Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Demolition Man

For the Raiders to maximize their investment in 2 highy paid, man on man, press corners, we need another pass rushing DE.

Based on our current personnel, team needs, and the way the draft selections of Miami (#1), St. Louis (#2), and Atlanta (#3) are shaping up, our choice at #4 is quite obvious to me ...

Defensive End Vernon Gholston (Ohio State)

Everyone should be excited about having the best CB tandem in the NFL. I would feel much better about our new CB tandem making a significant impact if we had 2 of the better bookend DE pass rushers in Burgess & Gholston.

As it stands today, Burgess is our only legitimate pass rusher. Teams will naturally double team and chip block him. Add Gholston to the other side and watch the opponent's QB start heaving the ball up for grabs or violently being drilled to the turf.

This pick has all the ear markings of everything coming together to make it a "no brainer".

The Raiders depth chart at DE is bare thin.

Gholston should be available at #4 (or #6 with a draft day swap with the Jets).

Gholston is the type of athlete that Al covets... a super freak athlete who looks good coming off the bus. Incredibly athletic, strong, fast with tremendous potential. A good comparison would be Gholston and Merriman.

Here's the bio on Gholston:
Vernon Gholston is a remarkable talent, but he's only just begun realizing his vast potential.

He never picked up a football until his sophomore year in high school and had just one season of defensive experience as a linebacker before being converted to defensive end when he arrived at Ohio State.

Blessed with incredible speed (clocked at 4.56 in the 40-yard dash), long limbs and superb strength, Gholston is the prototype pass rusher that professional teams look for -- big, fast, strong and explosive. An avid performer in the weight room, he boasted the best bench press on the team at 455 pounds. He also put on an impressive performance for teammates, squatting 405 pounds 20 times.

How Gholston was lured into football will one day make a nice story, if he becomes the legendary pass rusher many personnel experts are predicting. Walking in the halls of Cass Technical High School, football coach Thomas Wilcher spotted the 14-year-old strapping youngster, who stood 6-3, 240 pounds at the time. He convinced the player to join the football team.

Gholston was too big to play in Detroit's Police Athletic League and the elementary public schools did not offer an organized football program. From the first time he ever stepped on the field, the coaching staff knew they had a natural talent.

As a sophomore at Cass Tech, Gholston was first tried at linebacker, but he was overwhelmed by the plays he needed to know to play that position. One of the offensive coaches "stole" the youngster away from the defensive squad and had him play offensive guard as a sophomore. His junior campaign was limited by ankle sprains, which forced him to stay on the offensive line and scrap plans to also play linebacker.

By his senior season, he had already earned All-State honors as an offensive lineman and gained experience playing linebacker for the first time in his career. In just one season on defense, he was regarded as one of the best linebackers in the Midwest region. He would go on to record 75 tackles with six sacks in his final season, as Rivals.com rated him the 11th-best defensive end prospect in the nation and the 12th-best overall prospect in the state of Michigan.
Gholston enrolled at Ohio State, becoming the only player from Michigan on the squad. He turned down scholarship offers from Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa to join the Buckeyes. The coaching staff immediately began giving him a crash course in playing the "Leo" position, which incorporates dropping into pass coverage and rushing the passer from either side of the field.

He mentored under Mike Kudla his first year with the team, appearing in six games as a true freshman in 2004, but did not record a tackle. In 2005, a broken hand suffered in the second game vs. Texas earned Gholston a medical hardship. He had one tackle in that game and spent the rest of the year on the sideline.

Gholston used that time wisely in the weight room, bulking up from 238 to 264 pounds, as he took over "Leo" duties in 2006. He garnered All-Big Ten Conference second-team honors, as he ranked fourth in the league with 15 stops for losses of 86 yards and was fifth in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks. He added a quarterback pressure with two pass breakups and an interception. He also finished sixth on the squad with 49 tackles (21 solo).

In 2007, Gholston earned All-American recognition and was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the nation's top defensive end. He posted 37 tackles (25 solo) and was a terror in the backfield, ranking eighth in the nation with 15.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and second nationally with 14 sacks. He also scooped up a fumble and returned it for a 25-yard touchdown.

In 34 games at Ohio State, Gholston started 25 times. He registered 87 tackles (47 solo) with 22.5 sacks for minus-184 yards and 30.5 stops for losses of 199 yards. He had two pass deflections and an eight-yard interception return, as he also recovered a fumble that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown.

