With the final edition of this series, we have one of the most exciting divisions in the league; the NFC North. These teams carry some of the most storied rivalries in NFL history, boasting as much glory and heartbreak as any other division in the league. Led by three very good quarterbacks and the best running back in football, these teams are primed for yet another season of mutual disdain.
The Oakland Raiders have not fielded a team with a record above .500 since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers humiliated them 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII. The team’s record since that loss is a league-worst 53 wins and 123 losses. Yes, even worse than the Detroit Lions, who in that time followed up their historically bad 0-16 season with a 2-14 season and have made five top-two selections in the draft over the same time span. The Raiders have ousted not one, not two, not three, but seven head coaches over this period.
Year in year out the AFC North boasts some of the stronger teams in the AFC. This is generally due to great management. Ravens Ozzie Newsome has been the NFL’s best GM of the last decade, and the Steelers have been well run under the Rooney’s for quite some time. The Bengals might be the thriftiest team in the league, never spending much money, but always scooping great value in the draft on players with “character concerns.” I use quotes because somehow these players seem to do just fine under Marvin Lewis, one of the best examples being LB Vontaze Burfict. Initially viewed as a high pick, Burfict went undrafted last year because teams were worried about his “character.” The Bengals scooped him up, and he immediately rewarded them with over 1100 high quality snaps against both the run and pass. The Browns have been the bottom feeder of this division for awhile, but their talented roster could change that in a hurry.
All things told, the Carolina Panthers 2013 season is among the most successful in franchise history. Their offense was about league average, with Cam Newton throwing to the corpse of Steve Smith, and the defense was the best in team history. Instead of grabbing all of the receiving and offensive line help they could get in this year’s draft, the Panthers seem to have held to a “best player available” strategy. While they did add a big receiving weapon in Kelvin Benjamin with their first pick, it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to contribute immediately. I’ll discuss Benjamin and the rest of the Panthers incoming rookie class in the conclusion. Our featured prospects will be the rare offensive line prospect who declares for the draft as a redshirt sophomore, LSU right guard Trai Turner, along with North Carolina safety Tre Boston.
ROUND 3, PICK 92
Trai Turner, OG, LSU
It’s not often you see an offensive line prospect declare after his sophomore season, and after only 20 career starts, but that’s exactly what Trai Turner did. He only just turned 21 on June 14. From a physical standpoint, Turner is a grown-ass man at 6’3″, 310 lbs., with long 34″ arms, and he plays like one, as we’ll get to shortly. Turner was the #1 “pure” guard on my draft board (behind tackle/guard prospects Greg Robinson and Zack Martin) and I thought Carolina was stealing in broad daylight when they selected him 92nd overall.
Keep an eye on the right guard #56, that’s Trai Turner. What I am looking for in an offensive line prospect are rudimentary things such as agility, strength, pass protection, etc, and I’ll leave the more detailed play-by-play oriented analysis for Zone Reads contributors Needle and Matt W (extra thanks to Matt for help on this piece). Consistent play is key for an offensive lineman and I kept an eye on that in my preliminary research. If there are any areas which strike me as a concern I’ll give an example and inform you what my concern is about. For this post I’ve taken a look at LSU’s 2013 games against Texas A&M, Arkansas, Alabama (via CJ Mosley), and Florida (via Hill and Mettenberger). If that sounds confusing, it isn’t. We’re always going to be looking at the right guard.
All of Trai Turner’s mistakes come in pass protection. That is to say, there are no flaws which show up in his run blocking either at the point of attack or at the second level more than a handful of times in these four games combined. As a run blocker Trai Turner is among the best you’ll ever see at the college level. His ability to reach the second level and sustain blocks there is tremendous. None of his issues in pass protection appear to be unfixable and they are rare enough where it isn’t likely to keep him from immediately starting.
First we’ll take a look at his strengths and weaknesses in pass protection. There were a number of plays in Turner’s tapes where his technique could use some work. On this first play Turner is a split second too slow on his engagement and allows the defender to get to his outside shoulder and is forced to hold with his right arm. The refs didn’t throw a flag here so hooray for the big gain. On this next play a similar issue happens where the defensive tackle is able to get ideal hand placement on Turner and win the leverage battle. If there’s a positive to take away from these two instances it’s that Trai Turner rallies well when beat. The defenders are unable to get to the quarterback on either play in large part because Turner has learned the subtle art of holding and not getting flagged. You may laugh but this is much better than giving up a free rush to your quarterback and it’s a skill every offensive lineman needs in his toolbox.
