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Green Bay Packers 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 8-7-1, won NFC North

2014 Over/Under:  +/- 10.5 wins

Why the over

The easy answer is just two words: Aaron Rodgers. The best quarterback in the NFL today should be fully healthy and motivated to atone for last year’s subpar outing. Rodgers is a perennial MVP candidate and is capable of making the brilliant play under heavy duress in crunch time.

The starting skill position players with Rodgers are impressive. Jordy Nelson might not get the fanfare, but he’s a legit #1 wideout with great speed, hands and body control. He can make the tough catch in traffic but can also turn a quick hitch into a big gain with his power and elusiveness after the catch.

Randall Cobb is a lithe speed demon with incredible shiftiness and an outstanding top gear. He’s a flash out of the slot but can also work outside or even on some running and gadget plays. He’s very slightly built so keeping him healthy is paramount, but he and Nelson together give Rodgers two great weapons in all ranges of the passing game.

Eddie Lacy shook off his bad early weight and rumbled to Offensive Rookie of the Year. He finished strong, scoring TDs in six of the Packers’ final seven contests. While he had some clunker games and must get over his propensity to run into his blockers, he’s a tough guy to tackle with his active knees and strong forward lean. Lacy also caught 35 passes, though just one traveled more than 5 yards from the line.

The offensive line is solid, arguably the best shape it’s been in with Rodgers at the helm. The key here is the continued development of left tackle David Bakhtiari. He was up and down, as expected, as a rookie but has very high potential. His run blocking is often terrible, but the Packers are paying him to keep Rodgers comfortable in the pocket and the ex-Colorado giant does that pretty well.

With Bryan Bulaga (hopefully) returning to form at right tackle after missing 2013 with yet another injury, the ends should be decent. Durability is a major issue for Bulaga, however. Still, he’s a competent right tackle when he’s on the field and will be an upgrade over his injury replacement of a year ago, Don Barclay.

The guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, are there for their run blocking. Both are adept at opening and maintaining holes for Lacy and escape routes for Rodgers. Sitton is one of the best guards in the game and at 28 he’s just hitting his athletic prime. They’ve played their spots (mostly) for several years and appear to have as much chemistry as two guards can together.

Defensively, there is some talent too. A full 16 games of Clay Matthews as the top outside rush backer would do wonders. When he’s healthy he’s a terror on opposing quarterbacks with his barrage of pass rush moves and amazing closing burst to the ball. He’s a player the offense has to account for at all times, and that frees up his teammates to get more advantageous matchups. That’s a big key to Dom Capers’ attacking defense.

The corners look pretty good on paper. If Tramon Williams and Sam Shields ever play to their potential at the same time, it’s one of the better duos in the league. A return by Casey Hayward gives them a very solid trio of playmakers who aggressively challenge the football. Hayward could be special, a legit ballhawk with excellent instincts. Williams is coming off a down season but even in that he flashed greatness at times. A more consistent season is definitely within his reach.

Micah Hyde played well as a rookie and his role is growing. He projects as the starting free safety, which takes advantage of his size and range. He’s also apt to see time as the slot corner, where he can function just fine, too. It allows them to spoon-feed first-round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The Alabama product will be the third safety but should see ample action on passing downs.

Punter Tim Mashtay is an above-average performer, and kicker Mason Crosby finally appears over his brutal 2012 campaign. The coverage units are solid, though they must find a more dynamic kick returner.

Then there is the organizational confidence. This team expects to win, thanks to the mindset established by Coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson. They can make some ponderous decisions but the players trust them explicitly, and the culture of winning and living up to high expectations is firmly entrenched. That’s their biggest advantage in the NFC North, outside of Rodgers of course.

Why the under

The most obvious reason is their overwhelming reliance on Aaron Rodgers to carry the offense. When he missed time in 2013, the Packers were pathetic. Matt Flynn proved why he bounced from team to team despite being given shots at starting; he’s one of the worst backup QBs in the league. This team will not win more than 1/3 of the games Rodgers doesn’t start.

