Archive for January, 2014

Instant reaction: Seahawks win, one game from the Super Bowl

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Marshawn Lynch dragged Seattle's offense to victory

Well, nobody said it’d be easy.

For three quarters, it kind of was.

But that fourth quarter…. dragged from the depths of hell…. brought to earth to torture Seahawks fans.

A great big poke in the eye, lasting about 40 minutes.

Would the top seed in the NFC choke?

They just about held their nerve.

Just.

When you break it down, Seattle was comfortable for a lot of the game and it was unrealistic to expect the Saints to go quietly into the off-season.

The Seahawks needed to rally and got the job done. Any criticism here is intended to be constructive with absolute appreciation for what this team achieved today.

Let’s start at the top.

One of the big reasons the Saints put themselves in a hole is the way they tried too hard to be something they’re not.

Jimmy Graham jawed at the defense in pre-game, before a lousy one-catch, wet fart of a performance.

They tried to act tough. Prove to Seattle they weren’t going to be a push over. That they could play this brand of football.

And yet it’s when they finally put the ball in Drew Brees’ hands and asked him to make plays, that they came surprisingly close to snatching victory from a losing position.

This is one advantage Seattle has. They know what they are, and they never try to be anything else. They don’t waste time with gimmicks during the week. They get on with the job.

The Saints tried to be something they’re not. That’s a big no-no for teams like San Francisco and the Seahawks.

New Orleans are a finesse passing team who make big plays with an elite quarterback. That formula has won them a Super Bowl.

Today they should’ve just been the Saints.

I know the weather was shocking and not conducive to passing football early on. But even so — it took them an age to get Brees into a rhythm.

Their best chance to win today was a fantastic performance by the quarterback. They fought that too much.

Having said all that, you could argue New Orleans only had a shot because Seattle’s offense was frustratingly ineffective.

Marshawn Lynch ran well. But he can’t do it alone. The passing game is struggling and it’s a concern.

Russell Wilson — for whatever reason — has become an edgy, inaccurate quarterback who gets flustered too easily.

Against San Francisco, New York, Arizona and St. Louis — it was understandable. All four teams — including the Giants — were playing good defense. Three of those teams sport elite units.

Wilson struggling a little wasn’t a shock.

Yet when he played the Saints in week 13, he was sublime. He gashed them. Today it was a totally different story.

On basic inside slants he was all over the place. Throwing behind, throwing wide. For what is such a high percentage play, Wilson made it look difficult.

At 16-8 and with the Seahawks trying to respond after New Orleans’ first score — he missed a wide open Doug Baldwin downfield and tried to run instead, coming up a yard short on third down.

He has to make that play. Has to.

Nobody should overreact and Wilson is a terrific quarterback, but he’s picking a bad time to have a cold streak.

At least when he needed a big play to Doug Baldwin, he made it on the late third down.

Good throw, better catch.

I also took something else out of today. And you know I’m serious, because I’m putting it in caps.

SEATTLE NEEDS A BIG, TALL RECEIVER WHO MAKES PLAYS ON THIRD DOWN AND IN THE RED ZONE

This is the teams #1 need by a country mile. It was never more evident today.

In the red zone series where Harvin suffered his game-ending injury, Wilson tried to throw twice. This is classic fade territory. Drop back, throw it into the corner and get your big target to try and make a play.

The only thing is, there’s no receiver on the field bigger than 6-1 and 209lbs.

So instead, Wilson is scrambling around hoping someone gets open.

Nobody did.

It wasn’t just the red zone. The Seahawks had an absolute shocker on third down again, going 5/14.

How good would it be to have a guy with some size in there? Throw it up. Let him go after it. Watching Marques Colston make a couple of conversions late on was tough. The Seahawks need a body like that on offense.

The passing game is becoming very precise, when it’s set up to be explosive.

Wilson ended with 9/18 passing and 103 yards. It didn’t cost the team and Lynch ran the ball well enough to put some points on the board. Next week, however, I suspect he’ll have to do more with the weapons he has.

I still believe he’s a better quarterback than Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. But those two, especially Kaepernick, are making plays at the moment.

Wilson doesn’t take chances like Kaepernick did last week. He gave Green Bay a couple of big opportunities, including a dropped pick-six late on. He responded well, stepping up when it mattered and winning the game on the road.

It helps having Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis to throw to. It’s the one area San Francisco is far superior to the Seahawks.

Wilson needs a receiver like any of that trio.

It’s perhaps reassuring that no quarterback like Brees is still around in the NFC. Even on what was mainly an off-night, he can put up 300 yards in a flash. I doubt we see that next week.

He also had a bit of fortune and that has to be remembered.

Kam Chancellor dropped one easy pick. Earl Thomas collided with Byron Maxwell on another should-be interception that ended up in a 52-yard fluke catch-and-run for Robert Meachem.

He had a chance to tie with seconds remaining only after Golden Tate muffed an onside kick (how are the Saints 3/3 on those by the way??).

It should’ve never got as far as it did. So Seattle must’ve done something right (and they did).

All that really matters is they’re one game away from the Super Bowl.

And despite some of the issues today — Marshawn Lynch is back to playing like an elite runner and the defense continues to be legit.

Some other notes:

– The offensive line played very well and made some huge blocks in the run game. Michael Bowie looked sharp at left guard. Is he the future at left guard? Breno Giacomini had a big day.

– James Carpenter being a healthy scratch was interesting. If he’s cut in the off-season, Seattle could make enough of a saving to keep Giacomini. That could be more important if Bowie’s future is at guard.

– Did I mention Seattle should draft a big receiver? Oh I did?

– Percy Harvin is a legendary flirt. Today was so tantalising. He took a sweep for nine yards and exploded. He made a great leaping catch to convert a third down. But he’s an elite playmaker in a body made of bone china. Seattle lacked any kind of spark when he left the game.

– Sacks can be a phony statistic. According to the box score, New Orleans sacked Russell Wilson three times. From memory, all three were scrambling runs that came up barely short of the line of scrimmage. It’s one of the main reasons why we can’t pay too much attention to stat-based ranking systems.

