NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 3

1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.

(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)

2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.

3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.

4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.

5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.

6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.

7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.

8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.

9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.

10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

2012 NFL Draft: Team-by-Team Evaluations

Even though it’ll be years before we can effectively grade the 2012 NFL Draft, that shouldn’t stop anyone from having an opinion on how each team fared this past weekend.

Based on overall strategy, trades, value based on pre-draft projections, and the ability to improve rosters, here are team-by-team evaluations following the 2012 NFL Draft.

Arizona Cardinals
Teams look to draft impact players in the first round and the Cardinals did that by snagging Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd at No. 13 overall. Thanks to having Larry Fitzgerald on the other side, Floyd will benefit from not having the pressure to perform like a No. 1 receiver. Landing Bobby Massie in the fourth-round presented value, but only if the Cardinals leave him as a right tackle (he won’t succeed on the left side at the next level). Ryan Lindley is raw but he can make all of the throws and might be compete for a starting job in two or three years.

Atlanta Falcons
After stealing headlines in the first round last year with their trade for receiver Julio Jones, nothing about the Falcons’ 2012 draft was flashy. They landed a guard/center in Wisconsin’s Peter Konz that should be a starter for the next 10-plus years, as well as an intriguing project in offensive tackle Lamar Holmes. The Bradie Ewing pick in the fifth round was seemingly a reach but Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi may have been a steal seven picks later. If Holmes winds up starting at left tackle in two years and Massaquoi surprises, this will be viewed as a solid draft.

Baltimore Ravens
Trading out of the first round and still having the opportunity to land Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw proved to be an excellent move by GM Ozzie Newsome. Upshaw is a great fit for Baltimore’s defense and he should have plenty of motivation after falling out of the first round. Keep an eye on Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson, who could wind up being a sleeper in the fifth and if the Ravens can get Miami receiver Tommy Streeter to realize his untapped potential then Baltimore will have done well in the later rounds.

Buffalo Bills
Gilmore is an excellent prospect and has the ability and talent to be a starter as a rookie. Cordy Glenn was a steal in the second round based on a) he was projected to go in the first and b) he offers plenty of versatility in that he can play guard and tackle. Florida State outside linebacker Nigel Bradham is a speed merchant and FSU offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders offers solid value considering he was projected to go in the third round.

Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly will remind observers of Rams’ middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in that he just makes plays and racks up tackles. Considering how much power running is done in the NFC South, the Panthers were wise to strengthen the middle of their defense with the selection of Kuechly at No. 9. When you watch the highlights, it’s hard not to fall in love with Amini Silatolu’s size and potential, although Carolina needs to be patient with his development because he played at a small school. Arkansas receiver Joe Adams was a solid edition in the fourth round because he brings speed, quickness, and toughness to the Panthers’ receiving corps. He’s someone that will go over the middle, make the tough catch, absorb a big hit and get right back up.

Chicago Bears
It’ll be interesting to see how Boise State’s Shea McClellin fits as a 4-3 defensive end. He’s versatile, tough, and relentless, but he seemingly would have been a better fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Assuming the Bears whip him into shape, Alshon Jeffery may wind up being Chicago’s best selection in this draft and fans will love H-Back Evan Rodriguez. Oregon State free safety Brandon Hardin is the wildcard of this team’s draft class. Thanks to his size and speed he’ll be able to cover tight ends and backs in the middle of the field, but he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury so it’s tough to evaluate him at this point.

Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals filled needs in their first five picks and landed two potential first-year starters in Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler. Kirkpatrick will bring toughness to Mike Zimmer’s secondary while Zeitler should anchor one of the Bengals’ guard positions for the next 10-plis years. In the fourth, the Bengals got a steal in tight end Orson Charles, who only slipped that far because of his DUI arrest a couple of months ago. He has second-round talent and played in a pro-style system at Georgia, so he should be able to contribute from Day 1.

Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson was the best prospect in this year’s draft and there’s no doubt that he was the top player on most team’s draft boards. The Browns had to trade three late-round picks in order to secure him at No. 3, but give them credit for guaranteeing that they would land the player they ultimately wanted. Brandon Weeden played in the spread offense at Oklahoma State, didn’t face elite defenses in the Big 12, shrinks under pressure and is already 28. I wouldn’t have invested a No. 1 pick in him but at least he can make all of the throws and the desire to compete is there. Mike Holmgren passed on a more talented offensive tackle prospect in Mike Adams when he selected the underwhelming Mitchell Schwartz, but the former Cal product should be serviceable on the right side. If you’re looking for a potential sleeper out of the Browns’ draft class, it’s sixth-rounder Billy Winn. His work ethic has come under question and there are concerns about his durability, but he was a great value in the sixth thanks to his ability to rush the passer as an interior defensive lineman.

Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones did incredibly well to move up to No. 6 and land a top-5 prospect in Morris Claiborne. Forget his Wonderlic score – Claiborne can play and should start from Day 1. That said, this was a very underwhelming draft for the Cowboys. Outside of Claiborne, the other players they selected all seem to have lower ceilings. That’s not to suggest that guys like Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber aren’t good fits or won’t succeed, but it’s doubtful they’ll make big impacts. (Of course, the Cowboys were pretty set coming into the draft so it’s not like they needed to find starters in the third or fourth rounds.)

Denver Broncos
Derek Wolfe was highly productive in college and he was a beast at times last season, but he was a reach at No. 36 overall. Brock Osweiler was this year’s Ryan Mallett, minus all of the baggage. He has great size at 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds and a rocket for an arm, but he’s extremely raw. (Good thing he’ll have an opportunity to learn under Peyton Manning for the next couple of seasons.) Overall, the Broncos seemingly didn’t draft any players that can make immediate impacts right away. Considering they made the playoffs last season that might not be a bad thing but this was an underwhelming draft overall.

Detroit Lions
Riley Reiff represented good value in the first round as he should start right away on the right side before eventually replacing Jeff Backus on the left. Ryan Broyles was projected to be a late first-round pick before he tore his ACL, so some observers love that pick in the second. That said, the ACL is a two-year injury and Broyles is a prototypical slot guy. Thus, there wasn’t much value in taking him in the second, regardless of where he could have gone if he weren’t hurt. Ronnell Lewis is the potential sleeper in Detroit’s 2012 draft class. He’s extremely physical, he’s a solid tackler and he should contribute right away on special teams. That said, he wasn’t overall productive and his durability is a concern.

Green Bay Packers
Once again, Ted Thompson hits a home run. Nick Perry was inconsistent at USC but he’s an explosive playmaker that will look great lined up opposite Clay Matthews in Dom Capers’ 3-4. Jerel Worthy represented decent value in the second round and Casey Hayward was one of my favorite corner prospects coming into the draft. He’s a highly instinctive corner with great technique and ball-hawking ability. The other pick I really liked was Andrew Datko in the seventh round. Had he not had a season-ending injury last year, he would have been taken in the first three rounds. When healthy, he has the potential to be a starting tackle on either the right or left side.

Houston Texans
The selection of Whitney Mercilus in the first round was surprising but that doesn’t mean he won’t make an impact down the road. In fact, if Wade Phillips sticks around as Houston’s defensive coordinator than Mercilus could be a stud in two or three years. The Texans did extremely will in the third and fourth round. Brandon Brooks wasn’t invited to the scouting combine this year but he’s a load at 6-foot-5 and 343 pounds. Fourth-round pick Ben Jones, who played in a pro-style system at Georgia, is a solid fit for the Texans’ zone blocking scheme.

Indianapolis Colts
It’s hard to argue with the Colts’ first three selections. Andrew Luck gives the team a franchise signal caller to replace Peyton Manning, while Coby Fleener (Dallas Clark, anyone?) and Dwayne Allen will emerge as Lucks’ primary weapons outside of Reggie Wayne. Alabama defensive tackle Josh Chapman was also an excellent pick based on the Colts’ switch to a 3-4 defense next year. Chapman should plug a lot of holes for Indy’s linebackers.

Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars’ first two picks were rock solid. They desperately needed a receiver that can make plays outside the number but they also had to get an edge rusher that could make an impact right away. Thus, leapfrogging the Rams for Justin Blackmon in the first and then coming back in the second to snag Clemson defensive end Andre Branch was excellent decision-making by GM Gene Smith. But then he drafted a punter in Brayn Anger in the third, which is just a joke – I don’t care how good Anger turns out to be.

Kansas City Chiefs
If Dontari Poe turns out to be more than just a workout warrior then the Chiefs would have had a very underrated draft. Jeff Allen was a solid pick up in the second round and fourth-round selection Devon Wylie is a highlight reel waiting to happen. Texas A&M running back Cyrus Gray was a very good value-based selection in the sixth as well.