Their wideout core is not as deep or experienced as it has been in recent years. With James Jones gone, the only two proven commodities are Cobb and Nelson. They’re both fantastic--each should top 1,000 yards and 8 TDs--but the rest of the corps is relatively weak.

Jarrett Boykin is the third option. He caught 49 balls last year, with 5 drops. He’s a solid possession receiver at least one spot too high on the depth chart. Rookie Jared Abbrederis figures to be the next in line. The fifth-round pick from Wisconsin has some downfield ability, but he’s quite weak (just 4 bench press reps) and thrived in college largely by outworking his opponents. That doesn’t happen in the NFL nearly as readily. Second-round pick Davante Adams put up freakish numbers at Fresno State but that was far more about the Bulldogs’ system than his own greatness. There is good potential with his size, but his speed is ordinary and his route running experience is well behind the curve. Don’t expect much in 2014.

The rest of the receiving corps is full of half-baked projects like Chris Harper and Jeff Janis. Both belong on a practice squad in 2014. I do like Harper as a red zone threat with his great size and strong hands, but he has not shown he can get any separation against NFL coverage.

Unlike past years, there won’t be much help at tight end. With enigmatic Jermichael Finley gone, the top dog is plodder Andrew Quarless. Just 3 of his 33 receptions came beyond 10 yards. He’s not much of a blocking threat, either. I don’t discount the potential for Finley to be addition by subtraction, but the Packers don’t have anyone waiting in the wings who offers close to what he did as an athletic target.

Some will say, “but Richard Rodgers!” The third-round pick from Cal has the build of Finley but little else resembling a legit NFL tight end. He’s quite raw, doesn’t catch cleanly and is not a dynamic athlete.

The running back depth took a hit with the unexpected retirement of Johnathan Franklin, who was forced from the game after just one season with a neck injury. James Starks remains capable of grinding in short yardage, but the rest is unproven. There is talent here, however, with tough DuJuan Harris and rookies Raijon Neal and Ladarius Perkins battling for a spot, so it’s a minor worry.

The much bigger worry is the defense. More specifically, the defense up the middle of the field.

B.J. Raji was one of the worst defensive linemen in the league last year. In fact, Pro Football Focus rated him dead last among 3-4 ends. He’s little more than a big guy taking up space, no matter if he’s playing end or tackle in Dom Capers’ amorphous fronts. He got little help from guys like C.J. Wilson, Datone Jones or Johnny Jolly. Veteran Ryan Pickett turns 35 in October and has already lost both burst and range. Only Mike Daniels offers much competence on the defensive line, yet he’s more of a pass rusher than a run stuffer.

Teams can get by with a porous line if the linebackers are strong, but that position is probably the biggest weakness in Green Bay. Any team that trots out A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Mike Neal as the second line of run defense is going to struggle badly against the run. Hawk is generally effective but overruns and misses too many tackles to be considered dependable. That 29th ranking in yards per carry allowed (4.7) did not come by accident.

The only reinforcements the team brought in are Julius Peppers at outside backer and rookie Carl Bradford. Peppers is a 34-year old trying to make a change to a more physically demanding position after years of playing end in Carolina and Chicago. He hasn’t graded positively in run defense by PFF since 2010, and my lasting memory of him from ’13 was humdrum Lions left tackle Riley Reiff moving him around at will in both Detroit games. He will help spark the pass rush (somewhat), but he’s of little help vs. the run.

Ah yes, the pass rush. That’s another significant question mark, though a much rosier one. Adding Peppers and a (hopefully) healthy return by both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry gives the Packers a potentially strong rotation of sack artists at OLB. Matthews is one of the most dynamic defensive players in the league.

