Want to see what good middle linebacker play looks like? Watch this Alabama prospect work.
19 Mar 2009
by Mike Tanier
The Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide is always a source of reliable information. This year, it's also a source of humor.
Each prospect's statistics are highlighted in a "By the Numbers" box, but offensive linemen have no numbers. So the editors gave linemen little pullout boxes, each labeled "Fast Fact." The fast facts remind me of the narratives on the backs of old baseball or football cards. "Woody Peoples enjoys fly fishing and installs chain link fences in the offseason." Or, "John Hill's third cousin owns the third largest candelabra factory in Illinois." While many of the fast facts are predictable and quasi-informative in a ho-hum sort of way ("Joe Schmo was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy and a two-time second-team All-American"), a few are just random, irrelevant, or shocking enough to get you thinking.
Here are some things I learned while reading the Fast Facts:
Nicknames: Jason Smith is nicknamed "J. Smooth," a title I plan to appropriate. How does "T-Smooth" sound? Louis Vasquez, meanwhile, is nicknamed "Super Hero Indian." Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? "Hey, Super Hero Indian, pass the Thousand Island dressing!" It sounds like the incorrect Japanese translation of a far cooler nickname. If the Texas Tech Nickname Committee got their hands on some other prospects, we might be calling Mathew Stafford "Strong Armed Streaky Cowboy" or Michael Oher "Book Topic Bebop."
Famous Family: Duke Robinson is Smokey Robinson's great-nephew. Eben Britton's grandmother was Estelle Parsons. Parsons won two Academy Awards, one for portraying Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde, one for her role in something called Rachel, Rachel, which is reportedly being remade under the title Laveranues, Laveranues. She also won a Nick at Nite TV Land award for her work as Beverly on Rosanne; no doubt that award is kept right between the Oscars on her mantle. Justin Fargas has nothing on these guys. Unlike Denzel Washington's son a few years ago, Robinson and Britton have a good chance of getting drafted, Britton on Day One.
Old Time Religion: Both of William Beatty's parents are pastors. For the sake of dinner-table peace, let's hope they are the same religion. And neither is Catholic. There are many devoutly religious linemen on the draft board; it's a good thing Andy Reid has two No. 1 picks. Gerald Cadogan (Penn State) is a singer and trumpeter with two gospel albums under his belt. How do you find time to record albums when you are playing football at a major prgram, going to classes (theoretically), and eating enough to maintain a 310-pound physique? Cadogan must never sleep.
Just Plain Weird: When Paul Fanaika walked on at Arizona State, he weighed 370 pounds and was incapable of doing a single pushup. It must have taken a lot of courage to show up for that first practice. I once begged out of a charity bike ride because I couldn't survive a half-hour on the StairMaster. This kid faceplants while trying to hoist his own body weight, then shrugs his shoulders and heads to football practice.
What did the Arizona State coaches think? "Hey, this Fanaika kid is an interesting case. He can't do a pushup. He had a minor coronary 20 yards into his 40-yard dash. He tried to do a three-cone drill and ate two of the cones. But damn it, we see something special in him!" It's a good thing Fanaika didn't go to Texas Tech, though, because his nickname would be No Pushup Blob Spirit. If his parents were Druids and his great uncle was the blind forger from The Great Escape, he'd be this year's perfect prospect.
The PFW staff made this year's crop of linemen interesting. In a few weeks, the NFL will make them rich. You'll be hearing a lot of the names I just mentioned at the draft. A few of them will be millionaires before you sit down to Saturday dinner.
This is the year of the tackle.
The 2009 draft is deep at several positions, including linebacker and wide receiver, but it's downright flooded with tackle prospects. The top four on most boards -- Eugene Monroe (Virginia), Michael Oher (Ole Miss), Andre Smith (Alabama), and Jason Smith (Baylor) -- could be selected among the top ten picks. According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com and CBSSportsline.com, six or seven offensive tackles could leave the board in the first round, once scouts for lineman-hungry teams make their final decisions on prospects like Eben Britton of Arizona, Phil Loadholt of Oklahoma, William Beatty of Connecticut, and Jamon Meredith of South Carolina.
A good left tackle seems like a safe first-round selection. In recent years, rookies like Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady, and Jake Long stepped right into the starting lineup, and each made an immediate impact. Despite its depth, though, this year's draft class has only one can't-miss prospect: Monroe. And while Monroe is the safest choice, he doesn't have as much upside as some of his fellow prospects. The other three top tackles, though, come with a transatlantic flight's worth of baggage: character issues, intelligence issues, experience issues, level-of-competition issues, and much more.
You've heard a lot about the Big Four tackles already, and you'll hear much, much more in the next month. In the interest of providing a fresh take, I talked to several scouts and beat writers who watched the top tackles closely throughout their college careers. Here's your Walkthrough primer on four players who could make or break the teams who select them.
Player: Andre Smith.
Best Known As: The Combine Catastrophe.
The Good: Exceptional size and strength, experience.
The Bad: Weight issues, immaturity.
It's one thing to run a bad 40, drop a few passes, or get baffled by the Wonderlic at the Combine. It's another thing to show up overweight, go to interviews poorly dressed and unprepared, then go AWOL. No player in Combine history torpedoed himself as thoroughly as Andre Smith did in February. At the end of the college football regular season, he looked like a guaranteed top five selection. In the wake of his Sugar Bowl suspension and his Combine disappearance, Smith may be dropping to the bottom of the first round, perhaps further. One estimate suggests that Smith cost himself $24 million with his Combine escapade.
For those who follow Alabama football closely, Smith's February judgment lapses came as no surprise. No one doubts his raw power or ability to turn it on at the snap. But whispers of Smith's immaturity, ego, and poor work habits became howls after the Combine. Smith could be Jonathan Ogden, or he could be Tony Mandarich.
Ian Rapoport of the Birmingham News covered Smith throughout his college career. He understands why Smith struggled at the Combine: "Smith has always been the best player on the field on every play, going back to high school. He never learned how to sell himself. Having to interview was strange for him." Rapoport believes that some teams took Smith right off the board after he shanked his interviews. "A lot of teams were a little offended. They couldn't tell how seriously he was taking it. He shrugged at the whole process."
For a player who isn't emotionally ready for the demands of NFL life, a good support system is vital. Smith may not have one. "Smith hasn't been getting stellar advice," Rapoport said. Neal McReady, who covered the Crimson Tide for years and now runs the Ole Miss Rivals.com Web site, agreed. "Teams want to know: Who do you surround yourself with? That's all part of the package."
Character isn't Smith's only question mark. He has battled weight problems since high school, and the bigger he gets, the slower he gets. "He's the kind of player who you can tell the level of his play by the weight he's carrying," Rapoport said. Smith's ideal playing weight is around 315 pounds, but he has never been forced to trim down to that level. The extra girth could prevent him from playing left tackle. "He looks like a guard to me," said Mark Murphy of Scout.com. McReady and others feel that Smith fits best inside or at right tackle; few teams want to invest a high first-round pick on a player who can't cut it at left tackle.
Alabama's Pro Day answered some questions but raised others. Smith showed up weighing a reasonable 325 pounds, but he only benched 225 pounds 19 times and gave marginal performances in the 40-yard dash and other drills. Rang reported that one scout saw "some guys were rolling their eyes at how bad he looked with his shirt off," but at the same time, Smith demonstrated good technique and agility in his blocking drills. He also faced the media without wilting.
The Pro Day performance may have been enough to move Smith back into the top half of the first round. "All it takes is one team to say that he can play left tackle for them for the next 10 years," Rapoport said. Smith's body of on-field work is impressive enough to make scouts overlook a few judgment lapses, and his game tape will speak louder than his workout statistics. Smith's immaturity and mental makeup will still scare some teams away, but bargain hunters in the middle of the first round might relish the opportunity to turn him around.
Player: Michael Oher.
College: Ole Miss.
Best Known As: The Kid from Blindside.
The Good: Footwork, quickness, potential.
The Bad: Power, consistency, learning ability.
His mother was a drug addict. He attended 11 different elementary schools. Oher lived in cars and bounced around foster homes until he was 16 years old. Oher's remarkable success story is well known, thanks to Michael Lewis' book Blindside: The Evolution of a Game. He may be the best-known offensive line prospect ever.
Oher's Blindside notoriety has been a mixed blessing; it made him a household name in football circles while creating unrealistic expectations. "The hype around the book created a player that really didn't exist until the end of last year," according to Neal McReady.
Oher was inconsistent through much of his college career. The Rebels constantly changed offensive coaches and philosophies, making it difficult for an inexperienced player like Oher (who played almost no high school football) to keep up. Last year, strength coach Don Decker focused on improving Oher's strength and flexibility. Oher responded well. "This is a kid who was not really in a weight room until his senior year of high school," McReady said. "He stepped up and became a leader in the second half of the year. When you watch the Texas Tech (Cotton Bowl) or Mississippi State games, he became a 'come run behind me' type of player." Mark Murphy thinks Oher is starting to live up to his billing. "He might be a little underrated now. Every time I watched him he looked really good."
Blindside goes into great detail about Oher's learning disabilities, leading some analysts to question Oher's intelligence and ability to handle a complex NFL offense. Ian Rapoport thinks that the book's discussion of Oher's difficulties may benefit the prospect in the long run. "The book did him a favor. It explains that different learning style, so coaches know what to expect." Neal McReady doesn't think Oher will have trouble learning an NFL offense. "In learning football, he's ahead of the curve because of the merry-go-round of coaches (at Ole Miss). He's very coachable. He's proven that."
While Andre Smith is ready to play physically but a character risk, Oher is a hard worker with leadership qualities who needs a lot of technical work. And while he's gifted athletically, he's not a world-class specimen. "He's got good feet, but he's not a ballerina. It's not like he runs a 4.9 40," McReady said. "It depends on how much coaching he can get," Rapoport believes. One thing is certain: While Oher will never be a piledriver like Andre Smith, he's far less likely to be an epic bust.
Player: Jason Smith.
Best Known As: The Draft Board Rocket.
The Good: Athleticism, potential, character.
The Bad: Experience, level of competition.
When he wasn't playing high school football, Jason Smith was team roping in rodeos near his home in Dallas. "I'd rope the steer's head and another guy would rope the feet," Smith said in a 2008 interview. "But I was little back then -- I only weighed 215 pounds. It's funny that as a Division I athlete playing in big-time games with a lot of pressure that I don't really get worked up. But when you sit on the back of a horse..."
Smith grew from a 215-pound high school tight end into a 298-pound left tackle at Baylor. In the weeks since the college season ended, Smith has kept growing. In December, he was the third or fourth tackle on the draft board. Now, he's a projected Top Five pick.
Smith's Combine performance helped vault him to the top of the tackle heap. He tied Alex Boone of Ohio State for the position lead with 33 bench reps. He ran a competitive 5.22 40. He weighed in at a lean 309 pounds. Most importantly, he didn't do anything stupid: no missed meetings or unexplained absences. Andre Smith and Michael Oher raised questions at the Combine. Jason Smith answered questions. Smith didn't run or lift at Baylor's Pro Day, but he participated in position drills and made another positive impression.
There's a lot to like about Smith as a prospect. He caught six passes as a redshirt freshman at Baylor, and he still possesses some tight end quickness. He's still growing and should be able to add 15 to 20 pounds to his frame without losing speed or agility. But with Andre Smith's maturity in question and so much money at stake, Smith's work ethic and attitude are his best attributes. He already has his degree, and he earned high marks at Baylor as a leader and locker room personality, a jokester who knew when to keep the troops loose and when to get serious.
Smith's biggest downsides are his lack of experience and Baylor's spread offense. Smith shifted from tight end to right tackle, starting one season there before moving to left tackle. He started just seven games at left tackle as a junior because of an MCL tear. He stayed healthy in 2008, but he rarely lined up in a three-point stance in Baylor's offense. He'll have to improve his mechanics in the pros. That makes him a dangerous gamble as a Day One starter; the team that drafts Smith will have to plant him on the bench for at least part of a season.
Still, Smith has the work habits to make a quick adjustment. Just ask him. "I show up every day willing to work," Smith told Rich Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, "and I'm productive. I have 12 games that show it -- and I have 12 weeks of practice that also show it. So if you want to see a guy who practices hard, plays hard, look at my practice or look at my games -- you won't be able to tell the difference. I'll be going full speed. And every day you walk in there I'll have a smile on my face, ready to go to work."
Player: Eugene Monroe.
Best Known As: Chris Long's sparring partner.
The Good: Technique, quickness, experience.
The Bad: Lack of power and mean streak.
Monroe battled Chris Long (now with the Rams) every day in practice. He competed alongside Brandon Albert (now with the Chiefs) for two seasons. He patterned his game on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the Virginia tackle whose college career ended the year Monroe arrived. It's the kind of environment that galvanizes a young man into an NFL-ready left tackle, and Monroe is the most polished of the Big Four prospects.
"The aspect about Monroe that stands out is the relative safety that comes with his selection," according to Rob Rang. "He has a rare combination of size, strength and lateral agility for pass protection. He has good leg drive for run blocking at the line of scrimmage and can get to the second level quickly." Monroe's college credentials are stellar: He allowed only two career sacks, and he was so effective that Albert was forced to play left guard, even though he had the skills of a tackle.
Monroe's college performance must speak for itself, because Monroe doesn't always speak for himself. His quiet demeanor has some scouts wondering whether he is tough and aggressive enough to be a superstar at the NFL level. Ferguson, whom Monroe idolized, also had a quiet, soft-spoken personality; he has become an average NFL starter, not the player the Jets expected to get with the fourth pick in the 2006 draft.
Such comparisons can be overblown, and complaints about a too-quiet player may amount to predraft nitpicking. "Eugene's inquisitive about everything," Virginia head coach Al Groh told Pro Football Weekly. "He's not a real chatty guy, but he's always interested in learning new things. He works hard and studies hard." The PFW scouts (who rank Monroe as the top tackle in the draft) believe he has a bettor anchor than Ferguson, while noting that he "uses too much finesse" and could improve as a run blocker.
If nothing else, this draft class offers variety at left tackle. A team looking for a reliable Day One starter can select Monroe and enjoy Ryan Clady-/Jake Long-style results. Teams in search of a road grader to spark the running game are better off taking a chance on Andre Smith. Given a year or two of development, Jason Smith and Oher might be better than either of them, so teams without a short term need at left tackle could have the last laugh in four years.
Of course, a team could avoid the whole situation by drafting Aaron Curry. But that's a different article.
Back in January, I provided the New York Times with a series of play diagrams for playoff teams; the Times animated them as part of their Inside the Playbook series. Because I had to draw the diagrams in December, I created diagrams for several teams that didn't reach the postseason. The unused diagrams will run in Walkthrough throughout the spring.
The Cowboys released Terrell Owens last week while I was writing weird Alan Moore fan fiction. In honor of Owens' trip to upstate New York, I'll feature the Cowboys diagram this week. Because, you know, the Cowboys didn't make the playoffs. The Eagles did, but the Cowboys didn't. Yep, that really happened.
Because the diagrams were meant to exemplify "bread-and-butter" offensive plays, I chose a pass to Jason Witten as the Cowboys' signature play. Hopefully, Owens will be happier in Buffalo, where he's unlikely to be jealous of Robert Royal's success.
Figure 1 shows a play from the Cowboys' two-minute drill against the Steelers in Week 14. The Steelers are in a 2-4-5 personnel grouping, and they are blitzing five defenders. They appear to be in man coverage behind the blitz. The Cowboys counter with a trips-right formation, and they leave Tashard Choice (23) in the backfield as a blocker.
|Figure 1: Witten Seam Route|
Owens (81) and Roy Williams (11) are decoys on this play, running deep outs at about 15 yards. The route combo of interest involves Patrick Crayton (84) and Witten (82). They run staggered seamers. Crayton releases inside from the slot and runs up the seam. Witten releases outside and runs a similar route behind Crayton.
Both Witten and Tony Romo read man coverage when they see the nickel cornerback turn and run with Crayton. That creates an easy mismatch: Witten versus a linebacker. Romo's pass leads Witten into the middle of the field, away from Crayton's defender and the deep safety, and Witten alertly adjusts. The Cowboys' line does a fine job of picking up the blitz; they roll coverage to the right, and Choice does just enough to keep his linebacker (Lamar Woodley, I think) off Romo.
Even without Owens, the Cowboys will have the speed and playmaking ability to stretch defenses like this. Williams and Witten will still be around, young receivers like Miles Austin will get more opportunities, and the team will have more options at running back when Marion Barber and Felix Jones are healthy. The challenge for the Cowboys will be getting back the offensive rhythm they had in the weeks leading up to this game. There's a reason this play diagram never saw the light of day: In the final weeks of the season, Romo rarely completed passes like these. More often than not, he misread defenses or miscommunicated with his receivers. Watch game tape of the Cowboys in December, and you'll see Romo missing receivers by ten yards and throwing into unoccupied patches of grass. In fact, at the end of this game against the Steelers, Romo and Witten got their signals crossed, and Romo threw a Pick-6 after Witten ran an incorrect route.
If Owens was somehow the problem, then the problem is solved. If there were other issues, the Cowboys need to devote their offseason to solving them. Otherwise, I'll put on my Andre Waters throwback jersey and pick on them again next March.
While talking to scouts and reporters about the elite left tackle prospects, I asked about a few other players. One player earned consistent praise: Alabama center Antoine Caldwell.
"He's one of the top character guys I have ever come across," Ian Rapoport said. "He's a team player, a dynamic individual." Neal McReady was also impressed. "He's a great leader with a great motor, the kind of guy you can build a team around."
Caldwell was a three-year starter at Alabama, handling all the line calls and adjustments for a complex offense. When he was briefly suspended for a minor rule violation (he used scholarship money to give textbooks to friends), the Tide line fell completely apart.
Caldwell is considered a Day Two prospect because of his lack of athleticism. He's no road grader, and he lacks the initial quickness of a top center prospect. He's moving up some draft boards because of his intangibles. "He's not huge, but he's versatile," Mark Murphy said. "I can see him playing center or guard, or even right tackle." Caldwell worked out at both center and guard at the Senior Bowl. His second-tier measurables will become less of a factor as teams evaluate his intelligence and experience. "He more than held his own in the toughest league in the country," noted McReady.
Caldwell sounds like Jeff Saturday in many ways: A smart, high-energy center who doesn't need to be the biggest, strongest guy on the line to succeed. Saturday went undrafted in 1998; players with his skill-set are often hard to spot. Centers like California's Alex Mack, Louisville's Eric Wood and Oregon's Max Unger are currently ranked ahead of Caldwell. Don't be surprised if Caldwell starts climbing those rankings.
News came over the wire as I was writing that the Ravens just signed L.J. Smith. Donovan McNabb's gain is Joe Flacco's loss. And mine. I no longer have a go-to Eagles player to make fun of. Maybe I will catch a break and the Eagles will sign Chris Perry.
Dhani Jones is the star of a reality show called Dhani Tackles the World. Earth is susceptible to many hazards: meteors, comets, environmental catastrophes, zombie infestations. Now we must worry about the threat of slow, easily-blocked linebackers causing Armageddon. Every time I try to take this show seriously as the tale of an urbane young athlete learning life lessons while circling the globe, I get an image of Galactus in a bow tie playing air banjo. Next year, we can look forward to a show called L.J. Drops Some Wisdom.
I was watching Dazed and Confused the other day and I began to wonder what kind of offense the Rebels ran. When the old man corners Randall at the baseball game, he asks him if his arm was ready to throw for 2,000 yards. That would be a pass-happy offense, particularly for Texas in 1976. But the old man seems mixed up; for one thing, he grabs Randall's left arm, and Randall is clearly right-handed (watch as he throws his keys or the pledge form). Later, during the Joint Subcommittee meeting on the 50-yard line, Randall, Wooderson, and the others keep yelling "Where's Your Pitch Man!" If that's one of Coach Conrad's favorite sayings, then the Rebels must run an option. I looked for other cues in the movie, but couldn't find any. Then I realized I have probably seen it one too many times.
In two weeks: The Walkthrough Book Club reviews football books of interest, past and present, plus an interview with Matthew Quick, whose novel The Silver Lining Playbook prominently features Hank Baskett.
Yes, Hank Baskett.
39 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2009, 3:21pm by PaulH