Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Initial Thoughts on the Rookie QBs

Thanks to some free time and access to all the preseason games, I observed the four first round rookie QBs -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden -- in their first ever NFL appearances.  Remember, it's limited action in a meaningless game and a lot can change when real bullets start flying.  Here is my immediate take:

Andrew Luck:  This guy is the real deal.  The first thing that strikes the viewer is how composed he is.  Right off the bat, you can tell he has tremendous football IQ.  The thing that impressed me the most was how well he moved within the pocket.  His offensive line did not do a very good job protecting him, but it did not faze him at all.  He knew when to step up, when to sidestep, and when to abandon the pocket, all with keeping his eyes down the field.  Luck also displayed the ability to go through his progressions.  He looked like a seasoned veteran out there.

As far as physical tools go, he is pretty thickly built.  Unless Luck has a low pain threshold, he will end up being the most durable of all the rookie QBs.  For such a big guy, he moves pretty easily and displayed that on a scramble.  In terms of spinning the ball, I saw a very accurate QB.  Nearly every incompletion was a drop or a throwaway when under duress.  I cannot remember one bad ball thrown.  While he probably has the weakest arm of the four QBs, I would not say that it limits him.  Furthermore, I think he displays such excellent touch on the ball when necessary and that can make it falsely appear that he lacks arm strength.  Overall, I would say he has average arm strength, but his vastly superior quarterback IQ will always compensate for it. 

Most Impressive Play:  1st & 10 at the Rams 33 yard line with 4:08 remaining in the second quarter.  With WR Quan Cosby lined up in the slot, Luck finds Cosby streaking down the seam for a 32 yard gain.  The inside linebacker is in trail coverage with deep safeties over the top.  Luck puts the absolute perfect amount of touch on the ball, and places it on Cosby's back shoulder, purposely on the opposite side of the trailing LB.  The ball travels 28 yards in the air and sets the Colts up at the goal line.

Robert Griffin III:  What I saw was a guy who looked comfortable being in charge.  RGIII has a very smooth throwing motion, almost appearing nonchalant in the process.  He flicks the ball out with pretty nice zip and can toss the ball outside the numbers.

In terms of the offensive structure, he fits Shanahan's scheme like a glove.  The Redskins were starting three replacement linemen in the game, so they weren't able to really establish the run when Griffin was in the game.  However, you can tell that running the stretch zone plays will open up a lot of bootleg opportunities.

When asked to pass, Griffin was able to operate from under center and in shotgun.  I thought he was able to go through his progressions well and hit a secondary receiver in stride.  Consequently, he was able to hit a few intermediate passes to Pierre Garcon, who appears to be RGIII's top target this year.  I did not see one poorly thrown ball.

While the offensive line was poor in run blocking, they were very effective in protection.  That being said, I wish they weren't because I was not able to gauge his pocket presence.  Maybe it was the design of some quick throws or his ability to get rid of the ball in time, but I did not see one instance where he was necessitated to step up or to the side while in the pocket.  Additionally, the good protection also prevented me from seeing his running ability.  Consider me impressed overall, but I would give an "Incomplete" grade for his pocket presence.

Most Impressive Play:  1st & 10 at own 43 yard line, 8:20 remaining in the first quarter.  RGIII excellently uses his cadence to draw an offsides from the defense and gets a "free" play.  On a play-action pass, Griffin hits Pierre Garcon for an 18 yard gain over the middle.  The ball travels 18 yards in the air.  What grabbed my attention was how good his play fake was.  He did a great job of selling it, and the linebackers started going downhill to attack the perceived run.  As a result, Griffin has a giant window to flick the ball to Garcon.  While a play-action play usually has an easy read, the fact that he was able to get the defensive line to jump and get the linebackers to take false steps shows off some veteran savvy.

Ryan Tannehill:  This is a big dude.  He's pretty athletic to boot, too.  The second thing I quickly noticed was how often he was operating out of shotgun.  I did not watch Matt Moore at QB, so I cannot tell if that is something new Head Coach Joe Philbin wants to instill in the offense or if it was something unique to Tannehill.

Going back to the athleticism, I thought he did a great job of getting outside the pocket on the bootleg, showing a solid amount of quickness.  I was also impressed with his arm strength and delivery.

