Thursday, April 17, 2014

2014 NFL Draft - Ch Ch Changes

Much has happened since my first attempt to predict what the Buccaneer’s roster will look like in 2014.  Jason Licht and Lovie Smith have been hard at work turning it over and making it theirs.  Hell, we’ve even got new helmets and uniforms, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Josh McCown rejoins Lovie and will be the teams’ bridge to their next, hopefully franchise, QB.  Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith are upgrades upon Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah, and they cost less than their predecessors.  Brandon Myers becomes the most experienced tight end on the roster. 

On defense, Michael Johnson was brought in to increase the teams edge pass rush presence, Clinton McDonald improves the play next to GMC, and Alterraun Verner replaces the one year waste of money and draft picks, Darrelle Revis. 

There’s still work to do. 

I don’t believe for a second that Mike Glennon has a future in Tampa.  I think the Bucs will draft McCown’s successor and look to move Glennon, possibly during the draft to obtain another ick.  Licht and Lovie have already begun quite the overhaul, and with only six draft picks, I’ve got to think they’ll make every effort to acquire more.  Glennon is their most valuable asset that they can and would most likely trade. 

Mike Jenkins and DJ Moore are two veteran corners brought in this offseason, but I believe the Bucs are mistaken if they feel either is up to the task of the role of slot corner.  Moore would likely start there if a game broke out today, but I don’t think it’s wise to rely on a guy who was out of football last year to be the needed upgrade over Leonard Johnson.  Lovie has also stated that his boundary corners will be boundary corners, which means Verner, a reputable slot corner, will not slide inside when they go nickel. 

The Bucs needed help at receiver before they moved on from Mike Williams.  There’s a wide talent gap between Vincent Jackson and the rest of the receivers.  Chris Owusu belongs at the bottom of the depth chart, and Tommy Streeter remains unrealized potential.  Louis Murphy and a personal favorite, Lavelle Hawkins, were added to compete, but in an ideal world, they’re fighting for one roster spot.

Oneil Cousins follows OL coach George Warhop to Tampa, but like the receivers above, he’s camp competition.  The same goes for the re-signed Jamon Meredith.  The Bucs are hoping Carl Nicks can suit up at left guard, but they need to at add least one more starting caliber guard.

You can never have enough pass rushers, and I’d like to have a tight end who doesn’t tip plays.  I’d still like to upgrade over Mason Foster, but I think his competition will come from Dane Fletcher rather than the draft.  Dashon Goldson might go the way of Penn, Williams, and Zuttah next year, but I don’t expect the Bucs to spend a day one or two pick on the position this year. 

What will the Bucs do at #7?  That’s the question on Bucs fans’ minds.  Below is my take on the draft’s first 38 picks as well as what the Bucs will do with all of theirs.  To make things as entertaining as possible yet remain fairly realistic, I’ve included trades, quite a few.  Might the Bucs be involved in such a scenario?  Let’s find out.

Round 1

1) Houston Texans – Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)
I’m still going with Bortles as the Texans pick to kick things off.  Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought in to be the bridge/backup to whoever they draft this year, and I think that’s going to be Bortles.  Clowney is the only other way I’d go with this.  He may not be an ideal 3-4 OLB, but Romeo Crennel would find a way to maximize his talents. 

2) Atlanta Falcons (TRADE) – Jadeveon Clowney (DE, S Carolina)
Again I have the Rams trading out of this spot, but this time I’m going with the Falcons to move up and get their pass rusher.  There are connections between the two front offices, and they even consummated a trade in last year’s draft. 

3) Jacksonville Jaguars – Khalil Mack (DE/OLB, Buffalo)
Last time I had the Jags passing on a passer for Clowney.  I still think they go with a pass rusher and address QB with a later pick.  While they have brought in a couple of Gus Bradley’s former Seahawks, the Jags aren’t suddenly pass rush rich.  Here they take the remaining consensus-elite defender.  I even think they’d take Watkins before any of the QBs. 

4) Cleveland Browns – Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Sorry Bucs fans.  I don’t think Watkins makes it to #7.  In fact, I see three teams more likely to end up with him than the Bucs.  If the Browns or Raiders don’t take Watkins, I think Detroit will maneuver ahead of Tampa Bay to get him.  Here the Browns get arguably the draft’s most talented offensive player and can find Brian Hoyer’s competition with their next pick. 

5) Oakland Raiders – Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh)
Surprising no one, the draft’s first swerve comes from Oakland.  Their roster is the most depressing in the league and needs help literally everywhere.  Taking one of the top tackles would be my alternate route, but acquiring arguably the drafts best interior rusher is a great way for a team that defines the word ‘rebuilding’ to start doing just that.

6) St. Louis Rams (TRADE) – Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M)
I had the Rams selecting Matthews last time, and I’m sticking with it here.  Robinson has received more air time during draft season, but I still think Matthews is the smarter pick. 

7) Baltimore Ravens (TRADE) – Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M)
Yes, the Bucs move down.  Evans would address the departure of Williams, but I believe there is better value in trading down.  Ozzie Newsome finally gets his replacement for Anquan Boldin, and combined with Torrey Smith, a healthy Dennis Pitta, and the recently-acquired Steve Smith, gives the Joe Flacco an impressive arsenal that may need to lean more on the passing game, depending upon what happens with Ray Rice’s off-field situation.  To make the move down the board to #17, I have the Bucs picking up Baltimore’s picks in round one, two, and four. 

8) New York Giants (TRADE) – Greg Robinson (T, Auburn)
I think Minnesota is very eager to move down, and having Robinson remain on the board should help their cause.  The Giants really need to turn things around, and while Robinson isn’t going to score a lot of touchdowns himself, most importantly the Giants needed to emerge from the first round with a great player.  Moving up for Robinson helps them do that.

9) Buffalo Bills – Zack Martin (OL, Notre Dame)
The Bills are often good for a surprise pick on draft day, and they continue the tradition here.  I don’t think Martin is a bad pick but one that would surprise a lot of people who take prospect rankings as fact.  Martin gives the Bills options on the left side with Cordy Glenn. 

10) Detroit Lions – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S, Alabama)
Failing to trade up for Watkins or Evans, the Lions here look to upgrade the secondary.  Pass rusher or cornerback would be my other guesses, but I think getting a player with Ha Ha’s upside would be a good use of this pick. 

11) Tennessee Titans – Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State)
Gilbert appears to have solidified his place atop the list of cornerbacks and would fill an immediate need.  The Titans are often linked to Anthony Barr, and while they could use a talent upgrade at the position, they already have four OLBs that are likely to make the team.

12) Minnesota Vikings – CJ Mosley (LB, Alabama)
By trading down four spots the Vikings gain a pick or two and still get the player I think they’d be happy to select at #8.  I don’t believe they’re interested in any of the day one QBs and will instead select Zach Mettenberger on day two. 

13) St. Louis Rams – Odell Beckham (WR, LSU)
Rather than taking Watkins or Evans with their first pick, I think it would be wiser for the Rams to take their highest rated lineman there and then grab Beckham here.  Beckham is my second rated WR behind Watkins and gives Sam Bradford the best receiver he’s had as a pro.  I think Beckham is going to be really special. 

14) Cleveland Browns (TRADE) – Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)
What a first day for the Browns.  They get Watkins with their first pick and are able to package their other first rounder and additional picks to swap spots with the Bears and get their QB.  Johnny Football sits in the green room longer than he’d have liked, but he’s got to like the prospects of throwing to Josh Gordon, Watkins, and Jordan Cameron.

15) Philadelphia Eagles (TRADE) – Anthony Barr (OLB, UCLA)
Yes, another trade.  The Eagles are reportedly looking to upgrade their pass rush and have targeted former Chip Kelly Duck, Dion Jordan.  If they don’t acquire the third overall pick from last year’s draft, I could see them making this move for Barr.  I’m not a fan of his game, but maybe Kelly is.

16) Dallas Cowboys – Taylor Lewan (T, Michigan)
The Cowboys have seen just about all they want to see from Doug Free, so an upgrade at right tackle is high on their list of priorities.  I could see Jerry Jones targeting Lewan or Martin with his first round pick before a defensive player.

17) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TRADE)
With the agonizing additional ten pick wait having passed, the Bucs are now on the clock again.  Watkins, Clowney, and Mack are what I would consider the elite of the elite in this year’s draft, and with them off the board at #7, I would hope the Bucs exhaust all efforts to deal down.  I’ve mentioned QB, WR, G, and CB as the greatest positions of need, in my opinion, and see the Bucs targeting either a passer or a pass catcher in round one over one of the top tackles.  Do Licht and Lovie prefer Evans or more picks with which to continue their Buccaneeer makeover?

The pick – Derek Carr (QB, Fresno State)
I still have Bortles as my #1 QB, but I’m in on Carr as well.  He fits what Tedford will look to do offensively and hopefully gives the Bucs the franchise QB they’ve been pursuing since Brad Johnson left.  Having McCown in house affords Carr a year to assimilate himself to the pro game and get even more on the same page with Tedford.  The QB-OC relationship is critical, and I couldn’t see a better fit in that regard.  I don’t believe the Bucs are interested in Bortles, Bridgewater, or Manziel and will rather look to draft Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, or Connor Shaw.

18) New York Jets – Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
This may be a little later than expected for Ebron, but he’s a guy I think will slide a bit on day one.  The Jets would be happy to see it happen, as they’re desperate for offensive playmakers.

19) San Francisco (TRADE) – Brandin Cooks (WR, Oregon State)
The Niners have plenty of picks in this year’s draft to move up and get their guy and are looking to upgrade receiver and cornerback.  Here I have them making a deal with the Dolphins to move up and get a dynamic receiver to line up inside boundary playmakers Boldin and Crabtree.  They’re really lacking behind their two starters, and Cooks gives them someone else for the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC to scheme against. 

20) Arizona Cardinals – Calvin Pryor (S, Louisville)
I don’t think the Cardinals will spend their first pick on an offensive lineman, so if they don’t’ take a pass rusher, I think they’ll look to solidify the safety spot next to Tyrann Mathieu.  I see Pryor as a really nice fit.

21) Green Bay Packers – RaShede Hageman (DT, Minnesota)
Ted Thompson hopes to pull off some more draft magic and get the good RaShede Hageman, the day one prospect generating the most polar predictions. 

22) Pittsburgh Steelers (TRADE) – Louis Nix (DT, Notre Dame)
Defensive line and cornerback are the two areas I think Pittsburgh will look to address first, and they take the anchor they’ve needed since Casey Hampton fell off a few years ago.

23) Kansas City Chiefs – Marqise Lee (WR, USC)
The Chiefs finally get a viable target to pair with Dwayne Bowe.  I’m not sure how much longer they can continue to win by giving Jamaal Charles 99% of their offensive touches. 

24) Cincinnati Bengals – Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri)
I’m going with a defensive end over a cornerback here.  Ealy helps make up for the loss of Johnson and gives them a versatile presence up front.

25) San Diego Chargers – Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech)
I think Fuller ends up going higher than this, but it didn’t happen here.  If not a corner, then Nix might get consideration if available.

26) Chicago Bears (TRADE) – Timmy Jernigan (DT, FSU)
Defensive line and secondary are the focus early on.  I think Chicago would pass on a DB to get a DT who can step in contribute right away.

27) New Orleans Saints – Dee Ford (DE/OLB, Auburn)
Dee Ford may think he’s as good as Clowney, but talent evaluators believe otherwise.  If not a pass rusher, a receiver like Benjamin wouldn’t surprise me. 

28) Carolina Panthers – Cyrus Kouandjio (T, Alabama)
It’s unknown how individual teams feel about Kouandjio’s health, but if his knee checks out, he’s quite a value at a high need position.

29) New England Patriots – Jace Amaro (TE, Texas A&M)
Maybe this is too common of a pick, but it makes a ton of sense.  With or without Gronk, the Patriots need to add a move-TE to the roster.  Amaro could be really dangerous in this offense.

30) Miami Dolphins (TRADE) – Morgan Moses (T, Virginia Tech)
The Dolphins signed a former Hokie in free agency to man the left tackle position, so it would only make sense to draft a former Hokie to fill the void at right tackle. 

31) Jacksonville Jaguars (TRADE) – Jimmy Garoppolo (QB, E Illinois)
The Jags get antsy and move up with Denver to grab Garoppolo.  Teddy Bridgewater remains unselected.

32) Seattle Seahawks – Kelvin Benjamin (WR, FSU)
Benjamin fills a need and would be a perfect fit for the champs, lining up with the dynamic Harvin and underrated Baldwin


Round 2

33) Houston Texans – Demarcus Lawrence (OLB, Boise State)
If they don’t take Clowney #1, I could see the Texans taking a pass rusher like Lawrence or Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu here.

34) Washington Redskins – Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State)
The Redskins badly need to upgrade their defensive backs and defensive backs coach.  They can only address one of them in the draft and grab the corner from Ohio State

35) Chicago Bears (TRADE) – Jimmie Ward (S, N Illinois)
After addressing the defensive line with Jernigan, the Bears take Ward with a pick obtained in my hypothetical trade with Cleveland.

36) Oakland Raiders – Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville)
Finally.  This looks awfully low for Bridgewater, but who really knows when any of these QBs will be picked?  This has to be the most uncertain and non-consensus QB class in quite some time.

37) St. Louis Rams – Jason Verrett (CB, TCU)
After getting Matthews and Beckham with their first two picks, the Rams get a really tough corner who will play a lot early and provide them with insurance should Trumaine Johnson struggle as a starter opposite Janoris Jenkins.

38) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best available at WR, DL, and CB is where I’m looking both here and with the #48 pick, the second rounder obtained from the Ravens in that first round trade.  Of those three positions, receiver is the clearest need.  I mention DL because I think Lovie really wants to beef up that front and could get an impact player in this round.  I rank cornerback as a higher need than most, but I’m simply not impressed with what the Bucs have other than Verner.  Of the players I’ve got going off the board in this vicinity, I think Benjamin and Verrett would both interest the Bucs quite a bit. 

Given that Vincent Jackson is the only starting caliber receiver on the roster, I think the Bucs will have a tough time waiting any later to address the position.  If I’m picking a wideout here, and Benjamin isn’t in play, I’ve got it down to three players – Davante Adams, Donte Moncrief, and Allen Robinson.  What are the Bucs likely looking for? 

They need a starter; someone who can be today’s #2 and possibly tomorrow’s #1.  They want a receiver with speed in space who can gain separation and win downfield.  I’m also going to assume that Lovie will influence catch radius and winning the battle at the point of catch.  Who checks the most boxes?

As much as I like Robinson, he’s the first one eliminated.  I think he would interest Lovie as someone who plays with a lot of physicality and wins at the point of contact, but how much will his lack of separation hurt him in the pros?  I’d be happy if he was the pick, but I think the Bucs are going to look for a receiver with a better chance of developing into a #1. 

Moncrief and Adams better fit that mold.  I’m a huge Moncrief fan.  I believe that in three years, he will be at worst the fifth most productive receiver from this class.  I think Moncrief has a higher upside and played with a lot more physicality in college than Adams.  On the other hand, Adams is a more consistent and fundamentally sound pass catcher and does a better job of winning aerial battles for the ball.  I love how he snatches it out of the air from a variety of positions on the field; shows very reliable hands.  If the Bucs indeed take Carr in the first round, you’ve got to think that couldn’t hurt Adams’ chances of being the pick. 

In the end I think Licht and Lovie would take who they see as the safer of the two options.  Although I like Moncrief more, I’m guessing that would be….

Davante Adams (WR, Fresno State)

Pick #48
I’m having a really hard time trying to decide between two players with this hypothetical second rounder from Baltimore

I’ve listed slot corner as a need for the Bucs on more than one occasion and believe that Lamarcus Joyner would be an ideal fit in Lovie’s defense.  He can cover the slot, support the run, blitz the passer, contribute on special teams, and potentially, see time at safety as well.  That last item could be of importance depending upon what Licht and Lovie think of Goldson’s future with the team.

Back and forth I’ve gone on this, and I’m sure I will again.  As much as I love Joyner, I wouldn’t be able to pass up Dominique Easley if he were to be here for the Bucs to take with an additional second rounder.  As I type this he has yet to work out for teams, and we don’t know much about his knee.  Given the type of talent he was prior to his injury and how quickly and successfully he recovered from his first ACL injury, he’s a steal and a damn good addition to a young defensive line. 

