Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vikings and Browns: A Trade That Needs to Be Explored

There's still one tiny little game left to be played, but for 30-of-32 NFL teams, the process of improving 2012 rosters has already kicked into high gear. From coaching carousels to Senior Bowl scouting, front offices are looking for an angle, while fans are concocting harebrained schemes to make sure their teams are playing at this time next season.

Admittedly, this is article is closer to the latter than the former.

Trades are rare in the NFL, and high-profile trades are virtually nonexistent. But that doesn't mean they can't—or shouldn't—happen. When executed correctly, trades benefit both teams, and I believe that the trade I'm suggesting accomplishes just that: Minnesota sends the No. 3 pick to Cleveland for cornerback Joe Haden.

Click here to read the rest of the article at Bleacher Report.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Timberwolves Giving Fans Something to Howl About

By Joey Cavalier

Last season, watching a Timberw
olves game was about as fun as stubbing your toe or stepping on a Lego. This season, however, the T-Pups are one of the most exciting squads to watch in the entire NBA. There is something very special going on in the Timberwolves organization. For the first time since Kevin Garnett was regularly dropping F-Bombs (and countless other vulgarities) in the Target Center, the (quickly growing) fan base is buzzing with optimism.

Although there have been a ton of positive developments with this team, there have been a fair share of disappointments as well.

Let's break down “the good" and “the ugly” through 14 games.

The Good…

The speculation that Ricky Rubio’s game wouldn’t translate to the NBA can be put to rest. Some rubes loved to point out the “fact” that Rubio’s game was “regressing” in Europe. Yet, Rubio has been spectacular for the Timberwolves, and he looks like a savvy veteran in the heat of the game. Rubio ranks 7th in the league in assists (8.3 per game), he is averaging 11 points per game on 40% shooting and he has more steals than any player in the NBA (39). He is also hitting clutch shots when the game is on the line. Rubio is putting the team on his back, and is a top-notch floor general that the Wolves haven’t had in a long, long time. The future is extremely bright for this kid.

Kevin Love has also been terrific. One can even make a case for Love as the NBA’s best power forward. Currently, Love is top-five in scoring (24.06 PPG), top-two in rebounding (14.1 RPG), top-three in efficiency (26.0 EFF), top-three in points/assists/rebounds (with a 39.9 AVG) and is leading the NBA in double-doubles (15). On top of those gaudy numbers, his defense has improved and he is producing in the clutch (e.g. his game-winning three pointer versus the Clippers). Few players in the world can match Love's work ethic, and he's an essential building block for this young team.

Just like it’s weird to see the Wolves with a capable point guard, it is also weird to see the Timberwolves with a coach who knows what he is doing; Kurt Rambis was plain bad, and Rick Adelman is plain good. Adelman is teaching these youngsters how to play basketball, and he's making the right calls late in games. Going from Kurt Rambis to Rick Adelman is like upgrading from a Geo Metro to a Cadillac. Thank you, David Kahn.

Hard work is a necessary ingredient to any successful NBA team, and unlike last year, this squad appears to understand that. Wayne Ellington, Anthony Randolph and Anthony Tolliver have worked extremely hard off the bench, allowing the Wolves to stay competitive while the starters are resting. This trio of subs has provided an offensive punch while putting forth solid defensive effort. Adelman is getting the role players to buy in and work hard. In contrast, Rambis never even defined role players, let alone got them to work hard. The role players for the Wolves have made a huge difference this season.

Last year the Wolves would get blown out on a nightly basis. This season, the Wolves have been competitive in every game. They haven’t lost a game by more than 11 points all year, due largely to their improved defense. Last season, the Wolves allowed an average of 107.71 points per game. This season, the Wolves are only giving up 93.81 points per game. The Wolves could already score, and with their newfound commitment to defense, they can already compete with the top teams in the league.

The Ugly...

Wesley Johnson is starting to concern me. He will flash his potential here and there, but then immediately disappear again. The rip on him coming out of Syracuse was that he had already peaked in college. But the Wesley Johnson we are seeing doesn’t look like the Wesley Johnson from Syracuse. He looks timid and tentative when given the ball. You have to wonder if his lack of growth has stemmed from playing out of his natural position (small forward), but regardless, he's been bad. Currently, Wes is averaging 6.12 points per game on 37% shooting (25% from three-point land), and the Wolves simply need more than that from their starting shooting guard.

Many people are quick to defend Michael Beasley because he scores points, but I am not inclined to do so. When Beasley has been on the court this season he has been a selfish black hole of missed shots. Yes he scores points, but he does so in a very inefficient fashion. This is a problem. The more Beasley hogs the ball, the less opportunities Ricky Rubio has to make something happen. Rubio should be given the ball to make plays, not Beasley. The Wolves really need to figure out what to do with Beasley when he returns. I do not believe he is a good fit for this team. I think it is time to see what we can get for him.

Darko Milicic is not your typical draft-lottery bust. He is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, and hidden in a labyrinth. One minute he is sinking baby-hooks and blocking shots, while the next minute he is getting burnt and chucking the ball against the backboard. I have never seen an NBA player try so hard in the first five minutes of a game, and then just completely check out for the rest of the game. Darko is clearly gifted, but simply doesn’t possess the will to be a solid NBA center. He has had some big games this year (he put up 22 points against DeAndre Jordan recently), but the Wolves will not be able to depend on him for the long term.

