Ear To the Ground - Week 8
Updated 10/29 by Bob Magaw, Exclusive for Footballguys.com
"The cosmos speaks in patterns" - Roger von Oech (paraphrase of Heraclitus)
"Luck is the residue of design" - Branch Rickey (Brooklyn Dodgers GM - integrated baseball)
"Our business is winning" - Bill Parcells (Ex-Giants/Patriots/Jets/Cowboys HC, MIA grocery picker and future HoFer)
The subject matter of ETTG is IDP with an emphasis on Dynasty leagues. Ear To The Ground was chosen for this column's title to convey a sense of detecting rumblings in the distance... an ability essential to project a prospect from college to pro and rookie to veteran. It will consist of three sections: Team Reports (Watchlist), a Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter, and a new section... The Lateral (rogue, guerilla offensive coverage). The emphasis here will be on the impact positions of LB, DE and S. Exceptional DTs and CBs will be noted for leagues that differentiate DE/DT and S/CB. Dynasty content is geared towards youth. Like most successful working rosters that employ a blend of production and potential, there will be a balance of rookie and veteran coverage in the mix. While by the nature of much IDP coverage new names will bubble up to the surface from week to week, ETTG will try to identify key players early on and provide a synoptic overview for the whole season as it unfolds.
FS Jairus Byrd has been having a charmed rookie season. In becoming the first Bills defender in nearly a half century to get an INT in three consecutive games (including two in each of his past two games), he is knocking on the door of a top 10 DB ranking. While his prolific, unsustainable pass theft exploits will make him an uncertain IDP play from week-to-week, he does look to have cemented a starting role, with Donte Whitner expected to shift to SS and Bryan Scott returning to the bench when they are both healthy. Byrd has great bloodlines and football genes (father Gil was a Pro Bowl CB with the Chargers), and the great coverage ability, ball skills and hands expected of a converted college CB. It wouldn't be a shock to see him pick off a few more passes and end of among the league's INT leaders this season, as it is harder for opposing QBs to avoid safeties than CBs.
Ernie Sims has gotten to a disappointing start after high expectations built from being one of the best and most productive young LBs in the league in his first three seasons from 2006-2008 (with a top 30 finish as a rookie, followed by back to back top 15 campaigns in many IDP leagues). Did he get bad all of a sudden? How big a role is an injured shoulder playing in his uncharacteristically slow start? Is he a poor scheme fit in new HC Jim Schwartz's defense? Is he being outperformed and at risk of losing his starting job to good looking, expectation-bursting rookie DeAndre Levy? How does he fit in the Lions future plans (if at all)? Some of these questions remain unanswered, but inferences can be made and speculations hazarded. The shoulder has undoubtedly played a role. Schwartz has stated recently that Sims will be a starting OLB, with the added caveat... WHEN HE IS 100% HEALTHY (perhaps this isn't set in concrete, and presumably could be subject to change, contingent on the respective future play of Sims AND Levy). With SLB Julian Peterson seemingly not going anywhere in the immediate future (he is an aging and depreciating asset, but they traded for him?), that would imply any increase in Sims snaps would come at the expense of Levy. The rookie can reportedly play inside or outside. While former Steelers ILB free agent Larry Foote is the MLB of the present and not yet old, he isn't young, either, and could be a stopgap level talent. At this point, Sims IDP standing has lost a lot of luster due to his slow start and with more unanswered questions piling up and swirling around him than the lead up to the climax of a densely plotted Michael Crichton thriller. While it is unclear what the remainder of the season will bring, or even the near future beyond that, he may have lost so much IDP value that it makes sense to hold him, or even consider him as a buy low candidate if at a nominal cost. The cream usually rises to the top, so he could still have a bright future potentially, even if not with the Lions long term. Sims combines not only proven NFL production, but ELITE athleticism and pedigree. He was generally viewed as the best Florida State Seminole LB since future HoFer Derrick Brooks. Going further back, his prep resume is eerily similar to Broncos ILB D.J. Williams. They were both arguably the top overall prep recruits at any position in their respective classes, as star two way RB/LBs. Sims is just 24. Rookie FS Louis Delmas has been as good as advertised and a revelation for the Lions secondary (nearly top 20 DB overall, despite coming off a bye, behind only Jairus Byrd's because of his ludicrous past three week 5 INT outburst). In fact, the Lions first three selections of the 2009 draft in the inaugural Post-Millen Man March era look like very solid picks (including franchise-caliber QB Matthew Stafford and consensus best in class TE Brandon Pettigrew), and the DET faithful should have much cause for hope in the future, unlike their opponents in this week's upcoming, epic Ineptitude Bowl, the fetal position-like Rams.
New Orleans Saints
Darren Sharper is having a Renaissance-type season, and should be a legit candidate for Defensive Player of the Year nearly halfway through the season, with 6 INTs and an amazing 3 TDs already. He has been a key contributor in several come from behind wins, helping propel the Saints to being one of the last unbeaten teams in the league (and only undefeated NFC representative). During the Drew Brees tenure the Saints have had a Bazooka offense but a pop gun defense, very reminiscent of the Colts for many years before Peyton Manning and company were surrounded with higher caliber defensive talent. The New Orleans front office, coaching staff and scouting department should be commended for doing a similarly good job upgrading the defensive personnel in recent years. In the front seven, to complement some existing talent in DEs Charles Grant and Will Smith, adding former top 10 DT Sedrick Ellis and ex-Pro Bowl MLB Jonathan Vilma. In the secondary, traditionally the biggest Achilles heel in an overall maligned stop unit, recent drafts have brought SS Roman Harper, CBs Malcolm Jenkins and Tracy Porter, as well as Sharper in free agency. Could a Colts-like Super Bowl breakthrough be in the making and not far ahead? Vilma understandably played his best game of the season against the league's most lopsidedly run-heavy attack, the Wildcat-fever Dolphins. Expectations should be tempered as long as the Saints continue to liberally mix in 3-4 looks, which was his undoing with the Jets (after leading the league in tackles early in his career - he is still just 27).
New York Jets
ILB David Harris (#4 LB) is looking more and more like the prospect that took the league by storm in the latter half of his rookie season, and a great fit in Rex Ryan's attacking scheme. THAT David Harris is one of the best LBs in the league and an IDP gold mine.
With the Raiders plummeting further downwards (ARI DL Darnell Dockett tweeted that if OAK was a moving car, he would jump out headfirst!) and beset by nearly Rams-scale catastrophes, ranging from the octogenarian owner's rapid onset of football senility to a HC investigated for assault and battery, SS Tyvon Branch and MLB Kirk Morrison's are moving in a different direction and their proverbial IDP arrows are pointed up, leveraging so far colossal bust-looking JaMarcus Russell's heroic passing futility into #3 standings in the respective DB and LB rankings.
MLB Will Witherspoon looked like a man on a mission to make up for lost time spend in a dreadful past few years with the Rams. His box score included 6 solos, a sack, FF, INT & TD (latter two on the same play), and he played fast and explosively. Despite coming to the team near midseason, former HC Steve Spagnuolo had roots in Philly and the late, great DC Jim Johnson's system and scheme, before making a name for himself calling New York's Giant-killing defense that shocked the Pats in the 2007 Super Bowl, leading to his eventual Rams hire, so 'Spoon should enjoy a relatively smooth and effortless transition. He is the total package, can run, hit and cover, and has an impressive resume with several multiple sack/INT seasons. Don't be surprised to see more of the same the rest of the way. It doesn't hurt that he has a far more talented and deeper DL in front of him than during his STL stint. Before the season, there were a lot of questions about how the PHI defense would adjust to the double blows of losing Johnson in his battle with Melanoma, and ascendant MLB Stewart Bradley to knee injury. The new DC has retained Johnson's signature pedal-to-the-metal attacking blitz mentality, and this has been good for DE Trent Cole (#6 DL), who continues to be one of the top 3-5 young DEs in the game. Keep an eye on SS Sean Jones, a semi-high profile free agent addition in the wake of Brian Dawkin's departure to the Broncos that had yielded thus far disappointing returns for IDP owners (where he had for the most part languished on the bench until recently). Between injured and underperforming safeties, Jones could increasingly be worked into the lineup. He is a phenomenal athlete that was one of the top safeties in his draft class, though his progress was slowed and he had a serious career setback with a torn ACL suffered his rookie preseason with the Browns.
