Inside Linebacker: Is This as Good as It Gets?

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune touts former UCLA linebacker Myles Jack as a potential firt round pick for the Bears:

“Teams with 4-3 defenses told him he could play linebacker. Middle, strong side, weak side. Wherever.

“Others creatively envision him in a secondary role, an instinctive safety who could become an in-the-box enforcer.

Kam Chancellor‘s name came up as a comparison.”

Ordinarily being compared to Chancellor would be a huge compliment. But its also sort of a backhanded slap when you are being drafted as a linebacker.

Indeed, the comparison tells you everything about the bind the Bears are in when it comes to drafting an inside linebacker. This draft is full of players like Jack, a quick guy who is likely to be good in coverage but whose performance as a physical inside presence will be questioned. His alter ego, Reggie Ragland is exactly the opposite:

“‘He’s a thumper,’ ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. ‘And he’s a guy who really, in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s would have been a top-10 pick guaranteed. But coverage ability is going to be something (to watch).'”

Probably if the Bears had to choose, they’d take the thumper. But taking a limited athlete of any type in the first round isn’t exactly what you have in mind going in. The truth is that there really are no top of the line, all around linebackers in this draft class. And that’s bad news for team like the Bears in desperate need of help at the position.

Lots to Interest Fans at the NFL Combine on Saturday

Having spent most of my day yesterday watching the Combine coverage on the NFL Network, I thought I would share a few impressions. Yesterday was the on field workout day for quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends. The Bears have needs in all three areas and, though none is immediately urgent, they are probably looking closely at the prospects at all three positions.

Of the wide receivers, the one that you never heard of that impressed me the most was Josh Doctson out of TCU. Dotson apparently surprised everyone with a 4.50 second 40 yard dash. What wasn’t a surprise was the smooth way that he moves at 6’2″, 202 lb nor the ease with which he catches the ball. He might be a hand full on the next level. Braxton Miller continued to get a lot of love from the media analysts even as he continued to show that he can’t catch the ball. He must have a hell of an agent.

Hunter Henry out of Arkansas got the most love of all of the tight ends but I’m not seeing it. The guy who continued to impress me the most was Ohio State’s Nick Vannett. Vannett had a very good Senior Bowl and he continues to show that he can move well despite his size. He looks to me like he’s going to be a good all around blocking and receiving tight end and one that should interest the Bears.

At quarterback Carson Wentz was, of course, the king of the class. Physically he’s the guy who is going to stand out in this type of environment and the smooth, quick way that he dropped back showed his comfort under center, having played in a pro style offense at North Dakota State. No surprises there. Also as you’d expect, California’s Jared Goff was smooth as well, though physically slight standing next to Wentz. Paxton Lynch out of Memphis was the raw, physical specimen that his reputation tells you that he is. All of these guys look like the NFL quality players that they’ve been cracked up to be.

Of the second level quarterbacks that the Bears are likely to be looking closely at, I liked Dak Prescott out of Mississippi a little better than I did after his Senior Bowl. I still have major questions about how he actually plays but in this environment he looked more like the type of third round prospect that scouts seem to think that he is. It’s now evident that Stanford’s Kevin Hogan just doesn’t have an NFL arm.

The other guy in this category who threw well was Arkansas’s Brandon Allen. While media commentators continued to go on and on about Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg, neither of which looked good and neither of which have shown me anything special on the field, Allen’s performance seemed to slip by almost unnoticed.

Actually, the fascination with Hackenberg is understandable. He has the physical tools and looked good his freshman year under then head coach at Penn State and now for the Texans, Bill O’Brien. As noted by field reporter Kimberly Jones during the broadcast, Hackenberg seems to be a polarizing prospect. Apparently, the scouts don’t like him but the coaches do. You could practically read their minds: “If O’Brien can get the most of this guy, then I should be able to as well, right?” It will be interesting to see where Hackenberg goes in April.

