Around the League

Sean Payton is one of my favorite coaches. The Saints offense was so much fun to watch a few years back when Drew Brees was in top form and he had some good playmakers around him. Payton knew how to design a great offense and then how to call plays to bring out the best in his guys.

One of my favorite memories is the Saints trailing the Dolphins by 10 or more points in the 2nd half of a game. Instead of turning Brees completely loose, Payton went to the run game. That helped to open up the passing game and New Orleans won. It always frustrates me when coaches panic in the 2nd or 3rd quarter when trailing by 2 possessions or less. There is still plenty of time left. Stay balanced. Run the ball. Be physical. If you get down too much or it gets late, then panic and go pass happy.

Back to Payton. I hate to say this, but he’s turning into the offensive version of Jeff Fisher.

2014  7-9
2015  7-9
2016  7-9

Yikes. Payton is still a great offensive mind, but the Saints defense has been a mess in recent years and it feels like time for a change. I’d love to see Payton go somewhere else and see if he could get back to where he was 5 or 6 years ago.

*****

If you watched the playoffs last weekend, chances are you heard that Houston had the #1 defense in the league. They mentioned it over and over. And over.

The Texans had a terrific season on D, but let’s take a look at the big picture. They were 1st in yards allowed. They were 11th in scoring D. That’s fine, but clearly isn’t compelling.

Jon Gruden was asked if the Texans could ride their D to the Super Bowl, like the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Bucs. Always prone to hyperbole, Gruden said yes.

No.

No.

No.

The Ravens and Bucs were two of the greatest defenses in the history of football. They were special. They were unique. The Texans finished 11th in points allowed. There is nothing unique or special about that.

Good isn’t great.

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I loved Matt Ryan coming out of Boston College. I thought he was a great prospect and deserved to go Top 5. Ryan has been a good QB in the NFL since coming into the league.

For some reason, he has been heavily criticized his whole career. I never really understood it. Ryan hasn’t been a great player in the NFL. But he’s been pretty darn good. He has a career rating of 93.7. He averages 26 TD passes a year. The Falcons never had consecutive winning seasons before his arrival. They have only had a losing record twice in Ryan’s 9-year career.

Ryan posted freakish numbers this year, throwing 38 TDs and only 7 INTs. His rating of 117.1 is one of the highest in NFL history. I’m glad to see Ryan getting some of the credit he’s deserved.

Winning in the postseason is the next hurdle for him.

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Can Dallas win with rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott leading the way? I have my doubts.

The Cowboys had a great season. Prescott broke records and Elliott is a legitimate contender for league MVP. But the postseason is a very different animal. I’m curious as to whether they can handle it.

Dallas did beat Green Bay in mid-October, but the Packers are a very different team right now. Aaron Rodgers is playing out of his mind and that offense is coming up with huge contributions from a variety of guys.

Their defense is still flawed, but they seem to make big plays. This should be a great game.

*****

It still blows my mind that Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander had such an amazing season. He had 12.5 sacks, 3 FFs, and an INT.

Alexander came into the season with 9 career sacks. 9.

That’s just crazy.

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Next Little Man Up

There was Deion Branch.

And Troy Brown.

Then Wes Welker came along.

Danny Amendola.

Now we have Julian Edelman.

Who is next?

The Patriots seem to do a great job with developing small to medium-sized slot receiver types. Ryan Switzer from North Carolina would seem to be a great fit. He is a gifted WR and a dynamic PR. He has great RAC skills and is the kind of competitive, productive player that Bill Belichick just loves.

Belichick also loves UNC players. His father Steve was an assistant coach in Chapel Hill and Belichick seems to still have a fondness for the guys wearing light blue.

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Staying Put

It seems like every underclassman is coming out, but that isn’t the case. A few key guys are staying in school.

Luke Falk will return to Washington State. Falk had a good year, but there was no reason to come out. Another year could help him develop into a better player and better prospect. Glad to see he made a smart decision.

Wyoming star Josh Allen is also coming back. There was some thought he might come out after a good year and with this being such a lackluster QB class. Luckily Allen will stay in college. A strong Senior season could make him a pretty high pick.

Is Sam Darnold eligible yet?

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Quick Thoughts on the Quarterbacks

I don’t think there are any slam dunk, gotta have this guy #1 overall type prospects this year. That said, there are some talented, interesting QB prospects.

Deshaun Watson is really good, but also flawed. He led Clemson to consecutive title games (and almost consecutive titles). Watson is incredibly clutch, coming through late in some big games. He can make some spectacular throws. Watson doesn’t always read defenses well and his accuracy can be an issue at times.

UNC star Mitch Trubisky started one full year and that’s it. That is an issue. There is no set rule that a QB must play X amount of games, but the more starts a guy has, the more it helps him to show what he can truly do and to be prepared for the NFL. There is some talk of Trubisky being a Top 10 type pick. As of now, I don’t see that.

Pat Mahomes had a great year for Texas Tech. He finished 12th in the nation in passing efficiency and had 41 TD passes. Mahomes can do some creative things.

