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Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 Season Preview

By Jeff Risdon

2013: 4-12, last in NFC South

2014 Over/Under: +/- 7 wins

Why the over

One of the things that really stands out is how well this team addressed its weaknesses. They got a lot better at some key positions.

Foremost is head coach, where Lovie Smith takes over for Greg Schiano. It’s a prudent move, one that the players should immediately respond to positively. Smith is everything that Schiano was not: poised, experienced, NFL savvy, adaptable and patient.

Those qualities didn’t always play well in Lovie’s tenure in Chicago, but in the short term it promises to do wonders for Tampa Bay. His professional approach and the way he treats people with respect will go a long way towards erasing the stain on the franchise that was the tempestuous, arrogant Schiano.

Offensively, the biggest upgrade comes at receiver. For too long the Bucs have been just the Vincent Jackson show, with only sporadic contirubtions from the likes of now-departed Tiquan Underwood and Mike Williams. An aggressive approach by new GM Jason Licht should help quite a bit here.

The team drafted three pass-catchers, all of whom should be immediate contributors. The most prominent is first-round pick Mike Evans, who, like Jackson, is a sheer physical nightmare at 6’5” and 230+ pounds. They’re similarly skilled, which means they should be able to be used interchangeably. Both can attack the football in the air along the sidelines and in traffic, though Evans’ ability in that regard was badly overrated in the draft process.

Trotting out two 6’5” perimeter receivers commands a lot of attention, which means the underbelly could prove to be fertile ground for new QB Josh McCown. Tampa Bay got better here too, with 2nd round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins and 6th rounder Robert Herron. The burly tight end from Washington excels at chipping and releasing into the intermediate range, and his soft hands and wide frame make him a valuable target. Herron is a shifty speedster in the slot who was largely uncoverable during Senior Bowl practices. His hands aren’t the most reliable but he consistently got open quickly in his Wyoming days, and he’s also a big-time threat to run after the catch.

With expected improvement from 2013 undrafted hybrid TE/WR Tim Wright, who was a revelation with 54 catches and 5 TDs, Tampa Bay finally has some legit weaponry beyond just chucking the ball up for Pro Bowler Jackson to work some magic. The team also signed Brandon Myers, who caught 79 passes in 2012, yet he might not make the team. That’s real progress.

Getting star RB Doug Martin back will help a lot, too. Martin can do everything as a back--run inside, bounce outside, catch and block--and does them all pretty well. He’s compactly built and naturally elusive, always dipping a shoulder here or flipping a hip there to keep defenders from getting a clean shot at him. He missed 10 games last year with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the offense largely grinded to a halt in his absence.

The Bucs added depth here as well, as third-rounder Charles Sims is a better fit for new OC Jeff Tedford’s West Coast system than departed Brain Leonard. Sims has great hands out of the backfield and proved he could assimilate quickly when he transferred from Houston to West Virginia. He’s the explosive home-run hitter they sought, the one thing Martin is not. I like Mike James as a short-yardage guy and Lonnie Pryor at fullback is perfectly fine.

The offense can only get better. The defense added some pieces that should help, too.

I love the addition of pass rusher Michael Johnson, formerly of the Bengals. He got lost in the shuffle of depth a bit in Cincinnati last year, but the angular Johnson is eminently capable of putting up 10+ sacks and 25+ QB hits as he did in 2012. He’s not very good against the run, but the Bucs aren’t paying him $43M to make tackles four yards from the line. Keep in mind that the last Buccaneer to bag more than 10 sacks in a season was Simeon Rice…in2007. The Bucs only have a sprinkling of players on the entire roster who were even playing college ball at that time.

Johnson joins a defense that already has a legit stud at all three levels, an enviable proliferation of top-shelf talent. It starts up front with Gerald McCoy, the fifth-year tackle who is arguably the league’s best at his position. Some might prefer Ndamukong Suh, the player drafted one spot ahead of him, but McCoy is the more consistent pass rusher and play finisher.

