Friday, April 18, 2014

How quickly can the Vikings' new quarterback get the job done?

(* Note: Jason Winter has submitted another guest post or this blog. This time, the creator of the dearly departed Defensive Indifference Vikings blog wonders how quickly the Vikes should start the young quarterback the team is surely going to draft.

The Minnesota Vikings will draft a quarterback this year. It might be with the #8 pick. It might be with a higher pick, if they trade up, as some say they will do. It might be in the second round. It might be Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Zach Mettenberger – hell, I think even Paul Crewe and Shane Falco have worked out for the team.

But they will get a quarterback. And, given that the other options for the team are Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, that quarterback will see the field sooner, rather than later. But how realistic is it to expect a young QB to take his team to the promised land early in his career, or even to be successful? Adrian Peterson's not getting any younger, so the window is short, and Vikings fans would love to see him experience the ultimate level of success while he's still wearing purple.

There have been 48 Super Bowls and 96 starting quarterbacks in those games. Here is the list of every QB who threw at least five passes in a Super Bowl during his first through third season in the league. (PFR doesn't include starts in its Play Index.) I'm pretty sure the last three names (Beathard, Eason, and Weese) didn't start their respective games, so that gives us 12 starters out of 96, an even 1/8. Those 12 were an even 6-6 in their contests.

What if we narrow the search to two years? That gives us this list. Subtracting Weese again, that's only six quarterbacks. Kurt Warner is an odd case (on both lists), being 29 years old despite being technically a second-year quarterback. The only rookie quarterback to even throw a pass in a Super Bowl was Elvis Grbac, who threw one in mop-up time in Super Bowl XXIX.

In any event, it's a short list. The chances that a second- or third-year quarterback will lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl is pretty small, and there's no point of even thinking about him doing it in his rookie season. But take another look at that second list. Apart from Marino, every QB on that list is fairly recent. Is this a trend that's become more common in recent years? Could our new QB at least become a solid starter in a relatively short period of time?

I decided to look at the six-year span from 2008 to 2013. That's a little arbitrary of a span, chosen because of the success of 2008 draftees Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, who basically started from day one (though it has another convenience, as you'll see later). More recently, quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and others have stepped into their starting jobs essentially right out of the draft. Could the new Vikings QB pull off a similar feat?

27 rookie QBs threw at least 100 passes in their first season from 2008-2013. Nine of them started every one of their team's games as a rookie. 12 started 15 or 16 games. 18 started at least 10 games, which would qualify the guy as “starter,” in my book.

So, is this a recent trend? Here's the same data from the previous six years, 2002-2007. Only one – David Carr – started all 16 of his team's games during his rookie year. Nine QBs started 10 or more.

The previous six years, 1996-2001, again gives us just one 16-game starter, Peyton Manning, and only six who started 10+ games. And Rick Mirer was the only 16-game starter from 1990-1995, an era where only four rookie quarterbacks started 10+ games.

To sum it all up, taking the data in six-year chunks since the inception of the 16-game season (which helpfully started 36 years ago in 1978):

2008-2013: 16 starts - 9 QBs; 13+ starts - 14 QBs; 10+ starts - 18 QBs
2002-2007: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 6 QBs; 10+ starts - 9 QBs
1996-2001: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 4 QBs; 10+ starts - 6 QBs
1990-1995: 16 starts - 1 QB; 13+ starts - 2 QBs; 10+ starts - 4 QBs
1984-1989: 16 starts - 2 QBs; 13+ starts - 4 QBs; 10+ starts - 7 QBs
1978-1983: 16 starts - 0 QBs; 13+ starts - 1 QB; 10+ starts - 7 QBs

Yeah, young quarterbacks starting early is definitely a recent trend. And the way guys like Ryan, Flacco, Luck, and Wilson have performed, it's been proven to show it can work.

