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It all comes down to this…after two weeks of preparation for the teams and endless analysis from the NFL community, Super Bowl 45 is almost upon us.  And it should be a great matchup.  Both teams got off to great starts in their championship games and were able to hold off their opponents to advance to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Rings

Will the Packers or Steelers add to the collection?

I can see both teams winning this game.  Here are the key things to watch:

  • Early nerves – Watch how the Packers come out in the first quarter.  Do they look nervous?  Are they a little too pumped?  Or are they settling in quickly?  Having been here before the Steelers might be able to get a quick score.
  • Line of scrimmage battle – B.J. Raji has really taken off for the Packers.  He is an extremely disruptive force in the middle of their defensive line.  The Steelers are at a major disadvantage with Doug Legursky at center in place of the injured Maurkice Pouncey.  Pittsburgh is going to have to contain Raji and prevent him from blowing up their running plays and getting a quick jump on Ben Roethlisberger.
  • The outside edge – The Steelers should have an advantage in getting Rashard Mendenhall to the outside on runs.  Watch Green Bay’s defensive strategy to see if they run blitz outside the tackles to try to crumble the edge before Pittsburgh can establish it.
  • Four and five receiver sets – One of the more interesting story lines should be the offensive formations of the Packers.  Will they even try to run the ball?  Will they attempt to utilize the “Bone” formation at all?  Or will they just start from the get go with four and five receiver sets and try to spread the Steeler defense out?  Green Bay is likely to have a major advantage in multiple receiver sets as their wideouts have favorable matchups against the extended secondary of Pittsburgh.
  • The impact of Polamalu – Troy Polamalu has been kind of quiet in these playoffs.  As he’s still recovering from major bumps and bruises suffered throughout the season this last two weeks of rest should really help him.  Will the Steelers set him loose on blitzes?  Or will they need his help in coverage?

Who do I like: Packers 27-21

Why: Aaron Rodgers was spectacular in the Georgia Dome but struggled in the elements of Soldier Field.  He’ll be back inside for the Super Bowl and I expect him to be sharp.  The Packers should be able to do enough quick read stuff on offense to keep the nasty Steelers pass rushers off of Rodgers. 

I think Raji will play a big role for the Packers.  I think Pittsburgh will struggle to control him the whole game.  I do think the Steelers will have success running the ball and finding Heath Miller in the ball control passing game but I think their receivers will struggle to get open against the excellent Green Bay cornerbacks.  I think the Packers will call on their defense to make a big stop within the last two minutes and that the unit will be up to the task and seal the historical win for this great Green Bay franchise.

Photo source: jdtornow

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Last weekend was not exactly a bright one in my history of picking games.  I was 1-3 with my only successful pick being the Bears.  The most interesting thing to me about last weekend is that each of the four teams that lost the regular season matchup in the stadium where the playoff game was played won the playoff game.  And, as a teaser for my picks, I think that trend will continue this weekend.

I was going to do more extensive write ups on the two championship games, but to be honest, I’ve been much more interested in the work I’m doing over at my NBA blog.  I’m researching and posting my mid-season rankings by position.  I just posted my mid-season point guard rankings.

Back to the NFL – I do think these championship games could be excellent.  Let’s take a look.

NFC Championship
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Sunday, 3:00 pm

The Packers and Bears split their season series, with each team winning on their home turf.  They most recently met in Green Bay in week 17 in a must win for the Packers who held off the Bears 10-3.  It’s almost amazing to me that Green Bay and Chicago have met 181 times but only once in the playoffs.

Key for the Packers: They have to contain the Bears’ return game.  Devin Hester is explosive and their coverage teams have struggled – see the Eric Weems 102-yard kickoff touchdown return from last weekend.

Key for the Bears: They have to get a strong pass rush from their front four.

Who do I like: Packers 20-13

Why: Rodgers is playing better than any other individual player so far in these playoffs and the Packers defense has been vicious. I like what the Bears have done but I think it ends here.

AFC Championship
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 6:30 pm

Both of these teams scored impressive wins over division rivals last week.  I was especially surprised by the Jets who I expected to get crushed by New England.  Their coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for their tremendously successful game plans.

Key for the Jets: They’ve had success switching to a coverage defensive approach in the last two weeks.  I think they need to go back to the attacking blitz scheme that got them into the Playoffs.  The Steelers offensive line is susceptible to the blitz and the Ravens had success with the blitz.  Baltimore’s switch to a conservative approach is a large part of what did them in.

Key for the Steelers: Stopping the run.  The Jets had over 100 yards rushing when they beat the Steelers in week 15.

Who do I like: Steelers 21-10

Why: It’s important to remember that neither Troy Polamalu nor Heath Miller played in the first matchup.  I think both of those guys make a difference in this game.  Also, the Jets are due for a let down after the huge emotional win over the Patriots.  Ultimately I like the ability of Ben Roethlisberger to make plays more than I like the ability of Mark Sanchez to make plays.

Who do you like in these games?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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NBA free agency fever is about to spike off the top of the thermometer.  Over at ESPN they have a roundtable discussion with eight NBA experts predicting where the top free agents will land.  I’ve got my own thoughts on the final destinations of these key players:

LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers

I’ve gone back and forth on this one.  Ultimately I think that if LeBron leaves Cleveland he will be admitting failure.  I don’t think he’ll be willing to do that, nor take the chance of leaving his comfort zone in Ohio.  I also don’t think he’ll be willing to go to a team where he takes the chance of not being considered “the man.”

Dwayne Wade – Miami Heat

This is a pretty easy call at this point.

Chris Bosh – Miami Heat

Bosh will happily take the max contract and a chance to play with D Wade and the Heat will happily acquire him in a sign and trade.

Joe Johnson – Atlanta Hawks

Word is out tonight that the Hawks will offer JJ the maximum deal – that is all he’ll need to hear.