Miami Dolphins
There’s a chance that this draft could turn out to be a total disaster for the Dolphins – it just depends on whether or not Ryan Tannehill and Jonathan Martin produce. Tannehill was arguably a second-round prospect that was drafted at No. 8 overall and Martin has some big question marks as well (most specifically whether or not he’s just a finesse blocker that lacks that killer instinct). Tight end Michael Egnew was also a risky proposition in the third because he can’t block. That said, Lamar Miller was a value pick in the fourth and might wind up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings had a solid draft. Not only did GM Rick Speilman entertain draft followers with a plethora of pre-draft rumors to chew on, but he was also able to acquire three extra picks and still land the player he wanted in Matt Kalil at No. 4. Kalil should start right away and protect Christian Ponder’s blindside for years to come. I wasn’t big on the Harrison Smith pick at No. 29 but I really liked the Josh Robinson selection at No. 66. He has average size but he has outstanding speed and playmaking ability. Jarius Wright is also the perfect seam-buster out of the slot and Greg Childs is a potential sleeper in the fourth round. All in all, I really liked this draft.

New England Patriots
Much like Ted Thompson and the Packers, it’s not surprising to see Bill Belichick and the Patriots succeed on draft day. Belichick will probably turn Jones into a star and Hightower is a perfect fit as an inside linebacker in a 3-4. Illinois safety Tavon Wilson could make an impact right away and Arkansas’ defensive end Jake Bequette reminds me of an undersized version of Justin Smith. Leave it to Belichick to also find value in Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was a third-round prospect before he was arrested in the days leading up to the draft. If he pans out, the Patriots get a steal in the seventh. If he doesn’t, then all they lose is a seventh.

New Orleans Saints
The Saints lessened their chances to find impact players in this year’s draft because they didn’t have picks in the first two rounds. Akiem Hicks is the ultimate wildcard because at 6-foot-5 and 318 pounds, he has tremendous size for the position. But the book on him is that he couldn’t play at LSU so he went to Canada and dominated at Regina. He could be a find or the ultimate flop – who knows? Nick Toon doesn’t have a lot of speed but he has good size and fills the void left by Robert Meachem in the Saints’ offense.

New York Giants
David Wilson is a boom or bust pick in my eyes. He has the explosion and quickness to be a dynamic playmaker at the next level but he also dances too much and he doesn’t have great size. That said, he should succeed in the Giants’ two-back system and give New York’s offense yet another playmaker. Rueben Randle waited a long time to hear his name called but he’s a perfect fit for the Giants’ offense. He’s a true vertical threat and a seam buster, which is what the now-departed Mario Manningham did for New York the past couple of seasons.

New York Jets
Rex Ryan could turn Quinton Coples into a star and it’s hard not to root for Stephen Hill. His route tree was limited at Georgia Tech but he has size, speed and hands – he’ll be fine. Demario Davis is a massive sleeper in the third round. He didn’t draw a lot of attention at Arkansas State but he flies to the football and sifts through traffic extremely well. The rest of the Jets’ draft was so-so in my eyes but the first three picks were all potential home runs.

Oakland Raiders
Just like the Saints, the Raiders didn’t have selections in the first two rounds so they limited their opportunities to find impact players. Tony Bergstrom is a massive tackle that will play guard in Oakland and if healthy, Arizona receiver Juron Criner could be a sleeper in the fifth. But overall, this wasn’t a very inspiring draft and that’s hardly the blame of new GM Reggie McKenzie. He wasn’t left with much.

Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid admittedly made mistakes in free agency last year but he’s doing a hell of a job to make up for it this offseason. Fletcher Cox will have an opportunity to make an impact from Day 1 and California linebacker Mychal Kendricks fits perfectly with Philadelphia’s aggressive scheme. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word and so is the raw but talented Vinny Curry, who was a Mike Mayock favorite in the second round. Had Brandon Boykin not broken his leg at the Senior Bowl he would have been drafted in the second round and thus, he was a steal in the fourth. And speaking of steals, Marvin McNutt and Brandon Washington were outstanding values in the sixth round. A receiver as productive as McNutt shouldn’t have fallen all the way to the sixth round while the big-bodied Washington has second-round talent. This was an “A” draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Want to know why the Steelers continue to challenge for Super Bowls every couple of seasons? Because of drafts like the one they just had. David DeCastro is a top 15 pick that the Steelers got at No. 24. Thanks to his ability to play left tackle at the next level, Mike Adams was a steal in the second round and Sean Spence is a nice fit as an outside linebacker in the third. The massive Alameda Ta’amu is a capable replacement for nose tackle Casey Hampton and fifth-rounder Chris Rainey is the perfect change-of-pace back. Pittsburgh really did extremely well this past weekend.

San Diego Chargers
Considering Melvin Ingram was projected by many to be selected in the first 12 picks, the Chargers did well to land the talented pass rusher at No. 18. He should make people forget about A.J. Smith’s miss on Larry English three years ago. Both Kendall Reyes and Brandon Taylor were solid picks in rounds two and three, while tight end LaDarius Green may surprise. He’s not an in-line blocker but he has the ability to kill defenses down the seam thanks to his size and speed.

San Francisco 49ers
A lot of people viewed A.J. Jenkins as a reach at No. 30 but if the Niners had him atop their draft board then that’s where they had to take him. There was no way he was going to fall to them in the second round, even if they traded up in the middle of the second. LaMichael James was an interesting pick in the second. He has tons of playmaking ability but whatever they call that turf in San Francisco could limit the shifty James, who will serve as Frank Gore’s backup. Talk about value: Cam Johnson in the seventh? Nobody can seem to figure out why he dropped into the seventh round but the Niners did well not to let him hit free agency. Johnson is a third-round talent with a high ceiling.

Seattle Seahawks
I think Bruce Irvin could wind up surprising people. He’s too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 and not stout enough to play otuside linebacker in a 3-4, but if the Seahawks can get creative with him he has the skillset to be disruptive. That said, would I have drafted him that high? There’s no way. And with all of the trading that was going on in the first round, it’s jarring that Pete Carroll didn’t try to trade back even more and taken Irvin much later. The Hawks did well by adding Utah State inside linebacker Bobby Wagner because Barrett Ruud can’t be this team’s starter in the middle. Russell Wilson is short but he’s extremely smart and could challenge for the starting quarterback role in a couple of years. Robert Turbin is one of the bigger sleepers in this draft. He’s not overly fast for the position but he’s a hard North-South runner that will make holes when they’re not there.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams missed out on Justin Blackmon but Michael Brockers is the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the draft and he’s got more pass-rushing tools than given credit for. Mark my words: Brian Quick will be a stud in the NFL. He didn’t hit a growth spurt until late in high school so he wasn’t on the radar of most big-time schools. But he tore it up at Appalachian State and has the combination of size, speed and athletic ability that NFL teams covet. He and fourth-round pick Chris Givens will compliment each other well and should upgrade the Rams’ biggest weakness. Janoris Jenkins is the ultimate wildcard because of his baggage but there’s no denying he can play. In fact, he might wind up being the best cornerback taken in the draft if he can stay focused. Fifth round pick Rokevious Watkins is a road grader and third-rounder Isaiah Pead will finally give the Rams a nice change-of-pace back to complement Steven Jackson in the running game. My only complaint about Jeff Fisher and Les Snead’s first draft in St. Louis is that they missed on several good outside linebackers in the second round.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Given how much teams in the NFC South like to play power football (even the Saints despite their desire to throw the ball), the selection of Mark Barron was a solid one for the Bucs. Tampa also added two speedy backs in Lavonte David and Najee Goode, who could be a steal in the fifth round. Keith Tandy is an underrated prospect that can hit and run, while Doug Martin will be a nice complement to LaGarrette Blount. Greg Schiano added speed and toughness to Tampa Bay’s roster in one draft.

Tennessee Titans
While it came as a surprise, Kendall Wright was a great selection at No. 20. He doesn’t have great height but he’s a playmaker with run-after-the-catch abilities. I really like outside linebacker Zach Brown, who can be engulfed by offensive lineman but he sifts through traffic very well and is a sideline-to-sideline player. The Titans got excellent value with their last two picks, safety Markelle Martin and explosive defensive end Scott Solomon.

