Friday, January 23, 2015

Offseason Digest #4 - Leonard Williams, DeMarco Murray

Team Irvin running back DeMarco Murray (29) of the Dallas Cowboys speaks during the Pro Bowl Kickoff Press Conference at The Arizona Biltmore on January 20, 2015. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
When talking about DeMarco Murray's 2014, we will always start with the massive workload.  In the history of the NFL, Murray's 2014 ranks tied for 7th all time for most carries in a regular season with 392.  In other words, in the history of the sport, only 9 guys have ever done what he did.
Add in 57 catches, and the 449 touches are 6th all time for a season in the NFL.  Unfortunately, we do not know the actual workload of a guy like DeMarco Murray, because as I preach constantly in this space, one of Murray's real values is his ability to handle any and all blitz-pickup duty when he is on the field.  He is amongst the league's best at diagnosing and addressing any blitzing linebackers and defensive backs and protecting Tony Romo's health.  That adds on the wear and tear of dozens of more collisions that do not end up in the boxscore, but are vital to team success.
Add to that 2 additional playoff games and his carries zoom to 436 (7th all time in a season), his touches to 497 (6th all time!), and add another bunch of blitz collisions.  What a season for a workhorse.
He really gave the Cowboys absurd amounts of value in 2014 for what he was compensated - about $1.5m.
So now, as we consider options on how to keep the band together and how arguably the Cowboys MVP might factor into their 2015 plans, let us consider the other 8 players who have had at least 392 carries in a year.  What did their next year look like?  Most of this information will be as irrelevant as it gets, but for historical context, let's just take a look at the other men on that list.
Larry Johnson *2720064161789
Larry Johnson282007158559
#1 all time for carries in a 16 game season is Larry Johnson of the Chiefs in 2006.  He was a machine that year, so what happened in 2007?  Well, it started with a Hard Knocks-aired contract holdout in camp and a season-ending foot injury in Week 9.  It was a dropoff of over 1200 yards of production and he never came close to another 1,000 yard season.  Once he got paid, he disappeared.
Jamal Anderson *2619984101846
Jamal Anderson2719991959
Jamal had his massive 1998 season, but in 1999 in a Week 2 game against the Cowboys on Monday Night at Texas Stadium, he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season.  He returned for 1,000 yards in 2000, but that was it for his career.
James Wilder2619844071544
James Wilder2719853651300
The Tampa Bay workhorse in the mid-1980's had a good news/bad news follow-up season in 1985.  The good news was it was for 1300 yards.  The bad news was that in his final 7 years, his production declined each year after 1984 and he dropped severely to 700 yards in 1986 and was done as a full-time back.
Eric Dickerson *2619864041821
Eric Dickerson2719872831288
Eric Dickerson was amazing in 1986 and pretty much every year from 1983 to 1989.  He was a spectacular rusher who did see his production drop in 1987, but only because it was a NFL strike year and he was traded to the Colts.  Other than that, he was good as new.
Eddie George *2720004031509
Eddie George282001315939
Eddie George is what inspired (along with Shaun Alexander) the Football Outsiders "370 carries Curse" barrier, it seems.  He ended up with less than 3 yards per carry in 2001 and the tread on his tires were closely examined.  He did regain some form after 2001 and his Madden Cover actually coincided with the 2000 season, but he is the name people look at when this topic is disconcerting.
Gerald Riggs2519853971719
Gerald Riggs2619863431327
Gerald Riggs pretty much kept being a Pro Bowl running back the following year.  Yards per carry fell a bit, but that requires so much more analysis than simply looking at workload, so I hesitate to discuss without examining Falcons game tape (which I am fresh out of from 1986).
Terrell Davis *2619983922008
Terrell Davis27199967211
Here is another famous one.  Terrell Davis had a 4 year span that was unlike anything we ever saw from 1995-1998.  Of course, it helped John Elway end with 2 Super Bowls, and in 1999, the Broncos would soldier on without the QB.  Brian Griese would at least have Davis, right?  Wrong. In Week 4, Davis would blow out his ACL, ironically, trying to tackle a defender who had intercepted a Griese pass.  Davis would never be an elite runner again.
Ricky Williams2620033921372
Ricky Williams27200400
Then, we have Texas' Ricky Williams.  2003 was pretty impressive, so you can remember the confusion when he then retired.  There was a marijuana suspension mixed in and Ricky was far from a normal player, but he did not play at all in 2004.  It should also be noted that in 2002, Williams had 383 carries for 1853 yards.  So his 2003 was technically his follow-up season, which went pretty well.  But, he is a curious case for sure.
And that brings us to DeMarco.  I don't buy that he looked tired in the 2nd half of the season.  I thought he was pretty awesome all the way through the playoffs.  I think, if they choose to keep him, he will be pretty salty in 2015 as well.  But, as we can see above, and as the financial commercials reminds us constantly, past performance is not indicative of future success.
DeMarco Murray *2620143921845
DeMarco Murray272015??????
(Each issue of S.O.D., we shall tackle another draft prospect.  No, I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football.  By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better.  It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.)
Leonard Williams, DE, USC - 6'5, 300 - Age 20
Defensive end Leonard Williams #94 of the USC Trojans sits on the sidelines during the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on October 11, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
There are players that come along that get you very excited to know you are looking at a guy who people will most likely talk about for the next decade.  There are no guarantees, but once in a while a prospect arrives and has almost nothing to complain about.  Welcome to that guy in this draft.  There may be someone who we examine that will be on his level, but I highly doubt there is anyone who will exceed his level of excellence in the 2015 draft.  I watched the Nebraska, California, and Stanford games to review his work.
Williams is just 20 years old.  He played at USC (very well) as a true freshman, and now, just 3 seasons into his college career he has turned pro and shot to the top of everyone's board.  He was a "Top 5" guy in the spring, the summer, the fall, and now the winter.  He is as versatile as they come and that is why it doesn't seem that he is scheme dependent.
What I liked: In short, just about everything.  He is versatile in every aspect, meaning he can beat you with cat-like quickness that is uncommon for a player of that size or he can beat you with strength.  He can beat you inside or outside.  He can play DT, NT, RDE, or LDE.  He can play the 5-technique in a 3-4 or the inside.  He can even stand up as a OLB on the outside if you wish, although that doesn't seem to be as natural.  The point is, you don't have to worry about how he fits.  His hands are quick and powerful, he swims right past his man in a blur, and the best attribute may be his ability to contort and squeeze through tight areas to split gaps wide open.  He gets off blocks, but he also holds them up with 1-arm until the ball carrier gets close, then pushes the OL away to make the stop.  His motor is great and he is as disruptive as they come.  You constantly see offenses scheme their entire day around him so as not to mess with him if possible.  In short, he is the best up front at what he does since Ndamukong Suh was at Nebraska.  In fact, if you needed a clone, there you go.  He plays the run very well and he has really impressive pass rush for a 300-pound hulk.  I could go on about him for quite a while.
What I did not like:  In short, almost nothing.  If there is anything that gives you brief pause, it is that he seemed to always be dealing with a nagging issue or injury.  It never appeared overly serious, but he had to gut through a shoulder and ankle issue in both 2013 and 2014.  Otherwise, he is a plug-and-play difference maker.
Summary: Every year, those of us who study prospects see plenty of players we think could go either way and end up making us look silly.  But, there are a few you are willing to guarantee their stardom moving forward, so much so that you realize he won't fall to your spot in the draft - which means now you just hope he goes somewhere in the league where he won't destroy your team very often.  In other words, Washington at #5 would not be a preferred destination for Mr Williams.  I am pretty sure he is going to be a force in the trenches for a long, long time.  And he is 20!
Today's Email/Tweet Of The Day:
I will work on this.  The guy I missed on most in 2014 would certainly be Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin.  I thought he was too big and headed to tight end.  Then, he had a spectacular rookie season in Carolina.
I have missed on plenty of guys over the years and have a few wins as well.  I will try to put some lists together.  My favorite argument with Norm Hitzges was about DeSean Jackson out of California.  I thought he was going to be an electric pro who would make plays and be awesome.  Norm thought he was too small and had a personality who would be problematic.  Who won that one?
Next time, let's start diving into Washington DT Danny Shelton.  Have a good weekend.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015 NFL Draft - Dante Fowler, Florida

I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.)
