REVELATIONS FROM THE ROAD
A name to remember … and a trade to remember.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — John Brown this, John Brown that. John Brown out wide, John Brown in the slot, John Brown at the top of bunch formations. Forget Sammy Watkins, we got John Brown! The 91st pick of the 2014 draft, from that big NFL feeder Pittsburg (Kans.) State, is the hit of Cardinals training camp, forcing his way into first-team dialogue (“I’d say we could use him about 60 percent of the offensive snaps,” coach Bruce Arians said), just a few months after he took the gridiron against Emporia State and Nebraska-Kearney.
The Cardinals traded the 20th overall pick to New Orleans for the 27th and 91st picks (first- and third-rounders). The Saints used the 20th pick to take wide receiver Brandin Cooks. The Cards picked safety Deone Bucannon at 27 and wide receiver John Brown at 91.
Now for the rest of the story, from Arizona GM Steve Keim on Friday:
The Cards had their eyes on three players as the first round neared its midpoint: Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin and Calvin Pryor. But Shazier went at 15, Martin at 16, Pryor at 18. Now the Cards had a grading gap in the next set of players they liked, and Keim had an idea. There was this one under-the-radar prospect the Cardinals loved: Brown, a wideout from Pittsburg State. The Cards had him rated their fifth wide receiver in the draft. Early second-round grade. He’d run the second-fastest 40 time at the combine among receivers but had a checkered college career. He started at Mars Hill (N.C.) College, transferred to Coffeyville Junior College in Kansas, actually got cut from Coffeyville’s team, and transferred to Pittsburg State, where he played the last three seasons. A burner, but small (5-9, 179), and it’d take a leap of faith that, given his size and level of competition, he could transition to the NFL. Throughout the organization, though, the opinion was the same: We’ve got to find a way to get John Brown.
The Cards now had four picks in the top 100: 27, 52, 84 and 91. Keim figured the team had several priorities other than wideout, where they were fine (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn), and he figured if Brown was still around at 91, at the bonus pick, he’d use that pick on Brown. Arizona got the physical safety it wanted at 27, Bucannon, a needed tight end (Troy Niklas) at 52 and a big defensive end to fit their 3-4 scheme (Kareem Martin) at 84. Now they waited. Keim paced. He called around to see which teams between 85 and 90 might take a receiver. He had a scout call Brown in a vague hope to tie up his phone line (as if he wouldn’t have call-waiting) as the picks went by.
With the 86th pick, the Philadelphia Eagles select … Josh Huff, wide receiver, Oregon.
Exhale. The Eagles’ second receiver in three rounds.
More nerves. A corner, defensive end and guard go next. One more pick. The Colts. They need a receiver. Their GM, Ryan Grigson, beats the bushes. He won’t … will he?
With the 90th pick, the Indianapolis Colts select … Donte Moncrief, wide receiver, Mississippi.
“YESSSSS!” was the first sound in the Cards’ draft room.
“Funny how these things work,” Keim said Friday. “We’re so excited. Bruce [Arians] is pumped. But of course, you pick a receiver from Pittsburg State and the fans say, ‘What the heck are they doing? Who is John Brown?’ Now look at it—John Brown’s the talk of the town.”
Arians is lining up Brown in the slot, tight to the formation as a faux tight end with blocking responsibilities, and wide on either side. I watched practice Friday, and Brown was in on six early snaps with the first unit, more than Ted Ginn or Juron Brown. John Brown caught one bomb from Palmer, getting behind his cover corner easily. He’s going to be one of the most interesting rookies to watch.
For the rest of his tenure in Arizona, Keim will be measuring Brown thusly: 20 for 27 and 91. Cooks for Bucannon and Brown. If Cooks is significantly better than Brown, but Bucannon plays big for Arizona, Keim will be fine with the deal. That’s how general managers think. “We think they’ll be both be impact players for us,” Keim said.
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‘Gotta use your feet more.’ Isn’t that how it should be?
BEREA, Ohio — So, the penalties are still high in Week 3 of the preseason, but they’re down from the hair-raising 20.8 per game last weekend. For the 16 games this weekend, the combined accepted penalties were 17.6 per game. Average accepted penalties per regular-season game in 2013: 12.2.
Three good points made by Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden on the tightening of the rules from a conversation we had:
Me: How different is a cornerback’s game with no grabbing/handwork past five yards?
Haden: You gotta use your feet a whole lot more. You gotta make sure that you don’t grab. I’m going to play my game the way I normally play it. I don’t feel like I hold. You just gotta be conscious of it every play.
But don’t you still want to keep contact with the receiver downfield?
Haden: You want to touch them. You want to touch the receivers. I mean, it’s football. That’s going to happen. So you’re going to see what you’re going to get away with. I’m not going to completely put my arms around my back. So I’m going to plan to keep my technique how I think it’s going to be. And the referees, honestly, they do a good job of coming up to you and, “Hey watch your hands.” In Detroit [in the first preseason game], I got one official say something to me on one play. I went to go jam and my hand hit him in the face mask. He was like, “23, get your hands lower. Get your hands lower. Keep your hands lower.” Once he gave me that one warning, I was just playing my normal technique the way I normally play and I got no flags called. If they obviously see jersey pull, if they see things like that, that is a hold. But if it’s just messing around, bumping, touching, things like that I don’t think they’re going to be too strict on that, because I was playing it in that game in Detroit and it didn’t happen. If it’s pulling and grabbing when the ball is in the air, and all that contact, they’re throwing on that.
How do you practice not grabbing receivers?
