Monday, 2 February 2009

Super Bowl thoughts from a draft perspective

They do say the NFL is a copy cat league and when the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last year behind a relentless pass rush, teams were trying to mimic their success. When Seattle drafted Lawrence Jackson some claimed he could develop into the 'Hawks very own version of Justin Tuck. The happenings in one game will likely have very little impact on how the Seahawks draft in 2009, but there were a few interesting observations. To read more, click here.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and it showed on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger made reference to them after the game but in reality, he was often scrambling for his life and still making plays. Darnell Dockett had his way with the interior line in the second half and recorded two sacks. Tim Ruskell spoke in a press conference after the 2008 season and suggested he didn't like taking offensive line talent early because serviceable guys can be found later on.

The Steelers' two highest drafted linemen Kendell Simmons (first round) and Marvel Smith (second round) were placed on injured reserve during the season. All-pro guard Alan Faneca left the team for the New York Jets in 2008 and was replaced by sixth round pick Chris Kemoeatu. Darnell Stapleton went undrafted but has had an impact on the line, and none of the other linemen on the Steelers roster were taken higher than the third round. Although the Super Bowl performance wasn't great it does show that high picks and big money invested into the offensive line isn't necessary to be successful.

Arizona's offensive line fared little better. Kurt Warner was constantly just getting throws off and he took a couple of shots as he threw which led to fumbles (one was called back upon review). The second one ended the game. Arizona drafted Levi Brown with the fifth overall pick in 2007 (ahead of Adrian Peterson). He was brought in to play blind side right tackle because Matt Leinart is a left handed quarter back, he stays at right tackle now that Warner is ahead on the depth chart. It may be too soon to make this call, but if there really were arguments in the war room on whether to take Peterson or Brown with that pick - you have to feel the Cardinals might have wished they had Peterson last night. Brown was beaten for one of the Pittsburgh sacks in the second half.

One place Pittsburgh excel is of course on defense. Ranked first in the league in every category except against the run (the Vikings hold that honour in 2008) they are brilliantly led by coordinator Dick LeBeau. They run a great 3-4 scheme with some premium talent thrown in for good measure. The Seahawks themselves have tried to create a suffocating defense with Tim Ruskell as general manager. Since joining the team in 2005 he's made a concerted effort to improve the 'D' by signing big name free agents like Patrick Kerney, Julian Peterson and Deon Grant. The Seahawks have also drafted with a defensive focus, taking Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill and Brandon Mebane with great success.

However, despite a promising year in 2007 the most recent Seahawks season has been a disappointing one on the defensive side on the ball and Seattle still lack a couple of key components. Without Kerney in the trenches the Seahawks generated little pressure on opposing quarter backs. With an increasing age and injury record could Seattle look at improving their pass rush for the second consecutive year? Everette Brown is considered more of a 3-4 DE/LB hybrid but as the best pass rusher in this class, could bulk up and be a more traditional 4-3 end. Brian Orakpo is a senior from Texas who has been slated to fit into a 4-3. By getting more of a focus from the front it will release the pressure on Seattle's secondary.

It wouldn't say much for Daryl Tapp, Baraka Atkins and Lawrence Jackson though - all guys drafted by Ruskell. But having watched Larry Fitzgerald become arguably the best receiver in the NFL this post season (and with a supporting cast of Boldin and Breaston) the Seahawks will know that to regain the NFC West - they'll have to stop these guys somehow.

Another area for improvement is at safety. Although Grant is an above average player at his position Brian Russell has often come in for criticism. Both safeties were signed in the same off season and it appears will continue to be the team's starters in 2009. The safety class is relatively weak this year after Taylor Mays decided to stay at USC, with prospects like William Moore harming their draft stock during the Senior Bowl. The Steelers rely on the always excellent Troy Polamalu and what Seattle wouldn't give to have him on their roster.

Neither run offense had a succesful night in Tampa. Edgerrin James (9 attempts, 33 yards) and Tim Hightower (1 attempt, 0 yards) were shut down by the Steelers and Arizona abandoned the run in the fourth quarter as they chased the game. Willie Parker fared slightly better (19 attempts, 53 yards). Again this could come down to the two offensive lines. Both were poor in pass protection and decidedly poor trying to open holes for the run.

