Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sports Quick Hits - Memorial Day Edition

We at Two Guys Talking Sports hope you had a great Memorial Day Weekend and we would both like to thank our troops here and abroad that make the United States of America the greatest counry in the world. Thank you!

College Football

Perhaps in a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel resigned among many rumors and allegations of his players having received improper benefits, 5 of whom are already suspended for the first 5 games of the 2011 season. Now, we've found out that a Sports Illustrated article slated to hit newsstands this week has evidence of violations going back to 2002, including rigged raffles that gave prizes to potential Buckeye recruits. I guess we should've paid more attention to Stanley McClover's HBO segment during the Cam Newton saga. McClover, who played at Auburn, and then had a brief NFL career, was recruited by Ohio State. He claims to have received money from the Buckeyes, Michigan State, and at an LSU football camp. In the HBO special, he also claimed that Ohio State provided him with an empty dorm and multiple women whom he had his way with. I've heard several reports such practices were still operational as late as Solomon Thomas being recruited to Columbus.

All things considered, I think this is the right move by Jim Tressel, and unlike most Buckeye fans, this didn't come as a shock to me. I think he was going to be out one way or another sooner rather than later. It also lends credence to my crazy uncle's rumor about Bo Pelini, the current head coach at Nebraska. In a fit of "Buckeye fever" let's call it, after a big win circa 2007 if my memory serves me well here, my uncle (who is an alumni chapter president in a rather large city, and has personal ties to Archie Griffin and Gene Smith) called me up and said he'd heard a rumor that Tressel was going to retire after QB Terrelle Pryor left Ohio State, and the front-runner (Pelini was at LSU at the time) would be Bo Pelini, himself a former Buckeye. Just some food for thought, we'll see if it happens. Pelini 2012!

I won't miss Tressel as much as others will. My own grandmother said she'd have voted for him to be the Pope. I think know that everything he preached about integrity and doing the right thing just comes of as a sham and his resignation saved what little dignity he had left. While he brought a National Championship to Columbus, along with 3 National Championship Game appearances, multiple Big 10 titles, and a sterling record versus rival Michigan, his legacy will be for something else. I myself thought he was overrated and often got out-coached against better opponents, and he couldn't get the Buckeyes to win from behind if they trailed by more than 7 points (they weren't behind often as they played "weaker" non-conference opponents and the Big 10 took a pretty big dip in recent years) but he had a winning tenure. Now, as Ohio State's immediate future rests in the hands of Luke Fickell, we'll all be left to wonder what Tressel was really doing in Columbus.


The Florida Marlins would be in first place in any division except their own, and the AL Central. All those trades and non re-signing key players have allowed the Marlins to build from within and they have a ton of young talent. Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, Emilio Bonafacio and others have contributed to a 30-22 record, and they have the look of a team that will contend next year, as they open a shiny new stadium near downtown Miami, as well.

No one in baseball is hotter than the Arizona Diamondbacks who've come out of nowhere in the NL West to take over 1st place this past weekend with a 30-24 record. However, a closer look at their coaching staff says that this maybe shouldn't be as much of a shock.

Manager - Don Mattingly
Batting Coach - Don Baylor
Pitching Coach - Charles Nagy (remember him Indians fans?)
First Base Coach - Eric Young
Third Base Coach - Matt Williams
Bench Coach - Alan Trammell
Special Assistant - Jerry Krause

That's like a mix of 1980s and 1990s All-Star teams. Maybe coaching really does make that big of a difference.

I'm going to go ahead and label the Milwaukee Brewers as pretenders right now. Until they've proven they can beat the Cincinnati Reds and play decent ball away from Miller Park, where they're 21-7 on the year and just 8-18 on the road, they're not going anywhere. And the Reds right now are colder than just about anyone or anything other than the draft going through Jim Tressel's office (sorry Chizzy, I had to).


The NBA Finals start tonight, and while I may have lost in my bracket - I had the Lakers over the Bulls in 7 - not all is lost. It's actually a pretty compelling rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals where the Heat, behind Shaq and Dwyane Wade, defeated the Mavs 4-2. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, etc all might be playing in their last NBA Finals. The Big 3 get a chance to prove that triumvirates can actually win in the NBA. LeBron's in his second NBA Finals, Bosh is in his first, and D-Wade gets to defend his 1-0 record.

I'm torn on who to root for. Dwyane Wade's one of my all-time favorite NBA Players, but I loathe LeBron James. Seriously, is their a bigger pansy in professional sports than the "King"? We'll see if he continues his abnormally good clutch play in the Finals. As for the Mavs, I've never really been a Jason Kidd fan, but how can you not appreciate Dirk Nowitzki? I mean, just check out this, this, and this with an assist from Steve Nash, and you'll know why I'm rooting for him. That, and he's just an offensive genius.

I guess when it comes down to it, I'm pulling for the Mavs, if only to see what kind of victory parade Mark Cuban would throw in Dallas. I mean, the players have HD television sets and PS3's in their lockers. I think he'd throw a helluva party. On the other hand, if I'm a betting man, give me Miami in 5. I think they've got it this year, and as much as I hate to type this, I think LeBron's going to guard Dirk and shut him down.


No real news to report here. NFL Network's showing their Top 100 players, and so far, I've got to say I'm sort of mixed. Donovan McNabb makes it but LeSean McCoy doesn't? Or the Bengals not landing any of the three between Andrew Whitworth (I personally don't think he deserves to be on the list), Jonathan Joseph, or Leon Hall? The last two certainly are worth serious consideration. I'll congratulate the Dolphins' Cameron Wake (63) and Brandon Marshall (61) for making the list, as well as left tackle Jake Long, who is on the list, but they haven't gotten that high yet.

Friday is NFL Armageddon day. The appeals process continues in the 8th Circut Court of Appeals in St. Louis. I went into this more in last week's Quick Hits edition, so I'll just let you form your own opinion of whose side to be on.

In my personal opinion, I'm supporting the players in this case, however , in order for there to be an NFL season this year, the following is what needs to happen:

1) DeMaurice Smith and the Players present a not-so-great case on Friday. DeMaurice Smith and his crazy antics are making him more the fall-guy every day.

2) The 8th Circut Rules in favor of the NFL by mid-July (reportedly the earlist a ruling would come down according to Adam Schefter).

3) This forces both parties to go back to the collective-bargaining process as Roger Goodell has wanted for some time now, and hammer out a deal that eliminates the potential for any 18-game schedule, agree on a salary cap and a rookie wage scale, provide better benefits and pension for retired players, and insert a clause that examines stupid rules - like everyone the NFL has come out with this offseason, such as kickoffs being moved to the 35 and the Steelers rule.

4) Agree on provisions for free agency for this year. Hopefully, this will allow for players who've accrued at least 4 NFL seasons to become unrestricted free agents.

5) Get back to Football. It's as simple as that. The fans want football.

Other Sports News

- Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 thanks to a wreck on the final lap.

- The NFLPA has formed its own Rookie Symposium for players to attend since the traditional one has been cancelled by the lockout.

- Albert Pujols, the consummate pro, will play 3rd base again tonight for the Cardinals.

- FC Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League with a 3-1 defeat of Manchester United over the weekend.

Friday, May 27, 2011

KD's NFL Draft Grades - Cincinnati Bengals

If I were grading NFL teams on their ability to play their "poker hand" so to speak, the Bengals would get an F because they didn't fool anyone. They not so secretly let it be known that A.J. Green would be their primary target with the 4th overall pick and that they'd target a QB in the top of the 2nd round. Well, that's exactly how it went for the Bengals, who in the last few years have pulled in some pretty solid players via the draft. They've added some key defensive pieces in Rey Maualuga, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap over the last few years, and the trend continued, though this year's draft was about the offensive side of the ball. With Carson Palmer being forced into "retirement" and uncertainty about Chad Johnson, two of the Bengals top needs were quarterback and wide receiver, and they scratched those off in an efficient manner on the drafts first two days. Let's see how the rest of the class panned out:

1st round, 4th overall) A.J. Green - WR - Georgia
As far as wide recievers go, A.J. Green is about as "safe" as it gets. In fact, you can make the argument that he's the best receiving prospect to come out since Calvin Johnson went to Detroit in 2007, Green's that good. He'll help take the sting out of losing Terrell Owens and potentially Chad Johnson this offseason, and should be the number one target for Andy Dalton, or whomever is taking snaps from center week one for the Bengals.

How he fits in: New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden plans to install a west coast offense that was similar to his brother Jon's offense with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the early 2000s. In that case, consider A.J. Green to fill the Keyshawn Johnson role. He's a big-bodied receiver at 6'3" 211lbs with great hands who excels after the catch. He's not afraid to go over the middle, much like Keyshawn, and he can beat you deep when you least expect it, which should help open up running lanes for Cedric Benson. Green will start right away, and I'd expect him to lead the Bengals in all categories, even if Chad Johnson returns.

Outlook: While not a surprising move, the Bengals added the best player available at a position of need, which is always a plus when your draft board marries with what's available. This was a great pick for the Bengals, and while some might question whether or not Blaine Gabbert or Nick Fairley would've been better options at this juncture, you've got to realize Andy Dalton probably fits just as well as Gabbert would have, and the Bengals have swung and missed on defensive tackles like Fairley in the past, so they made the right call to stay away.