Here's Vernon Gholston's scouting report via NFL Draft Countdown:

Calico Jack's Checklist on Vernon Gholston:
(1) Size: (check) > 6'3, 266 chiseled lbs.
(2) Speed: (check) > 4.58 40 time
(3) Strength: (check) > 37 reps of 225 lbs (best result of entire combine)
(4) Explosion: (check) > 42" vertical jump & 10' 5" broad jump
(5) Production: (check) > 14 sacks in 13 games in 2007 including a sack vs. Jake Long
(6) Combine: (check) > complete confirmation of physical talents (see results below)
(7) Pro Day: (check) > same as above
(8) Need: (check) > The Raiders biggest need position is DE; Raiders had only 27 sacks last year
(9) BPA: (check) > if selecting at #4, one of 2 top BPA on the board. If a trade is completed with the Jets; selecting at #6, definitely BPA
(10) Impact Position: (check) > A speedy pass rushing DE is a high impact position
(11) Value Pick: (check) > NFL teams place a high premium on acquiring a pass rushing DE.
(12) Additional Value: (check) > The acquisition of Vernon Gholston enhances the value of the Raiders cornerback tandem who play man to man coverage.

2008 Combine Results:
DL Top five 40-yard dash times (seconds)
1. Marcus Howard, Georgia -- 4.48
2. Quentin Groves, Auburn -- 4.50
3. Cliff Avril, Purdue -- 4.57
4. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State -- 4.61 (* ran 4.58 at pro day)
5. Shawn Crable, Michigan -- 4.64

DL Top five 10-yard splits (seconds)
1. Marcus Howard, Georgia -- 1.53
2. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State -- 1.56
3. Quentin Groves, Auburn -- 1.60
4. Cliff Avril, Purdue -- 1.61
T5. Shawn Crable, Michigan -- 1.64
T5. Jeremy Thompson, Wake Forest -- 1.64

DL Top five bench press results (reps)
1. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State -- 37
T2. Trevor Laws, Notre Dame -- 35
T2. Ahtyba Rubin, Iowa State -- 35
T4. Sedrick Ellis, Southern California -- 34
T4. Nick Hayden, Wisconsin -- 34

DL Top five vertical jump results (inches)
1. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State -- 35.5 (jumped 42” at pro day)
2. Marcus Howard, Georgia -- 34.5
3. Chris Long, Virginia -- 34
T4. Cliff Avril, Purdue -- 32.5
T4. Louis Holmes, Arizona -- 32.5

DL Top five broad jump results (feet)
1. Vernon Gholston, Ohio State -- 10.5
2. Chris Long, Virginia -- 10.4
3. Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan -- 10.3
4. Louis Holmes, Arizona -- 10.1
5. Quentin Groves, Auburn -- 10.0

The ideal situation for a high 1st round pick is for the player that we take is both a vital need AND the BPA. Further, it is ideal if the player taken plays a high impact position such as QB, LT, and DE. Drafting at #4, Vernon Gholston would fill the most vital need AND be arguably 1 of the 2 BPA AND plays a high impact position. If we had let Rhodes go ... or if we didn't resign Fargas ... or if Bush wasn't 100% ready for takeoff, I could see more merit in taking Darren McFadden. As it stands now, Gholston makes the most sense to me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Banking on Shut Down Corners

The eventual signing of DeAngelo Hall is on the horizon. It is always exciting to land a supremely gifted young player like Hall who has played at an All Pro caliber level in 2 of his 4 season in the league. Here's the scouting report on DeAngelo Hall:

Hall has an excellent combination of quickness, speed and agility. He routinely matches up with the opponent's top receiver. He is tough, physical and confident. He has the ability to be a very effective press cornerback. He can reroute and disrupt the timing of a receiver with his jam. He plays with good body position on vertical routes and has the speed to run with any receiver in the league. He has very good ball skills and hands. He will make the difficult pick and is a dangerous threat with the ball. He has very good man-top-man cover skills. He is aggressive against the run and will attack the ball from an outside-in position. He is an effective ankle tackler. But Hall is inconsistent for an elite cornerback and tends to play fast and loose. He sometimes lacks focus in zone coverage and can get lazy with his technique. He allows too many completion in front of him. He takes chances on the back end in coverage. He is a bit reckless and undisciplined in run support. He will throw his body at a runner. He sometimes loses outside leverage on the ball.

