Well, it looks like the snowbirds need to cancel their flights. There are no more vacations in Miami. Parcells, Ireland, and Sparano have already been hard at work reshaping the roster and coaching staff. We have a new O-line coach, a new outside lineback, and a new safety. Bill Parcells is up in Mobile, Alabama scouting out the nations top prospects in the Senior Bowl. And I guarentee that the Trifecta already have free agents on the RADAR, and have begun trying to lock up our own potential free agents. Even before the superbowl, the draft and free agency landscape has already shifted dramatically. Some of the emerging storylines:
We signed former Penn State DE/OLB Derek 'Cameron' Wake. With 191 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 24 TFL, his college numbers were good but not spectacular. He missed one season with a torn ligament in his knee after his freshman season, but returned strong for the next three years. Despite putting up a stellar 4.55 second 40 yard dash, while measuring in at 6'-3" and 240 lbs, he went undrafted. The NY Giants signed him as a college free agent, but he failed to catch on. He spent a year out of football, and signed with the BC Lions. He exploded onto the scene with 16 sacks, and won Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, the first player in CFL history to do so. The next year he followed it up with 23 sacks, and won Defensive Player of the Year again. I think we would all agree that even with half his production he is well worth his 4 year $5 million contract. While not a huge commitment, a contract of this size indicates that the Trifecta feel he will produce. Everyone knows Parcells is on a constant quest to find another LT so it doesn't eliminate the need of OLB entirely, but probably knocks it down a few notches.
The next story that has the potential to shuffle the order of needs is that of Vernon Carey. While his play did not appear spectacular, the word out of the Bubble in Davie is that the Trifecta has made resigning him a priority for this off season. If they are successful, the need for O-lineman becomes far less as Guards are significantly easier to find, and supposedly Sparano is very high on Al Johnson at Center if they decide to move in a different direction from Satele.
The final issue, and main topic of this post, that has changed what I view to be our biggest needs are the whispers that Channing Crowder is highly unlikely to wind up in a Dolphins uniform next season. Simply put, he wants more money than we have for him. It is kind of a shame as he fit in well here; we all saw what happened when he was out of the lineup vs. Kansas City. However, he never made a lot of impact plays, and his injury history do not warrant the kind of investment he seems to be demanding. I really think he will be unpleasantly surprised when he tests the open market, as I don't see anybody willing to give him a large sum of money. But this means we will have to find a replacement for him.
He had 119 tackles last season, good for second on the team. Akin Ayodele, our other starting ILB, lagged pretty far behind with 75. Those 119 tackles are not an insignifacant number. He was the #20 tackler over all in the NFL, and the #7 3-4 ILB. Where are we going to get that kind of production?
There are a few intriguing options available in free agency. I know some will argue this point, but I am tossing Ray Lewis right out the window. With this regime's tendency to replace overpriced aging veterans with young up and coming players, he doesn't fit the profile of who I feel we'd be in the market for. I also feel that for symbolic reasons, it is also highly unlikely he will even hit the market, as he means a lot to the fans and players of the Ravens. I do feel however, that Bart Scott may sneak through. With Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Scott all hitting the open market at the same time, Baltimore may be forced to make a tough choice. As I said, I feel they will do whatever possible to work with Lewis. I can't speak for the Ravens, but if I had to choose between the remaining two I would definitely go for Suggs. He will be looking for a big payday, but his sack production will be far harder to replicate than Scott's tackling. And as an UDFA, the GM may feel he can replace him with just another warm body. Finally, if Lewis ends up staying, they probably don't even need a stud to avoid having a large drop off.
At 6'-2" and 240 lbs, Scott has the size we are looking for - if a tad on the smallish side. And at 28, he is just coming into his prime. While he is fairly well known, it is more for the team he plays on than his production. This past year he put up 82 tackles, and 1.5 sacks so he probably won't be commanding ridiculous amounts of $$ on the open market (that tied him for 80th in tackles). Part of this may be attributable to playing along side Ray Lewis, who may 'eat up' some of his production. If we do go after him, playing alongside Lewis may be a bonus in the intangibles category, as Lewis is one of the best ILBs to ever play the game- so hopefully he was able to soak in some knowledge.
