NFL Nation: Drew Brees

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the sternest test of Mike Zimmer's ability to remake the Minnesota Vikings' defense will come in an 18-day stretch from Sept. 14 to Oct. 2, when the Vikings will play four consecutive games against Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, effectively staking their playoff hopes on their ability to stand up to some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

In many ways, the Vikings will have to fix two of their biggest problems from last season in the first month of the season if they're going to have any shot at relevance. They didn't win a road game last season (their victory in London was technically a "home" game), and they'll start the year against a St. Louis Rams team that went 5-3 at home last season before playing games at the Superdome and Lambeau Field in the next five weeks.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap
AP Photo/David KohlMike Zimmer's defense made things challenging for Aaron Rodgers last season.
But the Vikings' struggles against top quarterbacks, if left unchecked, will be an even more pervasive problem in the first part of the season. The Saints, Packers, Falcons and Patriots were the league's second-, sixth-, seventh- and 10th-best passing teams last season, and the Vikings come out of that stretch with an Oct. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, who threw for the third-most yards in the league. Essentially, the message of the Vikings' 2014 schedule is this: Fix your defense and fix it quickly.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Zimmer's had some success slowing down the quarterbacks the Vikings will face -- particularly Rodgers. The Packers quarterback faced the Cincinnati Bengals twice while Zimmer was their defensive coordinator, and lost both games. Last year, he hit 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Bengals, and was sacked four times. And while he threw for 311 yards against the Bengals in 2009, he was sacked six times and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 31-24 loss.

Brady also faced the Bengals twice in that time, with unimpressive results. He went 1-1 in a pair of games against Cincinnati, completing 43 of his 73 passes for 455 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. After picking them apart in a 2010 win, he had arguably his worst game of the season against them last year, completing just 18 of his 38 passes for 197 yards and an interception in a 13-6 loss.

Brees and Ryan both fared well in their lone efforts against Zimmer's defense, each beating a 4-12 Bengals team in 2010. They were two of just four quarterbacks to surpass 290 yards against Cincinnati that season, posting 313 and 299, respectively.

Zimmer's defense employs plenty of man coverage, mixed with some zone principles, and counts more heavily on cornerbacks winning one-on-one matchups than the Vikings' old scheme did. That seems like a good fit for second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and Captain Munnerlyn should help the Vikings' defense, as well, but secondary depth is paramount to surviving matchups with teams that will put as many receivers on the field as the Vikings' early-season opponents will.

The other thing to watch is how effectively the Vikings can pressure the top quarterbacks they'll face, particularly with some of Zimmer's creative blitzes. The Bengals didn't bring extra pressure after Brady and Rodgers all that often last year -- on just 12 and 11 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but what's worth noting is just how much they rattled those two quarterbacks. Brady had just a 2.2 QBR against the Bengals' blitzes last year, and Rodgers' QBR was only 8.0, as he was forced into checkdowns and didn't complete a pass of longer than 8 yards against the blitz. Considering how lethal those two quarterbacks have been against the blitz in their careers -- to the point where many teams don't try to send extra pressure -- Zimmer's ability to throw them off is impressive. He did it well against Matthew Stafford last season, too, holding the Lions quarterback to just 33 yards and a 5.0 QBR on 13 blitzes.

The key variable to all this, of course, is talent, and it remains to be seen if the Vikings' personnel is as effective in Zimmer's scheme as what the Bengals had last season. But the additions of Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the development of Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and the health of safety Harrison Smith should help. If Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards can coax more out of players like defensive end Everson Griffen and figure out the Vikings' linebacker situation, they'll likely receive credit for it early, because the Vikings' progress will be graded against some of the toughest opponents they'll see all season.
AVONDALE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints began their offseason conditioning program this week with tight end Jimmy Graham still unsigned. But it’s still too early in the year for anyone to be concerned about his absence.

Graham is not expected to participate in the Saints’ workouts since he’s not under contract. Although the Saints placed the franchise tag on Graham, he hasn’t signed the offer yet. So he’d have to sign a waiver to participate.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Ric TapiaSeeking a long-term deal with the Saints, Jimmy Graham could miss a big portion of the team's offseason workouts.
Saints coach Sean Payton seemed to indicate Wednesday that he doesn’t expect that to happen when asked if he anticipates Graham joining the team for any workouts.

“I think it’s pretty normal. I think everything the first week was pretty much as expected,” said Payton, who spoke with the media before teeing off in the pro-am at the Zurich Classic PGA tournament.

It’s also highly possible that Graham could miss the Saints’ OTAs and minicamp practices in May and June while the two sides continue to negotiate over a long-term contract extension.

The important deadline is July 15. After that date, franchised players can only sign one-year agreements with their teams. History suggests that the standoff could last right up until the deadline (as was the case with quarterback Drew Brees’ deal when he was franchised in 2012).

Brees spoke confidently about Graham’s situation while appearing on "The Dan Patrick Show" on Wednesday. Brees said he is confident a deal will get done “very soon.”

However, Brees seemed to be speaking in general terms rather than giving any specific insight that a deal is close.

Among other topics Payton discussed Wednesday:

  • He said the team has not yet made a permanent decision on whether to exercise the fifth-year option on running back Mark Ingram’s contract, which would require the Saints to pay him $5.2 million in 2015. The Saints have until May 3 to make that decision, though it seems unlikely that they will. The Saints already exercised their option on defensive end Cameron Jordan earlier this week.
  • As usual, there was a full-team meeting to kick off the offseason program on Monday. Payton said that’s typically just used to lay out the summer calendar through the start of training camp. He said there hasn’t been much football talk yet. “Really, I think it’s important that in the early stages of all this that the players, when they come to the facility, they feel like they’re coming to lift weights and condition,” Payton said. “There’s so much time for football and X's and O's and all of those other things. Really, it’s just encouraging the way the weight room looks. We have a new nutrition cafe, a lot of different elements that go into just being in really good shape.”
  • Payton said he believes the Saints’ first preseason game at the St. Louis Rams will be played on Friday, August 8 -- though the specific date hasn’t been announced yet. He said the team will likely open training camp at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia with conditioning tests on Thursday, July 24.
  • Payton said he doesn’t mind the draft being pushed back this year because it’s beneficial for the team to get more time to study film on players. But he said the longer wait might be “more stressful to the player because I think players then visit more teams, there’s more workouts, they’re pulled a little bit more than maybe normally.”
The New Orleans Saints have to decide by May 3 whether they want to extend the contracts of their 2011 first-round draft picks -- defensive end Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram -- through the 2015 season.

Jordan’s extension is expected to cost $6.969 million for 2015 and Ingram’s $5.211 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton, who wrote about the looming fifth-year extensions around the league.

Ingram
Jordan
This is the first year that these fifth-year extensions will kick in after they were added to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement in 2011. And as Clayton pointed out, that 2011 draft class happened to be one of the best in years.

Therefore, several teams are expected to retain their players -- which will put a dent in the talent available in next year’s free agency class around the league.

Extending Jordan is a no-brainer for the Saints. He was a first-time Pro Bowler last year in a breakout season with 12.5 sacks. He is arguably the Saints’ top defensive player as he heads into his fourth NFL season. And he doesn’t turn 25 until July.

Ingram is less likely to be extended at that price – even though the Saints remain high on his future and could consider re-signing him to a more affordable extension.

Ingram, 24, finished strong last season with an impressive performance in the playoffs. And his role in the Saints’ backfield could increase slightly this year now that the Saints have traded away veteran Darren Sproles. However, Ingram will still be in a timeshare with fellow running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Too early to draft Brees’ successor: Also in Clayton’s mailbag, he said it’s still too early for the Saints to draft a successor for quarterback Drew Brees. I completely agree -- as I’ve written several times this offseason. I expect Brees to keep playing at a high level for at least three or four more years.
video

The “No Fun League” strikes again.

The goal-post dunk will now be prohibited by the NFL -- a deflating rule change that might only be considered a victory for helpless crossbars around the country. As for the players and fans around the league, the rule elicited a resounding groan.

No team will be more affected by the rule than the New Orleans Saints. Not only will Saints fans miss out on Jimmy Graham’s trademark touchdown celebration roughly 12-to-15 times a year, they’ll also miss out on those fun occasions where Graham goads his buddy Drew Brees into proving he can still slam the ball over the crossbar despite Brees' 6-foot frame. Graham tweeted out a photo of an in-season dunk being blocked by a ghostly ref with the comment, "I guess I'll have to lead the @nfl in penalties next year! #funpolice," but subsequently deleted the tweet.

Listen, I do understand the reason for this particular rule. I was there in Atlanta last season when one of Graham’s power jams tilted the crossbar and forced a delay of game while workers came out with a super-sized level. Maybe that’s not the kind of drama that football fans are looking for.

But how about this? Let’s only penalize the players when they actually bend the goal posts. Make it a dunk-at-your-own-risk rule.

Really, I’m not that worked up about the rule change (my personal campaign for the last decade has been to remove the archaic chain system for measuring first downs). But I'm more surprised than anything by the NFL's hasty reaction to last year's "goalpost malfunction."

I find it almost shocking that a league that spent weeks promoting its new Pro Bowl format by trying to show off the personalities of stars such as Brees and Graham is now trying to mute those same personalities.

Of all the positive rule changes being discussed at the league meetings this week -- including a much-needed revamp of the replay system -- this is what’s getting the most attention?

This rule change can’t be a top priority for the NFL, can it?

I’m not sure where I’d draw the line with touchdown celebrations. Personally, I got a kick out of Saints receiver Lance Moore’s rendition of the “Hingle McGringleberry” touchdown celebration from the comedy show “Key & Peele” last season. But I know others whose opinion that I respect were turned off by it.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Brian BlancoSaints tight end Jimmy Graham won't be allowed to perform his signature touchdown celebration any more.
I also covered Terrell Owens in San Francisco while he was raising his arms through the hole in the roof on the middle of the Dallas Cowboys’ field and when he pulled out the Sharpie from his sock in Seattle. I covered Joe Horn in Louisiana shortly after he pulled out a hidden cellphone from behind a goal post.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of those were more clever than others. And I understand the league doesn’t want to start reviewing them on a case-by-case basis. They’d have to hire Simon Cowell to work in the league office. (Would Cowell’s decisions be reviewable?)

So I’m well aware that there should be some limit to the theatrics.

But the NFL is the most popular, most booming sport in America. They do a lot of things the right way when it comes to marketing their game. And it’s remarkable that they keep allowing that “No Fun League” critique to ring true time and time again.

