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Takeaways from Championship Weekend 2013

January 20th, 2014

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith gets chance to coach up some draft prospects at Senior Bowl

This week will be all about the Senior Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons as the team is tasked with coaching the North squad in the prestigious annual college football all-star game.

The potential boost coaching the Senior Bowl could give to the team drafting this May could be significant. It is by no means a guarantee that the team will be able to draft well, but it does give Atlanta a potential leg up. They will get to know the many players that they will be coaching during the course of the week better than several other teams.

The Falcons will get a first-hand look at how players react to hard coaching, decipher information, and just interact with teammates and competition in general. Much of this information a team can discover with painstaking research about a particular draft prospect, but it would all be second-hand based and can’t be completely trusted.

This week will definitely help in the team’s draft evaluations, even if the team doesn’t fully take advantage by targeting players they coach. But in all likelihood, the Falcons will take advantage thanks to their history under general manager Thomas Dimitroff of targeting Senior Bowl players. Since taking over the team in 2008, Dimitroff and the Falcons have drafted 14 players that participated in the Senior Bowl:

Falcons Senior Bowl Picks (since 2008)

Year
Player
Team
Round
2008Baker, SamNorth1
2008Jackson, ChevisSouth3
2008Douglas, HarrySouth3
2008DeCoud, ThomasNorth3
2009Jerry, PeriaSouth1
2009Moore, WilliamNorth2
2009Sidbury, LawrenceSouth4
2009Walker, VanceSouth7
2010Weatherspoon, SeanNorth1
2010Johnson, MikeSouth3
2012Ewing, BradieNorth5
2013Trufant, DesmondNorth1
2013Alford, RobertSouth2
2013Goodman, MalliciahSouth4

That doesn’t include two others that were signed as undrafted free agents (quarterback John Parker Wilson and long snapper Josh Harris), as well as two more undrafted players that spent time on the practice squad during their rookie seasons (linebacker Chase Thomas and running back Antone Smith). Transient 2013 Falcons like wide receiver Brian Robiskie and linebacker Jamar Chaney were also recent Senior Bowl participants.

As you can see, the Falcons have mined the Senior Bowl heavily through the first four rounds of the draft. Four of the team’s six first-round picks under Dimitroff have been Senior Bowl players, with half of the remaining 16 players drafted in rounds two through four also being Senior Bowl participants.

With more direct access to these players, the probability remains high that the Falcons will utilize this year’s crop of players to bolster their roster in 2014 in the draft. It has been a regular occurrence over the years for teams coaching in the Senior Bowl to target those players specifically in the upcoming drafts.

Since 2008, a grand total of 28 Senior Bowl players have been selected by NFL teams that coached the game in that year’s particularly draft. Last year, the Detroit Lions took Ezekiel Ansah and Larry Warford, who played on the South squad they coached during Senior Bowl practices. The year prior, the Minnesota Vikings drafted the North’s Harrison Smith and the Washington Redskins took Alfred Morris, who was on the South squad.

One team that has benefited from their Senior Bowl coaching is the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals coached the North teams in 2009 and 2011. They took a total of six players from those respective Senior Bowl rosters in those years, including linebacker Rey Maualuga, quarterback Andy Dalton, and guard Clint Boling.

The Jacksonville Jaguars will be coaching this year’s South squad, a duty they pulled previously in 2009. It seemingly didn’t help them a ton in the draft, as none of the nine players that they selected that year remain with the team. However, several still play elsewhere in the league including offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (Ravens), defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (Broncos), cornerback Derek Cox (Chargers) and running back Rashad Jennings (Raiders). Despite the lack of staying power with the Jaguars’ picks that year, in retrospect it appears like the strongest Jaguars draft since 2006. That indicates the boost coaching the Senior Bowl gave that team, who has struggled to acquire quality players in surrounding drafts.

While I haven’t scouted enough players that will be playing in the Senior Bowl to really designate specific targets for the Falcons, the obvious positions to focus on will be the guys in the trenches. The blocking/pass-rushing drills are some of the more exciting to watch in the televised Senior Bowl practices. They have featured a number of solid starters on both sides of the ball in recent years with 18 combined offensive and defensive linemen that played in the Senior Bowl becoming first-round picks in the past three drafts.

More of the top defensive linemen/pass rushers will be on the Falcons’ North squad, while the majority of the top offensive line talent will be on the Jaguars’ South squad. It should make an interesting mix in the game next Saturday.

Blockers to keep your eye on in the North practices will include Notre Dame’s Zack Martin and Baylor’s Cyril Richardson, who are in contention to be the top guards selected. Martin played left tackle at Notre Dame, and will have an opportunity to prove to scouts that he can hold up on the outsized at the next level. Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort is potentially a target if the Falcons are looking to upgrade the right tackle spot, as well as Colorado State center Weston Richburg. Those are the most likely blockers on the North team that could figure to be top 100 picks.

The North team will feature Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman, and Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald as the biggest names on the defensive front. Murphy figures into the mix as either a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, and his week could solidify which types of teams look at him. Hageman has top physical tools, but doesn’t have stellar production, while Donald is the opposite: an undersized tackle that was really productive at Pitt. Hageman has the sort of size that a hybrid defense like Atlanta could covet, while Donald is more a 4-3 player. But he did play defensive end in a 3-4 defense during his sophomore year at Pitt.

