2012 NFL Draft

Steelers draft plans becoming clear?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have released veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden, making an already weak secondary even more thin.

McFadden played sparingly in 2011, after starting every game – including the Super Bowl – for the Steelers in 2010. His release now leaves Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as the only cornerbacks who saw action in 2011, still under contract for the 2012 season.

With so many question marks at the position, one has to wonder how the Steelers plan to improve one of the league’s weakest units. While the Steelers do have money to spend this offseason, there are relatively few options at cornerback in the free agent market.

However, there is a wealth of talent at the cornerback position in this year’s draft class with as many as 10 prospects potentially earning late 1st or 2nd round grades. If the Steelers are planning to target this position in the draft, they can be reasonably certain that at least three or four worthy prospects will be on the board at No. 24.

One potential target that comes to mind is Virginia Tech’s Jayron Hosley. While he is undersized, he would be a nice compliment to the bigger Ike Taylor, who is likely to remain their No. 1 corner. Hosley’s speed could be of particular interest to the Steelers, who know they need to find a way to contain the Ravens’ Torrey Smith twice per  year.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Steelers Comments Off

Colts Offseason Priority: Build Around Andrew Luck

The Indianapolis Colts are going to draft Andrew Luck. That much we know.

But what comes next?

The quickest way to turn a top draft pick into a bust is to fail to surround him with talent. And while absolutely no one expects Luck to fall flat on his face, the Colts are in danger of surrounding him with a miserable supporting cast if they don’t make some significant moves this offseason.

If the Colts veterans leave, Luck won't be left with much help.

For starters, the Colts must make every effort to retain their veteran free agents. Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez, Jeff Saturday and Ryan Diem are set to hit the open market in March. And while the franchise tag could conceivably be used on Wayne or Saturday, it will be difficult to retain all five veterans.

If the Colts were to lose their top receivers – a very realistic possibility, considering the fact that few receivers look forward to playing with a rookie quarterback – Luck would be left with some combination of Austin Collie, Blair White and whoever else they sign/draft this offseason.

A depleted receiving corps would certainly hinder Luck’s development, but the issues on the offensive line pose a much bigger problem.

Anthony Castonzo, the Colts 2011 1st-round pick, is the only starter guaranteed to return in 2012. Joe Reitz and Jeff Linkenbach are under contract, but neither did much to earn the right to keep their jobs.

For this reason, re-signing Jeff Saturday may be the key to the Colts offseason. Having at least one veteran to anchor the offensive line would go a long way towards aiding Luck’s transition into the league. The last thing Luck needs is to be taking snaps from a rookie center, with his blind side protected by a struggling second-year pro.

Regardless of who the Colts are able to re-sign, the rest of the draft needs to be all about surrounding him with talent. There are a number of receivers and linemen who deserve consideration in the early 2nd round and it wouldn’t hurt to address another offensive position in the 3rd round as well. A rookie quarterback can never have too many playmaker at his disposal.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Colts Comments Off

Jaguars Offseason Priority: Find a No. 1 Receiver

The Jacksonville Jaguars offense struggled in 2011, that’s no secret.

Much of the blame was placed on rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but a closer look at some advanced statistics reveals that perhaps Gabbert was simply a victim of poor play from his receivers.

AdvancedNFLStats.com tracks the Win Probability Added (WPA) of each play throughout the season, and assigns the final WPA to each player involved. Over the course of the season, they also track a stat called Success Rate, which is simply the percentage of plays resulting in a positive WPA.

On any given play, the reason for the positive or negative WPA could be attributed to any number of players. As a result, Success Rate should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. However, over the course of the season one would expect the numbers to even out to a fairly accurate representation of a player’s true value. If you’re wondering if this stat passes the “eye test” here are the top three receivers for 2011: Marques Colston (71.4%), Wes Welker (66.2) and Jorday Nelson (65.7).

