What We Learned from August
Don’t judge the Niners’ offense by what you saw in the preseason, and nine more insights as Week 1 looms
1. I think if anyone’s trying to gauge where the 49ers’ offense is by their four preseason games, they’re making a mistake. San Francisco, which lost pass-catchers Michael Crabtree (Achilles), Randy Moss (free agent) and Delanie Walker (Titans) from last season, didn’t show much outside of a few formations, and there was zero read-option with quarterback Colin Kaepernick from what I saw. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is known for keeping things under wraps, and it looks as if he did that. Week 1 opponent Green Bay won’t have much indication of how the 49ers offense might evolve in the second season with Kaepernick.
And one more thing: I think announcers are going to add to the confusion about the read-option if they don’t understand it themselves. Just because Kaepernick is in the shotgun or pistol and hands it to a running back, it doesn’t make the play a read-option. He has to be reading an unblocked player, and he has to have an option to hand it or run. The 49ers ran straight handoffs and play action in the preseason.
2. I think Giants veteran David Diehl is going to get Wally Pipped by first-round pick Justin Pugh at right tackle. Diehl is out until the end of this month after right thumb surgery. The Giants have had some problems on the line this preseason, but it hasn’t been at right tackle. Pugh, taking 19th overall out of Syracuse, has looked very physical and nimble in his playing time. He’s also shown himself to be very smart, as he made a handful of veteran adjustments against the Jets’ complicated scheme in the third game.
3. I think it will be very interesting to compare Bengals second-round end Margus Hunt one year from now. There’s no question the 6-8, 280-pound Estonian has all the physical skills to be a star in the NFL, but an underwhelming preseason showed that he’s a project who was probably overdrafted. Unless something clicks, Hunt is going to need at least a year of technique development to make in impact. As a third- or fourth-round choice, that would be in line with expectations. The Bengals were probably hoping for a little bit more this season from Hunt, and that could still happen. But at 26 years old already, his clock is ticking a little faster than it does for most rookies. Another question remains on Hunt: Would he have been better off in a 3-4 scheme at end, instead of a 4-3 end with the Bengals? One reason a lot of players don’t succeed is that they aren’t the right fit for the scheme.
4. I think the Jets have a chance to have one of the best young defensive lines in the league if nosetackle Kenrick Ellis can return soon from his back surgery. Even if he doesn’t, backup Damon Harrison has shown himself to be a player who can not only hold against double teams but also penetrate. Harrison has been so good that Ellis might not get back in the starting role. We already know Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson is basically unblockable one-on-one, and 13th overall pick Sheldon Richardson has looked terrific this preseason. That adds up to one impressive line. But if the Jets are going to be a stud defense, they’re going to have to get more out of outside linebacker from Calvin Pace, and 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples, who’s out at least the first game with an ankle injury. Well-traveled backup Garrett McIntyre is nice guy to have around, but he’s no starter.
5. I think I totally agree with colleague Jim Trotter when he said going with Terrelle Pryor over Matt Flynn at quarterback is the only chance the Raiders have to succeed this season. It’s obvious that Pryor, with his athletic ability and arm strength, provides a spark to the team. That means Flynn would, for the second-straight season, sit behind a young, athletic quarterback after he was given starter’s money—just like he did last year in Seattle, when he was beaten out by Russell Wilson.
Packers fans who have followed me since my Milwaukee Journal Sentinel days won’t find my opinion on this shocking. I saw just about every one of Flynn’s training camp practices his first three years in Green Bay, and my opinion on him was this: If he has top-flight talent around him, Flynn can be a top backup in the NFL and even win playoff games in a pinch with his moxie and underrated athletic ability. But he lacks the arm strength and anticipation to be an every-game starter. Nevertheless, Flynn will get a chance to prove his critics wrong—that offensive line is very leaky.
6. I think this will be an interesting season for the Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin, the surprise 15th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Because of a groin injury, he didn’t receive extensive preseason playing time until last Thursday against the Raiders, and it was the first time he was seen playing strong-side linebacker instead of end. Last season Irvin was impressive in flashes, with eight sacks, but he’s not cut out to be an every-down end. He’s terrific at cleaning up stunts, but outside of his mauling of Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga last season, Irvin isn’t going to make his living beating tackles, because he lacks the power to go with his speed. Speed rushers don’t work in the game anymore; they’re easily pushed around the quarterback. There has to be some element of power—taking on a lineman directly—to cut down the distance needed to pressure a quarterback.
