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$.05 For March 7
Authored by Jeff Risdon - 6th March, 2011 - 10:47 pm

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$.01-- Armageddon waits. That?s the prevailing theme of the labor negotiations, thanks to a one-week extension of supervised mediation. It seems that common sense is starting to (finally) take over.

There are a number of unresolved issues, but the basic argument remains over the initial revenue cut by the owners. Currently $1B per year, the owners want to double that to help cover against increasing costs of doing business. The players balk at this, contending that it?s premeditated greed and not need. Because the owners steadfastly refuse to open the books, it?s hard to make an educated guess which side is in the right. But one point I like to emphasize is the market value of franchises.

According to Forbes, just five NFL teams saw their market value increase in 2010, and the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were the only teams to post greater than a 5% increase. That is a stark departure from 2008, when 13 of the 32 teams posted double-digit percentage increases in valuation and every team except the Rams went up at least 3%. Go back to 2005 and 19 of the 32 teams posted an annual percentage gain of at least 8%.

The long and the short of it is that the bubble of franchise values has popped, and that scares the owners very much. I liken it to a homeowner that has no intention of selling their home but gets anxious because if they did have to sell it, they would get a lot less money now than three or five years ago. It?s a somewhat artificial fear, but it?s very real to the NFL owners, who are seeing advertising rates stagnate even though fan interest and television viewing are at record rates. The TV deals are scraping the rational ceiling as well, and that makes the owners nervous about how they can continue to increase revenue and thusly the value of their assets. That?s why the move to 18 games is so big to the owners. If the players are being honest, they?ll acknowledge that adding the two extra regular season games, plus an extra bye week that will in essence provide three additional weekends of NFL action, will increase their revenue pie enough that they could sacrifice more in the pre-sharing cut.

My inclination is that the mediation has opened both sides? eyes to this reality. Three extra weekends of NFL action means an additional $1.2B in revenue, based on the widely accepted notion that each regular season weekend makes $400M. My simple solution would be to split that new $1.2B 50/50, with each side adding $600M to their slices of pie. That sure seems like an acceptable compromise to me.

$.02-- I don?t normally get political, but I find it fascinating how the organized labor drama in Wisconsin and some other states is playing out in conjunction with the NFL labor talks. I think it puts an excellent perspective on just how asinine it is that the NFLPA and ownership cannot reach some accord when dealing with all sorts of profits. Juxtapose that with the bitterness and tooth-and-nail scrambling to fill holes in massive budget deficits for the state governments and their employees, and it?s absolutely shameful that there isn?t a new CBA in the NFL.

I thought President Obama struck a very proper and knowing chord with his brief remarks about the NFL labor strife. I think Obama?s somewhat contemptuous tone towards the needless haggling spoke for the millions of NFL fans. And I think both sides of the battle got the message, hence the bargaining extension. That message had better be received loud and clear, because many of the people embroiled in the labor drama in Madison, Columbus, et al are the same people that feed the NFL coffers. It?s a real tough sell to a second-grade teacher, or a city bus driver, or even a state congressman, that are all fighting over relatively minuscule crumbs of money that a highly profitable, fiscally healthy industry cannot divide up revenues that state governments can only fantasize about. The NFL and the NFLPA have apparently at least agreed on that account.

$.03-- There is a lot of focus on the dire need for quarterbacks this offseason. Everyone knows about the guys in the draft, but I think a few veteran free agents are worth a long look for the likes of the QB needy.

One player I believe is primed for a strong redemption is Alex Smith. Yes, you read that right. Though I?ve been a frequent critic, Smith is of the age (26) where a lot of quarterbacks start to peak. I think a change of scenery will do wonders for him, the way it resuscitated the careers of Kerry Collins, Vinny Testaverde, and even Steve Young. Smith is actually more accurate of the group after five seasons, and he?s accomplished that despite a revolving door of offensive coaches and systems and a largely inadequate receiving corps. Because of his star-crossed image, he should come relatively inexpensive.

The way his teammates responded to him when challenged by the wretchedly inept coaching of Mike Singletary tells me he can quickly win over a locker room, provided his play is fine. If I were the Vikings or Bengals, two teams that have realistic playoff aspirations (okay, Cincy might be a stretch) but a giant hole a quarterback (trust me, Carson Palmer won?t be back), Smith would be my #1 offseason target whether draft, free agent, or the eventual trade market.

