You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
25 Aug 2008
by Doug Farrar
So, we can guess that Matt Gutierrez now has the inside track over Matt Cassel as Tom Brady's backup, but how did he get it? Against the Eagles, Cassel showed mobility on a first-quarter blitz, scrambling for a 22-yard gain on New England's first drive. But at the end of that drive, we saw the first ding in the armor. Pressured on third-and-10 from his own 47, Cassel double-clutched and underthrew Randy Moss deep. First pass of the next drive came on third-and-1 after two runs by Laurence Maroney. Cassel was off on an out route to Moss, and the ball was almost picked off by Lito Sheppard. The Patriots run a lot of shotgun, but Cassel doesn't look comfortable in it at all. On the second throw to Moss, he was trying to use a touch that he clearly doesn't have.
On the third drive, with the Eagles up 10-0 and the Pats more dependent on the passing game, Cassel started with a play-action throw over the middle to Jabar Gaffney, who was pretty well covered and couldn't bring it in. A nice little lob to Ben Watson two plays later was the first productive passing play ... or it would have been, had left tackle Wesley Britt not been called for holding. Watson's 12-yard gain was negated, and so were the Pats after a 4-yard reception by Kevin Faulk on third-and-20. It was at this point that the boos started cascading down at Gillette Stadium.
Cassel's final drive of the first half started out with a bang, as he went play-action again and heaved the ball downfield to Moss. Asante Samuel and Sean Considine were doing the Hack-a-Shaq on Moss, and Considine was flagged for a 47-yard pass interference penalty. This put the ball on the Eagles' 33-yard line, but the Patriots couldn't convert. Cassel made a nice throw on the run to tight end David Thomas for 20 yards two plays later. On the next play, Moss made a sideline catch that would have set New England up at the 5, but it was called back on Moss's own illegal motion penalty. One incompletion to Chad Jackson later (this was actually the second near-pick by Lito Sheppard), New England had to settle for a field goal.
Cassel got one drive in the third quarter -- he threw four passes, completing three for 17 yards. On the drive, New England had two penalties for 15 yards. One Chris Hanson punt later, Cassel's day was done. I haven't seen as much of Cassel as most Patriots fans have, and I'm generally loath to pass judgment on quarterbacks before their time, but the thing that stands out about Cassel to me is that in this point in his career, he makes this ruthlessly efficient offense look clunky and slow.
So, was that slow clunkiness on Cassel, or just the inevitable adjustment to anyone not named Tom Brady? Matt Gutierrez could answer that question with his performance, and he took over on the Patriots' second drive in the third quarter. The Patriots were down, 27-3, and Gutierrez was not going to be facing the Eagles' first-line defense or playing with his own team's first-line offense (this, above all else, complicates the evaluation of different quarterbacks in the preseason). Still, this was a chance to show what he could do. His first pass was a neat 24-yard rainbow to C.J. Jones on the left sideline, a play that showed more skill, touch and timing, than Cassel had displayed all night. Then, a little pass over the middle to Heath Evans after Gutierrez' first read was eliminated. Then, an overthrow to tight end Johnathan Stupar over the middle, compounded by an offensive interference penalty on Stupar. Gutierrez was faced with second-and-23, but converted with outlet throws to Kelly Washington and Chad Jackson, and the drive kept going. A coverage near-sack by Jerome McDougle was followed by three straight completions, the last of them to Chad Jackson for New England's first touchdown of the day.
Gutierrez followed this with two more drives. The first, from his own three-yard line to the Philadelphia 46, ended with a sack. But the second, which started at the New England 1 (!), was the breaking point that may have Gutierrez starting against the Giants next week. Gutierrez took his team 99 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, beginning with a long crossing route to Tyson DeVree in which the quarterback stood unflappable in the pocket in his own end zone, waiting for the play to develop,
Overall, my impression was that Gutierrez looked far more comfortable in command of the New England offense. It will be interesting to see what he can do with a few more preseason snaps, and with rookie Kevin O'Connell in the mix as well, Matt Cassel might be fighting in vain for a roster spot that has already been decided.
