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Cowboys 2014 Season Preview

The Cowboys season is set to get underway in about 4 hours and I thought I’d preview their upcoming season and what I see in store for them. Unfortunately the Cowboys are about as volatile and complex of a team as there is in the NFL so I had to break it down into two viewpoints. The first vantage point is the pessimistic view of the 2014 Cowboys and trust me it was an easier one to write. The second vantage point is the optimistic view of the 2014 Cowboys. Finally I combined the two views and gave my win-loss prediction and how I see the season turning out. Enjoy!

Glass Half Empty

It's half empty because it's water not beer.

It’s half empty because it’s water not beer.

Living rooms go eerily quiet across the country as the announcer sums it up, “The Saint have scored on their first 6 possessions of the game and now Romo is down after taking a vicious blind side hit. If this is his back the Cowboys season is over.” The headlines the rest of the season would spell it out for everyone: “Tony done for the year, Cowboys season with it.” “Passing on Manziel looking bad in hindsight.” “Jones preaches optimism as Cowboys lose 5th straight by double digits.” “Cowboys sign Tim Tebow to keep AT&T stadium packed full despite 1-10 record.”

Tim Tebow as the Cowboys savior?

Tim Tebow as the Cowboys late season ticket sales savior?

This season could end horribly for the Dallas Cowboys and anyone who doesn’t at least acknowledge that possibility isn’t being honest. Last year the Cowboys gave up more yards than any team in NFL History. This season they will be playing without DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee who were widely regarded as their three best players on that defense from a year ago. The two players the Cowboys are relying on the most on their defensive line, Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton, both missed the entire 2013 season due to injury and have only recently begun to practice. There is a chance that one or both of them never has an impact for the Cowboys this season. Their top defensive draft pick, DeMarcus Lawrence, broke his foot and will miss at least the first 6 games and could miss the entire season if the Cowboys get off to a slow start and the coaching staff plays it conservatively with him. Their top linebacker, Sean Lee, tore his ACL and will miss the entire season. He wasn’t just their best linebacker but he was the defensive play caller and the leader of the defense. His loss was devastating to the team on a physical and psychological level. Their best cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, tested positive for Ecstasy and will miss the first four games of the season. In both the 2013 regular season and the 2014 preseason Scandrick was the one player on the Cowboys roster that could consistently play man coverage at a high level. The Cowboys face the 49ers and Saints during Scandricks’ suspension. Both teams were among the “Final 8” in last year’s playoffs and would have been favored even if the Cowboys had Scandrick starting. The Cowboys safety duo of Barry Church and JJ Wilcox is considered one of the strengths of the team. Neither has made a Pro Bowl, combined they only have 25 starts to their name and neither is expected to be anything more than an average starter. Again, this is considered one of the strengths of the team. Dez Bryant is one of the 3-5 best wide receivers in the game. Everyone knows this and therefore Bryant will face more double teams than at any other point in his career. Jason Witten is 32 years old and on the decline of his career. Terrance Williams is going into his second season and shouldn’t be expected to be an offensive focal point yet in his career. Gavin Escobar was non-existent as a rookie. DeMarco Murray has missed 11 games over the past three seasons due to injury. Cole Beasley is 5’8. These are the five players that will have to play well to keep teams from double teaming Bryant on every single snap. There are issues with all of them. Romo had offseason back surgery. It is the second back surgery of his career. His back does not allow him to practice more than a few hours at a time. He also had to be given numerous days off while he built up his back’s strength. He has missed more days of practice in training camp than in any season of his career. It would be a surprise if the offense was clicking on all cylinders right out of the gate due to Romo’s limited practice schedule. He turned 34 this year. Troy Aikman had back and head injuries which caused him to retire at the age of 34. He has been adamant this offseason that all is not well with Romo and when asked if Romo’s best days were ahead of him he said, “I don’t necessarily think that would be the case with him, not just because his age….the back injuries that he’s had, that’s a big unknown. That’s a significant injury and I know that from experience. No one really knows yet how this back is going to hold up. To say that his best years are ahead of him, I wouldn’t agree with that.” The Cowboys have been 8-8 the past three seasons with a healthy Romo in the prime of his career. What would the Cowboys record be if Romo’s play finally begins to slip? What would the Cowboys record be if Romo has an injury plagued season like he did in 2010 when he missed 10 games? All is not right in Cowboy Country.

Glass Half Full

Now that's a glass that gets me optimistic!

Now that’s a glass that gets me optimistic!

I am often amazed at the pessimism of the Dallas Cowboys fan base. This year it is to new levels as everyone sees the same old terrible defense as last year. I understand the logic behind the argument, “The 2013 Cowboys defense was historically bad. It set numerous records for ineptitude and this year’s version is missing the three best players from that horrific defense. They will be the worst defense in NFL history.” I think there is some validity to that but I also think that it is a biased argument that has numerous flaws in its logic. First off there is the argument that this is a historically bad defense. Yes it did set numerous records in futility yet many of the record set like first downs in a game and yards given up are not nearly as important as the one key factor: points allowed. By this statistic, the most important indicator in my opinion in evaluating a defense, the Cowboys were barely in the bottom quartile. The Cowboys in 2013 were 26th in scoring defense and were only 2.1 points behind the Denver Broncos who were 22nd in scoring defense yet still made it to the Super Bowl. This is not the NFL in the 1980s when every championship level team had to have a dominant defense. This is the era of the spread offense with no contact rules and innovative play calling that has accentuated the skill of numerous elite quarterbacks. I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion but I honestly do think that Dallas still has one of those elite quarterbacks in Tony Romo. Last year the top six teams in scoring defense all made the playoffs. Last year the bottom eight teams in the NFL in scoring defense did not make the playoffs. So obviously you cannot be one of the worst defenses and still make the playoffs yet it then gets hazy as the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos both made the playoffs while being the 9th and 11th worst scoring defenses while the Cardinals and Dolphins both didn’t make the playoffs while having the 7th and 8th best defenses. The difference is that those poor defensive teams had Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning at QB while those good defensive teams had Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill at QB. With the Cowboys having one of the Top 10 QBs in the league in Tony Romo they don’t need the defense to be very good for them to still have a shot at the playoffs. Most analysts disagree with me but the numbers prove me right as there is a higher correlation to elite offenses making the playoffs than to elite defenses making it. In 2013 nine of the top twelve defenses made the playoffs while ten of the top twelve offenses made the playoffs. It happened again in 2012 as eight of the top twelve defenses made the playoffs while ten of the top twelve offenses made the playoffs. It is better to have an elite offense than an elite defense in the NFL and the Cowboys have an elite offense. Last year they were 5th in the league in scoring and seemed to finally show signs of becoming the dominant offense they should have been these past few years. Many people have the incorrect notion of Dallas being consistently a dominant offense yet last year was the first time under Garrett that they finished as a Top 5 offense. The previous time it occurred was 7 seasons ago in the 2007 season. Dallas finished 13-3 that year and had the #1 seed in the NFC. We all know how that ended but the point is that Dallas was an elite offense last year and elite offenses can hide a plethora of issues for a team. I fully expect Dallas to be as good if not better on offense in 2014 as the two issues that previously were holding the Cowboys back appear to have been solved. The first issue was the offensive line. At one point the Cowboys had one of the 5 worst offensive lines in the NFL as 22 straight years of Jerry Jones not drafting an offensive lineman in the first round finally caught up with him. To his credit though, he did change his opinion on the concept and has now drafted an offensive lineman with a 1st round pick in 3 of the past 4 drafts. With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin all in their early twenties and under contract for the next 3 seasons, the Cowboys have a chance to be a dominant offensive line.

This is the Cowboys future

Forget Bryant and Lee, THIS is the Cowboys future.

