Thursday, March 22, 2012

Peter Konz could be Next Successfull First-Round Center

Each of the past three years, we've seen a center go in round one of the NFL Draft.
In 2009, Alex Mack was the first oftwo first round centers and went 21st to Cleveland. Florida's Maurkice Pouncey went 18th overall toPittsburgh in 2010, and his brother Mike went to Miami with the 15th selection in the 2011 NFL Draft.
On top of being first round selections, all three players have made a tremendous impact in the beginning of their careers. It's hard for the naked eye to judge offensive line play on television, but Pro Football Focus puts lineman through critical analysis.
After becoming he first center selected in the 2009 NFL Draft, Mack has started all 48 games of his career, and he's played at least 975 snaps every year. As a rookie, Mack was simply terrific. He graded out with a +19.5 overall rating, with a +0.6 pass block grade and an astounding +15.1 grade in the running game.
Mack suffered no "Sophomore slump" in his second season, as he graded out well above league average in both the run game and pass game.
Although he graded out as a respectable +7.1 overall, last season was his worst as a professional according to PFF. For the first time in his career, he turned in a negative grade in either the pass blocking or run blocking department. His negative grade was just barely below the average mark of 0, as PFT gave Mack a -0.2 grade for run blocking.
Fellow 2009 first round center, Eric Wood, graded out below average in each of his first two seasons before having the best season of his career in 2011. Last year, Wood (+8.8) graded out as the 7th best overall center in the league although he only played nine games and 553 snaps.
Mack_crop_340x234Alex Mack hasn't missed a game in three years for the Browns.
Durability has been an issue for Wood. He's played 33 of a possible 48 games throughout his three year career.
The Pouncey brothers, Maurkice a two year veteran and Mike a rookie in 2011, have shown a lot of promise as professionals.
Mike didn't miss a game as a rookie and played 1,025 snaps, but he wasfar better as a run blocker (+3.6) than a pass blocker (-5.4) in 2011. Reggie Bushhad failed to live up to expectations since being the second pick in 2006, but Pouncey played a role in the former Heisman Trophy winner's breakout 2011 season. Averaging five yards per attempt, Bush ran for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his six-year career.
After not missing a game until Super Bowl XLV, Maurkice Pouncey missed two games in 2011. He graded out as the 20th best player at the position with a slightly below average overall grade of -1.2. This was a statistical improvement over his rookie season, in which he received a -4.2 overall grade. Pouncey took a major step forward as a pass blocker, going from -7.9 as a rookie to an even 0 in his second season.
With the possible exception of Buffalo's Eric Wood, recent history suggests taking a center in the first round is among the safest selections in the Draft. Maurkice and Mike Pouncey are incredible athletes for the position, and Alex Mack has been a reliable mainstay in the middle of Cleveland's offensive line.
The 2011 NFL Draft boasts one center with the potential of going on in round one: Wisconsin's Peter Konz.
Konz was the man in the middle of a physically dominant offensive line for the Wisconsin Badgers. The line for Badgers is consistently have elite - and gigantic.
Pouncey_crop_340x234Mike Pouncey helped pave the way for Reggie Bush's best season.
At 6'5" 315 pounds, Konz has great size for a player at the position. Despite only putting up a modest 18 reps on the 225 bench press at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, Konz constantly was able to push around defensive linemen in the Big Ten. Unlike many lineman at his size, Konz has shown true athleticism by often pulling from the center position and paving the way for Montee Ball.
Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season for the Badgers. He amassed an incredible 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground, all while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. A statistical season like Montee Ball had last year simply can't happen without the offensive line controlling the defensive line.
The depth of Wisconsin's offensive line is highlighted by the selection of Bill Nagy with the 252nd pick in last year's Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. In his final season in Madison, Nagy wasn't a regular starter for the Badgers. He was used primarily as a third tight end in running formations. However, despite not starting late in his college career, Nagy started four games for the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie prior to suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
Peter Konz will enter the NFL by way of a much different path.
Widely considered to be the top center in the 2012 Draft class, Konz could be selected as high as the 20th overall pick to Tennessee depending on whether or not the Titansaddress the position in free agency. CincinnatiDetroit, Green Bay, and Baltimorealso may be in the market for a center with their first pick.
The Packers have a glaring need at the position, having lost starter Scott Wells to the St. Louis Rams as an unrestricted free agent. Green Bay currently has Evan Dietrich-Smith as its top center, so the Packers are very likely to address the position through the draft or free agency, and perhaps they'll add a player through both.
At a time where teams are hesitant to throw large sums of money at unproven rookies, several players with questions surrounding their character or effort will be moved down draft boards. There are no questions about Konz as a person, nor are there questions about his motor.
With several teams picking towards the bottom of the first round with a clear need at the position, Peter Konz looks to be the next center selected in round one to have instant success in the NFL.

