KAINCOLTER6_23150

Should student athletes be paid?

Last Wednesday, Peter Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, declared that a group of Nortwestern University football players were university employees and therefore entitled to unionize.  He made this declaration on the basis of the enormous revenue that the Northwestern football program brings in to the University – declared in an ESPN article to be $235 million over nine years; so about $26m a year.  Northwestern’s head coach Pat Fitzgerald was being paid $2.2m per year, according to a 2013 USA Today article.  Fitzgerald ranked significantly lower than the best paid coaches in college football – Charlie Strong will earn $9.375m from Texas this season ($5m salary and $4.375m in buyout to Louisville), Alabama’s Nick Saban earns $5.4m and Arkansas Bret Bielema earns $5.1m.  National champion Florida State pays Jimbo Fisher $2.75m.  Buffalo, which is expected to send linebacker Khalil Mack to the NFL in the first few picks in the upcoming NFL draft, pays coach Jeff Quinn $325,000 a year.  See here for full details.

Nortwestern was ranked 59th in terms of overall revenue ($41.8m) for college athletics in this ESPN 2008 list.  That meant that football accounted for over half of Northwestern’s total sports revenue that year.  Atop the list, Alabama made $123.7m in sports revenue in 2008.  If Coach Saban is being paid $5m and the overall sports program (not forgetting that Alabama also has D-1 basketball, not that it is anything like as big a deal as Alabama football) brought in $123.7m, where does the other $118.7m go?

Included in the $120m that Texas brought in in 2008 was $16.6m in branding – the famous burnt orange gear brought in nearly 1/10th of the Longhorns revenue.  The point must be made that one of the places that customers see said gear is on college athletes, although there is a strong likelihood that folks from Texas would buy magic beans if they were Longhorn orange, Aggie maroon or Red Raider, um, red.  When you walk into a sports store in Texas, you see jerseys that are ostensibly those of elite players – the Texas A&M jerseys you currently find are number 2 and number 13 (along with the number 12 – the 12th man).  Coincidentally, the Aggies two best players this past season, Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, just happened to wear those two numbers.  This is the case across the country in the bookstores and sports stores of any college town.  The replica jerseys always reflect those of the current star player, but never with the name.

The question has been raised in some circles, for a number of years, why aren’t college players paid?

The NCAA, for its part, argued that the 150,000 college athletes receive more than $2.7bn in scholarships every year.  It also argued that the value of a college education was $120,000 and that the average college graduate has $35,000 in debt when they leave college.  Some private schools would consider a full college scholarship to be worth closer to $250,000.

On the “Sports on Earth” site, Patrick Hruby argued that “For decades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member schools have conspired to fix the price of athletic talent at the value of a college scholarship, and not a dollar more”.  Hruby also argued that college football qualifies as a form of work, citing the following definition: “a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.”

Ohr argued that

the record makes clear that the Employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school. Only after the Employer’s football program becomes interested in a high school player based on the potential benefit he might add to the Employer’s football program does the potential candidate get vetted through the Employer’s recruiting and admissions process

The justification for the decision was also based on the amount of time that players spend training for their respective sports.  Up to 60 hours a week was cited in his report as the amount of football-related activity that the complainants from Northwestern were engaged in.  That sort of commitment was, quite fairly, deemed to be the equivalent of a full time role.

For now, the ruling only impacts on private universities like Northwestern.  State university students (say at Ohio State) would be governed by that state’s laws on unions of public employees.  See Lester Munson’s report on ESPN for details.

BUT

Here is the problem: you can’t start claiming employee status as a student on scholarship.  If you do, your scholarship becomes taxable income.

In 2004 talk show host Oprah Winfrey gave 276 cars to the audience of her show.  The Pontiac G-Six was valued at $28,500.  That $28,500 constituted income in the eyes of the IRS and each audience member was faced with either paying a $7000 tax bill or forfeiting the car.  The only profitable solution for each audience member was to sell the car and pay the tax from the proceeds of the sale.  I’m sure Oprah did not want to simply give her audience $10k in cash.

