It's a year of huge cornerback contracts, with A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore breaking the bank. But will these big-money contracts, and the big-time gambles associated with them, pay off?
01 Sep 2008
by Doug Farrar
It's been an ugly millennium for Baltimore quarterbacks, with one merciful exception. Since the 2000 season, Ravens starting signal callers (the ones who threw the most passes in a season) rated as follows in DYAR:
2000 -- Tony Banks: -134 DYAR (34th)
2001 -- Elvis Grbac: -58 DYAR (29th)
2002 -- Jeff Blake: -22 DYAR (33rd)
2003 -- Kyle Boller: -289 DYAR (42nd)
2004 -- Kyle Boller: -118 DYAR (29th)
2005 -- Kyle Boller: +23 DYAR (28th)
2006 -- Steve McNair: +628 DYAR (10th)
2007 -- Kyle Boller: -10 DYAR (33rd)
In the one year that McNair held up for them, the Ravens went 13-3, an oasis in a post-Super Bowl miasma of suck. Occasionally, the quarterback problems would be mitigated by the odd 2,000-yard year from Jamal Lewis (2003) or another seasonal showing by one of the modern era's best defenses (2001). Following a 5-11 season in 2007, marked by some agonizing losses, the franchise decided to get serious about their quarterback development in a way they hadn't before. With the 19th overall pick, a selection they traded up to get, the Ravens took Delaware's Joe Flacco, an unusually talented but somewhat raw prospect. Flacco's size (6-foot-7, 236 pounds) and arm strength had the team thinking that with the right seasoning, he could tower over defenders and make the kinds of plays that other quarterbacks couldn't.
Flacco spent two seasons at Pitt -- he redshirted in 2003 and threw a grand total of four passes in 2004. He sat out the 2005 season under NCAA rules after transferring to Delaware, and got the playing time he wanted in his final two collegiate seasons. 2007 was his breakout year; Flacco completed 331 passes on 521 attempts (63.5 percent) for 4,263 yards, 23 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Two concerns surrounded Flacco going forward: his relative lack of experience, and the fact that he operated out of the shotgun so often. However, his four-game stretch in the NCAA Football Championship playoffs, which ended in a Championship loss to Appalachian State, convinced many observers that Flacco was ready to graduate to the big time -- or, at the very least, to a place on the sideline holding a clipboard and observing the big time.
Flacco's home start against the Falcons in the preseason finale convinced me that at the very least, the Ravens weren't crazy in passing up Chad Henne and Brian Brohm for him. For a shotgun quarterback, I thought his mechanics under center were acceptable, though he's obviously more comfortable a few yards back. Flacco sells play-action exceptionally and consistently well. I was impressed with the excellence of this part of his game.
The debits against him coming out of college -- the jagged mechanics, balking under pressure, and his inability to make plays on the run -- were evident to a point. On third-and-4 from the Baltimore 26 with 1:17 elapsed in the game, he took the snap, waited, and stepped forward under pressure before finally throwing a left sideline out in the general direction of Mark Clayton, who made a great play to separate from Chris Houston and come back to catch the ball. My impression was that Flacco was reacting to the pressure. With defensive end Jamaal Anderson about to wrap him up low, Flacco tried to get rid of the ball, and Clayton saved the play and the drive.
A few plays later, with Baltimore facing second-and-10 from their own 35 , Flacco threw a little dump-off to Ray Rice about four yards downfield, but Keith Brooking drove Rice back to just about the line of scrimmage. Flacco had time in the pocket, and receiver Marcus Smith open five yards further downfield in his line of sight. This play just looked like a bad read.
The mechanical issues showed up on third-and-5 from the Atlanta 47 with 11:04 left in the first quarter. Flacco had gobs of time in the pocket, rolled left a bit, and corked one deep to Demetrius Williams after looking off Derrick Mason to the right. I think Flacco was trying to draw attention away from Williams, but by the time he got Williams back in his line of sight, Williams had drifted into double-coverage (Chris Houston and Erik Coleman) 25 yards downfield and Flacco overthrew him. Great quarterbacks have an internal clock, and as good as Flacco's might someday be, they're still building it over in Switzerland.
Young quarterbacks need to learn not to put their receivers in hazardous situations, and Flacco's still developing this part of his game. Late in the first quarter, Clayton was running an out from the slot, but he was covered very well by cornerback Chevis Jackson in Atlanta's nickel package. Had Clayton jumped and caught the ball, he was in a position that would have allowed cornerback Brent Grimes to break off his own coverage and absolutely tee off on him.
Still, there was enough good play from Flacco for Ravens fans to be encouraged going forward. On third-and-9 from the Baltimore 36 and 12:29 left in the first quarter, Flacco took his first shotgun set of the day. The Falcons, who had lined up with a four-man front on each previous pass play, brought linebacker Michael Boley up to blitz with a three-man front. Flacco delivered a sideline out to Mark Clayton on a ten-yard comeback with excellent zip and good timing. He also hit Clayton late in the first quarter on a little slant off a three-step drop, following that with a 20-yard zinger to Demetrius Williams in the soft spot of Atlanta's zone. His last pass of the day, an end zone lob to Williams with 12:55 left in the second quarter, was just past the receiver's outstretched hands.
The problem for the Ravens and Flacco in the short term is to figure out whether there's enough juice in this team for a legitimate playoff run. That will affect what they do with Flacco. Under no circumstances is he ready to take a team into the postseason, but I think there's enough there on a developing team to let him learn on the field. Kyle Boller's shoulder and Troy Smith's tonsil issues have the Ravens asking a very important question: Is it now or later with their new franchise quarterback?
During Justin Forsett's four years with the Cal Bears, the team had three different star running backs: J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch, and Forsett himself. While Arrington and Lynch saw their pro careers go in different directions, Forsett finally got a chance to shine in 2007. He rushed for 1,546 yards on 305 carries in his senior season. Similar senior performances for Arrington and Lynch turned them into first-day draft picks in 2005 and 2007, but Forsett had to wait until the seventh round before Seattle picked him up.
Why? While Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew have highlighted the effectiveness of short running backs, Forsett still had to overcome a height bias, not to mention the "one-year-wonder" stigma. He can apply for Pocket Hercules status at 5-foot-8 and 194 pounds, but his huge hands and muscular build give him the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and run inside. Through the first three preseason games, Forsett had made himself a fan favorite, and the team seemed impressed. Given Seattle's crowded backfield, Forsett was told that he'd have to make the team as a punt returner, something he'd never done before the Seahawks drafted him.
That inexperience was evident in the preseason season finale against the Raiders, when he muffed a Glenn Pakulak punt at the Seattle 32. Oakland's Michael Bush recovered the fumble, and Forsett was off to a bad start in his final bid to crack the squad.
Forsett wound up making the team after final cuts, but it's more his ability as a change-of-pace back and overall offensive weapon that has the Seahawks excited. The punt return ability will come in time. What Forsett can do is eliminate negative rushing plays, a huge problem for Seattle last season. We saw the first example of this against the Raiders with 14:15 left in the first half, with the Seahawks at their own 38.
Seneca Wallace pitched the ball on a sweep right. Forsett broke the tackle attempt of defensive tackle Josh Shaw and got a little wiggle room outside. This was a potential loss of three or four yards that Forsett turned into a one-yard gain. Shaw had left guard Pat Murray (who was flagged for a false start and three holds in this game) beaten outside after Murray pulled right.
As this drive invaded Raiders territory, Forsett became the pointman. He showed his agility in tight spaces on first-and-10 from the Oakland 20, gaining seven yards on a draw up the left A gap. On the next play, Forsett blasted left behind fullback David Kirtman for the first down. This was one of many plays in which he picked up yardage beyond first contact. Forsett then took a swing pass down to the Oakland 1, but the first of Murray's holds put the ball back at the Oakland 18.
That drive ended with a field goal, but Forsett wasn't done impressing. After receiver Bryan Gilmore dropped the biggest gimme of an end zone pass in NFL history early in the fourth quarter (leading the Raiders announcing team to refer to him as "Unhappy Gilmore"), Forsett took a swing pass right with 10:55 left in the game and got a couple more yards after first contact, putting the ball at the Oakland 2-yard line. T.J. Duckett then got the touchdown on a pair of one-yard runs.
Forsett's final notable play came with 6:39 left in the game. He took the handoff right on the Seattle 21, got to the numbers, found nothing outside, and cut back inside for the five yard gain.
Forsett finished his first NFL preseason second in total yards behind Danny Ware of the Giants. While it's not precisely clear how they'll use him, the Seahawks seem to know that they may have unearthed a serious late-round steal.
In 2007, Saints cornerback Jason David had one of the worst seasons ever experienced by anyone at his position. The ex-Colts defender found the transition from a predominant Cover/Tampa-2 scheme to New Orleans' preference for man coverage to be really, really difficult. The game-charting revelation that David gave up more yards per pass (12.1) than plays where our game charters marked "Hole in Zone" is well known, and David finished 2007 allowing the most passing yards (1,051), yards after catch (321) and passing touchdowns (11) in the league -- and he did so despite missing three games with a forearm injury. David made the final cut in 2008, but rookie cornerback Tracy Porter started the last two preseason games against the Bengals and Dolphins opposite Mike McKenzie.
Porter was drafted in the second round this year after picking off 16 passes and showing great coverage speed at Indiana (and track speed at the Combine). Though he showed a physical presence at the Senior Bowl, Porter's size (5-foot-11, 188 pounds) and reputed subpar tackling ability were of less concern to the Saints than his ability to trail a receiver deep without safety help and get from Point A to Point B one hell of a lot quicker than David did last season. A starting spot would not be out of the question if Porter was impressive against Miami. A starting spot would also not be out of the question if Porter showed up with two arms, two legs, and a pulse.
As it turned out, he did a lot more than that. With 12:18 left in the first quarter, and the Dolphins on their own 31, Chad Pennington took the snap and threw left to receiver Greg Camarillo. Porter played press on Camarillo, who beat him to the sideline. Porter was smooth and quick in his backpedal, but he took the wrong angle inside and Camarillo was able to get upfield for a 20-yard gain.
On the next play, Pennington threw a deep sideline route to Derek Hagan on the right side, and Mike McKenzie timed his jump perfectly to deflect the pass. McKenzie's recovery from an ACL injury is great news for the Saints, and Porter can learn a great deal from the 10-year veteran.
Pennington's next pass play featured Hagan on the left side, and the ball was thrown a bit behind him to the sideline. Porter timed his hit well and took Hagan out of the play. What impressed me was that Porter was able to get effectively physical with Hagan from the snap, delaying the route's timing, without losing the receiver. (This is one of David's primary problems: Receivers will slip by him unless he's giving them a big cushion.) Porter drew Hagan to the sideline, establishing the outside position and making a completion nearly impossible. This incompletion stopped Miami's drive.
With 5:20 left in the first half, the Dolphins ran a trips left from the New Orleans 10-yard line. Receiver Ernest Wilford split the coverage of Porter, Jason Craft and safety Lance Schulters to catch a pass from Chad Henne. He got down to the 1-yard line with Porter playing behind him. Because of the late camera angle on the replay, I was not able to tell if Porter was supposed to be tighter in on Wilford, or if he was helping Craft recover from late coverage.
Individual defensive backs are more difficult to analyze than entire secondaries, especially when you don't have coach's tape showing the full 11-on-11 action, because the better the defensive back, the less action generally seen in an area. What I've seen in Porter since the Senior Bowl is a cornerback with the tremendous speed that will allow him to recover from the occasional mistake. What I also see is a player eager to learn from those mistakes, and a far better fit for this defense than his predecessor. I saw Pennington and Henne make deep left and right reads only to dump passes off to shorter targets, and the days of receivers running through the New Orleans secondary waving signs that say, "HEY -- I'M OPEN!!!" appear to be over. This would make New Orleans' second-round draft pick their most important this year.
27 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2008, 5:11pm by masocc