Dolphins Breakout Wildcat Offense in Their First Win by Lloyd Vance

RB Ronnie Brown and the Miami Dolphins’ Wildcat Formation was running “Hog” wild in their first win of the season over the ill-prepared New England Patriots

I have been saying for years that some form of an “option” style offensive attack could work in the NFL in certain packages/situations.  With a plethora of college and high school quarterbacks running Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense, there maybe a need in the future for the NFL to work towards some running quarterbacks strengths by running some option schemes.

Surprisingly, it was the rebuilding Miami Dolphins and their heady offensive coordinator Dan Henning that found a way to surprise the entire NFL by running a form of the option in their out of nowhere 38-13 road upset of the New England Patriots.  In the win that stopped the Patriots’ 21-game regular season consecutive win streak (last loss was 21-0 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 10, 2006), Henning borrowed a page from the 2006-07 Arkansas Razorbacks’ playbook by instituting their “Wildcat Offense”.

At Arkansas the offensive scheme was very successful as Heisman runner-up running back Darren McFadden lined up as a shotgun quarterback and caused all kinds of havoc taking a direct snap while either running or throwing the ball.  The Dolphins  — current QBs Coach and former Arkansas assistant David Lee instrumenal —  used the same scheme to perfection using running back Ronnie Brown in the role of McFadden six times versus the bewildered Patriots.  The ‘Phins churned out 216 rushing yards and Brown (17 rushes for 117 yards and 4 TD’s) was spectacular to say the least as a part-time quarterback.  The former Auburn star set a Dolphins franchise record by running for four touchdowns including runs of 2, 5, and 62 yards.  For good measure and to keep the defense honest, Brown also threw a perfect left-handed 19-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Fassano.

With veteran quarterback Chad Pennington (17-20, 226 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) still leading the team, I doubt we will see the “Wildcat” offense no more than 5 to 7 times a game for the Dolphins… But boy is it fun to watch.  Maybe in copycat fashion the rest of the NFL will join the Wildcat movement.

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2008 NFL Review – Week 2

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The celebration and adulation of Week 1 of the 2008 NFL season gave way to thoroughly enjoyable Week 2.  This week in opinion began the long process of figuring out which teams are moving toward contention (ex. Carolina Panthers) and those teams that maybe looking to make changes in the near future (ex. St. Louis Rams).  Overall week 2 showed that no one can predict the most unpredictable league in the world.  The exciting week featured last second wins, high scoring games, controversial calls, upsets, breakout performances and other surprises.  One thing is for certain, week 2 showed why the NFL is the most popular sport by far of the four majors and why the networks are willing to fork over billions of dollars to broadcast the games that fans just cannot consume fast enough. Continue reading

Raiders Sign McFadden Early

The Raiders avoided another high profile rookie holdout by signing Darren McFadden way before training camp opens

(Philadelphia, Pa) — In a move that signaled that the Oakland Raiders are ready to move out of rebuilding mode, the 4-12 team from 2007 avoided another first round rookie holdout by signing running back Darren McFadden late Thursday night.  The Raiders didn’t announce the deal’s terms, but several media outlets are reporting that McFadden has agreed to a six-year deal worth up to $60 million, with $26 million guaranteed.

McFadden’s signing clearly shows that the Raiders and McFadden’s agent Ian Greengross had learned from last year’s debacle with the signing of first-round draft pick and first overall player selected quarterback JaMarcus Russell.  The large former LSU quarterback had little to no impact in his rookie season after missing the entire 2007 training camp while squabbling over his rookie contract. The signing should provide Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin a much-needed weapon, which can only help in building his team and strengthening his cantankerous relationship with Raiders owner Al Davis.

It will be interesting to see if the two-time Heisman runner-up can live up to comparisons to last year’s breakout player and NFL rookie of the year Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.  McFadden before tackling the Peterson comparisons will need to find room in a crowded backfield that includes former college power back Michael Bush, thousand yard rusher Justin Fargas, and LaMont Jordan. 

I believe if McFadden’s college career is any indicator — ran for 4,590 yards, averaged 5.8 yards per carry, and had 41 touchdowns with explosive 4.3 speed in the forty — then he should be a very special player for the Silver and Black.  Heck we may even see Kiffin and new Raiders offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp use McFadden, a former high school quarterback, as a “Slash” type player lining him up everywhere from under center to in the slot as a receiver.

I am not ready to hand the mercurial running back the this year’s rookie of the year award early like I did last year in naming Adrian Peterson as the winner the day he signed.  But McFadden should be a high impact player in ’08 and look for him to be a strong contender for the R.O.Y along with Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, Jets tight end Dustin Keller and Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

 

2008 NFL Draft Review

photo by David Kindervater

(Photo by David Kindervater)

By Lloyd Vance, BIGPLAY Football “Draft Guru” / Sr. NFL Writer

(Philadelphia, Pa) — Now that the biggest “non on the field” NFL event is done for this year and 252 players know their destinations, it is time for myself and other talent evaluators to recap the action and then take a well deserved rest.

The 2008 NFL Draft definitely had a ton of buzz, hype, and excitement as Radio City Music Hall was electric when the event kicked off at 3 PM on Saturday – BTW: Loved the later start time.  The later start time and new format seemed to invigorate the teams to move swifter as on Day 1 the first round took only 3 hours, 30 minutes, which was almost half the time of last year’s draft (6 hours, 8 minutes) and almost equaled the record of the 1990 draft (3 hours, 24 minutes).

This year’s event seemed to be the NFL’s biggest production outside of the Super Bowl as over 450 media members — not including the gaggle of ESPN and NFL Network personnel — covered the event including an impressive 13 of the top 20 newspapers were represented along with television outlets (ABC News, CBS News and CNN), international media (England and Japan), and non-sports media (Forbes, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal).

Overall, the event was timely on both days and teams seemed willing to listen to all offers before making their selection(s) easily within the allotted time (1st Rd – 10 Minutes, 2nd Rd – 7 Minutes, and Round 3 – 7 was 5 Minutes).   The NFL got the invited list of players right as no one went fishing rather than attending and all six invited players (Jake Long – Dolphins, Chris Long – Rams, Matt Ryan – Falcons, Glenn Dorsey – Chiefs, and Vernon Gholston – Jets) were able to leave the “Green Room” without enduring the Aaron Rodgers treatment.  The 2008 NFL Draft class may not have had the high-profile flash of the 2006 group (Matinee Superstars including Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Vince Young, and many others), but this year’s class is definitely a solid group especially at Offensive Tackle (8 selected in first round) and Cornerback (30 players selected overall). 

Tidbits from this year’s draft included:

Big Conferences Reign Supreme – NFL teams are looking for successful players from big conferences in the draft, because players are being taught pro techniques at these college and universities. A little over 70% of the players selected were from the 6 BCS Conferences. The SEC and PAC 10 had the most players drafted overall with 34, followed by the ACC (33), Big 12 (29), Big Ten (28), Big East (19), Conference USA (11), Mid-American (9), Western Athletic (8), and Mountain West (7).

USC had too much talent not to win it all in ’07, right?? – For the entire 2007 college football season analysts talked of the enormous amount of talent on the USC Trojans’ squad, but the group underachieved settling for an 11-2 record and a dominating Rose Bowl win.  Well the Trojans did bring home the title of most players selected with 10 players including first rounders DT Sedrick Ellis (selected by Saints), LB Keith Rivers (selected by Bengals), OT Sam Baker (selected by Falcons), and DE Lawrence Jackson (selected by Seahawks) .  The talent laden Virginia Tech Hokies had eight players selected and 2007 BCS Champion LSU had six players selected.  Surprisingly FCS level Champion Appalachian State had two players selected, which was more than traditional college football powers Maryland (1); Syracuse, Stanford, Washington, and Alabama (all had no selections).

The “Slash” Effect – It is hard to believe, but it has been over 13 years since Steelers 2nd Round Draftee QB Kordell Stewart became “Slash” in 1995 as a multiple threat – multi position player in Chan Gailey’s Super Bowl Bound Pittsburgh offense. Teams have since tried to find the next “Slash” with Developmental quarterback types.  This year not surprisingly the Steelers, who drafted college quarterbacks Stewart, Antwaan Randle El, and Hines Ward in the past, may have found their next Slash with the selection of Oregon Dual-Threat quarterback Dennis Dixon in the 5th round.

Rookies Better Watch Their Pockets – With rookie guaranteed money reaching $30 Million dollars (Jake Long got from the Dolphins a 5-year, 57.75 Million Deal w/ 30 Million guaranteed), a rookie salary cap is in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s vocabulary.  The Commish said in a recent interview, “I’m a big fan of the rookie salary cap also. I think that it is very much in the best interest of our veteran players, being able to be rewarded for what they achieve on the NFL field, and to the kind of money that’s being guaranteed for rookies that have not played – there’s still a question of whether they can play at the NFL level. That’s something that I don’t think is appropriate, and I think it’s one of the things that we’ve already outlined with the union that we want to discuss and reevaluate it.”

No Receivers Taken in First Round, but They Made a Comeback – After not having a receiver selected in the first round, this group proved it had good depth with 35 receivers taken in the draft, proving that the NFL is a “passing” league.  Surprisingly speedy, unheralded Donnie Avery of Houston was selected by the Rams before Devin Thomas (Redskins – 2nd Rd), James Hardy (Bills – 2nd Rd), DeSean Jackson (Eagles – 2nd Rd, Malcolm Kelly (Redskins – 4th Rd) and others.  The rest of the positional breakdown goes as follows:  CB (30), RB (27), DE (24), OT (23), LB (22), DT (18), and QB (13).

Draft Report Card

I don’t like to give “Letter Grades”, because as I always like to say, “It takes 2 to 3 years to evaluate a draft”. That being said, some teams definitely did seem to strengthen their teams in the 2008 Draft. The teams that did well seemed to follow a blueprint that I believe has worked in the past for teams like recent Super Champs New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, and the New York Giants:

  • Go for Larger School Players (BCS Level Players) in the 1st three rounds.
  • Judge the total player (Interview, Practice Habits, All Star Game, Combine, Pro Day, “Character”, and most importantly Game Film).
  • “Football Players” in the 4th round and higher (Day 2). Players that may not have all the measurables, but who can provide quality depth by helping on special teams or playing multiple positions.
  • Always consider your team’s needs with picks (Use the draft to replenish and build to establish the cornerstone of your team).