Other than that, I don't see a lot of players who fit the mould of a 3-4 ILB and are young enough to be worth bringing in. Eric Barton could be an intruiging choice. He had 119 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. At 31 he doesn't fit the age profile, but if he could be had at a lower salary, he could be a good stop gap, or a mentor to a player we draft. Speaking of which. . .
Much like free agency this year, the pool of 3-4 ILB candidates is rather dry. Brandon Spikes decision to return for his senior year thinned out the 1st round choices considerably. Obviously, draft grades are subject to change pending the Senior Bowl and the Combine, but right now, only a few college MLBs are projected to be worthy of a first round grade. Rey Maualuga is a beast of a man at 6'-3" and 260 lbs. He put up the numbers to back up the measurables too. The main issue? He will be long gone by the time we pick. Would this regime trade draft picks for an ILB? I doubt they would for almost anybody. They are still in rebuilding mode, which means stockpiling draft picks, not trading them. The other guy is James Laurinaitis. He is 6'-3" and 243 lbs. He put up 121 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 4 sacks his final season. He looks like he has the size to play in our scheme, but the buzz among scouts is that he does not look like he could hold up to the NFL game. I haven't seen it but they are mentioning significant concerns. He also opted out of the Senior Bowl which put a doubt in some scouts minds that he is trying to hide something. Of course, he may dispell all of these fears at the combine, in which case we are faced with another problem; he also is unlikely to be there for our 25th pick.
When I actually sat down to do my homework, I was surprised with the small number of players I found that actually fit the mold of a 3-4 ILB. Simply put, not a lot of prospects have the height/weight/speed combo we are looking for. The one player who showed the most promise to me:
Antonio Appleby- ILB, UVa: 6'-4", 250 lbs, 4.72 40 yard dash.
As you can see, he definitely has the size we are angling for. And for his size, he has above average straightline speed. Although pass coverage isn't his strong point, he is more than willing to give it a try, and is far more fluid than his large frame would suggest. When called upon, he can also rush the passer on an ILB blitz to decent effect. To give you an idea of his athleticism, he was the 25th ranked LB coming out of HS, but the 9th ranked TE. It could be lucky for us that he stuck to defense. He definitely earns his bread stopping the run; he has excellent football instincts, and usually knows where the ball is. He can find the proper tackling lanes, beat or shed the block, and brings his man down. He is schematically sound, knows where his gap is, and hits it hard. If he gets to the ball carrier, he usually is not getting any yards after contact.
The biggest pro in his favor is that, like Clint Sintim, he played at UVa for Al Groh, who is a Parcells disciple, so he will come right out of the gates with an advantage of playing in not just a pro style defense, but a 3-4 defense which is very rare at the major college level.
Over his career he posted the following stats:
|All time vs. Winning Teams|
Not spectacular over all, but not bad. Solid production that gradually increased with experience. As you can see, his stats did not take a huge hit against winning teams, which is always a good sign. Its too easy to rack up big numbers against scrubs in college football. I also included his numbers from their game against USC from last season, as they are by far the closest thing he has played to a pro style NFL offense in his college career. 8 tackes is a very good #, above his average for the rest of the year. And pulling down an INT is pretty remarkable for a man his size going against players of the caliber he was facing. The #1 thing I look for in a player is steady production, but the #2 thing I like to see is players who make big plays in big games, and he seems to fit that profile.
The knocks on him? He could stand to be faster, and he will not be a guy who goes sideline to sideline, or will be seen regularly batting down or intercepting balls. He also missed 1.5 games after a foot injury at Georgia Tech last season, though that is the only injury time missed during his 3 years playing. Mostly, it will be his 40 yard dash time that sees him slip in the draft. Pre-combine, he projects to be a 5th or 6th round pickup. If we get him there, I see him being another Parcells steal as I feel he has the size, speed, experience, and instict to see the field his rookie year.
Honorable mention: Local prospect Frantz Joseph. ILB, FAU: 6'-2", 235 lbs, 4.73 40 yard dash. This player was a monster tackler, gaining 141 tackles, and 9.5 TFL on the season. Unfortunately, he did it in the Sun Belt, one of the weaker 1-A conferences ( to put it in perspective, the Sun Belt champion lost to 7-6 C-USA also ran Southern Miss.). His measurables will probably see him taken in the same range as Appleby, though his slightly lower measurables, weaker competition, and lack of experience in the scheme drop him lower on my list.
Any other FAs or draft prospects you'd like to see?