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Buffalo Bills 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 5-10-1, last in NFC North

2014 Over/Under: +/- 6.5 wins

Why the over

There is a lot to like with these Bills on both sides of the ball. While lacking true star power, both the offense and defense have several Pro Bowl-caliber talents and nice pieces that do seem as if they can fit together nicely.

Offensively, the weaponry is very impressive. C.J. Spiller is a versatile threat at running back, an accomplished receiver as well as an effective speed back. He averages over 5.0 yards per carry for his career, and he can build upon his nearly 3,000 yards of combined offense over the last two seasons.

Adding Sammy Watkins at wide receiver helps transform the entire offense. He’s a legit #1 wideout and could prove to be that lofty right away. His blend of speed, body control, hands and field smarts should make him an instant impact player.

Watkins’ presence pushes everyone else on the receiver depth chart to where they can thrive. I’m not a big Mike Williams fan, but the former Buccaneer can be an excellent foil to Watkins. He plays big for his size and has soft hands. If he buys in--which is an ongoing issue for Williams--he provides a solid downfield target and possession receiver with sizzle.

Robert Woods, a 2nd round pick from USC last year, appears poised to make a jump forward in his progress. He can play either in the slot or outside, which is where he’s received most of his camp reps. He’s athletic with reliable hands and can make the first tackler miss in space. He’s bumped outside more because the team is very high on young slot man Chris Hogan, a former Monmouth fullback who is coming into his own after time on the practice squad. He’s nifty and tough.

The receiving corps is strong enough with special teams standout Marcus Easley thrown in that 2012 3rd round pick T.J. Graham is probably not going to make the team.

Fred Jackson is a strong change-up back to pair with Spiller, when the veteran can stay healthy. He played all 16 games last year, catching 47 passes and finding the end zone a combined 10 times. Anthony Dixon and to a lesser extent Bryce Brown offers the Bills some useful depth in the backfield. Dixon is very good at maintaining his speed and balance through contact and could emerge as a strong short-yardage back.

The core of the offensive line has talent. Cordy Glenn is a massive left tackle with good instincts and decent footwork. He’s got Pro Bowl potential in 2014. Eric Wood and Kraig Urbik are an effective C/RG tandem that opens holes and does a great job keeping interior pressure off the quarterback.

A couple of rookies could positively impact the front. They took tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round, but he’s the least likely of the three to do anything positive thanks to balky knees that got him removed from many draft boards. Fourth round guard Cyril Richardson has potential to be a very effective run blocking force, though he must widen his base stance; if he can learn to not set up so narrow and negate his natural strength, he could be a real good left guard.

Then there’s enigmatic 7th rounder Seantrel Henderson. He’s a legit 1st round talent when he has his head on straight and plays with passion…which happened about a quarter of the time in his college career at Miami. If Henderson can check his considerable baggage at the door, I strongly believe the Bills have themselves a Pro Bowl right tackle.

Tight end Scott Chandler is a solid two-way end, a reliable receiver who blocks better than most at his position. Backup Lee Smith is an even better blocker who lines up as H-back quite a bit. He caught just 5 balls last year, however, and that might be more than he does in ’14.

The strength of the defense is the front, where Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have the potential to be a wrecking crew inside. Williams is one of the most underrated talents in the game, a nonstop gap attacker who has enough burst to chase down plays behind the line and the balance and strength to finish the play. Dareus has improved at playing the run on his way to the quarterback, and still he bagged 7.5 sacks.

The key here is Mario Williams, who will thrive under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Williams was very good a year ago with 13 sacks, up from 10.5 in his first Buffalo season. He’s got the complete physical package to tick up to 15 this year, and he could wind up leading the league in plays behind the line of scrimmage. In Schwartz’s scheme he won’t have to worry about doing anything but attacking and moving forward, which helps cover his poor spatial awareness.

The other ends are Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson, both of whom are one-dimensional pass rushers. Hughes has finally shed the draft bust label after bulking up and learning to use his hands in concert with his incredible first step. He’s a great balance to Williams. Lawson fits nicely as the third end.

