Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Blog 31 - A New Season - A return to Hopes and Dreams

A New Season - A return to Hopes and Dreams
I haven't blogged for a long while, and I specifically haven't blogged about Norwich City. When I looked back it's been three years since I felt the urge to put finger to keyboard on the subject, an eternity for someone who used to write several articles a month for his fanzine. The main reason for this is that, to be quite frank, it's been too depressing. However with the long-overdue removal of Chris Hughton, and the encouraging pre-season work of Neil Adams there is finally a ray or two of sunshine emerging from the doom-laden dark clouds of the past. Plus, as I've just done the FourFourTwo season preview on Norwich City people may take a few seconds to read what I have to say and I get to ram my opinions through their synapses for a brief while.
To say the last two years were not enjoyable for me as a Norwich City fan is akin to saying Katie Hopkins is a little bit of an attention-seeking contrarian. Following Paul Lambert was always going to be a nigh on impossible task, and whilst Chris Hughton wasn't my choice, I understood the board's reasoning in appointing a guy with Premier League experience, who had managed on a tight budget, and a reputation within the game as an outstanding coach. But from the first game where we were battered 5-0 by Fulham and Hughton was at pains afterwards to point out that we couldn't compete with Fulham's technically superior players, I was struggling to identify with him. Particularly coming from a man who after four transfer windows to correct these technical deficiencies was proudly fielding the combined creative talents of Johnson and Tettey in midfield along with four shackled defenders and a goalkeeper every week.
The contrast between Lambert, the consummate winner, the confidence-builder, the bullish psychologist who wound up Colchester so successfully on his overhyped return, and Hughton's polite, tepid manner as he picked over the minor plus points of another half-hearted away defeat, was night and day. Hughton did have his good points. He is genuinely respected by everyone in the game and I don't think he ever "lost the dressing room" which considering the way we were playing is testament to the respect he obviously engenders. And few people have a major problem with the quality of the players he signed. Bassong, Redmond, Olsson, Turner, Fer. The ability was there for all to see. But the fact that he took what was by common consensus probably our best collection of players in the past twenty years and managed to get them relegated is equally testament to his inability to take a group of talented individuals and form them into an effective team. Lambert took average players and made them a good team. Hughton took good players and made them a bad team. "We lost our identity" was the line from Russell Martin, on relegation.
The style of football, whilst clearly defined by the organised deep-lying defence, and the patient, laboured build-up through the lines was not in keeping with the "Norwich City DNA" that the board has spoken so often about and it left most of the fans cold. A game plan that involves stopping the opposition scoring first and foremost and hoping to sneak a goal here and there is why we only mustered 28 in the entire season. Carrow Road was also the ground that saw least goals scored last season of all 92 clubs (35 compared to 80 at Coventry and 76 at Manchester City). It wasn't entertaining, and when it became clear it wasn't effective either, what was the point?
And so to Neil Adams. His audition at the end of last season was a mixed bag. A good performance with some ballsy tactical changes that almost salvaged something against an in-form Liverpool was undermined by a Hughtonesque no-show against Manchester United and the hype of Giggs' debut as caretaker manager (which by all rights should have been hushed up by a pre-game super-injunction). Adams baffled Jose Mourinho when, at 0-0 with ten minutes left of a must-win game for both sides, the rookie caretaker kept his troops back defending the barracks and settled for a point that ultimately meant the team had no chance of staying up. My theory at the time was that, given we were likely to go down anyway, a 0-0 draw at Chelsea looked better on Adams' managerial CV than a kitchen-sink throwing effort we may well have been caught out in attempting. Perhaps that's a little cynical but his reticence to go for it left me as confused as Jose in the circumstances. And ultimately, he got the job anyway so what do I know? Off-field his handling of some disciplinary issues drew praise from those in the know and cannot have hurt his application for the full-time position either.
When he was given the job permanently, following a drawn-out and ultimately confusing selection process that I won't even begin to pick over here, I was underwhelmed to say the least. He was and is, a massive throw of the dice. He has as much chance of failing as he has succeeding and for a club with a squad full of talented players that should be too good for this division, we should have been stacking those dice a little more in our favour with someone more proven.
However, he has impressed me with some of his decision-making since then. In terms of playing-style he has looked to be more adventurous, in pre-season at least, and play with a tempo that would have left Chris Hughton reaching for oxygen. His signing of Kyle Lafferty addressed the biggest gaping hole in the squad since Holt left, and Grabban and O'Neil are astute captures. For the most part though he looks happy to progress with the players he inherited, and this is perhaps no bad thing. The individual quality remains good and it is difficult to see how Adams could get less from them collectively than Hughton. The players, however removed they may be from the fan in the stands these days, will have felt the effects of last season. They will have felt the same weary depression as we did, watching the opposition monopolise the ball while they remained anchored rigidly to not chasing and losing their defensive shape or face the wrath of Calderwood. They were the ones making the fruitless runs that the deep-lying midfield had neither the range of passing, or the technical ability to find. To have an opportunity to show the skills they possess unencumbered by Hughtonball will free them as players once more. If Adams can handle them correctly, he can finally uncage some tigers against the Wolves on Sunday.
I'm still not all-in on Adams yet though. Russell Martin, whilst a lovely guy and a great pro, is not a clenched-fist, drag-em-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck type that I would have preferred as captain, and I long for the days of a Megson, Mackay or even a Holt to provide that Alpha Male influence, particularly with a new manager who needs his dressing room to be as self-servicing as possible while he grows into the role. Also Martin, for me, has not been so good that he should be guaranteed a starting spot which the captaincy would suggest. This is equally true, if not more so, for vice-captain Bradley Johnson. Whilst the captaincy itself is not a huge issue, the idea that Martin and Johnson are definite starters is a little worrying as both should have more to prove than the manager seems to think. Having said that, Adams was hardly spoilt for choice, with only Ruddy, Olsson, Turner and Howson seemingly firmly anchored as guaranteed names on the team sheet, and none of them are natural, vocal leaders either, despite smatterings of captaincy experience.
Overall, I think the ceiling for next season is that everything works to plan and we are free-scoring, dominant, Champions. There is a chance this could happen. The floor, the absolute worst I can see him doing with this group of players if we are bedevilled by injuries and inconsistency, is mid-table 10th-12th. The reality is probably somewhere in the play-off mix. For me to come to that conclusion, however, represents a hope that I haven't had for a couple of years. A belief that what I see from the team will be better than what has come before, or at least different, unpredictable, and fresh. It may be based on little more than the undeniably cynical premise that it can't be any worse, but Adams has shown just enough to get my supporting juices flowing again.
I'm, tentatively, getting my Norwich back. And yes, I'm aware that it's the hope that kills you...