Dirk Nowitzki – Dallas Mavericks

Absolute no-brainer.

Paul Pierce – Boston Celtics

Another non-event – with the announcement by Doc Rivers that he is returning to the Celtics for at least one more year it is clear they are pulling the team back together for one more run.

Amare Stoudamire – New York Knicks

The Knicks will have missed out on a lot of guys by this point and will be happy to give Amare his money.  Amare will feel like he’s finally getting his due.

Carlos Boozer – Chicago Bulls

Boozer will be an excellent addition for the Bulls and will step in nicely at the four slot next to Noah.  He certainly has experience playing with an elite point guard.

David Lee – New York Knicks

A known commodity in the locker room, the Knicks will bring Lee back on board to play next to Amare on the frontline.  At this point they’ll also want to bring in a few additional pieces, maybe Raymond Felton and Richard Jefferson.

Rudy Gay – New Jersey Nets

I think the Nets will come really close to getting a few of the major free agents.  But in the end they will all go elsewhere and the Nets will overpay to make a splash with Gay.

Let me know what you think – post your predictions in the comments section below.

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The NBA Draft can be a bit of a crap shoot.  You never know what angle a team may be taking as they enter the draft and you may be even more confused with what they are doing after they make their picks. 

For the most part the NBA Draft is about potential, picking the player that has a high ceiling, not the one that has proven in college or elsewhere that they can really play the game.  Sometimes it is all about the measurements.  Last month I shared my reactions to the NBA pre draft measurements at the combine.  Regardless, I always think the NBA Draft is a lot of fun.  The 2010 version should be no different.  Here are my picks for the first round.

1. Washington Wizards – John Wall, G, Kentucky

No mystery here. It was pretty clear that whoever won the lottery would be taking Wall. The dynamic point guard will bring some excitement to a team coming off a deeply disappointing season.

2. Philadelphia 76ers – Evan Turner, G, Ohio St.

Turner does not really fill a need for the Sixers but by all accounts he is the second best talent in the draft. His versatility will help him fit in around current talents Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holliday and Thaddeus Young. New coach Doug Collins will look to Turner’s playmaking and shooting ability to increase Philadelphia’s offensive effectiveness.

3. New Jersey Nets – Derrick Favors, F, Georgia Tech

The Nets need bigs and shooters. At number three they’ll be considering Favors and DeMarcus Cousins. While offensively less polished than Cousins I believe the higher ceiling potential of Favors and his ability to complement Brook Lopez at the four position will make him the pick.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves – DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kentucky

Minnesota needs a lot and has to take the best remaining talent with the fourth pick. I love Wes Johnson but I think he is more of a finished product and much of the NBA Draft is about projecting talent. A center with solid post moves and defensive ability will be just too much for the T-Wolves to pass up.

5. Sacramento Kings – Wesley Johnson, F, Syracuse

After an excellent 2009 draft in which they brought in Tyreke Evans and Omar Casspi the Kings will be looking to add more pieces to the puzzle. The addition of Samuel Dalembert solidifies the middle and the choice of Johnson will give the Kings a dynamic, explosive wing player to complement Evans.

6. Golden State Warriors – Al-Farouq Aminu, F, Wake Forest

Defense is the area where Golden State could use the most help, ranking 29th last year in points given up at 109.4. They are not likely to use the sixth pick in the draft on a defensive stopper. Aminu is the best talent available and should help with rebounding, while providing some offensive contributions.

7. Detroit Pistons – Cole Aldrich, C, Kansas

As hard as it is to believe based on what they made their living on in the past, the Pistons ranked 26th in points allowed at 108.9. They are also desperate for big men. Aldrich has been sliding down mock drafts but I think his defensive and rebounding abilities will be enough to attract Joe Dumars to make him the pick.

8. Los Angeles Clippers – Gordon Hayward, F, Butler

Going into the draft the Clippers only have five players under contract for next season. Small forward is a need and Hayward is a high profile performer coming off Butler’s big run to the NCAA Championship game. This is a pick I think the Clippers will make as much to win the press conference as for Hayward’s talent level.

9. Utah Jazz – Greg Monroe, C, Georgetown

The Jazz will be delighted to see Monroe fall to them. He can instantly be inserted into the low post rotation with Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap and make an impact on the team. While he won’t be able to replace Carlos Boozer’s scoring or rebounding right away, he will add another dimension to the team as a playmaker in the high post.

10. Indiana Pacers – Paul George, F, Fresno St.

Point guard is a major need for Indiana but they are not likely to get one unless they trade back for Eric Bledsoe. George is a little bit of a raw talent who will be best suited coming into a situation where he can grow into a starting role. With Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger already there, he will not be feeling a lot of pressure early on with the Pacers.

11. New Orleans Hornets – Xavier Henry, G, Kansas

Henry has excellent range and should flourish with Chris Paul and Darren Collison driving and dishing to him behind the arc. He also has good height and a solid build, which should help him adjust to the physical nature of the NBA game.

12. Memphis Grizzlies – Ekpe Udoh, F, Baylor

Memphis had a solid season last year and they may have made the playoffs if they hadn’t wasted their 2009 pick on Hasheem Thabeet. Udoh will give them a solid defensive presence to work into the forward rotation and help them slow down the dribble penetration they were so susceptible to last season.

13. Toronto Raptors – Ed Davis, F, North Carolina

Sorry Toronto but I don’t see Chris Bosh coming back. The Raptors will be looking to rebuild and Davis will give them some defensive effort, a nice touch around the basket and solid potential.

14. Houston Rockets – Hassan Whiteside, C, Marshall

Whiteside may have as much upside as anybody in the draft but he is very raw and there is some concern over his maturity level. Houston will be an excellent landing pad for him as the presence of veterans like Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza and Yao Ming will keep him focused while the hard working ethic of the team will help him approach his potential.

