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.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2014 NFL Draft primer

The biggest off-season event on the NFL calendar is nearly upon us.

The 2014 NFL Draft kicks off at 7 p.m. May 8, live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. There will be a quarterback-heavy presence in New York, with as many as five quarterbacks slated to be drafted in the first round, and another handful in May 9's second round.

Coverage of this year's draft has been everywhere you look for a number of weeks already. With only a couple weeks left before the Houston Texans officially hit the clock, the analysis becomes less speculation and more informed opinion.

For the sixth year in a row, the Online Jargon will have draft pieces posted all the way up through the draft's first round. We start with a comprehensive look at the three teams most closely associated with the Online Jargon.

Minnesota Vikings
Biggest needs: QB, CB, OL

Now that new head coach Mike Zimmer has taken over for Leslie Frazier, the Vikings can finally admit that Christian Ponder is not the answer at quarterback. The timing is right, as the 2014 draft class is one of the deepest in recent memory, especially at quarterback. 

While Matt Kalil is certainly a keeper, the Vikings could still use some help up front. Stocking talent at corner is never a bad thing, either, especially when you have to face the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb six times a year.

Top options:
Khalil Mack (OLB, Buffalo) - Mack is considered one of the draft's most complete defensive players, and would be an instant starter for Minnesota's evolving defensive unit. The small-school stigma may push Mack down the board, and the Vikings would love the opportunity to stop Mack's slide.

Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville) - Once upon a time, Teddy Bridgewater was the consensus no. 1 pick. Now, some mocks have Bridgewater falling to the back end of the first round. All the criticism is unjust, and entirely brought on by an offseason process built to give teams reasons not to draft someone.

Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M) - If you believe the rumor mill, Minnesota will be looking for a new quarterback on Day Two of the draft. If Evans gets past Tampa Bay at no. 7, the Vikings could pair him with one of last year's first-round picks, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

Experts say: Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)- There is increasing momentum behind reports pegging the Vikings as trade candidates with the St. Louis Rams at no. 2, with the prize being UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. Is it the right move? Probably not, but Minnesota needs a quarterback. Maybe they could wait until Day Two ...

Sleeper: Zach Mettenberger (QB, LSU) - Mettenberger may not be a first-round target for the Vikings, but multiple sources across the league have reported Minnesota's affinity for the former LSU quarterback. Tony Pauline from draftinsider.net reported the Vikings were very high on Mettenberger, and believe he is a "perfect fit for Norv Turner's system."

Dream scenario: Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina) - Having the chance to draft Clowney is any team's dream scenario, really, but how happy would the Vikings be to replace Jared Allen with the best defensive end prospect since Julius Peppers?

Baltimore Ravens 
Biggest needs: OL, WR, S

It was a hard fall for the Super Bowl XLVII champs, but age and free-agent losses catch up with every team. 

Finding a center would be ideal, as Gino Gradkowski showed he was a steep drop-off from perennial All-Pro Matt Birk. Gradkowski wasn't the only problem up front, though - outside of Pro Bowler Marshall Yanda and the recently resigned Eugene Monroe, all positions could use an upgrade. 

Finding a big-bodied wide receiver to play opposite Torrey Smith long-term is high on the priority list for Baltimore, as is finding a running mate for last year's first-round selection, safety Matt Elam.

Top options: 
Taylor Lewan (OT, Michigan) - The successor to 2008 no. 1 pick, Jake Long, at Michigan, Lewan has plenty of experience. Lewan's skill set is still raw, but his talent is obvious - he's a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Ten player. With the recent departure of Michael Oher, Lewan would be a great fit in Baltimore.

Calvin Pryor (S, Louisville) - If the Ravens wanted to use back-to-back first-round picks on safeties, Louisville's Calvin Pryor could fit the bill. Pryor is a physical presence in the secondary, all while possessing excellent ball skills. His ability to play deep would allow second-year safety Matt Elam to play closer to the line, where he is more comfortable.

C.J. Mosley (ILB, Alabama) - Mosley was in charge of leading Alabama's vaunted defense, so pressure and expectations won't be an issue for Mosley. His versatility would be welcome in a suddenly thin Ravens' linebacking corps.

Experts say: Pryor or Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina) - Ebron is widely regarded as the best tight end prospect in this class, but the better fit is Pryor. The Louisville product is as physical as they come at free safety, and would be a great fit alongside Elam.

