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$.10 For Labor Day

By Jeff Risdon

As the calendar turns to September, football has returned! The first week of college football is in the books, and the NFL kicks off this Thursday.

From cutdown day to suspensions to preseason surprises, here are a few things rattling around my football brain.

$.01--My hometown of Cleveland once again dominated the summer sports news cycle. This time it had nothing to do with Johnny Manziel or LeBron James, though the Kevin Love trade did make my smile a mile wide.

Star wideout Josh Gordon was suspended for a full year for his most recent failed drug test. His appeal was denied, and now the habitual offender faces a one-year banishment from the NFL.

Gordon, who twice failed drug tests while at Baylor and failed another when he tried to transfer to Utah, has a serious marijuana problem. Of that there is no doubt. Yet many are criticizing the NFL, and more specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, for the way the Gordon case has been handled.

The appellate process dragged on far longer than necessary. The league failed to rule on it for some three weeks, which means the banishment extends deep into the 2015 preseason. It also completely removes him from any NFL activities, the one bit of structure in his troubled life.

It’s hard to sympathize with Gordon. Even if he was merely guilty of being exposed to secondhand smoke, he’s a complete idiot for being around guys smoking weed. His selfishness and lack of professionalism and good judgment have likely cost him his career, and that’s a shame.

Now the Browns face the season without the NFL’s leading receiver a year ago. His 1646 yards ranks 9th in the Super Bowl era, and Gordon’s blend of size, speed and strength made him one of the most formidable weapons in football.

His absence leaves oft-injured Miles Austin and 5’7” Andrew Hawkins, who caught 12 passes in Cincinnati last year, as the starting receivers for underwhelming starting QB Brian Hoyer. This could be one of the lowest-scoring offenses of the 2000s, folks. Bet the under on everything with the Cleveland Browns.

$.02--Another long-lingering suspension issue came down in San Francisco, where star pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games for a series of malfeasances. Among his indiscretions:

- A DUI in Sept. 2013

- Guilty plea to six charges, including illegal assault weapons charges, following a party at his home where someone was shot

- A Jan. 2012 DUI

- A fake bomb threat at LAX last April

He missed five games last season after entering rehab, so when he finally returns to the field in November Smith will have missed 14 games because of his propensity for illicit activities.

The Niners will miss Smith dearly. Remember, they’re also without star inside linebacker Navorro Bowman for at least the first six weeks as he recovers from a significant knee injury suffered in the playoffs. He might not be back at all.

Without that dynamic LB duo, and with defensive end Ray McDonald apparently gunning for a suspension of his own, these Niners are not even close to the dominating defense they’ve fielded in recent seasons.

This is among several reasons why I think San Francisco misses the playoffs in 2014 after making three straight NFC Championship games. You can read the full season predictions here this Wednesday.

$.03--Sadly there’s still more suspension news. This is what happens when there aren’t any games to distract us from the negatives, and no the final preseason week does not count as “real” NFL football.

In response to overwhelming criticism from all corners of the media for how the league handled Ray Rice and his domestic violence suspension, Commissioner Goodell announced a new policy.

Effective immediately, any NFL employee guilty of domestic violence is immediately suspended for six games for a first offense and a lifetime ban for the second. Further details are available here at the LA Times.

This is an appropriate response. It’s a shame it took such a public spectacle for the NFL to admit it was wrongly behind the times. The disturbing video of Rice, the Ravens star running back, dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator is far more deserving of harsh punishment than a player getting busted with pot for the first time.

To his credit, Rice has handled his humiliation with dignity and proper remorse. I believe him when he says he regrets it and wants to make it right. But in any other profession, knocking a woman out in public and dragging her like a deer carcass would result in far sterner punishment than sparking up a few milligrams of weed.

The NFL did get it right, but only after failing miserably on the issue of domestic violence.

$.04--There was a chance that no rookie quarterbacks will start in Week 1, a feat that has not happened since 2007.

Normally, I would applaud the patience of these obviously needy franchises, but in two cases I believe the best option is to play the rookie over the veteran. Derek Carr should be the starter in Oakland, and Blake Bortles deserves the nod in Jacksonville.

Carr is the more ready and clearly the better option to lead the Raiders to victory than Matt Schaub. The former Texans QB was unimpressive once again in preseason. He’s obviously never recovered from his Lisfranc (foot) injury in 2011. Since that time, Schaub has been unable to drive the ball. He’s now messed up his elbow trying to compensate for the loss of base strength, and he’s not a capable NFL quarterback anymore.

Carr might not be one right away either, but at least he’s got potential. He played reasonably well in preseason, showing poise and awareness as well as a decent arm. The Raiders might as well get him up to speed as fast as possible. With him they might win 6 or 7 games, whereas with Schaub they top out at 4-12.

The Jaguars are strongly resisting the urge to play Bortles instead of underwhelming vet Chad Henne. It’s like a horny teenage boy on a first date with a buxom young lady and he’s trying to be on his best behavior. The gap between Henne and Bortles is closer than the one in Oakland, and Henne can produce some quality moments; the veteran Michigan man had a better QB Rating in the first half of games than Andrew Luck last year.

It’s a delicate balance for the Jaguars, and for the Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater as well. Their rookie QBs clearly need more time to hone their skills, but they also offer the team the better chance to win right now. The Browns are in that boat too, but not even Johnny Unitas, let alone Johnny Football, could get that team to more than 7 wins.

$.05--Saturday was roster cutdown day, as teams had to trim down to 53 players from 75. Several recognizable names wound up on the waiver wire, but none more prominent than Michael Sam.

The Rams' 7th round pick out of Missouri, Sam flashed some pass rushing skills in preseason. He even sacked Johnny Football and mocked him with the infamous money sign, a moment which almost caused the earth to stop spinning. Yet he was beaten out by better men for the job on a ridiculously deep St. Louis defensive line.

He’d be just another marginal NFL talent scrapping his way onto a practice squad (as of 5:24 PM Sunday he was still not signed anywhere), and the larger world would scarcely know his name. But because Sam came out as a homosexual player, the mass media will not let you forget about him.