Under-the-Radar Signing of Manny Lawson Could Be a Significant Upgrade

Numbers never lie. Statistics tell an unbiased story of what occurs on the football field, regardless of a player's popularity or reputation.
However, sometimes football fans fail to look past the statistical surface.
Leading the league in tackles doesn't necessarily mean that player is among the league's best linebackers, and being among the league leaders in passing yards doesn't always correlate to being an elite NFL quarterback.
When it comes to pass rushers, most people look directly at a player's sack numbers. While a sack total gives a good representation of how effective a player is at getting to the quarterback, it doesn't tell the whole story.
Pro Football Focus does a tremendous job at analyzing every play of every game and critically grading every player on the field. They require one to have a membership, which can be purchased for $29.99 for one year, but the in-depth research and analysis is well worth it, in my opinion. 
PFF gives individual grades for performance against the run, rushing the passer, pass coverage, and subtracts points for penalties and missed tackles. To get these numbers, they factor in several statistics such as QB sacks, hits, pressures, batted passes, tackles and tackles for loss.
They also grade out teams as a whole. For the defense of Green Bay Packers, the results from 2011 weren't exactly pretty.
Green Bay finished 28th in the league in PFF's total defense statistic, with a grade of -60. To put that in contrast, the 49ers led the league in total defense with a grade of +240.3.
PFF's grades mirrored the standard final team defensive statistics, the Packers finished 2011 dead last in the NFL allowing 411.6 yards per game, and recorded just 29 sacks—tied for 27th in the league.
The Packers pass rushing department struggled mightily last season, despite having one of the league's best outside linebackers in Clay Matthews. On the other side of Clay Matthews, the platoon of Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones failed to rise to the occasion and grab the starting job.
Walden played far more regular season snaps than the other two—933 compared to 146 apiece for Walden and Jones.
Including their divisional round loss to the New York Giants in the Playoffs, the Packers played 17 games in the 2011 season. Walden was active and on the field for every game, yet received a negative grade from PFF in every one of those games except five.
PFF gave Walden a pass rush rating on the season of -1.9 and a run defense rating of -15.9. Taking all statistics into account, Walden earned an overall defensive rating of -20.5. This was by far the worst rating for a 3-4 OLB in the entire league.
There was a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Green Bay is interested in OLB Manny Lawson. Lawson played OLB in a 3-4 for five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, before transitioning to a 4-3 with the Cincinnati Bengalslast season. He's totaled a modest 16 sacks in his six seasons in the NFL, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Prior to the 2006 Draft, two players from North Carolina State tore up the NFL Scouting Combine—the eventual number one overall pick Mario Williams, and the 22nd pick by the 49ers, Manny Lawson. Lawson measured 6' 5" and 241 pounds; he was clocked at 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash, recorded a 39.5 inch vertical jump, and equaledClay Matthews's 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2009 Combine.
Cm_crop_340x234Yes, he is a beast, but Clay Matthews needs help.
The Cincinnati Bengals, like Green Bay, played one game in the playoffs. Lawson was active for all 17 games, and received four negative grade from PFF, three of which were just barely below the zero mark of average. He earned an overall defensive rating of +10.6 from PFF, a sizable difference from Walden's -20.6.
Lawson's PFF grade for pass rushing was +1.1, which looks good next to Walden's -1.9. Walden's atrocious -15.9 grade against the run isn't even in the same ballpark as Manny Lawson, who received a +8.1 grade in that department.
While statistics paint a clear picture of the truth and Pro Football Focus puts those statistics under a microscope for further examination, the naked eye told the truth last year: the Packers need an improvement at right outside linebacker.
When the Packers traveled to Philadelphia to play the Eagles in the Wild Card round of the 2010 Playoffs, Green Bay's speed and athleticism on defense helped them contain Eagles QB Michael Vick and move on to the next round. Manny Lawson, at the very least, has elite athletic ability and would fit seamlessly into the right outside linebacker position in the Packers 3-4 scheme.
Packers GM Ted Thompson isn't a big spender early in free agency, but he's not afraid to pull the trigger if he can find an affordable acquisition to help the team. Manny Lawson fits that profile.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Making Sense of Tim Tebow to Green Bay

This article on Bleacher Report

There isn't a more passionate fan base than that of the Green Bay Packers. There isn't a figure in all of sports that draws more of a reaction than Tim Tebow.

As a result, when ESPN's Chris Mortensen mentioned Green Bay as a potential landing spot for Tebow, the twitterverse blew up. Just uttering the word "Tebow" lights a fire under football fans, and they instantly feel required to speak out and voice their opinion on how great or how awful Tim Tebow really is.

My personal stance on Tebow hasn't changed; the guy has been a winner at every level, but my eyes tell me that he's not a good professional quarterback. I don't fault Tebow for being so open about his religion, nor do I rip him for his shortcomings at the position that ultimately lead to an NFL team running an unconventional, heavily run-oriented offense. It's what Tebow is good at.

The one real criticism I've maintained on Tebow is in regards to how he answers questions and deals with the media. It's my belief that as a professional athlete in the NFL, part of your job is to answer questions honestly and deal with the media head-on.

You could ask Tim Tebow what his favorite ice cream is, and he'd probably go on to tell you how thankful he is that the Lord gave us the option between blue moon or chocolate, waffle cone or cake cone.

The constant "say nothing," almost robotic answers can be a bit much for me. Being openly religious is one thing, but there are plenty of Christians across the league that choose to represent their beliefs in other ways.

During last season, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers talked about his faith with Packers beat writer Jason Wilde on his weekly in-season radio show on ESPN Milwaukee:

"My desire has always been to follow a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, who said, 'Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.' So basically, I’m not an over-the-top, or an in-your-face kind of guy with my faith. I would rather people have questions about why I act the way I act, whether they view it as positive or not, and ask questions, and then given an opportunity at some point, then you can talk about your faith a little bit."

Rodgers chooses to express his faith in a different manner than Tim Tebow, who chooses to use every opportunity he has to forwardly praise God. That's fine. Both guys are grown men, and they have their own values. I just think Rodgers sees his public image in a very clear lens, and he chooses to give a thought-out, honest answer to any questions the media has.

The possibility of Tim Tebow joining Rodgers in Green Bay is an interesting one. The phenomenon known as "Tebow-Mania" wouldn't be quieter anywhere else. Packer fans know who their quarterback is; he's the reigning NFL MVP and a Super Bowl Champion. You will not find any logical Packer fans kicking and screaming to see Tim Tebow on the field instead of Aaron Rodgers. You can save your argument that Tebow won more playoff games in 2012 than Aaron Rodgers did. Get real.