– What was up with the read option today? Wilson can’t keep handing it off to Lynch or teams won’t buy it. The threat of the quarterback keeping it has to exist for it to work. Maybe New Orleans played it brilliantly this time, I’ll have to watch it again.

– I didn’t see a hold on the big Robert Turbin run by any of the offensive linemen. Some people say Luke Willson held, but the ref’s put in on Giacomini who actually had a terrific block to seal the edge.

– The tight ends were quiet today. Zach Miller had one catch for 11-yards. Neither he or Willson were a big part of the passing game it seemed.

– The pass rush came close to getting five sacks today. Instead they recorded one. On one play Brees eluded a sack by virtually standing still. On other occasions it seemed like he was a finger nail away from being tackled. Just one of those days, I guess.

– The run defense appeared to have some issues against basic formations like 22 personnel. The Saints did a great job blocking the edge and regularly got chunks of yardage. That’s an area for work this week. Seattle’s run defense had been good for the last few weeks.

– Bobby Wagner, apart from a needless 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, had an insane game.

– There were two moments where you kind of thought ‘typical Seattle sports’. The fluke Meachem grab and the onside kick. It’d be nice not to have any of those moments next week.

Whether it’s Carolina or San Francisco in the NFC Championship game, it’ll be a war. Two teams who will play tough defense and run the ball.

Seattle is a home game away from the Super Bowl, a position they’ve only been in once before.

And it doesn’t matter how they got to that position.

The only thing that matters is they’re there.

Seahawks know this is their time, their opportunity

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

How big is this opportunity?

Real big.

And extremely rare.

The Philadelphia Eagles were the NFC’s #1 seed for three consecutive seasons between 2002 and 2004.

In the nine seasons that followed, no team has ever repeated as #1.

Home field advantage is not common. As good as the Seahawks are, it’ll be incredibly difficult to repeat what happened this year.

Jim Harbaugh has been with the Niners for three seasons. They’ve gone 13-3, 11-4-1 and 12-4 and never been the #1 seed.

That’s crazy.

Winning the NFC West is not going to get any easier. With each team getting gradually stronger, it’s going to become harder and harder to put together a 12-14 win season.

That’s why this is such a rare opportunity.

It’s taken eight years for the Seahawks to get back to top spot. To be in a position where they’re two home games away from the Super Bowl.

That is a dream scenario for this team. And now it’s reality.

Making the most of it? That’s the hard part.

Seattle has already beaten the three remaining NFC playoff teams.

They defeated tomorrow’s opponents, New Orleans, handsomely in week 13. They demolished San Francisco in week 2. They ground out a tough road win in Carolina to open the season — a victory that’s often overlooked.

All they have to do is play two solid games to make it to the big one. Limit the mistakes. Hit some big plays. Run the football. Play good defense.

The things they’ve done most weeks for the last two years.

If it only it were that simple.

At a time when the city’s baseball team consistently underwhelms and the basketball team is playing in Oklahoma — Paul Allen, Pete Carroll, John Schneider, this team and the rest of the staff have given people a reason to believe.

Today Seattle is filled with Seahawks jersey’s, flags bearing 12. Nobody is working. Everybody is talking about football.

What an opportunity.

What a chance to provide a lifetime of memories.

And all they have to do is play two solid home games, for a shot at immortality.

If only it were that simple.

The Saints are a good football team. They have an elite quarterback. And while they haven’t travelled particularly well in recent weeks, they are a very dangerous opponent.

Maybe even Seattle’s most dangerous opponent.

San Francisco and Carolina play extremely good defense. They run the ball. They have playmaking quarterbacks who are a real threat on the move.

But Colin Kaepernick has struggled badly in his two starts at Century Link. He hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm, he’s forced passes, the atmosphere has knocked off his timing and he’s made mistakes.

I suspect Cam Newton will find it equally as tough. He shares some of Kaepernick’s qualities, but also some of his weaknesses.

Poise isn’t necessarily a characteristic you’d pin on either player. Not that they haven’t stepped up in some big games this year — because they have.

Yet in Seattle, you have to take it to another level.

Drew Brees has been in these types of situations. He’s played — and won — in this stadium. His victory here, funnily enough, was against the odds on a winless Saints team.

And while New Orleans’ defense isn’t scary in the slightest, the offense can score points.

The Seahawks don’t want this to be a shoot out. If they can control the scoring, they’ll fancy their chances to out-last their opponent. If the Saints ask a few questions by scoring regularly, it could be too close for comfort.

Brees is the x-factor here.

He has the potential to avoid getting flustered, to make key plays, to fight through the noise.

He is dangerous.

And yet it’s still on the Seahawks to deliver.

If they play a good game on defense, Brees will struggle to avoid throwing another two picks — just like he has in New Orleans’ last three road games.

They should do a better job than the Eagles against the Saints run game.

The offense needs to be creative. I think New Orleans will — again — try to shut down the run. They limited Marshawn Lynch to under 50-yards last time. If that happens again, Wilson has to prove he’s as good as we all believe.

If the Seahawks play their brand of football, do their jobs — that should be enough.

And again… if only it were that simple.

Home field advantage in the NFC is rare.

Here’s the opportunity.

Go take it.

Kelvin Benjamin declares — seven receivers in round one?

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin officially declared for the draft today.

It’s not a total surprise. He had to re-sit two grades in school and will be a 23-year-old rookie. Time wasn’t on his side.

Having also won a National Championship this year, there was little reason to return to FSU.

We’ve talked a lot about Benjamin. Physically he’s incredible — 6-5, 235lbs and moves well for his size. It’s no wonder he was reportedly given a first round grade by the draft committee.

Yet there are major concerns.

The consistency part is a big one.

At times he looks great — ploughing through tackles, breaking off big plays and looking every bit a future #1 receiver.

But for every eye-catching touchdown — there’s a horrendous drop. A lousy effort. A sloppy route or a mental error.

This is the kind of thing I’m talking about…

Receiver is one of the positions in this game where you can’t afford to coast. You need to be switched on every play.

I’ll say it again — you need to be pissed off for greatness.