The other issue was Jason Garrett’s play calling. I’ve always considered him an overrated offensive mind and as a play caller he’s just downright bad. Every year there are at least 2 games where everyone but Garrett knows the Cowboys should run the ball yet they somehow don’t. Every year the Cowboys struggle in the red zone settling for far more field goals than they should. Every year the Cowboys run an offensive system that fails to incorporate crossing routes, rubs and bubble screens which are three of the “newer” aspects of offenses around the college and pro game. Garrett has stubbornly stuck to his Norv Turner/Air Coryell offensive system which is a timing based system that does little to help its receivers get open. It has infuriated me watching Garrett’s medieval offense these past few years while Chip Kelly, Darrell Bevell and Mike McCoy have been so innovative. It is not surprising that both Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers had their careers revived when they met up with Mike McCoy. He calls plays to get guys open schematically and would never force Romo to throw 10 back shoulder throws a game to be successful. Thankfully the Cowboys hired Scott Linehan this offseason and Garrett appears to be completely out of the play calling loop. With the Cowboys having one of the better offensive lines in all of football and Jason Garrett no longer calling the plays I would be surprised if the Cowboys weren’t a Top 5 offense. With that level of production coming from one side of the ball the Cowboys only need to be a below average defense to be legit playoff contenders. Everyone talks about the Cowboys being historically bad last year AND no longer having their top 3 defensive players (DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee) which is true but Ware was banged up all year and largely ineffective. In 2012 the Cowboys had Ware and Spencer yet it was Spencer who was considered the superior player that year (Profootballfocus ranked him as the #1 3-4 OLB in the NFL that year, well ahead of Ware.). I mention this because Spencer returning seems to be completely inconsequential to Cowboys fans and Ware leaving is considered devastating. The fact is that Ware hasn’t been the “old Ware” since 2011 and having Spencer off an injury plagued season might be better than having Ware off his injury plagued season. Also Sean Lee missed 5 games in 2013 and wasn’t himself in 3 other games so the Cowboys basically only had Lee for half a season. Finally, Jason Hatcher was a Pro Bowler in 2013 and Henry Melton, who was signed to replace him, was a Pro Bowler in 2012 so I don’t expect any noticeable drop off in production from that position. If you accept that Spencer and Melton for Ware and Hatcher is basically a wash then the difference between the 2013 and 2014 Cowboys will be whether 8 quality games by Sean Lee is more important than having an improved Morris Claiborne, JJ Wilcox, Brandon Carr and defensive coordinator. That last one might be the most important as I can’t stress enough how bad Monte Kiffin was as a playcaller so I fully expect there will be major improvement in defensive performance just from the switch of Kiffin to Marinelli.

"Jerry why did you hire me?!"

“Jerry, I’m so old! Why did you hire me?!”

I’m not trying to sell you that the 2014 Cowboys defense will be good but I could see them “regress to the mean” and go from a terrible defense to just a below average one. If that occurs the Cowboys could be nipping at the heels of a playoff berth just like they have been the past 3 seasons.

Conclusion

Everyone knows that the Cowboys have a good offense and a bad defense. The question is just how good the Cowboys will be this year on offense and how bad the defense will be. Call me optimistic but I don’t expect the Cowboys to regress from their Top 5 offensive ranking last year and think that many people are being a little too harsh on the defense. My Dad is in full agreement with Bill Simmons, unknowingly of course, with a 3-13 prediction. Profootballtalk has them ranked as the 24th best team in the NFL (the record would be somewhere around a 5-11 mark). Bob Sturm (The Ticket), Calvin Watkins (ESPNDallas.com), Steve Dennis (sideline reporter for the Dallas Cowboys) and Chris Arnold (The Fan) all have them going 6-10. I’m a little more optimistic as I have them going 7-9 yet was waffling on whether to put them higher not lower than that mark as the Cowboys are so absolutely stacked on offense that I could see them pulling off a Saints 2009-2011 type season in which their offense was so dominant that it didn’t matter that their defense struggled. Of course Romo’s back, Linehan taking over the offensive play calling, Marinelli taking over the defensive play calling, health of the offensive line (they have a great starting 5 but almost no depth behind it), health of the defensive line (Anthony Spencer, Henry Melton and Demarcus Lawrence are their top 3 guys and all are coming off major injuries) and Orlando Scandrick’s suspension all are wild cards on this season. It’s funny that the team I’ve watched for the past two decades is also still one of the hardest teams for me to predict. I know the Seahawks will be great, the Giants will be terrible, the Jaguars will be much improved and the Patriots, Broncos, Saints and Packers will all be in contention for the title. Yet the Cowboys, Redskins, Chiefs and Falcons are the four hardest teams to predict for this NFL season as any of them could go as high as 11-5 and as low as 3-13. That isn’t a great place to be as a Cowboys fan but I suspect we will have some clarity early in the season as I am predicting they beat the 49ers in Week 1 and are 2-2 or 3-1 when a quarter of the season is complete. It would immediately put to bed the dire talk about their defense setting NFL records and give the team some hope that the playoffs are a real possibility. Or the Cowboys get blown out by the 49ers in a few hours and we realize that Dallas is in for a long season, something the pessimists have been preaching for months now on talk radio.

Prediction Time!

Prediction

Predictions are always fun as if you get it right you have bragging rights over friends and if you get it wrong, well who remembers? For instance last year I remember quite clearly how I picked the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl yet it then gets a little hazy. Did I really pick the Houston Texans, the team with the worst record in the NFL in 2013, to play the Seahawks in the Super Bowl as the AFC Champs? I’m unsure. I suspect that somewhere there’s documented evidence of that prediction but who really has the time to find it and why bring up such silliness. Let’s just focus on the positives and all be friends, shall we? With the NFL season upon us I am ready for another set of predictions. I used the format here, which is well done by ESPN as it has 16 NFL writers with their predictions, and then I threw in a few additional ones for fun. Enjoy and let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Which of these predictions is most likely to turn out to be the one I regret the most?

Super Bowl Champion: Seahawks

AFC East: Patriots

AFC North: Bengals

AFC South: Colts

AFC West: Broncos

AFC Wild Cards: Chargers, Jaguars

NFC East: Eagles

NFC North: Packers

NFC South: Saints

NFC West: Seahawks

NFC Wild Cards: Cardinals, Falcons

AFC Champion: Patriots

NFC Champion: Seahawks

Coach of the Year: Pete Carroll

MVP: Aaron Rodgers

Offensive ROY: Johnny Manziel

Defensive ROY: Jadeveon Clowney

Additional picks

First runner up for NFC Wild Card: Vikings

First runner up for AFC Wild Card: Ravens

Worst Record in the League: Giants

Cowboys Record: 7-9

1st Overall Pick in 2015 NFL Draft: Marcus Mariota

Pre-Season Top 100 Prospects List

Leonard Williams

Top 100 Updated 8/31/14 (PR is pass rusher not punt returner)

