Sunday, April 22, 2012

Packers Draft Preview

I've read the countless amateur NFL Draft sites, digested Milwaukee Journal Sentinel legend Bob McGinn's first batch of draft previews, even purchased Mel Kiper's draft report for the first time in many years, all in an effort to get a handle on who the Packers might target in this year's draft.

The one x-factor that research can never account for is general manager Ted Thompson's creative approach to building his roster. The Packers followed up a Super Bowl title with a 15-win season, including setting the record for most consecutive wins. You'd think Thompson would concentrate on maintaining a championship caliber roster, perhaps by plugging the team's surprising number of holes in free agency. Nope. Instead, Thompson has let one Pro Bowl player (Scott Wells), possibly two regular starters (Ryan Grant and Erik Walden) and a key backup (Matt Flynn) depart in free agency.

Though Thompson did make a rare move by signing an unrestricted free agent in Jeff Saturday to start at center, the Packers enter the draft with as many as three holes in their starting lineup if we presume that Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins' career is finished because of his neck injury. So once again the Packers will seek to improve by developing their own young players and adding competition through the draft. This year, Green Bay has 12 draft choices, which if I'm not mistaken, is the second most in the entire league. That means the Packers once again figure to have one of the youngest rosters in the league.

But it also makes this year's draft, especially the first three rounds, especially intriguing. It would appear to fans like me as if Thompson has the ammunition with so many extra draft choices to package a few picks together so he can trade up and take a player to fill a hole. But with so many starting positions -- defensive end, right outside linebacker, safety -- unfilled, it might make even more sense to hold on to the 12 picks. The more draft choices you have, the better yoru odds of coming with a few surefire contributors in your draft.

The Packers largest single need in order to remain a contending team is to improve their pitiful pass defense, which was one of the worst in NFL history last season. How did the defense go from leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title to setting records for futility? A number of factors, not the least of which was the record breaking offense, which gave the team huge leads week after week and forced opponents to chuck the ball a lot as they tried to play catch up. But there was also the fruitless pass rush, which produced just 27 sacks, Collins' injury, a nagging shoulder injury to Tramon Williams and the regressed play of nickel back Sam Shields. This feels more like a draft for an 8-8 team than a 15-2 team.

According to my research, the draft shapes up nicely to meet the Packers' needs at defensive end and outside linebacker, and not so great with their needs at safety and backup quarterback. It seems that as many as 10 players could be drafted by the Packers in round one to start at outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews. Here is a brief summary of those players based on my amateur research of draft sites, professional Packers media coverage and my own uneducated opinion of how they might fit on Green Bay's roster.

1. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina, probably the best edge rusher in the draft and the one player I think it would be worth coupling draft picks together for a trade up. Ingram's college highlights indicate he is best prepared to play in space and create havoc as a 3-4 OLB.

2. Shea McClellin, Boise State, a rugged farm boy who has the advantage of having been used in a variety of ways for the Broncos, which must appeal to defensive coordinator Dom Capers who likes to get creative with such versatile players. A month ago, his name was not really in the conversation but now there is serious question as to whether he'll be there at 28, so again, he may be an option for a trade up.

3. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, sort of the inverse of McClellin, is a guy everybody knew a lot about since he was a star at Bama, but now is inexplicably sliding down draft boards. He's tough, also versatile, and would seem like an every down player, because he can hold the point of attack against the run and create pass rush with his great strength. He's sliding, and I have a feeling he could be the pick if Green Bay stays at 28.

4. Vinny Curry, Marshall, if the previous three players are gone I wouldn't be at all surprised if Curry is the pick. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a story about him this week that said something to the effect of, "Curry could be Packers first round pick," so there's that. He plays his ass off, had a great college career and is super athletic, but some teams question whether he is best suited for a 3-4 OLB, so the question with him might be scheme not talent.

5. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois, was a "one-year wonder" at Illinois, but in that one year he led the nation in sacks with 16 and forced nine turnovers. He also seems to have the "fluidity" of movement you hear scouts say is needed for a 3-4 OLB. Packers fans remember preseason wonder Vic So'oto, who lacked that same attribute. He also seems hungry to succeed because he wants to provide for his parents, who are Haitian immigrants.

6. Donta Hightower, Alabama, I'm a little stumped on Hightower being continually mentioned as a possibility because he was a middle linebacker in college and Green Bay has three starting-caliber players at middle linebacker already. Having said that, Hightower was lined up outside and would seem to be talented enough to make the position switch. I'm not sure I would be comfortable teaching a guy a new position when there is such a clear need for an immediate upgrade. Now there are several other players on this list that were college defensive ends who would also be moving to a new position, but their main concentration was still rushing the pass rusher, whereas Hightower was only occasionally asked to do so for the Crimson Tide.

7. Nick Perry, USC, was an accomplished college player, who excelled at rushing the passer. I might have him ranked higher as a possibility except that he flat out said he didn't want to have to stand up and play OLB in the pros, so that has to hurt his stock for a team like the Packers who would ask him to do just that.

8. Andre Branch, Clemson, is a guy who I feel like is ranked a little lower than he deserves because people have bad memories of Clemson's pitiful Orange Bowl blowout loss to West Virginia. What the hell was that about? He could sneak into the first round and it wouldn't be shocking, but it would seem like 28 is just a tad too high for him.

9. Chandler Jones, Syracuse, is another guy who would be rated higher based solely on athletic ability, but again he appears to be best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. I wonder if he would be a good fit for the Bears? He has one brother in the NFL and another is a UFC champ, so he's got the blood lines. He also had a knee injury concern last season, which is always scary *coughs* Justin Harrell *coughs*

10. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia, would probably not be worthy of a first round selection, but could just maybe be there in the second round. He might be the best pure pass rusher of this group, but he's a little small and he's never played 3-4 OLB.

11. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma, is tough, athletic and a talented pass rusher, but he had huge problems in the classroom and his coaches were rumored to have told him to go ahead and skip his senior season to go pro. I don't view that as a very good sign.

Two possibilities after the first round: Johnathan Massaquoi, Troy, who was a pass rushing force as a junior and then asked to play the run and drop into coverage more as a senior, so he may be well equipped to play OLB in Capers scheme. Olivier Vernon, Miami, never lived up to his high school recruiting status, and then got caught in the Hurricanes most recent absurd scandal, but he could be had for pennies on the dollar and could translate into a 3rd or 4th round steal.

--

If the Packers don't go OLB in round one, because there just isn't great value at 28, and there is a good chance they could still get a good player in a later round, then here are the possibilities:

1. Derek Wolfe, defensive end, Cincinnati, is one of my favorite players in the draft and right now four days out, I hope he's the Packers pick. While we debate the poor college production of some first round talents, Wolfe notched 20 tackles for loss last season and was named Big East player of the year. He is strong at the point of attack and might be the best 5-technique defensive end who would fit Green Bay's 3-4 scheme. Ever since Cullen Jenkins left, there's been a huge void at this position for Green Bay and Wolfe seems like a guy who would be an immediate and immense upgrade. Kiper absolutely loves this guy, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective, but I think the facts support his high opinion. Wolfe would look great in green and gold.

2. Harrison Smith, safety, Notre Dame, could be a solid choice. The Packers have need at safety because of Collins' likely retirement and Smith has the size, speed and experience to start right away. He didn't create many turnovers in college, but last year's fill in starter Charlie Peprah was among the league leaders at safety with five interceptions and yet he was still a liability in coverage. I'd rather have a guy who tackles well and can match up with tight ends, but doesn't catch the ball all the time, than a sticky-fingered safety who can't cover at all.

3. Dontari Poe, defensive tackle, Memphis would be an option in a trade up, or if he happens to fall on draft day which seems possible. Poe is enormous, fast, and the strongest player in the draft. He didn't produce up to his size and strength in college, but he does play hard and seems coachable. I would not be at all disappointed if he was the pick and the Packers went with a massive starting 3 of Poe, BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett up front, yielding to pass russ specialists like Anthony Hargrove, and occupying blockers for the linebackers to make more plays. I could really envision this pick and would be pleased if it came together.

--

So there are my first round possibilities. I rank the team's needs as: 1. OLB, 2. DE, 3. safety, 4. cornerback, 5. running back, 6. backup quarterback, 7. center, 8. fullback.

I feel like some of those needs could be met if the young players already on the roster improve this offseason, and the recent trend for the Packers has been for that to happen. I look at TJ Lang, Desmond Bishop, Jordy Nelson and Marshall Newhouse as guys who have gotten better and stepped up when opportunity arose. If the Packers bank on other young players like Devon House, MD Jennings, Jamari Lattimore and Graham Harrell stepping up similarly this offseason, then there would be fewer holes on the roster and perhaps more leeway to package draft choices together to trade up for the right guy, like Ingram or Poe. Otherwise I'm happy if Thompson stays at 28 to pick someone like Wolfe and then turns to OLB in the second or third rounds.

Friday, January 13, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Divisional Round

Patriots over Broncos
I do think Denver is building a winning team, but not because of its quarterback. The Broncos have a talented defense a very good head coach in John Fox. The jury is still out on Tim Tebow, but his banged-up team has no chance in this one. I believe this is the kind of game that could have Tebow's most ardent supporters questioning their faith.
Patriots 35, Broncos 6

Ravens over Texans
Surely there's no way a third-string rookie quarterback could lead his team into Baltimore and beat the mighty Ravens, so I'm inclined to believe T.J. Yates and the Texans will get thumped. And yet, with their strong defense and ability to run the ball, I wonder if the Texans could be one Joe Flacco implosion away from shocking the football world. I'll take the Ravens in a close game over the Texans.
Ravens 15, Texans 14

Saints over 49ers
I do not understand why the Saints are only a 4 point favorite. The 49ers have such a poor offense, it won't matter if their defense keeps it close. In the end Drew Brees will make enough plays to ensure the Saints win by at least a touchdown.
Saints 31, 49ers 14

Packers over Giants
The Giants have a lot going for them. Their pass rush is ferocious. They're running the ball better than any team in the playoffs. And their recent history includes a stunning win over the Packers in Lambeau Field. And yet, I don't see enough ammunition to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers. I believe this is the game where we'll find out what the Packers are made of. Either their defense will betray their historic offense and the sparkling 15-1 record and 19-game winning streak will be quickly forgotten. Or a blowout will show doubters that this is a Packers team that could go down in history as an all-time great. My guess is the ball-hawking secondary makes a few plays and the Lambeau mystique, which frankly has faded since the late 90s, returns to give the Packers a convincing win.
Packers 40, Giants 21

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

NFL Playoff Predictions: Wild Card

It would be hard to root this week for the Detroit Lions, who have quietly made themselves into one of the league's most unlikable teams, which is no small feat considering the Lions have been off the radar for decades. But this week, I will be cheering for the Lions, because like many other Packers fans I view the New Orleans Saints as Green Bay's most dangerous potential opponent.

Other than that, I'm pretty much indifferent about the Wild Card round, though it does strike me that there are more "undeserving" playoff teams this season than usual.

Saints over Lions
In a massive blowout

Giants over Falcons
In an extremely close game, maybe one that goes to overtime

Texans over Bengals
Because Houston is at home and its running game wins the day

Steelers over Broncos
But I think that's as far as the Steelers can go without Mendenhall

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Natey Awards

R.E.M. retired before I was ever able to see them perform live. Sure they turned in some legendary performances on television and their live albums give me a sense of what an R.E.M. show mighta sounded like in Athens in the early 80s.

But barring a reunion show, which I suppose is sort of obligatory for old bands, hearing Radio Free Europe live is gonna have to stay on my bucket list.

In many ways, the last year in music was defined by R.E.M. Not only did the band release a perfect greatest hits record to follow up its retirement, but the same do-it-yourself ideals that turned an indie band from Athens in to arena rock Gods could be found on other albums released in 2011.

Favorite Album
Bon Iver (self titled)
The same questions of staying power that wrongly followed R.E.M.'s early career have also been directed at Bon Iver after their instant classic debut For Emma, Forever Ago. Music critics wondered if Justin Vernon could make music as beautiful and lasting as Emma, once he washed the stink of deer jerky off his flannel and left his secluded cabin. His self-titled sophomore album proves the answer is yes.
Bon Iver sounds nothing like its predecessor, and yet it still sounds like Bon Iver. That's because Vernon -- like Michael Stipe before him -- has a sort of gripping voice that comes around once a generation. Vernon's layered vocals sound like a church choir and his instrumentation captures the genius as Phil Collins on his A game. This album is not perfect, and still sounds a tad dreary at times, but on a slow, cloudy day, nothing soundtracked 2011 for me better than Bon Iver.
Runner-up: Youth Lagoon, Panda Bear, The Features

Favorite Debut
Youth Lagoon (The Year of Hibernation)
This was the album I listened to the most this year by a wide margin. Educated music experts in the media tell me this is bedroom pop, which I surmise is supposed to me it sounds small and insular. On the contrary, Hibernation sounds uplifting and hits crescendos that big studio albums couldn't touch. It's hard for me to pick my favorite song on this album, but I might go with 17, a song about the kind of sage motherly advice that we don't realize how brilliant it was until we're well out of our teens (When I was 17, mother said to me, 'Don't stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die.')
Like R.E.M.'s early work, this album's greatest accomplishment is that it hints at more brilliant music to come. When Youth Lagoon gets big studio production help, I am confident he won't disappoint.
Runner up: Smith Westerns

Favorite Nashville Album
The Features (Wilderness)
Even though they may fall well short of earning what they deserve, which is to be one of the biggest rock bands in the country, I hope the Features never stop making great records. They continue their hot streak on Wilderness, which is just as clever, just as raucous and just as catchy as their previous work. If you have ever dated a money grubbing social climber who uses the phrase "old money" with ease , then I think the song Golden Comb will stay with you.
Runner up: The Black Keys (they're a Nashville band now) and Those Darlins (although I had greater expectations for their sophomore release)

Favorite Video
Superchunk (Crossed Wires) and The National (Exile Vilify)
I posted both videos below. The National held a YouTube contest for fans to create their own video to the single, which was one of my favorite songs this year. Superchunk continued to outlive its own apparent shelf life with one of the funniest videos in recent memory attached to a really great song. Incidentally, I tried this same collar camera for my dog Jackson and the video footage found him attending Michele Bachmann rallies.

