Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 13 - Cornerbacks

The cliche on draft weekend in the NFL has been repeated year after year after year.

"You always need a Cornerback."

And, teams always take cornerbacks.  There is never a bad time to get another athlete who can cover the numerous wideouts that are taking over the game.  Want to see the biggest shift in the NFL over the last 20 years?  Look at the use of 3, 4, or even sometimes a 5th Wide Receiver on the field at the same time.  Well, as that has shifted, the use of fullbacks has been nearly eliminated.  This cause and effect has made the defenses on the NFL load up on volume of corners and at the same time, it has also made them look and look for better quality at the position.

And how many corners have been taken in the last 3 NFL drafts?  Would you believe 99?  99 corners have been taken in the last 3 drafts with 39 in 2011, 31 in 2012, and 29 more in 2013.  They are plentiful in supply, but there is also a huge demand.  And that is why teams consider corner a reasonable pick at any time of the draft, regardless of their depth chart.

So, do the Cowboys need a corner this year?

Well, the 2012 massive investments of $50 million in Brandon Carr and $16 million and 1st and 2nd round picks in Morris Claiborne have not come close to satisfying the levels of expectations around here.  In fact, 2 years after the gigantic expenditures, we still sit here wondering if Orlando Scandrick is the best corner this team has.  That likely isn't true because Carr has been really solid most of the time, but the fact that this is even a discussion speaks volumes.  What does it say about the wonder kid from LSU that was supposed to give us thoughts of Deion Sanders?  The status of Claiborne gives fans indigestion and the bust label has been suggested.  However, the idea that if he was playing well we would be pondering a forth-coming extension that would make your eyes pop out of your head.  And that hasn't even been hinted.  And rightfully so.  For now, he appears to be far more Mike Jenkins, which is ironic because that is who he nudged out of town for identical reasons.  Of course, Jenkins played out his rookie contract and left town, which is the path Claiborne is on right now as well (save for the Pro Bowl Jenkins achieved in 2009).

BW Webb is the 4th corner, and we still don't know too much about his fine work as he enters his 2nd season, but his cost is such that he populates the roster without expectation level, and Sterling Moore is a veteran 5th corner who has proven capable when called upon.  So, as it stands now, I don't consider the position an area of need, but in 12 months, Brandon Carr may have his deal reviewed for cap relief and in 24 months Claiborne may wish to be paid handsomely (despite his performance to this point).  As you can see, you always need corners.

With the draft averaging 33 a season, we can't profile very many.  But, here are the Top 7 or so according to many resources.  I try to spend enough time to see 3 games worth of snaps from each of these prospects and then give you my personal views on their performance.

Let's take a look briefly at each of these corners that fit in the overall Top 50:

Justin Gilbert - Oklahoma State


PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Justin Gilbert 6'02024.35/1.5535.5"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
51183122

One of the truly premium players in this draft is a player many of us are familiar with Gilbert from Stillwater.  He is a very big corner for a man of is speed and athleticism.  He also has kick return ability and has returned an incredible 6 all the way back for Touchdowns in his time in the Big 12.  That is a huge number for a 6-foot tall player.

He also has a 7-interception senior season as well as a 5-interception sophomore year.  This would suggest he has definite ball hawk ability and if you watched him against Case McCoy, you have no doubts about that anyway.

He plays in press coverage plenty, but also can play off and soft in a zone.  He is aggressive and I liked the way he would stick his nose in and take on the run.  He is going for that ball and appears to have some leadership skills as well.

There are some questions that abound about just how good his technique is as a cover man, and how often he bites for a double move.  Mike Davis was able to run by him and beat him deep, but it appears at times his quest for the ball gets him looking at the QB and falling for the occasional ball fake which gives his man an opening deep.  That will happen to any ball hawk and can certainly be cleaned up by homework and coaching.

Does he have flaws in his game?  Sure.  But, if I had to bet on one corner in this draft, I am pretty sure I would have to go with this one, because his upside flashes are really impressive.  And in a league that wants their corner to be big enough to tackle you and fast enough to catch you, along with hands that can reel in errant passes, well Justin Gilbert is your man.

Kyle Fuller - Virginia Tech 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Kyle Fuller6'01904.43/1.5938.5"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
5117364

After Gilbert, there is some question about who the 2nd best corner is in this draft, but for me, I really like Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech.  He is my kind of corner in that he is looking to put a hit on a running back who heads to his side of the field and can also cover quite well.  Then, when you let your guard down for a second, he blitzes from the blind side and crushes your QB.  And, since he plays for Frank Beamer, he also is totally sold out when you ask him to participate in your special teams - not that you always want a 1st round corner covering punts.  But, the key is he isn't above it.

There was one game that was different than the others that I watched with Fuller and it was against a Georgia Tech team that certainly is running a ton in an option scheme.  And that is where Fuller showed his versatility and basically played up at the line as a strong safety or a linebacker might and basically just crashed the backfield over and over.  This is not the cup of team of many corners on this list, but for Fuller, it was no big deal and he actually looked quite natural playing nearly the entire game at the line of scrimmage with the big boys.

As a cover man, he has proven that he can handle what is thrown at him.  His best game in this category in 2013 was likely on the big stage against Alabama and he was really, really solid against their wide outs.  He demonstrated great cover skills right on the hip of the speedsters, and while he played hurt as he damaged his shoulder on run support, he was still able to do his part to try to keep the Hokies in that game (in vain).

I just think this guy is a real find and a player worth investment.  He plays very hard and with an edge and also runs well, has good hips, and to me looks like the best pure cover corner in the draft.  There are questions about whether he can play his style and stay on the field, but that is awful difficult to project on draft day.

I would take him in the first round without concern.  He is a very strong player.

Jason Verrett - Texas Christian

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Jason Verrett 5'91894.41/1.5739"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
37160 9 1

Verrett is another player that I have enjoyed watching locally for the last few years and every time I saw him I had the distinct feeling that I was watching a NFL corner before he got to the league.  He plays the style that gets these guys paid and always has under Gary Patterson.

Of course, that means if you are going to survive long-term as a player who is under the ideal height and under the ideal weight, you better have a body that can sustain the punishment.  And that might be the one reason that Verrett falls a bit.  Undersized corners are the last thing that NFL teams want to reach for when their are generally 3 dozen draft-able corners in a given year.

Otherwise, there is plenty to enjoy from his reel.  He is a real press cover guy who flies up to tackle.  He wants to smash your underneath receivers and closes fast going forward.  He has blitz skills off the edge and is playing ultra aggressive to jump routes, knowing he has safety cover over the top.

Now, he plays with tons of emotion, and we can see that crossing the line occasionally, but that often goes with the position at the next level.

Technique wise, I am not sure I can see him having huge success as a press corner on Sundays, because getting in a pushing match at the snap with the strong WRs who weigh 220 just won't go well consistently, so you better pick your spots.

I think you take this guy and you blitz him off the slot in a role that Orlando Scandrick holds here in Dallas.  A physical slot guy who can stick with the receivers that work underneath is his preferred spot that I see, although I am sure he can survive out wide, too.  I just don't know how high you want to go here, because again, he is very small.  But, he doesn't play small.  He plays like a warrior and I really like his overall game.

Darqueze Dennard - Michigan State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Darqueze Dennard 5'111994.42/1.63 -----

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
44167103

Yet another of my 1st round corners would be Dennard from Michigan State.  I am not sure I like him as much as most (I believe the general opinion has him above both Fuller and Verrett as the 2nd best corner in this crop) but there is plenty to like here.

He is a very physical corner with blitz skills and he really enjoys blitz opportunities.  Michigan State would have him out on an island on a regular basis and he generally did a nice job of passing tests where he was asked to cover without any help whatsoever.

You can see him sniffing out bubble screens and crashing down on run plays with great conviction.  There are some corners that have very little use for physical play, but I think Dennard is not going to have any problem hitting as much as the big guys do on your defense.  He seems to really enjoy the in-your-face coverage and attempting to make you fight for every reception you are going to get off of him on a given day.  He will battle hard, and I will always take a chance on that type of guy.