Someone should throw a flag.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson said he felt disrespected when New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees accused him of being a head hunter last season. Now, Goldson is doing something about it.

In this story by Anwar Richardson, Goldson said he’s going to work on his tackling technique with Bobby Hosea at Train 'Em Up Academy this offseason. That is a wise idea, because Goldson’s tackling created major problems last season.

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
AP Photo/Brian BlancoBucs safety Dashon Goldson was fined nearly $500,000 and suspended for one game because of illegal hits last season.
He was fined nearly $500,000 and suspended for one game because of illegal hits.

"When we get together, we’re going to break it down," Hosea, who played football at UCLA, told Richardson. "We’re going to do film study on tackling, and we’re going to look at all these flags, and we’re going to break it down. Dashon was the best tackler you’ve ever seen in high school ... something happened in the last couple of years when he started dropping his hat. I haven’t seen all of them (illegal hits). I saw a couple.

"I know him. He’s like a son to me. He can control what he’s doing. He’s gotten away from it. I don’t know what (former Bucs coach) Greg Schiano was teaching or emphasizing, or if they were emphasizing anything at all. We’re going to get Dashon back on track, and keep his money in his pocket."

But this isn’t just about money. It’s about pride. Goldson has a lot of pride and it took a hit last year when Brees spoke out about his tackling tactics.

"I felt very disrespected," Goldson said. "This is coming from one player to another. We all love the game. We all play the game to win, and that’s all I ever wanted to do was win. People ask me why do you hit so hard? Why do you play so hard? I just explain to them that all I want to do is win. For him to come out and say something like that when that was never the case was shocking. I respected him as a football player, but with something being said like that, it was like he was trying to sabotage, pretty much hate on me, because I was known for being a ferocious hitter.

"He’s an icon guy in our league, and he’s talking about how I’m trying to take guy’s heads off and being a dirty player. I just felt very disrespected, and I didn’t think that was called for."

There’s only one way to stop the criticism. That is to play the game within the rules, and Goldson is working on that.
Russell Wilson, Drew BreesJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDespite a lack of height, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees haven't struggled with passes being batted at the line of scrimmage.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the course of the past few weeks, I've been chipping away at the Hot Read piece that was published today on why evaluating quarterbacks is so difficult -- and hasn't gotten any more precise in an era where teams have more information at their disposal than ever. In the process of talking to more than a dozen GMs and coaches for the story, I came across a number of interesting tidbits that didn't make the final edition.

I thought I'd pass them along here, in case they're of interest to you:

  • First, for Vikings fans, I had a good conversation with offensive coordinator Norv Turner about what he looks for in a quarterback. Turner was Troy Aikman's offensive coordinator in Dallas, worked with Philip Rivers as the San Diego Chargers' head coach and was the Chargers' offensive coordinator when they drafted Drew Brees (which is a prominent part of the story). He places a high emphasis on a quarterback's ability to learn quickly, understand complex systems and boil those systems down into manageable terms for the rest of the offense. Aikman and Brees both excelled at that, Turner said, and he also mentioned former Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, whom Turner coached with the Redskins. One thing teams are doing now, as they try to put young QBs on the field sooner, Turner said, is simplifying the terminology of their offenses. "They're cutting down some of the verbiage, code-naming more things and helping them, where it's not just so much rote memorization and you don't get into the concepts," Turner said.

  • We talked in the story about the issue of short quarterbacks, and after talking to Turner and Colts GM Ryan Grigson in particular, the sense I got is that smart teams aren't dismissing short QBs simply because they're short -- they're looking to see how many batted balls come about because of a quarterback's stature. In some ways, shorter quarterbacks actually fare better here, because they've already learned how to compensate for their lack of height. In fact, Brees and Russell Wilson were tied for just 21st in the league in batted passes last season, with six each, according to Pro Football Focus. The leaders? The 6-foot-2 Chad Henne (with 20), the 6-2 Matthew Stafford (with 17) and the 6-5 Matt Ryan (with 14). Said Turner of Brees: "He'd been playing like that his whole life. It's not like he was 6-4 or you're going to make him 6-4. He understood how to play that way. He created lanes, he moved and he was very competitive against the rush. That's what it comes down to: that ability to visualize. You don't have to actually see the guy running free -- you 'see' him, you see where the defense is and you know where you're going to throw it."