2nd round, 35th overall) Andy Dalton - QB - Texas Christian
The Bengals needed an insurance policy at the very least as they play out the Carson Palmer saga. The Carson Palmer ordeal is very stupid on Mike Brown's part to say the least, as they could've traded him for multiple draft picks prior to the lockout rather than eat his $11M salary, but I digress, it's Mike Brown, one of the worst owners in all of professional sport. Dalton comes from a TCU system that played to his strengths making him seem a lot better than he really is. He has trouble making a lot of NFL-caliber throws and his reads were very simplistic. For instance, if you plug him in the Colts offense, he'd be cut day one of training camp. However, the Bengals west coast offense represents one of the few landing spots that Dalton could've come into ahead of the curve. His armset should give the Bengals what they're looking for, and at the very least Dalton will be a solid backup. That said, he's going to be starting for them week one unless something drastically changes with Carson Palmer, so, he'll get to prove himself early on.

3rd round, 66th overall) Dontay Moch - LB - Nevada
Many drafniks were enamored with Moch's 40 times. He is rumored to have clocked a 4.25 in the 40 coming out of high school. Moch clocked a 4.44 in Indy at the combine, which is really impressive for someone who is 6'1" and 248lbs. The Bengals needed someone to provide pass-rush opposite Carlos Dunlap, who figures to be a full-time starter in 2011. Robert Geathers has flopped since signing a big contract, and the Bengals had yet to find someone with pass-rushing prowess. Moch, however, is schematically better for the 3-4 with his straight line speed. He's not very fluid in space and wasn't asked to drop into coverage at Nevada, so this might be a case of a team having the right idea, but drafting the wrong player for the purpose.

4th round, 101st overall) Cling Boling - G - Georgia
This might prove to be the most valuable pick for the Bengals from this draft class. Both left guards Nate Livings and Evan Mathis are free agents, and neither of them should've been starting anyway. Boling, a 6'4" 308lbs player has experience at left tackle, and is decently mobile. He should slide in between Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Cook at left guard from day one. A four-year starter, Boling brings plenty of experience to the Bengals, but he's got to hit the weight room hard. He's more finesse than a mauler (which the Bengals have preferred under Marvin Lewis). Boling should be able to bulk up and add sufficient strength to become a fine player for a long time in Cincinnati.

5th round, 134th overall) Robert Sands - S - West Virginia
This seems more like the typical "Bungles" pick we're all used to. Sands was projected as a 7th round prospect by a lot of draft pundits, and the Bengals may have pulled the trigger too quickly on him. With Chris Crocker and Roy Williams as safeties, the Bengals needed someone who could patrol the deep middle third of the field. Coverage however, isn't really Sands' forte. Sands, at 6'4" 217lbs is a big guy who played some free safety and the rover position in West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense, often playing close to the line of scrimmage acting as a pseudo fourth linebacker. Sands is a head-hunter, meaning he'll go for the kill shot, and he'll get it sometimes. But, if he misses, it's going to mean a big gain for the opposition. He had a good sophomore season, but really tailed off as a junior before entering the draft. Boom or bust here.

6th round, 167th overall) Ryan Whalen - WR - Stanford
One of the most underrated picks in the entire draft is here. Most Bengals fans I spoke with were upset that another receiver was brought in. Well, if I were a betting man, I'd put some serious coin on Whalen knocking someone off the roster like a Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell, that wouldn't normally be suspected. Whalen comes from a Stanford program that featured a lot of west coast passing concepts, and he's used to those types of routes and sight adjustments having played with Andrew Luck. With decent size at 6'1" 202lbs, Whalen can play in the slot, or outside opposite A.J. Green, and he'll have a leg up on the rest of the receiving corps as he'll be pretty familiar with a lot of the offensive concepts.

7th round, 207th overall) Korey Lindsey - CB - Southern IllinoisPurely a developmental prospect here. The Bengals have a lot of depth at the corner spot, so this pick is for the future. Lindsey, a 5'10" 194lbs prospect was a two-time 1st Team All-American at the D-IAA level, played in 50 career games and posted 14 interceptions. Teams didn't really throw his way much in 2010, as he'd tabbed 6 picks each in his sophomore and junior years. Lindsey will have to show something on special teams to stick on the roster this year.

7th round, 246th overall) Jay Finley - RB - Baylor
The Bengals really only used Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott when running the football as Brian Leonard is more of a third down back. But, Leonard might shift to fullback in Gruden's west coast system with his pass-catching abilities. So, the Bengals may need more depth at the running back spot. A three-year start for the Baylor Bears, he set the single-season rushing record with 1,218 yards. A smallish back at 5'10" 205lbs, he's pretty similar to Bernard Scott and will have to really show something in camp to make the roster. However, he might be a valuable commodity on the practice squad so the Bengals may have to stash him as an inactive player on game days by keeping him on the 53-man roster.

Overall Grade: B+
The Bengals put together a pretty solid draft, but there's a few things I don't like that keep me from giving them an A-. First, I'm not as big of an Andy Dalton fan as most people, as I believe his offense at TCU was catered to him, and he could have some struggles as a rookie which he won't be used to. I think Dontay Moch was a good idea, but I'm not sure if the Bengals will use him in the right capacity, but if they focus on him solely as a pass-rusher, I can get more behind the pick. Overall, I think they landed solid starters in Green, Dalton, and Boling, and some solid contributors in Moch, Sands, and Whalen. Had they gotten additional picks for Carson Palmer, they really could've done some damage. The Bengals got better, but a lot of their future success, and perhaps Marvin Lewis' Bengals tenure, hinges on Andy Dalton.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

KD's NFL Draft Grades - Buffalo Bills

No team in the NFL might have solely upgraded one unit more effectively than the Buffalo Bills did with their defense. Trust me, the last sentence was painful to type as a Dolphins fan. Chan Gailey and GM Buddy Nix landed what looks to be the best player in the entire draft in Alabama defensive lineman Marcel Dareus as the Broncos passed on him in favor of Von Miller. Dareus teamed with Kyle Williams - the best defensive lineman you've never heard of; seriously, he gets no respect whatsoever - is a scary prospect for teams like Miami and the New York Jets who trive on trying to run the football. However, the Bills had a prime opportunity to select any of the top quarterbacks other than Cam Newton in the first round, and passed again in the second round on the likes of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. That decision places a lot of faith in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who might not be as sneaky-good in 2011.

1st round, 3rd overall) Marcel Dareus - DT - Alabama
The Bills landed an absolute stud with the 3rd overall pick in the draft in Dareus. Initially, I expect they'll play him at 3-4 opposite 2010 pick Alex Carrington. Kyle Williams was formidable at NT in 2010, despite being undersized. It's worth nothing that Williams and Dareus both played in Nick Saban's defenses (Williams at LSU, Dareus at 'Bama) and both are versatile. Dareus may take some snaps at the NT/DT spot in passing situations as he should not come off the field. He'll help to replace Marcus Stroud, who went east to the division rival Patriots prior to the lockout.

How he fits in: While the 3-4 system Dareus will be playing in won't be as conducive to the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, I expect Dareus will make noise that would make Ndamukong Suh proud. He's very strong at the point of attack and has experience playing a 0-technique (a true NT), 1-technique (4-3 NT), 3-technique (4-3 DT), and 5-technique (3-4 DE). An oustanding athlete at 6'3" 319lbs, he clocked a 4.93 in the 40 and showed very well in all position drills at the combine. He'll be a forced to be reckoned with for many years for the Bills.

Outlook: From a player perspective, it's darn near impossible to find someone with the technique, size/speed combo, and experience that Dareus brings to the league. He had some minor injury issues at Alabama, primarily an ankle injury that nagged him throughout 2010, and had some off-field incidents, including taking money from an agent. However, I think those issues with Dareus are in the pass, and provided he's healthy, he should make a very significant impact for the Bills defense as a rookie.

2nd round, 34th overall) Aaron Williams - CB/S - Texas
The Bills added another solid talent to their deep secondary. Williams has experience at both cornerback and safety, so it remains to be seen where he'll fit in. Given Jarius Byrd's performance at FS, I'd expect Williams to compete for the boundary corner position opposite Terrence McGee. The AFC East possesses some big receivers such as Braylon Edwards, Brandon Marshall, Taylor Price, and while McGee and fellow corner Leodis McKelvin are solid, neither has the size that Williams does to matchup with those receivers. Williams wasn't tested much as a junior despite notching 12 pass break ups. He didn't work quite as well as many thought, but he's gamer, and despite being a little rough around the edges technique-wise, he's certainly got starting potential as a rookie. At the very least, he's a solid nickel corner

3rd round, 68th overall) Kelvin Sheppard - LB - LSU
The Bills have one stud in the middle of their linebacking corps in Paul Posluszny, but Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor aren't much to go along with him. Sheppard, who was a terror at LSU, should earn that starting role next to Posluszny. Playing in a similar mold to the Cowboys Bradie James, a former LSU star, Sheppard is 6'1" 250lbs and has great football IQ. He's a bit limited athletically, so he won't be patrolling sideline-to-sideline, but that's Posluszny's job. Sheppard will be adept at taking on guards, stacking and shedding, and making tackles against the run. He offers some versatility in big nickel packages and should be a day one starter.

4th round, 100th overall) Da'Norris Searcy - S - North Carolina
This pick had me scratching my head a bit, but if you've heard from Donte Whitner, the incumbent strong safety for Buffalo, he wants out and his play hasn't exactly proven to be worth the 9th overall pick. Search won't challenge Jarius Byrd at all, but he could represent a solid backup and eventual starter at strong safety. A big guy at 5'11" 223lbs he's an in-the-box safety who excels against the run, but did manage 4 interceptions in 2010. At the very least, he should be a solid special teams contributor as a rookie and push guys like Jon Corto and Bryan Scott off the roster.