This stat also confirms that the Jaguars have a very serious issue on their hands at wide receiver. In 2011, the Jaguars three primary targets – Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Jarett Dilliard – each ranked among the 14 worst receivers in terms of success rate. And only Eddie Royal struggled more than Thomas and Hill.

One could still argue that these low numbers are a result of poor quarterback play. But if that’s the case, we should see similarly poor success rates from the receivers of quarterbacks with similar statistics to Gabbert. According to WPA, the three worst quarterbacks this past year were Gabbert, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez. However, only one of the qualifying receivers in St. Louis and New York, ranked worse than any of the Jaguars three primary targets (St. Louis’ Brandon Lloyd, 42.0%)

So with this in mind, how should the Jaguars approach the draft?

While they certainly have other holes to fill as well, it would be tough to justify not putting a wide receiver at the top of their draft wish list.

Justin Blackmon – who I currently have heading to Jacksonville in my latest mock draft – would seem to be an obvious choice if he’s on the board at No. 7. But what if he’s gone?

One option, in the event that Blackmon appears unlike to fall, would be to trade up. Here’s one plausible scenario: the Redskins trade up to No. 2 and select Robert Griffin. This leaves the Browns without the quarterback they covet, making them a candidate to trade down. The Jaguars could then jump the Rams, who would be at No. 6, and move up to No. 4 for Blackmon, likely parting with a 2nd-round pick in the process.

The second option would be to settle for the next best receiver, either Michael Floyd or Kendall Wright. Both would be a slight reach at No. 7, but could be worth it to fill a glaring hole.

The third option is to trade down in hopes of landing Floyd or Wright later in the 1st round. The Cowboys could be a potential trading partner, who may be interested in moving up for Dre Kirkpatrick.

For the same of Jaguars fans, I hope GM Gene Smith address this need in free agency, or in the 1st round. Because if he doesn’t, you know that some small school sleeper will land in Jacksonville in the 2nd or 3rd round and, like Cecil Shorts this past season, will likely have minimal immediate impact.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Jaguars Comments Off

Official NFL Combine Invitees

The official combine list has been released, featuring 328 of the top draft-eligible prospects.

Alabama leads the way with nine invitees, followed by Miami, LSU, Georgia and Wisconsin who have seven apiece. The most crowded position, as always, is receiver (47 players) followed by cornerback (37).

A few notable snubs include Aaron Henry (S, Wisconsin), Kevin Koger (TE, Michigan), Keith Tandy (CB, West Virginia) and Levy Adcock (OT, Oklahoma State).

Full list after the jump… Read more

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft Comments Off

Quarterback Search: Washington Redskins

Few teams have a more crucial and glaring hole to fill than the Washington Redskins need for a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for the ‘Skins, their surprising early-season success left them with the 6th-overall selection, and potentially without any viable quarterback options in the 1st round.

However, owner Dan Snyder has never been shy about parting with draft picks, making them a legitimate candidate to trade up for Robert Griffin III. But before we assume the Redskins will attempt to move up (possibly to No. 2) to acquire Griffin, they first need to be sure he fits into Mike Shanahan’s offensive scheme.

As a former offensive coordinator, Shanahan likes to hand pick his quarterbacks, and has been reasonably successful in his efforts (at least prior to joining the Redskins).

While it’s tough to sum up all the quarterbacks Shanahan has used in 20+ years as a head coach/offensive coordinator, the one commonality between his primary signal callers has been their mobility. John Elway and Steve Young obviously stand out but Jake Plummer and, to a lesser extent, Steve Beuerlein, Jay Cutler and Brian Griese fit the mold as well.

Based solely on this trait, Griffin clearly fits the Shanahan profile. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Redskins will jump at the chance to move up.

Shanahan has always marched to the beat of his own drum, and isn’t shy about waiting until the later rounds to fill crucial needs. Other prospects such as Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles and Brock Osweiler also possess many of the same traits as Griffin, and could interest Shanahan in the late 1st (should the Redskins chose to trade down) or in the 2nd or 3rd round.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Redskins Comments Off

Buffalo Bills interested in Courtney Upshaw?

