Is it too early in the season to talk about firing coaches? Well, it’s already on my mind, and there are some coaches who clearly are already feeling the heat, so let’s jump right in.
I’ve heard a lot of chatter about the “USC receiver curse” in recent years. how highly-regarded receivers from the school have struggled at the NFL level. With Nelson Agholor being talked about as though he was struggling to adapt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster potentially a high draft selection next year, I decided to do a little research to see if this idea had any merit.
First, some good news: We should returning to zonereads.com shortly; I’ve been a little delayed by this whole “attempting to make a living” thing, but I should be importing the site back over soon.
I’m also planning to get back to more regular content; it’s certainly not like I lack for thoughts about the NFL, but I have lacked motivation to take the time to articulate them at column length. I already have a few ideas for upcoming columns, and I hope to crank those out in the next couple of weeks, although I have other projects that are labors of love or labors of money that could squeeze my time.
I’d like to get a weekly column going for either fantasy or gambling purposes. We’ll see if I succeed.
On to the purposes of this column: A quickly assembled guess at this year’s NFL standings, which of course is both too similar to last year’s to be interesting and too similar to be correct, given the variances and deviations that happen every year.
At the end of part 3, I said I’d attempt to address why teams don’t examine their processes more closely, why they don’t try to refine or improve them. I think the answer comes down to how decisions are made in the NFL.
I think the NFL has a corporate culture that incentivizes not making waves and not going off the beaten path.
I’ve made notes throughout the first few parts of this mega-post regarding players who fell in the draft despite their obvious talent, notes that said I would address in part 3.
Well, I apologize. Part 3 ran over 4500 words, so I broke it into two parts as well. This will be a four-part post.
In both previous sections, I highlighted players and factors that I think speak to why the NFL struggles to master the draft. I wanted to delve into those factors in detail, and perhaps more importantly, attempt to answer the question of why this continues to happen. Here’s how I see it, in short: Teams worry about the wrong things and have too many incentives against changing.
I was quite excited for what the Cleveland Browns might do in this year’s draft. I watched a lot more baseball in the 1990s and 2000s, and was well aware of (and paid close attention to) Billy Beane’s work with the Oakland A’s. (I also haven’t forgotten how old-school scouts derided it as nerd nonsense by people who had never played the game and didn’t understand the arcane complexities of their sport. That’ll come up later.)
As someone who believes the NFL, both on a league-wide and on the individual team level, is in many ways run by backward, ossified processes that seem to have all the scientific rigor of bloodletting or the Ptolemaic system, I was intrigued by the thought of a team applying real analysis and big data to their front-office processes. This draft was the first chance to see the new front office in action.
So it turns out I have a lot more to say about this year’s NFL Draft than I thought I did. In my first draft of this article, this was my opening paragraph:
When enough is said before the draft– and I’ve been saying a lot, at least on Twitter if not on the blog– there’s not much to say afterward. Just a collection of observations from me, some about certain teams or their executives, others about general trends:
Well, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. By the time I got somewhere north of six thousand words, I decided I was going to need to break up my draft posting into multiple entries, to cover the several major topics I intended to cover.
Part 2 will be a deeper look at the Cleveland Browns draft and the idea of analytics in football. Part 3 will be some thoughts on the NFL’s processes as a whole. For part 1, here are some observations I made about a handful of teams’ drafts.
I was working on turning that four-round mock into a seven-round mock… and then the Eagles trade broke yesterday. So, we have two blockbuster trades to the top, presumably for QBs; hence the “Double Blockbuster Mock.” And, as the title suggests… we’re going the whole way. Seven rounds. All seven and we’ll watch them fall! (RIP, Prince. Another star too bright for this world.)
I’ll write commentary as much as I can– for the first round, for sure, and selected picks thereafter. A mix of what I think, who I like, and needs. And I projected a handful of trades.
Yes, I know we’ve been living in a post-Blockbuster world for some time thanks to Netflix, but I mean the Titans-Rams trade that puts Los Angeles at the #1 spot. We’re assuming they take a QB, so I’ve mocked accordingly.
I’ll have short writeups for the early picks and then just list the later rounds. I’ve also projected a couple of trades here.
Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.
With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).
I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.
The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).
In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.
If you saw the 2013 draft that ran a few days ago, you’ll know how this works.
This mock isn’t necessarily tied to that one. It operates on the same rules, though. One thing you’ll find different is that, since we are only into the second year of these players’ careers, I had less hard data on how they would perform in the NFL, and so had to weigh predictions of future performance more heavily.
In order to gear up for draft season, and in some small way make up for the lack of Zone Reads content over the last two months due to various personal and professional obligations, I’ll be publishing some mock drafts and re-drafts in the next few days.
I decided to take a swing a 2013 first, because enough time has passed that I think I have a reasonable picture of player value, and also because it was generally regarded as such a weak class. I thought it would be a fun season to choose.
I didn’t try to do this as a strict ranking; at some point, prospects are close enough together in value where I can’t make any meaningful distinction. In certain cases, I’ve erred on the side of giving teams a player at a position of need, or, even better, a player who actually ended up on the team.
Last note: I eliminated all draft-day trades, but kept all pre-draft ones. (So the Jets have Tampa Bay’s pick from the Darrelle Revis trade, St. Louis has Washington’s pick from the Robert Griffin trade, and Minnesota has Seattle’s pick from the Percy Harvin trade.)
Without further ado…
1. Kansas City Chiefs
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
One of the few legitimate superstars from this class, Hopkins is a passing game all by himself, one of the four best wide receivers in football right now. He happens to be a great fit for Kansas City, whose passing game was woeful in 2012, and in 2013 would be led by Alex Smith, and whatever part of Dwayne Bowe could still be considered a useful wide receiver.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
A pretty easy selection of a guy who has a case for the #1 pick. True interior penetrators are rare and can disrupt an offense by themselves. Richardson’s suspension this year makes him a clear #2 behind Hopkins to me; the risk of missing games is enough to break any tie.
3. Oakland Raiders
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
An argument can be made for a number of players here. Since the Raiders chose a cornerback in the first round in real life (albeit after trading down), I mocked them a guy who has arguably developed into one of the league’s shutdown corners.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
When in doubt, choose the pass rusher. Even though the Eagles took an offensive tackle originally, I simply felt pass-rushing was more important than pass protection. Ansah is seond in the league in sacks right now (11.5 through 11 games) and is arguably playing at an All-Pro level.
5. Detroit Lions
Terron Armstead, OT, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Armstead had FBS offers coming out of high school, but would only attend a college that allowed him to continue competing in track and field. The athleticism he showed at the Combine has translated to the NFL, as he’s become one of the league’s better left tackles. As Jeff Backus retired in the 2013 offseason, he’s a perfect fit for Detroit, too. (I’d play Riley Reiff at left tackle and Armstead at right tackle in 2013, then flip them.)
6. Cleveland Browns
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
The Browns believed in the importance of a three-down running back who can be fully featured in the run and pass game enough to trade three other picks in order to move from #4 to #3 and draft Trent Richardson one year prior. Now they get the running back they thought they were getting then.
7. Arizona Cardinals
Tyrann Mathieu, CB/S, LSU
Mathieu displayed some of the most incredible instincts I’ve ever seen in college, but slipped in the draft for the nebulous, oversimplifying “character concerns” reason. He’s playing at an All-Pro level this year in Arizona; I am certain they would want to keep him at any cost.
8. Buffalo Bills
Keenan Allen, WR, California
Whether you see this as a move that allows them to avoid trading up for Sammy Watkins the next year and losing their 2015 pick, or as a receiver who complements Watkins well and opens up the possibility of a devastating pass attack, the Buffalo Bills were a team in serious need of offensive help, and Allen brings it. He was having a dominant season before he went down with an injury. (He’d certainly do a lot more for a passing game than E.J. Manuel would.)
9. New York Jets
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Lotulelei fell in the draft because of some medical concerns about a heart condition that were overstated. He’s become one of the better defensive tackles in the league; since the Jets miss out on Sheldon Richardson in this draft, they’re sure to want someone else to fill the position.