4th round, 122nd overall) Chris Hairston - T - Clemson
The Bills finally addressed their offensive line, potentially adding a left tackle in Hairston. At 6'6" 326lbs he's a big guy and only surrendered one sack allowed for the Tigers in 2010. He's not a nimble athlete, so I'm not sure if he'd overtake Demetrius Bell (Karl Malone's son) at left tackle or have a better shot at the right tackle spot which has seen several different players manning it the past two years. A very experienced player, Hairston could surprise people, but I'm more surprised the Bills didn't try to add a left tackle earlier in the draft.

5th round, 133rd overall) Johnny White - RB - North Carolina
Most people probably had no idea who White was when the Bills drafted him. I just shook my head as they made another solid pick. White was shuffled down the depth chart at North Carolina, but he bears an eerie resemblance to Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants. A small, but powerfully built back, White runs hard, has great hands, and is a willing blocker. He even played 7 games at cornerback as a sophomore due to injuries despite starting 8 games at running back as a true freshman. He turned into a kickoff returner after an injury to Brandon Tate as well. A do-it-all kind of player whose best football is still in front of him, White should be a name to keep tabs on, and I'm sure Chan Gailey will find multiple ways to use him.

6th round, 169th overall) Chris White - LB - Mississippi State
The Bills add another indside linebacker to provide depth. White, a two-year starter and team captain for the Bulldogs, he led the team in tackles for loss and sacks in 2010. At 6'2" 240lbs, he's slightly small for an inside spot on a 3-4 team, but he's got decent straight-line speed, despite being about as athletic as a tree stump. He's probably going to have to fight on special teams simply to make the Bills roster, but he bears watching as a developmental prospect down the road to replace guys like Torbor and Ayodele.

7th round, 206th overall) Justin Rogers - CB - Richmond
The Bills added another corner to an already deep stable on their roster. While guys like McGee, McKelvin, and Williams won't be in any danger, guys like Reggie Corner, Ashton Youbouty, and Drayton Florence could be in trouble down the road. Rogers is a developmental prospect who'll be making a big jump coming from a Divison IAA school in Richmond to the NFL. However, he's had some former teammates make the leap such as Tim Hightower of Arizona and Lawrence Sidbury of Atlanta. Richmond is a solidly run program, and Rogers bears watching.

7th round, 245th overall) Michael Jasper - DT - Bethel
This might be my favorite prospect in the entire draft. Jasper, a potential NT prospect checks in at 6'4" 394lbs, and no, that's not a typo. With his weight once hovering near the 460lbs region (see for yourself, he's #69 in this photo), Jasper has steadily lost weight to try and make a run at an NFL roster. While there's virtually no chance of him making the roster, he could be a practice squad candidate and an eventual backup NT down the road if he keeps his weight in check. Here's a pretty decent video of his training, and one of his mentors, NFL G Artis Hicks who has played for Philadelphia, Washington, and Minnesota in his career.

Overall Grade: B+
The Bills added some important pieces to their defense in Dareus, Williams, and Sheppard, all who should be starters their rookie years. They added a solid lineman, though he's not the type of elite tackle you see, especially in the AFC East which has Jake Long, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and now a rookie in Nate Solder. Demetrius Bell and Chris Hairston aren't even close to those guys. The Bills added some depth for the defense in Searcy, White, and Rogers, and a very interesting developmental prospect in Michael Jasper. However, they ignored drafting a quarterback of the future despite having their pick of the litter in both the 1st and 2nd rounds, and didn't address the tight end position. For that, their grade slips a little bit. However, Dareus, Williams, and Sheppard could really make an impact on defense, which keeps the Bills at a B+ for now.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

KD's NFL Draft Grades - Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos, led by GM Brian Xanders and new Executive Vice President of Football Operations, former Broncos legend John Elway, the Broncos turned in a draft with 9 picks for new coach John Fox. Denver really tailed off in 2010 under Josh McDaniels, and they appear to be banking their immediate future on Tim Tebow. While that decision remains to be played out, they certainly needed to imrpove their defense and get Tebow some more weapons on offense. Here's how the Broncos picks shook out:

1st round, 2nd overall) Von Miller - LB - Texas A&M
The afternoon of the first round ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Broncos were going to eschew selecting Alabama's Marcel Dareus and take Texas A&M's Von Miller. What?!? That was my first reaction anyway. But, it's still a very solid pick, though I question whether it was the right decision in a division that has power rushing teams in Oakland and Kansas City. Miller's drawn comparisions to the late Derrick Thomas, and posted triangle numbers at the Combine that were similar to the NFL's 2010 sack leader, DeMarcus Ware.

How he fits in: A lot of people were concerned about Miller's ability to play in an even front (i.e. a 4-3 defense), but those were alleviated with his outstanding performance in the Senior Bowl. He'll most likely figure to start on the weakside where he can use his athleticism and speed in space. I think John Fox might be reminded of a younger, more athletic Na'il Diggs he had early on with the Panthers. Miller should also be able to play as a DE in nickel and dime packages where he can showcase his pass-rushing skills. Miller's a true 3-down player.

Outlook: For the Broncos, it's hard to make the wrong choice between Marcel Dareus and Von Miller. As I mentioned earlier, Dareus might've been better suited for the Broncos over the course of the long haul with his ability to stop the run in a division that features the likes of Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, and Ryan Mathews, but, Miller gives the Broncos an impact player at linebacker who can play defensive in passing situations. Overall, the Broncos got an outstanding player who they can use in creative ways. Hard not to like Von Miller.

2nd round, 45th overall) Rahim Moore - S - UCLA
Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill form a fine veteran duo for the Broncos, but they're getting pretty long in the tooth. Dawkins, despite being older than Hill, is probably going to be playing at a higher level for more seasons, so the Broncos needed a guy who can take the free safety reins over soon. Rahim Moore is that type of ball-hawking centerfielder who can step in early on next to Dawkins. Moore had an outstanding 2009 season with 10 interceptions, but he saw that dip to just 1 in 2010. A 3-year starter for the Bruins, Moore has plenty of experience, and while tends to shy away from sticking his nose into the action, his coverage skills make up for that aspect of his game.

2nd round, 46th overall) Orlando Franklin - G/T - Miami
John Fox should switch Denver to more a power-based running game than what Josh McDaniels had going on. With right tackle Ryan Harris slated for free agency and left guard Russ Hochstein's play tailing off as he gets older, the Broncos needed to upgrade their O-line. Franklin, a massive prospect at 6'6" 316lbs played left guard mostly in his career for the Hurricanes, but did play some left tackle, he could be a candidate for either spot that Denver needs to upgrade. Given Franklin's size, I think he might be more of a right tackle than left guard for the Broncos. He's got some injury concerns, but is simply just a big, mauling player who is extremely strong at the point of attack. Similar in many ways to former Hurricane Vernon Carey.

3rd round, 67th overall) Nate Irving - LB - North Carolina State
John Fox and his staff made outstanding use of undersized linebackers in Carolina with Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and James Anderson. Nate Irving should be no different as he'll play between Von Miller and very underrated veteran D.J. Williams in Denver's new 4-3 defense. At 6'1" 240lbs, Irving can run decently well, and is an adept blitzer, registering 7 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Joe Mays is the only thing standing between him and a starting role, so, I'd expect you'll hear Irving's name plenty at the NFL level.

4th round, 108th overall) Quinton Carter - S - Oklahoma
As I mentioned before, Brian Dawkins is also getting long in the tooth and the Broncos had to address that concern. Quinton Carter is one of the better pure strong safety prospects in the draft, and he'll have the chance to learn from a pro's pro in Dawkins. While not the biggest of strong safety prospects, Carter has a good football IQ and unlike Rahim Moore, he relishes the chance to stick his nose in the action. However, he's vulnerable in coverage and very susceptible to getting beat by double moves over the top. Sometimes he's too aggressive and it shows. However, at the very least, he should be a top quality backup for the immediate future as he learns the nuances from Brian Dawkins.

4th round, 129th overall) Julius Thomas - TE - Portland State
The Broncos definitely needed some help at the TE spot with Richard Quinn as their last option left from 2010. Thomas, a 4-year basketball player at Portland State went the Jimmy Graham route and played football in his last year of eligibility. Thomas certainly has the size at 6'4" 256lbs, and showcased his skills at the East-West Shrine Game this offseason. However, he wasn't asked to do much in-line blocking and only caught 29 passes. He's definitely a prospect for the future, but he should be a decent #2 option at TE for the short-term.

6th round, 189th overall) Mike Mohamed - LB - California
Several 3-4 teams had Mohamed on their radar, but the Broncos tabbed him first to provide depth to their linebacking corp and work on special teams. Mohamed, at 6'3" 239lbs was a productive player for the Cal Bears posting seasons of 87, 111, and 95 tackles the last three years. In addition, he totaled 20 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, and 7 interceptions. While he lacks sideline-to-sideline range, he's a serviceable in the box player who can fill in at all 3 linebacker positions. I expect he'll make the Broncos roster as a special teams contributor.

7th round, 204th overall) Virgil Green - TE - Nevada
Green could be a big steal here. He carried a 3rd to 4th round grade throughout most of the pre-draft process, but it was discovered he had microfracture surgery on his knee. However, Green played in 52 games, so it should have been a non-issue, but anything like that tends to scare NFL teams, and Green slid badly because of it. He's got decent size and good speed and caught 31 passes as a senior in the Nevada scheme. He'll have to adapt to an NFL playbook, but should his knee check out, he could have an even better career than Julius Thomas, whom the Broncos took 3 rounds earlier.