An area in which the Wolves have lacked discipline is in their three point shooting. Wolves average 22 three-point attempts per game (4th highest across the league). Obviously, with Ricky Rubio’s dribble penetration, three-point opportunities will be aplenty, but the Wolves need to choose their shots more wisely.

Another area of weakness for the Wolves is their tendency to struggle early in games. The Wolves have stumbled out of the gates in many games, offensively, and have needed to make valiant comebacks. While it’s nice that they are showing an ability to muster a comeback, you do not want them doing that on a nightly basis. They need to shoot better in the first quarter if they want to be a winning team. Also, while the Wolves defense has improved greatly, they are still giving up too many easy buckets early in games. Opposing teams have gotten out to good starts against the Wolves, and the Wolves have lost a lot of close games… You do the math.

All in all, there is a lot to be excited about if you are a Timberwolves fan. Rick Adelman, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love make this team fun to watch. More importantly, not only are the Wolves fun to watch, but they are showing that they have what it takes to be a winning team in this league—something Minnesota fans have longed for since the days of the Big Ticket.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Scouting the Country with Studwell

We're down to the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, which means 28 teams have already moved on to offseason preparation—namely, the college draft. It also means that 87.5% of fan bases have moved on to the draft. Yes, YouTube NFL Draft scouts (myself included) are already operating out of the offices of mom's basement, and as you know, these pros never miss a pick. But what about the real guys? Fans are quick to credit or blame GM Rick Spielman for draft successes and failures, and often gloss right over Director of College Scouting, Scott Studwell. He's held the post for 10 years, and this study will take a look at how the Studwell-led scouting effort has fared not only in judging college talent entering the league, but more specifically, how they've fared with respect to the major conferences.

The chart below breaks down draft picks by conference, dating back to 2006, which is the cutoff for players who figure into the current team's future. Obviously, this information should be taken with a grain of salt, as each draft presents its own unique challenges, coincidences and war room voices. However, certain trends may give us some insight into how well Studwell & Co. have allocated their scouting resources.

Draft grades are based player performance, as well as projected future performance.

Non-Major Conferences: 11 Picks since 2006
Grade: F

Sifting through small-school prospects has been the achilles heal of the Vikings' scouting department in recent years. The 2006 second round selections of Ryan Cook (2.19, OL, New Mexico) and Tarvaris Jackson (2.32, QB, Alabama State) were mortifying reaches, and unforgivable misjudgments of talent. The team wasted four more draft picks on small-school kids in 2007, Spielman's first year, selecting Marcus McCauley (3.8, CB, Fresno State), Aundrae Allison (5.9, WR, East Carolina), Tyler Thigpen (7.7, QB, Coastal Carolina) and Chandler Williams (7.23, WR, Florida International). Thigpen would become the only player of the 2007 bunch worthy of an NFL roster spot, and the personnel department, still searching for Coastal Carolina on the map, promptly assigned him to the practice squad and lost him to Kansas City. The Vikings went off the grid again with their first pick in 2008, selecting Tyrell Johnson (2.12, S, Arkansas State), and later adding Jaymar Johnson (6.27, WR, Jackson State). The 2009 team was a breath away from the Super Bowl, and a meaningful contribution from any of the seven aforementioned selections—Cook or Johnson, in particular—could have been the difference.

Thankfully, the small-school scheme was trashed in 2009, as the Vikings used all five of their selections on major conference prospects (including four from the SEC). They threw a late-round pick at Joe Webb (6.30, QB/WR, UAB) in 2010, an experiment that, at the very least, still has a chance to pan out. Finally, it's too early to tell on 2011 selections Brandon Fusco (6.7, C, Slippery Rock) and Stephen Burton (7.33, WR, West Texas A&M), but both look like throw-away picks.

One interesting trend is that nine of the 11 small-school selections since 2006 have come on the offensive side of the ball, including three quarterbacks. 

Conclusion: The team's inability to identify small-school talent that will translate to the next level is apparent, so anything more than a late-round dart in the 2012 draft should be cause for concern. 

SEC: 7 Picks since 2006
Grade: B+

The Vikings have uncovered some very nice production from the SEC in recent drafts. In 2006 the team selected Greg Blue (5.17, S, Georgia), who turned out to be nothing more than a training camp tease, but the staff earned high marks for their 2007 decision to select the talented Sidney Rice (2.12, WR, South Carolina) instead of fan favorite Dwayne Jarrett of USC. After skipping over the conference in 2008, the Vikings pilfered the SEC in 2009, when in addition to Percy Harvin (1.22, WR, Florida) they turned up depth guys like Asher Allen (3.22, CB, Georgia), Jasper Brinkley (5.14, LB, South Carolina) and Jamarca Sanford (7.22, S, Mississippi). The team bypassed the SEC again in 2010, but added 2011 developmental prospect DeMarcus Love (6.3, OT, Alabama), who's expected to have a future in the league.

Conclusion: The Vikings have gotten a lot of bang for their SEC buck since 2006. The fact that they've done good work in SEC talent evaluation is comforting, considering that LSU cornerback Morris Clairborne is surely on their short list of candidates for the No. 3 pick.

Big 10: 6 Picks since 2006
Grade: C-

The Vikings hit a homerun in 2006, when they nabbed Chad Greenway (1.17, LB, Iowa) and Ray Edwards (4.30, DE, Purdue) from the Big 10. However, they haven't landed an impact player from the conference since. 

