Before the attention of the NFL world turns to the annual owners’ meetings next week and key issues such as a new college bargaining agreement, the rules committee recommendations and the league’s financial state of affairs, let’s review the last couple weeks.
There was a frenzy in free agency with some big deals, though that’s slowing down now. As for the 2009 NFL Draft, the first half of the first round is now becomming more clear.
Here are my thoughts:
1. Ebb and flow of draft picks
The draft is still more than a month away — and many things can change between now and then — but the more I talk with the coaches and scouts who are on the road visiting pro days and watching hours of game tape, the more of a sense I get about the shape of the first round.
There’s no question that offensive line coaches feel very comfortable with Eugene Monroe and Jason Smith at the top of the draft. Both prospects have created a sense of comfort for the coaches, convincing them that they have the talent, temperament and character to play early and play well. You would be surprised how many coaches aren’t that interested in high first-round picks. These guys have to play early, and too many of them just aren’t ready. Monroe and Smith have overcome that issue, but Andre Smith, Michael Oher and Eben Britton still have questions.
Another trend is that there appears to be positive momentum among the group of pass rushers in the first round. In the last month, I keep hearing how much interest NFL people have with Everette Brown, Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin and even Michael Johnson. I think it’s fair to say that all four have moved up a few spots.
If those players are moving up, who is moving down? Outside of Malcolm Jenkins, it appears the cornerbacks group isn’t holding in the top half of the draft. Vontae Davis, Alphonso Smith and D.J. Moore seem to falling to the bottom of the first round or into the second round. That could be good news for teams like the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and a few others who pick late in the first round.
2. Three weeks into free agency
The days leading up to the free agency period saw five- and six-year contracts being offered to players to stay with their current teams. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross got a six-year deal for $60 million from the Panthers, and even a guy like guard Stephen Peterman got a five-year deal for $15.5 million to stay with the Lions.
The first week of free agency included the seven-year, $100 million deal for Albert Haynesworth and a number of other four- and five-year deals. Then, during the second week, most of the deals dropped down to the three- and four-year versions, and by the third week the deals dropped to the one- and two-year contracts.
The annual owners’ meetings always seem to be a line of demarcation in the business season. Look for team executives to return to their facilities next week and watch free-agent signings slow down to a crawl at best. The big money is gone, for now.
3. Issues about draft picks
The college game is where NFL talent comes from, but there is no reason for college coaches to do things the NFL way just to get players ready for the pros. If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it 100 times this week: NFL coaches have to evaluate players doing things that may not relate to the pro game.
Here’s a look at some of the issues that seem to be making it more difficult to project how a college player’s talent translates to the pro level:
» Quarterbacks: Too many are playing constantly from the shotgun set and operating short passing attacks that don’t include throws pro QBs are required to make. Not enough of them make the “pro” throws on game tape.
» Wide receivers: Many have not executed a full NFL route tree, especially the deeper routes such as the 20-yard comeback, the post-corner, the deep dig and the double moves. Many college players are running short leverage routes, which are fine, but it’s just not the whole story in the NFL.
» Tight ends: It’s becomming more popular for college tight ends to play in the slot and work exclusively as a “big wide receiver.” Can they line up next to a tackle and run-block or release on a route from there?
» Offensive linemen: Many candidates operated in college from a two-point stance. There isn’t much to go on from a three-point stance, which every NFL team uses.
» Pass rushers: Many of the college pass rushers are undersized and got to the quarterback with a pressure-scheme call, and in some cases they were totally unblocked. In the NFL, you have to beat a blocker most of the time. Do these rushers have enough technique to beat a tackle?
4. How teams did with rookies last year
Fans are starting to get excited about who their favorite team will select in the draft — and with good reason. The draft can have an immediate impact on a team’s roster. Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs were in a full-blown youth movement and got a total of 70 starts from their rookies. That’s money in the bank for new GM Scott Pioli. The Denver Broncos, under Mike Shanahan, were second in the league with 44 rookie starts, which is terrific for their new regime.
The 2009 rookie class, much like last year’s class, is not going to produce a lot of starts next season. It’s OK if your team didn’t have a lot of rookie starts and won games — like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had one rookie start all season (running back Rashard Mendenhall). But if your team didn’t play its rookies and lost a lot of games, that’s a bad sign.