Sam is, was and always will be a limited athlete with a great motor and good-not-great burst around the edge. He’s a one-dimensional player, strictly a pass rushing specialist. His sexual preference, showering habits (thanks for asking, ESPN!) and gregarious smile all have nothing to do with that.

You probably won’t hear much about other seventh round picks who didn’t make their teams. The Rams themselves have three others who also failed to make the team. Go ahead and try to name one without looking it up…

You’ll never hear ESPN ever mention Mitchell Van Dyk, Christian Bryant or Demetrius Rhaney. But you’ll hear volumes about Michael Sam. That’s not fair to him, or to the Rams. When the people covering the game care more about ancillary crap than the people playing it, it’s time to find new people to cover the game.

$.06--There was a rare trade of actual players last week, as the New England Patriots dealt Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Tim Wright. The Patriots will also receive a fouth-round pick.

Mankins is a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, albeit an aging one (he’s 32) with a fat contract and no desire to restructure said contract. He’s made five All Pro teams while doing an exemplary job of keeping Tom Brady comfortable and healthy.

He immediately becomes the best lineman on what has been a strangely depleted Bucs unit. After Carl Nicks was forced to retire due to MRSA he contracted from team facilities (allegedly) and departures of Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah, the Bucs are left with a rebuilt line. Before Mankins’ arrival, the starting guards were Jamon Meredith and Patrick Omameh. That’s easily the worst guard tandem in football.

Now the Bucs add a stud back to the front, and one with much-needed playoff experience. Mankins is a tone setter for a team that is still recovering from tone-deaf coach Greg Schiano, who played every note wrong in his two seasons of ravaging this franchise. Even if he’s just 90% of his peak self, he’s still an incredible asset for a team that could be a pleasant surprise this year.

The Patriots get an underrated talent in Wright, a hybrid tight end/wideout who hauled in 50 catches as a rookie last year. My first exposure to Wright, an undrafted player from Rutgers, was in the Detroit game. He immediately impressed with his ability to get open against a very good cover LB in DeAndre Levy.

He’s a sure-handed, big and fleet target who can line up inline or as the motion end or in the slot. For a team still among the very bottom in receiving talent, adding a player of his ability is a big boost. The Patriots were likely to cut Mankins as a salary cap casualty after 2014, and they trust Marcus Cannon to fill Mankins’ spot reasonably well. I do too. 

$.07--One of the common complaints about this preseason was the barrage of flags that dragged the pace of the game down to almost baseball levels. Okay, nothing is slower or more tedious to watch than baseball. But still, when both teams rack up double digits in penalties, the gridiron action often crawled along.

The renewed emphasis on illegal contact by defensive players on receivers was the genesis of much of the yellow laundry, and also the scorn of the fans. Fret not, because the point has been made. While there will still be a definite uptick, the players are now conditioned to understand what will draw a flag and what they can get away with. Defensive coaches now have the ability to make adjustments, some of which include increased jamming right at the line or learning how to sell the offensive player initiating the contact and committing interference.

One trend I did really like in the preseason was the officials more closely calling the head bobs and failure to completely set by offensive linemen. It’s a blatant violation that has been under-policed for years. The most infamous example was in Peyton Manning’s final year in Indianapolis and two of his linemen were still not even to the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, but no flags.

Keep in mind that preseason was practice for the officials too, and many of them are new. Even casual NFL fans (read: my mom) know who Mike Carey is, but he won’t be working games anymore. Expect penalties to be up, but not as dramatically as they were in the preseason.

$.08--College/Draft quickies

--I was really impressed with Texas A&M as they throttled South Carolina. Kenny Hill looked fantastic running the Aggie offense, a real testament to the coaching prowess of Kevin Sumlin. For my money he’s the best coach in the nation, and as he gets more notoriety the Aggies are only going to get better. Remember the name Ricky Seals-Jones, too.

--Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon looked rocked up but still in possession of lightning acceleration and a top-end gear that few can match. So it’s puzzling why the Badgers barely played him, let alone fed him the rock, in the second half of a bad loss to LSU. Wisconsin was in complete control until coach Gary Andersen inexplicably fell in love with a bad quarterback throwing to worse receivers against one of the best defenses in the nation. The Big Ten sorely needed a marquee win there, but the Badgers gave it away by being outcoached by Les Miles. Ouch.

--Clemson edge rusher Vic Beasley is widely touted as a top-10 pick, but he looked decidedly pedestrian in the Tigers’ bad loss to Georgia. The scoreboard said 45-21 but it wasn’t that close. Beasley struggled against a relatively straightforward blocking scheme, unable to get the edge or bend around it when he did. Instead of Beasley, the player who looked like a top-10 pick was Todd Gurley. Yes, Georgia’s running back. He absolutely can go that high.

--Jameis Winston is a fantastic college quarterback, and he deserved the Heisman Trophy while leading Florida State to the national title last year. As a NFL prospect however…let’s just say he needs a lot of work. A lot of work. The good news is he has a lot of time, too.

--Here’s why casinos make money. The line on the Ohio State-Navy game dropped to OSU -17.5 after the news of Braxton Miller’s injury got out. Ohio State won 34-17 after scoring a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining. Decent first outing for Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett: 12-of-15, 226 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT in a game I did not watch.

$.09--NFL quickies

--The Chicago Bears are my pick to win the NFC North, but their safeties still scare the hell out of me. They should scare the hell out of Bears fans too. Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray are a little better than Chris Conte and Major Wright, but that’s like saying it’s better to get pooped on by a sea gull than a pigeon.

--I’ve been an avowed Kellen Moore basher for his entire NFL career, but he absolutely earned his roster spot as Detroit’s third quarterback. He outplayed No. 2 QB Dan Orlovsky in the preseason and demonstrated his accuracy and ability to read defenses are definitely NFL caliber. I still believe his inferior arm strength limits him to being nothing more than a never-used backup, but that’s real progress for the Boise State legend.