15. Milwaukee Bucks – Luke Babbitt, F, Nevada

The Bucks are desperate for scoring and Babbitt can put the ball in the hoop. His expected defensive deficiencies may be masked by a team that plays excellent defense at the other four spots on the floor.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves – Avery Bradley, G, Texas

Another team that really needs scoring, Minnesota goes with Cousins early and picks Bradley later in the round to help on the perimeter.

17. Chicago Bulls – Patrick Patterson, F, Kentucky

The biggest question for the Bulls will be whether they can lure LeBron to Chicago. In the mean time they have a chance to add another nice piece to their talented squad with the polished Patterson, who can add some low post scoring punch to the second unit.

18. Miami Heat – Daniel Orton, F, Kentucky

With only four players signed for next season, none of which has much value, the Heat have to take the best available talent. At this point that is Orton because of his long term potential.

19. Boston Celtics – James Anderson, G, Oklahoma St.

For a team that made it to the NBA Finals the Celtics have a lot of uncertainty going into the offseason. During their playoff run it was clear that they needed to add some outside shooting. That’s still the case whether they sign Ray Allen or not.

20. San Antonio Spurs – Kevin Seraphin, F, France

One thing we know about the Spurs, they are not afraid to take the international players. They need to strengthen their front line and Seraphin has the most potential of the options they have left with this pick.

21. Oklahoma City Thunder – Damion James, F, Texas

OKC is an up and coming team with an MVP candidate. With the collection of young talent and the salary cap flexibility they have, they are positioned to make some moves. If they keep this pick they’ll take the best available player. The rebounding ability and toughness of James will entice the Thunder.

22. Portland Trail Blazers – Eric Bledsoe, G, Kentucky

The Blazers will be excited to see Bledsoe still on the board with this pick. While his ball-handling is not yet up to the caliber of an NBA point guard, his potential is high, and playing behind Andre Miller for a couple of years will be a good learning experience.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves – Elliot Williams, G, Memphis

After choosing Bradley at 16, Minnesota again looks to add shooting by picking Williams. They’ll also gain in athleticism and hustle.

24. Atlanta Hawks – Solomon Alabi, C, Florida St.

The Hawks had an excellent season last year but will be in danger of a big fall in 2010-2011. Losing Joe Johnson as a free agent would be a big blow as would the continued deterioration of Mike Bibby’s game. With this pick I’ve got them going with Alabi, who should free up Al Horford to play the four more and provide some contributions on the defensive end.

25. Memphis Grizzlies – Devin Ebanks, F, West Virginia

Memphis will continue to look to get better on defense by adding Ebanks, who can guard three positions and rebounds well.

26. Oklahoma City Thunder – Larry Sanders, F, VCU

Sanders could be a defensive-minded low post shot blocker, which is something the Thunder could certainly use.

27. New Jersey Nets – Dominique Jones, G, South Florida

Looking for outside shooting the Nets will find some to add to their bench with the pick of Jones.

28. Memphis Grizzlies – Armon Johnson, G, Nevada

After filling out their front line with two forwards the Grizzlies will pick up a capable back up for Mike Conley who may be able to supply some scoring punch off the bench.

29. Orlando Magic – Jordan Crawford, G, Xavier

With J.J. Redick possibly gone via free agency and Vince Carter dropping faster than a one ton boulder the Magic need help in the back court. Crawford is an excellent cutting and slashing wing who has potential to be a good shooter.

30. Washington Wizards – Quincy Pondexter, F, Washington

With the addition of John Wall the Wizards will be looking to surround him with shooters and cutters to take advantage of his creativity with the ball. Pondexter is a solid glue guy who can defend and run the break.

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My buddy Ed over at The Outsider’s Sports Blog came up with a great idea for us to put together “dueling” blog predictions for the NFL Draft. I’ve always been a big fan of the NFL Draft – a complete sucker for the way ESPN lures me in with their days long telecasts. I’m curious to see how the new three day format plays out and as a Rams fan I’ve got a lot at stake.

So the way we are going to do this is to each make our prediction and then alternate who gets to make the first comment. This should be a lot of fun so hold on and here we go…

1. St. Louis Rams

Average Guy – Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
Outsider – Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma

Avg. Guy – A few months ago I was convinced the Rams had to take Ndamukong Suh. I loved the potential of him disrupting every running play and putting heat on the QB. That’s something the Rams have not seen in a long time. But, Sam Bradford has made a believer out of me. His performance at his pro day was impressive and I think it was all it took to convince Billy Devaney and the Rams brass that he has all the tools. Hopefully Bradford stays healthy and becomes the franchise I’ve been waiting for since Jim Everett. I mean that with all do respect to Kurt Warner. I love the guy but I don’t think he was ever considered a franchise quarterback.

Outsider – I thought and think that Ndamukong Suh is the best player available in the draft. However, in the National Football League (tm Ron Jaworski) a premium is placed on the quarterback position. In the last 3 years, rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez have led their teams to playoff berths. Bradford has all of the tools. He is incredibly accurate and can make the deep throws. If the Rams can a) protect him, and b) get him some receivers, Bradford can stabilize the QB position and lead the Rams back to the top of the ever-suspect NFC West. I do take issue with the Warner not being a franchise QB, but that’s another argument for another time.

2. Detroit Lions

Avg. Guy – Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska
Outsider – Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska

Outsider – A great pickup for the Lions. Suh dominated at the college level playing big-time competition. He is adept at both stopping the run and rushing the passer. Suh could team with offseason acquisition Kyle Vanden Bosch to form a decent defensive line pairing. With Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, and Jay Cutler quarterbacking NFC North rivals, the Lions need all of the help they can get on the defensive side of the ball. That being said, they could move down and draft one of the offensive tackles available to help protect last year’s #1 overall pick, Matthew Stafford.