The Bills have two first-round picks as the starting corners, to mixed results. Stephon Gillmore and Leodis McKelvin are both good-not-great players. Gillmore is overhyped but has excellent ability to redirect at the line and turn-and-run with receivers. He’s very aggressive in going after the ball, with 26 career PDs in just 25 starts. The downside is he also has 21 penalties and is a major sucker for play action. He’s a confident playmaker, a must-have in today’s NFL.

McKelvin isn’t as inherently sticky as Gillmore, but he plays a more disciplined and patient style. He’s also been an accomplished return man, and if he gets his hands on the football he can score some points for the defense. Together they offer potential to be a very solid 1-2 punch at CB.

I like a lot of the young talent amassed in the secondary. Duke Williams is a thumper of a strong safety with great closing burst. Rookies Kenny Ladler and Ross Cockrell both had solid college tape that showed real NFL skills with ceilings as functional starters. Nickell Roby is very short at 5’7” but has proven to be game as a slot corner. The pipeline is flowing, though the best days are probably a year or two away from gushing.

Why the under

E.J. Manuel is the franchise quarterback.

There really isn’t a need to write much more than that. He’s the worst starting quarterback in the league at this point. Don’t just take my word for it…

I know it’s reckless to put too much stock into a few preseason games, but with Manuel I did not see one iota of progress from the faults that plagued him in his rookie season. He still plays as if he’s wearing a neck brace. He doesn’t survey the field and has to rotate his entire body to make a progression. There just isn’t time for that in the NFL, and defenses will continue to sit and then jump to where he’s looking. He’s also not a thrower but rather an aimer. That’s not going to change quickly, folks.

It would be helpful if the Bills had a veteran mentor for Manuel, or even a legit backup to push him or afford more developmental time. They have neither. Jeff Tuel brings energy and agility but has no experience and a subpar arm. Thad Lewis couldn’t beat out Kellen Moore to be Detroit’s 3rd stringer last year, and if you think I’m harsh on Manuel you should ask me about Mr. Moore sometime…

The defense took a major hit in losing top tackler Kiko Alonso. The rangy, savvy linebacker was the beneficiary of some stat padding, but even so he was already one of the most reliable tacklers in the league as a rookie. Alonso was also very adept in coverage, and they’re hurt even deeper here because Arthur Moats is now in Pittsburgh.

Rookie Preston Brown can help some here, but coverage is not his strong suit and he had some stiffness and range issues at Louisville. Coverage is the weakest part of Spikes’ game, too. They do have some intriguing athletic potential, but Alonso is an all-around talent that just cannot be replaced.

The secondary probably concerns me more than it should. Some of that is that McKelvin and Gillmore so seldom play well at the same time. Some is a function of losing stud safety Jarius Byrd, one of the best in the game. They have a functional replacement in Da’Norris Searcy and a youngster I really like in Duke Williams, but they are largely unproven commodities.

The depth behind the starters on both lines is paper thin. Doug Legursky can play guard or center in a pinch but belongs as a gameday inactive. If Henderson keeps his head on straight the tackle depth is at least okay, but it’s tough to buy into that at this point. Defensively it’s even spottier, where Ohio Bobcat journeyman Landon Cohen is the best reserve. He’s had a strong preseason and fits Jim Schwartz’s defense well, but he’s never done much in his bouncy NFL tenure.

Special teams are also an issue. Only Washington finished with a lower aggregate special teams grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) than Buffalo’s -22.0 score. This starts at the top with coordinator Danny Crossman, who had atrocious units in Detroit (his units were directly responsible for 3 losses in 2012) before taking his talents to the other end of Lake Erie. Punter Brian Moorman is coming off a down year and at 38 it’s questionable if he can climb back up. Don’t expect much improvement.

Forecast

The Bills have a lengthy playoff drought, the only NFL team that has not appeared in the postseason in the 2000s. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that drought is not getting quenched as long as E.J. Manuel is the quarterback. Even though they’ve got an impressive cadre of weapons and a solid line, Manuel is the governor on the engine that keeps the team from speeding forward.

The defense is good enough to keep the team in most games, so the handful of times where Manuel doesn’t look awful figure to be convincing wins. Yet the schedule is not favorable. The non-divisional slate is the high-flying NFC North, where games will be won by the first team to score 30, and the AFC West that put three teams in the playoffs last year. The “easy” teams on the schedule (OAK, HOU) are roadies.

With the line at 6.5, I’m strongly investing in the under. I’d consider betting the under at 4.5. There doesn’t appear to be more than 4 wins to be found, barring the skill players on offense all being otherworldly. This team will earn a top-3 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft…which they’ve already traded away. Buffalo finishes 3-13.


Initial 2015 NFL Mock Draft

By Jeff Risdon

I know, college football season hasn’t even started yet. So why put out a mock draft now?

There are a couple of reasons. First, consider this a sort of “watch list” for players who I believe could wind up as first-round picks next May. I haven’t really perused other mock drafts to this point, so the players populating this list are talents I believe are either already highly regarded or will emerge to that level in the ’14 season.

Second, it’s always fun to look ahead and try to project where NFL teams will be nine months from now. What might they be looking for in the ’15 draft? Obviously that’s quite difficult to predict, as several teams will have coaching and front office changes.

The order here is based on current (as of 8/18/14) season win total over/under lines in ascending order. In cases of ties, I broke those ties with my own forecast for which team will win more games. The draft order here is technically impossible, as it does not account for division winners and playoff seeding. Get past that, folks…

1. Oakland Raiders: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Sure they just drafted Derek Carr in the second round. They cannot afford to look past a superior overall prospect and dual-threat weapon like Mariota. He needs some passing polish, but the physical tools are all there for Mariota to be Colin Kaepernick’s equal, if not superior. He’s just a junior, so it’s far from a given that he declares.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon. Ducks go 1-2 in this premature edition. IEO, as he’s known in scouting shorthand, enters the season as my personal No. 1 overall player. He’s got size, speed, vision, instincts and playmaking flair. He has a chance to be the best CB in the NFL at some point, something that cannot be said of any first-rounders in the last 2-3 drafts.

3. Cleveland Browns: Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn. He’s a downfield demon with legit 4.3 speed, impressive for a rocked-up 6’2”, 200+ pounder. Coates is dripping with potential. If he shows he can improve his footwork on routes and concentration over the middle, he’s going to be the first wideout taken. The Browns need every weapon they can get for Johnny Football, and character concerns are going to matter. Coates

4. Cleveland (from Buffalo Bills): Vic Beasley, Edge, Clemson. The booty for dealing the pick that became Sammy Watkins to Buffalo is the top pass-rushing prospect heading into the season. Beasley has a lightning first step and great closing burst to the ball. He fits better as a 3-4 OLB as he appears fairly maxed out at about 245 pounds.

5. Minnesota Vikings: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford. The Vikings already have a solid pair of tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but Peat could be too skilled to pass on here. He’s got outstanding length and quick feet, a natural left tackle. The Vikings do like to trade picks, too…

6. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, DT, USC. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Ndamukong Suh since the Lions stud was dominating at Nebraska. A violently strong interior presence with the athleticism to play anywhere along the line, the rising junior has everything NFL teams want. The Titans have a sturdy young line with Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin and Sammie Lee Hill, but Williams gives them real star potential up front. Have to think that if they’re picking this high they’ll look strongly at a QB, however.

7. Houston Texans: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. It might seem inconceivable for the reigning Heisman winner and field general of the national champs is not a top 5 pick, let alone No. 1 overall. I think he’s a victim of hyper-scrutiny about his character, but also his surprisingly spotty mechanics and accuracy. He can--and I suspect he will--iron the on-field issues out, and that should be enough to convince the Texans to trust him with the keys to the franchise.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa. The Bucs offensive line is in the process of a major turnover, and Scherff has the potential to be the centerpiece of a rebuilt front. Physical and relentless, he’s likely a right tackle at the next level, but could be an awesome one. When I graded him for the ’14 draft he came out ahead of No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan, a similar style of player. Scherff isn’t as athletic, however.

