7 Points: Tate may be the next Harvin

Point No. 1: Golden Tate will be the Percy Harvin of this year’s draft class.

During his final season at Notre Dame, Tate caught 93 passes for 1,496 yards, rushed for 195 yards on 25 carries, averaged 14.2 yards per return on punts and 20.7 yards on kickoffs. He scored 15 times following a catch, twice on running plays and once on a punt return. With his dangerous speed and ability to make people miss in the open field, he’ll undoubtedly be showcasing his returning ability during his rookie season in the NFL. And he’s even a viable candidate to be the focal-point player in a wildcat scheme.

"It’s just my mentality. I don’t like to be tackled. I like attempting to make the impossible possible," he told me during a recent phone interview.

Tate’s not only comfortable wearing many hats for his team, like Harvin, but he also relishes the opportunities to be a playmaker in so many different ways.

"During my senior year in high school, I watched him when he was at Florida, and even this year," Tate said when I mentioned Harvin during our conversation. "That’s a guy who is very elusive and can do many things — reverses, the wildcat, get in the backfield, and he can go out wide. I honestly think I can do that. I think with the NFL now, it’s evolved into more than receivers just being receivers."

But narrow the scope of the conversation solely to pass-receiving skills, and the 5-foot-10, 199-pound player will shift the discussion to the Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith.

"I really respect his game, and I really enjoy the way he plays it. He’s a guy built like me — speed is similar, very tough," Tate said. "I’m not afraid to go across the middle, and I’m not afraid to go catch a ball at its high point. He’s a small guy, but he plays like he’s 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, going up to get balls."

While his talent and numbers are enough to make him a solid selection in the first round of this year’s draft, when you add Tate’s engaging personality, confidence and love for the game into the equation, it becomes evident that he could become the NFL’s next Percy Harvin.

"I really enjoy the lights being on — all lights on me to see if Golden is going to make this play," he said. "There’s no greater feeling than catching a touchdown over a defender and having 80-plus thousand people cheering you on. I don’t think there’s anything better than that."

Point No. 2: The Colts’ Antoine Bethea is worth the cost of a first-round tender — and three teams are considering paying that price.

Without a doubt, former Howard University safety Antoine Bethea is one of the Colts’ top draft-day steals in the history of the organization. The former sixth-round pick emerged as a starter next to Bob Sanders by the end of his first training camp back in 2006. Since then, Bethea’s been selected to the Pro Bowl twice, made two Super Bowl appearances and has earned a Super Bowl ring.

What makes Bethea special is his near-perfect balance of talent against the run and the pass — and his durability. The Colts’ leading tackler over the past two seasons, Bethea doesn’t have the muscle-bulk that Sanders proudly flaunts, but the 5-foot-11, 203-pound defender has been consistent in his ability to drop formidable rushers like Maurice Jones-Drew even in the open field. Bethea has snatched 11 interceptions during regular-season play and another four during the postseason for the Colts. And he’s only missed three games over the past four seasons.

Indianapolis placed a first-round tender on Bethea in hopes of discouraging teams from making an offer to the restricted free agent. But an NFL source has told me that the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints are still actively showing interest in paying that price.

Honestly, it makes sense if your team is seriously in need of an upgrade at the safety position. If you had the option to use a first-round pick on an unproven college prospect versus a two-time Pro Bowl selection who only has four years of wear and tear on him, it’s a no-brainer.

Point No. 3: Nebraska’s Nadamukong Suh isn’t a slam-dunk for the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

Don’t get me wrong, the 6-foot-4, 307-pound defensive tackle has the talent, athleticism, intelligence and maturity to be worthy of that honor. At the the NFL Combine, I asked him to explain why he believed he should be the top pick in this year’s draft.

"I definitely feel that I laid it all on the line and put everything out there, and that’s what I plan to do," he said. "So if that’s the type of guy you want, why not take me?"

One glance at Suh’s numbers from his senior year alone prove his point. He tallied 85 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, a dozen sacks, broke up ten pass attempts, intercepted one pass, forced a fumble and blocked three kicks. And with the St. Louis Rams currently holding the top overall pick, Nebraska’s iconic defensive lineman appears to be a perfect match to bolster the Rams’ embarrassing pass rush that ranked 30th in the NFL last year.

But an NFL source with close ties to the team’s front office told me that Rams general manager Billy Devaney has a slight concern that Suh plays a bit high at his position. It hasn’t eliminated the talented lineman from the discussion, but has kept Oklahoma’s Gerald McCoy in the mix should the Rams decide to use the pick on a defensive player. And let’s face it, it’s no secret that Marc Bulger’s days as a capable starter are over, so the Rams may need to use that pick on a quarterback such as Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford or Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen instead.

I’ve also been told the team’s serious interest in Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is jumbling the equation even more. Rather than throwing a rookie behind the team’s inconsistent offensive line, Vick could use his mobility to avoid negative-yardage plays. But unless the Rams can work out a deal with Philadelphia — or uncover another viable starter option at quarterback — prior to draft day, Suh’s chances of being the number one pick overall are probably no better than 35 percent. 

Point No. 4:  You should be impressed by the feat that Connor Barwin accomplished during his rookie season.

 The Houston Texans defensive end posted 4.5 sacks last year while playing primarily on passing downs, posting the highest sacks total among all rookie defensive linemen from last year’s draft class. But what makes that accomplishment even more special is that the seven rookie defensive linemen who were selected before Barwin collectively logged 4.5 sacks. And the draft’s top two defensive end picks — Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson and Buffalo’s Aaron Maybin — didn’t have a single sack between the two of them.

In one of my columns last April, I called out Barwin as the most versatile prospect of the 2009 NFL Draft class.  His athleticism allowed him to gain serious consideration from NFL clubs at three positions — defensive end, linebacker, and tight end. He had also excelled on special teams at the University of Cincinnati and was respected for his work ethic in the weight room. While I saw him as being worthy of a late first-round pick, Barwin didn’t come off the board until the 14th pick of the second round, number 46 overall, by the Houston Texans.

What a bargain.

I called him this week to ask why he thought he was able to get off to such a fast start during his first year in the league.

"I think it had a lot to do with me getting comfortable as the season went on. There were some big learning curves that took place early in the season about how to play the position in the NFL," he said.  "The more comfortable you get, the more confident you get, and the easier it is to play."

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer, and New England’s Tom Brady all took notice of the 6-foot-4, 256-pound pass rusher last year as he brought pressure off the edge of the Texans’ defensive line.

"I didn’t sack him, but I knocked down Brady, and we had a nice little jawing match afterwards," Barwin said with a laugh. "And it was really cool to sack Peyton Manning, but I think the one against Carson Palmer was the most exciting one for me. Being back in Cincinnati with about 75 family and friends at the stadium watching the game, and with that one being my first NFL sack, that was really special."

After the Texans wrapped-up their season, Barwin enjoyed roughly a month of down time before getting right back into his training regimen. He’s already focusing on one of his personal goals for his second NFL season. 

"Hopefully I can build on my success from the second half of the season, compete for a starting job and be a three-down lineman instead of just playing in passing situations," he said.

Point No. 5: Pay close attention to Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer as he goes through the NFL Draft process.

Dwyer is already projected as a first-round selection, but what’s been particularly impressive to me is his overall skill set and the teams that are showing the greatest interest in him.

If you’ve never seen him in action, his numbers only tell part of the story. The Atlantic Coast Conference’s 2008 Player of the Year rolled up more than 2,700 yards on the ground over the past two seasons.  Based on his three-year collegiate totals, he finished sixth-best in team history in rushing yards (3,226), fifth-best in all-purpose yards (3,966), and second in touchdowns scored (36). Despite his very physical running style, he never missed a game at Georgia Tech. And his consistency at his position is evidenced by his seventeen 100-yard rushing games.

While Dwyer only has 15 career catches on his resume, it’s not because he can’t catch the ball.

"We ran the ball 99.1 percent of the time, so I didn’t get a lot of passes. The times I did get the passes I caught pretty much all of them," he told me during an interview prior to the NFL Combine. "So while I didn’t get the opportunities, I took full advantage of the ones I had to show that I could catch the ball."

Watch his tape and you’ll see that Dwyer can do it all. I asked him why a team should use a first-round draft pick on him, and he made a compelling and accurate case.

"If you’re looking for guy who is a complete back, one who can run inside, outside, pass block, catch the ball out of the backfield, run some routes in the slot, kick returns, then I’m your guy," he said.

Remember the old adage that you’re only as good as the company you keep? Well, although Dwyer had formal interviews with at least 15 clubs at the Combine, an NFL source has told me that the ones showing the strongest interest so far are the Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks could pick Dwyer before any of the others get the chance since they not only have their own pick at number six, but the Broncos’ pick at number 14 as well. Those other teams have picks between the 20th and 30th selections in the first round.

Point No. 6: Pro scouts and draft prognosticators owe Maurice Jones-Drew an apology.

As he entered the 2006 NFL Draft out of UCLA, Jones-Drew’s likelihood of being successful in NFL was heavily scrutinized because of his 5-foot-7, 205-pound frame. Some didn’t think he’d be a good short-yardage back who could "move the pile" when forced to work against NFL defenders. Others wondered if his body could hold up to a full NFL season of pounding.

Well, during his first full season as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ featured back in 2009, Jones-Drew undoubtedly silenced the final handful of remaining skeptics.

The Jaguars had so much confidence in his ability to move the chains that they gave him the ball 40 times on third-and-short situations, putting him in a tie with the Titans’ Chris Johnson for most attempts in that category. But the big difference between the two talented runners was in the results. While Johnson posted a respectable 45-percent success rate, Jones-Drew converted a league-best 65 percent of his chances.

After four seasons, the confident and likeable rusher has only missed one game, has averaged 4.7 yards per carry during 842 rushing attempts, caught 201 passes, scored 49 rushing touchdowns and five as a receiver.

Oh, and he’s also returned 79 kickoffs and 13 punts.

He seems to be holding up just fine.

Point No. 7:  The Vikings wasted their time meeting with LaDainian Tomlinson.

The visit by the former Chargers running back made for good headlines and attention, especially when people imagined Tomlinson taking handoffs from Brett Favre. But the move wouldn’t have made sense for the Vikings. So the news of Tomlinson signing with the New York Jets should actually be a source of relief for Vikings fans.

Signing a player based on feelings of nostalgia rather than actual production doesn’t pay off in the wins column, and it’s clear that Tomlinson’s best days are clearly behind him. I say that with a mix of both sadness and respect because L.T. is one of the players in this league for whom I would stand up and applaud for his past accomplishments as a player and a person when he walked into a room.

While the 30-year-old rusher still has the heart to succeed and the work ethic to back it up, his body is telling another story. His rushing average has declined steadily since the 2006 season when he posted an impressive 5.2 yards per carry down to a career-low 3.3 last year. To boot, Tomlinson was caught for a loss in the backfield on nearly ten percent of his runs last year, ranking him 13th worst in the league in that category. Pairing him up with Vikings starter Adrian Peterson, who was stuffed on nearly 12 percent of his runs–third-worst in the NFL–would have added more negative plays to the mix for the Vikings offense. And despite his reputation as a dangerous runner in the open field after the catch, Tomlinson was targeted an average of just under two times a game in 2009 and caught just 20 passes for an average gain of 7.7 yards.

The Vikings are in perfect position to groom a top-notch rookie to pair with Peterson, and they’ve been sniffing around some of this year’s top prospects, including some of the projected first-round selections. With Peterson due to receive a $10.7 million base salary in 2011, and in light of his league-leading six fumbles lost and his percent of runs that result in negative yardage, the team needs to find a young player who–if necessary–could be the team’s featured back of the future. Peterson’s become a high-risk, high-reward running back who can as easily provide the game-clinching big run or the stake-in-the-heart mistake that serves up the win on a silver platter to his opponent. And if he doesn’t turn that around during the 2010 season, the addition of Tomlinson wouldn’t have helped the team in the long run.   

As for Tomlinson, while the Vikings could have provided him with a decent shot at earning the Super Bowl ring that has eluded him during the past nine years, he wouldn’t have been happy being a spectator more often than a player. By packing his bags for New York instead, he joins another club that was a single step away from the Super Bowl. And he’ll likely see more playing time while sharing the workload with versatile rookie running back Shonn Greene.