Yet there are questions with all three. As noted above, Peppers is moving to a foreign role that demands more athleticism at a time when his body is losing that attribute. Matthews has missed 9 games (4 in ’12, 5 in ’13) the last two years and did not top 7.5 sacks in two of the last three years. He’s got legit All Pro potential but has to stay on the field and top 12.5 sacks for this defense to improve. If he can play 15 games and bag 14 sacks--and he absolutely can do both--a lot of the worrying here goes away.

Perry is an even bigger injury question, having missed as many games as he’s played in his first two years. He has just 6 sacks and has not shown he can disengage once blocked. It seemed like GM Ted Thompson made a savvy move in picking Bradford as insurance, but the Packers are moving the Arizona State backer inside. It’s a curious decision that appears based more on his tweener size; Bradford is just 6’ tall and didn’t show much more than a rip move as a rusher. It might actually aid the run defense a bit, though for that to happen Bradford must cut back on the false steps and poor pursuit angles that plagued him in college.

I’m more optimistic about the outlook at safety, another area that must improve. Between moving Hyde to free safety and drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama in the first round, the talent pool is significantly deeper. Still, neither has played that role in the NFL. Expect improvement but with some growing pains. As with Matthews’ health, this is a variable that could make the overall defense much better and swing the pendulum strongly into the “over” on wins.

Forecast:

The line is 10.5 wins. That seems more like a best-case scenario than a likelihood. Even with both Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews playing full seasons at MVP-caliber levels, there are enough holes on this roster that double-digit wins against their schedule would be a pleasant surprise. They open with 3 of 4 on the road, beginning with a trip to Super Bowl champ Seattle and two division games sandwiched around a visit from the difficult Jets. The non-division matchups are the AFC East and NFC South, two divisions that feature legit tests from top to bottom. Barring Rodgers being a runaway MVP and the defense unexpectedly rocketing from 24th in scoring defense to at least 12th, the Packers are a strong “under” bet. They finish with between 8 and 10 wins and sneak into the playoffs as the 6th seed.


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

By Jeff Risdon

I’m not a big fan of issuing draft grades right after the fact. And with so much negativity floating around, I opted to stay on the positive side of the coin.

Here are my favorite draft selections for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech--the fourth round pick (#120 overall) wound up in the best possible situation for his NFL potential. He’s got better athletic potential and a better arm than #3 overall pick Blake Bortles, and there are times (the Miami game comes to mind) where Thomas looks like a legit NFL star. Not starter, star.

He was often really, really bad too, and that’s why many groaned when the Cardinals took Thomas in the fourth round. But Bruce Arians uses an offensive system that plays to his downfield strengths, and there’s no pressure to rush his progress. Give him two years of advanced coaching and encouragement, and the Cardinals just might have themselves a franchise quarterback. The reward is worth the risk here.

Atlanta Falcons

Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M--This was a toughie, as they made some very good value picks and fits. Yet Matthews was my No. 1 player in the entire draft, and the Falcons landed him with the sixth overall selection. He’s instantly the best starter on what has been a problematic line for the last couple of years. He’ll be protecting Matt Ryan and clearing holes for another pick I really liked, 4th round RB Devonta Freeman. Matthews is a can’t-miss prospect for a team that desperately needed one.

Baltimore Ravens

Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State--Gillmore is a player I really grew to like after seeing him in person at Shrine Game week and Senior Bowl week. He didn’t have a lot to do at CSU, but in those two weeks I saw a sure-handed receiver who could use his big frame to get separation and reach out to pluck the ball from the air. He’s a solid in-line blocker and he can chip and release nicely. Gillmore projects as a very good second tight end, something the team needed. They could have done a lot worse with the 99th pick.

Buffalo Bills

Preston Brown, LB, Louisville--I do really like adding Sammy Watkins to the mix, but I’m not sure they had to give up as much as they did to get him. Brown, on the other hand, is a strong value in the third round. He should be able to line up inside or outside. When I watched Louisville film to break down Eagles 1st round pick Marcus Smith, all I saw was Brown making plays all over the field. He and Kiko Alonso make a very nice young LB tandem for a team that should be on the rise.

