Some Senior Bowl Observations: A Good Year for Defense, a Bad Year to Need a Quarterback

Like all fans of the 30 non-playoff teams, my thoughts have already turned to the offseason and ponderings upon who will be going where in the NFL draft. The four month long odyssey to the April draft begins every year in Mobile, Alabama where the Senior Bowl was played on Sunday. Though most of the important impressions are undoubtedly formed amongst scouts and general managers during practices the week before, here are just a few thoughts on players from the game itself:

  1. The first and the last guy to make an impression upon me was Sheldon Day, a defensive lineman out of Notre Dame. At 6’2″ Day weighted in at 285 lb making him comparable in stature to the Rams Aaron Donald. Indeed, word is that he excelled at the three technique tackle position in practices but after this game, there’s little doubt in my mind that Day is a pass rushing defensive end all the way. He showed himself to be a quick twitch athlete who was fast enough to go outside or inside around offensive tackles. He was too easily engulfed at defensive tackle when the North team moved him inside in the second quarter. But he excelled at end in the first and third quarters and with his size he looks to me like he’d make a good all around 4-3 defensive end who could both rush the passer and set the edge against the run.
  2. Two more prospects who struck me were Tyler Matakevich from Temple (6’1″, 232 lb) and Kentrell Brothers out of Missouri (6’1″, 235 lb). I’d rather both were just a tad bigger but both showed good instincts and ability and will be possible targets for anyone needing help at inside linebacker though, in my opinion, neither should go before the third round.
  3. Another Notre Dame product, offensive guard Nick Martin, also stuck out during this game.  He’s the brother of Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin so he has the blood line.  He also has the size at 6’5″, 301 lb and he was a road block the whole game both in pass protection and as a run blocker.  Martin actually played better to my eye during this game in the second quarter as a center.  But the guess here is that someone is going to draft him, plug him in at guard and forget about the position for about a decade.  If he gets past the Bears in the second round, I’d be surprised.
  4. The minute Carson Wentz hit the field, you knew immediately why scouts like him. At 6’6″, 235 lb he’s a physical specimen who was a man amongst boys when compared to the other quarterbacks on either team. Wentz is a tall quarterback with a big arm who flashed athleticism during the game. He didn’t move much in the pocket but moved well outside of it. He’s got a reasonable release and a good feel for the pocket. Scouts are apparently still concerned about Wentz’s decision-making and timing. But he was able to relieve at least some as regards his accuracy. Despite the fact that his receivers let him down with a number of bad drops, most of Wentz’s throws were right on the money, including one or two deceptively difficult ones. I’d like to see more of him (along with a lot of other people – he only started 23 games in college) but there’s no doubt about it. Wentz is a first round prospect. Possibly top ten.
  5. There were a couple of pass rushers outside of Day who impressed me. One was Noah Spence, a defensive end out of Eastern Kentucky. The other was Kyler Fackrell, an outside linebacker out of Utah State. Spence was no surprise as he’s been impressing scouts during practice all week. For him, the off-field meetings with teams were critical due to his checkered past. On the field, it was important to prove that as a small-school prospect he could succeed against the best players in the country. I can’t say anything about the first problem but as far as the second goes, he was practically unblockable during the game and, as I understand it, during practice for much of the week. Both he and Fackrell showed explosiveness and ability to get to the quarterback. Both should get some attention coming away from this game, especially Spence who, if he eases concerns about his off-field behaviour, could easily be a top fifteen pick.
  6. I heard all week about quarterback turned wide receiver Braxton Miller, who was apparently surprisingly smooth in his routes and in and out of his breaks during practice. Whatever he showed there, he was a major disappointment to me during the game. He had at least one bad drop and apparently ran the wrong route in the two minute offense at the end of the first period. Miller looks to me like a project and given the reports during the week, I was sorry that he didn’t show himself to be further along.
  7. One player who, for me, came out of nowhere to perform amazingly well was Nick Vannett, a 6’6″, 260 lb tight end out of Ohio State. Vannett ran a couple of long completions on seam routes that made me think of Caroline tight end Greg Olsen. Whatever problems he had standing out during the week of practices, he definitely made an impression upon me during the game. The guess here is that multiple teams are going back to the film room to take a closer look at him this week.
  8. Overall its a bad year to need a quarterback and the reasons why aren’t demonstrated any better than by the showing of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan. I was really looking forward to seeing what Hogan would look like during this game. He’s a smart quarterback who has showed ability during the season to do a lot of things that are difficult to teach. He feels the rush, moves well in the pocket, sees the field and makes good decisions. But during the game, Hogan was a mild disappointment to me. Though he’s 6’4″ he didn’t show the physical stature or ability that, for instance, Wentz did. He showed adequate arm strength and, though his release was quick enough, he’s got a bit of a wind up. His footwork needs work as well. I sort of hoped that Hogan would turn out to be like Garrett Grayson was last year: a solid third rounder who had the potential to develop into a starter with time. Now I’m not so sure. I want to see more but Hogan looks like he might be more of a borderline prospect whose ceiling is as a back up in the league
  9. Like Vannett, there might be a lot of teams taking a closer look at Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen right now.  Allen is supposedly only 6’1″ but that’s not the way he plays.  He stands tall in the pocket and throws more like he’s 6’4″.  He’s a bit stiff but he was a surprise and I’d like to see more of him.
  10. Finally, there’s Most Outstanding Player of the Game, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescot. Prescot looked good in the two minute drill at the end of the first half and that’s why he won the award. But he looks limited to me as a pro prospect. He’s obviously most comfortable in the shot gun throwing flat footed rather than under center. He can move outside the pocket but showed little feel for the rush and did not move in the pocket to create passing lanes at all that I saw. He has average arm strength with kind of a wind up but, like Hogan above, his release is probably quick enough. Most importantly, he was at his best when he threw the ball to the primary target but I thought he had limited field vision and if he ever went to a secondary target, I didn’t see it. Prescot needs a lot of work and, at the moment, he doesn’t look to me like an NFL quarterback. My initial thoughts are that he’s a late round pick or maybe an undrafted free agent who might make a decent back up.

