Scouting the Combine: Running backs

It’s no surprise that the running back group each year tends to garner a lot of attention. Among the skill players, these candidates may be returners, burners, slot receivers, outlet receivers, blockers and, oh yes, guys who carry the ball for you. It’s a pass-oriented league, which means that the ability to block and to catch out of the backfield or off the line in four- and five-wideout sets makes a player that much more interesting to teams.

Shonn Greene showed why this past season - he struggled some in running the ball, and his lack of skills at blocking and receiving left him on the bench more often than he or the Jets would prefer. I like Greene, and enough to write a bio praising the way he’s overcome his background. It’s not a matter of complaining about him, but a fact of life.

Greene had one great year in college and neither blocking nor receiving were a part of it. He’s a powerful, punishing runner, but those missing skills would have benefited both him and his team in 2011. Athletic skills, the ability to make tacklers miss, and the patience to see the lanes open up are the things that you usually get off of tape, but the athletic skill tests are essential to making sure that you have covered the bases of every player that might help you. The more skills a player brings to the table - short yardage, between the tackles, around the edge, blocking and receiving, etc - the more valuable they become. The better they are at each, the more that value ascends.

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Scouting the Draft: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State

Fletcher Cox - DT - Mississippi State, 6-4, 298 lb

One of my favorite stories from the recent Combine was one told by NFL Network's excellent analyst and draft expert Mike Mayock about his own introduction to Bill Parcells. The first thing the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach said upon meeting Mayock was, “You’re like a bull in high grass, Mike.” "What’s that?" asked Mayock. “You’re lost.” Parcells replied.

Mayock may have come a long way since then, but it's also fair to note that even the best of draft guys are wrong a lot of the time. On the other hand - so are head coaches and GMs. Those that try to comprehend the draft are always going to be in some high grass. That's one of the things that makes it so enjoyable:  you can always either find a diamond in the rough, or take a can't-miss candidate who can -and does.

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Scouting the Draft: Mychal Kendricks, LB, California

Mychal Kendricks - ILB - California, 5-11, 240 lb

A former running back, and the son of UCLA running back Marvin Kendricks (who led the Bruins in rushing twice in 1970 and 1971), Marvin Mychal Hendricks out of Cal had the best 40 time among linebackers at 4.47 seconds, edging out North Carolina's Zach Brown by .03 seconds. He also lead the LBs in the vertical leap at 39.5 inches, the broad jump at a remarkable 127 inches, and the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.19 seconds. As you’d expect after that, he is extremely athletic and he has played both inside and out in the past, so he’s also very scheme flexible. At just over 5’11”, Mychal is shorter than your average linebacker. Of course, Mike Singletary was barely six feet tall, and ten pounds lighter than Kendricks, and they said that about him before he started piling up running backs and Pro Bowls. Height can be useful, but it’s not always the measure of a man - or a football player. Kendricks can play the Mike or Will slots in a 4-3, is experienced in Cal’s 3-4, and could even play Sam for some teams.

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Scouting the Draft: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Mike Martin - DT - Michigan, 6-1, 306 lb

Mike Martin might have been one of the most enjoyable players to watch when I was catching the DT drills at Combine. I caught sight of him in some of the hand power drills, and it only took a minute to remember some of his games at Michigan. He also got consistently good reviews during Senior Bowl practices and stood out in both one-on-one drills and during team scrimmages.

He isn’t in the top tier of players, and he probably won’t go all that high. After watching him, I think that could be a bit of a mistake. Martin carries a seriously nasty punch that he fires from an incredible stance - low and powerful, using that naturally short, incredibly strong frame. He had fast, hammering movements and devastating strikes. Said Warren Sapp, ‘I dare you to cut him’. I thought that Warren’s got it right. That punch will leave linemen black and blue right through their pads.

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Scouting the Combine: Offensive linemen

I had a lot of fun this weekend pulling game tape out of the library, watching Combine film, reading, and writing about the offensive line candidates. Although I’m mentioning Mike Kalil first, the following list isn’t in any particular order. Neither will any of my subsequent prospect columns; some will get attention later for one reason or another.

A couple of general comments to consider: last year’s vertical leap average was 28.5 inches; for interior linemen it was 27.5. The average broad jump last year for OL was 8.5 feet or 102 inches. Last year’s fastest 10-yard split was 1.74 - this year it was in the mid 1.60's. The players continue to get bigger and faster. I offer these marks simply as a sort of loose basis for comparison. That said, let’s move on to some of the OL candidates:

Matt Kalil out of USC was pretty much as expected - fast and smooth on his 4.99-second 40. He came in at NFL weight (6’7”, 306 lb), measured adequately, and he did very well in the tests and drills. In particular you can see his silky smoothness and skill on the kickstep drill. He’s the complete package, and I’ll mention him from time to time in illustrating why certain players are and aren’t as desirable. Kalil pretty much has it all.

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Scouting the Senior Bowl defenders

As we ramped up to the Senior Bowl, a few names came up that Broncos fans may want to keep an eye on. There’s little doubt that Denver will need a top man corner in the near future. Safety is an issue, with Brian Dawkins unsure of his return and the number of injuries that have plagued the team at that position. Then there’s the running back the Broncos need, probably a wide receiver (although hopefully a veteran who can teach and catch, like, oh, Jabar Gaffney or someone) and the constant need for ever-better defensive line players. The OL is very young already, but you never miss a chance to upgrade if you can take it rationally. Since you can only do so much, I mostly wanted to take a look at some of the names that we can watch on defense, given the issues that Denver has there.