The biggest problem with Dennard leads back to the questions about why you see him clutching and grabbing so much.  The way NFL officials attempt to police the technique of the defensive backs, you are taught quickly that the guys who cover by grabbing handfuls of the man they are covering may not have the right to be called great cover men.  That's ok, because there are a lot of corners who manage to get by without being gloves, and Dennard has never struggled.  Just be prepared for a periodic flag with this guy, especially in the slot with the quick guys.

But, he has exceptional ball skills and he will go get that ball.

Now, there are a few more durability concerns here, including the very disconcerting concussion history that is enough to scare a few off the player in Round 1.  But, I think he is a real physical player who would be welcomed in a lot of places as the 1st round develops.


Bradley Roby - Ohio State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Bradley Roby  5'111944.35/1.5338.5"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
3617981

As my friend Bryan Broaddus tells me, there are 33 flavors out there and not everyone is going to care for every flavor.  It doesn't mean he isn't a fine player with a fine future, but he is not for me.  That is the case with Bradley Roby from Ohio State.

I watched 3 different game to write him up - Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State.  And I was given a distinctly different view of him in each game.  Against Michigan, I saw the top end speed as he ran a few plays down from behind that were phenomenal shows of ability.  He is super fast and plays like it.  But, after watching this game (which I think we can all agree would be considered the biggest of games for an Ohio State) I was hoping to hear he was playing hurt.  Because he played a very passive style where I saw him passing on hits and not really fighting to get off blocks at a disturbing level.  He honestly looked like a track athlete playing football and while I promise that is not his normal posture - he has 179 career tackles in just 36 games - to see that bothered me quite a bit.

Then, against Wisconsin in another huge game for the Buckeyes, he was more physical, but Jared Abbrederis had his way with Roby all night in a way that suggest his cover skills are not the type that get you all excited, either.

He blitzes and does many of the things you look for in a corner, but man, I saw him get beat too much leading one to wonder about his football sense and whether or not he has that feel for the game that you look for and assume each player has.

This one is a tough study for sure and to be totally satisfied with my findings, I would like to grab 3 more games and start over with him.  He clearly has all sorts of ability and tests very well for all of his athletic attributes, but then you put on his tape and you see a guy who frustrates you a lot.  He played well at Ohio State which speaks loudly, so I try not to forget that.  But, man, I am just not sure he is a natural football player.

Marcus Roberson - Florida 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Marcus Roberson  6'01914.64/1.6137.5"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
305631

And now, the exact opposite of Roby.  A player who does not test well and ran a time that freaks people out because a corner cannot run a 4.64 40.  In fact, I can see teams saying they don't want to touch Marcus Roberson because their stop watch took him off their board.

But, put on the tape.  He does not play slow at all.  In fact, he is Florida's punt return option and did it quite well.  He is very quick with the ball in his hands and has solid instincts there for sure.

As a cover man, he is a very solid man to man cover guy who can be very physical with his receiver.  He is quite athletic and smooth and seriously doesn't look close to a slow corner.  He defends very well in most occasions and I have no doubt that he can handle himself in coverage.

There are holes in his game as I don't think that he is particularly dying to stick his nose in there on run support, either.  But, he is still a nice player that I could see in Round 2.

He looks like a player who understands what is asked of him and plays his assignment well.  But, he is clearly down a tier or two from the top premium types.


Stanley Jean-Baptiste - Nebraska 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Stanley Jean-Baptiste 6'22184.57/1.5841.5"

GamesTacklesINTsFFs 
367470

Finally, in this world where everyone is looking to build and copy the Seattle Seahawks secondary with giants at every spot, this Nebraska corner has received all sorts of coverage this spring as the type of guy who is in the right place at the right time.  He is in the draft after the Seahawks have won the Super Bowl.  If ever a tall corner was going to get over-drafted to balance out Richard Sherman lasting until the 5th round, it is Jean-Baptiste.

Well, someone else can over-draft him.

Of all of the corners I watched, this is the one that I am not recommending until the 3rd or 4th round. He looks like a safety trying to play corner and that is not a compliment.  He is stiff and not as quick as I need a corner to be.  His change of direction is difficult and in the open field against a quick and shifty receiver he is very stressed to bring the man down.

A corner has to be able to navigate through thick traffic when trailing on a crossing pattern over the middle, and I saw Jean-Baptiste get hung up on bodies too often.

Now, let me clear because I see that I am coming across as harsh.  He may have a future as a safety or even as linebacker.  He can clearly play football well.  I just am not buying that every big corner is the next market inefficiency.  Richard Sherman excels because he is big, with the mobility to stay with whatever receiver you throw at him.  He does not have tight hips - even though he clearly was not thought of highly on his draft day.  I think Stanley is big, yes.  But, I don't think he possesses what I need for a guy out on an island in the NFL.

At the right price, I may take a shot, but I am not sure I would put him on a Top 100 list for draft weekend.

=====

My summary is this:  Gilbert, Fuller, Verrett, and Dennard are all very solid corners who can be starters for years.  I have major questions about Roby, Roberson looks promising but only at the right price, and Jean-Baptiste is not my cup of tea.

We are now up to 75 players profiled overall, with any that you missed now listed below.  Next week, I will not do a position, but rather I will add a few missed prospects that I have been meaning to do.

We still haven't touched centers, running backs, or tight ends, but I might just let those positions go as I don't see the Cowboys getting in those spots in the top 3 rounds (I hope).

Past Draft Profiles:

Weekly Notebook - Wide Receivers - Episode 12 - Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bag of Pucks - April 15 - Playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs!

They made it, guys.

I know that the next mission is even more important and certainly is formatted in such a way that shorter attention spans can join in, but the most vital of accomplishments for the 2013-14 Dallas Stars was put in the bank last Friday.  It was a very enjoyable evening that will be remembered as the night this franchise punched its ticket back into the post-season by hammering a slumping St Louis Blues team on Fan Appreciation Night.

The accomplishment - said by some to be 5 years behind schedule and by others to be a year ahead of schedule - was required to catch the attention of a sporting city that often turns its back on teams that cannot at least qualify for their post-seasons.  That may seem finicky, but given that over half the league qualifies for its playoffs in the National Hockey League, it never seemed like a difficult prerequisite until this latest stretch in the wilderness.

It started with retirement of legends Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Jere Lehtinen all at roughly the same time.  We all wondered what would happen when those fantastic talents were no longer around to carry this franchise and now we have had it made abundantly clear.  There is no easy replacing of legends.  That is why we call them legends.

After the retirements - or in some respects, during it - we also were hit hard by bankruptcy and the franchise in such disrepair that the league had to basically take over the team to make sure that the bills and the paychecks were taken care of in a timely fashion.  The Tom Hicks run had hit an iceberg when he decided to buy another sporting franchise across the pond right before the economic crash of 2008 and suddenly, his baseball, soccer, and hockey teams all had to pay the price of a man who had over-extended his finances.  None of them had the money to compete anymore, and eventually, all 3 had to be sold to more capable owners.

It likely should be noted that today, the Rangers financial health has never been better, Liverpool's financial health has fully recovered (as has its club's fortunes), and the Stars have been taken over by an owner who was wildly cheered on Friday night when his face appeared on the big screen over the ice.  Tom Gaglardi took over the franchise in the 2011-12 season, but then moved slowly and deliberately on how to remake the team - especially with the lockout looming.

But, after the 2013 campaign came up short, he moved swiftly with the hiring of General Manager Jim Nill on April 29, 2013.  As many of you know, that was a move that was saluted around the league as a stroke of brilliance, due to the respect he had built in over 2 decades in the Detroit front office.  He took his time in finding his first coach, but then settled on another man with a sparkling resume, Lindy Ruff, to take over behind the bench in late June.

A week later, the trigger was pulled on a trade that required a large payment, but the bounty was Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley.  Seguin was the rarest of rare birds, a legitimate #1 goal-scoring center.  A quick look at the list of players who ended this season with more points than Seguin in the entire sport are Sidney Crosby (26 years old), Ryan Getzlaf (28), and Claude Giroux (26).  Seguin, who just turned 22 in January can absolutely be considered amongst the best young players in all of the sport - but, now you might just call him one of the best players in all of the sport, period.

With Seguin fitting so well with Stars' Captain Jamie Benn - who finished 10th in NHL scoring - the Stars have a future that is present.  They are both now playing where they are naturally supposed to play, with Benn back on the wing and Seguin back in the middle.  And they fit together because quality fits with quality.  Year one was supposed to be a "get acquainted" season as Nill and Ruff decide who fits for the future and who doesn't.  2014-15 is supposed to be the massive step forward year, and with the resources available in the summer to make another bold move to get that one more giant piece, many of us are excited about where that road may lead.

But, they made it in this year.

Now, that wasn't easy.  They barely are a playoff team this year.  In fact, by last year's format, with the Stars in the Pacific and Detroit and Columbus still in the West, the Stars don't make the playoffs.  Also, if the league went back to the old format where the Top 4 in each of the 4 divisions made it in to truly divisional playoffs, the Stars would have missed (finishing 5th in the Central).  But, with this brand new modified divisional playoff that includes two conference wildcards, one of which would be sent out to play in a divisional playoff that they weren't even a part of, the Stars are in, and for the next month or so, they are a Pacific division team again.

And here come the Ducks.  The Stars are matched up against the #1 seed from Anaheim so as much as we were happy to say goodbye to the constant match ups with teams in California, we have to deal with Corey Perry and Getzlaf all over again in a clash of foes that feature 1-2 punches.  In fact, if any team can look at Benn and Seguin and offer a knowing nod, it would be Perry and Getzlaf.  They have been running this game for several years.

But, this series is perhaps a chance for Kari Lehtonen to rise up and earn a bit of credibility on a national scene.  Anaheim has goaltender chaos and Kari, who has played briefly in the playoffs a long, long time ago could be the advantage the Stars need to take a big step forward.

I doubt the Stars are being given a huge chance nationally, but I will tell you that when you look at it from a number of perspectives, the Stars look like they can compete with the Ducks.  We shall see how they respond to the bright lights of the big stage, but at first glance, there is confidence to compete.  You just wonder how they will deal with Benn and Seguin being hounded by the shackles of the playoff game-plans will be handled.  I assume they will shrug it off and keep going, but that is the matchup.  And it should be awesome.

Meanwhile, it is a chance for old friend Stephane Robidas to return to Dallas.  This trade has never made sense to me (given the absurd lack of depth on the blue-line), and with Brenden Dillon's health in question, it would sure be nice to have Robidas on our side until this summer (when he is a UFA), but the trade was made and it is done.  I assume he will be involved in a scrum in Game 1 and we will quickly be reminded that friendships are fun, but once the game starts everyone fights for the sweater they wear.  That is how hockey players are programmed and fans follow quickly when he is on the side of Francois Beauchemin (for once).

I think the Stars can win this series, but given how many variables there are, I do not pick with much confidence.  The Stars still have weaknesses and are not ready to contend for a cup, but I do think that they are on the right path.

I think that special teams and goaltending decides these, and I really expect the massive bodies of Perry and Getzlaf will surely remind us that Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski need assistance from a 6'4, 230 pound #1 defensemen who can play 28 minutes in the summer.  I think Kari can cancel some of that out, but will it be enough?

My head says Ducks in 7.  But, I am so giddy to be in the playoffs that I am telling my head to shove it and I am forecasting a very close and drama filled battle that will be decided on some overtime goals.

I think Cody Eakin shows his value and the Stars somehow pull this thing out.

Stars in 7 (with a double overtime winner in the Pond in the final game).  There, my cheerleading has already started.

Don't forget, the mission was to make the playoffs.  This year, it is all with casino money and the jubilation of playing high stakes hockey again.  Next year, we can get entitled and angry about a post-season crash and burn, but this one spring, let's just enjoy the ride.  The team can take a deep breath and know that this is all frosting.  The cake has been made.

Here we go.

Friday, April 11, 2014

DallasStars.com - Finish Line

The Dallas Stars hockey franchise has existed in some way, shape, or form for 46 seasons now.  With ancestors from Cleveland, it was born in Minnesota and then, as you are well aware of, moved to our fair city 21 years ago.  Then, a new house was moved into 12 years back and that is where they presently live.

During that stretch, many different men have managed and coached this team, and hundreds have played for it.  The clothing they have worn when representing the squad have changed several times, but the franchise has proudly worn its crest since the expansion of 1967.

But, this team is eager to carve its own mark into that proud history.

Let me clear:  Tonight is not the biggest night in franchise history.  Even if you think it is.  And if tonight against St Louis doesn't go perfectly (and when does this team do things the easy way?) then Sunday at Phoenix will also not be the biggest night in franchise history.

This team has won a Stanley Cup in 1999 - that beautiful grail that is impossible to attain, but when it is, it is only won in June.  They also played in the Stanley Cup Finals on three other occasions, 1981, 1991, and 2000.  In 1968, 1971, 1980, 1984, 1998, and 2008, this franchise also went to the "final 4" of the NHL playoffs.  Those years all likely rank as more historically significant than what we are watching right now, despite how badly my head hurts.

But, I'll be honest with you;  As much as I enjoyed many of those years and cherish the memories, they are not on my mind right now.  What is on my mind right now is this team and its quest to stop the longest post-season drought in franchise history - and it really isn't even close.  The last 5 years in the desert are on the verge of becoming 6 unless this band of brothers has another result in their bag this weekend.  In the history of the Minnesota-Dallas franchise, the longest playoff-less streak had been 3 years before this post-season sabbatical that is nearly twice that.

This team represents the future.  It has kids everywhere.  They fight like their predecessors would want.  They play fast and with skill.  They battle hard and don't give in.  They win often, and now appear to be ready for their next level.  They simply have to walk through that door.

This team, the 2013-14 Dallas Stars have a chance to lock up the 30th playoff berth in the franchise's history books this weekend. They are, as I type this, but 2 points from the finish line.  Of course, the finish line is actually the starting line for another race that is even more exciting, but let's put that aside for a bit longer (although surely that is a Christmas present that one cannot wait to unwrap).

This team was assembled over several years of building and is quick to tell you that they still believe they are just at the building stages.  This is not the finished product, and some of the higher-ups have even talked about how the playoffs this season are important, but perhaps a year early in the ladder back up the power ranks of the NHL mountain.  They don't want to just pop in once and then fade again.  They are trying to build something that sustains and that fights for Cups when it is fully developed.

That seems like a lofty goal for now, but then again, we as a hockey community have forgotten what spring-time playoff hockey was all about.  And that is what this season has been for me.  It has reminded me how awesome it can all be.  The building, the fans, the look on the player's faces when they score a goal, the fact that it is on my mind all day that today is the day for the big game.  And this has been the playoffs in a way - the race to get into the playoffs.  Contenders laugh at that premise - heck, we laughed at that premise when the Stars were running the Western Conference back in the day - but, I cannot describe how fun this ride has been since late January when the Stars found their game after a 10 game stretch that almost sunk their ship.

This team has demonstrated fantastic resolve, great ability, and now have emptied their tanks to put them in this spot where they have 3 different opportunities to walk through that door.  Opportunity #1 is the most attractive to me and likely the other 18,000+ who will be there tonight for Fan Appreciation Night.  As someone said on twitter last night, if you want to show the fans you appreciate them, win one more game on home ice (easier said that done).  But, the symmetry of walking through that post-season door with Ken Hitchcock, Brenden Morrow, and Steve Ott on the other side is almost spooky how fictional that all sounds about the Stars trying to build a new identity at the expense of the old in front of fans who feel strong emotions for both the old and the new.

Opportunity #2, if needed, would be Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Stars will physically be, but won't actually be playing.  The San Jose Sharks will play at Phoenix and if the Sharks win that game in regulation, than it is also game over.  Now, we can talk about whether "backing into the playoffs" due to the Coyotes losing their few games matters or not, but I am not sure we should be too choosy about how this mission gets accomplished.  They don't ask "how", they ask "how many" when totaling up the results at the end of the season.

Opportunity #3, if necessary, will cause a stressful weekend for all involved.  It means that Friday and Saturday put that Game #82 back in play and that there is a 1-game winner-take-all showdown against Dave Tippett, Mike Ribeiro, Jeff Halpern, and quite possibly, Mike Smith and the rest of those Phoenix Coyotes.  They have out-lasted the Stars at nearly every turn since Tippett was sent away, and that symmetry is not lost on us long-time observers, either.