In an interview for the PFP 2008 essay "The College Spread Offense: Bridging the Evaluation Gap," Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN/State Farm NFL Matchup told me that running backs operating out of the spread are tough to evaluate when it comes to their physicality. Since those backs are often running out of shotgun sets through wider seams, it's difficult to know how they'll adapt to defensive personnel at the NFL level. Houston Texans running back Steve Slaton had these question marks attached to him after three years in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense at West Virginia. Drafted in the third round by Houston, Slaton now looks to prove that he can succeed in the NFL despite the systemic stigma.
What I saw of Slaton when he lined up against the Cowboys' first-team defense last Saturday was a back with surprising power for his size (5-foot-9, 201 pounds). On the first play of the Texans' opening second-quarter drive, he was able to extend the play two yards after initial contact by DeMarcus Ware. On his next run, he blew through a hole set up by impressive blocking, shot between Ware and Chris Canty, and picked up five yards before Ware and Zach Thomas took him down. That play must have reminded him of the wider splits he saw when working with Patrick White in the Mountaineers' backfield, but what impressed from an NFL potential standpoint were his runs later in that drive.
With 10:57 left in the half, Slaton took the ball left and showed good patience waiting for the play to open. He stayed on guard Kasey Studdard's left hip while tackle Duane Brown (another promising rookie) took end Stephen Bowen out of the play to the left and fullback Vonta Leach assisted with the seam inside. Greg Ellis and Bradie James were pinched inside, and Slaton knew when to hit the next gear. The result? A 20-yard gain, and evidence that Slaton isn't just a guy who blasts through wide seams.
Slaton ran right for four yards on the next play behind Leach's blocking, showing his propensity for running with power. He ran left on the next play with nice inside speed. On the following play, he did a nice little cutback inside and bounced off Zach Thomas for extra yardage. The cutback was what I was watching for. As Cosell said in the essay, it's speed through the hole, not speed to the hole, that determines success for backs in the NFL. Slaton appears to have what it takes.
Last Friday, Cosell told Adam Caplan of SIRIUS NFL Radio that Slaton has impressed him through the preseason. While running backs in spread offenses are indeed difficult to evaluate, the consensus is that Slaton runs with more of a physical presence than expected, but with enough quickness to avoid hit after hit. With Ahman Green and Chris Brown looking like serious injury risks, Slaton's a good back to keep in mind.
The word on left tackle Sam Baker coming out of USC was that he might be moved inside to guard on some teams, but Atlanta's grave need along the offensive line had them taking the former USC standout 21st overall and installing him at left tackle immediately. Set aside the jokes about the Trojans being the NFL's 33rd team; the leap in scheme and complexity from the NCAA to the NFL is daunting no matter where you played. Baker would be challenged to master one of the game's toughest positions right out of the box with a team that's going to struggle to put an offense together in the short term. In theory, he's a great fit for Atlanta's new power game. Baker was regarded as a top draft prospect, but more as an overall player with less than elite agility mitigated by intelligence and in-line power.
Baker began his pro career fighting off Jacksonville's Paul Spicer (and others) in a 20-17 loss to the Jaguars. He looked solid against the Colts in the follow-up, but his sternest test to date came in Week 3 against the Titans. Across the line was Kyle Vanden Bosch, the end who put up 12 sacks in 2007 and has been a featured player on one of the NFL's best defensive lines. Vanden Bosch also led the league in Adjusted Quarterback Hits last year with 21, and finished seventh in Adjusted Hurries with 17.5. How would Baker, regarded as a very good combo pass/run blocker, but not specifically elite against speed rushers, fare?
My impression was overwhelmingly positive. On the Falcons' first pass play of the game, a trips left with Michael Turner in the backfield, Baker fanned Vanden Bosch out of the perimeter and away from Matt Ryan with great technique and no help as Ryan completed a quick sideline pass to Michael Jenkins. Baker also works well with left guard Justin Blalock, who's starting his second NFL season. On the next pass play, an incompletion to tight end Ben Hartsock, Vanden Bosch went inside to the guard at the snap. Instead of teaming up and losing linebacker Stephen Tulloch on the blitz, Baker let Blalock handle Vanden Bosch and dealt with Tulloch outside. Good teamwork there.