Avg. Guy – Like you I think Suh is the best player available. The Lions continue to build with a guy who should dominate the interior trenches for years to come.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Avg. Guy – Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma
Outsider – Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma

Avg. Guy – Tampa fans were spoiled for a while with Warren Sapp blowing up offenses from the inside of the defensive line. They’ll be spoiled again with McCoy. I don’t see the same type of explosion in him that I see in Suh but he’s still really good. The Bucs have a lot of needs so they can easily take the best player here and that is McCoy.

Outsider – Tampa, like Detroit has needs across the board, but McCoy is the pick here. Tampa can’t afford to miss out on the disruptive force that McCoy can bring to their interior. Tampa has their QB of the future in Josh Freeman. Could Tampa trade out of this pick and add some more picks to address their needs? Then another team (Browns, Bills, ???) could trade up to pick Jimmy Clausen?

4. Washington Redskins

Avg. Guy – Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State
Outsider – Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State

Outsider – The first four picks, all from the Big 12, none from Big 12 Champ Texas. With the Donovan McNabb trade, it only makes sense to go with the tackle. Chris Samuels’s retirement opens it up for Okung to start immediately at left tackle. With this pick and Mike Shanahan’s ability to direct offenses, look for some shootouts in the NFC East this year.

Avg. Guy – And how mad will you be if you have to watch McNabb carve up the Eagles defense? Here’s the team I had pegged to trade up with the Rams for the #1 pick and the right to draft Sam Bradford. After the McNabb trade that is obviously not going to happen. Here’s where we start getting into a string of picks where need is likely to trump talent/rank. The Redskins O-line was a huge deficiency last year and did not protect Jason Campbell at all. With the big investment in McNabb the Redskins can not let that happen. The “experts” seem to be divided on the OT rankings but I think Okung is the logical pick here.

5. Kansas City Chiefs

Avg. Guy – Bryan Bulaga, OT, Iowa
Outsider – Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame

Avg. Guy – The Kansas City pick may be the linchpin that holds the key to the first half of the first round. With Bulaga, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams and Tennessee safety Eric Berry still available this may be a place where a team trades up to get a big talent. The Chiefs could really use a playmaker in their defensive backfield and Berry certainly fits that bill. But, if they keep the pick, I see them investing more in the offensive line. They need to protect their QB of the future Matt Cassel, last year’s big acquisition.

Outsider – I think this pick gets traded. The Chiefs feel that they can get one of the players at the top of their board (one of the tackles or Berry) with the 7th or 9th pick. The also have enough needs that they’ll want to accumulate picks. Can the Chiefs con the Bills and Browns into a bidding war over the fifth pick? Clausen wowed the scouts in his pro day. I think he will be a much better pro than Brady Quinn and scouts seem to agree.

6. Seattle Seahawks

Avg. Guy – Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma
Outsider – Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma

Outsider – The Seahawks have their QB of the present in Matt Hasslebeck and their QB of the future in Charlie Whitehurst. Veteran Tackle, Walter Jones has been hobbled over the last two seasons and this would be a great opportunity to add a good tackle prospect. The Seahawks have two first round picks and don’t see an elite tackle prospect being available at 14.

Avg. Guy – I’ve got to agree. The run on tackles continues with the Seahawks who are absolutely desperate for one. Seattle allowed an embarassing 44 sacks in 2009.

7. Cleveland Browns

Avg. Guy – Eric Berry, S, Tennessee
Outsider – Eric Berry, S, Tennessee

Avg. Guy – The Cleveland war room will be extremely excited to see Berry fall to them. He’s one of the top five talents in the draft but because of the run on tackles he’ll be available for the Browns who have been working to rebuild their defense in the offseason. Mike Holmgren will get his eventual defensive leader with this pick. I know you’re shocked I didn’t tab Clausen for the pick.

Outsider – Another pick in agreement. Although it may be K.C. picking Berry here. For some reason, top safeties aren’t valued as much as other positions. Still, Berry can cover and hit and will be a great fit wherever he’s picked.

8. Oakland Raiders

Avg. Guy – C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson
Outsider – Bryan Bulaga, OT, Iowa

Outsider – Now it gets fun. Really, I can see almost anyone drafted here. Bulaga makes the most sense for the Raiders, as they need help to protect JaMarcus Russell (bust) or open up holes for Darren McFadden (bust) or maybe give time so that Darrius Heyward-Bey (epic bust) can be open. Given that line of thinking, maybe they’ll draft Greg Paulus or T.A. McLendon.

Avg. Guy – Hilarious! An offensive tackle would make the most sense here…and that is exactly why the Raiders won’t pick one. It should be no surprise that I think Oakland’s pick will be a big surprise. I think they will continue their obsession with speed and playmaking and choose Spiller. I have no idea who will be handing and throwing him the ball though.

9. Buffalo Bills

Avg. Guy – Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee
Outsider – Anthony Davis, OT, Rutgers

Avg. Guy – After spending a lot of time thinking about Jimmy Clausen I think Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix will choose to strengthen their defense and take Williams. The Bills are transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and desperately need an interior lineman to stuff the run. Williams should do that for them for many years.

Outsider – I think if the Bills can’t get Clausen, they’ll draft an offensive tackle. They could potentially go for C.J. Spiller as Marshawn Lynch is sure to be dealt. Davis is big and has blocked for some prolific offenses, both passing and rushing. Heck, I even saw him attempt a pass at the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl.

10. Jacksonville Jaguars

Avg. Guy – Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech
Outsider – Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama

Outsider – At this point in the draft presentation, ESPN will go into full Tim Tebow mode. For his sake, hopefully his hometown Jaguars have enough sense not to pick him. With the signing of Aaron Kampman, the Jaguars filled a hole at defensive end. Now they can fill another hole at linebacker. McClain should start almost immediately in the middle of the Jags 4-3 defense.

