Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Apr 2008
by Doug Farrar
Congratulations, Matt Ryan. You are now the captain of the resurgent Titanic.
Exactly 365 days after local police found a dog training complex behind Michael Vick's house and 66 dogs on the property -- setting into motion one of the worst years any sports franchise has ever suffered -- the Falcons made a very public break from the Vick era by drafting the Boston College standout third overall. While beleaguered team owner Arthur Blank sees Ryan as the ticket out of the disaster Blank himself helped create, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith see him as the talented, versatile potential leader of the new Falcons power offense run by offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was seriously considered, and the team reportedly talked to the St. Louis Rams about trading up to the second pick to get Dorsey, but it feels like the Falcons were going quarterback all along. After traveling to workouts to see Ryan, Chad Henne, Joe Flacco and San Diego's Josh Johnson, a final meeting between Ryan and all the Atlanta head men seemed to clinch it.
Ryan isn't just the senior who threw for 4,507 yards and 31 touchdowns -- he's the humble, well-spoken future star who will hopefully energize an understandably hesitant fan base with the idea that this team knows what it's doing again. Any ancillary concerns (like his 19 interceptions or sub-60 completion percentage in 2007) were set aside as products of a poor supporting cast. The Falcons needed and got the best quarterback in this year's draft. That's the perception. Ryan holds the key to the reality.
Atlanta traded up with the Redskins to acquire another first-round pick, taking USC offensive tackle Sam Baker at 21. For all the talk that Dimitroff put out there before the draft about building from the lines out, Baker was the only lineman chosen among Atlanta's 11 selections. The three-time All-American could be an immediate starter at tackle, though some see his power blocking style and short arms and think he projects better inside. Oklahoma middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a very instinctive player who has drawn comparisons to Houston's DeMeco Ryans, will push Keith Brooking back outside. LSU cornerback Chevis Jackson is an aggressive player with average speed who might be better off at free safety. Louisville receiver Harry Douglas, a hit at the Combine with his quotable nature, is tough inside despite his size. Georgia running back Thomas Brown, taken in the sixth round, might be the surprise of this class if he can stay healthy. He has had injury issues every season since his high school senior year, but he's got change-of-pace size and speed.
The Falcons drafted 11 high-quality young men who will pass any character test. What they did not do was address their interior offensive and defensive line issues, the Baker pick aside. Atlanta's offense ranked 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards and 23rd inAdjusted Sack Rate. It was no better on the other side, as the team ranked 28th and 21st in Defensive ALY and ASR. Part of the problem with the offensive line was Bobby Petrino's inability to match blocking schemes to the players he had, but Ryan (should he start sooner than later, which is the assumption) and new big-ticket running back Michael Turner could find it tough going early on. Atlanta goes into minicamp with Jonathan Babineaux and Kindal Moorehead as the projected starting defensive tackles. Problem is, they're both under 300 pounds, and there isn't a run-stopper to speak of while Trey Lewis deals with ACL issues. There's also no definite replacement for cornerback DeAngelo Hall, though Hall's trade to the Raiders took a big weight off a few shoulders from a personality perspective.
Oklahoma strong safety D.J. Wolfe had a sixth-round grade, but his story is fairly common among corner/safety "tweeners." Thought to be a bit small for the position at 5-foot-11 and 207 pounds, his 4.6 speed at the Combine and at his Pro Day scuttled his stock. If there's one thing you can call cornerback-sized players who run like safeties, it's "undrafted." Wolfe has potential as a nickel coverage player and on special teams. Georgia middle linebacker Brandon Miller might stick as a backup; his college coaches thought him to be the fulcrum of the Bulldog defense. The Falcons had been tracking Slippery Rock offensive tackle Mike Butterworth since his Cactus Bowl appearance (boy, that was a fun sentence to write). They were the only NFL team to send a representative to his Pro Day.
When Panthers owner Jerry Richardson proclaimed that he wanted his offense to resemble the smashmouth approach of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise at its best, he wasn't just whistling Dixie. Power was the overriding theme of this draft, beginning with Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart, the 13th overall pick. Stewart is a beast to tackle; with his 5-10, 235-pound frame and sub-4.5 speed, there isn't a defensive back in the NFL who's going to look forward to dealing with him one-on-one. To get Stewart and battery-mate DeAngelo Williams past the first level of defenders, general manager Marty Hurney orchestrated a trade with the Eagles that took Carolina 24 spots up and back into the first round. It was there at 19 that the Panthers took Pitt tackle Jeff Otah, an enormous man (6-6, 322 pounds) who will move to right tackle. Otah is raw, and there are questions about his instincts, consistency, and ability to deal with edge rushers, but he operates under the hypothesis that it's a lot harder to get around him when you're trying to get your wind back after being flattened by one of the strongest prospects in recent memory. The fact that he allowed 8.5 sacks in his senior season seems to validate the wisdom of the move to the right side. The Panthers gave up second- and fourth-round picks in 2007 and their first-rounder next year for Otah, which certainly puts the pressure on.
Carolina followed their first two selections with two possible third-round steals. Iowa cornerback Charles Godfrey projects as a free safety in the NFL, though he's played all around the defensive backfield. He could start right away. Penn State linebacker Dan Connor, the reigning Bednarik Award winner, dropped far beyond where most expected (yours truly had him going 19th overall, exactly where Otah did, in the FO mock draft). The Panthers had Connor much higher on their draft board and couldn't believe they got him at 74. He's a surprisingly athletic player who can fit in just about anywhere in a 4-3 squad, though he looks best in the middle. Second-year sensation Jon Beason might move outside.
Keeping it close to home -- by which I mean "Football Outsiders World Headquarters in beautiful downtown Framingham, Massachusetts" -- Carolina chose Waltham's own Mackenzy Bernadeau in the seventh round (250th overall). Bernadeau attended Division II Bentley College, staying close to home so that his disabled mother could see him play. A knee injury forced the 6-4, 305-pound guard out of his last four regular season games, the Cactus Bowl, the Texas vs. the Nation game and the Combine. However, a great performance during Boston College's Pro Day got the attention of many scouts, and Bernadeau visited several NFL teams before the draft. He'll be a major project at the next level -- probably practice squad at best -- but he could be worth the investment down the road for a team willing to show him the ropes.
Like the Falcons, the Panthers have some serious issues along their defensive line. It was a surprise to see them wait until the sixth round to address this with Wisconsin guard Nick Hayden. The recent Darwin Walker signing is more a stopgap than anything on the defensive line. If Jake Delhomme's recovery from Tommy John surgery hits any snags, Carolina's left with the two-pronged plan of Matt Moore and Brett Basanez, so it might have been a good idea to take a flyer on a late-rounder like Tulsa's Paul Smith.
South Carolina defensive end Casper Brinkley began the 2007 season on the All-SEC team along with his twin brother, linebacker Jasper. However, fate took a bad turn for Jasper, who was on the Butkus and Lombardi watch lists, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in late September. He'll return to school in 2008 with a medical waiver while his brother gives the NFL a shot. Casper struggles in coverage, but he might stick with his ability to rush the passer; Carolina's 23 sacks last year was the second-worst total in the league, ahead of only the Bengals.
The problems were all too clear for the 2007 Saints: They gave up 245.3 passing yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their 32 passing touchdowns allowed tied with the Lions for the NFL's worst. They allowed a 96.9 passer rating and 7.87 yards per attempt, both the NFL's worst. Former Colts cornerback Jason David was completely victimized by the switch from zone to man coverage. The Hole-in-Zone jokes are already getting old, but watching the Saints' secondary in action is still high comedy. Their 27.8% DVOA against the pass was the league's worst by far. New Orleans' run defense wasn't so bad, but what was the point in hauling the rock when you could go up top with impunity? Opposing offenses passed the ball a league-leading 652 times.
Clearly, something had to be done, and the Saints dealt with the problem from the front to the back in the draft. They traded up three spots in the first round and took USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who looked like Warren Sapp on leapers during Senior Bowl practices and proved to be virtually unblockable in the game. Ellis played nose and 3-technique in college, but he'll be a perfect under tackle in the NFL. Ellis' senior season was a revelation from start to finish. He had to be held out of USC's spring drills because he was disrupting the offense so much, and he took off 11 pounds from the Combine to his Pro Day just to further impress. He lasted longer in Kansas City line coach Tim Krumrie's brutal hand-fighting drill than did any other tackle this year when he visited the Chiefs. The Saints hope that his ability to wreak havoc in the pocket will upset the quarterbacks who previously found their defense easy to solve.
In the second round, New Orleans took Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter, a small, speedy defender with minimal tackling ability but great short-area and open-range quickness (think Andre Dyson or Kelly Jennings as rough comparisons). His occasional lapses in coverage are mitigated by sheer athletic prowess. Porter can play the nickel right away, and he could do more soon with this lineup. North Carolina defensive tackle Demario Pressley and the fourth-round trade for ex-Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma rounded out a solid need-based draft. Both Pressley and Vilma have struggled with injuries; they'll decide whether this draft is spectacular. Ellis, however, is as sure a thing as you'll find in this draft. Keep an eye on fifth-round lineman Carl Nicks of Nebraska. If he can set things right after the character concerns that forced his drop on the boards, he could be a force at guard sooner than later. The Saints also got Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff, the best kicker in this draft class.