If there is a play-in game for the playoffs, we should all enjoy what should be amazing theater, but there is no way most of us will be able to.  There is too much at stake and too much history and DFW sports baggage to forget about and move on.  Stars-Wild in 2011, Cowboys-Giants in 2011, Rangers-Orioles in 2012, Cowboys-Redskins in 2012, Rangers-Rays in 2013, Cowboys-Eagles in 2013 all were 1-game and advance scenarios to enter the post-season and all went horribly wrong.

That has nothing to do with Benn, Seguin, and their 18 buddies, but it has everything to do with most of us who are fighting the doubt that will not go away until the finish line is crossed.

This team has built something here.  Every one of the names bears mentioning because everyone has roped and everyone has rode.  But, they haven't closed the deal yet.  Is this a year with great memories with a bright future ahead or is it a playoff year with great memories with a bright future ahead?

They have one last hurdle to jump.

Let's hope, for the weekend headache count in the fan base, that the deal is closed on Friday, but be prepared to see this thing through until Sunday if necessary.

And, either way, let's hope those boys make more home games very necessary this month at place where nothing would be more fun than playoff hockey.

Cross that finish line, boys.

This team.



Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 12 - Wide Receivers

This week, we're going to tackle the top part of the Wide Receivers group.  My stated and intended goals in this series was to make sure we have a feel for just about any and all players that go in the Top 2 rounds and hopefully most of the Top 3.  A Top 100 list is too ambitious, but this group takes us past 60 player profiles and we still have a month to go.

I do not count Wide Receivers at the top of the list of priorities - or even close in comparison, really - for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, because with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams (now the #2 with Miles Austin gone), Cole Beasley, and Dwayne Harris they should be ok to start the season, but as you can see, there is no real depth to speak of and Beasley and Harris are plenty limited in what they can bring to the table.

However, the first time there is an injury to one of them, this could unravel rather quickly.  Further, we are a point in the NFL now where we should begin to discuss wide receivers like we do cornerbacks.  For years, cornerbacks are that position where at any point of the draft in any year, a team takes a cornerback not because they need another one, but because you can always use another one.  Now, same for receivers.  In a league that passes more than ever and runs less than ever, you can never have too many capable receivers that can be inserted into situations that are built to simply spread out the defense, isolate the weaknesses, and allow your QB1 to pick them apart.

And that is why we should not be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys spend on a receiver, and if the right guy is there as high as in the 1st round, you can understand the logic behind investing heavily in making your offense dynamic and dangerous.

So, here is the top of the group, but you should know that receivers are widely thought of as extremely deep in the 2014 draft, so while I consider these the best of the WRs, we should not be shocked if another several go in the top 2 or 3 rounds.  As many as 15 or 16 could go in the Top 100 picks quite easily.

Let's take a look briefly at each of these potential studs:

Mike Evans - Texas AM


PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Mike Evans6'52314.51/1.6037"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
261512,4991716.5

The player who I think is the very best of the bunch (although I realize I am certainly not joined by the masses who love Watkins more) is Evans, best known as the "guy Manziel would throw jump balls to who would then constantly bail out his QB" from people who do not think highly of Johnny Football.

Given that I think they are both wonderful prospects - and perhaps the player at each position with the highest ceilings - I think that is a bit of a reduction of Manziel.  But, it does properly seem to summarize what Evans is capable of doing.  He is an absolute freak in every sense of the word, and if you have to find a kid from the college ranks that may have a shred of Megatron-level DNA, I might start here with a guy of similar physical attributes.  It should be noted though, that Megatron ran sub 4.4 in the 40 and also had a vertical over "40, so I am not saying they have similar physical scores on the testing.

But, 4.5 is very fast for a player of this size and if you watch his film, he is absolutely strong enough to bully pretty much anyone who tried to cover him and borders on offensive pass interference on a regular basis.  That, to me, is what you are looking for at the NFL level - a receiver that not only defeats physical coverage, but punishes it so that the last thing you want to do is try to press cover him.  Evans does that and just throws your press coverage off to the side and runs by with no concern at all.

I assume if you are a fan of football on any level that you saw the Aggies play Alabama last fall and saw one of the most ridiculous performances ever put together by a wide receiver as Evans put on an absurd clinic of dominance against a defense loaded with NFL prospects.  He showed aerial skills that were crazy, speed that pulled away from everyone - despite being bigger than everyone, too (thus the Megatron comps) - and then, when needed, was too strong for people to handle, too.

He also has the upside card working for him, as he has only 26 college games and almost no football experience until late in his scholastic career.  He is a basketball player that converted and you can clearly see the crossover application of skills in the air.

So, why do people like Watkins more?  Obviously, Watkins is great, too, but to me Watkins has no issues at all and Evans has one or two.

First, speed wise, if there are so many that are sub 4.5, it is tough to say a guy at that speed is the best of the bunch and I understand that debate but given that Dez Bryant is 4.5, I can deal with that.

But, if Evans is fairly debited for anything at this point in his development, it would be that he seems to not be great close to the line of scrimmage in crosses and short routes that require precision and perfectly-run timing movements.  That is something that can generally be fixed with coaching and precision, but he can do so many things that are unreal and frankly, uncoachable that this would not frighten me away at all.

I think he has superstar capabilities and if he somehow gets to #16, he is the type of player that would make me consider scrapping all defensive objectives and just go take the guy who could change the offense immediately.

Sammy Watkins - Clemson

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Sammy Watkins6'02114.42/1.5634"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
362403,391 2714.1

So, now, the respected Mr Watkins, a guy who needs no introduction.  There is nothing stopping Watkins, as he has almost no weaknesses as a polished player who can step right in and take over games on Sundays from September on.

He is as fast as you may ever find a big receiver in that he is over 6-feet tall and over 210 pounds and can still run right at 4.4 with a 10-yard split that is quickness generally attributed to guys who run 4.3s.  He combines that with silly strength in breaking tackles and running across the middle.  He is so physical as a runner that Clemson had no problem routinely running him out of a RB alignment - sometimes as a decoy because the defense would have to account for him so heavily - and then running all manner of end arounds, screens, and fakes all based on making you respect Watkins.

His hands are phenomenal and has catching skills that stick out even in a group of guys who all snag the ball with ease.  He looks like he is incapable of drops sometimes and then high-points the ball in an aerial battle and makes it look unfair as a defensive back stands idly by.

The argument on why this guy is so dynamic is that he can dominate the entire route tree right now, rather than having a guy that can only excel either deep or shallow, either inside or outside.  Watkins can do whatever you want, wherever you want and can instantly take over.  He finds a crack at 4.4 and he is gone, but then, as he showed against 1st round LB prospect Ryan Shazier from Ohio State, he decides to just run you over with his power and can make you look silly, too.

If there is anything that sticks out that may be a tad disconcerting, it is that he appears quite comfortable showing up his QB if he was not happy with the ball location from Tajh Boyd, but that should not surprise us that a WR has expressive habits that may not fall in line with our sensibilities, right?

He is awesome and a franchise guy.  I like Evans more, but that is purely ceiling based because this guy has no weaknesses.  He looks like he could be a better version of Dez, and that really says something.  He is more than a WR.  He is a devastating weapon that can be used in so many ways, and it starts with something as simple as a smoke screen or even a handoff.


Odell Beckham - LSU

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Odell Beckham5'111984.40/1.6038.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
401432,3401216.4

After those top two, it becomes a game of "what flavor of ice cream do you prefer" rather than some industry consensus on who is next off the board.

For me, that guy is Beckham from LSU who really looks like the real deal, although his production is behind the others on a per-game basis until his 2013 at LSU.  This, to anyone who follows that program, is clearly a reflection of the QB chaos that the program has dealt with, rather than an issue with Beckham, and he clearly looked better as that situation improved.

Beckham is a player with blazing speed and while he has average size, he can play with some physical pop in his game as well.  He plays with routes that look precise and proper, but still packs a ferocity that is quite appealing.  He can play in the slot or on the outside, and with massive paws is a player that wants the ball and is ready to do something with it.

In the games I watched, he really showed he could make adjustments on the ball and come up with catches on passes that may not be on the numbers.  That ability to scrape a pass off the ground or to go up by the uprights and grab a pass in the sky is the sign of a playmaker and he does all of that.

He also has KR/PR ability, which never hurts a player's total package value, and there runs with confidence and intent as well.  He saw lots of press coverage and battled it as you would want, and if you want to know his biggest flaw, I would say it is the common practice of not looking too terribly interested in run blocking.  While that is something you would want to see improved, it does stick out like a sore thumb at a place that runs it as much as LSU does.  

Allen Robinson - Penn State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Allen Robinson6'22204.58/1.5939"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
351772,47417 14.0

The next player on my personal preference list is Robinson from Penn State.  Obviously, I have not watched much Penn State recently, but when I gave him a chance on the tape, he blew me away.  He won at least one game all by himself, it seemed, and I would not pass on a chance to add this guy to my squad.

Robinson is very good in traffic, as he is quite strong and finds the ball well.  He is what you would call a big YAC (yards after catch) guy, which may seem a bit odd given his 4.6 40, but look at that 10-yard quickness split.  Very quick in short spaces - like maybe in traffic in the secondary.  He also has that gigantic vertical which would make many NBA players jealous.  He can run the entire route tree as well, and it is tough to say if he looks better in the middle of the field or out by the sideline.

He throws a corner out of his way on a physical pass route, and then runs hard on an end around for a big gain.  He appears at times to be simply too strong for a corner to deal with.  Penn State is not loaded with talent these days, so you know defenses had him circled all day, so to see his productivity was still very high is more impressive.

He will have the occasional drop and I am not sure he is quite as comfortable on the deep pass as others on this list, but he is the everything you want when it comes to a must-convert play in the NFL - you know where the ball is going and you still cannot stop him.  That is something that was said about him quite a bit over the last few years.  He is a real stud.  Perhaps not as spectacular as some of the others, but if you want a real solid guy, keep him in mind.

Marqise Lee - USC

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Marqise Lee5'111924.46/1.6138"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
362483,6552914.7

Lee is a bit difficult to figure out, because the first time you watch him you are ready to call him elite and maybe at the top of this class.  And, there is plenty to like about him for sure.  In fact, when you watch the tape, his strength is very Dez-like and you love the ferocity that he plays with.

He is very impressive in space and looks like a bull in a china shop in traffic and appears to be the type of guy that some defensive backs are not looking forward to dealing with.  He runs those dig routes very well and that is one of the primary bread-and-butter routes of any X receiver in the NFL.

But, my biggest issue is his drop rate.  He clearly is having some issues with either concentration or technique because I have seen his drop rate at over 10% which doesn't sound like a ton, but it really is.

Now, there are some players that you are willing to deal with the occasional drop because they are so dominant - Terrell Owens comes quickly to mind - and Lee is making some massive plays and by the way, averaging over 100 yards per game for his entire college career.

He is really good and it is because he is built as a very thick human being, but still possesses top end speed to boot.  I also like his technique in using body position to make himself difficult to get around in battles for the ball (something Kelvin Benjamin could use help with) and is a very willing blocker.

Overall, I like him a ton, but just know that there are going to be moments where you have a big play about to happen and the ball falls harmlessly to the ground.


Brandin Cooks - Oregon State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Brandin Cooks 5'91894.32/1.5636"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
382263,2722414.5

There is a place in the NFL for the smallish WR, we definitely know that.  Now, with this league all about quick passes to players with quickness and the ability to run away form everyone, the ability for these guys to head up the list is clearly happening.

Well, what if that guy ran a 4.3 40, and also put up stunning performances on a routine basis like Brandin Cooks did at Oregon State?  1st Round, please.

He has great PR ability and will definitely flip field position on a regular basis in the NFL on that front, but his real ability is just amazing short routes that are some of the more electric crosses you have seen.  He runs at top speed in short order and runs his routes very well.  He takes a beating in traffic and pops right up and is absolutely difficult to track down in traffic because he is incredibly slippery.

I have heard one scout say that he is not DeSean Jackson in terms of being a big-play guy.  I think I disagree.  He looks just like DeSean Jackson, save for the enormous pain in the butt that Jackson was to all of those on his coaching staff.  His hands are not perfect, but they are really good and he is dangerous in many, many ways.  Screens, crosses, deep, digs, between the hashes, on the sidelines.  Cooks can do a lot.

Now, he is small.  There is no way around the fact that he is 5'9, but if I am a team that is not worried about that and believe that Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, Jackson, and many others have shown that receivers don't need to be 6'4 to break down secondaries, I am all over Cooks.

He really seems like just the type of guy Chip Kelly could do wonders with for 12 targets a game.


Jordan Matthews - Vanderbilt

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Jordan Matthews6'32124.46/1.5735.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
512623,7592414.3

I will be the first to admit that I don't watch Vanderbilt play under normal circumstances.  The exception is when word filters out that the most underrated receiver in this draft has been doing his work in that conference at a very high level for 4 years in a row, without ever really playing for a strong team.  Again, like Allen Robinson, this provides quite a test for receivers on poor teams in that they are constantly crowded and receivers of attention from safeties constantly.

Now, if both of these players are any indication, it makes them and their teams become more creative in ways to use them, which in turn develops their skills on a really versatile level.  Matthews can do just about everything and the distant cousin of Jerry Rice looks like a guy who just loves to study his sport.  There are certain players who get a reputation for trying to study the game on a higher level, and when Matthews mentioned he was disappointed that the Senior Bowl did not provide him with game film to study those who would cover him, we figured he wasn't your average bear.

Let's get to his skills, which are substantial.  The first thing that sticks out when you watch Matthews play is his hands are just so awesome.  He catches everything that is even close.  And, then he varies his routes in such a way that you come away convinced that he can do just about anything you ask of him.  He is capable of all of the routes and and depths.  He catches everything close (as you would expect from a guy who has just about all of the SEC receiving records).

If I had to find a comparable receiver from my rolodex, it would be Greg Jennings, except 4 inches taller.  But, he has the same catch skills and versatility in what you can ask him to do.  I am not suggesting he is the best receiver in this class, but I was very, very impressed with watching what this guy has done - which is pretty much demonstrate ability on all of the routes.

Kelvin Benjamin - Florida State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Kelvin Benjamin6'52404.66/1.6732.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
28841,50619 17.9

In nearly every positional grouping, there is a prospect that it seems gets plenty of buzz and praise in draft season from the usual suspects that when I make sure I do my due diligence on, I just don't fully get it.  For me, that is Florida State's Benjamin.

Now, don't get me wrong.  He has some very impressive positive markers.  For instance, he is huge and very, very imposing.  He had a crackback block on a linebacker in the NC State game that hurt to watch.  He has some catches that are just insane.  He had the Florida game this year which looks like it could be candidate for game of the year by a receiver where he just went nuts.  He also had this catch against Clemson that should not be overlooked at all.

He has giant hands and despite not having great speed on the stop-watch, he really seems to get behind a lot of defensive backs who are supposedly faster.

So, what are my issues with Benjamin?

Well, many.  First,  I don't really think he is quick enough to stay at receiver.  In fact, as Bill Parcells used to say, he appears to be a few biscuits from being a tight end.  Now, if you want to sell me on him being the next amazing tight end with power forward skills?  I am interested, but that constitutes an unknown about a transition and I don't like spending 1st round picks on unknowns.

His routes are sloppy and often awkward, his hands are inconsistent, and he flashes high and low.  You love him and then he frustrates you.  But, more than anything, I think his technique lacks in that his body should be his greatest weapon.  Instead, on passes, he waits on the ball and reaches with his hands back to the QB, which of course, is a high school mistake that is then corrected by going to meet the ball and using your body to box out your defenders.  Too many times, he reaches and basically plays like a guy much smaller than he actually is.

I want to be clear - there is a lot to like and I think he could fix a lot of that with simple coaching.  But, at 4.66 as a kid, that is a time that generally doesn't age well.  I think he will always be a red zone talent, but in this draft there are so many more complete WR candidates for me that I really don't value him like many others in this group.

Good, but well down the list for me.