Going back to the 1990s, the Packers have a history of successfully developing quarterbacks into starters. Current head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements are well-respected around the league for their ability to tutor young quarterbacks. Former 7th round pick Matt Flynn went through the "McCarthy QB school" and just signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks to be their new starting quarterback.

Sure I'd like to be a starter if I'm Tim Tebow, but it'd make a lot of sense for him to sit and learn behind an elite player like Aaron Rodgers and a QB guru in Mike McCarthy.

Assuming Rodgers stays healthy, the only way Tim Tebow would see the field in 2012 is if McCarthy implemented a specific package for him. Given the Packers' struggles with the run game in short-yardage situations in recent seasons, allowing Tebow to take a direct snap and power forward close to the goal line would make some sense. Although, when you have a QB that throws 45 TD to just 6 INT, passing in goal-to-go situations seems like a good option.

On the depth chart, Tebow would compete with Graham Harrell to be the top backup. I honestly believe Harrell is a better overall quarterback, but Tebow could be the second-string guy on Sundays if McCarthy has a plan for him somewhere within his offensive gameplan. In the event that Rodgers went down to injury, I'd guess that McCarthy would have Harrell run with the first team the following week in practice and prepare him to be the team's starter.

McCarthy had some very positive things to say about Tebow prior to the 2010 Draft:

“I’d love the opportunity to develop him. He’s a winner, and I’m excited to see what he does in the National Football League. He wins games, he’s a tremendous competitor and he’s like a lot of young quarterbacks; there’s some things he can work on to improve on. But you can see his tremendous passion in the way he plays the game, and it will be interesting to see who has the opportunity to develop him."

The always cautious Packers certainly wouldn't have to worry about a character concern in regards to Tebow. He'd fit into the locker room, and not only that, he'd be "just another guy." This team has its leaders in Rodgers, Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings, and Donald Driver. Tebow would be just one more piece to the puzzle, and in Green Bay he wouldn't create nearly the firestorm that came to fruition with the Denver Broncos.

Combined with a losing record, part of the reason that fans were so adamant on seeing Tebow on the field in Denver was the subpar play of starter Kyle Orton.

On the surface, Jacksonville and Miami come to mind as being the most likely destinations for Tebow. Because Tebow played collegiately in Gainesville, Dolphins' owner Stephen Ross and Jaguars' owner Shahid Kahn will likely be interested in acquiring Tebow to pique fan interest and increase ticket sales. Miami head coach Joe Philbin and Jacksonville head coach Mike Mularkey, both first-year coaches, might not share the same opinion as their respective owners.

This could spell "Tebow-Mania" all over again. If Tebow is the backup in Jacksonville behind average players like Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne, or in Miami behind Matt Moore or David Garrard, the fan base would be clamoring to see Tebow whenever the starter throws an incomplete pass. An interception would be a death sentence.

In Green Bay with McCarthy and Clements, or in New England with Josh McDaniels, Tebow would not only have the opportunity to learn from a bright offensive mind, but he'd be able to see first-hand how to play the position by holding the clipboard and watching Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.

Since Ted Thompson holds on to his draft picks like fine pieces of china, it's unlikely he'd be willing to match an offer that Miami or Jacksonville likely will propose. When the Packers are rewarded with conditional draft choices based on their losses in free agency last year in the coming weeks, Thompson may explore a Tebow trade if he can be acquired for a 6th round pick or something similar. However, the more likely scenario resulting in Tebow wearing the green and gold would be if Denver is unable to trade him and ultimately decide to release him.

If the stars align perfectly and Ted Thompson thinks Tebow could help the Packers, it makes some sense. There's no point in taking your picket signs to 1265 Lombardi and petitioning one way or another for Tim Tebow because it just wouldn't be a big deal.

If Tebow comes to Green Bay he'd be "just a guy," and in the words - or tweet - of Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler "Our beeeench, is an awe-some beeench..."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Will Packers Target Hawk's Replacement in the Draft?