  1. Leonard Williams DT USC Jr.
  2. Joey Bosa DE Ohio State Soph
  3. Todd Gurley RB Georgia Jr.
  4. Marcus Mariota QB Oregon Jr.
  5. Laremy Tunsil OT Ole Miss Soph
  6. Andrus Peat OT Stanford Jr.
  7. Jameis Winston QB Florida St. Soph
  8. Ifo Ekpre-Olumu CB Oregon Sr.
  9. Duke Johnson RB Miami Jr.
  10. Kevin Hogan QB Stanford Jr.
  11. Laquon Treadwell WR Ole Miss Soph
  12. Arik Armstread DT Oregon Jr.
  13. Vernon Hargreaves III CB Florida Soph
  14. Tony Conner S Ole Miss Soph
  15. Vic Beasley PR Clemson Sr.
  16. Brett Hundley QB UCLA Jr.
  17. Kendall Fuller CB Virginia Tech Soph
  18. Deion Barnes DE Penn St. Jr.
  19. Christian Hackenburg QB Penn St. Soph
  20. Myles Jack LB UCLA Soph
  21. Kei’Varae Russell CB Notre Dame Jr.
  22. Cedric Ogbuehi OT Texas A&M Sr.
  23. Nelson Agholar WR USC Jr.
  24. Mario Edwards Jr. DE FSU Jr.
  25. Owamagbe Odighizuwa DT UCLA Sr.
  26. Landon Collins S Alabama Sr.
  27. Jordan Lucas CB Penn State Jr.
  28. AJ Johnson LB Tennessee Sr.
  29. Tyler Johnstone OT Oregon Jr.
  30. Davonte Fields PR TCU Jr.
  31. Jalen Mills CB LSU Jr.
  32. Dante Fowler Jr. DE Florida Jr.
  33. Desmond King CB Iowa Soph
  34. Shaq Lawson PR Clemson Soph
  35. Quandre Diggs CB Texas #28 5’10 192 Sr.
  36. Robert Nkemdiche DE Ole Miss Soph
  37. TJ Yeldon RB Alabama Jr.
  38. La’el Collins OT LSU Sr.
  39. Jamison Crowder WR Duke Sr.
  40. Amari Cooper WR Alabama Jr.
  41. Jaylon Smith LB Notre Dame Soph
  42. Bralon Addison WR Oregon Jr.
  43. Kenyon Drake RB Alabama Jr.
  44. Damian Swann CB Georgia Sr.
  45. Karl Joseph S West Virginia Jr.
  46. Devante Parker WR Louisville Sr.
  47. Alani Fua PR BYU Sr.
  48. Melvin Gordon RB Wisconsin Jr.
  49. Sean Mannion QB Oregon St. Sr.
  50. Tim Scott CB North Carolina Sr.
  51. Shilique Calhoun PR Michigan St. Jr.
  52. Ty Montgomery WR Stanford Jr.
  53. Marcus Rush PR Michigan St. Sr.
  54. Justin Burris CB North Carolina St. Sr.
  55. Denzel Nkemdiche S Ole Miss Jr.
  56. AJ Tarpley LB Stanford Sr.
  57. Dorial Green-Beckham WR OU Jr.
  58. Denzel Perryman LB Miami Sr.
  59. Clive Walford TE Miami Sr.
  60. Cameron Irving OT FSU Sr.
  61. Randy Gregory PR Nebraska Sr.
  62. Tevin Mitchell CB Arkansas Sr.
  63. Sammy Coates WR Auburn Jr.
  64. Noah Spence PR Ohio State Jr.
  65. Corey Crawford DE Penn St Sr.
  66. Henry Anderson DT Stanford Sr.
  67. Michael Bennett DT Ohio St. Sr.
  68. Connor Cook QB Michigan St. Jr.
  69. Brandon Scherff OT Iowa Sr.
  70. Hunter Henry TE Arkansas Soph
  71. Brendan Langley CB Georgia Soph
  72. Justin Hardy WR East Carolina Sr.
  73. Bryce Petty QB Baylor Sr.
  74. Christian Covington DT Rice Jr.
  75. Erik Striker LB OU Jr.
  76. Mike Davis RB South Carolina Jr.
  77. Atwan Goodley WR Baylor Sr.
  78. Shaq Thompson LB Washington Jr.
  79. Ronald Darby CB FSU Jr.
  80. Braxton Miller QB Ohio St. Sr.
  81. Merrill Noel CB Wake Forest Sr.
  82. Chris Hackett S TCU Jr.
  83. Johnathan Gray RB Texas Jr.
  84. Andre Monroe DT Maryland Sr.
  85. Jaelen Strong WR Arizona St. Sr.
  86. Josh Shaw CB USC Sr.
  87. Cody Prewitt S Ole Miss Sr.
  88. Brandon Carter WR TCU Sr.
  89. Tevin McDonald S Eastern Washington #7 Sr.
  90. Kenneth Dixon RB Louisiana Tech Jr.
  91. Nick O’Leary TE FSU Sr.
  92. Maxx Williams TE Minnesota Soph
  93. Derron Smith S Fresno State Sr.
  94. Keith Smith LB San Jose St. Jr.
  95. Deshazor Everett S Texas A&M Sr.
  96. Eric Kendricks LB UCLA Sr.
  97. Marlin Lane RB Tennessee Jr.
  98. Isaac Gross DT Ole Miss Jr.
  99. Michael Dyer RB Louisville Sr.
  100.  Rashad Greene WR FSU Sr.

NFL Notes on the Cowboys and others

Cowboys

Below is my breakdown of the Cowboys first two preseason games as well as other notes from around the NFL. 

Highlights

WR Dez Bryant-Wow I know, what a reach by me. All I’m saying is that Dez Bryant+Scott Linehan=Top 3 WR status by the end of the year. Jerry will be kicking himself that he didn’t lock up Dez before the season began as his contract will be much more expensive in the Spring of 2015 after his monster season. My prediction is 95 catches for 1,500 yards and 12 TDs for Dez this year.

CB Orlando Scandrick-All reports are that he’s had a dominant camp and it showed in the Ravens game when he locked up the Smiths (Torrey and Steve) in the first 20 minutes. Joe Flacco looked horrible until Scandrick left the game and then their passing game promptly came to life. He will miss the first 4 games this year but when he comes back he will clearly be the #1 CB for the Cowboys in 2014 and beyond.

QB Dustin Vaughan-Vaughan came out of nowhere for most people but I was a huge fan of his going into the 2014 NFL Draft as I gave him a late 3rd round grade as my #7 QB. To put that in perspective, AJ McCarron was my #8 and Aaron Murray was my #9 ranked QBs. Neither have played to this point in the preseason and both appear likely to have pretend injuries and be placed on the IR so their team can keep their rights for 2015. Vaughan could have a similar ending as the Cowboys might keep only two quarterbacks but with Romo’s recent back issues as well as his overall injury history I suspect that they will keep three quarterbacks. Babe Laufenberg recently compared him to Tom Brady and, while I won’t go that far, I do think he has the tools to be a starting QB in the NFL. For posterity sake I’ve posted my draft bio of Dustin that I wrote in March:

  1. Dustin Vaughan West Texas A&M #10 6’4 7/8 235 Sr.

Stats: Lone Star Conference

Year

Yards

%

TD

INT

YPA

Rating

2013

5401

66.2

53

     

2012

4712

64.7

45

13

8.49

158.07

2011

3316

59.4

25

6

8.68

 

2010

96

58.3

0

0

8.0

 

Combine: He had elite size (6’4 7/8 235) yet somehow also the smallest hands in the draft (8 7/8)? He had a bad 40, shuttle and 3 cone but a good vertical and broad jump.

HGT

WGT

Arms

Hands

40

Vert

Broad

Shuttle

3 Cone

6047

235

33

8.88

4.95

29

900

4.43

7.25

Strengths: 31-6 as a starter. He looked like the #1 or #2 QB at the event and was clearly ahead of more heralded Connor Shaw whom he shared snaps with at practice. He ended his career as the school AND conference record holder in passing yards, total yards and TDs. In the 2013 NFLPA game he showed good footwork, an NFL arm and good accuracy. He looked like the best QB at the event which surprised even the most diehard scouts. He has a great sense of humor and spoofed himself in a parody video. 1st team All-District in HS as both a QB and a punter. Division II All-American in 2013. His 5,401 yards was most all time in Conference history and his 53 TDs was 3rd most all time.

Weaknesses: He’s a poor athlete as he had some of the worst 40, shuttle and 3 cone drills showing he’s neither fast nor quick. He’s going from the Lone Star Conference to the NFL so it will be a huge step up in competition.

Overall: Until the NFLPA Game I had never heard of Dustin Vaughan. Now he’s my #7 QB ahead of much bigger names like AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd. There is little to no buzz on this kid so it’s likely he goes undrafted but I think he has the makings of a potential starting QB down the road. He has a cannon, is accurate, dominated his lower level of competition and seems to have a good understanding of how to attack a defense. This guy could be the steal of the 2014 NFL Draft if he goes undrafted and is picked up by a team for training camp. He isn’t a good athlete but he has enough quickness to move around in the pocket and his film shows a good feel for the rush. He’s one of the lesser known prospects in the draft and I’m going out on the limb for him but I honestly think he has more talent than the two SEC QBs (McCarron/Murray) who will be drafted well ahead of him. Huge sleeper with a late 3rdround grade as my #7 QB 3/16/14.

