NFC South: Chris Weinke

When I looked at Josh McCown's bio Tuesday night, I saw Rodney Peete.

I’m talking circa 2002 when Peete quietly landed with the Carolina Panthers and ended up as the starter. In my eyes, the McCown of today and the Peete of more than a decade ago are the same guy -- smart, experienced and not prone to mistakes.

But, just like Peete was for the Panthers, McCown is at absolute best a short-term answer. McCown turns 35 in July.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to keep that in mind as McCown makes a free-agent visit that started Tuesday night. McCown isn’t going to come in and be the franchise guy for the next five or 10 years. Besides, if McCown was all that great, he would have started more than the 38 games he has in a career that dates to 2002.

At the absolute best, McCown is a "bridge quarterback" in that he could serve as a bridge until the Bucs find their quarterback for the long term. McCown is the kind of guy that can get you by as long as the rest of the team is good. But he’s not going to do anything special.

Peete was the ultimate bridge quarterback. He beat out Chris Weinke and started for a year until the Panthers found the guy they were looking for in Jake Delhomme, who took them to a Super Bowl in his first season.

At worst, McCown is a backup. That would be a good thing, because it would mean that Mike Glennon, who started 13 games as a rookie, emerges out of training camp and the preseason as the starter. In a perfect world, Glennon never lets go of the job and the Bucs remain happy with him. With Glennon, there is upside and the chance to play more than another decade.

With McCown as the starter, the Bucs would be just buying time.

Versatility should help Zack Martin

February, 20, 2014
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Zack Martin is going to his hometown this weekend, but that doesn’t mean he’s going home.

Aside from dinner with his family Saturday night, the trek to Indianapolis is purely a business trip. Martin will be taking part in the scouting combine and trying to help his draft stock.

The Notre Dame product already is considered one of the top offensive linemen in the draft. But there are differing schools of thought about which position Martin should play. He spent his college career at left tackle, but some teams envision him as a guard

“It doesn’t really matter to me,’’ Martin said earlier this week during a break in his combine training at IMG Academy. “I just want to be on an NFL team. I’m most comfortable at tackle, but I feel I could make the transition to guard fairly easily.’’

Martin started to make that transition at the Senior Bowl. Multiple teams asked to see Martin work at guard, so he spent part of his practice time there and played about 15 snaps at guard during the game.

“Zack can play tackle and he also can play inside,’’ IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke said. “He’s one of the smarter guys I’ve been around. This kid can process information. He’s probably one of the quicker linemen I’ve been around. When you put him in a box, he’s as quick as they come and he’s powerful. He just has a great combination of quickness and power. He’s going to translate nicely, wherever they use him at the next level.’’

Martin could be on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' radar. The Bucs could be looking to overhaul their offensive line after it underachieved last season. The Bucs could be looking for upgrades at guard and tackle and Martin might be an answer at either position.

The best running back in the draft?

February, 19, 2014
BRADENTON, Fla. -- What is turning out to be one of the best stories of this year’s NFL draft almost ended with Terrance West selling clothes.

After a year at a prep school, the running back didn’t have any scholarship offers.

“I went back home to Baltimore and got a job at Jimmy Jazz," West said this week at IMG Academy, where he has been preparing for the scouting combine. “I have a son, Brendan, and I needed to make some money. I started to think I would never get a chance to show the world what I could do. I never had a doubt in my mind that I could play on the next level, but it was looking like I just wasn’t going to get the opportunity."

[+] EnlargeTerrance West
Photo courtesy of IMG AcademyTerrance West set FCS records for rushing yards (2,509) and rushing touchdowns (41) in 2013.
But West didn’t give up his dream of playing college football. He continued working out on his own and sending tapes and letters to college coaches. At long last, West got the opportunity to walk on at Towson and the rest is history.

West is expected to be taken anytime from the second round on in the May draft. That comes after an improbable, but stellar career at Towson. West won the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS in 2011. He also set FCS records for rushing yards (2,509) and rushing touchdowns (41) in 2013.

“Terrance West is the unknown, and whoever gets him is going to be very fortunate," IMG director of football operations Chris Weinke said. “Here’s a kid that’s faced a lot of adversity in his life and he’s overcome it. All he did in college was produce when they gave him the football. No one really talked about Alfred Morris (of the Washington Redskins) coming out. Here’s a guy that I think has a lot of the same things Alfred did and, in some ways, probably has a little more. He’s more of a receiving threat out of the backfield than Alfred. Terrance West is an explosive guy. He’s just a guy that’s going to find a way to get it done.’’

West knows he’s going to get questions from NFL teams in Indianapolis about the level of competition he played against, and he’s got his answer ready.

“The game doesn’t change," West said. “You get a lot of guys that transferred from bigger schools. The competition is strong. It’s not like I was playing against robots and now I’m going to go play against human beings. It’s no different. The game and the rules don’t change. I’m not worried about the competition."

