Saturday, March 29, 2014

2014 NFL mock draft up to 16 ---the Cowboys' slot

I have been studying the draft day rumors out there to try to figure out who might be available to Dallas at 16.  Here are what I think may be the likely top 16 picks in the coming draft.

I have pulled heavily from credible sounding posts on the Walter Football draft rumors page.

I think the Rams (a team with a history of trading down from early picks) will trade down from the 1(2) spot.  The Atlanta Falcons seem a very likely trade partner.

Overall I am somewhat happy with this mock draft, although I think every team mocks out their draft day and the conclusions I reached should have Cleveland rethinking their apparent current strategy (although I think Cleveland seems the kind of team to make a big mistake).

The Rams might seriously rethink their strategy if their mock draft that includes this trade down scenario yields similar results.  For this reason, I may re-examine pick 6 and it's implications.  The Rams may go OT first knowing that WR Marquise Lee will be there at 13.

Well, with no further ado...

Pick    Team
1(1)    Texans Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

Bill O'Brien is rumored to like him;  Bortles played for George O'Leary who has history with O'Brien.  There is a thought that Houston should take Clowney and pick up a QB in the second round (LSU's Zach Mettenberger) or in a trade (NE's Ryan Mallett, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer, or Pitt's Ben Roethlisberger). The trouble with that thought is who will be there at 33?  It is far more likely that Derek Carr goes before 20 than that he is sitting there at 33. The next tier of QBs start with late second round grades.  Mettenberger is a 3rd round prospect who looks a lot like a project.  I think Houston effectively HAS to take a QB and O'Brien (allegedly) like Bortles best.

1(2)    Rams (From Redskins) Predicted trade to Atlanta Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina   

The Rams could use a top WR and a top OT with their top two picks.  That would give them an offensive roeter to allow a fair evaluation of Sam Bradford's development. There are three OTs and two WRs likely to go in the top 13 picks.  There is an argument that the odds of a tackle sliding to 13 are better, so the Rams should take a WR first. (Now the 3rd #1-type WR in this draft, Marquise Lee,  is pretty darned good too, so the argument loses a little steam.) The Rams' GM has publicly talked down the idea of taking a WR.  There is also the thought that the Rams could get the same player they would take at 1(2) trading places with a team like Oakland or Atlanta.  I am going to say they trade down with Atlanta.  The Falcons take Clowney --- a top talent at a needed spot and great PR piece in their region.

1(3)    Jaguars  Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo 

Picking Teddy Bridgewater here is the safest pick and a very marketable one, but I think Bridgewater has consistently underwhelmed scouts in the pre-draft window.  His lackluster performance on his pro day really is just the capper.  I would not be surprised to see him slide quite a bit.    There is a lot of talk that the jags want a pass rusher and might trade down.  The thinking is they will roll with Henne and maybe take Garoppolo in the second round.  That could open the door for the Jags to pick someone like Khalil Mack, who has blown scouts away with his talent. 

1(4)    Browns   Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

Cleveland needs a QB and it would seem that the ownership would love the spotlight Johnny Manziel brings, but is he the choice?  It has long been speculated that Cleveland's front office loves Johny Manziel, but that was before their coach hired Kyle Shannahan as the Browns' offensive coordinator.  After the RG3 situation, does Shannahan want Manziel --- a similar QB in style to RG3?  Does Shannahan want to coach another drama queen?  It looks like a wrench in the works.  Shannahan would probably love to just trade for Washington backup Kirk Cousins, but reports suggest Cleveland doesn't want to match Washington's asking price.  One gets the feeling Cleveland's front office is not eager for another "lesser talent" at QB.  There has been some recent talk that Cleveland is high on Derek Carr and would love to pick him at 26. That strategy seems pretty crazy.  A lot of teams like Carr.  It seems pretty unlikely to me that Carr will be there at 26, but that is the thinking I am following in my Brown's selection.  I think they assume no one will take Carr in the top 12, so the Browns will draft the best talent at 1(4). Robinson provides a major upgrade on the OL.

1(5)    Raiders    Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

With only Bortles off the board, I think the Raiders would feel immense pressure to draft a QB.  I think the Raiders (and especially owner Mark Davis) would have loved to have Manziel.  Their personnel department seems to really like local boy Derek Carr (someone I think would eventually be a solid pick for Oakland, even though Oakland is far from an ideal situation for Carr).