Vikings Change but For the Better or Worse?

Chip Scoggins at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune discusses the curious hire of a seemingly overly qualified Pat Shurmer for the Vikings tight ends coach position. Shurmer reportedly had better opportunities. For instance, he refused an interview for the Rams passing game coordinator position that Bears wide receivers coach Mike Groh eventually took. Scoggin speculates that Shurmer might be a Vikings offensive coordinator in waiting, insurance in case current coach Norv Turner fails to improve the unit.  But in doing so he offers what I consider to be a viable alternative explanation:

“In simplest terms, head coaches should strive to hire as many quality coaches as possible, regardless of roles or titles. Zimmer checked that box with the additions of Shurmur and former NFL head coach Tony Sparano as his new offensive line coach.

“A popular theory in Zimmer’s first two seasons was that he handled the defense, Turner the offense. And while that shared responsibility still exists, Zimmer’s actions in response to a sluggish offense indicate willingness on his part to put a larger imprint on offense.”

People have a habit of thinking that putting together a game plan is the responsibility of the offensive coordinator alone. And that’s true to an extent. But everyone is actually involved as different assistants take an aspect of the upcoming opponent, study it and come up with a plan to handle it. It’s a team effort.  The offensive coordinator just  integrates the parts into a one comprehensive plan. All of the coaches have a part to play and the more smart people you have in the room, the more likely it is that you’ll have a good plan which covers all of the bases well.

There is the risk that Shurmer disrupts the chemistry of this team if he and Turner don’t work well together. It’s a delicate situation when there are too many chefs in the kitchen. But its a risk the team has decided to take.

That’s the advantage of having Shurmer and Sparano on board for the team. The advantage for Shurmer is less certain but I would question whether all of those opportunities elsewhere were more speculation than reality. I have no doubt that the Rams were interested in interviewing him. But given the current make up of the team and mentality of the organization, I’m not sure I’d be interested in that job either. This may have been as good of an offer as Shurmer got, the opportunity to work as part of a staff that is apparently going places as a stepping stone to something better.