That’s where Benjamin falls short.

So we can crown him as a high pick for the athletic upside, but we need to counter that with the improvements he has to make to be a great player at the next level.

For me he’s a late first round pick or second round selection.

If he is a first rounder, he could be one of many.

Dan Pompei noted the following after discovering the news on Benjamin:

Potential first-round picks (7): Watkins, Lee, Evans, Allen Robinson of Penn State, Brandon Coleman of Rutgers, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.

It isn’t likely that all six, plus Benjamin now that he has declared, will go in the first. But each of them merits consideration according to at least one NFL front-office man. Watkins figures to go first in the top 10. Lee and Evans won’t be far behind. One high-ranking front-office man has Robinson pegged to go somewhere in the 15-20 range. Coleman is expected to go later in the first, said a national scout, and Cooks is a borderline first- or second-round prospect.

Personally I’d also throw Odell Beckham Jr into the first round mix (Pompei has him in round two).

Allen Robinson is a tough one to work out considering his role at Penn State where he was mostly used as a YAC specialist. Yet has the height and speed to be a more rounded receiver.

It’s reassuring to see others view Brandon Coleman the same way I do. If he is touted as a late first rounder, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be on Seattle’s radar.

Again — we need to consider the issues within the Rutgers offense before judging him too harshly.

Not many people can do what Coleman can do. With some technical coaching and a better quarterback, he could easily be another Josh Gordon.

Yes — he can make more of his height. He needs to do a better job of high pointing the football. This is teachable, though. What isn’t teachable is a 6-6, 220lbs receiver running away from defensive backs.

It’s a good year to go after after a wide out. And as things stand, that could be the best option for Seattle.

There’s going to be plenty of options.

Perhaps increasing the likelihood of a first round receiver is the diminishing number of offensive tackles on the market. Cameron Erving, La’el Collins and Cedric Ogbuehi all announced they wouldn’t be turning pro in 2014.

This should have a positive impact on players like Zach Martin and Antonio Richardson.

We’ll have the usual rush on offensive tackles early. But there are a lot of teams later on who need offensive linemen too (in particular Miami and Arizona). With the Seahawks guaranteed to pick between #28-32 overall, a lot of the top prospects will be long gone.

Perhaps this increases Seattle’s desire to keep Breno Giacomini? It’d take some doing, considering his +$4m salary in 2013. If he’s willing to compromise ($2.5-3m?), and they make savings elsewhere, they can make this a much less pressing concern.

Thoughts on Jace Amaro (TE, Texas Tech)

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve watched eight videos on Amaro now. It’s taken some time, but I’m starting to get a feel for what he’s about.

He kind of came from nowhere.

Last season he had 25 catches for 409 yards. This year he exploded for 106 grabs, 1352 yards and seven touchdowns. For a time he led the NCAA for receiving yards and finished at #11 overall. Eric Ebron was the only other tight end to crack the top 80 (#49).

For starters he’s not an incredible athlete who becomes an impossible mismatch. Unlike Ebron, he’s not going to take a short pass and run it 60-yards.

So yeah, Amaro is not the next Jimmy Graham/Jordan Cameron.

Jordan Reed ran a 4.72 at last years combine and Zach Ertz a 4.76. I have a hard time imagining Amaro topping that. In fact he could be in the 4.8’s like Gavin Escobar — who has a very similar frame but is probably a few pounds lighter.

He looks every bit a 260-265lbs player. He’s a big unit and might be able to improve his conditioning. I’d want to see if he can drop a few pounds personally.

Yet despite his size, Amaro has terrific body control. This is his biggest asset. He’ll work a defensive back or linebacker with smart route running — and he always seems to put himself in the best position to make a catch.

Against Kansas he pretty much sold the same play three times — a little corner route to the right side. Every single time he created 2-3 yards of separation purely on his control and polish as a route runner.

There are so many examples on tape where he just gets position, shields the defender and then it’s an easy throw and conversion.

He’s not a flawless hands catcher, but he’s solid. When you need a conversion on 3rd and 5, he’ll run a short route — get open — and he’ll make the play. He’s fairly consistent catching over the middle in traffic.

There’s value there. For teams that don’t have a massive receiver on the outside or a reliable slot guy, a good tight end who gets open underneath or on a quick throw will help you extend drives. Amaro did this regularly for Texas Tech in 2013.

I think he has better red zone qualities than we see in the college tape. His ability to get open in tight spots will be a real problem for defenses close in. Even if he doesn’t emulate his monster yardage stats at the next level, I suspect he’ll be a regular scorer in the right offense.

I’d love to see him getting some back shoulder fades, some little outside whips and quick hitting inside slants.

Having said that, the physical limitations put me off a little bit if we’re talking about the first round and in particular for the Seahawks.

In that range I want a tight end I can line up outside as a pure receiver and win jump balls. I want a player who runs down the seam and can take a catch 15-20 yards before he’s brought down.

Essentially, I want something akin to the Gronk if I’m going all-in with a first rounder.

A lot of average tight ends have entered the league because they’re a bit bigger and run a 4.6. I want a difference maker. A special player.

Ebron has as much potential as any college tight end in recent years and should be a top-20 pick as a consequence. Austin Seferian-Jenkins has flashed Gronk-like talent and if he really rams home the conditioning side, he can be that type of player.

Amaro, funnily enough, reminds me more of Zach Miller. Similar body, similar pass catcher. Amaro will need to work on his blocking but all young tight ends do.

There is tape of him running downfield, breaking tackles and making plays. West Virginia had a torrid time against him but their defense has been suspect for a while. When he does make a big gain he’s more of a 20-yard catcher — just slipping into the secondary and getting into a nice zone.

Again, he’s a savvy route runner and knows how to find open space.

It’ll be interesting to see how he compares to Ebron and ASJ athletically — to see if I’m right and if they mark up better. There are teams in the back end of the first round who will be considering drafting a tight end. He might be better placed as an early second round selection.

Escobar was the 15th pick in round two last year but lacked Amaro’s control, consistent catching ability and conversion rate on 2nd/3rd down. They’re similar athletically, but it’s probably good for 10-15 slots on draft day that he’s already a much more reliable target.