Minnesota declined to pick a single player from the Big 10 from 2007-2009. In 2010, they made a mind-boggling reach for local boy Nate Triplett (5.36, LB, Minnesota), and then added career practice squadder Mickey Shuler (7.7, TE, Purdue) late in the draft. Last season, they landed the talented Christian Ballard (4.9, DL, Iowa), who was pinned as a first-round prospect with a marijuana habit. He looks to have a fairly promising future in purple if he can avoid Sam Hurd. The team also added (and soon cut) Ross Homan (6.35, LB, Ohio State). It's interesting to note that the Vikings addressed their dreadful safety situation last season by using one of their four sixth round picks on the anonymous Mistral Raymond (South Florida) instead of Iowa's Tyler Sash (6.33, Giants), a much more established player.

Conclusion: Whether by preference or sheer coincidence, the team hasn't pulled anything useful out of the Big 10 since the Spielman era began in 2007. Iowa OT Riley Reiff is on many Viking draftniks' radars (via a trade-back situation), but where does he rate with Studwell's team?

Big 12: 5 Picks since 2006
Grade: A-

The Vikings have had a great deal of success pulling players from the Big 12 since 2006, so it's a bit discouraging to see that they haven't tapped the conference in the last two drafts. Prior to the unpredictable knee injuries, 2006 draft pick Cedric Griffin (2.16, CB, Texas) was one of the fastest rising cornerbacks in the league. The next season, the Vikings landed superstar Adrian Peterson (1.7, RB, Oklahoma). Of course, this pick had more to do with risk-taking (due to injury concerns) than talent evaluation, but the team also hit on Brian Robison (4.3, DE, Texas). We'll never know if Peterson's teammate, Rufus Alexander (6.2, LB, Oklahoma), would have panned out, as he tore his ACL before he ever got a chance. After an encouraging rookie season, 2009 draft pick Phil Loadholt (2.22, OT, Oklahoma) has struggled, but he still has the talent to turn it around.

Conclusion: Studwell's staff has vetted this conference as well as any, and there's likely to be a lot of Big 12 talent available in the area of the Vikings' draft picks. Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State) and Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor) are projected as top-five picks, and guys like Ronnell Lewis (OLB, Oklahoma) and Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor) could be possible options early in the second round. 

Pac 12: 5 Picks since 2006
Grade: D-

After bypassing the Pac 12 altogether from 2005-2007, the team swung and missed on John David Booty (5.2, QB, USC) in 2008. They skipped the conference again in 2009, but have used two picks on Pac 12'ers in each of the last two drafts. In 2010 they traded up to secure the services of Toby Gerhart (2.19, RB, Stanford). Slowly but surely, this pick is becoming less disappointing. Two rounds later they grabbed the athletic (and troubled) Everson Griffen (4.2, DE, USC), who like Christian Ballard, was viewed as a first-round talent with off-the-field concerns. Griffen's arrow is pointing up, and many are excited to see what he could do with more playing time. Considering the team's immense struggles in the secondary last season, it was disappointing that rookie Brandon Burton (5.8, CB, Utah) couldn't make more of an impression. Finally, D'Aundre Reed (7.12, DE, Arizona) is nothing more than a developmental project.

Conclusion: Yuck. Perhaps USC OT Matt Kalil could give this grade a boost.

ACC: 4 Picks since 2006
Grade: C+

By all rights, this grade should read "incomplete," but we're projecting here. Ultimately, the grade will hinge on how well last year's first rounder, Christian Ponder (1.12, QB, Florida State), pans out. Amidst the rookie mistakes, he showed promise in 2011, and we won't be able to fairly grade him until the offensive line and wide receiving corps are overhauled. The team got nice value in Letroy Guion (5.17, DT, Florida State) in 2008. His purple future is still being written. The team also seemed to be on to something with their first pick in 2010, Chris Cook (2.2, CB, Virginia), before he injured his knees... and then his girlfriend. Stay tuned, his trial is set to begin March 5th. Finally, Chris DeGeare (5.30, 2010, G, Wake Forest) never materialized.

Conclusion: It's all about the continued development of Ponder here. The ACC isn't sending much top-tier talent to the NFL this season, so a mid-round depth guy like Guion is probably the Vikings' best bet.

Big East: 2 Picks since 2006
Grade: F

In Studwell's 10 seasons, the Vikings have drafted exactly two players from the Big East, and both were non-descript late-rounders: Ryan D'Imperio (7.30, 2010, FB, Rutgers) and Mistral Raymond (6.5, 2011, S, South Florida). 

Conclusion: There's nothing to see here.

Independent (Notre Dame): 2 Picks since 2006
Grade: A

John Sullivan (6.21, 2008, C, Notre Dame) has developed into a franchise center, and Kyle Rudolph (2.11, 2011, TE, Notre Dame) is the real deal.

Conclusion: Cretin-Derham Hall's Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame) is projected to go somewhere between Minnesota's first and second picks, but the 6'3", 224-lb. wideout could be in play for the Vikings via trade.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2012 NFL Mock Draft

Guest Written by Jon Eric Duden

“With the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select…” 

NFL lovers and draft junkies across the globe have already been anticipating these words for weeks. Who will my team take this year? Will they get that final piece to the puzzle? Let’s take a look at this year’s draft class and make some early predictions on who will go where in the draft this season.

1. Colts: Andrew Luck, QB-Stanford
If you talk to Tony Dungy or Jemele Hill of ESPN, they would tell you why this pick should not be Luck, and instead should be the fast-rising Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor. Hill’s argument contends that if Manning comes back healthy, then Griffin learning the ropes underneath Manning would better suit the Colts franchise. Dungy contends that Griffin’s mobility puts him a step ahead of Luck and he projects like Cam Newton. Neither of these arguments would persuade me to pass on perhaps the best QB prospect to come through the draft in the past 30 years. Luck is a pro-ready QB with all the arm strength, accuracy, and intangibles necessary to make an immediate impact. He was the beneficiary of tutoring from former NFL QB and current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, so he knows what it’s like to run a pro style offense. Jim Irsay should not worry about whether or not Manning and Luck can co-exist or if he can afford to devote that much of the team payroll to one position. Luck is simply too talented to pass up at No. 1.

2. Rams: Justin Blackmon, WR-Oklahoma State
I would not be surprised if a team desperate for a QB (Browns, Redskins, Dolphins, Seahawks) made a determined effort to jump up to No. 2 to select RG3. The Rams are now under a new regime with Jeff Fisher. He has plenty of cap room to work with in St. Louis, so there are many different directions the franchise could go at No. 2.  If they stay put, I see them selecting Blackmon with the No. 2 overall pick. The Rams were plagued by injuries all season long, and were doomed from the start when Sam Bradford’s favorite target, Danny Amendola, was lost in Week 1. Devoid of any explosive weapons, the Rams were forced to make a midseason trade with the Broncos to acquire Brandon Lloyd. Blackmon would bring another playmaker to an offense that desperately needs one. He’s not the tallest or fastest receiver to ever play the game, as he stands only 6’1”, weighs 215 pounds, and will likely run a 40 yard dash time this spring in the high 4.4-4.5 range. However, his hands are at an elite level, which allow him to make plays and turn up the field for more yardage after the catch.  Some might suggest the Rams need to look at offensive tackle Matt Kalil from USC with this pick, but St. Louis simply can not afford to spend another top-10 pick on a lineman, despite the fact that Jason Smith has been a bust and Roger Saffold took a step backwards this year. They must gain offensive weapons for Bradford and the Rams to be effective, and Blackmon fits the bill. Keep an eye out for a trade of this pick, though, if someone wants RG3 bad enough.

3. Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT-USC
If Griffin is taken at No. 2 by a team trading up for him, then the Vikings would have their choice of drafting Morris Claiborne, Kalil, or Blackmon. The Vikings could use all three of these players, as each would address a major weakness. However, we’re only able to select one! DAMN! If that’s the case, then the Vikings will likely look to improve their offensive line and take Matt Kalil. Kalil has not been graded on the same level as other top OT draft picks like Jake Long and Joe Thomas, so the thought of drafting an offensive tackle to protect your QB’s blind side at No. 3 is a little troublesome. He’s quite slender for a man of his size, as he weighs in at less than 300 pounds despite being 6’7”. He’s a dominant force in the run game, but could stand to work on his pass protection as he’s had difficulty with speed rushers coming around the edge. He’ll need to work on his quickness, but he'd still be a vast improvement over Charlie Johnson, and it would allow Johnson to slide inside to left guard to replace Steve Hutchinson, who's unlikely to return for the 2012 season. One could make a case for the Vikings drafting Justin Blackmon to improve their receiving corps, which doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of other NFL teams with names like Devin Aromashodu, Michael Jenkins, Emmanuel Arceneaux, and Greg Camarillo. Blackmon would bring a spark to a unit that needs it very dearly. Another route the Vikings could go would be to take Morris Claiborne out of LSU. This defensive back has drawn comparisons to Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns and would be a vast improvement over the Swiss cheese secondary the Vikings employed this year. He’s the type of shutdown corner the Vikings would love to have in the NFC North with the dominant passing attacks of the Packers and Lions. He’s a taller corner, standing at 6’1” who has the ability to be physical with the receivers and also stand tall with them as they make a play on the football. Also, Antoine Winfield will turn 35 this year and would likely be a better fit at safety once he returns from his collarbone injury. Drafting Claiborne, who's regarded as a better pure cover man than former teammate Patrick Peterson, would also greatly improve the special teams as he is a dynamic kick/punt returner.  This unit struggled last year except for when Percy Harvin was allowed to return kicks. Much of the year was spent dealing with mediocre returns from Lorenzo Booker and Marcus Sherels. A dynamic kick returner not named Harvin would allow the Vikings to spare their prized offensive weapon from injury on special teams and also help to improve field position for a team who would need all the help they can get with a quarterback starting in only his second NFL season. 

4. Browns: Trent Richardson, RB-Alabama
Curses be damned! The Madden Curse struck not only the cover man himself (Peyton Hillis), but the franchise as a whole as the Cleveland Browns stumbled to a 4-12 record this year with an anemic offense. Hillis is a free agent in 2012 and is not likely to return to the team. With that in mind, it makes sense for the Browns to select Richardson, who compares to Emmitt Smith/Earl Campbell in terms of running style. He’s a physical back with the speed to go with it. Standing 5’11” and weighing in at roughly 220 pounds, he would provide Cleveland with that dominant workhorse back they thought they had in Hillis. An alternative to this pick would be RG3; however, the Browns will likely test the FA waters and may go after a guy like Matt Flynn to lead their team if they’re not entirely sold on Colt McCoy. Who can blame them for that?

5. Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, DB-LSU
Claiborne would make an immediate impact for a another team that regressed in 2011.  Ronde Barber will turn 37 this year and Aqib Talib, though quite a talent at CB, is one misstep off the field away from a serious suspension. As a result of these facts, the Buccaneers would not be out of line in drafting Claiborne. He possesses prototypical size and speed for his position and also gives you return skills as well. His playing style has drawn comparisons to Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden. Claiborne would have been a possibility for the Vikings, keeping his collegiate colors, but he will likely fall into the lap of the Buccaneers at No. 5 and he will reward them for the selection just like last year’s fifth overall pick (Patrick Peterson) did for the Cardinals.

6. Redskins: Robert Griffin III, QB-Baylor
This scenario would be a dream come true for the Redskins. Washington would be able to acquire the franchise QB they’ve been missing, as John Beck and Rex Grossman have clearly shown they are not the long term solution. Griffin has been compared to Cam Newton by some, but he does not possess Newton’s size, arm strength, or mobility to warrant such comparisons. Griffin stands 6’2” and weighs 220 pounds, so there are injury concerns due to his slight build as a QB. He tore his ACL in 2009 during his sophomore season. This past season was a career year for him, as he threw for 3,998 yards and had a TD:INT ratio of 36:6.  He became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy, and his athleticism will be the talk of the pre-draft camps and individual workouts. Depending on his combine workouts, he may be drafted as high as No. 2 overall. This is absolutely the lowest he slips.

7. Jaguars: Alshon Jeffery, WR-South Carolina
Go to the market because the cupboard is bare! That’s what Blaine Gabbert is begging new coach Mike Mularkey to do this offseason. The WR corps in Jacksonville is horrific. Mike Thomas is clearly not a No. 1 WR. Jeffery would be the large target that Blaine Gabbert could lean on as a young, inexperienced QB. While Minnesotans may cringe at the thought of a South Carolina WR to going No. 7, Jeffery compares to Brandon Marshall (and not Troy Williamson) from a physical standpoint, standing 6’4” and weighing in at 233 pounds. He also compares to Marshall in terms of attitude, as there have been questions about his demeanor and conditioning. Size can not be coached, so let’s hope Jeffery resembles Brandon Marshall and not Mike Williams.

8. Panthers: Quinton Coples, DE-North Carolina (pending coin toss)
The Panthers need all sorts of help on the defensive side of the ball. There were several games this past season where Newton had brought the team within striking distance of a victory, but the defense let him down time after time. The pass rush is solid from a supreme talent like Charles Johnson, but what’s better than one pass rusher? TWO pass rushers! Another route the Panthers could take is Dre Kirkpatrick, the blossoming star CB from national champion Alabama.

9. Dolphins: Riley Reiff, OT-Iowa (pending coin toss)
The Dolphins would love to move up to get a QB like RG3, but the fact that Matt Barkley AND Landry Jones have both decided to return to college has hurt the Dolphins chances of finding their franchise QB in this draft. Other mock drafts across the net have shown the Dolphins selecting Ryan Tannehill, the QB from Texas A&M, but this pick just screams of need over value. Reiff would give the Dolphins two solid offensive tackles to protect whoever their QB may be next season. Matt Moore showed promise at times in his starts last year, but they might pursue Matt Flynn if they feel he’ll be worth the money he’ll undoubtedly earn this offseason.

10. Bills: Jonathan Martin, OT-Stanford
Protect the No. 1 overall pick’s blindside and you shall be rewarded! The Bills need all kinds of help, so this pick could go in any number of directions, but you can’t go wrong in drafting a solid offensive tackle who will be able to keep your newly paid QB upright so he can make plays down the field. If the Bills don’t address the O-line, expect them to make a move towards improving their anemic pass rush. 

11. Chiefs: Dontari Poe, DT-Memphis (pending coin toss)
The Chiefs could use help in the interior of their D-line or at LB to complement Derrick Johnson. It may be hard for them to pass on MLB Luke Kuechly, but when you have a 6’5” defensive tackle who weighs 350 pounds staring you in the face, you don't mess around. Poe’s size/speed combo is like something out of Madden. He’s the kind of freakish specimen that has scouts drooling. 

12. Seahawks: Luke Kuechly, LB-Boston College (pending coin toss)
This is another team whose pick is hard to figure out due to the fact that Barkley and Jones both stayed in college for another season. The Seahawks have figured out what the rest of the league already knew: Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are definitely not franchise QBs. Do they reach for Ryan Tannehill or do they go with the best player available? If they go BPA, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were to select Kuechly. Kuechly is a tackling machine, as he amassed an astonishing 191 tackles in the 2011 season. If not Kuechly, the Seahawks might look at an edge rusher like DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw from Alabama.

13. Arizona Cardinals: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB-Alabama
The Cardinals would have loved to have seen Jonathan Martin still on the board here, as they are in dire need of an OT to keep their QBs healthy. John Skelton outperformed Kevin Kolb this year, which brought into question their decision to trade away Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie AND this year's second rounder for Kolb. The Cardinals could bring in another CB such as Dre Kirkpatrick to play alongside Patrick Peterson, they could draft Adrian Wilson’s heir apparent in Mark Barron, or they could draft a WR such as Michael Floyd to complement Larry Fitzgerald. All of these options are tempting, but the Cardinals need to spend another draft pick on their defense this year and should go with Kirkpatrick. He’d be a great complement to Patrick Peterson and would give them two prototypical corners with good size/speed. Kirkpatrick could even make a transition to free safety if the need arose. Here’s another spot where Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram, two outstanding rush LB/DE hybrids could go as well.