Packers GM Ted Thompson does most, nearly all, of his personnel work through the draft. Rarely a serious player in free agency, Thompson prepares to fill holes on his roster a year or two before they become issues. 

In each of the past two college drafts, Thompson has used early picks to select players that fill holes that hadn't been holes yet.

Thompson could let A.J. Hawk walk
Last year, Green Bay selected Mississippi State's OT Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall pick. Despite being passed on the depth chart by 2010 fifth-round pick Marshall Newhouse, Sherrod certainly fits in the team's future plans on the Offensive Line. 

With question marks surrounding the health and overall ability of Chad Clifton, it looks as if Thompson's selection of Sherrod was in preparation for the possibility that Clifton would be released this offseason. The Packers can save $5.7 million by cutting Clifton, and that seems like a likely scenario with how many key players they'll need to resign soon.

Having already addressed the questionable future of his Offensive Line with his first selection, Thompson added to Green Bay's stellar wide receiving corps in the second round by selecting Kentucky WR Randall Cobb. Cobb was an instant upgrade in the return game, and he looks like a perfect replacement for veteran Donald Driver.

In the 2010 draft, Thompson used his first round pick on OT Bryan Bulaga. In the midst of his rookie season, Bulaga was forced into the starting lineup when right tackle Mark Tauscher went down to injury. The 2010 season would end up being the last of Tauscher's career in Green Bay, and Bulaga has been the team's starter ever since.

With his second selection, Thompson filled another hole a year before it became an urgent need when he selected Purdue's Mike Neal in the second round. Neal's career in Green Bay has been flooded with injuries, but he was drafted to replace Cullen Jenkins who left after the 2010 season to join the Philadelphia Eagles.

Looking ahead to the 2013 offseason, the Packers face several question marks. It's seems quite unlikely that Thompson would let his top receiver and top free agent, Greg Jennings, walk away from the team despite what will likely be a high price tag. Other than Jennings, offensive lineman T.J. Lang may be the team's next priority, but he doesn't figure to demand an overly expensive price tag.

What could be interesting, however, is what direction the team decides to go with linebacker A.J. Hawk. After signing a five year contract worth $33.75 million last March, Hawk's future in Green Bay looks cloudy at best. Since being selected fifth overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, Hawk has failed to be anything more than average as a starting linebacker.

The way Hawk's contract is structured, it would make no sense to cut him this offseason because it would require the Packers to take a massive cap hit. However, next offseason cutting Hawk could be a realistic option for Green Bay.

This from ProFootballTalk after Hawk signed his extension: "Hawk could be vulnerable to being released after 2013 depending on his play.  His cap number that year will be $7.55 million, and the team would only take a $3.2 cap hit to release him."

While it'd be a bit premature to say 2012 fifth round pick D.J. Smith is a potential starter, he filled in admirably for starter Desmond Bishop when he missed time to injury. Outside of Smith, the Packers depth behind Hawk and Bishop is very shaky - to the point where head coach Mike McCarthy has mentioned reserve outside linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Brad Jones possibly seeing some time at inside linebacker.

While outside linebacker is a more glaring need, it's a distinct possibility that Thompson could follow his pattern of filling holes a year early by addressing the inside linebacker position in the early rounds.

Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw
This year, there are only two inside linebackers that have a chance to go in the first round. Boston College's Luke Kuechley is the top linebacker in the draft, and he figures to be selected in the top half of the first round. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower is a thumper with some ability as an outside pass rusher; he figures to come off the board somewhere between 24th to Pittsburgh and the early second round.

For the Packers, Dont'a Hightower is a really interesting possibility to me. On ESPN's First Draft podcast, my email was answered by hosts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay. I was curious as to what they thought about Hightower as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 since he played defensive end in high school and Alabama coach Nick Saban used him as a pass rusher on third downs this past season.