Nevertheless, Allen continues to get my attention. The comments of one unnamed scout, which were passed on by Jones, were of interest. After the first session, in which Cook, Goff and Hackenberg threw, the scout had virtually nothing good to say about any of the prospects (including Goff) but mentioned Allen as a guy who “threw well”. The comment went by the media analysts on hand without apparent notice.

I really couldn’t tell you if Allen has the stuff to start in the NFL. It looks to me like a definite “maybe” because he’s just a tad short at 6’1″ and he has small hands. His arm strength looks good but not great and he’s just not impressive physically the way that Wentz and Lynch are. Nevertheless if the Bears are looking for value at the position, Allen is a guy who could easily slip through the cracks to a spot where they feel comfortable taking him.

Report that Jeffery Has Been Franchised but Doubt Remains

Adam Schefter at ESPN has reported that Alshon Jeffery has been franchised:

I find this report easy to believe in that franchising Jeffery should be a slam dunk if the Bears can’t come to a long-term deal before Tuesday’s deadline to place the tag. Nevertheless, neither the Chicago Tribune nor the Chicago Sun-Times has picked up this report leaving doubt about its veracity.

I’d say that Schefter is right in that the Bears have probably already decided to tag Jeffery. The signs certainly are that they want him back and he wants to be back.  Though the Bears could tag Jeffery early – they really don’t have anyone else to use it on – there’s no apparent advantage to placing it on him too far before the deadline.

What Alshon Jeffery’s Contract Might Look Like Based Upon Yesterday’s News Conferences

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune addresses the Bears situation with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery, due to become a free agent, missed a number of games with soft tissue injuries last season and his production was reduced:

“‘I think being in Year 2 with a player helps a lot in just understanding his body and his body mechanics,’ [general manager Ryan] Pace said. ‘I know (Alshon) and his agent are doing some things, too, to improve on that. So when he gets back, we’ll have a plan in place. It’s important.'”

“Jeffery began his offseason training by enrolling at Unbreakable Performance, a Los Angeles facility run by Brian Urlacher and Jay Glazer, a close friend of Fox’s.”

“‘Things I’ve heard have been real positive from both sides,’ Fox said, ‘from both Alshon and the people there at Jay’s gym.'”

A few important points:

  • There can now be little doubt that the Bears will franchise Jeffery. There’s always been this niggling doubt that Jeffery really wants to be back with the Bears or that the Bears might not be happy with him. The fact that Fox has been staying in touch with him and tracking his training progress along with Pace’s assertion that he senses that Jeffery wants to be back indicate to me that there’s no real dissatisfaction with the relationship between player and team. There can now be little doubt that they will do what they have to to keep him.
  • Given the concern expressed by both Pace and Jeffery’s agent, Eugene Parker, you’d have to guess that both will be working to get Jeffery in for offseason training.  The standard procedure when it comes to the franchise tag is to get the deal done at the last minute when there’s more urgency to get things done with a deadline approaching. But based upon the above comments you’d have to guess that perhaps there will be a little more urgency to get things done soon so that Jeffery won’t miss workouts.
  • Give the last item, you also have to wonder if the contract won’t be structured to give Jeffery motivation to stay in shape and to do that proper things to prevent his soft tissue problems in the future. I’m thinking that there’s more than the usual likelihood that we’ll see an incentive laden contract. Not necessarily a performance based one but perhaps one with some terms that provide a bonus if, for instance, Jeffery hits certain weight goals or other such similar milestones. A cleverly designed contract could be very satisfactory for both sides.

Fox’s Comments Regarding Jay Cutler Should Be a Comfort to Us All

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune quotes head coach John Fox at the Combine on the performance of quarterback Jay Cutler last season:

“‘I saw way more about his mental toughness,’ Fox said. ‘I saw way more about how he can absorb an offense and execute it under pressure. I think that speaks volumes for how successful he was on third downs, which is a tough down for a quarterback in the NFL. But I was very, very pleased by what I saw and what we have to work with going forward.'”

I find these comments to be comforting because:

  1. I was also pleased with what Cutler showed, particularly during the Packers game on Thanksgiving.
  2. The comments indicate to me that Fox understands Cutler’s major problem – lack of mental toughness.

There’s always been a suspicion in my mind that because the Bears coaching staff wasn’t with Cutler during his first six years with the team, they won’t understand why trusting him should be an exercise in caution, even now. The fact that Fox’s first comment was regarding Cutler’s major past weakness indicates that he understands the quarterback better than I thought. He knows what to look for if Cutler stumbles and he will recognize it if he sees it.  And the odds are good that he’ll be ready to do something about it.

Langford and Carey: An Interesting One-Two Punch in 2016

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

“Why is Jeremy Langford assumed to start at running back? Overall, I thought Ka’Deem Carey ran tougher, caught passes better and blocked at least as well. — @BillMiller1991

“Nothing is locked in at this point but the first thing you should keep in mind is that Langford was drafted by the current power structure at Halas Hall, which includes general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox. Langford has better speed and is probably viewed as a better receiver out of the backfield even though he had a couple bad drops last season. Langford was higher on the depth chart last season.”

I think Biggs has the right of it, here. Langford is more athletic and it’s obvious that the coaching staff considers him to be the better receiver and they probably see Langford as being the back that is most like Matt Forte. Carey, on the other hand, was pretty close to having no job at all until he started to become more effective on special teams. Or at least until the coaching staff felt more comfortable playing him on special teams.

Having said that, I think everyone would agree that it’s unlikely that we will be able to expect Langford to be Forte. In this respect, Langford and Carey could make a wonderful one-two punch with Langford being a slightly more elusive and more versatile third down-type back and with Carey being more of a power back.

Should the case it will require that these two back be used differently in 2016. Last season, the coaches were more likely to leave a back in for an entire series before switching up. The Bears might be more comfortable using Carey and Langford alternately down-to-down in specific situations next year, thus taking advantage of their strengths.

Drugs Will Be a Bigger Issue than Ever for Draft Prospects

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune describes some things to watch at the Combine this week:

“Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche possesses top-five talent, but he fell out of a fourth-story at an Atlanta hotel in December and was subsequently suspended for the Sugar Bowl after police discovered ‘seven marijuana cigarettes’ in his room. Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, who could be a defensive end or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, was kicked out of Ohio State for multiple drug issues and banned from the Big Ten. He had 111/2 sacks last season and performed well in Senior Bowl practices. Teams are doing some digging on these players.”

Both of these guys are massive talents. In fact, if anything, I think Spence is being underrated. But these drug issues are going to be huge red flags for teams this year.

I’m not too thrilled about putting too much stock into encounters with marijuana. I think most people realize that this is something that has become more and more pervasive and it isn’t like they’re shooting heroin (I hope). But thanks to the Cowboys experience with Randy Gregory, who has been suspended for the first four games of the regular season in 2016 after testing positive for drugs four times last year including once at the Combine, teams are going to be more sensitive about it than usual. Frankly, I don’t think a lot of teams care what these guys do in their off time as long as the perform on the field. But you aren’t going to do much performing is you are suspended.  Gregory is a cautionary tale.

As Biggs says, what they say will be important. But it’s what these prospects do that will count the most. It’s going to be more critical than ever for all of these players, especially Nkemdiche and Spence, to show up clean to the Combine and show that they can control whatever caused their past problems.

Wentz Currently Has a Leg Up on the Competition Going into the Scouting Combine

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune talks quarterback prospects. Of the top four, there has been less enthusiasm than previously about Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch:

“‘Listening to guys at the Senior Bowl talk about [North Dakota State’s CarsonWentz, I finally had to ask them if the kid from Memphis had fallen off the earth,’ a national scout for one team said. ‘Everyone was touting him and all of a sudden here is Wentz. What happened?'”

The Senior Bowl happened. Once scouts got a good, live look at his size and his arm and once he performed well in the practices and the game, his stock took a massive upward turn. Wentz impressed everyone, including myself.  Lynch, on the other hand, wasn’t helped when he had a poor bowl game.