DT Zach Minter-In a span of about 10 plays he had 2 sacks, 4 TFL and 1 forced fumble. It was in the 4th quarter and against third string offensive linemen but to dominate that thoroughly against any level of competition is impressive. He could be the 2015 version of George Selvie as a guy off the street who became a key contributor.

 

Lowlights

Anthony Hitchens-He’s had a few good moments in the first two preseason games but he was atrocious on a few plays as well, especially in the Ravens game. The reality is that I had him as the #3 LB on his COLLEGE team! I thought he was above average backup material at best in May when he was drafted and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind. The positive for him is that he will have every chance in the world to play as a rookie. The negative is that I suspect he will struggle and the Cowboys will be adding additional draft picks and free agents to battle for his playing time in 2015.

Depth-The Cowboys have been bashed too much recently for their poor play on defense in the preseason opener vs. the Chargers. They will be a defense in the bottom quarter of NFL teams next year anyway so when you remove 80% of the starters from that weak unit it will understandably struggle. The issue though is that any injury at all will cause those terrible bench players to suddenly become starters and that could very well be the downfall of the 2014 Dallas Cowboys. Scandrick and Carr as the top 2 CBs is actually very solid but Scandrick will miss the first four games of the year so it will only take an injury to Carr or Claiborne and suddenly you have BW Webb as a starting CB and rookie Terrance Mitchell as the nickel CB! That would be the worst trio of cornerbacks in the league and the Cowboys are only an injury away from having that happen. At defensive end you have a similar situation as Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence is a solid duo of pass rushers yet Lawrence broke his foot and is expected to miss the first 6-8 games of the year and Spencer is coming off an injury that sidelined him the entire 2013 season. If Spencer’s injury recurs early in the year it would leave the Cowboys with George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey as starters! Selvie was picked up off the street last year and Mincey hasn’t started since 2012 yet Dallas is a regression in rehab by Anthony Spencer away from having those two as the season opening starters at defensive end. Last year the Cowboys defense was ravaged by injury in 2013 (their defense had the 4 most injuries in the NFL with a 51.4 adjusted games lost by defensive starters per football outsiders). In 2014 it will take only a few injuries to ravage this shockingly thin defensive unit.

 

Around the rest of the NFL

Johnny Manziel-He wasn’t given the starting job over Hoyer to start the season which fits with my prediction that he won’t start for the first 2-4 games of 2014 but will still win rookie of the year. The Browns were giving off signals to this effect for the past few months and only Hoyer’s 6 for 22 passing effort in Week 2 of the preseason caused them any real food for thought. The Browns will be without Josh Gordon to start the season, Manziel is changing from a spread offense that loved the fast tempo to a ball control running offense and the Steelers are the opponent in Week 1 so it all makes sense to bench Johnny and give him a better debut opportunity later in the season. While Johnny’s poor performance and middle finger salute to the Redskins (he was defending Native Americans honor, that’s all it was) drew all the headlines the more interesting thing to me about Johnny’s second preseason game was that he again was must see TV. In his first preseason game he set a record for the most viewed preseason game EVER on NFL Network. In his second preseason game he was the 2nd highest rated preseason game ever on ESPN. Only Brett Favre’s 2nd game as a Viking beat out Manziel’s impressive 4.2 rating. Whether Johnny succeeds or fails, he will be doing it with all of the world watching.

Joe Flacco-I posted almost a year ago today (8/23/2013), “I’ve been saying it for the past 6 months or ever since sports writers began making the case that Flacco deserves to be paid +$100 million so don’t think I’m saying this just because I watched one crappy preseason performance of his but Joe is going to have a very difficult season in 2013. The bullseye will be on his back as he’s not just one of the 3 highest paid players in the NFL but is also the reigning Super Bowl MVP and will be looked upon as the Ravens locker room leader with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed no longer around. He also lost Anquan Boldin to free agency, Dennis Pitta to a torn ACL, and could be without Ed Dickson for awhile so he’s going into the season with an average supporting cast. Unlike the great QBs like Rodgers, Brady, Manning, and Brees you can’t put any group of skill position players around Flacco and have it work well. His contract makes it seem like that should be the case but in reality he’s not a Top 10 QB, anyone who disagrees with me needs to google articles written 3 years ago when sports writers were proclaiming the same thing about Mark Sanchez and his great postseason performances, and I suspect the Ravens will very soon regret giving Flacco that huge contract. I have the Ravens missing the playoffs and Flacco having a statistical season that lumps him in the middle of the pack among QBs. The media will be calling his blockbuster contract a mistake by midseason.” Since then everything I stated has come true and, with Flacco again looking terrible, I am beginning to wonder if his huge 6 year contract is just a glorified two year deal. The Ravens look terrible on offense and if Ray Rice and the OL actually have a good year yet the offense still struggles then the media will put the blame solely where it belongs, on Joe Flacco. This was one of the worst signings of the past half decade by any franchise and maybe it finally gets the media to remove Teflon GM Ozzie Newsome’s status as “greatest GM ever.”

Top 100

With the NFL season starting in just a few weeks I thought it was time I came out of my cave and began writing a little. This summer I have been quite lazy as I was into the World Cup at an unhealthy level and then followed it up with 6 seasons of Mad Men in 3 weeks. Both were done binge style so it is no surprise to find myself in mid August without any noticeable tan, despite living in Texas where the high was a crisp 102 degrees today. I thought I’d dip my toe in the water with a blog entry about the Top 100 NFL players. The NFL Network does a list every year, theirs is here if interested, but I thought I’d take a crack at it with my own perspective. The first controversy will be at the top where Peyton Manning, unanimous MVP in 2013, isn’t 1st or even 2nd. Let’s just say that if Manning had his LT go from Ryan Clady to Brian Bulaga, his #1 WR go from DeMaryius Thomas to Jordy Nelson, his #2 WR go from Wes Welker to Randall Cobb (possibly the first upgrade in the comparison), his #3 WR go from Erick Decker to James Jones and his TE go from Julius Thomas to Jermichael Finley then his numbers would have been different. Manning dominated the 2013 Season except when he played great defenses or played in big games. Going into the season his 2 biggest games on the schedule were his homecoming against the Colts and his yearly game against the Patriots. Despite having a far superior supporting cast around him he still went 0-2 and then of course was humiliated in the Super Bowl. The Broncos style of offense creates epic numbers, even in his 43-8 thrashing against the Seahawks the offense set Super Bowl records of passing yards, completions and receptions showing exactly what I’m talking about when I say that many of Manning’s stats are hollow, yet in the big games he can’t win. He’s still #4 but in a big game or against a tough defense I’d take Rodgers, Brady or Brees any day of the week over Manning. Gordon ahead of Calvin Johnson is also controversial, though it shouldn’t be considering Gordon had better numbers despite a 2 game suspension and Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden as his quarterbacks while Johnson had Matthew Stafford. Robert Quinn might be controversial as a Top 10 player but to me it is Watt and Quinn as the two best defenders in the NFL today and no one else is even close. Chandler Jones at #29 might be my biggest discrepancy with the NFL Network’s Top 100 as he didn’t even make their list but to me Jones is a 3 down DE who is extremely underrated. I suspect that, with Revis and Browner being added to the roster, the Patriots will be a Top 10 D and Jones will finally get the respect he deserves. He is very similar to JPP yet somehow hasn’t received the same fanfare despite similar styles and similar numbers after their first 2 seasons:

Jason Pierre-Paul    116 tackles, 21 sacks, 4 forced fumbles

Chandler Jones       124 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles

I also thought that having Luck as the #6 player and #5 QB was going to be controversial and it was to some degree, NFL Network had him as the #30 player and #7 QB yet he was the #5 QB on Ron Jaworski’s list of QBs and is quietly rising into the “elite” category. The rest of the list is below, feel free to post comments on who you think is over/under rated on my list.

