Huddle Up Week 9: Joe Flacco and Eli Manning Come Up Big In Hostile Environments by Jason King

Eli Manning led the Giants on a late fourth quarter drive to come beat Tom Brady and the Patriots 18-17 at Gillette stadium in week nine, solidifying New York’s lead in the NFC East. 

After a slow start to the day with some one-sided early games, Week 9 picked up in a hurry with a flurry of intriguing late games, and another classic in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The story of the early games was the Dolphins finally breaking through and getting their first win.The story of the late afternoon games was Eli Manning upstaging Tom Brady and leading the Giants to a season-defining win. The Sunday night affair was everything that we expected. It was another exciting chapter in the game’s best rivalry. There are career games (numbers wise) and there are career games. Joe Flacco and Eli Manning had career games on Sunday. Continue reading

Advertisements

Huddle Up Week 1: The Ravens and Texans make an Opening Week Statement By Jason King

There were some intriguing games in Week one of this new NFL season.  Packers/Saints, Lions/Buccaneers, and Cowboys/Jets were all exciting non-divisional games.  The two divisional games of importance were the Colts/Texans and of course Ravens/Steelers.  Neither was close as the Ravens and Texans both handled business respectively.

The Ravens/Steelers rivalry has been one of the NFL’s best over the last four years.  In that time frame no Ravens/Steelers regular season game was decided by more than 4 points.  Yesterday afternoon that changed.  It was clear from the very beginning of the game that the Ravens wanted to make a statement.  They demolished the Steelers 35-7.  Baltimore put their stamp on this win by forcing seven Pittsburgh turnovers.  They also ran all over the “vaunted” Steelers defense piling up 170 yards rushing yards (5.5 YPC).  Joe Flacco was 17-29 with 224 yards passing and 3 touchdowns.  He beat Ben Roethlisberger for the first time in his NFL career.  Flacco needs to thank his defense for that.  Baltimore’s blitzkrieg pressured Big Ben all day long forcing him into five turnovers (3 INT and 2 fumbles lost).  They never letPittsburghget into any rhythm offensively. Baltimoremade a statement loud and clear that the collapse in last season’s playoffs is behind them.  It’s only the first week of the season, but this was a big game psychologically for the Ravens.  Roethlisberger had won seven straight starts against the Ravens, but that run is now over.  The Ravens have to be feeling confident about themselves.  It is still early, but this was a great win for the Ravens.  On the other side, you can bet Mike Tomlin will have his team prepared for next week’s game against the Seahawks. Continue reading

2008 Conference Championships Round: Ravens at Steelers

AFC Championship Game Preview

Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4), Sunday, Jan. 18th, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Next up for the Steelers in their NFL record tying 14th AFC Championship game is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens.  For the 13th time since 1990 when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, teams that played at least once during the regular season will meet in the AFC Championship Game. If Pittsburgh defeats Baltimore, it will mark the ninth time in 13 opportunities that the team that won the regular-season meeting(s) won the AFC Championship.

These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s (allegations of bounties) and it will real be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.  There is a lot of history between these two teams – met 26 times including twice this year (both Steelers wins) with the Steelers holding a 16-10 edge including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.  In their prior games in Weeks 4 and 15, the Ravens hung around, but the Steelers always found a way to make a play when needed to produce a victory.

The game will be a battle to two defenses that love to get after the passer looking for sacks and turnovers.  The Ravens were the NFL’s leader in takeaways with 34 and the Steelers were ranked #1 in every category except for the run where they finished second.  Both teams are led by young charismatic head coaches with the title of  the “NFL’s rising new young head coach” at stake — the two coaches have only led their teams for a  combined 48 regular-season games (the second fewest such games by opposing coaches in a conference championship game in the Super Bowl era since 1966).   Though John Harbaugh’s Ravens are a mix of older and younger players, they are perceived as upstarts Ravens compared to Mike Tomlin’s veteran Steelers team.

