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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


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.



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