NFL Cornerstones: 4-3 Outside Linebacker

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection- Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Honorable mentions: Von Miller, DeAndre Levy, Dont’a Hightower, K.J. Wright, Alec Ogletree

Coming into what is easily the most difficult decision I have had to make yet, I had a lot of trouble even sorting out the honorable mentions list. I essentially just ruled out rookies because there was not enough of a sample size. With the guys that I did end up considering, this was pretty much a toss-up. It is also very difficult because you have a mix of talents among the guys I analyzed. The only thing that kept me from picking Von Miller is that he more purely fits a 3-4 system, where the outside linebacker is often a designated pass rusher. Miller also has his hand on the ground a lot and plays just about zero pass coverage so I decided that I could not pick him to fit the mold of a prototypical 4-3 linebacker. In the end, I settled on the unheralded Tampa Bay backer. Lavonte David most certainly has the ideal package for a 4-3 outside linebacker.

David is not much of a pass rusher, as he recorded just one sack this past season. However, he has shown that he can rack up better numbers than that as he is only a year removed from tallying seven quarterback takedowns. Where David does excel though is when the quarterback drops back to pass and he drops into coverage. The 25-year old has broken up 19 passes over his three-year career, including 10 during the 2013 season. The only linebacker I considered that has a higher average per season than David is Alec Ogletree. In addition to breaking up passes, David is snagging a few of them as well. The Buccaneers’ stalwart has snagged six interceptions since 2012. He is an asset in pass coverage and allows coaches to trust the schemes they want to run.

When the quarterback hands it off, David is even better. The Bucs’ young stud wrapped up the ball carrier behind or at the line of scrimmage 56 times over the past three years. None of the other linebackers that were considered registers more than nine stuffs per year. David is churning out about 19 every season. David is quick to read the play and has a nose for getting to the football. He brings the ball carrier down when he gets there too, evident by his 143 tackles per season average. The crazy thing about how many tackles and stuffs David racked up this year is that he did it in only 14 games. David could have had one of the best seasons as a run stopping linebacker ever if he played every game.

Slowly, David is becoming a more disruptive player as well. After not forcing a single fumble his rookie year, he forced two in his second and four this past year. His total from this season tied for third among all defensive players. David is clearly finding ways to jar that ball loose more frequently now, which makes him even more valuable as a tackler. He is becoming a reliable source of generated turnovers with 11 in the past 2 seasons.

From a technical standpoint, David is a little undersized at 6’1″ but he plays fast and shows good form in his tackling. Speed is an uncoachable trait that David has plenty of. He also can be relied on as a three-down linebacker. He will never have to be subbed out in run or pass situations because of his ability to do it all. Tampa Bay was a pretty terrible team this past year but David is certainly a bright spot to build around. His raw talent and young age give him even more room to grow as well as a pass rusher. David has shown he has the skill to be one of the elite cover and run stopping linebackers in this league. That lethal combination makes him the perfect player to build a 4-3 defense around at outside linebacker.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.

NFL proving to be ungracious guest

The NFL has proven that it is not the easiest organization to get along with over the years but a particularly interesting dynamic has arisen over the past couple of seasons. The Super Bowl is one of the league’s busiest times of year. Coordinating between the stadium, the host city, the teams and others can get overwhelming as the preparations are being made. However, through all of this, the league has little sympathy for the host city. The NFL expects full cooperation with very little granted to the city in return. Thankfully, some of the mayors involved have started speaking out.

This year’s host was the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. This was actually the second Super Bowl hosted by this stadium, the other coming back in 2008. In both situations, the NFL has tried playing hard ball with the politicians. In 2008, then Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs reported that she had been offered Super Bowl tickets from the league. The issue was that they were at face value for $700 per ticket. Scruggs admitted she could not afford it and was planning to miss the game until a local Super Bowl planning committee came up with two free tickets for her. This year saw current Glendale mayor James Weiers forgotten completely. The league did not even offer Weisers a chance to buy a ticket to the game. He instead attend with Mitchell Modell, owner of the sport goods chain Modell’s. It seems a little cruel to put the mayors of the host city through that sort of ordeal. After all of the organization in the scheduling of the game, the league gives the mayor no compensation. That does not seem right to me.

Glendale is not the only one with these concerns either. The mayor of East Rutherford, New Jersey, James Casella had his own criticism for the league. East Rutherford is the home of MetLife Stadium and the site of last year’s Super Bowl. In addition to never being offered a ticket, Casella was infuriated by the NFL’s advertising of the game. I interviewed the East Rutherford mayor last year around the time of the game. He felt that the league was overlooking his city. He said, “Even Terry Bradshaw [Fox broadcaster] has called it the New York Super Bowl. The NFL has acted that our gift was hosting the Super Bowl and that was enough. It appears the NFL doesn’t want anyone else to make money from their game.” Casella had every right to be angry. While it is difficult to calculate, it is likely that New York got the bigger cut of the revenue generated by the Super Bowl.
While the NFL seems to be largely conceited, the cities that host the game do tend to pull in a lot of money from tourists. Rockport Analytics published research conducted on the 2012 game held in Indianapolis. The group found that Indy received $264 million from visitors and game attendees. The city of New Orleans, which hosted the 2013 edition of the Super Bowl, reported that the big game had brought in a similar amount of money from direct spending, $262.8 million. However, I have also seen conflicting numbers that are much closer to $200 million. This underlines the major problem of how difficult it is to track how much of an economic impact these games bring to a specific city. On average though, the host city is estimated to generate roughly $200 million in direct spending, according to Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP.

The debate is still open for how beneficial it is for a city to host the big game though. The reality is that the game does bring in a lot of extra income but it also leads to plenty of other costs and offsetting detractors that make it a neutral effect on the economy. I have read in just about every article about the Super Bowl’s economic impact that economists view the projections as overblown and the net gain is for the most part minimal. To that end, I haven’t exact seen huge increasing trends in economies that had the Super Bowl, nor have I seen any major drop offs. I think it is fair to reason that the overall impact of the big game is negligible at best.

If we are assuming that, the economic impact is relatively neutral then the NFL really has to start offering these mayors free Super Bowl tickets. That seems to be the only really compensation these politicians could be in line for after all of the work they put in organizing the hosting efforts. If this continues to be a trend though where the league not only provides minimal returns on the city’s investment and less than generous accommodations, we could start to see the pool of Super Bowl host cities begin to shrink. Until then though, I doubt the NFL will change it’s ways.

NFL Cornerstones: Defensive Tackles

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you guys agree.

The selection- Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
Honorable mentions- Gerald McCoy, Sheldon Richardson, Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Marcell Dareus

This might seem like a no-brainer because of how much media attention Ndamukong Suh receives and how many analysts regard him as the best in the league. However, the selection got a little bit hazy when I started comparing the numbers. Suh is an incredible force for the Lions’ defense but Marcell Dareus is no slouch. He is actually averaging more tackles and the same number of sacks per season as Suh. The other guys mentioned are all fantastic options as well but given Gerald McCoy is recovering from a serious knee injury, Geno Atkins is still trying to find his 2013 form when he suffered his own knee injury and Sheldon Richardson and Aaron Donald have very small sample sizes, Suh wins almost by default. His biggest competition is Dareus but more on why Suh has the edge over him later.

Suh is a bit older than the other guys on this list at 28 but he has only played 5 years in the league. He should still have a couple of good years left in the tank. I already mentioned what Suh can do as a pass rusher. He has recorded at least eight sacks in three of his five seasons, which is incredible for an interior lineman. He displays a certain amount of quickness and a great punch at the point of attack. Couple that with his massive 6’4”, 305-pound frame and you have very large man wreaking havoc along the line of scrimmage.

The five honorable mentions have had fairly productive seasons as pass rushers but none of them have then also dominated the ground game like Suh has. Dareus has 11 run stuffs in his 4-year career and McCoy has 13 over his 5-year stint. The Lions defensive anchor has racked up 36. That completely blows away just about any other run defender in the league. The Detroit mainstay slides well along the line and is too strong for offensive lineman to keep blocked for very long. Suh’s combination as a top pass rusher and an elite run stopper make him the perfect multifaceted player to build a defense around.
The four-time Pro Bowler is not without flaws though. Suh has a bit of a mean streak, which has led him into trouble with referees and league officials alike. His antics can often cause a distraction or cost his team on the field in the form of penalties. It has even led to Suh being suspended by the league, which is not what you want to see from your star defensive lineman. On top of that, even though Suh seems to be around the ball a lot, he does not generate too many turnovers. He only has 3 turnovers forced in his entire career. It is probably a little meticulous to point it out, but he has not thrived at creating those big plays.

Despite that, Suh still has some traits that are simply invaluable. He has never missed a game due to injury in his career, something that held back McCoy and Atkins from being selected. He also plays with consistency. Year in and year out, the three-time All Pro has put up stellar numbers that ranks among the best in the league at his position. He also provides a little bit of fire to a defense with his aggressive play. Sometimes, it comes back to hurt him, but it can certainly be motivating for his teammates to see how hard and passionately he is working.

Suh’s window of productivity is slowly closing and while he may not be getting any better at this point in his career, he still has the physical tools to be the best defensive tackle in the league. In about two years, I would venture to guess that it will be Donald taking this spot as the cornerstone. I think he has that something special that could propel him to being one of the best defensive players in the league. For now though, Suh will reign supreme. He is playing some of the best football of his career. Even if Suh does leave the Lions this season, he will still be the best player at his position, making whatever team he joins instantly better.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.

NFL Cornerstones: Defensive End

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you guys agree.

The selection- J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Honorable mentions- Jason Pierre-Paul, Ryan Kerrigan, Robert Quinn, Junior Galette, Muhammad Wilkerson

Defensive ends in the NFL tend to be some of the most athletic, physically built human beings alive. They fly around the line of scrimmage with the intent to blow up plays and create problems for the offense at the point of attack. No one does that better than J.J. Watt. The Texans’ defensive end has been arguably the best player in the NFL over the past three years. He definitely has been on the defensive side of the ball, earning the Defensive Player of the Year award in both 2012 and 2014. Watt, at only 25 years old, has years to come of playing at an elite level. He has proven his worth in the NFL.
Watt over the course of his career has racked up 57 sacks. In just four seasons, that is an incredible number. He is averaging just over 14 quarterback takedowns per year. Watt also penciled himself into NFL history this season. The three time All-Pro became the first player in the league history to record multiple 20+ sack seasons. Watt is a menace along the line of scrimmage even when he cannot reach the quarterback. He has tallied 37 tipped passes at the line, including 10 this past season, most among defensive linemen this year.

As a run defender, Watt has proven his worth as well. The 3-time Pro Bowler has registered 53 run stuffs in the past 3 seasons. Each year he has recorded at least 15 as well showing his consistency dominance at the line of scrimmage. He is strong enough to hold off offensive linemen, disrupting the flow of the rushing attack. Watt’s 79 total tackles were the most by a defensive lineman in 2014. He has a knack for flying around and making plays.

The Houston superstar seems to thrive on the big plays as well. Watt has generated four fumbles over each of the past three seasons. He also led the NFL this year in fumble recoveries with five. Watt even pulled in an interception, which, along with one of his fumble recoveries, he returned for a touchdown. Watt had two defensive touchdowns this year, not to mention three more on offense as a tight end. That is a testament to Watt’s versatility and freakish athletic ability.

Watt truly has very few weaknesses. He is an elite pass rusher and a dominant run defender. He creates big plays that take the pressure off the offense. He kills drives with his batted passes. Watt has managed to find a way to do it all. The other thing that makes him invaluable is his consistency. He has registered at least 10 sacks in each of the past 3 campaigns. He has tallied the same number of forced fumbles. Watt does not have amazing years every now and then. He, year in year out lays down an unparalleled level of punishment on his opponents. Watt off the field is an excellent face of the franchise. He has never had any issues with the media or with his teammates. He is an intense leader that expects the same level of hard work that he puts in from everyone else.

Plenty of other defensive linemen in the NFL are playing a high level and making a huge impact on their team. The reality is thought that Watt plays on a completely different level all of his own. He rarely dominants a certain category on the stat sheet. He is much more likely to rank in the top three of every relevant category though at his position. He is a complete player. Many prospects joining the league now are better suited as either a run defender or a pass rusher. It is uncommon to find a player who ranks among the elite at both. Watt is one of those rare players who fits both labels making him a no-brainer at this selection.

For more Cornerstone selections, click here.

Tampa Bay making moves

Yesterday afternoon, news broke in Florida that the Buccaneers had cut veteran quarterback Josh McCown after only one season. McCown had an up and down year with only 11 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. He also suffered from an arm injury and lost his starting job to the much younger Mike Glennon. This seems like a pretty routine move for a team to make, cutting a veteran quarterback who struggled this past year. However, the Bucs also hold the number one overall pick so this might project as to what the Bucs are planning to do with that pick.

It might be a bit of stretch to say, but this seems like a vote of confidence in Glennon. Logically speaking, a team who was planning to draft a rookie quarterback would probably want to keep around the knowledgeable veteran who can act as a teacher for a year before the rookie takes over the following season. That would have been the perfect role for McCown tutoring either Florida State’s Jameis Winston or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. McCown’s contract would have expired at the end of next season leaving it for one of those two signal callers to take the reins. Glennon would represent the intriguing trade piece that the Bucs might be able to convert into a mid-round draft pick in either of the next two years.

Instead, it seems like Tampa is preparing to buy into the North Carolina State product Glennon. He has shown some promise in his first two seasons. He played 13 games his rookie year and completed almost 60 percent of his passes. He also tallied 19 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions. This year Glennon’s numbers dropped slightly but that can likely be attributed to a much worse supporting cast and sporadic playing time that never allowed him to find a rhythm. He still through 10 touchdowns in only 6 games and limited himself to as many interceptions as he played games. His total quarterback rating even jumped up to 55.9. That’s not anything special but that is a solid number for a young quarterback.

If the Bucs truly are buying into Glennon then there are a couple of things we could see happen in the weeks leading up to draft day. There are several teams looking to make a move up to select either Winston or Mariota. The most likely suitor could be St. Louis who is toying with the idea of releasing oft-injured Sam Bradford as he will account for $17 million for 2015 if he is on the roster. Cutting him would save St. Louis almost 13 million. If the Rams were willing to give up a veteran, starting lineman and their pick at number 10, I think we could see these two teams swap picks.

However, if the Bucs aren’t really sold on Glennon and are looking to bring in a veteran then I think they have two options here. The Eagles have made it known that they would love to land Mariota, whom Eagles coach Chip Kelly recruited to Oregon when he was running the program. Philadelphia might be able to send Nick Foles, who the team has been rumored to have been shopping, and a late round pick in exchange for the number one pick. The other team that could be in the mix is Kansas City. This team has a lot of problems on the offensive side of the ball but in a year where the free agent class of wide receivers is looking stronger than ever, the Chiefs may be able to turn their attention elsewhere. Alex Smith is a good, veteran quarterback but he has been more of a game manager throughout his career. If the Bucs want to build a team based on running the ball and efficient quarterback play, Smith could be their guy.

We also cannot rule out the Buccaneers simply looking at a position other than quarterback at number one. Nebraska’s Randy Gregory is a great linebacker who has made his name putting pressure on the quarterback. He could be a plug and play helping Tampa’s defense get after division rivals Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees. Leonard Williams out of USC might also be a fit. He played mostly inside in college but has the skills to play anywhere along the defensive line. Either way he would be a huge asset to Tampa’s unit. Lovie Smith made Chicago a Super Bowl caliber team with a great defense and Rex Grossman at quarterback. Don’t be surprised if he follows the defense first formula again.