Lavonte David is outstanding at outside linebacker, patrolling the weak side better than anyone else. He could be even better in Smith’s defense, which is tailored to a playmaking WLB. David is a legit threat to lead the league in both tackles and turnovers created. He’s one of the most fun players to watch in the entire league, especially if you view the coach’s tape on NFL Game Rewind. Only then can you get a true appreciation for his awesomeness.

In the secondary, the Bucs have two impact talents. One of those is changed from a year ago, as the team swapped out elite corner Darrelle Revis before adding Alterraun Verner. The former Titan is not an island like Revis, but he’s comfortably in the next tier of top corner talents. He’s a solid #1 corner and a good schematic fit for Smith’s press-heavy coverage. Safety Dashon Goldson is a strong all-around talent with great range and playmaking ability. He struggled trying to do too much at times last year, but his attacking style makes life difficult for opposing passers.

The entire secondary should be pretty good. Johnthan Banks had some positive moments as a rookie, and at 6’2” he’s got disruptive length. Mike Jenkins and Leonard Johnson will fill the third and fourth corner spots in some order, and while neither is an ideal nickel there is some legit, proven NFL talent there with both. The other safety is Mark Barron, a menace to society between the tackles in run support. Just don’t ask him to cover…and the Bucs won’t very often. If you are a Bucs fan and have easy access to some wood, go ahead and knock on it, but this secondary could be very, very good.

The special teams are solid, and Lovie’s almost comedic dedication to those units will only make them stronger. Kicker Connor Barth is a good one, as is punter Michael Koenen. Return specialist Eric Page finished in the top 10 in both punt and kick return averages, something Devin Hester has not done in years. Think about that for a minute.

Why the under

For all the promise with the offense, the Bucs are depending on a career journeyman backup to quarterback them to the promised land. Josh McCown was indeed impressive in Chicago last year, it’s a reach to think he can replicate that performance in a new, more pressured environ. If the purpose here is to use McCown to buy Mike Glennon a much-needed year of development, it’s a great signing. But relying on McCown to elevate the offense with a cast of strangers is extremely optimistic. Remember, this unit finished dead last in passing yards and yards per pass, 31st in total yards per play and third down conversions, and 30th in points scored.

Some of that ineptitude had to deal with the offensive line. While the Bucs have made some changes, it remains to be seen how well the newcomers gel. Anthony Collins has been a swing tackle most of his career, but now he’s suddenly the savior at left tackle. Evan Dietrich-Smith was nothing more than an average center for Green Bay, and now he is expected to lead a line resurgence. Both newcomers do have skill, but expectations seem higher than reality would dictate.

It would be great if stud left guard Carl Nicks could return, but after missing almost all of the last two years with injuries and illness, he simply cannot be relied upon (note: the team reached an injury settlement with Nicks on July 25). The starting guards could very well be Patrick Omameh and either rookie 5th rounder Kevin Pamphile or practice squad refugee Jason Foster. That’s not good enough to handle the rigors of NFL defenses. At least McCown offers more escapability and pocket presence than the lumbering Glennon, who might still be trying to finish his 40 yard dash from the 2013 Combine.

Even though I am a believer in the upgraded receiving corps, there are legit questions there. For all the hubbub over Evans’ size and strength, 40% of his production came in just two games. Evans was visibly invisible in several games. His route running is nothing more than rudimentary and needs a lot of polish. Seferian-Jenkins was much better in 2012 than ’13, and it’s no given he rebounds at the higher level. If those guys don’t immediately contribute, Jackson will once again be burdened with carrying the load with marginal talents like Louis Murphy and Skye Dawson. A lot is riding on the rookies.

There are no rookies, or rather rookie draft picks, to help the defense. The Bucs did not use a single pick on a defensive player. If you consider the Revis/Verner swap as a wash, the only real reinforcements are Johnson at end and Clint McDonald as the fourth defensive tackle, along with Jenkins as the fourth corner. That’s putting a great deal of faith in a unit that finished in the bottom third.

