by Mike Tanier
The more I see of Cam Newton, the less I like.
More precisely, the more I see of Newton, the more I wonder what I am missing. Where is the wow? Where is the amazing pass, the incredible run, the special moment that makes me say, "Hey, I can overlook the fact that this guy is a scandal-ridden controversy magnet." Most importantly, where is the body of work -- the five passes in a row, three games in a row, two seasons in a row?
I keep looking for the Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham moment. I keep getting Tim Tebow moments. Of course, Tebow is a buffed-up version of Saint Francis of Assisi, and he was taken 25th overall last year. Newton was getting chased out of Florida while Tebow healed the sick with his jump-passes, but Newton may go first overall. I don't get it.
Goodness knows I have been looking. I wrote about Newton for NBC Sports this week. I have been scouring tape of dozens of top prospects during my Draft cramming session. I live blog for the New York Times Fifth Down on Thursday night, and when writing for a general audience, the impressions that come from one last tape session are worth more than intense scouting scrutiny. It's time to get holistic, man. Who are these guys? Forget where the right foot plants; tell me what this guy means. I have no idea who Newton is, or what he means.
Newton's 280 attempts are my biggest problem. He threw 14 passes against Arkansas and 16 against LSU. These are the kind of games I usually tape and scout, or can find easily on the Internet. He threw 38 passes in the BCS Championship Game, but my tape of that game got erased so there was room for the new season of Batman: Brave and the Bold. Doug Farrar bailed me out with a link to the game on Saturday, which was a huge help, because I had tons of footage of Newton running, handing off, and throwing bubble screens, and almost no footage of him throwing anything that looked like an NFL pass.
I see the running ability, though it is clearly sub-Vick. I see the arm, which is great, and the ability to thread needles along the sidelines, which is also good. Zero out any character issues, and I see, maybe, the 25th overall pick in the draft. Pile the pay-for-play allegations atop the immaturity whispers, the Akili Smith dandelion-like suddenness of his emergence, and Cunningham-at-his-worst sound bytes, and I just leave him off my draft board. I would rather have Blaine Gabbert, and probably Jake Locker. I would also rather have Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is the kind of guy I focus on during cramming sessions. I don't watch many Nevada games during the season. When I do watch them, I am usually enjoying the Pistol offense, marveling at all the strange formations and cool variations on the option that the Wolfpack run. I never took Kaepernick seriously as a major prospect during the 2010 season (he looked like a handoff machine to me), but with Kaepernick getting mentioned as a high-round pick by the Raiders and Jaguars, it was time to do some homework.
What I like about Kaepernick in the Wolfpack offense is that he was often asked to set, read, and throw seven or more yards behind the line of scrimmage. Newton threw a lot of passes with his feet every-which-way. Gabbert and Andy Dalton had better footwork, but they often made one pre-snap read, caught the snap, and fired. The Pistol drop is different than a drop from center, but the footwork is closer to what an under-center quarterback does than what most prospects do these days. Gabbert has good timing on his passes and plenty of zip. I can see why the Raiders like him: They see him play-faking, taking a deep drop, and lofting the ball to their speedsters. Oh, and Kaepernick is a speedster, too.
Kaepernick, of course, is tall and skinny, and I will be making a full complement of "tall, skinny guy" jokes on the live blog if he gets drafted in the first round. Watching Nevada game tape, I was struck by how many tall, skinny guys were on their roster. Receiver Brandon Wimberly is long and spinderly at 6-foot-3, 200 (maybe) pounds. Lampford Mark is elongated for a running back (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), plus his name is backward. Luke Lippincott, who I looked at extensively in a 2009 tape, was a 6-foot-2 running back who allegedly weighed 215 pounds. The team training table at Nevada must be heavy on the romaine lettuce. It's like watching a game in Cinemascope, or a recurrence of my Todd Pinkston nightmare (where everyone I know is suddenly Pinkston). I don't know if Kaepernick's leanness is a liability. It does give him a little bit of a Philip Rivers waddle, but Rivers turned out OK, and Kaepernick is much, much faster.