10. Tennessee Titans
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
Short was the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2013, to follow up Lotulelei, but this year he’s arguably played better than his higher-drafted linemate. He would make a devastating pair of penetrators alongside Jurrell Casey.
11. San Diego Chargers
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
They wanted a right tackle badly enough to draft D.J. Fluker #11 overall. Now they have a better one.
12. Miami Dolphins
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Eifert would give their offense a dynamic seam and red-zone threat they didn’t have then, and that they arguably don’t have now (but that they hoped they were getting with Jordan Cameron).
13. New York Jets (from Tampa Bay)
Darius Slay, CB, Mississippi State
Having a slight down year, but then, so is everyone in Detroit. Still a guy who can be a legit #1 cornerback.
14. Carolina Panthers
Jamie Collins, OLB, Southern Miss
Collins could fill the outside linebacker spot opposite Thomas Davis (that Shaq Thompson does now), and switch to pass-rusher as needed. A good fit that offers flexibility on defense.
15. New Orleans Saints
Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati
An athletic, potentially game-changing tight end? They’ve been able to put those to good use in New Orleans. In this scenario, Kelce is around to take over when Jimmy Graham is traded to the Seahawks– an ideal match.
16. St. Louis Rams
Kyle Long, G/T, Oregon
The Rams are always targeting nasty, physical offensive linemen– occasionally to a ridiculous degree (four linemen in the 2015 draft, and one more in the supplemental draft!)– so why not draft them one who’s actually good?
17. Pittsburgh Steelers
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Vaccaro can play either free or strong safety, and his flexibility will become more valuable once Troy Polamalu is gone.
18. Dallas Cowboys
Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
Pretty much the same logic they used to draft him in the real draft.
19. New York Giants
Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
Again, another team in need of an offensive lineman takes one who’s been pretty good (albeit after a somewhat rocky rookie year).
20. Chicago Bears
Larry Warford, G, Kentucky
See above. I put Warmack ahead of Warford because I think his ceiling is ultimately higher, although Warford was better out of the gate.
21. Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
We’re reaching the point where above-average starters and good rotation players are the best left on the board, and when in doubt, I mocked a player to the team that drafted him originally if he was roughly at the top of the board.
22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington)
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
I’m not sure what kind of year he’s having, but I think he’s essentially the guy they expected him to be when they drafted him. Which is good enough for them to do it again.
23. Minnesota Vikings
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
24. Indianapolis Colts
Justin Pugh, G/T, Syracuse
The Colts have constantly struggled to protect Andrew Luck, so adding a guy who can step right in at right tackle is pretty valuable.
25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle)
Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Yes, I just mocked the Vikings the same two players they drafted in the real draft. I guess that means they did a good job? (We won’t mention Cordarrelle Patterson.)
26. Green Bay Packers
Eric Reid, FS, LSU
They wouldn’t have yet drafted HaHa Clinton-Dix in this case, and Reid has been a pretty solid free safety for San Francisco, as far as I know.
27. Houston Texans
Bennie Logan, DT, LSU
Logan has really come on strong his third year; he’s big enough to play nose tackle for Houston’s 3-4 defense, as well.
28. Denver Broncos
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Despite Lacy’s apparent determination to prove wrong Rod Beck’s maxim that no one ever went on the disabled list with pulled fat, Lacy at his best could be the bellcow Denver was looking for when they selected Montee Ball in the second round that year.
29. New England Patriots
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
A pass-catching running back with game-breaking ability is a great fit for the Patriots. Ordinarily such a situational player wouldn’t go so high, but 2013 didn’t have a lot of top-end talent.
30. Atlanta Falcons
D.J. Fluker, G/T, Alabama
It’s a starting offensive lineman! And you know how much we’ve always wanted one of those!
31. San Francisco 49ers
T.J. McDonald, SS, USC
I’ve heard McDonald has had a pretty good year for the Rams. That and the fact that the 49ers drafted a safety in real life is good enough for me.
32. Baltimore Ravens
Ricky Wagner, OT, Iowa
A pretty good starting right tackle is a good get here. The Ravens won’t get the value they did in real life, when they took him in the fifth round, but he’s still capable of being a solid part of their offensive line.
Keep an eye out tomorrow for a 2014 re-draft.
Earlier this week, I posited the question on Twitter for two nearby teams that were having poor years: What if the Saints and Texans merged rosters?
They seemed to have rosters that would fit together well, with each team having a strength where the other hand a hole, and vice versa. To make it more interesting (and also realistic), I decided to look up the 2015 cap hits for every player and build the team under the salary cap (listed on spotrac.com as $146,025,476). My goal here was to create the best 53-man roster possible while remaining under the salary cap.
I’m only considering players who were on the team as of this week, when I wrote this– not players who were on the team earlier in the year (like, say, Akiem Hicks or Kenny Phillips for the Saints).
And here we go. Texans fans are likely to be unhappy for a little while.
- Drew Brees (age: 36, 2015 cap hit: $23,800,000)
- Luke McCown (34, $665,000)
- Garrett Grayson (24, $618,291)
- Total: $25,083,291
This one is fairly straightforward. Brees is the only NFL-caliber starting quarterback on either roster, so he has to make the team, even at his age and cap hit. McCown is by far the cheapest of the next three options (Brian Hoyer’s cap hit starts with a 5, which would be fine if it were one digit fewer). And Garrett Grayson is the best prospect for the future. (Tom Savage is on injured reserve; we’ll get to IR at the end of the roster, but frankly, Grayson is the best prospect irrespective of Savage’s presence.)
- Mark Ingram (25, $2,000,000)
- C.J. Spiller (28, $2,000,000)
- Khiry Robinson (25, $585,334)
- Marcus Murphy (24, $452,322)
- Austin Johnson (FB) (26, $510,000)
- Total: $5,547,656
I know this one will make Texans fans unhappy. It’s pretty straight-forward: Arian Foster is a 29-year-old running back with a significant injury history and a cap hit of over $8.7M. You might be able to justify paying Foster and carrying one fewer running back if he could still reliably perform at his peak level, but at his age, you can’t count on that.
With Foster too expensive to risk, I think the rest of the Texans running backs are pretty bad, so this was fairly easy. No one besides Foster on Houston’s roster is even as good as Khiry Robinson, let alone Ingram and Spiller. Marcus Murphy adds value as a kick and punt returner. I went with Austin Johnson over Jay Prosch, knowing little about fullbacks, because he’s cheaper (and I don’t know how much Prosch plays, if at all).
- DeAndre Hopkins (23, $2,080,010)
- Brandin Cooks (22, $1,905,330)
- Willie Snead (22, $435,000)
- Jaelen Strong (21, $627,995)
- Nate Washington (32, $615,000)
- Total: $5,663,335
DeAndre Hopkins is a budding superstar, an obvious choice for our #1 receiver and a must-have even at five times the cost. Brandin Cooks hasn’t turned into the star the Saints envisioned, but at his current age and cap number, he’s still a bargain– and he’s more suited to this role, the #2 to Hopkins’ #1. Willie Snead has come on strong as arguably the Saints’ most reliable receiver. Jaelen Strong is very young and a fine prospect to ease along in a fourth or fifth wide receiver role. I chose Nate Washington as the “cagey veteran mentor” to round out the bunch. Marques Colston is too expensive and has seemingly lost it. You could argue for Cecil Shorts, but Washington is on a one-year minimum deal and Shorts is being paid $6 million for two years. Even though he’s younger, I’m not sure he adds much value to the team at all, let alone over Washington. Cooks, Snead, and Strong can contribute on special teams, so I wasn’t worried about finding a player to fit that type.
- Ben Watson (34, $1,900,000)
- Josh Hill (25, $586,668)
- C.J. Fiedorowicz (23, $730,826)
- Total: $3,217,494
It was a lot easier to justify Watson for the top spot after the game he had Thursday night against Atlanta. He’s the best do-it-all guy on either roster. Hill has the most athleticism; Fiedorowicz is a guy I don’t think is all that special, but is young, cheap, and has a relatively high draft pedigree (then again, I’m not sure if the Texans understand the draft).