Here's another way to look at it. Over the past six years, nine rookie QBs started all 16 of their team's games. In the previous 30 years of the 16-game schedule, only five rookie QBs managed this. 14 managed 13+ starts over the last six years, and only 17 did that over the previous 30 years. Wow.

All of which brings us back to the Vikings. With this data in hand, I'm actually a little more unhappy about the re-signing of Cassel. Sure, on the one hand, giving our new guy time to get adjusted can't hurt, but it seems that it wouldn't be unusual for him to be able to come right in and perform at a suitably high level, especially with Adrian Peterson to hand the ball off to. And the sooner we get a new QB up to speed, the more time that gives us on AP's ticking career.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

National Friday League: A Simple Look at Sacks Over the Years

Are sacks harder to come by in the NFL today? It's simple enough to look: pro-football-reference.com records data on pass attempts, sacks, and sack percentage going back to 1969. Let's take a look starting at the merger, and starting in '73 let's just skip through every 5th season. We'll look at the team average for pass attempts per game, league sack percentage, team average for sack totals, and the leading team's sack totals (I'll translate the latter two stats into sacks per game so we can compare 14 game and 16 game seasons). This is an imprecise look, but maybe we'll learn something (I can't do advanced metrics: I'm just looking at history to explore curiosity).

1970: 26.9 attempts per game, 8.2% sack rate
team average: 2.4 sacks per game  leader: Los Angeles 3.8 sacks per game

1971: 25.9 apg, 7.5% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: Denver 3.1

1972: 24.8 apg, 7.8% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: San Francisco 3.3

1973: 24.3 apg, 8.9% sack rate
team average: 2.4  leader: Washington 3.8

1978: 26.4 apg, 7.9% sack rate
team average: 2.3  leader: Dallas 3.6

1983: 31.4 apg, 8.0% sack rate
team average: 2.7  leader: St. Louis 3.7

1988: 31.5 apg, 6.8% sack rate
team average: 2.3  leader: Rams 3.5

1993: 32.2 apg, 6.8% sack rate
team average: 2.4  leader: Houston 3.3

1998: 32.3 apg, 7.2% sack rate
team average: 2.5  leader: New York Giants 3.4

2003: 32.2 apg, 6.2% sack rate
team average: 2.1  leader: Baltimore 2.9

2008: 32.3 apg, 5.9% sack rate
team average: 2.0 leader: Dallas 3.7

2013: 35.4 apg, 6.7% sack rate
team average: 2.5  leader: Carolina 3.8

I've only recorded every five years here, but I've checked the other years to see if there was anything fluky about these particular years. There really isn't: team averages in '13 were higher than in the previous three seasons (2.2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.3), and this list misses the high sack total seasons ('84 Bears' 4.5 sacks per game, the league average of 2.9 in '84, and 2.9 in '85), and the low point for sack totals  in the 16 game era ('94).

What do we learn? Well, this isn't the advanced metric to determine the relationship between changes in pass attempts and changes in sack rate on sack totals (though it's remarkable how steady the attempts and sack rate numbers are over the last 25 years). But basically, there isn't a whole lot of change in the league average team sack total, or in the team leader sack total total. Whether it's harder or easier to get sacks, the numbers are basically pretty steady and comparable. You can also look at the individual sack leaders year by year since 1982 to see there really are no giant changes up or down. In the 16 game era, it seems fair to compare individual players' sack totals with each other.

Kick Ass Link
I'm a secondary character in this remembrance of a person joining a fantasy football league (Sportzball). This is also hilarious: you'll have fun reading this.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Justin Gilbert

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first three posts in this series looked at Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The fourth post in this series looks at a player some draft analysts consider the top cornerback in this draft - Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert.

Every NFL team is looking for big cornerbacks. That's especially true if you play in the NFC North where teams must deal with 6'5 Calvin Johnson (Detroit), 6'4 Brandon Marshall and 6'3 Alshon Jeffrey (Chicago) and 6'3 Jordy Nelson (Green Bay). The Minnesota Vikings play those teams twice a year, and the thinking goes that they would be wise to grab as many six foot-plus corners as they can find.

Justin Gilbert fits that mold. Just a shade over six feet tall and weighing in around 200 pounds, he's got the size NFL teams are looking for to combat today's Godzilla-sized WRs and hybrid WR/TEs with long arms, big mitts and 30-plus inch verticals.

An even bigger plus with Gilbert is he's also got the speed to stick with WRs - big or small - as he runs in the 4.3 range. That size/speed combination, and the fact he finished his 2013 season with 7 interceptions (tied for third-best in college football), could see Gilbert be a top 15 pick and the first corner drafted next month.

I went into the "Get to Know 'Em" process already liking Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard a lot. But after watching several videos of Gilbert's play during the 2013 season, I find myself torn as to what corner would be a better pick for the Vikings.

One thing I'm realizing as the years go by is that being able to run fast doesn't mean you can cover anyone (see Robinson, Josh). But in Gilbert's case, that's not a problem. What you get with Gilbert is a guy who stuck to the college WRs he was covering like glue. You can go stretches of 20 to 25 plays in game videos of Gilbert where opponents don't even try to throw in his direction - a clear sign they wanted no part of this guy. Scouting reports also stress Gilbert is a very "fluid" athlete, who can flip his hips and go from back pedaling to running hip-to-hip with WRs with ease. You won't find the word "stiff" used in any scouting report on Gilbert, whereas that pops up from time-to-time in Dennard's write-ups.

He's also good at mirroring receivers through their various moves and staying on the hip of the guy he's covering even on inside routes. It's rare in a game that you'll find a WR get any separation from Gilbert, and the times it does happen it often seems to be by design - either Gilbert's playing zone or he's just giving his opponent plenty of cushion because Oklahoma State is up a bunch.

As his 7 INTs in 2013 indicate, Gilbert's ball skills are very good - something the Vikings could use in their secondary. He can come out of his backpedal and close on long sideline throws to make a play on the ball, and on deep throws he's got great hands for a defensive back. He attacks the ball in the air and goes for interceptions rather than just trying to bat balls away. 

Oklahoma State's 38-13 win over Texas last year provides ample evidence of Gilbert's talents. The video is only 8 minutes long (Gilbert is wearing a white #4 jersey), so I suggest giving it a look.


A few highlights from the video I'd like to point out:

1) At the 0:57 mark of the video, look at how Gilbert easily stays with the Texas WR on this slant pattern and knocks away the pass with his left arm without drawing a pass interference penalty.

2) At the 4:43 mark, Gilbert makes the first of his 2 INTs in the game against Texas QB Case McCoy (Colt McCoy's younger brother.) Gilbert appears to sit on the route, breaks on it nicely and then he has great extension to pluck the ball out of the air on this sideline throw, gather himself and then race down the sideline untouched for a pick-six. That's pretty sweet hands and athleticism on display.

3) Speaking of hands and athleticism, check out the 7:02 mark of the video as Gilbert picks off McCoy again on a deep throw down the right sideline. Who was the wide receiver here? Gilbert's running stride for stride with Texas WR Kendall Sanders, extends to catch the ball and doesn't lose it even though Sanders is trying to rip the ball out the entire time. Impressive stuff.

One area where Gilbert needs a lot of work, however, is in his tackling. The Texas game was one of his better efforts, so there is nothing too heinous to point out in this video. But watch enough video from his 2013 season and you'll notice something - for a guy who is over six feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, Gilbert is not a very physical or willing tackler. He tends to tackle players around knee-high. The player goes down, but always falls forward for an extra yard or three. Gilbert also doesn't shed blocks well at all. When an opposing player gets his hands on Gilbert, the OSU star often gets pushed backwards three or four yards and can't get off the block to make a tackle or help on a tackle.