On offense the Steelers will need to continue to play with balance after a 2008 regular season, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (281-469, 3301 yards, and  17 TDs) threw the ball entirely too much – usually over 25 times a game.  With Roethlisberger recovering from a concussion and a minor spine injury from the regular season, last week the Steelers and their offensive coordinator Bruce Arians went back to Steelers’ black-and-blue offense.  Roethlisberger was efficient throwing for numbers of 17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, and 0 INTs in a solid win over the Chargers and veteran running back Willie Parker was the teams catalyst (career postseason high of 146 rushing yards).  The Steelers will need to continue to protect Big Ben, who was one of the NFL’s most it passers in 2008, from the Ravens’ “Organized Chaos” defense led by Pro Bowl players LB Ray Lewis, NT Haloti Ngata, and safety Ed Reed.  The Ravens defense, who have some injury problems (Rolle – groin and Suggs – Shoulder) will need to keep an eye on Steelers third-down chain moving receiver Hines Ward, who is on the verge of passing 1,000 yards in receptions in his postseason career.  Also another huge factor offensively for the Steelers maybe receiver Santonio Holmes, who turned last week’s Chargers game around with a huge punt return for a touchdown.

Plain and simple I believe this game will come down to the Steelers pass rush led by Defensive MVP James Harrison (2nd in the AFC in Sacks with 16) getting pressure on Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco (257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs and 12 INTs) to force turnovers by their back four — safety Troy Polamalu (7 INTs).  Flacco, a former 1-AA player from Delaware, has been as cool as a cucumber throughout the playoffs winning an NFL rookie record two postseason games.  However the stakes are higher than ever and the former University of Pittsburgh transfer will need to show the country something in terms of that he is more than just a “Game Manager” – only had numbers 11-22, 161 yards and 1 TD in last week’s 13-10 win over the Titans. 

In the postseason the Ravens have lived on the edge producing turnovers that have helped their offense, but the Steelers are a veteran team and the Ravens offense will need to put some drives together.  The Ravens have to get the ball down the field to WR Mark Clayton and WR Derrick Mason (80-receptions for 1,037 yards and 5 TDs), because their running backs LeRon McClain (ankle) and Willis McGahee are very banged up going into this game.

LV‘s Pick: After 18 straight weeks of play without a bye, the Ravens have seemed to have hit a wall.  They were outgained in every category in last week’s win over the Titans, but they will need more in cold snowy Pittsburgh.  The Ravens’ magic run of winning 11 of their last 13 comes to an end at the hands of the Steelers.  Mike Tomlin’s group will make Flacco beat them and I don’t see that happening.  I expect the rookie quarterback to play like a “rookie quarterback” with at least two turnovers.  It will be a “Keystone State” Super Bowl in Tampa as the Steelers and Eagles square off in Super Bowl XLIII. Steelers 24, Ravens 10

 

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 Playoffs Divisional Round Preview: Ravens at Titans

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Tennessee Titans (13-3), Sat 4:30 p.m. (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf

If you like defense and teams playing hardnosed football this is the game for you.  The Ravens nicknamed “Organized Chaos” finished the season ranked 2nd in the NFL with an average of 261.1 yards allowed and the Titans are not far behind with 293.6 yards allowed, which put them 3rd in the AFC. The last time these two teams met in week 5, the Titans came back to defeat the Ravens 13-10 in Baltimore.  There definitely is no love lost between these two former AFC Central rivals as their last meeting featured some chippy play between Titans CB Cortland Finnegan and Ravens WR Derrick Mason.

Both teams like to talk and it will be the squad that maintains their emotions that will win this game.  The key players to me on both squads are their quarterbacks (Ravens rookie Joe Flacco and Titans 14-year veteran Kerry Collins).  Sure both teams are built to run the ball first with their two-headed monsters (Ravens LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee — Ravens led the AFC with an average of 148.5 yards a game; Titans are led by NFL leading rookie rusher Chris Johnson (1,228 yards w/ a 4.9 average) and LenDale White), but the quarterbacks need to step it up in this game for this team to win.  Flacco surprisingly didn’t receive one Rookie of the Year vote after finishing with numbers 257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs, and 12 INTs, but efficiency is what matters most to the Ravens “protect the ball” offense.  The rookie from D1-AA Delaware will need to improve on his pedestrian wildcard numbers (9-23, 135 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT and 1 rushing TD) in order for the Ravens to have a chance in hostile Nashville, Tennessee.  The Titans feature opportunistic ballhawks in Michael Griffin and Cortland Finnegan in their secondary, so Flacco will have to be good with his reads.

