Archive for April, 2010

NFC North Draft: A Quick Review
April 26, 2010

A Three-Day Draft? I'll Need An Extra Dora The Explorer Easy-Up To Survive!

I’ve learned two things this weekend.

One is that being able to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates doesn’t make you a good team any more than calling a product “fruit snacks” makes it any healthier than candy. (If my two-year-old daughter is reading this, I’m on to you!)

The other thing I’ve learned is that the NFL Draft is one televised event that definitely belongs on cable.

Let me explain: When my parents first plugged into cable way back in 1985, there was a distinct difference between broadcast television and cable television. Broadcast television content was cleaner, to be sure, but it was also unspeakably better.

In the last twenty-five years (Wow. It’s been that long since I used to waste hours upon hours waiting for the “Like A Virgin” video to come on?), the broadcast/cable line has been blurred to the point that it basically has ceased to be. No better reminder of that exists than this week’s announcement that TBS will next year begin to share March Madness with CBS, including having exclusive rights to the Final Four and championship game every other year beginning in 2016.

To me, having the Final Four on anything other than broadcast television is shocking, although many younger people probably see little difference between TBS and CBS. (Which is why Conan O’Brien going to TBS isn’t anywhere near the step down career-wise that he self-mockingly pretends it to be.)

That’s why I find the annual airing of the NFL Draft so retro, so comforting. It is a cable show that simply isn’t good enough for broadcast.

Don’t get me wrong. I was right there through much of it, but no one with a pulse would argue that it’s good television. The awkward silences as the panel (I chose to stick with ESPN over the newer-kid-on-the-block NFL Network) waits for Roger Goodell to announce the picks. The constant repetition (I think Jon Gruden repeated about five different phrases all weekend). The confusion over which correspondent is set to interview who where. The missed camera cues as Tom Jackson slowly lulls viewers and cameramen to sleep.

Not good television, but perfect cable television.

And after all 800 hours of it was over, Mel Kiper’s hair still looked perfect, Jon Gruden still looked constipated, and 32 NFL teams hoped that they had bettered their team for 2010 and beyond (if there is a beyond).

And although it’s impossible to accurately gauge the success of this year’s draft months before any of the chosen players take the field for their new teams, it is possible to look at the quality of players each team received and how each team targeted their respective areas of need.

So how did the NFC North teams do? Let’s take a quick look:

Green Bay Packers. The draft started out wonderfully for Ted Thompson as offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga unexpectedly fell to them at No. 23. But then things got a little questionable. The trade up to get safety Morgan Burnett should result in a good competition between him and injury-prone Atari Bigby.

But the fifth-round pick of Penn State’s TE Andrew Quarless was outright bizarre given Quarless’s past suspensions for drugs and alcohol and that the Packers, with Jermichael Finley, Donald Lee, and the on-the-rise Spencer Havner, had no need at that position.

And while no one would argue that running back was a need for Green Bay, why Buffalo’s James Starks, a player who missed the entire 2009 season with a shoulder injury?

More troubling was that the need areas of cornerback, linebacker, and punter (yes, punter) went unmet. We get it, Ted, that you don’t draft for need, but do you have to be so obvious about it? Grade: C+.

Minnesota Vikings: The most maddening thing about the Vikings’ otherwise solid choices was their obvious desire to not make Brett Favre mad.

Why else wouldn’t they have snapped up Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy when both QBs fell to them? The move also speaks volumes about Favre’s apparent unwillingness to mentor a QB in what everyone assumes — despite the danger inherent in assuming anything about Favre — will be his final — no, really — season. Purple fans would have been ecstatic to know that their team had someone, anyone waiting to take over other than Tavaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels when Favre retires or dies, whichever comes first.

Also, with Adrian Peterson’s stock falling and Chester Taylor now in Chicago, why let Detroit snap up Javhid Best? The Vikings have to hope that second-round pick Toby Gerhart will be good enough to make fans forget they passed on Best. Elsewhere, the Vikings did very well, addressing need areas of cornerback, linebacker, and offensive and defensive linemen. Grade: B-.

Detroit Lions: It’s easier to draft well when you have an early pick and so many needs. Still, the Lions have to be commended for voodooing the Vikings into a trade that allowed them to take California’s Javhid Best — relying on the mediocre Kevin Smith so much had become predictable and ineffective.

And many had DT Ndamukong Suh rated as the best player in the draft. Suh will make the Lions’ defensive line a force immediately. Similarly, adding on Iowa cornerback Amari Spievey in the third round will improve their backfield. It seems like we say this every year, but is this the season we have to start taking the Lions seriously? Grade: A-.

Chicago Bears: The Bears, along with the Steelers, Jets, and Redskins, have been one of the busiest teams this offseason, acquiring stud defensive end Julius Peppers and former Viking running back Chester Taylor to fill two of their bigger needs.

Those moves offset the fact that they didn’t have a pick in the 2010 draft until the third round, having traded their second round pick last October for defensive end Gaines Adams (who unfortunately died in January) and their first-round pick as part of the deal that landed them Jay Cutler.

So the Bears didn’t have a great draft simply because they didn’t have a lot of picks (five total) and none before No. 75. Still, they addressed some defensive needs – remember when the Bears used to be able to stop teams? – and I like the addition of Central Michigan QB Dan LeFevour in the sixth round to backup Jay Cutler, who spent much of the 2009 season on the verge of complete implosion. However, failing to draft a desperately needed receiver may just result in Cutler finalizing that implosion. Grade: C.

Time for me to go catch up on some good broadcast television – what am I going to watch next year when Lost and 24 are no longer on? – and time for Mel Kiper, Jr. to go back in storage.

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Packers 2010 Draft Preview: Problematic Predictions
April 19, 2010

I'd like to draft that Halle Berry, if you know what I mean . . .

Despite the general perception that the Green Bay Packers are excruciatingly predictable in the way they build their team – you hear the words “blockbuster trade” associated with Packers GM Ted Thompson about as often as you hear the words “bondage party” associated with Betty White – the team’s recent drafts have had their share of surprises.

Some of the surprises have worked out. Trading up to get linebacker Clay Matthews last year resulted in the Packers having a rookie Pro Bowler for the first time in thirty years. And remember Thompson’s initial first-round pick as Packers GM in 2005 was on a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers who seems to have adjusted to the pros just fine.

Other draft day head-scratchers have not panned out as well. 2007 first-round pick DE Justin Harrell and 2008 second-round QB selection Brian Brohm (since signed by Buffalo) are as beloved in Green Bay as Randy Moss and any mention of raising Wisconsin’s beer tax.

But the point is that Thompson can surprise. And this year, with the NFL draft expanded to three days instead of the usual two, surprises could increase exponentially as teams have more time to analyze and prepare, particularly for Friday’s second round but also for Saturday’s fourth round.

Teams that rely heavily on building through the draft – like the Packers – are likely to use that extra down time to trade picks, either to move up to get a player they want who’s still available, or to move down to add a quantity of picks if quality is not perceived to be there.

So predicting the NFL Draft this year – especially that second round – is more problematic than usual, and it’s especially problematic with a team like the Packers who stress taking the best player available, a philosophy Ted Thompson emphasized in last Friday’s press conference.

“I honestly and truly believe that if you get caught up trying to reach for need at all, that’s when you make your mistakes,” Thompson said. And I feel like our core team is strong enough that we don’t have to search out like that.”

But no draft strategy is foolproof and the Packers – like every team – have needs.

So even though Thompson resists such strategizing, here are the Packers’ eight biggest needs in conjunction with how they should spend their eight (for now) draft picks on addressing each one:

Round one (pick 23): For a team as young as the Packers, their starting tackles are old and beat up. Left tackle Chad Clifton is entering his eleventh season and suffered two ankle injuries last year, the second coming in the Wild Card loss to the Cardinals. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is equally old and injury-prone.

The emergence of 2009 fourth-round pick T.J. Lang – who played at both tackle positions in 2009 – improves the situation somewhat, but Lang was drafted as a guard and Green Bay probably will want him back in that position.

If USC OT Charles Brown – an intelligent player touted as having those  intangible “good instincts” – is still available at pick 23, the Packers should snap him up. Brown may need time to develop, but with Lang available to rotate in, the Packers may be able to grant him that time.

Round two (pick 56): While cornerback Charles Woodson had a career year in 2009, deservedly earning 2009 Defensive Player of the Year honors, not all was right in the Packer’s backfield. Corners Al Harris, Will Blackmon, and Pat Lee all suffered season-ending injuries. Harris’s injury was not only the most significant, but the most troubling given his starter role and his age (35).

It was no coincidence that the Packers’ pass defense had their worst games of the season after Harris went down, exposing the likes of Tramon Williams and Brandon Underwood as not quite the heir apparents to Woodson and Harris.

The Packers would love to land either Alabama’s Kareem Jackson or Florida State’s Patrick Robinson here to add depth to their cornerback position. Both are speedy players who should adapt quickly to the aggressive style employed by Woodson and Harris.

Round three (pick 86): Although he struggled adapting to Dom Capers’s toupee – I mean, 3-4 scheme – losing outside linebacker Aaron Kampman to the Jacksonville Jaguars was still a significant loss. Though seventh-round pick Brad Jones filled in pretty well when Kampman went down with a knee injury, Thompson and McCarthy need to shore up what is otherwise a very solid group of linebackers.

If they can risk taking a hit on the character issue, which Thompson admits is important, the Packers would be wise to take linebacker Brandon Spikes from Florida if he’s still available.

Spikes is infamous for appearing to try to gouge the eyes of a Georgia player in a game last Halloween. Not the sort of incident to endear yourself to sports talk-show hosts, but the sort of incident that may cause him to fall to the Packers late in the third round despite being widely considered one of the top linebackers in this year’s draft.

Round four (pick 122): Here we get into some serious speculation, but after discussing linemen and corners, how about a so-called “skill” position? In a league where two productive rushers are more and more important to a team’s success, Brandon Jackson hasn’t stood out as a solid number two behind Ryan Grant. Perhaps Joe McKnight from USC, a small but explosive runner, could prove a better change-of-pace back to Grant.

Round five (picks 154 and 169): The Packers are relatively thin at safety, and adding a character guy like Florida State’s Myron Rolle, who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and missed the 2009 football season in order to study at Oxford University, would be a great story. Rolle is an impressive guy who could be unfairly ignored in the draft due to his obvious interests outside of football.

With their second fifth-round pick, a defensive end makes sense. If he hadn’t tore his ACL in January practicing for the Senior Bowl, Wisconsin’s own O’Brien Schofield would be a sentimental pick here. But given Schofield’s injury, a more durable player like Arthur Moats from James Madison or Florida’s Jerrmaine Cunningham would be more logical.

Round six (pick 193): Some project the Packers taking a guard with one of their first three picks, and while I don’t argue it’s a need, I don’t think they need to address it quite so early. But it’s a position they should look at by Saturday. If he’s around, Mike Johnson was key to an impressive rush attack at Alabama and would be a steal in round six.

Round seven (pick 230): Quick. Name the Packers’ punter. If you said Jeremy Kapinos, you’d be wrong. Kapinos was booted — pardon the expression — by the team after a so-so 2009 season. (Has a punter for the Packers ever not had a so-so season?) 

Right now the Packers’ depth chart at the position consists of two players that combined have exactly zero NFL experience, including one who made his name in Australian Rules Football, which I haven’t seen since ESPN was in its infancy and was forced to devote much airtime to fringe sports like Australian Rules Football and NHL hockey.

 The punter position has been surprisingly maddening for the Packers recently. Why not have another go at finding someone, anyone to fill this easily mocked but highly important role?

Enjoy the draft and its new format and best of luck to O’Brien Schofield and Garrett Graham.

Remember the NFL schedule gets released Tuesday evening. Somehow the NFL Network has figured out how to make a primetime show out of answering the burning question of just when the Rams will play the Chiefs. Brilliant.

They Will Not Be Mocked
April 9, 2010

On a recent airing of the Mike and Mike show on ESPN Radio, Mike Greenberg (he’s the metrosexual “Mike”) revealed that he predicted the Milwaukee Brewers would win the NL Wild Card in 2010.

Mike Golic (he’s the schlub “Mike”) and whatever interchangeable ESPN baseball analyst was guesting at the time immediately set about ridiculing Greenberg for his hilariously misinformed opinion, blasting him as if he had claimed that Jim was the most talented Belushi brother.

Golic and Buster Kurkjian offered up Atlanta, Colorado, Arizona, or even the NL Central’s own Cincinnati Reds as likelier candidates for the Wild Card.

As quickly as my ears had perked up at the mention of Ken Macha’s club, I just as quickly pondered why the prediction was met with such scorn — after all, the Brewers captured the Wild Card just two seasons ago, and it wasn’t as if Greenberg was predicting the Brewers would sweep the 2010 World Series.