St. Louis Rams
Appropriately near Halloween, the winless Rams meet the 2008 winless Lions, in what must surely be a Nightmare Bowl hag-ridden by horror for local cable/satellite TV programmers (not to mention fans). It is hard to find many bright spots in what has become a bleak, desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland of a season, and also for the organization's near/mid-term future prospects (making the trailers from 2012 look like an afternoon at Disneyland in comparison). RB Steven Jackson has played hard, but with an ineffectual impact on the score. MLB James Laurinaitis has also been one of the few bright spots in the midst of an abysmal campaign in which the Rams were hoping would be more competitive, and is in the mix for DROY, along with SLBs Brian Cushing and Aaron Curry (as well as FSs Louis Delmas and Jairus Byrd). DE Leonard Little has looked somewhat rejuvenated and is near top 10 status, but recently announced his retirement after this season. Second overall pick in the 2008 draft, DE Chris Long saw his opportunity increase but remains sackless this season, and there have already been rumblings that he will have a hard time ever living up to his stratospheric pedigree (and bloodlines). In more bad news for the beleaguered franchise, promising rookie third round CB Bradley Fletcher is done for the season and has been placed on IR after going down with a knee injury. On the bright side, the Rams could be in position to have their choice of QBs in the 2010 draft (or anybody in the draft regardless of position, for that matter). Of course, with their recent luck and drafting history, it will probably be a bad year for QBs, after passing on Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez in consecutive years (there were more mitigating salary cap ramifications for such a NON-move in 2008 than 2009).
While many are quick to downplay the lack of Albert Haynesworth effect on the Titans season overall, it is almost incalculable to factor in the loss of a player that impacted in so many ways on literally EVERY level of the defense. He made his DL teammates better by commanding double teams (look how the very different fortunes of ex-teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch and current teammate Andre Carter have turned due to his respective absence and presence), LBs by swallowing blockers (like Andre the Giant downing a tic tac) and DBs by bringing pressure up the middle (the worst kind for a QB). It isn't necessary to address whether the Titans blundered in not coughing up $100 million, an admitted huge risk given his troubled background and erratic history. That is a separate issue. But it is another thing to deny that there has been an impact. The secondary has also been decimated, and the offense hasn't looked the same. QB Kerry Collins may not have been Jake Delhomme-awful (CAR another team with one of the best records in '08 that has hit the skids hard in '09), but looks like he may have turned into a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Maybe the Titans aren't as bad as their record indicates, but perhaps they weren't as good as last years league best 13-3. Another, more behind the scenes loss for the Titans than the fateful Haynesworth defection, is the loss of former DC Jim Schwartz in becoming HC of the Lions.
Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter
Top 5 DROY Candidates
- Brian Cushing, SLB, HOU, 1.15, USC (6'3" 245)
33 Solo Tackles, 23 Assists, .5 Sack, 1 INT, 2 FFs & 6 PD (#8 LB Overall and Top Rookie LB)
- James Laurinaitis, MLB, STL, 2.3, Ohio State (6'2"245)
40 Solo Tackles, 9 Assists, 2 INT, 1 FR & 2 PD (#15 LB Overall and #2 Rookie LB)
- Aaron Curry, SLB, SEA, 1.4, Wake Forest (6'4" 255)
32 Solo Tackles, 4 Assist, 2 Sack, 2 INT, 2 FF & 2 PD (#29 LB Overall and #3 Rookie LB)
- Louis Delmas, FS, DET, 2.1, Western Michigan (6'0" 200)
28 Solo Tackles, 6 Assists, 1 sack, 1 FR, 3 PD & 1 TD (#22 DB Overall and #2 Rookie DB)
- Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo, 2.10, Oregon (5'10" 200)
17 Solo Tackles, 7 Assists, 5 INTs & 7 PD (#12 DB Overall and Top Rookie DB)
Standing on the Verge...