West might not have the pedigree of someone that went to a bigger school. But he has plenty of confidence.

“I’m a humble guy," West said. “But I feel as though I’m the best back in this draft. People say I went to a small school, but I played against some elite guys. I just feel with my talent and my size, I’m the best back in this draft. I’ve just got to go out there and prove it."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem to be pretty well set at running back with starter Doug Martin and backups Mike James and Bobby Rainey. But last year showed that you never can have enough running backs. If, at some point, West is the top player on Tampa Bay’s board, the Bucs would have to consider drafting him. Whatever team drafts West might be getting one of this year’s biggest sleepers.

“They’d be getting a running back that’s consistent and determined," West said. “No matter what obstacle is thrown in front of him, he’s going to overcome everything. He’s a team player and he’s coachable. He’s well balanced, he’s quick, he’s got great vision, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. I’ve got everything you could ask for, an all-around back."

Sharrif Floyd not ready to look back

February, 21, 2013
Sharrif FloydCourtesy of IMG AcademySharrif Floyd, who endured a tough childhood in Philadelphia, is likely to be a first-round pick in April.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- On a sun-splashed Florida afternoon, Sharrif Floyd sat and chatted about where he’s been and where he’s going. It’s a remarkable story, one that should fill Floyd with a sense of accomplishment.

But that’s not the case.

“Someone told me recently to look in the mirror and reflect on everything," Floyd said. “But I’m not ready yet. It’s not time to reflect."

The time is coming, and Floyd knows it. The University of Florida defensive tackle is expected to be a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, and that means he’ll get a contract worth millions of dollars. It’s so close that Floyd can see it, but he doesn’t want to jinx anything. He said he’s treating this week’s scouting combine as a way to seal his future.

If he does what he’s supposed to do in Indianapolis over the coming days, he’ll hear his name called in the first round in April. Only then will he pause to reflect.

Only then will he stop to think about how far he’s come from his early life in North Philadelphia. Sitting on the posh campus of IMG Academy, where he spent the past six weeks getting ready for the combine, was about as far from North Philadelphia as Floyd could get.

“I grew up in a bad neighborhood," Floyd said. “I didn’t have much coming up. My father was in and out of jail. Going to elementary school, I wore the same pair of clothes every day and I was picked on all the time. I wanted to drop out of elementary school."

Aside from sports, nothing came easy. Things weren’t easy on the home front.

“I think it’s fair to say I was abused growing up," Floyd said. “Pretty much every day or every other day. Extension cords, belts, broomsticks, bamboo sticks, whatever."

Floyd said that came from the man he grew up thinking was his father, but there’s another cruel twist involved.

“I found out when I was 16 that he wasn’t my real father," Floyd said. “Once I found that out, I moved out. Bounced around and stayed with my grandmother, stayed with my guidance counselor and stayed with some of the other football players. I got it together, hung in there, and I’ve gotten to where I need to be."

Floyd didn’t want to name the man he thought was his father and said he’s put distance on that period of his life.

“I don’t wake up thinking about it," Floyd said. “But I do use it to remind myself to just work hard, because that’s how I got out of a bad situation and I want to stay in a good situation. Once I got into football, I got a lot of good guidance and support."

The best advice of all might have come from Floyd’s middle school basketball coach, Michael Edwards, who told him his future might be in football. Floyd didn’t start playing football until the eighth grade. But once he started, he didn’t stop.

At George Washington High School, Floyd became one of the biggest recruits in Philadelphia history. Still, life wasn’t easy. Floyd was chosen for the U.S. Army All-American Combine in 2009, but he couldn’t afford the cost of the travel to San Antonio. Other students at his high school made brownies and sold them to make sure Floyd could go.

Floyd landed a scholarship to Florida and immediately earned a starting job. He moved to defensive end as a sophomore and back to defensive tackle last season. Floyd decided to pass up his final season at Florida to enter the draft.

That appears to be a smart move, because most draft experts and scouts rank Floyd as one of the top two or three defensive tackles in the draft. Most projections have him going in the middle of the first round. Coincidentally, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, who both have major needs at defensive tackle, are sitting right in the middle of the first round.

“Sharrif is a guy that has all the tools," said IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, a former NFL quarterback. “He’s going to be a guy that can go in and cause some havoc early on. His quickness for a big man is unmatched. The combination of power and speed with that guy really separates himself at that position. I see him being a real force in the NFL."

Maybe he’ll be a force with the Panthers. Or maybe the Saints. Or maybe with some other NFL team.

It doesn’t matter to Floyd. He said he doesn’t have a particular dream scenario of what team he would like to go to. He just wants to be a first-round pick.

“Right now, I’m still grinding and focused on my goals," Floyd said. “Once this next goal is accomplished, you’ll probably see a little bit of excitement and a little bit of tears out of me, and I’ll reflect on where I came from. But I’m not there yet."

