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Draft King Analysis

October 10, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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Early-to-mid October is an interesting time of year for football fans. College football is in full swing, with conference competition well underway and teams looking toward potential conference championship game berths and major upcoming matchups. NFL teams have played four or five games at this point, which to this point has lead to all sorts of unexpected results.

There are surprises every year in the NFL, where the difference between most of the teams in the league talent-wise is slimmer than many realize, but this oddball season with a severely truncated preseason has had many more unexpected outcomes than most anticipated. If you doubt that, talk to the tens of thousands of people (myself included) ousted from NFL knockout pick pools when Seattle beat the Giants in New Jersey yesterday. Scoring and passing yardage is up, but I believe that has less to do with the abbreviated preseason and more to do with stricter penalties against defenses for hits on quarterbacks and wide receivers.

Please note that I'm not criticizing the NFL for this. Brain injury is no joke, and while football is inherently violent in nature, there are ways to reduce the volume and voracity of helmet-to-helmet hits and shots on wide receivers going over the middle (where they tend to be most vulnerable to being blasted by an opposing safety). There has been a trickle-down effect into college and even high school football -- while you can't fine amateur players, you can penalize the teams involved severely for such actions, and clearly a message has been sent about ramifications for dangerous play.

To point on the college level, in the Utah State/BYU game on September 30, Utah State free safety McKade Brady was ejected for what officials ruled was a dangerous hit on BYU wide receiver Ross Apo. Of course, enforcement of safety rules can be subjective, as seen when BYU free safety Travis Uale waylaid Utah WR DeVonte Christopher with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit that not only didn't lead to an ejection but which incredibly went unflagged. But, as the general public becomes more and more aware of the dangers of brain injury related to football, I anticipate awareness of the risks involved with dangerous hits (and the penalizing of those who engage in them) will continue to grow.

The emphasis on protecting NFL wide receivers isn't exactly a new thing, and rules have given special protection to QBs for years, but things have been taken to another level this year. With research revealing more and more horrible things about the ramifications of long-term concussions, and how hits to the head can lead to things like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the move is one that the NFL all but had to make. An off-shoot of this has been a considerable uptick in the passing game for many NFL teams and some wild twists-and-turns during early season games.

Remember this hit on Anquan Boldin in 2008? Jets safety Eric Smith was fined $50,000 and suspended one game for the helmet-to-helmet hit, which left Boldin concussed and with his arms frozen mid-air (and also left Smith unconscious). In many ways, the Boldin hit marked a turning point by the NFL: yes, we will fine you for dangerous hits, and yes, we will suspend you for them as well.

Less than two weeks before Smith's brutal hit on Boldin, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had sent out a letter warning that the league would be cracking down on dangerous hits. The suspension (which Smith appealed unsuccessfully) showed that Goodell was willing to take a hard-line approach to back up his warning. There have been plenty of defensive players who have complained about receiving large fines for their play, citing the split-second nature of breaking up passes (or the razor-thin distinction between a hard hit and roughing), but the NFL has its player safety argument to fall back on, which puts the league in a good spot long-term with this.

Matt Hasselbeck
Matt Hasselbeck is off to a good start for Tennessee. (Icon SMI)

The side effect of an increase in passing yardage due to the rule changes is, in many ways, a good thing for the NFL product. I would argue that most fans value offense over defense, and from a spectator standpoint it's generally more satisfying to see a 38-35 shootout than a 10-6 grind-it-out battle. More touchdowns mean more opportunities for exciting highlights of touchdown plays, and while great defensive plays can also make for great highlights, even those have come under scrutiny (e.g. the not-so-mysterious disappearance of ESPN's "Jacked Up" segment, which highlighted hard hits) for glorifying plays that lead to both short-term and long-term injuries.

And, under the rules as they are now, why shouldn't an NFL team with a capable QB and decent receivers air it out? Ultimately you still need to have a firm commitment to the run to win long-term, but the old adage that "three things can happen on a passing place and two (incompletion, interception) are bad" is dead. With penalties existing for late hits, low hits, spearing, interference, hitting a defenseless player, and defensive holding (which results in an automatic first down), there are a whole host of things that can work in favor of a team passing the ball.

How much have things changed? The Tennessee Titans are last in the NFL in rushing, star RB Chris Johnson is averaging an anemic 2.9 yards per carry going into Tennessee's bye week, and yet the Titans are 3-2 and tied for first with Houston in the AFC South. How? Because the Titans shelled out $9,000,000 guaranteed for a 35-year-old (now 36) QB in Matt Hasselbeck who has the ability to read defenses quickly and, just as importantly, throw the ball accurately. Mark my words: as important as accuracy is now in the NFL, it will become even more important in the next 5-10 years.

Michael Floyd
Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd has elite size and talent. (Icon SMI)
When I put together my most recent 2012 NFL mock draft, it was with this shift of power in mind. Only two defensive players are listed in the top ten: Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick and North Carolina 4-3 DE Quinton Coples. No surprise there, as they represent elite talent at the two most important positions for defending the pass.

In contrast, three QBs and three wide receivers are in my top 10, including a player in the form of Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd who many have as a late first or even an early second-round selection. Perhaps I'm wrong about my projection of Floyd, but from what I've seen from him this season (and before) for the Fightin' Irish, he belongs in the discussion with South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery and Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon as the top wide receiver prospects for 2012.

Rookie WRs and rookie QBs rarely make a big impact in the NFL, but that is where things have REALLY changed in 2011. Cam Newton is putting up huge stats for Carolina, and while the Panthers are 1-4, that has more to do with the team being 28th in points per game allowed (26.4) than what Newton has done. Meanwhile, the Bengals have a rookie QB in Andy Dalton and a rookie WR in A.J. Green both starting and they are 3-2. Green has really stepped it up in the past couple of weeks, and while he might be the exception to the rule, it's clear that adding talent at quarterback and wide receiver can quickly change a team's fortunes.

In an unrelated note, if you haven't yet, take a listen to the crowd pop for "Enter Sandman" at last Saturday night's Miami/Virginia Tech game. It sounds like the crowd response for Hulk Hogan's theme song during his apex in the World Wrestling Federation or something. Crowds getting excited for music is nothing new, but the bar has been raised for what constitutes a strong fan reaction at a college football game, particularly in a key game situation. There's a reason that NCAA Football 12 allows you to add custom music for game-specific situations -- it adds another level of authenticity to the experience (plus it allows for people to put in real music that EA Sports doesn't have the bankroll to officially license for the game).


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