Andy Head

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Blog 30 - 2014 NFL Mock Draft

2014 NFL Mock Draft
by Andy Head
1    -      Houston Texans  -   Blake Bortles
All the hubbub has Clowney, undisputedly the best player in the draft, going to the Texans, but I don't buy it. Houston had a horrible season last year. Horrendous. And they haven't added a QB in free agency other than Ryan Fitzpatrick, a perennial back up who they are paying back up money to. There is a massive hole where the most important player to a franchise should be. The media would have you believe that Houston will take Clowney and then move for another QB in Rnd 2. Seriously? See how much better this season is than last while Jimmy Garropolo or A.J. McCarron flail around, enduring all the same problems with protection that Matt Schaub bombed with last year. No, can't see it in a million years. Touting Clowney as the pick makes sense to drum up trade interest amongst the likes of Atlanta but I don't think it's convincing anyone except a few journalists. It will be a QB and that will mean Bortles or Manziel, and I think Bortles will be a better fit for Bill O'Brien's offense.
2   -       TRADE  -   Cleveland Browns  -  Johnny Manziel
With the first QB off the board, the race for Johnny Football begins in earnest. Jacksonville will be tempted, as will Tampa and Minnesota, but along with Oakland, they won't want to give up the picks. Cleveland have openly coveted Manziel and won't risk losing him. The franchise gets fresh life breathed into it. St Louis  gets pick 4 plus Cleveland's 2nd Rnd pick this year and next.
3   -       TRADE  -   Atlanta Falcons  -   Jadeveon Clowney
Atlanta, while sensibly holding back from giving up the farm to trade for number one, opt to pay the price for trading up three places to get the best pass rusher of the past decade at draft stage. Jacksonville extract pick 6, Atlanta's 2nd Rounder and a 3rd next year.
4  -        TRADE  -   San Francisco 49'ers  -  Sammy Watkins
Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack and the remaining QB's are on the board and while St Louis will be tempted by the former two, they'll also be acutely aware that they can move down again and stockpile picks in a very deep draft. San Francisco, armed with a plethora of picks and needing an elite weapon to compete with the Superbowl champion Seahawks and improving Arizona, will take their shot with Watkins. St Louis gets San Francisco's 1st and 2nd Rnd picks this year and next years first.
5  -       TRADE  - Minnesota Vikings  -  Derek Carr
Minnesota HAS to get a QB and swaps their 3rd Rounder and next year's 4th, plus pick 8 for Oakland's pick.
6  -      Jacksonville Jaguars   -   Khalil Mack
While the Jaguars will hope to follow in St Louis's footsteps and trade down again, I think this is where normality makes a reappearance. Jacksonville will be tempted by Bridgewater because they are so short at QB but they'll stick with BPA on their board which will most likely be Mack.
7  -   Tampa Bay Buccaneers   -  Mike Evans
BPA that fits a need, Tampa will be delighted if Evans makes it to seven.
8   -   Oakland Raiders   -   Taylor Lewan