Defensively, there still isn’t much functional depth. The reserve safeties are Keith Tandy and Major Wright, neither of whom belong on an active roster. Wright just might have been the worst NFL regular in the league last year with Chicago, an absolute train wreck. One tweaked knee to Goldson or concussion to head-hunting Barron and he’s the last line of defense.

At corner, Johnson and Danny Gorer are the options at slot. That’s not Johnson’s strong suit, as he lacks lateral quickness and the wide vision needed to play inside. Gorer will have his moments but he’s a reserve through and through. One to keep an eye on: Quinton Poynter, though he’s proven nothing yet.

Smith must also figure out what to do with his linebackers that aren’t named Lavonte David. Mason Foster is a quick, twitchy and instinctive backer, but he is ideally a Will just like David. They’ve tried him in the middle, but he’s not rangy enough and lacks the speed to chase the deeper middle in coverage in the manner that Lovie’s defenses have had in Brian Urlacher in Chicago and London Fletcher in St. Louis. He’s not stout enough to play on the strong side, but neither is Jonathan Casillas, who currently sits atop the depth chart there. Former Patriot Dane Fletcher factors in the mix, but when is the last time an ex-Patriot defender came close to living up to the expectations?

Then there is Lovie himself. His Chicago teams became predictable on defense, surviving almost exclusively on forcing turnovers and winning field position battles with outstanding special teams. He went through offensive coordinators like Derek Jeter does hotties, with considerably less payoff. He’s never worked with Jeff Tedford before, so how they blend together is a big unknown. Lovie’s in-game management and strategic adjustments were often puzzling, to be kind; Bears fans were stunned at how much that team improved in that regard in transitioning from Lovie to Marc Trestman, a rookie NFL coach.

Forecast

Tampa Bay is a team on the rise in a division with a notorious history for extreme volatility. It’s not unusual for the NFC South dregs one year to rule the roost the next. They were close to being good a year ago, but held back by inept coaching, losing Doug Martin and spotty QB play from a rookie who shouldn’t have been playing.

Though I am no Lovie Smith fan, he’s a huge upgrade over Greg Schiano and the players will absolutely respond to his user-friendly, respectful style. In Josh McCown, they have a professional QB who proved a year ago he can carry a team for a year. McCown won’t make the rookie mistakes that Mike Glennon did. With upgraded weaponry and a healthy return by Martin, the offense should finally be able to outscore some opponents.

The schedule is very favorable for a quick turnaround. They open with two winnable home games against Carolina and St. Louis. If they survive a three-game roadie (ATL, PIT and NO), they have a chance to go a big run afterwards; Tampa should be favored in every game from weeks 6-12, a trip to Chicago. The final four games are not easy--at Detroit, at Carolina, then home for Green Bay and New Orleans. Two wins there likely puts them in the playoffs.

Barring major injury, Tampa Bay should be a strong “over” bet at seven wins. I like them to finish at 10-6, with the winner of the Week 16 tilt against Green Bay getting the 6th seed in the NFC playoffs.

Special thanks to Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation for helping to color in the grey areas in some spots here.


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)

By Ron Marmalefsky

First impressions are not always the best impressions.  That being said, no NFL draft would be complete without them.  Most of us who study the draft have put in hundreds of hours of study over the past several months.  We just can’t let this three day extravaganza go without speaking our minds.  

Grading drafts before players ever play one down in the NFL is an inexact science.  It can also be quite controversial.  My own board is bound to be different from others, and players some of us like, others will not like.  Some of the things I look for include the following: Did a team address most, if not all of their primary needs?  Did a team leave higher rated talent on the board at the time they drafted?  Did a team draft lower rated players at the position they drafted?  Did a team get value with their pick, both early in the draft as well as on days two and three?

No grades will be presented here.  That will be done later on once I have had more time to digest what happened these past three days.  What follows is a brief summary for each team.  How did each team manage their draft board and take advantage of the opportunities presented to them?

Please feel free to agree or disagree.  I am more than happy to answer any and all questions.  You can leave comments below or reach me on twitter @ronacesports, or via e-mail at ronace2477@aol.com.  Without further ado, here are my first impressions as I wrap up work on my 36th NFL draft!