Remember no “blueprint” is bulletproof, so regardless of how much homework is done before the draft, most talent evaluator’s will have just as many Charles Rogers, Freddie Mitchell, Mike Mamula, Akilli Smith, and Tim Couch (All High 1st Round Busts) type picks on their resume as Tom Brady, Terrell Davis, and Seth Joyner (All late round finds) type picks. The draft process is a roll of the dice, but the aforementioned group always seems to do just a little bit better than others.

WINNERS

Dallas Cowboys – Many people have called GM/Owner Jerry Jones a “meddler” in the past, but the deep-pocketed owner and his staff had a pretty good draft.  On Day 1 they grabbed homerun threat running back Felix Jones from Arkansas (1st Rd), South Florida cover corner Mike Jenkins (1st Rd) and athletic former basketball player TE Martellus Bennett in the second round.  Then the ‘Boys draft staff grabbed sleeper running back Georgia Tech Tashard Choice (4th) and Boise State heady cornerback Orlando Scandrick plus jettisoned Parcells’ players Anthony Fassano and Akin Ayodele.

Miami Dolphins – Made sure that No. 1 player Jake Long was signed, sealed, and delivered instead of being a training camp holding out. Got their quarterback of the future in Jake Long’s teammate quarterback Chad Henne and Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling in the 2nd Round. They also traded RB Lorenzo Booker to the Eagles for a fourth round pick, and grabbed Parcells favorites former Cowboys LB Akin Ayodele and TE Anthony Fassano (for only a 4th round pick) all in Day 1. They were also frugal in Day 2 grabbing Hampton DT Kendall Langford (3rd Rd) and Toledo RB Jalen Parmele (6th Rd).  Also look for a deal by training camp moving disgruntled DE Jason Taylor elsewhere — There were rumblings that the Jaguars were after him, but nothing happened…Maybe the Eagles will be interested.

Kansas CityAn unbelievable draft for a GM (Carl Peterson) and Head Coach (Herman Edwards) on the hot seat.  On Day 1 they selected three guys with first round grades in DT Glenn Dorsey, OT Branden Albert, and CB Brandon Flowers.  With nine picks on Day 2, they grabbed other big school blue chippers Texas RB Jamaal Charles (3rd Rd), Tennessee big TE Brad Cottam (3rd Rd), North Carolina State DB DaJuan Morgan (3rd Rd), Missouri WR Will Franklin (4th Rd) and small school top prospect from Grand Valley State CB Brandon Carr.

Pittsburgh Steelers – The “blue collar” tough team followed their philosophy by grabbing big school performers Illinois workhorse running back Rashard Mendenhall (1st Rd), Texas receiver Limas Sweed (2nd Rd), future 3-4 pass rusher UCLA’s Bruce Davis (3rd Rd), big Texas offensive tackle Tony Hill (4th Rd) and almost heisman winner Oregon QB Dennis Dixon (5th Rd).  Look for Mendenhall to make the Cowboys, Panthers, and Raiders think twice on passing him up for other backs.  I also cannot wait to see the trick plays they will use with Dixon.

Patriots – Everyone wanted to talk about their aging linebackers and leaky secondary going into the draft, so it was only natural that Belichick’s boys responded.  Led by draft phenom VP of Personnel Scott Pioli, the Patriots grabbed three linebackers (Tennessee’s Jerrod Mayo in the 1st Rd, Michigan’s Shawn Crable in the 3rd Rd, and Nebraska’s Bo Ruud in the 6th Rd) and two cornerbacks (Colorado’s Terrence Wheatley in the 2nd Rd and Auburn’s Jonathan Wilhite in the 4th Rd).  Plus they grabbed developmental quarterback type San Diego State’s Kevin O’Connell (3rd Rd) and their own “David Tyree” clone in UCLA special teamer Matthew Slater (5th Rd).

Colts – Their draft started at the 2007 NFL Draft when they moved up to grab rookie of the year candidate Offensive Tackle Tony Ugoh.  The move to grab Ugoh caused them not to have a first rounder, but GM Bill Polian and Head Coach Tony Dungy went to work.  They grabbed athletic versatile Arizona State O-lineman Mike Pollak (2nd Rd), Georgia Tech OLB Phillip Wheeler (3rd Rd), Georgia pass rushing OLB Marcus Howard (5th Rd), and I love the selection of tough football player all-time Michigan rusher RB Mike Hart in the 6th round.

HEAD SCRATCHERS, BUT I WOULDN’T CALL THEM “LOSERS”

Houston Texans – The Texans appeared to make the biggest reach of the first round as they grabbed Virginia Tech Offensive Tackle Duane Brown after all of the glamour tackles were gone – There were a record 8 offensive tackles taken in the first round.  I did like the long-armed athletic tackle a lot, but he clearly was a 2nd or 3rd round player at best. The Texans didn’t pick again until the third round when GM Rick Smith recovered by taking solid players West Virginia RB/KR Steve Slaton and Eastern Kentucky CB Antwaun Molden. They also added special teams linebacker Virginia Tech’s Xavier Adibi in the fourth round.

Seattle Seahawks – If I did give out letter grades, the Hawks would need a special note to their parents.  After taking over the draft reins from Head Coach Mike Holmgren, I expected more from GM Tim Ruskell.  The Seahawks reached badly for USC DE Lawrence Jackson in the first and then selected unathletic Notre Dame TE John Carlson in the second round.  Both players are projects in my opinion and they will need time to develop.  Also wasted picks on potential undrafted free agent specialists long snapper Tyler Schmitt from San Diego State (6th Rd) and kicker Brandon Coutu from Georgia (7th Rd).  However I will give the Seahawks props for taking Mohawk wearing bad-ass fullback Owen Schmitt from West Virginia (5th Rd).

Atlanta Falcons – Sure they got the new face of their franchise in golden boy quarterback Boston College Matt Ryan (3rd Overall).  But they reached badly for bad senior year USC offensive tackle Sam Baker (21st Overall) and smallish Oklahoma MLB Curtis Lofton (2nd). On Day 2 even Mel Kiper couldn’t’ even tell you a little about most of their group. However the one player in the second half of their draft I did like Louisville receiver Harry Douglas, who is good in the redzone.

Detroit Lions – The “Millen” Man March to fire beleaguered GM Matt Millen just got bigger as the Lions seemed to have nary a plan in the draft.  After passing on the chance to move up to draft Virginia OG/OT Branden Albert, the Lions reached for right tackle candidate Gosder Cherilus.  I don’t see Cherilus being ready to play anytime soon.  They also reached for Colorado MLB Jordan Dizon too soon in the second and got too catch up in Central Florida running back Kevin Smith’s numbers from college by selecting him with the first pick of Day 2.  Smith should be a good contributor, but I don’t think he is a future game-breaker nor was he the 64th best player in the draft.  Also what are you doing with disgruntled receiver Roy Williams. The Lions did do something right by exciting the crowd by selecting Army S Caleb Campbell in the 7th (see Lloyd’s Leftovers).

Baltimore Ravens – I thought they did a good overall job, but trading up to grab Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco with the 18th pick was too much — Ravens dealt the first-round choice they received from the Jags (26) along with the 89th overall selection and a sixth-rounder to Houston for the No. 18 pick.  GM Ozzie Newsome rebounded nicely taking Rutgers RB Ray Rice, (2nd Rd), LB Tavares Gooden (3rd Rd), Notre Dame Safety Tom Zbikowski (3rd Rd) and UTEP OG Oneil Cousins (3rd Rd).

Cleveland Browns – All of Phil Savage’s wheeling and dealing left the Browns with only five picks and none until the fourth round.  They do have DT Shawn Rogers (Lions) and DT Corey Williams (Packers) to show for it, but they needed more.  However I did like the pick of athletic Missouri tight end Martin Rucker (4th Rd).

Tennessee Only one receiver, c’mon doesn’t V.Y deserve more than Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins in the 5th Rd.  And did they really need speedy East Carolina running back Chris Johnson in the first round when they already had Chris Henry on their roster.

Players Not Selected

Every year thousands of players are left heartbroken as “Mr. Irrelevant” (2008’s version was Idaho LB David Vobora picked 252nd by the St. Louis Rams) is selected thus ending their dreams of being selected in the NFL Draft.  Sure being drafted is an honor, but there have been many outstanding undrafted players including: Broncos great receiver Rod Smith, former Eagles tough strong safety the late Andre Waters, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and many others.  The great thing for undrafted players is that they can now choose their landing spot in the NFL and possibly enhance their chances by finding a good roster situation before signing.

Some 2008 undrafted players to keep an eye on in training camp are

  • My ultimate sleeper for the 2008 NFL Draft Georgia Southern jack-of-all-trades QB/KR/WR Jayson Foster (Signed w/ Dolphins)
  • Maryland junior eligible linebacker Erin Henderson (signed w/ Vikings and will play with his brother EJ)
  • Houston receiver Anthony Aldridge (signed w/ Broncos)
  • Chaldron State record-setting RB Danny Woodhead (signed w/ Jets)
  • Wes Welker clone Texas Tech receiver Danny Amendola (signed w/ Cowboys)
  • Speedy Stillman CB Brian Witherspoon (signed w/ Jaguars)

 

Lloyd’s Leftovers:

  • File Your Papers – In a move that signaled “Please turn in your retirement papers”, the Packers drafted second rated quarterback on my board Brian Brohm to be Aaron Rodgers backup.  I know Brett Favre, who surprisingly is on the ’09 Madden cover, wants to leave the door up, but Packers GM Ted Thompson slammed it shut.  The Packers also placed Favre on the “Retired” list this week and hopefully the old graybeard gets the hint.  However No. 4 better be careful in retirement as we all know about the Madden jinx.
  • Disgruntled Veterans Stay Put – For all the talk that veteran players, especially disgruntled pass catchers Bengals Chad Johnson (reportedly turned down a first and third round pick from the Redskins), Lions Roy Williams, Cardinals Anquan Boldin and Giants Jeremy Shockey would be moved this weekend there were only two minor deals that netted 4th round picks for the trading teams.  The Raiders gave up on former 2005 first round pick cornerback Fabian Washington sending him to the Ravens for a 4th Rd pick and the Dolphins with an already crowded backfield sent ’07 third round selection running back Lorenzo Booker to the Eagles for a fourth rounder too.  So I guess Dolphins DE Jason Taylor, Eagles CB Lito Sheppard, and the aforementioned pass catchers better report to post draft mini-camps… My guess is more than a few of them will continue to draw lines in the sand and not be in attendance.
  • Hey Roger, Where was the Big Public Scolding of the Patriots for Spygate – With a deal in place for Patriots alleged former tape man Matt Walsh to tell all to the NFL on May 13th.  Where was the big announcement/scolding to the world about how the Patriots organization forfeited their first round pick at #31 for “spygate”.    I guess the NFL wants this whole situation to go away, but I don’t think some fans — many of them at Radio City yelled “Cheaters” when the Pats picked — or Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter will let them.
  • Look Out Dallas Gentleman’s Clubs – From the “Take Him, Because We Don’t Want Him” book, the NFL formally approved Tennessee’s trade of suspended cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Dallas gave the Titans a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft and a sixth-rounder next year – To no one’s surprise the Cowboys have a clause that states they would get back a fourth-rounder in 2009 if Pacman isn’t reinstated or a fifth-rounder if he returns then gets punished again.  Now let’s see if heavy-handed Commissioner Roger Goodell lets him back before training camp or ever.  I won’t even discuss how Pacman and former Hampton “character” issue/recently signed undrafted free agent DE/OLB Marcus Dixon need to stay away from the 58 strip clubs in the Dallas/Forth Worth area.
  • Lions Get a Soldier – The biggest star of a rather quiet and uneventful second day of the draft was Army SS Caleb Campbell.  With the crowd chanting “Ca-leb Camp-bell!” and “U-S-A!” over and over as the humble Army cadet got a step closer to having his dream of playing in the NFL filled when he was selected by the Lions in the 7th Rd — He also will not have to go to Iraq as well. Campbell will be the first Army football player to benefit from a new policy allowing athletes with a chance to play professionally to complete their service by serving as recruiters and in the reserves. Campbell said “I’m very fortunate,” “Without the Army and the academy … I wouldn’t be able to do this. BTW: The last Army cadet to be drafted was quarterback Ronnie McAda drafted as Mr. Irrelevant by the Green Packers in 1997.
  • What No Quarterback?? – Incredibly quarterback strapped teams the Bears, Chiefs, Lions, and Panthers did not select one.  Maybe they can get one from the quarterback laden Buccaneers (selected San Diego University’s Josh Johnson in the 5th Rd despite having five other quarterbacks on their roster) or Packers (Selected Louisville’s Brian Brohm in the 4th Rd and LSU’s Matt Flynn in the 7th Rd to keep Brett Favre stand-in Aaron Rodgers company)
  • A Brief Look at the ’09 Draft – It is never to early for some research for the 2009 NFL Draft including: Ohio State quartet CB Malcolm Jenkins, RB Beanie Wells, LB Jim “the Animal” Laurinaitis, and offensive tackle Alex Boone; LSU pass rusher Tyson Jackson, Virginia Tech DB Victor Harris, West Virginia speedster quarterback QB Pat White, and my ultimate sleeper Virginia Union quarterback Lamar Little.  But we have 11+ months to bring you information and draft news about these guys.

That is it for 2008 Draft and may all the teams be enriched going into the 2008 season. You can check out my first round pick by pick analysis at http://www.emqb.com/nfl-draft-2008-first-round-recap/#more-1645.

2008 NFL Draft – Mock Draft v1.0

By Lloyd Vance, BIGPLAY Football Draft “Guru” / Senior NFL Writer

(Philadelphia, Pa) — Unlike many draft prognosticators who seem to just make their picks out of thin air, I like to wait until after attending the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine, talking with key NFL talent evaluators and letting Free Agency play out before making my picks.  In my opinion you cannot do a true “mock” until after these events, because only then you can get a good sense of how NFL talent evaluators are viewing prospects and have accurate team needs. 

1. Miami Dolphins — Jake Long, OT, Michigan

Record: 1-15 | Needs: OL, QB, CB, DT, LB

No matter what anyone wants to sell you on, Parcels and his boys will make this pick — sure they will listen to offers but in the end they won’t get their asking price.  The last time we saw a move with the first overall pick it was four years ago as Eli Manning changed hands on draft day.  Luckily for the ‘Phins they have the solid triumphant of high character Senior leadership players to choose from in QB Matt Ryan, OT Jake Long, and DE Chris Long. I do believe that Dolphins like Ryan and Chris Long, but Parcels likes to have a franchise tackle to build around — in the past with the Giants the Tuna grabbed Jimbo Elliott from Michigan and now it will be Jake Long’s turn.  Long (6’7, 315) was a unanimous All-Big Ten Conference first-team pick while serving as team captain for the second consecutive season, starting all thirteen games at left offensive tackle, and producing 119 knockdowns. The Tuna and the Dolphins have been very active in free agency reshaping their unit, but there is still a big hole at the offensive tackle position.  With John Beck or Josh McCown filling the role of the veteran “Vinny” type quarterback, Jake Long will be their escort.  Remember this road-grader only allow two sacks his whole career at Michigan.

2. St. Louis Rams — Chris Long, DE, Virginia

Record: 3-13 | Needs: DE, OT, CB, OLB, WR

With the Rams trying to rebuild a defense that has had problems stopping other teams this pick makes sense.  Sure Glenn Dorsey, Sedrick Ellis, and Gholston could be tempting here, but the team has made too many mistakes in the past on the front four (See Jimmy Kennedy) not to go with a high-character player like Long. Howie’s son is an almost clone of last year’s pick Adam Carriker (smart, big, leadership ability).  In 2007, ranked 3rd in the nation with fourteen sacks for minus 122 yards in thirteen starts playing as his team’s captain at the right defensive end position.  By adding Chris Long (6’4, 275) to Carriker and speedy DE Leonard Little, the Rams defense will have the energy and versatility needed to help their secondary, especially 2006 first rounder Tye Hill make plays.

3. Atlanta Falcons — Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College

Record: 4-12 | Needs: QB, OT, LB, S, CB

This should be the biggest no-brainer of the first five picks as the Falcons have a glaring need at quarterback and Ryan is the obvious number one signal caller in this year’s class.  Though Ryan (6’5. 224) needs to cut down on his interceptions (19 in 2007), he is the leadership type player that new GM Tom Domitroff — former New England front office guy that saw many BC games — and new head coach Mike Smith need in the post Michael Vick era. The Philadelphia suburbs kid in ’07 at BC averaged 321.93 yards per game finishing with 4,507 yards passing while setting school season-records for completions 388-of-654 (59.3%) and touchdowns (31).  With Ryan’s high character and leadership abilities this is the safest pick for an organization that needs a new beginning.  In his private workout he completed 48 of 50 passes. 

4. Oakland Raiders — Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas

Record: 4-12 | Needs: OT, DT, TE, RB, WR

The affinity of the Raiders and Cowboys of McFadden (6’2, 210) has been this draft’s biggest non-secret.  Al Davis in looking for game-breaking skills will look to grab the former two-time heisman runner-up.  McFadden has all the makings of last year’s yard-churning Rookie of the Year Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.  The former Arkansas star ran a blazing 4.33 seconds in the forty at the combine after leading the SEC in rushing with a 140.77 yards per game average while setting a school season-record with 1,830 yards and sixteen touchdowns.  McFadden is a home run threat and should team with the recently signed Justin Fargas and ’07 pick Michael Bush to form a formidable one-two-three punch.  Look for the Raiders to try and move current backs Dominic Rhodes and LaMont Jordan because they no longer will be in their plans. The only thing to watch for his a blockbuster trade where Cowboys owner and Arkansas alum Jerry Jones makes a move to grab McFadden by dealing his 22nd and 28th picks to his old friend Al Davis. 

5. Kansas City Chiefs — Ryan Clady, OT, Boise State

Record: 4-12 | Needs: LT, G, CB, DE, S

With the retirements of perennial Pro Bowlers Guard Will Shields and Tackle Willie Roaf in recent years, the Chiefs’ number one priority is solidifying their offensive line. Unfortunately for them Jake Long will be long gone by the fifth pick, so Herman Edwards and Carl Peterson will go with the next O-lineman on the board in Clady (6’6, 316).  The former Boise State road-grader is a boom or bust prospect as there have been questions about his attitude and competition.  Was named Boise State’s second All-American while only being charged with six penalties, producing 122 knockdowns, and only allowing 3.5 sacks.  I believe he has the size and smarts to

learn the Chiefs new ground attack.  Look for Larry Johnson to get back on track running behind Clady and Pro Bowl Guard Brian Waters after an injury plagued ’07 season.

6. New York Jets — Vernon Gholston, OLB/DE, Ohio State

Record: 4-12 | Needs: NT, WR, LB, G, RB

With a glaring need for a running back, there is a chance that the Jets try and move up to grab McFadden or reach for any of the other talented junior RB’s.  I believe that Mangini will look to add another pass rusher for their attacking 3-4 system.  They already have new free agent Calvin Pace and Gholston (6’4, 258) should help in not allowing the big plays downfield that plagued the Jets in ’07.  The former Buckeye wowed the scouts at the combine with numbers of 4.67 in the forty and posting the top bench press  (37 reps at 225 pounds).  Obtained the only sack the Jake Long allowed this year while being named to the All-Big Ten Conference first-team finishing with a school season-record of fourteen sacks for minus 111 yards.

7. N.E. Patriots (from 5-11 San Francisco) — Glenn Dorsey, DT, LSU

Record: 18-1 | Needs: LB, CB, DS, OL, RB

The Patriots probably would go for Gholston if he is on the board to rebuild their aging linebacking core, but they will have to settle for Dorsey (6’2, 316).  Much like Warren Sapp during his draft process, Dorsey has experienced going from being the consensus number one pick to move down boards due to red flags (injuries and didn’t workout at the combine).  However I believe that if the cat-quick DT is there, the Patriots will jump all over him.  He may not be the classic 3-4 defensive tackle, but look for Belichick to use him as an end and to move him around.  Despite double teams and illegal blocks that caused some leg problems, Dorsey managed to record 69 tackles (39 solos) with a career-high seven sacks for minus 45 yards and 12.5 stops for losses of 53 yards.  He should team with Rich Seymour and Vince Wilfork to form a great rotation upfront allowing for more plays from their linebackers and secondary. 