- Duane Brown (30, $9,500,000)
- Terron Armstead (24, $769,359)
- Andrus Peat (21, $2,071,544)
- Total: $12,340,903
A no-brainer. This might be the best trio of tackles in the league.
- Jahri Evans (32, $7,000,000)
- Brandon Brooks (26, $1,696,359)
- Xavier Su’a-Filo (24, $1,261,727)
- Total: $9,958,086
Evans is on the decline at 32, but he’s still the best guard on either team. Brooks is not someone I know much about, but I’ve generally seen his play well-graded and spoken fairly well of– or at least well enough to be the team’s other starter. Su’a-Filo is on this team for roughly the same reason C.J. Fiedorowicz is.
- Max Unger (29, $3,000,000)
- Ben Jones (26, $1,662,362)
- Total: $4,662,362
It’s easy to pick both starting centers when they come this cheaply.
TOTAL OFFENSE: 24 players, $66,473,127
I’ve listed the team in a base 3-4, which made the most sense to me with the personnel I had to work with.
- J.J. Watt (26, $13,969,000)
- Cameron Jordan (26, $4,169,000)
- Bobby Richardson (22, $436,666)
- Jared Crick (26, $1,639,875)
- Total: $20,214,541
Watt and Jordan are a fantastic duo to have here and well worth the money. Bobby Richardson has played well so far his rookie season, particularly against the run. I don’t know much about Crick, but he’s cheap and he plays a lot of snaps for Houston, so he makes the team.
- John Jenkins (26, $746,890)
- Tyeler Davison (23, $489,306)
- Christian Covington (21, $457,621)
- Kaleb Eulls (24, $438,333)
- Total: $2,132,150
One of the weakest groups on the team, but a very young one with lots of chance to improve playing between Jordan and Watt. Jenkins has the size to be a true nose tackle, so he’s the starter in the run-stuffing role. The word is that Vince Wilfork has looked ordinary, and even if he hasn’t, 2 years and $9 million is a lot for a 33-year-old nose tackle. (Though it’s not out of line with the kind of deals the Texans like to hand out– see “Reed, Ed.”) The other three are all rookies with varying talent level and skill sets; Davison is the most explosive of the bunch.
- Jadeveon Clowney (22, $5,062,045)
- Hau’oli Kikaha (23, $957,511)
- Whitney Mercilus (25, $2,979,030)
- Kasim Edebali (26, $512,000)
- Total: $9,510,586
Clowney hasn’t produced the big numbers yet, but he’s shown the flashes of greatness that made him the top pick in the draft. Kikaha now leads all rookies with four sacks (in six games); he’s been less flashy but steadily productive. Mercilus is a fine player, although nothing special, and Edebali has shown some signs of life as a rotational pass-rusher.
- Stephone Anthony (23, $1,404,766)
- Dannell Ellerbe (29, $1,900,000)
- Bernardrick McKinney (22, $971,840)
- Justin Tuggle (25, $585,834)
- Michael Mauti (25, $585,000)
- Total: $5,448,440
I hate to say it, but Brian Cushing might be done. He looks like a shell of his former self out there– and to make matters worse, he’s on the second year of a six-year deal, one where his cap hit each year is higher than the entire ILB crew I’ve assembled here.
Anthony is the star of the bunch, but Ellerbe has been surprisingly good, surpassing my expectations. McKinney is a long-term player there, though he’s more of a run-stopper. I had no idea whom to go with for the fourth ILB spot; Tuggle beat out Akeem Dent based on age, salary, and slightly higher PFF grade. Feel free to replace him if you like someone better. Mauti won the special teams roster spot with his blocked punt Thursday night.
- Keenan Lewis (29, $4,500,000)
- Johnathan Joseph (31, $11,750,000)
- Kevin Johnson (23, $1,827,166)
- Delvin Breaux (25, $439,000)
- Damian Swann (22, $481,807)
- Total: $18,997,973
Another difficult decision I had to make was Joseph vs. Kareem Jackson. I was initially on Jackson because he’s younger and had a lower cap hit, but upon further research, I discovered he’s graded out really poorly this year, and he’s in the first year of a four-year contract extension; he’ll be 31 when it ends. Joseph is 31 now, but his cap hit is lower for the next two years than it is now, and the team can cut bait after 2016 with no further penalty. With the play so far of youngsters Johnson and Breaux, that is likely to happen. Also, Lewis has proven himself a fine #1 corner, even if he is exiting his prime, and Swann has performed solidly so far after winning the Saints’ nickel job as a rookie.
- Jairus Byrd (29, $5,500,000)
- Kenny Vaccaro (24, $2,570,376)
- Rahim Moore (26, $3,000,000)
- Andre Hal (23, $527, 281)
- Total: $11,597,657
The Saints structured Byrd’s contract such that his cap hit makes him an affordable risk here– and even allows us to spend $3 million on Moore for when Byrd is inevitably injured. Vaccaro seems like an obvious choice, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Hal so far.
TOTAL DEFENSE: 26 players, $67,901,347
- Kicker: Zach Hocker (24, $435,000)
- Punter: Thomas Morstead (29, $3,400,000)
- Long Snapper: Justin Drescher (27, $875,000)
I chose Hocker before Thursday night, but he’ll probably be fired after that game. Well, the Texans already fired Randy Bullock this year, so I decided to go with the guy who stuck around the longest.
Morstead is more expensive than Shane Lechler, but he’s also twelve years younger and has a lifetime pass for hitting the greatest onside kick in NFL history.
Drescher is cheaper and younger than Jon Weeks.
TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 players, $4,710,000
TOTAL 53-MAN ROSTER: $139,084,474
We’re still nearly $7 million under the cap, so I decided to add some players to our Injured Reserve list (who do not count against the 53-man roster, but do count against the salary cap):
- CB P.J. Williams (22, $494,651)
- SS Vinnie Suneri (22, $377,125)
- OLB Davis Tull (23, $373,433)
- TE Ryan Griffin (designated for return) (25, $381,611)
- OL David Quessenberry (25, $613,363)
- OLB Reshard Cliett (23, $340,621)
- QB Tom Savage (25, $408,146)
- OLB Anthony Spencer (31, $665,000)
- FS Rafael Bush (28, $1,900,000)
- Total Injured Reserve: $5,553,950
That brings the entire roster, 53-man and injured reserve, to a GRAND TOTAL of $144,638,424. Still close to $1.5 million and change to work with; if you’re not comfortable cutting it that close, I totally understand removing Bush from IR. The team’s only contracts that are both long and expensive going to legitimate stars like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, leaving money to extend key players currently on their rookie deals, such as DeAndre Hopkins and Terron Armstead, when the time comes. Not a bad spot to be in. Of course, it’s easy when you get to pick and choose from two rosters.
I started writing this after the Saints fell to 0-2 and it was revealed that Drew Brees injured his shoulder against Tampa Bay. With Brees missing the first game in his career due to injury in week 3 (the Saints are now 0-3), and with the team trading Akiem Hicks today for a blocking tight end, it seems clear that the season is a lost cause and the team is looking to clear cap space– yes, even their minor restructuring of Brees’ contract to create space this year was because they pretty much had to. (That said, if they let Hicks leave as a free agent, New Orleans might get a compensatory pick for him– but they’ve never valued compensatory picks, as we’ll cover below.)
I wrote some things about the Saints last year when they fell apart, and I don’t want to repeat them too much. Many of the problems (unreliable receivers, Tim Lelito, overall lack of defensive talent, Jairus Byrd’s contract) remain, and between the sheer lack of overall roster talent and the cap situation, it’s going to take time to fix those things.
I do want to mention that with the trade of Hicks, nobody from the team’s 2012 draft remains on the roster. The team fired the director of college scouting and cleaned out the department this offseason, and after the disastrous 2014 draft has left exactly one player from it on the active roster one year later, it’s understandable. But these kinds of draft misses– compounded by frequent trades up– have been part of the problem for years. For the handful of late-round gems the team found, they had many more late-round whiffs and early picks who disappointed or outright busted; Stanley Jean-Baptiste was simultaneously the apex of this trend and the straw that broke the camel’s back. The 2015 draft, with the new team headed presumably by Jeff Ireland (although his title is Assistant General Manager, not Director of College Scouting) is looking better, but the roster is threadbare and the cap is spent.
