“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending”
Around 18 months ago the first three picks of the 2010 NFL Draft went to the St Louis Rams, the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The trio had, in their own unique ways, failed dismally the season before. The Rams propelled themselves to the top of the draft with a 2009 regular season which saw just a solitary triumph, over the pitiful Lions. Detroit followed up their winless season with only two victories and the fact this was seen as somewhat of a success shows just how bad their team was. As for Tampa, they left it until week nine to get their first win and notched up another two to be left with a paltry 3-13 record.
But the beauty of the NFL’s parity is that, pending the correct personnel decisions, nobody stays at the bottom for too long. The Rams were able to pick up Sam Bradford who has shown signs that he may go on to be one of the best quarterbacks of any draft whilst the Lions were able to grab Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and one of the league’s most dominant performers in Ndamukong Suh. The Bucs, meanwhile, made some astute moves and surrounded blossoming quarterback Josh Freeman with some very capable football players.
All three narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, Tampa Bay and St Louis on the final day, but they combined for a total record of 23-25, compared to in 6-42 in 2009 and 11-36 in 2008.
The Rams haven’t posted a winning season since 2003 (when they were last in the play-offs), Lions fans have had to wait even longer (since 2000) for a winning campaign and the Bucs haven’t reached the post-season in the competitive NFC South since 2007.
But all that could be about to change as the three franchises look as if they’re moving in the right direction. The Lions and Buccaneers will have to better the past two Super Bowl champions to take their divisions but will be in well in the hunt for wildcards should they fall just short. Meanwhile the Rams are more than capable of taking a wide-open NFC West.
It may have been unthinkable 18 months ago but the Rams, Lions and Buccaneers may just record winning seasons.
(Predicted finish in brackets)
Green Bay Packers (11-5)
The reigning Super Bowl champions went all the way last year despite numerous injuries. Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant will come back in to make the offense even more potent. Meanwhile the defense has playmakers everywhere and co-ordinator Dom Capers knows how to best utilise the talented Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson.
Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions will go as far as Matthew Stafford’s shoulder will take them. He has stacks of talent around him, including Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew, but needs to stay healthy. Fans of solid defenses will simply be salivating at the prospect of a front four of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
The Bears were one step away from the Super Bowl last year and had Jay Cutler stayed fit/not wimped out (depending on your personal stance) they may very well have got there. But the team did it without being particularly spectacular. Question marks remain about Cutler’s ability to lead but they will remain competitive if Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers continue to destroy on D.
Minnesota Vikings (5-11)
The Brett Favre experiment is over. In comes another experienced veteran warhorse in the shape of Donovan McNabb. The former Redskins quarterback was treated shoddily in the capital and never really garnered adulation in Philly either but he’s still a very good QB especially with Adrian Peterson behind him. Sadly his biggest weapon, Sidney Rice, has gone and an aging defense looks like it could be vulnerable.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
The Eagles have made a concentrated effort to snare almost every free agent available this off-season. Nnamdi Asomugha has been the most impressive recruit but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Ronnie Brown, Steve Smith, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin all improve Philadelphia greatly. Michael Vick will be given the reigns from the start, DeSean Jackson remains the league’s most exciting player whilst Trent Cole may just be the most underrated. They are the ones to watch.
Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Last season was a colossal failure for Dallas given the strength of their roster. Jason Garrett has assumed head coaching duties and he has a task given Philly’s aggressive moves in free agency. Tony Romo will be back under centre and in Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant he has an excellent receiving corp. The run game stalled last year and Felix Jones must prove he can handle the load. But the biggest concern is the defense which was blown apart on multiple occasions last year.
New York Giants (8-8)
2010 was a strange season for the Giants. They didn’t make the play-offs due to costly errors at crucial times. Eli Manning racked up the yards but he also had a penchant for interceptions. There are still plenty of playmakers on defense and they’ll need them to be at their best in this division. The o-line is aging and may be a cause for concern, particularly if they leave Eli with plenty to do again.
Washington Redskins (2-14)
Each of the elite leagues seems to have a team which lags behind and the side dragging down the NFC East is the Redskins. Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman is the answer at quarterback and they have a backfield committee without a stand-out star. They have some fine players on the defensive side of the ball but there is little to like offensively.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Raheem Morris’ young charges did remarkably well last year. There is plenty to admire about Josh Freeman and the rest of the team seems to have gelled perfectly. With another year of experience they could be ready for the post-season. They will have to factor in a trip to Wembley in mid-season but that didn’t prove a deterrent for the Giants in 2007.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
They were so impressive in the regular season but were despatched with ease by the Packers at the first post-season hurdle. Their defense was shown up to look very average and they haven’t really strengthened in that area, barring the astute acquirement of Ray Edwards. The Falcons gave up an awful lot for Julio Jones but he can slot in as a useful accompaniment to the marvellous Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan is on the elite’s periphery.
New Orleans Saints (10-6)
Competing as the reigning champs is never an easy thing to do but the Saints sneaked a play-off place last year. They were bizarrely beaten by the Seahawks as a weakness to defending the run was exposed. That could be an issue once again although their own rushing attacking has been improved considerably. Mark Ingram was a great draft pick and should be ready to carry the load to free up some space for Drew Brees to do his thing.
Carolina Panthers (3-13)
Selected first at the draft due to a poor campaign and with that pick they drafted quarterback Cam Newton. He won’t be expected to perform miracles straight away, even if he does start. The Panthers aren’t a terrible team but they are in a very strong division where wins will be hard to come by. Didn’t replace Julius Peppers’ influence and must find someone capable of pressuring the quarterback if they are to have any success.