Sleeper: Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M) - The Ravens are in need of a big, physical receiver, and Evans fits the bill. According to another report from Tony Pauline of draftinsider.net, Baltimore is a strong candidate to move up in the draft to grab Evans, if a move is made.

Dream scenario: Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson) - People who say such things have claimed Watkins is the best receiving prospect to enter the NFL since Calvin Johnson. At the very least, he's the next Julio Jones. If Watkins were to somehow end up in Baltimore, it would be a slam dunk. I wouldn't be able to get a Watkins jersey added to my collection fast enough.

Green Bay Packers
Biggest needs: DL, S, TE

It's easy to blame Green Bay's below-average 2013 season on the long-term absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but that injury is a convenient excuse used to cover the real problems with Green Bay's largely talented roster.

Green Bay's front seven has been underwhelming, with the exception of Clay Matthews and, of late, AJ Hawk. A true nose guard who can anchor the middle and stuff the run would benefit Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme immensely. A true edge rushed to pressure the quarterback opposite Matthews wouldn't hurt, either. I'm still not sold on Julius Peppers being the answer when he's played his entire career with his hand on the ground.

Morgan Burnett is a keeper, but much like the Ravens and Matt Elam, Green Bay's young safety needs a partner in crime. Adding depth to the receiving corps, both at wideout and tight end, would also do the Packers quite well.

Top options: 
Calvin Pryor (S, Louisville) - Simply put, M.D. Jennings isn't the answer alongside Morgan Burnett at safety. Pryor would add great ball skills and some much-needed toughness to a secondary much too reliant on speed and finesse.

Ryan Shazier (ILB, Ohio State)
 - Shazier, projected as a top-15 pick early in the college football season, has fallen out of favor of the draftniks and so-called experts. Why? Great question. While there isn't one stand-out part of Shazier's game, the former Buckeye is a solid all-around player and would fit well alongside fellow Ohio State alum A.J. Hawk.

Louis Nix (Notre Dame) - B.J. Raji's one-year deal is a Band-Aid deal meant to tide the Packers over until a better option is available. Enter Louis Nix, who has a similar skill set to Raji. The difference: Nix is a more accomplished player and brings more to the table coming out of school than Raji did.

Experts say: C.J. Mosley (ILB, Alabama) - Mosley is the real deal. It takes a certain type of player to run Nick Saban's defense, and Mosley did just that while in Tuscaloosa. Mosley could follow in the footsteps of former Crimson Tide linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw in finding success in the NFL.

Sleeper: Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Washington) - While safety is one of Green Bay's top needs, there is no guarantee Pryor or Alabama's Hasean Clinton-Dix will be on the board when the Packers are on the clock. The 6-foot-7 Seferian-Jenkins would be a match-up nightmare in the red zone for a trio of NFC North foes already struggling to cover Green Bay's receivers.

Dream scenario: Khalil Mack (OLB, Buffalo) - Some mocks have Mack slipping to the edge of the top 10. Unfortunately for this dream scenario, some also have Mack in the top three. If the University of Buffalo juggernaut were to somehow find his way to Titletown, the Packers would have the best outside linebacker tandem in the league.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

NFL picks - Super Bowl XLVIII

The first cold-weather Super Bowl isn't going to be so cold after all.

Much was made about the potentially terrible weather forecast for the New York area. What was once supposed to be a winter storm turned into low-40s with a slight breeze. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the overkill analysis, but the Broncos went from three-point underdogs to three-point favorites.

Two very different legacies are on the line Sunday. Peyton Manning can cap off the greatest single-season performance by a quarterback in the history of the league with his second Super Bowl title. Russell Wilson can establish himself as the best quarterback in the fabled Class of 2012, giving him a leg up on Andrew Luck and media darling Colin Kaepernick.

Pete Carroll can complete the ultimate career restoration by raising the Lombari Trophy Sunday night. John Fox can erase the memory of a last-second Super Bowl loss 10 years ago if he can lead Manning and Denver's juggernaut offense to its first title since 1998.

It ought to be one heck of a game Sunday night. For the final time this season, let's get to the pick.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks (15-3) v. Denver Broncos (15-3)

Two very different teams will meet Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.

Peyton Manning has led the Denver Broncos to the greatest single season an NFL offense has ever had. No team has ever scored as many points as the Broncos did this season, and no quarterback has thrown for more yards and touchdowns in a season than Manning did.