9. New York Jets: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State. If you liked Mike Evans in the ’14 draft, Strong is your kind of receiver. Big and strong (no pun intended) with a huge catch radius, the 6’4” junior is a better route runner than Evans already. He’s a viable potential No. 1 receiver, something the Jets could pair nicely with a talented No. 2 in Eric Decker. 

10. St. Louis Rams: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. If the Rams miss out on the playoffs once again, it’s likely Sam Bradford’s fault. That means it’s time for a change, and that change is the rangy Bruins junior. He’s a divisive prospect already, as some (I raise my hand high) worry about his accuracy as much as they are tantalized by his huge arm and great size.

11. Washington Ethnic Slurs: Landon Collins, S, Alabama. Washington drafted a pair of safeties in 2013, but Philip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo have yet to emerge past decidedly average journeymen Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather. Collins is a do-it-all safety with strong tackling skills and solid instincts vs. the pass, giving them a long-term solution at a position of growing importance. Collins is just a junior.

12. Arizona Cardinals: Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida. Fowler is a rising junior with freak closing speed and lateral quickness for a 275ish-pound edge player. He’s not afraid to get physical. If he can clean up his positional discipline and continue to wreak havoc in backfields, he could go a lot higher than 12th. I think the Cardinals are better than this slot, so for them to add another impact piece to their solid defense would be quite fortunate. Fowler and Calais Campbell would be a devastating DE/OLB duo to try and block.

13. New York Giants: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M. Ogbuehi continues the strong line of premium tackles in College Station. He’s not quite as high-end as Luke Joeckel or Jake Matthews, but he’s a high-floor talent who is ready to start right out of the box at either tackle spot. The rebuild of the Giants offense continues by building up the front and adding skill position weapons in the next few rounds.

14. Miami Dolphins: Devante Parker, WR, Louisville. Long and strong, Parker proved he could make the tough catch from Teddy Bridgewater. Now he gets to break in a new QB at Louisville. His projected 4.55 speed waters down his draft stock a bit, but there might not be a better catcher of the football in the next draft. He’d make a great complement for Mike Wallace to help Ryan Tannehill’s progression in Miami.

15. Kansas City Chiefs: Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford. A blazing speedster with reliable hands, Montgomery would immediately upgrade a Kansas City receiving corps that scares Chiefs fans more than it does opponents. In his junior season, he can elevate his stock by improving his footwork and selling his moves better.

16. Carolina Panthers: P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State. A fluid athlete with a very high football IQ, Williams will get a lot of exposure playing for the Seminoles. He can elevate himself higher than this if he makes more impact plays as a junior. He would immediately step into Carolina and be their No. 1 corner.

17. San Diego Chargers: Shilique Calhoun, Edge, Michigan State. He’s a fierce pass rusher with explosive athletic metrics, a perfect fit along a Chargers front that needs more sizzle off the edge. His ability to play both end and 3-4 outside backer gives the defense more options. The junior reminds me of Mario Williams.

18. Dallas Cowboys: Randy Gregory, Edge, Nebraska. Another player who is going to divide the draft community, Gregory has potential to be a dynamic edge rusher with a great first step. If he can even out some truly ugly ’13 game tape (Michigan, among others), the rising junior would bring speed and length to what appears to be a brutal Dallas defense.

19. Pittsburgh Steelers: Devin Funchess, TE/WR, Michigan. He’s a hybrid receiver along the lines of Eric Ebron or Tyler Eifert, a wideout in a tight end frame. The junior offers great potential as a seam-stretcher and giant slot presence. He could blossom with more consistent QB play, something he would get in Pittsburgh with Big Ben.

20. Atlanta Falcons: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. The two-year drought of first round running backs ends with the eminently talented Bulldogs junior. He will remind some of Steven Jackson, others of Marshawn Lynch. With Jackson nearing the end, the Falcons could add the local product to bolster and balance the Matt Ryan-centric offense.