Avg. Guy – Not just because of his name, I think Morgan is the pick here. The Jags play in a division where Indianapolis lives on having two speed pass rushing ends putting pressure on the quarterback at all times. With Morgan and Kampman, Jacksonville will be taking the same approach. The Jaguars have some additional needs but the chance to solidify the defense from the front line out is too much to pass up.

11. Denver Broncos

Avg. Guy – Rolando McClain, LB, Alabama
Outsider – Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State

Avg. Guy – McClain is the perfect pick for the Broncos who cut former starting ILB Andra Davis. McClain will come right in, take over a leadership role on the defense and make an immediate impact. With the addition of McClain and the veteran linemen Denver picked up in free agency their defense starts to look like one of the toughest in the AFC.

Outsider – The thought is that the Brandon Marshall – Josh McDaniels rift will end with the talented, yet difficult Marshall being traded elsewhere. Bryant was prolific in the Big 12 and should carry that level of production to the NFL. The Broncos will need a physical receiver to play opposite the speedy Eddie Royal.

12. Miami Dolphins

Avg. Guy – Earl Thomas, S, Texas
Outsider – Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee

Outsider – The Dolphins missed out on their most obvious need, wide receiver. Dan Williams is a good consolation prize. He’s a run stuffer who is suited to play at nose tackle in the 3-4 defense. Tony Sparano adds another piece to his defense, potentially replacing aging vet Jason Ferguson.

Avg. Guy – Bill Parcells and his crew will be ecstatic to have a talent like Thomas fall to them here at 12. He was a ball hawk at Texas and will come into Miami and strengthen the back line right away.

13. San Francisco 49ers

Avg. Guy – Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame
Outsider – Joe Haden, CB, Florida

Avg. Guy – The 49ers will not go into this draft planning to grab a QB in the first round. But Clausen dropping to them at pick 13 will provide an opportunity they cannot refuse. Alex Smith is ultimately not the QB Mike Singletary would like to run his offense. Singletary wants to run a team based on defense and running the ball, but wisely he was adjusting his game plan around his talent. With a second pick in the first round, San Francisco can afford to gamble here. With Bradford and Clausen drafted into the same division this will lead to endless comparisons. Of course, I hope Bradford stomps him every time.

Outsider – After multiple offensive picks, Samurai Mike goes defense. Joe Haden would provide the 49ers with a true shutdown corner. Haden started for 3 years at Florida and produced on defense and special teams. The 49ers could draft a tackle or C.J. Spiller here, but they’ll gamble that one of the tackles will be available at 17 and that they can get a complementary back for Frank Gore in a later round.

14. Seattle Seahawks

Avg. Guy – Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida
Outsider – C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson

Outsider – Pete Carroll does backflips and invites both Sir Mix-A-Lot and Eddie Vedder to the Seahawks facility to celebrate. Seattle gets the most dynamic runner in the draft. Spiller was exceptional as a receiver out of the backfield at Clemson, as well as on special teams. Believe me, I’ve seen him roast the Wolfpack up close and personal on multiple occasions. Seattle, with the picks of Trent Williams and Spiller will be hailed as the surprise of the opening day of the draft.

Avg. Guy – The Seahawks improved their offensive line with their first pick. Now it will be time to improve their defensive line. Pass rushers are quickly becoming a part of the NFL’s glamour set. Pierre-Paul’s ridiculous speed and athleticism will be to Pete Carroll like a shiny, new red bike under the Christmas tree is to a 9-year old boy.

15. New York Giants

Avg. Guy – Joe Haden, CB, Florida
Outsider – Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech

Avg. Guy – The Giants would love to have McClain fall to them at this pick. I definitely don’t see that happening. I think that will make them a good candidate for a trade to pick up a linebacker later in the 1st round. If they keep the pick they may go with an offensive lineman. But I think they go with the best talent available here and that is Haden. In what may be the new gunslinging NFC East I guess you can’t have too many good cornerbacks.

Outsider – This is a perfect spot for the Giants to trade out of if McClain is not available. If the Giants do stay at 15, I can see them going for the best player left on the board and picking Cousin Derrick. I think the Giants believe they can get a Sean Weatherspoon or Sergio Kindle later in the round and pick up a pick or two for later. Tennessee also has need for a DE to replace Kyle Vanden Bosch, so if a team values either Morgan or Jason Pierre-Paul, this may be the spot to jump up and get them.

16. Tennessee Titans

Avg. Guy – Kareem Jackson, CB, Alabama
Outsider – Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida

Outsider – The bookend on a mini-run of defensive ends. Pierre-Paul has amazing athleticism for a defensive lineman. His frame and college productivity remind me of Manny Lawson, the former hybrid DE/OLB from NC State. Will he be able to parlay the skill into NFL production? Pierre-Paul, at the least should prove to be an upgrade to a Titan front four that has suffered from free agency losses of stalwarts Alfred Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Avg. Guy – Pierre-Paul would be an excellent pick for the Titans as they would love to get a good DE, but I see him going earlier. They also need to add some quality and depth to their defensive backfield and Jackson will help them do that. If they think Tye Hill is any sort of answer there I can tell you he is not.

17. San Francisco 49ers

Avg. Guy – Anthony Davis, OT, Rutgers
Outsider – Mike Iupati, OG, Idaho

Avg. Guy – After picking up their QB of the future with the 13th pick the Niners get a lot of value and fill a need with Davis. I’ve got Davis falling quite a ways and unfortunately San Fran will be the beneficiary.

