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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Exciting?

I can't get past the feeling that Carolina's not doomed the way the
media narrative has chosen to portray.

There are a lot of narratives there open to interpretation. There are
a lot of variables - as Ron Rivera would say, a lot of moving parts.

But I'm looking back on what Carolina has done, and while there's no
massive dash for a big name, no big payday for a blue chip guy, or (and
I'm looking at you, Seattle) solid name veteran starters signed as
backups, I see a good team. I don't see the decline.

I get the concerns. Turnover, retirement, and the unspoken inertia of a
fluke team. Too many non-believers from last year. It makes it
unlikely Carolina is "for real". But, 2011 and 2012's pythagorean
'wins' left Carolina as a better team than their actual record.
Pythagorean wins don't account for special teams or coaching decisions,
and Carolina got those two units in line this year. I don't know what
the expectation is for '14 yet, but clearly a large difference between
the 6-7 wins of the last two years versus the 12 of the latest, was in
limiting special teams mistakes and being more aggressive with coaching
decisions (4th down most notably). I don't see that changing - I don't
see the defense declining, and I don't see Rivera's confidence on 4th
down declining much either.



I do think, from the receiver standpoint, that turnover is taboo. It's
not catastrophic, there's just this unspoken "no one ever does that"
feeling. Which, most teams don't pour draft pick after draft pick on
the dumpster fire that appeared to be the Steve Smith show. Blaming
Smith for his part in that is a separate discussion, but I can't say
it's not part of why he's gone. With Smith stating he was interested
in retiring in another year, I think the team chose somewhat wisely in
the end.

So far the returns on the new guys? They're good. Of course, everyone
can look OK in OTAs. There haven't been any real negatives. My only
'worry' so far is that Tiquan Underwood hasn't gotten much rotation in
(per reports). Now, I don't know what to do with that - and I don't
know what the team's intent is. Are they cycling things in, or do they
have a depth chart already? The Byron Bell/Nate Chandler rotation
between LT and RT might be unique, but does suggest there's a hierarchy.
If that's the case, and Underwood doesn't play much, the deep threat
becomes a small concern.

As far as tackle, sure. That's still a worry. I do think they have two
guys who can play, and I don't want to forget about Garry Williams,
either. I don't know how great it can get - or how bad. I know that
Carolina has been doing a lot of 3-step, so hopefully there's not a
concern here. As I said the other day, the Nate Chandler contract is
seemingly a good sign. But, now I kinda worry about what that means for
Byron Bell. It's more complicated - he's a three year starter so he's
earned 'more' in a way. But it's more make or break. It's almost as if
they've said they're willing to roll the dice on Chandler being good
enough to develop, but Bell is somewhat developed. That could be
over-analysis but there's not much else to go on.

I don't know what to make of the secondary yet. There's not much info
on the safeties either way - the corners, I've held Antoine Cason as a
very good pickup. Josh Norman started out having another great
offseason, supposedly challenging Melvin White a bit. Now, suddenly,
Norman and Cason are practicing with boxing gloves (solid move hiding
those until Steve Smith was gone). I love the idea - and how it relates
to Norman, a guy who notoriously grabs - but with Cason in there as
well, that colors my perception a bit. They haven't apparently gloved
up everyone, just those two. Great, if it works.

So, I don't know. So much in the air, and the difference between
disaster and success on each item is dependent solely on opinion - which
will have no value when it matters. But, right now, I don't feel so
bad about '14.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Chandler, Addison, and Jones Get Extended

OT Nate Chandler signed a 3 year extension - DE Mario Addison and S
Colin Jones were signed to 2 year extensions.


Chandler is easy - a UDFA DT turned starting OT, he was going into his
final year. Chandler's also no small part a pat on the back from the
team, to the team - they take pride in salvaging an OL out of him after
he was outside the bubble when they revamped his old position. Fixing
DT with the byproduct of getting a starting OL out of the deal isn't so
shabby, especially if he plays LT competently. There's no downside to
cheaply adding to his contract.



You can play the "what if" game on Addison, regarding the drafting of
Kony Ealy, and the presence of the two high paid ends ahead of them.
Short-term, it probably has more impact on the former 4th rounder Frank
Alexander, going into year 3 and suspended for the first four games of
the year - Addison has security. With the starting pair of Charles
Johnson and Greg Hardy, with Ealy behind and Addison long-term, you have
Wes Horton versus Alexander and a few others fighting for a possible 5th
spot (though there's no guarantee they'd keep 5 ends). It never hurts
to have Addison longer, if you're dropping Johnson or Hardy later on,
but you still do that based on merit and overall fiscal concern.

Addison's additional value comes in special teams. While he pitched in
25% of DE snaps (tough on this team), he added 70% of special teams
snaps, in a total play count equal to many starters. That likely
throws him on all units excepting kickoff. At 260 lbs, you don't get
on that many units without there being merit.



Jones is intriguing. The team played up his ability as a defender, but
his value has always been best at special teams (he played 33 snaps on
defense, but 73% of special teams). Sub-4.4 speed lets you kick the
mess out of a punt; having a 210 lb frame keeps you from being blocked
out as easily. Being a safety gives you the tackling ability to make
things happen with all that speed. Adding two years to Jones extends
the investment of a 7th, traded in 2012 (I believe it came from '13).


Three (hopefully) inexpensive deals to add that crucial depth past
rookie contracts. No real downside here. Also the first time that Dave
Gettleman's really reached out to existing players and extended them.
Interesting.

LaFell Can't Help Himself

Brandon LaFell keeps talking, whether it's good for him or not.

After essentially having his twitter taken away from him earlier in the
offseason, the new Patriot has had plenty to say about his transition
from Carolina to New England. He's not doing himself any favors, but I
don't think he means harm. I don't think he's smart enough to not say
the wrong thing.


My interpretation? He's struggling. He's struggling with change, and
he's struggling with finding his place in uncertainty. He's a southern
boy in a new part of the world, under a 'new' system and new coaching.
For the first time in his career, he's not one of the top three guys,
earned or not in his history...now he's got a long term deal and has to
earn a roster spot all at the same time.

His talk about practice - he tried to pull back and say Carolina does
work hard - is a matter of difference, a lack of comfortability in
what's going to happen. I saw it most specifically in talking about
the offense, where he says he's gone from a numbers scheme (*Coryell) to
a 'code' based system. Listening to him talking about this, like his
other statements, just gives me a feeling that he's out of his comfort
zone at the least.

You could criticize him for not working hard enough here. It's logical.
I don't have much to base that on one way or another so I won't put
work into something I'd have no way of proving. I do believe that
LaFell is a big receiver who plays small, but style of play doesn't mean
he didn't work. His small hands can be considered a flaw regardless of
whether he put extra work in. But, it's in the same ballpark. Being
more physical, having better hands, these are things that can improve
with significant work. If you wanted to be critical, you could push
Steve Smith's habit of doing his offseason work on the west coast many
years, and not taking guys under his wing.

At any rate, LaFell is struggling a bit with his new surroundings.
That's where he's coming from. I don't think he's trying to slight
Carolina. He just doesn't communicate well enough to understand what
he's really saying. That said, I've spent long enough defending him
over the years, and he's not with Carolina anymore. For some reason,
they even decided they'd try to keep him, and I'm honestly glad to have
an upgrade in the slot (whether Jason Avant or Jerricho Cotchery, both
are better slot guys, and LaFell was most often in that role in
Carolina). I don't know if there's anything outside that'll upgrade on
him, but I really don't think of LaFell as a guy that Carolina has to
work hard to "replace". They have a physical, potentially sloppy
outside receiver who should give them what LaFell never really tried to
be, in Kelvin Benjamin. So I don't find him "missed". I don't find him
that much of a loss.