Arizona Cardinals: I was worried about how Arizona was going to address needs along the offensive line.  Carson Palmer has a quick release, masking some limitations up front.  Arizona did not add anyone in this draft.  I like the productive Bucannon and had him with a high 2nd round grade.  Kareen Martin fills a need and so does John Brown as a #3 WR.  I was hoping Arizona would draft a young QB, but Logan Thomas did not make my list of rated QB’s.  Overall I was not impressed with how Arizona worked the draft board.  Bucannon could be a special talent, but Niklas, Martin and Brown do not look like upper echelon players.

Atlanta Falcons: No team could have used Jadeveon Clowney more than Atlanta but the price to move up was too steep.  Drafting OT Matthews is about as good, enabling Sam Baker to move from LT to RT.  DE Hageman will help jump start a bottom five pass rush, but why stop with just one pass rusher?  In my draft needs article I listed impact LB.  Atlanta did not select a LB until pick 139 but finished with four LB’s in this draft!  I gave safety Southward a 4th round grade and he was taken at pick 68, about 40-50 choices too high.  Safety was a top five need and so was RB, and the Falcons did well do get the (lower) rated Southward and RB Freeman.  I’d have gone pass rusher in rounds two and three before coming back to safety and RB.  Because Shembo is a risk, and Allen and Sprull are much lower rated I would have added another OL and drafted two different LB’s.

Carolina Panthers: It’s hard to find a double digit win team with more critical roster holes than these Panthers.  Every WR who caught a pass for them is gone.  Stud OT Jordan Gross retired and two other OL left via free agency.  The secondary has no standout talent.  Many are knocking the pick for WR Benjamin but I believe my 9th rated WR fits nicely here as Cam Newton is more of a high ball thrower and Benjamin has the height to make a difference.  I like DE Ealy’s pass rush potential but I can’t endorse the pick over CB or OL.  OG Trai Turner should have stayed in school.  In this case I like the focus but not the value.  The same can be said for DB’s Boston and Benwikere.  Boston was grossly overdrafted and Benwikere was listed as a 6th round nickel CB on my draft board.  I’d keep Benjamin (although I’d have preferred Lee or Matthews) and RB Gaffney but would change the rest of their picks.  In the end there would be two CB’s, two OL, two WR’s and RB Gaffney. 

Chicago Bears: Chicago probably coveted DL Donald but he went to the Rams right before their pick.  I like what they did in taking CB Fuller at 14.  Four of their 1st five picks were for their defense.  I like the focus with DL at 51 even though I had LSU’s Ferguson in the 3rd round range.  DL Will Sutton had a down year in ’13 but his ceiling is far above his drafted position of 82.  Chicago needed a short yardage RB and Carey could fit that role.  Adding another DB works as well.  This is the 2nd straight year the Bears have got it right on draft day, breaking a run of bottom five drafts.  Even the move for my #2 punter was solid. 

Dallas Cowboys: Dallas played it safe in this draft, going OL early and for the most part sticking to filling holes at the less glamorous positions on the field.   OG/OT Martin made sense but trading up for Lawrence represented poor value.  I keep picks 47/78 and use them to fill holes with a DL and a CB.  DL Murphy, Crichton or Jernigan could have been the pick at 47 and safety Brooks at 78.  As for trade value, many teams, including Dallas should have considered a small trade up in the 4th round for CB Desir.  My top two areas of need for the Cowboys were DL and DB, which they did address a total of five times.  I like the picks for Martin and WR Street, who made my top 15 list but I’d have liked to see Dallas be more aggressive in filling their primary needs.

Detroit Lions: The good news is that these Lions chose all rated players in the draft.  Ebron can be a force down the seam.  Van Noy is a playmaker.  Lawson, rated in my top 15 CB list, immediately challenges for playing time in a secondary crying for help.  Reid and Webster were drafted at appropriate spots.  Freese was a need, and a correct scoop on my part to this team.  The problem with this draft is that CB, OL and safety are my top three needs, and once again 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 one this subject a short time ago.  I can’t completely dish this draft since at least three starters should come from it, but until Mayhew and the Lions draft impact players for their secondary they will be vulnerable to losing late leads, as has happened way too often just in the past two seasons.  