Dante Fowler, DE, Florida - 6'3, 260 - Age 20
Dante Fowler #6 of the Florida Gators celebrates with fans following a victory over the East Carolina Pirates in the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field on January 3, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama.
It is important to understand that everything is relative in the NFL Draft.  Some years, there are only 20 1st round players, other years there are 40.  Yet, there are only 32 1st round picks every single year.  Some years, there are top quarterbacks in the draft, other years there are none - yet, someone will get elevated to the #1 QB chosen as he is the best of the choices.  Some years, guys get pushed up because they might be special soon - but are not the finished product now.
I say that to say that Dante Fowler is one of the most talked about edge rushers in this draft - and he has some very interesting and unique talents, yet for me, I don't understand the superlative reviews I have heard around the water cooler from others that put him at the very top of the 1st round.  I would enjoy having him on my team, but I think this is a spot where you can overpay and over invest and while the ceiling is high, I am worried about that floor.  I watched the Florida State, LSU, Alabama, and Kentucky games to get a feel for what he is all about.
What I liked:  There are moments where he looks like he has a rocket strapped on his back as he explodes through the line and into the backfield.  He is exceptional at shooting gaps and causing panic from guards and tackles who are trying to hold him off.  He also has a backside chase down the line of scrimmage on runs away from him that are the best I have seen from the players we have looked at.  He can run with any RB to the edge and you are going to have a real hard time turning the corner on him.  He packs a punch when he wants to get into that backfield and was a clear leader and centerpiece of that Florida defense as he was given the ability to play all over the place: RDE, LDE, Inside LB on 3rd Downs, and was moved to find the appropriate matchup that they were looking for.  He plays very hard and certainly feeds off all of the responsibility he has been given by the coaching staff.
What I did not like:  It did not seem that he was terribly consistent in his performance.  There would be plays where he looked great, and others where he would not play the technique properly and get caught inside on a run to his edge.  He would seem to freelance and leave holes in his spot.  He would also be attacked with direct blocks in the run game and was not holding his spot, even against some Tight Ends, which was quite disappointing. He should have more power, which he may grow into, but for now that is a glaring weakness.  The LSU TE, in particular, had quite an evening knocking Fowler out of the way.  His pass rush is all based on burst as his moves are nothing great.  He insists on a spin move that is very telegraphed and ineffective.  Overall, for this ability and flash, I was hoping for more production relative to those other edge rushers in this mix at the top of the draft.
Summary:  He is an amazing specimen where any coach worth his salt will see the traits that they always covet.  And he won't turn 21 years old until training camp, so he is very raw and young.  With Rod Marinelli as a top developmental coach, I would be fine with handing this project over, but there is a lot of refinement necessary in this player's game which is why I fear he can be over-drafted.  He is what I might call "Sportscenter Great", meaning his Top 10 moments of the year are off the charts.  But, to properly know a player, you can't just look at his best.  You have to look at his ability to show you 60 solid plays in a game, not 2 exceptional and 5 where you don't know what he is trying to accomplish.  Don't get me wrong, I would like to have him, but I don't think he is ready to be a beast in the NFL.  I do, however, expect that he will take over the combine with his physical traits and be a big name this spring.  And, to be fair, by age 23 with the proper coaching?  He might be something very special.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Offseason Digest #3 - Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Rolando McClain, and Safety

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain (55) smiles on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 21, 2014. Mandatory (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
There are few things about the 2014 season more interesting to me than the season of Rolando McClain.   I remember being in Oxnard and watching him as closely as anyone not named Tony Romo (major back concerns to observe) and wondering about his past, present, and future, as it pertains to the NFL and the Cowboys in particular.
They were without Sean Lee, and seemingly, due to Jason Garrett's relationship with Nick Saban and Jerry Jones' ability to wow Rolando with a direct call, were investing any hope they had in the defense being respectable in another professional football player who had not been in a game in 22 months.
In August, it was tough to tell what to believe about McClain.  First, because of studies on draft-able players, he had the reputation of a destroyer in the middle of the field going back to his draft class.  We knew the quality was there.  He was only 25, so this surely wasn't the case of pulling someone out of retirement who wasted their prime years.  He should be right in the midst of a All-Pro career.  Yet, he was barely seen at training camp.  There were explanations of health and conditioning.  Then, days later, there were questions about whether he really wanted to be here.  Then, the rolling of the eyes from sources about "it is always something with this guy".
Week 1 hit, and he slammed Frank Gore to the turf a couple times and suddenly, the Cowboys were seeing the lights go on for the regular season and Rolando McClain was reporting for action.
In September and October, he was a destroyer.  He had some superb games and some dominating moments where he controlled the middle of the field and had some wondering if Rolando might be better at middle linebacker than Sean Lee.  That seem preposterous in August, yet a reasonable topic in October.  It was really, really unexpected.
Then, talk of whether or not 2015 might be a season with both Lee and McClain playing together as a dynamic duo of linebacker quality was imagined.
Unfortunately, as the season went along, we saw yet again that linebacker is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL.  It is a real accomplishment just to stay on the field, and at one time or another, pretty much every linebacker employed by the Cowboys spent time unavailable due to health.
Below, you can see McClain's availability by month:
Wks 1-4Wks 5-8Wks 9-12Wks 13-16PlayoffsTotal
128 of 248222/250173/295131/26229/142654/1199
52% snaps89%59%50%20%54.5%
As you can see above, it was difficult to keep McClain on the field.  He is so good that you would be happy to let him be a 3-down linebacker who can do it all.  He really had very few deficiencies appear when he was out there.  His issue is being out there.  Nagging injuries and concussions were all over.  In a way, he was Sean Lee's replacement with a very similar health dossier.
All indications are that Rolando McClain wishes to continue as a professional football player and ideally I would love to see the McClain/Lee combo happen.  But, I also realize that if I invest in those two guys with pretty much all of my linebacker budget (and then some), that I should prepare for each guy missing a month of the season due to health.  McClain's 654 snaps were a great find, but actually, Lee has played seasons of 868, 331, and 717 from 2011-2013.  If a normal season has about 1100 snaps, you can see that "every down, every game" linebackers are tough to find.
He is a very impressive player, but as an unrestricted free agent, he is one of the more complicated players on the Cowboys' list to value and assess.  Anthony Hitchens is here and well proven in 2014.  Justin Durant or Bruce Carter would be cheaper.  But, Rolando McClain has plays like the moment below that I really don't wish to lose.
He was one of the bright spots of this defense, a clear leader that team-mates respected, and above all else, a player of rare traits.  Do we assume that a year of proper conditioning will lead to a more reliable 2nd season back in the league?  Or, will his style and position always mean he can't play a full year?
I want to keep him.  But, they need to be very careful how far the bidding goes.  $3m a year?  Sure.  $4m a year?  Careful.  More than that?  I think I need to bow out.
Here is today's draft profile.  I know not every reader reads every passage, but please read these few paragraphs.  I have heard from many of you that Randy Gregory and Shane Ray - our first 2 profiles - will not be around at #27 for the Cowboys and that I should only profile players who will be.  I understand your sentiments but I have thought this through.
I started writing blogs like this for the 2011 draft and was able in February to settle on Tyron Smith as my guy.  There were many others I studied, but we all knew that it was going to be Tyron very early in the draft season. That was so easy.
Then, in 2012, when the Cowboys sat at #14, I narrowed it down to 10 guys and studied each of them closely.  I loved Fletcher Cox the most and Dontari Poe the 2nd most.  But, none of the research mattered, because they traded up to get Morris Claiborne, a guy who I didn't really worry about because he was too highly rated and the Cowboys don't draft that high.  I was not terribly prepared and the spring project seemed a waste of effort.
In 2013, with the Cowboys at #18, we studied a ton of players.  But, no amount of study could anticipate they would trade down to the end of the round and grab Wisconsin's Travis Frederick.  Again, this project was too small.
We never know what Jerry Jones is going to do, but he has shown us every year that he might trade up and he might trade down.  So, given that there are 99 days to the draft and given that I want to use those to be ready for any scenario, allow me to write up as many guys as possible so that regardless of what the Cowboys do in the first few rounds, we will know the players, ok?  I know Randy Gregory won't slide to #27.  Let's learn about him anyway.  My advice to those who can't handle that thinking is to skip the ones you don't wish to read.
(Each issue of S.O.D., we shall tackle another draft prospect.  No, I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football.  By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better.  It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.)
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky - 6'4, 264 - Age 21
For the 2nd day in a row, let's check out a fantastic pass rusher from the SEC East.   Bud Dupree is a 4-year starter at Kentucky who has grown into one of the more exciting pass rushers in this draft.  He was not a guy who was on my radar a year ago when we started sorting through the names for the 2015 draft, but in becoming familiar with what he brings to the table, he is another guy who might be in the mix for the Top half of Round 1 if he has a nice spring.
He annoyed the Senior Bowl (along with several others) by opting out of this week in Mobile as we are sure he was advised that he had "more to lose" by going, but a quick view of his tape indicates that he might be right.  For his report, I watched Kentucky play Mississippi State, Missouri, and Louisville.
What I liked:  In watching edge rusher after edge rusher in this portion of our study, it is clear that some just have the tools and technique to get the corner naturally and with ease.  Bud Dupree has a certain element of "DeMarcus Ware" to his game and is as natural as you would hope.  He explodes off the snap and around a tackle at times and on his day is one explosive play after another.  He also had several occasions this year where on run plays he would jump through a gap before the guard/tackle could close the window and be on the running back as he takes the hand-off, leading to a tackle for loss and a forced fumble.  As you know, I am always looking for relentless chasers with motors through the whistle, and in the games I watched, I was very impressed with how badly he wanted the tackle.  He is just a terribly impressive athlete who has traits that cannot be taught.  It would seem that he can develop into a real game-breaker.
What I did not like:  There are moments where you want more.  As impressive as he is, his production level of only 7.5 sacks in 2014 and 7 sacks in 2013 does make you wonder.  He really looks like he has a gear he can find at any point, but in watching 200 of his snaps or so, I would have guessed I was watching a 15 sack season this year.  That did not happen for him.  His scheme will again be important, but, like Ware, when we are talking 6'4 and 265 before he enters the league, he can do either.  I would not assume I want him chasing Darren Sproles around too much in coverage, though.  His run game instincts are good going forward, but something he will have to refine at the next level.  There are a few occasions where it looks like he breaks scheme and freelances a bit.
Summary:  I would probably take Shane Ray before Bud Dupree, but based on the college tape, I think they are both better than Randy Gregory in the present tense.  Gregory and Dupree could have another gear to their careers, though, based on how well they are developed in their young NFL seasons.  Dupree was a tight end conversion in college and just looks like that type of electric player who should get you very excited to join your side.  I wonder if his Senior Bowl opt out might get him into Dallas' neighborhood.  If so, that is an exciting possibility to consider, opposite DeMarcus Lawrence.

Today's Email/Tweet Of The Day:
A few great questions.  First, this is a good pass rush draft, so do not assume that #27 is too low for a good sack guy.  They do go fast, but we have just scratched the surface of the rushers.
Second, a veteran can really help the defensive line, but anyone proven - Suh, Pierre-Paul, are very expensive free agents.  I am not sure what veteran trade target you have in mind, but as you know, the budget is not such that we can buy pass rushers around here.  I think you have to continue to grow your own and Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are already 2 major pieces to your defensive front from the last few drafts.
You safety question is a good one.  I don't think the Cowboys are any better than ordinary at safety.  I think they have two "box" safeties playing together in Church and Wilcox and although I like them both, I think they are a bit redundant.  I think Church is a better player, for sure, but Wilcox has a higher upside if they stick with him.  But, man, what could a proper centerfielder do for this defense?  I have talked about for a long time that we have gone so long without a true free safety around here that we have actually forgotten what a difference one makes.  I would absolutely eye a safety this spring, but this draft is not ripe with them at all, like they were in 2014 when the Cowboys elected Zack Martin over Calvin Pryor, Haha Clinton-Dix, and Jimmie Ward.
I know they don't 2nd-guess that decision, but those are 3 pretty good deep safeties right now.
Next time: Florida's Dante Fowler and more from the Senior Bowl