Although Gilbert will be paid in the pros for his pass defense, this timid tackling and problem fighting off blocks is not a small issue if he plays for the Vikings. The WR screen - where offenses run bunch formations and the ball is thrown to a WR near the line of scrimmage with one or two other WRs blocking - is a staple play for Green Bay and Chicago. Remember how much mileage the Packers got out of those screens in the 2012 season finale once Antoine Winfield left the game with a broken hand? That's a play Gilbert - with his current tackling mindset and lack of ability to shed blockers - will be victimized by time and again at the pro level if he doesn't fix those issues. 

However, the rest of the skills are there. Gilbert's got that kind of long, rangy build that reminds me of Champ Bailey and Antonio Cromartie - two pretty good corners. He's a different player than Dennard. Whereas Dennard's strategy is to beat up WRs at the line of scrimmage (and sometimes beyond), Gilbert seems to rely more on his fluid motion, speed and ability to stop and re-start on a dime to blanket receivers. And whereas Dennard played a bunch of press man-to-man, Gilbert wasn't asked to do this much. He's usually playing off the WR by a few yards in the videos I saw and then he relies on his speed and quick hips to stay with his man. That's not to say Gilbert can't play press coverage, just that he wasn't asked to do it much from what I saw in 2013. Oh, one other thing about Gilbert, I saw very little evidence of Gilbert grabbing WRs jerseys to stay with him (the kind of thing Dennard does frequently) on deep throws.

Having eyeballed both Gilbert and Dennard, I'd have to say Gilbert is the better corner on pass defense, but Dennard is far superior in defending the run and the screen game.

I love Dennard and would be happy if the Vikings drafted him. But after watching lots of Gilbert video, I think I would prefer if the Vikes drafted him instead. With the 6'1 Xavier Rhodes and the six-foot-and-a-bit Gilbert, the Vikings would have two tall and long-armed corners to mix it up with the Calvin Johnson's and Alshon Jeffrey's of the NFL. And if Gilbert can be taught to be more aggressive and physical in his tackling and shedding of blocks, he could develop into a much better player in that area, eliminating the biggest weakness in his game.

* To watch more videos of Gilbert, check out his landing age on the Draft Breakdown site here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rick Spielman and double dipping in the NFL draft

There are several mock drafts that have the Vikings selecting Louisville quarterback Ted Bridgewater with the #8 overall pick in next month's NFL draft (for a closer look at Bridgewater, check out my "Get to Know 'Em" profile on Teddy.) And now we learn the Vikes are doing their due diligence on a teammate of Bridgewater's - linebacker Preston Brown.

Brown is not going to be a first or even second-day pick for any team (he's projected to go anywhere between rounds 3-to-5), but the Vikings apparent interest in him does highlight a possible Rick Spielman drafting tendency, something blogger Arif Hasan has pointed out recently and is in evidence in his Vikings mock drafts. The tendency is to draft two players from the same school.

In the 2013 draft, the Vikings double dipped 3 times. They chose Xavier Rhodes and Everett Dawkins (Florida State), Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti (Penn State) and Jeff Locke and Jeff Baca (UCLA).
 
In the 2012 draft, the Vikings also double dipped 3 times. They chose Matt Kalil and Rhett Ellison (USC Trojans), Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton (Notre Dame) and Jarius Wright and Greg Childs (Arkansas).

This is a recent thing. Since Spielman joined the Vikings shortly after the 2006 draft, Minnesota has only selected two players from the same college one other time. That was in 2007 when the Vikes drafted Adrian Peterson in the first round and picked his Oklahoma teammate, linebacker Rufus Alexander, in the 6th round.

But Spielman has only had the final call on the makeup of the Vikings 53-man roster, and who the team will draft, since becoming general manager in January of 2012. So has he given other NFL teams a clue into his draft strategy?

Probably not. It's hard to believe someone who is as methodical and thorough in his player evaluations as Spielman is supposed to be would blatantly draft players from the same college every year. However, we do know the Vikings have done this not once, but three times in the past two drafts, and now they have met with college teammates Bridgewater and Brown.