7th round, 247th overall) Jeremy Beal - DE - Oklahoma
With their last pick, the Broncos chose to add some depth on the defensive line. Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers should have the starting defensive end spots locked up, but there's little in the way of depth behind them. Beal had about as bad of a Senior Bowl week as you can have, then went and ran a 5.16 40 at the Combine despite not being that big at 6'2" 262lbs. However, Beal's been able to get to the quarterback on the field if anything else, notching at least 8.5 sacks the last 3 years, though, if you've seen him play, most of those are cleaning up after others have already flushed the quarterback or forced him to scramble. Beal might make the roster, but he's got some serious work to do to improve his game.

Overall Grade: B+
Like Carolina, with so many holes and picking this high in the Draft, it's kind of hard for Denver to screw it up. But, if you look at their roster, Denver's defensive tackles prospects are pretty weak. When you're going to rely on Kevin Vickerson and potentially Marcus Thomas you're in trouble. I think Denver passed on a few opportunities to sure up that spot, but, they were able to grab some impact players. Miller, Moore, Franklin, Irving, and maybe one of the two tight ends should all be day one starters. That said, Josh McDaniels left such a big mess, it's going to take multiple drafts and free agency periods to clean everything up. Denver, behind Xanders and Elway, appear to at least be on the right track. They just have to hope they've made the right call on Tim Tebow.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

KD's NFL Draft Grades - Carolina Panthers

With the lockout in full effect, there's little to really cover in the way of the NFL other than reviewing the NFL Draft. While most experts say it usually takes 3 full seasons to grade a draft class, and I agree, we can have a little fun and grade each team for their selections made nearly a month ago. I figured I'd grade each team based on their pick in order in the 1st round, starting with the Carolina Panthers, and go from there. What I'd like to do is to examine in-depth each team's 1st round, or first overall pick; how the player fits in with the team; and his professional outlook. For each subsequent pick, I'll go over a brief synopsis of the player and how he'll fit in, then I'll assign a letter grade for the team's total draft haul at the conclusion of the review.

Here are the Carolina Panther's Draft selections:

1) Cam Newton - QB - Auburn
GM Marty Hurney went for the shock value here by taking Cam Newtown with the first overall pick. While some, in fact probably most, will disagree, I think this was a solid move on the Panthers part. Jimmy Clausen really struggled last year, though he didn't have many weapons around him, and new coaches typically mean new quarterbacks. Cam Newton has the most "upside" of any of the ones selected in the 2011 Draft. While I wouldn't start him this year, at all, Newton will have a more discernable impact over the course of his career than would have a Marcel Dareus or Patrick Peterson. That said, Ryan Mallett, if not for off-field issues, is the most pro-ready quarterback and could've (should've?) been taken here if not for those said issues.

How he fits in: While I wouldn't start him right off the bat, especially since he's not getting additional run time in OTAs and rookie mini-camps, new coach Ron Rivera might not have a choice. Jimmy Clausen just doesn't have it all together, and never has (sorry Notre Dame fans) and I don't think Matt Moore or Tony Pike would provide much in the way of competition, so I'd expect Newton to be named their day one starter barring something unexpected.

Outlook: If Newton works as hard as he says he's going to work I think he can have a career path somewhere in between Vince Young and Michael Vick. I don't like mentioning those two names, but he's most similar to them than any other NFL quarterbacks. Newton will have to work on such things as taking direct snaps, calling plays properly in the huddle, all kinds of drop backs, reads, triangle reads, etc. But he can still make plays with his feet, and that's what makes him so dangerous. Also, keep in mind that Vince Young's record as a starting quarterback is a solid 30-17. I think Newton was the right pick, but maybe not the best pick.

3rd Round, 65th overall) Terrell McClain - DT - South Florida
The Panthers got hosed by the Patriots and had traded their 2nd round pick in the 2010 Draft to take WR Armanti Edwards...you know him best as the Appalachian State quarterback who upset Michigan. So, the Panthers second pick in the 2011 Draft came in the form of Terrell McClain, a 6'1" 291lbs DT. Ron Rivera made his hay in the NFL by operating the small, quick Chicago Bears defenses of the early-mid 2000s that were very good, and he's building upon some solid front seven players here with the Panthers. What the Panther's really lacked was a solid defensive tackle who is quick and can penetrate in a 1-gap scheme. That's what McClain will bring to the table, and he's a sure tackler. The main knock on him is that he lacks a motor, and has a lot of trouble getting off blocks if he can't shoot a gap. However, looking at what the Panthers have there, and really it's only Ed Johnson, McClain should have a good shot at starting from day one.

3rd round, 97th overall) Sione Fua - DT - Stanford
Again, the Panthers dipped into the DT well here taking Sione Fua, who I had rated higher than McClain. Fua, a NT in college at Stanford is 6'1" 310lbs and his very strong at the point of attack. He's not as quick or athletic as McClain, who figures to be a 3-technique DT, but he's able to hold his ground better against the run and I think he's more suited to play alongside either McClain or Ed Johnson. Fua has shown an ability to play through trash and collapse the pocket registering 4.5 sacks as a senior. Fua should definitely make the roster and be a solid rotational player on the D-line as a rookie.

4th round, 98th overall) Brandon Hogan - CB - West Virginia
The Panthers have one rock-solid corner in Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall has shown flashes at times, though he's still not reliable opposite Gamble. Aside from those two vets, the Panthers have a bunch of young guys who are primarily nickel/slot and dime players - certainly none who you'd want to have to start. Hogan fits that Ron Rivera Cover 2 corner mold and will remind some people of Charles Tillman from the Bears. Hogan's an experience corner who is not afraid to come up and support the run collecting 171 career tackles in 44 games. He's versatile with the ball in his hand when he makes an interception, seven career, which tallied 156 return yards. For Hogan, I think he can be a nickel corner from day one, but his prospects of starting hinge more on Richard Marshall than himself.

5th round, 132nd overall) Kealoah Pilares - WR - Hawaii
Over the past few years, we've seen a rise in teams taking receivers from June Jones' spread system in Hawaii and now at SMU. Davone Bess of Miami and Emmanuel Sanders of Pittsburgh have led the way, and now Pilares and Aldrick Robinson (Redskins) have added to the total. Pialres came to Hawaii as a running back and had over 100 carries his first two years. However, he shifted to wide receiver and just started hauling passes left and right - a product of the Jones spread - and when all was said and done he caught 209 passes for nearly 2,500 yards and 22 scores. He'll be best served in the slot, as Bess and Sanders have before him, and should push the likes of Armanti Edwards and David Clowney down the roster a bit, but it's still no guarantee he makes the team.

6th round, 166th overall) Lawrence Wilson - LB - Connecticut
The Panthers have a solid starting trio of Jon Beason, James Anderson, and Thomas Davis, but there's not much in the way of depth behind them. Wilson should make a solid addition to the team as one of the Ron Rivera undersized, coverage linebackers in the mold of a Hunter Hillenmeyer or Freddie Roach did in Chicago. Wilson's only 6'0" 229lbs, but he's got pretty good range and can deliver a big hit. He's got a propensity to go for the kill shot and miss a tackle here and there, but that's something coachable. Wilson should stick and will be able to make a mark on special teams with his speed and athleticism.

6th round, 203rd overall) Zack Williams - C - Washington State
The Panthers have an oustanding center in Ryan Kalil, but he'd be scheduled to be a free agent under the 2010 rules of the CBA. The Panthers have expressed interest in keeping him over RB DeAngelo Williams to continue to anchor their line. Williams represents an insurance policy, but a weak one at that. At 6'3" 309lbs he's a bit bigger than Kalil and might be better served at RG as he's non-athletic. Williams may be a pratice squad candidate depending on what happens with Ryan Kalil and starting left guard Travelle Wharton, but it'll be a long time before we ever see Williams snapping to Cam Newton.

7th round, 244th overall) Lee Ziemba - T - Auburn
A solid player for the Auburn Tigers, a 4-year start, 3 of which came at left tackle, Ziemba's draft stock took a major hit as he had short arms and didn't look very good at all at the NFL Combine. However, the Panthers needed a better swing tackle (the 3rd offensive tackle kept active on gamedays that can play either side should a starter go down) than Geoff Schwartz. Ziemba will get to learn from a solid veteran in Jordan Gross, and could eventually be granfathered into the O-line. I think he stands a better chance to make the roster than Zack Williams, especially if Ziemba can shift to play G as well, giving him 3 positions he can play.

Overall Grade: B-
Marty Hurney will ultimately be measured by Cam Newton, as he'll make or break this class for sure. The Panthers didn't really address getting a playmaker at WR and who knows how long Steve Smith will be around or if Brandon LaFell will improve there. Right now, Jeremy Shockey stands to be their starting TE, and he's getting long in the tooth, and they still don't know what they have to get after the passer in DEs Charles Johnson and Everette Brown. Those things aside, the Panthers repaired a major hole in the middle of the defensive line, added a potential starting CB, and got some versatility and depth in the linebacking corp and on the O-line. Cam Newton could give them a solid franchise quarterback for the future...or he could cost Marty Hurney his job. As it stands, I'll give Carolina a B- for taking a chance on Newton, but failing to get him a playmaker. This class definitely bears watching down the road, and I have a feeling the final grade may rise in the not so distant future.

Next up, the Denver Broncos.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Way Too Early College Football Top 10's: Top 10 Players

I hope everyone enjoyed the first installment of my way too early college football top ten's, the top 10 teams. In this week's installment, I've got my top 10 college football players. Now, this one got a little more tricky. How can you define a top 10 player? The Patriots Danny Woodhead shattered all kinds of records, but he did it at Division II Chadron State. Obviously small-school guys creep up and have oustanding NFL careers and so on, so I had to make a few limitations.

First, all players have to be in the FBS, or what we all refer to as Division I.