The pick – Dominique Easley (DT, Florida)

Round 3
Offensive line and cornerback are two positions of need I’ve yet to address, but I don’t love the projected value at those positions in this round.  Dakota Dozier is the only guard I’d target in this range, and I don’t know enough about him to make a case for the guy.  Jaylen Watkins might be the best value at corner in this round, but I can’t go there for fear of Gooberville overload.

I still want the Bucs to get a tight end, and CJ Fiedorowicz, the guy I listed as the Bucs fourth round pick in my last mock, is my favorite for them.  He’s an underutilized pass catcher who would be the teams’ best blocking tight end the moment he signed.  Lots of upside there I think.

Instead I pass for who I believe to be a better talent as a position, and specifically a skill, in which the Bucs are lacking.  I’ll keep my rant short.  I’ve been pining for a quick/elusive talent for some time, and Tedford is, thankfully, looking for receivers with that ability.  Here they get a really tough slot guy with a ton of potential.  He doesn’t shy away from contact and runs like a running back with the ball in his hands.  Like Adams, I think he’ll be attractive to Lovie due to his ability to make contested catches. 

The pick – Bruce Ellington (WR, South Carolina)

Round 4
The Bucs still don’t have a fourth round pick, but I gave them one in this mock trade with the Ravens.  If they have yet to address the cornerback position and have a chance to do so here, my target would be Rashaad Reynolds.  If the Bucs can’t get Joyner, I think Reynolds brings that same style of play as an undersized physical corner who can cover, support the run, and line up in multiple spots. 

I hate to keep taking player with medical issues, but if Clemson’s Brandon Thomas is still on the board at this point, you’ve got to think he’s worth the investment, even if you don’t get anything from him this year.  Thomas was viewed as a rising talent in the draft capable of playing both tackle and guard in the NFL.  EJ Gaines from Missouri is the other corner I’d consider if Reynolds isn’t available.  Two more players I like in this area (rounds 3-5) are Terrence Brooks and Christian Jones.  Yes, two Noles.  Brooks would be a great fit at free safety, and Jones could provide competition at both SLB and MLB. 

The pick – Rashaad Reynolds (CB, Oregon State)

Round 5
I understand the situation at guard.  Carl Nicks is a huge question mark, and Oneil Cousins better not be starting on the right side.  Still, I’m simply not in love at all with the guard talent in this draft.  Despite the need at the position, I cannot justify spending earlier picks on inferior talent at the expense of other positions of need.

Here I think the Bucs can get a guy like Anthony Steen from Alabama or Jon Halapio from Florida.  I’ve been on the Halapio bandwagon a while, but I think Steen might offer more of what this coaching staff is looking for.  Steen doesn’t have superstar athleticism, but I think he has a fairly high floor as someone with incredible strength and consistent technique. 

The pick – Anthony Steen (G, Alabama)

Round 6
With the Mike Williams pick I’m taking a shot on one of the few TE prospects I like in this draft.  This guy is a big bodied TE who offers a lot of upside in both the receiving in blocking games.  If they haven’t taken a corner yet, I would target Bene Benewikere from San Jose State (no that’s not him in the picture below). 

The pick – Crockett Gillmore (TE, Colorado State)

Round 7
Like most seventh round picks, this one is really a shot in the dark.  The Bucs need depth on the offensive line more than anywhere else, so here I’m taking a shot on a guy who was a captain and brings a lot of natural strength to the position.  John Brown of Pittsburgh State is a vertical threat I’d look at if the Bucs had not drafted two receivers already. 

The pick – Corey Linsley (C, Ohio State)

R1 – Derek Carr (QB, Fresno State)
R2a – Davonte Adams (WR, Fresno State)
R2b – Dominique Easley (DT, Florida)
R3 – Bruce Ellington (WR, South Carolina)
R4 – Rashaad Reynolds (CB, Oregon State)
R5 – Anthony Steen (G, Alabama)
R6 – Crockett Gillmore (TE, Colorado St)
R7 – Corey Linsley (C, Ohio State)

I get a hopeful franchise QB, a steal of a pass rusher, and two receivers who can contribute right away.  I also address other needs with a potential slot corner, two offensive linemen, and a tight end to develop behind Myers and Wright.  The dual Fresno State picks early on may turn off a lot of people, but I’m now a believer in Derek Carr.  I think he has what it takes to make those around him better players and be a leader of a perennial contender.  If you put Adams on another college team, he’s still a stud.  His familiarity and success with Carr is a plus, not what makes him.  I believe they’ll both excel in traditional style pro offenses. 

I realize predicting a trade of this nature for the Bucs isn’t terribly likely.  If it ends up happening, maybe I need to go into another line of work.  I did it to demonstrate the potential gains of moving down the board in round one should the situation present itself and, to be quite honest, to point out the prospects I’m high on at positions of need. 

Go Bucs!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Gravity Left Me Floating

This has been a sports blog since its inception, but I guess this is the first time I’ve felt that motivated to state a non-sports opinion (I don’t publicly talk politics). 

I just finished watching Gravity, an amazing film by Alfonso Cuaron.  It focused on visual and situational drama and suspense rather than dialogue and delivered a success.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the film, until the ending. 

We witness an unbelievable experience where Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character (Ryan Stone) is forced to manage multiple life-or-death situations in a suspenseful fight for survival.  After jumping from shuttle to space station to space station, we witness Bullock’s descent to Earth aboard a Chinese capsule.  She survives reentry to Earth’s atmosphere and lands in a body of water conveniently close to land.

My issue is not with the events in space or with the land proximity convenience but with the missed climactic moment of human emotion upon Bullock’s character’s emerging from the water upon the capsule’s crash.  Bullock’s Stone not only survives multiple perils in space but nearly drowns in what initially figured to be a routine capsule exit.

Upon escaping the capsule and, like Kate and Leo in Titanic, fighting the downward drag of a much heavier object, Bullock emerges from the water in time to see the remaining pieces of her most recent mod of space transportation disintegrate in the Earth’s atmosphere.  What does she do?  She flips over in the water and swims to shore in the film’s final scenes. 

While I have no issue with the way the film’s final minute of Bullock’s character struggling swim to shore and appreciation of being on Earth once again, Cuaron really missed an opportunity to put an award winning stamp on the film. 

At that moment when Bullock emerges from the water, I expected an extreme release of human emotion.  Hell, she floated through space from space junk to space junk and nearly died from being lost in space, running out of oxygen in space, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, and drowning in water.  She’s finally feeling in control of her body again AND witnessing the remainder of her astro experience burn in the sky, and we get nothing from her?!?! 

I’m sorry, but I thought that after emerging from the water, given a brief dramatic pause, would have broken down emotionally.  I expected to see quite a release of anguish, tension, and fear, but what we get none of that.  I would have spent another 1 or 2 minutes of film time putting the cherry on top of the suspenseful sundae by having Bullock’s character give a human release of said anguish, tension, and fear.  Let her scream and experience a physical release of emotion.  By god, she just went through something that no one in the history of humanity has ever experienced.

I loved the film, as it kept me engaged throughout, but I was really hoping for a much stronger ending.  It was one of those times where I had felt I passed the film by at its end and was pulling it along with me to my conclusion; similar to Bullock’s multiple tension-filled scenes tugging at tethers.  You had me Gravity, but like George Clooney, you left me floating in the end.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

What Happens Tomorrow?

With nearly $25 million in cap space and player rumors flying, the Bucs are expected to be active participants when free agency kicks off Tuesday at 4pm.  What positions will Licht and Lovie look to address first? 

If we’re to believe the whispers, the Bucs will be most active on the offensive and defensive lines.  They’ve already cut their starting right guard and are rumored to be flirting with the idea of ditching their left tackle and center as well.  It’s assumed a pass rushing defensive end will be one of their first signings, but they may add a tackle too. 

With the Bucs being tied to Eugene Monroe, Branden Albert, and Anthony Collins you’ve got to think Penn’s roster spot is in serious jeopardy.  Albert is reportedly headed to Miami, and Monroe might stay in Baltimore.  Reports have Collins ticketed for Tampa at $6.5 to $7 million per year.  He’s a guy I’ve liked since he was at Kansas.  With Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith manning Cincinnati’s tackle positions, Collins has been the best backup tackle in the league the last few years in my opinion.  He would be a significant improvement in pass protection and is no slouch in the run game either.  To me the biggest things about Collins are that he’s consistent and has stayed healthy. 