Personally I’d rather swing for the fences. I suspect ASJ is a more dynamic athlete than people realise and he’ll be in the best shape of his life for the combine. Ebron will be long gone by Seattle’s pick.

If they decide to save money on Zach Miller’s contract and go for a tight end in the first frame — I’d lean towards going after Seferian-Jenkins before Amaro. Get Tom Cable working on his blocking — get him in the best possible shape. You could end up with an excellent all-round tight end who doesn’t just do a good job in protection, but also makes big plays too — including some lined up outside.

Having said all that — and we’ve talked a lot about tight ends this week — I still think it’d be more beneficial to pick up a big, tall receiver who can eventually develop into a true #1.

It’s all about what’s on the board. If there simply aren’t any receivers who fit that description worthy of a first round grade, you have to look at other options that can have a similar impact.

Updated mock draft: 8th January

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Johnny Manziel declared for the draft today -- could he be the #1 pick?

There are a couple of early trades this year that make a ton of sense.

Last year we experimented with ‘trade’ mocks and it’s something I intend to do again. Why not have a play around instead of churning out the same thing over and over again?

This week I’ve included just a couple of moves — right at the top.

Houston and St. Louis have both made it abundantly clear they want to deal down.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise.

The Texans don’t have a pressing need for a brilliant pass rusher like Jadeveon Clowney — they already have the best in the league. They do need a quarterback, but theoretically they could trade down and still get the QB they really want.

The Rams say they’re sticking with Sam Bradford. They also don’t need a pass rusher with Robert Quinn and Chris Long two of the best around. They can move down and still get an offensive tackle — the position most people expect them to target.

It really does make absolute sense for both teams to find a trade partner — and this year there could be some takers.

I can see three or four teams talking themselves into needing Johnny Manziel. He’s the best playmaker in the draft, the most exciting quarterback available and even if he defies convention — teams shouldn’t be scared off by that any more.

(see: Russell Wilson)

Would Houston take Manziel at #1? Very possible. But I just get the sense Bill O’Brien wants a more orthodox passer. It’s what he’s used to working with. Big, tall quarterbacks who can sling it from the pocket.

Maybe I’m wrong there? I’m just guessing. But I think a lot of people believe Blake Bortles will be O’Brien’s guy. It just seems like a good fit. And he’s well aware of him after UCF’s 34-31 victory at Penn State in September, where Bortles completed 74% of his passes and scored three touchdowns.

If a team like the Browns, for example, are pining for Manziel — it’s time to make a trade. It might not include the two first rounders owned by Cleveland, but some sort of package makes sense and probably suits both teams.

That way Houston gets the player they want at #4 with some extra draft stock included for good measure. Cleveland leapfrogs not only the Jaguars — who could show interest in Manziel — but also the Rams, who would almost certainly be fielding calls from teams looking to draft Manziel.

After firing the old front office for failing to make a deal for Robert Griffin III, Cleveland’s brain trust might be a bit more aggressive here.

If Jadeveon Clowney is still on the board at #2 — St. Louis suddenly is in a strong position. We have to assume he won’t get past Jacksonville at #3.

Teams like Atlanta at #6 and Minnesota at #8 are likely to be in the market for a pass rusher. Oakland, Tampa Bay and Tennessee could also be interested.

If any of them want Clowney badly enough, they’ll pick up the phone.

The Rams could move down a few spots, grab some stock (let’s say an extra second rounder) and still land an offensive tackle like Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson.

In both scenarios it’s win-win.

Since the new CBA kicked in we haven’t seen quite as much movement as we expected, aside from the blockbuster RGIII deal.

This might be the year where it really takes off.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see the #1 pick dealt for the first time in a long time?

It’s something worth discussing anyway.

TRADE #1 Johnny Manziel (QB, Cleveland)
The Browns trade places with Houston and get the best playmaker in the draft.
TRADE #2 Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina)
The Falcons need a stud on defense. They’re also no stranger to a big trade. This makes a ton of sense.
#3 Anthony Barr (DE, UCLA)
Gus Bradley could use a great edge rusher. I have my doubts about Barr, but physically he has a ton of upside.
#4 Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)
After trading down a few spots, Bill O’Brien gets the quarterback that best suits his offensive scheme.
#5 Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
He could shoot up boards after the combine. Oakland also needs a quarterback and should target one at the top of round two.
#6 Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M)
The Rams can afford to move down and still get one of the top offensive tackles on the board.
#7 Greg Robinson (T, Auburn)
Fantastic prospect. Elite athletic qualities. Looks like a complete stud. He’s a better prospect than Matthews for me.
#8 Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville)
The Vikings will be pretty fortunate if one of the top three quarterbacks falls into their lap.
#9 Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M)
The more I watch Evans, the more convinced I am he’s a top ten pick and a true #1 receiver.
#10 Marqise Lee (WR, USC)
Just a really good, competitive football player. Would look great alongside Megatron.
#11 Cyrus Kouandjio (T, Alabama)
Kouandjio and Robinson are the top two tackles for me. If he lasts this long it’d be a steal.
#12 Tyler Lewan (T, Michigan)
Solid if unspectacular tackle prospect. Just a good, honest football player.
#13 Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State)
The Rams could use another corner and Dennard looks like the best in this class.
#14 Ra’Shede Hageman (DT, Minnesota)
He will dominate at the Senior Bowl and secure a place in the top-20 next May.
#15 Antonio Richardson (T, Tennessee)
Massive tackle prospect. Could be the next Anthony Davis, minus the outspoken Tweets.
#16 Khalil Mack (LB, Buffalo)
I’m not completely sold on Mack, but the Ravens have a lot of needs including adding another pass rusher.
#17 Louis Nix (DT, Notre Dame)
He’s not dominated in 2013 and it’s a concern. Has he added too much bad weight?
#18 Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
Modern day tight end. Would provide a much needed weapon for the Jets offense.
#19 Cedric Ogbuehi (T, Texas A&M)
Reports say he’ll stay at A&M for another year. If he chooses to declare he’ll likely be a first rounder.
#20 Cameron Erving (T, Florida State)
Converted defensive lineman. Having a good year. Might not turn pro this year but we’ll wait and see.
#21 C.J. Mosley (LB, Alabama)
Green Bay’s defense badly needs an upgrade. Mosley would be a nice presence at inside linebacker.
#22 Brent Urban (DE, Virginia)
Chip Kelly likes defenders with length and speed.
#23 Jace Amaro (TE, Texas Tech)
A difficult one to work out. Just how athletic is he? There’s no doubting his reliable hands.
#24 Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State)
He’s had a productive year. I’ve only seen one of his games but came away impressed
#25 Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State)
Roby didn’t have a great 2013 season but I’m a believer.
#26 Odell Beckham Jr (WR, LSU)
Could provide a dynamic double threat with Josh Gordon.
#27 Xavier Su’a-Filo (G, UCLA)
Big upside prospect with his best years ahead.
#28 Brandon Coleman (WR, Rutgers)
Huge upside, could be another Josh Gordon. Bill Belichick loves to draft Rutgers’ players.
#29 Kelvin Benjamin (WR, Florida State)
I’m not a huge fan. Too inconsistent. But he’s the big bodied wide out Carolina currently lacks.
#30 Zack Martin (T/G, Notre Dame)
I really, really like this guy. He can play tackle in the NFL for me. Top-20 grade.
#31 Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Washington)
Earlier this week I wrote about why this could be an option. Big, orthodox tight end who can make plays.
#32 Vic Beasley (DE, Clemson)
Underrated speed rusher who can cause havoc in the backfield. Huge production in the last two years.