Few defenses, however, have been as tough to play against as Seattle's defensive unit. From the trenches to the secondary, the Seahawks are incredibly talented and incredibly tough. That physical, smashmouth defense has been the catalyst for an offensive unit led my All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch.

It's strength versus strength Sunday in New York. Will it be Denver taking the Lombardi Trophy home for the third time, or will the Seahawks bringing the 206 its first championship since 1979?

The Case for Seattle

Defense, defense, defense.

The Seahawks have made their hay on defense. From top to bottom, Seattle has the league's best defense, and as Richard Sherman illustrated two weeks ago, they're not afraid to tell you about it.

Don't sleep on Seattle's offense, though.

Quarterback Russell Wilson is the league's best young quarterback. He leads his team like a tenured veteran, makes intelligent decisions, accurate throws, and can still beat you with his legs. While Seattle's receiving corps isn't elite, running back Marshawn Lynch is.

If Seattle is to win its first Super Bowl title, the Seahawks' offense will have to supplement their defense. Denver is going to score points, but Seattle will have to be able to do the same.

The defense is going to be there for Seattle. In fact, no defense in the league matches up with Denver's offense as well as Seattle's. Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are physical, talented and aggressive. Everyone in Seattle's front seven can give Peyton Manning a headache or, at the very least, put him on his back, over and over and over.

The Case for Denver

Offense, offense, offense.

For all that defense the Seahawks have, the Broncos have the most potent single-season offense in NFL history.

Peyton Manning's 2013 season has been well-documented, but if you think the success of the offense doesn't come down to Manning alone.

Demaryius Thomas is one of the league's best receivers. Wes Welker is the premier weapon out of the slot. Julius Thomas has become a difference-maker at tight end. And on top of all of that, the Broncos can still run the ball.

Look past Denver's defense at your own risk, though. Despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Broncos' defense has been nearly dominant this postseason, completely shutting down Tom Brady and the rejuvenated Philip Rivers.

If Denver is to win its first Super Bowl in 15 seasons, the Broncos defense will have to supplement its offense. Points won't come easy against Seattle's elite defense, but Denver will have to contain Wilson and Lynch.

Denver's offense isn't going anywhere. The Seahawks haven't seen an offense like Denver's. There are weapons upon weapons, and this record-setting offense is led by the most well-prepared quarterback in NFL history.

Many times in this space, I've written one of the oldest football cliches as a means of foreshadowing, and I'll do it once more:

"Offense wins games, but defense wins championships."

The Pick: Seattle 24, Denver 20

History tells us Peyton Manning doesn't respond well to physicality, and there may be no more physical, aggressive defense than Seattle's. The Seahawks' secondary is fast, they're big, and they're really, really good. Manning will find holes in Seattle's Cover 3 scheme, but it won't be enough to bring the title back to Mile High.

Last week: 2-0
Playoff record: 7-3
Season record: 165-100-1

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards - Live! ... ish

Once upon a time, the Grammy Awards were a spectacle to behold.

Now, every winter, the "best" and "brightest" of the "music" industry gather to celebrate their collective "achievements" from the prior year. This splendid event features a who's who of people masquerading as a actual musicians while music luminary LL Cool J emcees the night's proceedings.

A long-standing tradition of live-tweeting the Grammy's was broken thanks to a social life - thanks a lot, actual friends - but, in lieu of scathing 140-character remarks, I've taken my vitriol to the pages of the Online Jargon.

Good friend and roommate Dave joins me for this two-hour hatefest. By being on this page, you'll have joined us as well. This will probably only be funny to Dave and I, but that's what happens when you have your own blog.

This ought to be interesting.

0:00 - Before we get started, I have to say this: I have almost no frame of reference regarding the show. I know Pharrell wears a ridiculous hat, and apparently, Daft Punk dresses up like Storm Troopers. I don't get it.

0:05 - I'm going to have a seizure if these lights don't stop flashing.

0:06 - Oh. It's Beyonce. Does she ever actually wear pants?

0:07 - Apparently, the new definition of "Grammy performance" is "writhe around on a chair while intermittently gyrating your pelvis." Who knew?

0:08 - I got so excited when Jay-Z came out that I turned off the cable.

0:10 - Robin Thicke is in the house ... with his wife. There's something new.