--This week highlights the all-or-nothing career of Ryan Grigson as Colts GM. Indy’s personnel manager saw the team cut two of his five draft picks this year. Just one, left guard Jack Mewhort, will see significant action. He dealt the first-round pick for Trent Richardson and his 2.8 yards per carry projection. They also cut linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, for whom Grigson traded away quality pass rusher Jerry Hughes.

--Don’t forget that fantasy football also starts this Thursday night. If you’re a casual fantasy footballer like me, you might need the reminder to set your lineup after your league’s draft.

$.10--It’s a holiday, so I’ll keep this one brief. Enjoy your time with loved ones. Put down the tablet and go throw a ball with your kids, or take a walk on a nature trail. Play a board game. Go fishing with an older relative. Buy an actual newspaper and share it with your cohabitants, and even talk about the stories inside. Introduce your kids to classic movies like Ghostbusters or National Lampoon’s Vacation. Take the time to appreciate and take advantage of your day off. 

2014 Season Preview: NFC North

By Ron Marmalefsky

Chicago Bears   

2013 RECORD: 8-8  
2012 RECORD: 10-6   
2011 RECORD: 8-8   
2010 RECORD: 11-5   

Team Overview: In ’12, 10-6 wasn’t good enough. In ’13, 9-7 would have been good enough, but Chicago fell at home to Green Bay in the season finale despite outplaying the Packers for most of the game. Marc Trestman used his offensive expertise to transform this team into an above average unit, but the defense regressed due to a combination of injuries, coaching changes and key retirements. For years Chicago underachieved on draft day, especially in round 1. The new GM had a promising debut a year ago and it looks like the most recent draft was solid as well. The NFC Central title is attainable if these Bears make any progress on the defensive side of the football. 

Key Stats: Chicago became an offensive force even with Cutler’s injuries. They scored 445 points, 2nd in the NFL, although that number was about 10 points per game below Denver’s 606. The run O was solid at 4.5 per carry. The biggest area of improvement was in sacks allowed. Consistently in the 40’s, the new staff and completely rebuilt OL dropped that figure to a mere 30! As usual Chicago was much more good than bad on special teams and led the NFL in kick return defense. Most of the trouble spots were on defense, a unit that due to retirements, age and injuries did not perform well for a now suspect defensive staff. The run D was by far the worst at 5.3/161.4. The Bears generated just 31 sacks, which tied for the bottom. The overall defense by yardage was rated 30th. Even the pass D% regressed, moving over 60% (62.1%). Spread-wise, the Bears dropped to 37-26 as a HU (0-2), and 22-11 as a HU with >3 points (0-1). They improved to 8-14 in MNF road games. 

Free Agency and Staff Notes: DE’s Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen are instant upgrades.  Safeties M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy might contribute on a more regular basis.  OL Brian De La Puente adds depth.  The biggest losses were back-up QB McCown, DT Melton and older situational sacker Julius Peppers.  Releasing Punter Podlesh might be a good thing. Paul Pasqualoni is the new Defensive Line coach. 

2014 Draft: I have no doubt that the Bears wanted DL Donald but they did the next best thing after the Rams surprisingly took him at 13. This was the first time since 1996 that Chicago selected a CB with their first round selection. Nice job, Chicago! With Vereen, DB was hit twice with rated talent. Carey replaces RB Bush. OT Leno was rated. Yes, even punter was on my need board. This was hardly a wow day three of the draft but the focus Chicago showed throughout the draft is to be commended. 

Roster Analysis:

QB: Jay Cutler prefers taller WR’s and he’s got them. The back-up situation is not nearly as good as it was a year ago.

RB: Ka’Deem Carey is a good short yardage risk/investment behind versatile Matt Forte.

WR: Marshall and Jeffery are among the best duos in the NFL.  Marquess Wilson could have developed into a solid 3rd option but he is out now. Santonio Holmes was recently signed. Josh Morgan is the only other viable option.

TE: Bennett had a better than expected performance in ’13.  Rosario is average as a 2nd option.

OL: Last year’s new starting five made a huge difference. Chicago faces some stronger defenses in ’14.  The depth is solid.

DL: New DE’s Houston and Allen should easily upgrade the pass rush! Rookies Sutton and the wide-bodied but raw Ferguson back up DT’s Paea and Ratliff. 

LB: Briggs is on his last legs but ’13 rookies Bostic and Greene will be expected to continue to get better.  McClelin was overdrafted a few years ago but he starts as of now along with DJ Williams.  How fast can Bostic and Greene win starting jobs?

CB: Tillman missed eight games in ’13 and he was sorely missed.  Rookie Kyle Fuller will be expected to contribute early.

Safety: Projected starters Mundy and Conte are not all that good!  I like 3rd day draft choice Vereen’s potential and smarts but that’s about it for this unit.  Should they have considered a top tier safety in the 1st round of the draft?

Special Teams: Rookie punter O’Donnell is an upgrade over the departed Podesh.  Retrun specialist Reynard signed 8/18. 

Coaching: Marc Trestman brought instant offensive credibility.  DC Mel Tucker has been genuinely average over his career but worse than that in ’13.  More talent is on that side of the ball now, especially up front!

Team Keys: Keeping Jay Cutler healthy. Finding a #3 WR. The play of the DB’s, and especially the safety play. The point D was way too high in ’13. Expectations are that defensive sacks will go up. 

Did The Preseason Mean Anything? Chicago had some August issues, with the run ratio 3.0 to 4.4 and just five defensive sacks.  Matt Forte ran 10 times for 10 yards but he was 4.6 in ’13 and should rebound.  New short yardage RB Carey was just 27-74 so I expect Forte to carry most of the ’14 workload.  Jay Cutler is ready.  So are WR’s Marshall and Jeffery.  Injuries impacted WR depth.  Santanio Holmes is here and he could have plenty left in the tank facing single coverage.  I question whether TE Bennett will repeat his fine ’13 season but he is in a passing friendly scheme.  I’ve bumped up defensive sacks thanks to facing the AFC East and having a motivated Jared Allen but the Bears showed little inclination to move forward in this critical area.  Still, I expect Allen, Lamar Houston and the year two LB’s to make this front seven better than a year ago.  Is the once vaunted return game slipping a bit? 