And with the roster threadbare and the cap spent, Drew Brees can only take them so far. If the Saints suck even with Brees, which is looking like the case, then the road to rebuilding could be long. 2016 is probably lost as well.
That leads into our next question:
Is Brees done?
I don’t think so. The murmurs about his deep ball and failing accuracy started last year (even though Football Outsiders disagreed), and increased in intensity after he put two deep balls to Brandin Cooks far too short in the Tampa Bay game. However, those both happened after Brees took the hit that injured his shoulder to the degree he missed the Carolina game. Before, I think he was fine. The problem is that his receivers just aren’t reliable– Marques Colston isn’t getting enough separation and is dropping too many passes, and no one else has the ability to reliably make difficult or contested catches. The team lost Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills and tried to replace their production with undrafted free agents; it isn’t working because those guys aren’t as good.
Unfortunately, what can the team do in the meantime? They won’t have cap room to sign free agents. If they draft receivers highly, they may take a while to develop. Brees may be too old to benefit by then. He may not even be on the team anymore.
Brees’ contract expires after 2016 and they may just be better served playing it out. With the new figures from Wednesday’s adjustment (via Spotrac), Brees sits at a $23.8m cap hit for this year, and with an extra $10m in dead money on top of that if they trade or release him, they have to stick it out. (That’s right: Brees would leave $33.8 million dollars in dead money on the Saints’ 2015 cap.) His cap hit in 2016 soars to $30 million, but would only leave $10 million in dead money if they released him. Even considering those $20 million in savings, it may still be best to just let him play out the year and re-assess. No point in eating cap room to stink and throw a guy into the fire. (If they really think Garrett Grayson is The Guy, another year on the bench can only help. As could drafting some more reliable receivers.)
What can be done?
It’s going to take a serious and strong drafting effort over the next two years. The cap should look better in 2017. The team would do well to mostly stay out of the free-agent market this year; they don’t have a ton of free agents (Hicks would have been the better ones), but by letting them walk, and not spending on more free agents, they might garner some compensatory picks. The Saints’ approach has not involved much of this strategy, with the team needing to rebuild to become competitive again, they should be looking to stock pile as many draft picks as possible. (The Baltimore Ravens use this strategy to great effect.)
The 2015 rookie class already has shown promising returns. Stephone Anthony still makes some rookie mistakes, but he’s been outstanding in several facets of the game. Delvin Breaux (GIF-able moments aside) and Damian Swann seem to be legit additions to the secondary. (Keenan Lewis is scheduled to come back this week; this may be the first chance for us to see the Saints’ cornerback crew at anything close to full strength.) Hau’oli Kikaha has been positive, as have some of the rookie defensive linemen, particularly Bobby Richardson. The defense is not good yet, but they have some solid young parts and a couple of guys who could be franchise cornerstones. Another draft this good on the defensive end, and the team could have the foundation they’re looking for in place.
On offense, the two biggest weak spots seem to be Tim Lelito and the receivers. If Lelito doesn’t improve, the team should try to find a guard at some point in the 2016 draft. As I’ve said many times, the team needs a true #1 receiver, someone who can make the difficult catches as well as the big plays, someone you turn to in critical situations, someone you can count on when you need a catch.
Finding a Drew Brees replacement is critical, of course. Garrett Grayson may or may not be it. But I don’t think the team should pin all its hopes on a third-round quarterback (but then again, I wasn’t that high on him to begin with).
I also want the team to lock up Terron Armstead. Yes, I think Andrus Peat can play left tackle, but I’d rather have both. They have few proven players who are young and talented enough that they could be considered foundational pieces; Armstead is one.
2016 Mock Draft
I rolled over to Fanspeak’s On the Clock Mock Draft (while they’re running a trial period where the “premium” feature, with custom boards and trades, is free). I haven’t done enough draft work for 2016 to have my own board, so I just used Fanspeak’s. (Which also means I don’t necessarily know who’s good, but the exercise was still fun nonetheless.)
I did not set the draft order. Fanspeak decided of their own accord that New Orleans deserved the #1 pick.
Here are my selections and reasoning:
http://fanspeak.com/ontheclock/sharedraft.php?d=yshmhs (NOTE: As of publishing this link was down. Picks are still written and explained below.)
Immediate substantial upgrade to the pass-rush. Talent jumps off the screen, even in a draft full of pass rushers. Saints have been running a 4-3 a substantial amount of the time and Bosa would be perfect opposite Cam Jordan. (There’s a strong argument to take a QB here; Jared Goff is my favorite at this time. I did exploit Fanspeak’s rankings to target a different guy, as you’ll see below.)
WR MICHAEL THOMAS
I then traded down with Jacksonville, acquiring the 2.07 and 4.07 for the 2.01. Thomas I don’t know much about yet, but he was Fanspeak’s highest rated receiver at the spot, and I liked what I did see of him against Virginia Tech. I’ve made it clear I think the team needs more receivers who can make difficult and contested catches, and Thomas fits the bill with his size and strength, and adds nice ability after the catch to boot.
OLB DADI LHOMME NICOLAS
Probably won’t be available here in reality, but again, another guy whose athleticism is evident from tape (and will likely measure out that way in the Combine as well). Jumps off the screen with a fantastic first step and very good bend, too. If they stay in the 4-3, they now have one of the best young trio of linebackers in the league in Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, and Nicolas– add the outside ‘backers to Bosa and Jordan, and you have four young, fearsome pass rushers. This could be a return to the glory days of the Dome Patrol. (I’m not sure if Jordan or Bosa is Wayne Martin.)
WR STERLING SHEPARD
Another guy at the top of the board who I liked when I saw. Adds more speed and quickness to the mix. I like Shepard and Thomas to make tougher catches and also draw coverage away from Cooks to let him maximize his speed.
He was near the top of Fanspeak’s board, and I’ve really had enough of the kicking problems that continually plague this team.
QB JACOBY BRISSETT
Likely won’t be here in real life, but he shows some really high-level deep accuracy and ability to read progressions on film. May need some work, but truthfully could be better than Garrett Grayson. The team really should do whatever it takes to find and develop their next starter.
WR BRAXTON MILLER
Okay, fine, I don’t know what to do with him, I just took him because of the name and the idea of using him in a bunch of gadget stuff. In reality, they probably take a special-teams player or a developmental offensive lineman.
I like this draft (especially if Brissett pans out, obviously). It fills in two of the most obvious weak spots on the defensive front seven, and greatly upgrades the pass rush in the process. The team keeps searching for the QB for Year One A.B. (After Brees), and adds two receivers who should substantially strengthen the group for whoever that guy is.
Even assuming a draft like this and Brees back to health, this is probably still a middling team. The young talent won’t be fully developed yet. They’ll bounce back a little bit, perhaps to .500. There’s even hope they could make the playoffs in 2016, if the rookies contribute right away, Andrus Peat takes over for Zach Strief (and becomes the dominant tackle he showed the potential to be), and everyone stays healthy.
Decisions will have to be made on Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd in the 2017 offseason. (My guess will be that Vaccaro regains form and earns a second deal, but Byrd, whether because of injuries or age or both, will be let go.) The team will have to fill in for those guys, as well as anyone else dropping off due to injury or age. With this 2016 mock and presuming things go roughly as I expected, the biggest needs in 2017 will probably be at safety, interior offensive lineman (and perhaps defensive, too), and running back.
And, of course, whether or not the single most important question of the franchise’s future has been answered: Who will be the next quarterback after Drew Brees?
Once again doing a little crossover work with our friends at Inside the Pylon, I appeared on their Thursday podcast to talk about the Saints’ struggles. You can listen here.
(I apologize in advance for the excess of “Ummmmm”s. Even being prepared doesn’t help me in the morning.)
I didn’t get to cover everything I think about the Saints’ prospects for this season and beyond, so I’m hoping to do so in a future column.