St Louis Rams (10-6)
Sam Bradford’s rookie season was one to remember as he broke Peyton Manning’s record for most passes completed by a novice (354). They gave him a lot more to do than was initially expected proving their confidence in a top prospect and their much-improved offensive line. Bradford has been rewarded with wide receiver Mike Sims Walker who posted some impressive figures in Jacksonville. Still some way from being a great team but the NFC West is wide open.
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
The 49ers were expected to walk the NFC West in 2010 but they lurched from one disaster to another. There are plenty of talented players on this roster in Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore but too often they shot themselves in the foot. Who stays under centre and how they perform will ultimately decide whether their season is a success or not.
Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
The Cardinals took a punt on Kevin Kolb and that gamble will define the coming years. Larry Fitzgerald has been signed up to a big contract but they missed the likes of Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Antre Rolle who were so pivotal in their Super Bowl run a few years back. Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie is another to depart and they must get more out of their running game to assist Kolb.
Seattle Seahawks (3-13)
The Seahawks made the play-offs by the skin of their teeth but even they were not happy with the season as a whole, reflected in the fact that Tarvaris Jackson will be the new quarterback. He was unimpressive in Minnesota but probably deserves another shot; fellow former Viking Sidney Rice’s arrival is a nice upshot for Jackson as is tight-end Zach Miller. Need more from former first-round pick Aaron Curry to show he doesn’t join Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin in the first-round outside-linebacker bust group.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“There is a gigantic difference between earning a great deal of money and being rich”
The ink is barely dry on Dez Bryant’s first professional deal. The first-round rookie wide-out set the wheels in motion for this year’s first-round draft picks and we now await the likes of Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow to follow suit.
A rookie’s contract is notoriously difficult to negotiate and for those fortunate enough to be taken early on draft day, it is also farcical to say the least.
Last year’s first pick overall Matthews Stafford collected a cool $41.7 million. At the time of signing this enormous contract he had yet to win a game for his team the Detroit Lions. He had yet to make a touchdown in the NFL, he had yet to complete a pass and he hadn’t even attempted a throw.
This year’s first overall pick and the likely recipient of another whopping deal is St Louis Rams’ new quarterback Sam Bradford. Reports suggest Bradford’s guaranteed contract is expected to be anywhere between $45 and $50 million. An extenuate fee for any sports star, let alone one who has yet to prove his talents on the grandest stage of his specialist sport.
What Stafford’s contract and Bradford’s impending deal represent are huge risks. The rewards are obvious; a solid franchise quarterback is the largest piece in an NFL team’s puzzle. Get that piece right and the rest is much easier to fit together. But the risk can so easily outweigh the reward. For proof, see exhibit A, a certain JaMarcus Russell.
Before Bradford and Stafford, the last quarterback to be taken first overall was LSU’s Russell. The Oakland Raiders gambled on a man believed to be the next big thing. What Russell had was potential, and bags of it. But his attitude and his aptitude never matched his athletic abilities. Since that day in 2007, Russell has done nothing but disappoint but while he may have inherited the tag of biggest NFL bust ever, his accountant certainly isn’t complaining.
After a lengthy holdout, Al Davis and the Raiders franchise agreed to sign Russell to a contract worth $61 million. Before being cut this off-season, the Raiders had paid Russell $38 million. He won 7 games, completing just 18 passes. Last season he ranked dead last in passes completed, completion percentage, yardage, TDs and passer rating.
Breaking down exactly what the Raiders got for their money is painful enough. More than $5 million a win, $2 million a touchdown and $100,000 per competition. You don’t need a degree in statistics to see the Raiders did not get great value here.
Russell bled the Raiders dry and the system allowed him to do so. He did not earn his money, he merely became rich. Of course Russell will likely never collect another ludicrous fee in the NFL but he does not need too. He will make more money out of the league than the majority of its players even if he never returns to the league. The risk of taking a highly rated college quarterback is beginning to outweigh the reward.
To put Russell’s deal in perspective, consider that Chad Henne will be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins next year. His contract? Four years, $3.5million dollars. A measly total when compared with the enormous pay packet that Russell collected during his miserable tenure in Oakland and this is criminally wrong. Russell will easily earn more than him next year even if he sits at home and watches like the rest of us.
In other sports the top earners clearly out-earn those at a lower level. The difference being that those who earn the most are, strictly speaking, also the best performers. Due to the competitive nature of the draft system, this isn’t the case in the NFL. Have a scintillating college career, impress at the combine and one deal can set you up for life regardless of whether your raw talent transfers to the big time or not. Unless Henne goes on to become one of the game’s greats, he may never sign deals as big as the one Russell raked in. The astronomical sums of money being collected by the top rookies each year reflect a clear handicap with the draft system. It is the unproven, untried and untested who command the largest sums and as it stand things aren’t going to change anytime soon.
A few days ago Adam Schefter tweeted that he didn’t remember “the last time, if ever, that on July 19 there wasn’t a single first-round pick that had signed yet”. The uncertainty over the collective bargaining agreement is only making matters worse. Players are rightly worried about no football being played next year and they want the same deals that their peers collected when they first signed deals.
This is why a realistic rookie wage scale should be paramount to the collective bargaining agreement which is causing such friction between the powers that be.
Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president of labor and general counsel, summed it up perfectly:
“There is no reason why a player should come into the NFL and, before he has his first practice, is one of the highest-paid players not only in the league but in all professional sports.”
Russell provides the perfect indicator for why the current rookie wage scale is so flawed. Let us hope that his demise is taken on board in the next round of discussions over a collective bargaining agreement.