Collins, who did a commendable job of leading his team to the NFL’s best record is attempting to become the first quarterback in NFL history with at least one playoff win for three different teams, will need to prove he is ready for the playoffs.  He has a lot to prove as way back in week 5, the 1-time Pro Bowl player threw for just 163 yards and had a pair of interceptions.  His old nemesis from Super Bowl XXXV, Ray Lewis, will be waiting with the rest of Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s attacking defense will be coming for the graybeard quarterback.  Though the former Penn State signal caller has avoided making bad throws for most of the season, you never know how pressure is going to affect him (finished with 7 INTs in 2008 and he has 10 INTs in only 6 playoff games for his career). You know if Ravens LB’s and D-line can get pressure opportunistic Ravens S Ed Reed (2 INTs vs. Dolphins and an NFL leading 9 INTs in the regular season) will be looking to make a game-changing play.   

An important piece of this game will be both teams ability to stop the run and injuries may cause the Titans to alter their plan of action.  Two key defenders, DT Albert Haynesworth (knee) and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin), are back from injury but neither is expected to be 100%.  The Titans will need Haynesworth to control the middle or it could be a long day for them.  Also the Titans’ offense may be in trouble as veteran leader and center Kevin Mawae (elbow) probably will not play.

LV‘s Pick:  This is a tough game to predict, because these two teams will offer no suprises in their attack (run the ball and play stifling defense). This game is a black and blue special, where if they played 10 times, I guarantee you that there would 5 wins on each side. The teams both have good coaches, strong offensive and defensive lines, run the ball consistently, and play good special teams.  Collins last time led the Titans on scoring drives of 80 and 81 yards, but I just don’t see that happening this time.  Fueled by a timely Ed Reed interception, the Ravens continue to win ugly on their way to the AFC Championship game.  Ravens 23, Titans 20

2008 NFL Draft Day 1 Review

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

(New York, NY) — Now that the anticipation, drama, and excitement of Day 1 of the 73rd NFL Draft titled “Believe in Now” is in the books, 450 media members covering the event including myself can ponder what happened.  The draft that marked the official debut of the new NFL shield logo started out predictable with all six invited players leaving the Green Room early — Did anyone really think Al Davis would not take Darren McFadden.  But then the event went back to its usual unpredictable nature.

Some topics that must be talked about from Day 1 are listed below:

  • Speed is Essential – With everyone always talking about speed on the field being important, the NFL applied the same standard to the draft.  The event was crisp and ran with unbelievable speed.  I believe the NFL has to stick with their new time restrictions that saw an almost record speed of 3 hours, 30 minutes for the first round, 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).
  • Rip, Rip – That was the sound of mine and everyone’s Mock Drafts.  No one can predict what will happen on Day 1 of the NFL Draft especially in the first round.  It was fun for a little while seeing that I got the first four picks dead right.  But with the trading going on later, unpredictability ruled the day.  In the end I had 9 out of 31 right for a respectable .290 batting average, which Phillies slugger Ryan Howard would kill for right now.
  • Where are all of the receivers?? – Unfortunately as predicted this year’s receiver class had too many question marks.  I kept looking at my available list heading in the last five picks and that is when it really donned on me that for the first time since 1990, there were not any receivers deemed first round worthy by the NFL.  With GM’s knowing that there was second round value in this year’s group the receivers started flying off the board starting with the Rams grabbing speedy Houston receiver Donnie Avery. Bigger names Devin Thomas, James Hardy, DeSean Jackson, and Malcolm Kelly soon followed the unheralded Avery.
  • Flacco and Rodgers-Cromartie represent for D1-AA – Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco (selected at #18 by the Baltimore Ravens) and Tennessee State cover corner Dominique Rodger-Cromartie (selected #16 by the Arizona Cardinals) became only the 3rd and 4th 1-AA players drafted in the top 30 selections in the past 10 years (Joined 2000 NFL Draft selectees and former Jackson State teammates CB Rashard Anderson and WR Sylvester Morris).  The last D1-AA quarterback taken in the first round was recently retired quarterback Steve McNair from Alcorn State (Selected #3 overall by the Houston Oilers in 1995).
  • Big Schools reign in round one – NFL teams know where to go to find players, BCS schools in case you didn’t know.  In the first round 26 out of 32 players (84%) came from the BCS.  Led by USC (three first round picks), the Pac 10 had 11 players overall selected in the first two rounds.  The ACC also had 11 players with the surprise of the draft being “big boy” conferences the SEC, Big 12, and Big 10 only having 8 players selected on Saturday.
  • The “U” keeps a first round tradition going – With the New York Giants  selection of top rated safety Kenny Phillips with the 31st pick of the in the first round.  The University of Miami (Fla.) continued the school’s impressive active streak of a first round selection (14).   The incredible streak goes back to the 1995 draft where All-American defensive tackle Warren Sapp was selected No. 12 overall by Tampa Bay. 
  • Aggressive Trades – Teams not wanting to miss out on their guy were willing to ship later and future picks to move into position.  There were 14 trades in the 31 first-round picks. Starting at the seventh overall spot, where New Orleans moved up to No. 7 trading their No. 10 spot, a 3rd round pick and a 5th rounder to get defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis of Southern California.  Another noteworthy trades was the Jacksonville Jaguars moving up from 26th overall to eighth, where it grabbed Florida DE Derrick Harvey. In the deal the Ravens traded their first-round selection (8th overall) to the Jag’s for a first-round selection (26), two third-round selections (71 and 89), and fourth-round selection (125) – Man that is a lot of picks.
  • The veterans stay put – With all of the attention paid to possible trades of veteran players Eagles CB Lito Sheppard, Dolphins DE Jason Taylor, Bengals WR Chad Johnson, Giants TE Jeremy Shockey, Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin, and others did not go anywhere.  I believe the clubs that have these players may have inflated expectations and they may need to curb their asking price.

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 and weaken their teams for the upcoming season and in some cases next season in the 2008 NFL Draft.

Day 1 Winners

Dallas Cowboys – An exciting day for the Cowboys as they added homerun threat running back Felix Jones from Arkansas and South Florida man to man corner Mike Jenkins in the first round.  THey also picked up athletic former basketball player TE Martellus Bennett in the second round and added a fourth rounder in a trade with the Dolphins.

Miami Dolphins – Got their cornerstone tackle in Jake Long, their quarterback of the future in Long’s Michigan teammate Chad Henne, traded RB Lorenzo Booker to the Eagles for a fourth round pick, and grabbed some Parcell’s Cowboys in Akin Ayodele and Anthony Fasano for only a 4th round pick.

Kansas CitySelected three guys with first round grades in DT Glenn Dorsey, OT Branden Albert, and CB Brandon Flowers.  The Chiefs are clearly in rebuilding mode and they may have gotten the best player in the draft in Dorsey.  With nine picks on Day 2 expect some wheeling and dealing by GM Carl Peterson and head coach Herman Edwards in rebuilding this four-win team.

Pittsburgh Steelers – The “blue collar” tough team grabbed Illinois workhorse running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round and big Texas receiver Limas Sweed in the second round.  Mendenhall will team with Willie Parker to former a formidable one-two punch and Sweed could possibly finally be the big receiver that Big Ben has been asking to be added.

Day 1 Head Scratchers

I really didn’t see many huge reaches or losers, but two teams did some head scratching moves that caused their fans to be unhappy.

Philadelphia Eagles – Surprisingly for the second year in a row the Eagles traded out of the first round.  I had one Eagles fan scream at me “A #$@$#ing trade again, WHY”.  I am not sure, but many of the fans were not happy after their team traded down several times until finally picking upstart Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws and much-needed WR/KR DeSean Jackson of California.  The Birds better hope the Panthers’ 2009 first rounder acquired from the shocking trade is a high one.

Baltimore: Reached too early for Delaware QB Joe Flacco in my opinion.  The Ravens panicked after trading down from #8 when Ryan was unavailable and then feverishly trading back up – 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 — to grab the 1-AA signal caller. Flacco will compete with Troy Smith and Kyle Boller, but has a lot to learn about playing under center after coming from a spread offense.

Carolina Panthers – In a crazy move the Panthers traded their 2009 first round selection along with a 3rd and 4th this year to the Philadelphia Eagles to select Pittsburgh Offensive Tackle Jeff Otah at #19.  They also selected Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart coming off a turf toe injury in the first round and passed on Rashard Mendenhall.  Also where is the quarterback??