$.04-- It?s now Pro Day season for the impending draftees. This is perhaps the biggest waste of time and energy outside of fishing in a dry creek bed.

Here?s the ugly truth about Pro Days: the NFL decision makers ignore them. There is no purpose to watching finely tuned athletes go thru finely choreographed drills and workouts that the teams have no control over. It?s a colossal waste of money for the teams, which is why attendance has been down over the last couple of seasons. Sure, the scouting community shows up for the top 10 candidates, but it?s been my experience that the actual NFL people in attendance are actually trying to ascertain how the other teams feel about prospects rather than evaluating the guys working out for the day.

I?ll give you an example. Last year I went to Michigan State?s Pro Day and there were about 15 teams represented. There were two GMs there, and the rest were area scouts mixed in with a handful of positional coaches. Sparty didn?t have a great crop--kicker Brett Swenson and corner Jeremy Ware were the lead attractants. But I watched as the two GMs chatted, almost with their backs turned to the workout action. Many of the scouts were exchanging notes on other players, and more than a few asked the opinions of myself and some other draftniks about some of the lesser-known players they were seeing here and at other nearby pro days. The group matriculated almost en masse to a nearby restaurant, where the conversation was about scads of other players but very little about the Spartans that worked out that day. It was similar at Ohio State and Purdue, although when a premium athlete is working out they do get more undivided attention. That was the case for Brandon Graham at Michigan and Jimmy Clausen at Notre Dame. For what it?s worth, the one Spartan that got drafted--Ware--was picked in the 7th round by a team that didn?t even have anyone at the Pro Day. The Colts picked up Blair White as a free agent and they just had a regional scout in attendance.

So you can basically ignore everything about the Pro Day phenomenon. The workout numbers are pointless, and trying to pick up on what teams might be interested in what players from who is in attendance is fruitless too. Trust me, the NFL people know it?s pointless from a talent evaluation perspective.

$.05--10 quick draft thoughts:

1. I think Blaine Gabbert is making a good case for himself to go #1 overall, and it sure seems like the Panthers would like him to keep making that case stronger. The more that NFL coaches evaluate his game tape, the more they like him. The depth of defensive line talent could allow the Panthers to roll the dice on that position of dire need later and opt for Gabbert, the surest pick of this year?s alarmingly thin QB class.

2. I think the two hardest players to slot in a mock draft right now are both wide receivers. Jonathan Baldwin from Pittsburgh could realistically go in the top 20, but he could just as realistically fall to the bottom of the 2nd round. And the same is true of Miami?s Leonard Hankerson, though about 10 spots back in both ranges. Baldwin?s issues are lazy route running and inconsistency; Hankerson?s alarming propensity to drop balls in bunches makes his value a big variable. Just a guess, but I think both wind up going in the 40-50 overall range.

3. I don?t understand the hypocrisy surrounding the age of Baylor G Danny Watkins. The same people who argue that the 26-year old Watkins is too old to take in the 1st round are quite often the same people that argue that it?s stupid to take a 21-year old project that high because that player won?t be ready to contribute for 3-4 years. Watkins is ready to start right now for about 30 teams, and because he has just four years of football on his joints he?s actually in better physical condition than a lot of his younger peers.

4. I talked to a coach that was in the interview room in Indy with Michigan State LB Greg Jones, and he came away impressed. As they put up game film and asked him to explain his reads, Jones was able to tell from the pre-snap alignment what his responsibility was on every play before the tape even started. This coach told me the only LB he?s seen do that well in that area was Patrick Willis. Jones doesn?t have the athleticism or size to match Willis, but I agree with this coach that Jones can step right in and be an above-average (but not Pro Bowl) starter as either a Sam backer in a 4-3 or inside backer in a 3-4 front.

5. One player that I?ve paid more attention to recently is Boise State DE Ryan Winterswyk. He is not an outstanding athlete, but he does have very good quickness with both his hands and feet. Where I like him in the NFL is as a left defensive end in a blitz-happy 4-3 scheme from the Jim Johnson coaching tree. He?s strong at setting the edge against the run, but where he stands out is dropping in coverage. He has the coverage instincts (he was a high school corner) to mark most tight ends and backs and enough short-area quickness and just enough speed to handle the task. But 3-4 teams might give him a look as at OLB as well, as he does a good job of crashing around the edge and does a good job of keeping his feet clean in space. He?s a 6th or 7th rounder that will contribute right away on special teams and the kind of guy you want on your favorite team.