Also in the potential mix for top 100 picks are defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (Penn State), Michael Sam (Missouri), and Marcus Smith (Louisville), the latter two potentially being outside linebacker targets for a 3-4 defense. Obviously, other players will have a chance to move their stock up if they can have strong weeks.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

We have our Super Bowl XLVIII teams: the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. They were the two teams I picked at the beginning of the year to go to the Super Bowl, making it two years in a row in which I’ve correctly pegged at least one of the Super Bowl teams. Last year, I picked the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers with the Ravens managing to triumph over the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.

This year’s Super Bowl matchup will be an interesting one because you have the classic case of two opposing identities with offense (Broncos) versus defense (Seahawks). The winner of this game will literally be able to prove whether the old adage that “defense wins championships” remains true in today’s offense-driven NFL.

The Broncos came off a very one-sided win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. While the stat sheet suggests that the Broncos offense, led by Peyton Manning’s 400 passing yards, was too much for the Patriots defense, it really was the lack of offense that doomed the Patriots. The Patriots really needed to be balanced and weren’t, with LeGarrette Blount getting bottled up for six yards on five carries after a 166-yard effort last week against the Indianapolis Colts. And the Broncos defense was able to stall a number of drives on third downs with the occasional pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

On the other hand, the NFC Championship Game featured two physical defenses just wearing down each other. Both the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers were offensively-challenged for much of the day. But it boiled down to big plays that resulted in both team’s being able to score.

San Francisco got off to a 10-0 lead thanks to a field goal being set up by Aldon Smith’s sack-strip of Russell Wilson on the opening play of the game, as well as a 58-yard scramble by Colin Kaepernick setting up a touchdown.

Then the Seahawks were able to get on the board with a field goal set up by a 51-yard catch from Doug Baldwin when he got behind the defense after the mobile Wilson evaded defenders in the backfield. Seattle was able to tie up the game after a 40-yard scoring run by Marshawn Lynch.

San Francisco fired back with a 26-yard touchdown catch by Anquan Boldin, who made a catch over Earl Thomas with Kaepernick buying time by stepping up in the pocket. Doug Baldwin then returned a kickoff 69 yards to set up another Seahawks field goal, which was followed by another Seahawk score thanks to a 35-yard touchdown catch by Jermaine Kearse on a bomb from Wilson. The final score of the game was another Seattle field goal set up by Kam Chancellor’s interception.

William Perlman/The Star-Ledger

Richard Sherman helps seal win for Seahawks

The 49ers turned the ball over on their final three possession, two of which were bad plays by Kaepernick. The first was getting stripped from behind by Cliff Avril, which was recovered by Michael Bennett. The second was a poor decision on the pick to Chancellor. The third was not Kaepernick’s fault as it was more a great play made by Richard Sherman after the 49ers were driving to try and win the game with less than a minute to go. In the end zone Sherman tipped the ball into the waiting arms of Malcolm Smith, sealing the 23-17 win for the Seahawks.

In all it’s going to present an interesting matchup come Super Bowl Sunday, where the Seahawks secondary will be tested against the plethora of Bronco skill-position weapons. Sherman is likely going to shadow Demaryius Thomas, and it’s going to be one of the most intriguing individual matchups in a Super Bowl in recent memory. Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL, and Thomas is among the five best wide receivers in the league. If Sherman is successful in containing Thomas, and I believe he will be, then it’ll be on the rest of the Broncos receivers to step up against the lesser Seahawks defenders in the so-called “Legion of Boom.” Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor should be able to negate tight end Julius Thomas, but that still leaves wideouts Eric Decker and Wes Welker to exploit Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond.

The Broncos offensive line is going to face its biggest test of the year against a formidable Seahawks pass rush as well. The Seahawks will essentially operate with the plan to get after Peyton Manning rather than letting him exploit favorable matchups on the back end presented by Decker and/or Welker.

On the other hand, the season ends for the Patriots, who managed to overcome quite a bit this season: an excessive amount of injuries, Aaron Hernandez and Tom Brady having his worst season in since 2006. Yet this Patriot team overcame all that adversity and made its way to the AFC Championship game. There should be optimism in Foxborough based off the likelihood that the Patriots can make much-needed upgrades to their receiver corps and defense in the coming offseason. If next year’s Patriot team is coached half as well as this year’s team, then there is little doubt they’ll have another shot at a Super Bowl run.

Things aren’t quite as promising for the 49ers. They have now made the NFC title game three consecutive years under Jim Harbaugh, an exceptional accomplishment. It’s not a totally dour situation and the 49ers will easily be a front-runner to get back to the title game for a fourth consecutive season in 2014. But they did lose linebacker Navorro Bowman in the game with a nasty knee injury, with the early reports indicating a torn ACL. If it’s only an ACL tear, there’s reason to believe that Bowman could suit up for the opener in 2014. But if it’s revealed to be a more serious injury (such as multiple ligament tears suffered by Robert Griffin III last year), then it puts his 2014 season in a bit more jeopardy. And that’s a huge blow to the 49ers since Bowman had surpassed Patrick Willis as the top playmaker on their defense this season.

There will also be questions raised about Kaepernick and his future. Not in the sense that Kaepernick’s hold on the starting job is threatened, but whether or not he’s good enough to show up in the big moments. It’s not fair given that Kaepernick only has three years experience and has just 28 career starts (including the postseason) to his name. But in a league where NFL is often considered to stand for “Not For Long,” there will be concerns about whether Kaepernick’s passing can make the leaps to get his team back to a Super Bowl.

Both he and Wilson showed in the NFC Championship Game that they still have a long ways to go before they are on that next level as pocket passers, but also showed that their athleticism and scrambling ability can more than make up for it due to their ability to generate those big splash plays that wreck defenses. And when you can count on defenses as good as theirs are, then you don’t need to be a great quarterback to win games.

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