21. Detroit Lions: La’el Collins, OT, LSU. A massive and punishing line presence, Collins offers the Lions options up front. LaAdrian Waddle and Riley Reiff are both versatile, which would allow Detroit to find the best combination to help fuel their high-powered offense. Yes, once again the Lions do not take a first-round corner…that’s what free agency is for.

22. Baltimore Ravens: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State. With Darqueze Dennard now a Bengal, the Ravens tap his Spartans mate to be their own shutdown corner. The rising junior has size and attitude, two attributes in high demand in the NFL today. Of all the picks I’ve made here, this is the one that is the most likely to actually come to fruition.

23. Chicago Bears: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. Smith is a playmaking cover safety, something the Bears desperately need. He lacks size but doesn’t lack punch when he’s flying all over the field. He’d make a great fit for Chicago in the pass-happy NFC North, a division I think they win in 2014 despite a still-leaky defense.

24. Philadelphia Eagles: Noah Spence, Edge, Ohio State. The rising junior performed at his best against top competition, and he’s an impact player against both the run and pass. His game is similar to Kyle Van Noy from the ’14 draft, and Spence has the similar lack of power and strength that he can build up to improve his stock.

25. Cincinnati Bengals: Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina. Bengals fans are used to a former SEC behemoth anchoring the offensive line. As Andrew Whitworth approaches his mid-30s, Cincinnati reloads with the 6’7”, 330ish Robinson. He’s still fairly raw with his technique, but you can’t coach his length and brute power.

26. Indianapolis Colts: Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA. The junior’s upside is similar to the good Nick Fairley, a disruptive gap penetrator with both power and quickness. McCarthy has to be reminded he’s big at times, but guys his size (6’4”, 325) with his movement skills from a major program typically don’t last long on draft boards.

27. New Orleans Saints: Ramik Wilson, ILB, Georgia. A tightly-wound tackling machine with decent range, Wilson would make a great fit in Rob Ryan’s aggressive, oft-unconventional defense. He could lead the nation in tackles in 2014, but his best NFL attribute might be his cover skills in the short and intermediate range.

28. San Francisco 49ers: Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston. Every year there are a couple of surprise first round picks, and it’s often the 49ers who make one. Greenberry is a long, speedy monster along the lines of Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas. He needs to show his strength more frequently, and then the junior can take the NFL draft process by storm.

29. Green Bay Packers: Alvin Dupree, Edge, Kentucky. Dupree is a player I think will blossom going forward as he gets stronger and learns how to better use his hands. He’s already physical and has nifty feet for a 260-something pound edge rusher, and he’s also shown he is fluid in space. Great fit for a zone blitzing team like Dom Capers’ Packers, who can use him opposite Clay Matthews.

30. New England Patriots: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. This is probably lower than you’ll see the talented Cooper in most mock drafts, but his lack of any elite trait will water down his stock. That doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t be getting a potentially great receiver, as his sticky hands, route savvy and professional polish are all already evident.

31. Seattle Seahawks: Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State. The player Greene most reminds me of is former Seahawk Golden Tate, who took the money and ran to Detroit. He’s comfortable lining up in the slot or outside, has superb hands and body control and he can make tacklers miss. He’s not as fast at Tate, but the reigning Super Bowl champs can use his NFL-ready game.

32. Denver Broncos: Josh Shaw, CB, USC. The onetime Florida star recruit has the traits of a hybrid corner/safety a la Kenny Vaccaro or Calvin Pryor, two recent first round picks. His high football IQ and great burst out of breaks should translate well to the NFL. Denver needs to keep reloading secondary talent. 

Next 10 players picked: Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor; Marcus Peters, CB, Washington; Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State; Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami; Ty Smabrailo, OT, Colorado State; Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland; Jordan Jenkins, Edge, Georgia; Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Christian Covington, DT, Rice


Quick NFL Hits For The Fourth of July

By Jeff Risdon

This is the NFL’s slow season. Minicamps and OTAs are done, and training camps don’t kick off for another couple of weeks.