Sad to say, Zone Reads has been through some lean times this year. We’ve lost some contributors and those that remain have careers that are increasingly demanding of our time. We’ll still try to keep churning out content as much as we can, though, especially once draft season begins. That said, if you need a place to contribute your football knowledge and writing, we’re happy to listen to submissions for new contributors.
In the meantime, I pulled a season-standings prediction out of my ass sometime last week, and with the season upon us, I thought I’d generate some content by writing a quick sentence or three about each team:
- New England Patriots – 11-5. Brady is free (as he should be), and though the team lost a lot of defensive talent in the offseason, it’s more or less business as usual.
- Miami Dolphins – 11-5. They have the talent that they should take a substantial leap forward. In my heart of hearts, I still can’t justify picking them to win the division, and it’s because I think Joe Philbin is by all evidence a bad coach who is holding the team back.
- Buffalo Bills – 8-8. It’s a Rex Ryan team with a lot of defensive talent. They’ll mostly be competitive. They have a fair amount of offensive talent, too, and while I’m relatively optimistic about Tyrod Taylor, any Rex offense automatically brings certain assumptions of low-quality play.
- New York Jets – 7-9. Mike Maccagnan decided it was time to stop bullshitting around in the secondary. I like Todd Bowles’ prospects as head coach. Still not optimistic about the QB situation.
- Baltimore Ravens – 10-6. I didn’t care much for the Breshad Perriman pick (give me Devin Smith catching deep balls from Flacco all day, good lord), but this team always manages to stay freshly-stocked with talent, and has no major holes.
- Pittsburgh Steelers – 9-7. This was a team that had major defensive holes and was going to have to rely on offense, and now several major offensive contributors are going to miss significant parts of the season. I think they’ll struggle in stretches and may not win enough games to make the playoffs.
- Cincinnati Bengals – 6-10. Speaking of holes: I don’t know how a team with weak QB play and no pass rush won ten games. They didn’t try to upgrade either. I think it’s going to get worse for them.
- Cleveland Browns – 6-10. No QB. Their best receiver is probably Duke Johnson. Mike Pettine might be a wizard for getting them to 7-9 lats year, but even a wizard can’t overcome the talent level and organizational dysfunction this franchise consistently shows. Fun note: They’ve drafted one receiver in the last two years, and they cut him this preseason before he ever played a game for them. They’ve had seven first-round picks since 2012, and they’ve yet to find an impact player (though Danny Shelton might finally fit the bill. Might).
- Indianapolis Colts – 12-4. My pick for home field advantage in the AFC because they have a soft schedule and a juggernaut passing offense. Who needs defense when you have Andrew Luck?
- Houston Texans – 7-9. A replacement-level offense without Arian Foster. I just don’t know how this team will score enough points to keep competitive. Damn Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith (who is apparently untouchable no matter how many bad drafts he has) for denying us a Luck-Teddy rivalry.
- Jacksonville Jaguars – 6-10. I’m betting on a step forward for this team; I think they finally have enough talent to overcome the mistakes of the Gene Smith era. Mind you, they’re still on a shaky footing in a number of areas, and they have to count on guys actually taking their projected steps forward, but at least they’re finally trending in the right direction.
- Tennessee Titans – 5-11. Marcus Mariota will, I think, end up being a fine choice at QB. But this year, that still won’t be enough for the team to really bounce back. It may not even be enough to save jobs. Eventually, though, a Mariota – Dorial Green-Beckham connection could prove very scary.
- Denver Broncos – 11-5. I’ve made my thoughts on Gary Kubiak well-known. I even have worries about Peyton Manning finally hitting the physical wall that his brilliance can’t overcome. In the end, though, this is an extraordinarily talented squad all around.
- Kansas City Chiefs – 10-6. I don’t know if I buy all the preseason hype that Alex Smith is finally, in his 11th year in the league, willing to throw downfield, but I do buy that 2015 Jeremy Maclin is substantially better than 2014 Dwayne Bowe, I buy the emergence of Travis Kelce, I buy Andy Reid’s offensive gameplanning (if not always his playcalling or clock management), and I buy a strong pass rush and two of my favorite young CBs in the game, Phillip Gaines and Marcus Peters.
- San Diego Chargers – 8-8. I’m a believer in Philip Rivers, it’s just… what else do they have? Eric Weddle? Jeremiah Attaochu? I don’t think the line is strong enough to spring Melvin Gordon to the kinds of big plays he needs to justify his draft position. Rivers will keep them competitive, but do they have the talent to go further than that?
- Oakland Raiders – 5-11. I think Amari Cooper is overrated (though he’s proving me wrong so far). I think Derek Carr is significantly overrated. I think Reggie McKenzie has made mostly bad moves since taking over as GM. I don’t rate Jack Del Rio. Even if Cooper is the offensive equivalent of Khalil Mack vis-a-vis studliness… what else does the team really have, outside of them?
- Philadelphia Eagles – 10-6. Under-reported part of Chip Kelly’s roster remake: He’s targeted quite a few guys with worlds of talent but a substantial injury history– significantly, his top three additions to the backfield this year. Kelly is betting his commitment to advanced sports science and sports medicine will mitigate those injuries. (For you NBA fans, he’s trying to bring that Phoenix Suns Training Staff magic to the NFL.) I haven’t found a reason to bet against Chip Kelly yet.
- Dallas Cowboys – 10-6. Still think their run game struggles. They picked up an absurd haul of talent in the draft, though, and if their pass rush trio of Greg Hardy / DeMarcus Lawrence / Randy Gregory comes on strong, they could be a top team overall. They have a tough out-of-division schedule, though (NE, SEA, @GB), and Jason Garrett is a guy I always count on to come up short when the game is on the line.
- New York Giants – 6-10. The opposite of the Eagles in terms of sports medicine– they draft injury-prone or previously injured guys, their guys get injured all the time, and they don’t seem to give a damn about changing their processes. I don’t see a lot to like here. Please, Tom Coughlin, please, please, please, don’t let your retrograde opinions of sports medicine and injury treatment ruin Odell Beckham’s career.
- Washington Potatoes, 3-13. I see even less to like here. DeSean Jackson. Trent Williams. The running backs. A handful of good pass rushers. Bashaud Breeland, eventually. That’s about it. I think Jay Gruden is an embarrassment who should never have a head coaching job again solely based on his willingness to publicly undermine players and deflect responsibility onto everyone but himself– a total lack of leadership. At least they can look forward to taking the wrong quarterback #1 overall in 2016.
- Green Bay Packers – 11-5. Even without Jordy Nelson, the team is still led by possibly the best quarterback who ever lived. Aaron Rodgers’ career record (including a 6-10 first season as starter) is 70-33; pro-rated to 16 games, that’s good for 10.87 wins. I’m comfortable with predicting 11 wins in perpetuity for Mr. Rodgers until he is no longer possibly the best quarterback who ever lived.
- Minnesota Vikings – 10-6. A now-popular dark horse for a team to emerge into the playoffs, the Vikings have all the good signs: a head coach I like, a quarterback I love who is primed to take a big step forward, and a lot of other young and improving talent. I particularly like Mike Zimmer’s chances of getting the most out of a very talented pass-rushing squadron. Add it all up, mix in the return of Adrian Peterson and a third-place schedule, and a playoff trip seems well within the range of possibilities.
- Detroit Lions – 8-8. No way to get around how much losing Ndamukong Suh hurts. I think they won more games last year than their talent should have indicated, and this seems like about the right spot for them (particularly since I don’t see Jim Caldwell as coaxing more out of the talent at hand; his strength seems to be “not a screaming maniac who constantly has everyone on edge”).
- Chicago Bears – 5-11. Hey, it’s almost the same team as last year’s Bears, but less good at offense!
- New Orleans Saints – 9-7. The demise of Drew Brees has been greatly overstated. Yes, you can worry about the lack of receiving talent, but the Super Bowl team didn’t have much outside of Marques Colston at receiver, either (despite the high draft status of guys like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson). The offense will go horizontal, the defense will benefit from a substantial injection of talent (once everyone finally gets healthy), and that combined with a weak schedule should be just enough to put them back on top of the division.