0:10 - What does LL Cool J have a Grammy for? Wearing a Kangol hat?

0:11 - There's Daft Punk and those ridiculous helmets. Apparently, the cool way to make a statement is to dress like a dipshit.

0:11 - You don't make music, LL. You rap. Nothing like shameless self-promotion.

0:14 - IT'S THE BEATLES!!! Well, what's left of them. Finally, some musicians on the show that CELEBRATES MUSIC.

0:15 - Is Pharrell a park ranger?

0:16 - Yoko Ono is in the house ... likely sitting nowhere near Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

0:17 - If Macklemore and Ryan Lewis don't win Best New Artist, I'll be shocked.

0:18 - No surprise there. These guys are everywhere. For a guy who raps, he isn't a very eloquent speaker. Maybe I don't get it because I'm not "reppin'," whatever that means.

0:19 - Lorde is up for Album of the Year??? Hell yes. I hope she wins. There's nothing quite like riding the popularity of a gigantic middle finger in the face of American music to victory on America's biggest night in music.

0:24 - They're gonna let Ringo Starr sing? Why??? Doesn't everyone know that drummers can't sing?

(See, that's funny, because I'm a drummer.)

0:28 - LL Cool J really needs to cool it with all the heartfelt messages.

0:28 - Y'know, Shinedown released a single about bullying and being different. Why didn't they get a ton of press for that? Oh yeah ... because they're not canned pop music. The lesson, as always: I hate everything about popular music. Well, except for Katy Perry.

0:32 - I fast-forwarded through Hunter Hayes' performance. I guess that means I support bullying.

0:33 - If "Blurred Lines" wins over "Suit & Tie," I'm gonna lose my shit.

0:35 - "Dude." Thanks for that epiphany, Pharrell. At least one real musician (Nile Rodgers) is on stage.

0:36 - We now break in the action because Katy Perry.

0:41 - Dave just unleashed the most sarcastic, "Oh, cool," when it was announced that Kevin Hart would play a part in this evening's show. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke is apparently going to "blur lines" with people who actually know something about musicianship.

0:46 - Dave Grohl sighting!!!

0:47 - On stage, a ton of musicians ... and Robin Thicke. Nice gold-plated microphone, asshole.

0:48 - This performance clearly shows Robin Thicke has no idea what to do with himself when he doesn't have four strippers grinding against him.

0:50 - ... and there goes all my respect for Chicago. They couldn't have played "25 or 6 to 4" instead of playing that garbage track "Blurred Lines"?

0:51 - Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were on TV at the same time!!!

0:52 - Not interested in what Keith Urban has to say. Or sing. Fast-forward.

0:56 - I wonder which ex-boyfriend Taylor Swift is going to sing about.

1:02 - I may crap all over popular music, but I'll give credit where credit is due: John Legend is for real. No doubt about it.

1:04 - Chrissy Tiegen kind of looks like the Bride of Chucky when they show her admiring John Legend. I'd make a real joke here if I didn't know she's really hot.

1:05 - I just made a Babyface reference. Tom Haverford would be proud.

1:06 - Katy Perry. Yusssss.

1:06 - "God is Dead?" gets nominated for Best Rock Song??? Holy shit! That makes three actual rock acts nominated for Best Rock Song. That hasn't happened since the 80s.

1:07 - Dave Grohl wins!!! With Paul McCartney!!! And James Hetfield was on the television!!! I am losing my mind right now.

1:08 - Krist Novoselic looks like a lunatic! And Pat Smear looks like he's 67. This is, without question, the best thing that has happened on the Grammys in years. YEARS.

1:08 - Paul McCartney says that he said he "wanted to make something up" with Dave Grohl. The result? A Grammy Award-winning song.

1:09 - I really don't care what Taylor Swift has to say. Or sing. Fast-forward.

1:14 - Dave thought Kris Kristofferson was dead. His track record with celebrities being alive is shoddy, at best. Also, Daft Punk is going to "perform" later. (Read: Daft Punk is going to press computer buttons for four minutes.)

1:20 - Bruno Mars is here. Yay.

1:21 - Pink is doing a trapeze act while she sings. Haven't we seen this already?

1:24 - Nate Ruess sings and it sounds exactly like every other fun. song ever. You don't say!

1:26 - Best Pop Solo Performance, presented by Tony Toni Tone!

1:26 - Not sure if I'm rooting for Lorde, Katy Perry or Justin Timberlake in this one. All are acceptable.

1:27 - Best Pop Solo Performance? The song that makes fun of American pop music. Lorde is fantastic.

1:34 - BLACK FUCKING SABBATH!!! Best Metal Performance winners? No shit. THEY INVENTED METAL.

1:35 - Ringo Starr is playing with a 77-piece band, and one of his guitar players is Peter Frampton. Of course it is.

1:36 - Only three drummers in the history of music can sing. Ringo Starr isn't one of them.

1:39 - Jamie Foxx, who thinks he's an actor and a rapper, is going to present an award to some people who thinks they're actually musicians. How fitting.

1:41 - Justin Timberlake wins ... and he's not there. That probably says something. Jay-Z is rambling on about who-knows-what. And this guy is considered a genius ... why?

1:48 - Rick Rubin is a crazy person, but the guy knows how to sell records. Anyone he produces goes platinum. It's insane.

1:53 - Between the nonsense I could hear, and all the edited blocks, I tuned out from whatever the hell is happening with Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons. And, I just found out Motley Crue is going to be playing at the Marcus Amphitheater on the Fourth of July.

2:03 - Why is Julia Roberts at the Grammys?

2:03 - Four young lads from England? You mean THE BAND THAT INVENTED MODERN MUSIC???

2:05 - Ringo is behind the drum kit. Finally. Don't let the guy near a microphone anymore. Meanwhile, Sir Paul McCartney is doing ... well, he's being awesome. It really doesn't matter what the guy does. He's never not brilliant.

2:08 - As usual, Joe Walsh looks like he's completely lost. He's probably stoned out of his gourd, and he hasn't done drugs in 20 years.

2:09 - Ladies and gentlemen, (minority) owners of the Miami Dolphins, Gloria Estefan and Marc Anthony!

2:10 - Best Pop Vocal Album? Lorde and Justin Timberlake are the only acceptable winners.

2:11 - Bruno Mars? Really? What a joke. Nice bolo tie, dude.

2:12 - "Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit." Brilliant lyrics.

2:13 - Neil Patrick Harris, Dave Grohl and Metallica still remain in tonight's broadcast. It's going to be OK. I think.

2:20 - The fucks I have to give about country "music" expired decades ago.

2:25 - Why does Zac Brown need to wear a knit cap on stage? And why does he need to spell his name "Z-A-C"?

2:27 - Are country "artists" allergic to dressing appropriately when attending award shows? A cowboy hat/knit cap and jeans is not acceptable just because you're wearing a sport coat.

2:28 - Thank you for saving us, NPH.

2:29 - Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers are making up for the wannabe park ranger and the French dimwits playing with their computers. It's offensive that Daft Punk is famous for anything other than being a couple of nerds.

2:32 - Have I mentioned how hot Katy Perry is?

2:34 - It's really awkward watching a bunch of famous people dance in place. Except Katy Perry. She's hot no matter what.

2:34 - Dear Pharrell: Pat Smear is not impressed with your shit.

2:44 - Song of the Year. Now we're swinging with heavyweights.

2:44 - Katy Perry. Lorde. Bring it home.

2:45 - Lorde!!! A victory for actual music!!!

2:47 - I'm really nervous about Metallica playing "One" with a classical pianist. Interested, but nervous.

2:50 - Jared Leto is such a herb. What a dunce.

2:51 - Metallica time. I'm out.

2:59 - I'm not OK. That was something.

3:00 - Meanwhile, two people who are actually talented are probably going give a Grammy to someone who isn't. Unless Lorde wins.

3:01 - Your Record of the Year: "Get Lucky." Fitting, since the two artsy morons dressed like robots somehow managed to win. I hate everything.

3:10 - Queen Latifah is here to present Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and I wouldn't normally make note of this, but it comes along with an anecdote: Dave, who I mentioned earlier has a terrible track record with celebrities who may or may not have died, swore Queen Latifah was dead. He and I went back and forth for a solid 15 minutes before I went online to prove that Queen Latifah was, in fact, alive and well. That was two years ago. We still joke about it to this day, and we've already made a couple references to the discussion tonight.

3:11 - Why is everyone wearing a bolo tie???

3:13 - As I mentioned earlier, I'll give credit where it's due. Macklemore can go. He writes his own stuff, and it's different. And it's good.

3:15 - ... aaaaaaaaaand here comes Madonna to steal attention.

3:16 - In a show full of self-aggrandizing and grandstanding, the last five minutes were pretty fucking awesome.

3:24 - It's fantastic to have a music educator recognized. Very well deserved.

3:26 - In Memoriam time. Who gets "the hammer," as Bill Simmons would say?

3:32- Good to see George Jones, Richie Havens (the opening performer at Woodstock), Ray Manzarek, Chi Cheng (a metal guy!), Lou Reed, and Phil Everly make it. It's hard to catch all the important, influential, ground-breaking people who we lost in the last year. It's completely inexplicable for the Grammy Foundation to exclude Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman and Iron Maiden bassist Clive Burr. Slayer and Maiden are two of the most important metal bands in history, but they, like most metal bands, get looked over in every facet of the Grammy universe.

May all the the people the music world lost last year rest in peace.

3:39 - Time for Album of the Year. If it isn't Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it's a joke.

3:40 - What a fucking joke. Two morons who play with computers win Album of the Year from an organization that has the balls to claim they celebrate and reward the best in MUSIC.

3:42 - At least the Grammys are going out with a bang. To be honest, I'm surprised the self-important Trent Reznor is allowing anyone to share the stage with him, much less someone as talented as Lindsey Buckingham.

3:44 - Josh Homme is in full greaser garb. That's two talented musicians hanging around Trent Reznor. I'm surprised Reznor let them play with him.

3:45 - DAVE GROHL IS PLAYING DRUMS!!! I'm losing my mind right now.

3:47 - .... and I'm spent. The show lasted a full hour longer than expected, so I had to run on vitriol fumes down the stretch.

Until next year ...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Sherman solution

Once upon a time, the National Football League was fun to watch, and fans weren't so sensitive.

Those days are long gone.

The 2013 NFC Championship Game was a bright light in what turned out to be a fairly bland postseason. The NFC's top-seeded Seattle Seahawks played host to their bitter divisional rival, the San Francisco 49ers, in the rubber match of the 2013 season. It was a back-and-forth game that came down to the final minute of the contest.

Headlines were truly written after Seattle's 23-17 victory, though.

Fox's Erin Andrews interviewed Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who tipped the pass that led to Malcolm Smith's game-winning interception in the game's waning moments. The rest, as they say, is history.

"I'm the best cornerback in the game," Sherman said in the post-game interview. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you're gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me."

Andrews asked Sherman who was talking about him, and Sherman responded.

"Crabtree," Sherman said. "Don't open your mouth about the best, or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick."

It didn't take long for talking heads, so-called experts, fans and fellow NFL players to vilify Sherman, tagging the Seahawks cornerback as a thug, a villain, and an embarrassment.

To those talking heads, so-called experts, fans and fellow players, I say this:

Grow up.

Sherman could have taken the Tom Brady route, using the media to take shots at someone who wears a different uniform. When asked about Sherman's reaction, Brady said, "He's that kind of guy, so ... I approach the game and I have respect for my opponents."

"We win with graciousness," Brady continued.

Sherman could have taken the Peyton Manning route, heaping praise on his opponent and making mention of the toughness of their next foe.

Instead, Sherman did what NFL players used to do: Show passion and fire in a rivalry game, and celebrate a huge playoff victory.

Any notion of Sherman being a thug or embarrassment to the NFL is nothing short of laughable. In fact, more NFL players should be like Sherman.

Richard Sherman graduated from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., with a 4.2 GPA. He went on to Stanford University, graduating in 2010 with a 3.7 GPA and a degree in communication. Not satisfied with a "regular" degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, Sherman returned to Palo Alto to earn his Masters degree.

In his free time, Sherman returns home to notoriously troubled Compton, giving his time, experience and money to the community to help troubled youngsters change the course of their lives.

NFL fans need to stop being so sensitive. Players like Sherman bring an air of the old school back to the gridiron while setting a good example off of it. Professional football is a violent sport, and the men who play it are, generally, pretty intense individuals.

Sherman is one of the more confident and emotional players on any of the league's 32 teams. He and his teammates beat a hated rival, one of the league's best teams, to advance to the Super Bowl. But because Sherman was a little too intense for people's liking, he's a bad guy.

Please.

The NFL could use more guys like Richard Sherman.