Kiper wasn't so sure, although he raved about Hightower's measurables and athleticism, "I think he'll be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think he could be a Sam (linebacker) as well ... At 265 pounds, you show athleticism and you show speed and overall talent that is unheard of, so I think Dont'a Hightower, a couple years removed from the knee surgery, all the sudden now is a lock first round pick. I don't think he gets past the Pittsburgh Steelers ... I think he'd be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers at 24."

McShay had pointed out Hightower's ability to rush the passer in the previous week's podcast, but he spoke more highly of him playing inside opposed to outside. "He just has a Steeler mentality and a way about him that I really like."

If the slipper doesn't fit for Hightower in Pittsburgh, I believe the Packers could be the beneficiary.  If McCarthy is considering Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore as candidates to play inside despite having never played the position before, I think the coaching staff would explore playing Hightower outside at times if it meant getting the team's best four linebackers on the field at once.

Hightower and Alabama HC Nick Saban
Hightower had 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this past season at Alabama, less than stellar numbers from a potential 3-4 outside linebacker; however, he was only asked to rush the passer in certain situations. On third downs, Saban put Hightower's hand in the ground and had him rush the passer along with fellow stud linebacker Courtney Upshaw - also a sure first round pick.

Upshaw figures to be drafted between #10 to Buffalo and #18 to San Diego, but if the Hightower fell to the Packers at #28, theoretically they could start him outside as a rookie on the opposite side of Clay Matthews. Hightower and Matthews would be the edge rushers, along with Hawk and Bishop again being the men in the middle.

If Thompson ultimately decides to cut ties with A.J. Hawk following the 2012-2013 season, Hightower could move to the inside to play alongside Desmond Bishop. History suggests Thompson is always looking forwards in regards to roster holes and the subpar play of A.J. Hawk could result in Dont'a Hightower wearing green and gold in 2012.

(Hightower's game against Arkansas highlights perfectly the versatility that I'm talking about. He lined up inside as a run stuffer and outside on the edge, and he handed out some "wow" hits in the process.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

2012 NFL Mock Draft #4

1. Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck - QB Stanford
2. Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III - QB Baylor
3. Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil - OT Southern Cal
4. Cleveland Browns: Morris Claiborne - CB Lousiana St
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Trent Richardson - RB Alabama
6. St. Louis Rams: Justin Blackmon - WR Oklahoma St
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Melvin Ingram - DE South Carolina
8. Miami Dolphins: Michael Floyd - WR Notre Dame
9. Carolina Panthers: Dontari Poe - DT Memphis
10. Buffalo Bills: Quinton Coples - DE North Carolina
11 Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Kuechley - LB Boston College
12. Seattle Seahawks: Ryan Tannehill - QB Texas A&M
13. Arizona Cardinals: Riley Reiff - OT Iowa
14. Dallas Cowboys: Mark Barron - SS Alabama
15. Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox - DT Mississippi State
16. New York Jets: Courtney Upshaw - OLB Alabama
17. Cincinnati Bengals: David DeCastro - OG Stanford
18. San Diego Chargers: Michael Brockers - DT Louisiana St
19. Chicago Bears: Mike Adams - OT Ohio State
20. Tennessee Titans: Nick Perry - DE Southern Cal
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Stephon Gilmore - CB South Carolina
22. Cleveland Browns: Kendall Wright - WR Baylor
23. Detroit Lions: Dre Kirkpatrick - CB Alabama
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Cordy Glenn - OL Georgia
25. Denver Broncos: Jerel Worthy - DT Michigan St
26. Houston Texans: Jonathan Martin - OT Stanford
27. New England Patriots: Andre Branch - DE/OLB Clemson
28. Green Bay Packers: Dont'a Hightower - LB Alabama
29. Baltimore Ravens: Janoris Jenkins - CB North Alabama
30. San Francisco 49ers: Harrison Smith - S Notre Dame
31. New England Patriots: Devon Still - DT Penn St
32. New York Giants: Coby Fleener - TE Stanford