Washington Redskins
The Redskins parted with a ton of picks in order to land Robert Griffin III at No. 2, but at least they finally acquired a franchise signal caller. The Kirk Cousins selection in the fourth was a little surprising, not because he can challenge RGIII obviously but because Mike Shanahan didn’t have picks to waste. Cousins could surprise as a nice backup but he’s ultimately going to be a backup. Unless Shanahan expects to catch lightning in a bottle and can one day parlay Cousins into a first-round pick, I’m not sure why he didn’t look to add another potential impact player in that round.

Victor Cruz wants a raise – and deserves one

New York Giants Victor Cruz gestures after catching a pass for a first down against the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter during their NFL NFC Divisional playoff football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin, January 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Victor Cruz is right: The man deserves a pay raise.

After hauling in 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, the Giants’ receiver told PFT Live on Thursday that he deserves “to be paid more money at this point.”

“I think I was paid, you know, relative to where I came in this year and, you know, I came in as a free agent so that’s the salary I was on, so I don’t feel like I was underpaid,” Cruz said. “I mean, I feel like after my performance this year, you know, I feel like I deserve to be paid more money at this point. But that’s something I’ll let my agents and those people take care of and I’ll just go out there and play the game.”

Some may point to his four-catch, 25-yard performance in the Super Bowl as reason why the Giants should wait until Cruz becomes a restricted free agent in 2013 to pay him. But this is yet another case when stats don’t tell the entire story.

Bill Belichick thought so highly of Cruz that he felt the need to double team him in the slot and jam him at the line of scrimmage on the outside. That’s why Cruz barely made a blip on the radar screen during the Super Bowl. The Patriots actually game planned to take him out of the game, which speaks volumes to Cruz’s worth in the Giants’ underrated passing game.

If the Giants were smart they would give him a modest pay raise during the offseason and tell Cruz that if he can match the success he had in 2011, the two sides can talk about a long-term deal when he becomes a restricted free agent in 2013. Cruz doesn’t seem like someone who is going to take the diva route, so it’s doubtful that paying him now would backfire on the Giants. (Again, I’m talking about a modest pay bump – not a $40 million contract.)

Too many times teams will overpay for free agents and rookies that have never played a down for their city, but bulk when it comes to giving their own guys new deals. That’s entirely backwards when you think about it. Teams should strive to acquire talent and then keep those players around when they succeed.

Nobody in that New York front office is a dummy so I expect the Giants’ staff to be proactive when it comes to Cruz’s situation.

Fade Material: Super Bowl XLVI Prediction

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (L) talks to head coach Bill Belichick during the NFL AFC Divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 14, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Technically the Giants aren’t favored for Super Bowl XLVI but they might as well be.

New York doesn’t have the most marketable player (that would be Tom Brady) or the most wins between the two teams this season, but the Giants are the hotter squad and have already proven that they won’t cower to New England in any situation. They have the pass rush to once again slay Brady, a vastly underrated passing game and a quarterback in Eli Manning that doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves for what he does for this New York team.

From a betting standpoint things look awfully good for the Giants as well. They’re 5-1 against the spread in their last six games versus the Patriots, 8-0 ATS in their last eight playoff games as an underdog and 8-1 ATS in their last nine playoff games overall. New England, meanwhile, is 1-7 against the number in its last eight playoff games and 1-6 ATS in its last seven playoff games as a favorite.

Every bone in my body says that the Giants are going to win tonight. But I don’t think they will.

I think the Giants have managed to become overconfident the past few weeks and an overconfident Giants team is a losing Giants team. I think Rob Gronkowski is healthier than people think and he’ll have a big game. I think Bill Belichick will once again take away what an opponent does best and in this case, that’s the Giants’ passing game. I think Tom Brady will have one of those Tom Brady-esq games where he throws for 375 yards and three touchdowns all while being unstoppable in the fourth quarter. I think the Patriots will win.

I’m siding with my gut over my head: Patriots 23, Giants 20.

Super Bowl XLVI Giants vs. Patriots: Five Questions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (L) scrambles for a first down against the New York Giants in the first half of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

With kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI rapidly approaching, what are some of the bigger questions surrounding Sunday’s title game?