An alternative to Tony Gonzalez?

February, 20, 2013
BRADENTON , Fla. -- As the Atlanta Falcons watch the workouts at the NFL scouting combine this week, it’s pretty much a certainty their coaches and scouts will be keeping a close eye on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.

The Falcons have been lobbying hard for Tony Gonzalez to return for one more season, but they have to be ready in case the veteran decides to retire. That’s the scenario in which Eifert could be a target with the 30th overall pick in the draft.

“Tyler is going to be a guy that’s going to step in and be an impact player, probably much easier than the typical player making this transition,’’ said Chris Weinke, director of football operations at IMG Academy, where Eifert has spent the past six weeks preparing for the combine.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
Courtesy of IMG AcademyTight end Tyler Eifert said he feels that having basketball in his background will help him with his transition to the NFL.
Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz are widely considered to be the top two tight ends in the draft and many mock drafts have them going late in the first round. Bringing back Gonzalez is Atlanta’s preference, but Eifert might be the best alternative.

“I thought he was a great player when he got here, but I think he’s even better now,’’ Weinke said. “What I mean by that is he’s got the God-given athletic ability, but he’s taken that and maximized it. Just his fluidity in his route running and his consistency catching the ball, what I’ve seen over the last few weeks is a guy that’s even better than when he came in here. The most important thing to me is the way he carries himself. This kid already is a pro.’’

If Gonzalez does decide to retire, it could disrupt Atlanta’s entire offense. Gonzalez has been an integral part of the passing game and few tight ends can duplicate his skill set. But Eifert is a reasonable facsimile and he already is fairly polished.

He had 50 catches for 685 yards and four touchdowns last season and had 140 catches for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns in his college career. Like Gonzalez and some other top tight ends, Eifert has basketball in his background.

His father, Greg, played basketball at Purdue in the 1980s. Eifert was a very good high school basketball player in Indiana.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,’’ Eifert said. “Just the way you use your body in basketball to get position. It’s similar to what a tight end has to do.’’

Early in his college career, Eifert wasn’t known as much of a blocker.

“That’s always been kind of my knock, that I can’t block,’’ Eifert said. “But I think I’ve gotten better at that and continue to improve. I think I’m a pretty good blocker now.’’

Eifert says he has no strong preference about which team drafts him. But he does have a clear vision of what he thinks his role will be in the NFL.

“As a complete tight end that can stay on the field for all three downs, that can make plays and stretch the defense,’’ Eifert said.

That could be exactly what the Falcons are looking for.

Forget Olympics, Hunt headed for NFL

February, 20, 2013
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When he came to the United States from his native Estonia in 2008, Margus Hunt viewed America as the land of opportunity.

“My goal and vision was to be in the Olympics in 2012," Hunt said.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Hunt will be going to the National Football League in 2013, which may be an even more amazing accomplishment than if he had gone to the Olympics.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY SportsMargus Hunt, a defensive end out of SMU, is headed to the NFL scouting combine this week.
The defensive end from SMU is being touted as a possible first-round pick in the April draft (he might even be a consideration for the Atlanta Falcons at No. 30 overall). IMG Academy director of football operations director Chris Weinke, who has been helping Hunt prepare for the scouting combine, said he expects his pupil to open some NFL eyes in Indianapolis.

“He’s a unique individual," Weinke said. “He’s a physical specimen. He’s going to test out as well as anyone tests out over there. He hasn’t played the game a ton. What I see from him is huge upside because of lack of experience. But he’s got the mentality that he’s going to do whatever it takes. He just needs to get into a system and continue to gain some experience and I think he’s going to be around for a long time."

Just getting drafted would be quite a story for a guy that never played high school football and didn’t start playing until the 2009 season at SMU.

“Growing up, I vaguely knew what the game was about," Hunt said. “I kind of knew there was a game out there like that, but that’s about all I knew."

Part of that was because American football doesn’t get a lot of attention in Estonia. But part of it was because Hunt’s passion was track and field. Hunt won all sorts of junior championships in the shot put, discus and hammer throw and he thought his path to the Olympics would run through Dallas.

SMU had dropped its men’s track program, but coach Dave Wollard was attempting to get it started again. Hunt enrolled at SMU on a part-time basis in 2008 and began working out privately with Wollard.

“After a while, nothing happened, so we had to find a different alternative," Hunt said. “My first option was to go to a different college altogether and work something out. But I really didn’t want to leave SMU. The football coaches had always seen me in the weight room and were always bugging me about trying out for the football team. Eventually, coach (June) Jones agreed to let me have a tryout."

Jones must have seen plenty of potential in that tryout because he turned around and gave Hunt a football scholarship. That move paid off nicely for the Mustangs.