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Marc Trestman knows offense but will be challenged a bit more in ’14 by facing some better defensive teams such as the Jets, Patriots, Bills and 49ers.  Speaking of SF, that game is at their brand new stadium and begins a stretch where the Bears are on the road four of the next five weeks!  Game #4 is hosting GB who will have a motivated Julius Peppers on their side.  The Bears will have one less day to prepare for that game after a MNF road trip to face the Jets.  Games 5-9 are at Carolina and Atlanta, home to Miami and at New England.  I’m not sure the Bears will go into the bye with a winning record. Chicago stays in the Division to host Minny in a game that Jared Allen will get to face his old team.  The reunions continue when Tampa and QB Josh McCown visit the windy city 11/23.  Speaking of windy, the Bears hope that it’s a cold day for the warm weather Bucs.  Not a one of games 12-14 will be played on a Sunday. After playing on consecutive Thursdays the Bears will have 11 days before hosting what they hope is another cold weather game vs. dome team New Orleans.  They’ll have a short week to hosting the Lions but it will also be a rare late season third straight home game that is atypical in the NFL.  They close a very schedule friendly December outdoors at Minny. 

Bottom Line: The schedule pace worries me, meaning despite the fact this team has upgraded along the DL and is in year #2 of the Trestman scheme exceeding 8-8 won’t be easy.  4-5 can still get them at least eight wins given the easier closing slate, so Chicago should not panic.  Offensively, they need Matt Forte to stay healthy and Santonio Holmes to contribute.  Defensively they need to outperform their August sack stats and hope something clicks with their secondary.  I think they are better than 8-8 but there is statistical evidence that exists which may complicate matters. 

Key Game: How about 9/22 on MNF at the Jets?  The Bears are historically poor on MNF road games but this is almost a must win game.  Arizona went 10-6 and missed the playoffs in ’13 in the loaded NFC playoff race.  Chicago needs to win the perceived tossup games in order to build up their resume. Handicapping Tip: Buffalo has a new defensive coordinator. The Bears should be able to take advantage of this on opening day. 


Detroit Lions:                

2013 RECORD: 7-9  
2012 RECORD: 4-12  
2011 RECORD: 10-6   
2010 RECORD: 6-10   

TEAM OVERVIEW: Thanksgiving night! Detroit settled down to a Turkey dinner after having dismantled a GB team missing QB Aaron Rodgers 40-10. They led the NFC North, a Division where both Rodgers and Chicago’s Cutler were injured.  They were making playoff plans.  Amazingly, these same Lions were eliminated before Week 17! They collapsed in the snow at Philly, turned the ball over too much in a 2-point loss hosting Baltimore and then lost in OT hosting the vulnerable NYG.  Yes, Stafford threw in excess of 4,600 yards but he also threw 19 interceptions, leading to a -12 turnover ratio.  The undisciplined Lions fired their head coach, and demoted their past his prime DC (Cunningham).  The Lions entered ’13 with a + point ratio and a -16 turnover ratio from ’12, plus a 4th place schedule in ‘13.  Technically, they did improve their overall record from 4-12 to 7-9, but teams with this triple plus situation are normally capable of much more.  Detroit has more than enough talent to compete for the NFC North title.  Isn’t it time for these Lions to take the next step, instead of watching Carolina and others pass them by?

Key Stats: Detroit had a -12 turnover ratio (-8 fumbles) which needs to be corrected.  RB’s lost 10 fumbles, worst by three in the NFL.  Overall they fumbled 19 times, worst by seven!  Despite these numbers, time of possession was +4:15, they had a +60 figure for 1st downs, and the OL allowed just 23 sacks.  Defensively, the only poor figure was a low 33 sacks (28th).  The 3rd down D was quite impressive at a 30% conversion rate.  Now for some amazing news!  For the 1st time since about 1960 (just kidding) the pass D% was under the magic # of 60, at 59.1%.  We did not see that coming.  Is that sustainable?  It’s an indictment to the previous coaching staff that with all these #’s, (and Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush) the team missed the playoffs!  The kick return D was 30th (26.4).  Spread-wise, the Lions are now a poor 12-26 after playing rival GB, and 3-15 as a road favorite.  They dipped to 17-8 in their last home game and went 1-0 as a road dog off a loss (now 18-8 in that role).

Free Agency and Staff Notes: The biggest addition was reliable WR Tate from Seattle.  Ryan Broyles could have been their #2 option but devastating knee injuries have hampered his development.  Depth was added along the DL, but not impact.  This area is still one of their deepest even with the loss of emerging DE Young.  Injuries stunted the performances of WR Burleson and safety Delmas and both players were released.  Safety James Ihedigbo was signed.  Detroit lost back-up QB Shaun Hill.  Jim Caldwell is the new Head Coach.  Joe Lombardi (ex-Saints QB coach) is the new Offensive Coordinator.  Teryl Austin is the new Defensive Coordinator.

2014 Draft: This year everyone was certain the Lions would draft a CB at 10.  Knowing Detroit, I begged to differ.  TE Ebron is a certain starter as the Lions are anxious to phase out the declining Pettigrew.  Before round two I had 10 mocks from the “non-TV” analysts.  Nine of the 10 said NOW they get their CB.  Again, I begged to differ.  Detroit traded up for LB Van Noy who might thrive here playing behind the strength of the Lion defense.  OL was a bolded need as well, but Swanson was overdrafted.  At pick 133 tthe (token) CB selection was made.  The Lions did almost everything asked of them pre-draft, including selecting PK Freese, a scoop of mine in a pre-draft report!  Good luck in the secondary!  I would have taken a stud CB in round one, and traded to get Desir ahead of Cleveland in the late 3rd, or early 4th round.  Did they really need a center in the 3rd round?