First shock of the night. With Robinson and Matthews still on the board, Oakland take Lewan, a workout warrior who they feel is the best overall fit for their offensive line.

9   -   TRADE   -    Dallas Cowboys   -  Aaron Donald

Dallas sneak up for the player they most covet and give up pick 16 and their second rounder to the grateful Bills.

10  -   Detroit Lions   -   Greg Robinson

Detroit go with the best player on their board and will be pleasantly surprised to have a choice between Robinson and Matthews. Robinson is a better fit for them and has a higher ceiling.

11   -   Tennessee Titans   -   Anthony Barr

There's a reason so many mocks have Barr going to the Titans. It just makes too much sense. Perfect fit for a team that sorely needs a pass rusher.

12   -   TRADE   -   Miami Dolphins   -   Jake Matthews

Miami, desperately in need of an offensive line with stability and character can't resist trading up for a guy that has both in spades. Has to sacrifice pick 19 and their second rounder to get him though.

13   -   St Louis Rams   -   Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Rams fans finely see their team go up to the podium. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix would improve their secondary considerably and is an easy value pick at 13.

14   -   Chicago Bears   -   RaShede Hageman

You either love Hageman or you don't, he's extremely polarising. One team will fall in love with him, and I can see the Bears having a great deal of interest in a player that can add to the refurbishment of their defensive core.

15   -   Pittsburgh Steelers   -   Darqueze Dennard

BPA at position of need. Strong, physical beast of a corner who fits the Steelers like a glove.

16  -  Buffalo Bills   -   Eric Ebron

The Bills drop down and pick up the player they may well have drafted at nine anyway. Ebron gives EJ Manuel an extra safety blanket to go along with his young wide receiver corps.

17   -  Baltimore Ravens   -   Odell Beckham Jr

Baltimore does what it always does. Sits tight, drafts BPA, and somehow comes out with exactly what they need.

18  -  New York Jets   -   Justin Gilbert

The Jets need a CB in the worst way and Gilbert is, by consensus, one of the top prospects in this years class. They'd be delighted to get him at 18.

19   -   New York Giants  -   Louis Nix III

New York could go in a number of directions with this pick, and they're not averse to springing a surprise with their selections. Nix is an outstanding defensive lineman who is great value at 19.

20   -   Arizona Cardinals   -   Calvin Pryor

Arizona struggled mightily against Tight Ends last season and the versatile all-round Safety, Calvin Pryor would be an immediate upgrade.

21   -   Green Bay Packers   -  Jordan Matthews

Green Bay have had some turnover in their receivers and Aaron Rodgers needs someone to catch the ball. Matthews, an interesting prospect with great measurable would be a reach with great upside.

22   -   Philadelphia Eagles   -   Kyle Fuller

Philadelphia traditionally draft well, and Fuller would be a solid addition to their backfield.

23   -   TRADE   -   Jacksonville Jaguars   -   Teddy Bridgewater

With both Kansas and Cincinnati rumoured to have interest in Bridgewater, Jacksonville throws the dice and throws in their own second rounder and their third rounder to secure their franchise quarterback.

24  -   Cincinnati Bengals   -   Zack Martin

The Bengals have holes after free agency saw some influential players leave, and the versatile offensive lineman, Zack Martin would cure many ills.

25   -   San Diego Chargers   -   Bradley Roby

San Diego could go in a number of directions. I think Roby fills a need and will be amongst the BPA's by this stage.

26   -   Cleveland Browns   -   Marqise Lee

Having kept their second first-round pick in the trade to get Manziel, Cleveland then uses the pick to secure a new toy for him. Lee paired with Josh Gordon will revolutionise Cleveland's offensive threat from Day 1.

27   -   New Orleans Saints   -   Morgan Moses

The giant Moses will help keep the heat off Drew Brees and complete a fearsome offensive line for the Saints.

28   -   Carolina Panthers   -   Brandin Cooks

Carolina were one of the bigger losers in free agency, so the draft is vital for them in securing extra resource. Cooks will provide a speedy, reliable target for Cam Newton and expand their options.

29   -   New England Patriots   -   Austin Seferian-Jenkins

New England never quite go in the direction you expect. This year they appear enamoured with Seferian-Jenkins and have looked him over three times in workouts and visits. With Gronkowski unreliable and Hernandez gone, they need a tight end and ASJ has huge upside.

30   -   St Louis Rams   -   Joel Bitonio

St Louis makes an unspectacular but solid selection to beef up their offensive line options with the pick they acquired from San Francisco.

31   -   Denver Broncos   -   C.J. Moseley

What do you get for the team that has everything? The leader of the Alabama defence of course. Moseley fills a need in the middle of the Bronco's transitional linebacking corps.

32   -   Seattle Seahawks   -   Cyrus Kouandjio

An addition to Russell Wilson's protection detail who struggled with injuries at times last season. Kouandjio will add depth, size and a big potential upside.

The draft should be awesome this year with an awful lot of depth across the board. Trades could well be flying around, especially at the top of the round, and I can't wait to see how it plays out.


Monday, 5 May 2014

Blog 29 - 2014 NFL Draft - Big Board

2014 NFL Draft Big Board

by Andy Head

It's that time of the year when I go into Sports Geek overdrive for my favourite three days of the year, the NFL draft. Those of you who know me are probably aware that I love the NFL, but my favourite event of the season by far is the draft, even over the Superbowl (possibly because my team, the Arizona Cardinals are at least involved in the draft every year, unlike the Superbowl, or even, the playoffs).

A Big Board is where you rank all the available players in order of ability. Mine is also broken down by position as well and colour coded by round grade.

The difference between my rankings and the ones you will see in the media and from most draftniks is that mine are done "partially sighted". Being in the UK we don't see college games, and most of us don't have any college allegiances, so the first time I look at tape of the years draft crop is not until after the combine in February. I try not to read too many of the early season mock drafts so that when I look at the draftees I'm going in with as open a mind as possible. Obviously I'm not entirely unaware of the bigger names, with Clowney, Manziel, Bridgewater and Sam making headlines from thousands of miles away and guys like Matthews and Lewan who almost came out for the draft last year still fresh in the memory but I'd not seen anything of the likes of Robinson, Ebron, Watkins and Mack until the draft process began. I think that this gives me a unique perspective as I'm going solely on what I see on tape. I use the combine invitees as the basis for my Big Board and grab what tape I can online on each and every player.

As you'll see from my Big Board I have some wildly differing opinions from the norm. However, I'm not shying away from this and backing my own judgement. Last year I was a big fan of some unheralded players who then went on to be unexpected successes, guys such as Joe Fauria from UCLA who went on to be a spectacular early season success for the Detroit Lions. Terrance Williams was my second overall Wide Receiver but only heard his name called by Dallas in Rnd 3 before having a highly impressive debut season.Tyrann Mathieu, the troubled defensive back was also a big favourite of mine and he ended up among the Rookie of the Year candidate discussions. Likewise the year before I was a proponent of gambling on the undrafted Vontaze Burfict who has since gone on to be the highest tackling defender in the league. Equally I've had my failures (Matt Barkley's 1st Rnd Grade was a particular lowpoint!) but that's the fun of it.