The last part of the quote above is also interesting. I’m thinking of Packers coach Mike McCarthy who gave up offensive play calling duties and stepped out of the offensive room to spend more time with his defense and special teams. Those two units got better. But the offense also executed much less sharply in 2015. Yes, I know that they were missing Jordy Nelson. But don’t fool yourself. The offense was off its game even at the beginning of the season and never recovered. By spending more time with his offense, Zimmer risks a similar thing happening with the Vikings defense. He needs to tread carefully or his team might be in for a fall as it’s beating heart declines in exchange for minor gains in other areas.

One thing is certain. The Vikings aren’t sitting on his laurels as the 2015 NFC North champion. But as with all changes, those instituted here are a double edged sword that can hurt as much as they help. It will be interesting to see in which direction they take the Vikings in 2016.

John Fox Goes All-In with Dowell Loggains as He Lets Mike Groh Go

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers yet another question. He points out that the Bears gave permission for wide receivers coach Mike Groh to interview for a job with the Rams which he eventually took:

“Why did the Bears let wide receivers coach Mike Groh walk away to join the Rams? Was he out of contract or doesn’t he need permission to join another staff? Please explain when coaches can leave and when their wish can be denied. — Benedikt G., Bonn, Germany, from email “

“With the title of passing game coordinator, Groh gets a slight elevation with the Rams (passing game coordinator) where he’s almost a co-offensive coordinator with Rob Boras, the former Bears tight ends coach under Lovie Smith.”

“In Groh’s case, he had hoped to switch from receivers to quarterbacks after Dowell Loggains was promoted to offensive coordinator. Groh was a former college quarterback and moving from receivers to quarterbacks would be a natural progression in a goal to becoming a coordinator. The Bears hired Dave Ragone, who has a working history with Loggains, to coach quarterbacks and then this opportunity materialized for Groh.

“It’s a loss for the Bears’ staff because Groh did fine work with Alshon Jeffery in his time at Halas Hall and also helped bring along Marquess Wilson. The new wide receivers coach will have to refine the game of Kevin White this coming year.”

Bears head coach John Fox is really rolling the dice and going all in with Loggains. As I’ve pointed out before, Loggains is a guy who apparently talks a good game but who has no practical record of achievement in the league before coming to the Bears. Like Loggains before last year where he was paired up with Adam Gase, Ragone has never coached a quarterback to a state where he performed noticeably above his talent level.

For a guy who himself claims that the NFL is a production-based league, Fox is taking an awful risk by exchanging two coaches with nothing on their resume for a coach that got good performance from his players with two coaching staffs (Marc Trestman and Fox) for the Bears.

The Jared Allen Deal to Carolina in Retrospect

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers more of your questions:

“Do Bears a have conditional pick on Jared Allen? What are conditions? Does it go up if Panthers make the Super Bowl? — @JonGlck

“No conditions on the pick the Bears received from the Panthers in that September trade. The Bears will receive the Panthers’ sixth-round pick which will be the 32nd or 31st pick in the round depending on whether or not Carolina wins Super Bowl 50.”

The Bears have been taking a lot of flack for the Greg Olsen trade to Carolina in recent weeks.  So its only fair to acknowledge that, in retrospect, the Allen trade was a heck of a deal for the Bears. Allen was struggling in his role as an outside linebacker and on the surface, trading him to Carolina where he could go back to being an effective pass rusher from the defensive end spot seemed like a good strategy for both teams. But Allen continued to have a miserable year even with the position switch, accumulating only two sacks on the season.

Allen will always rank amongst my favorite NFL players because he was the kind of guy with a big personality who liked to have fun without being the kind of obnoxious jerk that guys like Steve McMichael are. Watching the Bears get a sixth round pick for him at this stage of his career was icing on the cake.