It's something to keep in mind as we try to read the tea leaves and figure out who the Vikings will draft in a few weeks.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Teddy Bridgewater

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be one post. It could be 25). And like Thomas, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - one each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first posts in this series looked at Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The third post in this series sees me assessing another QB prospect, Ted Bridgewater.

This is a post I never expected to write. Teddy Bridgewater? The consensus top QB prospect in the 2014 draft as of last fall? And there's a good chance he will be available at the #8 spot in a QB-centric league even though several teams (Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland) drafting ahead of the Vikings all need a franchise QB? Get out of town.

But as the college season progressed, Bridgewater's star started falling for whatever reason, and some other prospects (notably Central Florida QB Blake Bortles, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins) started getting more hype. And then Bridgewater had his Pro Day, which according to many (that's ESPN's Ron Jaworski and Todd McShay in the video), did not go well.

For readers who are curious, here is some of the footage of Teddy's throws from his Pro Day:



I'm not an NFL scout, coach or GM, and the chances are very good this blog's readers aren't either (but if you are, thanks for reading!) But I find it hard to believe anybody who evaluates college talent for a living would take a short workout where a player is playing against no defense and consider it as anything other than one small piece of the evaluation puzzle. So why all the negative buzz about Bridgewater's workout?

In the video we see a couple of short throws flutter with perhaps not the zip you'd want to see from your future franchise QB. There are also a couple of shorter throws that are off target. But I think the biggest concern is Bridgewater's deep throws - the ones traveling beyond 20 yards. I count Bridgewater making 14 of these throws in the video - 5 were incomplete, 3 were underthrown and caught, but in a game those might have been intercepted or batted down. There was one throw where the WR made a great catch and bails out Bridgewater. I count 5 that are right on the money. Those long tosses bear out scouting reports I've read that say he's got spotty accuracy on downfield throws, and that wouldn't endear him to Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who likes to throw the ball downfield more than most. But how many deep throws do QBs make in a game? Two? Three? It's a concern that Bridgewater only really nailed 5 of 14 deep throws during his Pro Day while facing no pass rush or coverages at all, but it's not a deal breaker.

So how does Bridgewater look when he's facing a real pass rush and his WRs are covered by defensive backs instead of air? Well, let's look at how Teddy did against Houston late in the season, a game Louisville won 20-13.



This was not one of Bridgewater's "wow" games. He threw for 203 yards (a season low) and completed "only" 66 % of his passes in this game (19 for 29). It was also the only game last season where he didn't throw a TD pass. But even during a so-so performance, there are some things to learn about him.

One of Bridgewater's strengths, and it's something that he showed consistently in the 7 or 8 videos I watched of him from the 2013 season, is his composure in the pocket under pressure. This is no small thing - as anyone who watched Christian Ponder play the past 3 seasons can attest to - and you can see it at the 0:59 and 3:33 marks of the video.

This might be the skill that will serve Bridgewater best in his pro career. The Louisville offensive line struck me as not very good. Bridgewater is often under pressure and blitzed in the games I watched. But he still steps into his throws and throws accurately under duress, and shows a lot of toughness in doing so. There will be times he'll have to do that in the NFL, too. He's already got that skill down.

Bridgewater isn't as fast as Ponder, but he's fast enough to avoid pressure, and he runs to throw rather than runs to run. He will scan the field and go to his second or third options if the first one isn't there (check out the 2:29 mark of the video) and he's good at putting the ball in spots where only his receiver can get the ball (the 0:03 and 5:30 marks). He also has enough arm strength to fit the ball into tight spaces against tough coverage (0:11 mark). And in case you're concerned Bridgewater always misfires on deep throws, check out the accuracy and touch on the pass down the left sideline at the 4:52 mark in the Houston game.