Seattle Seahawks – In one of his first drafts as a General Manager, Tim Ruskell may have reached for USC DE Lawrence Jackson and Notre Dame TE John Carlson in the first to rounds.  Both players had average production in the pre-draft process and were Day 2 picks in my book.

Players Still Available on Day 2

To the guys were not selected on Day 1, remember that Patriots QB Tom Brady and former Broncos RB Terrell Davis sat at home watching TV on Day 1 too.

  • Penn State LB Dan Connor – The All-time leading tackler at Linebacker U should come off the board early on Saturday.
  • Penn State CB Justin King – The silky smooth Junior Eligible should falso ollow his teammate Connor early on Day 2.
  • Notre Dame SS Tom Zbikowski – The tough former boxer should get the call after sitting on Saturday.
  • Oklahoma CB/S Reggie Smith – The big combo defensive back fell out of the second round surprisingly, but his versatile skills should get him a look.
  • Michigan WR Mario Manningham – His stop watch time of around 4.6 at the combine may have caused him to drop.
  • Big Name Quarterbacks – Kentucky’s Andre Woodson, Oregon’s Dennis Dixon, and USC’s John David Booty

Other players available include: LSU Safety Craig Steltz, Iowa CB Charles Godfrey, Texas RB Jamaal Charles, Central Florida RB/KR Kevin Smith, West Virginia RB Steve Slaton, LSU receiver Early Doucet, Kansas big offensive tackle Anthony Collins, Hampton DE/B Marcus Dixon and many others.

Lloyd’s Leftovers 

  • For the second year in a row, The “Commish” Roger Goddell was everywhere at Radio City Music Hall.  He spent quality time with media, fans, and players while working the room with ease.  I really like his hands-on style of administration and let’s hope he keeps up the good work.
  • A record eight offensive tackles were taken in the first round including surprise Houston Texans pick Virginia Tech’s Duane Brown. Sorry Eagles fans the Birds stuck with veterans John Runyan and Tra Thomas plus gave a vote of confidence to former 2nd rounder Winston Justice by not selecting any of the talented offensive tackles.
  • HBCU powerhouse Tennessee State had its first player picked in the first round since 1974 (Ed “Too Tall” Jones by Dallas Cowboys) when CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was picked 16th overall by Arizona.

That is a wrap and I will be back at Radio City Music Hall at 10:00 AM ET on Sunday, for Day 2 (Rounds 3-7) of one of the biggest events of the NFL Calendar.

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.

2008 Senior Bowl Review

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

(Mobile, AL) — Every year the best place for Scouts and NFL Talent Evaluators to view players “in pads” is at the Senior Bowl (remember football is not played in t-shirts and shorts).  The weeklong event is the real first leg on the road to the NFL Draft for many prospects.  Many draft experts that I talk to put more credence in this All Star game, because usually top players choose to participate (sorry agents), there is “live” competitive in one on one drills, and NFL coaching staffs are in charge of the teams (Oakland Raiders had the North team and the San Francisco 49ers coached the South).   You can have the lesser All star games (East-West Shrine, Hula Bowl, “Flavor of the Year” All Star game) and the combine, because the Senior Bowl is the place where “football” players get to show their skills off in front of scouts, coaches, and general managers who can all be spotted in the stands.  

Overall this year’s group was talented, but with a large majority of this year’s top players being juniors (ex. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden) or seniors choosing not to participate (ex. Virginia defensive lineman Chris Long and Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long), there were some units that were not as good as in year’s past – Quarterback, Running back, or Defensive End to name a few.  Several scouts have indicated that this year’s senior group is a little lower in talent than last year’s solid group (Patrick Willis, Adam Carriker, Dwayne Bowe and others) or the 2006 can’t miss group that produced 14 first-round picks including Jets offensive tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, and others. Whatever talent that was at the event, the USC Trojans led the way sending an amazing 9 players including the unquestionable number one player in Mobile, stout defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and athletic monster linebacker Keith “Shark” Rivers. 