Second, they have to be someone whose got the potential to win a college football award at their respective position, and for many of the skill guys, you'd like to see them mentioned as a potential Heisman (in reality, the best offensive player on the best team) Tropy.

And third, while I didn't limit my players to coming seniors, I wanted to give everyone a chance to sort of see what the scouts see, and rated players that have the potential to be drafted and go onto successful NFL careers. For example, Andrew Luck made my list, but he's only a redshirt junior and could stay yet another year in Palo Alto.

So, here's my list of who I think are the Top 10 College Football Players as we head into the 2011 season. I also added my 11th - 20th ranked players for those who will be calling for my head to roll as they feel I'll have left someone deserving off the top 10...Cough*Denard Robinson*Cough!

Please note that I've tried to link the best highlight clips of each prospect, along with any interesting pieces on them as well.

1) Trent Richardson - RB - Alabama - JR
For all the talk surrounding the potential QB class for next year (keep in mind Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley aren’t seniors) the best player in college football is actually a running back. Richardson, a 5’11” 224lbs junior holds the title. If you haven’t seen him play, he’s one of the hardest runners I’ve ever seen. For all the pre-draft talk about how “angry” Mark Ingram ran the ball, his understudy runs even harder. In fact, for my money he’s probably one of the top 5 hardest runners I’ve ever seen. The great Earl Campbell still ranks up there, but after that, I think I’d have to go Jerome Bettis, Adrian Peterson, Eddie George, and Ricky Williams’ 2002 season. Richardson probably runs harder than a couple guys on that list.

An absolute terror in the weight room, posting a 475 pound bench press, Alabama coaches were afraid to let him go any higher, even though Richardson wanted to (keep in mind, most NFL linemen bench around this much weight), a 365 pound power clean, and squats over 600 pounds. As a true freshman, Richardson ran for 751 yards and 8 touchdowns…yes, in Mark Ingram’s Heisman campaign. Last year, getting a bit more of the workload as Ingram missed the fist few games for the Crimson Tide, he carried 112 times for 700 yards and 6 touchdowns and added 23 catches for 223 yards and 4 more scores.

I watched the Alabama spring game this year, mostly because it’s a pretty good sneak preview of some top tier NFL talent, as the Tide has not only Richardson, but linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, safety Mark Barron, and corner Dre Kirkpatrick and several talented receivers led by Marquis Maze. With Greg McElroy gone, A.J. McCarron will take over the reigns offensively. He’ll need some breaking in, and Nick Saban gave the ball to Trent Richardson plenty of times in a multitude of different ways. He can line up as a single back, take Wildcat snaps, catch out of the backfield, and was even split out wide. Richardson should get the lion’s share of the offensive workload for Alabama, and provided he stays healthy, he could be an early front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.

2) Andrew Luck - QB - Stanford - RS JR
The Cardinal quarterback shocked the world by opting to head back to school for his red-shirt junior season instead of becoming the Carolina Panthers quarterback of the future. I, for one, am glad as that means my beloved Dolphins may still have an outside shot at getting him next year, if he comes out. Smart as a whip, an architectural design major, he’s by far the best quarterback in college football.

From the time he led the Cardinal to an upset win over USC as a red-shirt freshman, big things were forecasted for Luck, and he hasn’t disappointed. In 2010, Luck threw for over 3,300 yards and had 32 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions. For his two years as a starting quarterback, Luck is a shade under 6,000 yards passing and has thrown 45 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.

He’s certainly got the smarts to run an NFL offense and got to learn under one of the great quarterback teachers in Jim Harbaugh. An aside story on Harbaugh that relates to the Dayton Flyers. Harbaugh tutored Josh Johnson, the current backup to Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Harbaugh was coaching at the University of San Diego. Johnson, in his senior year, led the Toreros with 2,976 passing yards and threw 42 touchdowns and only 1 interception. That interception was against the Dayton Flyers in a 35-16 Flyers victory, and was San Diego’s first loss that season. Back to Luck, he had an outstanding campaign in 2010, losing only to Oregon. He should be just fine for this year, but he’ll have to replace several departing seniors on his offensive line and top target Ryan Whalen, who was drafted by the Bengals. I’d expect, if the Cardinal can deal with the losses on the line, Luck should also get a good amount of Heisman consideration, and should still be the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, should he come out, and more importantly, if there is an NFL Draft.

3) Justin Blackmon - WR - Oklahoma State - JR
Everyone remembers how great Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State. They also remember him getting kicked off the team for having lunch with Deion Sanders and possible an agent. Whatever the case was, Dez Bryant did just fine in his first season for the Dallas Cowboys. Now, if he could only avoid shopping malls. Justin Blackmon, who was once in Bryant’s shadow, is now the star and has surpassed what Dez Bryant did. Like Andrew Luck, Blackmon’s return to Oklahoma State came as a bit of a shock as many draft experts thought he’d give Julio Jones a run at being the second receiver selected in this year’s draft. However, despite hauling in 111 catches for nearly 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns, Blackmon returned to school.

At 6’1” and 211 lbs, Blackmon’s not the biggest or the fastest guy out there, but he reminds me in some ways of a cross between Reggie Wayne and Sidney Rice. Blackmon’s physical off the line and gets into his routes quickly and gets in and out of cuts very sharply, often gaining a lot of separation in the process. He’s got outstanding hands and doesn’t have many drops. Blackmon’s also got pretty good leaping ability - not on par with A.J. Green’s for example - but still far more than adequate.

One additional benefit for Blackmon was the return of his quarterback, Brandon Weeden. In case you’re wondering, yes. Yes, this is the same Brandon Weeden who was once chosen as a second round pick by the New York Yankees as a pitching prospect in the 2002 draft. As a pitcher, he played for the Yankees single A team and was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers before winding back up in Stillwater for the Cowboys. Weeden, 27 is a pretty good quarterback prospect in his own right and he and Blackmon will have another year of experience working together to build upon., which should be worrisome to defenses that will oppose Oklahoma State in 2011.

4) Dont’a Hightower - LB - Alabama - SR
Many remember the Oakland Raiders drafting former Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain with the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft. McClain pretty much ruined Florida’s chances to repeat in the SEC title game and was outstanding against Texas in the BCS Title Game. While he’s still adapting to the speed of the NFL, McClain was pretty productive for the Raiders as a rookie. Hightower, who was injured that year, is even better. An absolute monster at ILB standing 6’4” and clocking in at 260lbs, he’s a true thumper…with range.

I saw him play personally against Tennessee last year, and man, he’s every bit as big as he’s listed. For a program as storied as Alabama, Hightower is one of only 11 true freshman to start the season opener for the Tide since 1972 - which is impressive by itself. He’s a sure tackler and doesn’t make many mental mistakes. He can play for 3 downs, meaning he can drop into coverage and run with backs and tight ends. In his career, he’s got 80 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 1 sack and 8 quarterback hurries. In 2010, he was still recovering from a knee injury that somewhat limited his mobility.

In the ‘Bama spring game, he was all over the place. He truly understands the defense and is like an on-field coach. He blitzed more often in that game than I’d seen of him at any time in 2010, which is a good sign that he’s 100% again. The one main knock against Hightower is that he doesn’t generate the game-changing play, having never recorded a forced fumble or an interception. Part of that’s due to the abundance of talent on the Alabama defense; part of it’s due to his not being 100%; and part of it’s due to him just not making those plays. I expect that to change in 2010, and if you’re NFL team is a 3-4 defense that needs help at LB, he’s one to watch. He’s a traditional inside linebacker, but if you watch Alabama, you’ll see him line up at OLB, and even with his hand on the ground on occasion.

5) Alshon Jeffery - WR - South Carolina - JR
There are few receivers as physically imposing as Alshon Jeffery. He reminds me of Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall in terms of size, athleticism, and style of play. At 6’4” and 233lbs, he’s a nightmare for college corners to have to matchup against. Jeffery is a very physical player, and while he lacks the elite speed - in my opinion, he looks like a 4.5 player on the field - he’s going to be exceptional at the next level. He can totally dominate a game when he wants to.

Jeffery pulled in 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and 9 scores in 2010, and is well on his way to bettering that stat line in 2011, even without Stephen Garcia, potentially. In 7 games, he recorded at least 7 receptions and he had to multi-score games. The most impressive stat however, might be his yardage per reception which is a staggering 17.2 clip.

Jeffery should provide plenty of big plays for the Gamecocks this year, provided they find a suitable starting quarterback to throw to him. Having a running back like Marcus Lattimore, who surprisingly didn’t make my list, should help to keep defenses stacking the box to give Jeffery more single coverage on the outside. What’s most impressive to me about Jeffery is that he had some of his biggest games against the best competition. See for yourself. Against Auburn, he tallied 8 catches, 192 yards and 2 scores. Against Alabama, 7 catches, 127 yards and 2 scores. Against Clemson he caught 5 for 141 and a score. If Jeffery keeps up that kind of production, he’s got an outside shot at entering the Heisman race, which, let’s face it, is about as corrupt as it gets in college athletics.

6) Landry Jones - QB - Oklahoma - JR- No one thought something good could come out of Sam Bradford’s injury against BYU at the beginning of the 2009 season, then Landry Jones happened. All you have to do to see how good Jones can be is to look at the jump he made statistically from 2009 to 2010. In ‘09, Jones’ completion percentage was 58.1%, about what you’d expect for someone just getting into the starters’ role full-time. He threw for 3,198 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Jumping to 2010, Jones upped his completion percentage to 65.6%, increased his yardage to 4,718 and threw 38 touchdowns while cutting down his interceptions by two to 12.