Hruby has argued that “Ohr’s ruling makes it pretty clear that student and athlete are two different things. That football and school have nothing to do with each other.”  Really?  It looks an awful lot like Everett Golson has been serving an academic suspension at Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish also suspended DeVaris Daniels and stud basketball player Jerian Grant for, wait for it, academic issues.  Have a look and see what happened to Duke RB Jela Duncan this past season.  Ineligible until Spring 2015.  Of course those of us with some knowledge of the way college athletics works know that players are encouraged to take particular classes in order to keep their GPA high enough to ensure continuing academic eligibility – particularly important in football where players have to stay in school for three years.  However, some college athletes do very much want to learn and to achieve a degree.

Hruby even raised the issue in his article, arguing:

Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback leading the unionization movement, testified that he entered the university hoping to go to medical school. During his sophomore year, he tried to take a required chemistry class. He says both his coaches and his academic advisors discouraged him from enrolling, because it conflicted with morning football practices.

Here’s a thought, Kain…how about NOT PLAYING FOOTBALL THEN?  Anyone ever met someone who played a collegiate sport but wasn’t on scholarship?  Know what they did when athletics got in the way of the university experience?  They stopped playing.

There is a very real risk that these so-called pioneers could actually be spoiling the college athlete experience for the vast majority of student-athletes: the ones who never make it to the professional leagues and who use their scholarship to enable them to get a degree which they can use to help them develop a career after university.  In the case of Northwestern and other prestigious academic institutions, the student athletes are able to gain access to a level of education (not to mention a name on their CV) that thousands of regular students would kill for.  What’s more, they don’t even have to pay for their education.

This decision is the sort of myopia that defines modern collegiate athletics.  The bigger picture has been lost on all sides.  Too many have gotten caught up in the greed of the few within the NCAA and college administrators.  Too many on the side of the athletes have lost sight of what college athletics is supposed to be about: education and athletics side by side.

While this move has been driven by college football players, the key group that will be affected is basketball players.  The NBA implemented a minimum age rule to protect teams from selecting the latest prep-to-pro flop straight out of high school in their quest to find another LeBron James.  Consequently, the elite high school players make a mockery of the college athletics system by spending the bare minimum of a year enrolled at a university before entering the NBA draft as quickly as possible.  In order to ensure their ability to cash in on these infant superstars, colleges market the backside out of them, selling replica jerseys, t-shirts and all manner of gear and likenesses to promote their wider product of the entire college athletics program.

The whole thing is a mess and needs sorting out.  Here is the solution.

1 – You allow student-athletes to elect representatives, perhaps team captains, who can speak for their grievances at the levels of the college administration AND the NCAA.

2 – You do not allow them to become employees of the university and avoid the possible disaster of the IRS seeking tax money from people who frankly have no means to afford even the tax on a college scholarship.

3 – You allow fans to buy replica jerseys of any player.

4 – You agree that every player will earn a percentage of money brought in through the marketing of their image.

5 – You allow players to sell autographs and any other activity that allows them to make money off their own image.

6 – You enforce a new basketball rule whereby players can either go to the NBA straight from high school OR they commit to a college program for three years, just as in baseball.

NFL

Jadeveon Clowney: The Number 1 pick, surely?

The NFL combine this weekend in Indianapolis has seen some fairly unremarkable events.  Kids get their height and weight checked – Teddy Bridgewater has put on weight since his last game for Louisville incidentally – and their hands measured as though the precise measurement of someone is going to make a difference to the teams ready to spend millions of dollars on these young men.  Let me speculate here now that if Johnny Manziel was 6′ exactly or 6’2″ it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference to the teams that are ready to use their first round pick on him.  They saw what he can do all season long.  He has big hands?  Okay…so?  Again, they saw it.

The bench press test is another interesting one.  A bench press is something that guys do not do during a football game.  One extended push against a moving target is not replicable in a gym with a barbell.  South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was an absolute beast the season before last before enduring a slightly tougher season just past, managed 21 reps of 225lbs.  Miami punter Pat O’Donnell (who has put up impressive numbers during the combine) managed 23 reps.  So what?  Can Pat O’Donnell do this?

No, he can’t.