Top ten shaping up nicely

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Time permitting, I’m going to put out another mock tomorrow. And it’s starting to look like an interesting top ten this year.

More than one team is going to be pining for Johnny Manziel. Some will prefer the ‘safer’ bet of Teddy Bridgewater — while others will find some appeal in Blake Bortles’ physical upside.

Manziel is the real playmaker. The exciting prodigy who defies convention and may just have enough magic to lift a perennial struggler.

It’s going to be tough to work out which might see him that way. Some of the potential buyers are in the midst of appointing new coaches. The hires in Cleveland, Minnesota and Tennessee will give us a better indication of who might be willing to think outside of the box.

Bill O’Brien in Houston has roots within an orthodox passing offense and might prefer a more traditional pocket passer. Lovie Smith going to Tampa Bay should put the focus on defense and prove good news for Mike Glennon (who really deserves a shot to keep his starting role).

Cleveland is the one to monitor the closest. Their reported interest in Josh McDaniel is interesting. He has the same roots as O’Brien — yet when given the opportunity to draft his guy in Denver, he chose Tim Tebow.

Clearly he isn’t afraid of a challenge.

You can kind of see him embracing the idea of Manziel. The Browns — like the Raiders — need a lift. Whether that’s by taking a gamble on a talented yet flawed player remains to be seen.

They both need something — or someone — to believe in.

And it’s so enticing to consider the possibility of Manziel scrambling around and throwing downfield to Josh Gordon.

I’m almost certain he’ll go in the top ten — probably even the top five. Cleveland is just one possible home.

How the other two QB’s fit in will also be of some interest. Bridgewater will have his admirers — but is he more Sam Bradford than Andrew Luck or Cam Newton?

Teams who have suffered through poor quarterback play recently might appreciate a steady eddie, even if others favour the X-Factor of Manziel.

I think Bridgewater, more than Manziel or Bortles, needs to land on a team with a structure. He isn’t necessarily the type of guy to lift a franchise on his own — but like Alex Smith in Kansas City — he might be the glue that brings everything together.

That could appeal to the Texans, who have plenty of talent on offense (Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, DeAndre Hopkins).

I need to spend more time on Bortles (it’s not a big priority right now — Seattle has a QB). It’s hard not to admire his physical upside — the height, arm and mobility. But he also shows some of the same mental errors we see with Ryan Tannehill — limited reads, throwing blind, poor decisions and forcing too many throws.

Tannehill is a bit overrated for me. Mike Sherman — his former college coach and recently fired offensive coordinator — has taken a lot of the blame. It hasn’t helped playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

Yet the thought of Tannehill leading a team into a deep playoff run still seems fanciful.

He went #8 overall in 2012 and that seems like the kind of range Bortles will go. Teams are willing to invest in potential and Bortles passes the eye test. He’ll no doubt have a great off-season. And working in his favour will be the lack of options after he’s off the board.

I know a lot of people want to force Derek Carr into the first round, but I just don’t see it.

If the top three QB’s go in the top ten, that might be it for round one. Bortles might be seen as a last chance for some teams to come away with a quarterback they can build around.

Auburn’s brilliant offensive tackle Greg Robinson declared today. He’s better than all three of the offensive tackles who went in the top five a year ago. This year he could go as high as #2. He’s a stud — pure and simple. And a better overall prospect than Jake Matthews — who also seems assured of a place in the top ten.

It’s a deep year for offensive tackles and while it remains a premium position, we’re likely to see plenty going off the board early. Don’t rule out Cyrus Kouandjio as a top ten pick, even if he struggled in the Sugar Bowl. Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson is another player who could rise quickly.

We all know about Jadeveon Clowney — and he could be an option to go #1 overall if Houston finds a quarterback elsewhere.

Anthony Barr gets a lot of praise — he’s a great athlete but needs to make several technical improvements to warrant such a high investment. It still seems likely he’ll go early — there are some similarities to Dion Jordan, who was the #3 pick last year.

Then you have the top-tier receivers — and this is a great class as we’ve discussed. We’ll have to see if Mike Evans and Marqise Lee can crack the top-ten — but Sammy Watkins looks like a lock to go that early.

Possible top-ten players in the 2014 draft:

Jadeveon Clowney
Johnny Manziel
Greg Robinson
Sammy Watkins
Anthony Barr
Jake Matthews
Teddy Bridgewater
Blake Bortles
Mike Evans
Marqise Lee

Proposal: Seahawks could make TE a round one target

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Zach Miller, terrific player -- but possible sacrificial lamb?