What also excites me about this potential acquisition is that the Bucs could get younger and better at left tackle for less money.  I listed Collins in my offseason piece, but I didn’t think the Bucs would be that aggressive in replacing Penn.  Hopefully I underestimated them. 

The Bucs are rumored to be talking to Rodger Saffold as well, and I would hope that would be for right guard rather than left tackle where I think Saffold is a inferior talent to Collins.  I’d rather let Oakland pay Saffold the rumored $8 million to play left tackle and focus on either Geoff Schwartz or Jon Asamoah at right guard.  I know this sounds narrow-minded since it’s only two players, but if the Bucs don’t sign either of KC’s guards, I think they’ll focus on the draft to find Joseph’s replacement.  I still like Florida’s Jon Halapio as a day three pick. 

At $4.5 million, Zuttah might not be any safer than Penn.  Working a bit in his favor though is the center market dried up a bit when Cleveland gave Alex Mack the transition tag.  Yes he’s free to talk to other teams, but I have a feeling any suitors would just be doing Cleveland’s negotiating for them.  If the Bucs do decide to move on from the versatile but average Zuttah, two realistic options are Evan Dietrich-Smith and Brian De La Puente.  Dietrich-Smith earned $1.3 million with the Packers last year, while De La Puente made $2 million with the Saints.  The former is expected to land the larger deal this offseason, but maybe the Bucs could steal the latter from a division rival at roughly what it would have cost to keep Zuttah.  De La Puente is a pretty athletic center who played for Jeff Tedford’s Cal Bears and could be a nice Mack consolation prize.

Heading into the offseason I was hoping for either Everson Griffen or Corey Wootton to be the Bucs primary focus at defensive end.  Unfortunately, Griffen signed a 5 year dealt to remain in Minnesota with $20 million guaranteed.  Wootton will come cheaper than that, has the Lovie connection, and can assist the Bucs from both the end and tackle positions.  He would be my #1 pass rush target when free agency kicks off and would give the Bucs a solid pairing at left end with William Gholston. 

Michael Johnson is the big name being tied to Tampa Bay.  With his former defensive coordinator’s new team re-upping Griffen, he’s not headed to Minnesota.  The Bears are rumored to be competition for Johnson’s services, but the Bucs should have no trouble matching any Bears’ offer since they sit at just roughly $9 million under the salary cap.  Stating the obvious, signing Johnson would be a big upgrade at left end over the disappointing Da’Quan Bowers.  An anticipated $9-10 million annual stipend may seem a bit steep for a guy with just 3.5 sacks last year, but a lot of Johnson’s contributions come in less sexy statistical categories.  Johnson tied teammate Carlos Dunlap for the league lead with 7 batted passes, and set career highs in QB hurries with 41 and hits with 17.  The bottom line is disrupting the flow and momentum of the offense.  Johnson does that in multiple ways. 

With Michael Bennett staying in Seattle, maybe Chicago finagles the cap somehow to get competitive for Johnson.  The Bucs could make my year by signing both Johnson and Wootton. 

If Henry Melton finds a soft market, the Bucs could get quite the steal at tackle.  Melton would give the Bucs a very quality rotational piece in the middle as he tries to rebuild his value.  If Melton doesn’t fall in their laps, I’d like to see the Bucs add Vance Walker, the veteran who shows up every week.  I expect both Randy Starks and Jason Hatcher to sign deals that price them out of Tampa Bay’s range, so there don’t figure to be many economical impact options. 

Other Positions
Not to completely rehash my previous piece, I would like to see the Bucs add a corner, receiver, and middle linebacker.  With the majority of the funding going into the trenches, the Bucs will likely be looking “second tier” when it comes to these positions. 

Sam Shields’ signing made a lot of other guys a lot of money.  Alterraun Verner and Vontae Davis are very unlikely options, and Aqib Talib isn’t coming back to town.  Former Bear Charles Tillman may be the most likely option, but I’d still prefer to the Corey Graham route.  He’s four years younger, a better player at this point, and will likely land a similar deal to Tillman.  Veteran Drayton Florence would be another, cheaper option and would also weaken the rival Panthers. 

With Jeremy Maclin re-signing with Philly, Andre Roberts is my clear #1 option at receiver.  He’s a proven talent who would not surprise me if he were to outplay current #2 and resident knucklehead Mike Williams.  The Bucs would still need to add to the position in the draft, and Sammy Watkins could be the cherry on top of a restocked receiving stable.

I think Mason Foster has a bullseye on his back, but there isn’t a clear, immediate upgrade in free agency.  I expect the Bucs to pursue both Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop, former Vikings familiar with DC Leslie Frazier.   Henderson could be Dekoda Watson’s replacement at SLB, while a healthy Bishop could be legit competition for Foster.  Being greedy, I’d like to re-sign Watson, bring in the two Vikings, and let the best men win the MLB and SLB jobs. 

There’s no serious long-term threat to Mike Glennon’s job in free agency, but Josh McCown and Shaun Hill are the best remaining options.  McCown is surely seeking a shot at a starting gig, while Hill makes for the more likely clipboard holder.  I’ve mentioned Hill as an option in previous years and would be the route I’d go should they choose to bring in a veteran. 

I mentioned Dexter McCluster as someone I expected/wanted the Bucs to target in free agency, and it appears they will do so.  I have a clear preference for McCluster over Hester given that McCluster can be a pretty decent offensive contributor when given enough snaps. 

With plenty of cap space and currently only five draft picks, I expect the Bucs to be active early and often in free agency, especially with the potential “no-cap-impact” additions on the offensive line.  Since the TE market sucks, I hope they address enough other needs in free agency that they can get a quality TE in the draft.  They can’t sign all of these guys, but given what has happened and what we think we know so far, here are my updated Tampa targets –

Shaun Hill (QB, Detroit)
Eric Lorig (FB, re-sign)
Andre Roberts (WR, Arizona)
Dexter McCluster (WR/PR, Kansas City)
Anthony Collins (T, Cincinnati)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Kansas City)
Jon Asamoah (G, Kansas City)
Brian De La Puente (C, New Orleans)
Corey Wootton (DE, Chicago)
Michael Johnson (DE, Cincinnati)
Henry Melton (DT, Chicago)
Vance Walker (DT, Oakland)
Erin Henderson (LB, Minnesota)
Desmond Bishop (LB, Minnesota)
Dekoda Watson (LB, re-sign)
Corey Graham (CB, Baltimore)
Charles Tillman (CB, Chicago)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offseason Plan

Congratulations Seahawks!  I thought they were the better team going into the game (my breakdown showed them having the edge on both sides of the ball), but I certainly didn’t expect to see it get that out of hand.  Seattle gets their first NFL championship, joining their ’76 brethren Buccaneers as one-time winners of it all.  Interestingly, that Super Bowl saw the Bucs dominant defense destroy Oakland’s offensive machine.  Speaking of Seattle’s expansion companion, I thought I’d take an early look at some decisions the Bucs may need to make this offseason. 

The Bucs pick 7th in the first round, where they’ll look to add to a talented, albeit shallow roster.  That pick must be spent on an impact player, whether it is a QB, receiver, or pass rusher; all areas of need for the Bucs.  Here are the positions I believe they need to address in free agency and/or the draft:

QB – I’m not sold on Mike Glennon as a guy who is going to win a meaningful January or February game for this team.  I also don’t see how he fits new OC Jeff Tedford’s style of passers who can move in the pocket.  The free agent pool is empty, so do they ride with Glennon or pull the trigger on a passer in the first round or two? 

WR – Like a broken record, I keep begging year after year for speed and elusiveness at the receiver position.  It’s still lacking.  Vincent Jackson has been a fine #1 given the team’s QB play, but there are questions about Mike Williams’ commitment.  At a minimum, they need to difference-making slot guy to play with these two.  Worst case scenario has them looking for someone to start in place of Williams. 

TE – Tim Wright was a nice pass catcher, but he can’t block.  Tom Crabtree is a back up, and Luke Stocker has to be a huge afterthought at this point.  

OL – When the Bucs signed Carl Nicks, they thought they’d have quite a formidable line, but it just never materialized.  They have no idea what they’ll get from Nicks, if anything, and Joseph’s play has taken a nosedive.  Moving Jeremy Zuttah to guard and finding a new center could be a possibility.  Donald Penn has his detractors, but left tackle is far from the team’s biggest weakness.  Right tackle Demar Dotson had a fabulous year and may be the most certain thing they’ve got going up front.  . 