From Kapernick, I go to Marcus Cannon, who at 360 pounds has his own event horizon. I really like the way Cannon slides around in pass protection, and as my eyes start to tire, I enjoy watching a man who takes up a quarter of my laptop screen. Seriously, Cannon is usually all alone on the edge, working against some kind of defensive end/linebacker stunt, and he does a great job trading off pass rushers. I have just been burned by behemoths like him before. Not Andre Smith -- I didn't invest any real time in scouting that sack of potatoes after he skipped out of the Combine. But I was impressed by Mike Williams, who came out of college was a well-spoken kid with good technique and a fatal attraction to all things deep fried. Williams needed to lose a hundred pounds to re-enter the NFL, and I would be reluctant to risk a high draft pick on a player who is just a few buffets short of the four-century mark.
If I were serious about "ranking" offensive tackles in some kind of order, Cannon would go below Anthony Castonzo and Derek Sherrod, but ahead of Nate Solder and Gabe Carimi, two "narrow base" guys I think will always have leverage issues in the pros (Solder in particular). Tyron Smith is high on my "Draft board" based on the opinions of Russ Lande and others. I have not done a lot of first-person scouting on him. Whenever I try to scout a USC tackle, I get Winston Justice flashbacks, which are almost as scary as Pinkston dreams.
Love and Hate
Rewatch game tape in April (or watch leftover tape for the first time), and you are bound to come away with favorites, guys you like a little too much. While watching Nebraska game tape to get a second look at Prince Amukamara, I started to get jazzed about Niles Paul, a thick-built slot receiver who catches a lot of passes in the middle of the field. Paul is tough and muscular and played well on special teams. The way the Huskers used him reminded me of the way the Bills used David Nelson last year -- drag routes and third down receptions. (Nelson, to be clear, is much taller and skinnier. Did he play for Nevada? Oh, Florida. Never mind.) If my offense uses a lot of bunch formations, I want Paul in the bunch. But most scouts list him as the 12th-18th best receiver overall, and that works. It is a deep class. Paul will be there on Day Three, and I will not be.
Torrey Smith may sneak into the first round. Smith is a speedster from Maryland, the school that gave us speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey, but there are subtle differences between Smith and Heyward-Bey. Smith, for example, catches passes. I like seeing college receivers who use their speed not just on fly routes, but on comeback routes and other patterns that require them to stem off or cut. Smith caught dozens and dozens of passes after smash, hitch, comeback, and out routes last year. He looked like a bigger version of the young Derrick Mason at times. It was a far cry from the "fly pattern-tunnel screen" diet many top receivers thrive on, and I love Smith as a Colts-type receiver.
You also come away with from pre-draft cramming with prospects you dislike a little too much. I watched UCLA's Akeem Ayers against California, and I kept seeing him get blocked and turned outside by very ordinary fullbacks and H-backs. After seven or eight plays, all ordinary counters on which he should have worked harder to fill his backside gap, Ayers came unblocked on a quarterback rollout, leapt into the air, and batted down a pass. The deflection drew a lot of "wow" comments from the announcers, and it looked a little like a Jason Pierre-Paul play, but I just imagined Ayers getting washed out by every NFL tight end or right tackle he faced. He is not in the Von Miller class as a pure pass-rushing outside linebacker, nor is he a great all-purpose prospect at the position. I think he's a fourth-round pick in disguise, though I may be over-influenced by one game.
As I wrote in an article for NBC Sports, I am not blown away by this year's running back class. Mark Ingram would have been a great back in the 1980s. I can picture him running the counter-trey 20 times per game, waiting for the blocks to set up, picking through holes and grinding out 120 yards. Nowadays, he's a committee back in most offenses, one who lacks the superior quickness for zone-stretch running or the receiving chops for more wide-open systems. He will be solid enough -- as an Eagles fan I don't want to see him lined up in the Giants backfield -- but most teams these days just cannot make the most of what he offers.