If Seattle are going to emphasise the run more in 2009 they will not only need their backs to perform they will need a better offensive line performance than what we saw in the Super Bowl. Again you come back to what Ruskell has said on this issue and wonder if that means trying to sign a dominant run blocker like an Andre Smith in the first round, taking someone later on or simply trusting in coach Solari and the guys you already have.

Finally, the most eye catching aspect of the game was the performance of each team's passing offense. Arizona played a conservative game for the first three quarters, but when they went no huddle and played a more ambitious style they had great success. Larry Fitzgerald - anonymous in the first half - showed the true value of having a game changing receiver. His seven catch, 127 yard, 2 touchdown performance should have won the game - had it not been for an equally brilliant performance by Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. With four grabs for 73 yards on that game winning drive, Holmes won the world championship for his team. The conclusion was a brilliant 6 yard touchdown where he somehow managed to get both feet down in the end zone.

It might have taken four quarters to get there, but it became Fitzgerald vs Holmes. Two play makers both making it happen for their team. Fitzgerald came within a whisker of getting the MVP award, instead Holmes takes the title. The Cardinals receiver was taken third overall in 2004, Holmes was picked with the 25th pick of the '06 draft. Receiver seems to be a much maligned position when it comes to the draft, although the benefits of landing a truly great one are huge.

If Michael Crabtree's stock was already pretty high - their performance may just have helped him out a little. As we've said, this is a copy cat league. Crabtree's physical stat sheet is eerily similar to Fitzgerald, whether it's height, size, speed or production. Any team trying to find 'the next Larry Fitzgerald' will look at Crabtree with serious consideration. It won't just be Seattle who might be thinking this way too - St Louis and Kansas City will have been watching last night. Even though Crabtree will struggle to have the immediate impact Fitzgerald has had in the NFL, he grades out with an equal quality coming into the league.

Of course all of this is conjecture, but it's interesting to look at the two teams who made it to the big game this year and what the Seahawks can learn from them as they hope to bounce back in 2009. The road to the draft begins here and although the Super Bowl won't determine any picks on face value, I wonder if we'd hear 'Arizona' or 'Pittsburgh' mentioned in the war room?


Anonymous said...

I think this game was as much about Roethlisberger v. Warner than Holmes v. Fitzgerald. If Hasselbeck isn't completely healthy and back to his normal form I don't think who we draft this season makes any difference at all for '09.

Kurt said...

The Steelers proved again this year that defense wins Super Bowls but I think we have enough talent on our D that we don't need to make it a huge priority for this draft. I expect a defensive coordinator change and a shift in attitude to make that unit perform the way it should.

On offense, we simply lack talent at many positions and that's what we need to address in this year's draft, in my opinion.

Rob Staton said...

I agree to an extent JJhsix because of course the quarter backs have to get the ball to the receiver in the first place.

But for me the two receivers were the key. Firstly, Fitzgerald made a superb catch in the right corner of the end zone for his first TD. It was David Tyree esque and came against perfect coverage. I'm not sure many other receivers in the league would have got the six points there and it was key to getting the Cardinals back in the game. He'd already led the team into the red zone with some smart catches.

His second TD was a great route and Warner just had to put it on a plate for him. He flew passed the Steelers secondary like they weren't there. For me, it showed why Fitzgerald is the best WR in the league - a complete package.

In response, the Steelers had to drive from deep in their own half. Holmes was key to the scoring drive - making a superb difficult catch and eventually taking the team deep into the Cardinals half. If he drops that catch - the Steelers I think were facing fourth down. Instead they are well set to at least tie the game.

Overall on the drive he caught four balls for 73 yards. He capped it off with a superb touchdown grab, I'm still not sure how he managed to get both feet down. It was a good read by Big Ben (the play was allegedly supposed to go Hines Ward, then Nate Washington, then Holmes) but the play was all about that catch. Brilliant.

It wasn't just the statistics that Fitzgerald and Holmes put up - it was the spectacular plays. If the Cardinals win - Fitzgerald would have been the MVP. Instead, it's Holmes. Two receivers at the top of their game, fighting for that trophy. Neither deserved to be on the losing team.

Anonymous said...

Good points Rob and none that I disagree with. I simply am looking at it like this - for 2009 would you rather have a healthy Hasselbeck at his regular skill level throwing to our current WRs (Branch, Burleson etc) or Seneca Wallace throwing to Crabtree?

