Cat Crave: Please welcome our newest writer, Ken Dye!
This is the time of year some sports fans get amped up about baseball’s Spring Training and others look forward to March Madness. However, for the true NFL fan, these are just sideshows to what REALLY matters: How will My Team best be able to improve from last season?
With another Lombardi Trophy in the case, the New York Giants still lost 7 games in 2011 and the runner-up Patriots had the second-worst pass defense in NFL history only to be “topped” in that particular category by the Packers the same season. All 32 teams have room for improvement in multiple areas and the NFL Combine kicks off a furious 2 month cascade of personnel decisions, Tiquan Underwood’s pre-Super Bowl waiver notwithstanding.
When considering the draft, one is forced to consider the movers and shakers, both up and down, at the combine. Once the entering rookies have all been measured, poked, prodded, questioned, and otherwise abused we still have to wait 2 months for the teams to finally morph into some semblance of a squad and what looks like sure-fire picks at the top of the draft can all change with a single trade or Free Agent acquisition. It wasn’t that long ago that a young QB from Cal slid to the final third of the first round. His name was Aaron Rodgers. It’s also the most exciting time in the NFL post-Super Bowl and before Opening Day. Fans around the world all have something most of them were lacking in the 2 weeks leading up to the final game: hope.
No sooner than the information on the Combine rookies is digested comes Free Agency. While Free Agency will fill two franchises with a young, up-and-coming (we think) QB hoping to fill a massive void (Matt Flynn) or an old QB trying to recapture past glory (Peyton Manning), both QBs have their question marks that won’t be answered until September at least. Since Indy will almost certainly reload the position with Andrew Luck, despite a monster showing of athleticism and football savvy at the Combine by Robert Griffin III, the real drama won’t begin until the 2nd overall pick.
No wonder Jeff Fisher picked the Rams to coach with the likely haul in draft choices they’ll get from one of those QB-needy teams, don’t even try to project where non-QB Free Agents will land right now.
Free Agency aside, the biggest question heading into April’s draft is who will win the bidding war for the #2 overall pick and be assured of landing RG3? We’ve all heard the talking heads on TV conjecturing about how many picks it will take and who has the best shot. Reminds me of an old Tootsie-Pop commercial. What we haven’t heard is that it will be the RAMS decision of which route to take, as there are other considerations. Sure, the Rams could take the path of least resistance with their #2 overall, take Cleveland’s 4th and 22nd picks and still get a desperately-needed OT (Kalil) or WR (Blackmon). After the Jason Smith fiasco, the Rams probably need Kalil more than Blackmon at this point, but they can possibly go ahead and take Blackmon at 4, then wait and fill the LT position with that 22 overall in a deep O-line class. If they have to have that LT first, they could reach slightly at 4 for Reilly Reiff and hope a talented WR is still there at 22, but would be better served to trade with Miami at 8 for even more picks. Reiff should be there at #8 overall. Remember, the draft isn’t just about filling holes, it’s filling as many holes as possible with as good a perceived value as you possibly can.
On the other hand, picking out an exact trade with Washington or Miami is difficult at best because Dan Snyder has a history of overspending for Free Agents and RG3 has SuperCam to thank for his stock having risen as high as it has and likely will stay. That probably means a 1st and 2nd or 3rd from Washington along with their first-rounder in 2013 as well at a minimum, and probably a bit more than that when you consider the added QB premium. The price from Miami would be even steeper, and I am of the mind Miami will indeed be looking at FA Matt Flynn as their top choice. If they do not, ALL NFL teams should take a step back and re-evaluate Flynn. If his former OC from Green Bay, now Miami’s Head Coach, isn’t that begging Miami GM Jeff Ireland to steal from his Mother to ensure they have salary cap room for Flynn plus rookies plus any other FA help, it should really red-flag the Rodgers backup and be a story in itself. Manning still has a long way to go and may not be available to ANY team until summer, if he doesn’t just retire. 4 neck surgeries, age, and overall physique are all strikes against the future Hall of Famer and recall Joe Montana played only 2 more years with the Chiefs after the 49’ers let him go. Montana was far healthier at this point in his career, so teams all know going in that Manning is at best a 2-year stop-gap plan to buy time to search for a young franchise QB. After that, if Peyton is still wanting to play, he might as well go to Louisiana and room with Brett Favre. That way, at least teams could talk to two glue-factory QBs with one phone call in 2014 unless they call while Favre is out depositing his Social Security check. Like it or not, Free Agency spins the draft in new directions with every signing on every team.
So, we’ve gotten through the first two picks now? WOW. Fortunately, much of the rest of the draft will be less complicated but no less exciting. With the rookie wage scale and a stockpile of draft picks that would cause the former Soviet Union to pull a Lazarus and come to the bargaining table, the New England Patriots might actually stop trying to be so darned cutsey this season and move up and get a much-needed pass-rusher, corner, or safety unless they want to continue a tradition started with Troy Brown and culminating with Julian Edelman last season. That’s another thing the talking heads seem to miss. They just rave about the “genius” Patriot organization and their stockpiling future picks but rarely beat them up over throwing them away on the likes of Shane Vereen. Then again, they were within 4 points and a tail-first TD run by the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw in the waning minute of the Super Bowl from winning their 4th title in 10 years even with all those defensive woes. Don’t forget, defense wins championships. I think. And the Pats’ need to add a deep threat on the outside, to boot!
The upshot is that the Blockbuster Atlanta/Cleveland trade last year will pale by comparison to the antics for RG3 this season, and we need to expect at least two other trades within the first round. The rookie wage scale’s biggest and best side-effect on the draft is even more hope for the fans. Since the $50 million-plus guaranteed rookie contracts are a thing of the past, all organizations realize it gives them more freedom to move around because it’s now much easier to move off a pick for several lower ones. In the past, we had teams wanting – begging almost to trade down with no takers. Since rookie salaries are no longer the literally huge issue they became in recent years before the last CBA was reached, there are both more buyers and more sellers of draft picks in today’s NFL than ever. In turn, this means teams can be more responsive to value and need in the flow of the draft and should really demonstrate over time which teams truly do have a great front office/Head Coach relationship versus the mediocre ones. All this means more uncertainty up until the draft choices actually begin coming off the board on April 26th and beyond while making the draft even that much more must-see TV for the true fan.
Will Georgia Tech’s Steven Hill be the Julio Jones of 2012? Will Tannehill crack the top ten? Will Seattle pluck him if he doesn’t and they stay put? There’s only one way to know for sure – you better start making plans for your mancave on the evening of Thursday, April 26, not to mention the weekend. Is your partner an NFL junkie? If not, go ahead and make plans for your spouse or significant other that do not include you, if you can pull that one off. The 2012 NFL draft should be almost as exciting as Nolan Nawrocki’s armchair QB psychology hour. Almost.