  1. Aaron Rodgers
  2. Tom Brady
  3. Drew Brees
  4. Peyton Manning
  5. JJ Watt
  6. Andrew Luck
  7. Josh Gordon
  8. Adrian Peterson
  9. Calvin Johnson
  10. Robert Quinn
  11. AJ Green
  12. Jimmy Graham
  13. Navarro Bowman
  14. Joe Thomas
  15. Jamaal Charles
  16. Phillip Rivers
  17. Richard Sherman
  18. LeSean McCoy
  19. Rob Gronkowski
  20. Earl Thomas
  21. Joe Haden
  22. Robert Mathis
  23. Aquib Talib
  24. Tony Romo
  25. Mario Williams
  26. Russell Wilson
  27. Jurrell Casey
  28. Greg Hardy
  29. Chandler Jones
  30. Antonio Brown
  31. Ryan Kalil
  32. Matt Ryan
  33. Brandon Marshall
  34. Luke Kuechly
  35. Patrick Peterson
  36. Dez Bryant
  37. Alfred Morris
  38. John Abraham
  39. Evan Mathis
  40. Gerald McCoy
  41. Ben Roethlisberger
  42. Marshawn Lynch
  43. Jordan Cameron
  44. Pierre Garcon
  45. Joe Staley
  46. Nick Foles
  47. Matt Forte
  48. Alshon Jeffery
  49. Alex Mack
  50. Jason Hatcher
  51. Brent Grimes
  52. Kiko Alonso
  53. Eric Weddle
  54. Cameron Jordan
  55. Eddie Lacy
  56. Vincent Jackson
  57. Justin Houston
  58. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
  59. Ndamakong Suh
  60. Muhammad Wilkerson
  61. Charles Johnson
  62. Andrew Whitworth
  63. Logan Mankins
  64. Vontaze Burfict
  65. Karlos Dansby
  66. Troy Polamalu
  67. Tyron Smith
  68. Kam Chancellor
  69. Lavonte David
  70. Darryl Smith
  71. Jason Peters
  72. Trent Williams
  73. CJ Spiller
  74. Louis Vasquez
  75. Kyle Williams
  76. John Sullivan
  77. Colin Kaepernick
  78. Duane Brown
  79. Vernon Davis
  80. Calais Campbell
  81. DeSean Jackson
  82. Jahri Evans
  83. Aldon Smith
  84. DeAndre Levy
  85. Demaryius Thomas
  86. Cameron Wake
  87. Nate Solder
  88. Darryl Washington
  89. Eric Reid
  90. Jared Allen
  91. Sheldon Richardson
  92. Brandon Boykin
  93. Jordy Nelson
  94. Tamba Hali
  95. Alfonzo Dennard
  96. Bobby Wagner
  97. William Moore
  98. Jason Witten
  99. James Ihedigbo

100. Ezekial Ansah

2014 World Cup Recap

Germany's players pose for pictures as they celebrate with their World Cup trophy after winning their 2014 World Cup final against Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro

Were you as enthralled by the World Cup these past 30 days as I was? I couldn’t get enough as the scoring was up, the diving was down and the parity made so many games come down to a thrilling finish. I was so ecstatic about soccer that I couldn’t let it go and watched the first half of the Seattle Sounders/Portland Timbers last night. Even with Dempsey I got bored after awhile and might be finally hitting my soccer wall but I will have to say that this was the best World Cup since 2002 and really re-energized me as a soccer fan. So without further ado are a few snippets I took from the World Cup.

Group Play All-Star Team
While most lists are tournament teams I decided to only make a Group Play Team since it seemed more fair with games played being equal. It will have some surprise names on it (Fabian Johnson likely being the biggest) yet I went with what I saw and didn’t just copy and paste names in from other peoples’ lists.
Goalkeeper:
Winner-Tim Howard (USA)
Runner Up-Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Defenders:
Winners-Philipp Lahm (Germany), Gary Cahill (England), Thiago Silva (Brazil), Fabian Johnson (USA)
Runner Up- Marcelo Vieira (Brazil)
Midfielders:
Winners-James Rodriguez (Columbia), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Columbia)
Runner Up-Angel di Maria (Argentina)
Forwards:
Winners-Thomas Muller (Germany), Neymar (Brazil)
Runner Up-Arjen Robben (Netherlands)

South America vs. Europe
For decades the difference in style was obvious. South American’s played a free flowing style that accentuated technical skill, passing and movement. Its best example was Brazil, home of “the beautiful game” which they took such great pride in while also inferior competition. For Europe they loved to muddy “the beautiful game” as they were taller and stronger which was their lone advantage over the smaller, faster and more skilled South Americans. Now you watch the World Cup and it is hard to tell which side plays what style. To me the five most free flowing teams were Columbia, France, Costa Rica, Ghana and Germany. The fact that only one South American country, and Argentina and Brazil to both not be that country, made that list shows how times have changed. Germany won the World Cup because they were the best team. They didn’t bludgeon their opponent like they did in the old days when they made it to the Finals in 5 of the 7 World Cups from 1966-1990 but instead played an exciting, high scoring style that actually won a lot of fans. The Germans scored the most goals (18), gave up the fewest goals (4) of any team that made it to the semifinals or farther, had the biggest goal differential (+14), had the most amazing win (7-1 win vs. Brazil) and they had the best player in the tournament in Thomas Muller. It was ironic that they ended up winning the tournament against Argentina as it completed the transformation for Germany. Argentina played a defense first, close to the vest style that was very Italian, English or dare I say German looking while Germany played it open and aggressive like one of the great South American teams of years past. At times Argentina outplayed Germany in the title game but considering Germany scored 9 goals in its last 3 matches compared to Argentina’s 1 I think it’s hard to argue that the wrong team won the tournament. The two most well known South American teams, Brazil and Argentina, both seemed like mediocre teams with one great player (Neymar and Messi). Rarely are teams with one great player able to win a World Cup and until South America regains its depth of talent and re-commits to playing an open and aggressive style I think Europe’s dominance will continue. Europe has won 4 of the last 5 World Cups and I think Columbia will be the only team with any chance of keeping it from becoming 5 of the last 6.

Best Player
3) Lionel Messi-
His stats were good (4 goals-tied for 3rd and 1 assist-tied for 10th with dozens of players) but his real impact came from how much space he created just by being on the pitch. It is too bad that Argentina didn’t play a more open style or that no one except Di Maria in the first 5 games and Higuain in the final 2 games helped him in any real way. Messi had a very good World Cup yet will surely hear from the critics after an invisible final and a close loss. In 2018 he will be 31 years old and likely on the decline so it is disappointing that one of the best players in soccer history will probably end his career without a World Cup trophy but is that really his fault? I would say no.
2) James Rodriguez-He won the Golden Boot with 6 goals and tied with 6 people for 4th with 2 assists. Considering ESPN didn’t even have him ranked as one of the Top 50 most impactful players at this World Cup shows just how far he’s come. At 23 years old he likely has 2 more World Cups in him and Columbia has the youth and flair to possibly be one of the favorites in Russia. He is an emerging superstar after the performance he put in.
1) Thomas Muller-To me he was far and away the best player. So many people focused on his scoring and it’s easy to see why as he had 5 goals (2nd), and was eerily close to garnering his second consecutive Golden Boot, yet the reason why he’s #1 to me is the completeness of his game. He makes the best runs of anyone in the world as his instincts and timing are impeccable. He has enough height to be a legit threat in the box on crosses. He is a very underrated passer (3 assists-3rd in the World Cup) and his talent in setting up his teammates while holding the ball makes him far more dangerous than your traditional poucher type. In my opinion he is the most in shape football player in the world as Muller was still racing around the field at the 118th minute when the goal scored. Finally I think his defense is also an underrated aspect of his game as his long legs and elite endurance allow him to help out right backer, Philipp Lahm, which gives Lahm more freedom to race up the side and play the advantage at times. I’ve been a German fan since the 2006 World Cup so it is fair to say that I’m biased but to me Muller was the best player at the 2014 World Cup.