The question is, then, have the Brewers fallen that far off from their 2008 season to become a virtual laughing stock at the self-proclaimed Leader In Worldwide Sports?

Let’s explore.

On the offensive side, which has long been the Brewers’ strength, the talent has arguably gotten better. There is no reason to believe that Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder shouldn’t continue to attack pitchers like my father attacks a plate of Chili’s baby back ribs.

Casey McGehee proved last year to be a meteoric improvement over Bill Hall at third base. Jim Edmonds, even with a rough debut, seems to be proving a better option than the perpetually slumping Corey Hart. Although music mogul Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds would proabbly be a better option as well.

Rickie Weeks seems primed for a breakout year. If, and this phrase is mandated by law to be included with every mention of the oft-injured second baseman, he can stay healthy.

And players like shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Carlos Gomez – who began his Brewers career going 4-for-5 on opening day – have a ton of “upside,” which is fantasy baseball owner speak for “they might stink, but they might not. In any case, they’ll be better than Jason Kendall.” It remains to be seen, however, if the new Jason Kendall, catcher Gregg Zaun, will be an improvement over his predecessor behind the plate. Early indications are not good.

What the Brewers don’t have in 2010 and what they didn’t have in 2009 in compiling the league’s worst ERA is a stud pitcher like Subway spokesperson C.C. Sabathia. Granted, the Brewers didn’t have Sabathia when the 2008 season started, but by starting seemingly every other game during the season’s stretch run, he ended up being the biggest reason the Brewers were able to make their – albeit brief – return to the postseason.

However, there is much reason to be hopeful about the Brewers’ pitching staff in 2010. Yovani Gallardo, despite being hopelessly overrated (a 2009 3.73 ERA only looks great compared to the rest of Milwaukee’s starters), is a solid, if unspectacular, number one hurler who now, thanks to a $30.1M, 5-year deal announced Wednesday, no longer has to worry about where his next meal or Netflix download is coming from.

And while the continued presence of Dave Bush and Manny Parra makes my heart palpitate even more than one of those new KFC slabs-of-chicken-as-bun sandwiches, the offseason signings of Doug Davis and especially Randy Wolf has to make Milwaukee’s starting rotation at the very least respectable.

The bad news, of course, is that neither was particularly impressive in their season debuts, with Wolf allowing nine hits and four runs in 6-2/3 innings on Tuesday. Davis was even worse, giving up six hits and four runs in just four innings on Wednesday.

The good news is their bullpen thus far has been solid, most notably on Wednesday, when Todd Coffey, Carlos Villanueva, Mitch Stetter, and LaTroy Hawkins all combined to bail out Davis.

Not that any team wants to have to turn to their bullpen in the fifth inning, but it’s a confidence booster for the entire team nice to know that if that unpleasant situation presents itself, the relievers can do the job.

The other bad news? Unless Jeff Suppan ditches his rolled-up towels and starts sleeping on a stack of old Foghat albums, his neck is bound to get better and he is bound to pitch again for Milwaukee.

Oh, the horror.

In short, while I am normally a fan of derision and scorn, I find this week’s mockery of ESPN’s Mike Greenberg completely baseless and unnecessary. There is no reason to believe that the Milwaukee Brewers are NOT a legitimate NL Wild Card contender. In fact, I’ll pick them.

Here are my other picks:

AL East: Yankees. Give me a reason why they can’t repeat. What, they’re too old? Hasn’t baseball proved itself as the sport where guys like Julio Franco and Jamie Moyer can play until they’re nearly as old as Simon and Garfunkel combined?

AL Central: Twins. Yeah, I know they don’t have Joe Nathan. Early indications are they’ll score enough runs that it won’t be as much of a problem as initially feared.

AL West: Mariners. Only if Milton Bradley can stay off the crazy train.

AL Wild Card: Red Sox. Don’t believe the Tampa Bay hype.

NL East: Phillies. Best roster in the National League.

NL Central: Cardinals. Probably the second-best roster in the National League.

NL West: Rockies. Although I haven’t been too impressed thus far.

NL Wild Card: Brewers. See above. And no, I don’t believe that Jason Heyward is the next Henry Aaron.

World Series: Yankees over Phillies. Sorry to not give a shocking prediction, but unlike Mike Greenberg, I have a fear of being mocked.

Enjoy the season.

Go Badgers, Go Bucks.