Roster Analysis:

QB: Stafford has his ugly moments but overall is above average.  Dan Orlovsky would be a liability if he played in a real game.

RB: Reggie Bush is still a good RB but the fumbles have to stop.  Bell is putting up some solid numbers of his own.

WR: Calvin is the BEST!  Broyles just needs to stay healthy.  Tate is an upgrade.  Durham and Ogletree add decent depth.

TE: Pettigrew is joined by rookie Ebron to make TE relevant.  Joseph Fauria is the touchdown TE.

OL: The OL returns intact and that stability makes them better than maybe they really are.  Swanson adds much needed depth and will learn to play OG to add versatility. 

DL: The unit is nasty, but cares mostly about personal stats.  Ansah will continue to get better and Taylor plus a pair of rookies make the unit the deepest on the entire team.

LB: Van Noy will challenge Ashlee Palmer for the 3rd spot alongside Tulloch and Levy.  There isn’t much quality depth.

CB: Don’t get me started!  Okay, get me started!  Call me if you need more info!  Go, Lem Barney, go!  2nd year CB Slay will start alongside very average Mathis.  Past day two and three reaches in recent drafts add depth.  Here is the relevant quote from Scott Wright: “Do you know who is happiest about this (Ebron) pick?  Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and now Teddy Bridgewater.  It appears opposing quarterbacks will continue to have free reign to drop bombs on the Lions habitually leaky secondary.” 

Safety: Glover Quin was an instant success in ’13 and he can play!  Ihedigbo is the new SS.  The back-ups are substandard.

Special Teams: Sam Martin did fine as the rookie punter.  The Lions hope Nate Freese does the same as the new PK.    The return game has been a longstanding issue and looks no better as of now.  The return defense also needs fixing.

Coaching: I am NOT a fan of Jim Caldwell although his sideline demeanor is an upgrade over Jim Schwartz.  The coordinators both look like upgrades however. 

Team Keys: The Lions are on a roller coaster ride with turnovers, going from +11 to -16 to last year’s poor -12 ratio.  Why are defensive sacks so low considering the front four talent?  The Lions are awful protecting late leads.  That is a combination of Stafford turnovers and a secondary which couldn’t scare a college team.  Fumbles have to stop.  I’m curious to see if the presence of LB Van Noy automatically makes the team smarter.  Can Jim Caldwell coach? 

Did the preseason mean anything? The Lions have often performed well in August but not during the regular season.

Once again August was kind, as all defensive #’s were outstanding.  In August of ’13 QB Stafford was 27-55.  This August he was 21-30 with no picks.  RB’s Bush and Bell are ready.  Calvin Johnson was lightly used but the two-three punch of Golden Tate and a hopefully healthy Ryan Broyles caught 18 and along with rookie TE Ebron the pass catchers will be tough to cover.  Their primary TE, Brandon Pettigrew is not likely to be featured in ’14.  The best DB is Glover Quin.  This is not a good unit so it is shocking that opponents were just 76-150 against the Lions in the preseason.  I do think sacks will rise a bit, maybe to the league average.  Rookie LB Van Noy may not be ready for the start of the season.  An annual Lion concern is the return game.  I’m not convinced this area has been properly addressed.  Finally, rookie PK Nate Freese was 20-20 in college in ’13.  He was 6-6 in August, including 3-3 from 50+ yards.  Could this be the year the preseason stats really mean something here? 

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Jim Caldwell has to prove to me that he is a capable NFC head coach.  The Lions have talented players on both sides of the ball but Caldwell has to do what Jim Schwartz could not do; make them play more team oriented football.  The early schedule is challenging but the Lions should have the edge in readiness on Monday night hosting the NYG unless penalties continue to be a liability.  Win or lose, Caldwell immediately must deal with a short week and a road game at Carolina.  Their host of Divisional rival Green Bay is immediately followed up by a trip to New York to face the Jets.  Are Caldwell and company up to the task of motivating his players beyond Divisional games?  If so, the next three games are winnable as well (Buffalo, at Minny, New Orleans).  That Buffalo game marks the return of former head coach Jim Schwartz.  Lion fans will smile broadly if this ’14 team is 3-2 or better, but what if September doesn’t go as planned?  Detroit is fairly awful as a road favorite.  Can they overcome this issue at Minnesota 10/12?  Detroit has just seven true road games.  The 10/26 London game vs. Atlanta could go either way but is huge for both team’s playoff chances.  In November the Lions must travel back to back to Arizona and New England.  This could mean 0-2.  The Lions end ’14 with four of five games against their own Division plus a game at home vs. Tampa.  The first three are all at home but the final two will be outdoors at Chicago and Green Bay.  The Lions hope they are in the playoffs before that final game as they have not won in the state of Wisconsin since 1991. 

Bottom Line: GM Mayhew has failed to understand the correlation between impact secondary play and making the playoffs.  Mayhew has been at a high level with the Lions for over 14 years.  During this time the Lions have drafted just 15 DB’s (yes, CB’s and safeties), most of them below the second round.  According to one source, the best of the bunch was Louis Delmas, and he just left the team.  The Lions have had one winning season since 2000.  I compiled a full article on this subject a short time ago.  Everything else short of penalties and selfish DL play shows the needle pointing in the right direction.  Caldwell’s biggest challenge is to keep control of this team should they start 1-3.  Paper statistics aside, I see the Lions outside of the playoff picture.  Stafford might have a big season and turnovers could spike up from -12 of a year ago.  That could make Detroit relevant to the tune of 9-7.  To achieve anything over 8-8 this team must reduce costly penalties, win when favored on the road and play pass defense above their talent level.  Can HC Caldwell prove me wrong?  Maybe, thanks to a new kicker who could help to reverse their recent record in close games?  KEY GAME: 10/12 at Minnesota.  The Lions have won once in the last 20 tries at their place but a win now would make later games vs. playoff contender Chicago even more relevant!  Handicapping Tip: It would not be wise to back the Lions as a road favorite at Minny in that October 12th game, but perhaps even worse is their 40% spread record as a road dog on grass (38 of 95).  With one less day to get ready, I think the 9/14 road test at Carolina will be tough on them. 