When writing for Football Outsiders readers, I don't have to explain why early-round running back selections are a bad investment. This year, there's nobody besides Ingram I would even sniff at in the first round. I love DeMarco Murray's receiving ability, speed, and ability to help out as a returner/gunner/pass protector, but I absolutely hate his running style. He's a big ol' upright target. Mikel LeShoure is Gerald Riggs, 20 years too late. Kendall Hunter has too many injuries and too little experience as a receiver to merit a look as an early round scat back. If I were looking for a change-up in a zone blocking scheme, I would look to snatch him starting late in the second round. I could see the Steelers or Falcons making use of him as a backup to their warhorses.
Old News and Problem Children
Going over old notes is part of exam cramming. I finished my work on offensive tackles and defensive linemen a few weeks ago. Marcell Dareus would be the No. 1 player on my draft board if I had one. Ryan Kerrigan is a "hustle sack" player; some of those guys turn into Kyle Vanden Bosch, others into backups who hang around for three or four years. Kerrigan is more like the former. I like Adrian Clayborn's hustle, but I see a pretty ordinary overall pass-rusher, the kind who can start but won't have many double-digit sack seasons. Da'Quan Bowers is a great all-purpose player. I solidified my notes on most of these guys in February, updating them recently to reflect Pro Days and such.
Muhammad Wilkerson sneaked up on me. I watched him on television at least twice last fall but never taped the games, because I just don't make a habit of aggressively scouting Temple. I found some footage and saw why he is creeping into the first round. He's a natural 3-4 defensive end, and teams need them. He has excellent stamina, making a lot more plays in the second half, which is a necessity in a 3-4 system where you must spend the whole game standing up left tackles and tight ends. He has a bull rush, and he sheds well. He is not Bowers, and he doesn't show a lot of technique, but I look at all of those Steelers-Packers teams at the end of the first round who are willing to draft a big kid and develop him for a year, and I see a place for Wilkerson.
And then there's Nick Fairley. And Ryan Mallett. And Newton, in a way. Fairley has great initial quickness at the three-technique, but it's hard to overlook the Georgia game, where he decided the whistle and the released ball were just suggestions and Aaron Murray was some kind of tackling dummy. I hear about missed flights and missed meetings, then watch the tape, and I see dangerous impulse control issues.
In Mallett's case, I start with a leaden-footed quarterback prospect who would take at least 50 sacks in a full season unless the 1992 Cowboys line returned to block for him, factor in all of the whispers, and try not to let the fact that he came across as King Frat Boy in the Combine press conferences affect me too much. The guy on tape could get by in a Falcons-style system, I suppose, with lots of seven-man protection and running plays. The guy I read about and hear speaking is Jeff George Junior. I have the same reservations with Newton, of course, just with different trappings.
The new trend in draft analysis seems to be to take some kind of postmodern, deconstructionist approach to these alleged character concerns. The scouts don't really know these kids, and neither do the talking heads, and unsubstantiated rumors fly wildly during draft season, so maybe these "character concerns" are all smoke. Heck, anybody can slam a guy on Twitter, right? And everyone passes along second-hand information in this game, so maybe these whispers-down-the-lane are just exaggerations or someone's sour grapes gone out of control.
Maybe. But I have read Nolan Nawrocki long enough to know he doesn't just write "immature" and "not dependable" without talking to somebody reliable. And I talk to somebodies, too. A few years ago, I ripped Brandon Meriweather pretty hard in my draft blog, after making sure I had the straightest possible story about the incidents he was involved in on the Miami campus. I got lots of emails from Miami students and fans who told me how big a misunderstanding the Meriweather incident was, how he's a great guy and so on. He may be a great guy. He still has a bad habit of being on the scene when bullets fly. The reputable NFL Draft guys -- our own Doug Farrar, Nawrocki, Russ Lande, Rob Rang, and so on -- don't print a bad character report based on something they found on the bottom of a Rivals message board. Brad Briggs does not make stuff up, nor does he publish reports based on the word of people who make stuff up. These "character flaws," I believe, are just as real and reliably reported as footwork flaws.