  • A couple more good stories from Bill Polian and Ron Wolf about drafting Peyton Manning and trading for Brett Favre, respectively. Polian, who now works as a NFL analyst for ESPN, dispelled the since-developed myth that the Colts were split between Manning and Ryan Leaf until just before the draft. In reality, Polian said, the decision was made by mid-March.
    "A lot of people now have amnesia, and said Ryan Leaf was by far the better product," Polian said. "The consensus of so-called experts on Peyton was, he had a weak arm, couldn’t make all the throws and was 'a product of the system.' We worked him out, and found out he had a better arm than Ryan Leaf. He was much better than people gave him credit for. The athleticism thing, that one I can understand, because he looked a little bit gawky. But he had an incredible work ethic, incredible desire to be the best, incredible accuracy when he threw the ball, a unique understanding of defenses. None of that was present with Ryan." And Wolf, when he told the Packers' board of directors when he explained he was about to trade a first-round pick for a player the Atlanta Falcons had taken in the second round and no longer wanted, said this: "I compared him to a player like Lou Gehrig -- a face of the franchise. I told them everybody would one day around Green Bay wear No. 4. I'm sure they were a little shaken. I'm sure they thought they hired some idiot."Wolf said he hadn't thought about the obvious ironman parallels between Favre and Gehrig until we discussed it in our conversation; rather, he saw an aura about Favre that put him in that class. Wolf rightly gets credit now because few others saw what he did, but as he admitted, those evaluations are almost the more obvious ones to make."I thought the field tilted in his team’s favor when he ran on the field," Wolf said. "He played teams [at Southern Miss] that did not have the same type of talent that he was playing against. By and large, he kept them in the game. I think [former Auburn coach] Pat Dye put it the best; was reading somewhere where he was asked 'Who’s the best player you've seen as a head coach?' He said right away, 'Brett Favre.' I think a lot of people would have said that. He won games he had no business being able to win. He's just a rare, rare player."
  • Wolf, then, would agree with the point ESPN NFL scout Matt Williamson made -- that teams and executives who are often branded "quarterback experts" get that reputation unjustly, because all they had to do was be correct once. "If you do hit one, then you don’t have to do it any more," Williamson said. "It's hard to say, 'Boy, these guys are great at developing QBs," because they did it once. They don’t have to worry about it for 12 years."
  • Lastly, I'd commend to you a Sports Illustrated story published just after the 2001 NFL draft. The magazine followed Brees around during his entire pre-draft process and chronicled what the experience was like, and there are lots of cameos from talent evaluators who are still in the NFL limelight, from Turner to Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Seahawks GM John Schneider. And for the Minnesotans in the crowd, the story ran in an issue adorned with a cover photo of former Twins outfielder Matt Lawton, discussing the upstart Twins' hot start to the 2001 MLB season.

Just wanted to pass those things along, before we return to the rhythms of the Vikings beat. Hope you enjoyed them.
One of the biggest reasons the Dallas Cowboys moved on from defensive end DeMarcus Ware was money. The team just didn’t want to devote $16 million of salary-cap space to a player coming off a six-sack season whose body was beginning to break down.

If anything, you could say this was a smart move in getting rid of a player to save money, in this case, $7.4 million.

Quarterback Tony Romo will reach that point someday.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Alex BrandonDallas keeps restructuring Tony Romo's deal, which could lead to a tough decision in the near future.
As part of a restructure, Romo converted $12.5 million of his 2014 base salary into a signing bonus. So now he’ll receive a base salary of $1 million, and his cap number is lowered from $21.7 million to $11.7.

If not for the restructure, Romo would have had the second-highest cap number in the NFL at his position behind Chicago’s Jay Cutler ($22.5 million).

Now Romo has the 16th highest cap hit at his position for this year.

But the future is almost now in the NFL, and the more the Cowboys keep pushing money around to create salary-cap space for the present, the more it will hurt them in the future.

Next year, Romo’s cap number is projected to be $27.7 million, the highest in the NFL. New Orleans' Drew Brees is projected to have the second-highest cap number for a quarterback at $26.4 million.

Romo’s base salary for 2015 is $17 million.

Team executive vice president Stephen Jones said a quarterback is going to take the biggest chunk of the cap on most NFL teams, and he’s right. Another example: the Giants' Eli Manning has a cap number of $20.4 million for 2014.

But at what point are you getting bang for your buck?

Romo turns 34 next month and is coming off his second type of back surgery, and if you see the same overall team result -- not making the postseason again -- regardless of how he plays, is it worth devoting a huge amount of cap space to him?

Yes, especially if you think he’s a good quarterback, which Romo is. Age and health are determining factors for players in the NFL. The fate of Romo, meanwhile might be decided in 2016.

Yeah, it’s a few years away, but if the Cowboys restructure Romo’s contract again next year to lower his cap number, it only increases it the following year. In 2016, Romo’s cap hit will be $17.6 million, pretty reasonable right?

Well before the restructure of 2014, the cap number for 2016 was $15.1 million. Now it has been increased. The Cowboys, like most NFL teams, expect the salary cap to grow each year, so they can absorb some of this money.

However, Romo, who is signed through 2019, will be 36 in 2016. Will he be the same at that age?

What happened to Ware this week could happen to Romo, and though it’s not easy to find a replacement for a defensive lineman, it’s harder to find a franchise quarterback.

Five thoughts: Darren Sproles

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
7:30
AM ET
With running back Darren Sproles done in New Orleans (his release has not yet hit the transactions wire), it led to another round of "should the Redskins pursue" questions via Twitter. So, should they go after Sproles? Well, I have a few thoughts. As always.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesRunning back Darren Sproles had 71 receptions for 604 yards last season, his eighth in the NFL.
1. Yes, I would be interested in signing Sproles if I were the Washington Redskins. But you need to know exactly what you’re getting. Do not expect the Sproles from 2011, when he set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards for the Saints and was one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. That is not who he was last season. In 2013, Sproles had 1,273 all-purpose yards. He also will not necessarily solve the issues at returner. In five of the past six years he’s averaged 8.0 yards or less on punt returns. Last season he averaged 21.3 yards on 12 kick returns (though he has a 25.3 career average and was at 26.8 in 2012). He’s a limited role guy, so you can’t pay a lot for him. My guess is the Redskins knew he would be getting released just by analyzing other teams' cap numbers; I haven’t heard his name mentioned, so perhaps they made up their minds already. He's 30, and I wouldn't trust a move on anything other than a smaller deal. You just don't give a good chunk to players over 30. Not good business.

2. That said, it doesn't take long to figure out he can still play. Just for kicks (well, for research, too), I watched some of his games last season. Sproles remains an effective back, able to make defenders miss in the open field with a hard juke or quick shake. He sets up blockers well in the open field because he can show inside, then quickly cut outside.

3. Also, and this is big: In two of the three games I watched, I saw the opposing defense (Miami, Philadephia) send two defenders his way on a route several times. And that left gaps in the defense that benefited, for example, tight end Jimmy Graham. It gave quarterback Drew Brees enough of a window to exploit, and it occurred simply because Sproles was sent to the flat. Also, Brees scrambled up the middle on occasion because linebackers vacated areas to double Sproles. They couldn't do that with a quarterback such as Robert Griffin III, who obviously looks to run more. Again, I'm not saying Sproles is the best and they must sign him. But am I interested because he could help them? Absolutely -- and for the right price, he's a good weapon. Sproles is a matchup headache capable of running good routes from multiple spots.

4. Yes, Jay Gruden had Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati as a big weapon. Sproles could fill that role here. But keep in mind that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's lack of arm strength -- especially compared to Griffin's -- almost required that the Bengals have a guy like Bernard, someone Dalton could easily dump the ball to. Sproles would be a good check-down guy for Griffin, but if they sign another receiver, the plan is to get the ball downfield more. That is likely the plan, anyway; I know the coaches think Jordan Reed will be an excellent target on deeper throws. That would lessen the desire for a guy like Sproles, though Sproles would still be a weapon. It’s not as if Brees was just a check-down guy.

5. If the Redskins somehow pursued Sproles -- and I don’t know that they will -- it should not mean the end of Roy Helu. As a running back, Sproles works best in a spread formation when he can hit gaps up the middle against, say, a five-man box. If something happened to starting running back Alfred Morris, I would not want Sproles as the full-time guy. Nor would the Redskins. The Saints were able to incorporate three backs into their offense, and I think the Redskins could as well. Sproles would replace a guy like Chris Thompson.
Any list of the Eagles' needs starts with their secondary, which is understandable when a team is ranked last in the NFL in pass defense.

[+] EnlargeCary Williams
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerCary Williams and the Eagles cornerbacks could benefit from quality play at safety.
That's why many analysts, experts and fans think the Eagles will focus on safeties and cornerbacks in free agency and the draft. And they certainly might. But there's one thing I think gets overlooked in all this.

The cornerback play may have looked worse than it actually was because of the quality of the safeties. By improving their safety performance, the Eagles may find that Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin are perfectly adequate cornerbacks.

One step further: Improve the pass rush, which virtually disappeared late in the season and in the playoff loss to the Saints, and the whole secondary would look better.

This doesn't mean the Eagles should pass on a quality cornerback in the draft, if there is one they like when they are on the clock. It is a position where you almost can't have too much talent or depth.

But Williams and Fletcher, the two starting guys on the outside, may not be as urgent a problem as some seem to believe. They were nowhere near perfect, to be sure, but pass defense is a product of cooperation and synchronization.

Williams played for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens the year before. He had Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at safety. They were more likely to help their cornerbacks out than to leave them hanging.

After the Eagles lost to New Orleans in the wild-card round, Williams seemed especially frustrated.

"We had too many mental breakdowns in the secondary," Williams said. "We didn't put ourselves necessarily in the best situations to win. That was really the issue with me, man. It was frustrating out there -- situations that you know are coming, that you've seen over and over on film, and they don't necessarily go right. The right call isn't being made. It's frustrating. Drew Brees saw those mistakes we made and was able to capitalize on those situations."

Williams wasn't excluding himself or the other cornerbacks from his critique. But you definitely got the feeling, watching that game and those that preceded it, that the major breakdowns were at safety. That is why Nate Allen was not among the impending free agents signed to new contracts last week, and it is why Patrick Chung could well be gone before training camp.

Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, by consensus the top free-agent safety, combined for 33 interceptions and forced fumbles in his five seasons. In four years with the Eagles, Allen had a total of seven.

Signing Byrd would make the Eagles much better, obviously. But there is a lot of room between his production and Allen's that would qualify as improvement. And improvement at safety should contribute to better play from the corners.
INDIANAPOLIS -- In a time when defenses believe that the rulebook and the league's decision-makers are stacked against them, defense has increasingly become a numbers game.

Or perhaps just a single number game. As in just one number. As in the number four.

In a pass-happy world gone mad, where Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led an offense that shattered the league's single-season scoring record with 606 points and tossed a never-before-seen 55 touchdowns, the best defense is as easy as 1-2-3 and, yes, 4.

"I think it's been proven, the best defenses can rush four and get to the quarterback," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "They don't always have to be the same four from the same spots, but the best defenses can do more things to inhibit offenses in a time when it's difficult, when they can consistently make a pass rush with four [players]. It might be more important than ever."

And certainly Fox, Manning, the Broncos and the rest of the league saw just how important it can be earlier this month in a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. In that game the Seahawks essentially dismantled history as they stifled the Broncos' record-setting offense, repeatedly unsettled Manning in the pocket, sacked Manning once, intercepted him twice and returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown.

So dominant was the Seahawks' performance that even South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney got into the act. Clowney was asked at the scouting combine this past weekend why he should be the No. 1 pick of the May draft.

"The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out," Clowney said. "It takes defense to win championships, hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."

And with offenses trotting out more and more wide-open sets all the time, quarterbacks in the shotgun picking away at defensive formations with five, six or seven defensive backs in them, the defenses that are surviving enough to flourish are those with the best four-man rushes. The Seahawks, for example, sent an extra rusher at Manning on just six snaps in the title game.

The St. Louis Rams, not considered a blitz-heavy team -- as coach Jeff Fisher said, "we like to get there with four" -- have generated 105 sacks in Fisher's two seasons as head coach. And although disruptive players on the interior of a defensive line are certainly still coveted, rushing with four will push the draft's best edge rushers up the board. They may be drafted even higher than their actual grades -- and perhaps even into the No. 1 spot overall if the Houston Texans take the plunge.

Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Auburn's Dee Ford are among the best pass-rushers on this year's draft board. Of that top group, Clowney, who weighed in at 266 pounds at the combine and will get some attention as a possible No. 1, is both the biggest and the fastest, having run an official 4.53 clocking in the 40-yard dash Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Barr, Mack and Ford, all between 251 and 255 pounds, are slightly smaller than Clowney and may get at least some looks from 3-4 defenses looking for outside linebackers. Mack is still the riser of the group.

Mack had 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions this past season. In the season opener against Ohio State, he had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown.

"It helped with the stage, I feel like there was a lot of people watching that game," Mack said. "It helped me tremendously."

Because of Mack's play speed and power, much like the Broncos' Von Miller showed during an 18.5-sack season in 2012, some teams think Mack may fit more of the league's defensive schemes than any of the other top prospects at the position.

But there are players to complement that speed-first crowd, as well. Oregon State's Scott Crichton and Missouri's Kony Ealy may not have tested as well at the combine as some of the others but are productive players who have given scouts plenty to look at in their games. So much so, Ealy, a teammate of SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam, is expected to be selected long before Sam.

Ealy has plenty of athleticism in his game, has a natural dip to his shoulder in his outside move and has plenty of upside. A player like Crichton, who is considered raw, plays with power and high effort to go with 10 forced fumbles in his career.

"You've just got to get off the ball and attack, attack the opposing player, and you've got to just play on their side of the ball," Crichton said. "Coaches always told me, whatever you do, no matter if you are wrong, you've got to play on their side of the ball, and that's what I really took pride in this year and it's worked out for me."

Nine quarterbacks topped 4,000 yards in 2013 -- Manning and Drew Brees had more than 5,000 yards -- and 10 quarterbacks had more than 4,000 yards in 2012 and 10 others in 2011. The need for help across the defensive front isn't set to decrease anytime soon.

Or as Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has put it:

"If you can't get to the quarterback, I don't care who you have covering back there, it won't matter," Bailey said. "They want passing in this league, they want points, and with the way these quarterbacks are now, how they get the ball out, how accurate they are, if you're blitzing them all the time, they'll throw it all over you. You have to rush four and you have to get there, it's the best formula, maybe the only one now."
PHILADELPHIA -- When the NFL Network camera caught Chip Kelly watching wide receivers run the 40-yard dash at the combine Sunday, it brought to mind something the Eagles head coach said early this year.

The Eagles were preparing to play the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs, and Kelly was asked about Sean Payton's offense.

“He's obviously got some talent and they're a really, really talented football team, but Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him and he does it week in and week out,” Kelly said, before ticking off a list of players' names.

“There's a ton of them,” Kelly said. “That's what Sean and Drew (Brees) have -- a lot of toys.”

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsChip Kelly is eager to add offensive toys from this year's rookie class.
There was just a hint of envy in Kelly's voice. That's what resonated as he and general manager Howie Roseman looked down upon the wideouts, running backs and quarterbacks doing drills in Indianapolis. As good as Kelly's offense was in his first season, it figures to be that much more varied and explosive as the Eagles add new toys for him to play with.

And that is why it wouldn't be shocking for the Eagles to allow both Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to walk in free agency. If they also part with veteran Jason Avant, who is due $3 million, that could mean huge turnover at a vital position.

At the same time, Roseman has said he is open to bringing both Cooper and Maclin back at the right prices. The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing unnamed sources, reported over the weekend that Maclin was the team's first priority. That report followed a Pro Football Talk report last week that there is expected to be a robust market for Cooper.

Frankly, until March 11, nothing that is leaked out anonymously should be taken too seriously. It would benefit Cooper for someone in his camp to predict that he will draw a lot of interest from other teams. And it would benefit the Eagles to send the message that Cooper is not their No. 1 priority.

Meanwhile, Roseman's on-the-record remarks can be taken at face value -- and there is certainly reason to believe he is open to drafting wide receivers from this talent-rich draft -- and read as coded messages for the agents he will have to negotiate with. The Eagles have “walkaway” numbers for the players they'd like to sign, and it doesn't hurt for agents to know that, and to know Roseman has other attractive options.

While the Eagles are still looking to upgrade the talent on their defense, they remain very likely to draft and sign offensive talent. Kelly went into the 2013 season with almost no additions to the offensive personnel he inherited. Rookies Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz were the only notable exceptions.

Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, Avant and Cooper produced the vast majority of the Eagles' yardage and points in 2013. Kelly has had a full season to learn their talents as well as their limitations. He knows where he had to cut corners while devising his weekly game plans and where a key addition or two could add octane to his schemes.

He may just want some new toys to play with, and the combine is like the world' biggest toy store.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The group of quarterbacks the Minnesota Vikings will assess during the lead-up to this year's NFL draft include Central Florida's Blake Bortles (6-foot-5), LSU's Zach Mettenberger (6-foot-4) and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas (6-foot-6). It will also include Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (6-foot-2), Fresno State's Derek Carr (6-foot-2), San Jose State's David Fales (6-foot-1), South Carolina's Connor Shaw (6-foot-0) and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (5-foot-11).

That there are so many shorter quarterbacks near the top of this year's draft class owes plenty to Seattle's Russell Wilson, who stands 5-foot-11 and led the Seahawks to a win over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. It also owes something to New Orleans' Drew Brees, the record-setting quarterback and MVP of Super Bowl XLIV who stands just six feet tall. But it also is because of a changing game that's asking quarterbacks to move more and is setting them up to throw in places where being 6-foot-5 isn't as important as it used to be.

More teams are rolling their quarterbacks out and using moving pockets to neutralize pass rushes and keep defenses uncomfortable. Shotgun and pistol schemes have made it easier for short QBs to find throwing lanes. And players like Wilson have done enough to make general managers realize they might have discredited good QB prospects because of one trait.

"It was height, period," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "But Ill tell you what: He's going to open the floodgates for people breaking through that stigma of, you need a really tall quarterback. You've got to pinpoint, are people batting down passes? He didn't have a lot of batted balls (in college) at Wisconsin. He's able to find those passing lanes that usually you'd think were solely based on height. But he's been effective."

Manziel's height was as big a topic at the NFL scouting combine as his off-field issues, but the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner said, "I feel like I play like I'm 10 feet tall," and turned heads with an unofficial time in the 40-yard dash of 4.56 seconds (his official time was 4.68). Manziel's hands are nearly 10 inches long, when measured from thumb to pinky, which should eliminate some of the concerns that would naturally come up with his size. The success of quarterbacks like Wilson and Colin Kaepernick should take care of others.

"For those guys, being able to evade a first wave of pass rush, really extend the play just a little bit, be able to move the pocket and do some things like that, it really opens the playbook up a little bit more," Manziel said. " The young guys who are doing that, the guys that I enjoy watching, I think they’re really doing a good job for some of the mobile quarterbacks in college right now."

Shaw, who officially ran a 4.66 40 on Sunday, said he met with the Vikings twice at the combine, and added the team told him "there would be good opportunities if I were to land at that place because they had a little quarterback battle going on." His arm strength has been a concern, and his scouting report on NFL.com says he "can be too jittery vs. pressure and quick to tuck and run" (remind you of anybody?)

But Shaw will be another quarterback who gets a look because of his speed. Thanks to QBs like Wilson, he won't immediately be discredited because of his size.

"There is not a specific mold you have to fit anymore to be an NFL quarterback," he said. "You see Russell Wilson and he’s kind of proved that. He’s got a shiny rock on his finger now and he’s 6-foot. I don’t think there is a prototypical quarterback size anymore."
INDIANAPOLIS -- From the time a scout asked Johnny Manziel on Friday to press his heels against the wall, keep his head level and against a measuring tape, Manziel got a taste of the NFL draft process.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Johnny VyJohnny Manziel can expect to hear plenty about what's wrong with his game at the combine.
NFL decision makers don't care how big a man you were on whatever campus, and they don't care how many trophies you have in tow.

Manziel, who two years ago became the only freshman to win a Heisman Trophy, just may be the most scrutinized and criticized prospect in this draft.

Oh, and, by the way, he measured 5 feet, 11 3/4 inches, and weighed 207 pounds.

He is not what most NFL talent evaluators draw up as the player they want behind center.

Now, Manziel will learn what so many prospects have learned before him, including one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Peyton Manning came through the combine in 1998, albeit with far less notice, far less coast-to-coast coverage, but under the same critical microscope. In a draft binder from '98, I discovered some of Manning's best comments from that combine, along with a pile of his statistical glory from his career at the University of Tennessee.

"But they're looking for flaws," a 20-something Manning said then. "They're going to invest a lot in you and what kind of player you can be. They don't want to make mistakes. ... They aren't going to tell you how great you are, or at least not all the time."

No, they're not. They didn't for either Manning -- Peyton or Eli -- or Tom Brady. Or Drew Brees. Or Aaron Rodgers. They really didn't do it for Russell Wilson.

Here's what Manziel will have to endure in the coming weeks: He isn't tall enough, mature enough, big enough, ready enough to be the face of a franchise. The draft is not, by nature, a positive experience in terms of rose petals and compliments.

A prospect may never be worse, in terms of evaluation, than in the day before the draft and he might never be better, in terms of hope and optimism, than the day the team picks him.

Manziel says he's ready for this, to give answers when the questions come.

"I have an opportunity now to move into a professional phase. This is life. This is a job for me. I'm taking it very seriously," Manziel said Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. "I'm really excited about the future."

Asked about the new round of criticism and scrutiny that has arrived at his doorstep, Manziel said: "I just look forward to showing up all the people who said that I'm just an improviser. I worked extremely hard this year, all around in my game. I'll continue to do that."

But from the moment Manziel's measurements circulated through the stadium Friday morning, a name wasn't far behind in many of the conversations along the way: Russell Wilson.

In a year when a 5-foot-10 5/8 quarterback -- Wilson's measurements from the 2012 combine -- won the Super Bowl with a 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos, Manziel will draw plenty of interest as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Call it the year of the vertically challenged.

Pete Carroll, the Seahawks' coach who made Wilson a third-round pick in 2012 draft, got the inevitable comparisons between Manziel and his own championship quarterback. And Carroll offered a caveat of sorts for those who may be looking to make Wilson's exception the new rule among NFL quarterbacks.

"We've learned Russell is a great football player. ... He's not a great football player because he's 5-foot-10 and a half. He's a great football player," Carroll said.

"Not everybody who's 5-foot-10 and a half can play quarterback."

No, they can't.

And so it will go for Manziel, with a pile of touchdowns and wins on his resume from the rugged Southeastern Conference. At the time of the '12 draft, Wilson had a consistently higher release point on his throws than Manziel had when anyone last saw him throw in a controlled setting.

Wilson had a far bigger supply of big-school experience as a four-year starter at NC State and Wisconsin combined when he entered the draft. He also had been a professional athlete as a Colorado Rockies minor leaguer and was such a leader in spring practices that his Wisconsin teammates voted him a team captain just after his arrival for his only season in Madison, Wis. He also studied enough and worked hard enough to easily beat out Matt Flynn as a rookie in his first NFL training camp.

Manziel is a double-take athlete, winning big games against SEC defenses loaded with NFL prospects. At times his game is football jazz, unpredictable and improvisational, that often turns out as a classic.

But his best chance to get what he wants in the NFL is not to try to be Wilson, or Brees or any other 6-foot-and-shorter passer who has survived the pre-draft scrutiny to flourish in the league. The list isn't long in the modern NFL and if Manziel's name is called among the first five picks in May -- even by Houston at No. 1 in his home state Texas -- his task isn't any easier.

The clock is now ticking in earnest toward a March 27 pro day in College Station, Texas, where Manziel will have to show he can be enough of a pocket passer to make a team want the rest of the package in the blue-ribbon spot in the first round where many expect him to be taken.

"You can ask my teammates, go back and ask anybody that when we needed to make a play that those guys wanted the ball in my hand," Manziel said. "I think a good example is the Duke game. It wasn't really looking as great as we wanted to in the first half. At halftime, me, Mike [Evans], some of the seniors had to get the troops rallied. ... But the ball would eventually bounce our way.

"I think the guys on my team know I would do anything and everything for them until there's no time left on the clock on or off the field, whatever it may be."

LaFleur: Griffin will play faster

February, 15, 2014
Feb 15
1:30
PM ET
Matt LaFleur knew what he wanted Robert Griffin III to focus on in the offseason. LaFleur, of course, won't get the chance to work with him anymore. But he still knows what the Redskins quarterback must do. It's nothing magical, either.

Griffin
"His sole focus will be on football so he won't have to worry about a his knee,” said LaFleur, fired as the Redskins quarterbacks coach after the season and now in the same position with Notre Dame. "He'll get to focus on the position. It will pay dividends for him.”

As LaFleur said in a piece earlier in the week, the biggest jump a quarterback often makes is from his first to second year. Griffin's jump was slowed because he spent all of last offseason rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee.

But this offseason Griffin needs to improve his play in the pocket, from footwork to making faster decisions. LaFleur said what will help Griffin is getting a stronger feel for knowing plays inside and out -- and knowing how to attack certain coverages. He faced a greater variety of looks in 2013 as defenses didn't fear his legs as much as in his rookie season. Not having to wear a brace could/should help Griffin, too.

"There's a strength and weakness to every play,” LaFleur said. "Plays are designed to attack certain coverages and schemes. If you know that inside and out, what each play is and why we're running this play and you don't have to think about it when you're at the line and you just react, you're going to be light years ahead of where you were.

"You watch the great quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. They all play so fast but it's under control because they know what the defense is presenting to them before it happens. It allows them to anticipate things a little quicker and that makes all the difference in the world. If you're a little off and you're late, it's the difference between a completion and an incompletion.”

And that's where Griffin must take his game. During his rookie season, then-coach Mike Shanahan would say that in several years Griffin would look back on his first couple of seasons and realize how much he didn't know. Griffin still was learning to throw with anticipation at an NFL level. As LaFleur said about his running, ”He's a world-class athlete. It's just knowing when to escape and when to check the ball down.”

And knowing the game in greater detail -- Griffin already is working on his game-- will speed his decision-making.

"He has a better understanding, having two years in the league,” LaFleur said. "He'll have a much better understanding of what defenses are trying to do to him and he'll be able to recognize and play the position faster.

"That will allow him to be better in the pocket, just recognition so there's no hesitation to progress from your No. 2 to No. 3 [target]. If you watch most quarterbacks in the league if you take more than two hitches there's a good chance you'll be sacked. By recognizing things it allows you to get to your fourth or fifth read on your second hitch and get the ball out of your hand. Like all quarterbacks the more experience you get the better you're going to be.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:
 

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider