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In an opening week where even the elite teams in college football looked mortal, the SEC had two big surprises in Texas A&M and Georgia defeating their South Carolinian opponents by big scores.

25 May 2005

Four Downs: AFC East

by Aaron Schatz

Also check out the pre-draft edition of Four Downs: AFC East.

Buffalo Bills

Draft Roundup

Buffalo had no first round pick this year, although the Bills will tell you that their first round pick was J.P Losman. (This year's pick went to Dallas for the pick that was used on Buffalo's new quarterback.) As for the rest of Buffalo's picks, they demonstrate that the Bills front office does not read Football Outsiders. Before the draft, I wrote in Four Downs that Buffalo had three major needs:

  • a left tackle to replace Jonas Jennings.
  • a tight end
  • defensive depth, because last year's unusually low number of games lost to injury could not possibly continue in 2005.

The Bills took two offensive linemen, but neither was taken before round four and neither is a tackle: C Raymond "Duke" Preston and G Justin Geisinger. Preston is particularly interesting, generally described as highly intelligent and skilled with technique but slow and lacking strength. Could Preston be an offensive line equivalent to players like Tom Brady and Zach Thomas, who overcame their physical imperfections with a natural sense of what it takes to make the right play at the right time? As Billy Beane might say, we're not selling jeans here.

The Bills took a tight end, Kevin Everett, but he promptly followed in the tradition of his fellow Miami tight ends by getting injured. Everett tore his ACL at minicamp and is out for the year.

Defensive depth? No thanks, we'll pass. Undersized cornerback Eric King (fifth round) was Buffalo's only defensive draft choice.

Instead of filling these needs, Buffalo used its first pick (55th overall) on receiver Roscoe Parrish, who like Everett is a former Miami Hurricane. It seems like an odd choice, because the Bills are set at the starting receiver spots with Lee Evans and Eric Moulds, and Josh Reed should be solid now that he's back in the slot role. Parrish is known as a great return man, but Buffalo already ranked number one in special teams DVOA thanks in large part to Terrance McGee. However, McGee only returned kicks; cornerback Nate Clements returned punts and wasn't very good. As for the receivers, Reed is a free agent at the end of the year, and the Bills may also realize that Moulds is getting old, and isn't really that spectacular to begin with (Moulds caught only 58% of passes thrown to him last year, and that was the highest percentage of his entire career). If all goes well, Parrish will spend this season learning and returning punts before moving into the third receiver role in 2006 and the starting lineup in 2007.

After the Draft

After the draft, the Bills decided to take me up on my idea of defensive depth, because 10 of the 16 undrafted free agents brought into Buffalo were defensive players. The biggest name was George Gause, a defensive end who has 15 sacks as a three-year starter for the University of South Carolina (pre-Spurrier Era). The Bills also brought in linebackers Liam Ezekiel of Northeastern and Wendell Hunter of California; cornerbacks Therrian Fontenot of Fresno State, Northern Illinois' Rob Lee, North Alabama's Evan Oglesby and Northwestern's Marvin Ward; safeties Daniel Leger of Colorado School of Mines and Wisconsin's Jim Leonhard; and California tackle Tom Sverchek. This may set some kind of record for guys from Colorado School of Mines getting invited to NFL camps, as their quarterback Chad Friehauf has a chance to win the third-string job in Denver.

The Bills also signed Kansas State kicker Joe Rheem, and you might expect him to give incumbent kicker Rian Lindell a battle. Unfortunately, the two have the same strength (accuracy on shorter field goals) and the same weakness (short kickoffs and the inability to consistently hit field goals over 40 yards).

Miami Dolphins

Introducing the 7-0 Alignment

Let's play a fun game, tracking all the moves Miami has made on the offensive and defensive lines.

Offensive Line Defensive Line
Starting Point #32 in Adjusted Line Yards,
#26 in Adjusted Sack Rate
#13 in Adjusted Line Yards,
#13 in Adjusted Sack Rate
Free Agents T Stockar McDougle
G Damion Cook
DE/DT Kevin Carter
DE Vonnie Holliday
DT Keith Traylor
Draft T Anthony Alabi (TCU, fifth round) DE Matt Roth (Iowa, second round)
DT Kevin Vickerson (Michigan St., seventh round)
Undrafted
Free Agents
G Rodney Reed (LSU)
G Bobby Meeks (Florida St.)
DE Chris Solomona (Oregon)
DE Van Brown (NE Oklahoma)
DT Orrin Thompson (Duke)
DT Matt Faga (Hawaii)
DE John Denney (BYU)

Yep, that seems about even. I'm sure grabbing the backup guard from the Cleveland Browns will be a huge boon for Miami's blocking schemes.

Draft Roundup

Ronnie Brown may have moved behind Cadillac Williams in the competition for "most yards by a rookie running back out of Auburn in 2005." An interesting pick to watch is fourth-round cornerback Travis Daniels, the one player Nick Saban drafted from his LSU team. With Will Poole now out for the year with a torn ACL, there's an opening at cornerback, and don't be surprised if Daniels takes that spot. Much like Randall Gay in New England last season, Daniels has the advantage of knowing the defense. (The Patriots run a defense like Nick Saban's, but the Dolphins run a defense that is Nick Saban's.)

After the Draft

The Dolphins snagged a couple of offensive skill players who were, if not "highly-rated," at least "medium-rated": Running back Kay-Jay Harris from West Virginia and wide receiver Josh Davis from Marshall. The other undrafted rookie free agent with a shot at making the team is Oregon State safety Mitch Meeuwsen. University of Miami quarterback Brock Berlin and receiver Kevin Beard will also be in camp, as a gift to local writers.

Ricky Williams seems to have changed his mind again, and has leaked word through the media that he will be returning to the NFL this year. Williams will not be able to officially announce his return until Julzzzsuyfhfdlskdjhg...

(Whoops, apparently I fell asleep on the keyboard there. I apologize, I just find the whole Ricky on-again off-again thing so absurdly dull. Wake me when he shows up at camp.)

New England Patriots

Draft Roundup

The Patriots have always taken players with connections to former Belichick assistants, usually Saban. This year, the ex-Belichick assistant of choice was Pat Hill of Fresno State, and the Patriots chose guard Logan Mankins in the first round and safety James Sanders in the fourth. While many teams coming off a Super Bowl title would use a high draft pick to take a flyer on a player with major upside, Mankins is the exact opposite: a player with very little upside. Even if he becomes a Pro Bowl guard, that's not the kind of player most teams are excited to take in round one. But he happens to be exactly what New England needs to fill the hole left by the departure of free agent Joe Andruzzi, he's used to the blocking system thanks to his Pat Hill education, and there's a very good chance he steps right into the starting lineup. The Pats also took guard Nick Kaczur in the third round, who is more of a long-term offensive line solution.

Despite the three Super Bowl titles, the Patriots are relatively young at nearly every position except for kicker/punter, running back, and linebacker. Many people expected the Pats to choose a linebacker to help make up for the loss of Roman Pfifer and (probably) Tedy Bruschi, but they waited until the fifth round before choosing Ryan Claridge out of UNLV. The general consensus on Claridge was that his strengths -- lateral movement and agility -- make him a much better fit in a 3-4 scheme where he can play more on the edge.

The other New England draft choices were cornerback Ellis Hobbs out of Iowa State in the third round, quarterback Matt Cassel from USC in the seventh round, and TE Andy Stokes from William Penn in the seventh round. Hobbs may be returning kicks if Bethel Johnson stays in Belichick's doghouse, Cassel is destined to be 2006 MVP of NFL Europe, and Stokes should make it his goal to be named Pro Bowl special teams specialist, because he won't be seeing the field on offense. (Unless he can get traded to Arizona, where the tight end depth chart currently consists of undrafted second-year player Eric Edwards, undrafted rookie Adam Bergen, and the dog from "Air Bud.")

After the Draft

The biggest name among the undrafted free agents in New England is DeCori Birmingham who is -- you guessed it -- an SEC running back. Viva los SEC running backs! Two years ago, Birmingham was the backup in Arkansas for Cedric Cobbs, who is the backup for Corey Dillon. Other free agents include Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, Wisconsin offensive tackle Mike Lorenz, Villanova safety Ray Ventrone, Catawba offensive guard Daniel Lynch, and Penn State kicker Robbie Gould. This brings up three important questions:

1) Where the heck is Catawba?

2) Does Robbie Gould win the award for most pointless undrafted free agent signing?

3) Can I go this entire article without mentioning that veteran cornerback Otis "My Man" Smith signed a contract with the Patriots and then retired, although Patriots fans really could care less?

New York Jets

At this point, between an article in The New York Sun and the Jets chapter for Pro Football Prospectus 2005, I've written so much about the Jets draft that I've lost track of where I've written what. So if any of these thoughts have appeared on this website already, I apologize. In the meantime, I don't have anything to say about Mike Nugent that isn't in the book, so consider this a free preview of what will be hitting your local bookstores in the first week of August (Amazon.com pre-sale link coming soon).

Draft Roundup

After last year's playoff choke, there was no way that the team could bring Doug Brien back to face the angry fans at the Meadowlands. But blowing a second-round draft pick on kicker Mike Nugent of Ohio State was a monumental overreaction.

There is no doubt that Nugent was the best kicking prospect to come out of college in a number of years. But the key word there is "prospect." Kickers are drafted so rarely that you might think no team would draft one unless they knew they were getting a sure thing. Yet the number of drafted kickers who develop into productive, enduring NFL players is astonishingly low.