I would take Hasselbeck. With that being said I think Crabtree is the pick at 4 (if he's still around) and hopefully we can have a healthy hasselbeck throwing to crabtree.

Chris (Seattle) said...

First off, the Steelers did not prove "once again defense wins championships." If that were the case, the NFC would've been represented by the Giants or the Eagles, both teams with far superior defenses than the Cardinals. Getting hot in the playoffs wins championships. The "greatest show on turf" rams won with almost all offense and this years Cardinals were 2 minutes from winning it. The Steelers D gave up almost 500 yards of offense last night, and if it weren't for their offense, they would have lost the game for their team giving up a 64-yard catch on a slant route to Fitzgerald.

Rob, I hope you're wrong about two things:

1) That St. Louis and KC's interest in Crabtree increased cause of the postseason performance from Fitzgerald and Holmes' Super Bowl showcase. This is one time I hope the draft cliche's keep the Rams and Chiefs from selecting a WR in the top 3 when both teams have so many holes elsewhere (plus KC drafted Dwayne Bowe relatively early a couple of years ago). If anything, I hope Ruskell watched closely all postseason to what a great WR can do, and how much playmakers can keep your defense off the field and rested (something that is imperative to our under-sized defense's success).

2) That our starting safeties next year will include Brian Russell. The man does nothing positive once the ball is snapped. He has zero range in coverage, is awful in the open field, and consistently fails to secure tackles after contact with the ball carrier (he loves the put your head down and throw your shoulder into them, neglecting to wrap up). If we're running a Tampa 2 next year and we're counting on him covering a deep half of the field, we may have fans suffering from Micheal Boulware flashbacks. Jamar Adams is a better option at this point in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I think the Rams and Chiefs will consider Crabtree but I think actually pulling the trigger on him will be somewhat of a long shot. They have so many holes and have already spent relatively high picks on Bowe and Avery, who have both performed well and showed great promise. Add into that new management and head coach, and I see guys wanting to buy themselves more job security which is selecting O-line or Defense. By picking a WR, they are putting themselves in a more "have to win quicker" scenario because a WR selection is going to have a greater spotlight which leads to more public scrutiny. Even if the WR is rated a little higher than the other positions, I still think when rebuilding a team, you go with the slightly lower rated OT or Defensive player.

Yes, the Hawks have a new head coach, but not really new. He has been with the team and is inheriting a team that is a year removed from a consistent streak of playoff appearances.

If by chance Crabtree is off the board, I hope the Hawks seriously consider Jeremy Maclin. I think he has the tools and size to become a #1 WR. Not saying I would take him, but he would definitely be in consideration along with the other OTs and Jenkins.

Malone said...

still think that a good o-line is crucial and what you wanna build upon. But last night proved what most already knew, that who you have throwing the ball behind the line is most important. Warner is a probable Hall of Famer and Ben doesn’t put up Peyton-esque numbers but his ability to keep plays alive is so important and wont be found in any stat sheet. Hassleback is now 33 and injury prone and as much as I like the guy I think he was a system QB, I think Holmgren worked wonders with the guy. I also don’t believe that a 5’10 QB is the key to your future, I was kinda surprised by all the Seneca love I heard on KJR. Taking a QB on the first day might not be a bad idea.

A good defense isn’t built through free agency. The violent nature of football makes it a young mans game, except for at QB. Signing 28 year olds guys to long-term deals isn’t a good move. Look at Pitt in the past couple of years, they’ve let a couple great players like Porter and Faneca leave through FA. The Hawks had no pass rush this season and last year only Kerney supplied that. I don’t have the numbers any longer but the majority of Kerneys sacks came against rookies and back-ups. Hill will be around for one more year at most I hope, franchise the guy but don’t sign him. I really don’t know enough about the draft at this point but Curry is interesting. Is he an over-hyped freak like Gholston or is he the real deal? Ruskell found Hill and Lofa in the 3rd and 2nd rounds so maybe they don’t need to take a LB that early.
The final 4 in the NFL all had great play at Safety and even teams like the Colts and Bears play much better defense when Sanders and Brown are healthy. The league is all about passing and Safety is more important then ever. If Crabtree has a 4.4 or 4.5 I could see him gone by 4. I think trading down and picking up a 3rd rounder and maybe more is what I like now and getting a DT or S in the first round.