Cornerback was such a problem that the Saints basically threw the kitchen sink at it by drafting Porter and signing Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn. However, if Porter takes a while to develop and Mike McKenzie's ACL recovery doesn't go as planned, there's a very uncomfortable reliance on Jason David. Believe it or not, there could be another move at the position. Depth at running back is a concern, especially if you're of the opinion that Deuce McAllister is basically done. Reggie Bush needs a counterpart; maybe Dominic Rhodes gets a shot there. Pierre Thomas is the sleeper.
The Geathers name has been well-known in New Orleans since 1984, when the team took Witchita State defensive end James "Jumpy" Geathers in the second round. The elder Geathers lasted 13 seasons in the NFL, playing for the Saints, Redskins, Falcons and Broncos. His son Jeremy, also a defensive end, declared for the draft after his junior year and wound up signing with the Saints as a free agent. If bloodlines mean anything, Jeremy's in good shape -- his dad put up 62 sacks in 163 career games; his uncle Robert Sr. played for the Bills for six seasons; and his cousin Robert Jr. currently plays for the Bengals. At a slower 6-2 and 256 pounds, Jeremy might be a man without a position, but name will get him some traction.
The Buccaneers, like the Raiders franchise that spawned head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, have no problem taking chances on athletic players with "interesting" pasts. They gave serial troublemaker Jerramy Stevens reps at tight end last year, and receiver Antonio Bryant, who previously washed out in Cleveland, Dallas and San Francisco, is currently languishing on Gruden's roster. When they took Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall pick, it wasn't a surprise. Talib is a fast, talented player who scared some teams off after admitting that he tested positive for marijuana three times at school. He was also suspended for two games in 2006 for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. He did display some growth in his overall work ethic through his collegiate career, and there are those insiders who believe that marijuana is a far more common issue among college players than is currently disclosed. Legal and ethical debates aside, Talib now has to prove that the people who dinged him as immature were wrong. He'll also have to quiet the doubters who wonder why Tampa Bay didn't take South Florida's Mike Jenkins instead.
The Bucs turned their draft into a track meet with their second pick. If you remember how difficult Jeff Garcia found it to do anything in the playoff loss to the Giants, you won't be surprised that Gruden and Allen took a speedy receiver in the second round. It wasn't Cal's DeSean as many expected; that Jackson went to the Eagles. The Bucs decided on Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson, the man who took Michigan to school with two touchdowns in that improbable upset, and later impressed at the Shrine Game, Senior Bowl, and Combine. He's a little bigger than most waterbugs at 5-10 and 182 pounds. The comparison is Antwaan Randle El; the dream is Steve Smith.
Speaking of athletic, Rutgers tackle Jeremy Zuttah was picked in the third round, and if Gruden wants to run the tackle eligible, Zuttah's their man. In the fifth round, Tampa Bay selected a quarterback they have had their eye on for a long time: Josh Johnson, the Pioneer League superstar who suffered back spasms at the Combine but redeemed himself at his Pro Day. Bucs senior personnel assistant Doug Williams took a special interest in Johnson, whose underrated onfield acumen is the result of extensive work with Jim Harbaugh. South Carolina running back Cory Boyd looked solid at the Shrine Game. Might he be this year's Earnest Graham? He'll be a short-yardage option early on.
"My guts are ripped out of my body right now." That was Gruden's quote when asked how it felt to pass on all the receiver talent beyond Jackson. The Redskins had a similar need for a big receiver, and they took two -- Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly. Tampa Bay's more balanced draft leaves concerns at the receiver position. Joey Galloway will be 37 in November, Michael Clayton has caught a total of 87 passes in the three seasons since his 80-catch rookie year, and though Harry Douglas may love him some Ike Hilliard, the Bryant acquisition and D.J. Hackett's visit displayed that there's still a big need there.
The Bucs will give Tommy Blake, the TCU defensive end who is battling social anxiety disorder, a tryout in their upcoming minicamps. Blake went into his senior season expected to compete for national awards, but his multiple departures from fall camp, and the fact that he ballooned up 30 pounds to 280 from his junior year, made 2007 a lost season. Blake missed five games, refused to work out at the Combine, and redeemed himself just a bit at his Pro Day. The sad tales of Alonzo Spellman and Dimitrius Underwood have teams on alert, but Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, who included Blake on his "Rang's Gang" team of undervalued players, believed Blake's potential to be worth a roster spot.
42 comments, Last at 21 May 2008, 2:19am by Brent