A Few Questions To Ponder:
(1) Is this mega deal the best way to utilize the team's cap space?
Constructing a 53 man roster is like putting together a complicated jig saw puzzle. The key is identifying your team's weaknesses, upgrading the talent level, and spending your cap dollars on player who can make the biggest positive impact. Getting the most "bang for your buck" is the simplest way to put it. Managing your cap space means spending your dollars wisely to set yourself up for the following years.

(2) Is the pairing of Hall and Asomugha Al's way of trying in vain to recapture the magic of Hayes and Haynes?
This isn't 1983. In 1983, the Raiders ran a 3/4 defense and had 3 eventual Hall of Famers (Long, Hendricks, Haynes) and numerous Pro Bowlers (Millen, Martin, Hayes). Here's the 1983 SBXVIII defense in comparison to the projected 2008 lineup:

1983 Defensive Edition
75 Howie Long LE
62 Reggie Kinlaw NT
77 Lyle Alzado RE
83 Ted Hendricks LOLB
55 Matt Millen LILB
51 Bob Nelson RILB
53 Rod Martin ROLB
37 Lester Hayes LCB
22 Mike Haynes RCB
36 Mike Davis SS
26 Vann McElroy FS

2008 Defensive Edition
56 Derrick Burgess RDE
63 Gerrard Warren DT
93 Tommy Kelly DT
98 Jay Richardson LDE (or possibly Vernon Gholston #4 pick)
53 Thomas Howard WLB
52 Kirk Morrison MLB
55 Robert Thomas SLB
21 Nnamdi Asomugha LCB
XX DeAngelo Hall RCB
28 Girbil Wilson SS
24 Michael Huff FS

(3) How will the Hall signing impact the Raiders ability to sign Asomugha long term?
Assuming we are able to sign Asomugha to a long term deal equal to or greater than Hall's deal, is it prudent to spend $20M a year to secure the services of your 2 corners? This move reminds of when SF traded for Neon Deion Sanders. The BIG difference though was SF was already one of the top teams who was adding the cherry on top to an elite team. The Raiders have been cellar dwellers for 5 seasons straight. I believe the Raiders need to take the approach of a bricks and mortar approach. Our Run D and OLine are far from being finished products or top groups. A CB is dessert. DL & OL are meat and potatoes.

(4) In what ways will the Hall signing impact our key defensive deficiencies?
(a) Run Defense: Ranked #32 in the NFL (4.8 YPC) > The Raiders defensive scheme will be to allow Hall & Asomugha to play man to man coverage. The other 9 defenders will have greater latitude to play the run and be positioned closer to the line of scrimmage. Safeties Huff & Wilson should have free reign to support the run. Our DTs (Kelly, Warren, Sands, Joseph) will need to raise their level of play and do a better job clogging the middle.

(b) Turnovers Created: Ranked #21 in the NFL (18 Ints; 8 fumbles) > The "trickle down" effect of signing Hall is that the opponent's QB will find it very difficult to avoid Asomugha's side of the field. I am expecting Asomugha to rack up between 5 to 8 INTs in 2008. It will be imperative for Michael Huff to maximize his ball hawking skills at FS. Of course we are literally banking on Hall demonstrating his playmaking and return skills to make a difference.

(c) Pass Rush/Sacks Created: Ranked #28 in the NFL (27 sacks) > There is no question that by having the best CB tandem in the NFL, there will be more opportunities for the Raiders to put the opponent's QB on his back. First, it creates a platform for Ryan to blitz more liberally. Secondly, the sticky coverage of the DBs will force the QB to hold on to the ball a second or two longer. On obvious passing downs, it is imperative for Ryan to mix in some exotic blitz schemes to aid this cause and keep the QB guessing where the pressure is coming from. Thomas Howard, the fastest LB in the entire NFL, should be utilized as a blitzing edge rusher. Both Huff and Wilson can quickly converge on the QB from a variety of angles.

Clearly the ball is in DC Rob Ryan's court to employ a D that is both aggressive and unpredictable. He will need to trust Hall/Asomugha to be on an island and turn the other defenders loose to attack the line of scrimmage, get after the QB, and dictate the action on the field. You got your hair cut Rob. Now how bout' cutting the dogs of war loose?

The signing of Hall is an exciting acquisition but you have to wonder if it will create headaches and cap woes that were completely avoidable. For Al's sake, I'm hoping he gets a solid return on his numerous off season investments.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Another Target for #2

Yesterday the Raiders had the type of free agent signing that received very little fanfare but is the type of acquistion that should have a positive impact. Signing WR Drew Carter to a 1 year, $2M contract was a prudent move.