Hunt, 6-foot-8 and 277 pounds, recorded 31 tackles, eight sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss, forced two fumbles and blocked three kicks in his final season.

The one knock is Hunt doesn’t have a lot of football experience. But Weinke said that shouldn’t be viewed as a negative.

“I’ve seen him develop a lot since he got here," Weinke said. “He’s gotten a lot better technique wise. He’s still not a finished product and that’s what should be exciting to teams that are looking at him because there still is so much upside."
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When you talk to Sheldon Richardson, it’s a waste of time to beat around the bush.

You can make subtle implications that he’s "outspoken" or "confident," but Richardson will take you right to the point.

"I’m cocky, to most people," Richardson said Monday after a workout at IMG Academy, where he’s been preparing for the NFL’s scouting combine.

Yes, the Missouri defensive tackle is the person who said Georgia played "old man football." He’s also the one who -- before the Tigers played the Longhorns in 2011 -- went on a rant about how he hates Texas.

"It was just a comment that I made because a lot of my teammates were from Texas and they were reminiscing about guys they played against in high school and how great they are now, and I didn’t like that too much," Richardson said. "It was praising the other team too much. When we’re out on the field, you can’t be friends. It wasn’t Colt McCoy at quarterback. It was his little brother [Case] and we got after him defensively."

Missouri defeated Texas 17-5.

"I'm myself," Richardson said. "I really don’t see why guys sit there and praise other coaches and other teams when it’s totally different in your own locker room. Why sit there and say, 'That’s a great team' when it’s not?' "

Maybe Richardson has earned the right to say what’s on his mind. In his final two college seasons, he recorded 112 tackles, six sacks and had 18.5 tackles for a loss. Most scouts and draft experts list him as one of the top two or three defensive tackles in a class that’s particularly deep at that position. If he lasts until the middle of the first round, Richardson would be an obvious target for the New Orleans Saints or the Carolina Panthers.

"I’ll just say this -- he’s a grown man," IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke said. "In terms of his ability to make every move, he makes it seamlessly. Our defensive line coaches have just been enamored with his explosiveness. He’s going to be a guy that teams are going to look at to be an impact player from the get-go."

He’ll also be a guy with plenty of confidence.

"I’m me," Richardson said. "I’ll just go out and do what I’ve been doing. I’ve got a lot of film and I’ve made a lot of tackles. I like where I stand going into the combine. I feel like my talent, my confidence and work ethic put me ahead of anyone in this draft."

Montee Ball could be 'special' RB

February, 19, 2013
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Montee Ball has heard the talk and, contrary to what you might expect, he likes it.

“They say I’m not special," the University of Wisconsin running back said Monday after a pre-combine workout at IMG Academy. “They say I’m not especially fast. They say I’m not especially big. Well, fine, I’ll take that as a compliment. They’re not tearing me apart. They’re just saying that I don’t do one thing special. So what? If you’re pretty good all the way around, then you can be a very good running back."

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMontee Ball rushed for 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Wisconsin.
Ball is talking about the draft gurus and scouts that say he’s not a first-round pick. Most say he’ll go in the second or third round, which is a little surprising for a guy who scored more touchdowns (83) than anyone in the history of college football (FBS).

At 5-11 and 212 pounds, Ball is too small to be the traditional power back and too big to be a pure speed back. But, if you want to stereotype him, Ball has a couple of suggestions.

“Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis,’’ Ball said. “People said the same thing about them. They didn’t do anything special. Well, they both ended up having pretty good careers.’’

Ball has a point. He ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two college seasons while scoring 55 rushing touchdowns. As a junior he caught 24 passes and scored six touchdowns.

“The thing that surprise me most about him is the way he catches the ball,’’ IMG director of football operations Chris Weinke, a former NFL quarterback, said. “Coming from Wisconsin, I wasn’t expecting him to be very polished at catching the ball. But he caught the ball effortlessly. He just looks really natural doing it.’’

Wisconsin veered off its normal offense in 2011 when Russell Wilson was the quarterback. The Badgers got Ball involved as a receiver out of the backfield. But Wisconsin went back to its old ways last season and Ball caught only 10 passes.

“I’ve always been able to catch the ball,’’ Ball said. “I did it in high school and I caught it when it came my way in college, but it’s something I feel I can do a lot more of on the next level.’’

Let’s play a little game of connect the dots here. There is one NFC South team that seems to be crying out for a running back like Ball this offseason.

That’s the Atlanta Falcons. Michael Turner is getting older and could be a salary-cap casualty. The Falcons are high on the potential of Jacquizz Rodgers, but he may not be big enough to handle the rushing load all by himself.

Put someone like Ball in the same backfield as Rodgers and the Falcons suddenly could spice up a running game that wasn’t very good last season.

“I don’t have any dream scenario of what team I want to go to or what kind of offense I want to be a part of,’’ Ball said. “I just want to go somewhere and get a chance to be a three-down back and show what I can do.’’