Favorite Song
Lana Del Rey attracts the sort of irrational hatred from hipsters and anti-hipsters that actually attracts me to her music more. I find Vampire Weekend more amazing because of the unjustified backlash their young career has brought on.
First her faults: LDR makes music that is criticized as contrived: her theatrics can come across as over the top and the whole creating a music persona thing apparently rubs indie purists the wrong way. Considering her career began as an aspiring folkster singer/songwriter named Lizzy, I get it. But, just listen to the song Video Games. The lyrics are dark and resonant. They leave much to interpretation: is she singing about a dweeby boyfriend with contempt or is she offering a sort of existential ballad that says, if life is going to be nothing more than playing video games and getting high, you might as well enjoy it. And then there's her voice. If you just close your eyes to avoid the whole gangster Nancy Sinatra shtick and listen to her song, you'll see there's something worth hearing.
Runner ups: Adele (Someone Like You), The National (Exile Vilify), Panda Bear (Last Night at the Jetty)

Favorite Concert
Animal Collective in Santa Cruz
Around this time last year, Animal Collective, my absolute favorite band, announced a mini tour through North America. One of the shows was to be at the Henry Miller Library, a miniature venue where concert-goers are encouraged to car pool because there are so few parking spaces, on the Pacific Ocean cliffs of Big Sur. There were a mere hundreds of tickets available and the promoters promised the show would sell out in minutes. My wife, being both awesome and an unabashed adventure fiend, practiced logging on to the site and purchasing the tickets so that when the clock struck 10 a.m. on that fateful Tuesday morning, she would know the right steps. In order to weed out scalpers, the venue allowed each ticket-buyer to bring one companion, but admission would only come with a photo ID and the same credit card used to buy the tickets. This was going to be a small show for real fans at an amazing venue.
When the time came, I was at work, where I tried unsuccessfully to purchase tickets from my office computer. But Ali's practice paid off. Not only did she somehow defy the odds and manage to score tickets, the serial numbers for our purchase were 001 and 002, leading us to surmise she might have been the first person to get through and buy tickets to the show.
The harder part came next: planning a trip from Nashville to California. Ali would drive with our 7-month old son and her mom across country in our little Nissan. I would fly later in the week and meet them in Los Angeles for a drive up the Pacific coast. But, as cruel fate would have it, there would be no show at Big Sur. A rock slide left roads leading to the town impassable and forced the band to choose between canceling their concert or switching venues. Thankfully, they chose the latter.
The show actually took place at a club in Santa Cruz, an hour north of Big Sur. Santa Cruz proved to be a likable coastal town in its own right and the show turned out to be no less amazing than I had anticipated.
We were some of the first fans to arrive, putting us in the front row for two hours of exquisite nonstop noise from one of the best bands in the world in its prime. There was no forced witty banter between songs, no inane conversations, no shouts of 'It's good to be in Santa Cruz!' My recollection is the band barely paused before launching into each song. Although much of the set consisted of new songs, we did get to hear favorites like Did You See the Words and Summertime Clothes.
Because I was within arm's reach of both Avey Tare and a speaker taller than Ali, I was left with a piercing ringing in my ears for the next three days, like the sound of a cymbal splash after a Panda Bear attack. I love the way it came together. I love that we traveled across the country simply to see my favorite band. I loved it all.

Favorite Musical Moment
Ali and her brothers at the Commodore
The circumstances of this show deserve to be kept private, but Ali, her brothers and some of their friends had the opportunity to play an important show in front of important music industry people earlier this year. The Commodore was kind enough to schedule a time for the show at the last minute, and the venerable songwriter venue was packed full of friends and fans of good music. At the end of the sharp 5-song set, the audience rewarded the band with a standing ovation, a true rarity for jaded Nashville music fans at drab songwriter venues. The band even performed an encore. The glow in my wife's eyes as they were called back up to do one more song is something I'll never forget. To see so much preparation, so much hope, so much optimism rewarded so honestly by fans who truly wanted to hear one more song, it was my favorite musical moment of 2011. I may never get to see R.E.M. or a half dozen other bucket-list bands live, but that show, that moment during the standing O, was a snapshot of my year in music.

Superchunk:



The National:



Lana Del Rey:



Animal Collective:



My wife and family: