Archive for May, 2013

Why Seattle is done pumping high picks into the O-line

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Change? Why? This offensive line is growing into a formidable group

The Seahawks have an accomplished offensive line.

Yes, that is true, despite arguments to the contrary. Only San Francisco and the New York Giants ranked higher in the run game last year according to Football Outsiders. They were ranked #2 in second level blocking, had more success in a ‘power’ formation than any other team barring New Orleans and had the least number of stuffed runs in the NFL.

For a team that wants to run the ball as much as the Seahawks (nobody ran more often in 2012) that’s some impressive work.

Against the pass they were average, giving up 33 sacks (middle of the road). The official ranking according to FO is #20 in the league. I’m not trying to pick and choose my stats here, but considering the Raiders were ranked #4 for pass protection, Detroit 1st and San Francisco 29th (!!!) I’m not too concerned to see Seattle at #20. This is a run first team, just like the 49ers. And they run block as well as any O-line in the league.

I take some comfort seeing the Giants ranked #2 for the run and #3 in pass protection — giving up the least amount of sacks. This isn’t a team that has pushed a ton of stock (money and picks) into their line. They’ve relied on consistency and familiarity. True, they just spent a first round pick on Justin Pugh. A lot of teams ranked him near the top of their boards. If it wasn’t New York, it was probably Chicago. And many feel the time is right for the Giants to recharge their O-line. But the point stands. They built a rapport, and used it as the foundation for two title runs.

And so it will be for the Seahawks.

For the first time since Seattle’s only Super Bowl run, there’s a level of consistency up front. Do not underestimate that. It is, for me, the most important part of any offensive line. You can pump as many high draft picks into a line as you want. Eventually, you have to stick with five guys. And those five have to work as one. Sure, talent matters. Of course it does. But the Seahawks aren’t lacking talent. They have Pro-Bowlers at left tackle and center — the two premium positions. The numbers above prove as a group they’re a productive bunch, especially in the run game. A lot of that is down to familiarity.

“We’re able to just kind of plug in where we left off. Then the newness and the new things we want to add to it, we’ll put some focus to that. But it’s really been pretty good how they’ve competed just to bring it back with them. It’s made it a lot easier for us.”

The quote above is from Tom Cable, speaking to Seahawks.com after the players reported for a recent off-season workout. No learning curve. No time consuming lessons and basics. Just get out there and play. Perfect. Just what you want to see at this time of year.

The starting line during those workouts was Okung-McQuistan-Unger-Sweezy-Giacomini. John Moffitt, James Carpenter, Lemuel Jeanpierre, Rishaw Johnson and Mike Person were named as the backups.

We’ve had many debates about the offensive line this off-season. Some wanted to invest even more draft stock into this area of the team. Others had a different take. The simple fact is the Seahawks didn’t spend high on the offensive line in this draft. They drafted three guys in round seven. One of those guys played defensive tackle in college. These were three guys they weren’t sure they could sign in UDFA. Here’s what that tells me:

1 – The Seahawks are content with their starting lineman.

2 – The Seahawks are comfortable with their scouting/coaching and probably don’t feel they need to ‘go big’ on this unit going forward.

3 – The Seahawks are happy to draft players who fit a certain physical criteria, then let Cable get to work.

I’m not trying to argue we won’t see another first or second round pick spent on the offensive line any time soon. Why would you rule anything out? You never know what’ll happen. But if the offensive continues on it’s current trajectory, I think they’ll be more than happy to put their faith in Cable’s vision.

And that’s essentially what we’re seeing here. Players hand picked by Tom Cable. Guys he knows will fit his scheme. Fit his attitude. Fit the identity of this squad. They don’t need high picks. They just need to be Cable’s guys.

That’s why you pay someone like Cable to run your offensive line and running game. You trust him. Other teams don’t have a Cable. Seattle is fortunate in that regard. It’s already paid dividends.

Ryan Seymour, Jared Smith and Michael Bowie are the latest trio to pass the Cable eye test. And they might stick on the team and eventually start like Sweezy. They may provide solid depth. Or maybe they’ll end up on the practise squad or worse. Either way, I suspect that is how this team is going to move forward. Looking for the rough diamond to compliment and compete with a consistent group of starters.

A lot of people have talked about Breno Giacomini being out of contract next year or the possibility of cutting the relatively expensive Paul McQuistan. You could make a saving by replacing both with second or even first round salaries. If those guys are going to be replaced, I’d put money on it not being another high pick unless it’s a guy you just have to get. No, I’d throw my cash behind it being another problem Cable can solve. That seems to be the degree of faith they have in his judgement and coaching. Clearly.

And hey, I wouldn’t rule out Giacomini and McQuistan receiving extensions. Yes, this is about cost effective football. Saving money where you can, playing the rookie market well. But this front office also rewards players who deserve it. They could’ve let Kam Chancellor walk in a year, receive a decent compensatory pick and tried to replace him with another cheap rookie. They didn’t. They paid the man. Same for Chris Clemons, who was rightly rewarded despite the first round pick spent on Bruce Irvin last year. Max Unger, Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane were paid. If Giacomini and McQuistan deliver, they’ll probably stick around. Why not? You find a way to make it work.

Are there improvements to be made? Sure. Russell Wilson will learn to turn a blitz into a major positive instead of a reason to worry. Teams rarely blitz the greats because a guy like Peyton Manning knows how to exploit it. Wilson will get there eventually. So the heart attack protection witnessed against teams like Arizona (week 1), St. Louis (week 17) and Washington (Wild Card) should become a thing of the past. For the most part it’s just little tweaks and further experience. And anyone seriously worried about the pass protection should go back and watch the tape from last year. A who’s-who of elite NFL pass rushers were shut out. Don’t forget that.

An effective offensive line is all about knowing how to act as a cohesive unit. So don’t expect any major changes or high investment over the next few years. That’s already taken place. Alex Gibbs, Cable, Okung, extending Unger, Carpenter. Now they’re putting their trust in Cable to keep this line at the top of the game.

That was short and sweet…

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Chris Harper vs Oregon

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Been busy with work for the last few days, while also taking some time after the draft to do ‘life’ things. Expect a couple of pieces later this week. For now, here’s the newest Seahawks receiver versus Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

Christine Michael at the Shrine Game

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

The San Francisco 49ers draft class of 2013

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

I'd bet that Marcus Lattimore will bounce back, but will he dominate?

I don’t know if any team drafted a higher number of “big name” prospects last weekend than the 49ers.  If you thought Jesse Williams was the best pick Seattle made, you’d love the 49ers draft, as it’s filled with similar draft decisions.

Regarding the Jesse Williams pick, I mirror Rob’s thoughts on it.  The selection of Jesse Williams isn’t some stroke of genius that required keen talent evaluation or deep insight.  Drafting a nobody like Richard Sherman coming out of Stanford and turning him into one of the NFL’s top players is what a stroke of genius looks like.  Everyone in the NFL knew how talented Williams was.  Seattle was just the first team to be in a comfortable enough position to gamble on Williams’ health.  It was a business decision that happened to cost a draft pick.

Maybe that’s why I’m just not that taken aback by the 49ers draft.  Think about Seattle’s amazing success in the draft, then think about how many of those players were not household names before those drafts.  The Seahawks go mining for hidden gems.  I’m not seeing anything like that in this 49ers draft class.  To me, it’s just a series of business decisions for well known commodities, most of them with high risk.

Round 1:  Eric Reid, S, LSU
Round 2:  Cornelius Carradine, DE, Florida State
Round 2:  Vance McDonald, TE, Rice
Round 3:  Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
Round 4:  Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Round 4:  Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Round 5:  Quinton Dial, DE, Alabama
Round 6:  Nick Moody, OLB, Florida State
Round 7:  BJ Daniels, QB, South Florida
Round 7:  Carter Bykowski, T, Iowa State
Round 7:  Marcus Cooper, CB, Rutgers

Eric Reid was one of the most notable late risers in the 2013 draft process.  Whenever you see a guy that’s a late riser, it’s almost always a player with questionable tape that “tested” well (at the combine or pro-day).  I put on Reid’s compilation against Texas A&M from last season, and the negatives stack up while the positives are few and far between.  He lacks instincts, lacks timing, clumsily drew unnecessary penalties, takes on blocks poorly and often appeared apprehensive about taking on contact or making tackles.

Ironically, the hype for Reid originates from a league wide trend to emphasize upside with players this year, especially with players that fit a “Seahawk” blueprint.  Standing 6’1″, 213 pounds with the longest arms and the best vertical/broad jump among the 2013 safety group, and having no shortage of issues to nitpick him on, Reid looks quite a bit like a typical “head scratcher” Seahawks pick that turns into a star.  Clearly, this pick was made not because of the player Reid currently is, but what evaluators hope he might become.  It’s a lot like the Rams selection of Alec Ogletree.

Whether the Reid becomes worthy of his draft stock is on Harbaugh’s shoulders as a talent developer.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Reid makes a future pro-bowl on draft reputation, ala Patrick Peterson, but I don’t expect him to be a player that causes opposing coaches sleepless nights.

I was never a big fan of Cornelius Carradine, at least not in the role he played at Florida State.  Carradine did not participate in speed tests this winter as he’s recovering from a knee injury, but it’s been estimated that he has 4.90 speed and the eyeball test backs that up.  Carradine is no more of an edge rusher than Jesse Williams is.

What Carradine does do well is defend the run and never give up on plays.  He uses his 35″ arms well to control gaps while anchoring well.  Occasionally, he’ll take advantage of poor pass protection and use his arms to turn the corner.  His package of skills and size is a little bit like Courtney Upshaw, though he’s slower than Upshaw and lacks the intangible “spark” to his game that Upshaw had.  Another comparison might be Lawrence Jackson, who was good at everything in college but was too reliant on strength as a pass rusher and who’s sacks were nearly always of the “cleanup” variety, rarely forcing pressures for others.

I don’t buy the talk that Carradine was a top 15 pick before his injury.  His measurables and tape just simply don’t add up that high.  Not for me.

Though I’d probably grade Carradine in the 3rd round, I don’t think he’s going to bust for the 49ers, unless his knee problem resurfaces.  He’ll provide most of his value in run defense, while getting a few hustle sacks here and there.  What he’s not is a good replacement for Justin Smith.  Justin Smith’s arm combat makes him a pain to block- and makes him a much rarer talent- which is why he was taken 4th overall in the 2001 draft.  If the 49ers ever do find a good replacement for Justin Smith, it probably won’t be with a second round pick.

Vance McDonald is the one pick I’m not sure how to react to.  On tape, McDonald doesn’t look as fast as his impressive forty time, he struggled badly with drops, and he comes from a lower level of competition.  On the other hand, McDonald has the tall yet somehow bulky bowling ball type build to run over would be tacklers with ease.  He has the upside of becoming another Rob Gronkowski, himself a second round pick.  If McDonald so much as becomes a poor man’s Gronk, he could easily be considered the best pick the 49ers made when looking back in a few years.  Vance McDonald wasn’t necessarily a favorite of mine, but I respect this pick for what he could become.  Even if he became no more than TJ Duckett the tight end, he could be a nifty NFL contributor and worthy of this kind of investment.

My favorite pick the 49ers made was Corey Lemonier in the 3rd round.  Lemonier struggled with production down the stretch last season, but he tested extremely well at the combine and I thought looked the most fluid in drills of any pass rusher.  Lemonier’s explosiveness off the snap is about as good as you’ll find, and he combines that athleticism with one of the more complete pass rush repertoires in this draft among the more athletic prospects.  Had Seattle not gone crazy in free agency, I’m pretty sure Lemonier would be a Seahawk right now, as he fits their LEO profile very well.

I wasn’t a big fan of Quinton Patton before the draft, as I think he’d need to carve his niche out as an elite possession receiver in the NFL to justify his media hype, and that would only be possible if he landed with the right kind of quarterback.  If Colin Kaepernick ends up being the same passer that he was last season, I don’t think Patton landed in an ideal spot.  Kaepernick locks onto receivers and forces passes.  He’s still an athlete playing quarterback who achieves success through pure physical ability.  I expect Kaepernick to grow next season, but I don’t really see him turning into a surgeon on offense any time soon.

Still, it’s hard to argue with a well rounded talent like Patton in the 4th round, especially one with the kind of competitive intangibles that make you think he’ll be an NFL over-achiever.   This was a solid pick by the 49ers; their first pick in the draft that I wouldn’t label a “high risk” selection.

Marcus Lattimore is no stranger to injury at South Carolina, and he saved his most brutal injury for last.  You have to be impressed with the character Lattimore has shown through this whole experience, and the incredible work he’s put into his recovery.  Lattimore’s running style reminds me a little of a poor man’s Marshawn Lynch, and it seems both have a big heart for the game as well.  Betting against Lattimore based on his intangibles alone seems like a fool’s errand.

Marshawn Lynch comparisons are passe, but Lattimore earns them much more than most runners do. Both are runners who have top shelf agility, power, balance, and resilience with NFL average speed.  Both excel as first down rushers for possession oriented offenses and both only rarely create explosive plays.  You put on the tape and you see a lot of five yard runs, but hardly any rushes that go for 15+.  I think Lynch is better than a healthy Lattimore for a few reasons: he’s a better athlete overall and he’s more consistent week to week.  Lattimore’s game log looks like Shaun Alexander’s, huge numbers one week and then quiet numbers the next.

Of course, if Lattimore does recover, he’s still a massive injury risk going forward.  The 49ers team is built in a very similar manner to Seattle: primarily around the running game.  How would you feel building your entire offense around a guy with Lattimore’s injury history, being backed up by a pair of 3rd down running backs (LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter)?  This could end up being a great pick by the 49ers, but it doesn’t get much higher risk than this for a 4th rounder.

Even if Lattimore does turn into a good player long term, it doesn’t worry me much as a Seahawks fan.  The Seahawks have done very well against physical backs in the recent past.  I think Lattimore is likely to be a solid pro more than the star that his fan reputation belies.  A common forecast among the more enlightened fanbase is a Willis McGahee career path.  The more I think about it, the more that projection feels right.

Quinton Dial impressed me with what little I saw of him before the draft.  He moves very well for a big man and would be an ideal prospect for a Red Bryant type role.

There isn’t much out there for Nick Moody.  He’s a converted DB who possesses Khaseem Greene type speed.  He’s said to be strong in coverage and every video I find of him shows him to be a big hitter.   This is the first pick the 49ers made that I hadn’t heard of.  I don’t know much about Moody, but on the surface he seems to have all the tools he needs to be an NFL starter at linebacker.

BJ Daniels was my favorite late round quarterback for a read option offense.  This was the one pick the 49ers made that felt like a gut punch.  Of course, Daniels has a steep mountain to climb and is more of a fun prospect to follow rather than a guy who’s likely to be the next Russell Wilson.

Carter Bykowski is a flier pick in the late rounds.  Possessing a Tom Cable lineman type height/weight ratio (6’7″, 306), it’s a little surprising to me that Bykowski ran only a 5.30 forty.  There isn’t any tape available, unfortunately.  Like Seattle’s late round picks at O-line, Bykowski is presumed to be fighting an uphill battle to make the 49ers’ roster.

You would think that standing 6’2″ while running a 4.45 at corner for a solid program like Rutgers would get you drafted before the 7th round, but that’s where Marcus Cooper (a projected UDFA) wound up.  Cooper will probably be the 49ers’ equivalent of Byron Maxwell and contribute mostly on special teams.

Overall impression:

The 49ers most successful draft in recent years was headlined by two “head scratcher” picks in Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick.  Since then, the best player Trent Balke has pulled out of the draft was Kendall Hunter in the 4th round that same year.  The 49ers were the NFL’s only team to log zero rookie starts last season.

In previous years, Trent Baalke drafted under the radar prospects with mixed results.  This year, he loaded up on several well known, big name prospects with high risk.  My quick takeaway is that the 49ers just drafted a bunch of NFL average players, with a handful of wildcards mixed in such as McDonald, Lemonier, and Lattimore.  I’m not particularly bullish on the 49ers’ performance on days one and two, but I thought they had a fairly strong day three.

Last year I had no doubt that the Seahawks had the best draft not only in the division, but in the NFL.  To say I was a huge fan of the Wilson pick would be an understatement, and I was thrilled by the addition of Irvin too, even if it was much earlier than I anticipated.

This year, I honestly have no idea which team fared the best.  I think in five years time we’ll probably see at least one pro-bowl caliber player drafted by each NFC West team from this draft.  All four teams drafted players I was very high on before the draft.

I think this was a solid draft by the 49ers but it kind of feels like a draft that Mel Kiper could have made.  The only “off the radar” pick they made with much potential to excite is Nick Moody or perhaps BJ Daniels, and both will probably be long term backups.  Actually, I guess I should count Corey Lemonier as being off the radar since most people who do not frequent this blog are likely to be unfamiliar with him.

For the most part, this draft felt more like a series of calculated business decisions more than talent evaluations.  Time will tell how those calculated gambles play out.

Thoughts on Jesse Williams

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Seattle's first Australian...

Jesse Williams is good at what he does. It’s what he doesn’t do that limited his stock.

It’s emerged that he suffered a fall in the draft due to medical concerns. Some teams apparently didn’t include him on their board. The Seahawks believed he was worth a shot in round five — they traded up for the first time in the Carroll/Schneider era to make sure they got both Williams and Tharold Simon.

I’m not sure the fall from possible first or second round pick to round five was purely down to the medical situation. Personally, I thought he was a solid second round pick who could fall into round three. Others had him rated higher than that, perhaps a little too high.

He’s pretty one-dimensional. He’s a run stopper. You put on the tape and he’s tough to move. He anchored the Alabama run defense from the nose after switching from end. He’s all upper body power. In a 1v1 situation he really excels at holding his ground and limiting the inside run. Time and time again Alabama could rely on Williams to do his job.

But when you actually sit down to study his tape, he doesn’t do a great deal other than excel in a 1v1 situation versus the run. He gets stuck on blocks far too much which really limits his ability to get into the backfield. There are times where he shows very good footwork and hands to get away from a block, force the runner to change direction and dive into traffic. These are few and far between though. He’s occasionally disruptive but never really a difference maker. He is not a pass rusher. Not yet, anyway.

We’re not talking about a fantastic athlete here — and I don’t think Williams would necessarily mind anyone saying that. He’s a worker, a grafter. He’s more perspiration than inspiration. Just an honest, salt of the earth defensive tackle who will turn up every week and put in a shift. He has a clear mean streak and an edge to his game. Teams won’t fancy running his way. They’ll probably have to do a bit of game planning, maybe double team him from time to time. But unfortunately they’re unlikely to be too concerned about his ability to crash the pocket.

Don’t get me wrong, there are substantial positives to having a guy like this on your team. I maintain that in short yardage and goal-line situations, I want Williams on the field. It’s going to be very difficult to run inside with Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Jesse Williams lining up next to each other. Seattle’s run defense seemed to get gradually weaker as the year went on and Williams’ addition helps in a big way.

But…. he isn’t going to rush the passer. And alongside the injury issues, that’s probably why he lasted until round five. I’m guessing teams weighed up the situation. He’s one-dimensional with medical concerns over his knee. That dropped his stock. Seattle might actually be the best fit for him. They’re a team that could use some depth and strength inside, but can live with the situation if he never plays a down. He’s versatile enough to play the one, three or five technique. His attitude and personality fits like a glove.

What we might see is Jordan Hill start in base, Michael Bennett used at the three on third down and in passing situations and Williams coming in to spell Hill and play some short yardage and goal-line. That would be a nice mix. Different fits for different scenarios.

For Williams to start full-time in Seattle he’ll probably need to see Hill struggle to create pressure. If it comes down to who is better versus the run with neither being great against the pass, Williams wins that battle. But I suspect the Seahawks believe Hill can be effective getting into the backfield (while being acceptable versus the run) adding a dimension to the defensive line that they lacked last year.

This was a solid pick in round five but I do understand why he fell — and I don’t think it was just the knee. To some teams the upside potential wasn’t really worth taking the chance. To Seattle, it clearly was. Even if Williams only ever offers light relief for the starters and solid run support, it’ll still be a good move. If he struggles to have an impact or the injuries play up, it really was no big gamble for this team. Working alongside Hill and Bennett this year, the Seahawks should be able to find a combination that works.

Jordan Hill: problem solver

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Jordan Hill is what the Seahawks need for their defense.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, considering they took him in the third round. How much did we talk about defensive tackle being a priority during the regular season? Every week? This pick wasn’t a reach or a desperate attempt to solve one of the few problem areas on the team. It was calculated, planned and inspired.

I’ve long been a fan of Hill’s, which is in part why I’m fairly positive about the pick. However, I wanted to go back and see what I’d actually written about Hill on the blog, before returning to the tape for a closer look. On January 29th I noted the following:

Out of all the players I’ve looked at so far, Penn State’s Jordan Hill is one of the players to keep an eye on in those mid-to-late rounds.

He’s 6-0 and 295lbs and plays with good leverage. If he gets a sniff of a gap he often takes advantage, using his speed to get into the backfield. In a 1v1 match-up he holds his own in the run game, holding his position with surprising power at the point of attack even against top offensive line opposition such as Wisconsin.

Hill’s a fighter — a relentless bundle of energy who defined his teams attitude last season. He chases outside of the tackle box, doesn’t give up on plays and often executes via the second effort. In the Senior Bowl he struggled a bit to generate pressure against a double team, but it was testament that the lineman even in that environment were consistently locking onto him and trying to shut him down. Although he didn’t challenge the quarterback against the double team, he more than held his own and managed to hold position. The Seahawks don’t have enough players on that defensive line right now that warrant a double team.

On February 14th after further tape review, I also wrote the following:

I cannot talk highly enough of this guy. He’s solid against the run despite a lack of pure size (6-0/6-1, 295lbs), he gets into the backfield to make plays and he’s got that little spark to his game that you want to see from a three technique.

Since the Seahawks drafted Jordan Hill, I’ve gone back to watch four Penn State games. You’ll find tape of two of the games below (vs Wisconsin, Iowa). The other two were Ohio State and Virginia from last season. You tend to watch a guy a little more closely when he’s going to be on the team. You look for ways in which he fills a need. I’m fairly confident Hill is the closest thing Seattle could find to the interior penetrator they needed. That’s without being in a realistic position to draft a guy like Sheldon Richardson.

I’m still not sure how the Seahawks intend to play their hand at defensive tackle. I’m not sure anyone is, because they have some options now. Clinton McDonald and Jaye Howard remain on the roster from last year. They signed Tony McDaniel in free agency and added Hill and Jesse Williams during the draft. They could rotate these guys to suit. Williams (who I’ve also watched more of since the weekend) is a one-dimensional player who offered very little pass rush in college. He was tough up the middle, difficult to move. In short yardage and goal-line situations he could be an asset. I’m not convinced he’ll offer any kind of pressure though, which is really what the Seahawks need inside.

To be more exact, they need a three technique. An orthodox three technique. A guy who isn’t completely hopeless against the run, but is quick enough to shoot a gap, force the guard or center into the pocket, get some pressure on the quarterback and move well laterally against the run. Hill ticks all of the boxes, which is why I think he’ll eventually win a starting job. He’s not an amazing athlete otherwise he’d have been going in the top-15 like Richardson. Yet the style of play is fairly similar. Even though Hill played a lot of one technique in college, he’s not merely a backup for Brandon Mebane. He can start at the three. And he can be disruptive.

Looking at the defensive line, they have the ability to use three different players at the LEO (Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril). They can double up with speed off the edge in an obvious passing situation. They can use Michael Bennett as a specialist three technique or power end. They say they’ll try Avril and Irvin at linebacker. There’s so much potential there, so many different looks to present to an offense.

The biggest difference maker for Seattle’s pass rush next year might be from the inside in base. On 1st and 10 at the 20, I don’t think they’re going to get too cute with a lot of foreign looks. I think we’ll see a LEO alongside Red Bryant, Mebane and another (probably Hill). We’ll see three linebackers on the field. Or maybe two linebackers and Antoine Winfield in the slot. Just my guess. For the last three years in this situation, the entire responsibility for a pass rush lay with the LEO (Clemons). While that position has been productive for the Seahawks, alone it hasn’t been the catalyst for a fearsome pass rush.

Increasing the amount of pressure in base will take this defense to another level. Being able to really get at a team early will enhance Seattle’s status as a contender. Too many times last year they came up against a lousy offensive line filled with stopgaps and never took advantage. Press from the inside, collapse the pocket and watch the speed at the LEO position dominate.

Bennett will probably come in on third down or in situations where the other team has to chase. That’s the finishing move. The clincher. There’s improvements to be had here too — third down defense wasn’t good enough at times in 2012. Winfield also gives that area a boost.

But focusing on Hill, he offers a real chance to solve the issues in base. Let’s look at the Iowa tape. Fast forward to 2:14 in the video below:

The first thing to highlight isn’t a pass rushing move, but it’s a fun play nonetheless. Notice how well he moves laterally to the left, disengaging one block, picking through the traffic and making the tackle on a running back for a loss. That’s dominating. Let me refer back to the Bill Walsh ideal for a three technique:

“You are looking for somebody who can move down the line of scrimmage and make a tackle, pursuing a ball-carrier. That would be lateral quickness in a short area, being able to get underway and move over and through people. If you get knocked off the line, or get knocked sideways or knocked off balance, you cannot play this position. You must be able to work your way through people, so that kind of strength is a must.”

At 2:25 he’s lined up over the center and knifes through the A-gap to collapse the pocket. He forced the quarterback to move (and fumble) forcing a turnover. This is what Seattle needs. This is what it wasn’t getting from a nose tackle masquerading as a three technique last year (Alan Branch).

You want to see some hands? Go to 3:04 and watch how he schools the Iowa guard to break into the backfield for a big sack. Lost amid all the forty times and drills at the combine is the benefit of quick, aggressive hands. Hill has them. He can play stout against the run (holds position well) but he also has the ability to get into a lineman and quickly disengage, before rushing the passer.

Hill’s not the biggest guy, but he’s well proportioned. He’s got a nice thick base and room to get even bigger up top (muscle, rather than bad weight). I think it’s actually a good thing that he’s only 6-0 and 290-300lbs. Size is important but Hill clearly gets leverage because he’s a little shorter, he’s slight enough to stay mobile but not too small that he gets dominated. I hate comparing him to the best defensive tackle in the NFL, but that’s the kind of thing that helps Geno Atkins be so successful. Hill isn’t Atkins, but they share some similar characteristics.

At 3:25 he faces a center/guard double team. The guard eventually breaks off to try and attack the second level, but as a pair they fail to drive Hill backwards. As noted in the January piece I wrote, he faced a lot of double teams at the Senior Bowl and see you it often in the Penn State tape. He was the primary focus for the offensive lineman he faced. Very few — including Wisconsin’s brutish line — managed to slow him down.

It’s not all positive, of course. In the Iowa tape you see him get pushed back at 3:41. I’m willing to take my chances on that. There are going to be plays where he gets caught a little off balance and can’t recover. You can’t win every battle. But in the four games I’ve watched since the draft, I feel very comfortable about Hill’s ability to have an impact for this team and potentially solve a pretty big problem for the Seahawks. Only two other defensive tackles went off the board before Seattle took Jesse Williams in the fifth round (Brandon Williams, Akeem Spence). I’d argue they took Hill in just the right spot, from a value stand point and in terms of availability and need. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been there in the late fourth.

Seahawks fans should be excited about this pick.

The video below is of the Wisconsin game, always worth a watch:

The St. Louis Rams draft class of 2013

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

In a couple of ways, Tavon Austin's controversy reminds me of Russell Wilson's

Much like the San Francisco 49ers, the St. Louis Rams were highly active movers on draft day and drafted mostly “big name” prospects.  Of the Rams’ seven selections, only two of them were originally owned by the Rams.  The pick used to get Tavon Austin was originally owned by the Bills before the Rams struck a deal to move up.  That deal also involved swapping 3rd round picks.  The Rams traded down from #22 and acquired three picks from Atlanta (and gave up a 2015 7th rounder).  The Rams traded their final two picks (both in the 6th round- one of them from Atlanta) for the Texans’ 5th rounder.

The Seahawks drafted 11 players, 4 of which I had never heard of before and 3 of which I was only faintly aware of.  I recognized every player the Rams drafted.  I think any fan that follows the draft decently well probably would recognize most of their picks.  Drafting big names is a great way to earn draft day awards in the media but isn’t a particularly good long term indicator, as the Arizona Cardinals have proven for years.  Big name players like Barrett Jones, Jesse Williams, Quinton Patton, and Ryan Swope dropped into the later rounds for a good reason, a reason that all 32 teams agreed to as evidenced by not drafting them.  Jesse Williams has 1st round talent, but that does not guarantee that he’s a 5th round steal.  There’s more to it than that.  Just because you recognize a lot of the names drafted, don’t be fooled.  Seattle’s best late round picks in the current regime were all players that made fans say “who?” on draft day.

There is a growing sentiment that Seattle’s long term adversary is not the 49ers, but the Rams.  I find that idea more than a little dismissive of a massively talented 49ers team, but I get it.  The Rams were tied for the NFL lead in sacks last year, they play very tough defense, and they almost went undefeated in the division last year.

But just as important, the Rams have something the 49ers and Seahawks do not have:  areas for potentially significant improvement.  Sam Bradford’s career passer rating is almost identical to Christian Ponder’s.  The Rams offensive line has never truly solidified.  They had an over-the-hill and perhaps unmotivated running back as the focal point of their offense last year.  The Rams best receiver was well below the NFL median in yards per target, could never stay healthy, and departed in free agency.  Yet despite all those issues, the Rams offense last season still somehow ranked 15th in Football Outsiders metrics (The Seahawks ranked 1st, amazingly.  No team threw fewer passes last year than the Seahawks).

Add a couple of playmaking receivers, solidify the offensive line, upgrade the running back spot, and suddenly the Rams offense becomes a group that could surprise people.  The team added Jake Long in free agency to pair with Roger Saffold.  They’ll have last year’s late round steal Daryl Richardson compete with this year’s hopeful steal:  Zac Stacy.  Either one would likely be an upgrade over what Steven Jackson gave them last year.  They drafted two of the best receivers in the draft.  They also signed the physically talented tight end Jared Cook.

The media got it wrong.  The NFC West “arms race” wasn’t between Seattle and San Francisco.  It was between Seattle and St. Louis.

Thankfully, the Rams have invested quite a bit around a quarterback that has been below average in his first three seasons.  Bradford has only thrown 4 total touchdowns in 6 starts against Seattle; throwing an interception in all six contests.  He managed just six points against Seattle’s 32nd ranked defense in 2010 (Football Outsiders weighted defense), dropping what would have been a division winning, playoff clinching 6-16 contest.  Bradford was out-dueled that night by Charlie Whitehurst.

The moves the Rams have made are impressive, though it reminds me of buying a lemon on the used car lot.  You might think you got a deal at first, but the car repair bills quickly add up and you end up with a vehicle that is both expensive and undependable, built around a faulty core.  You’d expect Bradford to improve statistically next season, but don’t expect miracles.  We know what Bradford is and isn’t.  He isn’t an elite quarterback, but I could see him being elevated to average with a better supporting cast.

Imagine the Rams with RG3.  Most people might react to that by saying it’s unfair to expect the Rams to have been such radical forward thinkers in 2012.  But in today’s NFL, you have to be a radical forward thinker to be the best.  If Griffin can learn to protect his body and refine himself as a pocket passer, I suspect many people will question the Rams making that trade in a few years time.  The Rams got a long list of talented players in return, but so did the Browns when they dealt the pick that turned into Julio Jones.

The Rams 2013 draft:

Round 1:  Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Round 1:  Alec Ogletree, LB, Geogia
Round 3:  T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Round 3:  Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
Round 4:  Barrett Jones, G, Alabama
Round 5:  Brandon McGee, CB, Miami
Round 5:  Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt

My least favorite cliche during the 2013 draft:  “Tavon Austin is just another Dexter McCluster.”  This has been repeated by even some very intelligent football minds.  I get the basis for it.  They compare Austin to McCluster because of usage.  I still think it’s a bullshit comparison.

Dexter McCluster ran an official 4.58 at the 2010 NFL combine.  This time was considered a “head scratcher” by people that assume you must be fast if you returned kicks for touchdowns in college and made the occasional defender miss.  An observer with a keen eye could have told you before that combine that McCluster would run close to a 4.60.  On tape he wasn’t exploding for big runs, and he wasn’t separating from pursuers.  He’d make guys miss and all that, but he had precious little room for error.

Contrast that with Austin, who ran a smooth 4.34 at his combine (including a couple of unofficial times in the 4.2s) and has Barry Sanders type moves in the open field.  John Schneider believes that longer arms improve a player’s forty time in coverage.  In a similar sense, I’d argue that making defenders miss without dropping many MPH is an enhancing factor for speed on offense.  Barry Sanders is not the fastest player in NFL history (among those faster:  Tavon Austin).  What Barry Sanders can claim is that he was the NFL’s most elusive runner of all time.  I think Austin’s speed and elusiveness is in the same discussion with Barry Sanders.  Comparing him to Dexter McCluster, from an athleticism perspective, is ridiculous.  If you are itching for a McCluster comp, set your cross-hairs on Ace Sanders instead.

Austin will play in the slot for the Rams and could move around the formation ala Percy Harvin.  Austin probably won’t rush for over 300 yards in a game like he did against the Oklahoma Sooners last season, but I’m sure the Rams will experiment in various ways.  I do not think Austin is some kind of specialist.  I don’t think NFL teams think that either.  You don’t draft Dexter McCluster type specialists in the top 10 picks, and the Rams were not the only team to consider doing so.

I think the most compelling counter argument against Tavon Austin is the one Rob made comparing him to DeSean Jackson.  Both Austin and Jackson have nearly identical speed and both are excellent “moves” runners with outstanding instincts.  Jackson isn’t particularly durable and might not be the biggest competitor.  That’s where I see the difference.  The next bone crushing hit I see Austin take will be the first.  He has a great sense for avoiding contact and sensing danger over the middle.  I think as long as Sam Bradford has the sense to not hang Austin up to dry, he should be fine.  Press him at the line?  How’d that work for Seattle against small, ultra quick receivers such as Danny Amendola and Wes Welker last season?  Austin is a big time competitor too and I think that probably played a role in the Rams’ decision to also draft Stedman Bailey.

Ultimately, I’ve always viewed Austin as a top ten talent in a small body.  I figured that his stature would drop him into the 2nd round from the same kind of size bias that hurt Russell Wilson last year.  With Wilson you heard a lot of people saying that he’d only be a backup in the NFL, as if to suggest that height wouldn’t be a problem if he only played in short stretches of the season.  I always thought that was odd.  With Austin, you have people suggesting he can’t be a full time player because of his size, even though there are already full time players at his size in the NFL.

I can’t promise that Austin will be a megastar.  He was more of an attraction than a foundational piece even in college.  He was more flash than pure production.  I could very easily see Stedman Bailey beating Austin in yardage, as Bailey did in 2012.  That said, I do think it’s very likely that Austin will be the Rams version of CJ Spiller, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson or DeSean Jackson: he may not be a rock in the offense, but he’ll get them cheap points when they desperately need them and help them win games that they wouldn’t have won otherwise.

Further, Seattle has struggled against ultra quick players in the recent past.  Seattle’s secondary is not designed to counter them.  Reggie Bush, CJ Spiller, Stevie Johnson, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Titus Young (who had just 383 yards last season but had 100 against us), Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, and Brandon Marshall.  Those were the skill position players who gave Seattle’s defense the most trouble last season.  Gore struggled in his second meeting.  Peterson and Marshall dominated the entire league and Seattle was no different.  The rest were ultra quick players who enjoyed enhanced success against our defense or were consistently productive week to week and were not slowed by our big defensive backfield.

If players like those are a pain for our defense to handle, imagine Austin.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Austin had his two best games of the 2013 season against Seattle.

Some might argue that Austin isn’t worth the investment the Rams made.  Even as someone who thinks Austin is undervalued by many, I understand that argument.  However, the Rams are gunning for the top of the division, and to do so they must build a team capable of exploiting the weaknesses of the alpha franchise.  The Rams already seem to have the 49ers’ number somehow.  Now they just need to solve the Seahawks.  Austin is a potent tool in their arsenal to that end.

Alec Ogletree wasn’t the athlete we thought he’d be when he tested at the NFL Combine, and he lost fans when deeper tape study revealed a player who shies from contact and lacks natural instincts.  Ogletree has a Kam Chancellor type build but otherwise they are nothing alike.  I didn’t like the value with this choice either, as Arthur Brown is at least arguably a better prospect and he went a full round later.  Alec Ogletree also had an arrest for DUI during the week of the NFL Combine, which whispers Koren Robinson levels of poor judgement.  I think the Rams are in for an unpleasant surprise with this pick.

TJ McDonald was a bit like the Rams’ version of our Jordan Hill pick.  Both have modest measurables and on paper should only be NFL average starters, but both have a lot of polish and effort which makes them strong candidates to be NFL over-achievers.  McDonald sometimes lacks in the physicality department, but he has good instincts in run support and his man-coverage skills were a bit of an eye-opener for me when I gave him a second look.  He almost reminds me of a safety version of Bobby Wagner.  I doubt McDonald makes a pro-bowl in his career, but I could see him being one of those good component players that slips under the national radar.

A technician at receiver who is almost indistinguishable from Robert Woods or a young Bobby Engram, Stedman Bailey was one of the bigger steals in the draft  when the Rams took him in the 3rd round.  Bailey is one of the draft’s best receivers at making his first cut.  He runs smooth routes, has dependable hands and has a nose for the endzone after the catch.  He’s sticks to his blocks well.  He has the tools to continue being a very good possession receiver in the NFL.  It wouldn’t shock me if he proved to be more of a core piece in the offense than his West Virginia teammate.

Someone who’s thoughts I often borrow compared John Moffitt’s blocking style to a forklift.  When I watch Barrett Jones, I see that same exact trait.  Jones is always pushing the defender’s pads up with his arms in pass protection, and relies on similar technique in the running game.  Jones might be slightly below the NFL average as an athlete and chooses to win with technique instead.  I like Moffitt more than most, and I’d consider him to be NFL average; he’s a player who narrowly avoids disaster often and who makes touchdown springing blocks with no margin for error to spare.  Moffitt came from a team that’s an NFL lineman factory.  Barrett Jones is the same story.

As John Schneider would say, Brandon McGee “tested well.”  His results across the board were on the better side of the combine median for corners, with the exception of arm length and broad jump, and neither were bad scores.  Only four corners ran a better forty time and all four went much earlier than McGee did.  McGee’s ten yard split was the best among the entire corner group.

It is a bit of a challenge to watch McGee’s finesse style of play, frequent use in loose man coverages, and lack of ball hawking tendencies and not think about Kelly Jennings.  The fact that McGee wears #21 and played for the Miami Hurricanes probably isn’t helping matters.

Another 5’8″ running back, Zac Stacy continues a trend among our NFC West rivals of adding short running backs.  Stacy weighs just four pounds less than Chistine Michael and both were among the running back leaders on the bench press with 27 reps.  Stacy has NFL average speed, but makes up for it with just about everything else.  He reminds me quite a bit of “complete” college running backs like Chris Polk or Cierre Wood.  Good pick.

Stacy, McGee, and Jones all profile as NFL average players.  I think Bailey will end up as an above average possession receiver.  McDonald is a bit of a Tim Ruskell type defender.  I think he’ll help that team as long as he remains cheap.  Ogletree is the big risk in a draft full of safe picks.  Tavon Austin will be more of a pest than a foundational piece, though unfortunately I think that’s enough for the Rams to present a problem in future head to head matches.

Overall impression:

If you just want starters and reps, I’d probably nominate the Rams as having the best draft in the NFC West, based on what I can determine at this stage.  All seven picks are pretty likely to make the Rams’ roster and I could see several of them starting in 2013.

That said, other than Austin at the top, very little about this draft worries me.  The Rams’ draft is tilted towards safe picks and not upside selections, and the Rams aren’t going to catch the Seahawks by bunting the runner to 3rd base.  Drafting for safer, less dynamic players was a bit of a trend for the Rams last year too, and it shouldn’t be surprising that their best pick was the riskiest one they made (a pick I really liked for the Rams, as I thought Jenkins was clearly the draft’s best corner and character concerns are often blown out of proportion during draft season).  If the Rams want to catch Seattle, they must strive for more than a roster that settles for average starters at most positions.