What can Ball do on the next level?

“I think he can be a very good NFL running back,’’ Weinke said. “I think he’s going to show people at the combine he’s a little faster than they thought. We already know he can run between the tackles and change directions. And he can catch the ball and block. Consistent is the first word I think of when I think of him.’’

Maybe that consistency will be what makes Ball special in the NFL.

Manti Te'o ready for NFL combine

February, 18, 2013
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will be the center of attention when the NFL scouting combine opens later this week and most of the NFC South teams are likely to be watching closely.

Te’o has been in the headlines since it was revealed that he was the victim of what he said was a hoax that led him to have an online relationship with a woman that did not exist.

The story came to light soon after Te’o arrived at IMG Academy to begin preparing for the combine.

“He missed precisely one day,’’ said former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke, the director of football operations at IMG Academy where Te’o has been preparing for the combine. “He’s gone about his business and been the same guy all along. I really admire that because a lot of guys his age would not be able to handle this as well as he has. I haven’t seen any signs of it being a distraction and I expect him to go up to Indianapolis and have a great combine.’’

Those closest to Te’o said he’s shown no signs of being distracted by the off-field drama.

“Manti has been the same Manti I went to college with,’’ said former Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, who also has been working out at IMG. “He left to do the Katie Couric interview for one day and I think he was back that same night. He’s been out on the field working just like he’s always worked. I’ve tried to be there for him, but I don’t know that he’s needed all that much help because he’s such a strong person to begin with.’’

Teams are likely to grill Te’o about his situation during his individual interviews at the combine. Most draft gurus have been projecting Te’o as a likely first-round pick.

The Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers all pick in the middle of the first round and the Atlanta Falcons are scheduled to pick No. 30 overall. New Orleans needs some stability in its linebacker corps and Tampa Bay could be looking to add a linebacker because Quincy Black suffered a major injury last season. Carolina doesn’t appear to have much need at linebacker, but it remains to be seen if veteran Jon Beason will be a salary-cap casualty.

It may be a long shot that Te’o is still available when the Falcons pick. But, knowing how thorough the Falcons are, I’m sure they’ll do their homework on Te’o just in case.

Pre-combine scouting trip

February, 18, 2013
I’m about to begin my annual pilgrimage down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. To do some pre-combine stories.

IMG has more than 30 prospects who have been doing its combine preparation, which is run by former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke. Ironically, or maybe no coincidence whatsoever, Weinke spent most of his career with Carolina and the Panthers have used their last two first-round picks on players who have trained at IMG (Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly).

I’ll try to pin Weinke down and see if I can get an early read on who Carolina’s top pick will be this year. I’m only kidding – sort of – on that part, but I’ll be getting scouting reports from Weinke and talking to several players, and that will lead to several stories in the coming days. I’ll be back later on after watching the workouts and doing interviews.

Here’s the list of prospects who have been working out at the facility, according to IMG Academy:
Luke KuechlyAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtRookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has a league-best three games with 15 or more tackles.

There’s a lot of talk out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Andrew Luck? Robert Griffin III? Russell Wilson? Doug Martin?

You could go on for days with that one. But there's another, less-talked-about question out there.

Who should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?

I say that one’s much clearer than the offensive award. Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best defensive rookie in the NFL.

Think about it for a second and see if you can come up with someone better than Kuechly, who has flown under the radar, mainly because Carolina’s season has left the Panthers largely ignored.

I look at players such as Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, Denver’s Derek Wolfe, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Mark Barron, New England’s Chandler Jones, St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and nobody blows me away.

Kuechly does.

Amid the rubble that has been Carolina’s disappointing season, Kuechly has been a huge bright spot -- and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. He had a career-high 16 tackles in Sunday’s victory against Atlanta.

His 130 tackles (we’re using press-box stats, not revised numbers from coaches) lead the league. Kuechly has a shot to be the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the league in tackles and to at least challenge Willis’ record for tackles by a rookie (174).

Not bad for a guy who freely admits he’s still getting used to his new job.

“The theme of what I’ve learned from the older guys since I’ve been here is that it’s a job now and you have to treat it like one," Kuechly said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “You’re not in college anymore. You don’t leave practice and go back to the dorm and hang with your buds. You put in a full day here and you go home and rest. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically because, at this level, you have to stay on top of everything."

He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do.

-- Steve Smith, on Luke Kuechly
The main thing Kuechly has been staying on top of has been whomever has the ball. He leads the league with three games recording at least 15 tackles. No other player has more than one such game. Go back and watch any Carolina game and Kuechly always seems to be around the ball.

“The guy he reminds me of -- that's had this much success so quickly -- would be Dan Morgan," veteran receiver Steve Smith said. “Very smart. He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do."