Could drafting a tight end in round one actually be one of the most productive moves this team makes in 2014?

Let’s call it addition by subtraction.

You might have to cut one popular veteran as a consequence. But it could help you keep two or three others.

Let’s start by discussing Zach Miller.

Statistically he hasn’t put up big numbers in Seattle, despite signing a $34m contract in 2011.

In Oakland he was the #1 target in the passing game. He had 2268 receiving yards in his final three years with the Raiders — an average of 756 per season.

In his three years with the Seahawks so far, that production has halved. He has just 1016 yards and a single-season best of 396 in 2012.

It’d be easy to look at that and say it’s underwhelming. I’d argue strongly against that. It only takes a little digging to find out how unfair it’d be to compare those statistics.

For starters, his touchdown production is almost exactly the same. He has eight TD’s in three seasons with Seattle. He had nine scores in his final three years in Oakland.

So right off the bat, he’s no less of a scoring threat.

Here’s the difference in targets between the two three-year spells:

Oakland (2008-10) — 278 targets
Seattle (2011-13) — 153 targets

Clearly he has a different role these days. The Raiders made him a primary target. In Seattle, within a much more balanced attack, that isn’t the case.

He’s also been a key blocking force in a scheme he’s very familiar with. Let’s not underestimate how important that has been — particular during the 2011 and 2013 seasons when the Seahawks suffered multiple injuries at offensive tackle.

When called upon, Miller has been an extremely reliable safety net for Russell Wilson. I see no reason why that’ll change any time soon. He’s only just turned 28, so he has time on his side.

You can make a pretty strong case to argue Zach Miller has been a terrific addition to this team — even without the big stats to back it up.

There is a ‘but’, however…

Miller is far from an elite player. He isn’t a big time difference maker.

His contract suggests he should be.

The most expensive player on Seattle’s 2013 roster was — you guessed it — Zach Miller.

And it wasn’t  even close.

His $11m salary was $1.5m more expensive than #2 on the list — Russell Oking ($9.5m). Marshawn Lynch at #3 accounted for $2.5m LESS than Miller.

Rob Gronkowski’s cap hit in 2013 was $2.75m having recently signed an 8-year $55m mega-deal in New England. That steadily increases as you’d expect. Yet during the entire course of that contract, he doesn’t top Miller’s 2013 salary until 2019 ($11.25m cap hit) — the final year of the deal.

Even with Miller’s contract dropping to a $7m cap hit in 2014, he’ll still earn $1.6m more than Gronkowski next season.

As much as I appreciate the job he’s done in Seattle, his attitude and contribution to this young team — he’s simply earning far too much for a tight end who hasn’t topped 400 yards in three seasons.

In comparison, a tight end drafted in the #28-34 region could be expected to earn around $1.25m as a rookie and $1.5m as a second year player.

That’s a huge difference.

You can save $5m by cutting Miller ($7m cap hit, $2m in dead money). So you’re talking about a $4m overall saving by replacing him with one of the tight ends in this rookie class.

That’s money that could go towards keeping Golden Tate and/or Michael Bennett.

It really comes down to determining just how valuable you believe the 28-year-old is to the offense, compared to how effective a rookie can be as an immediate starter.

Would the production substantially decrease? Arguably not, given Miller had just 387 yards in 14 starts in 2013.

Would you miss his ability as a blocker? Absolutely, but not as much as you’ll miss Bennett rushing the passer or Tate making plays at receiver.

Can the rookie become a reliable safety net? Debatable.

Could you significantly upgrade the position within the four year rookie contract? Possibly — if you pick the right guy.

You’d have to expect some growing pains. But the Seahawks have shown they’re willing to go through that (see: Michael Robinson/Derrick Coleman — even if they eventually brought Robinson back).

We’ve spent the last few months discussing difficult cuts that are forthcoming. They’re unavoidable. Fan favourites are going to be moving on. It’s about keeping together the most important pieces of the puzzle (Wilson, Sherman, Thomas, Lynch) and filling in the gaps.

You could counter by arguing if you cut Miller, what guarantee is there that your guy will be sat there waiting in the back end of the first round?

Thankfully, there are insurance policies at hand.

Luke Willson has shown promise. Perhaps not enough promise to be a full-time starter next season, but at least enough to see his role expand in year two.

Fred Davis is likely to be a free agent. It went sour very quickly in Washington for Davis, but he has history with Pete Carroll and could be available for a bargain price.

Anthony McCoy will return to health — and I think he’s done at least enough to justify another camp if there aren’t any takers elsewhere.

You could go into the draft with all three on your roster and it wouldn’t break the bank. If you then draft a tight end in round one, just let the competition begin — keep three and cut the unlucky loser.

The Seahawks should be looking for a big target for Russell Wilson. Ideally that comes in the form of a tall receiver who can develop into a true #1.

Perhaps they see enough upside in Brandon Coleman or Kelvin Benjamin to justify an early pick?

Both have legitimate upside and #1 potential, but they also have serious technical improvements to make and would carry a degree of risk.

Are they first round picks? Some will think so, others won’t.

There will be options beyond the first round. Donte Moncrief, Cody Hoffman and Martavis Bryant could all be available later depending on how well they test.

Hey — I’m assuming Coleman and Benjamin won’t be there in round two. Stranger things have happened.

Really there’s nothing to stop the Seahawks going TE/WR in the first two rounds. Those hoping for offensive line depth won’t be happy, but making savings elsewhere (eg by cutting Rice, Clemons and Miller) will increase the chances of holding onto Breno Giacomini.

It won’t be a disaster (at least in my view) if James Carpenter, Alvin Bailey and Michael Bowie are fighting to start at left guard in 2014.

Getting a big tight end and a big receiver in the first two rounds would put a lot more size (and talent) on the field for Wilson.

I’d argue that’ll have a much bigger impact than drafting a guard in a pretty mediocre year at the position.

So what about the candidates at tight end that could make this a justifiable move?