2014 NFL Draft Grades

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Every year countless publications give draft grades of the A-F variety and it always annoys me as one publication might give a team a B+ and have it mean that it was a very good draft since they gave plenty of Cs, Ds and Fs while another publication might give a B+ and have it mean that it was below average as they gave plenty of A’s. Grading a draft immediately after the draft is borderline pointless in itself as you really need a good 3 years to get the full view of how a draft has played out yet I think that at least in my ranking the drafts from #1-32 you will get a general idea of how your team did. I also did an in depth discussion of the Top 5 drafts, the Bottom 5 drafts as well as 3 other teams which I thought deserved highlighting. I apologize for how late this article is in coming out but, I think due to its unique grading scale, that it still proves relevant. 

  1. Browns: Where did you expect the Browns to be ranked considering they took my #1 player in the draft at #22. I’m not backing down one iota on Manziel as I think he will be offensive rookie of the year in 2014 and he will be a Pro Bowler within the first 3 years of his career. Yet the Browns are #1 not just due to one pick as I’m intrigued by the Justin Gilbert pick at #8, I think it’s a little bit of a reach but he had far and away the highest upside of any cornerback in the draft and if they hit on that pick they suddenly have the best cornerback duo in the league with Joe Haden already on board, and think the Joel Bitonio and Terrance West picks make a lot of sense. The cherry on top though was that they got three Day 1 starters (Manziel, Gilbert, Bitonio) AND somehow set themselves up with two first rounders in 2015. The trade down from #4 to #10 was what really cemented them at #1 in the 2014 draft rankings as I don’t buy the hype on the Buffalo Bills being a playoff team in 2014 so I expect the Browns to have a Top 12 pick next year as well as their own. The Browns have had a terrible offseason with the strange firings of their GM and head coach after only 1 season, their confusing and ultimately unsuccessful courtship of Jim Harbaugh and the year long suspension of their best player (Josh Gordon) but at least the Browns aced the 2014 draft.
  2. 49ers: Another year where the 49ers ended with one of my favorite drafts. I’ve said it the past two years in my draft blogs and I’ll say it again here: When will the media stop talking up the Ravens’ drafts so much and re-focus on the 49ers as the pre-eminent drafting team in the league. This draft had it all as the 49ers had few holes but largely addressed them as they drafted their #5 DB in Jimmie Ward (I had him clearly as a FS but some are saying the 49ers want him in that nickel DB role and will then later sort out whether he is a full time safety or cornerback), added a top notch center (Marcus Smith-the #1 C on my draft board and somehow available to them in the 3rd round!) to replace aging Jonathan Goodwin who recently signed with the New Orleans Saints, and then traded for veteran Steve Johnson after the wideouts they had targeted didn’t fall to them. The 49ers didn’t just address their holes though but used “luxury picks” to the maximum effect as RB Carlos Hyde in the late 2nd round, Pass Rusher Aaron Lynch in the 5th round and FB Trey Millard in the 7th were all steals. All three players will have a battle on their hands to even see the field as quality veterans are ahead of them on the depth chart but adding them to the roster makes the 49ers even more dangerous in 2014 and beyond. The 49ers are clearly the best drafting front office in all of football and it’s time the major media strip the title from Ozzie Newsome who hasn’t had a great draft since 2008 and hasn’t even had an above average draft since 2011.
  3. Packers: I wasn’t a huge fan of S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the 1st as I had a 2nd round grade on him but I was in the minority on that and I do still consider him a Day 1 starter at a position of need for them so it makes sense. The middle and late rounds though were what the Packers draft was all about as I loved the LB Carl Bradford pick in the 4th round and thought the WR Jared Abbrederis pick in the 5th round was one of the 10 best picks in the entire draft. Add in a good pick in the 2nd round with WR Davante Adams, an okay pick in the 3rd round with DT Khryi Thornton and an intriguing pick in the 7th round with WR Jeff Janis and you have an impressive draft from top to bottom. The Packers were an offensively dominant team that made the playoffs despite a lot of injuries so they didn’t need a lot of help yet they somehow were able to add three talented pass catchers (Adams, Abbrederis, Janis) for their star QB while not neglecting the defense as their 1st, 3rd and 4th round picks went to that side of the ball. It’s a perfect example of how to juggle needs while keeping your strengths in working order and it’s the opposite of how the Lions (spent too many high round picks on offense despite the defense being the weakness) and Colts (didn’t give their franchise QB any help) handled a similar situation.
  4. Jaguars: While the Browns are in the Top 5 because of their two 1st round picks and their ability to get another one in 2015 and the Packers are in the Top 5 due to their great picks in the mid to late rounds it’s the Jaguars 2nd round that has them this high. It was by far the best 2nd round of any team in the league as they got WR Marqise Lee (Top 10 grade on my board and my pick for the steal of the draft) at #39 and didn’t outsmart themselves when WR Allen Robinson was still available at #61. I actually didn’t like the Blake Bortles pick at #3, he was my #4 QB and a late 1st rounder on my board so taking him in the Top 5 and as the #1 QB was a stretch in more ways than one, yet the Jaguars have laid about as good of a foundation as possible for him to be successful. They have a veteran mentor in Chad Henne who is just good enough to allow Bortles a redshirt year if he needs it and just average enough to be beaten if Bortles is up to the challenge. They added a franchise caliber LT last year in Luke Joeckel who should man the LT spot for the next decade in Jacksonville. They added a veteran running back in Toby Gerhart who was rarely used in Minnesota so he should have plenty of tread left on his tires when Bortles eventually does become the starter. Finally they added two of my five highest rated wideouts from the 2014 Draft (Lee/Robinson) to join underrated Cecil Shorts. That is an outstanding supporting cast for any young QB to have and could be enough to tip the scales in favor of Bortles succeeding. Despite all of my high praise for Jacksonville, this draft still comes down to how good of a quarterback Bortles becomes. Everyone compared him to Ben Roethlisberger but Ben had a cannon coming out of Miami of Ohio and Bortles has mediocre velocity at best. To me he reminds me of a smarter, more accurate EJ Manuel than he does Roethlisberger as they have similar bodies as well yet both have inferior arm strength for their size, good but not great running ability and are raw passers. I loved the Jaguars 2nd round as well as the CB Aaron Colvin pick in the 4th round, the LB Telvin Smith pick in the 5th round and the Pass Rusher Chris Smith pick in the 5th round yet this draft will be decided by Bortles development and, with word out that he is likely to redshirt in 2014, this draft will be tough to grade for a few years.
  5. Vikings: For the 3rd straight year the Vikings ended with two or more first round picks. I think Spielman should have been fired as GM of the Vikings years ago (Honestly how do you survive the backlash involved with taking Christian Ponder 12th Overall just 3 drafts ago? He was a HUGE reach at the time and ended up being an obvious bust yet 3 years later management gives him the keys to the car again and says “go find us another QB.” I just don’t get it.) yet I at least like how he has a philosophy (gather 1st round picks in huge abundance) and has stuck with it. Also I’m pretty high on the past 5 first rounders he’s chosen: Matt Kalil (Pro Bowl), Harrison Smith (Pro Bowl), Sharrif Floyd (quiet rookie season but I still believe in him), Xavier Rhodes (average rookie season at the second hardest position in football for rookies to play so it’s very possible he will have a much better 2nd season) and Cordarrelle Patterson (an intriguing talent that excelled as a kickoff returner but was lost as a receiver). Anthony Barr has as much upside as any player in this draft outside of Clowney, Manziel and Robinson so it makes sense he went in the Top 10, though I had him as a mid 1st talent. Teddy Bridgewater was a Top 10 talent, despite his horrendous Pro Day which caused his stock to drop precipitously, so getting him at #32 was a steal. Also I love that Spielman maneuvered around the Texans at #33 for him as, even if the Texans didn’t want him as the first pick on Day 2, there was too much of a risk that someone would try and outbid the Vikings for Bridgewater if given a night to think about it. Moving up into the late 1st was likely cheaper than moving up into the early 2nd so Spielman’s aggressiveness and spontaneity earns him points. Those two 1sts were the reason for the Vikings high score but DE Scott Crichton in Round 3 and OG David Yankey in Round 5 were both steals. I had a mid 2nd round grade on Yankey so getting him for 4 years at $2.43 million will pay dividends for years to come as he’ll likely start next to Matt Kalil on the left side of the line and be a dominant , and cheap, duo.