As for the game, well 40,000 fans filled Ladd-Peebles Stadium and they saw a snoozer with the South winning 17-16.  But at least it ended dramatically as SEC rivals Florida receiver Andre Caldwell and Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge — a last second replacement for Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm (leg injury) had passing numbers of 13-21 for 159 yards passing all coming in the second half — led the way to the winning score for the South.  Caldwell scored on a 2-yard end around off a handoff from Ainge on the final play of the game to finish a 14-play, 86-yard final drive.  Caldwell, who had one of the better weeks at the Senior Bowl said of the game-winner, “I knew I was going to get hit, I just lowered my head to get in the end zone was a great feeling.”

The two had hooked up earlier too on a crucial play in the game-winning drive as Ainge completed an 18-yarder to Caldwell on fourth-and-10 from the South’s 14.  The tall Tennessee quarterback, who had an up and down career in college also found Houston speedster receiver Donnie Avery for a 22-yarder across the middle on the drive.  South coach Mike Nolan of the San Francisco 49ers said of the last play, “On that last play, you have a chance to call anything because it’s the last play”. He added “Whereas the ones prior, he just had to keep it alive and not use up all the clock. A play like that you call it the first or second play and we never get another play off. It was a great call and it worked.”

Ainge was named the South offensive MVP, but it was Tulane running back Matt Forte who ran for a game-high 59 yards and had 38 receiving that landed the overall MVP award.  Big Michigan quarterback Chad Henne (five of nine passes for 64 yards with two passing touchdowns) was the North offensive MVP.  North Defensive MVP Ellis didn’t disappoint when he sacked Andre’ Woodson of Kentucky to record a safety.

Now that the weighing, practicing, questioning, and playing is over for the Senior Bowl, we have some observations, news, and notes from the 2008 Event.

Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in at the Senior Bowl.

  • USC DT Sedrick Ellis – By far the most dominant player in Mobile. Ellis (6-1, 295) came to the event rated below LSU’s Glenn Dorsey and Virginia’s Chris Long, but he vaulted to the top group with his showing this week. Though UF’s Derrick Harvey, Dorsey, and Long skipped the event, it was their loss as Ellis dominated in one on one drills against all of the O-Lineman — unblockable at times. Much like last year’s standout Adam Carriker, Ellis was difficult to block. Displayed a good combination of strength and intelligence and also came across well during interviews. He and teammate Keith Rivers showed at the Senior Bowl why USC was dominant defensively in 2007.
  • Tennessee State CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – One of my favorite stories from the week. He came to the Senior Bowl looking for an opportunity and he seized it. The rangy defensive back (6-1, 181) showed that HBCU schools still produce several diamonds in the rough as he shined in coverage drills against bigger school receivers. The unheralded defensive back actually worked out at FS most of the week, but his future seems to lie at corner. Was right with Leodis McKelvin as the top DB prospect at the event.
  • Florida WR Andre Caldwell – With a underwhelming overall group of receivers at the Senior Bowl, Caldwell and Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins (catch everything) enhanced their draft status. Caldwell is not huge at 6’0 and 207 pounds, but he showed the best hands and route running of all of the receivers at the event. Besides scoring the game-winning TD, Caldwell showed he is a natural hand catcher and his toughness showed in his ability to get off the line.
  • Troy CB Leodis McKelvin – Another small school corner that shined at the event. Had a great week of practice where he showed a good ability to locate passes and play physical. Receivers did not catch many passes on him in practice and he showed that he is a fluid athlete. Look for the former Troy State star (5-11 190) to continue moving up draft boards as he has the speed, coverage ability and instincts to be a top flight corner plus he showed in Mobile that he is a capable kick returner.
  • Delaware QB Joe Flacco – It looks like UD alum Rich Gannon will have company in NFL circles as Flacco impressed at the event. The Blue Hen signaler caller took advantage of BC quarterback Matt Ryan pulling out of the game. Though the big pocket passer (6-5, 230) threw for only 2-of-7 for 22 yards and an interception in the game, it was during the week in practice that he shined. The one-time Pitt recruit showed a very strong arm, an ability to make all the throws out performing some of his BCS counterparts and surprising mobility.

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

  • Arizona State Center Mike Pollak – Might have been the best O-Lineman in Mobile. Even though he is just under 300 pounds, Pollak is a battler that showed good feet and strength in practice and in the game. He truly was the North team’s anchor all week.
  • Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws – Trying to shake off one of the worst years in Notre Dame’s proud history will not be easy, but Laws (6-1, 297) impressed in Mobile. The dread-locked senior, who played mostly on the outside in college moved inside and dominated. Though not as athletic as Ellis, Laws showed a good burst, was always around the ball (recovered a fumble in the game), and good instincts in practice drills. Watch for him to be a sure first day pick.
  • Penn State LB Dan Connor – This PSU high-character player – led the Big Ten in tackles (145) as a senior — did not disappoint in Mobile winning the North team’s MVP award. Connor (6’3, 233) showed that he may not have the athleticism of USC’s Keith “Shark” Rivers, but he has the “football” instincts and intelligence that shined in practice. In the game, the two-time All American, who can play inside or outside, produced with by leading both teams in tackles (9) and intercepting a Colt Brennan pass.
  • Vanderbilt LT Chris Williams – Seems like another great left tackle prospect out of the SEC. Had a solid week of give and take with the D-Linemen, but probably did not elevate himself to the top 15 of the draft. Has the size (6’6, 320) and feet to be a top-flight left tackle, but will need to watch his tendency to play too high at times. Also needs to work more against the speed-rush.

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.

  • Texas A&M Center Cody Wallace – After coming into the event with a good resume, the Aggies pivot man really struggled. He had difficulty in individual line drills and defensive tackles were licking their chops for a shot at him. Wallace will need to rebound at the combine and on Texas A&M’s Pro Day to show he is worth a pick.
  • Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman – One of the bigger disappointments at the event. Bowman did well on underneath routes, but struggled with consistency (dropping passes and having difficulty with routes) as Caldwell, Hawkins, Houston’s Donnie Avery, and others had better practices. The big (6-3, 220) OSU receiver will need to do better at the combine to move up.
  • Hawaii QB Colt Brennan – After being destroyed by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the quarterback with all of the NCAA records needed to impress. Well he didn’t… first he magically was not his listed measurements (6-3, 190) instead coming in at 6-2, 185 pounds, then he showed an odd throwing motion in practice with difficulty on outs and deep balls. In the game he didn’t fair much better throwing for numbers 2-of-6 for 29 yards with an interception.
  •  USC O-Lineman Sam Baker – This maybe knit picky but we expected Baker to be the mammoth road grader as advertised. He weighed in smaller than expected at 6-4 1/2 and 308 pounds and one scout I talked to said he looked soft. Had good hand use and great arm extension, but did not look like a can’t miss left tackle.

Miscellaneous Notes

DB’s show why they are the best group – The scouts that I talked to could not have been more impressed with this group.  One guy I talked to said that at least eight to ten DB’s should go in the first round.  We already touched on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin, but other players shined as well in the back four of the North and South units including CB Tracy Porter of Indiana, CB Chris Godfrey of Iowa, CB Patrick Lee of Auburn and CB DeJuan Tribble of Boston College.

Where are all of the running backs?? – With so many juniors dominating the rankings of this position, you could clearly see that the top guys were not in Mobile (No Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas, Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart or Texas’ Jamaal Charles). Of the backs that were here Justin Forsett of California, Chris Johnson of East Carolina, and Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech performed well, but they all seem to me to be Day 2 guys. I however did like the play of fullbacks Owen Schmitt of West Virginia, Peyton Hillis of Arkansas and LSU’s Jacob Hester.  All three showed their toughness and a willingness to help out anywhere.

Strong Linebacking Crew – This group impressed me, because they jelled in such a short period of time.  Hall of Fame linebacker and San Francisco coach Mike Singletary spoke glowingly about this group’s work ethic and athleticism. In drills you could see the quickness and athleticism of players like USC LB Keith Rivers, Virginia Tech LB Xavier Adibi, Penn State’s Dan Connor, LSU LB Ali Highsmith and Colorado’s Jordon Dizon. Rivers drew a lot of praise from Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but some guys that have work to do are DE conversion candidates Shawn Crable of Michigan and Bruce Davis of UCLA.

That is a wrap and BIGPLAY will definitely be there next year to cover the Senior Bowl again, which is now the place to be to seen.