Carolina Panthers

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State--The giant wideout was the epicenter of some very divisive opinions in the scouting community. I happen to value his athletic gifts, and think his detractors ignored a lot of very strong plays he made under pressure for a championship team. He landed in the perfect spot; Cam Newton has the same style as Jameis Winston and Benjamin will get every chance to shine, and he wasn’t a reach in the late first round. Benjamin is my too-early projection for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Having said that, it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he washed out a la James Hardy either.

Chicago Bears

Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech--The Bears absolutely had to upgrade the defense. I like all of their first three picks; Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton are both limited role players, but the Bears sorely needed those roles filled. Fuller has a chance to be a very good cornerback, and he fits schematically. I also like that they didn’t reach to fill the gaping hole at safety, sticking to their board with the higher-end player. The Bears had one of the best drafts of 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals

Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State--Cincinnati landed my 16th-rated player overall and top CB on my board with the 24th pick. Aside from the value they got, Dennard’s aggressive style fits well both within the context of their defense (assuming they keep a similar scheme with the change in coordinator) and in the AFC North. Jeremy Hill could wind up being a very good power RB for them, too, though I think he went too high.

Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M--I wrote earlier about my mixed feelings on their tumultuous first round. The more I look at the reaction to Manziel and how he’s reinvigorated my hometown, the more I support the decision. He’s a unique player that represents a stark contrast to the “same old Browns”. Johnny Football is the face of the franchise and seems quite capable of handling that pressure. I would not bet against him.

Dallas Cowboys

Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor--This one is all about relative value. They badly needed a safety, and Dixon could have gone at least two rounds earlier. He’s stiff in coverage and tested poorly in workouts, but he’s still immediately the second-best safety on the Cowboys roster. They got him with the 248th overall pick deep in the 7th round. I do like Demarcus Lawrence’s potential as an edge rusher, too.

Denver Broncos

Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State--Roby is the top choice with a condition: the Broncos have to get the 2012 version and not the 2013 one. He’s got very similar skills and upside to Joe Haden, who just signed a monster contract extension with the Browns. The Broncos filled their top need with the best value on the board at that spot. It’s risky but should pay off.

Detroit Lions

Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU--The Lions aggressively pursued the versatile Van Noy, trading up a few spots in the second round to reunite him with his former Cougars roommate, Ezekiel Ansah. He is a perfect fit for the new defensive scheme, which will play more 3-LB sets and blitzes. His biggest weakness--sifting through traffic--is mitigated by the Lions’ strong defensive line in front him. Van Noy could be very, very good right away.

Green Bay Packers

Khyri Thornton, DT, Southern Miss--Third-round pick Thornton is an odd fit on the surface. He’s a one-gap upfield penetrator who doesn’t tie up blockers well despite being a large man, and that tends to fit better in a 4-3 defense than Green Bay’s variable 3-4 front. Yet I love his energy and the reckless edge he brings. He’s a poor man’s Nick Fairley without the baggage, both off-field and in the midsection. Thornton is an agitating instigator of a defensive lineman, something this defense badly needed. I really like Davante Adams in the second round too, though he’s not apt to contribute much as a rookie.

Houston Texans

Jadeveon Clowney, Edge, South Carolina--Houston had to be tempted by a quarterback, but they smartly held off and added the defensive prospect with the highest talent ceiling to hit the draft in the last 25 years. He’s not a sure thing, but passing on Clowney could have been as disastrous as passing on Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony for Darko Milicic. Clowney could be the LeBron James of the NFL. Could be. You have to take that gamble with the #1 overall pick.

Indianapolis Colts

Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss--I’m not going to lie here: I have major reservations about what GM Ryan Grigson has done in the last 15 months, and this draft did not help his cause. Moncrief is a great value with the 90th overall pick, but he carries some risk. While he’s a dynamic athlete who looked like a first-round talent at times, he also has a lot of disturbingly lethargic and disinterested games too. A team with limited draft resources probably should have opted for a safer route, though if Moncrief is a hit, he’ll be a big hit. I’m optimistic he will.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State--The Jaguars took two wideouts in the second round, and I love both picks. Marqise Lee went earlier, and the USC receiver has a chance to be special if his knee gets healthy. Robinson came later in the round (61st overall) and should prove more than worthy of the trade up to nab him. His size and leaping ability nicely compensate for a lack of top-end speed, which Lee brings. I love that they got two receivers who complement one another so well. Now about that massive reach for a quarterback in the first round…

Kansas City Chiefs

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, T, McGill--The 200th pick of the draft was a complete mystery to many, but for those of us who saw “Larry” in person at the Shrine Game practices, we know how good the giant Canuck can be. He was every bit as dominant in St. Pete as Terron Armstead, the 75th pick in 2013, was a year earlier. He’s light on his feet but very tough and strong. Once he learns the American game (Canada has different rules on the line), he can be an above-average starting left tackle. The Chiefs got him in the 6th round. I also like guard Zach Fulton from Tennessee, their other sixth rounder. KC could very well have landed two starters in that round.

Miami Dolphins

Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana--The Dolphins had an interesting draft. I like a lot of their players, but they almost universally went about 15-20 picks higher than I liked. Not so with Tripp, whom I graded a solid 3rd round talent. They got him in the 5th, and he’s got a chance to be a solid starter if he can add some functional strength. Billy Turner in the third could wind up being better than first-rounder Ja’Wuan James, and I say that as someone who liked James too.

Minnesota Vikings

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville--Absolute jackpot pick. GM Rick Spielman was patient in watching Bridgewater fall, and then he pounced on the best quarterback in this draft by trading up into the 32nd pick. The best part is they don’t have to rush him onto the field if he isn’t quite ready, though I suspect he’ll be starting for Minnesota by Halloween and will be for a very long time. I like the Anthony Barr pick at 9, too, especially since they pilfered an extra fifth rounder from Cleveland and still got him. That’s good, because none of their Saturday picks might make the final 53-man roster.

New England Patriots

Jemea Thomas, DB, Georgia Tech--With their third 6th round pick, and I like all three of them, the Patriots scored with the versatile Thomas. He can play the nickel corner over the slot, but he also plays big enough to handle safety duties. He’s small and that limits his upside, but Jemea Thomas is a smart, quick-twitch football player. Guard Jon Halapio from Florida, the first of their 6th rounders, will start sooner than later too.

New Orleans Saints

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State--Not only did the Saints get their replacement for Lance Moore, they just might have gotten their new #1 wideout. Cooks is smallish but freakishly quick, and he catches the ball effortlessly. He answered the speed questions, as silly as they seem in watching lots of Beavers tape, by running a 4.33 at the Combine. He should prove worthy of the move up to the 20th overall pick; he was not going to fall to 27th. The NFC South isn’t exactly crawling with defensive back talent, so he could be very good very soon.

New York Giants

Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State--I freely admit to a major bias here. Richburg was my favorite player in this entire draft, my prospect man crush. I even told him so when talking to him during Senior Bowl week, and he accepted it graciously. He’s a smart tactician who can play guard or center, and he adjusts on the fly to opponents as well as any center in the NFL right now. He helps fill one of the gaping holes along their lines. Side note: he was a high school teammate of Baltimore’s above entry, Crockett Gillmore.

New York Jets

Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech--Their second-round pick was rated much higher on my board than their first-rounder, safety Calvin Pryor. Amaro is a monster of a target on crossing and out routes, and he can lay out unsuspecting defenders as a blocker. You can pencil him in for 65-75 catches for 850-950 yards and 5-8 TDs every year. Fourth-round guard Dakota Dozier is a promising project, though he probably won’t contribute much as a rookie. Shaq Evans was a solid pick too.

Oakland Raiders

Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo--Their first four picks could all realistically emerge as quality starters by the middle of 2015, but only Mack has the potential to be great. No matter what they ask him to do--blitz, cover, play end, stuff the A-gap--Mack can do it all very well. Hopefully they unleash him quickly instead of playing it safe. I am a Derek Carr supporter, too.

Philadelphia Eagles

Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon--The first pick of the fifth round could very well end up being a much better player than the man they took 26th overall, Marcus Smith. Hart is a smart, aggressive, strong end who disengages and chases very well for a 280-pound guy. Coach Chip Kelly knows what he’s got in him. I really like adding his Duck teammate, WR Josh Huff, in the third round too.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA--He’s not a great player, but Zumwalt is a consummate Steeler. His throwback style and almost scary toughness scream Pittsburgh. I expected him to be a 4th round pick, but he slid to the sixth. He is the ying to first-round pick Ryan Shazier’s yang. I happen to like Shazier’s fit here too, as the Steelers are finally acknowledging their egregious lack of range in the back end of their defense. Wesley Johnson was a strong pick, too.

San Diego Chargers

Jason Verrett, CB, TCU--This is another great pick with a condition. Verrett is an outstanding, sticky man-coverage corner, but he’s got serious durability questions between his small frame and balls-out style. His fight/size of dog ratio is off the charts. As long as he stays healthy, the Chargers got themselves a very useful player they desperately lacked with their first round pick.

San Francisco 49ers

Marcus Martin, C, USC--I did an in-depth scouting report on Martin, which you can read here. He was a very fun player to study. Martin has some warts, namely a lack of strength and a bizarre lack of second-level vision, but everything wrong with him can be fixed with experience and good coaching. He could be the best guard from this draft class too, though I think he should stick to center. Good developmental pick in the third round for a team that didn’t have any pressing needs to address. Though I don’t issue draft grades, the Niners still earned no worse than an A-minus.

Seattle Seahawks

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama--The second of their three 4th round picks could very well be the only player the Seahawks picked who makes their active roster in 2014. While he lacks second-rounder Paul Richardson’s blazing jets, Norwood does every single other thing a receiver needs to do, including catch the ball, better that the one-dimensional Colorado Buffalo. Fourth-round LB Kevin Pierre-Louis has great athleticism that Pete Carroll can work with, though he’s smaller and weaker than some safeties.

St. Louis Rams

Greg Robinson, T, Auburn--This was not a no-brainer of a #2 overall pick, and I rated Jake Matthews higher, but Robinson was a smart choice and a better fit for the Rams. Coach Jeff Fisher cherishes his combativeness and truly devastating power, even if he will have some pass protection struggles. I really like 6th round corner E.J. Gaines, who completely erased #7 overall pick Mike Evans from the field at Missouri.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington--The big tight end will make for a fantastic red zone target, and at his pro day he proved his athleticism came back after being asked to bulk up in 2013. ASJ is a great weapon at a position of dire need for the Bucs. First-rounder Mike Evans should wind up being a very good wide receiver, but I worry they’re going to ask him to do too much too soon.

Tennessee Titans

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington--Sankey is a great fit for the Titans, a very quick, efficient slasher with great hands out of the backfield. He should reliably move the chains. I like the concept of him running behind first-rounder Taylor Lewan, though they took the Michigan tackle a few spots higher than I preferred. Third round DT DaQuan Jones was a nice pick.

Washington Football Team

Zack Hocker, K, Arkansas--This probably comes off as a dis on the earlier picks, but I really do like their 7th round placekicker. He’s got a booming leg and should be a mainstay in Washington for years. Fourth-round corner Bashaud Breeland has major talent but fell because of some off-field concerns and spotty reliability. Third-rounder Morgan Moses has some tools. Did I mention how much I like Hocker?



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

The 2014 NFL Draft was most critical in the NFC for the Rams, Falcons, Buccaneers and Vikings.


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.


Looking Team-By-Team At The 2014 NFL Schedule

The schedule of an NFL team is critical in predicting how they will manage the ups and downs of a season. Here is a team-by-team breakdown.