The Seahawks will likely scheme Irvin’s speed into the defense more this season, once he returns from his four-game suspension for a PED violation, and you can almost see the tweak being made with the 49ers’ read-option in mind. As long as his eyes are in the right place, Irvin, with his speed, could be a big weapon against Colin Kaepernick. He’s is one of the few guys who can play the option nearly by himself. Oh, and he looks very promising playing in space against the pass.
7. The Patriots made an interesting decision (no, it didn’t have to do with a quarterback) when it decided to cut veteran punter Zoltan Mesko and retain undrafted rookie Ryan Allen. Allen, who won the Ray Guy Award twice as the best punter in college football, is no slouch. Mesko opened the door last year when instead of ascending to elite status he plateaued, and he was average in big spots. Competitions are decided by practices and games, with the latter factoring in a little more heavily considering the pressure. After watching all four preseason games, I’d call the Mesko-Allen battle basically a draw. Allen and Mesko, respectively, were just about even in gross average (44.8 yards each), net (38.6 to 37.2 when you toss out the big Eagles return on Allen’s first punt), get-off time (1.32 to 1.30, hand to foot), and inside the 20-yard line conversions (4 of 5 for Allen, 2 of 2 for Mesko). Mesko’s advantage came in hangtime, 4.4 to 4.25, which points to a little bit more consistency.
Neither punter won or lost the Patriots job, and when it’s that close, almost every team is going to go with the younger and cheaper player. Mesko was due to earn $1.3 million in the final year of his contract; Allen will make $405,000. Nothing wrong with that. (And a punter with Mesko’s talent wasn’t going to sit around long. He signed with the Steelers on Monday.)
Patriots special teams coordinator Scott O’Brien, who is well respected around the league, obviously feels Allen will level out with more experience. The Patriots are going to have to hold their breath that Allen will be able to learn how to hold for underachieving kick Stephen Gostkowski—he’s never done it before. This move reminds of when the Packers axed veteran Jon Ryan in the days before the season opener for Derrick Frost in 2008. The Patriots hope it works out better: Frost was a disaster, didn’t last the season and never punted in the league again.
8. I think I must have a soft spot for undrafted quarterbacks because one week after singing the praises of Lions third-stringer Kellen Moore, I’m going to do the same for Texans rookie Case Keenum. Almost the same script as Moore: undrafted because he was too short (6-0) and lacked a strong arm after a decorated college career (Keenum at Houston, Moore at Boise State). Keenum was the talk of the Texans’ training camp and preseason after a year on the practice squad, as he pushed T.J. Yates for the backup role behind starter Matt Schaub. Keenum (68.3 percent completion rate, 482 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions) and Yates (70.0, 417, four, zero) were nearly identical this preseason, so it’s no shock that coach Gary Kubiak kept all three quarterbacks. Look for Yates to be named the No. 2—he did win a playoff game against the Bengals two seasons ago—but Keenum’s got a lot of game. He’s far more athletic than he tested, runs the boot-action scheme very well and has surprising arm strength and touch.
9. I think Titans first-round pick Chance Warmack is ready for the season. I checked back to see how much progress he’ made since a subpar debut against the Panthers, and Warmack is now much closer to his 10th overall status. His pad level has improved (although it’s far from perfect), he’s playing more decisively now that he has a better grasp of the playbook, and he’s finishing more blocks. It will still be a while before the Alabama product dominates NFL competition, but he’s on his way there.
10. I think The MMQB’s adopted undrafted rookie, Vikings fullback Zach Line, may be facing a bit of an uphill battle to stay on 53-man roster once Jerome Felton returns from his three-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. Felton received a three-year, $7.5-million contract this offseason, so he’s going to play. During the preseason, the Vikings didn’t show very many two-back sets with the first unit. When they did use a “fullback,” Minnesota preferred to employ the backup tight ends, John Carlson and Rhett Ellison. Line wasn’t on many, if any, of the top special teams units, but that usually changes after the 53-man cut. Lastly, Line, a college tailback, is an average run blocker at this point and runs very high through the hole. What Line does have going for him is that he’s versatile—can play tailback in a pinch, catches the ball very well—and he’s the Vikings’ only undrafted free agent right now. General manager Rick Spielman likes those types of guys, so it might be hard for him to cut one. The ideal spot for Line would seem to be on the practice squad, where he can get stronger and refine his technique for a run at a full-time job next season.