I like Smith’s comparison of Kuechly to Morgan a lot. That’s mainly because that’s the first thing I thought of when I first watched Kuechly go through a workout and interviewed him at IMG Academy as he was preparing for the scouting combine last February.

After the interview, I talked to IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, who came in the same 2001 Carolina draft class as Morgan and Smith. When I mentioned the comparison, Weinke nodded in agreement and said, “They’re both all about football."

Carolina fans might not like the comparison of Kuechly to Morgan, but it’s meant as a huge compliment. Morgan is a bit of a tragic figure because persistent injuries prevented his career from truly blossoming and cut it way too short. But when he was on the field, Morgan was as good as any linebacker.

I look at Kuechly and I see what Morgan could have been.

Apparently, so does Smith.

“He just makes plays," Smith said. “He's a young guy that came in, didn't come in entitled, real eager to learn."

Much like Morgan, Kuechly has a low-key personality. He is quiet and exceedingly polite -- until you put him in pads and have people run at him. That’s when Kuechly tackles anything that moves.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kuechly led the nation in tackles in two of his three seasons at Boston College and finished second in the other season. That’s why the Panthers used the ninth overall pick in the draft on him.

The Panthers opened the season with Jon Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the weak side. That lasted four games before Beason went down with an injury and Kuechly shifted to the middle, the position he played in college, and took over the role of the leader of the defense.

Carolina’s defense has drawn a lot of criticism this season. But there has been a noticeable difference since Kuechly moved to the middle. In the first four games, the Panthers allowed an average of 393.8 yards. In the past nine games, the average has dropped to 328.9 yards, which ranks eighth in the league during that span.

“You see his leadership,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You see his maturity as far as leading the defense. You see how he rallies his teammates, how he handles his teammates. How his teammates work with him, how he works with them.’’

If it continues, you could see a Defensive Rookie of the Year in Carolina.

The place where QBs are made

September, 5, 2012
I’m making the short drive from NFC South Blog headquarters down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to do some post-practice interviews with the Carolina Panthers.

As most of you know, the Panthers have left their facility at Bank of America Stadium to get out of the way of the Democratic National Convention. It’s a logical move since the Panthers open their regular season Sunday at Tampa Bay.

They pondered several facilities in the Tampa Bay area, but quickly settled on IMG Academy because they have strong ties to the place. Former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke is the director of football operations at IMG Academy.

Weinke is also one of the people that helped prepare Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for his rookie season because the lockout prevented Newton from working with his coaches. Newton and Weinke have remained close and Newton spent some of this offseason working out at IMG Academy.

We all know Newton went out and was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. But Newton isn’t IMG’s only success story and Weinke is gaining a reputation as a quarterback guru.

When I went down to do some pre-combine stories in February, I spent some time with Russell Wilson and Weinke was singing his praises. Ryan Tannehill also was there that day, but was limited because it was his first day back after an injury.

Now that Wilson and Tannehill have been named Week 1 starters, IMG Academy has a claim to fame. One quarter of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks have trained at IMG Academy.

Most of them have been there since Weinke has taken over in recent years. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has worked out there in the past, including during last year’s lockout.

But one other NFC South quarterback worked out there long before the Weinke era. That was New Orleans’ Drew Brees. He did his combine prep there in 2001. Coincidentally, one of the other rookie quarterbacks working out at IMG that year was Weinke, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Panthers.

I'll be back with more on the Panthers after the interviews are finished.
Updating our previous item on the Carolina Panthers leaving Charlotte while the Democratic National Convention is in town, the team just made the official announcement that it will practice at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., in the days leading into the Sept. 9 season opener at Tampa Bay.

As we said earlier, it makes total sense for the Panthers to practice somewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

“We researched places on the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast in anticipation of the 2012 schedule release,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “After the opener at Tampa Bay was announced, we scouted a few places in the Tampa area and IMG made the most sense. The facility offers the privacy and infrastructure that we need to prepare for the season opener.”

But there’s even more behind the logic to this one. The Panthers have built some strong ties to IMG. Former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke is the director of football operations at IMG, which has a first-rate facility with multiple fields, a training room and dorms to lodge players and coaches. Don’t underestimate the Weinke connection here.

Weinke and Hurney always have had a good relationship, but it’s gotten even stronger in recent years. Weinke helped get Cam Newton ready for last year’s combine. Newton then returned to IMG and worked with Weinke during the lockout. Newton obviously worked out pretty well for the Panthers.

They then turned around this year and drafted Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who did his combine prep at IMG.

I went down to Bradenton back in February and did stories on Kuechly and some other draft prospects. There’s obviously a trend developing. When I go down to IMG next February, I think I’ll just ask Weinke to point out Carolina’s first-round pick for 2013.

Weinke's career with the Panthers didn't go the way he wanted. He was the starter as a rookie, but fell into a backup role as soon as coach John Fox arrived. Weinke wasn't happy about that, but he handled things like a pro and kept good relationships.