  6. Bucs
  7. Titans
  8. Chiefs
  9. Raiders
  10. Texans
  11. Rams: The Rams had the 2nd best pick of the 1st round when they selected Aaron Donald at #13. I can’t even explain how much I love this pick as to me Robert Quinn is the best pass rusher in the NFL and is now going to be paired with Donald for the next decade. Throw in Chris Long, an underrated duo of Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford as well as an overrated backup in Michael Sam and you have the makings of the best DL in all of football. They didn’t rank any higher on my list though because I thought Greg Robinson at #2 was too high, especially considering that they are going to start him at OG as a rookie, and I wasn’t extremely high on any of their picks in Rounds 3-7. Many low level draft guys will point to Michael Sam in the 7th and Tre Mason in the 3rd as “steals” yet the reality is that those are just talking heads who have a working knowledge of the SEC. I had a 7th round grade on Sam and a mid 4th round grade on Mason so neither would be considered a steal in my book. I also really didn’t like the Mason pick as the Rams have holes in some areas of their roster but RB was not one of them. With Zach Stacy (6th round pick in 2013) as the clear cut starter and Isaiah Pead (2nd round pick in 2012) and Darryl Richardson (7th round pick in 2012) battling for the #2 and #3 spots I think it was pretty safe to avoid the position altogether this draft. Instead they used a valuable pick on it which immediately made Richardson expendable, he was cut shortly thereafter, and likely just switches one backup RB for another. I would say that’s a pretty dumb drafting strategy unless Mason wins the starting job from Stacy which I consider unlikely.
  12. Steelers
  13. Redskins
  14. Bears
  15. Cowboys: They started out strong with a good, safe pick in the 1st round in OG/OT Zack Martin and then a high upside pick that I liked in DE DeMarcus Lawrence. Those are two Day 1 starters at need areas and I like how the Cowboys have used a 1st round selection on an OL in 3 of the past 4 drafts after going +15 years under Jerry Jones without one. He clearly understood that he’d had one of the best groups of skill position players in the NFL the past half decade yet weren’t utilizing them at their peak efficiency due to the OL problems. With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the fold the Cowboys have 3 potential Pro Bowlers and could become one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. That should extend the careers of Tony Romo and Jason Witten a few more years as it will make everyone’s job easier on offense. I also love the DeMarcus Lawrence pick as I had him and Stephon Tuitt as the last two “impact” pass rushers in the draft and wasn’t nearly as high on the next tier types of Kony Ealy, Scott Crichton and Trent Murphy. The Cover 2 scheme that Dallas runs under Rod Marinelli is predicated on the front four creating a pass rush and with Lawrence on board there at least appears to be a chance that the scheme could work. Unfortunately to get Lawrence they had to sacrifice their 3rd round pick and that gives me pause as this is the deepest and best draft I’ve ever graded so to lose a valuable pick like that is painful as he very well could have been a top level starter. After the draft Stephen Jones told reporters that if the trade hadn’t been made they would have taken Kony Ealy in the 2nd round and Trai Turner in the 3rd round. Ealy to me projects as an average starting DE at best but Turner was one of my 10 favorite players in this draft as I stated at least 4x on my blog that it’s a question of when not if Turner makes the Pro Bowl as an OG. It’s a topic to discuss another day but Lawrence will need to have a very good career for me to forget that we traded away Trai Turner just to move up for Lawrence. While the trade up was controversial it at least made sense, which is something that cannot be said of the Cowboys 4th round pick in Anthony Hitchens. He’s an experienced, productive player from a Top 5 conference but his average athleticism and limited number of splash plays makes me suspect that he’ll be a mediocre starter at best. Justin Durant is a good comparison due to Durant’s solid tackle totals (443 tackles in 79 games) but very poor splash totals (3.5 sacks, 2 INTs in 79 games). Devin Street is another strange pick as the Cowboys, to that point, hadn’t addressed DT, CB or S and no one would have questioned them if they double dipped at DE or LB as their defense was the worst in the NFL last year. Strangely they chose a WR in Street in the 5th round, I had a late 5th grade on him but strongly preferred Robert Herron or Jared Abbrederis, and will be curious to see if he even beats out undrafted signee L’damian Washington who I had an early 4th round grade on. They are eerily similar prospects in size and style yet Washington has a much better burst as well as superior body control, he’s great at back shoulder catches, so I expect this to be similar to the Danny Coale/Cole Beasley situation of 2 years ago when they drafted Coale but I had a higher ranking on Beasley and Beasley ended up with the job. The 7th round provided some respite for Cowboys fans as they had 5 picks and one of them was great (S Ahmad Dixon), two of them were good (LB Will Smith, DB Terrance Smith) and the other two were solid and by no means reaches (DE Ben Gardner, DT Ken Bishop). Overall the Cowboys made two impressive additions to their starting lineup in Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence and then added 7 other players with similar grades who will have a chance to compete for spots on the 53 man roster. It was hardly a resounding success but the early rounds are more important than the later ones so it’s nice to see the Cowboys again be successful with their Day 1 and Day 2 picks.
  16. Bengals
  17. Panthers
  18. Eagles
  19. Broncos
  20. Patriots
  21. Cardinals
  22. Jets
  23. Bills
  24. Chargers: The Chargers are a good example of how a few “roll of the dice” types in the late rounds can change a draft grade in years to come. I really liked their 1st round pick (CB Jason Verrett) but thought their 2nd round pick was a reach (3-4 OLB Jeremiah Attouchu) and their 3rd round pick was terrible (OG Chris Watt). In the 6th round though they intrigued me with the selection of Marion Grice and followed it up with another intriguing selection in the 7th in Tevin Reese. These are two speedy playmakers that an innovative coach could get some production out of as they both have been dynamic playmakers in big conferences (Pac-12 and Big 12 respectively) that fell due to their slight frames and injury history. Either of them could become Dexter McCluster types and become steals as late round picks which would turn an otherwise poor draft into a good one.
  25. Falcons
  26. Giants
  27. Saints
  28. Lions: Sometimes a draft is less about the players chosen and more about the strategy behind the players chosen. I said that in 2011 when they chose Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel LeShoure with a 1st round pick and two 2nd round picks as I wasn’t against Fairley or LeShoure (I was openly against Young as I had a 6th round grade on him due to his long list of off the field issues and knew he’d be trouble) but was very against them taking all three of them in one draft as you just don’t add that many character issues to a locker room at once. It ended poorly for them as Young went AWOL, is out of the league and currently in jail while awaiting numerous criminal charges, LeShoure has been a rarely used running back that is currently 4th on the team’s depth chart and Fairley just had his 5th year option not picked up due to questions about his work ethic and maturity. This year is more of the same as I don’t dislike TE Eric Ebron at #10 or C Travis Swanson at #76 but dislike the strategy behind the picks. The Lions the past five seasons have had an average defensive ranking of 23.2 among the 32 NFL teams. That means they’ve been, on average, in the bottom quarter of defenses the past half decade. The past five seasons they’ve had an offensive ranking of 15.4 among the 32 NFL teams, with an even better ranking of 12.6 the past 4 seasons, which means that they’ve been in the top half to top third of NFL teams in offense. Yet this offseason their big money free agent acquisition was WR Golden Tate, their valuable 10th Overall Pick was TE Eric Ebron and even their 3rd round pick was C Travis Swanson. The Lions aren’t asking the right questions if their answer is to add more offensive talent. Their biggest issue is a secondary that is one of the weaker in the NFL, and has been for almost a decade now, yet they once again didn’t address it with a big name free agent or early round draft pick. They did sign S James Ihedigbo but he’s more of an average starting safety than a real impact player which is what the Lions really could use. I expect the Lions to once again have a vaunted passing attack and once again have a below average defense which should, once again, have them miss the playoffs. Please remind me of the meaning of insanity?