More often than not Turner does play the proper technique in pass protection. On this play Turner gets his hands out earlier with more depth in his drop and what really sticks out here is how well he uses his hands to consistently attack the defender. Once again Turner plays the correct technique by shooting his hands first and not waiting to be attacked.
In these four games there are only two plays I identified where Trai Turner completely blows the assignment in pass protection. The first play is similar to the previous two where he doesn’t engage the defensive tackle quick enough and loses the leverage battle once the tackle reaches his outside shoulder (this time he’s beat too much to even hold). On this one Turner fails to recognize a stunt, doesn’t get any depth in his drop, and a rusher comes free with a shot at the quarterback. Compare that play with this play where Turner gets plenty of depth on his drop and is able to briefly help the right tackle before sliding over to the middle in order to meet a stunting defender. Perfect. In fact, there are several instances where Turner slides over to help the right tackle before ‘his’ man needs to be blocked. I’ve suffered through seeing so many guards who lack the athleticism to make this kind of play that I’m in awe when there’s a player like Trai Turner makes it look easy.
If you’ve made it this far then surely you want to see why I described Turner as one of the best run blockers I’ve ever seen. He can ride defenders down the line, turn his man away from the run, pull around to the left, or simply plow straight down the field. These plays don’t require much in the way of explanation. See target, destroy target. The single most impressive play to my eye was this one against Arkansas where Turner fakes a ‘down’ block to his left, pirouettes his feet in the complete opposite direction, charges full steam ahead into the cornerback, and takes him for a 12-yard ride. That isn’t a ride you’ll find at your local amusement park. It was difficult to pare down my rather lengthy collection of Trai Turner ‘highlights’ into a few for display here. I have enough of them to write another 1,000 words, but I’ll spare you the time and urge you to check out his tapes over at Draft Breakdown if you’re interested in seeing more.
ROUND 4, PICK 128
Tre Boston, S, North Carolina
Tre Boston started 40 out of 48 games at North Carolina either at safety or cornerback. There’s not anything eye-popping about his combine numbers but all across the board he scores similarly to the highly touted Alabama safety and Green Bay Packer 1st-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix. There are 5 tapes available for Tre Boston at Draft Breakdown – two from 2013 and three from 2012 – and I’ve taken a look at all of them for this post. Disclaimer: safeties are the most difficult position to get a feel for with the TV camera but it is what it is.
Boston is a sure tackler. By my count Tre Boston missed 5 tackles in the 5 games with only the 2012 contest against Duke being more than one missed. Mind you, Boston accounted for 17 tackles in that game either as an assist or solo. Two of these tackles came in critical situations near the goal line. On this play as soon as Boston recognizes the runner he sprints to him and gets in on an important tackle. In fact, I believe Boston hesitates just a moment too long as you can see him barely moving at the 5:38 mark; but the play also shows how quickly he can close when he recognizes the offensive attack. Later in the same game Boston shows no hesitation during a critical play (check the score and time remaining). Duke went on to win on a pass the very next play but alas this play isn’t on Boston’s tape.
In the 2013 game against Duke Tre Boston accumulates 15 tackles. My favorite is this tackle on a well disguised blitz where Boston drops the runner for a loss. Boston can be seen both in making plays around the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage in the Tarheel’s defensive scheme. One issue of concern is biting on play action as he does on two plays in different games here and here. On this play Boston stands flat footed in no man’s land following a simultaneous double move from the wide receiver and pump fake from the quarterback. While I don’t even know went wrong here since the TV camera on both the play and replay fails to key on the secondary, I do know a safety isn’t supposed to be sprinting to chase down a receiver in his area as the ball sails by him.
Many defensive backs in the ACC feasted off of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris these past two seasons and Tre Boston was no different. Boston’s interceptions highlight some incredible in-game athleticism. Watch as he locates and high points this ball. If not for a pointless shove from a teammate later in the same game then this interception wouldn’t have been called back for pass interference. Boston has a field day against Miami in 2012 with those plays and this pass deflection – not his only one. In these 5 games I counted a total of 9 plays which were either deflected or intercepted by him. The same peeking in the backfield which got him busted earlier also results in some plays such as this one where he eyes the quarterback the entire play and returns an interception for a touchdown.
What I like about Tre Boston is his aggressive play. As we’ve seen in these plays I linked he’s not afraid to throw his body around near the line of scrimmage or react to defense a ball flying in his general direction. He’ll be tested on his eye discipline early and often throughout his rookie season as I really don’t see Roman Harper holding Tre Boston back from starting for particularly long.