One of the key areas of the team to address for the upcoming 2008 season is the WR position. Prior to free agency, the Raiders' WR depth chart was devoid of any proven performers with the exception of Ronald Curry. WR Drew Carter has been in the league 4 years but in a limited role. In his first season in the NFL (2004), Carter was shelved with an ACL injury. Last season as a 3rd WR for Carolina, Carter was fairly productive (38 receptions, 517 yards, 13.6 avg, 4 TDs). Carter is a versatile, athletic, physical WR (6'3", 200 lbs) with excellent speed (4.35 40).

Adding Carter to Ronald Curry (6'2", 210 lbs) and Javon Walker (6'3", 215 lbs) gives us 3 big targets that JaMarcus Russell can utilize in 3 WR, 1 back sets. When the Raiders go the 3 WR set, I envision Curry moving to the slot. Curry and Carter can be rotated in the pro set (2 WR, 2 backs).

If the Raiders can add one of the top WRs in the early 2nd round of the draft, this is how I would project the WR Depth Chart:

1. Javon Walker > the most talented WR in the group when healthy.

2. Ronald Curry > excellent possession WR; adept at finding the soft spots in a zone coverage

3. Drew Carter > good downfield threat for Russell

4. Early Doucet > (LSU) would be a solid 2nd round choice; talented all around WR.

5. Johnnie Lee Higgins > 2nd year WR in developmental stage of career; big play potential

6. Chris McFoy vs. Will Buchannon > let the best former USC WR battle it out for the final spot.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Raider Round Up

Alameda has been a bee hive of activity over the past few days. Here's a summary of the transactions and projections on personnel.

Bye, Bye:
Tyler Brayton (DL) opt out of last year of contract; signed today by Carolina.
Comment: Brayton was a 1st round bust who defined the term 'unproductive'.

Josh McCown (QB) signed with Fins 2yr/$6.25M
Comment: Miami gives McCown a legitimate shot at starting otherwise McCown would have been the ideal back up for Russell.

Chris Clemons (DE) signed 5 yr contract with Philly
Comment: Clemons tallied 8 sacks last year in a very limited role (2 starts). He has untapped potential. One wonders if the Raiders didn't lavish Kelly with such a huge contract whether or not there would have been more cap space to sign Clemons before the start of free agency.

Barry Sims (LT) released after 9 years of service with the Raiders.
Comment: Sims is not athletic enough to fit the ZBS and protect Russell's blind side.

Free Agent Signings:
Gibril Wilson (S from NY Giants) > Contract: 6 years/$39M/$16M guaranteed; $8.4M Signing Bonus; 2009 $4.5M Roster Bonus
Career Stats: Wilson over the past 2 seasons: Ints (six); Passes Defensed (17); tackles (195); Games (28)

Scouting Report:
Wilson, a four-year veteran, was drafted in the fifth round out of Tennessee by the Giants and basically been a starter since Day 1. He has good measurables with athleticism, quickness and adequate speed going for him. He is a downhill player that thinks run first, pass second. He has come a long way in learning how to play under control and avoid missing plays by over running or whiffing in space. He plays like he wants to be an intimidator yet lacks the premier size of some safeties. He strikes a good blow and will wrap on tackles and can drive the ballcarrier back after contact. He is adequate in his backpedal and has a little tightness in his hips when he has to open and drive on the ball laterally, but he is quick to accelerate and can close on the ball better than most. If he guesses the wrong angle initially, he struggles to make it up, as he lacks a second gear to catch up. He can match up against most tight ends but will struggle trying to man up on some of the better ones. He is inconsistent getting a jump on the ball from zone and appears to guess where the quarterback is going with the ball at times.

Comment: Wilson's tackling prowess and playmaking skills will greatly benefit the Raiders' D. This signing will upgrade the safety position significantly. It is open to debate how Ryan will utilize Wilson & Huff. Will these 2 safeties be interchangeable depending on match ups or will Huff slide over to FS permanently? There was discussion prior to the 2007 season of incorporating a LS (left safety) / RS (right safety) scheme in which each safety is responsible for 1 half of the field similar to how conerbacks are employed. One can't discount the possibility of Wilson playing FS and Huff SS. It will be an interesting development to keep you eyes on. Regardless, Wilson's instinctive football intelligence will be a major plus.