Things that will jump out at those with a reasonable knowledge of this years draft class:

  • Johnny Manziel 2nd best player in the draft? - Yes, you read it correctly. Other than Clowney there is nobody in this draft I rate as highly as Manziel. He has thrown and run for thousands of yards in college, and the only knock anyone seems to have is that "he likes to party". Show me the college guy who doesn't. He can make every throw, take off as a running threat greater than any QB currently in the NFL, and he still hasn't had NFL coaching to make him even better. The guy is going to transfer a failing franchise.
  • Isaiah Crowell best running back? - On pure talent, he's well ahead of the opposition. Nobody else consistently runs between and through tackles for big gains like this kid. By all accounts he has a plethora of off-field issues, but with this much talent someone will have to take a chance. See Burfict and Matthieu.
  • Kony Ealy and Demarcus Lawrence only 4th and 5th Rnd picks? - I can only go on the tape I see and neither displayed anything like the skills that have seen most draftniks grade them as Rnd 1-2 prospects. Ealy's burst is overrated and he still looks a year and a few pounds away from fulfilling his potential to me. Lawrence was wildly inconsistent and tends to fly around at speed but, again, he's slight and often sloppy with his technique.
  • Khalil Mack only rated 18? - Mack is rated in most people's Top 5 players in the draft. Whilst I liked him, I didn't see anything that wowed me. I prefer both Van Noy and Barr as edge rushers, although I think Mack is more versatile. I'm sure he'll go on to have a great career, but I just don't think he's the elite prospect that the consensus does.
  • ILB - Preston Brown at 8, and CJ Mosley only 3rd Rnd? - Preston Brown impressed me more than any other linebacker except Van Noy. One of those occasions where a player unexpectedly jumps off the tape. As I'd never heard of him before I watched the tape, I did due diligence and watched extra games to see if I'd fluked a couple of exceptional games from an inconsistent player, but he was awesome every time. Big, imposing, and with a habit of always being close to the action, either making tackles himself or backing up the guy who was, I struggled to fault him. Until last week he had been broadly ignored by the draft community, although he has now moved into NFL Network guru Mike Mayock's top 5 ILB rankings and since then a few others have sneaked him onto their board, although still no higher than Rnd 4. Brown is my guy in this draft, and I'm certain he will catch on with whatever team is smart enough to select him. Mosley was  the leader of the Alabama defence so you would expect great things, but I could see nothing from his tape that made me think he would be anything than Just Another Guy in the NFL. He's a little slow, his anticipation is not always all it could be and there was nothing that he did well enough to make me see a first or second rounder.
  • Safeties - Jimmie Ward 3rd Rnd, Deone Bucannon 4th, and Dixon and Berhe 2nd Rnd? - Again, I go with the tape. Bucannon is another that flies around, but often misses tackles in his enthusiasm to make a hit for his own highlight reel. Ward just didn't pop. Dixon and Berhe however did, and whilst I don't see either as definite blue chip 1st Rounders, they both have great individual qualities and high consistency levels. Two teams could pick up some excellent value in the mid-late rounds with these guys.
  • Aaron Colvin Rnd 1, but Verrett and Gilbert Rnd 3? - Colvin would easily have been in Rnd 1 contention and would probably been the first CB off the board if he hadn't been injured. He hits like a linebacker, has great instincts and the speed and size to play anywhere across the backfield. Verrett suffers because of size. Whilst he has great technique, he gets outmuscled by average college wide receivers. He can't be seen as anything other than a risk at NFL level and this in turn effects his stock. Gilbert is many people's top CB and is still being mocked in the Top Ten picks. I think of him as a cake that has all the right ingredients but still doesn't taste quite right. He's another that seems to be amassing flashy film, but when you watch a whole game there's sloppiness there that will get exploited at the next level.
  • Sefarian-Jenkins at 5 overall? - Just can't see him being anything other than a star in the NFL. Huge size, great hands, awesome blocker. I know there are questions marks regarding attitude and durability but I haven't heard anything too disquieting and the tape is exceptional.

Hope you enjoy the Big Board. I will attempt a mock before Thursday to accompany this and then I'll crawl back into my bloghole for another year in all probability! Couldn't let Draft season come and go without throwing my neck on the line though!