Now that the Buffalo Bills have fully committed to the 4-3 defense – after two years stuck somewhere in between schemes – mock drafts are popping up all over the internet with the Bills linked to a defensive end.

The most popular choice seems to be Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw, who played a hybrid linebacker/end role for the Crimson Tide.

Upshaw has 1st-round talent, but would be a reach in the top 10.

While I certainly understand the logic behind the Upshaw/Bills connection, I don’t think he’s a great fit in Buffalo.

As much as I like Upshaw, he shouldn’t be in the top 10 of any draft board belonging to a team which runs the 4-3 defense. He can be an effective pass rusher in that system, but he struggles against the run. He simply lacks the strength to consistently shed blocks, especially when he’s lined up at the point of attack.

That’s not to say he can’t start at defensive end at the next level, but the Bills could get much better value at No. 10. As a defensive end, Upshaw compares favorably to a guy like Jabaal Sheard. He a solid pass rusher, and holds his own in the run game, but not someone you want to build your defensive line around.

If the Bills are committed to improving their defensive line in this draft, their best strategy may be to trade down. This isn’t a great class of ends at the top, but there are up to seven prospects who could warrant mid-to-late 1st round picks. The Bills could potentially slide back a few slots and still land a guy like Nick Perry or Melvin Ingram, both of whom fit into the 4-3 scheme better than Upshaw.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Bills 2 Comments

Quarterback Search: Denver Broncos

Most Denver Broncos fans probably won’t want to acknowledge this, but John Elway and his staff are probably going to bring in a quarterback, not just to backup Tim Tebow, but to seriously push him for the starting job.

Regardless of what you think of Tebow, he deserves to be recognized for his clutch performances. At times it seemed like he truly did will the Broncos to victory. In terms of team success, he exceeded all expectations.

But the fact remains that the Broncos scored two or fewer touchdowns in five of their seven victories with Tebow as the starter. And when you win games like that, it is never the quarterback’s doing.

The real MVP in Denver was the defense, which allowed 13 points or fewer in five of Tebow’s 11 starts – four of which resulted in wins that were unfairly credited to the Tebow by the media.

It’s tough to evaluate Tebow given his unorthodox style of play, but by using ESPN’s Total QBR we can reasonably compare him to more traditional pocket passers. Total QBR grades a quarterback’s performance in a given situation, and rewards players who make positive plays in clutch moments – regardless of whether the play is a run or pass.

One might expect this formula to favor Tebow more than the traditional statistics. However, of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, Tebow ranked 32nd – ahead of only Curtis Painter and Blaine Gabbert.

Tebow’s Total QBR of 27.2 is something awful (50 is considered average), but what makes it worse is his inconsistency.

Using each quarterback’s single-game QBRs, compared to their season-ending QBR we can determine who was most consistent – and Tebow ranks among the worst. On average, Tebow’s performance was anywhere for 23.8 points above or below his Total QBR.

One could argue that this shows his ability to perform at a high level, but 23.8 points above his average still only gets him to a Total QBR of 51 – roughly the league average.

A further examination of Tebow’s QBR also shows us that, contrary to popular belief, the Broncos did not live and die by his performance. Read more

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Broncos Comments Off

Rob Ryan wants Cowboys to upgrade secondary

It’s no secret that the Dallas Cowboys need to upgrade their secondary, and Rob Ryan wholeheartedly agrees.

Alex Dunlap of the Austin Chronicle caught up with Ryan at the Senior Bowl, and asked the Cowboys defensive coordinator who he was focused on: “I’m only looking at DBs. Nothing else. DBs.”

Dunlap went on to say that Ryan has a particular interest in Leonard Johnson, a cornerback from Iowa State who could be an option in the 2nd or 3rd round.

It’s tough to say just how much say Ryan has in the Cowboys draft plans, but if he’s this blunt about their needs to the media, it’s safe to assume he’s going to be hounding Jerry Jones over the next few months about the issue.