8. Baltimore Ravens — Chris Williams, OT, Vanderbilt

Record: 5-11 | Needs: QB, CB, LOT, ILB, DE/OLB

The ideal pick would be Matt Ryan, but they will need to move up to grab him.  Look for the Ravens to wait to find the quarterback of the future until later in the draft as they address the big hole left by the impending retirement of future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden at left tackle.  Williams (6’6, 320) is known as a finesse much like Ravens ’06 pick Chris Chester and he will need to tap into his nasty streak plus get stronger at the point of attack.  But the All SEC lineman had impressive senior numbers of 12 starts at left tackle, 102 knockdowns, and allowing only one quarterback sack.

9. Cincinnati Bengals — Keith Rivers, LB, USC

Record: 7-9 | Needs: DT, TE, LB, OT, DE

With their choice between USC teammates Rivers and DT Sedrick Ellis, head coach Marvin Lewis will choose “the shark”.  Ever since troubled linebacker Odell Thurman has not been able to stay out of trouble, the Bengals linebacking crew has been in disarray.  Rivers — nicknamed “Shark” from the character played by Lawrence Taylor in the film “Any Given Sunday” — is the most athletic and playmaking linebacker in this draft and should provide a boost along with free agent signee DE Antwaan Odom to a defense that has lacked teeth recently. Rivers (6’2, 236) finished his All-American 2007 campaign with 13 games played, 78 tackles (44 solos), five stops for losses, three fumbles recoveries, and one forced fumble.

10. New Orleans Saints — Sedrick Ellis, DT, USC

Record: 6-9 | Needs: CB, LB, TE, DT, C

With the Saints putting a lot of dollars into the cornerback (Randall Gay), defensive end (Bobby McCray), and linebacker (traded for Jonathan Vilma) positions look for them to grab the best front seven defensive guy on the board.  With Hollis Thomas slowing down and DE Will Smith underachieving the D-Line needs an infusion of talent.  Ellis (6’1, 308) has risen up draft boards recently after solid showings at the Senior Bowl.  He has excellent strength and quickness, which should help in Sean Payton’s off-season overall of his defensive unit.  As a senior in 2007, started thirteen games at DT helping the Trojans rank fourth in the nation against the run (84.15 ypg).  Recorded a career-high 58 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for losses, and had two fumble recoveries.

11. Buffalo Bills — Leodis McKelvin, CB, Troy

Record: 7-9 | Needs: CB, DT, LB, WR, TE

With Nate Clements leaving in ’07 for big free agency dollars there has been a strong need for a top flight cover corner in Buffalo.  With a choice between McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Aquib Talib, I believe that McKelvin (5’11, 190) will be the pick.  The silky smooth cover corner will provide an immediate lift to the Bills back four helping in the nickel and dime.  The All-Sun Belt Conference first-team choice started twelve games at left cornerback producing 60 tackles w/ 2.5 stops for loss, causing three fumbles, and 2 interceptions.  Also his high marks as kick returner will not hurt (Ranked fourth in the nation with 436 yards and three touch-downs on 25 punt returns (17.44 avg) and had a 23 yard average on kick returns). 

12. Denver Broncos — Kentwan Balmer, DT, North Carolina

Record: 7-9 | Needs: DT, OT, MLB, S, WR

With Long and Ellis long gone, the Broncos reach a little to bring in a much needed defensive tackle.  The former Tar Heel is a fast-rising prospect with very good size, power, and quickness. Balmer (6’5, 310) in 2007, started twelve games, had 59 tackles including 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss.  He should help in taking heat off of sack man Elvis Dumervil and push troubled ’07 draftee Marcus Thomas.  I heard many evaluators at the combine comparing the All-ACC second teamer to Patriots versatile D-lineman Richard Seymour.

13. Carolina Panthers — Derrick Harvey, DE, Florida

Record: 7-9 | Needs: OT, DE, WR, DS, DT

With the Panthers’ career of Julius Peppers looking like it will end soon, look for an upgrade on the D-Line.  Harvey (6’5, 252) will provide some of the versatility and disruptive skills that Peppers brought early in his career.  The stout Florida Gators defensive end is a more complete player than Broncos ’07 first round selection Jarvis Moss and should quickly emerge as an impact every-down two-way end.  The junior eligible started thirteen games at left defensive end position recording 49 tackles (31 solos), 8.5 sacks (fifth in SEC), 17 tackles for loss, causing one fumble, and deflecting five passes.

14. Chicago Bears — Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois

Record: 7-9 | Needs: QB, RB, OL, DT, S

Don’t be surprised if GM Jerry Angelo takes advantage of this year’s talented crop of running backs by selecting Mendenhal (5’11, 210) with this pick. Mendenhall is a natural fit, because he plays in the Bears backyard and he can provide more explosiveness and versatility than current starter Cedric Benson.  The All-Big Ten Conference first-teamer ranked eighth in the nation in rushing (129.31 ypg).  Had amazing final numbers of 13 games started with 1,681 yards (6.4 avg) and 17 touchdowns rushing and 34 receptions for 318 yards (9.4 avg) and two touchdowns.

15. Detroit Lions — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tenn. St.

Record: 7-9 | Needs: OT, G, CB, S, DE

The Lions’ secondary was a major reason why the Lions limped home at the end of the ’07 season and Rodgers-Cromartie (6’2, 183) will be welcomed with open arms. The former TSU star is one of the fastest-rising prospects in the 2008 class. After an amazing week at the Senior Bowl where he displayed his speed, versatility, and athleticism, he went from a small-school product to a top 15 pick.  Started eleven games at left cornerback as a senior recording 37 tackles with two tackles for loss, recovering two fumbles, deflecting 11 passes, and 2 interceptions.  Also set the school season-record by blocking four kicks, ran back 33 kickoff for 806 yards, and played some offense. He experience at free safety and cornerback, which should definitely help one of the NFL’s weakest secondaries — remember the 56 points the Eagles hung on them in week 3.

16. Arizona Cardinals — Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas

Record: 8-8 | Needs: CB, OLB, TE, RB, DE

With making moves to retain all of their offensive fire power including receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals should concentrate on defense especially cornerback.  With some thought out there that Antrelle Rolle might be a better safety, the Cards will need a physical young corner like Talib (6’2, 202).  The junior eligible played in 10 games in 2007 finishing with numbers of 42 tackles with two tackles for a loss, six interceptions, and 22 passes defensed. The former Kansas Jayhawk is a big and fast (ran 4.4 at the combine) corner that should help provide better coverage in the Cardinals back four that allowed too many big plays in 2007.  A red flag to watch is that Talib was suspended 2 games for violating team rules in ’07.

17. Minnesota Vikings — Quentin Groves, DE, Auburn

Record: 8-8 | Needs: DE, S, WR, QB, TE

Believe it or not, Minnesota still is in the market for help at defensive end, despite investing first picks in the past on DE’s Kenechi Udeze (2004) and Erasmus James (2005).  After coming back to school after an All SEC junior season, Groves (6’3, 250) had some difficulty as a senior.   In ’07, he finished with 38 tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for a loss, and a SEC best 23 quarterback pressures.  After a good showing at his March 10th Pro Day, Groves seems to be back on track weighing in 10 pounds less than at the combine producing a 35-inch vertical jump, which was 5½-inches better than he did at the combine.

18. Houston Texans — Mike Jenkins, CB, South Florida

Record: 8-8 | Needs: CB, RB, S, LOT, DE

The Texans have been looking for a partner for former first round selection Dunta Robinson for some time and Jenkins (6’0, 200) looks like a good fit.  The South Florida star is a man to man corner with size, speed, and athleticism.  Started thirteen games at right cornerback producing a career-high 41 tackles with four tackles for loss, twelve passes break-ups, and three interceptions.  Jenkins can also help wideout Andre Davis on kickoffs as he averaged an amazing 30.4 yards per kickoff with one touchdown.

19. Philadelphia Eagles — Jeff Otah, OT, Pittsburgh

Record: 8-8 | Needs: WR, S, OT, G

I know you want a receiver here Birds fans, but given the Eagles track record and their need to get younger at Offensive Tackle, you will have to wait until the second round for a pass catcher.  Stalwart bookend tackles Jon Runyan and William Thomas have been stellar for years, but they aren’t getting any younger.  Otah (6’6, 340) reminds me a lot of Eagles Pro Bowl Guard Shawn Andrews and Colts ’07 rookie sensation Tony Ugoh coming out of college.  The New Castle, Delaware native was an All-Big East Conference first-team selection starting twelve games at left offensive tackle while helping the offense average 141.4 yards rushing. Produced 101 knockdowns and committed only two penalties.  He needs to work on his conditioning, but there is no doubt that he has the ability to be a solid pro.  With O-line guru Juan Castille pushing him look for this big athletic player to push disappointing ’06 pick Winston Justice and add depth to an area that Andy Reid always loves to build up.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Malcolm Kelly, WR, Oklahoma

Record: 9-7 | Needs: WR, CB, RB, QB, LB

With his stable of quarterbacks (Simms, Garcia, McCown, Griese, and Gradkowski) a difference making receiver is needed.  Kelly (6’4, 218) should fit in well in the Bucs west coast offense.  He is a true big play receiver with the size of T.O, but possessing better speed (4.35 in the forty at the Combine) and less attitude.  The All-Big Twelve second-teamer started fourteen games at split end producing numbers of 49 receptions for 821 yards (16.8 avg) and nine touchdowns.  Amazingly the junior eligible receiver on thirty-six of his catches produced first downs. With Joey Galloway getting older and Michael Clayton underachieving this is a natural pick. Kelly should thrive in Gruden’s system, which needs a  young receiver to emerge.

