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.
10 Jun 2005
by Ian Hollohan
It'd be pretty tough to argue that this year's World Bowl match-up doesn't feature the two best teams in the league. Amsterdam has the top ranked offense in the league, while Berlin is right behind them at number two. Berlin has the number two defense in the league, statistically, while Amsterdam is number three. They are also 1-2 in turnover differential: Berlin +12, Amsterdam +8. So who has the edge going into Saturday's game?
Amsterdam overcame significant adversity early in the season with the loss of two critical players on offense, QB Gibran Hamdan (Sea) and TE Tony Donald (Sea). The Admirals really didn't miss a beat with Kurt Kittner (Chi) under center, and the 1-2 punch of Jarrett Payton (Ten) and Jonathan Smith (KC) gave Amsterdam the top rushing attack in the league. At wideout, they've been a one-man show with Ruvell Martin (SD) catching 12 of Amsterdam's 16 passing TDs on the season. However, both Ataveus Cash (NYG) and John Booth (KC) are dangerous at wide receiver and capable of making big plays.
Berlin, while not nearly as flashy as the Admirals on offense, has been extremely effective. QB Dave Ragone (Hou), the newly crowned league MVP, led NFLE in completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns and passer rating, with only two interceptions the entire season. WR Michael Jennings (NYG) has great speed and is the deep threat for the Thunder. Aaron Booth (Car) has also been one of Ragone's favorite targets down the stretch. Like Amsterdam, Berlin features a two-pronged backfield of Little John Flowers (NYJ) and Cal Murray (SD). Neither of these guys have been overly impressive, but they have been efficient enough when called upon, particularly in the red zone.
Both teams are also fairly equally matched on the defensive side of the ball. Berlin is led by LB Rich Scanlon (KC) who led the league in tackles and was named NFL Europe's defensive MVP this past week. CBs Jermaine Mays (Min) and Willie Ford (KC) tied for second in the league with 4 interceptions each.
Amsterdam's defense thrived off turnovers this year. The Admirals led NFL Europe with 28 takeaways, including 19 interceptions. The secondary is highlighted by B.J. Tucker (Sea) and Scott Connot (KC).
Neither team is as solid against the run, Berlin ranking fourth in the league in ground defense and Amsterdam ranking fifth.
Berlin's kicker Kevin Miller (Sea) has been slightly better over 40 yards (4 of 7, including 0 for 2 from 50+) than K Chris Snyder (Hou) of Amsterdam (2 of 7, also 0 for 2 from 50+). There's been a lot of ugly kicking in NFL Europe this year, and nothing's in the bag if it comes down to a field goal. Berlin also averages 8.1 yards per punt return and 22.0 yards per kick return to Amsterdam's 4.5 yards and 18.0 yards respectively.
Amsterdam's Ryan Dutton (Sea) averaged 41.7 yards per punt (35.3 net) while Brian Simnjanovski (TB) of Berlin averaged 40.0 yards per punt (31.5 net).
Like many big games between evenly matched teams, I can see this one being decided by turnovers. Amsterdam has feasted on turnovers for most of the season, with 20 of their takeaways coming in their six wins and another 6 coming in a wild Week 7 OT loss to Hamburg.
Irresistible force, meet immovable object. Berlin has turned the ball over only 11 times in 10 games this season, an NFLE best. Ragone has been patient and confident guiding the offense, and (as mentioned above) has thrown only two picks all season. The defense has been good enough to slow down Martin, Payton and Smith. It should be a good game, and might be close, but I see Berlin capturing their fourth World Bowl in five years.
It is an understatement to say that its extremely difficult to predict which players in NFL Europe are going to find a home on a NFL roster the following season (or a few years down the road). All of you who saw a future NFL MVP in Kurt Warner during his time in Amsterdam, raise your hand. For a lot of these guys, making a NFL roster is at least partially dependent on things outside of their control, like injuries or a lot of depth at the position they're trying to crack (Glenn Martinez, wide receiver for the Lions, I'm looking at you). Despite this, below are some guys who just might have a shot at turning up on the field on Sundays this fall.
The Titans were not the only team to send two players at the same position to NFL Europe (yikes, two fourth-string Chicago quarterbacks) but this was the one "positional battle" that actually had meaning because one (or both) of these guys may see some playing time this fall for the Titans. With Chris Brown's recent injury troubles and the overall lack of depth at the position, it wouldn't be that surprising for Payton or Smith to see real NFL carries this season. Payton has gotten more coverage, and is certainly the more well-known name, but Smith has been the best (and most consistent) running back in NFL Europe this season. He carried the ball 233 times for 1,026 yards -- 82 carries and 308 yards more than anyone else. If he hadn't missed Week 3 due to injury, he'd almost certainly have become the single season rushing king of NFL Europe. On the positive side for Payton, he did seem to improve as the season progressed, and was fairly solid down the stretch.
Boone came on strong in the second half of the season, finishing the season with 43 catches (the most in NFLE) and 5 touchdowns. With Mushin Muhammed leaving for the ... ahem ... greener pastures of Chicago (and Steve Smith coming off last year's injury), the Panthers aren't exactly stacked at wideout. Its possible Boone might see a few passes from his fellow NFLE alum Jake Delhomme this season.
Morley was selected #1 overall by the Calgary Stampeders in the 2003 CFL draft. The Packers coaching staff have been pretty high on the Halifax native, and a season in NFL Europe should have helped him further adjust to the nuances of the American game. With Mike Wahle and Marco Riviera departing via free agency, Morley will have a great opportunity to win a starting job this fall.
Scanlan lead NFL Europe in tackles and was named the league's defensive MVP. Coach Vermeil himself has noticed his progress, and it's not like Kansas City's defense has been anything to write home about the last few years. He's currently listed as the #2 MLB on the depth chart for the Chiefs.
Connot had a standout year, collecting 66 tackles (57 solo) 10 passes defensed, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. He should at least make the Chiefs as a special teamer.
No player in Europe this summer has a better chance of becoming a starter in the NFL in 2005. France was far and away the best kicker (of an admittedly mediocre lot) in Europe, and set an NFLE single season record with 24 converted field goals (including one from 54 yards). The battle to be Tampa's kicker is between him and former Giants kicker Matt Bryant. France has a shot at joining Vinatieri, Akers, and Lawrence Tynes as former NFLE kickers in the NFL.
Some other names to watch out for include Berlin's quarterback Ragone (who could beat Tony Banks for time in Houston if David Carr is injured) and his teammate, receiver Jennings (possibly a special teamer for the Giants) along with P B.J. Sander of Green Bay (drafted highly for a punter, he should have every opportunity to win the starting job).
Naturally, now that I've named my favorites, someone else will emerge from the shadows and find stardom in the NFL. NFL Europe can do that to you.
As John Clayton points out today at ESPN.com, the future of NFL Europe is up in the air after this weekend. The league needs to renew a two-year agreement to keep the league going, and that decision is getting lost amidst the owner vs. owner fights about revenue sharing. NFL Europe will also lost some of its value if the owners go ahead with a proposal to drop the size of practice squads from eight to five, since this is where most NFL Europe alumni will end up while they await the injuries that will give them their chance to make an actual NFL roster.
8 comments, Last at 14 Jun 2005, 8:37am by houlie