6. That Boise State coin has a flip side, and the more I watch Senior Bowl darling Titus Young, the less I like what I see. He?s very fast and is also blessed with decent (though not elite) quickness, but game tape reveals a receiver that is quite easily impeded. His route running is often lazy and the word ?soft? kept coming into my mind; he goes out of his way to avoid contact and tends to saw off routes or alligator-arm balls that lead him into potential peril with the safety. He?s been advertised as a Desean Jackson type, but he?s not as quick, or fast, and his feet and hands are both inferior as well. I still think he?s going in the 2nd round, but I wouldn?t take him before the middle of the 3rd.

7. After the Combine I like to go back and watch more of players that surprised me in Indy. One of those guys this year is Ohio State CB Chimdi Chekwa, who timed and tested better than anyone expected. His Buckeye career was up and down, but two things stood out in his senior season: he improved his tackling form (his head stayed up better), and he got better at using his shoulders to steer the receiver. He?s still not great at either aspect, but the relative improvement gives, when paired with his exceptionally balanced quickness and track-star speed, leads me to believe he might be one of those players that makes a better pro than collegian. As long as his wrist heals, I like him as a late 3rd-mid 4th round pick.

8. Teams like to delve deeply into the backgrounds of the prospects, and one top-tier player getting a lot of help from his college teammates and coaches is Texas A&M?s Von Miller. I?ve heard from several sources that his teammates have raved about Miller?s leadership and attitude, much of it stemming from his early-season injury woes. He coaxed better play from his mates by being positive and supportive, helping them learn to read offenses and work on their footwork. He changed his style to help his team, and that kind of willing team-first attitude and approach is gold to NFL teams about to make a huge investment in a player in the top 5?and he will absolutely be in the top 5.

9. I thank all who take the time to email me draft-related questions, and I applaud the great majority of you who go beyond ?You?re an idiot for slotting Player X with Team Y? or asking me who I think your team will pick in the sixth round. I love the back and forth, even when we disagree about players or team needs. Keep ?em coming!

Anyhow, the most common question I get this year is regarding Cam Newton. My quick thoughts on the controversial Auburn QB: I think if he had played another season, a lot of the questions about his on-field prowess would be answered positively. I think he?s at the vanguard of a new generation of player, one that will be very difficult for a lot of old-school fans, coaches, and organizations to embrace and/or properly utilize. I think he has more upside than any player in this draft, or the last two drafts before it. I think the way he carries himself and the people he surrounds himself with need to change, but I very strongly worry he won?t come to realize that until it?s too late. I most readily compare him to Ben Roethlisberger crossed with Donovan McNabb. I don?t give a crap about what his father may or may not have done regarding his transfer back to the SEC. I do worry that he?s not as penitent or serious enough about what led to his departure from Florida, even though I agree with his point that he?s a different person now. I think he should be no lower than the 5th pick in the draft, and I would absolutely take him at #3 if I were the Bills, and if I were running the Panthers I?d think long and hard about taking him #1. I think NFL teams will be more cautious and he will slide out of the top 5, but too many people will be worried about passing on him and watching him become the next John Elway that he won?t fall out of the top 10.

10. The other question that often crops up is about late-round sleeper picks that I like. Here?s a couple of smaller-school players that I?ve seen in person that I think can play in the NFL:
Korey Lindsey, CB, Southern Illinois--not the most physical or sizable corner, but he possesses very strong coverage instincts and a great nose for the football. He?s one of those corners that is better once the ball is in the air, and he dominated at his level the way 1-AA players need to in order to make the jump to the NFL. He reminds me quite a bit of Nathan Vasher and belongs in the late 3rd-early 4th round, but will likely go one round later at the earliest.

Anthony Gray, DT, Southern Miss--he lacks great agility and could stand to tone his body a little, but Gray has the makings of a solid rotational nose tackle. He?s got a great hand punch and keeps his feet both clear and moving to get to the ball. At 320 pounds and facing double teams on every snap, he was still able to notch 6 sacks and consistently collapse the interior pocket. I?d love to see him with a strong teaching DL coach like Rod Marinelli or Romeo Crennel and a year on a practice squad as a 7th round pick.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com