Unless there’s a big mover on the cards, it looks like there are three first round options:

Eric Ebron – North Carolina
Athletic, former basketball player and the type of tight end the NFL is looking for. Everyone wants a big target that can get around the field and create a mismatch. On tape he’s made some dazzling plays this year — one handed grabs, 60-yard runs after the catch. This is usually the time where a blogger or pundit says his blocking isn’t great. Cut the crap. How many times do we have to hear that? The NFL has changed. Tight ends need to look like this. I’m not going to mark Ebron down for his blocking. Coach him up. It simply isn’t a good enough reason not to draft him in the top-20. And ultimately, I expect that’s where he’ll go.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins – Washington
Former big time recruit who generated interest from Alabama, Florida, USC and Texas before committing to home-state Washington. ASJ maybe didn’t max-out his potential with the Huskies, but there’s no denying his potential. Carroll/Schneider have always been interested in physical difference makers and big time high school recruits. He’s more of a traditional tight end, but so is Miller. How fast is he? That’s going to be crucial. He doesn’t have to run a 4.6, he just has to avoid running a 4.8. Easier said than done at 266lbs. I like him though — and I believe he can turn into a very productive NFL tight end.

Jace Amaro – Texas Tech
I’m still trying to work out Amaro. He’s listed at 255lbs, but looks big. At least as big as ASJ. He isn’t incredibly mobile or shifty, but out of the three listed here he’s probably the one I’d prefer to go to for a third down conversion. At times I’m not convinced he’s much more than an above average tight end working in an ultra-productive passing game. Then you see him put up 136 yards against West Virginia, 174 against Oklahoma State and 119 against Oklahoma — and all three teams knew where the ball was going. They couldn’t stop him. I want to believe. Bring on the combine, let’s see how athletic he really is.

After these three, it’s not much of a group. But you don’t get many deep TE classes.

You could argue it’d provide the best value in the 28-32 range where Seattle will draft.

Think about it. At that point Austin Seferian-Jenkins might be the best player available. Ditto Jace Amaro. Ebron will be long gone, but the other two could be there.

Why fight the board?

It’s something else to consider.

So let’s sum up what we’re talking about doing here….

Cut
Zach Miller, Sidney Rice and Chris Clemons.

Total savings
$19m (approx) – $7m Rice, $7m Clemons and $5m Miller

Re-sign
Michael Bennett, Golden Tate and Breno Giacomini

Draft
Tight end in round one (eg Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro) and, board permitting, a tall receiver in round two.

The Seahawks need to find a way to keep Bennett and Tate (and possibly Giacomini). They need to do it — in my opinion — without thinning the defense by cutting guys like Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane.

Miller might be a sacrificial lamb in this instance. But it could be necessary.

And this is before we even get into finding a way to extend Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas’ contracts — two nigh on certainties on the horizon.

I’m not saying this is what they should do. It’s merely a proposal.

Food for thought, though.

Updated draft order following the wildcard weekend

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

With the Bengals, Chiefs, Eagles and Packers exiting the post season, the 2014 draft order is now confirmed from picks 1-24.

A dramatic weekend also raised a number of questions for the teams involved.

Andy Dalton had another playoff horror show against San Diego — enduring a second half meltdown to turn the ball over three times. He’s now 0-3 in the post season.

The Bengals have an uber talented team with pretty much everything you’d want in a contender. Great defense, elite playmakers on offense, good offensive line.

They could be better at corner — and wasted a pick on the overrated Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012. But that’s not holding them back.

Dalton is.

Seattle dodged a bullet in 2011 if you believe the rumours that John Schneider had a lot of interest in drafting him at #25, only to be overruled by Pete Carroll.

He has purple patches in a season — but they’re usually followed by calamitous reality checks.

Today should be the biggest reality check of them all. Dalton isn’t good enough to lead the Bengals to the Championship they’re capable of winning.

Really they should be looking for an alternative in the 2014 draft. This is the final year of his rookie deal — and you really don’t want to be paying him an inflated contract right now. Draft a little competition for him in round 2/3 and let him fight for a future. Hey, I’d consider taking a quarterback in round one if the right player was there.

I doubt it even gets considered. The Bengals ownership give off a satisfied vibe. Contending is enough, as long as they make a profit. They never push the boat out. Today actually gives them some leverage to low-ball Dalton and tie him up for another 3-4 years.

If that happens, Cincinnati will always be nearly men. Expect them to target a cornerback at #24 like Justin Gilbert or Darqueze Dennard.

The Chiefs face a slightly different conundrum.

Alex Smith is solid if unspectacular and he can lead an offense. But he’s also approaching 30 and due another contract after the 2014 season.

Is it time for Kansas City to plan ahead? Or do they re-sign Smith now and make him their guy for the next few years?

They have enough talent across the board to be really competitive as we’ve seen this season. But they’re also in a window and fighting in a division that contains Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.

I don’t think they’ll use the #23 pick on a QB this year, but it might be worth adding one in the middle rounds so there’s some long term thinking in place. I can definitely see them looking at a tight end in round one — such as Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Jace Amaro.

The Eagles just need to concentrate on their defense. There’s too many stop gaps across the board.

Whether it’s a pass rusher off the edge, a corner or a safety — the Eagles have to go defense at #22. I like Virginia defensive end/tackle Brent Urban as an under-the-radar option for Philly. Chip Kelly loves length and athleticism on defense and Urban ticks all the right boxes. They really need to find a safety from somewhere, though.

Green Bay fans probably wish they could draft a new defensive coordinator.

While Aaron Rodgers could use better protection and maybe another receiver — the Packers need to take some of the strain off Rodgers and the offense.

Getting some speed at linebacker and safety would be a major help. But it’ll all go to waste if they keep Dom Caper’s outdated schemes.

C.J. Mosley would be a great choice for the Pack if he’s around at #21.

The Seahawks cannot pick any higher than #28 overall. Even if both Seattle and Denver lose next week, the Broncos get the #27 selection due to an easier strength of schedule.

There were also some interesting declarations today. Blake Bortles (QB, UFC) is turning pro, along with Oregon wide out De’Anthony Thomas. Sammy Watkins made it official today and tight end Jace Amaro is heading for the NFL.

Mocking the Draft has a nice tracker to see who’s declared so far.