Outsider – Ah, the pick that should belong to the Panthers. THe 49ers really need to upgrade their offensive line, particularly the right tackle position. While the marquee offensive tackles have been snapped up at this point, many people feel that Iupati can slide outside to the tackle position and maintain his production. Iupati is a safer pick than reaching for one of the other tackles available.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers

Avg. Guy – Mike Iupati, OG, Idaho
Outsider – Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida

Outsider – The Steelers once vaunted offensive line has eroded over the last few years. If the Steelers want to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, they’ll begin to invest in their o-line. Pouncey won the Rimington Trophy as college football’s best center. Now if he can only knock some sense into his soon to be knuclehead, college skirt chasing, almost rapist quarterback.

Avg. Guy – Yes, I was going to say that if they want Roethlisberger to remain upright they may want to keep him away from the sauce. No doubt the Steelers need offensive line help and since I still have Iupati available he’ll be the pick here.

19. Atlanta Falcons

Avg. Guy – Brandon Graham, DE-OLB, Michigan
Outsider – Brandon Graham, DE-OLB, Michigan

Avg. Guy – Atlanta has one glaring need and that is DE. Of course, there are a number of teams ahead of them that need the same thing. So at this point I have all of the top line prospects off the board. Graham may be a bit of a need-based reach. But for a team that may be a player or two away from a big playoff run the reach may be worth it.

Outsider – Can’t argue with you on this one. John Abraham’s sack total declined from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 in 2009. The Falcons need a complimentary threat off the edge.

20. Houston Texans

Avg. Guy – Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State
Outsider – Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State

Outsider -The Texans need a big play threat at RB to compliment Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson in the passing game. Of their 4 backs in their committee approach, only Arian Foster (he of the pterodactyl language http://deadspin.com/5060091/tennessees-arian-foster-refuses-interview-requests-unless-you-speak-pterodactyl) averaged over 4 yards a carry. With increased production in the backfield, the Texans offense could possibly lead the team to its first ever playoff berth.

Avg. Guy – Again we are on the same page. A cornerback may be considered by the Texans, but the position that they can get the most bang for their buck for with this pick is Mathews. He would be an excellent complement to Steve Slaton in the backfield.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

Avg. Guy – Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State
Outsider – Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma

Avg. Guy – A major slider in my projections, Bryant has a lot of talent but has made some poor decisions. The Bengals may have signed Antonio Bryant, but the chance to add another Bryant will be too much to pass up with the 21st pick. I would not be surprised if another team traded up to an earlier pick to get Bryant if he starts to slip past the middle of the first round.

Outsider – The definition of a need pick. The Bengals need a compliment in the passing game to Chad Ochocinco and free agent acquisition Antonio Bryant. The Bengals seem to be convinced that the torn ligaments that cost Gresham his senior season. Compared favorably in college to 2009 first round draft pick Brandon Pettigrew of Oklahoma State.

22. New England Patriots

Avg. Guy – Sergio Kindle, LB, Texas
Outsider – Jared Odrick, DT, Penn State

Outsider – Ah, the Patriots. Bill Belichick is the Bizarro Al Davis. You never know who either of them will pick, yet Belichick’s picks pan out where Davis; do not. Another spike in the ESPN Tebow-gasm. Still, I think the Patriots stay true to their needs and get Vince Wilfork some help on the defensive line. This pick would also provide the Patriots insurance in case Wilfork is not re-signed in the offseason. Though with Belichick’s draft history, it will surprise no one if the Pats trade out of this pick.

Avg. Guy – Certainly agree with you on the likelihood of New England wheeling and dealing. The Patriots do have more needs than usual to fill and a bunch of picks so they are likely to move up and down through trades to get the players they target. A key focus for the Patriots will be to get some more pressure on the quarterback. Kindle’s experience playing end and outside linebacker makes him an optimal talent to jump into New England’s 3-4 alignment.

23. Green Bay Packers

Avg. Guy – Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State
Outsider – Kyle Wilson, CB, Boise State

Avg. Guy – Green Bay could certainly use some offensive line help, but their major need is T and quality at that position is not available here. Ultimately it wasn’t their offensive line that let them down in the playoffs, it was their defense. The addition of Wilson, an excellent CB, should help the pass defense. In another note, I’m looking forward to your Philly pick.

Outsider – I agree with you on this pick. I can’t see the Packers as the type of team to reach for a tackle like Bruce Campbell. The Packers secondary was burned by Farve and the Viking receivers twice last year, not to mention the score-fest that was their playoff loss to the Cardinals. Wilson should help shore up both the defense and special teams. He’ll be the heir apparent to Charles Woodson.

24. Philadelphia Eagles

Avg. Guy – Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida
Outsider – Sergio Kindle, OLB, Texas

Outsider – It’s strange to say, but the Eagles have so many holes on defense. What was a force to be reckoned with a few years ago has succumbed to age and the Eagles philosophy of trading/releasing players before they begin to fade. The Eagles will consider defensive backs Earl Thomas and Taylor Mays, but their need of an edge rusher to fit the Jim Johnson blitz, blitz, and blitz some more defense will trump the secondary concerns. Brian Orakpo (a Texas product like Kindle) was one of the top performing rookies last year and the Eagles hope to see similar results. The Eagles could package later picks (they have 2 picks in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rounds) to jump back up into the first round if either of the elite secondary prospects slip.

Avg. Guy – You are right, the Eagles could definitely use some help in the defensive backfield, at both CB and S. At this point in the round the quality at those two positions is not there. Pouncey is a solid talent who should be able to come right in and hold up well in the middle of the line where Philadelphia has had some recent injury issues.

25. Baltimore Ravens

Avg. Guy – Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma
Outsider – Earl Thomas, CB/S, Texas

Avg. Guy – Another team that could use help at cornerback, the Ravens will pass on settling at that position for a much better talent in Gresham. Joe Flacco was superb last year. His biggest issue was his receivers dropping balls. The additions of Anquan Boldin and Gresham could make the Ravens one of the most dangerous offenses in the AFC.

Outsider – The Ravens do need secondary help and Earl Thomas fits the bill perfectly. He can play at either corner or safety and would help shore up a shaky Ravens back four. He will start out as a nickel corner and perhaps eventually replace Hall of Famer-to be Ed Reed.

26. Arizona Cardinals

Avg. Guy – Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB, TCU
Outsider – Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB, TCU

Outsider – The Cardinals desperately need help in two areas, linebacker, and sports psychologist for QB Matt Leinart. Jerry Hughes was a sack machine at the college level. In his last 2 years at TCU he had 26.5 sacks. Arizona needs a replacement for Bertrand Berry and potentially Chike Okeafor.

Avg. Guy – Well jeez, I thought I was going out on a limb with this pick until I saw that you were projecting the same thing! One way or another the Cardinals really need some front seven help on the defense. Hughes is a playmaker and is capable of making plays at linebacker and defensive end. Impressed with his athleticism, versatility and potential, I think Arizona will jump on him with the 26th pick.

27. Dallas Cowboys

Avg. Guy – Bruce Campbell, T, Maryland
Outsider – Bruce Campbell, T, Maryland

Avg. Guy – Here comes the workout champion! Campbell blew people away at the combine with his impressive mix of size, speed and strength. The challenge is that his technical skills are nowhere near his physical attributes. I think Jerry Jones falls in love with his He-Man body type and brings him on board. Hopefully, he won’t make the decision while he’s drunk at a bar and on somebody’s cell phone video.

Outsider – Wow, two picks in a row. Dallas needs an offensive tackle to replace Flozell Adams. So they go to the man that wow’ed ’em at both the NFL Combine and in the Evil Dead Trilogy. This is my BOOM-stick! Hail to the king, Jerry Jones… Hail to the king!

28. San Diego Chargers

Avg. Guy – Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama
Outsider – Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama

Outsider – Mt. Cody goes to San Diego. The Chargers weakness on the defensive line was exploited in the playoff loss to the Jets. The Chargers really need help on both lines and at running back, but can afford to pick up the running back in the second round. His conditioning has been questioned, but the Chargers need to replace Jamal Williams up front with a run-stuffer who can let the speedy linebackers make the tackles.

Avg. Guy – Okay, make it three in a row. A month ago I would have told you that the Chargers would definitely select a RB with this pick. After doing my research, I’m leaning much more toward them picking a NT/DT. Cody is the perfect replacement for Jamal Williams at the center of San Diego’s front three. They should still be able to get a quality RB in the 2nd round.

29. New York Jets

Avg. Guy – Taylor Mays, S, USC
Outsider – Everson Griffen, DE, USC

Avg. Guy – The Jets could go a few different ways here. They are most likely to focus on defense. When Rex Ryan was the D Coordinator in Baltimore his team always succeeded because he had playmakers and ballhawks. Mays can be both, especially in a defense designed by Ryan. If not safety, the Jets are likely to pick up a defensive lineman or outside linebacker.

Outsider – I’ll predict Mays’ USC teammate Griffen to the Jets. Marques Douglas, who started 12 of the 16 games at DE for the Jets last year is in a contract year. Griffen would give the Jets insurance and depth at that position. If the Jets do sign Jason Taylor for their rush outside linebacker, then this pick will either be defensive line or secondary help. If the Jets can get any form of pass rush, they’ll be very dangerous.

30. Minnesota Vikings

Avg. Guy – Devin McCourty, CB, Rutgers
Outsider – Taylor Mays, S, USC

Outsider – Minnesota needs help in the secondary, having to play against Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler twice each year. Mays played free safety at USC, but perhaps would be more suited at the strong safety in the NFL. The Vikings would be amenable to that transition. The Vikings DBs not named Cedric Griffin (who blew out his knee in the NFC Championship game) had a grand total of 3 interceptions last year. At this point, the ESPN Tebow watch goes into full overload.

Avg. Guy – McCourty fills a need position for the Vikings and should be a nice player for them. You are definitely right about ESPN and Tebow. Especially here because one of the big questions surrounding Minnesota’s draft is if they will address their need for a future quarterback in the first three rounds. I don’t think they will do it here.

31. Indianapolis Colts

Avg. Guy – Jared Odrick, DT/DE, Penn State
Outsider – Brian Price, DT, UCLA

Avg. Guy – Picking at the tail end of the first round, the Colts will look to the best available talent that can play on either line. Odrick, 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is a solid lineman that can potentially play defensive end or tackle.

Outsider – I agree that the Colts need help along the defensive line. Price was Pac-10 defensive player of the year. Price will bring some energy and help free up Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to make some plays.

32. New Orleans Saints

Avg. Guy – Everson Griffen, DE, USC
Outsider – Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Missouri

Outsider – The final pick for this evening of the draft will be overshadowed by the Tebow talk. Weatherspoon had a great amount of experience in coverage facing the wide-open Big 12 offenses. He will be a great fit in the frenetic, blitzing Saints defense. Safety could be an option for the Saints if they decide not to re-sign Darren Sharper long-term. Will any team be desperate enough to draft Tebow here? I doubt it, but look for the Heisman-winner to go in the first few picks of the second round. While Tebow is known for his strong Christian beliefs, never, ever refer to him as Football Jesus. There’s already a Football Jesus and he wears #17 in San Diego.

Avg. Guy – Oh my goodness I just threw up all over the place…you had to get that last reference in there didn’t you? The funny thing is I actually saw the New Orleans version of Football Jesus last month…it was very cool. Speaking of New Orleans, they really need a defensive end or outside linebacker. With Griffen and Weatherspoon still available they will have their choice of solid answers at either position. Ultimately I think Griffen’s high potential ceiling and freakish athleticism will lead to him being the pick.

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So my NCAA Tournament bracket projections were not too stellar.  Two of my Final Four picks, Kansas and Villanova, let me down.  Plus I got a whole bunch of other games wrong.  Oh well, it’s time to move on…

On the eve of the Sweet Sixteen I’m taking a different approach to projecting the Final Four – I’m going to break it down by percentages.

West Region

Syracuse is definitely the favorite here.  I think Xavier and Kansas State are even at this point.  Xavier has been impressive in the tournament.

Syracuse 75%
Xavier 10%
Kansas State 10%
Butler 5%

East Region

I may be way off here but I think that Kentucky is going to struggle with Cornell.  The Big Red have been one of the most impressive teams in the NCAA Tournament so far.  With the loss of Truck Bryant West Virginia’s chances to advance have dropped greatly.

Kentucky 60%
Cornell 20%
West Virginia 10%
Washington 10%

Midwest Region

This region features the war of attrition.  Kansas is gone.  Georgetown is gone.  Kalin Lucas is gone.  The chips have fallen and Ohio State is left smiling.  I think the main reason Northern Iowa was able to beat Kansas is because of the two day turnaround after the first round.  They will not be able to sneak up on Michigan State.

Ohio State 65%
Tennessee 20%
Michigan State 10%
Northern Iowa 5%

South Region

This one is wide open.  Playing in Texas Baylor has a home-court advantage.  Duke seems to be hitting their stride when they need to be, although Jon Scheyer’s shooting issues are a concern.  Purdue has played much better than expected without Robbie Hummel and I think they have a good shot to beat Duke.  And, as Villanova learned, you can’t sleep on St. Mary’s.

Baylor 35%
Duke 35%
Purdue %20
St. Mary’s 10%

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As the year started to come to a close it seemed clear that there were three solid NCAA championship contenders – Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse.  That is still the case, but I think there are six other teams that are capable of winning the title – West Virginia, Villanova, Georgetown, Ohio St., Kansas St. and Duke.  After you get past those nine teams I think almost anything could happen in the tournament.

Here are my 2010 NCAA Tournament predictions:

Midwest

First Round
#1 Kansas v. #16 Lehigh
#8 UNLV v. #9 Northern Iowa
#5 Michigan St. v. #12 New Mexico St.
#4 Maryland v. #13 Houston
#6 Tennessee v. #11 San Diego St.
#3 Georgetown v. #14 Ohio
#7 Oklahoma St. v. #10 Georgia Tech
#2 Ohio St. v. #15 UC Santa Barbara

Second Round
#1 Kansas v. #9 Northern Iowa
#4 Maryland v. #5 Michigan St.
#3 Georgetown v. #6 Tennessee
#2 Ohio St. v. #10 Georgia Tech

Sweet 16
#1 Kansas v. #5 Michigan St.
#2 Ohio St. v. #3 Georgetown

Regional Final
#1 Kansas v. #3 Georgetown

West

First Round
#1 Syracuse v. #16 Vermont
#8 Gonzaga v. #9 Florida St.
#5 Butler v. #12 UTEP
#4 Vanderbilt v. #13 Murray St.
#6 Xavier v. #11 Minnesota
#3 Pittsburgh v. #14 Oakland
#7 BYU v. #10 Florida
#2 Kansas St. v. #15 North Texas

Second Round
#1 Syracuse v. #8 Gonzaga
#4 Vanderbilt v. #12 UTEP
#3 Pittsburgh v. #11 Minnesota
#2 Kansas St. v. #7 BYU

Sweet 16
#1 Syracuse v. #12 UTEP
#3 Pittsburgh v. #2 Kansas St.

Regional Final
#1 Syracuse v. #2 Kansas St.

East

First Round
#1 Kentucky v. #16 East Tennessee St.
#8 Texas v. #9 Wake Forest
#5 Temple v. #12 Cornell
#4 Wisconsin v. #13 Wofford
#6 Marquette v. #11 Washington
#3 New Mexico v. #14 Montana
#7 Clemson v. #10 Missouri
#2 West Virginia v. #15 Morgan St.

Second Round
#1 Kentucky v. #8 Texas
#4 Wisconsin v. #12 Cornell
#3 New Mexico v. #6 Marquette
#2 West Virginia v. #10 Missouri

Sweet 16
#1 Kentucky v. #4 Wisconsin
#2 West Virginia v. #6 Marquette

Regional Final
#1 Kentucky v. #2 West Virginia

South

First Round
#1 Duke v. Play-In Winner
#8 California v. #9 Louisville
#5 Texas A&M v. #12 Utah St.
#4 Purdue v. #13 Siena
#6 Notre Dame v. #11 Old Dominion
#3 Baylor v. #14 Sam Houston St.
#7 Richmond v. #10 Saint Mary’s
#2 Villanova v. #15 Robert Morris

Second Round
#1 Duke v. #9 Louisville
#5 Texas A&M v. #13 Siena
#3 Baylor v. #6 Notre Dame
#2 Villanova v. #7 Richmond

Sweet 16
#1 Duke v. #5 Texas A&M
#2 Villanova v. #3 Baylor

Regional Final
#2 Villanova v. #5 Texas A&M

Final Four

So that leaves three one seeds and a two seed in the Final Four.  Also, while I didn’t pick a lot of upsets along the way there were a lot of early games I could have gone either way with, and will not be surprised if they go in the opposite direction.

Kansas v. Syracuse
Kentucky v. Villanova

I think the Jayhawks will find a way to beat the Orange zone by moving guys in and out of the free throw line and block areas, and then finding the open man.  They also have the big bodies down low to challenge Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson and force the Orange to rely on the outside shot.  Kentucky has a lot of talent and certainly speed, but against Villanova I think their big guys, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, will make the difference.

National Championship Game

Kansas v. Kentucky

I think the Wildcats will score the mild upset victory in this great battle and be the ones cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.  I think Coach John Calipari will be very determined to beat Kansas and Coach Bill Self in this game after losing to them a couple of years ago.  I like Kentucky’s quickness, of course with John Wall, and their ability to match the Kansas frontline.

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