Friday, May 2, 2008

Draft dodging - the Velvet Bear

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe exactly what happened on Saturday in words that anyone who wasn’t there can understand. I can’t. There simply is nothing on earth like the NFL Draft (even the NBA Draft is different) and there has never been an NFL Draft like this one.

Going into too much detail about each individual player would be pointless, because at this stage most of the 252 players drafted are merely very good college players and we have no way of knowing if they will make it in the NFL itself. The 252nd player drafted is always referred to in the media as ‘Mr Irrelevant’, which strikes me as a little harsh. Then again, if this year’s holder of the title, a linebacker named David Vorbora, can’t use that to motivate him then he probably doesn’t belong in professional sport.

Everything started very tamely. The Dolphins actually signed their #1 pick, Jake Long, almost a week before the Draft began. The first six picks then fell pretty much as everyone expected. Chris Long went to the Rams at #2, which left Matt Ryan to go to the Falcons at 3, Darren McFadden to the Raiders at 4, then Glenn Dorsey went to the Chiefs and Vernon Gholston to the Jets. So far so good, especially as I picked them as the first six choices last week.

And then all hell let loose. Of the next 25 picks, no fewer than 17 of them were traded between teams. It started tamely enough, with the Patriots and the Saints swapping places at 7 and 10. But then the Jaguars traded up a massive 18 places to make sure of getting the defensive tackle they wanted and the rest of the first round turned into a swapmeet. What is even more surprising is that two teams – the Packers and the Eagles - traded out of the first round altogether. With another two teams not in the first round at all (the Colts and the Browns, who ended up with no picks before round 5), this means that the chaos was being wrought by only a few of the 32 sides.

Biggest winner in the draft was undoubtedly quarterback Joe Flacco. Having traded down by swapping with the Jaguars, the Ravens then traded back up again to get Flacco, who most people rated as a second round choice. In doing so they bypassed two more highly rated QBs in Brian Bohme and Chad Henne. There will be a lot of pressure on Flacco as a result. He comes from a small college who didn’t play in the highest reaches of college football and indeed switched to there from Pittsburgh, where he couldn’t get past the incumbent QB to get a game.

Bohme and Henne did quite well out of this, though. Both went in the second round, with Bohme going to the Packers and Henne to the Dolphins. Bohme won’t start the season, but with Aaron Rogers never having started an NFL game either and Brett Favre retired, anything could happen. Henne, on the other hand, has every chance of starting at a Dolphins side who went through four quarterbacks last season.

Unlike Brady Quinn last year, there were no real losers in the first round. Highly rated offensive tackles Brandon Albert and Jeff Otah both saw themselves passed over for Chris Williams, but this was due to the frankly bizarre way the Bears ran their Draft. It was as if Chicago was determined not to take any player that they had been linked with, or strengthen any position where anyone else thought they had a weakness. Which means it’s Rex Grossman time again this season, I’m afraid.

The only other player to drop down the Draft was running back Rashard Meadenhall. Given that the first round was almost all about linemen rather than any other position, you might think this was a hard trick to pull off. In fact, though, he was the victim of some fancy manoeuvring by the Cowboys. They had two first round choices and used them to take a different running back, Felix Jones, and a cornerback, Mike Jenkins. Earlier in the week, they had signed the notorious Tennessee Titans player Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, who is still suspended by the NFL after being arrested no fewer than 12 times during his first two seasons in the league. That suspension is due for review at some point in the summer. Pacman is a cornerback who is also a brilliant kick returner. Jenkins is, as stated, a cornerback and Felix Jones is also a brilliant kick returner. What the Cowboys have done is to use their first two picks to buy themselves some insurance against Pacman’s suspension not being lifted. I can’t work out if this is brilliant forward thinking or really really dumb – what do they do with the two guys if Pacman is allowed to play? They might have wasted first round money on two players they never use.

The Bengals were also in the insurance game. The bloodyminded stand-off between the club and wide receiver Chad Johnston looks like it could end with the latter not playing at all in 2008, so they used their first two picks in the second round to take wide receivers. (Oddly, no wide receivers were picked at all in the first round, which hasn’t happened since 1990).

If you want an idea of how chaotic the whole thing was, at one point the Jets actually ended up trading with themselves, giving away a lower round spot and then getting it back again in a later trade.

Two names to watch out for – Tom Zbikowski and Jack Ikegwuonu, now at the Chiefs and Eagles respectively. Just because it will be fun watching commentators try and pronounce them.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No point flogging what now? - PremCorrespondent

Well who’d have thought it? The dead horse that was the Premier League three weeks ago has sprung to life and started to charge through the field like a thoroughbred.

At the bottom of the table Fulham and Bolton had seemingly already joined Derby in a division below West Brom for next season. But the Wanderers have risen from the ashes and accidentally dragged a reluctant Fulham with them.

Bolton’s 1-1 draw in front of new Spurs record signing Luka Modric (not from Basingstoke presumably) was among the least remarkable results of the weekend. The home side has long since gone on holiday, or in some cases to Newcastle to prematurely discuss terms.

However, the scrappy goal that earned that point topped an amazing turnaround in form that has seen Bolton jump to 16th.

While that was an unremarkable game, the opposite was true in Manchester where City blew a two goal lead that at one stage seemed set to formally relegate poor Fulham, who eventually won away from home 3-2.

While Roy Hodgson knows his side are still in trouble, he also now knows that one more win could now keep them up. And with a visit by Birmingham City coming up, that win may yet happen.

That Bolton and Fulham do not yet have an R beside their names on the league table is thanks to the utter inadequacy of Birmingham City and Reading.

Both sides have finished the campaign so badly that it is hard to find a redeeming feature in either. Birmingham let slip a 2-0 lead against Liverpool’s reserves while Reading successfully defended a 0-0 position against Wigan. And frankly those two facts sum those sides up better than anything I could add.

Above those sides remain the sadly unlikely now to be relegated Wigan. Their present haul of 37 points is likely to be their final hall after 38 games. But for them that should suffice.

So to the other end of the table where there came a different order of excitement.

Bad refereeing; fists being thrown; stewards being kicked; and racism directed towards players. Stamford Bridge returned to its 80s heritage for the showdown with Manchester United. But unlike the 80s the home side played quite well and won.

Players fought with each other, with officials, with ground staff, and with a guy in a burger stand who looked at them funny while he wiped down his grill. More important than any of that though was that Chelsea went level on points with the former Champions-elect. With just two games to go the Red Devils will probably still claim the title, but it is no longer certain.

And in games now only being staged because of contractual obligations…

Aston Villa failed to loosen Everton’s grip on their well earned Uefa Cup spot as the teams drew 2-2.

Blackburn beat Pompey at home 1-0, finishing off what little chance the south coast side had left of earning a European spot in the league.

West Ham drew 2-2 against Newcastle as Keegan’s side came back from two down and Ljunberg refused to play on with a cracked rib.

And finally it was Arsenal’s turn to whip Derby, recording a 6-2 victory that begs the question how bad will Arsene Wenger let his defence get before studying some old videos and remembering that Tony Adams and Martin Keown were worshiped too?

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