Malik Jackson Could Be a Fit for the Bears Defensive Line

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Do you see the Bears making a push to sign Malik Jackson if Denver does not re-sign him? — @bkelz417″

“[The Broncos] would like to keep Jackson too but there might be only so much money to go around. Jackson has flourished as a full-time starter for the first time in his career and would be attractive to any team looking to solidify its defensive line. I don’t know that he is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. His production dipped a little bit after the midpoint of the season. But he’s very good and would fit in nicely for the Bears. Certainly coach John Fox and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers can answer any questions the front office has about Jackson. He’ll likely command very good money at the start of free agency where there really aren’t any good deals. It could come down to how much the Bears want to pay, again, assuming Jackson doesn’t re-sign with the Broncos. He’s definitely a player to keep in mind at this early juncture.”

One thing to bear in mind: the draft is very, very deep in defensive linemen, especially at the top of the draft. That’s going to affect the market for Jackson. Depending on what kind of ceiling teams feel he has when he’s not paired with guys like Von Miller and Derek Wolfe, Jackson’s market may not be as great as it would be in other years.

The Bears need as much or more help than anyone in the NFL right now with multiple spots in the rotation along the line open. Unlike many teams, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to fill all of those holes in the draft. They’ll almost certainly be looking to free agency to sign at least one player. I’d say the Bears will certainly take a close look at Jackson as an option to fill a spot as long as they don’t have to over pay too much.

Accountability Isn’t Just For the Players

Mike Florio at comments upon the decision of former Bears offensive coordinator and new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase to keep much of the previous Dolphins staff hired by Joe Philbin:

“On one hand, the move can be viewed as more evidence that Gase won’t have the same juice that other coaches enjoy, since he wasn’t able to come in and clean house and hire his own guys. On the other hand, the development can be viewed as further evidence that Gase is different from the typical megalomaniac coach, willing to work with anyone and everyone and not determined to do it his way simply in order to say, ‘I’m doing it my way.'”

This is an awful decision. Other organizations fire coaches of under-performing units.  For a just few examples we offensive line coaches as here and here and most of the defensive staff, the offensive coordinator, the quarterbacks coach and, yes, the offensive line coach here).  Meanwhile the Dolphins, who under-performed all over the field this year, keep nine of their coaches.

The question has to be asked: How do you hold the players accountable when the coaches aren’t held accountable as well?

Defensive Linemen on the Rise in 2016 NFL Draft. Offensive Linemen, Not So Much.

Reports from the Senior Bowl at support previous indications that the defensive linemen are going to be a strength in this year’s NFL draft. Here’s a cross section of the comments from the first day of practice:

Mike Mayock

“We knew going in the deepest positional group was defensive tackle, and boy did that hold true. I thought Matt Ioannidis from Temple had a great day. I thought the kid from Louisiana Tech, Vernon Butler, had a phenomenal day. But the topper was Adolphus Washington from Ohio State. He was all over the field in one-on-one drills; he was too quick, too stout. He was great in team drills. I thought he put on a show.”

Lance Zierlein

“[Clemson DT D.J.] Reader‘s 340-pound frame was often too much for many of the linemen he faced on Tuesday. Keep an eye on this late addition because Reader could make himself some money this week.

“Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins showed off his ‘karate’ hands by defeating blockers with astounding quickness at times. While Rankins is undersized, his compact frame, outstanding balance, and next-level hand usage should make him one of the most consistent performers on the South squad this week.”

All this is great news for teams like the Bears who need defensive line help. It looks like they’re going to have a great selection to choose from.

But much of the rest of the league might not be too pleased. This dominant performance by the defensive tackles in these practices can’t speak well for the offensive linemen that are getting beat on a consistent basis. Judging by what I saw during the regular season, I’d be very surprised if less than three-quarters of the league is in need of offensive line help. That includes most of the playoff teams, as was graphically demonstrated by the beating that New England quarterback Tom Brady took on Sunday. In the NFC North, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago all need help in one form or another along the offensive front.

The Bears might be able to find multiple defensive linemen in this draft. But the indications are growing that offensive linemen are going be at a premium.

