There's been lots of discussion about which of the talented players is more deserving of being the first defensive tackle chosen in this draft, but the debate really boils down to a single question for the NFL team that casts the decisive vote at the end of the month--do you believe that you can you teach technique to a player faster than you can develop his strength?
Retired NFL defensive tackle John Thornton shared his insight on the 6-foot-4, 307- pound Suh and the 6-foot-4, 295- pound McCoy with me this week.
"When you look at Suh's film, out of all the college guys, you'd have to say he did it the right way," the 10-year veteran said. "The only thing that I would say he has to learn is how to play the position as a pro, because he won't be able to toss people around in the NFL like he could in college.
"I think he's going to have to work on beating people rather than just running through them. If he can combine technique with his natural strength and ability, he's going to do better. He's going to have to learn some pass rush moves, because you typically only have 2.8 seconds before the ball is in the air, and teams will scheme for the best players, double-team and try to cut your legs. He's going to be a starter from Day One and teams are going to go after him and throw a lot at him."
Unlike Suh, the issue facing McCoy has little to do with technique.
"He's a smaller guy, more of a penetrator. Most 4-3 guys are going to be that way," Thornton explained. "He's going to have to work on his strength, play the position a bit stronger than he did in college. He's going to have to take that guard and knock him into the backfield a lot, he can't just run in the gaps because teams are going to adjust for that.
"In the three-technique, you're going to run into a lot of double-teams. Any defensive lineman in the NFL needs to learn how to take on blocks and use leverage. Some teams are going to have a big tackle who is going to come down on him, and if he doesn't have the strength or is too small, he's going to be wiped out."
Assuming that both players can overcome those initial personal challenges quickly, there's another piece of advice that Thornton offered that will be essential to their success.
"For these guys it's about becoming a pro and learning the blocks that are going to be coming their way by being up on the film of their opponents," he said. "If they watch the film closely, they'll know that they have an 80 percent chance of a double-team, or that the guard is likely to move towards a specific gap--even before the ball is snapped--and they can make the adjustments that will give them an edge."
Point No. 2: Nine teams have a potentially serious problem at their quarterback situation, but there's only six decent candidates available to help them this year.
I won't be surprised if at least four members of this year's draft class are forced to take the starter's reigns for their new teams before the end of the 2010 season.
QB Sam Bradford
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Unless selected by one of the league's other 23 teams, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and Texas' Colt McCoy will undoubtedly need to step in this season, while Florida's Tim Tebow or Cincinnati's Tony Pike may have to take on the role whether they're truly ready or not. And with only one borderline starter-quality quarterback possibly available via a trade--Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson--that's going to leave some teams with a bad situation at the position heading into training camp. Jackson is currently a restricted free agent and so far no one's been willing to sign him to an offer sheet for a third-round pick as compensation. So if he leaves Minnesota, it would likely have to be for a trade that involves a lower pick or a veteran player.
The Browns, Raiders, Rams, Jaguars and Bills have the most urgent need for improvement as they head into the NFL Draft later this month. Jake Delhomme, JaMarcus Russell, Jason Campbell, Marc Bulger, David Garrard and Trent Edwards aren't going to help their teams be playoff contenders.
But you could also argue that the Panthers, 49ers and Cardinals have a tentative situation with Matt Moore, Alex Smith and Matt Leinart currently penciled-in as starters. And in Tennessee, although the Titans seem to be committed to Vince Young as their starter, they've reportedly been checking out quarterback prospects--and I don't blame them. Until they see which Vince Young shows up this year, they won't truly know if they have a serious problem at the position either.
Point No. 3: Although five quarterbacks attempted at least 550 passes to their wide receivers last year, one was dramatically more successful in completing his throws.
Houston's Matt Schaub threw a league-high 583 attempts to his wide receivers, but completed just 56.3 percent of those throws. The Colts' Peyton Manning, the Bears' Jay Cutler and the Cowboys' Tony Romo all tossed between 550 to 571 passes to their wide receiver corps and completed between 49.0 to 54.5 percent of their efforts.
But New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was in a class of his own. Out of his 565 attempts, he connected with his receivers 403 times for a league-high 70.1 percent completion rate to his wide receivers.
Brady obviously realized that his wide receivers were going to be his most productive targets as the season marched on since he threw 71.3 percent of all his pass attempts to that group. The other four quarterbacks spread their passes around to their tight ends and running backs more frequently, throwing only 54 to 58 percent of their tosses to their wide receivers.
When team owner Daniel Snyder hired Bruce Allen as general manger and Mike Shanahan as head coach, I was really optimistic that the team was heading in a positive direction.
And I still believe that.
But I also believe that the addition of former Chiefs malcontent Larry Johnson will be the team's biggest mistake since signing Albert Haynesworth to a seven-year, $100 million contract that guaranteed the defensive tackle $41 million.
Almost exactly a year ago, I questioned the move by the Redskins in my 7 Points column, pointing out that Haynesworth had never stayed healthy enough to start every game in a single season and didn't really dominate at his position until the two seasons prior to being eligible for a big free agent contract. I believed that once Haynesworth knew he was guaranteed that much money in his bank account, he'd go back to being an erratic performer based on his past behavior.