  29. Dolphins: They began the draft horribly by taking Ja’Wuan James at #19. Now I liked James and had an early 2nd round grade on him but to take him in the mid 1st is just plain dumb and is a great example of how teams shouldn’t get carried away with addressing needs as it too often ends badly. In the 2nd round they actually made a very good pick as Jarvis Landry in the latter parts of the round was good value and fit the team perfectly. He is that physical possession receiver type that will complement the speedy but soft Mike Wallace and is a great addition to their questionable locker room as Landry was my pick for the hardest worker/squeakiest clean prospect in this draft. Yet after making a great selection in the 2nd they turned to small school prospects with 4 of their final 5 picks and I rarely agreed with them. I liked CB Walt Aikens from Liberty as well as WR Matt Hazel from Coastal Carolina but when you add in LB Jordan Tripp from Montana and OG Billy Turner from North Dakota State it began to have the appearance that the Dolphins were overemphasizing the small schools. The Jaguars under Gene Smith from 2009-2012 focused on small school prospects and it ended up costing him his job. He hit on Cecil Shorts from Mount Union but ended up with too many busts from schools like Ashland, LeHigh, Central Arkansas, Murray State and James Madison. Studies have shown that bigger school prospects have a higher success rate than smaller school ones so I’m always hesitant when a team focuses so much on smaller school guys. Overall the Dolphins had a very questionable draft though I did love the Landry pick and think Aikens, Hazel and Tripp have a chance to buck the trend of small school prospects.
  30. Ravens: I mentioned it in the 49ers section but it’s worth mentioning again that the Ravens have become very overrated in their drafting. Their strategy is to take bigger, stronger players for each position at the expense of speed and athleticism. This is evident in recent 1st/2nd round selections LB Courtney Upshaw, OG Keleche Osemele, CB Jimmy Smith and NT Terrence Cody. All of these players are near the top end of the weight range for their positions and all have struggled at times due to medioce athleticism. It’s a strategy that worked well for Bill Parcells in the 80’s and 90’s yet doesn’t work as well today with the NFL being a passing league. GM Ozzie Newsome also loves big conferences as in the past 15 drafts he’s only taken 1 player in the first two rounds that wasn’t in one of the “big five conferences” (SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC) and that was Delaware’s Joe Flacco. He’s also become obsessed with the SEC as 5 of the past 6 drafts have seen him take an SEC player with one of his first two picks. Another common trait of the Ravens is that they almost never trade up as he hasn’t traded up in the 1st round since 2008 (again Joe Flacco, a pick that has broken a number of trends of Newsome) but has traded down in the 1st round quite often. This year’s draft was loved by few but wasn’t panned by too many either as Newsome still is given a free pass on most drafts no matter how mediocre they’ve been in recent years. Whether you look at his 3 most recent 1st rounders (S Matt Elam, CB Jimmy Smith and OT Michael Oher) or his 7 most recent 2nd rounders (LB Arthur Brown, LB Courtney Upshaw, OG Keleche Osemele, WR Torrey Smith, LB Sergio Kindle, NT Terrance Cody, LB Paul Kruger) you’ll notice a trend as most of his high picks become mediocre starters. None of those 10 players have made the Pro Bowl one (Sergio Kindle) is an obvious bust and two others (Terrance Cody and Courtney Upshaw) are on the verge of joining him. It’s not a terrible draft record but can’t be considered anything better than mediocre and I’d argue that Torrey Smith, Paul Kruger and Michael Oher are the only impact players with Kruger being only an impact player for a season (2012 season he had 9 sacks and 42 tackles but in the previous 3 seasons COMBINED he only had 6.5 sacks and 27 tackles). That is not the haul you’d expect from the “best GM in football” yet somehow the title will remain. This year they took CJ Mosley in the 1st (I had a 2nd round grade on him), Timmy Jernigan in the 2nd (I had a 3rd round grade on him), Crocket Gilmore in the 3rd (I had a 6th round grade on him) and Brent Urban in the 4th (I had a priority free agent grade on him). It just appeared to be one reach after the other and I have my doubts that Mosley or Jernigan will break Newsome’s Pro Bowl drought which goes back to the 2008 Draft with Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.
  31. Seahawks: I know I know, the Seahawks just won the Super Bowl. Honestly though that has no relevance as to whether their 2014 Draft was good or bad and it makes me laugh how often people bring that up in defense. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl in 1995 yet that doesn’t mean Kavika Pittman in the 1st round of the 1996 NFL Draft was somehow a good pick. Pittman in 1996 was a bust as was Shante Carver in ’94, LaFleur in ’97 and Ekuban in ’99. Due to this string of 1st round busts the Cowboys went from the best team in the league to an old, mediocre shell of its former self very quickly. I’m not saying that the Seahawks are going to do that too but if they continue to draft like they did this year it COULD happen. Justin Britt, their late 2nd round pick, had a 7th round grade on my board and I honestly thought that I had him higher than most. He’s a solid RT type but his medical dossier is absurd and I would have put it at a 90% chance that he went undrafted. For the Seahawks to take him in the late 2nd is just flat out bad. Cassius Marsh, their early 4th round pick, is a talented player but he isn’t athletic enough to be a pass rusher (he ran a +4.90 40 which is in the realm of offensive line not pass rusher) let alone linebacker. The hope is that his fiery demeanor and impressive agility for his size will translate as a SLB in a 4-3 but it’s simply a roll of the dice type pick and with his off the field issues I thought it was a reach this early in the draft. After that they chose a number of small school (Middle Tennessee State, Marshall, San Diego State) guys I didn’t know much about but overall it seemed like every pick of theirs, except Kevin Pierre-Louis in the 4th which I LOVED, was either a huge reach or an unknown prospect. In 2013 their draft class was panned by me too and it appears valid, albeit after 1 year, as no one except their 7th round pick Michael Bowie contributed for them. The Seahawks are the most talented roster in the NFL today but the 49ers have been one of the best drafting teams the past 3 years while the Seahawks have been one of the worst the past 2 years (the Hawks 2012 draft with Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin was a Top 5 draft so their streak of bad drafts is only 2) and if that continues it could shift the balance of power in the NFC West.
  32. Colts: I’ll be the first to admit that when news of the Trent Richardson trade came down last fall I was stoked. I thought it was exactly what Andrew Luck needed as he was singlehandedly keeping that team in playoff contention and Richardson was going to help him in 2014 and pair with him for the next half decade. I clearly was wrong as he was a huge bust and it makes this draft look even worse since they traded away their 1st round pick for Richardson and his 2.9 yards per carry average. Unfortunately for Luck the Colts likely would have been #32 in my rankings even without taking into account the Richardson trade as they had just a terrible draft. It began with Jack Mewhort in the 2nd round who I had a late 6th round grade on, continued in the 3rd when they took Donte Moncrief who I expect to be nothing more than a good #3 WR and ended with Ulrick John in the 7th who I had never heard of. In between they chose S Jonathan Newsome and LB Andrew Jackson in the 5th and 6th rounds, two players that I had higher grades on than their 2nd rounder Mewhort. Unfortunately safety and linebacker aren’t two positions that will help make Andrew Luck’s job any easier on offense so once again the Colts didn’t add any elite young talent for Luck to grow up with. I like their free agent signing of Hakeem Nicks as he’s a former 1st rounder who still is only 26 years old and could recapture his old form but the reality is that they’ve surrounded Luck, in my opinion the pre-eminent young quarterback in the NFL today, with a bunch of #2 and #3 wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. They need to get him that Pro Bowl skill position player soon so he doesn’t start wondering why the team is always making his job so difficult. Considering that this was the best wide receiver draft that I’ve ever graded I think it’s damning that Luck again got no help on offense from the Colts upper management.
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