Haden: Our coaches actually have us wearing boxing gloves sometimes. You can’t grab anything with those. So you really have to be able to use your feet and be able to just play ball. We still have $800 up for the first person to catch a pick with the gloves on.
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My favorite story of the week.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Sometimes you ask a question, just fishing, and you get an answer that becomes a story. My question, put to Houston GM Rick Smith, in town for joint practices with the Broncos before Saturday night’s preseason game in Denver: “Because you had the worst record in the league last year, you’ve got first priority on released players when teams cut their rosters. Doing anything special to get ready for it?”
A smile from Smith. A pause. A pause, trying to figure out what to say without giving away his strategy.
“We have to take advantage of that situation,” he said. “We have put a structure in place to do that. We had to live a nightmare to get this advantage, but we got it, and just like in the draft, we’re going to take full advantage to try to build the best roster we can.”
NFL rosters have to be cut from 90 to 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and from 75 to 53 by Saturday. The Texans have first crack at the 480 players cut by Tuesday afternoon. Houston also has its pick of 704 more when rosters get trimmed to the limit by Saturday night. Last year, Kansas City, with first waiver priority, plucked seven players who made the Chiefs’ opening-day 53-man roster.
So how does a team analyze 1,184 unemployed players so fast, and pick the four or six or eight or however many the Texans think can make the final roster?
Smith usually does not have his college scouts doing any pro work. But this year he had his six area scouts for college coverage, plus national scouts Jon Carr and Ed Lambert, come to Houston at the start of camp to be briefed on a different plan this year. Those eight scouts were each assigned one NFL team—and a group of 10 to 15 players per team that Houston thought would be on the bubble at final cut-time—and told to write full reports on those players and have them ready when the cuts began this week. The other 24 teams were divided among the Texans’ pro personnel staff, which studies the rosters during the course of the year and would be more fluent in each team’s plans than the college scouts are.
Smith wouldn’t say much about his plans for the pool of 1,184 available players, other than to say it’s hard to find competent defensive linemen and offensive linemen on the street at any time, and they’d be investigating those thoroughly.
“Our roster is a living, breathing thing,” Smith said, “and if there’s a player we see out there who is better than what we have, we’re going to act.”
Where to start? Houston could grab help at tight end, tackle, guard, defensive line, outside linebacker (Brooks Reed struggled last year) and cornerback, even after going guard-tight end in rounds two and three of the draft. An interesting name surfaced Sunday night: Winston Justice, waived in the cut to 75 by the Broncos. That could be a surprise to Smith.
TEXANS PREVIEW: O’Brien builds without a quarterback
Last year the Chiefs got two major contributors out of the final cut work: cornerback Marcus Cooper and tight end Sean McGrath. In total, the seven players played 1,596 snaps. If Smith can hit the market that solidly this week, he should consider the man-hours spent on the project well worth it.
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I cannot believe Keenan Allen was the 76th pick last year.
SAN DIEGO — Best play I saw in my month on the road: Wideout Keenan Allen of the Chargers ran a post-corner route against air toward the left corner of the end zone right in front of me, and Philip Rivers threw high, and Allen leaped, caught with his left hand and pirouetted to the ground like Lynn Swann. Well, hello.
Sure doesn’t look like just his second training camp. You can see out on the field the way he carries himself. He acts the leader, even at this young age, of the receiving group. Before practice on Thursday, GM Tom Telesco had raved about Allen’s separation ability—which is hard to tell in a camp practice, but it was very apparent he could get away from corners last season—and about his feel for space. “Great point guards can feel people around them,’’ Telesco said. “Keenan’s like that. He has a natural feel for space, finding the open area.’’
The Chargers practice wasn’t open to the media for the entire time, because technically they weren’t in training camp when I was there and didn’t have to. But I saw enough. That’s the benefit of being out on the road in the summer, when you can watch players when they’re (mostly) healthy—you can see live what you can’t see as well on TV or on tape. And I’ll remember that beautiful and athletic one-handed catch for a long time.
MORE CHARGERS: The MMQB’s San Diego training camp page
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This occurred to me at 6:13 a.m. Sunday.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Delta gate, Fort Lauderdale airport, waiting to board the 7 a.m. flight to LaGuardia.
Reading lots of stuff from overnight on the league—and seeing so much negative on the Bills and the Browns. The Bills got down 24-0 at the half at home, in newly refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium. E.J. Manuel looked awful. Sammy Watkins sidelined with a rib injury. Boobirds out in force. News breaks that rotational defensive tackle Alan Branch was busted overnight Friday for being so drunk in his car that he had to stop, open the driver’s door and puke. (Branch has since been cut.) Quite a job you inherited, Doug Marrone. And the Browns: Offense looks awful, just like their Erie neighbors to the east. Brian Hoyer’s got no chance. Josh Gordon about to get whacked with a big suspension. Rams, even without Sam Bradford, hand the Browns their lunch. It’s 20-0, Rams, with third-string St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis playing, 28 minutes into the game.
And I think: Cleveland GM Ray Farmer could have two of the top five picks in the draft next April. The Browns have Buffalo’s first-round pick from the Sammy Watkins trade. Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston (if he comes out) or Brett Hundley … plus either a bookend tackle from a reportedly rich tackle crop next year, or another defensive piece. It’s way too early to project things like this, but two picks in the top five of any draft is gold—gold, Jerry, it’s gold!—and Farmer might just have made a golden deal to help the Browns of 2015 and beyond, even as the team faces another apparently lean year now.
Then I think: Manziel versus Mariota in training camp next July. I mean, the national press is going to rent the Courtyard in Berea for a month.