Green Bay Packers:           

2013 RECORD: 8-7-1  
2012 RECORD: 11-5   
2011 RECORD: 15-1   
2010 RECORD: 10-6   

Team Overview: Injuries are a part of the game, but it was shocking when THIS QB was sidelined for a significant period of time.  GB played a full 10 points under their Power rating without Rodgers, possibly the most significant player other than Peyton Manning to any NFL team.  Once known for stockpiling QB’s in each and every draft, the current Packers floundered badly without their leader.  Rodgers was rusty in the lucky win at Chicago, and the team as a whole was not good enough to beat SF come playoff time.  GB fixed their run game and ’14 should be another banner year for the offense.  Getting back to the top of the NFC however will only be accomplished by improving their run D and point D and preventing big pass plays. 

Key Stats: GB has forever been the best at keeping opposing offenses under the magic 60% mark.  They allowed 61.2% in ’11, a key reason why even at 15-1 they were (in my opinion) NOT going to the Super Bowl.  The # was 55.1% in ’12.  Last year they slipped back to 61.6%, allowing 30 pass TD’s.  Obviously losing Aaron Rodgers hurt their offense but their run O skied to new levels thanks to rookie RB Lacy.  The #’s were 4.7-133.5.  GB had 44 defensive sacks but allowed 45 of their own.  The run D continues to have issues.  ’13 #’s were 4.6/125.  GB intercepted just 11 passes.  The return D was collectively a major problem as the Packers finished 29th in both kick return D (26.0) and punt return D (13.1).  Spread-wise, GB dropped to 32-16 as a December host but Rodgers was missing in both games.  They are 9-0 after a bye.  They remain 16-7 after a MNF win. 

Free Agency and Staff Notes:  This area is usually blank, but Green Bay signed DE Julius Peppers and he will likely feel revitalized (i.e. motivated) in ’14.  LB’s Guion and Chase Thomas add depth.  The losses include serviceable WR James Jones, occasionally productive OG Newhouse, OC Dietrich-Smith and safety M.D. Jennings.

2014 Draft: Looking to trade OUT at pick 21, the Packers instead found the perfect blend of need vs. talent in Clinton-Dix.  WR Adams is not only a current #3 option, but could be a future #2.  GB got their TE, but did they make the right choice with compensatory pick 98?  As my readers recall, I blasted the Packers for making two poor WR choices last year.  We saw how that worked out.  As the ratings below show, GB added talent at WR this time around.  The Packers drafted other rated talent in the sleeper rounds but could have addressed DB better and maybe OL as well.  NOTE: The Packers signed my 16th rated RB, Neal after the draft.  SEC RB’s have made it in the NFL and Neal ran 5.2 per carry.  I do think GB made mistakes in this draft but they did draft to my top three areas of need (safety, TE, WR).  Better choices could have been made at OL, DL and DB.

Roster Analysis:

QB: Perfect, as long as Rodgers stays healthy. 

RB: Lacy made an immediate impact, but Franklin is now retired (injury).  Starks, Harris and maybe UFA Neal add depth, while fan favorite FB Kuhn is the lead blocker.

WR: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb make for a solid one-two punch.  Boykin and Adams will vie for the #3 spot.  Janis should make the team.  Abbrederis will go on IR.  The ’13 WR mistakes are gone!

TE: I was quite surprised GB did not add one of the top three rookie TE’s to the mix.  Quarless is athletic but a middle of the road starting TE and rookie Rodgers will need developmental time.

OL: Raw ’13 rookie Bakhtiari was “forced” to move to LT with Bulaga on IR and reportedly held his own, but at the most he is acceptable for now.  Bulaga returns and goes to RT where he probably belonged in the 1st place (GB may not have any true LT on its roster).  There’s experience at the other spots but the line is still unsettled at press time.

DL: Losing NT Raji for all of ’14 is a real blow to an already below par run D.  I don’t like any of the current replacements so watch the waiver wire after the final preseason cutdown day.  The DE’s are fine with Peppers added to the mix.  GB rolled the dice on Thornton and purged DL Jolly and Pickett so overall DL depth could be an issue.

LB: Will 3rd year LB Perry develop?  Hawk and Matthews are fine but again, stopping the run has been an issue.  Keeping this unit healthy has been another issue.

CB: Intact and fairly deep.  There are no superstars but expectations have to be that the pass D% goes under the magic 60%.

Safety: MD Jennings is gone.  Can Clinton-Dix actually step right in as a starter?  Chances are GB will have some safety growing pains in ’14 and the depth here is not very impressive.

Special Teams: Micah Hyde stepped right in and did a solid job as the return specialist.  PK Crosby rebounded in ’13 but still needs to be watched in ’14.  The return units defensively were right near the bottom of the NFL.

Coaching: McCarthy has grown on me.  The coaching staff is just fine, although DC Dom Capers has slipped a bit recently. 

Team Keys: Get that pass D% under 60.  Find a way to move the usually slightly negative sack ratio to a solid +10 figure.  Defensive interceptions (11) must rise.  I’ll be watching TE play and the run D, two areas of concern for ’14.

Did the preseason mean anythign? Rodgers was 37-47 in ’11, 21-43 in ’12, 17-24 in ’13 and 20-33 this August.  He was only sacked once, but overall the OL was as usual with 10 sacks allowed.  WR’s Nelson and Cobb were not 100% last August.  They were used sparingly this preseason as the Packers and their upgraded WR unit spread catches amongst four other options.  TE’s Quarless and rookie Rodgers combined for 10 receptions but I still don’t feel this is a top 10 unit.  The top three RB’s are Lacy (11-61), Starks (22-84) and Neal (5-39).  This is much better than what happened last August!  Admittedly the Packers don’t place much value on preseason stats so having a stout 25.5-15.5 point ratio should be taken as a real good sign.  Defensive sacks should remain strong, while the 55% August pass D% is another good sign.  Noteworthy defensive players Peppers, rookie Clinton-Dix and a much healthier DB Hayward could make this one of their better defenses of the past few years.  Many options are in play for the return game so that should be a nice September watch area.