Denver’s front office and scouting team did a heck of a job of putting together a front defensive line for 2011, but there’s still some work to do going forward. They have a one-gap penetrating line that needs the discipline to sniff out the screen, but the ability to get pressure consistently. Former longtime NFL GM Ernie Accorsi said once, in essence, that beyond a QB and his protection, you can’t have too many pass rushers. Defenses that also play the run tough are even more difficult to go up against. Getting a first-rounder with both attributes, if he’s still there, makes the middle more powerful early on. It’s one option.

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Favorite undrafted free agents

The draft is long over, not much else is happening and while we’re waiting on the owners and players to figure out how to split up their money, I thought that I’d toss out something different. In the past, there were as many as thirty rounds to the NFL draft, and with a lot less teams, too. To compensate for the missing rounds each year - except for this one, so far - there’s a run on college free agents, or as they’re sometimes called, undrafted free agents, right after the draft. Some of them will be cut in training camp, and many will be taken on as training camp bodies with a slim chance of catching on with someone. Some will go to the Canadian Football League, or the WFL or Arena League, or whatever incarnation of non-NFL football is going on at the time. A few will get a special teams berth, and of all of those, a very few will become starters and even stars.

It’s rare, but it does happen - in fact, if you look at the rosters of the Packers and Steelers, you can see that a few of them influenced the outcome of the last Super Bowl. Let's take a look at a few undrafted players who may end up at Dove Valley once the league year begins.

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Talkin’ noise and the NFL Draft

Reality television (and to a lesser extent, Web 2.0) have had some interesting sociological effects.  For one thing, I believe that they’ve fundamentally changed the way people communicate and tell stories.  I don’t mean the medium as much as the delivery style.  How many times in the last 10 years has somebody been telling you a story, and it sounds like they’re telling a camera guy on The Amazing Race?  It’s the soundbite era, because people see edited-down soundbites on TV and internalize a thought that that is how people effectively communicate.  It’s actually the way that people can pass vapid thought fragments back and forth on the way to Idiocracy coming true.

Another effect has been to wrongly convince everybody that their opinion is valid, and that it matters.  We’ve moved well past Curtis Jackson of Action News Live at Five asking some dude named Cletus what the tornado sounded like.  I was flipping through Facebook a couple days ago, in the wake of President Obama’s statement about the demise of Osama Bin Laden.  Everybody is now a Middle East expert, including many who likely couldn’t find it on a map, or name four countries there off the top of their heads. 

Trivia Question:  What continent would you say the Middle East is on?  (I’ll share my thoughts later on.)  You have people who are vastly unqualified to comment saying that it doesn’t matter that Bin Laden is dead, because he had time to train others.  That may be true, but I doubt it; it sounded like he’s been holed up in a compound in Abbottabad for six years or so.  You have others spreading a fake Martin Luther King, Jr. peacenik quote, and still others stuck on the Obama-is-a-Muslim nonsense, and expressing surprise that he’d kill “one of his own.”  Democrats wanted to credit Obama, and Republicans were struggling to find a tone that celebrated the success while de-emphasizing the President’s creditability.  (They largely have failed, because it’s just silly; sometimes, politicians in the party you don’t like do good, and this is one of those times if you’re a Republican.)

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Draft perspective: lines eat yardage

Trudging off the field after the Colts' stomach-churning loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV (which concluded the 2009 season), Indianapolis Coach Jim Caldwell was being besieged by inner questions. By the time that he’d reached the podium for his obligatory postgame meeting with the media, he still felt the same way that he had during that long, sad walk. Asked about why he thought that the Colts lost, you had the impression that the media expected that he’d talk about Peyton Manning’s late, final interception or the valiant but losing effort of the defense. He did neither.

“We lost the game because of the offensive line,” he said bluntly.

Bill Polian, now entering his 14th season as GM of the Colts, has been at the top of the NFL for a long time. Free agency in 2010 was an odd affair, due to the lack of a CBA - not a lot of offensive linemen were on the market, and of them, scarcity meant that most were overpriced. When the 2010 Draft came around, though, Polian used his first pick (31st overall) on TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes to provide a possible successor to Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis. It was a sensible move - Hughes was highly rated and both of their DEs are getting on in NFL years. Next came Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer with the 63rd-overall pick in the second round. Pick #94 was spent on Southern Cal cornerback Kevin Thomas in the third. You could argue for each guy individually - but the biggest issue during that SB loss went unregarded.

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You Got Served: Live third-round analysis

Ted Bartlett evaluates draft-eligible prospects in his spare time, among a number of activities he pursues, including golf, MBA classes, and dating women who are much younger than him.  When his kindergarten teacher told him that he was advanced, what she was saying was that, with minimal effort, he'd be able to do better than "really passionate" people who try their hardest.  He also focuses on the NFL's business and legal environment, offensive and defensive schemes, going off on unrelated tangents, and all 32 teams in the NFL. Follow along as he offers his instant analysis of tonight's NFL Draft.

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