That's still paying off for the Panthers.
As I drove down to Bradenton, Fla., back in February to interview some draft prospects at IMG Football Academy, I thought a lot about Carolina’s 2001 draft class. That’s because I was about to see a member of that class -- Chris Weinke, who now is IMG’s director of football operations.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireLuke Kuechly possesses many of the same on-field qualities as former Panthers LB Dan Morgan.
I also was about to meet Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was preparing for the scouting combine under Weinke’s guidance. The Panthers used their first-round pick on Kuechly on Thursday night, but we’ll get back to Kuechly in just a minute. Let’s stick to the 2001 class for now.

As I drove, I thought about how that class might have been the best in franchise history (although the 2007 class that included Jon Beason, Ryan Kalil and Charles Johnson certainly is in the argument). But the 2001 draft is different in one regard. If not for a few twists of fate, it could have gone down as one of the greatest draft classes in NFL history.

Let’s start with the Panthers' third-round choice of Steve Smith, a wide receiver who is still with the Panthers and is still going strong. He at least has a shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Weinke was the fourth-round choice. He got thrown into a bad situation as a rookie starter and never was “the guy’’ once John Fox took over the next year.

Safety Jarrod Cooper (a fifth-round choice) and running back Dee Brown (sixth round) also contributed as special-teams players and offensive lineman Louis Williams (seventh round) hung around for a bit, even though his claim to fame was his willingness to pick up a couple hundred bucks from teammates for practicing in shorts and a t-shirt on one of the coldest and snowiest days in Charlotte history.

Then, there was second-round choice Kris Jenkins. For a brief period, he was the best defensive tackle in the game. He was a major reason the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. Jenkins’ career got sidetracked by two major knee injuries and he grew unhappy in Charlotte. He later went to the New York Jets and, for a short time, looked like the best defensive tackle in the game again. Then, he got hit with more injuries.

Had Jenkins been able to stay healthy and happy, he might be in Hall of Fame discussions with Smith. Then, there’s the star-crossed case of Dan Morgan, the linebacker Carolina took in the first round of that draft.

“The best football player I’ve ever played with,’’ Jenkins told me last summer, soon after he announced his retirement.

People tend to forget how great Morgan was. That’s because his career was overshadowed by injuries, mostly concussions. Morgan spent seven seasons with Carolina, but never was able to play in more than 13 games in a season. In his last two years, he played in only four games.

But, in the few moments he was healthy, Morgan might have been the best player in this class. Remember Super Bowl XXXVIII? Morgan officially was in on 18 tackles in that game, but Carolina coaches put the number at 25. When Morgan was healthy, he was spectacular. Without all the injuries, Morgan might still be playing and he easily could be ahead of Smith and Jenkins in that hypothetical Hall of Fame conversation.

Through the years, I’ve discussed Morgan many times with Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. Coach George Seifert had the general-manager powers in that draft, but Hurney was part of the Carolina brain trust and moved into his current role the next year. When Hurney talks about Morgan, you hear bittersweet tones. Like everyone else in Carolina’s building that spent time around Morgan, Hurney talks glowingly about Morgan’s talent and how he was a true pro’s pro. Then, the injuries come up and that’s when the tone becomes sad. Hurney saw Morgan as a player that could have been truly special.

That’s why I have to wonder if Hurney was thinking about Morgan (and what he could have been) as he went through the draft process with Kuechly. I sure was. When Carolina’s pick was announced, my first thought was “Hurney just drafted a healthy Dan Morgan."

Kuechly is like Morgan in so many ways – a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who lives for football. Like Morgan, Kuechly had a highly-productive career from a strong college program.

Kuechly is coming in young, fresh and healthy. If he can stay that way, he could end up being the player Morgan never quite was able to become. That would make Hurney and a lot of Carolina fans very happy.

Keep Kuechly on the field for a decade and he could become a Pro Bowl regular. Maybe even, someday, a Hall of Famer.

Heisman no longer bad omen for QBs

April, 19, 2012
Sam Bradford/Cam NewtonUS PresswireSt. Louis' Sam Bradford, left, and Carolina's Cam Newton have helped change the thinking that a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback won't be successful in the NFL.
There was a time -- like pretty much the last 50 years -- when a Heisman Trophy wasn’t a very good thing for a quarterback to have on his résumé as he entered the NFL.

When Baylor’s Robert Griffin III gets taken early in next week’s NFL draft, he could be the latest piece in the trend of turning around the apparent curse on quarterbacks who won the Heisman. It has started to change only recently, but all of the sudden it’s looking like the trophy isn’t an anchor guaranteeing NFL mediocrity or obscurity for a quarterback.