Jones has some excellent targets led by Ryan Broyles, who should be one of the top receivers in next year’s draft class. Broyles tabbed over 1,400 yards and hauled in 12 touchdowns. Kenny Stills gives him another option outside and TE James Hanna is pretty underrated in his own right catching 7 touchdowns in just 18 total receptions.

Jones has a decent arm and has shown an adept touch at throwing downfield. I think a lot of NFL personnel will look to Sam Bradford’s rookie year and see that he was able to come from the Oklahoma spread system and make a full transition to the NFL system, including taking snaps from center. Jones, just a junior, has ample size at 6’4” and 230lbs and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he were to jump ahead of someone like Matt Barkley or Ryan Lindley and be the second quarterback taken after Luck. That is, assuming Luck, Barkley, and Jones all enter the draft.

However, there’s been some sad news for the Sooners recently as middle linebacker Austin Box passed away unexpectedly last week.

7) LaMichael James - RB - Oregon - JR
There’s no other player as explosive as the little Oregon running back in all of college football. James rips of highlight reel runs week after week as he powers the high-tempo Ducks offense. A small guy standing just 5’9” and 185lbs, James shows an innate ability to run between the tackles that typical smaller backs haven’t shown. Still, he’s at his best getting to the outside and using his speed to run past the defense. While he’ll be suspended for the first game of the 2011 season for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor harassment case stemming from an incident with his ex-girlfriend, it’d be shocking if James doesn’t end up in the thick of the Heisman race.

He’s got a nice counterpart in Kenyon Barner that will allow James to spell himself when needed. However, based on his season last year, 294 attempt for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns, James is fully capable of handling a massive workload. Chip Kelley did a good job of keep James touches in check, allowing him to only eclipse the 30 carry mark twice, against only Stanford and USC, arguably the two best defensive teams in the Pac-10 last year.

While James isn’t much of a receiver out of the backfield, only totaling 4 catches last year, I expect him to see some more work in that department as Oregon lost it’s top to receivers to graduation. I also expect his rushing carries to be slightly lower and mixed more with Barner, as Oregon did in the BCS Title Game. However, James is still what makes this offense go, and he’ll be a great crutch for Darron Thomas while he’s still getting used to some of his new targets on the outside.

8) Jared Crick - DT - Nebraska - SR
Bo Pelini has really taken what he learned under Nick Saban to heart and has turned Nebraska into one of the better defensive program’s in the country. Everyone got enamored with Ndamukong Suh in the 2009 season, but he was just as good for the two years prior to that. It just goes to show that most people pay attention to the offensive side of the ball, but hey, that’s the way the game is. However, I must say, Ndamukong Suh should have been the first defensive player to win the Heisman since Charles Woodson. Clearly, it’s not about awarding it to the best player in college football, more so to the best offensive player on the top team in college football award. See: Troy Smith, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Mark Ingram. But I digress.

Back to Jared Crick. He was a first team All-American in 2010 as he totaled 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. The 6’6” 285lbs Crick can play inside or outside, and he totaled 70 tackles in 2010, which is a heck of a lot for a defensive lineman, especially one that plays most of his snaps on the interior. But, should we really be surprised? Ndamukong Suh recorded 76 and 82 tackles respectively in 2008 and 2009. Playing next to and learning from Suh helped out Crick immensely, and Crick continues to get better on his own.

I think a fair comparison to former for Crick would be former Wisconsin standout J.J. Watt in terms of a size perspective. However, Crick is far more athletically gifted than Watt, but he’s got Watt’s motor as well. Crick still has the frame to get bigger and keep on developing, but he’ll have NFL teams salivating as his skills could translate to a 3-4 DE, 4-3 De, or even a 3-technique DT in the 4-3.

9) Kellen Moore - QB - Boise State - SR
For all the flak that the Broncos took last year after falling to Nevada, you still have to acknowledge that they’re a very solid football team, and one of the most dynamic offensive squads in all of college football. That offense is triggered by quarterback Kellen Moore. A lefty thrower standing just 6’0” 187lbs, I’ve seen a lot of people compare him to a poor man’s left-handed Drew Brees. And that’s actually not a bad comparison.

Moore’s completion percentages have been outstanding as they read 69.4%, 64.3%, and 71.3% in his three years as a starter. The big issue for him this year will be who he’s going to throw to as both Titus Young and Austin Pettis went in the NFL Draft. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem as the Boise State system is pretty plug-n-play friendly. Moore totaled 3,845 yards and threw just 6 interceptions while tossing 35 touchdown strikes in 2010. He’ll be put to the test early as they’ll take on the Georgia Bulldogs the first week of the season.

Moore, despite the rumored lack of arm strength has shown pretty good ability at throwing the ball downfield, but he’s best at throws under 20 yards. He’ll make good use of throwing into windows on crossing routes and pick plays, much like Kurt Warner in his early years with the St. Louis Rams. Moore should post some gaudy numbers even with the new receivers, but that’s mostly due to a weak schedule that Boise will take on. Now, if he shreds Georgia the first week, watch out.

10) Cordy Glenn - G - Georgia - SR
Yes, I went there. I’m guessing no reader expected me to dip into the offensive line category, but I did, and Cordy Glenn is certainly worth it. In most draft circles, he’s probably the highest rated senior prospect at this point for the 2012 NFL Draft. Now, while I fully acknowledge there’s other players that should be in consideration (see my list of players 11-20), Glenn is deserving of this spot.

At 6’5” 320lbs, Glenn is a big-mover that can play multiple positions. While he doesn’t have the athleticism to play left tackle, he’s done it. In all, he started all 13 of the Bulldogs games at left guard in 2010, but played 4 games at left tackle in 2009, and has played 4 games at right guard over the course of 2008 and 2009.

Glenn’s a decent pulling guard, but is at his best when he’s in-line blocking. Just to show you how strong Trent Richardson is, Glenn’s bench press max is 375 lbs and his squat is 465 lbs. However, when you’re Glenn’s size, you have some natural strength about you. Glenn should continue his ascension as a senior this year and should be the top interior lineman in the 2012 Draft.

Prospects 11-20.

11. Marcus Lattimore - RB - South Carolina
12. Michael Floyd - WR - Notre Dame
13. Courtney Upshaw - LB - Alabama
14. Denard Robinson - QB - Michigan
15. Zach Brown - LB - North Carolina
16. Ryan Broyles - WR - Oklahoma
17. Quinton Coples - LB - North Carolina
18. Mark Barron - S - Alabama
19. Alfonzo Dennard - CB - Nebraska
20. Brandon Weeden - QB - Oklahoma State

Sports Quick Hits

We apologize for the brief hiatus, but we're back in full action this week. Make sure you check in as I'll be handing out my way to early NFL Draft Grades in addition to my Top 10 College Football Players - to be posted later today - and my Top 10 College Football Games of 2011, coming later this week.

First and foremost, let's get this out of the way quickly. Jud, yes, you're Indians are better. If you can't tell, I lost a bet to an Indians fan this weekend as they swept my Reds...who are in a pseudo freefall because Dusty Baker loves him some Jonny Gomes and Edinson Volquez.


Not much news to report here, but Ravens ILB and league terror Ray Lewis said that if games are missed due to the lockout, "crime will rise". Go to the 1:15 mark in the video when Ray starts talking about the lockout. Say what you want, but Ray Lewis is a bad man, and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. He's also the most intimidating player in the league and one of my all-time favorite non-Dolphins.

To further update the lockout scenario, ESPN's Adam Schefter said that the next step is to really just wait and see what happens on June 3rd in the 8th District Court of Appeals. The players will present their case that day and Schefter says that we can expect the court to make an official ruling sometime in mid-July. Per Schefter, he said a source who told him before the lockout went into effect that there would only be a 5% chance that regular season games would be missed. He updated his report last Friday telling him that the same source, who is close to the litigation process, said that percentage is now between 30-40%. Yikes. In my personal opinion, the blame lays primarily at two circumstances.

1) The owners intially low-balling the players in their first CBA proposal so badly and NOT revealing their financial needs. If they had shown the players side the full set of financial records and not just the Green Bay Packers, along with a set of doctered numbers in the owners favor, there could still be mediation.

2) DeMaurice Smith stabbing the owners in the eyes by not even reviewing the owners' second proposal. Smith new he would win in the courts in Minnesota with Judge Nelson, and he was banking on winning in the 8th District. Well, he lost, and while some will say it's due to partisan politics which I'll not delve into here, Smith's been reduced to playing Gary Glitter music at the University of Maryland's graduation ceremony.

I think if this is to end favorably for all parties, more mediation need to happen and the players need to bag DeMaurice Smith as their leader.


What got into Chris Bosh last night? The Heat big man dumped in 34 points on 13 of 18 shooting in Miami's 95-86 win to take the lead in the series 2-1. Bosh, who at times this season has been downright terrible, played the best game of his life last night, adding 5 boards and 2 assists.

The win puts the Heat in the driver's seat as the team who has won game 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals has gone onto win the series. Could we see a rematch of Dallas vs. Miami in the Finals?

Speaking of the Mavericks, they're up 2-1, and no one can seem to stop Dirk Nowitzki. My roommate and I were watching the game Saturday night, and just looking at the Mavs' roster...well, they better hope they win now because they're going to get really old, really soon.

The jilted ex-girlfriend of the NBA (Cleveland Cavaliers) couldn't have picked a worse year to land 2 top-five draft picks. Enis Kanter says hello. Cleveland, I hope you're all ready to "witness" the Kanter Show.


Felix Hernandez is really good. King Felix, who rarely gets the run support a Cy Young winner should get 6 runs from his Mariners in a 6-1 win over San Diego yesterday. His line for the game: 8.0 IP, 1ER on 6 hits, 0 walks, and he struckout 13.