- Rey Maualuga
- Brian Orakpo
- Larry English
- Clay Matthews
- DeAndre Levy
- Robert Ayers
- Clint Sintim
- David Veikune
- Paul Kruger
- Aaron Maybin
- Michael Johnson
- Connor Barwin
- Everette Brown
- Tyson Jackson
- B.J. Raji
- Evander "Ziggy" Hood
- Fili Moala
- Sen'Derrick Marks
- Ron Brace
- Roy Miller
- Patrick Chung
- William Moore
- Jairus Byrd
- Mike Mitchell
- Dominique Barber
- Al Afalava
- Rashad Johnson
- Alphonso Smith
- Malcolm Jenkins
- Vontae Davis
- Sean Smith
- Derek Cox
- Darius Butler
- Ryan Mouton
- Sherrod Martin
- Darcel McBath
Injured Reserve List
- Peria Jerry (knee - not torn ACL)
- Cody Brown (dislocated wrist)
- Bradley Fletcher (torn ACL/LCL)
Rogue, guerilla offensive coverage (because there aren't any defense-only leagues)...
Fact or Fluke-tion? On Sunday he faces a Seattle defense decimated with injury
attrition in recent years, at every level. Pro Bowl DE Patrick Kerney and MLB
Lofa Tatupu have missed as lot of time the past two seasons. WLB Leroy Hill
and CB Marcus Trufant are about to return after long absences. Already a starting
CB has been lost for the season, and the Seahawks defense has continued to be
victimized by big plays, a chronic problem extending back deep into the Holmgren-era.
By any measure, Austin's surreal 16-421-4 breakout in the past two games
is historic, but it is unprecedented for an NFL WRs first two starts. On film,
Austin flashes the physical traits, natural talent, athletic ability and well
rounded receiving skills to be legit. He is difficult to defend because of his
versatility and ability to run all the routes, and could be emerging like another
low pedigree WR a few years ago, who also has a pretty good QB - Marques Colston.
Joe Horn was another free agent WR with very modest and humble pedigree (UFA
who only went to JC), after bouncing around with KC going on to become of of
the best WRs in the league for the Saints in the half decade from 2000-2004.
The league may be witnessing the birth of a star... sometimes missed by budding
astronomers when scanning the NFL firmament, without the proper instruments
(it is easy to be blinded by the light from all the other stars on the event
horizon). Austin has already eclipsed the initial numbers of a constellation
of great Dallas WRs (Bob Hayes, Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin and TO, to name
a few). Fans are hoping he doesn't become a Super-Nova. If his star continues
to shine as brightly, it may be advisable to wear sun block with a rating of
SPF50 or better, when watching the Cowboys the rest of the season.
Chris "Beanie" Wells
The Arizona backfield was referenced here a few weeks ago, with Wells noted
as having the clearly superior talent to Tim Hightower, and it just being a
matter of time before he was inexorably featured more prominently. The huge
win against the Giants Sunday night (the Cards don't traditionally do well on
the East Coast, and the win also put an exclamation point on already three road
victories before the midpoint of the season) may have been the tipping point
where Wells takes over for good. He displayed a shocking combination of size,
power, quickness, agility, foot quickness, cutting ability, elusiveness, tackle
breaking ability and a nasty stiff arm to finish, manufacturing multiple big
plays that led to scores (one by Wells). The offense still runs through Kurt
Warner, but it is looking like the team is noticeably more balanced and stronger
overall the more Wells is involved. IF in fact he proves to be an elite NFL
RB (his pro positional coach thinks he has prototypical physical tools and athletic
gifts), a luxury the Cards haven't been afforded in recent memory, if ever,
he could play a rapidly expanding role going forward, with the potential for
much larger breakouts to come as he gains reps and confidence. The fact that
the Cardinals have a great passing attack with Fitzgerald and Boldin isn't necessarily
a bad thing. Recall the rushing success of Marshall Faulk with the Rams and
Edgerrin James with the Colts. A good passing offense means defenses are more
spread out and vulnerable to the run, and less likely to bring an eighth man
in the box. It won't happen this season, but if he can stay healthy, Wells has
the elite talent capable of eventually reaching 1,200+ rushing yards and 10+
TDs benchmarks, with upside.