1(6)    Falcons   (Predicted trade to Rams)  Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

The Rams get the play maker they might have been thinking about at 1(2) and probably another high pick.  Watkins is probably the best big play receiver in the draft. There are a number of reasons to advocate the choice of OT Jake Matthews here, but I don't think they will go that way.

1(7)    Buccaneers Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

New Bucs Head Coach Lovie Smith said he thinks there will be a franchise QB available at 7 when the Bucs pick.  Further he says that, if there is one there, no one should be surprised if the Bucs pick him --- regardless of the fact they already have 2 credible starting candidates at QB.  It sounds like they want a rookie QB at 1(7).  New Bucs OC Jeff Tedford coached Derek Carr at Fresno State.  If Carr is not there, I think the Bucs were content with the idea of taking Bridgewater at 7.  I am not  certain that their enthusiasm is still high for Bridgewater --- who hasn't impressed lately --- but he looks a lot like a "Tedford QB" ...unlike Johnny Manziel.

1(8)    Vikings   Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

I think Carr would fit's Norv Turner's QB-friendly offense like a better Troy Aikman.  He has Aikman-like accuracy and similar limitations.  (Like Aikman, Carr doesn't deal well with people around his feet.) Carr is a far superior athlete though.  If Carr is gone, and Manziel is here, I think Manziel will be the pick with the assumption that good pieces (RB Adrian Peterson and WR Cordarrelle Patterson) and a simple scheme will help Manziel avoid being a bust. Mike Zimmer expressed much disdain with the Mainziel pro day, but his offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, was impressed by Manziel. Vikings GM Rick Speilman could decide it.  Viking fans would love Manziel, but Speilman & Zimmer could go with someone like Evans or Gilbert here.  If that happens Turner is rumored to like Clemson's Taj Boyd, a QB who won't go in the first round. Another possibility is trading for NE's backup Ryan Mallett.  Mallett has size and a big arm and would fit in the Turner system fairly well.

1(9)    Bills Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

Mike Evans is an athletic freak at WR who will help out QB E.J. Manual.  Evans is such a physical specimen that he may prove uncoverable in the NFL.  He may end up being the best WR in this draft.
1(10)    Lions Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

Some have suggested that Lions would take Evans and pair him with Megatron if Evens falls this far.  That would certainly be a best player pick, but could you sell a WR to Lions' fans?   The Lions have paid a lot of attention to Sammy Watkins, so a second star receiver is a thought of theirs.  I don't think Watkins or Evans will be there.  Gilbert or Anthony Barr may be the best talents on the board for a team that usually picks the best talent available.

1(11)    Titans  Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan 

It is a bit of a shock that Jake Matthews is still on the board here, but to my way of thinking he is more a very good technician/player than an elite talent.  I think a Matthews selection would be welcomed by the Titan fans, but would be quite difficult for the Titan players and their position coach, Jake's dad, Bruce Matthews.  I wouldn't be shocked to see Taylor Lewan filling the RT spot instead, as it is easier on all parties.  Lewan may be more physically talented than the younger Matthews anyway. Lewan could get a lot better in the pros with good coaching.  Lewan at 11 would absolutely break the hearts of Rams' leadership who I think would like to grab Lewan at 13.

1(12)    Giants   Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

As a Cowboys fan this would absolutely kill me, but it is what it is. A team with the needs of the Giants cannot pass on a player like Matthews.

1(13)    Rams (Predicted trade to Dallas) Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

If the Rams keep the pick, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix would be a sensible pick here --- although it is considered a bit high for him value-wise on most draft boards. The top two safeties are predicted to slide a bit further. I think a more likely scenario is a trade down with Dallas. Dallas and  the Rams have traded before. Dallas would jump in front of the Bears to land Donald, a prototypical pass-rushing 3 technique for the Marinelli scheme.  Given the inclinations of Marinelli defensively, Donald is likely by far the best DT prospect for Dallas in this draft.  He may grade out as a top 10 player for Dallas.  Donald is exactly what you want at that spot ---the hardest to fill in that scheme.  Look for Dallas to use Donald as a situational pass rusher at the 1 technique paired with 3 technique Henry Melton on passing downs.  Good reporters have noted that Marinelli would rather have two pass rushing DTs than a run stuffer at the 1 technique. Don't be surprised if you see the Rams cut Dallas another situational pre-draft day bargain --- a fourth rounder to move from 16 to 13.