Clowney then put on a show in the 40 yard dash.  Again, this is an odd test of speed and one that isn’t always that reliable as an assessment of how a guy will cope in the NFL.  Except Clowney posted 4.47 seconds for his 40 yard dash.  Johnny Manziel ran 4.68.

To me, this seals the deal.  Manziel was spectacular in college, but too often relied on spectacular plays by his wide receivers to get him out of situations that he frequently got himself into.  Watch any Manziel highlight film and you’ll see him scampering around before launching a bomb that is thrown into coverage only for someone like Mike Evans to make the play.  The Texans do need a new quarterback – Matt Schaub is no longer even serviceable – but I suspect they will either take one in the second round and then sign a free agent with experience to fill in for the upcoming season, or else just bide their time and look to take someone like Brett Hundley from UCLA in 2015.

Clowney has personal issues, for sure.  Coach Spurrier said that Clowney had issues with his work ethic.  He has been caught speeding twice since the end of the season.  Bill O’Brien will want to be sure that Clowney, suspected of coasting through his final collegiate season (and let’s not forget that teams prepared for Clowney this past season, double teaming him or matching him up with their best offensive linemen), has the ability to amp up his effort for the big show.

If the Texans do take Clowney, they will be pairing him up with fellow-irresistable force JJ Watt on their defensive line.  Watt is a high-character guy and the perfect veteran (three years in, of course) to show Clowney the ropes.  The Texans will likely lose receiver Andre Johnson before they are in shape to make a run at the Superbowl, but Clowney gives them the defensive platform to contend very soon.  If they take him.

ray-rice-elevator-revel-atlantic-city-casino

Ray Rice and the behavior of pro-athletes

Few will be oblivious to what happened involving Baltimore Ravens Running Back Ray Rice this week.

In case you are: http://www.tmz.com/2014/02/19/ray-rice-unconscious-fiancee-atlantic-city-video-arrest/

He was allegedly involved in something called a “mutual assault” with his fiancee.  This involved her being mutually knocked out and him mutually dragging her out of an elevator in Atlantic City like you might a dead body or a Christmas tree in January.  There no sound on the video, recorded by a phone from CCTV footage from inside the casino where the incident took place, but Rice’s indifference speaks volumes.  There’s no panicking whatsoever, as any reasonable person might in the event that they had been involved in a passionate argument with their fiancee (i.e. the person you plan to marry) and accidentally caused them a serious physical injury.

Reports have since emerged that there is footage of Rice upper-cutting his fiancee, knocking her out.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh commented that he expected Rice to remain with the team.  One would hope that will only be the case until this new footage emerges.

Just over a year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers waived running back Chris Rainey after he was arrested on battery charges.  Rainey allegedly assaulted his girlfriend.  Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert commented at the time: “Chris Rainey’s actions this morning were extremely disappointing…under the circumstances and due to his conduct, Chris will no longer be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

An NFL.com article reported the incident as:

Both Rainey and the female victim then fell to the ground. The victim was able to run away, but Rainey chased after her because his cellphone was in a bag the victim was carrying. Rainey grabbed the bag again and they both fell to the ground again. Neither party suffered visible injuries from the encounter. Multiple witnesses confirmed the incident.

The charges against Rainey were dropped and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts in November.

As bad as it reads, the incident Rainey was involved in doesn’t sound as bad as what Ray Rice allegedly did, does it?  I don’t want this to be a “holier-than-thou” post, but the fact that Ray Rice is still a Baltimore Raven at the time of writing speaks volumes as to the attitude of that franchise to the conduct of its players.  True, Rice was an elite running back a year ago and despite an indifferent 2013 season is still vastly superior to Chris Rainey, who was more or less the Steelers fourth choice back when he was cut.  The Ravens have also committed a serious amount of money to Rice – their best case scenario when cutting him is to only lose $5.5 million.

Some reports have attempted to excuse Rice by noting that he and his fiancee left the police station together.  Gee, I wonder why a woman was go back to a man who violently assaulted her and just happens to be one of the most famous and highest earning people in the entire country?

Some Ravens fans will undoubtedly cite allegations made against Ben Roethlisberger to counter any Steelers judgement of their organization’s actions in the Rice case.  Okay, show me the charges?  Show me the video?  Show me the evidence?  The evidence, as we have available to us against Rice, is damning.