Personally, I think the concerns about Bridgewater's Pro Day performance are way overblown, something Bill Barnwell wrote about recently. But for a team like the Vikings, sitting at #8 and with teams ahead of them needing a QB also, this a great thing. Let the Bridgewater dissing continue! Hell, get him to stage another Pro Day. Hopefully, he'll perform a little worse and teams will devalue him even more (if, indeed, this "Bridgewater is dropping on draft boards" chatter isn't all horseshit.)

His accuracy on deep throws is a concern, his delivery might be a tad slow (although I'm not a scout, so it looks fine to me) and he played against mediocre competition most of his career. But what isn't a concern is his arm strength. Or his ability to make good throws under duress or read a defense. He's even comfortable taking snaps under center - Bridgewater did this a lot at Louisville, although he threw out of the shotgun as well. And unlike Derek Carr, his completion percentage stats weren't enhanced by throwing a gazillion screens. Louisville's offense required him to make all kinds of different throws and he thrived in it.

I don't think the question is whether Bridgewater will be a bust or not. I think the question is whether he is going to simply be a good NFL QB or a great NFL QB. For a team like the Vikings, who have mostly had crappy quarterbacking for the past decade, even getting "good" quarterbacking for the foreseeable future should be pretty appealing. And it's why drafting Bridgewater should be pretty appealing too.

* Ted Bridgewater's page on the Draft Breakdown site can be found here.

* There's also been a lot of virtual ink spilled on Bridgewater this offseason. Some essential reading on him includes this piece by Matt Waldman, and this report by Arif Hasan.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

National Friday League

Is Jared Allen the best Defensive End in Viking history?
The Minnesota Vikings feature two Hall of Fame defensive ends who played most of their career (and built most of their Hall of Fame credentials) playing for the Vikings: Carl Eller and Chris Doleman. While Jared Allen did not play with the Vikings for as long as either of those players, his level of play was at their level.

Allen's Viking career appears very impressive in part because he was here only during his prime: no early adjustment years (though Allen was good immediately, with 9 sacks his rookie year) and no declining years. He played for the Vikings for six seasons, during which he never had fewer than 11 sacks, was a four-time Pro Bowler, and three times First Team All-Pro. He finished with 85.5 sacks in his six seasons (with a peak year of a Viking record 22 sacks) and played on three playoff teams. He was consistently an impact player: he joined a team whose significant defensive weakness was a lacking pass rush, and they became a team that harassed and mauled opposing QBs, especially at home.

Chris Doleman had 96.5 sacks in his 10 Viking seasons. After a slow start (3.5 sacks in his first two years), he had six Pro Bowl seasons and two First Team All-Pro seasons with the Vikings, with a peak of 21 sacks, and he played on several Viking playoff teams. He was great, but Allen was more consistently great: while Allen never had fewer than 11 sacks with the Vikings, Doleman reached double figures in five of his 10 Viking seasons. During his Viking career, Allen was more consistently dominant, and he also broke Doleman's single season team sack record. I'd take Allen over Doleman.

Carl Eller's statistics aren't official, but he apparently had 130.5 sacks with the Vikings, including a kind of insane 44 sacks from '75-'77 (in 14 game seasons, and those weren't even his Pro Bowl or All-Pro years!). He played with the team for 15 years and was there for their glory years, when they made the playoffs nearly every season and made it to four Super Bowls. He's on the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s First Team (the only Viking on the First Team). That's...that's tough to top. There's an argument for Eller as the greatest Viking, and I don't think there's such an argument for Allen (most people wouldn't consider him the best player on the team during his tenure here, though I think he was often as important to the team as Adrian Peterson has been).

Kick Ass Link
The protagonist of Jonathan Letham's short story "Pending Vegan," in The NewYorker, is a Viking fan. This is mentioned in only a few sentences, and is not directly relevant to the story, but you should know!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Get to Know 'Em: Darqueze Dennard

Back in March of 2012 when this blog was born, Thomas Ryan - who used to run The Ragnarok site - wrote here for a time. One of the segments he came up with was the "Get to Know 'Em" series, where he looked at potential Vikings draft targets and provided analysis on these players. Due to real life getting in the way of his Vikings blogging, Thomas doesn't write for us anymore. But I think the concept he developed was a fun read and pretty useful (2 of the players he wrote about - Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson - were selected by the Vikes in the 2012 draft).