I'm told there was some significance between the Cubs vs. Red Sox series. Whoops, I missed the whole darn thing. If there's two teams I hate hearing about almost as much as the Yankees, it's these two. They've won what, a combined 2 World Series in the last 100-some odd years?

My Reds were swept by a Cleveland Indian team that fielded a roster of players I'd never heard of besides Shin-Soo Choo. Granted, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner or on the DL, but still, Cleveland looks like they've got a really solid, young team and I don't see them going away any time soon.

Does anyone else think Jose Bautista might be on steroids? He's batting a ridiculous .353 and has blasted 18 homeruns already this year to go with 31 RBIs. He's really come out of obscurity since last year. Just take a look at his stats:

2004 - In 64 games he batted .205 with 0 home runs and 2 RBIs.
2005 - In 31 games he batted .143 with 0 home runs and 1 RBI.
2006 - In 110 games he batted .210 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs.
2007 - In 142 games he batted .254 with 15 home runs and 63 RBIs.
2008 - In 128 games he batted .238 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs.
2009 - In 113 games he batted .235 with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs.
2010 - In 161 games he batted .260 with 54 home runs and 124 RBIs.

I'm sorry, but I just find in strikingly odd that a player whose batting average was hovering between .235 and .254 and averaging about 15 home runs just suddenly has started to figure it out the past two year. Call me cynical, but c'mon, look at the numbers.

Other Sports News

With apologies to Schwendy, I haven't watched any hockey since the Sharks eliminated the Red Wings in the second round. To be honest, I don't know much about any of the teams left other than the Sharks having Joe Thornton. However, they trail Vancouver 3-1 and Tampa Bay and Boston are tied at 2-2 with game 5 tonight.

Tennis stud Novak Djokovic is now 38-0 in 2011 as he advanced past Thiemo de Bakker in the French Open over the weekend. Djokovic is the second seed in the tournament.

Tiger Woods dropped to #12 in the world, the first time since 1997 he hasn't been ranked in the top 10 golfers. This was a week before then 21 year-old Tiger Woods won the Masters for the first of his 14 major titles.

Giovanni Ramirez, the top suspect in the Bryan Stow case, is being held on $1 million bail. Ramirez was apprehended Sunday morning during a Police S.W.A.T. team drug raid in the Rampar area of Los Angeles, 5 miles from Dodger Stadium. 20 detectives working the case are still looking for the second assailant and a woman who is rumored to have driven Ramirez and his accomplice away from Dodger Stadium.

University of Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box was found dead last week. He was unresponsive when police officers found him. Box was 22.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Daily Rant 5/19: Cards v. Reds Rivalry Right

Yesterday we learned that San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow was able to open his eyes in the hospital. You'll recall from Chizzy's earlier Daily Rant that Stow was attacked by two L.A. Dodger fans outside the stadium on opening day. Former Cincinnati Reds executive John Allen, recently assigned to help run the daily operations of the Dodgers, said that of this weeks Giants v. Dodgers series, "You won't be able to turn around in your seat without bumping into security personnel." Is that what baseball rivalries have come to? Well, yes, in some cases.

The rivalries that trump most of the baseball world are typically as follows:

1) Yankees v. Red Sox
2) Giants v. Dodgers
3) Cardinals v. Cubs
4) White Sox v. Cubs - a more recent one due to interleague play.

Well, add one more to that list. And this one is probably the best one going in baseball: The St. Louis Cardinals v. the Cincinnati Reds. Essentially, it's Chizzy v. KD when it comes down to it.

I had the opportunity to attend last Sunday's final game of the Reds sweep over the Cardinals (and yes, once Aroldis Chapman took the mound I felt like the game would be in jeopardy despite the Reds holding a 9-2 lead). While the crowd was more sparce than usual for this rivalry due to the weather, I sat next to a group of four Cardinals fans. I think Cardinals fans in general are some of, if not the best/most knowledgeable baseball fans you can find. The four I sat next to were know different.

Yeah, none of them liked Brandon Phillips, the same way no Reds fan likes Yadier Molina, but all four admitted that there's not a better second basemen playing right now than Phillips. I conceded that Molina is the best defensive catcher in the game, and that Albert Pujols is probably my second-favorite baseball player ever (sorry, it's tough to pass The Big Hurt, Frank Thomas).

Throughout the game we chatted about baseball, the Cardinals bullpen struggles, the Reds struggles to match their offensive numbers from last year (Jonny Gomes, I'm looking at you). It was great, and they all said I'd enjoy taking in a ball game in St. Louis - how could I not? The park is great, the fans are the best, and no matter who trots onto the field, you're going to see good, sound baseball. All that said, a former co-worker of mine whose father is Chief of Security at Great American Ball Park said that no additional personnel were needed to come in to police the crowd. Imagine that? A rivlary game that doesn't need more Carl Winslow's in the stands.

And the rivalry is heating up on the field too.

Last year, the Reds won the N.L. Central, but struggled mighitily against the Cardinals. There was a brawl to open an August series in Cinicinnati after the Reds Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals team "little bit&#s". While I don't agree with Phillips saying that, I think it struck sparks that will last for a while. Yadier Molina refused some dap from Phillips (his pre-at bat ritual is one of the stranger ones in baseball) and that sparked a fight (go to about :25 to see the start of the brawl). It saw former Cardinal Scott Rolen grapple with Chris Carpenter and Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto kick Carpenter and former Reds catcher Jason LaRue (essentially ending LaRue's career).

This year, at the conclusion of Sunday's game, Reds closer Francisco Cordero got into it with several Cardinals players and pitching coach Dave Duncan for hitting Albert Pujols on the hand in the top of the 9th. While Cordero's pitch didn't look like it was on purpose (the tying run was coming to the plate in the form of Matt Holliday) it still added to this rivalry.

The incident prompted Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman to say that Chris Carpenter was a "whiner" for complaining about mound conditions and firework smoke that lingered for several innings. Carpenter also said that last year the Reds didn't properly rub down baseballs on a day he was pitching. Brennaman went on to call Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan "infantile", prompting Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa to say that Brennaman "needs to continue to earn the respect" that got him into the Hall of Fame.

When one team's radio broadcaster is trading salvos with another teams manager you know it's going to be good. And that's what is so right with this rivalry. Two teams in the same division that look like their on a collision course to compete all season long (sorry JM, I don't trust your Brewers...knock on wood). But I think there's a mutual respect there, at least from everyone but Brandon Phillips. But it's going to be an outstanding baseball season, and a great rivalry for the next few years. This is especially nice considering there's not going to be any news on the NFL front until June 3rd; the NBA is getting locked out as soon as the Dallas Mavericks hoist the Championship Banner (yeah, I went bold there), but baseball, at least for this summer, is just right.

The Reds and Cardinals next series is July 4th - 6th in St. Louis. I'd suggest, if you're a fan of baseball, make sure you tune in as I suspect it will probably be for the division lead. Again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chizzy's One-Game Late NBA Conference Previews

Hey there folks. I'm back after a two week hiatus, due largely in part to law school finals. However, now that I'm graduated (FINALLY), I can get back to writing. I wrote these this weekend, but am only now having a chance to post them. Because both teams I picked are now down a game, I regret the decision to post them late, as I now look like a fool.

(1) Chicago Bulls v. (2) Miami Heat

Alright everybody, here's the matchup we've wanted to see all season. Miami vs. Chicago. Let the games begin. The Bulls asserted themselves as the most consistent team throughout the regular season, and I kept thinking how great it would be to see them play the Heat in the playoffs. The possibilities are endless. Now that this series is upon us, I'm oozing with anticipation for tonight's game. Here's a few of the storylines that make this series Must See TV.

1. LeBron James—the "heir apparent" to Michael Jordan—is on a mission to win a title. And now, he has to go though MJ's Chicago Bulls to do it. The irony of the situation is unparalleled. If the Heat win, Cleveland will burn to the ground. Again.

2. Derrick Rose, at age 22, is looking to bring the first non-Jordan era title to Chicago in just his third season. He the youngest MVP in league history, but will he fold like a card table in crunch time with the pressure on against a hardened, veteran Heat team?

3. You have the NBA's most consistent team pitted against the NBA's most closely scrutinized team. It's drama city in this series, people. There may be tears in the locker room, fights under the rim and anything else under the sun. It wouldn't even shock me if Heat GM Pat Riley fired coach Erik Spoelstra mid-series to get another title under that oh-so-finely gelled mop of his.

4. The Heat romped through an overmatched 76ers team and then pulled away from an aging and battered Celtics squad. The Bulls were challenged a little bit too much for my liking against both the Pacers and the Hawks, two teams that lacked anything resembling a true league superstar. How will these squads stack up against talented, healthy and driven competition?

5. Both teams are considered to be top defensive units, and this is going to be a slugfest. While the Heat were labeled "soft" this season, James made the All-Defense team and Dwayne Wade is known as a shutdown perimeter defender. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson will be bullying in the post for the Bulls. If they rub Heat center Joel Anthony the wrong way, all hell could break loose on the court.

Those are the first five things that popped into my head about this series. I'm sure if I thought about it for awhile, I could come up with 15-20 more. With all that being said, let's dive into the series a little bit more.

Series Stud: LeBron James. For those who aren't familiar, I pick a player in each series that I think is going to be the MVP. I went with DWade for the first two Heat series. While I was right in Round 1, in the conference semis either James or Wade could have been deemed the Series Stud. However, James came through with some clutch shooting, stout defense and almost 10 rebounds a game.