DL – Adrian Clayborn has been ok, but the Bucs need more pass rushers.  Da’Quan Bowers has been a waste, but on a positive note, William Gholston looks like a building block.  That’s only two, possibly, reliable rushers.  I expect this to be the Bucs priority in free agency.  Gerald McCoy should only excel under Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier, and Akeem Spence should benefit from the coaching change as well.  They’re shallow inside, so they’ll add a tackle or two.    

LB – Lavonte David is a stud, but I continue to believe they need to get better than Mason Foster in the middle.  I’m guessing the new regime will look to do that.  Every other Bucs linebacker with a name you’d recognize is a free agent.  Of that bunch, it would be best to bring back Dekoda Watson on the strong side.

CB – Darrelle Revis is back, but there’s a steep drop off in talent after him.  Johnthan Banks didn’t exactly shine as a rookie, and Leonard Johnson should be lower on the depth chart.  Ideally, they get new starters opposite Revis and in the slot, and Banks and Johnson develop as backups. 

I believe the Bucs currently sit at about $12mil under the ’14 cap after the round of releases that included Derek Landri.  Where can they find more cap space?  They can free up about $5mil by cutting both Connor Barth and Michael Koenen.  Aside from that, there’s not a ton of fat to trim from this cap aside from two obvious targets –

Davin Joseph - $6mil
As I mentioned above, Joseph’s play has fallen off significantly, and I don’t see any way he’s back for anything close to that amount.  It’s probably best for the team to move on from  him altogether and pay someone else less to do a better job. 

Donald Penn - $7.4mil
Yes, I know.  I just mentioned that Penn isn’t one of the team’s bigger problems.  I’m not advocating releasing Penn, but maybe he’d be open to extending his deal that currently is set to expire after the ’15 season at a lower annual rate.  It wouldn’t be a $7.4mil cap savings, but they could conceivably get a couple of million to go towards another position by restructuring Penn’s contract.

If they start over at kicker and punter, cut Joseph and either restructure Penn or make a couple of other small moves, they would be looking at more $25mil in cap space heading into the offseason. 

Here are the specific free agents I’d key on:

Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Willie Young (DE, Lions)
Corey Wootton (DE, Bears)
Here’s where I’m struggling.  They almost sure to add a free agent, but on what side will they put him?  Jared Allen plays the same side as Clayborn, and it doesn’t make sense to either bench our best pass rusher or weaken the run defense by playing Allen on the strong side.  He’d be the big name veteran I’d be interested in giving a short term deal.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving Julius Peppers or Just Tuck a lot of money, Greg Hardy isn’t coming here, and Michael Bennett isn’t coming back.  I’d prefer to see the Bucs go the younger route.  Young isn’t terribly likely given that he’d be on the same side as Clayborn, but I mention him because I’ve always been a fan of his talent.  I like the idea of pairing Griffen with Gholston on the left side.  He’s not going to cost a lot and is someone who has shown steady, albeit slow development as a pass rusher.  If he doesn’t perform up to expectations, the Bucs won’t be in the huge financial hole like they would if they went the Peppers or Tuck route.  Assuming I’m not completely underestimating his market, Griffen is a low risk high reward option. 

Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Henry Melton (DT, Bears)
I’ll be shocked if the Bucs commit much to DT this offseason.  Maybe Melton finds a soft market coming off his injury.  Walker continues to be a reliable rotational piece on the defensive line wherever he plays and would bolster the run defense.  

Alex Mack (C, Browns)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Anthony Collins (T, Bengals)
I don’t want to get rid of Zuttah, but it’s possible for them to upgrade two positions with one signing.  Early reports on Nicks are positive, so maybe he’ll be a factor after all.  There should still be one vacant guard position.  Zuttah has seen most of his time away from center at left guard, but he has played a handful of games at right guard.  Could he handle that switch and play next to Mack, an attractive free agent with new Tampa ties?  Mack is arguably the game’s best center and would go a long way in helping this new coaching staff implement their offense.  Ultimately, I think he’ll be out of the Bucs price range.  I don’t know if the Bucs will look to free agency to solve their guard situation, but Schwartz would be a steal and nice plug in on the right side.  He was a big factor in Kansas City’s success on offense and made just $700k last year.  Collins isn’t really an option as a back up, but he’s the only free agent tackle I’d consider. 

Sam Shields (CB, Packers)
Alterraun Verner (CB, Titans)
Corey Graham (CB, Ravens)
Corner play opposite Revis wasn’t pretty in ’13, and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t bring in a legit starter this offseason.  If we were playing with monopoly money and no salary cap, Brent Grimes would be my preferred target.  Since we aren’t, maybe Shields and Verner will be affordable.  They’re both young corners with a lot of experience and are sure to attract a bit of attention, but the corner market didn’t exactly go crazy last offseason.  Maybe they’ll be affordable after all.  I’d slot Graham behind Shields and Verner, but he would be a solid sneaky addition, in my opinion.  He could start in Tampa; something he won’t do next year in Baltimore.  Charles Tillman would be a fall-back and a shorter term option, but he may be the most likely of the names I’ve mentioned. 

Jeremy Maclin (WR, Eagles)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
Jacoby Jones (WR, Ravens)
Dexter McCluster (WR, Chiefs)
I’ve always been a Maclin fan, and he’ll probably be had on a cheap prove-it deal.  Jones is still big in the punt return game, and while he’s never reached his potential as a receiver, he’d instantly be #3 on the depth chart and give Glennon a deep threat.  McCluster would provide some of the increased quickness I’m seeking, but he’s not a solution to anything.  Of all available free agent receivers, Doug Baldwin would be my preference, but he’s a restricted free agent and isn’t getting out of Seattle.  Since I can’t get Baldwin, I’ll focus on a similar receiver in Roberts; a guy who can play both inside and out and make some plays for you in the middle and deep parts of the secondary.  Roberts has been a consistent, reliable target and was productive when called upon as a starter; something that’s not easy to do given the presence of Larry Fitzgerald and the sloppy pre-Palmer QB play.  There isn’t a TE I’m interested in, especially since Fred Davis was just handed an indefinite ban. 

I’m sure I won’t be close, but here’s my attempt to blend my wishes and expectations –
Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Charles Tillman (CB, Bears)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Dekoda Watson (LB, re-sign)
Eric Lorig (FB, re-sign)

I think that’s pretty doable with a guesstimated $25mil in cap space, even with $5mil allocated to the draft.  There should be plenty of cap room for the Bucs to pull off these moves considering the salary cap for ’14 was just increased from $123mil to $130mil.

Transitioning to the draft, here are my early thoughts on the first 7 selections.  The NFL Combine starts Saturday, so I’m sure a lot of this will change in the coming weeks. 

1) Houston Texans
Key Needs – QB, OL, LB, CB
The Texans won’t take an offensive lineman or cornerback with the first pick.  For me, this one is down to Jadeveon Clowney or a QB, and if we’re supposed to believe reports that the owner is pushing for a passer, I’m siding with the guy who writes the checks.  Which QB is still uncertain, but knowing what I know about Bill O’Brien and his connections to the UCF staff.  They’ll upset a lot of folks in Texas by passing on Johnny Manziel, but I’m going to go with…..Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)

2) Cleveland Browns (via STL)
Key Needs – QB, RB, LB, WR
This pick is an obvious trade spot, so I’ll go ahead and predict that one happens.  Right or wrong the Rams remain committed to Sam Bradford, so they won’t be taking a QB this year.  There isn’t a team that couldn’t use Clowney, but if I’m a Rams fan I’d rather they address a true area of weakness rather than allocating more assets to the one thing they do right.  I could see Cleveland’s new regime taking an aggressive approach to securing their (hopeful) franchise QB, and they have the draft picks to do pull it off…..Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville) 

3) Jacksonville Jaguars
Key Needs – QB, DE, RB, OL
Take a QB right?  Neither Blaine Gabbert nor Chad Henne belongs taking a regular season snap, but I don’t think the Jags are an absolute lock to take a passer with their first pick, even if Cleveland doesn’t trade ahead of them.  Everyone knows they need a QB, but more importantly, they need a sure thing.  To many, this guy is the surest thing in the draft, and he also fills a huge need for the Jags…..Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina)

