After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
16 May 2008
by Tim Gerheim
Ever since those ESPN draft ads showed David Carr about to take a snap with no blockers in front of him, the Texans have failed for one reason or another to take a single offensive lineman in the first round of the draft. This year, finally, they took one, but not everybody was happy with Duane Brown. Everyone who followed the draft had heard of Jake Long, Chris Williams, and Ryan Clady, but nobody expected Brown to be a first-rounder. Then again, nobody expected a record eight offensive linemen to be drafted in the first round. The Texans would have taken Brown at 18 had they not traded down to 26 and received extra third- and sixth-round picks from Baltimore. Brown is a converted tight end who still has a lot of room to develop, but he's already running with the first team in minicamps.
The Texans lost their second-round pick in the Matt Schaub trade last year. Third-rounder Antwaun Molden, a corner out of Eastern Kentucky, has the size and sub-4.4 speed to be a starter, but he's very raw coming out of a directional school. Molden figures to start the year in nickel and dime packages. With the third-rounder they got from Baltimore, the Texans took running back Steve Slaton, who was a star at West Virginia but might be too small to be anything but a role player in the NFL. Still, his quickness could make him a good fit in Gary Kubiak's Broncos-influenced offense.
In the fourth round Houston took Xavier Adibi, another smallish but highly productive college player. He could push for a starting job on a linebacker corps that, apart from DeMeco Ryans, is nothing special. Fifth-round defensive tackle Frank Okam is an intriguing player. He never seemed to live up to his potential at Texas, but if Houston coaches can get him to consistently play the way he occasionally shows he can, they'll have a fifth-round steal on their hands. Sixth-round safety Dominique Barber, the brother of the Cowboys' Marion Barber and a member of a family that's clearly a fan of gender-ambiguous names, will probably be a backup and special teamer, although he hardly has to beat out world-class talent to start at safety for the Texans. Quarterback Alex Brink of Washington State was the Texans' final pick, and he'll compete for the third quarterback spot or the practice squad.
The running game isn't in much better shape now than it was last season. Chris Brown replaced Ron Dayne, a move that seems (fittingly enough) like running in place. Unless Slaton is much more an every-down back than anyone really expects, the Texans are one 31-year-old Ahman Green injury away from giving a marginal starter too many starts.
The linebacker corps exemplifies the entire defense, featuring one star player (Ryans) and a cast of understudies. Even the defensive line, which has been carpet-bombed with first-round draft picks, has only one current standout, Mario Williams, and still relies heavily on aging players like N.D. Kalu and Anthony Weaver.
Clearly in the market for a slot receiver, the Texans signed Darnell Jenkins (5-10, 188 pounds) of Miami and Ryan Grice-Mullins (5-10, 187 pounds) of Hawaii. One of them, but probably not both, has a chance to stick behind Andre Johnson, Andre' Davis, Kevin Walter, and Jacoby Jones. They also picked up a couple linebackers -- Ben Moffitt of South Florida and Troy's Marcus Richardson -- who have a chance to make the roster at a position that has room for improvement.
Indianapolis is a team that knows where its bread is buttered: They drafted seven offensive players and only two defenders. And that doesn't even count tackle Tony Ugoh, whom the Colts traded their 2008 first-rounder to get in last year's second round. They took three interior linemen, starting with second-rounder Mike Pollak. He was a first-team All-Pac-10 center at Arizona State, but the Colts plan to use him as a guard. He should compete with Dylan Gandy for the starting right guard spot. Seventh-rounder Jamey Richard is another college center who will be a guard with the Colts, in Richard's case as a reserve if he makes the roster. Steven Justice, taken with one of the Colts' three compensatory sixth-round picks, will be the backup and heir apparent to Jeff Saturday (to the extent that centers have heirs apparent). He was actually a much more decorated college player than Pollak in terms of postseason awards, but that just goes to show the relative values of offensive line positions in the NFL.
The Colts' other compensatory sixth-round picks were Mike Hart of Michigan and Pierre Garcon, a wide receiver out of Mount Union. Hart joins a crowded backfield that now includes prodigal son Dominic Rhodes as well as Kenton Keith backing up Joseph Addai. Hart probably needs to establish himself as a third-down back to make the team. Garcon has good size at 6 feet and 210 pounds, and he dominated at the D-III level. If he plays a solid role on special teams in camp, he could make a roster that doesn't have a lot of juice at wideout behind Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Anthony Gonzalez (and Dallas Clark).
Tight ends Jacob Tamme of Kentucky and Tom Santi of Virginia, taken in the fourth and sixth rounds respectively, will attempt to replace the departed Ben Utecht. Tamme is cut from the same cloth as Dallas Clark -- a fast pass-catching wide receiver of a tight end -- but he's even smaller. Santi is more of a blocking tight end and could find himself squeezed out if the Colts carry fewer than five players at that position.
In the third round, the Colts took linebacker Philip Wheeler out of Georgia Tech. He has good size at about 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, which is unusual for Colts linebackers, and he could compete for a starting spot somewhere. Fifth-rounder Marcus Howard, a defensive end out of Georgia, is smaller than Wheeler at 6 feet and 237 pounds, but his 4.45 speed earned him a look as a possible backup to Dwight Freeney terrorizing quarterbacks and left tackles off the edge.
There is no crying position of need anywhere on the Colts' roster. They addressed their lack of offensive line depth, so the biggest question mark on the team is at linebacker. In the last two years they've lost Cato June and Rocky Boiman to free agency and Rob Morris to age. Their linebackers will probably be solid again, though, because throughout Tony Dungy's tenure the Colts have always done very well with lightly regarded players, like Rocky Boiman and Cato June.
The Colts signed eleven free agents, five on offense and six on defense. None are particularly noteworthy, but the Colts are notorious for giving free agents just as good a shot at making the team as draftees. You can bet that one of these guys will emerge as a significant contributor, a la Ed Johnson and Dominic Rhodes. Personally, I hope it's Kent State defensive tackle Colin Ferrell, because I can't wait to read his player evaluations, talking in scoutspeak about his erratic but generally effective performance in the phone booth.
The Jaguars drafted like they knew they had a very good roster that didn't have a lot of room for rookies to make the team. They traded up in the first round, giving up two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to take Derrick Harvey with the eighth overall selection. The draft punditocracy immediately pooh-poohed the move as a reach, but public opinion has warmed to the idea. Plus, Harvey gives the Jaguars a second consecutive first-round pick out of nearby Florida, an actual consideration for one of the only NFL teams that has trouble selling tickets.
Like the Colts concentrated on offense, the Jags focused the rest of their draft on the defensive side of the ball, the side that does the most to win them games. In the second round they took Quentin Groves, another defensive end, from Auburn. In 2008 he'll probably only see duty as a situational pass rusher. He's a similar player to Harvey but riskier on and off the field. But hey, that's the difference between the eighth overall pick and the 52nd.
In the fifth round the Jaguars took Southern Cal linebacker Thomas Williams and South Florida cornerback Trae Williams. Thomas Williams had trouble staying healthy and getting consistent playing time, so he will have to earn his pay as a special teamer while learning his way into a niche with the Jaguars. Trae Williams is a little small at just 5-foot-9 and less than 200 pounds. He should be the team's fourth or fifth cornerback, and will be expected to provide value on special teams. He also has experience returning kicks, so he could take that dangerous job and allow Maurice Jones-Drew to focus on being one of the Jaguars' best offensive players. The Jaguars' final pick was USC running back Chauncey Washington. He's a good runner whose style is reminiscent of Jones-Drew's, but his weakness in blitz pickup and other nuances of the position, together with his academic difficulties at USC, raised plenty of questions to push him to the seventh round.
The Jags are right: They have a very good roster. Their biggest weakness is in the passing game, where they are relying on players like Reggie Williams, Dennis Northcutt, and Jerry Porter. The situation is not as dire as in years past, though, because Williams showed marked improvement last year and Porter has been a good No. 2 receiver when healthy. They also lack a receiving threat from the tight end position since Marcedes Lewis has yet to justify his status as a first-round pick.
Other than that, the Jaguars lack depth along the offensive line and at defensive tackle. They have a shortage of interior linemen and utilize a lot of swing-position players, so more than one injury could cause a domino effect and seriously impair the overall effectiveness of the line. The Jaguars also don't have any playmakers other than John Henderson at defensive tackle. An injury to Henderson would all but neutralize the interior of the line and allow opponents to put a lot more double-teams on their shiny new defensive ends.
The Jaguars signed 13 undrafted rookies, not very many of whom figure to make the roster. One who does have a shot is quarterback Paul Smith, who led a gangbusters Tulsa offense in 2007. For his career he completed 62.5 percent of his passes over 40 starts, so if he had been a first- or second-round pick, David Lewin and the rest of us would have been drooling over him. But he's just 6-foot-1 and threw 19 interceptions in 14 games in 2007, so he wasn't drafted. He could make the Jags roster, though, because in Todd Bouman and Cleo Lemon there is a lot more experience and name recognition than talent backing up David Garrard. Another rookie worth mentioning is fullback Anthony Catrone from Maine, only because the only guy ahead of him on the fullback depth chart (apart from hybrid back Greg Jones) is Montell Owens, another fullback from Maine. Considering that there were only six former Black Bears on NFL rosters last year, and Owens was the only fullback, that's just weird.
As wide receivers are to the Lions, so are running backs to the Titans. They selected Chris Johnson, of combine-best 4.24 speed fame, out of East Carolina with the 24th pick. Actually, the comparison to the Lions isn't quite valid, since he was the franchise's first first-round running back since they were the Oilers, but with recent second-round running backs Chris Henry and LenDale White, the Titans will have to be creative in how they deploy their talent. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was a kid with a new remote control race car at Tennessee's first minicamp, but the Titans are still hoping without yet knowing that Johnson is more Brian Westbrook than Reggie Bush.
In the second round the Titans took Jason Jones, a defensive end from Eastern Michigan. He has the size, strength and mediocre speed to fit as a left end once his technique catches up to the change between a directional school and the NFL. Third-round pick Craig Stevens out of Cal will play the blocking tight end role in Tennessee's two-TE packages. The Titans' fourth-round selection of William Hayes ruffled some fan feathers because many thought the Winston-Salem defensive end could be had at least two rounds later. But the Titans coaches were impressed with the workout at which he put up a 4.6 40-time at 270 pounds. He may take some time to crack the lineup as well, but it's clear from the apparent reach that the Titans wanted to make sure Hayes was on their team.
The most recognizable name the Titans called on draft day belonged to Cal wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins, taken late in the fourth round. A smaller receiver who is a good route runner, Hawkins could see a lot of action this year in three-receiver sets. With their final fourth-round pick the Titans selected Purdue linebacker Stanford Keglar, who will provide depth to a fairly solid corps. Seventh-round cornerback Cary Williams from Washburn has experience as a kick returner, taking two kicks back for touchdowns last season, and could make the roster on that basis. Fun facts about Washburn College: It's located in Topeka, Kansas, and its athletes are known as "Ichabods" after Ichabod Washburn. He was a Massachusetts machinist and captain of industry who, at the request of Horatio Q. Butterfield, donated $25,000 in 1868 to struggling Lincoln College, which was then renamed in his honor. In an interesting twist of fate, $25,000 is in the neighborhood of what Cary Williams can expect to receive as a signing bonus from the Titans.
Tennessee's biggest weakness remains at defensive tackle behind Albert Haynesworth. If he goes down like he did last year, Tennessee's defensive productivity will go in the toilet like it did last year. And if he's not dominant like last year, the defense won't be either, because there is no one else there to pick up the slack.
The Titans signed ten rookie free agents, including three offensive linemen: Eric Scott of Kentucky, Fernando Velasco of Georgia, and Brock Pasteur of Stephen F. Austin. The Titans would love for one of them to show enough in camp to make the roster and help get more youth and depth on the offensive line, after it merely treaded water in free agency by signing Jake Scott after Benji Olson retired. They also signed Delaware running back Omar Cuff, which proves that Cuff was the second-best Blue Hens player last year ... by a mile.
101 comments, Last at 01 Jun 2008, 8:50pm by Bob in Jax