capable of bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. Since 1998, teams have thought the likes of Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Joey Harrington, Jamarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder would lead them to the promised land.

That brings us to the 2014 NFL Draft. One week from tonight, teams will hedge their bets on the latest crop of quarterback prospects. UCF's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Fresno State's Derek Carr and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater will join the fraternity of NFL quarterbacks. Scouting reports would make you believe Bortles and Manziel will be sure-fire Pro Bowlers, while Carr and Bridgewater will simply have to settle for being really good.

Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Minnesota are all in the quarterback mix, but there isn't a single team among the six that wouldn't benefit from taking one of the other elite-level talents available in the top 10.

Houston will have their pick of every prospect in the draft. Jacksonville and Oakland need help just about everywhere. Cleveland and Minnesota have veteran quarterbacks in place and can use a second- or third-round pick on the young quarterback they seek. Tampa Bay just took Mike Glennon last year, and have more than enough holes to fill instead of wasting the no. 7 pick in a loaded draft on another quarterback.


Without fail, at least two of those teams will ignore logic and roll the dice on a quarterback. Scouts will drool over Bortles' physical gifts, Manziel's playmaking skills, Carr's control or Bridgewater's poise. 

They will ignore other areas of need, passing on the likes of South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Auburn's Greg Robinson, Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Manziel's teammate at Texas A&M, Jake Matthews. Those players are widely regarded as safer picks, but teams will certainly opt to swing for the fences in an effort to change the fortunes of a downtrodden franchise.

Those teams may need a reminder of how unlikely they are to find the answer so early in the draft. There have been 127 quarterbacks taken in the last 10 drafts. Only five have won Super Bowls. 

It's the ultimate high-risk, high-reward scenario. The reward is a good as it gets, while the risk may lead a team down the same road they're already traveling. 

Only time will tell, but history doesn't favor the young men about to join the National Football League, or the teams that draft them.