21. Washington Redskins — Kenny Phillips, S, Miami

Record: 9-7 | Needs: S, DE, OT, CB, WR

In 2007, the Redskins suffered a tragic blow with the death of Sean Taylor.  After making an improbable run into the playoffs, a replacement is needed in their back two and I think they go back to the “U” for the guy.  In Phillips (6’2, 208) the ‘Skins can select a player who may not be as physical as Taylor,  but does possess some of the same playmaking ball skills of past Hurricane safeties Ed Reed, Brandon Merriweather, and Taylor.  The junior eligible was an All-ACC first-teamer was a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award while starting twelve games at free safety, producing a career-high 82 tackles with six stops for loss, causing three fumbles, and intercepting two passes.

22. Dallas Cowboys (from 10-6 Cleveland) — Limas Sweed, WR, Texas

Record: 13-3 | Needs: CB, WR, OT, RB, FS

Assuming owner Jerry Jones doesn’t package picks to trade up, expect Dallas to use its two picks to address needs at corner and receiver in the first round. With Jones’ favorite Darren McFadden long gone off the board look for the Cowboys to settle for Texas product Sweed (6’4, 212).  Much like former Cowboys great Michael Irvin, Sweed is a big physical receiver that should help ease the transition from older players T.O and Terry Glenn.  After being picked on everyone’s preseason All-American team, Sweed struggled with a nagging wrist injury.  He played in the team’s first six games of the season before a October 16th surgery finishing with a career-low nineteen catches for 306 yards (16.1 avg) and three touchdowns.  Teams will try and lean on his ’06 numbers of 46 receptions for 801 yards and 12 touchdowns.  But is he this year’s Bobby Meachem — Saints ’07 first round draftee that never made it on the field due to injury.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers — Branden Albert, T/G, Virginia

Record: 10-6 | Needs: OT, G, DE, WR, RB

With Alan Faneca leaving for the Jets and other glaring needs along their front group, look for the Steelers to select at least three offensive linemen in the draft. Albert (6’7, 315) is a massive player that could play either guard or tackle in the Steelers power running system.  The junior eligible has good feet, rare quickness, and a good initial punch with a play to the whistle mentality. An All-ACC pick for the past three seasons, Albert started straight 36 games since his freshman year. 

24. Tennessee Titans — DeSean Jackson, WR/KR, California

Record: 10-6 | Needs: WR, DE, DT, CB, C

Though they made the playoffs, it was evident that the Titans need a weapon on offense.  Brandon Jones was their number one by default without much behind him.  A young receiver needs to be added to help in Vince Young’s development.  Jackson is not big (5’10, 180) however he is a big play guy who will open the field up for the Titans other receivers.  Also Jackson can help out in the return game, which has suffered since the suspension of the CB Adam Pacman Jones.  In 2007, the junior eligible was a semi-finalist for the Biletnikoff Award even though a sprained left thumb suffered in the season opener against Tennessee nagged him.  Catch a career-high 65 passes for 762 yards (11.7 avg) and six touchdowns plus in the return game had 132 yards with a touchdown on kickoffs and a 10.8 yard average on punts with one touchdown.

25. Seattle Seahawks — Sam Baker, OT, USC

Record: 10-6 | Needs: OT, DT, RB, TE, G

Mike Holmgren believes in having the horses upfront so that his runners have many holes to choose from.  Baker (6’5, 308) is a versatile player  that should be able to fit in at any of the positions on the O-line.  I can see him finally filling the void left by the ’06 departure of Guard Steve Hutchinson and he can also provide valuable insurance to Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones slowing down.  The stout USC product helped his offense average 434.9 yards per game in 2007 while producing 88 knockdowns and allowing only two sacks on 460 pass plays.

26. Jacksonville Jaguars — Gosder Cherilus, ROT, Boston College

Record: 11-5 | Needs: S, CB, OT, LB

Finally after years of being picked to make some noise in the AFC, the Jags finally put a good “run”.  Behind upstart quarterback David Garrard and a power running game led by a rejuvenated Fred Taylor and Mighty Might Maurice Jones-Drew the Jags were a tough wild card team beating the Steelers on the road.  With several moves already made in free agency (Jerry Porter, Troy Williamson, trading Marcus Stroud, and other moves) they will now look to the draft to continue building. For years the Jags have tried to fill a void at the tackle position with players like Bills retread Mike Williams and Cherilus (6’6, 314) should be an upgrade.  The huge Boston College O-lineman should help in continuing the Jags ball control prowess.  At his recent Pro Day he ran the forty in just over 5.00 seconds and reportedly looked very good in position drills.

27. San Diego Chargers — Felix Jones, RB, Arkansas

Record: 11-5 | Needs: ROT, RB, S, CB, DT

After a year where everyone thought they would take a step back after the firing of Marty Schottenheimer along with the hiring of Norv Turner, the Chargers may have not lived up to their 14-2 in ’06 record.  But they did make it to the AFC Championship game and won the AFC West after a slow start. With Michael Turner taking his speed to Atlanta as a free agent, the Chargers should find their new homerun threat with Jones (6’0, 200).  Despite only starting three games in 2007, he ranked fifth in the SEC in 89.38 yards per game rushing.  Had an amazing 1,990 all purpose yards on only 171 touches while ranking 22nd in the nation in the category. Finished second to Darren McFadden on the team with 1,162 yards on only 133 carries (8.7 avg) and eleven touchdowns. The mercurial speedster should have an immediate impact in the kick return game and provide a complement to LT.

28. Dallas Cowboys — Reggie Smith, CB, Oklahoma

Record: 13-3 | Needs: CB, WR, OT, RB, FS

With a receiver in hand at #22 look for Jerry Jones to help out his beleaguered secondary with his second first rounder – barring of course the usual Dallas wheeling and dealing.  Sure the ‘Boys are hoping to land Pacman Jones, but that is not a done deal and Smith can definitely help situation immediately.  Smith (6’1, 198) is a smooth cover corner that will help Terrence Newman and the slower safety combination of Hamlin and Williams.  In 2007, the junior eligible had 78 tackles, one sack, seven tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, and three interceptions.  He also did not allow a touchdown against in ’07.

29. S.F. 49ers (from Indianapolis) — James Hardy, WR, Indiana

Record: 5-11 | Needs: WR, OT, OLB, DE, QB

Think they want to rethink their trade up to grab Offensive tackle Joe Staley last year??  Anyway armed with the Colts pick, the 49ers grab a much needed playmaker at the wide receiver position.  The junior eligible Hardy (6’6, 220) is a Plaxico Burress clone, who will provide size and speed to take attention away from TE Vernon Davis.  The All-Big Ten Conference first-teamer set school season-records with 79 catches for 1,125 yards (14.2 avg) and sixteen touchdowns.  Quickly look for Hardy to become QB Alex Smith’s security blanket.

30. Green Bay Packers — Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona

Record: 13-3 | Needs: CB, OT, S, TE, QB

With the retirement of Brett Favre looking at the offensive side is tempting, but aging corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris need a future replacement.  Cason (6’0, 190) is not a burner running in the 4.5 range in the forty, but he is a smart tough corner.  In 2007, he started twelve games producing a career-high 71 tackles (56 solos), one sack,  four tackles for a loss, causing two fumbles, intercepted five passes and a team-high fourteen deflected passes.

31. The NFL stripped the New England Patriots of their own first round pick (#31) for “spygate” activities this past September

32. New York Giants — Dan Connor, LB, Penn State

Record: 10-6 | Needs: LB, CB, S, Backup QB, OT

The Giants may also take a look at Connor’s PSU teammate CB Justin King at this spot.  But after the loss of linebacker Kawika Mitchell to the Bills, the instinctive and athletic Connor is the right pick for the Giants.  He should be able to contribute immediately on the inside or outside. A tough high character Giants type of player (2 time captain at Penn State).  Has good size (6’3, 233), great football instincts, and intelligence.  He always is around the ball as shown by his stats as PSU’s all-time leading tackler.  Has the ability to cover running backs and tight ends one-on-one.  Reminds me of former Lions LB Chris Spielman.

Teams not owning a first round pick

Cleveland Browns

Record: 10-6 | Needs: CB, G, LB, RB, S

Last year was a magical year for the Browns as they just missed the playoffs while posting a 10-6 record thus saving head coach Romeo Crennell’s job.  By not having a first round pick in ’08 — thanks to moving up in ’07 to pick Brady Quinn in the first round — the Dogs thought building through free agency and trades was the best way to go this off-season adding DT Shaun Rogers, DT Corey Williams, WR Donte Stallworth, and others.  They definitely need some help in the secondary with the trading of Leigh Bodden to Detroit.  However they now have painted themselves into a corner due to they will not be picking until the fourth round. 

Indianapolis Colts

Record: 13-3 | Needs: DT, LB, G, RB, CB

After a good season where the defending Super Bowl champs lost at home to the Chargers in playoffs, the Colts head into the draft looking to get back to the big game.  They seemed to have made a good move trading up in ’07 to grab promising offensive tackle Tony Ugoh, but not picking until the second round (#59) will hurt.  With head coach Tony Dungy coming back for one more season and the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium this season look for some key additions especially at defensive tackle where Booger McFarland left for Pittsburgh and Cory Simon was let go.

2008 Combine Review

By Lloyd Vance, BIGPLAY Football “Draft Guru” / Sr. NFL Writer

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The 2008 NFL Combine is now in the books with 333 invitees, over 600 NFL talent evaluators, and over 500 credentialed members of the media heading home.  Sure the combine is just players working out in t-shirts and shorts and it is not the same as game footage, but the event can help or hinder a prospect.  The event truly accentuates the fact that the overall draft process is not an exact science. “It’s an inexact science, if you can call it a science” said Colts General Manager Bill Polian last week during a combine interview — roughly 50% of the first round picks in the last 27 drafts have not lived up to expectations according to the NFL Draft Scout website.  But the NFL combine is one of the major four steps of the post college football regular season process — Bowl Game, All-Star Games especially the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine, and Pro Day/Private workout – that are all extremely important for building a powerful resume for the April NFL Draft.  The event has gotten so huge and popular that NFL Network carried 26 live hours of coverage that just didn’t seem enough. 

Prospects and their agents also seem to understand the importance of the event — in the 2006 Draft of the 330 players invited to the Scouting Combine, 222 were drafted — as more than half of the players attended “cheat-sheet” preparation camps in California, Arizona, Florida, and Texas.  Practice made perfect as several players were familiar enough with the drills to produce several noteworthy results from this year’s combine.  

Now that the weighing, timing, questioning, reviewing of injuries and backgrounds of the invitees is over and before we move onto Pro Days, here are some of my observations, news, and notes from the 2008 Event.

High Participation – With over 600 NFL talent evaluators traveling to Indianapolis, the combine is the one place where the entire set of NFL talent evaluators converge on one place for a week just to look exclusively at prospects.  Because of the high volume of evaluators, prospects knew that being on sidelines and waiting for their Pro Day would raise a red flag that could cost them millions — Top 10 picks are expected to receive $20 Million dollar signing bonuses.  With dollars fresh in their mind, prospects at the 2008 Combine continued the trend of high participation by invitees (top prospects and lower level players) that has grown with the past five drafts.  It was reported that close to 90% of the 333 invitees took part in the process (drills and interviewing).  Potential Top 10 picks Virginia DE Chris Long, Arkansas RB Darren McFadden, Michigan OT Jake Long, USC DT Sedrick Ellis, and others all showed their stuff at the RCA Dome to the liking of the NFL personnel evaluators.  However the event didn’t go by without some high profile guys like Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan (wanted to work with his own receivers), LSU defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey (Grandmother’s funeral and leg issues), Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson (hamstring), Penn State linebacker Dan Connor (flu), USC linebacker Keith “Shark” Rivers (ankle) and Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly (quad) forgoing the drills and waiting for their on campus auditions.

Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in the Combine.

RB Darren McFadden, Arkansas: The absolute star of the combine.  He understood that there were questions about is background (Possible dealings with an agent in school, bar fights, and paternity issues), but he showed that his performance on the field is all that mattered McFadden (6’2, 210) has drawing to comparisons to 2007 NFL Rookie of the year Adrian Peterson blistered through his forty in 4.33-seconds He also answered all of the “character” questioned posted to him in interviews and look for him to be a top 10 pick despite some people trying to find warts of this two-time Heisman runner-up — namely Mike Mayock who needs to forget about McFadden’s thin legs.

QB Josh Johnson, San Diego University: My number 1 “sleeper” prospect showed why he was the MVP of this year’s East-West Shrine game by leading all of the quarterbacks in running drills.  Johnson posted a great time 4.55 seconds which was faster than some receivers. But don’t think he is a conversion candidate as he hit on all of his throws and showed he had more than adequate enough arm strength. Look for the tall quarterback (6’3, 195) to come off the board around the 3rd round.

Defensive Back Justin King, Penn State University:  After leaving PSU as a junior, it seemed the former wideout didn’t have enough quality experience as a defensive back and many thought King left school too early.  The expected flop in Indy never happened as the 5’11, 192 pound corner showed that his disappointing 2007 was behind him by posting a 4.31 forty and looking smooth in his position drills.  By having such a good showing, King now looks more like a 2nd or 3rd round pick.

Defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer, North Carolina: This smooth defensive combo player (can play end and tackle) has been one of the biggest risers on draft boards.  Many evaluators have been comparing him to perennial Pro Bowler New England Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour due to his size and athleticism. Balmer (6’5, 308) was a second team All-ACC pick defensive tackle and has experience playing in 3-4 and 4-3 alignments for Butch Davis.  At Indy, Balmer came through looking explosive in all of the drills.

Wide Receiver James Hardy, Indiana: After coming to the combine with questions about his size, speed, and work ethic.  Hardy answered the bell showing he is not only big at 6-5, 217-pounds, but he is athletic as well.  Hardy put up a 4.48 in the forty and in drills changed direction well and snatched every ball thrown to him.

TE Dustin Keller, Purdue: Unlike USC top TE prospect Fred Davis (see Event Crashers), Keller (6’2, 245) was on the field and impressed.  The virtually unknown Boilermaker announced his presence by posting Vernon Davis type numbers of 4.53 in the forty, a 38-inch vertical, and banging out 26 reps at the bench.  He also impressed me with the fluid hands in the pass catching drills.

DE/OLB Marcus Howard, Georgia: With so many teams looking for the next DeMarcus Ware (a player that is fluid enough to cover at linebacker and fast enough to rush at defensive end) combo defensive end/linebackers are in vogue.  Howard (6’2, 245) to me was the number one combo showing fluid movement and hips while posting a sub 4.5 forty plus catching the ball well in drills.

Others deserving players mention:  Virginia DE and possible #1 pick Chris Long (Great footwork in drills and a 4.71 forty), Hawaii QB Colt Brennan (rebounded from the flu at the Senior Bowl and showed he was very accurate in drills), Michigan Offensive Tackle Jake Long, (Combine high 37 reps and good explosiveness in drills), Michigan State receiver Devin Thomas (Great speed at 4.4, size (6’2, 216) and great hands) and Cal receiver/return man DeShean Jackson (looked like Steve Smith at 5’9, 170 and running a 4.35)

Event Maintainers – These were players that we believe were solid and did not hurt their value at the Combine.

DE Vernon Gholston, Ohio State: While everyone was drooling over Chris Long, Gholston showed why he was the only person to collect a sack versus Jake Long this year.  The athletic Ohio State star (6’4, 258) posted top 10 numbers 4.69 in the forty, a vertical of 35.5 inches and equally Jake Long in the bench press with 37 reps Also showed good change direction in the bag drills.  He still needs to work on his hands as he didn’t look natural in that aspect.

QB Joe Flacco, Delaware: After a stellar week at the Senior Bowl, Flacco came to work at Indy.  He was tall and big (6’6 3/8, 236) plus fast running a 4.78 in the forty.  In the passing drills I could here several scout talk about his obvious arm strength and accuracy.  The Pitt transfer can make all of the throws and he looks better than bigger school passer Michigan’s Chad Henne.  Will need to work more under center and on his drops to continue move up draft boards.  Right now he is a solid second rounder in my book.

DT Trevor Laws, Notre Dame:  The golden domers didn’t have much to smile at this year, but Laws was a pleasant surprise producing 112 tackles as a senior.  After a good week at the Senior Bowl, where he showed his quick twitch explosiveness, Laws (6’1, 300) came to work in Indy.  He showed that he had good up field movement in drills, good body control in the shuttle, posted a forty in the 5.05-5.10 range and did 35 reps.  I am going to nickname him “Baby Sapp”, because he reminds me of the former Bucs star.

WR Donnie Avery, Houston:  The small receiver (5’11, 186) expected to be the fastest player at the combine ran an amazing 4.4 forty despite having a pulled hamstring.  He also catch the ball well and we can’t wait to see him at full strength.

Others either maintaining or moving up boards from Indy include: Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski (4.52 in the forty, 24 reps, and showing better than expected moves in drills), Texas Tech receiver Danny Amendola (Looked like a Wes Welker clone with his size (5’11, 180), quickness, and hands), Troy State Leodis McKelvin (ran well and he catch the football), Miami Safety Kenny Phillips (looked like Ed Reed in drills), and Michigan running back Mike Hart (did not have top speed at 4.6 range, but reminded me of Packers back Ryan Grant with the way he attacked drills and was competitve at everything)

Event Crashers – These were players that we believe hurt their value at the Combine and will need to make up ground going into the draft.

TE John Carlson, Notre Dame: The big tight end (6’5, 256) looked more like a “blocking” only prospect as he ran a pedestrian 4.90 and 4.98 in the forty, which were some of the slowest for tight ends.  Carlson did rebound by catching the ball, but the scouts I talked to see him as a “Kyle Brady” blocker first tight end.  Definitely looks like a 4th rounder now after some thought he was a 2nd round pick in his junior year.

TE Fred Davis, USC: Came to the combine as the number one ranked tight end prospect, but he struggled in drills, especially catching the football.  Sulked and chose not to run the forty after his problems in the drills, which some raised an eyebrow to.  This year’s John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end, definitely has work to do at Pro Day to keep his high standing.  Davis (6’3, 250) did have an impressive 24 reps of 225 pounds.

Offensive Tackle Jeff Otah, Pittsburgh:  The huge O-lineman will not be winning any bathing suit contests as he measured in at a giggly (6’6, 358) with most linemen running around 5.00 to 5.20 range, Otah didn’t even come close as he ran a Clydesdale like 5.56 in the forty. Some scouts didn’t seem to mind, because when the pads go on the huge Pitt tackle has a nasty streak.

WR Mario Manningham, Michigan: After coming into the season as a can’t miss prospect, Manningham was up and down.  He would make a spectacular catch then drop several routine throws – pull the Ohio State game tape.  Manningham continued the trend at Indy running in the drills well and catching the ball fluidly, but a huge flag has to be raised by his forty times of 4.59 and 4.68 seconds.  With so many other receiver running well, the Big Blue receiver lost some ground.

Miscellaneous Notes

Speed again shines on Indy’s “fast” track – Once again the prospects showed that you don’t have to be Deion Sanders to produce an eye popping time.  Overall twenty-one players ran a sub 4.4 second forty with East Carolina running back Chris Johnson taking the title.   Johnson blazed to a time of 4.24 seconds tying former Eastern Kentucky receiver Rondel Melendez’s 1999 record.  Johnson’s time may have moved him into being the first senior running back picked in April.  The 5’11, 195 pound back has been compared to Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook.  Other players burning up the combine track included Troy CB Leodis McKelvin (4.38), Penn State DB Jimmy King (4.31), CB Tyvon Branch (4.31), Tennessee State CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, (4.33), Boise State DB Orland Scandrick (4.34) and Indiana DB Tracy Porter (4.37)

RB’s are Deep – If you even want to take away Darren McFadden’s performance this group is exceptional.  Underclassmen Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois), Jonathan Stewart (Oregon), Felix Jones (Arkansas), Jamaal Charles (Texas), Ray Rice (Rutgers), Steve Slaton (West Virginia) and Kevin Smith (Central Florida) all turned in 4.4 forties or better and show great hands and explosiveness in drills.  We may even see ten running backs taken in the first two rounds.

Podium time for the Coaches and GM’s – One of my favorite new wrinkles at the combine this year was the slate of GM’s and coaches holding their own press conferences at the event.  I could go from hearing Giants Super Bowl Champion GM Jerry Reese to Texans GM Rick Smith without missing a beat.  Though you know the evaluators are not going to tip their hand, it is always good to get some insight.  BTW:  Why weren’t the Eagles’ draft braintrust of Head Coach Andy Reid or GM Tom Heckert at the podium.

What You Benching?? – I would love to see a 225 bench press lifting contest head to head of this year’s champs Vernon Gholston and Jake Long (37 reps) and current NFL strongman free agent offensive guard Larry Allen.  Of course we would need loud mouth Arizona Cardinals Strength and Conditioning Coach John Lott as the moderator – “Come on Meat, HUP, HUP!!”.

How Awesome is NFL Network !! – Again NFL Network brought the combine to the masses by providing the aforementioned 26 Hours of original programming of the event and all 333 hopefuls.  I could listen to draftniks Mike Mayock and Charles Davis all day breaking down all of the players (Sorry Mel, but these guys are the best). 

The official workout results of the top performers at the 2008 Scouting Combine times are now posted at http://www.nfl.com/combine/top-performers

That is a wrap and BIGPLAY will definitely be there next year to cover the Combine, which is now a major happening as seen by the over 500 credentials handed out this year.

2007 NFL Midseason Report

(Philadelphia, Pa) —- Sad, but true we are halfway through the 88th NFL season titled: “Who Wants It More” as it continues toward its inevitable February 2008 ending.  As we reach the midpoint there is one thing abundantly clear, it is the Patriots and Colts (two unbeatens) and the rest of the league behind them.  Forget “spygate”, the Patriots especially seem to be on a whole another level as they lead the NFL in crucial categories of points scored (331), points allowed (127), and touchdowns (43).  They are on pace to break the 1998 Minnesota Vikings scoring record (556 points), but they remind me more of the balanced 1989 San Francisco 49ers team that was ranked #1 offensively and #3 defensively on their to a Super Bowl XXIV win of 55-10 over the Broncos.  The Pats seem to be very close to the holy grail of an unbeaten season (1972 Miami Dolphins), but it is still too early to crown them even after a 52-7 shellacking of the Redskins in week 8.  The week 9, “Clash of the Super Powers” in Indianapolis will tell everyone how close either unbeaten is too perfection and if the other 31 NFL teams should even try to compete with the winner. But remember every team wants to knock off the “town bully” each week bringing everything they have in their shot for immortality –-1985 Bears and 1998 Vikings, both finished 15-1 with lower level teams rising to knock them off for their only regular season losses. 

I don’t know if it is parity or a dearth of talent, but there are 18 teams with a .500 or better record at the halfway point.  There are also 13 teams with losing records including the surprising Super Bowl XLI runners-up the Chicago Bears (3-5), who have continued the Super Bowl loser “hangover” problem –since the ’93 Bills lost Super Bowl XXVIII, the big game loser has met with little success as 7 of the 13 teams since that team have missed the playoffs and only three won a playoff game in the subsequent season— that the Eagles and Seahawks ran into recently.  Unfortunately for the job security of Scott Linehan and Cam Cameron, there continues to be two winless teams with the Rams and Dolphins (both 0-8).  However give their coaching staffs should be given credit as both teams have some fight still in them and they have competed in almost all of their games with several “heartbreakers” (look for both of them to win one by week 12 as the 1976 Buccaneers 0-14 team should be safe).

Divisionally all but the AFC East are competitive, as the Patriots have seemingly wrapped up that division with a 5 game edge.  The other divisions have brewing battles coming in the crucial November and December stretch drive months.o AFC South – This is possibly the NFL’s best division sporting the three well over .500 teams.  The defending champion Colts are unbeaten, the dangerous 5-2 Titans (V.Y and defense), the also 5-2 Jaguars (Even without a QB there running game is shining), and the scrappy Texans (3-5) bringing up the rear.o AFC East – As mentioned earlier, the Patriots should this thing wrapped up by Thanksgiving.  After the Patriots there are the scrappy Bills (fighting through injuries) and the hapless Jets (1-7) and Dolphins (0-8).

o AFC West – This maybe the NFL’s worst division with the Chiefs and Chargers tied at the top with 4-3 records.  Both teams have turned it around from slow starts, but now we will see if they are “contenders”.  The Broncos are still in the mix at 3-3, but they went through a stretch of three straight losses and the Raiders have already equaled their 2006 victory total coming in at 2-5.

o AFC North – Coming into the season I thought this would be one of the better races in the NFL, but I am shocked to say the Browns (4-3) are the third team in the mix with the Steelers (5-2) and Ravens (4-3).  On the outside looking in are the Bengals at 2-5, which may cost Marvin Lewis his job.

o NFC North – The rejuvenated Packers sit tentatively at the top with a 5-1 record, but they are shaky on offense with no running game (leading rusher has less than 300 yards at the midpoint). Behind the Pack, the unanticipated Lions are 5-2 with big question marks defensively, followed by the underachieving Bears (picked wrong running back) and young but very inconsistent Vikings.

o NFC South – This is the NFC’s answer to the AFC West.  At this time the Panthers are in the top spot with an inconsistent 4-3 record and on their third quarterback.  After the Panthers, there is the equally inconsistent Bucs (4-4), the hard charging Saints (3-4) with three straight wins, and the Vickless/hapless Falcons (1-6).

o NFC East – This division could very well be sending three teams into the playoffs.  The Cowboys look to the NFC’s best at 6-1 followed closely by the Giants (6-2) who have rattled off six straight wins, the up and down Redskins (4-3) and the underachieving Eagles (3-4).

o NFC West – In my opinion this is the NFL’s worst division.  The division leading Seahawks don’t look like their perennial divisional winning self at 4-3 and they are followed by losing record teams the Cardinals (3-4), Niners (2-5), and the injured but reeling Rams (0-8).
 
Midseason Awards
AFC Coach of the Year: Jeff Fisher, Tennessee Titans – Fisher came into the season in the last year of his contract, but he proved in the first half of the season (5-2) that he deserved an extension.  The Tennessee Titans obliged signing Fisher through 2011.  The deal is thought to be worth $5.5 million to $6 million per year. Fisher is the longest-tenured coach with his team in the NFL (13 seasons) and a record of 110 wins, 95 losses in 205 games w/ 5-4 record in the Post Season.  This year’s team might be his most amazing work to date as the Titans have relied on a tough running game and defense.  Fisher has had to find ways to keep his team moving forward despite horrible passing games from quarterback Vince Young (42 yards passing in a win versus the Raiders in week 8).
 
Honorable Mention to
Cleveland Browns Head Coach Romeo Crennel.  The “Dawgs’” have become the “Scrappy Doos” as the Browns (4-3) have become a scoring machine on their “Save Romeo” trek.  Surprise breakout player QB Derek Anderson, stud WR Braylon Edwards, and maturing TE Kellen Winslow have led the Browns who have averaged 30 points a game.  Crennel is now 14-25 for his overall record.

NFC Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers – Following an off-season where everyone including veteran quarterback Brett Favre was questioning McCarthy and the Packer ability to win, the former Saints assistant responded.  He continued his hot streak from 2006 (won last 4) as the Packers had an 8 game winning streak to start the season.  At 6-1 the Packers are contenders and it should be a good battle with the Lions (5-2) for the Divisional title. McCarthy’s overall record is now 13-9 record.

AFC Offensive MVP: Quarterback Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Layup) – Every week of the first half of the 2007 season, Brady has been given a game ball or honorable mention as he has continued his assault on the record books.  Brady may have Hollywood good looks, but he never puts himself ahead of his teammates and prefers to talk “team first” and what a team it is, maybe the NFL’s best at 8-0.  He has set a NFL record for throwing at least three TD pass at the start of a season (8) and through 8 games, the three time Pro Bowler has throwing numbers of 198 completions on 267 attempts, an amazing 74.2%, 2431 yards, 9.1 ypp, 30 TDs, 2 INTs, w/ 25 yards rushing and 2 TDs.  At his current pace he is on track to break Peyton Manning’s 2004 touchdown record (49) and Dan Marino’s 1984 yardage record (5084 yards).  And we already know all of the talk of a perfect season for the Patriots.

NFC Offensive MVP: Quarterback Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys – The question everyone asked me coming into the 2007 was “Is Tony Romo for real??”  My answer is so far in 2007 after 7 games is “yes”.  This season America’s new sweetheart quarterback has led the ‘Boys to a 6-1 record and has throwing numbers of 150 completions on 239 attempts, 62.8%, 1984 yards, 8.3 ypp, 16 TDs, 9 INTs w/ 81 yards rushing and 2 TDs. He even got a victory in his worst performance as the Cowboys snatched victory from the jaws of defeat versus the Bills 25-24 despite Romo turning the ball over 6 times (5 INTs with two returned for TDs and 1 fumble lost).  He is even got the “girl” by snagging American Idol’s Carrie Underwood.  He also got a new contract on 10/29/2007 with the following details a six-year, $67 million deal that includes $30 million in guaranteed money.

AFC Defensive MVP: Defensive End Jared Allen, Kansas City Chiefs – Many players could lay claim to this award, but it is the high-motor sometimes wacky Chiefs defensive end that gets my vote.  After serving a two game suspension for alcohol related events, Allen produced 26 tackles, 8 sacks, and 2 Forced Fumbles.  He has cleaned up his act and has led the Chiefs to a 4-3 record for the first half.  The stat that sticks with me most is that the Chiefs were 0-2 with out him and 4-1 with him.  Dominated the Bengals in week 7 contributing 8 TKLs, 2 sacks (ninth career multi-sack game), and 2 FF while chasing Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer all day.

NFC Defensive MVP: Defensive End Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants – He did it all in the first half spearheading the Giants resurgence as they won six straight games.  The stout Giants sack man has 24 tackles, 8 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.   I am sure he is also haunting Winston Justice as he had a game for the ages collecting six sacks and setting franchise record against the Eagles, coming within an eyelash of tying Derrick Thomas’ NFL sack record (7).  Had another highlight reel play against the Niners as he recorded another sack and got the “hat trick” on the play by stripping the quarterback, recovering the fumble and racing 75 yards for a touchdown (third longest in Giants history).

AFC Co-Offensive Rookies of the Year: Center Samson Satele, Miami Dolphins – I know everyone will be saying an O-lineman, C’mon on, but this kid is a cornerstone player.  Satele is the first rookie ever to start on Opening Day at center for the Dolphins. Following in the footsteps of 2006 Center extraordinaire the Jets Nick Mangold, Satele has started from Day 1 in the pivot and has been a leader and a force.  The rookie from the University of Hawaii started NCAA-record 53 games in college and then followed it up with 8 straight games in the pros.  With the help of the stout center the Dolphins are better than their record averaging 20.8 points per game (13th in the NFL), 323.2 yards (18th), 115.2 yards (15th), and only 13 sacks in 8 games

Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns – The third player taken in the draft has been amazing from Day 1 starting at the crucial left tackle position.  Thomas is the blindside protector for upstart QB Derek Anderson and the unquestioned leader of the Browns young improving line. He has excellent technique and he should be a starter for the next 10 years.  The Browns have had a resurgence going 4-3 and Thomas is a big part as the offensive line as quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye have only been sacked 11 times in 7 games including 0 sacks vs. Rams.  The surprising Browns are averaging 27.7 points a game (4th in NFL) and 356.4 yards (7th).

NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (I got this one right, woo hoo!!!) – This pick was almost as easy as the Tom Brady MVP pick earlier.  Peterson has come into the NFL dominating and I guess all of the naysayers that said he was too injury prone before the draft want their vote back.  His numbers (7 games, 128 rushes for 740 yards w/ 5TDs plus 11 catches for 187 yards and 1 TD) are unbelievable for a rookie and now he is even the unquestioned starter ahead of veteran Chester Taylor.  Peterson greatest game in the first half was against the Bears as he was a man amongst boys rushing 20 times for 224 yards (fifth most by a rookie in NFL history) and three touchdowns in 34-31 win in Chicago. In that game, the University of Oklahoma rookie had touchdown runs of 67, 73, and 35 yards plus he had one catch for nine yards and 128 yards on returns, giving him 361 all-purpose yards (third-highest total in NFL history). NFL Network Analyst Deion Sanders said of Peterson, “He has the vision of a Marshall Faulk, the power of a Terrell Davis, and the speed of an Eric Dickerson. Let’s pray he has the endurance of an Emmitt Smith.”

AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: DT Amobi Okoye, Houston Texans – Okoye may have been the youngest draft pick in modern history at 19, but he has come in the league and made a difference.  Working with fellow first rounders Mario Williams, Travis Johnson, and Anthony Weaver (Ravens), the youngster has been active and looks to have a long future in the NFL.  Has 19 tackles, 4 sacks, and a forced fumble in the first 7 games of the season.

NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year: Inside LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers – Tutored by the legendary Mike Singletary (LB’s and Assistant Head Coach), Willis has been a tackling machine from his inside linebacker position.  The University of Mississippi linebacker has room to grow, but he already is one of the better players “digging through the trash” and finding the ball carrier.  Willis has 63 tackles and 1 forced fumble in the first 7 games and look for him to make some game changing plays in the second half.Honorable Mention to New York Giants DB Aaron Ross – The 2006 Thorpe award winner has quickly adapted to NFL posting numbers of 21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions.  Had his best game versus the Jets in a 35-24 win.  In the game, he sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons and then recorded two solo tackles, two interceptions and one touchdown. 

NFL Comeback Player of the Year: WR Randy Moss, New England Patriots – Going into the season no one knew which Moss was showing up in New England.  He answered the questions quickly in week one after missing most of training camp, exploding on the New York Jets secondary for nine catches for 183 yards (20.3 ypc) including a 51-yard bomb touchdown in a shellacking 38-14 over the Jets.  The 10 year veteran receiver has looked nothing like the malcontent that shuffled through the 2006 for the Oakland Raiders (42 catches, 553 yards, 13.2 ypc, and 3 TDs) and he is on a pace for some record setting numbers.  Tom Brady’s must trusted receiving mate for his ability to catch jump balls (did you see the one against the Dolphins – one handed against three DB’s) has “sick” numbers of 47 catches, 779 yards, 16.6 ypc, 11 TDs . 

Breakout Player(s): Tampa Bay RB Earnest Graham – The University of Florida running back came out of nowhere to become the Bucs lead back due to injuries to first team back Carnell Williams and second team back Michael Pittman.  As the Bucs are 4-4 at the halfway point, Graham’s numbers are impressive at 8 games, 82 rushes, 330 yards, 4.0 ypc, 3 TDs and 24 receptions, 163 yards.

New York Giants DE Justin Tuck – This tall rangy defensive end from Notre Dame has played in the shadow of higher profile ends Strahan and Umenyiora, but he has emerged as a great two-way player.  He is effective against the pass and the run plus he has versatility shown by his ability to move inside to defensive tackle in certain formations.  He has already posted career highs in sacks (7) and has 33 tackles and 1 forced fumble.

First Pick of the 2008 NFL Draft: Quarterback Andre Woodson, Kentucky – Has lead his team to a good first half including a big upset of LSU 43-37 on 10/13/2007 throwing 3 TD’s in the game.  Is a dual threat player who can move away from the rush and make all of the throws long/short/inside/outside.  Has current numbers of 215-337, 2431 yards, 63.8%, 7.21 ypp, 28 TDs, and 7 INTs.
(Arkansas RB Darren McFadden is a close second as the best prospect)
 
Lloyd’s Leftovers

Head Coaches on the Hot Seat
 
• Marvin Lewis – The Cincinnati Bengals head coach must be feeling the “hottest” seat in the NFL as his team fell to 2-5 after week 8. The Bengals had a bad stretch where they lost four consecutive games and they have gone 2-8 since starting 8-5 last year (didn’t make the playoffs).  The “Bungles” routinely have had problems protecting Carson Palmer, not converted third downs, taken penalties, and turned the ball over in the first half. For Lewis the 2005 division title that he won seems miles away and the Bengals have become the NFL’s poster franchise for boorish behavior on and off the field.

• Scott Linehan – I know the winless Rams (0-8) have had several injuries on the offensive line and other areas, but the second year coach just doesn’t seem to have it to me.  His team seems to have running problems and an inability to stop the big play.  At the halfway point, it looks like Linehan (8-16) might be a better coordinator than head guy.  Will probably be given a third year to get to the playoffs or else, but a winless or one win season might force the Rams hand.

• Cam Cameron – With the Dolphins 0-8 and appearing to wave the white flag with the trade of WR Chris Chambers to the Chargers, Cameron may not make it out of year one.  The former University of Indiana coach might have made the wrong decision by cutting quarterback Daunte Culpepper and acquiring 37-year old Trent Green (lost for the year with a season ending concussion).  I have heard Cameron’s rah-rah style has rubbed some veterans the wrong way especially veterans LB Joey Porter and DE Jason Taylor.

Trends

Calling a timeouts just as a kicker is swinging for a game-winning kick – I am appealing to the NFL Competition Committee and Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher a prominent member of the committee to change the rules around coaches calling timeouts as a kicker is swinging his leg.  To me it is not “gamesmanship” or being tactical, it is just a plain abuse of rules.  The timeout on the Cowboys kicker against the Bills didn’t work, but just ask the Raiders and Bills how they like the rule as they both suffered misses/blocks on second kicks in losses after their original field goal was good, but didn’t count due to a bogus timeout.

The Commish is on the job – Whether it is being over in London for the NFL’s first international game/ talking at a seminar about the international growth potential of the NFL, keeping discipline problem players (Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Ricky Williams Tank Johnson, Odell Thurman, and others) in order, working on NFL retirees pension issues, talking directly with Koren Robinson (re-instated), or meeting with the player advisory council, you know that Roger Goodell is on the job.  Year one for Goodell has been tough, but the “Commish” has shown he was a great choice to lead the NFL.
 
AFC is better than NFC – As if the Patriots week six 48-27 drubbing of the previously unbeaten Cowboys wasn’t enough, the AFC has two unbeatens (Colts and Patriots), Nine teams over .500 to the NFC’s seven, the game’s best quarterbacks — Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady, and you know I can go on and on. The AFC has won the past four Super Bowls, and six of the past seven, which should not change with the Patriots or Colts representing the major conference. It has become almost as lopsided as the stretch from 1985-1997, when the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers dominating.

Watch out for games against former coaches – Inside information is at a premium in the NFL and former coaches associated with teams have capitalized on their former employers.  We saw Cardinals coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm (both passed over for the vacant Steelers head coaching job) get the last laugh on the Steelers in helping to issue their first loss in a 21-14 victory.  Plus in one of the NFL’s “no mercy” games, Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a former Eagles coach, showed that he knew the entire Eagles game plan and weaknesses as his unit held the Birds to three little points in a home win.  By the way did I mention the franchise and NFL record 12 sacks the Giants registered.

Survival of the fittest – The NFL season truly is “survival of the fittest” as injuries have decimated teams (Rams) and units (Redskins O-Line, Bears D-Line, Bengals LB’s) all over the league.  It seems every team has to deal with losing two to three key players each week – some for the year — and that is why quality depth on your 53 man roster is paramount.  No position has felt the sting of the injury bug more than the quarterback position.  Teams know from past history (see Rams 1999) that they better have a good bullpen of throwers (2 or 3 QB’s in reserve) to succeed in the NFL, because fast defensive players and schemes are always coming after the “golden boys”.  The quarterback injury problem has gotten so bad that 43-year old quarterback Vinny Testaverde was called by the Carolina Panthers from his couch to play and he actually won a game in week six – becoming the oldest player to win as a starting quarterback in NFL history.  Here is a list of some teams with quarterbacks that have missed playing time due to injury and I am sure the list will be growing weekly:

• Arizona Cardinals – Kurt Warner (elbow), Matt Leinhart (shoulder – Season)
• Atlanta Falcons – Joey Harrington (knee), Byron Leftwich (ankle)
• 
Baltimore Ravens – Steve McNair (groin)
• Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme (shoulder – Season)
• Miami Dolphins – Trent Green (concussion – Season)
• Minnesota Vikings – Tavaris
Jackson (groin, broken finger)
• 
St. Louis Rams – Marc Bulger (broken ribs)
• Tennessee Titans – Vince Young (quad)