1. Can Brady shake out of his Giant funk?
There are just some teams that Tom Brady doesn’t play well against. Entering this year’s AFC championship game, Brady’s completion percentage in five career outings against the Ravens was 55.9, which was his lowest against any team in the league. So it wasn’t any wonder while he compiled a 57.5 QB rating in a lackluster 239-yard, two-interception performance versus Baltimore two Sundays ago. Now he faces a New York team that, again, for whatever reason, he’s had trouble beating. From a passer-rating standpoint, Brady had his worst performance of the season in a Week 9 home loss to the Giants. His quarterback rating of 75.4 in the 24-20 loss was only slightly worse than his 82.5 rating in Super Bowl XLII back in 2008. Save for his 356-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Giants in Week 17 of the ’07 regular season, Brady has struggled to beat this New York team. Following his poor performance, he reportedly told owner Robert Kraft in the locker room following the AFC title game that he would play better in Super Bowl XLVI. For a quarterback that has largely been viewed as cool, calm and collected, it’s not a stretch to think that Brady is feeling the pressure of potentially losing yet another game to the Giants.

2. Can the Patriots slow the Giants’ pass rush?
These two teams have met three times since December of 2007 and during that span the Giants have sacked Brady a total of eight times (including five times in their Super Bowl victory in February of ’08). New York uses four defensive ends in passing situations, which is something no other team can boast. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (9 sacks in just nine games) and Dave Tollefson (five sacks) can line up at the same time because Pierre-Paul and Tuck have the ability to play inside. The Giants also have the option of playing a combination of three of those ends with Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks), who is a highly versatile role player. It’s no coincidence that Brady struggled in New England’s 24-20 home loss to New York in Week 9 considering that was one of the games Umenyiora was healthy for. When the Giants can dress all five of their pass rushers they’re a completely different defense – a defense that the Patriots and their usually solid group of pass blockers has had trouble with in the past two meetings with New York.

3. Can the Pats’ defense slow down all of the Giants’ weapons?
The Giants’ offense doesn’t receive nearly enough attention for how explosive it is. In a lot of ways, that’s a direction reflection of how some view Eli Manning, who also doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves for being a quarterback that can put pressure on a defense with his playmaking ability. For all of the attention that the Giants’ pass rush has received lately, without Manning’s outstanding play the Giants wouldn’t have won nine games this season. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs, upset the Packers at Lambeau, or have an opportunity to make it two-for-two against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Granted, Manning has had help. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have been outstanding for a New York passing attack that stacks up to any offense in the league outside of maybe New Orleans, New England and Green Bay. Mario Manningham is also a weapon in the vertical game because he can attack a defense along the seam, which is important seeing as how New York doesn’t have a Jimmy Graham-type at tight end. Throw in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs (who both have awoken from their season-long slumber) and yes, the Giants offense is that good. That said, New England’s red-zone defense has allowed just two touchdowns in seven opportunities throughout the playoffs, as Denver went 1-of-3 inside the 20 in the Divisional round and Baltimore went 1-of-4 in the AFC title game. Statically speaking the Patriots weren’t very good defensively this season. But they’re starting to come together on that side of the ball so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Giants’ O vs. Patriots D matchup come Sunday.

4. Will Belichick continue to make sound second-half adjustments?
Baltimore has been the only team in the past seven weeks that has matched New England after halftime. The Ravens and Patriots each scored 10 points apiece in the second half of last Sunday’s AFC championship game, but other than that New England has killed teams in the final two quarters. The Pats have allowed an average of 5.7 second-half points in their last six games, which is an indication that Bill Belichick and his coaching staff are making sound in-game and halftime adjustments. In fact, New England has outscored opponents 111-34 in the second half over their past six games so it’ll be interesting to see how Sunday’s game plays out. If the Giants build a first-half lead, can they sustain it?

5. How effective will the “Gronk” be?
At this point the question isn’t whether Rob Gronkowsi will play but rather how effective will he be. This isn’t the same situation as last year with Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who never really had a realistic shot of playing in the Super Bowl after suffering a high ankle sprain in the AFC championship game, because Gronk is going to play. But remember two years ago when Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney tore a ligament in his right ankle late in the AFC title game versus the Jets, played in the Super Bowl but was largely ineffective? Will Gronk be the same player he was for the Pats during the regular season or will he serve as merely a decoy in passing situations? We already know that Gronkowski will likely need his left ankle scoped following Sunday’s game so it’s not unrealistic to believe he could be severely limited. Granted, the Pats do have Aaron Hernandez, who not unlike Gronkowski is a weapon from the slot or tight end position. But the “Gronk” was nearly unstoppable this season and is a major mismatch against defensive backs and linebackers. The Patriots need him to be as healthy as possible if their offense is going to fire on all cylinders.

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