- Atlanta Falcons – 8-8. It’ll be neck-and-neck with these two teams all year. The Assassination of Julio Jones’ Prime by the Coward Mike Smith has mercifully come to an end. I like Dan Quinn, I cried a little when they drafted Vic Beasley, and Kyle Shanahan has proven to be a true offensive mind, not a hire based out of nepotism. Still, though, I think the Saints will be a little better, at least this year.
- Carolina Panthers – 7-9. The records may be close, but I think Carolina substantially lags behind the other two. The Panthers’ offensive line and receiver crew seems to be the product of an approach that says “How little can we give Cam Newton and still field a competitive offense?” With Kelvin Benjamin out, the situation goes from bad to worse. The front seven is good, but there’s no dominant pass rusher. I just see a lot of places the team has subpar talent, and a lot of ways that can come back to bite them.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 6-10. I think Jameis Winston is the real deal and I love that they gave him offensive line support to boot. They’ll be better than last year, although they still have no pass rush outside of Gerald McCoy, and I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the back seven outside of Lavonte David (although they apparently love Kwon Alexander and will name him the starter at MLB). Trending up, but not there yet.
- Seattle Seahawks – 10-6. The win total is a little light, because I think they’ll not be quite as good as last year. As long as Kam Chancellor is out, the defense is that much weaker. The offensive line is extremely unproven and could turn out to be really, really bad. Obviously they’re too good all around to slip much, but they will not seem nearly as invincible this year as they have in the past.
- Arizona Cardinals – 10-6. Didn’t have the guts to pick them for the division, either, but I’m not betting against Bruce Arians at this point. Could be a juggernaut on offense if Carson Palmer stays healthy and lives up to what Arians thinks he can do. Still some question marks on the line and on defense, but I’m going to assume Arians finds a way to pull it all together.
- St. Louis Rams – 6-10. Football Outsiders picked them to finish 5th in DVOA this year, and I don’t understand that at all. I don’t understand why people love Jeff Fisher, but again, I’ve written on that extensively. If you believe drafting a bunch of rookies automatically makes a great offensive line, and if you believe that, for some reason, Nick Foles can replicate his 27:2 TD:INT ratio from 2013 in a Jeff Fisher offense, and you believe Todd Gurley comes back healthy, faces no more problems, and is a juggernaut (by far the most likely part, IMO), then sure, they could make the playoffs. Me, I see them losing a lot of games 13-9 because they can’t move the damn ball unless Gurley breaks a big play or someone bites on a play-action deep ball to Brian Quick. (That involves both Quick, coming off an ACL tear, beating his man deep, and Foles hitting him in stride, so, good luck.) Also, for as much buzz as their front four gets, the back four isn’t nearly as good.
- San Francisco – 5-11. I’m willing to be open-minded about Jim Tomsula. But this team has faced such a massive talent drain– with an incredible amount of unexpected losses; maybe you expect Justin Smith to retire and Mike Iupati to take a big free-agent deal, but nobody could have planned to lose Chris Borland, Anthony Davis, AND Aldon Smith on top of that. I don’t know if any coach could overcome that degree of talent drain.
AFC WILD CARD
3)Denver over 6)Kansas City
4)Baltimore over 5)Miami
NFC WILD CARD
3)Philadelphia over 6)Arizona
4)New Orleans over 5)Minnesota
1)Indianapolis over 4)Baltimore
2)New England over 3)Denver
1)Green Bay over 4)New Orleans
3)Philadelphia over 2)Seattle
1)Indianapolis over 2)New England
1)Green Bay over 3)Philadelphia
Packers 34, Colts 31– Two of the league’s best at the top of their game produce an all-time classic with multiple lead changes in the fourth, before Aaron Rodgers leads the final comeback drive without leaving Andrew Luck time to answer.
Following up on my answers to the Saints questions that were posted yesterday and ran on Inside the Pylon, we had some questions for Dave Archibald and Mark Schofield from ITP about the Patriots’ outlook for this preseason.
1. The Patriots had significant turnover in the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks from last year are gone, and aside from Devin McCourty, the secondary is full of unproven young players or veterans who weren’t cutting it with other teams. What’s the outlook here? What are your thoughts on the actual players, and who do you expect to end up being the key guys there?
Dave Archibald: Good question; this seems to be the biggest question mark with the defending champs. By all reports, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is having a terrific camp and has all but locked down one of the starting spots. Opposite him will likely be one of the veterans: ex-Raider Tarell Brown, who is returning from injury, or ex-Eagle Bradley Fletcher, who was toasted in 2014 by a challenging group of wideouts . In the slot will be former Falcon Robert McClain or versatile vet Logan Ryan. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts of Marshall, who started and played effectively in the preseason opener before leaving with injury. They have enough bodies that they’ll be fine most weeks, but they’re lacking an obvious physical match for bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas, so they’ll have to be creative at times.
McCourty’s as solid as they come on the back end, and they have no shortage of options next to him at safety. Veteran Patrick Chung had a bounce-back year in 2014 and was especially effective in man-to-man coverage on tight ends, arguably a strong safety’s most important job in the modern NFL. Duron Harmon is a capable backup to McCourty and plays alongside him in passing situations, though he’s not much of a run defender. Second-round rookie Jordan Richards out of Stanford is apparently hitting the ground running in camp and might play a role, too.
New England played a ton of man-to-man coverage last season and it seems unlikely that will continue with this group. They might want to be able to use more zone against teams with effective running games, and that mentality shift was part of investing less in the cornerback group, letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in the offseason.
Browner will be an interesting fit in New Orleans. He was up-and-down last year; he locked down everyone he covered in the Super Bowl but was benched in the second half against Indianapolis in the AFCCG. He’s physical, has tremendous wingspan to knock away passes, and he’s faster in a straight line than people think, but he really struggles with change-of-direction and quick guys. He’ll frustrate Mike Evans types but there will be other weeks you won’t want him on the field. I see him more as a unique role player who can be brilliant in the right matchups rather than a solid starter.
2. Related: What are your thoughts on the pass rush? Jabaal Sheard was one of my favorite low-profile signings this offseason, a productive complementary rusher who was forgotten playing out of position behind a $40 million contract and a #6 overall pick. What will his role be? Do you think Dominique Easley can come back healthy? Will the pass rush mitigate the secondary inexperience?
DA: When healthy, starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich rarely came off the field in 2014, so Sheard will let them get some rest if nothing else. Jones has been somewhat injury-prone so far in his career, so Sheard provides depth. I’m curious as to whether they can get all three in the lineup on a consistent basis. They tried Jones at 3-4 end early in the season and ultimately had to abandon it, partly due to injuries and partly because it wasn’t a strong fit for Jones.
Easley is one of the swing guys for this season – if he can stay healthy, he can be the disruptive inside rusher that the Patriots haven’t had since Richard Seymour’s heyday. Whether he can stay healthy is anyone’s guess, though.
Rookie fourth-rounder Trey Flowers out of Arkansas was a favorite of the draft Twitter community and had an impressive sack in the preseason opener, and they also drafted Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma late in the third round. The pass rush should be quite a bit deeper than last year, when they had to get Akeem Ayers out of purgatory (or the Tennessee Titans) after Jones got hurt.
3. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are gone. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray are back to compete for the power-back carries. Who wins, and what’s the rest of the running back rotation going to look like? Will James White or Travaris Cadet play a major role? I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Bolden or James Develin.
DA: This came up in a recent mailbag. They seemed to draft White expecting him to replace Vereen, and he had a fine preseason opener in the passing game, racking up yards after catch. The question is: can he pass protect well enough to keep Brady upright? That’s also a concern with Cadet, who wasn’t asked to block much with the Saints. Bolden is probably the best pass blocker in the group but was lacking as a receiving back when Vereen was hurt in 2013. If they can run the football more consistently, there might be more work for the power backs and less for the scatbacks.
4. What’s going on at receiver behind Edelman and LaFell? Is Aaron Dobson ready to assume a significant role? Are the rumors of Josh Boyce looking good in camp meaningful? Does it matter, as long as you have Tom Brady?