Green Bay Packers: Safety, TE and a pair of WR’s represented my top three needs and the Packers didn’t disappoint.  Dix represented value and need in the 1st round.  Adams rated 10th on my WR board but remember this position was loaded.  He carried a grade in the 35-40 range and was drafted at 53.  Last year I blasted GB on its WR selections.  This year they got great value, with Abbrederis and Janis in my top 16.  Remember, Cobb and Nelson are in their contract years.  I thought DE Thornton was overdrafted and better choices could have been made at OL and late for DB but overall I like what the Packers did in this draft. 

Minnesoat Vikings: I have to admit that upon first inspection the Minnesota draft might be the most difficult to evaluate.  Was LB Barr the right choice over DL Donald or even OT Lewan?  Will Teddy Bridgewater overcome his historic Pro Day faux pas?  Why draft the talented Jerick McKinnon at RB when that position is occupied by AP?  In the end I’m going to trust the highly respected Mike Zimmer on Barr, and there’s no question about his upside.  In addition to Bridgewater, Minnesota also got solid draft value with DE Crichton at 72, OG Yankey at 145 and if healthy, the versatile Exum at 182.  I’d have doubled up at OL and changed pick 96 to OL Brandon Thomas or Dozier, or to CB Desir.  Even if Bridgewater let’s some of us down there’s enough value in this draft to get excited about, and that includes NT Stephen in the 7th round.

New Orleans Saints: It turns out the Saints were serious about drafting well-spoken WR Cooks, trading ahead of Philly and KC to get him.  He reportedly wowed the Saints in their interview, and the WR who loses no speed at all when he makes his cuts was considered the top interview by as many as ten NFL teams.  Payton will find ways to get him in space.  Unfortunately, the rest of the draft does nothing for me.  I gave CB Baptiste a 4th round grade and am not as high on him as many analysts.  He lacks physicality and the learning curve is steep.  Fortt and Powell match a need, but I see them as rotational players at best.  OT Rooks was not one of the 550 players I even studied!  Safety Sunseri  is coming off a serious injury but he’s the only drafted player outside of Cooks that holds some value.  I’m comfortable keeping the focus of the Saints but I’d change four of six picks.

New York Giants: The NYG made an unusually high number of moves during free agency, determined to erase memories of an 0-6 start in 2013 in a season where they committed too many mistakes (turnovers and otherwise).  Likely coveting OT Lewan, the NYG decided against drafting OL Martin or DL Donald and instead went for versatile WR Beckham.  Clearly Beckham has 1st round talent but in this deep WR draft I’d have gone in a completely different direction, fixing longstanding LB needs with Mosley.  I like OC Richburg but 43 is too rich for me.  I get a WR or sack specialist here and easily double up on WR’s later.  I like the pick of RB Andre Williams who fits this team and scheme perfectly.  DL Bromley was overdrafted at pick 74 even though his blue collar approach is typical NYG.  The later picks for LB and DB are “acceptable” but where is the TE in this draft?

Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly’s initial draft was passive as he learned the ropes of wheeling and dealing.  His second draft was typical Chip!  I gave out information leaking Marcus Smith to the Eagles, but in round two or three, and not in the 1st round.  Like a record number of teams in this deep draft class the Eagles drafted mostly rated players from my draft board, with only DT Allen (224) unrated.  Philly targeted six players early and all were off the board including WR Cooks and at least one of the top two safeties.  WR and DB were my top areas of need.  I thought former Oregon WR Huff was drafted a bit too early but DB Watkins and safety Reynolds were strong choices.  DE Hart adds rotational value.  LB was need area #4 and obviously Smith fits.  In the end, WR Matthews might be my favorite player in the entire draft.  I fixated on him in 2013 and his opening game vs. Ole Miss solidified what would ultimately become a top five WR grade.  Philly’s roster improved as a result of this draft class. 