Hester has always been a great athlete, but some scouts feared coming out of
college he would be a prospect without a position in the NFL, playing CB, WR
and kick returner at Miami. In his first two years, he clearly established he
was capable of being one of the best return specialists in league history. Hester
was at first brought along slowly at the WR position, but has made steady and
rapid progress the past two seasons, clearly emerging as the team's top WR threat.
Despite a brutal defeat at the hands of the surging Bengals, Sunday was a watershed
for the comet with a Madden speed rating of a 100... his first game to top the
100 receiving yard mark (on 8 receptions, adding a TD). The preseason addition
of Jay Cutler, one of the best young QBs in the game, could have a profound
impact on how the rest of his career unfolds. Their chemistry seems to be growing
by the week, and Hester is around a top 20 WR in some leagues and scoring systems.
A factor to weigh in deciding whether he is enjoying a true breakout and the
ascendant arc/trajectory will be sustained is that, unlike many speed merchants
that have come and gone before, he has good hands. That should portend bigger
things in the future. Also, the defense and running game at present is bad enough
that the Bears could be involved in a lot of shoot-outs going forward.
Much has been said already about the good looking rookie WR, arguably the best
in a class that includes Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin and Kenny
Britt (and which could include a few future Pro Bowlers). Nicks has been a TD
machine, while doing nothing to dissuade scouts from thinking his seemingly
pro-ready, multifaceted skill set would make for a smooth, effortless transition
to the next level (currently #24 WR overall, and top rookie). He combines good
size, is technically mature and developed, can defeat the jam, is a polished
route runner with sticky, baseball mitt-sized hands, is elusive, tough and physical,
and runs like an angry RB in the open field, finishing with good contact balance
and tackle breaking power. What may have been somewhat in doubt was his speed,
where he was unable to post good numbers leading up to the draft. Some players
are field fast, with great competitive speed (Jerry Rice was slow in the 40,
but rarely got caught from behind because of his world class burst and short
area acceleration). While Nicks deflection TD Sunday night was flukey (on an
ill advised play in which CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie tipped the ball UP!),
literally being at the right place at the right time, more impressively, DRC,
one of the fastest DBs in the NFL, was unable to catch him from behind. The
kid has some deceptively sneaky fast wheels, also in evidence with a litany
of long TD receptions dating back to the preseason, some of the RAC variety.
He has massive upside, and a very real possibility exists that he could quickly
emerge as one of the best WRs in the league in a few years.
Maybe John Gruden wasn't so over the top on MNF when he blurted out that Jackson was breaking as many big plays as he had ever seen(paraphrasing). The brilliant, incendiary second year Eagle is in fact having a historic run, breaking multiple 60+ yard TDs through the first half of the season. Though tiny (5'10" 175), he has such exceptional burst and suddenness off the line that he is very difficult to jam. The fear factor with DBs must be very real that if they whiff, he will be the blur streaking by on the Sports Center highlights, effectively putting them on their heels. With time to get into and out of his routes, Jackson is so explosive and electrifyingly quick, he has the ability to get a lot of separation. What some recent observers may not realize, in his college body of work he demonstrated elite athleticism, body control, field awareness and hands, a fortunate adjunct for a WR to his blinding quickness/speed. His long speed was in evidence against WAS, taking a hand-off designed to go the right, reversing field, getting to the other edge and racing down the left sideline to beat the entire Redskins defense for a score. On his second TD, a reception, he beat the CB with a ridiculous double move, that almost required slo-mo to more fully appreciate, he was moving so fast (on playback, he had time to run to the sideline in mid-double move, read copies of Pro Football Weekly, the Sporting News and USA Today Sports Weekly AND eat a hot dog on the bench, before running back onto the field, reestablishing position and scoring a TD). It was like the Star Trek episode where the aliens were speeded up relative to the Enterprise crew.
Thanks for reading Ear to the Ground. All comments or questions invited - email@example.com.
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