4) St. Louis Rams (via CLE)
Key Needs – OT, WR, S, CB
This is where I think the Watkins watch could start.  Pairing him with Tavon Austin could lead to some highlights in St. Louis, but whether it’s Bradford or someone else handling the football, they’ve got to get him some protection.  Jake Long is coming off a torn ACL, and RT Rodger Saffold is a free agent.  Greg Robinson might have the higher ceiling, but I believe this guy will have a quicker assimilation period, has experience at both left and right tackle, and has a father with ties to the head coach…..Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M)

5) Oakland Raiders
Key Needs – QB, DE, CB, RB
Oakland’s roster is a mess.  I know, what a surprise.  I can’t see a scenario that has Clowney still on the board, and it’s too early for a corner or running back.  Watkins is an option, but I’m going to think Oakland seizes the opportunity to take a true starting QB.  And come on.  What non-JFF/Texan fan wouldn’t want to see this guy in a Raider uniform?…..Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)

6) Atlanta Falcons
Key Needs – OT, DE, DT, TE
Will they take a tackle after shelling out a lot of money for Sam Baker last year?  I’m guessing no.  They must get better up front on defense, especially considering their best pass rusher is a fading Osi Umenyiora.  They have to draft or sign someone who can get after Brees and Newton.  I think this comes down to either Anthony Barr or…..Khalil Mack (DE/OLB, Buffalo)

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Needs – QB, DL, CB, WR
I’ve got the top QBs off the board at this point, but if the Bucs had a shot at either Bortles or Bridgewater, I’ve got to think they would give them a ton of consideration.  I don’t think Manziel is a Lovie or Tedford pick, and while Derek Carr has Tedford ties, I’m far from sold on him.  I’m intrigued by Mack, but I’m not sure where he’d fit in Lovie’s defense.  Right now, if I can’t get Bortles, Bridgewater, or Clowney I’ve got my eyes on three players:

Greg Robinson (T, Auburn)
If he’s not the first tackle taken, he’ll be the second.  Robinson would give the Bucs a replacement for Penn at LT and free up a lot of cap space.  If I can plead Penn’s case, I’d hate to dump a guy that is in the better half of players at his position in what could be a sink or swim year for Glennon.  Still, Robinson’s upside would be pretty hard to ignore.  He’s big, strong, and can move.  That’s still a rare combination of skills for a tackle.  It’s hard for some to get excited about taking a tackle with your first choice, but Robinson could be the smartest use of the pick; high ceiling and floor.  I listed Robinson because he hadn’t been picked yet in this instance, but Matthews would warrant similar consideration.   

Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Should the Bucs choose to go receiver here, they’ll likely have first pick at what looks to be a pretty deep class.  Watkins would give the Bucs something they don’t have – a multi-threat player with incredible vertical speed.  He isn’t just a speed guy though.  Watkins gets physical when needed, especially at the point of catch, and his strong build will help him hold up well to the hits he’ll take as a pro.  I see him being a huge red zone weapon for whoever drafts him; something the Bucs could use.  Watkins would be the explosive talent I’ve been pining for.  Just having him on the field and making the defense think about him will open things up for the rest of the offense. 

Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri)
I’ve pointed out the Bucs need for a pass rusher or two, and with Clowney off the board, I think Ealy might be the best remaining option for the Bucs.  You probably won’t find a mock that has him going this high, but I expect that to change the closer we get to May.  Ealy is an athletic pass rusher often lazily compared to former Missou Tiger, Aldon Smith.  He shows plus change of direction; impressive for his size and important for his position.  I like how Ealy uses his length and hands off the edge, but he needs to be more consistent in anchoring with his hips and legs to be more effective in both setting the edge against the run and getting to the passer.  He’s got great short area closing speed for a guy with his build, but I think he needs a bit of coaching and a lot of reps against grown men to see if he’s a really good football player or if he’s just a really good athlete.  As you see, Ealy has impressive positives but is still rather incomplete as a football player. 

Others I didn’t list –
·        Timmy Jernigan (DT, FSU) I love but don’t want to take GMC backup at #7.
·        Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M) is duplicative with Vincent Jackson.
·        Anthony Barr (DE/OLB, UCLA) see Khalil Mack.
·        CJ Mosley (LB, Alabama) don’t see him as a 4-3 MLB; already have David at WLB.
·        Marquise Lee (WR, USC) worries me when it comes to staying healthy.

In making my decision, Ealy is the first one out.  I believe the Bucs will address this position prior to the draft and will roll with Clayborn, Gholston, Bowers, and a free agent.  If they do add a pass rusher, I’m guessing it’s with a later pick. 

Deciding between Robinson and Watkins, one of the first things I have to consider is how much better the Bucs would be with Robinson instead of Penn.  The veteran has been a target for Bucs fans, but he’s still among the better left tackles in the game.  How long would it take to say the same about Robinson?  Not hating, but potential and performance are two different things.  Could the Bucs’ next left tackle currently be playing on the right side of the line?  Lovie is already talking about giving Demar Dotson reps at LT in camp. 

Watkins is probably the most electrifying offensive talent in this draft, and the Bucs lack of said talent has had them behind the rest of the league for the last couple of years.  Adding Watkins makes the Bucs a better team than replacing Penn with Robinson or Matthews.  I did mention Roberts as a free agent target, but there is the Mike Williams factor.  He’s far from on firm footing with the new regime, and his contract takes a huge $4mil increase in ’15.  I can’t count on him to see anywhere close to the end of that deal.  After watching some of the “receivers” this team has run out there in recent years, I’d welcome the complaints of too many weapons and not enough footballs.

R1 pick – Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)

Buccaneer Surprise – Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
I wouldn’t do it, but I think the one pick that could surprise us is the Bucs taking UNC’s stud TE at #7.  There’s a big talent need at the position, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs be aggressive in addressing it. 

R2 – Lamarcus Joyner (CB, FSU)
Yeah, I know, a Nole.  Get over it.  I think Joyner is the perfect defender for what Lovie is likely to do in Tampa.  Let’s first talk about the elephant in the room – Joyner’s size.  He’s listed at 5-8, 180 which would obviously put him on the small side.  If you’ve watched more than a few minutes of FSU football you’ve noticed that Joyner plays far bigger in his size.  Joyner draws a lot of Ronde Barber comparisons, and they make sense.  He’s a dangerous blitzer, is fast and can change directions quickly, covers a ton of ground, has excellent ball anticipation, and isn’t afraid pop you.  He’s understandably a drag-down tackler, given his size, but he stays with his man to secure the tackle.  He’ll be a stud on special teams.  Lovie’s defenses have been predicated on fast guys making plays in space, and Joyner certainly fits that description and would be an immediate upgrade at the nickel corner and third safety spot. 

Other options –
Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame)
Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech)

R4 – CJ Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa)
Due to a dry free agent market, I think it’s pretty likely the Bucs will spend a pick on the tight end position.  Here I’m giving them a player with great size who could be their traditional in-line tight end to pair with the flexed out Tim Wright.  Fiedorowicz would be the team’s best blocking tight end as soon as he put on a jersey and has plenty of pass catching potential as well. 

R5 – Jon Halapio (G, Florida)
It’s a tad painful to do this, but I want to get a lineman in the draft and this is a good spot for Halapio.  He’s a guy who logged a ton of starts against impressive competition and could be in the mix for early playing time depending on the situation at right guard.

R7 – Connor Shaw (QB, S Carolina)
I don’t think the Bucs will have a shot at Bortles or Bridgewater, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on a passer.  I’d rather spend a 7th round pick on Shaw than sign a veteran back up.  Shaw is a winner.  I love the combination of his mobility and how he takes care of the football.  Simply put, he doesn’t make many mistakes.  If he gets an opportunity to play in the NFL, I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.  I like him as a passer now, but I think he’s got plenty of room for growth there still.

With this plan, I’ve got the Bucs addressing every position of need except MLB.  It’s rare that a team is able to address every need in one offseason, and I’ll be pleased if they fill most of the gaps I mentioned.

Combined offseason acquisitions:
Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Dekoda Watson (LB, re-sign)
Charles Tillman (CB, Bears)
Lamarcus Joyner (CB, FSU)
Connor Shaw (QB, S Carolina)
Eric Lorig (FB, re-sign)
Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
CJ Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Jon Halapio (G, Florida)

Go Bucs!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Prediction

So here we are.  We’ve reached the big one, and the Broncos and Seahawks are the last two teams standing.  To get here Denver pulled off a fairly one-sided win against the always dangerous Patriots, and Seattle held off San Fran in what may have been the game of the year.  With both Denver and Seattle making it to MetLife, this is only the second time in the last two decades that both #1 seeds have squared off in the Super Bowl.  Earlier this month I predicted that we’d see these two in the final game, and I had Seattle earning the victory.  What’s changed since then? 

Peyton Peyton Peyton.  In case you haven’t turned on a television, radio, or computer or walked by a newsstand the last week, Peyton Manning is playing in another Super Bowl.  Arguably, the games greatest to ever toss it is on the verge of creating a ton of conversation, regardless of the outcome.  If the Broncos win, Peyton will have earned his second Super Bowl victory in three chances and will generate a lot of buzz (because ‘now’ always beats history in today’s hyper-attentive world) as the greatest of all time.  On the other hand, if Denver loses (and assuming 18 doesn’t gift wrap the game to Seattle) you’re going to hear about how Peyton can’t get it done when it counts and that there’s no way to put him in the same class as Montana and Brady.  Such is the world in which we live.

The last time the league’s best offense faced the league’s best defense in the season finale was the 1990 season where the defensively dominant Giants beat the Bills no-huddle attack 20-19 in Tampa.  Will Peyton add another chapter to his legacy, or will history repeat itself 13 years later and 1,128 miles north? 

When Denver has the Ball

  • Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Jacob Tamme against a talented and intimidating secondary made up of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Earl Thomas, and Kan Chancellor
  • Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball against a front seven run crew headlined by Red Bryant, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Tony McDaniel
  • Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, and Orlando Franklin acting as the wall between Peyton and Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Clinton McDonald
Mr. Manning will earn his fifth MVP award before this game kicks off.  There’s no arguing that he was the league’s best player this season.  What I found somewhat surprising is that in the previous four seasons he won the award, he only made it to the big dance in one of them – the ’09 game against New Orleans, which, as I referenced earlier, was the only other time in the last two decades that both top seeds won their halves of the bracket.  Peyton runs the offense from the line of scrimmage and usually knows what the defense is doing, sometimes more so than players on the other side of that line. 

This time he faces what I believe is the league’s most physical defense (sorry San Fran).  It’s a unit that likes to get in your face early and disrupt your timing; something Denver relies on to move the chains and make big plays with the football.  It will be a tremendous test for both teams. 

For Seattle, Richard Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, and when he does, it’s to the slot, not the other side of the field.  That means Demaryius won’t have a shadow throughout the game.  It’s not like he’ll get much of a break on the other side though, as Byron Maxwell is no slouch himself.  I think the key here with Thomas is that Seattle’s corners are incredibly physical, and Demaryius, despite his size, isn’t known for his physicality or dominance at the point of contact.  Neutralizing or just simply limiting Peyton’s greatest receiving threat would go a long way in getting Seattle to the celebration stage.  Decker will see Sherman about half the time, and having the game’s best cover man in his face won’t help improve his tendency to let the ball hit the ground. 

The guys I see doing the most damage in the passing game for Denver are Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.  Welker will line up in the slot against Thurmond, and I think he’s the guy Peyton will look to especially on third downs to pick up those key catches over the middle.  Julius has been one of the league’s best tight ends this season, but Seattle has handled that position better than anyone else in the game.  This year the Seahawks faced Vernon Davis three times and also faced Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.  All three were held far below their averages.  A big reason for that is the big punisher, Kam Chancellor.  Extremely underrated given the talent around him, the former Hokie is the most important player on Seattle’s defense in this game, in my opinion.  Seeing as he’ll have primary responsibility for tight end coverage, Chancellor’s ability to make Manning look away from Julius or to keep the athletic tight end in front of him will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.  I already mentioned that Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, but when he does it’s to the slot.  Carroll and company would be wise to send Sherman Julius’ way a time or ten. 

Peyton is no dummy.  I don’t think we’ll see him string a ton of consecutive pass attempts together against this defense.  That means we should see a good bit of both Moreno and Ball.  The latter was expected to be the main man this year, but he remained the clear #2 throughout the regular season.  All Knowshon did was finish in the league’s top five in total yards from scrimmage.  Not bad for a guy who didn’t figure to have a prominent role back in August.  While the rib injury he sustained against the Patriots won’t keep him from playing in this one, you’ve got to think Seattle is going to take a few shots at the impacted area.  Will it hamper his performance? 

Ball will be rotated in, and I think he’s the more dangerous player beyond the line of scrimmage.  Getting past that first line will be a tough task if the good Tony McDaniel shows up.  He, Brandon Mebane, and Red Bryant are the main reasons why Seattle ranks as one of the league’s toughest teams against which to run the football.  If the front line, specifically Bryant, can get to the backs and keep them from running clean to Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, Seattle can make Peyton throw it more than he probably wants to. 

Anyone who follows football knows that you’ve got to get Peyton off his mark if you want to be successful against Denver, and Seattle’s defense brings it from multiple spots.  Free agent additions Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril did the most damage this year at getting to the passer, and Clinton McDonald established himself as one of the game’s better interior pass rushers.  Their ability to push the pocket and force Peyton into making questionable throws against an opportunistic secondary is exactly what Pete Carroll is looking for.  That won’t be easy given how quickly Peyton consistently gets rid of the ball.  Denver’s line surrendered the fewest number of sacks in the league this season, but Peyton’s style is the biggest reason for that.  Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin don’t have their names called often, Manny Ramirez has been solid at center, and right guard Louis Vasquez is their best blocker.  The weakest link up front is Zane Beadles, and with the aforementioned McDonald expected to line up against him regularly, that could be the key matchup to watch up front.  I can’t take anything away from Peyton; don’t want to.  He’s one of the best, but his lack of zip on the ball could be a factor if Seattle is able to get him off his spot and throw to a late read. 

I don’t anticipate Denver having sustained success on the ground, which means we’ll see plenty of Peyton passes.  That also means Seattle’s corners must disrupt receivers’ routes.  They can’t allow Denver to get comfortable with their timing and pick action.  Two factors are working in Seattle’s favor.  First, there haven’t been a ton of flags thrown in these playoff games (hasn’t that been nice), especially in Seattle’s games.  Second, this officiating crew is headed up by Terry McAulay, an official known for keeping the flag in his pants.  Former NFL strong safety, Steve Freeman, will be the back judge, and he’s not one to take over a game either.  This bodes very well for Seattle’s chances defensively.  Peyton makes his living exposing mismatches, but I just don’t see any weak spots in Seattle’s secondary, including when Seattle has to go dime and bring in Jeremy Lane.  Peyton may be forced to move his feet more than he’d like, but he’s not going to get sacked often (if at all), even against these pass rushers.  Simply put, he will need to make the passes an MVP QB makes in big spots, and Seattle will need to stick to their roots – play physical football, support each other, and don’t over-think. 

When Seattle has the Ball

  • Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin, Jermaine Kearse, and Zach Miller against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Champ Bailey, Tony Carter, Quentin Jammer, Mike Adams, and Duke Ihenacho
  • Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson trying to run through Terrance Knighton, Wesley Woodyard, and Danny Trevathan
  • Russell Okung, Paul McQuistan, Max Unger, JR Sweezy, and Breno Giacomini attempting to hold back Malik Jackson, Shaun Phillips, and Robert Ayers. 

Most offenses pale in comparison to the Broncos, but I believe the Seahawks come into this one a bit under the radar.  Russell Wilson’s job isn’t to light up the scoreboard with a ton of passing TDs, but let’s not go extreme and call their offense limited or one-dimensional.  After shutting out the Giants on the Super Bowl’s turf, Seattle played their last four games against the 3rd (SF), 4th (NOR), and 7th (ARI) ranked scoring defenses and a Rams front that gets after the passer.  Denver’s defense will need to be peeking at the right time if they’re going to present as difficult a challenge as did Seattle’s recent opponents.

When you talk about Seattle’s offense, you’ve got to start with Beast Mode, SeƱor Skittles, Mister Media – Marshawn Lynch.  The man who doesn’t enjoy speaking into a microphone lets his bruising running style do all his talking for him.  Everyone knows he’s going to get the football, yet he continues to produce.  In two playoff games Lynch has 249 yards and 3 scores on the ground, including 109 yards and 6 points against the nasty Niners last week.  Denver has put up impressive run defense numbers this year, for two reasons primarily.  First, when Denver gets up two or more scores on a team, the opposition often abandons the run.  Second, Terrance Knighton’s ability to make the middle of the field a “no backs allowed” zone goes a long way in shutting down a team’s run game. 

Even with constant double teams from the threesome of McQuistan, Unger, and Sweezy, I don’t expect Seattle to do much damage at all running at Knighton.  If they can run at the big man, I think that means game set match Seattle.  Let’s play the safe hand and assume they can’t.  I don’t expect Darrell Bevell to be stubborn in this one.  That means we should see Marshawn doing most of his damage on outside runs, where he’ll look to demonstrate his tackle breaking, big gain ability against a defense that’s been known to miss a tackle or two.  Marshawn’s big games are highlighted by signature long runs.  He had a 31 yard score against the Saints in the divisional round and a 40 yarder for 6 in the conference championship against San Fran.  I’d be a fool to bet against him doing it again. 

Sticking with the run, the read option wasn’t a huge part of the playbook this season, but when you’re playing 60 minutes of football for the Lombardi trophy, you do whatever it takes to get the win.  Following that line of thinking, I would feature the zone read early in the game to keep Denver (specifically their defensive line) guessing and attempt to break big runs on defensive breakdowns.  Marshawn is the main weapon, but Wilson could be the difference-making ground factor.  The man doesn’t make mistakes with the football and has that moment-seizing personality.  Expect to see Denver chasing the back of Wilson’s jersey a bit come Sunday as the QB is used as a runner more than usual in an effort to keep Denver’s defense from keying on his best offensive weapon.  

Without the ultra-athletic Von Miller, the Broncos are going to have to be opportunistic yet assignment-sound against Wilson and Seattle’s offensive line.  Shaun Phillips had 10 regular season sacks, but he’s only totaled 3 in his last 8 games.  Malik Jackson has been a more than admirable replacement for the injured Derek Wolfe, but he’s not a consistent pass rushing threat.  Robert Ayers has gone from utter bust to decent defender, but he has just 3 sacks in his last 12 games.  The lack of a dominant pass rusher or steady rush threat will a big help to a Seattle offensive line that isn’t one of the more stout units in the league.  They’re a smaller, more mobile bunch that must move as does their QB. 

I’m not going to pretend Seattle’s receiving corps is as prolific as Denver’s machine (Seattle’s leading receiver would rank fifth in Denver), but at full strength they’re an extremely underrated unit.  I believe this is a matchup they can exploit.  Where Seattle can go four deep at corner in front of two All Pro safeties, Denver is shallow in the secondary after DRC.  The Broncos surrendered a middle-of-the-pack 7.1 yards per attempt through the air this year, while the Seahawks led the league at 5.8.  Denver’s defense also gave up nearly twice as many passing TDs as Seattle’s (29 to 16). 

The Broncos lost arguably their best corner (Chris Harris) a few weeks ago in that divisional round win over the Chargers.  The moment Quentin Jammer replaced Harris, San Diego’s passing game started clicking, and Denver was fortunate they didn’t have to play another 15 minutes.  Jammer found himself behind Carter on the depth chart after that game.  Future HOFer Champ Bailey has dropped retirement hints this week, but before starting the Canton clock, he’ll need to repeat his conference championship performance for the Broncos to keep Seattle’s receivers in check. 

DRC figures to see a lot of Seattle’s leading receiver, Golden Tate.  Tate does a lot of his damage on short passing patterns, but DRC hasn’t allowed receivers to break free for big gains.  Julian Edelman was able to get a little physical and be successful against DRC last week, and Tate is a similar smaller, strong receiver.  Will Tate break a few, or will this one end up a wash?  Given the balance in that matchup, I expect to see Wilson focus most of his attempts on besting Bailey and Carter, primarily with Baldwin and Harvin. 

Let’s start with Percy.  The always-dangerous ever-brittle weapon finally got onto the field this year against the Saints in the divisional round and was able to make a few plays before getting knocked out with a concussion.  He missed the Niner game but is apparently good-to-go for the Super Bowl.  We know what Harvin brings to the table.  The question is how long he’ll be able to do it before getting hurt again.  Because of that great unknown, I expect Bevell to get Harvin engaged early and often.  Throw him short passes.  Throw him deep balls.  Give him the ball on an end-around.  Use him as a decoy.  Seattle needs to maximize Harvin’s threat and make the Broncos worry about him every play he’s on the field.  I’m also expecting Seattle to have him return the kicks that Matt Prater can’t put through the back of the endzone.  The more attention he draws in the passing game, the better that bodes for Marshawn and the running game.   

A healthy Harvin (at least at kickoff) puts Baldwin in the slot where he’ll primarily face Bailey.  I love this matchup for Seattle, and it’s the key one on this side of the ball in my opinion.  Baldwin is exactly what Denver doesn’t want to see with a Harrisless (yeah I went there) secondary.  He’s dangerous deep, and he doesn’t drop the football.  Champ may have had a good overall game against the Patriots, but Baldwin is better than any receiver New England has besides Edelman.  I expect Baldwin to lead the Seahawks in receiving and score at least one TD.  He’s my dark horse Super Bowl MVP candidate. 

Who Wins?

Well it doesn’t look like weather is going to be a factor in this one after all.  Current projections call for temps in the mid 40s, maybe some rain, and little to no wind factor.  That plays in Denver’s favor.  If these officials stay true to form, they’ll hold onto their hankies.  That plays in Seattle’s favor.  If Denver’s line can give Peyton time to catch the snap and his receivers can run picks with impunity, advantage Denver.  If Harvin can stay on the field and contribute to keeping Denver’s defense on its heels, advantage Seattle.  The fact that Denver dominated the Chargers and Patriots in their two playoff games yet was unable to put either away is something that stands out to me as a reason to expect this one to remain close.  I’ve also got to think that the fact Seattle has already won on this field this year, in convincing fashion, will make them a bit more comfortable in a game that is always emotional. 

Again, to me these are the matchups on which to key –
  • Terrance Knighton against Seattle’s interior offensive line
  • Red Bryant containing Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball
  • Russell Wilson reading ends Shaun Phillips and Malik Jackson
  • Doug Baldwin mid to deep against Champ Bailey
  • Julius Thomas trying to hide from Kam Chancellor
  • Clinton McDonald pass rushing against Zane Beadles

In the history of the league, 7 times has the team that led the league in scoring made the Super Bowl.  All 7 times that team lost.  Does Peyton break the streak, or does Seattle make history?

Highlights –
  • Peyton Manning throws for over 300 yards but has as many INTs as TDs (2)
  • Byron Maxwell turns one of those INTs into a pick-6
  • Percy Harvin stays unharmed and on the field throughout, totaling over 100 all purpose yards
  • Montee Ball outrushes Knowshon Moreno 54 yards to 42
  • Denver records more sacks than Seattle (2 to 1)
  • Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch combine for 158 rushing yards
  • Wes Welker leads the Broncos in receiving yards and scores once
  • Neither kicker misses an attempt (FG or PAT)
  • Danny Trevathan and Bobby Wagner combine for 22 tackles
  • Seattle will lead at halftime, but Denver will lead going into the fourth quarter

The battle of #1s proves to be sports entertainment at its best.  In the end, it’s Russell Wilson’s offense that steals the show.  On a broken play late in the fourth quarter, Wilson finds Doug Baldwin running free for a 46 yard game-winning score.  Seattle wins its first Super Bowl title in team history, and Peyton Manning’s greatness (unfairly in my opinion) will continue to be questioned incessantly. 

Seattle 30
Broncos 24

MVP – Russell Wilson

Scoring breakdown –
  • 1Q – Russell Wilson 1 yd TD run (SEA 7-0)
  • 1Q – Byron Maxwell 26 yd INT return for TD (SEA 14-0)
  • 2Q – Julius Thomas 6 yd TD reception (SEA 14-7)
  • 2Q – Steven Hauschka 37 yd FG (SEA 17-7)
  • 3Q – Wes Welker 18 yd TD reception (SEA 17-14)
  • 3Q – Montee Ball 3 yd TD run (DEN 21-17)
  • 3Q – Steven Hauschka 44 yd FG (DEN 21-20)
  • 4Q – Steven Hauschka 28 yd FG (SEA 23-21)
  • 4Q – Matt Prater 51 yd FG (DEN 24-23)
  • 4Q – Doug Baldwin 46 yd TD reception (SEA 30-24)

Congratulations to both of these teams for making it this far, and thank you NFL for another exciting season. 

Until next time…