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: The schedule starts out rough with a rematch of “ref-gate” at Seattle in the NFL opener and a pair of Divisional road games weeks three and four at Detroit and Chicago.  The pace of the schedule softens considerably after that.  Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will face each other for the first time in a home game 11/30.  The December schedule is also quite fair, although the Packers need to guard against a letdown at Buffalo after facing Atlanta on Monday Night.  Here are some other notes related to the Packer’s schedule.  9/21 (Detroit): Green Bay looks to avenge a 40-10 Turkey Day loss.  Side note: The Packers are 20-9 indoors under McCarthy.  9/28 (at Chicago): Green Bay has won 16 of 20 at Chicago.  10/2 (Minny, Thursday Night): The site of a 26-26 tie last year.  10/12 (at Miami): Joe Philbin vs. his old team.  Green Bay is just 1-6 at Miami.  10/26 (at New Orleans): The Packers last win in the Superdome came in 1995.  These last three meetings have produced 211 total points.  11/9 (Chicago): Bears QB Jay Cutler is 1-8 against Packers.  Green Bay is 7-1 in the game after the bye under McCarthy, tied for No. 1 in the NFL.  This is the first of four home games in a five week stretch.  12/14 (at Buffalo): Green Bay is 0-5 lifetime at Buffalo.  12/21 (at Tampa): The Packers square off against former Bear head coach Lovie Smith.  Smith lost his last six games vs. Green Bay. 

Bottom Line: With just a 2-2 start the Packers should be considered the NFC North favorite.  The record could be around 7-3 with a split of games at New Orleans and home to Philly.  If all goes well GB will be in the hunt for a playoff bye.  I think 9-4 is in play not counting games hosting New England and at Buffalo and at Tampa Bay. 

Key Games: September road games at Detroit and Chicago.  A sweep here might effectively eliminate Divisional competition as long as Rodgers stays healthy.  0-2 makes this a season long battle, and probably with no playoff bye for the NFC North winner.  Handicapping Tip: The Packers are 32-16 vs. the spread as a host in December but it’s the two road games that month that could be problem areas. 


Minnesota Vikings:         

2013 RECORD:  5-10-1  
2012 RECORD: 10-6   
2011 RECORD: 3-13   
2010 RECORD: 6-10   

Team Overview: I have reviewed 36 NFL drafts (ouch), and over the years it’s been fairly easy to tell which teams are poised to move up and which will move down based on their draft tendencies.  What’s also true is that one good draft can’t always change immediate projections.  Such was the case here in Minny, where going 10-6 in ’12 raised the hopes of many, and a strong early ’13 draft made everything seem even better.  As said 12 months ago, “RB’s seldom make much of a difference but in this case NFL MVP RB Peterson deserves all the credit.  He singlehandedly got them the playoff spot”.  Minny entered ’12 with a + point ratio and a 4th place schedule.  They entered ’13 with my projected toughest NFL schedule (including just seven home games), the weakest QB in the Division and a 64% pass D.  It was no surprise that they bottomed out.  QB and pass D% are still areas of concern, but along with the nice ’13 draftees comes a new coach.  Recognized by myself and several others as an elite DC, Mike Zimmer finally gets an opportunity to be the main guy.  It’s a QB driven league (just check out the rule changes over the past few seasons).  If Minny gets this position right then the future might be a good one for Viking fans.

Key Stats: Tough schedule or not, Minny had the 32nd and last point D so there are issues.  They allowed 20 or more points in every game until the finale vs. an uninspired Lion team.  Opponents were successful 44% of the time on 3rd downs and they allowed an NFL-high 37 TD passes.  The Minny pass D has been forever over 60% (a typical 64.7% in ’13) and has given up 99 passing TD’s the past three seasons.  The overall yardage allowed was 31st.  The offense again was ineffective through the air.  In ’12 the Vikings allowed 1,157 more pass yards than they obtained.  The # was 1,168 in ’13!  Yes, the run O was at 4.9-130 but this time there was no win compensation.  The turnover ratio was -12.  The kick return D was 31st at 27.1.  Spread-wise, Minny is 24-13 vs. the NFC East (3-1 in ’13) and 19-4 as a September dog (2-1).  They are under 40% on the road vs. Divisional foes and just 60-87 outdoors.  Road performance remained an issue.  Minny was 8-16 in road game #1, 5-24 as a December road favorite, and 7-24 in their final road game.

Free Agency and Staff Notes: The only significant change on offense was losing back-up RB Gerhart.  Minnesota added former Jet OL Ducasse and that is a decent low-risk proposition, as is sleeper WR Lestar Jean.  The DL loses long time contributors Kevin Williams and Jared Allen.  LB Erin Henderson was released.  DL and LB additions are fringe players at best.  In the secondary, CB’s Cox and Munnerlyn will join youngsters Josh Robinson and Shaun Prater with former starter Cook off to SF.  Norv Turner is the new offensive coordinator.  He’s talented, but sacks allowed under watch must be reduced.  George Edwards was the Miami LB coach and is the new defensive coordinator.  The one concern is the new DL coach, Robb Akey.  Robb was rightfully fired as the Head Coach of Idaho in ’12 and his teams never stopped the run.  He’s never had an NFL job!

2014 Draft: We don’t know!  That can be said about many of Minny’s picks, but especially with LB Barr and QB Bridgewater.  Barr is raw and is a pick based on potential.  Bridgewater has most of the desirable traits you want, but questions have arisen related to his arm strength and even his accuracy.  Can his plus intangibles make a difference?  DE Crichton fit a need and the try hard Paul Kruger type had a value of 35-45.  Pick #96 was from Seattle as part of the Percy Harvin trade.  Minny is one of the better teams in securing value when trading and that was the case again in ’14.  They moved up to get Bridgewater yet still ended the draft with two more picks than they started with.  They waited too long to get an OL but Yancey had value.  The next three picks were lower rated but add depth and match the need board.  Unfortunately, the last two picks carry little value.  I would have doubled up along the OL and changed pick 96 to OL Thomas or Dozier or CB Desir. 