St. Louis Rams: The Rams did well early but I differ with the way they targeted secondary needs and I felt they reached with most of their final six selections.  Donald is a stud but for me this was the time to fix the secondary with Dix or Pryor.  They did draft three DB’s and to be honest I do have a high grade on Joyner but he is on the small side.  I’m also disappointed that they did not address OLB, finding a better ‘cover” LB than current starter Dunbar.  I like the pick of RB Mason.  Four of their final five selections were unrated by me, including QB Gilbert.  I’d have drafted two OL better DB’s and two LB’s.  I have a (lower) rated grade on Michael Sam, but the situational sacker will find it hard to crack this loaded sack happy roster.  The top four selections continue Fisher’s attempt to rebrand the Rams but I wish they would have done more with the rest of their picks.

San Francisco 49ers: In the past I criticized the 49ers for wasting picks on unrated players but this year I felt better about what they did.  I’m surprised SF did not try to trade up for a CB, especially when Dennard was dropping, but I’m told that Fuller was their initial target and after he went the price to trade up was too high.  CB was my #1 need and SF failed in this regard, drafting a pair of late, unrated CB’s.  Of course Ward is versatile and may be tried at CB.  All other needs were more than adequately filled.  RB Hyde will eventually take over for Gore and fits this scheme.  OC Martin is a direct hit on a need.  ILB Borland is a smart two-down LB.  OG Thomas will redshirt off his unfortunate Pro Day injury but carried a late 2nd round grade if 100% and the 49ers can easily afford to wait on him to recover.  I know DE Lynch disappointed at USF but he flashes talent and is worth the risk at 150.  WR needs were more than fully addressed with the trade for Stevie Johnson and the pickup of route savvy Ellington.  I’d have doubled up on pass rushing talent and found a pure CB in this draft but clearly SF added talent. 

Seattle Seahawks: Seattle does things their own way.  They like drafting in quantity which is a good thing because I count about 13 unrated selections from the past three drafts.  They have found late round gems, but those players were not surprises to me.  I list only two contributors from the 13 unrated players, a converted DL and the unheralded DB star of the Super Bowl.  So with that backdrop, I really dislike this draft!  Players 1-5 are rated, but Richardson (45) Britt (64) and Marsh (108) all carried 4th round grades, and Pierre-Lewis (132) a late 6th round grade.  Only WR Norwood (123) was properly drafted.  Their final four picks did not receive draft worthy grades from me, although I will revisit OG Scott before finalizing his grade.  I see 5-6 players making the team and the two WR’s playing and contributing to some extent but once again much more could have been done.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith is known as having a defensive slant but the Bucs were all about offense in this draft with all six selections for this side of the ball.  WR Mike Evans has flaws but might thrive in this system, especially with a pair of high ball throwers on the roster.  TE Seferian-Jenkins might also carry immediate impact.  RB Sims is the premier 3rd down back of the draft.  I like the focus on drafting two OL but I’m not high on the players selected.  Don’t sleep on fast, but inconsistent WR Herron, whose rating is solidly in my top 20.  I’d have taken higher rated OL and found a way to draft an OLB and a late safety but Tampa, through the draft and free agency has an improving roster.

Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan knew how to spot RB talent but the rest of his drafts yielded some far below average talent.  That is why most analysts felt OL and DB were areas of need despite Washington using a plethora of recent draft picks for these areas.  I don’t feel Washington got value with any pick in this draft other than when they drafted yet another RB (Seastrunk), but LB Murphy, OT Moses and CB Breeland were all slotted about right.  I have OG Long as a 6th round (at best) talent and he was overdrafted at 78.  WR Grant was rated but not needed for this team.  I would have drafted a higher rated OL along with at least one DL and ILB.  Washington did not draft at either position.  This was an average draft class.



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.


Team Report: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The current thinking here is to build the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the long run, taking the best of the Greg Schiano era and mixing it with what Lovie Smith did well in Chicago.