That doesn’t mean America’s premiere sports league is shut down. Enough news continues to matriculate out to keep the NFL prominent even in the midst of the World Cup and the NBA draft and free agency in full swing.

Here are some of the latest news blurbs, and my snap reaction to them.

--Kiko Alonso out for the season

Buffalo’s top tackler as a rookie, Alonso will be missed in the heart of the Bills defense. He tore his ACL whole working out on his own.

This is a major blow to Buffalo. Alonso’s range and technical proficiency covered a lot of holes on their defense. Even though his tackle numbers were inflated by some generous scorekeeping, Alonso still shows up making plays everywhere on game film. He certainly belonged in strong consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Buffalo will try to replace him with rookie Preston Brown, a player I liked a lot more than most in the draft process. The Louisville product doesn’t have Alonso’s amazing lateral range, but he offers the same kind of versatility and ability to move in any direction.

In the debate in my mind about who will be missed more between Alonso and Cowboys LB Sean Lee, who will also miss 2014 with a torn ACL, I think it will be Lee. Even though the Cowboys have more experience playing without him, the relative talent around Lee is thinner. The Bills have a better front and don’t depend on Alonso to carry so much of the burden.

It’s still a critical loss, however. Don’t believe me? Ask the bookmakers, who dropped the Bills prospective season win over/under total a half-game within 12 hours of the injury, from 7 to 6.5. I’ll take the under.

--Dion Jordan suspended four games for PEDs

The Miami Dolphins defensive end has certainly not had the career many of us draftniks envisioned. Miami traded up to the third overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft to pick Jordan, a long, athletic, versatile hybrid end/linebacker talent from Oregon.

Jordan was a misfit in Miami’s defense. The Dolphins deployed him as a 4-3 end, which takes away from his best asset--his ranginess. He’s not a power rusher, and keeping him with his hand in the dirt and tight to the formation doesn’t allow him to use his great agility or litheness in space.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium content), Jordan managed just 2 sacks and 24 total QB pressures in his rookie year despite playing over 200 snaps in a rushing capacity.

There were lots of trade rumors this offseason, some of which (to Arizona for the Cards’ 2nd & 4th round picks was a popular one during Combine time) made too much sense not to happen.

Maybe now we know why they didn’t happen. Jordan will miss the first four games, putting him even further behind and making a sophomore turnaround all that much more unlikely. Per the initial report from ESPN, Jordan claims the suspension is for a banned stimulant.

It’s always a shame to see a talent go to waste. It’s even worse when the squandered talent wastes his own opportunity. The Dolphins were close to being a legit threat in the AFC East a year ago, but swinging and missing on a top-5 pick really sets them back. Between Jordan’s failure and the offensive line saga, it’s hard to see Miami rising up past third place in 2014.

--Lavon Brazill suspended for the entire 2014 season

This one really hurts. Brazill, the shifty Colts wideout, is the most prominent Ohio University Bobcat in the NFL. As a fellow Bobcat, it gave me great pride to see someone from our meager program (Ohio won 9 games in my five falls in Athens) to succeed, although the team has found recent prominence under Frank Solich.

Brazill got the Jordan treatment a year ago, missing four games for a positive test. He apparently did not get the message, as another positive test has ended his 2014 season before it even began.

On the field, the Colts will miss him only a little. He caught just 12 passes last year, and he was projected by most to be the fifth wideout. The team has impressive rookie Donte Moncrief and free agent signing Hakeem Nicks, both of whom are much bigger and more dynamic options. While Nicks has some injury issues, Moncrief could very well be an instant star.

He’s the second Colt to get whacked for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Pass rusher Robert Mathis, a much more significant contributor, will miss the first four weeks for his sin. Considering the owner is facing a suspension for being caught with all sorts of illicit substances during a DUI, the Colts appear teetering on the precipice of some real character issues. It won’t help a team that is already held together largely by the miraculous comebacks of Andrew Luck.