This is my ninth live draft blog, and I know the rhythms. By Wednesday, I have to switch to editorial mode, spell-checking Castonzo over and over again, adding jokes. I also have to get some rest and goof off with my sons. I cannot be fatigued when some team drafts Conan Amituanai and throws me into tap-dance mode at 10:30 p.m.
On Thursday morning, I head up to New York. I will attend some of the pre-Draft events hosted by the Players Association (or whatever the heck it is), probably blog about them on the Fifth Down, then head to Radio City Music Hall to pray to the gods of Internet access for a speedy connection. Friday morning, it's up-and-at-em for more trade association events, a book-related meeting, then a train ride home. I have a draft recap to write for theTimes, plus a Holy Communion party to host for a certain young man whose suit will probably be flashier than Ingram's. It's grueling and fun as hell, and I have to be fresh to do it right.
But it's Monday night and ESPNU is showing Nevada-Mizzou from 2009. Kaepernick-Gabbert! I already watched this last week, but not in high-def on the big screen. One last look!
Even on the big screen, Kaepernick is one skinny dude.
Quarterback Top Fives
Get through the long wait between draft selections with this NFC South edition of Quarterback Top Fives!
1. Steve Bartkowski. Famous for taking a lot of sacks in the name of avoiding interceptions. In 1983, he took 51 sacks but was intercepted just five times, an incredibly low total for a 16-game starter in the early 1980s. Running wasn't really an option for him.
For years, the NFL Today on CBS started with a close-up of a deep spiral, with the CBS Eye fading into view around the spiral. For a few seasons, Bartkowski was the guy who threw the spiral.
2. Matt Ryan. He only needs to keep doing what he is doing for another season or two to claim the top spot.
3. Michael Vick. This is going to be a short list.
5. Chris Miller. Chandler and Miller -- two quarterbacks famous for being injured all the time. Chandler got the "Crystal Chandelier" portion of his career out of his system at other stops and was relatively durable during his time in Atlanta. Miller never played a full 16 games, but I was shocked to rediscover that he played 12 or more games four consecutive years. Most of those seasons were forgettable; Miller led the team through the tail end of the (second) Marion Campbell doldrums and the early part of Jerry Glanville's tenure; his best running back was John Settle for a few seasons, his best receiver Shawn Collins. By the time Andre Rison arrived and the run 'n' shoot was up to speed, Miller was starting to get hurt again.
Chandler led the team to the Super Bowl in 1998, a season that came out of nowhere for the Falcons and disappeared as suddenly as it arrived. Chandler was also very good in 1997 and solid when healthy for a few seasons afterward.
Interestingly, the Falcons may have had more terrible quarterbacks who got significant playing time than any team in history. Their history is full of guys like Pat Sullivan, who had 16 interceptions and 22 sacks in 220 career attempts, and the immortal Kim McQuilken, who hung around Atlanta for four years and amassed a career passer rating of 17.9. Norm Van Brocklin was to blame for many of the early quarterbacks. He was enamored of Bob Berry for years, a fiery scrambler who took tons of sacks and couldn't really throw the ball. Van Brocklin also imported Vikings punter Bob Lee to be his starting quarterback for a few years. Van Brocklin had more than a little Millen in him, and he liked to rant and rave about "toughness" while doing counterproductive things.
Later, the Falcons gave David Archer two full seasons as a starter to amass an 9-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Randy Johnson, Doug Johnson ... the Falcons just had a lot of passers who failed miserably but stuck around for a few years.
1. Jake Delhomme. I have probably made more fun of Delhomme than any other player. He had that awful five-interception playoff game after the 2008 season, yet the Panthers rewarded him with a contract extension, which of course is exactly the kind of decision that leads to having the first pick in the draft a season or two later. I started writing a lot of Zombie Delhomme-type jokes, claiming that he cannot be killed, comparing him to a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment, and so on. I don't like to hammer relentlessly on a guy, but every time I wrote a Delhomme joke, I assumed I was just getting one last shot in before the Panthers (and then the Browns) finally gave up on him. But they never did, so I spent a season and a half dissing Delhomme.