1(14)    Bears    Anthony Barr, OLB/DE, UCLA

The Bears are reportedly looking at Donald and Anthony Barr pretty seriously.  Barr is a top 10 talent. Other players who could end up in this slot are disruptive1 technique DT Donald Jernigan (although I see him as more of a top 30 player), stout NT Louis Nix and S Calvin Prior (although that is a little high for him).  Chicago's leadership may be much more inclined to land a run stuffing DT than other teams with Kiffin 4-3 roots.  Barr hits me as the best talent at 13 though.

1(15)    Steelers  Eric Ebron, Tight End, North Carolina

The Steelers were another team interested in Lewan.  There are rumors that Pittsburg is looking for a big receiver.  With that in mind, FSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a possibility, but he hits me as a huge reach here.  I would probably consider Marquise Lee, Zack Martin, or Stephon Tuitt if I had the Steelers' pick and needs, but Ebron is a great value talent here and would fit nicely as the big receiving threat the Steelers crave.

1(16)    Cowboys    (Predicted trade to Rams) Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama

Rams get their safety.

Friday, March 14, 2014

What should be the Dallas Cowboys' "Plan B" for 2014 free agency

I previously suggested a plan for the Cowboys' off-season.  Dallas had few realistic paths and happened to do many of the things suggested by myself and others.  Dallas Cowboys' management put themselves into a position to bring leverage on DeMarcus Ware to accept a pay cut, in order to create the space to potentially re-sign Jason Hatcher.

All of that worked pretty well, but the NFL cap going up flooded the market with money and distorted the values of free agents, sinking the plan.  Whereas it appeared Ware was a guy who could get about $7.5M per year in free agency,  the chance of a team paying a premium for Ware was always a slim possibility if Ware was released at the start of free agency.

Ware was indeed allowed to walk early in the free agency period. Still, I think the $10 Million per year Ware received in free agency represents the greater pool of cash in the market as much as anything.  Salaries for free agents are high across the board this year.

The $7 Million per year that Jason Hatcher received from Washington also is higher than the $5 Million or so we estimated.  Free agents we targeted as $2 Million guys --- DE Ziggy Hood of Pittsburgh (projecting him as a 4-3 NT) and HB Toby Gerhardt (projected as a backup HB)  ---- signed for $3 Million per year.

At this point free agency has largely run it's course.  With the extra money in the system, the top 80-90% of the top free agents at each position are already signed.

The Division Outlook

The Philadelphia Eagles look like prohibitive favorites to run away with the division.  The Giants looks substantially better with a newly solidified running game.  RG3 should be healthier this year and the Redskin's coach is likely to tailor their game plans to better tap RG3's talent --- something the Shannahans did not do last season.  The Redskins should be better.

Dallas doesn't look better. While their moves are quite defensible from a long term perspective and suggest a wiser position by cowboy's leadership, Dallas looks like a last place team in 2014.

Dallas landed low-end starters in LDE Jeremy Mincey and 1 technique DT Terrell McClain.  Chicago DE Corey Wooton and Denver DE Robert Ayers are cheap free agents who might be serviceable fringe level starters at DE in a 4-3 allowing for very good depth/ a rotation on the DL...if Dallas is interested.  Many other guys Dallas was targeting, like Seattle 1 technique DT Tony McDaniel, have already signed with other teams.

What's next?

Media speculation is that Dallas should be focused on 27 year old Chicago DT Henry Melton who played the 3 technique in Chicago under Dallas Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli.  (The 3 technique is considered one of the most important positions in the 4-3 Marinelli employs and at 27 Melton should be in his prime.)

In speaking with friends off the cuff yesterday, I threw out that if Dallas signed both Melton and released former Chicago DE Julius Peppers, that Dallas would recover from the losses and be in a fairly good position on it's defensive line.  The reports today imply Dallas is indeed looking at this pair as their free agency solution.

Peppers is had a decent statistical year last year, but there is mounting evidence pointing to him just being a guy at this point.  I am not sure that you chase a 6-9 sack guy if the rest of his game is eroding.

Henry Melton is coming off an injury.  There is a fair bit of risk there in signing him as a free agent as well.  If Dallas signs Melton for the likely going rate ----multiple years at 7 Million per year --- and Melton doesn't deliver, Dallas's playoff hopes are likely not there.

Plus there is the bar fight situation, where he bit a chunk out of a bouncer and is being sued for a million dollars.

And his DWI in college in 2007.  Do we really need another drunk driver?

I have to ask, how mature is this guy really?  Is the fight a one time mistake or is this a guy who is going to have more off the field trouble?

I think there is a strong argument to make your best effort to land him, because if you hit on him you have added to your core, but what if you don't hit on him?  I think if Dallas does this, they need to think seriously about trying to land a second player of similar stature as well.

Let's put Peppers and Melton aside for a second. After looking through the free agents still available, I have some different ideas that could help Dallas achieve a reasonable goal --- solidifying an identity as a tough, good team and making the playoffs as a wildcard --- without mortgaging the future.

A better "Plan B"

Free Agency

MLB Daryl Smith

The guy I would target is Baltimore ILB Daryl Smith. He is a MLB type with good speed who can really cover.  He is a guy who has played at a high level throughout his career but, like Jason Hatcher, Smith has never really gotten paid and is now, at 32, older than team like to pay.  That gives us leverage and makes him a great candidate to pursue.

I am not impressed with the linebacker candidates in this draft.  Signing Smith makes that irrelevant and allows us to focus on both lines in the draft.  There are a lot of linemen worth considering in this draft.

This may be Smith's last shot to hit the big money.  He is hoping for a 4 year $24 Million deal, which most teams won't offer him due to his age.  Baltimore certainly won't.  Denver has an interest in making him a pretty good offer, but it likely won't be $6 Million per year for 4 years.  He might take slightly more from Dallas over an offer from a super bowl contender in Denver.  Guys who have never been paid value things a little differently than most.

If Dallas gave Smith the $24 Million contract he craves, the Cowboys would be able to plug Smith in at middle linebacker and slide the porceleine ninja (Sean Lee) over to the weakside LB.

Middle linebackers are effectively part of the front line of defense in the 4-3 --- essentially they function as part of the line vs. the run. 4-3 defenses funnel running backs at the MLB.  They create head on collisions at your MLB. Smith is far more durable than Lee and he can do most of the things Lee can do, making moving Lee tolerable to the coaching staff.  That would give Dallas a pair of pro bowl caliber LBs who excel vs. the run and the pass.

Such a move combined with the free agent DL additions and presumably some rookies on the DL could do a ton to fix the Dallas run defense.  More importantly it would provide the team with a real, tough minded defensive leader --- the spine the defense has needed for years.

With a $6 million dollar pro-rated bonus and a base salary of 1M in 2014, Smith could be had with a cap hit of say $2.5M this year. 

cap hit: 2.5M, 7.5M, 7.5M, 6.5M

G/C Kevin Boothe

I would try to sign away NYG C/G Kevin Boothe as 1) he is cheap 2) he is a good run blocker 3) he is a competent starter at Guard or Center 4) he was a late bloomer in the NFL and still has some tread left on his tires 5) it weakens the Giant's offensive line forcing them to chase offensive linemen in the draft 6) and finally because a QB can only take a certain number of hits before he start hearing footsteps.   Eli has taken a lot of hits over the last 2 years. If you can help break Eli with smart personnel raids, you should.  With a shell-shocked Eli, the Giants become a non-threat in head to head matchups.

The Giants are trying to sign Boothe now, so approaching him would need to be a priority.  He is worth about 2.5 M a year.

cap hit: 1.5M, 2M, 2M

3 Technique DT Henry Melton

That still leaves 4 Million in space to use to craft an offer to Melton.  By setting Melton's 1st year base at $1M, they could something like a 4 year, 24 million deal with a $12 M signing bonus.  That would likely trump any competing offers, even in a market filled with loose wallets.

I know some would say you could offer less of a bonus to Melton and maybe use the space remaining to also land Spencer, but I suspect you can't get all four with $8M in space.  I would talk to Spencer about an extension and agree to handshake terms on a multi-year deal on favorable terms if he waits until summer to sign with Dallas.

As far as Melton's deal goes, it could be...