Davante Adams - Fresno State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Davante Adams6'02124.59/1.6439.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
262333,3013813.0

Finally, this is a player that you cannot help but notice due to the amount of games we are all watching to evaluate Derek Carr.  I came away from those games a bit underwhelmed with his QB for a number of reasons - mostly having to do with the preponderance of passes he throws behind his line of scrimmage.

But his main target - Adams - is a real interesting player who is now squarely on everyone's radar with his tremendous productivity.  A redshirt sophomore who caught over 100 passes in both of his 2 college seasons and had 14 TDs in 2012 and followed it up with 24 more in 2013.  He is a playmaking WR.

Now, I am a little concerned with some catching technique issues with his hands, but beyond that, he runs all sorts of routes, including a number of shallows, followed by a double move deep.  He is as confident as they come, and seems to catch a fade pattern with as smooth a process as you can imagine.

He is a real competitive playmaker and is also coming off a college career that was absurdly productive and had plenty swagger to let you know that he doesn't think he can be covered.

His issue was his timed speed at the Combine which was before a 4.56 and a 4.59 depending on who you believe.  From there, it dropped into the mid 4.45-4.49 range at his pro day according to published reports which could be enough to get him into play for the Cowboys 2nd pick at #47.  He is amazingly slippery underneath and has caught more screens at Fresno than you would ever need.  For the slot/3rd receiver in Dallas, he makes plenty of sense from where I sit.  He also loves going up and winning battles for the ball with a crazy 39.5" vertical leap.

=====

My summary is this:  I like Evans more than Watkins, but they are both franchise wide outs.  The next tier is sort of taster's choice with Lee, Beckham, Cooks, Robinson, and Matthews all Top 20-40 talents and could go in any order.

Then, tier 3 for me is headlined by Matthews, Benjamin, and Adams are all guys who belong in the 2nd round (roughly).

By the way, the depth in this draft might mean that everyone gets pushed down because you might not want to use a pick if you think there will still be receivers later.  And there will be.  In fact, there are several more than I like that I didn't include here, who could also be in the Top 2 rounds as well.

Past Draft Profiles:

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford 


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Things That Interest Me



Above, is the greatest goal I think I have ever seen in person. David Beckham in his prime with a brilliant chip on my trip to Upton Park in 2002. I bought some new hardware so now I know how to get stuff from my extensive video collection on to my blog (yes, In 2010, I am figuring that out).

So, for no other reason, I pulled that game out and posted it up for you. And, while I am at it, here are the 12 matches I have seen in the United Kingdom to date.

The Results from my 5 Road Trips to England:

Deportivo 2, Arsenal 0 3/12/2002 - Champions League

Manchester United 5, West Ham 3 3/16/2002

Arsenal 2, Charlton 1 2/28/2004

Newcastle 1, Portsmouth 1 2/29/2004

Manchester United 1, Liverpool 0 3/3/07

Blackburn 2, Bolton 1 3/4/07

Chelsea 3, Aston Villa 0 4/10/10 - FA Cup Semifinal

Liverpool 0, Fulham 0 4/11/10

Southend 3, Barnet 0  4/20/12

Arsenal 0, Chelsea 0  4/21/12

Queens Park Rangers 1, Tottenham 0  4/21/12

Manchester United 4, Everton 4  4/22/12

---

I imagine it would have to be a really boring day at your job to find this interesting, but that is why I named this post like I did. In fact, I was just looking through my ticket stubs the other day and was reminded of the day in February of 2004 when I had a chance to see Arsenal in person (with Spike Lee and the picture I took below)



Various other video items from these matches:








Bag of Pucks - April 8 - 4 Games To Go

Pretty much everything that could be said about this thing has already been said.  This hockey team, brand new in so many ways, is trying to quiet its history and make it into the Western Conference playoffs.  But, to do so, they have to play their best hockey at the very end of the season - something they have not done in many years.  And, they are trying to do so against a team in the Phoenix Coyotes that has had their number since the Stars fired Dave Tippett back in 2009.

So, if historical trends are how you make your wagers, you would still fancy the Coyotes.

But, if you believe in computer simulations and statistical models that are free of historical bias, you think the Stars have a 74% likelihood.

I guess we are going to have to settle this on the ice.  And here is what remains:


Game # Dallas (87) Phx (86)
79 Tue - NSH Tue - At Clb
80 Wed - CLB Thu -At Nsh
81 Fri  -  STL Sat - SJ
82 Sun - At Phx Sun - DAL

As you can see, the likelihood of Game #82 on Sunday at 8pm being for all of the marbles and the final playoff spot is still very high.  This seems to have been looming on the horizon for the last few months, and it certainly feels like destiny suggests that it might come down to the final game, period, or even turn in a shootout.

Yikes.

This could have been easier, but of course, it never actually is.  They do things the hard way and although we may like to act like they have some active choice in the equation, the fact is that we often forget a very important component in this formula; they are a team that has weaknesses.

Therefore, under that truth, if a team is good, but not great this is what you get.  Exciting and flawed. Young and inexperienced.  They then will do what this team does - play well enough to win games against Boston, St Louis, Chicago, and the powers of the NHL.  And then turn around and lose games to Calgary, the New York Islanders, and Florida when you have a 2-goal lead in a game that you simply cannot allow yourself to lose.  

To lose that game Sunday in Florida after the win on Saturday at Tampa Bay was simply this team in a nutshell. They are so promising and exciting, and yet, they also are still some substantial pieces away from having all of their bases covered.  They still are highly leveraged on the top players on their roster to cover any flaws they have below.  

That has been lost in all of this, because we want to believe that we can just take the elevator to the top floor from the basement because now we have Tyler Seguin and friends to dig this thing out of its ditch.  And yes, the new recruits have been a fantastic foundation, but we cannot forget that there are still some things that the team is trying to manage through that is not ideal.  

They are a team that is learning a lot about themselves as they go.  They are seeing guys emerge through adversity and necessity that are climbing to newer heights.  The defense corps is where I always point when I talk about improvement, but before they play this final week, I thought we should talk about a few reasons why they are still on the verge of their first post-season in 6 years:

Alex Goligoski - I have not witnessed a more polarizing player in a Stars uniform in quite some time amongst the hard core Stars' fans.  In fact, to say polarizing is to argue that there are some that say he is fantastic and that is actually not true.  It seems that everyone generally agrees he is very poor at his job.  But is he?  

After Jamie Benn and Seguin, Goligoski is the Stars' leading scorer.   He is on the ice more than any player and it isn't really even close - over 240 minutes more than anyone else on the team.  He is their leading ice guy on the power play from defense and their leading penalty killer on the entire roster.  He has taken 2,166 shifts for this team when only Brenden Dillon is over 2,000 (2,006).  In other words, he has been run into the ground and played as hard as anybody could be played.  He has had plenty of moments where he has not looked like a Norris trophy winner, but when you consider the exhaustion level and leverage placed on him, despite his defensive limitations, hopefully you can understand what he is dealing with.  And yet, about 5 times a week, somebody emails or tweets me to ask if the Stars could just cut him.  Defensive zone play is not his specialty, but given the issues on the roster, he is the least objectionable option.  This team will be ready to contend when they don't need to ask Alex Goligoski to solve every issue they have (and Trevor Daley, for that matter), but that day isn't here, so turning on the guys who are trying to fix the issues is not the answer.  Getting better answers in here is the ultimate way to fix it.  But, for now, if you don't at least appreciate a thing or two about what he has done this season, then I think you are blinded by your previous conclusions.

Jordie Benn - I write about this team an awful lot, but I have hardly ever spent words on Jordie Benn.  I don't know why, but he just has never seemed like a guy that I needed to spend much time on.  That is my previous conclusions causing me sight problems.  You see, when Jamie Benn was starting to become a thing around here, the Allen Americans employed his brother.  I saw that as an act of convenience or perhaps even doing the Benn family a solid.  Honestly, I didn't know nor care that much about the arrangement because I knew that the Stars had a superstar who had a brother who also played hockey at a high level - just not high enough to be in the NHL.  