I look for James to continue the hot play and take over this series—he's going to do it by being a jack of all trades. The "decision" is how Spoelstra wants to use him. Defensively, he's going to be with Bulls' guard Luol Deng on a regular basis. But James could be called upon to guard Rose's penetration into the paint. He also may provide a body in the post to frustrate Noah and Boozer. James has to do it all.

Offensively, he's going to play a significant amount of both point and power forward. While running the point, he'll need to facilitate the offense and penetrate to create points. As the power forward in a small lineup, he's going to need to face the basket and hit a lot of short jumpers, a la Michael Jordan in his later years. While posting up, he's going to have to hit slashers cutting into the paint.

If the Heat are going to win, LBJ is going to have to average close to a triple-double for the series by filling any role that is called upon him. I think he can do that.

The Bulls: Derrick Rose runs the show—we all know that. His Hawks series averages of 29.8 PPG, 9.8 APG and 4.3 RPG prove that he has been the man so far this postseason. His effectiveness here hinges on how the Heat can come up with ways to stop him. Will they stick Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers on him and rely on help defense? Or will they plug the hole at the source and stick James and Wade on him all the time? I don't know what the best way to defend Rose is, but that's why I'm not coaching.

If I were Tom Thibodeau, however, I would look to alleviate some of the offensive pressure off Rose and see if the Game 6 resurgence of Boozer continues against the Heat. Chris Bosh and Big Z are overmatched on the defensive end when playing against chairs, let alone actual basketball players. Boozer can have his way down low if he wants against these two, and if his Game 6 line of 23 points and 10 rebounds is the norm, the Heat will have problems.

Joel Anthony is a great defender down low (he has the highest +/- rating in the Playoffs so far) and I'm interested to see how he handles the superior post play of the Bulls. Noah, Boozer and Gibson hit the offensive glass hard, and if they get the rebounds, it could spell trouble for the Heat.

The Heat: I kind of hit on this earlier, but I think the Heat's success against the Bulls lies on how they stop Rose. If they can shut down passing lanes when Rose penetrates, it will frustrate the Bulls into an offensive scheme they are unfamiliar with. If Kyle Korver isn't on the court, the situation gets even worse as the Bulls lose their best (and only) three-point shooter.

The Heat's success also relies on their ability to initiate a competent half-court offense against a Bulls team that plays defense with the best of them. James and Wade need to utilize the pick-and-roll often, so the ball stays in the hands of their two best players. Minimizing the control that Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby have on both ends of the court, as well as pressure on Bosh—who inexplicably admitted to being nervous against the Celtics—are of utmost importance.

The X-factor is the type of impact that Udonis Haslem will have. He returned from injury in the last series and was largely ineffective. But if the extra practice results in providing even 10 meaningful minutes a game, he will bring veteran nerves and much needed depth to a thin Heat lineup. He would also add intensity in the post that the Heat desperately needs. If the return of Haslem means the Heat can box out and protect their defensive rebounds, they will gladly run with the Bulls in the transition game. James and Wade are unstoppable when given a chance to create on the fly, and if they can push the pace of games it only benefits them that much more against a Bulls team that wants to create a half-court game.

The truth is that while the teams are very different, this series is extremely even. The Heat have the two best players, but the Bulls are the more complete team. Both teams need to play into their strengths and try to force the game into their type of tempo. Whoever controls the pace the most will win the series.

Prediction: While the Bulls were the most consistent team in the NBA over the regular season, the Heat have been on a mission since LeBron and Bosh made the move to Miami last July. These teams both have the talent to win a championship, but I think that heart and desire are going to decide this series. Whoever wants it more will win. My buddies and I do a year-long fantasy sports competition called the Gentlemen's Betting League. Before the regular season began, I picked a Heat-Thunder NBA Finals.

I'm not changing my prediction now. Heat in 6.

(3) Dallas Mavericks v. (4) Oklahoma City Thunder

Yowza. These two teams couldn't have gone through two more contrasting series in the conference semifinals. The Mavs brushed off the Lakers like a fly on the wall, while the Thunder went through a seven-game dogfight with the Grizzlies.

The Thunder got beat up battling Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low in the post in a matchup resembling a heavyweight title bout. The Mavericks were beat up—literally—through a few cheap shots at the hands of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

The Mavericks effectively ended both a dynasty and one of the greatest coaching careers in history, while the Thunder ended a Cinderella story.

About the only similarity between the two series was that both teams closed out with a bang, blowing out their opponent to clinch a spot in the conference semifinals. But enough looking backward, let's peer forward into my little crystal ball to see what's on tap (I'll prefer a Sam Adams Summer Ale if you're asking) for the Western Conference Finals. It should be a good one.

SERIES STUD: Dirk Nowitzki. I mean, it's gotta be right? I could have picked either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook for this spot, but those two have the luxury of knowing that if one has an off night, the other can pick up the slack. Who's picking up the slack for Dirk if he has an off night? Jason Kidd? Shawn Marion? Jason Terry, the Sixth Man who thinks he's an All-Star? (Note: I know Terry shot 9-10 from behind the arc in the closeout game against the Lakers. That's not happening again). I just don't see anyone taking over a shift if Dirk cashes out for a game.

If the Marc Cubans have any chance at winning, Dirk has to be the guy to carry them. We know Dirk is capable, as he practically took a team on his back to the brink of an NBA championship in 2006 until the referees handed the title to the Miami Heat. He has a toolbox full of offensive moves. He is one of the game's best shooters, he can post up, create in traffic and basically do whatever he wants on the offensive end. So far in the 2011 Playoffs, Dirk has averaged 26.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 2.8 APG. Those are pretty solid numbers. They have to be even better here.
I think they will. And it still may not be enough.

The Mavericks: This is a team that is high on heartbreak. Dirk and Jason Terry lost in the 2006 NBA Finals. Shawn Marion came close on multiple occasions with the Phoenix Suns, including the fateful series against the Spurs a few years back when A'mare Stoudemire was suspended for going onto the court during a scuffle. Jason Kidd lost back to back finals with the Nets, and Peja Stojakovic was on the 2002 Sacramento Kings team that was screwed by the refs in Game 6 against the Lakers.

Can this team get over its demons? Or will it be unable to rise to the occasion and chase another title?

The Thunder are not the Lakers. I never saw the Lakers getting back to the NBA Finals. Kobe's legs are giving out, Bynum is not as good as advertised and the bench was weak. They could only go as far as Kobe could take them. But the Thunder? Different story. I picked them to get to the Finals at the beginning of the season, and the Mavericks have to stop an intense, feisty and hungry team that sees the sky as their limit.

It all starts on the defensive end of the court. How will the Mavericks stop a potent OKC offense? Tyson Chandler will be effective on the boards if he can stay out of foul trouble, but if Westbrook and Durant are filling up the bucket his presence won't matter. Dirk isn't quick enough to guard Durant on the perimeter, and Jason Kidd hasn't played defense in years. The Thunder could put up a 110-point average in this series. I think the Mavericks put Shawn Marion and Deshawn Stevenson on Durant and Westbrook, respectively. Does anyone out there think that will matter? Marion is not the defensive mastermind he was in his prime, and Stevenson is not capable of staying with Westbrook as he drives into the paint.

On the offensive end of the floor, the Mavs need to keep getting red-hot three-point shooting. In particular they need Jason Terry to continue playing the second superstar role. If he can do that, Dallas may be able to keep up with the rapid pace of scoring that the Thunder want in this series.

The Thunder: Similar to my concerns about Dallas' ability to stop Westbrook and Durant, OKC isn't going to stop the Germanator. Coach Scotty Brooks has to be wrestling with the decision of either stopping Dirk or letting him have his way. By the way, how can a grown man still go by Scotty? I know Pippen did it, but anyone still using a "y" at the end of their name better be under the age of 14. It undermines his credibility.

In my opinion, the Thunder's best defensive option is to guard Dirk one-on-one and try and force him into the post. As far as who the Thunder use to cover Dirk, I'm not really sure. Thabo Sefolosha may be the best option. Part of me wants Serge Ibaka on him, but I also don't want to see him rack up foul after foul. He's better served roaming the court.

If you can get someone to limit Dirk in a one-on-one battle, you can focus on stopping the other four guys when they have the ball. I want my perimeter defenders closing passing lanes and putting pressure on Terry and Stojakovic. Jason Kidd is the world's worst three-point shooter that is considered a good three-point shooter. And Shawn Marion can't shoot a jumper to save his life. Let them jack up shots all day.

We all know about Durant and Westbrook, but what impressed me the most about the Thunder in the Grizzlies series is the quality minutes they received from their bench. James Harden really stepped up and started playing like the third overall pick he is. Daequan Cook came in at times and offered a spurt of offense with three-point shooting. Eric Maynor has proved a very cerebral, capable backup for Russell Westbrook, and I even saw him playing point at times when Westbrook was playing the off-guard role. Finally, Nick Collison provided some much needed post presence off the bench when Ibaka or Perkins got in foul trouble.

This team has proven that it's not just about Westbrook and Durant. They are the definition of a team that is young and hungry. They are young, but they did not crumble in either of the first two series. They won't back down here either.

Prediction: Dirk is going to go down as one of the best players in league history. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the clock keeps ticking on his window to win a championship.

I think think the Thunder learned a lot from their seven games with the Grizzlies. Dirk may want it more, but I'm concerned about the rest of the team's ability to keep things going. My guess is that the studly German follows the paths of Malone and Stockton and continues to seek a title. To me, whoever wins this series is the team that comes up with a better defensive scheme.

Ultimately, I think OKC's one-two punch proves to be too much for the Mavericks. The Young Guns move on in thunderous fashion in an exciting series. Thunder in 7.