Not counting Nugent, 13 different kickers have been chosen in the first five rounds of the NFL draft since 1993. Only five of those kickers spent all of last season on an NFL roster. One of them was Doug Brien, who in 1994 was a promising young prospect deemed worthy of a third-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers. Another was 2004 third-round pick Nate Kaeding of San Diego. Without a missed field goal by last year's hot kicking prospect in the wild card game, of course, there would have been no opportunity for Brien to miss two field goals against Pittsburgh, and the Jets would not have spent a second-round pick on this year's hot kicking prospect.

Kickers are notoriously inconsistent from year to year, and kickers who are good enough to be drafted high end up no different. Martin Gramatica was as highly lauded as Nugent when Tampa Bay used a third-round pick on him in 1999; last year he was booed out of town after he missed two field goals in a close loss to St. Louis and three in a close loss to Carolina. Arizona chose his brother Bill in the fourth round of 2001, and the younger Gramatica was out of the league within three years.

Green Bay wasted a third-round pick on Brett Conway in 1997 and he didn't even make their roster. He later kicked for six teams over a five-year period. The Rams used a third-rounder on Steve McLaughlin in 1995 and he played only one season, missing half his field goals. 2002 Cincinnati fourth-rounder Travis Dorsch was out of the league after a single game. John Markham, taken by the Giants the year before, didn't even get that far.

Of course, any player chosen in the second round of the draft could turn out to be a bust, whether a kicker or any other position. But when it comes to players at offensive or defensive positions, the higher a player is chosen in the draft, the more likely he will turn out to be a starter or even a Pro Bowl talent. That's not true for the specialists like kickers and punters.

Last year's two Pro Bowl kickers, Adam Vinatieri and David Akers, were both undrafted free agents. So were the two Pro Bowl kickers from the year before, Mike Vanderjagt and Jeff Wilkins. Contrast that to the other positions where the Jets had holes going into the draft: offensive tackle, defensive tackle, cornerback, and safety. A great majority of Pro Bowlers at these positions were first-round picks, and the rest were primarily second- and third-rounders.

The Jets did end up with Clemson cornerback Justin Miller with their own pick in the second round, and Utah defensive tackle Sione Pouha in the third. They used their fourth and fifth round picks on safeties to add depth to the secondary (Kerry Rhodes of Louisville, Andre Maddox of North Carolina St.). But they took no offensive linemen. Two tackles, Marcus Johnson of Mississippi and Khalif Barnes of Washington, went off the draft board in the next five picks after the Jets took Nugent. Instead of one of those players, the Jets have Marko Cavka, a 2004 sixth-round pick who didn't even play last year, on top of the depth chart at right tackle, and no depth behind him.

Johnson and Barnes could turn out to be flops. But since most second-round offensive linemen become productive starters, and most sixth-round linemen do not, the difference in value between those players and Cavka is far greater than the difference in value between Nugent and a league-average free agent kicker. This would be true even if Nugent were guaranteed to immediately become the best kicker in the NFL, and of course there is no such guarantee.

A common refrain from Jets fans excited about the Nugent selection is that the Jets were just a kicker away from a trip to New England for the AFC Championship Game. But that assumes that the 2004 Jets and the 2005 Jets are the same except for Nugent, and they aren't. The team has holes on the offensive and defensive lines that will make a repeat of last year's 10-6 record extremely difficult. It's nice that Nugent might be more likely than Brien to connect on a last-minute field goal to win the game. But as bad as it might be to miss that field goal, it is even worse to lose by two touchdowns because you only have half an offensive line.

(Note: It was pointed out below that 2004 fourth-round pick Adrian Jones may be the starting right tackle, even though he is not listed on the NFL.com Jets depth chart. Two second-year tackles is better depth than one second-year tackle, but this still doesn't change the general argument regarding the marginal value of using a second-round selection on a kicker.)

A note about Pouha: He's a 329-pound run-stuffer, but he struggles against complicated blocking schemes and wears down late in games. Many scouts considered him a developmental project, but there are no Mormon developmental projects. Because Pouha spent three years as a missionary, he is 26 years old. While I do not fault Pouha for putting his religious beliefs ahead of his career, the Jets must understand that by the time he "develops" the proper technique to play defensive tackle in the NFL, he'll already be into his physical decline.

The late-round picks included running back Cedric Houston from Tennessee -- who will get to backup Derrick Blaylock and prove my SEC running back theory correct when Curtis Martin inevitably misses time due to injury from last year's overuse -- plus Colorado St. tight end Joel "Chuck" Dreessen and wide receiver Henry "The Tuskegee Experiment" Williams.

After the Draft

I'm not sure about the biggest name, but the biggest player New York signed was Mike Kracalik, a 6-8 337-pound San Diego State offensive tackle. Hulk crush puny Marko Cavka.

Later this week: NFC East by Al Bogdan.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 25 May 2005

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