cap hit: 4M, 7M, 7M, 6M

The plan for June 1st cuts
There are three guys I would look at as mid-summer cuts. 
Miles Austin
Miles Austin is a $8.249M cap cost.  He would only cost $2.749M v.s the cap if cut after June 1st.  Austin has chronic hamstring injuries and is destined to be replaced by Terrance Williams & Dwayne Harris in the near future anyway. He appears to be gone.
Kyle Orton
Kyle Orton was paid to be the guy who could carry Dallas to victory if Romo went down.  Dallas's defense played lights out and Orton couldn't deliver 25 points against an average Philadelphia defense. Orton is good enough to keep it close, but he is no winner --- ie. not worth paying. Let's be honest. Even if he beat Philadelphia, the Saints would have routed Dallas and Orton would not have been able to deliver enough points.  He has a $4.377M cap cost. After June 1, it only costs $1.127M to cut ties.  You can either draft a replacement or try to resign someone cheap and talented like Alex Tanney.
Doug Free
Doug Free is a $6.25M cap cost and an option to cut.  He would cost $3.02M to cut after June 1st.  I think it is too risky to cut Free. He is just a below average starting left tackle, but keeping Free does give Dallas an experienced backup at both tackle spots in case of injury, even if a $3M base salary is way too much for a backup tackle.  To me, it is worth holding on to him.  His deal ends after this year anyway.
Cutting Austin and Orton this summer would create $8.75M in cap space, allowing the resigning of much more important players like Brian Waters and Anthony Spencer, as well as the rookie class.

summer resigning candidates

WDE Anthony Spencer

Spencer would then be able to walk in and with a player friendly deal that pays him well this year, doesn't allow Dallas to franchise him in the future, and maybe even has a player option to opt out after a year if he outplays his contract.  Spencer is larger than Ware and may prove to be a much netter fit in the 4-3 than Ware. Even coming off a knee repair, I like him better than an old Peppers.

Lets say a 4 year $24M deal with a 1st year base of $3M and a signing bonus of $5M split over the first two years of the deal.  That pays him $8 M this year and is a fairly valuable total deal for a guy coming off a knee repair.

cap hit: 5.5M, 7.5M, 8M, 3M

G Brian Waters

I would still resign Brian Waters for about $2.5M as I think his leadership helped the offensive line find themselves last year.   I want my young linemen imprinting on him...Even if he skips out on camp and his health/age only allow him to start a few games.   Waters getting injured after skipping camp last year actually sent the right message about the need to attend camp.  If it happens again, you would lose a good player, but it again sends the right message.

cap hit: 2.5 M

These deals impact the Cowboys' cap over the next 3-4 years, but given the idea that the cap will be going up more in future years (as is the current thought), that Free and Waters will fall off the payroll after this season, and that Brandon Carr might be cut if he plays poorly this year --- these moves start to look almost like financial neutrals in cap management terms.

I think this sets up Dallas well to run the ball and to stop the run and allows Dallas to draft the best player available (...who fit their schemes and the coaches like).

My next article will take an updated look at the draft with this free agency strategy applied.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ware to negotiate with Cowboys?

On Dallas Sports radio today, they are talking about Jerry Jones and the Cowboys' negotiations people attempting to negotiate a lower deal for Demarcus Ware.  Oddly they seem to think Ware and his agent will be able to force a quick renegotiation and get Ware into the free agent market as soon as possible if Dallas demands too large of a cut.

(If there is no deal in Dallas, Ware would want to get into the free agent market as soon as possible--- before the other NFL teams needing outside linebackers spend all their money  --- eliminating his ability to generate a bidding war.)

Dallas is, at this moment, roughly $1.5 Million under the cap after redoing Romo and a few others (pretty similar to what we discussed in the last Cowboys' cap article). Cutting Ware today would free up an added $7M in cap space. You could probably get a 4-3 DE who is better vs. the run and could get you greater than the 6 sacks Ware delivered last year for about $3-4 Million. 

If Dallas doesn't want to chase free agents, tehy could hold on to Ware until the summer.  Cutting Ware on June 1st would free up $12.3 M in cap space.  Cutting Ware at either moment (combined with the greater cap number that appears on the way) would immediately restore sense to the Cowboys' cap for the next few years.

I don't think I see any leverage for Ware to make any kind of demands, unless Dallas solely wants out of his contract now to chase free agents (and even then, they just cut him --- no negotiation needed).

Now I don't think the Joneses want to part ways with Ware.  I am sure The Cowboys would be thrilled to have Ware back at half his current cost or slightly more as a "loyalty tip".

If Dallas wants to cut Ware and sign a budget DE who fits the 4-3 better, they could be motivated to get it done quickly, but on the same token, those same motivations to get things done quickly apply to Ware's desires.  It is tough to imagine Ware having much leverage, even in that scenario.

To me the conversation is:

Stephen Jones: "Here is your new contract. Take it or we will cut you at our leisure --- Probably now."
Demarcus Ware: "I can make more in free agency, cut me."  or "I can't make more. Where do I sign?"

I don't get what I am missing.

I really hate when the media assigns more leverage to a player than is obvious and they do not explain it.