Well, that was 5 years ago.  And then with all the speed of a glacier, Benn's career has slowly but surely gone from an independent league castaway to an effective NHL regular.  I can't explain how it happened, but the 26 year old has now become a no-brainer when the lineup card is posted and has allowed himself a real career with hard work and a surprising amount of talent with the puck.  He has 20 points and is a +17, despite not really having a consistent playing partner for large swaths of his run, and has just proved to be reliable and gritty.  I have no idea where his road will lead him, nor do I know if he will be a regular here in 2 seasons, but for now, this team is only in this spot because of performances like the one they have received from Jordie Benn.  He has really been important to this haul.

=====

This is a team that has worked hard to get here and one that will give it all they have on the way in.  If they win their 3 home games, there is a real chance that Sunday won't matter.  But, Nashville is playing great, Columbus is playing for their playoff lives (and will start the game ahead, 1-0), and St Louis is annoyed about the last few meetings with Dallas as well as a statement opportunity for a potential playoff matchup.  

This home stand could be most unpleasant and given how the Stars never do things the easy way, expect a few more turns in the road.  

But we are finally here.  Nothing we can say will have any bearing on the outcome.  It is all up to those 20 men in the Stars' room.

4 to go.  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Cowboys Mailbag - April 7 - Big Board Feedback

I didn't mean to go so long between mailbags, but it happened.  So, rather than cry about it, let's get down to business.

Last Thursday, I put out an experimental big board of the first 7 batches of positional breakdowns I had for next month's draft.  I am not sure it was a great idea, because I am still building a case for many of these players and trying to continue to study players who are so close to each other in quality.  Of course, the more you study further game film - I try to look at 3-4 games (about 200 snaps) of each player, but then it expands to 5-7 games (about 350-400 snaps) with further study - the more differently you may feel about the player.  This leads to morphing your opinion a bit and then that can lead to a conflict between where he appears on your board and where you were on him when you wrote his profile back in February or March.

This is a constantly evolving process, but if there was one thing missing in past years from my preparation for the draft, it was recording how I felt as the process went along.  But, this year, I have a jumbo notebook that is jam-packed, and then I am trying to get as much of it on paper as possible.

So, if you have not seen the big board, please take a look at it by clicking here.  I plan on moving these around further as we go, but I wanted to construct my very first board as a starting point.

And, here is a reminder from the entry: My goal is to put a board together that is ranked and written from a "hypothetical Dallas Cowboys perspective". Therefore, players will be credited for being players of interest for the Cowboys and debited for not being fits. However, this is based almost completely on my feelings and homework about the players - not the Cowboys scouts or personnel department. I am not reporting sources telling me who they like. Rather, I am placing my work against what I believe the Cowboys need.

And that, of course, means that I am not simply ranking players based on the "this guy is better than this guy" rationale, but also adding in plenty of slanted view from the perspective of the Cowboys.  I can't stress that enough.  Also, since it was missed a bit, this is only the positions that have been completed - I have looked at the 7 most likely position groups for the Top 2 picks for Dallas: QB, T, G, DE, DT, LB, S and have ranked the top 40 prospects accordingly.

Ok.  So, now that you have looked at my board and now that you understand the logic, let's go back to some of the feedback from you the reader - otherwise known as our email bag.

Here is the first one:
the ranking of Su'a Filo doesn't seem to reflect what you wrote in your guard breakdown. Did something push him up? - @CoreyGrodner
And this one which is similar about the same basic issue:
you're really against the grain on Yankey. I'm on board with Mettenberger. Am I the only guy that wants Chris Borland? - @geopaschall
The basic idea is that on my rankings, I really had some guards I liked a ton and they both would fit with what the Cowboys are attempting to build.  The two guards at the very top of the list were both featured back in Episode 9 when we broke down that position in depth.  David Yankey from Stanford and Xavier Sua-Filo from UCLA.

Both players look like the types of players that I would see as first round talents and reasonable picks in the middle to bottom half of round 1.

Upon first look, I absolutely ranked Yankey higher for what likely is my #1 reason to do so for an interior blocker - that he seems much less likely to get bullied back into the QB like certain light-in-the-cleats guards and centers we have know in the past (Costa, Arkin).  I think it is vital that a man in the middle of your line can stand his ground against defensive tackles and inside linebackers as a top priority.

However, I do realize that my grading system might need some updating, because of the way the sport is changing which as far as guards and centers go, it seems to value mobility over brute strength on a very high level.  And, after talking to some people, I did adjust here for the reason that I am not the Cowboys GM (Oh to be!) and thought I should have a list that tries to think like they do.

My personal sensibilities value Yankey over Sua-Filo, but when you look at the combine athleticism tests, Sua Filo wins the 40 yard dash (5.04 to 5.52), the 20-yard shuttle (4.44 to 4.90) and the 3 cone drill (7.60 to 7.84) over Yankey each time.  Sua-Filo grades more athletic in his movement skills on every test and if that is what Bill Callahan, Jason Garrett, and frankly, most offensive linemen in the NFL who believe in the zone blocking offensive line that values feet over muscles, then I better adjust my thinking accordingly.

By the way, Yankey as a 1st Rounder seems like a long-shot for most people.  He has not been graded well by most observers, but I am standing pat.  I like the player and even if he does slide, check back in a few seasons and let's see who was wrong.  I think he will be a stud guard in the NFL.

To continue George's queries about Mettenberg and Borland, I would argue that Mettenberg is one of the more controversial studies in this draft, but if I need a stand in the pocket and look to fire the ball downfield, it would be the LSU kid very highly.

Borland is a player I really have liked over the years at Wisconsin, but I will confess that I question quite a few things about his game, not limited to merely his 40-time, his health, and his size.  He can really play, but you do wonder if he is a player who has a hard time making the transition to the NFL where the players around him are the best in the world.  He was exceptional in the Big 10, and I have heard the many comparisons to other white linebackers, but we better be careful when we play that game.  For every one or two who make it big on Sundays, there are dozens that don't who never get mentioned in the conversation.
Question 1: Why is Jackson Jeffcoat in your top 40 when Trent Murphy is not? Isn't the ideal 4-3 DE someone with strength and speed and who develops into the prototypical 6'4"-6'6" 275 player? Murphy had much better career production, was healthy, and his 6'5" frame appears like it can develop into the height/weight prototype much like Jared Allen did. Jackson is 2" shorter, has a slighter frame that may struggle to every clear the 260lbs, and has injury history. My impression only, and I have to admit that I read about the Jared Allen comparison before I looked it up, but they seems very similar other than Murphy having a bigger frame and Jackson being hurt. I also keep reading about Ware being smaller than ideal as a reason for his body breaking down. 
Quesiton 2: Is health/injury why the DT Easley out of Florida doesn't make the top 40? MARK HENKES
Thanks, Mark.  Two excellent topics.  Jackson Jeffcoat versus Trent Murphy is a great place to start, and I will confess that at that point in the list, I did not spend too much time on this exercise until now.

There is no question that Trent Murphy is a better player and I think will have a better career.  Trent Murphy is a dynamic playmaker who is sliding in this draft for what he can't do, but man, those things he can do seem really special.  Jeffcoat is the ultimate tweener, as even at Texas, they could not decide how best to use him because of his size.  They both can get after the QB, but truth told, Murphy can do more than that at a higher level than Jeffcoat.

So, why did I put Jeffcoat in the Top 40 and not Murphy?  Purely scheme.  I have never seen Murphy as a 4-3 player and therefore would not take him if I am Dallas.  They both weighed around 250 at the combine, so the guesswork is tricky.  But, Jeffcoat worked out with the DL and Murphy with the LB.  I should not be influenced by that, but I was.  I see Murphy as a LB and under that scenario, he better go to a 3-4 team to stay out of running with RBs too much.  Whereas I saw Jeffcoat as more of a 3rd Down pass rush specialist, like Victor Butler was here for a while.

Let's be honest, neither of them check off the boxes for a 4-3 from where I sit.  If you were to tell me, Mark, that your plan (as Rod Marinelli for a day) is to take Murphy as a 4-3, beef him up to 270 and treat his rookie season as a bit of a redshirt, I will show interest in this idea.  He is the better football player, I just can't see how he scheme fits for me.

Now, later this month, I am going to do a week where I cover nothing but players who fell through the cracks of my positional breakdowns due to early ranking discrepancies before the Combine and the spring season.  Injured players certainly apply here and my list so far will include the following players:

Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Marcus Smith, DE, Louisville
Joel Bitonio, T, Nevada

So, to answer your question, I simply didn't get to Easley because there were too many mixed opinions.  But, now I concede that he belongs in the top 50 players for sure.
I like it. One thing I would say, Ive started to come around as Barr being a WDE. Let him pin ears back and go. Just a thought. - @landonmccool
This is what I enjoy about the draft.  Creativity!  Teams and people can look at the same prospect and see a different future vision of what that might mean.  Now, this is risky business if the investment is high up near the top of the draft, so you don't want to get too crazy.  But, Anthony Barr, another UCLA product, is certainly a player that people love to dream about.  Part of that is a result of his career path that had him at RB until I believe 2012.  Think about that for a minute.  Now, in his profile, I spent lots of time on this type of discussion on this very topic:

Here is what I wrote:

He looks like a defensive end in a 4-3 to me, but I am projecting that he would put more weight and strength on his frame, because if I put him there now, it is going to be ugly against the run. But, man, you talk about a guy that a team rich in assets might want to mold and develop, you would start with anyone who made that many plays in a major conference just moments after he learned how to play defense. That is 74 explosive plays in about 25 games for an absurd 3 negative plays per game! He is on the ground a lot. He lacks enough strength to excel right away, and I just don't know where I could put him in Dallas because he doesn't look like a 4-3 LB in any way, but I can't ask him to play DE full time - which is what the Cowboys need any 1st round pick to do.

So, as you can see, I had Barr downgraded, but I also saw the 4-3 Weakside defensive end as an option for him - basically, Anthony Spencer's spot.  He just needs time.   I know my friend, Bryan Broaddus likes Barr as a SAM linebacker, which is less interesting to me, but Broaddus obviously knows his stuff.

=====

Beyond that, there was plenty of feedback about Kony Ealy - who many of you thought I ranked too highly - and I will just say again that as far as 4-3 defensive ends who fit my prototype, he is about at the top of the list after Clowney.

Also, Scott Crichton is one that many of you have also discovered and like quite a bit.  I imagine DE is a place they will look to address, and if they can bag either of those in this draft, you should be pretty excited.  In fact, Crichton versus Ealy is a debate worth having if you want to go that way at #16.

Today and over the weekend I have been looking at the dozen or so Wide Receivers who could fit in the Top 2 rounds, and needless to say, once I get through that supply and the corners, the Top 40 will easily grow to Top 60, and we will have a new list to debate at the end of April.

Keep the emails, tweets, and feedback coming.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 11 - Big Board #1

This week, we shall organize the first several positions that we have examined before we do a few more spots into an overall view of rankings.  I am asked about an overall ranking quite a bit, and although I kind of believe this may offer more confusion that it will fix, I am still willing to give it a shot.

But, I must establish some criteria here and I think this will be important.  My goal is to put a board together that is ranked and written from a "hypothetical Dallas Cowboys perspective".  Therefore, players will be credited for being players of interest for the Cowboys and debited for not being fits.  However, this is based almost completely on my feelings and homework about the players - not the Cowboys scouts or personnel department.  I am not reporting sources telling me who they like.  Rather, I am placing my work against what I believe the Cowboys need.

Also, I understand that I am not going to agree with a lot of people's work.  I also am trying to avoid other people's work.  If the point of all of this was to have agreement in our evaluations, then there would be no reason to do the work yourself.  If you want to rate each player separately, then you must aim to avoid bias and influence from elsewhere.  This list is mostly my eyeballs and reading, although I will confess that I have talked about these prospects with others (mostly those who scout for a living).  It is also important to note that I am not examining players medically, nor doing extensive background checks.  This is 100% football evaluation from watching them play.  No rumors, hearsay, or various off field indiscretions based.

That established, I have looked at the 7 most likely position groups for the Top 2 picks for Dallas (In no particular order): QB, T, G, DE, DT, LB, S and have ranked the top 40 prospects accordingly below.  At some point, we will inject WR, CB, and perhaps RB and TE into this list, but I see all of those as lower priorities for this particular exercise.  I picked 40 because we are discussing the Top 2 Cowboys picks (#16 and #47) and when we add all of the positions, this will grow to way beyond a Top 50 and the draft-able net will be cast.

Because of the size of the list (this one will have 40 players on it) we are not expecting to be spot on by any stretch, but hypothetically, if we are close, you might be able to cross off the names of who goes before the Cowboys pick and then see the next 5 ranked players to see who they are picking from.  I attempted to rank them in a way where a guy at #8 is more appealing to a guy at #10 and so on, but it is difficult to define as clearly as I would like.

This is a work in progress for sure, but here is my first "big board" for the players I have really studied.

Rank # Player Notes
#1 Jadeveon Clowney, DE, S Carolina Best talent in the entire draft.
#2 Jake Matthews, T, Texas AM Best tackle in pass protection.
#3 Blake Bortles, QB, Cen Florida Safer QB pick than Manziel.
#4 Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas AM
#5 Greg Robinson, T, Auburn
#6 Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
#7 Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan On Tape, fantastic.  Off Field concerns.
#8 Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh Dynamic shorter talent, Melton signing?
#9 Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
#10 Xavier Sua Filo, G, UCLA
#11 CJ Mosley, LB, Alabama Medical concerns noted.
#12 Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville Best CF Prospect in Draft
#13 Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
#14 Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida St
#15 Zach Martin, T, Notre Dame
#16 Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA Downgraded, scheme fit issues.  Needs 3-4.
#17 LaMarcus Joyner, S, Florida St Spectacular, but so small.
#18 Dee Ford, DE, Auburn Downgraded, scheme fit issues.
#19 HaHa Clinton Dix, S, Alabama Only 3rd Best FS for me.
#20 Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State I like him way more than most
#21 David Fales, QB, San Jose State My 3rd/4th favorite QB
#22 Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame Not ideal scheme fit for 4-3.
#23 David Yankey, G, Stanford I like him way more than most
#24 Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State I realize I don't like him as much as most.
#25 Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU I like him way more than most
#26 Billy Turner, T, ND State I like him way more than most
#27 Stephen Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
#28 Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State The last of the 2nd tier QBs for me.
#29 Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi St
#30 Morgan Moses, T, Virginia
#31 Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Ga Tech
#32 Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
#33 Jimmie Ward, FS, Northern Illinois
#34 Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU Not ideal scheme fit, but might work.
#35 Rashede Hageman, DT, Minnesota Clearly, I don't like him as much as most.
#36 Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
#37 Dakota Dozier, G, Furman
#38 Cyrus Kouandijo, T, Alabama I really don't care for him too much.
#39 Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas Not ideal scheme fit, but at right price...
#40 Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State Too small for me.  Very fast.

Remember, this whole list is only from 7 position groups so far.  #40 on this list might really mean #75 on the final list.  That is important to keep in mind.  I don't give out "Round Grades" because that is all relative to knowing every player in the draft and spending more time on it than I can.  I am trying to rate the best 80-100 players in order, relative to each other - not construct some mock draft.

Keep in mind, we want scheme fits, but there comes a point where a player is too talented to pass on and therefore, you make it work.  For instance, say a guy is a top 5 pick, but you aren't sure he is ideal for what you run.  If he falls to #16, you might then say that we are getting a $5 player for $2, and therefore, the sale is too good to pass up when the bin only has $2 and $3 players left.  Therefore, we want the best possible player and the $5 value is our guy.  Complicated and contradictory, but that is where my belief system is on this issue.

Anyway, this is my exercise for this week, and I hope you read the old profiles below to see how I came to these feelings about each player and to see who I have profiled but did not make my list (there are plenty).

Also, please comment below or on email at Sturm1310@me.com or on Twitter @sportssturm to take issue with anything you don't like above.  I know for some of you that will take a while to get through your list of issues.



Below, is the list of the Cowboys picks for the 2014 NFL Draft:

RoundPickNotes
Rd 1#16
Rd 2#47
Rd 3#78
Rd 4#119
Rd 5#158
Rd 7#229From Chi
Rd 7#231
Rd 7#238From KC
Rd 7#248compensatory
Rd 7#251compensatory
Rd 7#254compensatory