The comments highlight two things to keep in mind:

  1. It was a huge mistake for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to skip the Senior Bowl. I don’t know who he thinks he is but right now he’s a second rounder at best. The Senior Bowl was a prime opportunity to show scouts what he could do and Wentz is the best possible example of how its done.
  2. Having said that, both Lynch and Cook (and California’s Jared Goff) will have their opportunity to impress scouts at the Combine and it looks like all of them will throw. Its unfortunate that it won’t be in the kind of competitive environment that the Senior Bowl provides and they may never get the momentum back from Wentz now. But they’ll all probably get a bump from it.

Cowboys Record Belies Their Claims of Good Intentions

Remember Randy Gregory, the defensive end that the Cowboys drafted last April in the second round after he tested positive for marijuana at the Combine? Well he’s become a cautionary tale now that he’s been suspended for four games in 2016 after testing positive for drugs four times, three during the 2015 season. Mike Florio at comments:

“Gregory consistently has failed to choose football over whatever substance for which he has been testing positive. But the Cowboys necessarily failed to provide him with the resources and assistance necessary to keep him from continuing to fail tests. And Gregory’s agents, who did a great job of puffing him up to a scoop-hungry media before the draft (at one point he was being sold as a top-10 pick despite the failed drug test), apparently haven’t communicated to Gregory the critical importance of getting clean.”

This news came right before another player associated with the Cowboy found himself in hot water. Joseph Randle was arrested for the fifth time in the last 18 months, this time on three counts of aggravated battery, one count of drug possession and one count of criminal damage. The Cowboys had previously  released Randle but not until they absolutely had to after his sixth game in 2015 and not until the NFL suspended him.

Both incidents bring to mind comments made by Jerry Jones at the time of the Greg Hardy signing when he trumpeted the Cowboys as the destination for wayward players, saying that the team was focused upon providing an environment where they could be rehabilitated.  You have to wonder at what point after Gregory’s third faied drug test was this still about “rehabilitation”.

As Florio implies above, it’s now evident that this was hogwash. Jones is simply running an outlaw program where signing risky players and putting up with deplorable off field behavior until there’s simply no way to keep them on the roster is the priority.

“Talent trumps all” is a common philosophy in the NFL. No one follows that mantra more than the Cowboys. Perhaps it’s time for Jones to pull back and take a look at his franchise and decide if this is really the image that he wants “America’s Team” to project. Regardless, he needs to stop spouting off nonsense about nurturing his players to conquer whatever demons haunt them off the field. It’s all too evident that either there’s little or nothing behind it or it’s not working.

Changes Coming to the Combine?

Tom Pelissero at USA Today reports that the NFL is considering changes to the NFL Scouting Combine make the event more relevant to scouts and coaches.

“No, a quarterback’s throwing session on the field won’t be swapped for one in a virtual reality environment anytime soon. But the days of players training for months to score high in tests such as the 40-yard dash, vertical leap and bench press – sometimes derided as the ‘Underwear Olympics’ – could be numbered.”

Changes to the Combine is a topic that has gained steam in recent years. For instance, Matt Birk, the NFL’s director of player development, addressed the topic about this time last year:

“‘That’s a project we’ll be working on this offseason,’ Birk said, according to ‘Once we look at the data that was gathered in-game this year, it may be important to know how fast a wide receiver or defensive back can go 60 yards. Maybe for an offensive lineman it’s only 20 yards. We can actually see that in-game: How far are these guys running? What are the real or improved measures of importance and value as it relates to evaluating players and whether or not they should be drafted in the first round or the sixth round?'”

So, you can’t just look at the 20 yard split for an offensive lineman and see how fast he ran that distance?

If all the athletes did was run the 40 yard dash and do the long jump, I might think that there was a point to this. But, as Pelissero points out, that’s not all they do. Quarterbacks throw, receivers run routes, linemen do drills in the same way they would at a pro day.  And there’s value to that.  If you want to disregard the distance that an offensive lineman jumps, disregard it.

Something tells me that this is going to be one of those situations where the NFL and National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the Combine, put their heads together and, after lots of talk that goes nowhere, decides that no changes are in order. And I’m not entirely sure they won’t be right.