The Carolina Panthers are coming off of arguably their second best season in franchise history, behind their appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII. They accomplished this with significant weaknesses along the offensive line and in their receiving corps(e). A lot will be asked of 1st-round pick Kelvin Benjamin to make an immediate impact and I think fans may be disappointed in those early returns as Benjamin isn’t nearly as polished as the similarly sized sophomore entry Mike Evans. One thing Benjamin has going for him over Evans is Cam Newton throwing him the ball; if Benjamin is to succeed he’s in the right spot to do so.
Zone Reads contributor Needle made a 20 minute video on 2nd-round pick Kony Ealy which I recommend checking out. Short and sweet cliffs: Needle loves Ealy’s inside move. Being able to rotate Ealy in along a defensive line which already includes Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Kawann Short, and Star Lotulelei is nothing short of terrifying. I didn’t love Kony Ealy as a player to come in and start immediately and he certainly won’t be doing so in Carolina but with these players commanding attention Ealy will see a lot of 1-on-1 matchups as a rookie.
The only other Panther’s draft pick which I watched some of was 6th rounder Tyler Gaffney. He’s a powerful short yardage runner who seems to fill no specific need for the Panthers but, hey, you can never have too many running backs. I kid, I kid. Overall I love what the Panthers did in this draft. They drafted a lot of very talented young prospects to go with those already on the team. A run at the Super Bowl is very much in play, even in a loaded conference.
I previously wrote that I wasn’t in love with the Jets offseason, but that it was decent enough. Like any other fan, I’ve been slowly coming around on that. Unlike most other fans, it has been due to watching 2013 film of these prospects.
I believe the Vikings did the best job in the draft of stockpiling very talented players. Just two seasons ago, the Vikings made the playoffs on the back of Adrian Peterson’s MVP / “nine yards short of the all-time single season rushing record” campaign. All of this happened with a then-sophomore year Christian Ponder at quarterback. The selection of Louisville signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater marks the end of the Ponder era and should usher in a new era of quality quarterback play, one that will give Adrian Peterson some badly-needed help with carrying the offense. I’ll return to the Bridgewater pick and the rest of the Vikings draft in the closing paragraphs; what I want to do now is shed a light on a couple of middle- to late-round picks who didn’t receive much attention in the mainstream draft coverage. The two players I’ve selected for the Vikings are both early entries (juniors): defensive end Scott Crichton and offensive guard David Yankey.
ROUND 3, PICK 72
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
In the weeks before the draft I pegged the big Oregon State defensive end as a surefire late first-round pick. The draft class didn’t have much size at defensive end– at least, not that came with the kind of get-off and strength needed to rush the passer, which I believe Crichton has. In terms of measurables, Crichton stands 6’3″, weighs 273 lbs, with 32 3/4″ arms, ran a 4.84 40, hit 24 reps on the bench, and ran among the fastest shuttles at the combine. In this post we’re going to take a look at the bowl game against Boise State and two conference powerhouse opponents in Stanford and Oregon.
The Boise State game is nothing short of an extended highlight reel for Crichton. He doesn’t just play well; he takes over the game. We’re going to start with three consecutive plays on the tape. First, this play: the tight end tries to wash him out of the play, and Crichton shows his closing speed, going around the block to make the tackle for a large loss. On the very next play, he explodes off the line from a wide-9 position and uses an arm-over move on the hapless right tackle to force a fumble for a touchdown. Boise State hasn’t yet learned not to block him with a tight end, so on the third play Crichton sheds the blocker immediately and bursts upfield to meet the runner for another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Skipping ahead over several other quality plays (only for brevity’s sake; there’s plenty of good material there), let’s take a look at this play, where he’s matched mano y mano with Bears 7th-round pick Charles Leno, Jr. (no slouch himself). We see an extraordinary speed rush where Leno has no play but to grab and hold Crichton to keep him from slamming the quarterback onto the turf. The referees, in a game Oregon State has a 31-0 lead, do not call holding as an act of mercy. And in this one last play from the Hawai’i bowl, you can see Crichton bull-rush the guard, forcing the quarterback to scramble for not much on a long third down, effectively ending the game.
I’ve selected the Stanford game next because this is arguably the worst tape of Crichton’s I watched at Draft Breakdown. The biggest problem with Crichton is consistency during games. He can go series after series getting stalemated, or worse, at the line before he flashes very high-level play. The reason I really like him as a prospect is that he flashes a few times in every game. On this play, Crichton is facing Patriots 4th-round pick Cameron Fleming, and Fleming is able to nearly get Crichton off balance, using his left arm to push him away. The good news is that Crichton didn’t fall down and wasn’t taken out of the play completely, but this is one of those issues I mentioned that pop up for Crichton from time to time. Much later in the same game, Crichton briefly gets double teamed off the snap on this play, which leads to Fleming taking Crichton for a ride down the field and away from the ball carrier. And for good measure, this time on a pass play Crichton is double-teamed by the left tackle and by his new teammate, guard David Yankey (#54). The result is our man Crichton taking some time to enjoy the view from the ground.
As I said earlier, not a game goes by where Crichton doesn’t flash some high-level ability, and the Stanford game is no different. While I will concede the game is an overall negative for him, I want to showcase several plays which will get any Vikings fan excited and will have Lions fans such as myself hoping he never realizes his full potential. Here’s an incredible play where Crichton is lined up inside at defensive tackle and simply rag-dolls the right guard to the ground, which, if not for the awareness of the running back to briefly shield Crichton, would have resulted in a sack. Alas, this is not the first time in the game where Stanford’s right guard wound up on the ground. It happens earlier in the game on this play, where Crichton crashes inside, puts the guard on his back, and this time does get the sack. If you watch the entire Stanford game you’ll notice Crichton struggles to do much against the left tackle; here is one play where he does get in a strong bull rush.
I want you to see one more game, this time against Oregon. We’ve seen one play earlier where Crichton played inside. Now, in this Oregon game, we’ll see his versatility, as Crichton lines up everywhere along the defensive line. For example, on this play Crichton is aligned at nose tackle, and Oregon utilizes three blockers to hold him off. On another play, again at nose tackle, Crichton is not able to shed the left guard’s block, which opens a lane for the runner to gain big yards in the red zone. The tale of the first half is that Crichton isn’t able to get much going, either because he isn’t shedding the block or he’s getting double-teamed at the point of attack.
If you watched the first half of the Oregon tape and turned it off because Scott Crichton was not doing much, then you’d have made a grave mistake, my friends. It begins right before the second half, on this play: Crichton attacks the right shoulder of the center off the snap and brings down the runner for a staggering 10-yard loss. What is “it” in the last sentence? Simply put, Scott Crichton transforming into The Incredible Hulk. Early in the third quarter, Oregon decides to go for it on a 4th-and-1 at midfield by running the ball directly at Scott Crichton. The result is the same as the last play I showed you.
The Hulk, you say? Crichton toss right tackle aside. Crichton see runner, Crichton kill runner. You get the idea. Luckily for the Ducks, quarterback Marcus Mariota can elude a pass rush because Crichton also gets to him several times in the second half. Right here, Crichton once again displays his strength on a bull rush against a guard, and eventually the play ends with Mariota running out of bounds. Towards the end of a tight game, Crichton explodes around the left tackle and hurries Mariota into an incomplete pass.
As you may have guessed by now, I was an enormous fan of Scott Crichton’s game. When the Vikings selected him a mere four spots before the Lions could, I died a little bit on the inside. By no means do I anticipate that he will come right in and make the Pro Bowl, but I do believe he has the talent to start immediately and contribute in a positive way as a rookie. If you watch all three of these tapes, you’ll see more of what I showed you here: A player– at least in the Stanford and Oregon games– who disappears over stretches and turns his back to the play on a few too many spin moves. There’s no glaring hole in his game which pops out to me; all of his issues seem very much fixable.
ROUND 5, PICK 145
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
David Yankey has been a key player in Stanford’s run-heavy offense these past three seasons, playing both left guard and left tackle. His 40 time is… well, let’s agree to say it’s not important. What does jump out from his combine measurements are his 34″ arms. For some perspective, those arms are longer than these three first-rounder linemen; Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan, and Zack Martin. Yankey also stands 6’6″ and possesses a large frame that can easily carry his 315 pounds. I hadn’t seen any of his 2012 tapes at tackle until I started doing the research for this column.
Briefly, these are my findings from two 2012 games at left tackle:
- On the very first play I ever saw David Yankey play left tackle, he takes a violent right-handed punch to the chest followed by a swim move around the edge, and responds by dropping his head and lunging at the defensive end. This nearly results in a forced fumble.
- Here against Wisconsin, rather than go into a kick-slide for pass protection, Yankey takes a number of useless lateral steps. This gives him no depth to form a pocket, and just like in the last play, he responds by dropping his head and lunging at the defensive end.
- This time, Yankey properly uses a kick-slide to drop back, except the pass rusher has sold out on an inside rush from the start. By the time he’s in his set, Yankey is already beaten and is forced to hopelessly dive towards the rusher.
- Yankey gets bulled back towards the quarterback on a few occasions in these two games from 2012.