14. Cowboys: Courtney Upshaw, OLB-Alabama
If Upshaw is still on the board, it would be hard for the Cowboys not to take him. Pairing Upshaw with Ware would give the Cowboys a frightening duo of pass-rushing edge rushers. Upshaw would also provide an upgrade over Anthony Spencer, who has done little to distinguish himself in his tenure with the Cowboys. Terrence Newman is likely on his way out in Dallas as well, so a draft pick in the secondary could be a possibility, especially if Dre Kirkpatrick were to slide to the Cowboys here.

15. Eagles: Vontaze Burfict, MLB-Arizona State
Burfict has become legendary on and off the field for his crazy antics. If you thought Ray Lewis was an animal on the field, then wait until you see Burfict play. There are questions about his maturity, however, as he’s known for committing an inordinate amount of personal fouls. Ndamukong Suh would blush at the amount of penalties called on Burfict in a game. If Burfict can learn to harness his anger on the field and learn to play with discipline, then he will likely be a top level ILB in the NFL. Can he do it though? That remains to be seen. The Eagles could use his physical presence on their defense to take the pressure off their vaunted secondary.

16. Jets: Mark Barron, SS-Alabama
Barron will likely be the fourth member of the Crimson Tide to go in the first round (and third defender). He’s a large safety at 6’2” and 215-220 pounds. He would bring a physical presence to a defensive backfield led by the best cover corner in the game, Darrelle Revis. Barron would be a terrific complement to Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Jim Leonhard, but can the Jets calm things down enough in-house to make a smart decision in the war room come draft day? That will be the question when Roger Goodell steps to the mic on Thursday night to announce the Jets' selection. I doubt the fans would boo Barron.

17. Bengals (via Raiders): David DeCastro, OG-Stanford
This pick was traded to the Bengals this season as compensation for the Carson Palmer trade. The Bengals were a surprise team this year, making the playoffs behind the dynamic rookie duo of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, as well as a young and underrated defense. If Alshon Jeffery was still available here, it would be hard to pass up the opportunity to pair him with Green. As a young QB, Andy Dalton would love to have two large targets on the field alongside him. Just ask Matt Ryan how he feels about having two top flight WRs in Atlanta with Roddy White and emerging superstar Julio Jones. Another possibility would be a RB such as Trent Richardson, but Richardson will likely be long gone by this pick. With Jeffery and Richardson both off the table, it’s quite possible the Bengals turn to help on the offensive line. The Bengals could look at a guy like Cordy Glenn, a massive guard out of Georgia. The other option at guard of note is David DeCastro out of Stanford. DeCastro, at 6’5” and 310 pounds, profiles much like Steve Hutchinson, who dominated the NFL for many years at the guard position.  The Bengals could also attempt to package this pick with their own pick later in the first round in an effort to go up and get a guy like Jeffery or Richardson.

18. Chargers: Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB-South Carolina
This versatile athlete could help the Chargers improve their awful pass rush. Once upon a time, players such as Shawne Merriman and Leslie O’Neal struck fear into opposing offenses.  The current defense lacks bite, however. Another route the Chargers could go would be offensive tackle. Marcus McNeill spent most of the season on I.R. with a serious injury, and there’s no guarantee he will ever return to the club.

19. Bears: Dont’a Hightower, ILB-Alabama
Yet another Crimson Tide defensive player comes off the board as the Bears select a physically dominating (6’4”, 260 lbs.) linebacker who is a punishing force in the run game.  The Bears need to address the linebacker position this offseason with Lance Briggs turning 32 and Brian Urlacher coming off a serious knee injury. The Bears could also look at someone like Nick Perry, a defensive end from USC to provide a consistent pass rush opposite Julius Peppers. The defense is aging and at least one of the Bears early draft picks should be focused on bringing some youth to this stellar unit.

20. Titans: Cordy Glenn, OG-Georgia
CJ2K suffered this year through a disappointing season. He was nowhere near the RB he once was when he became the sixth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards.  Inconsistent line play along with Johnson’s holdout were the two major reasons given as to why the running game never got off the ground in 2011. It’s quite ironic for the line play to be so inconsistent in Tennessee when you consider the Titans have not one but two Hall of Fame offensive linemen on their coaching staff with head coach Mike Munchak and assistant Bruce Matthews. The interior of the line could be taken care of quite well if the Titans were to draft Cordy Glenn, an offensive guard from Georgia. Glenn, an overwhelming specimen at 6’5” and a beefy 348 pounds would be an ideal selection for the Titans. He combines both the size needed to withstand the interior pass rush of opposing defensive tackles, but he also has the agility to maneuver off the line and get out ahead of the running back and block downfield.  He would quickly become Chris Johnson’s best friend, much like Larry Allen was for Emmitt Smith.

21. Bengals: Alonzo Dennard, CB-Nebraska
This is the second draft pick of the first round for the Bengals. With this pick, they will likely look to address their secondary, as their prized cover corner, Leon Hall, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon which required season-ending surgery. An Achilles injury is a devastating injury to any athlete, but particularly to an athlete who requires acceleration and explosion. Hall may never be the same cornerback he was before the injury. As a result, the Bengals would not be out of line to use this extra first round pick to address this situation.  Dennard lacks ideal size at CB, as he stands only 5’10”, but he is not afraid to be physical with receivers and does not appear to back down from a challenge. He won the Tatum-Woodson award in the Big 10 this past season for the top CB of the conference. He would be a nice addition to the Bengals, as either a parter or a replacement for Hall.

22. Browns: Michael Floyd, WR-Notre Dame
There are likely plenty of Vikings fans out there who are hoping and praying that Floyd slips out of the first round and makes it to the Vikings' pick in the second round, but that simply will not be the case. Cleveland is a team who should be in the market for a WR like Floyd. Floyd possesses fantastic size for his position as he stands 6’3” and weighs 224 pounds. He’s a very competent blocker in the running game as well, which would come in handy if the Browns were to draft Trent Richardson as predicted earlier. The Cleveland offense has left a lot to be desired as of late and spending both first round draft picks on dynamic players who could contribute immediately will do nothing but boost the confidence of Colt McCoy or whoever the Browns end up with at quarterback.

23. Lions: Zebrie Sanders, OT-Florida State
As Vikings fans know, Gosder Cherlius has simply not gotten it done as an offensive tackle for the Detroit Lions. When you have a quarterback who is as athletically gifted as Matthew Stafford, but as fragile as a piece of balsa wood, you need a tackle who will be able to stand up to the pressure of the pass rush coming from all angles. The Lions should look to draft Zebrie Sanders, offensive tackle from Florida State. He’s the highest rated tackle left on the draft board after Kalil, Reiff, and Martin. If you value your quarterback, you will draft an offensive tackle that can protect his blind side, and Sanders should be able to do just that. He possesses the size and the athleticism at 6’5” and 307 pounds to withstand the rush of oncoming defensive ends and linebackers.
24. Steelers: Devon Still, NT-Penn State
With news of Casey Hampton’s torn ACL against the Broncos in the divisional playoff game versus the Broncos, this pick looks more and more appealing as the days go by.  Yes, Hampton will not require surgery, but at age 33, he is slowly sliding down the hill into retirement.  It would be a smart move to draft his replacement at this time.  Devon Still, who won the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, is a larger tackle, standing 6’5” and weighing 310 pounds, compared to Hampton (6’1”, 325).  Still possesses an enormous amount of talent, perhaps top 10 level talent, but he’s battled inconsistency throughout his career.  The Steelers will be hoping this inconsistency will allow them to draft Still this late in the draft with the hope he’ll continually flash that top 10 ability.

25. Broncos: Michael Brockers, DT-LSU
The Tebow magic wore out in the divisional round as the Broncos were blown out in a big way by the Patriots in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.  The Broncos have a young defense with some solid playmakers like Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.  However, they lack a strong interior presence at defensive tackle with the underwhelming Brodrick Bunkley currently leading the way at DT.  They would love to see Devon Still at pick 25, but he will most likely be drafted before they come to the podium with their selection.  The Broncos should be thrilled, however, to draft Michael Brokers, the 21 year old defensive tackle from LSU.  He surprised many by declaring for the draft after his sophomore season.  He’s another defensive tackle who brings great height to the position, but could stand to add some weight to his frame as he currently weighs a little over 300 pounds while standing 6’6”.  The potential to develop is there and the raw talent has to be harnessed, but taking a gamble on a man with this physical ability is worth the risk. 

26. Texans: Fletcher Cox, DT-Mississippi State
The Texans were a Cinderella story this year as they were able to make their first playoff appearance in franchise history despite losing their top two quarterbacks to injury and also losing their premier wide receiver, Andre Johnson, to two separate hamstring injuries during the season. The Texans will likely think long and hard about drafting a complementary WR to take some of the pressure off of Johnson, as well as their superstar running back, Arian Foster. However, the Texans also need to address the interior of their defensive line and upgrade one of the few weaknesses their young defense currently has under new coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips transformed this defense into a feared unit filled with several high draft picks and future stars. The defense will get Mario Williams back from injury and add him to a unit that already includes young studs like J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed and Demeco Ryans. Despite all this young talent, the Texans lack a dominant presence in the interior of their D-line. Shaun Cody has been serviceable, but the right draft pick could be an upgrade. Cox shows the versatility to play both tackle and also line up as a rush end, which would be an invaluable asset for a team that runs a 3-4 defense. He has great size and power at 6’4”, 295 pounds and he would be able to hold his own at the point of attack. Putting Cox in the middle of this defensive line could strike even more fear into the hearts of opponents.

27. Patriots: Nick Perry, DE-USC
This pick was traded to the Patriots during last season’s draft by the Saints, as part of the deal that brought Mark Ingram to New Orleans. The Patriots should look to address the defense with their two late first round draft picks. With the first of their two selections, they will either take a defensive lineman in an effort to bolster their pass rush, or a cornerback to help their inept secondary that was forced to use wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater at times. A talent like Perry is too good to pass up at this pick, though. Perry is a pass rush specialist who has elite athleticism and an explosive burst off the edge. He’s a young player at age 21 who has the potential to be quite a talent as long as he stays focused on the prize ahead of him. With Mr. Belichick as his coach, that should definitely not be a problem. It would not be surprising, however, to see Belichick once again trade one, if not both of these first rounders for a future pick. 

28. Packers: Chris Polk, RB-Washington
The Packers were penciled in by most to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but instead, they were the first team in NFL history to record 15 wins in the regular season and lose their first playoff game. The secondary could be a potential area of focus for the Packers due to the aging of Charles Woodson, as well as the injury to Nick Collins. They also need an every-down back who can shoulder the load for the team. Chris Polk has the power, vision and size  (5’11”, 222 pounds) to absorb the wear and tear of the NFL. He would allow the Packers to diversify their attack, because while Aaron Rodgers is historically good, you still must run the ball with some consistency no matter how good your passing attack is. Polk would address a glaring weakness for the Packers. 