Roster Analysis:

QB: Cassel has won the starting job and is fine for now.  Bridgewater is the hope of the future.  Ponder needs to be cut.

RB: Peterson is one of a kind.  QB turned RB McKinnon has the most upside of all the current back-ups.

WR: Patterson made a difference as a rookie.  Jennings still has something left in the tank.  Wright is hanging on.  Simpson gets in too much legal trouble but would have been a solid #3 option if he was more dedicated. 

TE: Emerging TE Rudolph is back from missing half of ’13 and will like playing for Norv.  The reserves are well below average.

OL: Stable, but not great at pass protection.  LG Johnson is the weak link.  The depth is better here than in many places.

DL: Different!  DT Floyd is still raw and DT Joseph is not close to 100%.  The DE’s are a bit better, but they’ll miss Jared Allen.

LB: Greenway is really good, but Barr is a raw rookie and Brinkley and the Penn State ’13 draftees are not ready to start.

CB: Rhodes and Josh Robinson can develop into solid starters given time.  Munnerlyn is best as a nickel.  Depth is decent.

Safety: The top three return but I’d so far call them average at best.  I do give them credit for making plenty of tackles.

Special Teams: PK Walsh has been amazing.  Patterson was elite as a KR and Sherels was an above average PR.

Coaching: Mike Zimmer deserved this opportunity.  I think over time the combination of Zimmer and DC George Edwards will have a positive impact.  I’m scared about Norv Turner’s protection schemes although he can be creative in play calling.

Team Keys: Norv Turner’s protection schemes.  Defensive sacks without Jared Allen and a changing front seven.  I expect TE Rudolph to have a big year.  Winning when favored!  Fixing the -12 turnover ratio.

Did the preseason mean anything?  Teams with new head coaches usually try a bit harder in August but of course the results are not always perfect.  The Vikings however went 4-0, and allowed just 50 preseason points.  Is this the year the pass D gets under 60%?  Mike Zimmer’s the guy who once led Dallas to an under 50% pass D!  The defense may be a work in progress and is without Jared Allen but still produced 12 August sacks.  Offensively, Matt Cassell held off Teddy Bridgewater for the #1 spot as both QB’s had good camps.  Cassell was 26-39 but did take 4 sacks.  Bridgewater was 30-49 with a 5-0 TD-interception ratio, taking 3 sacks.  The odd man out has to be Christian Ponder who was sacked 5 times in just 22 attempts.  Based on the preseason it looks like 2nd year WR Patterson will become more involved on offense and TE Rudolph is possibly primed for a big year.  There are two concerns.  1st, Minny settled for 13 field goal attempts, meaning the young offense may see drives stall in the red zone.  2nd, the return game won’t work without Patterson. 

Strategy and Bottom Line Analysis: Minnesota could not return to the playoffs in ’13 but the good news is a more manageable schedule for this upcoming season.  They have 14 games scheduled for the early Sunday slot, plus one afternoon Sunday game and the mandatory Thursday Night game, this one at Green Bay.  The bad news is a rough opening first five games.  New Head Coach Mike Zimmer starts by going on the road to St. Louis, with games 2-5 home to New England, at New Orleans, home to Atlanta and that short week road game at Green Bay.  The best I see here is 2-3 and that is not a guarantee.  I’ve always said new coaches need some September help, plus a relatively early bye week to get adjusted to the job, and Zimmer gets neither.  His bye week is not until 11/9.  To further delineate the pre-bye slate, Zimmer’s defense will face Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in the first five weeks.  At least games 6-9 are vs. perceived “easier” teams Detroit, Buffalo, Tampa and Washington.  Notes from games 6-9 include Adrian Peterson’s first trip to Buffalo and a trip to a rested Tampa team who will have former Viking coach Leslie Frazier as its defensive coordinator.  Post bye games 10-16 include four in Division, and four of the final six games are at home, including Green Bay, Carolina and the Jets all in a row.  Carolina will be off a bye week before they travel to Minny.  Chicago and former Viking DL Jared Allen will play the Vikings in weeks 11 and 17.  Minny has not won at Chicago since ’07 but winning Divisional games is a must for them to have a playoff chance.  Minny’s final road game is at Miami.  They are 0-3 at Miami, last winning in 1976.  The goal for this team is to survive the early part of the schedule, and hope any necessary adjustments can be made before the full bye week. 

Bottom Line: Perhaps 4-5 if they can split October road games at Buffalo and Tampa, and 6-7 if they go 2-1 at home vs. GB, Carolina and the NYJ.  That’s probably the ceiling, and not enough to get them a true playoff opportunity but good enough to inspire confidence in the future.  This probably is a 6-10 or 7-9 team, and it’s that good only because it already looks like Mike Zimmer has had a positive effect on the team.  The ceiling is 7-9 or more if the pass D% indeed does come down and “free points” are had with a reduction in last year’s turnover ratio.  The floor is more like 5-11 if defensive sacks take too big of a drop and there is not enough progress in these other areas.  I do see some issues in Norv Turner’s protection schemes so be wary of that offensive sack number. 

Key Game: The key situation is getting that very 1st win.  Mike Zimmer has waited a long time to be the head guy and there is a chance his team might not be favored most of the year!  Winning 9/28 hosting Atlanta is an absolute must!  Handicapping Tip: Minnesota is 23-7 against the number as a home dog of more than three points, but they have not been a good outdoor road team.  The best negative situation may be 10/26 at a rested Tampa team.  Minny is 24-13 against the number vs. the NFC East and catches Washington in a tricky scheduling situation 11/2. 


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

$.05 On OTAs

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

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Rules Of Thumb Following The First Round

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Final 7-Round NFL Mock Draft

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