--Jimmy Graham ruled a tight end

This ruling came in the wake of Graham protesting the Saints labeling him as a tight end for franchise tag purposes. Graham, with the support of the NFLPA, argued that because he played more than 2/3 of his snaps split from the formation he should be classified as a wide receiver.

The Saints won the case. Graham did himself no favors by calling himself a tight end on his Twitter profile, however trite that might seem. As a result, the dynamic pass catcher will lose about $5M in 2014.

Other players have struggled to win similar cases. It calls to the forefront the need for the franchise and transitional tag concepts to adapt to today’s changing NFL.

Players like Graham, Vernon Davis in San Francisco and rookie Eric Ebron in Detroit are all hybrid tight end/wide receivers. Call them what you want, a hybrid or a joker or a flex, they all play a role that is defined by their ability to catch passes deeper down the field than the traditional tight ends. While they all do have blocking responsibilities, that’s not why they’re making millions.

The same is true on the defensive side of the ball, where not all defensive ends or linebackers are the same. Some are exclusively pass rushers, while others are run-stuffing forces. Lumping them all together is like saying every cheese is cheddar. The league needs to adapt. The NFLPA needs to push them more firmly but also without the acrimony that predominates their interactions with Commissioner Goodell.

It’s important to note the two sides are working to try and hammer out a long-term deal before it comes to Graham playing under the tag. My guess is they will meet somewhere in the middle, rewarding Graham for being the third-most prolific target in the league over the last three years. Tight end or wide receiver doesn’t matter to Drew Brees and New Orleans’ record-setting offense.

--Johnathan Franklin forced to retire

One of the bigger downers in being a NFL talent evaluator is when a player you like fails to pan out due to injury. Such is the case with Green Bay Packers RB Johnathan Franklin, who was forced to retire because of a neck injury.

Franklin played just one season for the Packers after being their 4th round pick in 2013. He’s 24 and his promising career is over. His final stat line is 19 carries for 107 yards and Franklin scored exactly one touchdown.

On one hand, it’s great that the medical evaluations caught the neck injury, which he likely suffered in Week 12 last year. It’s better to be overly cautious with a neck injury than to let Franklin continue playing and possibly suffer an even worse, life-altering casualty.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see a young man’s legit NFL dreams go away in an instant. Franklin was my 2nd-rated running back in the 2013 draft, and I loved the fit or the former UCLA Bruin in Green Bay. His niftiness out of the backfield and ability to cut hard off the crease were natural skills that fit the Packers offense perfectly. Paired with 2nd round pick Eddie Lacy, they were poised to be an effective thunder and lightning package for years.

Now Franklin is like Jahvid Best, the Lions RB who was forced from the game by 25 due to a series of concussions. He’s also like former Packer Sterling Sharpe, who was forced to retire far too early because of a neck injury. Franklin never came close to their level of accomplishment, and that’s sad. Here’s hoping his post-football life is a promising, productive, and healthy one.



The Best Pick For Every Team

The Texans may have picked the LeBron James of the NFL, Vikings had a jackpot pick in Teddy Bridgewater, a potential new No. 1 WR for the Saints and the other best picks for each team.


Post Draft Report – Way Too Early First Impressions (AFC Edition)

The Browns, Bills, Texans and Jaguars made the most noise in the draft.


Round 1 Thoughts, Looking Ahead At Round 2

This was indeed a deep draft, with more prospects than ever evaluated as worthy of being drafted, but it was still filled with surprises.


Rules Of Thumb Following The First Round

Great first rounds for the Rams, the NFC North as a whole, Bengals and Chargers, while the Eagles and Patriots received thumbs down, while Cleveland had the most intriguing night.


Final 7-Round NFL Mock Draft

The two extra weeks of NFL Draft season have led to way too much smoke and speculation. It's one of the most confusing drafts ever, with beat writers for the same teams often wildly differing in their own projections and information.


2014 NFL Team & Draft Preview

Breaking down the draft needs, tendencies, draft history, round 1/entire draft priorities for all 32 teams.