DA: Danny Amendola is the third guy; he was invisible most of the year but came on the playoffs. The fourth guy, whether it’s Dobson, Boyce, deep threat Bryan Tyms, or ex-Dolphin Brandon Gibson, isn’t going to play much barring injury. If anything, we’ll see more two wide receiver sets with the addition of tight end Scott Chandler, and even Amendola’s role will be reduced. Chandler won’t make anyone forget Aaron Hernandez, but paired with Rob Gronkowski he gives opponents twin tower tight ends to account for and try to match up against.
5. Speaking of, time to address the elephant in the room: We both know Deflategate is trumped-up nonsense, and this question may not even be relevant by press time, but: Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to play if he has to? What are your thoughts on his development so far and do you think he’s the guy for the future?
Mark Schofield: New England’s front office saw enough from him to make Garoppolo their second round pick in the 2014 draft. Looking at his film from college and his limited playing time in the NFL there is a lot to like. He has solid arm talent, with the ability to work the football into narrow throwing lanes and drive the football downfield when he needs to with velocity. He is also an athletic quarterback, able to extend plays with his feet and pick up yardage on the ground. He also throws a tremendous deep ball with upper-level touch and accuracy.
But is he ready to play if pressed into action? Not entirely. He’s close, but there is still one issue that he needs to improve, and that is his response to pressure.
One of the major concerns about him coming out of college was his presence in the pocket. When pressured, he tended to get happy feet, take his eyes down and focus on the rush. We saw that in bunches last Friday night. In the face of pressure Garoppolo struggled to continue with plays and make his reads from the pocket. From a clean pocket he is ready, but you do not see clean pockets all the time in the NFL.
Lost in all of the Deflategate discussion is the effect this is having on Garoppolo’s development and preparation for the season. The longer this drags on – and the longer Tom Brady continues to take the majority of snaps in practice – the less time Garoppolo has to prepare for the season opener. Should Judge Berman uphold Brady’s suspension on the cusp of the season-opener, New England might find themselves in a bit of a bind when it comes to having their back-up ready to go.
As far as his long-term prospects, I think Garoppolo is – like Brett Hundley in Green Bay and Garrett Grayson in New Orleans – in a perfect position to develop, caddy and get ready for the day he takes over. Garoppolo has enough talent that I believe he is the QB of the future in New England, he just needs to continue improving in the pocket.
6. Aside from anyone I haven’t mentioned, who are you interested in watching on Saturday? Which young players and sleepers do you think could end up contributing significantly this season? Which position battles?
DA: The offensive line was the biggest weakness on the team for most of 2014, but it mostly fell into place once then-rookie Bryan Stork took over at center, with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell in the guard spots. Connolly retired in the offseason, and most are assuming that fourth-round pick Tre’ Jackson – like Stork, a product of Florida State’s legendary offensive line coach Rick Trickett – will start at right guard on day one. Wendell is battling for the left guard spot with another fourth-round pick in Shaq Mason, who was a terrific run blocker at Georgia Tech but barely ever pass blocked in their option offense. Sebastian Vollmer is one of the NFL’s best right tackles, and left tackle Nate Solder was solid down the stretch after a poor start to the year. Depth tackles Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming are also players to watch; both got some work at guard last season, and Fleming mauled defenses as a sixth lineman in some run-heavy sets. I think the downside is the kind of up-and-down performance we saw in 2014, but there’s a chance if all the pieces come together that this could be one of the NFL’s better groups, taking pressure off Brady (/ Garoppolo) and a defense that figures to slip a bit. Of the projected starters, only Jackson played in the first preseason game, and Garoppolo took seven sacks behind a makeshift line. I’ll be looking for improved protection Saturday.
Interior line play on the other side of the ball also bears watching, as anchor Vince Wilfork is gone. Sealver Siliga filled in effectively when Wilfork was hurt in 2013, but can he shoulder the load for a full season? Will first-round pick Malcom Brown from Texas start on day one? Do they get contributions from veterans Alan Branch or Antonio Johnson, or do they not even make the team? Easley factors in here, too.
Looking forward to Saturday’s matchup!
The New England Patriots play the New Orleans Saints on Saturday for preseason week 2. My old college friend and roommate, Dave Archibald, a lifelong Pats fan who contributes to Inside the Pylon, reached out to me, a lifelong Saints fan, for a Q&A session about the teams and what to watch for beforehand.
My answers on the Saints have gone live on ITP. Dave’s answers on the Patriots will run on our site tomorrow.
A couple of weeks ago, NFL.com released a list of head-coaching rankings that seemed to be sorted exclusively by career win totals, with little regard as to any aspect of the job of being a head coach, or as to how a particular coach is performing at the present time. That was enough to stir me out of my summer vacation and come up with my own list, based on who I’d want running my team if I was an owner or GM looking to hire.
I even ranked rookie coaches based on my early impressions of them. That will probably prove to be a terrible idea, but since I was able to rationalize those rankings, I don’t really care. (After all, I’d hire some of the unknowns before some of the knowns, so, why not?)
Tier 1: THA GAWD
1. Bill Belichick, New England
With apologies to Bomani Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, this seemed like the most accurate description of Bill Belichick. He’s the best gameplanner in NFL history and after a fourth Super Bowl win in six attempts has really left little doubt about his legacy.
Tier 2: Greatness
2. Sean Payton, New Orleans
Payton’s offensive innovations and forward thinking, and recognition of what an asset Drew Brees could be, have spearheaded the Saints’ decade of success. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have generally done an excellent job of adapting the roster and juggling it to fit the team needs. Given that the push to take the team over the top last year resulted in a 7-9 season, Payton was willing to completely revamp the team’s offensive outlook to stock some talent on defense. We’ll see if it works. Now if only he’d lose the stubborn fourth-down play-calling.
3. Pete Carroll, Seattle
Still remarkable to me that he’s managed to be so successful after two previously failed stops. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I won’t complain if you want to flip Payton and Carroll.
4. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia
5. Bruce Arians, Arizona
It’s remarkable that it took anyone so long to give Arians a head-coaching shot. I don’t know how he works his wonders, but he surely has for an Arizona team that has won double-digit games for consecutive years. Kelly is putting a lot on the line this year by taking personnel control, but like Arians, he’s led a team that had become moribund to consecutive double-digit wins and a playoff appearance. I have Kelly over Arians because I prize innovation, and what Kelly brings not only to offense but to the sports-science side of the game.
6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore
I don’t know much about Harbaugh, but his track record of keeping the Ravens consistently in contention, along with a Super Bowl win, speaks for itself.
Tier 3: Goodness (and Goodness Upside)
7. Bill O’Brien, Houston
It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was by the Texans’ turnaround after the Keystone Kops show the team devolved to in 2013. Without further information, I’m going to have to give the credit to O’Brien, especially considering he did it without anything worthwhile at QB and without the services of the #1 overall pick, or, for that matter, the services of most of the Texans’ 2013-14 draft classes. (He still should have banged the table to move up for Teddy Bridgewater, though.)
8. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota
The Vikings started 4-7 and won three of their last five, with the two losses each coming on the road and by only two points. I give Zimmer major credit for his leadership and his ability to turn around the defense and develop defenders; he gets high marks for what he’s done with Anthony Barr, and I expect him to prove he can develop other Vikings defensive draftees, like Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Scott Crichton, and Danielle Hunter. On offense, he deserves credit for, if nothing else, trusting in Norv Turner and Teddy Bridgewater.
9. Andy Reid, Kansas City
He’s always been a difficult one for me to project. On the one hand, he seems to be one of the few NFL coaches who can consistently give you a baseline of above-average play. On the other hand, he makes obvious in-game mistakes that give away a lot of equity. I’m reluctant to elevate him over Zimmer or O’Brien, because they haven’t proven they don’t get it when it comes to big in-game decisions, clock management, and the like, while Reid clearly has.
10. Dan Quinn, Atlanta
11. Todd Bowles, New York Jets
Quinn and Bowles are, of course, total guesses, but I like the work they’ve done as coordinators (unlike some coordinators who seem to rise to being head coaches simply based on name or tenure) and the things they’ve said about their approaches to team-building. All I can say is that, based on my current information, I’d take a chance on either of them before the guys below, whose records don’t inspire me as much. (I’m looking to win a title, not go 9-7 every year.)
12. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati
Like Andy Reid, only less so. (That is not a fat joke.)
Tier 4: Some goodness, not a detriment overall
13. Rex Ryan, Buffalo
Rex Ryan is what he is. To paraphrase Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, that means you get a guy who’s really good at defense, who fires up and inspires loyalty in his players, but who also can’t put a working offense together to save his life, and whose teams completely fail to show up 2-4 games a year. What’s that worth? Hard to say. If Ryan could ever figure out that good defense and good offense are not mutually exclusive, maybe he would belong higher.
14. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis
15. Mike McCoy, San Diego
McCoy I regard positively given his rejuvenation of Philip Rivers and his surprise consecutive winning seasons (including a playoff win!), but unlike with, say, Arians or Kelly, I’m much less certain how much credit he gets compared to Rivers. This is also more or less where I stand with Pagano, given that Andrew Luck guarantees a certain level of play every year. (I have heard he’s gotten more out of the defensive talent than could reasonably be expected, but I’m not sure that’s true.)
16. Mike Pettine, Cleveland
17. Gus Bradley, Jacksonville
I like the things Pettine says, I like that he got seven wins out of Cleveland this year, and I liked the job he did with Buffalo’s defense. The jury’s still out on him in a lot of ways, some of which are caused by the inherent dysfunction in the Browns organization.
Bradley, like Quinn, is another guy I like as being good at what he does and inspiring his team’s confidence in his leadership. That said, he’s going to have to show some improvement from consecutive 4-12 seasons. Jacksonville’s roster is getting better; he needs to get the most out of it.
18. Ron Rivera, Carolina
Rivera backed off the Riverboat Ron approach somewhat in 2014, and since it was his major advantage, he’s back in the middle of the pack. One winning season in four years really isn’t that inspiring (even if one of those losing seasons came with a playoff win).
19. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants
In the good, he’s got a significant winning history, including two Super Bowls with the Giants, and seems to maintain a certain floor of play and professionalism. In the bad, he’s 68 years old and the game may be leaving him behind, particularly when it comes to player health and maintenance. (He’s sort of the opposite of Chip Kelly in this regard, which may have something to do with why the Giants lose so many games to injury each year.) Ranks this high on merit, but I’m not sure I’d want him as a new hire at this point.
Tier 5: The Tomlin Line
20. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh
I can’t figure out if Tomlin is a positive or a negative. On the one hand, the team keeps winning under him. On the other, that could be more due to Ben Roethlisberger and the surrounding talent– first the defense, then when the defense started to falter, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and crew. Tomlin often makes baffling in-game decisions regarding clock management, challenges, fourth downs, and the like. I struggle to pinpoint what he does well, but his teams keep winning. And unlike other coaches where I can find much clearer and more frequent examples of their poor in-game tactics costing them wins and equity, I can’t actually say if Tomlin’s bad decisions are enough to make him a net negative. It’s baffling. And that’s why I called the line of whether or not a coach is a detriment to his team “The Tomlin Line.”
Tier 6: Probably a negative overall
21. John Fox, Chicago
Still an upgrade from Marc Trestman, whose total failure of leadership still leaves me scratching my head. That said, Fox is inexcusably poor at in-game tactics, and his unwillingness to play rookies over less-talented veterans is another strike against him. He’s the guy I’d hire if I wanted a pretty good defense and didn’t have ambitions of going better than 7-9.
22. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay
This ranking is entirely credit for developing Aaron Rodgers. I haven’t figured out anything he’s done that provides value aside from that. His in-game cowardice is astonishing, whether it’s being put to use kicking an extra point down two in the fourth quarter of a must-win game, or in turtling up and blowing a lead in the NFC Championship game despite the world’s best quarterback and every other advantage on his side.
23. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis
His offensive philosophy is 40 years behind the times. I’ve written extensively on this site about his scumbag approach to coaching, which seems to involve cheap shots, after-whistle hits, and other unsportsmanlike attempts to bait the opposing team. He’s basically John Fox if you want players who will also beat people up. (Was anyone surprised that the Rams selected this guy in the supplemental draft?)
24. Gary Kubiak, Denver
I agreed with John Elway’s assessment that John Fox would not be the guy to take them over the hump. However, I think Gary Kubiak is even less suited to the job. He’s an even more incredible in-game coward than Fox, and seems to have even less ability to adjust his offensive philosophy or his gameplan to his opponents. If you want a coach who has one offensive plan to drive for a field goal, and no idea what to do when that plan fails, you hire Gary Kubiak. (I have written even more extensively about him on this site than I have Fisher.)
25. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay
Well, we’ve disproven the idea that he provides stability and a certain floor of play. How in the hell do you manage to make this team worse than it was under Greg Schiano? I don’t think Smith is creative enough to adapt to the talent on hand or to what is necessary in the modern game.
26. Jason Garrett, Dallas
A 12-4 season moves him out of the basement tier– even with all the offensive talent on hand, Garrett still has to put it all together– but he’s also notoriously conservative in-game; Dez Bryant’s should-have-been-a-catch-by-all-logic wouldn’t have mattered if Garrett wasn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal in earlier situations to actually try to score points.
27. Jim Caldwell, Detroit
A steady hand who provided an improvement over Jim Schwartz, which suggests that almost anyone would provide an improvement over Jim Schwartz. No coincidence that this tier has all three coaches whose cowardice cost their team NFC playoff games in January 2015.
28. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco
It’s not entirely fair to rank him this much lower than the other rookie head coaches, since I know so little about him. This ranking is entirely about how negatively I view San Francisco’s entire offseason process; apparently, Jed York is less interested in winning than in saving money, and Trent Baalke is less interested in winning than he is in having a coach who won’t make waves and doesn’t command any organizational authority. Tomsula has reasonable equity to be horribly in over his head, based on the circumstances of his hiring.
Tier 7: I would have fired them already
29. Jack Del Rio, Oakland
I would have fired Reggie McKenzie for making this hire. The only special thing Del Rio brought as a coach in his time in Jacksonville was an axe. McKenzie has now demonstrated, in two consecutive offseasons, that after clearing out cap space and getting to sign and hire his guys, that he wants to build a team of mediocre retreads. Last year, it was Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley, and Justin Tuck. This year, it’s Del Rio. When this fails, I assume Rich Kotite and Tommy Maddox will get the call next.
30. Joe Philbin, Miami
Any head coach who was so clueless about what was going on with his team that he was unaware of the locker-room bullying that went on with the Dolphins is a failure of a leader. (A head coach who manages to avoid responsibility for these things certainly is.) Any head coach who combines that with fearful in-game decision-making demonstrates a lack of both of the major qualities required of a successful head coach. Stephen Ross clearly likes Philbin a lot, given his insistence on keeping him as coach (an insistence which made it difficult for the team to land a GM). If I were running the Dolphins, I’d have fired Philbin and promoted Bill Lazor yesterday.
31. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee
On a 3-25 streak as head coach. Has a bizarre fetish for late-round QBs with big arms and no pocket presence or accuracy (Zach Mettenberger is Dan Marino compared to some of the QBs Whisenhunt tried to make it work with in Arizona). Two winning seasons out of a seven as a head coach, both of those bolstered by a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
I will say that Whisenhunt has more opportunity than anyone else at the bottom to elevate his ranking: If he can successfully develop Marcus Mariota, he can turn the Titans into winners, and he will deserve credit for that. I’m going to make him prove it before I raise him in my own rankings, though. (And this is as good a time as any to mention that I think Ruston Webster has a strong case to be the worst GM in the NFL.)
32. Jay Gruden, Washington
He’s too stubborn and inflexible to design an offense that suits his very talented quarterback. He publicly undermines said quarterback. He deflects responsibility and assigns blame. Nothing I see in Jay Gruden’s performance suggests head-coaching material. I’m shocked Washington managed to get worse at head coach after dismissing Negligent Mike Shanahan.