Look back at 2010 winner Cam Newton. He was last year’s offensive rookie of the year for the Carolina Panthers and set all sorts of rookie passing (and rushing) records. There’s big hope in St. Louis that 2008 winner Sam Bradford can get back to the promise he showed as a rookie after struggling through a rough 2010 season. Then there’s 2007 winner Tim Tebow. He couldn’t throw spirals in Denver, but he won games. That at least created a market for Tebow to get traded to the New York Jets, where it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be able to win the starting job away from Mark Sanchez.

But there’s at least hope that Griffin, Newton, Bradford and Tebow can go on to have long and prosperous NFL careers. Before they came along, there were decades of evidence that suggested quarterbacks should just quit the game after winning the Heisman.

Remember Troy Smith, Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel, Charlie Ward and Gino Torretta? How about Ty Detmer, Andre Ware or Pat Sullivan?

They had little to no success in the NFL.

And remember Jason White?

I honestly did not at first. I had to go back and look up White, who won the trophy not all that long ago. He won it in 2003 while putting up some gaudy numbers at the University of Oklahoma. White didn’t even get drafted and quit football altogether after a short training-camp stint with the Tennessee Titans. He never even played in a regular-season NFL game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jerome Miron/US PresswireRobert Griffin III threw for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy last season.
Guys like White, Smith, Crouch, Wuerffel, Ward, Torretta, Detmer, Ware and Sullivan all had some things in common. In general, they were able to win the Heisman because they put up big statistics at programs where they were surrounded by elite players. They also had limitations -- usually in size, speed or arm strength -- that prevented them from being taken very seriously by NFL talent evaluators.

But those same evaluators also missed on some Heisman winners who seemed to have what the NFL wanted. Remember Matt Leinart?

He came from one of those football factories (USC), where he was surrounded by guys like Reggie Bush, but Leinart was supposed to be the one whose college success could transfer to the NFL. That’s why the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the first round. But Leinart was nothing short of a tremendous disappointment.

When he flopped, it looked like there really was something to the Heisman Curse.

Prior to Tebow, Bradford, Newton and Griffin, you’ve got to look at a list of 18 quarterbacks who won the Heisman before you find one who really made it big. You’ve got to go all the way back to Roger Staubach, who won it for Navy in 1963. He went on to have a great career for the Dallas Cowboys and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since Staubach won the Heisman, other quarterbacks have had to settle for just getting into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sure, there have been a few Heisman winners to come out and have some success. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but his career didn’t really take off until he landed with the Raiders after mediocre stints in New England and San Francisco.

Vinny Testaverde had an extremely long NFL career and the longevity led to some impressive career statistics. But Testaverde never had the kind of career so many people imagined when he was coming out of the University of Miami and taken No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987.

Guys like Steve Spurrier and Doug Flutie bounced around and had some success. Then there’s Carson Palmer, who has had some bright moments, but still is trying to fully live up to the Heisman hype.

But Newton, Griffin, Tebow and Bradford finally might be able to put a stop to the near-half-decade drought of Heisman Trophy winners truly excelling in the NFL.

“Cam Newton is the best thing to ever happen to Robert Griffin III,’’ former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke said as we discussed this year’s crop of quarterbacks back in February. “Just like Drew Brees is the best thing to happen to [Wisconsin draft prospect Russell Wilson]. Cam showed that a big, athletic quarterback that can run can be great in the NFL. Brees showed that a guy that’s not 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 can throw for 5,000 yards in an NFL season. We all know the NFL is a copycat league. Cam’s success and Drew’s success helps the draft stock of guys like Robert and Russell.’’

Ironically, Weinke’s name is another one on that Heisman list. His story might be the most unique of all the Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Weinke enrolled at Florida State after giving up a minor-league baseball career. He won the Heisman in 2000 and seemed to have the talent of a classic drop-back passer, but the fact he would turn 29 in his rookie training camp, pushed him into the fourth round of the 2001 draft. The Carolina Panthers took him and he started under coach George Seifert as a rookie, but never could quite won over John Fox, who took over the next year.

Weinke spent the next five seasons as a backup in Carolina and finished his career in 2007 with San Francisco.

These days, Weinke has carved a niche as a quarterback guru. He is the director of football operations at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He has worked extensively with Newton and some other quarterback prospects over the past few years.

Weinke says he’s seen the game change just since his playing days ended. Like just about everyone else, he says the NFL has become more driven by quarterbacks. He says natural talent is a prerequisite for NFL success and he points to guys like Newton and Griffin, saying they could be a new prototype. And he goes back to his point about the NFL being a copycat league.

“People are always looking for what works,’’ Weinke said. “Cam obviously had a fantastic rookie season. So people look at Robert and say he can do the same thing because the skill sets are similar.’’

For Griffin, Newton and Bradford -- and perhaps even Tebow in his own way -- maybe the skill sets are so good that it no longer matters if a quarterback is lugging around a Heisman Trophy.