7 points: Georgia Tech's Dwyer fits Pats
Point No. 1: The Patriots have a talent crisis looming at the running back position.
At first glance, you'd think a team with well-known players such as Lawrence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris on its depth chart would be planning to stand pat during this year's NFL Draft and focus on other positions. After all, the running-back-by-committee approach helped the Patriots finish a respectable 12th in average rushing yards per game (120.1), fifth in percentage of runs for four-plus yards (45.5), fifth in third-and-one conversions (76.5 percent) and tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns (19).
But all four running backs are in the final year of their contracts. To make matters worse, Maroney appeared to be in head coach Bill Belichick's doghouse at the end of last season due to some poorly-timed fumbles. And while he got nearly half of the team's carries last year, his 3.9 yards-per-rush average was the worst mark among the four backs. Meanwhile, the other three are waging a battle against time at a young man's position in the NFL. They'll all be 33 or 34 years old before the start of this year's training camp.
The Patriots need to bring in a starter-quality back and at least one strong reserve out of this year's pool of young draft prospects. Sources say two candidates who fit the bill are currently being evaluated by the team.
The team has scheduled a private workout with Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer, a versatile, tough runner who could be the feature back the team thought they were getting when they drafted Maroney a few years ago. But to be certain they get the 2008 ACC Player of the Year, the Patriots would likely have to use their second pick in the first round at No. 22 overall. The Chargers, who have the No. 28 pick and the No. 40 pick in the second round have shown quite a bit of interest in Dwyer as well. So, if the Pats decide to roll the dice and wait to snag him with the 44th selection, there's a strong chance he could be off the board.
Another source says that the Patriots hosted LSU running back Charles Scott for an official visit this past week. The 5-foot-11, 232-pound back is a terrific inside-the-tackles runner who logged 32 rushing touchdowns during his collegiate career. He’d undoubtedly be an immediate asset to New England's short-yardage and goal-line situations.
If the Patriots face reality and move forward with adding two fresh faces to the depth chart, be it Dwyer and Scott or two other talented backs, it'll be interesting to see who the odd-men-out will be by the start of the season. My early guess is Morris and Taylor unless Belichick’s still disgruntled with Maroney.
Point No. 2: As teams continue to work on their draft boards, they need to wake up and realize the value of having three highly-skilled wide receivers on their roster.
Last year, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning racked-up 3,485 of his 4,500 passing yards while working out of a three-wide receiver set. He completed 68.7 percent of his 438 pass attempts out of that formation with Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon split out wide while either rookie wide receiver Austin Collie or tight end Dallas Clark lined up in the slot.
Both Wayne and Clark finished the season with exactly 100 catches and 10 touchdowns while rolling up 1,264 yards and 1,106 yards receiving, respectively. Collie grabbed 60 balls for 676 yards and seven scores while Garcon snagged 47 passes for 765 yards and four TDs. The spread out talent kept opponents off balance and helped propel the Colts into the Super Bowl for the second time this decade.
Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers were the only other quarterbacks who finished the year with at least 2,000 passing yards out of that formation. And all but one (Roethlisberger) ended up in the playoffs.
Point No. 3: Penn State's Jared Odrick is the most NFL-ready defensive tackle in this draft.
Don't get me wrong. Nebraska's Ndumakong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy should both be picked earlier in the first round of the draft than Odrick, but the 6-foot-5, 304-pound lineman is special in his own right, and will likely make the transition to the pro game faster than the other two.
That's not just my opinion, it's a point solidified by former NFL defensive tackle John Thornton, who played the position from 1999 through 2008 for the Titans and Bengals. He's convinced Odrick’s poised to make an immediate impact as a rookie.
"He doesn't do much wrong. He comes off the line using his hands well and making pass-rush moves immediately, and you don't see that a lot out of college guys who play inside," Thornton said. "He's the most pro-ready with the little things. When I saw him at the Senior Bowl, this was the guy who I thought that if I was picking for a team, I'd be hoping that I would get him, because there's less risk there."