Throwing from multiple platforms is a good thing in a college QB. You won’t always have a clean pocket and the more things you can do, the better off you’ll be.

DeShone Kizer came out early and is really interesting. He has excellent size at 6-4, 230. He started for 2 years at Notre Dame and had some amazing moments. He is a gifted athlete who can also be a good pocket passer.

I have no idea why Jerod Evans left Virginia Tech early. He played well this year, but wasn’t so good that he needed to leave. I hope he had a good reason and this wasn’t just some agent talking him into the move.

The pre-draft process will be interesting for these players. NFL teams and the media will pick their games apart and it will be interesting to see which guys rise and which guys fall.

The NFL still needs good QBs. That means some teams will over-draft players in late April. And you can bet all 32 teams will be looking for the next Dak Prescott, the mid-rounder who turns out to be better than anyone imagined.

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The Offseason is Here

The NFL regular season is over. It is now time to focus on the NFL Draft.

SCHEDULE

Jan 16 – Deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft

Jan 21 – East-West Shrine Game

Jan 28 – Senior Bowl

Feb 28 – Mar 6 – Scouting Combine

Mar – Apr – Pro days

Apr 27-29 – NFL Draft

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College Freaks

Every year college football writer Bruce Feldman puts out a list of the top freak athletes in CFB. The 2016 list is out now.

Number one is Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett.

The SEC’s leader in sacks (12.5), tackles for loss (19.5) and forced fumbles (five) despite seeing an array of double teams, Garrett has more than lived up to his enormous recruiting hype. Listed at 6-5, 262, Garrett’s got the chiseled physique of a DB — a huge DB. The junior has off-the-charts workout numbers. He told me this month he power cleans 440 pounds and bench-presses 485 — staggering when you consider he also has a 40-inch vertical and his fastest 40 time at A&M, he said, is 4.45. “If I could dip into the 4.3s, that’d be great,” he told FOX Sports. It’s also been insane to see someone that big moving that fast. Garrett’s diet is pretty tight. “I just try to stay away from soda and try to stay away from candy and sweets,” he said, adding that he thinks he can bulk up to 270. Scary thought: Garrett doesn’t turn 21 until December.

You think the NFL might be interested in that guy?

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Bum Phillips at his Best

Bum was an incredibly funny man, but was also one heck of a coach.

Go read this piece by Doug to appreciate the impact that Bum had on the game of football. Modern defenses owe him a lot.

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Behind the Scenes

Here are a couple of good stories for your post-draft pleasure.

First up is a piece on how things go when scouts differ on a prospect.

The focus here is Bears GM Ryan Pace, but there are lots of comments from Phil Savage. He now runs the Senior Bowl, but previously was a personnel executive.

Phil Savage recently shared some insight from his experience as Cleveland Browns general manager (2005-2008) and his tenure as a high-ranking personnel executive with the Baltimore Ravens (1996-2004).

“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” said Savage, now an analyst for SiriusXM. “You try to get to a consensus, but sometimes the consensus is not 100 percent right. When you have grades spread across a lot of different opinions, that’s probably the player you’re going to get. He’s going to be very up and down and all over the map, just like the scouts saw it.”

Savage said his teams always tried to have at least three scouts grade each prospect from a major school.

“Most of the time, you’ll have two out of the three leaning one way or the other,” he said. “And it’s one of the real struggles when you get into your meetings and you want to keep your scouts engaged. You want them to feel like that they have a vote in this.

“But there are cases where…you might have four or five or six grades on a player, and the wind may be blowing all in one direction with the exception of one scout. And I have absolutely seen it where four out of the five (say one thing), and the GM or myself in this situation, put the guy’s card up there in line with the four of the five grades that seem to be indicating that. And at the end of the day, the fifth scout that was blowing against the wind, he ended up being right.”

Good read. Lots of interesting comments.

*****

Next up is a story on the marriage of football and analytics from Mike Tanier.

So a fully analytic approach to roster construction results in an NFL team full of size-speed specimens drafted in middle rounds who replace experienced veterans but are released the moment they become too expensive, and the roster contains no well-known running backs or kickers.

That sounds like a great way to put together a bad rugby team.

The truth is much subtler than that caricature. Analytics is a series of methods, not a series of rules. That may be why both Moneyball skeptics and some of the younger analytic zealots go into Twitter apoplexy when a team signs a veteran running back or punts on 4th-and-1 (another long analytic story).

The team built on analytics only pays premiums for premium talent. It recognizes replaceability and manages risk. It develops talent instead of trying to purchase it. It’s a little more cold and calculating about how quickly a popular veteran might age into obsolescence, but it is also more optimistic about how fast it can turn a big/strong/fast/hungry no-name from the fifth round into the next popular veteran.

The team built on analytics looks a lot like the Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens, even though some of these perennial contenders appear to be much more old-fashioned than Moneyball oriented.

That’s because analytics and conventional wisdom have more in common than you think, and many franchises have found ways to make them work hand in hand.