29. Giants*: Zach Brown, LB-North Carolina
Ridiculously fast, clocking in at 4.4 seconds in the 40 yard dash, Brown would be a nice complement to Mathias Kiwanuka on the Giants defense. Brown is not very big though, and does sacrifice some strength for his track-level speed, but he could be a dominating pass rusher off the edge in the mold of Demarcus Ware in Dallas. If the Giants don’t choose to go with an OLB, then they could also pursue an offensive tackle, which they are also in desperate need of as David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie have both struggled to keep up with the dominant edge rushers the NFC East (Trent Cole, Ryan Kerrigan and Ware). Mike Adams of Ohio State, who is a physical beast at 6’8”, 320 pounds, would be a great pass blocking tackle that could help squash the pass rush of these defensive ends. He needs to work on his run blocking, but he would definitely be a welcome addition along the offensive line.

30. Ravens*: Peter Konz, C-Wisconsin
Forty percent of the Ravens offensive line is comprised of former Minnesota Vikings players.  Both Bryant McKinnie and Matt Birk currently play for the Ravens and both are on the downturn of their careers—Birk, in particular. It would not be surprising if Birk called it quits after this season if the Ravens were to win the Super Bowl. As a result, the Ravens should look to draft the only top tier center available in this year’s draft in Peter Konz from Wisconsin.  Konz is an agile big man who has the versatility to play other positions on the line if needed.  The ability to get out and move in space will come in handy when blocking for a star running back like Ray Rice. Konz is the logical choice for the Ravens' franchise here.

31. 49ers*: Kendall Wright, WR-Baylor
Led by Jim Harbough, the 49ers have risen from the ashes, and are one win away from the Super Bowl. Wide receiver is the area that deserves the most attention for them this offseason. They currently lack any proven playmaking wide receiver, as Michael Crabtree has been spotty at best. When he's not held in to block, the 49ers do have the luxury of the freakishly athletic Vernon Davis at TE, and another weapon like Kendall Wright from Baylor would certainly do a lot for Alex Smith’s continued growth as an NFL QB. Wright was Robert Griffin III’s go to guy at Baylor this past season and caught 108 passes for 1,663 yards and 14 TDs. The biggest drawback to Wright is his size at 5’10” and 190 pounds, but he makes up for that with elite speed, timing in the low 4.3’s for 40 yard dash. He has reliable hands and, surprisingly, is not afraid to go over the middle to make the tough catch despite his size. He would be a valuable complement to the possession WR that Michael Crabtree is in San Francisco. Don’t be surprised if some teams actually rate Wright higher than Justin Blackmon.

32. Patriots*: Brandon Thompson, DL, Clemson
With their second pick of the first round (if they keep the selection) the Patriots should not pass up on the versatile defensive lineman Brandon Thompson from Clemson. Thompson can excel in either the 3-4 or the 4-3 scheme, both of which are schemes Belichick has shown on defense as of late. As discussed earlier, though, it would not be a shocker if New England traded one of their first rounders for future draft choices. The Tom Brady-led offense has masked a lot of deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, and spending two draft picks strong pass rush would buy time for their woeful secondary.

*The draft order for picks 1-28 has been set. Picks 29 and 30 will be the losers of the conference championship game. Pick 31 will be the loser of the Super Bowl and pick 32 is the winner of the Super Bowl. This article was based on the prediction that the Patriots defeat the 49ers in the Super Bowl. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2012 Fantasy Football: Top 25

It’s been 11 days since the curtain officially closed on the 2011 fantasy football season. By now, league winners should be back from Disney World, and the rest of you should be transitioning from bargaining to acceptance.

Whether you’re chasing redemption or a repeat, your 2012 preparation starts here!

1. Arian Foster – In a pass-heavy league where multiple-back attacks have become the norm, dual-threat superstar Arian Foster might be the closest thing we’ll ever see to LaDanian Tomlinson’s prime. Running behind and elite-level offensive line in a system that fits him like a glove, he’s put any injury concerns to rest over his last 13 games, tallying 14 touchdowns and an average of 152.5 combination yards.

2. Ray Rice – We’ve always been able to count on Ray Rice for all-purpose yardage, but in 2011 he finally began finishing drives, posting a career-high 15 scores. He hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons, averaging 284 carries and a jaw-dropping 72 receptions over that span. With a shallow pool of surefire running backs, Rice and Foster belong ahead of any of the growing pool of top-tier signal callers.

3. Aaron Rodgers – Aaron Rodgers’ efficiency (45 touchdowns against just six interceptions) is off the charts, and as an added bonus, he’s averaged 281 yards and four touchdowns on the ground over the last four seasons. He’s the safest pick in fantasy football.

4. Drew Brees – You can literally flip a coin between Rodgers and the NFL’s new passing king, Drew Brees. Over his last seven games, Brees has been the league’s best signal caller, totaling 27 touchdowns, three interceptions and an average of 374 yards. The potential loss of Marques Colston shouldn’t deter drafters—Colston needs Brees, not vice versa.

5. Calvin Johnson – Calvin Johnson scored 18 times in 17 games (including playoffs), and cracked 200 yards in three of his last four contests. After averaging over 100 yards and a score per game, regularly destroying double-teams and displaying uncanny chemistry with Matthew Stafford, he’s the unquestioned top receiver heading into 2012.

Click here to read the rest of the article at Bleacher Report.