Sorry, Jake. You were a good quarterback from 2003-05, and you were OK on-and-off after that. You just became the surrogate for all the "gutsy veterans," who "know how to win," who obviously and demonstratively cannot play anymore, and that made you a fun target.
2. Steve Beuerlein. Beuerlein's 4,436 yard, 36-touchdown, Holy Crap 1999 season ranked 77th when we listed the Top 100 quarterback seasons ever in Pro Football Prospectus 2005. Guys like Patrick Jeffers and Tim Biakabatuka made major contributions to the receiving game that year, so it's not like he was throwing to Hall of Famers. I sometimes say that any competent band has one classic song in them -- I call it the Pure Prairie League rule. Every competent quarterback has one classic season in him.
3. Kerry Collins. Collins has had three different careers. It is hard to remember the early, controversial, booze-and-racial-comments Collins now that he has been a wizened elder statesman for so long. Collins' Panthers career was a little like Vince Young's Titans career, without the scrambling.
4. Matt Moore. A 6-2 record as a starter, mostly in December games that didn't matter. Moore got Peter Principled into a starting job last year and was predictably terrible -- he has the classic backup's skill set.
5. Rodney Peete. Or someone like that. Chris Weinke had a 2-17 record as a starter. After Collins, the Panthers stopped drafting traditional quarterback prospects. They grabbed former rookie free agents like Delhomme, pulled geezers like Beuerlein and Peete off the wire, or actually drafted a geezer like Weinke. Delhomme played for so long that there are no real choices for No. 4, let alone No. 5.
New Orleans Saints
1. Drew Brees.
2. Archie Manning. I wrote about these two in Walkthrough a few years ago, and some of you bandied them about on the message board two weeks ago, saying there might be some "Irrational Brees-Archie Thread." There won't be. To pick Manning over Brees, you have to pile up an enormous heap of intangibles and ladle it with a couple gallons of nostalgia. There are people who do that, but they don't read Football Outsiders, especially in the offseason.
3. Bobby Hebert. On the same message boards, some of you were advocating Hebert over Manning, which is a more interesting argument. You have a caretaker type whose teams won with defense facing off against a player almost mythic for his ability to bring his team close to .500 all by himself. Archie's one-man-gang reputation was well established during his playing days. Hebert arrived in New Orleans as a quasi-star because of his USFL success but was never considered one of the NFL's better quarterbacks, even when the Saints were making the playoffs every year. In the playoffs, Hebert went 0-3 with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. There's really nothing on Hebert's resume that brings him close to Manning except the regular season records, and they aren't enough.
4. Aaron Brooks. Developed to a certain level and just stopped; the same could be said of the entire Saints franchise during Jim Haslett's tenure. Brooks fumbled a lot and carried the "bad leader" knock. He soldiered through the Hurricane Katrina season, when the Saints were forced to work out in parking lots, and got rewarded with a Week 14 benching so Haslett could watch Todd Bouman go 0-3. Brooks is a little like Scott Mitchell, in that he was better than we remember him, and he soaked up some of the blame for things that the coaches/organization did wrong.
5. Jim Everett. The Saints were a very weak team at the tail end of the Jim Mora era. Pat Swilling's last season in the Big Easy was 1992, Rickey Jackson's and Vaughan Johnson's were 1993. Eric Martin, the top receiver during Hebert's heyday, was gone in 1993. By the time Everett arrived, the Saints had an average defense and an offense full of guys like Mario Bates and Ray Zellars. Quinn Early was their go-to receiver. Everett threw for 10,662 yards and 60 touchdowns in three seasons, keeping the Saints around .500 until the bottom dropped out in 1996. Look back on his 7-9 seasons, and you don't see 7-9 talent, so Everett must have done something right. I will write about his Jim Rome fiasco in another installment.