Javon Walker (WR from Denver) > Contract: 6 years/$55M/$16M guaranteed/$11M signing bonus; 2009 $5M Roster Bonus + $4M salary) Career Stats

Scouting Report:
Walker missed most of the 2005 season after injuring his right knee (ACL) and signed with the Broncos prior to the 2006 season. He was not quite at 100 percent during the early part of last season but seemed to find his stride and gain confidence in his knee as the season progressed. By the end of the year he became the go-to receiver for the Broncos and showed why Green bay drafted him in the first round in 2002. Walker has excellent size and above-average speed and is a fluid, agile athlete. He has a strong stride that can eat up ground on the corner covering him and has an extra gear to run past coverage on go routes. He can make the downfield catch as well as go across the middle and snatch the ball in traffic. Walker is effective as a runner when he gets the ball on reverses and has the size and strength to break some tackles. He is also not timid when it comes to blocking for other receivers after the catch.

Comment: The Raiders WR corps is wafer thin. The only WR prior to the Walker signing that you could reliably employ on the field was Ronald Curry. The addition of Walker, if he remains healthy, is crucial to the delopment of JaMarcus Russell.

Kwame Harris (OT from SF) > Contract: 3 years/$16M; 2008 $3M salary; 2009 $2M salary + $6M Roster Bonus
Scouting Report:
Harris is tall, long-armed and well-built. He is a smooth athlete. He can get very wide in his pass set and has the wingspan to ride edge rushers past the pocket. He has enough quickness and reach to adjust and recover fairly well. But Harris is an underachiever whose easygoing temperament is better suited to the left side. He lacks the play strength and toughness to succeed on the right side. He is a low-motor player who plays too nice. He needs a lot of technical refinement. He isn't a natural knee bender. He plays too tall and with wide hands. He absorbs too much in pass protection and has trouble holding his ground against good power rushers. He lacks ideal balance when engaged and spends way too much time on the ground. He takes false steps and is out of position far too often. He gets beat too often for a player with his talent.

Comment: Harris has been an underachiever in his career to date. The question is whether or not OL Coach Tom Cable can take this slab of clay and turn it into a piece of art. If Harris is suited to the ZBS and coachable then he could be a valuable swing OT playing either LT or RT. Ideally what I would like to see happen is for the Raiders to draft a OT in the 1st or 2nd round to allow for healthy competition at OT (McQuistan, Henderson, Harris, and draftee).

Draft Conjecture:
My best case scenario is as follows:
Raiders trade 1st round #4 pick to Dallas for Dallas' 1st round #22 + #28 picks and a starter (WR, RB). With our #22 pick I would love to see us take Sam Baker (LT, USC) and with our #28 pick Early Doucet (WR, LSU) or James Hardy (WR, Indiana).

Raider Signings:
Tommy Kelly (DT/DE)
7 year/$50.5M/$18.5 guaranteed/$25.125M in 1st 3 years; $13.5 Signing Bonus; 2009 $4.5 Roster Bonus
Comment: It was wise to bring Kelly back but the contract numbers are a real head scratcher. Kelly has shown that he can be a valuable cog to the DL. However it is perplexing how he inked the largest DL contract in the entire NFL when he has played at a Pro Bowl level.

Nnamdi Asomugha (CB) $10M 2008 (approx. excluse tag value)
Comment: Asomugha is a conernstone player and team leader for the Raiders. #21 has established himself as one of the top 5 cornerbacks in the entire NFL. It is my hope that the Raiders organization will continue to hammer out a long term deal for Asomugha instead of slapping the tag on him again in 2009.

Other Contracts Worth Noting:
Terdell Sands
(DT) > Contract signed prior to 2007 season: 4yr/$17M contract
2008 $1.2M salary + $1.3M Roster Bonus
2009 $1.3M salary + $1.3M Roster Bonus
2010 $4.6M salary + $800K Roster Bonus

Gerrard Warren (DT)
2008 $4M salary + $1M Workout Bonus
2009 $4.63M salary + $1M Workout Bonus
2010 $4.68M salary + $1M Workout Bonus + $1M Roster Bonus

Michael Huff (S) > Contract signed prior to 2006 season: 6yr/$43M/$15M guaranteed + $20M incentives)
2008 $445K salary

When you look at the above contracts, you might note that a huge, disproportionate amount of the 2008 cap space ($116M) is devoted to the DL (Kelly, Sands, Warren) and the secondary (Wilson, Asomugha, Huff). With the sizable contracts of Walker and Harris, this could very well be the end of our significant free agency signings. For reference sake, the #4 pick in the draft last season (Gaines Adams/DE) signed a 6 year/$46M/$18.6M guaranteed contract. It looks like our capologist will need to work his magic to put the best possible 53 men under contract.