I feel comfortable ruling David Yankey out as a tackle. It’s not only these five plays above; Yankey simply doesn’t grasp how to play the position, and it shows repeatedly during the 2012 USC game. Sure, experience will help with that, and perhaps he can work on his technique enough as a pro to move to tackle years down the road. In any case, he’s not playing there any time soon, and the Vikings selected him to play guard, so that’s what we’ll focus on. Let’s take a look at several of his plays in 2013 against Notre Dame, Arizona State, and Michigan State.
His play at left guard is significantly better from his play at tackle. Yankey is a terrific athlete for a player of his size, as he demonstrates on this play. Notre Dame brings a linebacker to the outside of the defensive end; Yankey quickly sprints out to meet him, which allows for the passer to complete a 20-yard dart. Steelers second-round pick Stephon Tuitt gets bullied around a little bit by David Yankey on a few plays: On this play, Yankey rides Tuitt out towards the sideline, making room for the runner to eventually find a nice running lane on the outside. The next play requires little explanation, as Yankey simply uses Tuitt’s momentum to toss him right to the ground. The perfect play call helped in the last instance, but it’s still nice to see a good pancake.
Yankey has a few lapses in pass protection in the three games I reviewed, both to his inside and to his outside shoulder. These only happen occasionally, but it’s worth noting that his pass protection is not always clean, and even if this “only” happens twice each game, that is twice too many. Another area he really needs to work on is his coordination at the second level. When he squares up on a defender while pulling around the block, it can be a thing of beauty, and he can do it both on passing and on running plays. But it isn’t always a thing of beauty: all too often he gets lost at the second level and finds himself laying on the ground having failed to block anyone. In this case, the linebacker throws him to the floor.
I haven’t yet shown any plays from the game against Arizona State because I’m leaving the best for last. I guarantee you Will Sutton, who was selected in the third round by the Chicago Bears, does not want to get wham-blocked by David Yankey ever again. In fact, perhaps Will Sutton would prefer never to see him again period: In this play Yankey simply pummels Sutton to the field. On this play, you can hear the POP of the collision if you turn the volume on YouTube up a bit. Last but not least, I’ll leave on a second-level block where his lunge actually helps neutralize the safety and leads to a touchdown.
MORE ON THE VIKINGS DRAFT
If you want to see a high quality breakdown on Anthony Barr I strongly recommend checking out Channel Needle. I personally wouldn’t have taken him #9, but I understand the pick and I didn’t think it was a complete blunder. Mike Zimmer has an excellent track record with coaching up defensive players from his Cincinnati days; no reason that record won’t continue as a head coach.
Teddy Bridgewater was the #1 quarterback among every single one of us at Zone Reads. The Vikings are the perfect team to break in a rookie signal caller, with a top-notch offensive line, weapons outside in Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, and the best running back in Adrian Peterson. Bridgewater does not need to play like Joe Montana reincarnated (well, he’s still alive, but you know) in order for the Vikings to return to the playoffs. He simply needs to hand the ball to Peterson and hit receivers when a pass is called, something the trio of Viking quarterbacks in 2013 could not do on a reliable basis. Adrian Peterson should have enough in the tank to make for a smooth transition for Bridgewater to be given more and more responsibility the same way Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh were. Hey, that second-year gunslinger Russell Wilson leaned on a veteran running back and just won a Super Bowl.
Among the remainder of the Vikings draft, the only player’s game I can recall off the top of my head is Georgia Southern’s do-it-all Swiss army knife athlete and Combine wonder Jerick McKinnon. “He was just, from an athletic standpoint, too good of an athlete to pass up,” said General Manager Rick Spielman of McKinnon in the Minnesota Star-Tribune. It’s hard to disagree. McKinnon played all over the place in Georgia Southern’s option attack and played a large role in their upset of Florida.
The Vikings smashed the value button repeatedly with those first five selections. Not only did they get good value, but they also addressed pressing needs, and have set themselves up more than any other team in the draft for a bright long-term future. As a Lions fan, it breaks my heart. As a football fan, I can’t wait to see these players hit the field together for the first time.
Finishing up the NFC West grades, I’ll address the offseason performance of the top teams in the NFL’s most competitive division. Before I start, I’ll take a minute to comment on the year-long suspension of Cardinals ILB Daryl Washington. When on the field, he is one of the best players in the league at his position, so it goes without saying that this is a massive loss for the Cardinals. It irks me quite a bit that this suspension is due to multiple failed drug tests for marijuana, while other players face no suspensions for behaviors such as assault and street racing. However, the NFLPA negotiated the terms of the current CBA, so they really have no one to blame for this but themselves. This is not the fault of the Cardinals, so it will not factor into their grade.