On running plays, Baker displays agility in getting to the second level and dealing with linebackers. He's also good at the line in power situations. On the first play of the Falcons' second drive, a draw to Turner, Baker took Vanden Bosch's initial pursuit, led him upfield, and then blocked him away from the play as Turner headed left, right where Vanden Bosch had been. On the next play, another handoff to Turner, Baker chipped Vanden Bosch, who wound up with a personal foul after a late hit on Turner downfield. I don't excuse cutting at all, and I was surprised to see it from Baker, given his ability to handle Vanden Bosch through the first quarter. Some would call it a veteran move. I call it unnecessary. Vanden Bosch pushed Baker back on the next play and got his first hit on Ryan. Baker got his revenge on the next play when he just poleaxed Vanden Bosch as Ryan threw a screen to Jenkins. Baker knocked Vanden Bosch right on his butt with a great power move. Not something you see every day.
I think that Baker will be an incredibly valuable addition to a line that finished 32nd in Adjusted Line yards last year. The days of the Petrino misfit schemes are over, and new line coach Paul Boudreau has two young, talented players on the left side in Baker and Blalock. As the Falcons crawl back to credibility, they seem to know that they'll only go as far as their lines take them.
Since Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt took the Olympics by storm, there have been several articles speculating that with his size (6-5, 190 pounds) and the incredible speed that allowed him to break the world records in the 100- and 200-meter races, Bolt could be transformed into a receiving and return threat the likes of which the NFL has never seen. Ex-NFL scout Tom Marino, who currently provides coverage for Scout.com and whose career spans three decades with the WFL, USFL, Dallas Cowboys, and St. Louis Rams, told me that before people anoint Bolt with the "Next Bob Hayes" label, a big, fat reality check might be in order.
"I think the people who are speculating that Bolt could succeed as a wide receiver, or even a return man in the NFL, need to take a step back and really appreciate the skillsets that NFL players bring to the game," Marino said. "I'm a little surprised at all the speculation. The guys who do this (play pro football with track speed) all played college, all played in high school -- they all go all the way back. A guy like Bolt, no matter how impressive he was on that track ... you'd have to take everything down to basic fundamentals. Has he even seen a football game? Can he catch a ball standing still, never mind on the run? And of course, it's like Mike Tyson used to say: 'Everyone has a plan until they get hit.' What happens when he's trying to judge ball flight on a punt and he has guys bearing down on him? Forget about trying to catch a ball on a 7 or 9 route with a safety on him. That's when your straight-line speed tends to go out the window unless you know what you're doing.
"All the guys who have succeeded at track and football -- all of them -- were football players first. Going back to Bob Hayes in Dallas and Homer Jones of the Giants in the 1960s, through Warren Wells and Cliff Branch in Oakland in the '70s, to the modern day. Anyone who has done both was excellent at football and very good at track -- maybe not Olympic level -- but at a certain point, you have to make a choice.
"In my first year scouting with the Rams, I talked to a track guy about coming out and maybe getting on with the team as either a wideout or defensive back. He was a football player as well. Problem was, he had offers to run on the European summer circuit, and instead of the $300 to $400 per week we were going to offer him through training camp, he was going to make a quarter of a million dollars over there. I talked to (former director of player personnel) Charley Armey and Mike Martz about it, and Mike said that there was no way a guy was going to miss training camp and then make the team with no prior experience. In Bolt's case, he's going to make millions if he wants to run in Europe on top of his endorsements. Would an NFL team make him their highest-paid receiver to compete when he may never take a hit?
"Really, you're talking about two different disciplines, and that's why the success rate is so low for track stars making it in football. It was that way 30 years ago, when there were more deep routes and guys beating more man coverage or simple zones, and it's certainly that way now, when he'd be facing far more complex defenses and be expected to be more precise in his timing and ability to cut and be quick in space.
"Honestly, I'd say that Usain Bolt's chances of playing in the NFL would be about as good as yours or mine."
111 comments, Last at 31 Aug 2008, 9:57pm by NotQuite