Archive for March, 2014

Johnny Manziel has seen his stock rise from a number of draft analysts following an impressive performance at Texas A&M’s pro day, and that has the media outlets buzzing about his potential. Specifically, Manziel has drawn what seems like high praise from two very respected names in the world of football. Former Head Coach and QB Guru Jon Gruden, and Hall of Fame Receiver Jerry Rice have both compared Manziel to hall of fame QB and Super Bowl champion Steve Young. Why do I say that only seems like high praise? Well, because they aren’t comparing Manziel to the finished product, but rather the fresh out of BYU brimming with potential Steve Young who saw his professional career begin in the USFL, before being picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a supplemental draft. It always seems to be lost in the legend, at least to the casual fan, but Steve Young was not an overnight success. Young had a record of 3-16 as a starter in two years with a struggling Buccaneers squad before being traded to the 49ers where he would serve as Joe Montana’s back-up for a few years before claiming the starting job.

For what it’s worth I think the comparisons are accurate. Manziel is a few inches shorter shorter than Young, but both were considered undersized and used their legs to get out of trouble often. Young didn’t become a truly great QB until he learned to throw from the pocket, and it’s no secret that Manziel will have to do the same. There is a lot of potential and raw talent in Manziel, but the trouble with any team drafting him in the first round, particularly in the top 10 is that there will be pressure to start him right away and that could be a mistake. Teams need to be willing to take the Aaron Rodgers approach to Manziel, let him learn from the sideline for a bit. Or, if the talent is just too tantalizing, at least settle for a Russell Wilson approach, let him come in and compete for a job, just don’t feel pressure to make him the day one starter if he’s not coming along as quickly as you hoped.

The NFL is littered with draft picks who were rushed into a bad situation and suffered because of it. The Jaguars Blaine Gabbert serves as the most recent glaring example. Gabbert had all the physical tools to succeed, but coming from a spread offense had trouble picking up blitzes. Given a year on the sidelines to study and adjust he may have learned enough to protect himself. Instead he was rushed into the starting line-up and a porous O-Line mixed with a tendency to hold on to the ball too long lead to sack after sack. Gabbert never looked comfortable in the pocket after that…something the 49ers are hoping to fix this season after acquiring the passer for a late round pick.

In short, if Manziel really is the next coming of Steve Young it’s not the Jaguars, Texans, or Browns that should be looking at him, but rather the Saints, Patriots and Manziel’s childhood favorite team the Cowboys that should be looking to Manziel as a Superstar to be groomed behind an aging franchise QB.

Forgive me for the awkward title, but it’s got to be the question on a lot of fans minds after an odd start to free agency for Oakland. If you haven’t been following along the Raiders seemed to make little effort to retain two of their young talents in LT Jared Veldheer and DE Lamarr Houston, both immediately became top free agents at their positions and signed quickly (Veldheer with the Cardinals and Houston with the Bears.) While it seems odd that Oakland didn’t even seem all that interested in negotiating with these players, despite having an abundance of cap space, I wouldn’t be surprised to find negotiations stalled because the players or more accurately their agents sought bigger contracts from the Raiders because of the franchises instability and aforementioned cap space (reminder: this is pure speculation on my part.)

What happened next was baffling, as the Raiders quickly signed Rams versatile lineman Roger Saffold to a big 5 year deal. Maybe the Raiders thought Saffold’s versatility to play inside at guard or outside at tackle was worth the money? They do have the 5th pick in this year’s draft, and Saffold would allow them to take a QB if the right one fell to them without prohibiting them from taking a tackle if an early run on QB’s took their guy off the board. but ultimately it wouldn’t matter as Saffold failed his physical and the contract was voided. (Saffold quickly resigned with the Rams.) In the end the Raiders saved money, and are in good position to land either Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews at #5 if they choose to draft Veldheer’s replacement. Both prospects are touted as future franchise stars at the position, so maybe this was all just some clever ruse to distract people from the need at QB and land a player more suited to the 5th spot in the draft than a QB who could end up as a reach, playing for a team with limited weapons.

On the defensive side of the ball the Raiders at least seem to be faring better. It always seemed that Lamar Houston would be allowed to test the market (unlike Veldheer, Houston made no proclamation that he wanted to be a Raider for life.) Oakland was prepared to lose him and it has shown. The Raider’s quickly set up visits with Justin Tuck and Lamar Woodley, both former feature players in feared defenses coming off bad years. The signing of former pro-bowlers near the end of their careers generally doesn’t pay off, but I think at least from a leadership standpoint this move made a lot of sense. Tuck and Woodley both come from winning programs and can hopefully bring some swagger to a locker room of mostly younger guys who have had to deal with a lot of defeat. Hopefully their winning attitude translates to the field.

I think this also helps explain the signings of Tarell Brown and Antonio Smith. I should clarify that I’m not trying to reduce the impact that these players can have on the field, but I think specifically these players can help change the attitude in the Raiders locker, as well as the product they put on the field. Tarell Brown was drafted to the 49ers in the midst of their Head Coach carousel, he was a 5th round draft pick who worked his way up from a small time contributor on a 5-11 team in 2007 to a starter on a team that has lost 11 regular season games in the past 3 years combined. Smith contributed to a similar turnaround with the Houston Texans after joining the team in 2009. In short I think Oakland has done a good job selecting the right players to fill holes on their defense, even if does add a few years to the team’s average age.

I suppose what’s curious in this is that Reggie McKenzie is signing an awful of veterans to a team that isn’t expected to compete any time soon in the AFC West. While you never know what can happen during the course of the season the Raiders were the only AFC West team to miss the playoffs last season, and the Broncos don’t look ready to give up their hold on the division just yet and the Chiefs still loom as the #2, so why spend money to compete for 3rd place at best? Well, because he wants to keep his job. Mark Davis basically issued an ultimatum to stop making excuses and start winning, but that’s easier said than done. So, I it seems McKenzie’s strategy has been to bring in media friendly names like Justin Tuck and Lamar Woodley, while plugging in Tarell Brown and Antonio Smith for the more avid fan. Next up is a strong draft class where he hopes to be commended for trading out of the #5 spot to gather picks and plug holes while still managing to get a promising young signal caller, similar to what the Bills did last year trading out of #8 and still landing their guy in EJ Manuel as well as hitting on Kiko Alonso and Robert Woods in day 2 of the draft.

I’m not going to predict anything wild for the Raiders, but I do think they’ll be improved. McKenzie is betting on his free agent acquisitions to start a culture change and shift the thinking of players in the locker room. He let two young players looking for big paydays get their money elsewhere and brought in veterans who have something to prove. It’s a gamble, betting on aging superstars reclaiming form, but they might just strike the right balance of youth and experience to make some noise in 2014.