*Coryell is often called 'numbers' by passing game guys because the
receivers are given their numbered routes within the playcall.
Honestly, everyone gets to know what they're doing inside the playcall,
though in Mike Shula's scheme the number routes and back instructions
are wrapped in a single word that they learn.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tempering Benjamin's Expectations

I see a lot of talk about Kelvin Benjamin. There's a lot of excitement,
and I would expect there to be. Had we dropped a pick on an OT, even a
reach, there would probably be similar talk there too, but WRs really
tend to capture the imagination. The fanbase, outside of quarterbacks,
has had a fixation on WRs over that time, from undrafteds to 7th
rounders ("Walter Young is going to be the next Muhsin
Muhammad...wait...no, better! He's the next T.O.!"), and certainly the
mess of 2nd rounders, then the 2010 nonsense, followed by the sheer
volume of 4th and 5ths that followed until Dave Gettleman finally put an
end to that (and the purge of such guys has finally almost come to a
close, give or take Kealoha Pilares).



Benjamin's the first player at that position picked that high by
Carolina in nearly a generation; the only other 1st round WR was the 27
pick of '97, the ill-fated Rae Carruth that was to eventually supplant
the just-signed Ernie Mills of Pittsburgh, who was even more awful in
the short term (not making it to '98). Of course, while Carruth's
off-field life was crumbling, he was also struggling to survive in the
George Seifert WCO as Muhammad, Patrick Jeffers, Wesley Walls were all
having career years (and Donald Hayes was even having bigtime success in
short space). Carruth's deep speed would've been useful, though clearly
none of the players I just listed had much deep speed and they did just
fine.

Nonetheless, Benjamin. I'm reading a lot about Benjamin - much of it
fan spec, but plenty of it still media, too. I read a lot of
expectation on what he'll do, specifically around TDs. Granted that's
where he has to shine. The expectation about yards, receptions wavers a
lot, but everyone expects TDs. Even those that expect low reps from
him, expect he'll be a goal option.

I don't see why that won't be true, but the production expectations
remain a little overblown. Benjamin could start - and have 1000 snaps.
But I don't know if that will really happen. The top three WR are
efficient guys. They do the little things well, and Benjamin still
doesn't. He's still learning how to be a pro. His routes have to get
better, absolutely, but he has to learn to read a defense, has to gain
an understanding of how his routes work with others', and so on.
Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood do most of that
already (well, Underwood is a limited sample size). And the shorter
routes, which could eventually be Benjamin's bread and butter, just
aren't polished enough right now compared to the vets.


Tavon Austin came on late, and struggled a bit with quarterbacking
thanks to the Carolina game, but he had 40 rec/4 TD. Cordarelle
Patterson definitely beat my expectations with 45/4. The leading rookie
WR was Keenan Allen, with 71 rec/8 TD. Coming off a somewhat
catastrophic injury, Allen carried the Chargers at times. I still wish
Carolina had picked him up, though without a 3rd pick, they would've had
to reach for him and forego Kawann Short (still, at this point, wouldn't
people gripe a significant amount less about losing guys like Brandon
LaFell and Ted Ginn, plus Steve Smith, if Allen were here?). Allen was
the only rookie to eclipse the numbers Steve Smith put up, and yet that
seems to be the standard people expect of Benjamin.

I hate to parallel, but a best-case might be Keary Colbert's first year.
2004 saw him unexpectedly starting, and he was most often the 3rd
option on the field with a more open offense, a struggling run game at
times, and Muhsin Muhammad having his other great year. That saw him
receive 47 with 5 scores. I'd be happy with that. A lot of people are
expecting 10 TD - and you never know. I never saw Deangelo Williams
taking 20 scores in 2008, definitely greater than his share despite 1500
yards (with Jonathan Stewart being an obvious goal RB), Even Stephen
Davis getting 12 fall-forward TDs on bad knees, you never know. But
even with Benjamin being a massive goal option (and the reads breaking
down easier on the goal), I don't know that he's going to be a TD
machine there, yet.

It's time to be patient with Benjamin. Unrealistic expectations,
followed by an obvious failure to meet those expectations, is what
creates the type of narratives that I get tired of reading - reasons and
excuses why a player didn't meet those unrealistic expectations.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Miscellaneous Nonsense

Kelvin Benjamin's signed his 4 year deal, and I don't know.  That's hardly newsworthy anymore.  Five of the six are signed unless I missed Trai Turner's deal, but with months to go and a structure in place, it doesn't matter.  There really aren't holdouts in the current CBA situation.  So I haven't reported it, finding it by itself more or less not useful.

Cam Newton's not on the cover of Madden '15, coming in second (again).  That's more interesting depending on where you fall on the Madden Curse.  Luke Kuechly's been on a number of ads for the game as well.

People are talking about Colin Kaepernick's deal.  Not unlike Jay Cutler's, it's clear how teams are setting it up to make players inherently cuttable. I think Newton's going to get tons of money - and Carolina's basically putting that decision off, hoping inflation on QB deals will slow while they take another year or two to get the cap right.  It's definitely a gamble.

Steve Smith suggests he would've made 2014 a farewell year.   It's another thing that can go either way - the changes made around Cam Newton could've included Smith, of course - having Kelvin Benjamin and Jason Avant or Jerricho Cotchery, along with Tiquan Underwood, would probably be "better" on paper (Steve Smith is better than either Avant/Cotchery, even if the fit, the efficiency, the volatility are all for the team's better in current state).  Having a legitimate big receiver, and a slot guy - something that Brandon LaFell played at in both cases, and did neither well - would help Smith.

But that's the thing.  We're helping Cam Newton, not Steve Smith.  We're running Mike Shula's offense, not Steve Smith's.  It's Ron Rivera's tea....you get the point.   And I think that's why Smith is a Raven.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Offensive Familiarity

I wanted to give credit to Ed Finley, who responded to a post about RB Tyler Gaffney's ties to Stanford, where Lance Taylor is now RBs coach.  Taylor never coached Gaffney, but it brings an inside knowledge that's very valuable.

It opened up the thought that Carolina, in a way, drafted familiarity with the rookies on offense.  G Trai Turner played at LSU.  Cam Cameron's their coordinator, and he's 100% pure Coryell.  Gaffney?  Well, people wrongly attribute Jim Harbaugh to the WCO because of a very late Bill Walsh connection (that lasted about a year before Bill passed) but Harbaugh essentially only ever played in Coryell, and he runs Coryell.  Pep Hamilton is Coryell, as is David Shaw.

So, Gaffney is Coryell.

Now, the mechanics of that change a bit if the college game in either case is simplified.  And it could be.  Mike Shula got rid of a lot of the terminology for the sake of quick calls, and the college game has gotten quick calls down to a science with their Chip Kelly style play boards and all that.  But, the philosophy is the same.  For Turner, the protections and philosophy has to be essentially intact, and I would expect the same for Gaffney.

Now, for Benjamin.

It's hard to call him too experienced at anything at this point.  College coaches without a pro lineage don't carry that same slotting from within the three major systems (I'm calling the run and shoot dead again).  Ron Rivera has called Jimbo Fisher's scheme "Pro style" and that's apt.  It does come from a more standardized pro style philosophy than the Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, Gus Malzahn type guys.  It's pro, adapted to spread and screen.

So it's harder to fully push that Kelvin Benjamin has that same familiarity (you would be saying that about Marquise Lee, and I believe Jordan Matthews, for what that's worth, but I believe Benjamin more talented in the long run).  He did run a fairly full route tree, and Dave Gettleman backs that with "more than most".   Fisher's ideals as currently used, seem to include 2x2 receivers at most all times (whether slot or TE, there's always an inside and outside receiver, and therefore a lot of combo routes - sometimes mirrored, sometimes different on each side. Most pro systems push a lot of 3x1, and isolate on the back side (usually, the weak, usually the X).

So, in that form, it will be interesting to see - is Benjamin the isolation guy (which works with the corner/fade, the comeback, to a point the bang-8/skinny post), or is he the guy you put within a framework?