The game is changing, which is why Johnny Manziel has a chance to win.
Last week, former quarterbacks and current tape students Ron Jaworski and Phil Simms both came out as skeptics of Johnny Manziel. I liked it. If you’re an analyst and don’t voice your real opinion, what good are you? And there is much work to be done by the teams in the top eight that need a quarterback (Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota and maybe Tampa Bay). Last week, Manziel’s quarterback coach, George Whitfield, said they are focusing on Manziel’s throwing and decision-making from the pocket as they prepare for his pro-day workout on March 27. Manziel was such a wild stallion as a quarterback at Texas A&M, often leaving the pocket early instead of staying home. But it is folly to say he hasn’t played well at times in the pocket; some of his best plays—though maybe not always with good footwork—came with traffic around him, and Manziel finding the receiver he needed to find. But Whitfield knows you don’t want to neuter all of his instincts and you don’t want him exposed to the number of hits he faced in college either.
The people I spoke with at the combine who have an interest in drafting a quarterback want to see Manziel play better when hemmed in, as he was against LSU last year. I find it interesting that Nick Saban didn’t emphasize keeping Manziel inside the tackle box (or if he did, it just didn’t work) the way LSU coach Les Miles did. Check out how Manziel did in his two meetings against LSU and Alabama. Saban, I would argue, is the biggest test for a quarterback in college football, given his track record on the pro and college levels.
“I understand he’s not for all 32 teams,” said Phil Savage, the color man on Alabama radio broadcasts, executive director of the Senior Bowl and former NFL GM with the Browns. “But he’s so instinctive, such a playmaker and such a smart football player that I think there have to be a few teams that think, We can shape our offense around him and use his skills for what he does best. We can win with him.”
My guess, two-plus months out from the draft: Jacksonville, at number three, or Oakland, at five, make the most sense. If I’m Jags offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who is one of the most imaginative young coaches in the game, I’d love to get my hands on Manziel.
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The cap doubles in 14 years.
The salary cap has doubled in this century, and it has virtually quadrupled in its 20-year history. Some figures to know since the salary cap’s inception in 1994:
|Year||Cap number per team||Remark|
|1994||$34.6 million||26 percent of the current cap|
|2000||$62.2 million||Less than one-half of today’s cap|
|2005||$85.5 million||Year before Gene Upshaw’s last deal|
|2006||$102.0 million||Jump in Upshaw’s first year of last CBA|
|2009||$123.0 million||Last capped year of previous deal|
|2010||uncapped||Led to Washington, Dallas sanctions|
|2013||$123.0 million||Flat with 2009; pressure on NFLPA for a raise|
|2014||$133.0 million||8.2% hike in line with burgeoning revenues|
Collectively, teams have more than $700 million to spend when free agency begins a week from Tuesday. If I were a GM, I’d try to spend internally, the way the Eagles did last Thursday and Friday, signing four key offensive players to new deals, and eliminating the need to go outside the building for important positions like left tackle (Jason Peters, one of the best in the league, got re-signed) when there’s usually a reason why players are on the market in the first place. The two best left tackles out there now, Brandon Albert and Eugene Monroe, are coming off so-so and good years, respectively, but with tackle-needy teams like Miami and Arizona out there with cap room to spare, one or both is likely to get overpaid.
As I wrote about last week, NFL teams are going to have to spend the money on somebody, inside or outside the organization. Teams are mandated to spend a combined 95% of the salary cap on players in the 2013 through 2016 seasons; each team must spend, minimum, 89% of the cap money available or face a stiff penalty in 2017. “If the league-wide spend in those four seasons is not at least 95 percent,’’ said George Atallah, the assistant executive director for external affairs of the NFL Players Association, “the NFLPA can disburse that unspent money how it wants.’’ Similarly, any team not at an 89% spending rate between 2013 and 2016 will have to fork over what it is shy, and the NFLPA can distribute it to the affected players who were on the team during that period.
Point is, teams now will be forced to spend to the minimums required by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. That’s a good thing. And with the cap projected to increase by at least $10 million more in 2015, this should be a good time for players who thought they were being held back by a relatively flat cap to make up for lost time.
Who could strike it rich? Three projections:
1. Cleveland center Alex Mack (either with the Browns or elsewhere), a sturdy 28-year-old line leader and solid run blocker, should average $8 million a year, minimum.
2. Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai, 30 years old but relatively lightly used in his career, is the best run-stuffer on the market and should command at least $6 million a year.
3. Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, who just turned 25 and had his best season with the Titans. Cover corners and rushers will be the most lucrative positions on the market, and Tennessee, going against Andrew Luck and new quarterbacks due in Jacksonville and Houston, needs to do everything it can to keep Verner.
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Player of the Week: Brandin Cooks, wide receiver/returner, Oregon State
Between now and the May 8 NFL draft, I plan to take a look at a different player in the news each week. This week it’s one of the stars of the NFL Scouting Combine, wide receiver Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.
I watched the Oregon State offensive snaps of three of his 2013 games—against Cal, Stanford and USC. It was the TV copy, and the wide receivers were out of the picture quite often, so I couldn’t get a good picture of him blocking downfield (though he did block aggressively in a scrum against Stanford for a fellow receiver). And I can’t say I am confident about his route-running either, for a similar reason. But I got a good feel for his physicality competing for balls and his hands and his speed around the edge. All very good. I didn’t see the blow-the-top-off-the-defense speed I thought I’d see after his 4.33 40-time at the combine, but he clearly is plenty fast. Oregon State uses him on the Jet sweeps the way Seattle used Percy Harvin when healthy in 2013; he didn’t break many, but you don’t sneer at 6.8 yards per play on the sweeps.
Cooks reminded me of the West Virginia all-purpose weapon, Tavon Austin, who was the only rusher/receiver picked in the top half of the first round of the 2013 draft. Cooks, I believe, is slightly more physical. Comparing Austin and Cooks and the final seasons of their college careers:
|Player||40 time||Height||Weight||Rec.||Yards||Avg.||TD||Overall Draft Pick|
The most impressive play I saw Cooks make came against Stanford. From the Cardinal 8-yard line, quarterback Sean Mannion looked for Cooks running a short post on the right side. Cooks caught it around the 4 and hurtled toward the end zone, with three Stanford defenders in the way. Cooks dove under safety Ed Reynolds, his main foe near the goal line, while defensive tackle David Parry and linebacker A.J. Tarpley tried to squeeze him from getting in for the score. Cooks barely made it. The physicality of the play was impressive; Cooks knew he’d get clobbered, but he went for it nonetheless—and he won.
But there are other assets. I saw two high leaps where he came down for the ball fighting a defensive back. He is a very good boundary receiver, with good awareness of the sideline and end line, and good ability to get his feet down when he looks to be completely concentrating on the ball. And he’s a plucker of the ball; his hands dart out, grab the ball softly and bring it in.
“I’m a playmaker,” Cooks said at the combine. “I’m able to create plays from nothing—able to catch a three-yard ball, take it the distance. Speed kills, and I feel like that’s what I’m going to bring to the game.”
This is a terrific receiver class—Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee are the more highly regarded and bigger receivers, and fast-riser Odell Beckham is another high-pick contender. The quantity and quality will likely push Cooks down to the second half of the first round; there’s a slight chance he’d fall to the second round, but with wideout-needy teams late in the first round (New England, Baltimore, Cleveland, Carolina, San Francisco), it’s highly unlikely he’ll make it out. Seeing as they have a huge need for a playmaker, the Jets, at 18, would be a great landing spot for Cooks.