I do have a few reservations about Tannehill at the moment.  Primarily, he was the only QB of the four to be playing strictly against the backups.  That being said, he had a pretty unheralded supporting cast to throw to and was able to move the ball down the field with consistency.  Kudos to him.  However, I found his accuracy to be a little suspect at times.  He had a few easy misses in there and did not give the receiver a chance to catch the ball.  While he looked comfortable in the pocket, he did not seem to go through his progressions quite like Griffin or Luck.  That is probably to be expected, however, since he is after all a rookie and originally came to college as a wide receiver.  I can see the long-term tools, namely arm strength and physically looking the part, but I do not know how much impact he can have this year.

Most Impressive Play:  3rd & 11 at own 29 yard line, 8:30 remaining in third quarter.  Tannehill throws a ball that travels 17 yards in the air to Roberto Wallace, who is streaking down along the numbers.  Wallace picks up 20+ yards for the first down.  This might have been the best throw from all four QBs. Without having access to the "All-22" camera for preseason, I cannot be certain on the defensive coverage, but it appeared to be a Cover 2 shell.  Either way, Tannehill is able to zip a tight spiral with enough arc to go over the corner but enough speed to have it arrive before the safety meets the receiver.  The timing, the touch, and the arm strength necessary to pull it off had me saying "Wow!"  That was a throw that some QBs simply cannot make.

Brandon Weeden:  For a guy that turns 29 before the season opener, a Browns fan would hope that Weeden would appear to be the most pro ready quarterback.  I did not see that from him in his first glimpse of action.

There are certainly some things to like about Weeden.  He has a compact throwing motion and seems to have a solid release.  He also has enough arm strength to make a lot of NFL throws.

However, I saw more negatives from him versus the other three QBs.  For starters, I thought he was the least composed QB when it came to being under pressure.  Going against the Detroit Lions front four is no picnic, but he either held onto the ball too long or left the pocket too quickly.  As far as the former, that is what led to a sack and forced fumble he let up.  Weeden appeared to have one too many hitches and it cost him.  I also caught him staring down a receiver on a comeback, and it almost led to a pick six because the cornerback read it all the way.  Lastly, I thought he had the least effective play-action fake of the group.  It did not persuade me, and on film it did not convince the linebackers either.  In my opinion, it did not look like he really extended his arms on the fake and it came off a little haphazard.

Weeden is probably ready to be a non-replacement level starter from the get go and is an upgrade over Colt McCoy, but does he have any upside whatsoever?  If I am a Browns fan, I become even more puzzled at my hapless franchise.  It's the NFL and who the hell knows what could happen, but I would be surprised if he ever becomes an above average QB.

Most Impressive Play:  2nd & 7 at own 43 yard line, 1st quarter.  Weeden connects with WR Travis Benjamin down the left sideline for a huge 32 yard gain.  The ball travels 32 yards in the air.  Weeden recognizes 1 on 1 coverage with Benjamin and drops it perfectly in the bucket for him, placing the ball away from the corner where only Benjamin can get it.  The ball is thrown such that no deep safety could make a play on the ball yet not too far out of bounds that Benjamin cannot get both feet in.  That is not an easy throw, but he executed it flawlessly.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Living in Fantasy Land: Picking an Olympic Football Squad

Every time the Olympics roll around, I find myself wondering what it would be like if professional football were an eligible sport.  It’s probably an exercise in futility because in order for a sport to gain access to the Olympics, it must be played in seventy-five countries and four continents.  Regardless, I think an American football squad would squash the competition like Gallagher with a sledgehammer and watermelon.  That would be the real Dream Team.

For the sake of pure enjoyment, I perused NFL rosters, put on my Kevin Colbert cap,  and came up with the ideal lineup for a 2012 Olympic squad (if the sport is magically deemed a summer event).  There are a few disclaimers, however:

1)      The purpose of this is to compile the best team possible, not just throw out a list of All Pros and Pro Bowlers.  Now, a lot of the players will have those accolades, but the goal was to fit the pieces together best and have players properly complement each other.  Furthermore, some players were given a little more consideration due to position flexibility.
2)      Only healthy players are chosen.  Sure, players like Adrian Peterson, Jason Peters, and Peyton Manning would be absolute shoe-ins for the team, but what good would they be if they were asked to play in a game right now?  Peterson is gradually working himself back but isn’t ready while Peters, coming off of a recent Achilles tear, is probably walking like Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects” at the moment.  Manning’s neck is probably about as stiff as Hugh Hefner on a Viagra bender right now.
3)      There are a few instances of ultra-youth and seniority here.  Before you get up in arms about someone like Ray Lewis on the roster, go back and reread #1 then read my reasoning later.
4)      Just like an NFL team can only suit up 46 players on game day, this team’s roster is 46.

QBs (3): Aaron Rodgers (GB), Tom Brady (NE), Drew Brees (NO)
-          Without a doubt, the three best and healthiest QBs in the business.  While I believe Rodgers is the best, you really cannot go wrong with starting any of the three. The drop-off is practically negligible.

RBs (3): Arian Foster (HOU), LeSean McCoy (PHI), Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC)
-          Foster is the best (healthy) RB in the league, no questions asked.  He has no weaknesses to his game, and he has the size to be a durable back for years.  Jones-Drew would be an outstanding 4th quarter “kill the clock” back, while McCoy would be a gem on passing downs or as a change of pace on running downs.  Or, since the opposition would get slaughtered either way, you can take the Bill Guthridge approach and rotate the starter for each game based on alphabetical order.

FBs (1): Vonta Leach (BAL)
-          Vonta Leach is slowly approaching Lorenzo Neal status which means wherever he goes, the RB behind him has a mega season.  It worked for Arian Foster in 2010 and it worked for Ray Rice last year.  A fullback usually does not see major snaps, but he’d be extremely useful when implemented on offense and as an upback on kick returns where he can lay bone-crushing hits.

WRs (5): Larry Fitzgerald (ARI), Calvin Johnson (DET), Andre Johnson (HOU), Wes Welker (NE), Percy Harvin (MIN)
-          Is this the list of the top five receivers in the league? No, but this is the best combination of receivers the USA could field.  Fitzgerald and the Johnsons are the top three receivers in the game, and while each can occasionally line up in the slot, they’re not ideally suited there.  This is where Welker and Harvin come into play, as both players complement the top three.  Some might question the Harvin pick, but here’s my explanation:  He is one of the best young playmakers in the business and can hurt you in so many ways.  He’s more explosive than Welker and he can line up in the slot, on the outside, in the backfield, and on kickoff returns.

TEs (2): Rob Gronkowski (NE), Jimmy Graham (NO)
-          Good lord.  A pair of  6’6”+ mammoths with rare ball skills equals terror.  Gronkowski is hands down the best all-around tight end in the game, and Graham is the basketball equivalent of having Dwight Howard defending the rim while wearing Moon Shoes (had to make at least one Nickelodeon toy reference in this article).  The red zone offense would be a pitch and catch all day.

OTs (3): Joe Thomas (CLE), Andrew Whitworth (CIN), Tyron Smith (DAL)
-          At first glance this might appear to be an underwhelming unit, so I must explain.  Thomas is the best left tackle in the game, so his mentioning needs no explanation.  Cincinnati has been quietly fielding one of the better offensive lines in the game the past few years, and Whitworth is the anchor at left tackle.  Standing at a gargantuan 6’7” and 330 lbs., he surprisingly has enough quickness to man the blindside.  With his frame, he could man the right tackle spot as well.  Smith, the youngest player on the team, could be seen as a bit of a head-scratcher.  You could go with more of a natural right tackle like a Bryan Bulaga or Eric Winston, but Smith played surprisingly well as a rookie.  Having this trio also gives the unit the versatility to man both left and right tackle, something they all boast and Bulaga and Winston do not necessarily possess.

Gs (3): Jahri Evans (NO), Carl Nicks (TB), Marshal Yanda (BAL)
-          Evans and Nicks are both road graders that have received their fair share of accolades the past few years, so it comes to no surprise that both are the choice here.  Yanda has been a mainstay in Baltimore’s steady offensive line for five seasons now.  He also has the ability to kick out to right tackle if need be.

Cs (2): Nick Mangold (NYJ), Maurkice Pouncey (PIT)
-          Even when I put the green shades down, Mangold is still the best center in the league.  He is excellent in the run game and is extremely intelligent when asked to assist his guards in pass protection.  Nipping at his heels is the young Maurkice Pouncey, who made an immediate impact since entering the league two years ago.  Both players are capable of playing guard as well.

3-4 DEs/4-3 DTs (3): Haloti Ngata (BAL), Justin Smith (SF), Ndamukong Suh (DET)
-          In order to get the best combination of players, the defense will run both a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme.  Ngata, Smith, and Suh all provide rare quickness with their brute strength.  Not only are all three strong in run support, but they have no problem when asked to rush the quarterback.  Nobody wants to take a hit from any of these guys.  Just ask Ben Roethlisberger who took a whack to the face from Ngata in 2010, causing his nose to bend to a 90 degree angle.  Needless to say, he was looking kind of dumb with his bridge of his nose in the shape of an “L” on his forehead (anyone who understood that terrible lyrical take on a terrible pop song from a decade ago is forever awesome in my book).

NTs (1): Vince Wilfork (NE)
-          Go back and watch the AFC Championship game last year and tell me he wasn’t the best player on the field that day.  Utilizing an impressive combination of leverage and strength, he had Matt Birk, an aging but still effective center, backpedalling faster than Michael Jackson in Moonwalker.  That game was not an aberration.  For eight seasons now, Wilfork has been one of the game’s premier nose tackles.  He might not be the best anymore, but he is probably still the smartest at his position.

3-4 OLBs/4-3 DEs (4): DeMarcus Ware (DAL), Jared Allen (MIN), Trent Cole (PHI), Clay Matthews (GB)
-          You’re looking at four of the most dominant pass rushers in the game, but you’re also looking at some of the best run stopping edge players as well.  Ware is the gold standard for outside linebackers.  Allen is the same for defensive ends.  Cole might be the most underrated defensive end in the game, but his numbers speak for themselves.  Matthews’s sack totals were not as eye-popping as 2010, but his total pressure was not much different.  Ware and Matthews would be the starters in base 3-4 looks, while Allen and Cole would be the starters in base 4-3 looks.

4-3 OLBs (3): Von Miller (DEN), Sean Weatherspoon (ATL), Daryl Smith (JAC)
-          Miller was a QB nightmare the instant he stepped on the field last year.  The only thing that slowed him down was a late-season injury, but it still did not impede his march to becoming Defensive Rookie of the Year.  Weatherspoon combines speed, ferociousness, and coverage ability to the weakside position.  Smith has quietly been one of the game’s top non-rush outside linebackers, and he would provide excellent insurance behind Miller and Weatherspoon.

3-4 ILBs/4-3 MLBs (3): Patrick Willis (SF), Ray Lewis (BAL), Sean Lee (DAL)
-          I don’t care to remember who carried the Olympic torch this year, but I do know that Patrick Willis received the middle linebacker torch from Ray Lewis a few years ago.  He can dominate in any scheme.  Lewis has certainly slowed down a little bit in the past two years, but he is still effective and would be an excellent leader and voice for the defense.  Hey, if Larry Bird on his last legs was asked to be on the Dream Team, Lewis deserves to be on this team.  After watching a handful of Cowboys games last year, Lee really caught my eye.  He is one of the few inside linebackers in the game with excellent coverage skills.

CBs (4): Darrelle Revis (NYJ), Charles Woodson (GB), Brent Grimes (ATL), Jonathan Joseph (HOU)
-          Darrelle Revis needs no explanation.  Even at his older age, Woodson can still play a multitude of positions including slot corner and be a ballhawk.  For a player as small as Brent Grimes, he jumps like Spud Webb in a Slam Dunk Contest.  It truly is incredible to see.  He also has pretty slick coverage to boot.  Joseph has consistently been one of the game’s better corners for a few years now, but last year was his coming out party.  This four man combination touts a healthy mix of man-to-man corners, zone corners, feisty tacklers, and playmakers.

 Ss (3): Troy Polamalu (PIT), Ed Reed (BAL), Earl Thomas (SEA)
-          Polamalu and Reed are on the downside of their careers, but they’re still damn good safeties.  Both men provide once in a decade type instincts that allow them to freelance at times and come up with game-changing plays.  The two can play off each other, with Polamalu prowling in the box while Reed plays centerfield in the deep safety position.  Thomas is a smaller safety, but he is certainly an up-and-comer in the NFL and edges out the rehabilitating Eric Berry at the moment.

Special Teams
PKs (1): Sebastian Janikowksi (OAK)
-          Placekickers tend to have very fickle careers.  In one season they can be on top of the world, then suddenly the next year it seems as if they even forgot to kick a ball and consequently find themselves on the street. Janikowski might not be the most accurate kicker in the league, but he has pulled off the rare feat of sticking with his team his whole career.  He also throws in a monster leg to boot that can aid on long field goals and a plethora of  touchback opportunities  because frankly, this team will be scoring a lot.

Ps (1): Shane Lechler (OAK)
-          Lechler has been another guy to stick with his team for so long.  He too provides a superhuman leg with excellent hang time.  Consistently at the top for several years, he edges out San Francisco’s Andy Lee.

KR/PRs (1): Devin Hester (CHI)
-          Hester will probably go down as the best returner of all time.  He is that scary.  Put him back there on punt returns and pair him up with Percy Harvin for kick returns.  The offense will thank them later.

Coaching Staff
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (NE)
-          He might give snide mumble remarks in press conferences, he might not shake your hand if you ruin his perfect season, and hell, he might even dress like the Sith Lord when colder football months come, but he is undoubtedly the best in the business.  Nobody commands a smarter and more disciplined team than Belichick.  This is an easy pick.

Offensive Coordinator: Sean Payton (NO)
-          Andy Reid would be an excellent choice here simply because he has been able to seamlessly execute a precision offense over the years with completely different personnel, but the nod goes to Payton.  The reason is simple:  Nobody mixes and matches personnel groupings better than Sean Payton.  He has no difficulties in creating mismatches for the defense with his wide arsenal of backs, receivers, and tight ends.  A “spread the wealth” kind of play-caller, he is the perfect fit for a Dream Team offense that will keep everybody happy.

Defensive Coordinator: Dick LeBeau (PIT)
-          This is the defensive czar himself.  He is filled with decades of knowledge and might go down as the best defensive coordinator of all time.  He’ll squash your run and he’ll have the opposition’s team doctor tell the QB, “Take two and call me in the morning.”

Special Teams Coordinator: John Harbaugh (BAL)
-          Before becoming an upper echelon Head Coach, Harbaugh was the Eagles Special Teams Coordinator for a decade.  He is well-respected and players respond to him.  Harbaugh would be one of seven current Head Coaches on the staff.

Offensive Line Coach: Dante Scarnecchia (NE)
-          Having a consistently good offensive line for a decade is extremely hard to accomplish.  Some of it falls on having a sound front office, but a lot can be attributed to coaching.  Thanks to Scarnecchia, Tom Brady’s jersey has been pretty clean the past eleven seasons.

QB Coach: Mike Shanahan (WAS)
-          He coordinated Steve Young to a career year and helped John Elway get two elusive Super Bowl rings.  The Rodgers, Brady, Brees triumvirate needs little coaching in the form of fundamentals, but with Shanahan’s credentials he would be an excellent sounding off  board for the future Hall of Famers.

WRs Coach: Tom Coughlin (NYG)
-          Well before he became a two-time Super Bowl winning Head Coach, Coughlin was a Wide Receivers Coach under Bill Parcells and the Giants.  It’s no coincidence that Coughlin’s Giants field one of the best receiving units in the league.  Now  imagine him working with the quintet of Fitzgerald, Johnson & Johnson, Welker, and Harvin.

TEs Coach: Rob Chudzinski (CAR)
-          When you coach the likes of Jeremy Shockey and Kelen Winslow Jr. in college, become responsible for the development of Antonio Gates, lead Derek Anderson to the Pro Bowl, and oversee the best rookie season by a QB ever, it’s safe to say you know a thing or two about tight ends and offense.  Need I say more?

RBs Coach: Bobby Turner (WAS)
-          For fifteen years in Denver, Turner oversaw the likes of Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Olandis Gary, and Mike Anderson in their career years.  Between Shanahan and Turner, the QB/RB exchange will be as smooth as ever.

Defensive Line Coach: Rex Ryan (NYJ)
-          He might garner attention for his mouth or for his affinity for cornerbacks, but Ryan, just like his father Buddy, got his start coaching the defensive line.  A master motivator and a brilliant defensive mind, he would be salivating at the defensive line talent at his hands, so much so that even the lap band surgery cannot hold him back.

LBs Coach: Keith Butler (PIT)
-          There is a perfectly good reason why Butler, the Steelers LB coach since 2003, has never been promoted to Defensive Coordinator or Head Coach with another team.  It’s because Pittsburgh keeps giving him more and more money to stay!  Butler is the ultimate successor to the timeless LeBeau, and he knows how to develop linebackers.  From Kendrell Bell, James Farrior,  Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, all the way to Lawrence Timmons, it’s safe to say the man knows a thing or two about the position.  The inside linebackers are run stuffers and “A” gap blitzers, while the outside ‘backers pin their ears back and terrorize offensive tackles.  Sounds good to me.

Secondary Coach: Mike Tomlin (PIT)
-          The top five NFL Head Coach got his positional coach notoriety when he commanded the defensive backs  for one of the best defenses in the past two decades – the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  A cool character that immediately earns respect and honor from his players, Tomlin is a must for this coaching staff.