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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hardy’s Plans Affected Carolina’s?

Recent news on the suddenly muscle-bound Greg Hardy suggests that, since Carolina would certainly know about his progress, it would affect the draft.

In that, I suggest that the team didn’t “need” an end, but felt that a guy who could do it all would be beneficial.  Stop the run, add a little more rush.  That’s what you get at 9, compared to 104; a guy who should be able to do it all.   That guy would’ve been Quentin Coples, who was by all means the most talked-about potential draft pick at that slot.   So viewed in the filter of hindsight – in which we now know a lot more about Greg Hardy’s current condition – that may have made a difference. 

I’ve felt all offseason that Carolina had two starting ends, and that end wasn’t “the problem”.  DT and CB were much larger, but I did worry that things wouldn’t line up at those spots (they didn’t, certainly not at CB; they seem OK at DT oddly enough).  Hardy’s spotty run play was a concern, and so was depth, so I was interested in guys at 9 that added versatility (like Melvin Ingram, who’s able to play LB and is a better outside rusher) more than Coples, who seemed duplicative.  I was also interested in guys like Jared Crick, a long, stout left end who could take some of those run snaps off Hardy.  

At 300 lbs, Hardy doesn’t need to worry about coming off the field for the run at this point.  That level of perspective is the type information teams have that fans don’t, and I certainly didn’t have while advocating for a situational player Carolina apparently already had.

It does appear despite Carolina’s feeling that they took the best player each pick (as opposed to need), that they did do plenty of targeting at various picks.  If you can assume Carolina felt Kuechly was a higher need because Hardy helped lessen Coples’ or Ingram’s need here, there’s still a matter of depth – which is where Frank Alexander comes in.  Hardy in his current form becomes a part time inside rusher, too.  Alexander helps there, and creates hopefully the best part-time rusher since Al Wallace (or in retrospect given Pro Football Focus’ data on him, Charles Johnson 08-09).

If not, at the least they’ll still be better against the run with Kuechly and a more stout Hardy, along with their injury additions.  But creating Hardy as an all-purpose end places a lot of perspective on the draft. 

Two Tight Ends And The Spread

(Sorry for the quick dip into another team’s strategy – but found it interesting to think about Pats’ personnel in the “why”, and not just that they stick good players out there)
I found it interesting that the Patriots were pushed as a “spread” team, but for so many years now, they have taken elements of the college attack and employed them.  Granted, there’s a major difference – most college teams have an evolving offense that creates a new system.  What Belichick and his various coordinators have done over time, is to adapt their scheme but keep it intact.  Most pro systems are considered vanilla, and homogenous – but they also fill in as all-encompassing.  They’re able to do whatever you need, including spread.  That’s a major departure from the team’s roots, the Parcells –rooted Erhardt Perkins scheme (think Jeff Davidson).
But here’s what makes New England’s ‘spread’ attack so unique. Their two tight ends.  It creates spread out of 12 personnel, which most teams would still traditionally sub to base defense.  But then when it’s time to set to the line, a TE is moving, a TE is in the slot, or a TE is split wide.
Two good TEs have always created a mismatch – a rarity to really contain a truly good TE, it’s that much tougher to do two at once in the same fashion.  Too big for a safety, too fast for a LB, the saying always went; you’re unlikely to have two defenders for a TE on one side if it’s an overload, you’re unlikely to have two on the field if the two are evenly spread.
For a team that employs a fair bit of shotgun (part of what gets them called spread), their two TEs certainly still let them run, naturally.  Most teams don’t put two TE out there in a spread attack, and only due to their versatility is that an option.  If it were only Aaron Hernandez, this would be a situational set and not a lot more.  If Rob Gronkowski was the only guy, the flexibility wouldn’t be there.  With the zone blocking, a second blocker in Hernandez is more likely to get to reach a LB, and just get in his way.   As well, using that personnel, with a base defense, you have the power to spread bigger defenders wide – taking them out of the run.  You have the ability to force a defense to go smaller for coverage, but you’re still big. 
But, naturally, the payoff is the passing game.  Two TE that can spread vertically after they’ve helped pull the defense horizontally, that creates space.  You’ve created a defensive situation where you can’t play much man because of matchups, and you can’t pull a safety down to stop the run because of the vertical nature of the TEs.  That allows Wes Welker to continue to work underneath, where his experience and short-range skill make him dangerous.  Take away the deeper threat, and you don’t have much of that.
Carolina took charge of that same ideal last year, and did use some spread ideals (you remember the draw play we saw a ton  - my least favorite Chudzinski playcall, that first and ten shotgun draw with Deangelo Williams coming across formation after the snap to gain two yards off right guard, far too often).  Their two tight end sets didn’t bear the fruit that New England’s did.  The 2nd TE (Jeremy Shockey) is now gone, and in his place is Mike Tolbert, whose versatility has been beaten to death. 
But while Carolina won’t attempt to be New England, and probably won’t use as much shotgun, the ideals are still there.  Between Tolbert and starting TE Greg Olson, there will be opportunities to split, and to motion, and to manipulate the defense in numerous ways.  Hopefully, they’ll use backup TE Gary Barnidge as a similar player – that ‘move’ TE that can go upfield, or split– as well.  It’s a copycat league, and even innovators will borrow. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Greg Hardy

There’s always been that feeling, since the earlier scouting days on Greg Hardy, what he could be if he focused. 

That’s not to say he’s not dedicated, or hard working, but he’s not a meathead personality.  He’s complex.  He earned being called Baby Pep because of his superhuman abilities at times, and with that came times where he was average.   Undoubtedly athletic, and talented, most edge rushers this good don’t fall to the Panthers in the 6th round.  There aren’t character concerns, either – he’s not a druggy, he doesn’t have a Cromartie-like array of children scattered across the nation.  I don’t have a good diagnosis for what Hardy was “missing”, other than a senior season that was lackluster, a foot injury, and maybe a little more motor.  

But there was definitely that feeling, that you would probably love what you saw if there was a little more dedication.  Last offseason was bizarre for all NFL players, and Hardy made sure to stand out for Carolina – a motorcycle accident left him unable to practice most of camp, and likely an unfocused offseason of workout by himself before that.  He came in at his normal weight, but might not have gotten that offseason jumpoff that 2nd year kids get in their first full year of working out at the pro level.

Well, he got that this year, apparently.  More than anyone.  The 6’4 Hardy isn’t 276 anymore- he’s 299.  Yikes.  

But fans suddenly getting visions of fat kids of the past – Sean Gilbert’s press conference demanding lunch, Jeff Otah’s entire career, or they saw me at the store recently – can rest a little easier.  Hardy’s addition was told to be almost all muscle, and now rests at 14% body fat, which is ridiculous for a 300 lb man.   The concern would remain whether that’s too heavy, regardless of whether it’s muscle. 

Will he lose athleticism?  The team says no, stating he’s as fast as he was.  But what about body lean – that push that allows a DE to get into the OT’s body and bend sideways for leverage without losing quickness?  That’s harder to say.  And, just physically, it’s tougher to move when you’re top heavy in the trenches.

Hardy’s never been Julius Peppers.  That was never fair to put on him.  Not even Charles Johnson had to deal with that. I definitely wonder what could’ve happened if Peppers, whose game was always weaker when a guy was locked onto him, would’ve shown up one offseason 20 lbs worth of muscle heavier.  There’s always been criticism of Jordan Gross not becoming a dominant player because of his weight room habits (I honestly don’t know at this point, but as a younger player he didn’t impress me as someone who would easily gain additional muscle), but none of Peppers. 
So, is it a good sign? 