Great stuff from Mike.

Too often, we act like analytics is some far-fetched, ridiculous idea that will ruin football. It can be a valuable tool and way of looking at things, but it isn’t the be-all answer that some would love to believe.

There is no perfect formula for building a Super Bowl team. That’s what makes it so challenging.

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Draft Notes

Here are some random thoughts on prospects.

The dirtiest/nastiest player in the draft? For my money that is Georgia OL John Theus. While down at the Senior Bowl, he got into a lot of shoving matches with DL. Theus is extremely competitive and has a real nasty streak. He’s not going to back down from anyone.

Watch his game tape and you will see the nasty streak. Theus gets in a shove or hit whenever he can. There was one play in the Senior Bowl that really stood out. Theus got off balance while blocking Sheldon Day and started to fall. He grabbed Day’s hair and pulled him to the ground as he fell. I can’t recall ever seeing quite like that from an OL. Some coaches will love that nasty streak.

Theus has a lot of experience. He has good size and is talented. He isn’t a gifted pass blocker and has some athletic limitations. I tend to think of him as a late round pick, but it won’t surprise me if some team takes him in the mid rounds.

*****

Pharoh Cooper from South Carolina is one of my favorite WRs in this draft. I love watching him play. But there are some issues. He is 5-11, 203, hardly an ideal build, and ran just 4.65 in the 40. He had a vertical jump of only 31 inches at the Combine and did the same at his Pro Day. That is shockingly low for a gifted receiver. OL Germain Ifredi (324 pounds) had a vertical of 32.5 inches.

I do love Cooper’s game tape.

He shows good hands. Toughness. Vision. Elusiveness. Body control. He will fight for balls in the air. And either he plays faster than he times or the SEC has a lot of DBs that run 4.8. There are quite a few plays on that video where he runs away from DBs.

I hesitate to do this, but Cooper reminds me a bit of Antonio Brown. When he came out, Brown was 5-10, 196 and ran 4.57. He had a 33.5 inch VJ. Those are bad workout numbers, but Brown has become one of the best WRs in the league. I don’t think Cooper is likely to pull off the same feat, but he is more of a gamer than a pure athlete or workout guy. He probably will be a slot guy, but it won’t shock me if Cooper ends up being a good starting receiver no matter where he plays.

*****

DT Drew Iddings from South Dakota had a great Pro Day. He measured in at 6-5, 290 and ran 4.75. He did 20 reps on the bench and had a VJ of 32.5 inches. That got me excited to watch his game tape. Unfortunately I came away disappointed. I think Iddings has a shot to be drafted, but I’m not sold that he will make it in the NFL. He is big and athletic, but I have concerns about his physicality and ability to deal with NFL O-linemen.

*****

Kevin Byard is probably my favorite Safety prospect. He had a great career for MTSU, picking off 19 passes. He doesn’t have great man cover skills, but no prospect is perfect. Byard is smart. You can see he studies the offense before the snap and gets players into the right spots. One of my favorite moments came in the Alabama game when he chased down a player and tackled him inside the 10-yard line. That play didn’t make a difference in that game, but plays like that are huge in the NFL, where the difference in a TD and a FG can be the difference in winning and losing.

*****

There is now some chatter that Le’Raven Clark could be a 1st round pick. I don’t get that at all. He played LT at Texas Tech and had a good career, but his pass protection skills need a ton of work. He got beat at TT. He got beat in the Senior Bowl (game and practices).

Clark is big and athletic. He is a good run blocker. I just can’t get past his mediocre pass blocking. If he was a 330-pound mauler that could dominate in the run game, maybe. But he’s not that guy.

I hope Clark proves me wrong and has a terrific NFL career, but his pass pro bugs the heck out of me.

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Who the heck is that?

Tavarres began at a junior college and then transferred to Arkansas. He ended up at UIW and had an amazing 2015 season. He had 22.5 TFLs and 110 total tackles. Daniel Jeremiah likes to talk about how when studying small college prospects they should jump out at you. Tavarres passes that test.

Watch his highlights and you will see him just destroy some people. There were some hits on there where I worried about the safety of the guys he blew up. Tavarres won’t be able to do that kind of stuff against NFL competition, but you can see what a physical, violent player he is. It’s like watching Greg Lloyd from 1992.

Gil Brandt has his Pro Day info.

Linebacker Myke Tavarres — 6-0 1/4, 230 — ran the 40-yard dash in 4.81 and 4.76 seconds. He had a 36 1/2-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-7 broad jump. He did the 20-yard short shuttle in 4.46 seconds and the three-cone drill in 7.12 seconds. He performed 15 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Tavarres is a rookie free-agent pickup possibility for an NFL team following the draft.

Tavarres is a good athlete, but not great. I’ll be interested to see if he’s drafted or is a priority free agent.

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Myles Jack Concerns?

Maybe Jack will fall out of the Top 5. If he does, teams will have a really tough decision to make. The only reason he will fall is due to knee concerns.

Do you take a chance on his knee?

Someone will. The question is how high.

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