We’re going to see more and more underclassmen turning pro due to the new CBA. It’s become a race to get a second contract, because the rookie deals are nowhere near what they used to be. The sooner you get started, the sooner you get paid.

More talent entering the draft helps the Seahawks, of course, given they’ll be drafting so late in each round.

So here’s what the first frame looks like so far:

1. Houston Texans
2. St. Louis Rams (via Washington)
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Cleveland Browns
5. Oakland Raiders
6. Atlanta Falcons
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8. Minnesota Vikings
9. Buffalo Bills
10. Detroit Lions
11. Tennessee Titans
12. New York Giants
13. St. Louis Rams
14. Chicago Bears
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
16 or 17. Baltimore Ravens
16 or 17. Dallas Cowboys
18. New York Jets
19. Miami Dolphins
20. Arizona Cardinals
21. Green Bay Packers
22. Philadelphia Eagles
23. Kansas City Chiefs
24. Cincinnati Bengals

Seahawks will meet the Saints in the playoffs

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

New Orleans will get a rematch with the Seahawks.

That’s their reward for knocking off the Philadelphia Eagles 26-24 today.

Seattle won the last meeting 34-7 in week 13 by building an early lead and dominating on defense.

Russell Wilson also had his best game of the season.

The Saints keyed in on stopping Marshawn Lynch, which helped Wilson considerably.

We’ll see if they come with a different plan next week — considering they could be without each of their starting defensive backs.

At times tonight Nick Foles had 6-7 seconds in the pocket and made them pay. Rob Ryan’s defense was nearly impenetrable in the first half, but struggled badly in the second as the injuries stacked up.

The pass rush was pretty non-existent and only had success when Foles pushed his luck.

It was interesting to see how easy the read-option fooled the Saints, even with a slower-than-average quarterback handing it off to LeSean McCoy.

In the week 13 meeting Wilson was Seattle’s leading rusher with 47 yards (Lynch managed 45, Robert Turbin 34).

New Orleans ran the ball well today, something they struggled to do against the Seahawks. They managed a paltry 44 total rushing yards.

Taking the run away again next week will be crucial — even if limiting Drew Brees remains the greatest challenge.

How do you do that? Tight coverage, get the pass rush rolling, limit the damage with Jimmy Graham and force turnovers. In his last three road games, Brees has thrown six interceptions with a 1-2 record.

Having an impact on defense early is crucial — as we saw at Century Link and also in week 15 when St. Louis carried a fast start to win comfortably 27-16 against the Saints.

The result in Philly also means San Francisco can only set up a NFC West encounter in the playoffs by winning in Green Bay tomorrow and then Carolina next week.

That won’t be easy. If the Niners manage it, watch out.

They’re already coming into the post-season as the NFL’s hot hand. Winning two very difficult road games would further emphasise that.

Enough talk about San Francisco anyway. Let’s watch this instead…

Sammy Watkins proves he’s a star in the making

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

What a way for Sammy Watkins to head into the NFL.

16 catches, 227 yards and a couple of touchdowns helped Clemson defeat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl (40-35).

It was the performance of a star in the making. A display that should solidify a top ten grade.

A former 5-star recruit who was a big catch for Clemson in 2011, he had an immediate impact as a true freshman (82 catches, 1219 yards and 12 touchdowns).

He had to get through a challenging sophomore year. He was arrested in May 2012 and charged with possession of a controlled substance and simple possession of marijuana, both misdemeanors. As a consequence he started the season serving a two-game suspension and it allowed DeAndre Hopkins to become the focal point of the Tigers’ passing game.

When he needed to show up big as a junior, and maybe grow up a little bit, Watkins delivered.

The Clemson coaches have had to push him along. On more than one occasion they’ve been vocal (and public) about him delivering on his massive potential.

Eventually the light switched on. And what we’re left with is an ultra-competitive, highly skilled explosive athlete.

This is what he brings to the table:

Fantastic body control — Watkins is such a smooth runner. He never seems to get out of position and he adjusts to the ball perfectly. He’s very loose and can change direction easily. This is an underrated skill. Just look at the way Kelvin Benjamin ties himself up in knots trying to turn quickly and adjust to the ball. It helps that Watkins has a more compact frame, but he makes the most of it. As a consequence most of his routes are run crisply and this’ll help him make a quick impact at the next level.

Superb hands — I’ll be very interested to check out how big they are at the combine. The ball just gets swallowed up in those mitts — you rarely see him juggle a pass or double catch. He can high point the football, he can grab it away from his body. Watkins will be a consistent hands catcher at the next level, a great red zone threat despite only being 6-1 and he’ll make his fair share of third down conversions.

Elite speed — Whether he’s running a downfield route or taking a screen, Watkins has the potential to be a true difference maker. He can take the top of a defense, but he’s also going to be a big time threat on screens, reverses and the occasional end-around. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he ran in the 4.3’s at the combine. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s a much more accomplished, rounded player than Tavon Austin — and he was a top ten pick last year.

Excellent football IQ — DeAndre Hopkins was a student of the game. During interviews he’d regularly quote specific routes when detailing plays. He’d discuss what a defense was showing and how he exploited the call to make a catch. Watkins has picked up these habits. I’m not sure many people realise how switched on Watkins is. Clemson do a good job coaching their receivers.

He’s the ultimate competitor — Another Hopkins cross-over. Both players seem to love the game. You HAVE to be this way to be a great receiver. You can’t coast. You can’t play at your own speed. Corner’s are getting bigger, tougher and faster. Thank the Seahawks for that. Receivers have to bring it. They must have an edge. Watkins has it in spades, just like Mike Evans and Marqise Lee. And it’s why all three should be top ten picks.

The term ‘complete player’ is thrown around too often, but in Watkins’ case it’s absolutely true.

There are some teams picking in the top ten who need a quarterback. This guy will make them second guess what they’re going to do.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we see Watkins going in the top-five — just like A.J. Green in 2011 — to a team who is willing to wait until round two to get a quarterback.

Whichever signal caller ends up with Sammy Watkins should count his blessings.

This guy is legit.