While I'm not always right, Haynesworth did his part to make me look a bit smarter last year. He played in just 12 games for Washington and made 29 tackles. His four sacks were his lowest total since 2006 and his combination of 17 quarterback hurries and knockdowns put him in a tie for 69th-best in the league. That's not exactly the kind of results you'd expect from a $100-million man.
"You're not going to remember Albert Haynesworth as a bust," he said last February.
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Well, we'll see.
But that leads us to Johnson, who met with the media for the first time this week since signing with the Redskins as a free agent earlier this year.
The former Chiefs running back was once the subject of headlines for his rushing prowess, rolling for more than 1,700 yards in consecutive seasons back in 2005 and 2006. And he scored 37 rushing touchdowns during that two-year span. But since then, his headlines have focused on off-the-field problems, anger-management issues, and a a pair of incidents at night clubs that resulted in being sentenced to two-years of probation. The former Penn State star was finally released by the Chiefs last November after insulting head coach Todd Haley and using a homophobic slur towards another individual on Twitter. He finished the last seven games of the season as a reserve behind Cedric Benson in Cincinnati.
To make matters worse, over the past three seasons Johnson averaged just 649 rushing yards per year. He didn't score a single touchdown last year during 178 carries and 15 catches.
Keenly aware of his current circumstances, the 30-year-old rusher said nearly all the right things during his press conference this week--that he's coming in to work hard and impress the coaches, realizing that how hard he works will determine his positioning on the depth chart and how many carries he'll get.
But here's a quote from that press conference that popped out at me. And when viewed in light of his past behavior, it should remind everyone that Larry Johnson is a man who seems to only play by the rules he sets for himself.
"You have to regain a respect as far as how many touches you can and can't have," he said. "In Kansas City I felt that I deserved more because I had been there before any of the other coaches that got there."
So will Johnson come in and work hard because he has a chip on his shoulder? You bet. It apparently makes sense to him that you initially have to work hard to gain the respect of your new team and coach if you're the new guy.
But if Mike Shanahan's assessment of Johnson's hard work eventually doesn't match up to Johnson's self-assessment, will Johnson become the cancer and malcontent that he was in Kansas City? I think so. Because Larry Johnson is Larry Johnson, just like Albert Haynesworth is Albert Haynesworth.
The only difference will be that Shanahan won't put up with Johnson's me-first behavior as long as the Chiefs organization did.
Point No. 5: You'll be surprised to learn which running back was the most effective in the red zone last year.
Out of the running backs who had at least 25 carries inside their opponents' 20-yard line last year, no one was more effective at crossing the goal line than Baltimore Ravens veteran Willis McGahee. During his 29 red zone runs, the 28-year-old back scored 11 times for a league-best 37.9 percent touchdown rate.
Point No. 6: Iowa's Brian Bulaga has a legitimate shot at being a starter at left tackle during his rookie season.
Assuming that the team that drafts him doesn't already have a highly-successful veteran anchoring the left tackle spot, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound lineman is one of those rare players who has the attitude and precise technique that could help him jump immediately into that key role. But with the rise and fall of NFL teams being closely tied to the health of their starting quarterback, protecting his blindside is a responsibility that most coaches are hesitant to put on the shoulders of a rookie.
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"The last one I can remember is Jake Long with the Dolphins," Bulaga told me this week. "Usually guys start off on the right, but I would love the challenge and to be given the opportunity at it. Personally, I believe I could do it because of my toughness, footwork, athleticism and my mentality, but that'll be the team's decision."
As the former Hawkeye lineman has met with and worked out for NFL teams, they've given him plenty of feedback about the way he plays the position.
"They like my intensity and technique," he said. "I take a lot of pride in playing very physical and very tough, but also playing with poise and composure. That helps me use my technique to the fullest advantage and makes the game easier than what it really is."
Teams with a top-ten overall pick in this year's draft have let Bulaga know that he's a strong candidate to be their selection even though there are three outstanding tackle candidates in this year's class. And since he's arguably the best technician at his position out of the three, I asked him what he sees as the keys to being successful while blocking on a pass play versus a run play.
"With pass blocking, everything starts out with your set," he replied. "You've got to get a good set based on the alignment of the defensive end. With a bad set, you're either going to get beat inside or beat up the field.
"Run blocking boils down to the attitude you bring, and your pad level--because the lowest guy is more likely to win. From there, it's just a dog fight and who wants it more."
Point No. 7: Redskins defensive end Brian Orakpo is a first-round freak.
The 13th pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft achieved something extraordinary when compared to his peers from the last three drafts. The former Texas Longhorn logged 11 sacks during 16 starts as a rookie.
Over the last three years, 13 defensive ends have been selected in the first round, but three of them were immediately slotted at linebacker. Out of the remaining ten players who lined up as defensive ends, six of the ten tallied two sacks or less during their first NFL season. Two others--the Rams' Chris Long and the Jaguars' Derrick Harvey-- contributed 4.0 and 3.5 sacks, respectively. While some might see four sacks as being a significant number, it's not that special when you consider that 51 defensive ends had four sacks or more last year.
The defensive end who ranks second to Orakpo in rookie sacks production out of the last three draft classes is the late Gaines Adams, who dropped the quarterback six times back in 2007. The former Buccaneers player was traded to the Bears last October and tragically died of cardiac arrest in January at the age of 26.
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