The veteran defensive lineman is also optimistic that Odrick will have a long and successful career in the NFL if he stays healthy.
"He doesn't have Suh's strength or McCoy's numbers, but he's a hidden gem, like (Steelers defensive end) Aaron Smith who has played for 12 years, who does it well and is still going," Thornton explained. "If Jared comes out and does it right, I think he can be one of those guys.
"He could play 3-4 defensive end, he could slide down on a three-technique, you could throw him inside on a pass rush against the center. He's probably the most versatile guy of the bunch."
As for when the Penn State star will hear his name called during the first round, Thornton believes it'll be between the 10th and 20th pick, and he thinks he's a steal at that point.
"If I'm looking for a value pick, based on where I think he'll be taken, it would be Jared Odrick," he said. "He's going to give you a lot of production, because he's really active."
Point No. 4: Riley Cooper is getting plenty of interest, and he's pumped up about it.
The talented wide receiver out of Florida told me this week he's already worked out for the Falcons, Patriots and Vikings. So, I asked him if it's hit him yet that he could soon be catching passes from future Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Brett Favre or Tom Brady.
"No, not yet. I'm just trying to focus on getting picked, but that would be cool to be playing with one of those quarterbacks that I've been playing with on Madden. That would be pretty neat," Cooper said with a laugh.
He has already visited with the Ravens, and he's heading to Cleveland early this week to visit the Browns. The two-time national champion is getting really positive feedback from the NFL teams that are taking a closer look at him.
"They've said that they love my speed and my size. I'm 6-foot-4 and I weighed in at 224 pounds, so they love how I use my big frame and my hands to my advantage," he said.
"They said they're really interested in me and they want me, which is what you want to hear, so I'm pumped for the 22nd and the 23rd."
Point No. 5: Don't overlook the players drafted in the seventh round.
Over the past five drafts, a number of players selected in the seventh round have become starters or highly-valued reserves for their teams. Here are just a few examples from recent drafts who’ll remind you it is worth paying attention to those late-round picks:
Point No. 6: If the Panthers don't dramatically improve their wide receiver situation during this year's draft, veteran Steve Smith should request a trade.
Carolina has only drafted two wide receivers the last five years, and that neglect has put them in a terrible position. They drafted Dwayne Jarrett with a second-round pick in 2007, but the underachieving receiver has just three starts, 33 receptions and 388 yards on his NFL resume to date. In the same year, the team also selected Ryne Robinson in the fourth round out of Miami (Ohio). He was a one-and-done roster addition who washed out after handling punt returns and kickoff return duties as a rookie.
Last year, while surrounded by a mediocre receiver corps and chasing down erratic passes from declining veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, Smith failed to break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2004 when an injury ended his season after the first game of the season. The bottom line is that the Panthers are wasting the incredible talent of the 10th-year veteran if they don't put enough talent on the field at the wide receiver position to force their opponents to distribute their pass coverage more evenly.
As it stands now, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound star shares the depth chart with Jarrett, fifth-year pro Wallace Wright, who was signed as a free agent from the Jets for his special teams coverage skills, and a trio of young, inexperienced receivers who have a grand total of seven career catches between them. Not to mention, Smith will likely be catching passes from Matt Moore, who made a promising showing during the final weeks of the 2009 season, but is still an unproven talent.
In 100 career starts, Smith has 574 catches and 50 touchdown passes, even though he hasn't had the benefit of a consistently strong cast of offensive players during his career. While it's unlikely Carolina will make a change at quarterback this year, they owe it to Smith to bring in some talented receivers who’ll command some respect and divert some attention so he can flourish again. Otherwise, they should show some class and allow the soon-to-be 31-year-old player to finish his career with a contender like the Chiefs did for tight end Tony Gonzalez prior to the 2009 season.
Point No. 7: I'm still hearing plenty of buzz about visits and workouts directly from draft prospects and my NFL sources.
Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2010 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited.