Even with the NFL draft already two weeks behind us, most of the Pittsburgh Steelers fans that I've spoken with recently are still abuzz over the nine rookies picked during those seven rounds. With more holes than usual to fill, fans expect early-round selections like Jarvis Jones and Le'veon Bell to step up and make immediate impacts for the Steelers. While this is certainly possible, and in all likelihood probable considering the team's needs at outside linebacker and running back, the one rookie who could make the most contributions is one that didn't even get to hear his name called by commissioner Roger Goodell.
That would be undrafted free agent Reggie Dunn from the University of Utah. Though listed as a wide receiver for the Utes, the 5' 10", 175 lb Dunn truly made a name for himself as one of the absolute best kick returners in the nation last year. In fact, he set an NCAA single-season record by returning four kickoffs 100+ yards for touchdowns. What is even more impressive is that he did so with only 10 attempts. You see, after returning two of those touchdowns against California in the eighth game of the season, opposing teams knew enough to stop kicking the ball to Dunn, preferring to send their kicks out of bounds. Dunn also holds the NCAA career record for 100+ yard kickoff returns for touchdowns with five.
Dunn was able to accomplish these feats due to his world-class speed. He was timed at 4.22 and 4.26 in the 40-yard dash at the Utah pro day on March 20th. To put that into perspective for Steeler fans, Mike Wallace (widely regarded as one of the fastest players ever to wear the Black & Gold) ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2009.
"I have to say my first two steps are explosive, but for me, I think the key would have to be my speed and then translating that with my vision," Dunn said in an interview with Desert News reporter Brad Rock on May 2nd.
So while Dunn has the talent and the college pedigree to immediately step in as the primary returner for the Steelers, none of that would have mattered if the team already had an established player in that role. They do not. Last season, Chris Rainey returned 39 of the team's 43 kickoffs, none of them for touchdowns. He is now gone, having been released by the Steelers early in the offseason due to an alleged domestic violence incident. Receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders shared return duties the previous two seasons, but both are expected to be offensive starters in 2013 and head coach Mike Tomlin prefers not to use his starters in the return game if he can help it. That leaves recently signed free agent Larod Stephens-Howling and possibly sixth round pick Justin Brown as Dunn's main competition for the job. Brown, however, has limited experience as a returner and while Stephens-Howling had some success in the role with the Arizona Cardinals, he lacks the uncanny speed and explosiveness of Dunn.
Even so, Tomlin is well known for his desire for players with "position flexibility", and both Brown and Stephens-Howling are able to fill an offensive position as well as being a returner. Dunn, on the other hand, would strictly be a return specialist. Still, that may not eliminate him from landing a spot on the final 53-man roster, as there is a recent precedence for a return specialist making the team. In the 2009 preseason, little-known Stefan Logan made some noise by returning five kickoffs for 185 yards and nine punts for 191 yards and a touchdown. This production landed him on the regular season roster, and he would go on to set a Steelers record with 1,466 kickoff return yards for the year.
The Steelers have also had monster success in recent years from undrafted players like James Harrison and Willie Parker. History could very well repeat itself this year with Dunn, and he is certainly a name that fans will want to keep an eye on this preseason.
Sheldon Rodgers is a Pittsburgh native and is the third in a fourth generation Black & Gold family. He has been published in the Butler Eagle, FantasyPharaoh.com, and multiple other newspapers and websites.
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Trent Richardson aren't walking through that door.
We got spoiled in the 2012 NFL draft with all of the skill-position talent that went early, and that simply wasn't the case Thursday night. Last year, 11 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers went in the first 32 picks. This year, that number was five. Even more striking, four skill guys went in the top five picks last year, and zero went Thursday night. And for the first time in 50 years, a running back wasn't taken in the first round.
But you know what I'm going to tell you next. There are lots of terrific skill-position prospects going into the NFL. And in fantasy, we're interested both in the talent of the player and his landing spot. Certainly, I'm going to have more to write about this weekend, after Days 2 and 3 of the draft, but let's dig into the skill guys who were taken Day 1.
8. Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: The Rams traded up to get the best combination of speed and quickness in this draft. Having lost Danny Amendola to free agency, they had a vacancy in the slot, and Austin will start in three-WR sets from the first game of his pro career. The worry, of course, is that he's 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds and will be a durability question forever, because folks will worry that one hit could end his career. But I'm of the opinion that it's a risk worth taking. He was ultraproductive at West Virginia, can get open in space seemingly at will, and is an utter nightmare when he breaks a tackle. The Rams will move him all over the field, much as the Green Bay Packers do with Randall Cobb and the Minnesota Vikings did withPercy Harvin. There's suddenly lots to love about the St. Louis receiving corps: Chris Givens is aMike Wallace-esque burner on the outside who makes deep strikes; Brian Quick was the 33rd overall pick in the draft last year and could be the starting flanker; the team signed freakish Jared Cook to be its starting TE; and Austin will torch safeties and linebackers if he gets them in single coverage. But the Rams had a terrible offensive line again in 2012, and Sam Bradford has been sacked 71 times in 26 games during the past two seasons. Jake Long hopes to solidify the left tackle position, but his health is a big question. I like the pick for St. Louis, but you can't consider any Rams receiver a must-start fantasy player.
[+] EnlargeJ. Meric/Getty ImagesEJ Manuel was a surprise as the first quarterback selected, and it may take time for him to be a factor in Buffalo.
16. EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills: A head-scratcher. A complete head-scratcher. I'm not saying I'm positive Manuel isn't going to be a good NFL quarterback. But I'm close to positive he's not ready to play as a rookie. It's true that he's 6-5, 237 pounds, putting him inCam Newton-size territory. He's charismatic and has major-college experience, but as a thrower, it's just not there. Florida State essentially had to remove half the field from its pass plays, and when he needed to make a big throw last season, it always seemed as if he tossed it into the ground. No question, as an athletic and arm-talent specimen, Manuel is elite, but he's so raw. His completion rate was 68 percent last season, but if West Virginia's Geno Smith had mildly inconsistent accuracy at times last season, Manuel's accuracy was an EKG. His pocket presence and footwork stink. It's hard to say this about the first quarterback taken in the draft, but at first blush I still think there's a pretty good chance Kevin Kolb starts Week 1. For fantasy, eventually, maybe Manuel has Newton's upside, but I don't see it in '13. More than anything, though, this pick feels like a total misread of the market by general manager Buddy Nix. I can't believe the Bills couldn't have gotten Manuel in the second round.
21. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: I'm not saying Eifert can't play. He's a big-bodied,Greg Olsen-type who made his Notre Dame QBs look good with his athleticism and leaping ability. But Jermaine Gresham already plays in Cincy. True, Gresham was ProFootballFocus' worst-rated TE last season, but I don't think this somehow means Gresham is utterly done with the Bengals. Just three years ago, he was the No. 21 overall pick, and I know many people will point to theNew England Patriots' mode of having two threatening TEs, but in this case I have two problems with that analysis. First, Andy Dalton doesn't inspire enough confidence to make me believe he's going to get both guys the ball a ton. Second, and more importantly, Gresham is an awful run-blocker, and Eifert is at best a work in progress as a blocker. In other words, I think there's a pretty big duplication with these two TEs, whereas Rob Gronkowski is an in-line killer while Aaron Hernandez is the move guy. Gresham and Eifert are both move guys. Maybe Gresham is on his way out, but if he's not, this is a situation to avoid for fantasy.
27. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: You hear Anquan Boldin as an equivalent for Hopkins, but I think he's a lot like Roddy White: a tough, ultracompetitive player with great hands, attitude and toughness and better game speed than you expect (and faster than Boldin, who's thicker and 10 pounds heavier). Most importantly for Hopkins' fantasy stock, he lands opposite Andre Johnson, where Houston hopes it finally has found the supplemental receiver it has been seeking for the better part of a decade. Lestar Jean is still a project, Kevin Walter is gone, DeVier Posey tore an Achilles in the playoffs, and Keshawn Martin had an inconsistent rookie season and at best may settle in as a slot player. I'm not trying to say Hopkins is Roddy White right away. But he's polished enough to take advantage of some single coverage in his rookie year. I consider him a viable deep-league sleeper who'd benefit in a major way, should the injury-prone Johnson miss time.
29. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: By the time we get to the end of the first round, taking a project is acceptable, especially for a team that paid big money to Greg Jennings to be its No. 1 WR. But for '13, this isn't a great fit. Because the best their WR corps offers besides Jennings is Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright, the Vikings really needed a player who could contribute right away, and Patterson is not it. Think about Stephen Hill and Brian Quick last season. Like Patterson, their raw physical tools are eclipsed by their overall inexperience. In Patterson's case, the problems come with his ball skills and attention to detail. He has too many drops, catches too many passes with his chest, and doesn't run good enough routes to consistently produce in the NFL as a rookie. Again, that's not me trashing this pick, because Patterson has 4.42 speed at 6-2, 216 pounds. He eventually could be Demaryius Thomas, but he's not going to be a standard-league producer for fantasy right away
The 2013 NFL Draft is now just a day away, and in light of recent events, it really couldn’t have come soon enough. The thoughts and prayers of everyone here at The Pharaoh goes out to those effected in Boston, and we are all very happy that the draft is here to help take our minds off of this tragedy.
While some will say football is just a game, we say that it transcends such a simple definition and is so much more…it unites us as a country, and inspires us in its competition and in the years of hard work and dedication that it takes to reach its professional ranks. And this year, unlike any other, it helps as to forget that there is evil in this world, in our nation, and sometimes in our very own neighborhoods.
But enough with the heaviness…let’s focus on the draft. It’s been over a month since our first Mock, and much has changed since then. We fully expect there to be a lot of trading in the first round, but since these are absolutely impossible to predict we will keep the teams in their current draft slots. When we take a look back on this after the draft is over, we will evaluate ourselves on just how many of the first 32 players chosen actually go in the first round and not necessarily on whether they ended up on the same teams.
Fantasy Pharaoh 2013 NFL Mock Draft
With the combine well over, and with Pro Days and Free Agency well under way, this looked like a good time to take a stab at our first Mock Draft. April 25th is still over a month away, and things could certainly change in that time but the following is list is as good a guess as anybody’s as to who will fall where.
Pharaoh’s Focus – Combine Edition
The Pharaoh had planned on releasing his first Mock Draft by now, but then decided it would be best to wait until after the combine before predicting which players would fall where. The fact is, too many NFL times adjust their draft boards based upon the tests performed at the combine. It makes little sense, as the game tape on college players should tell you everything you need to know about them. And yet, every year there are players that are drafter much higher than they should be after posting impressive workout numbers at the draft. Last year it was Dontari Poe, the DT who was drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs. It was widely commented on that he was a player on film that looked as if he didn’t give a solid effort on every play, but after recording a 4.98 40 time and posting 44 reps on the bench press he was taken in that lofty spot by the Chiefs. In 16 games as a rookie, Poe compiled only 38 total tackles, with 10 of those being assists, with zero sacks.
Probably the most infamous example of the combine elevating a player well above his true value was Matt Jones, the former Arkansas quarterback who was trying to break in as an NFL wide receiver at the combine. He did more than just break in. The 6’4” 242 lb. Jones set the football world on fire by running the 40 in 4.37 seconds. An admittedly impressive feat for someone of that size, but we’re talking about an athlete trying to make a position change with little to no experience at the new position, and trying to do so at the professional ranks where the competition is the highest in the world. Apparently, this mattered little to the Jacksonville Jaguars who drafted him with the 21st pick in the first round of the 2005 draft. Jones lasted 4 seasons for the Jags before substance abuse problems derailed his career and forced him out of the game. While he did amass 761 yards in his last season, he surely never amounted to the first round draft status that Jacksonville bestowed upon him and ended up being an embarrassment to the team.
While watching the combine proceedings on the NFL Networks, their announcers reiterated time and again that the results of the drills should simply be used to tell scouts whether or not they need to go back and check the tape on players to see why these results were better or worse than what they had expected. But the examples used above, with players like Poe and Jones, clearly illustrate that the combine results alone are often what entices NFL teams to pull the trigger on certain guys. So again, with that in mind, the Pharaoh will wait until all is said and done in Indianapolis before releasing the first Mock Draft.
Now, the Pharaoh will take a closer look at some of the things and some of the players that caught his eye in the first few days of the combine:
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Aside from Manti Te’o, Smith has been the most talked about prospect going into the combine. There is speculation from pundits that he could be drafted anywhere from the first overall pick to out of the first round altogether. So Smith had his work cut out for him at the combine, trying to prove to evaluators that he was worthy of possibly going to the Chiefs with that first pick. It seems likely now that he very well could hear his name called first by Commissioner Goodell come April 25th. Look, the Chiefs need a quarterback in the worst way. They very well may trade for the 49ers Alex Smith, and if they do then obviously they will not have a need for Smith. Until that trade happens, though, Smith is their guy. He posted a 4.59 40 time, nearly as good as the times that were posted in recent years by Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. While Smith is more of a pocket passer than those two, proving his speed at the combine will at least assure coaches that he has the potential to run some spread plays or simply be effective while on the move. Finally, let’s compare Smith’s stats in his last year at West Virginia with Donovan McNabb’s stats in his last year at Syracuse, when Andy Reid last drafted a QB in the first round.
Smith: 71.2% completion, 4,205 passing yards, 42 passing TD, 6INT, 151 rushing yards, 2 rush TD
McNabb: 62.5%, 2,134 passing yards, 22 passing TD, 5 INT, 438 rushing yards, 8 rush TD
The Pharaoh doesn’t know about you, but I would have no problem taking Smith as my QB of the future. It should also be noted here that, true to the post-draft chatter, no other QB showed much of a wow-factor. EJ Manuel and Matt Barkley are both gaining some momentum, but neither looks to guys that can come in day one of their rookie years and begin producing like RGII, Luck and Wilson did a year ago.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
The entire USC team took a step back in 2012, and Woods in particular seemed to be overshadowed by fellow wide out Marqise Lee. But let’s not diminish just how good Woods was in his career as a Trojan. In 2011, he was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award after finishing the year in the top ten nationally in receptions (111), receiving yards per game (107.7, 1,292 total yards), and receiving touchdowns (15). Those 111 catches beat Keyshawn Johnson’s Pac-12 and school record, and the 17 receptions in the season opener versus Minnesota were the most for any FBS receiver in 2011.
Though he posted a comparatively slow 40 time on Sunday (4.51), he wasn’t known as a speed guy. He has a nice size, great hands and is a strong character guy that will fit in well with any NFL locker room. He will be drafted somewhere in the 2nd round, and should start from day one for whichever team grabs him.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Sticking with the Mountaineers, Austin was extremely impressive in his workouts on Sunday. Originally clocked at 4.25 in the 40, this time was later changed to an official 4.34, still ridiculously fast for someone who is also known for his quickness and elusiveness. He also posted 14 reps in the bench press, a very solid number for an athlete who stands just 5’8” and weighs about 175 lbs.
This size remains the only knock on Austin, who has been productive in his college career as a wide out, punt and kick returner and even tailback. He was being talked about as a Wes Welker type slot receiver, but that seems to be selling him short. He reminds the Pharaoh of Percy Harvin, a do-it-all game changer who will revitalize a team’s return game, while being able to spread the field with his deep speed and as well as causing match-up problems in the slot. He has the potential to go late in the first round in April, but certainly would be a highly coveted prospect if he lasts into the second round.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
The Pharaoh knew that Barner was fast while playing at Oregon, so his 4.52 time in the 40 on Sunday was a little surprising (as was the 4.51 put up by Giovani Bernard). Still, Barner came it at a solid 196 lbs., around 15 lbs. heavier than his collegiate playing weight. He looked more capable of taking an NFL pounding than I may have thought a few months ago, and perhaps he is now ready to run between the tackles more than he did in college, when he had a tendency to try and bounce everything to the outside. He also brings accomplished kick return skills, and is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield. While he still has knocks on him for his fumbling and pass protection liabilities, he should make for a more pro-ready back than last year’s 2nd round pick LaMichael James.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison has never been afraid to take an unpopular stand.
But the avid gun collector said Wednesday that the fault for last weekend’s murder-suicide in Kansas City was with Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and not the gun he used to kill his girlfriend and then himself.
“It’s a big issue as far as what happened and everything, it’s a sad story,” Harrison told USA Today’s Jim Corbett. “But the fact of it being part of the guns. . . . They want to say it’s guns and all this other stuff. It’s ridiculous. He did it. And he alone is responsible for it. It has nothing to do with the guns.
“Somebody goes out and kills somebody with a knife, you going to blame the knife? Somebody goes out and kills somebody by pushing somebody in front of a train, you going to start cutting off the guy’s arms? You going to start blaming people’s arms now? It’s the person who did it who is responsible.”
Harrison said he’s long been “fascinated” by guns, and that he owns around 20. He was pictured in Men’s Journal magazine with a pair of handguns across his chest, and insists that individuals need to be able to protect themselves.
“It’s not an athlete thing, it’s a human thing,” Harrison said. “If you go and say, ‘All right, now we’re going to take guns away from everybody, and the only person who is going to have guns are the police.’ . . . if that was a good thing and that’s actually how it would go, then that would work.
“But the two people who are going to have the guns then are the police and the criminals. So now I know I can break into every house in the country that doesn’t have a gun in it because they’re no longer allowed to carry handguns. That’s not going to solve things. It’s only going to cause more problems.”
Harrison’s stance, and taking it today, might not be considered particularly sensitive. And many won’t agree.
But the only Amendment that comes before the Second is the First, giving him the right to his opinion as much as others who have used the tragedy in Kansas City as a chance to win political ground from the other direction.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Despite playing what many consider the NFL’s most diva position, Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon has an aversion to the spotlight. Generally quiet and shy, he says it would make him “very happy” to never do a media interview, no matter how much success the high-profile rookie has in America’s most popular sport.
So five weeks after the Jaguars made him the No. 5 overall pick, the last thing Blackmon wanted was to be sitting solemnly at a packed news conference to explain being arrested on an aggravated DUI charge. He registered a blood alcohol level of .24 and .26, three times the legal limit in his native Oklahoma.
Justin Blackmon wrote the book on epic bad starts, but the Jaguars wide receiver is turning things around in Jacksonville. (AP Photo)
Just as embarrassing, he was forced to sit there as coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Gene Smith publicly admonished him for his actions. Seven weeks later, Blackmon pleaded guilty to the charge and avoided jail time. It was a painful way to begin an NFL career.
“I grow up from everything, stuff happens,” said Blackmon. “If it doesn’t kill you, it does make you stronger. Personally, I know it’s not the end of the world. You got to try and use it to your advantage, get better and learn from it, make things better.”
Things didn’t get better. Blackmon, drafted with the expectation of providing an immediate upgrade to an awful receiving corps, struggled in the first half of the season. He averaged only three catches for 28 yards per game, which coincided with second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert also making only modest progress.
While second-year receiver Cecil Shorts has surprisingly blossomed into the team MVP, a patient Blackmon impressed Mularkey by not getting discouraged over his pedestrian numbers. For weeks, the Jaguars’ first-year coach kept insisting Blackmon’s work ethic and practice habits would lead to a breakthrough.
It finally came in the Jaguars’ toughest matchup, a road game against the Texans’ stingy defense. When Gabbert was forced to exit after the first series with a shoulder/forearm injury, which has since put him on injured reserve, Chad Henne took over and allowed Blackmon to instantly flourish.
Blackmon made seven catches for 236 yards and a touchdown on Houston, about doubling his production for the entire season to that point. Though Blackmon downplayed the monster game, which Jacksonville lost 43-37 in overtime, the Jaguars were ecstatic because they kept waiting for evidence to validate him being a top-five pick.
“Confidence-wise, [the 236-yard receiving day] didn’t do anything because I’m always confident in myself,” said Blackmon. “I guess it proved things more for other people than it did for me.”
Tied for the NFL’s worst record at 2-10, the Jaguars will likely have significant roster turnover after this season. Smith's future appears to be in jeopardy, and there’s no telling what owner Shad Khan might do with Mularkey. The Jaguars have only a few select players to build around, so Blackmon’s continued development is critical to improving the No. 31-ranked offense.
If nothing else, Blackmon, second only to the Colts' T.Y. Hilton in rookie receiving yards with 557, has convinced management that he can overcome an ugly off-the-field transgression.
“I’m proud of the way he’s handled it,” said Mularkey. “All eyes are on him, everywhere he goes, everything he does. How does he respond? That was the message he had to send by his actions. There was no other way to say, ‘I’ve cleaned up my act.’
“He had to understand he made a big mistake, let a lot of people down. The only way he can gain trust back from all of us is to get his act straightened. I think he’s done that.”
Henne says the timing of Blackmon’s DUI, when he was just beginning to form relationships during organized team activities, made it harder to regain trust from the locker room.
“Any [off-the-field] circumstance at that stage as a rookie, everybody’s embarrassed,” Henne said. “Especially [Blackmon] coming to the locker room and facing your peers. Everybody’s kind of looking at you. I think he kind of brushed [the DUI] off and said, ‘I need to switch my life up, I need to change.’ It affected him in a positive way.”
On the field, Blackmon had to adjust to tighter coverages and not having his way with NFL secondaries. The former Oklahoma State star relies on his physique (6-1, 207), route-running and strong hands more than speed to win matchups.
Veteran guard Uche Nwaneri thinks the Blackmon-Shorts combo is possibly the biggest point of light in the Jaguars’ dark season.
“I see Justin and Cecil competing with each other on the field, like a game within a game, to see who can put up the better numbers,” Nwaneri said. “I think they’re having fun and enjoying it.”
Blackmon was determined to not let the DUI setback keep him from being a productive rookie. The Jaguars had terrible results from their three previous first-round draft picks at receiver. R.J. Soward (2000), Reggie Williams (2004) and Matt Jones (2006) were all out of the league within five years.
The only way Blackmon can avoid that path is to make sure the demons away from football are held in check. If that happens, then the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner has a chance to be a star again. Even if he dislikes the attention that comes with it.
“I don’t need the spotlight to know I’m doing things right,” he said. “I don’t need the spotlight to make me feel successful or anything. As long as my family knows who I am, my friends and my teammates. ... If they know I’m out here working hard every day, that’s all that matters.”
-Greg Frenette, SportingNews.
IRVING, Texas—Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray practiced Wednesday and Thursday and anticipating returning to the lineup Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles after missing the past six games with a sprained foot.
Murray can't come back to too soon.
DeMarco Murray's return from injury can't come soon enough for the anemic Cowboys rushing attack. (AP Photo)
The Cowboys not only have the league's worst rushing offense but also one that is on a pace to be the worst in team history for 16 games. It's not like the Cowboys were running great when Murray was playing—mainly because of an injury-riddled and shoddy offense line. But they have gone from 20th in the league to dead last over the past six weeks.
Felix Jones replaced Murray in the starting lineup and has been largely ineffective because of injuries to both knees and his neck, plus he came to camp out of shape, failing the conditioning test at the start. Jones is averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry and has gained 335 yards—just five more than Murray's 330, despite his missing the last six games, when Cowboys have gained 368 total yards.
How bad are the Cowboys on the ground? They're last in the league rushing yards per game (78. 7) and yards per carry (3.5) and 31st in rushing first downs (48), attempts per game (22.2) and runs longer than 20 yards (3). The Cowboys' team total of 866 rushing yards is less than nine individual backs in the league. They are on a pace for 355 carries for 1,260 yards—which would tie and set team records, respectively, for futility in both categories for a 16-game season. The Cowboys rushed 355 times for 1,409 in 1989 when they went 1-15.