The problem the Cowboys have, however, is that they may be stuck in no-mans land in the 1st round if they hope to address their secondary at that point. Dre Kirkpatrick [scouting report] would be an obvious target, but could be off the board by pick No. 14. There are a number of potential late 1st-round cornerback prospects, but anyone other than Kirkpatrick or Morris Claiborne would be a significant reach unless the Cowboys were to trade back.

There is one other name to keep on eye on, however: Janoris Jenkins [scouting report]. Based purely on talent, Jenkins is a top-15 prosect and would be a great fit in Dallas’ secondary. But most teams will drop him, or completely remove him, from their draft boards due to character issues.

Jerry Jones has shown a willingness to consider troubled-but-talented prospects in the past. He recently drafted Dez Bryant in the 1st round, when many others had dismissed him for off-field issues. And he’s made similar moves in free agency (Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, etc).

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, Cowboys 3 Comments

49ers in market for “big stature receiver”

The 49ers ended the season with three active receivers, one of which is now the least popular man in San Francisco. So it comes as no surprise that Jim Harbaugh wants to address the position this offseason.

Following the season, Harbaugh spoke about the issues at receiver and lamented the failure of Braylon Edwards. He stated “we were looking for that big stature receiver” when acquiring Edwards, but due to injuries and ineffectiveness he was released midseason.

Fortunately for the Niners, there are a number of “big stature” receivers who should come off the board in the first few rounds. Here are

Michael Floyd, Notre Dame [scouting report] – There’s a good chance Floyd will be off the board by the time the 49ers are on the clock, but if they’re serious about addressing this concern they may consider trading up. Aside from Justin Blackmon, Floyd is the most well-rounded receiver in this year’s class.

Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina [scouting report] – Jeffery’s stock has fallen dramatically this season, but could still be an option in the late 1st round for the 49ers. His inconsistent play may scare some teams off, but he has the skill set to make an immediate impact in the red zone which is what the 49ers really need.

Dwight Jones, North Carolina [scouting report] - Like Jeffery, Jones has some issues with consistency, but at 6’4″ he could be a relatively cheap option for them in the late 2nd round. He won’t challenge Michael Crabtree for the role of No. 1 receiver any time soon, but if they’re primarily interested in a red-zone threat, Jones could be a good fit.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, 49ers 2 Comments

Does Michael Crabtree have a future with the 49ers?

Michael Crabtree expressed frustration after the San Francisco 49ers loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game. His frustration was understandable, but his comments were both out of line and delusional:

All I do is run routes. When you don’t get that many opportunities, it’s hard to talk… Half the time you’re not going to be open. That’s why they call you a playmaker – just give you chances.

Crabtree is in no position to complain about his role.

Clearly Crabtree views himself as a “playmaker” – a title which few others would bestow upon him at this point in his career.

But despite his somewhat disappointing career, there’s no denying that the fact that he is the 49ers No. 1 receiver. And they’ve treated him as such. In 2011, Crabtree was targeted 107 times, 24th most among receivers, and more than any of his teammates (even Vernon Davis, who was thrown at 92 times).

Not only is Crabtree the Niners top receiver, but he’s essentially their only weapon at the position. Nearly half the balls Alex Smith threw to his wide receivers were aimed at Crabtree – a higher percentage than all but four others in 2011.

The question now is: can Jim Harbaugh control Crabtree, or will he become a distraction?

The Niners already attempted to bring in some competition for Crabtree by signing Braylon Edwards last offseason, which failed to work out due to injuries and ineffective play. And they’re likely to either sign or draft a receiver this year as well.

Even if Crabtree remains their No. 1 receiver, he’s all but guaranteed to see a reduced role in 2012. How will his ego react to that?

These are questions which are certainly being discussed behind closed doors in San Francisco, which could lead the team to seriously consider a 1st-round receiver – and possibly could lead them to trade up to ensure they land someone capable of replacing Crabtree in the near future.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in 2012 NFL Draft, 49ers 2 Comments