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Draft King Analysis
September 11, 2015
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com

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First things first: props to The Cauldron on its new partnership with Sports Illustrated. That's a win/win as far as sports fans go and a savvy move by SI as it works to further develop its brand beyond the physical magazine form.

The start of the NFL season finally arrived last night, with the Patriots knocking off the Steelers 28-21 behind four touchdown passes by Tom Brady, three of which went to Rob Gronkowski. There seems to be an inordinate amount of desire by certain people who apparently can't wait to write about the end of the Patriots Dynasty, and eventually they'll get their wish and New England's great run will stop.

But what the Patriots have done from 2001 to present is nothing short of remarkable, only missing the playoffs in a fluke in 2008 despite losing Brady for the season in week one. 11-5 didn't get them in, but if ever there was a time to miss the playoffs on a bad beat, that was it. That allowed Belichick to show he could win without Brady, while also boosting QB Matt Cassel to the point that Kansas City traded the #34 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to New England for him that following March.

The learning curve for quarterbacks in the NFL is much less steep in this era of receivers being protected going over the middle. What used to be a jarring helmet-to-helmet strike by a strong safety became an ejectable penalty, which was a needed change as the reality of the link between head trauma (concussions) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) became more and more evident.

But a shorter learning curve means less patience for new prospects. The era of a young NFL quarterback spending three years on the bench learning is long gone. Some describe it as a pending quarterback crisis, though I think that might be stretching it a bit.

The reality though is that playing quarterback in the NFL is exceptionally challenging, even with rule changes made for safety reasons that tilted the game in favor of passing-based attacks. A truly elite QB is incredibly valuable, as evidenced by the many millions that San Diego gave Philip Rivers and the Giants are reportedly about to give Eli Manning going into the season.

As for CTE, that issue isn't going away. It's a difficult balance: keeping the game physical enough to remain fun for players and spectators, but protecting participants so they don't suffer brain damage that eventually leads to life-altering erratic behavior and/or suicide.

You might think that the 2009 death of Bengals WR Chris Henry at age 26, which lead to the discovery that he had CTE, would have changed things. Henry's death didn't bear the stigma of suicide (at least not directly), he didn't have a history of concussions, and he had a level of advanced mental decay that no 26-year-old should ever have.

Henry died nearly six years ago. But the reality is simple: it's not going to stop. Football is a violent game. And if someone like Henry, at a relatively low-contact position without a history of known concussions, can fall victim to CTE... what can be done?

Sadly, there are no easy answers.

Last weekend, the college football season for I-A/FBS teams began, starting with a strong Thursday night lineup of games that went on into the weekend and through Labor Day. Some thoughts:

Clemson WR Mike Williams, who has been touted as a potential 2016 first-round NFL Draft selection, suffered a serious neck injury in Saturday's 49-10 home win over Wofford. It happened in the craziest of ways, with Williams hitting his head on the goal post as he leaped in the back of the end zone trying to make a reception on a slant route.

The result? Williams sustained a neck fracture on the play. Even though it's described as a "slight" fracture, it's an injury that will keep Williams out of action for the immediate future, with no timetable on when (or if) he will return. Best wishes to Williams for a speedy recovery.

Ohio State's Braxton Miller, now playing H-Back, showed a national TV audience on Labor Day night that he will be a major threat on offense for the Buckeyes. His incredible spin move on a 53-yard touchdown run is the stuff of highlight reels, igniting a barrage of video game comparisons.

It was a tougher night for Virginia Tech CB Kendall Fuller, who was exposed on a few plays by Ohio State. Not that he had a ton of help, though -- you can only lean on your safeties so much when you're trying to keep the likes of Ezekiel Elliott from popping long TD runs.

Ohio State QB Cardale Jones picked up where he left off in the Buckeyes' remarkable road to the national title last year, to the point of some Cleveland Browns fans openly calling for the team to tank to be able to draft Jones next year. I don't see that happening, not intentionally anyway.

Not to be lost in Penn State's 27-10 loss to Temple in Philadelphia was the struggle by Nittany Lions QB Christian Hackenberg. He was 11-for-25 with a pick-six, zero TD passes, and he took ten sacks. Many of those sacks weren't his fault, and again this was just one game. But it's not the kind of start his supporters wanted to see to start 2015.

I'm not alone in questioning just how viable Hackenberg is as a top QB prospect. He has the size and physical skills, no doubt. But his completion percentage leaves something to be desired, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns last season, and he needs to show a return to the 2013 form that drew him so much praise.

As always, time will tell.

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