Hardy’s concerns from last year were a high snap count, a late season collapse (both from high snaps, and first season as a starter/the college bubble, and so on), and that he wasn’t able to take on the additional pressure when Charles Johnson wasn’t there.   The weight helps a lot of that – being in better shape definitely helps.  Whether he’ll wear down late because of the additional weight is harder to say.

At that weight, as well, the natural assumption is that he’ll rush inside more.  Certainly, while either front Carolina uses will be a one-gap, it does endear Hardy to play the 5-technique 3-4 more when Carolina moves to it, and he’d likely rush inside more (depending on Frank Alexander’s progress). 
They moved Johnson around a fair bit, but they do still somewhat consider him the right end, and Hardy the left – odd, since Johnson’s a fantastic run defender and had the weight, but less odd if you consider it’s just harder to be a dominant left end (the tight end is there, and most teams won’t put a TE on a right end for a doubleteam).  So I guess they find Hardy as the left end, and he gained weight accordingly.   But Carolina’s in an odd spot, running a one-gap defense with weakness inside, and for a defense used to employing smaller, quicker ends they’re currently employing a 275 lb guy at right end, and 300 at left.

Coincidentally, Hardy’s also PFF’s Secret Superstar:
This more sufficiently diagnoses Hardy’s up and down year, and is a fantastic (and timely) read. I’ve quoted some of those stats (and his late-season slide) many times, but this new article ties it all together well.  You’ll note Hardy had as many pressures as Johnson, though Johnson played hurt late in the year (and then not at all).  It’s amazing that Carolina did have a defensive resurgence late in the year, with modest production from Johnson, a slide from Hardy, and missing their best two LB and top three DT.  That, of course, takes away the New Orleans game as well (a defensive disaster), but there’s some hope to be had on defense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Beason on Nakamura

To lift the quote from Scott Fowler's article on Nakamura (since, otherwise, there's nothing new in it):

"Kind of reminds me of Chris Harris, but with a lot more ability."

Nakamura is a welcome addition, undoubtedly, but that's a lot to put on him.  While we're on it, yes, he was behind Ed Reed, but the Ravens do employ two safeties - and Nakamura wasn't the other starter.  Bernard Pollard was.  And while Pollard is much larger - the Ravens did want a true SS - they didn't find much room for Nakamura to play.   Hopefully, he either gains the position himself or pushes Sherrod Martin toward making decent decisions and making fewer mistakes.

But let's not get carried away - he played behind Ed Reed, which isn't to say he is Ed Reed.   For one, they're different players in terms of athleticism.  Reed was a championship level athlete who also happens to understand the game well.  He was one of the best players at a huge program, and a first round pick.  Nakamura isn't that guy.

That's where Nakamura and Harris parallel more evenly.  Later picks who scrapped their ways to success.  Even then, Harris was a SS, and Nakamura's size is more of a corner's, at 5'10, 190, than Harris' wide shoulders and extra 30 lbs (where he was more of a small LB, especially in the Cover 1 Robber version of the Tampa 2 that Ron Meeks often ran).

With everything else said, what we have in Nakamura or any of the other pickups will be determined by camp, as will Nakamura's spot on this depth chart (I think we understand just fine where he was on the Ravens').  But, I have an issue with another development that's already trending:

Beason and Harris were the only two things keeping the post-2005 John Fox defenses afloat.  Dominant in three of its first four years, Fox and company struggled to put much together afterward (including a late 2008 collapse).  Beason, the team's first round pick, and Harris as a training camp addition, revitalized things.  Harris, however, seemed affected late in 2008, and seemed to wear down from his hard hits (example - 10 forced fumbles 07-08 before the crushing hit against San Diego which drove a lead blocker into Ladainian Tomlinson, and a very modest 3 in the two years after).   It's possible that Beason is remembering that second Harris, the guy who struggled a bit more over time to tackle, along with most of the team.

But, you just don't say it.  There's no advantage to downing another player, and Beason's done that a couple times now.  It's more or less harmless (for now), but I hope it's not a trend that continues.