So I have decided to revive the series now that free agency has died down a bit and I have a clearer idea of what the Vikings biggest roster holes are. I will be writing as many of these posts as I can leading up to the draft (it could be 1 post. It could be 25). And like Thomas did, I'm relying on my own instincts and various mock drafts (a dangerous prospect) to select players to preview. One other thing - these columns will not necessarily highlight whom I think the Vikings will have a chance to select with the #8 overall pick, but will also profile potential targets during the 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft. Minnesota has four selections in the first 3 rounds - 1 each in the 1st and 2nd rounds and 2 in the 3rd round. 

The first post in this series looked at Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. Now I turn to another positions of need for the Vikings - cornerback.

When the 1999 NFL draft rolled around, Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf had Randy Moss on the brain. And he had good reason to be thinking of Randy. In 2 games against his Packers during the 1998 season, Wolf watched the 6'4 Moss catch a total of 13 passes for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns (distance of each TD catch - 52, 44 and 49 yards) as the Vikes swept the season series against the Pack on their way to going 15-1 and easily winning the NFC Central division. After watching Moss kill his secondary, Wolf knew he had to do something about it, and in the 1999 draft he did - drafting defensive backs Antuan Edwards, Fred Vinson and Mike McKenzie with Green Bay's first 3 selections.

As Vikings general manager Rick Spielman prepares for the 2014 draft, he might want to keep what Wolf did in mind. That's because on October 27, 2013 at the now deceased Metrodome, Spielman watched Packers QB Aaron Rodgers embarrass the Vikings defense and secondary, completing 24 of 29 passes for 285 yards and 2 TD passes and leading an offense that converted third and fourth downs at will against Minnesota. A broken collarbone kept Rodgers out of the rematch at Lambeau Field a month later, but the Vikings will face Rodgers 2 times in 2014 and 2 times every season after that for the foreseeable future. If the team hopes to prevent future beatdowns at the hands of the Packers, and the arm of Rodgers, it needs to find more corners who can cover.

Fortunately for the Vikings, this year's draft has several strong prospects at the position who should be available when Minnesota is on the clock at the #8 spot, and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard might be the best of the lot.  

The scouting reports I've read on Dennard call him a "good", not great athlete. Fair enough. But Dennard also was a three-year starter for the Spartans and won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013 - given to the best defensive back in college football. It's safe to assume Dennard's pretty athletic, too.

Anyway, let's get to the particulars. Dennard is a shade under 5'11 and is a well built 199 pounds with long arms for his size. There have been questions about his speed, but he answered them at the NFL combine, running an unofficial 4.42 time in the 40 yard dash. (Some scouts thought he might run in the high 4.5 or the 4.6 range.) Then at his Pro Day, he posted the best vertical of any Spartan (36.5 inches) and his broad jump of 11-2 would have tied him for the best result of any player tested at the combine.

While those numbers are impressive, they don't mean a guy has the instincts, smarts and technique to be a good cornerback. But in the case of Dennard, there are no issues on those fronts - this guy can play.

I've watched several videos of every snap Dennard played in a number of games during the 2013 season. Here is what stands out to this football layperson about Dennard's game. 1) He can "mirror" the moves of wide receivers - footballspeak for a corner's ability to shadow a WR and not get faked out of his jockstrap no matter what move the WR might use. 2) Dennard is great at jamming WRs and re-directing their routes, disrupting the timing of pass plays. 3) Dennard knows how to get inside position on WRs and take away their space along the sidelines, giving WRs nowhere to catch a ball and come down with it inbounds. 4) A WR in high school, Dennard has nice hands for a corner and excellent ball skills. 5) Even if he gets beat on a throw, Dennard has a knack for locating the ball and ripping it out of the hands of the WR he's covering, resulting in either an incompletion or a fumble. 6) His tackling and run defense are excellent. Dennard doesn't overpursue, stays in his gap, can get off blocks to take down ballcarriers and never lacks effort.

Viking fans who also happen to be Minnesota Gopher fans will likely be familiar with Dennard's work, and the following video of Dennard facing the Gophers in 2013 provides some examples of what this guy is all about.


This game wasn't one of Dennard's better efforts, in my view. But his skills are still on display. At the 0:49 mark of the video, there are 2 straight plays where Dennard's sound tackling shows up. At the 1:33 mark of the video, watch how Dennard breaks on the ball and attacks it, going after the INT and grabbing the ball at the height of his leap. Chris Cook never did this once in 4 years with the Vikings. (Dennard doesn't come up with the INT because he collides hard with a Spartan safety.) At the 5:23 mark of the video, you can see Dennard jamming the Gopher WR, getting inside position and forcing him wide to the sideline, eliminating any window Gophers QB Phillip Nelson has to throw to.

Of course, every player has his weaknesses and one of Dennard's is that he sometimes gets too grabby. Dennard will rough up receivers well beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage and doesn't try to hide it. He also likes to grab the jerseys of the receivers he's covering on deep routes. It's a trick corners use to stay hip-to-hip with the WRs they are covering, but Dennard seems to do it a lot. Richard Sherman gets away with this kind of stuff, but what happens when a rookie like Dennard tries it? And if he repeatedly gets flagged for it in the NFL and that part of his game is taken away, how effective will Dennard be at the pro level? One other thing I noticed after watching several videos of Dennard is that he regularly gets beat to the inside by the WRs he covers. Perhaps that was part of the Spartans defensive coverage philosophy, but it didn't look like it to me. He could be victimized by NFL offenses on quick slants and crossing routes inside. 

A year ago, with the Vikings still playing a lot of zone, Dennard wouldn't have been a great fit for the defense Minnesota was running. But there's a new sheriff in town - rookie head coach Mike Zimmer - and it's expected he'll have the Viking corners play more man-to-man press coverage than they did under Leslie Frazier. If that's the case, it will certainly fit Dennard's skill set.

Dennard doesn't seem to be considered the top corner in this draft, despite his impressive college resume. That honor belongs to Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, who is taller, faster and considered a better overall athlete than Dennard. Gilbert is probably seen as the guy with more "upside" by scouts - a guy who could become a better pro than he was a college player (and Gilbert was a pretty good college player). But Dennard already is a great player. Maybe he won't elevate his game much once he becomes a pro, but he doesn't have to. He's a guy who looks like he can handle a starting corner spot right away and will excel at it. In fact, with the way he tackles and the way he gets physical with WRs in coverage, Dennard reminds me a bit of Antoine Winfield. That's high praise.   

Some will question why the Vikings would take a corner at #8 when they've got big needs at quarterback and linebacker. That's a fair point, but let's circle back to what Ron Wolf did in 1999 after getting tortured by Randy Moss. He knew the Packers needed better corners to compete in division where they'd be facing Moss 2 times a year. The Vikings are in a similar situation. They need help at the corner spot to have a chance at winning consistently in the NFC North. Xavier Rhodes looks like a player and will man the left corner spot this season, and signing Captain Munnerlyn should help the secondary, too. But after Rhodes and Munnerlyn, the Vikings currently have Josh Robinson - perhaps the NFL's worst starting corner in 2013 - Marcus Sherels and Shaun Prater behind them on the depth chart.

That doesn't sound like a good trio to be relying on to help stop monster WRs like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson, and the QBs who will be throwing to them - Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. Adding a player like Dennard would leave the Vikings better equipped to win, or at least have a fighting chance in, the NFC North's arms race.

Note: If you're interested in watching more videos of Dennard, here is his landing page on the Draft Breakdown website.