There's no worthy honorable mention here. Ken Stabler and Billy Kilmer played a few ho-hum seasons with the Saints at the end and beginning of more interesting careers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Brad Johnson. The Bucs have never had a truly great quarterback at his peak. They have never even had a guy who "blew up" for a year or two, the way the Steve Beuerlein blew up for the Panthers or Scott Mitchell for the Lions. Johnson's 2004 season set team records for yards (3,811) and touchdowns (26), but it was hardly a "great" season. He threw 21 interceptions and ranked 11th in the NFL with 511 DYAR (his 2.4% DVOA ranked 14th). The 2003 Super Bowl season was better according to advanced stats, but not by much. Johnson finished with 745 DYAR (10th in the NFL) and a 13.4% DVOA (10th).
Johnson looked like an extension of Gruden's mind in 2003, and if we could squeeze 1997 (Vikings), 1999 (Redskins), 2002 (Bucs) and 2005 (Vikings) together, it would make a fine little peak for a pretty solid career (we can throw 2003 in there too). Unfortunately, there were lots of injuries and uninteresting seasons interspersed between those great moments, none of which were really all that great.
2. Doug Williams. Williams' career completion percentage for the Bucs was 47.4 percent. Part of the problem was the Bucs offense of the late 1970s, which a) had little talent before Jimmie Giles and Kevin House arrived and b) was a few years behind the times strategically. Williams was also part of the problem. As a young quarterback, he was a big bull of a guy who was more a thrower than a passer. His postseason completion percentage was 40.2 percent, and though I remember him beating the Eagles once, my clearest memory of Williams is watching him try to survive in a collapsing pocket with Cowboys all around him, shrugging off a few would-be sackers, only to throw a pass to nowhere.
Williams, of course, was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Just as importantly, he was the first black quarterback to hang around long enough for people to get used to the idea. Marlin Briscoe started five games. James Harris was always hurt and sharing a job with Pat Haden or Dan Fouts. Williams started every game for four years, started four playoff games, and generally became one of the guys you were used to seeing under center. That's an underrated milestone -- the first guy to not be exceptional.
3. Trent Dilfer. A serviceable quarterback for several years whose performance has been unfairly denigrated by those who need to exaggerate how bad he was to illustrate the fallacy of the Super Bowl Ring argument. Dilfer made the Pro Bowl in 1997 with Riedel Anthony and Horace Copeland as his starting wide receivers. He was a lot like Williams, really: He minded the store at quarterback for a few years, led a defense-first team to a few winning records, stumbled into a starting job with another team, and won a Super Bowl. Williams was better, but not by some huge margin.
As an analyst, Dilfer has become a cheerleader for medium-talent quarterbacks with bad statistics who "just win." It's cute, really. You can almost hear him defending himself when he raves about Mark Sanchez. If we promise to stop exaggerating how terrible Dilfer was, maybe he will stop trying to convince us that Andy Dalton is Joe Montana. I am willing to do my part.
4. Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde holds the Bucs career yardage and touchdown records. Josh Freeman is about three seasons away from breaking them. Testaverde's team interception record will not be broken in our lifetimes. It's incredible, really -- he played five seasons 20 years ago, losing twice as many games as he won, and his records still stand. Let er rip, Vinny!
5. Jeff Garcia. Spent two efficient seasons doing Brad Johnson's thing -- reading Gruden's mind, delivering the ball to the flats, throwing bombs when least expected.
Steve DeBerg had a solid season in 1984, then resumed his role as Backup to the Stars as the team developed Testaverde and Steve Young ("developed" is a polite euphemism here for "tossed under the broiler.") Craig Erickson played well enough for two seasons that the Bucs were able to trade him for a No. 1 pick. For once, it was the smart move, because Erickson had a bad knee and not much of an arm. Young didn't do anything noteworthy in Tampa except escape. Shaun King did what mobile backups who go on late-season runs always do: He wasted a season proving his mediocrity as a starter (though the Bucs did go 10-6). Steve Spurrier went 0-12 as a Bucs starter, but he probably looked cool doing it.
Josh Freeman is one or two (very good) seasons away from cracking the bottom of the Top Five.