Way Too Early for Predictions But…

Steve Rosenbloom at the Chicago Tribune comments upon the Super Bowl and points out that both teams were formerly coached by Bears head coach John Fox. That leads him to this statement:

“Fox’s history says he’s a quick-turnaround coach. Fox’s history also suggests someone else will have to win a Super Bowl for the Bears.

“But first, Fox’s Bears must reach the playoffs next season. Must. Period. End of discussion.”

Then he says this:

“[D]efense is the fastest way to respectability, and Fox starts with defense.

“His influence, or maybe I should say his obsession, is seen on the Super Bowl teams. It has been seen here already and will continue to be.

“In Fox’s first season, the Bears defense finished remarkably well considering it needs improvement at almost every position.”

Rosenbloom is setting both himself and other Bears fans up for major disappointment if he expects a playoff berth with that defense. As Rosenbloom says, they have needs literally everywhere on defense and they don’t have a single defensive playmaker to work with. Fox is a good coach with a very good staff. But even good coaches need at least some talent to succeed.

Is it possible that the Bears will make the playoffs next year? If they have a great season and everything falls their way it’s possible. But I wouldn’t expect it. I’d save that for 2017 after the Bears have a couple more drafts to get themselves together.

It’s way too early for this but since Rosenblom brought it up, off hand I’d say 0.500 would be a reasonably good season next year. That’s assuming that Jay Cutler doesn’t pull a disappearing act, they have a reasonably good draft, use free agency to fill a couple holes, and stay reasonably healthy.  We’ll see what happens after that.

EDIT:  I thought this video from Sports Talk Live on CSN Chicago might be interesting as an addendum to this post.

Bradford to the 49ers? No Way.

Martin Frank at speculates that the 49ers might be interested in trading for Sam Bradford:

Chip Kelly always liked to use the phrase ‘open competition’ to describe the battle for the starting quarterback when he coached the Eagles, whether it was true or (mostly) not.”

“Wouldn’t it be funny if [Eagles general manager HowieRoseman puts the franchise tag on Bradford, then swings a deal with San Francisco to get back the second-round draft pick that Kelly traded away to get Bradford?

“After all, if the 49ers quarterback job is truly an open competition, then Kelly must not be completely satisfied with what he has. Any ‘football guy’ can see that.”

I can’t believe Frank is serious. Kelly has a good quarterback for his system in Blaine Gabbert already and if Gabbert doesn’t work out, there’s the highly athletic Colin Kaepernick to coach up and compete for the job.

Sure, if Bradford were free on the market and the 49ers could get him for some minimal amount of money, they might give him a shot at the job. But a second round pick for a mediocre quarterback that’s going to cost you $18 million a year? No chance.

Vernon Adams Is a Name that Bears Fans Should Know Going Into the 2016 NFL Draft

Michael David Smith at comments upon the outstanding showing that Orgeon quarterback Vernon Adams put on at the East-West Shrine Bowl:

“Adams has a lot going against him in the eyes of the NFL: He’s only 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. He played only one season of big-time college football after transferring from Eastern Washington to Oregon, and he got hurt that year. He hasn’t played in a pro-style offense.

“But Adams was outstanding on Saturday, completing six of nine passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns, and also adding two rushes for 24 yards. Former Falcons head coach June Jones, who coached the West team in the Shrine Game, said on NFL Network after the game that he believes Adams has NFL talent.”

“NFL Media’s Mike Mayock believes Adams could be a fit for the 49ers. Although Chip Kelly didn’t coach Adams at Oregon, the Ducks continued to run an offense similar to Kelly’s, and when Adams was healthy he played very well in that offense.”

Sure the 49ers are a possibility. But its the Bears that you need to keep an eye on. When general manager Ryan Pace was with the Saints, they traded for Drew Brees and signed current Kansas City backup Chase Daniel as an undrafted free agent. Both men are 6’0″, only an inch taller than Adams.

If Pace likes what he sees, given that the Saints drafted their quarterback of the future last year with the selection of Garrett Grayson, there isn’t a general manager in the NFL more likely to discount Adams’ size and roll the dice on him.