The key issue here is that the Rice incident is part of a much deeper problem within the NFL.  Their players just can’t behave themselves.  There is a database of NFL arrests.

Since the turn of the year, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson was arrested for DWI and drug possession.  Tampa running back Michael Hill was involved in a bar fight.  Cleveland receiver Davonne Bess was arrested for assaulting a law enforcement officer at Fort Lauderdale airport (although in his defense, Fort Lauderdale airport is a nightmare) and San Francisco lineman Daniel Kilgore was charged with public intoxication.  The database has almost 700 entries.

The NFL season may have ended, but the NFL has hardly been out of the news since.  The Wells report told us about locker room culture within the NFL and despite the protestations of former and current players, left little doubt that the sort of bullying that Jonathan Martin was subjected to was far from unique to Miami.

The NFL has the opportunity with the combine this weekend to refocus the attention of the world on the actual sport of football, but a huge, Ray Rice shaped cloud looms over the entire league.  If Rice is shown to have violently struck his fiancee, harsh action must be taken, and not just in the name of saving the Ravens a few dollars.

IMG_20131020_162513_637

Ryan Clark: shut up and shut up now

For those who caught ESPN’s drearily monotonous and yet feisty sports debate show “First Take” yesterday (Thursday February 6th), the contribution of Steelers Safety Ryan Clark will have been the most memorable section of a show that has become highly formulaic.

Thanks to the recent Superbowl being contested by two teams which are based in states where marijuana is now legalized, the issue of whether or not NFL players should be allowed to smoke marijuana (i.e. not banned for testing positive for it) has arisen as a very valid debate.  Nate Jackson, in his fascinating and tragically overlooked memoir “Slow Getting Up” raised the issue a couple of years ago, but of course now weed is for everyone, not just for medicinal purposes.  At least in some parts of the country.

Clark said:

I know guys on my team who smoke…And it’s not a situation where you think, ‘Oh, these are guys trying to be cool.’ These are guys who want to do it recreationally.

A lot of it is stress relief. A lot of it is pain and medication. Guys feel like, ‘If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.’ Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to stress relieve and also to medicate themselves for pain. Guys are still going to do it.

His comments echoed those of Antonio Cromartie, who earlier spoke on the NFL’s ineffective drug testing policies.

Now Clark and Cromartie, just as Jackson before them, are completely justified in their opinions.  Marijuana should be allowed in the NFL, if only for medicinal purposes.  It’s ridiculous that it isn’t, particularly given that you can be prescribed it.  These guys put their bodies through a lot.  Clark reported that his wife often is awoken at night by the pained noises he makes in his sleep after a game.  And he plays in a position where it is easier for guys to take care of themselves – comparatively speaking.  Of course, he is also 34 years old and just finished his twelfth season and completed his 827th NFL tackle.  We also shouldn’t forget what happened to him (not to mention what nearly happened to him) in Denver in 2007.  So he has put his body through a lot.  He claims not to smoke marijuana but has yet to explain what his pain control practices are.

Clark appeared on the Colin Cowherd show this morning (hosted by Ian O’Connor) and was asked how many of his team-mates smoked marijuana.  He fumbled round an answer, stating that he thought that 1/3 of the league smoked weed.

And therein lies the problem.

Ryan Clark is still an employee of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He enters unrestricted free agency this off season, but for the time being, he still appears on ESPN as “Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark.”  And he needs to shut up about the off-field pursuits of his teammates.

Ryan Clark will undoubtedly be one of the better analysts when he eventually signs a contract with ESPN.  He has been very clever in planning his post-NFL career.  His comments are insightful and considered.  Contrast with the utter disaster that was Ray Lewis’s signing – Lewis rarely offering anything more than garbled nonsense and modified pre-game rhetoric to shows he appeared on.  Great player, a guy you hated on the opposition, but one who you now hate on your TV because he offers nothing.  He can learn, of course.  Clark, on the other hand, is ready now.

In 2006, the Steelers committed $7 million to Clark.  In 2010, it was $14 million. That is a lot of money to pay someone to have them turn around as soon as the final season of their contract is up and start telling the world about how players on the team are consuming drugs that would see them fail an NFL drug test.  If the NFL, still reluctant to embrace marijuana’s new status, were to arrive at the homes of Steelers players to test them for marijuana tomorrow, would Clark pay their fines?  Serve their suspensions?

As soon as it is “former Steeler” Ryan Clark, I look forward to his insights into the past few years in Pittsburgh.  Until then, Ryan, please, shut up.

NFL

My early Mock Draft

So, the current draft order, based on fact (the teams outside the playoffs) and assumption (rankings of teams in the playoffs) is copied below from Newsday.com.  On the basis of these rankings, here is what I reckon the following teams should do in the 2014 NFL draft.

It’s pretty interesting trying to write a mock draft because I have to admit that I can only really say what the teams I watch regularly and the really bad teams actually need.  The middling teams could need just about anything and I wouldn’t really know, especially the ones like Buffalo who are never on TV here.  I’ve borrowed “needs” from other sites, apart from the ones that were really obviously wrong – like the guy who didn’t think the Steelers needed defensive backs.

(confession – I had the Vikings taking Carr until I watched the Fiesta Bowl and changed my mind.  Bortles looks really good)

Obviously these rankings will not be completely accurate so there will be room for revision down the road.

Here we go.

1. Houston Texans (2-14; SOS .559) needs QB, OT, DB

Johnny Manziel QB Texas A&M

I really hope the Texans draft Johnny Manziel.  The Texans were an early favorite for the AFC Championship, but those of us who saw a lot of the Texans last year (despite being a Steelers fan, I live in Houston so I do see more of the Texans than any other team and I must confess to having a soft spot for them) saw that Matt Schaub wasn’t up to the task of leading a very good team deep into the playoffs.  He’s basically a poor man’s version of Peyton Manning ie all of the flaws and very few of the strengths.  These fears were realized this season when Schaub threw pick-6 interceptions in four consecutive games before being sat out for effective-rookie Case Keenum (I say effective because Keenum’s first year out of college was on the Texans practice squad).  Keenum was better but suffered as a result of the rest of the team basically losing the will to live.  I think the Texans might decide to stick with Keenum and that he could be a decent enough QB….however…Johnny Football (how fortunate is it that Mr and Mrs Football should have a kid who was really good at football?) is local (from Tyler, TX), played locally (College Station is only an hour from Houston) and is just so freaking good.  You saw his performance in the Peach Bowl (I won’t besmirch the name by using the corporate logo in it, although I do love Chik-fil-a), right?

The fact of the matter is that, behind the play of redshirt freshman (aka sophomore) QB Manziel, the Aggies were probably the best team in the country last year.  Were it not for a few early struggles and a terrible kicker, I think they would have beaten LSU and after the famous win in Tuscaloosa, would have been contenders for the national title game where they would have smashed Notre Dame.  This year, the Aggies D has been horrible.  They lost more games than their offensive play deserved to lose.

The Texans have a new head coach in Penn State’s Bill O’Brien who did an outstanding job of turning a troubled program around despite unimaginable difficulties – not least NCAA legislation.  He is a QB’s guy and I expect him to go for a QB in the first round.  Some analysts are claiming that O’Brien likes a big QB who can stand in the pocket.  Well Matt Schaub can do that.  The Texans need something different: a spark.

Johnny is perhaps not the size of a Teddy Bridgewater or with the arm strength of a Derek Carr, but he has the swagger that the Texans need so desperately.  Just draft Johnny.

2. St. Louis Rams via Washington Redskins (3-13; .516) needs OL, WR, DB

Jake Matthews OT Texas A&M

The Rams might always decide that they’ve had enough of Sam Bradford, but it seems likely that they’ll give him another year to prove himself worthy of leading this up and coming team.  They finally have pieces around Bradford to enable him to excel and the number 2 overall pick will do great things for them.  I suspect that Jake Matthews is the pick here.  I have to say that I didn’t think that Matthews was all that impressive this past season, but he helped anchor the Aggies from Right Tackle last year, where he’s likely to start off in the NFL, before switching to the left for this past season.  Manziel owes Matthews (and former LT Luke Joeckel) a great deal.

This all depends on the Rams not falling in love with a QB over the bowl season and deciding to snap him up with this pick.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12; .504) needs Tim Tebow/everything, especially DE and QB

Jadeveon Clowney DE South Carolina

The Jags are letting Maurice Jones-Drew test free agency under the pretense that “he’s earned it”.  Put “he’s earned it” into google translate and it gives you “he only gave us 3.4 yards per carry and 5 rushing TDs this season so we’re hoping someone else overpays this 29 year old with over 1800 carries so we don’t have to”.  But the lessons of Trent Richardson are being learnt across the NFL and they won’t take a running back here.  Given that they seem to not want to just sign Tim Tebow and get fans back to their games for legitimate (if misguided) reasons, it’s likely that they’ll go for an elite defensive end like Jadeveon Clowney, or perhaps a QB if one jumps out at them.  Blaine Gabbert’s time is up in Jax, but if they believe they can get a viable year out of Henne next season (or pick up a viable alternative in free agency) then I think Clowney goes here.

Clowney is a force of nature, if you can keep him off the roads (two speeding tickets in about a month speak to his immaturity – not that any of us can sit here and say we’ve never broken the speed limit), and while his performances this year were a little subdued, it must be considered that he’s both (a) saving himself for the NFL and trying not to get hurt (a risky strategy given the likelihood of injury if you don’t put in the effort) and (b) become the focus for opposition offensive lines.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12; .516) needs everything, especially QB and RB

Teddy Bridgewater QB Louisville

The Browns were not a disaster this year.  For a while, with Brian Hoyer (wait, what?) at the helm, the Browns were legitimate playoff contenders.  Of course they very quickly realized that they were the Browns and dropped back to the level expected of them.  Hoyer played very well after replacing Brandon “what were we thinking?” Weeden and perhaps gave himself a shot at the starting gig this coming season.  That’s assuming the Browns don’t take a QB.  By my reckoning, there should be plenty of QB talent left and we all know that teams love to reach for a QB in the draft.  I think if Teddy Bridgewater isn’t taken by this stage, the Browns will snap him up.  If he is, it’ll probably be Manziel.  They do need a running back as well, but aren’t dumb enough to waste a first rounder on one after Trent Richardson.

5. Oakland Raiders (4-12; .523) needs QB (maybe), WR, OT

Sammy Watkins WR Clemson

It’s hard to say that the Raiders will decide regarding their QB.  Terrelle Pryor had some good games last season but as a poor man’s Archie Three (I’m trying to get this to catch on, please use it as much as you like), he is going to suffer durability issues.  Matt McGloin did not play badly either, but you have to ask if he is a viable long term option for a team that has been rebuilding quietly for a while now.  As a team that has sucked for a while (acknowledging the fact that they have beaten my Steelers on more than one occasion), the Raiders have drafted in a very solid defensive unit, so are likely to begin their push for relevance with an offensive-draft session this time around.

Guys like Tajh Boyd, Blake Bortles, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley (if he declares) and maybe even AJ McCarron could factor in here.  The key is to get in a guy with a good attitude and work ethic.  Nobody wins with another Jamarcus Russell.  Except In-N-Out Burger.

If the Raiders decide that they are happy to roll with Pryor or McGloin, then look for someone like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans to be taken here as the first WR.

6. Atlanta Falcons (4-12; .553) needs DE, WR, OT

Anthony Barr LB UCLA

The Falcons were a disaster this year.  Their fall from grace was somewhat overshadowed by the Texans, but this team really should have been contending.  Injuries took their toll, however, and left the Falcons with a high draft pick in 2014.  Consequently, the Falcons have a strong team returning with the obvious exception of legendary TE Tony Gonzalez who is likely finally done with his NFL career.

They do need an OT to protect Matt Ryan a bit better.  If Jake Matthews falls this far – and he could easily go first overall – the Falcons will…ahem…swoop for him.  Then again, if Clowney is still around here, they could take him and would be stupid not to…if they decide that DE is more of a priority.  UCLA’s Anthony Barr would be a good option here if the Falcons decide to strengthen the LB position.  Barr will not last past the first round as the outstanding LB in college football this season.  On the offensive line, the next best player is perhaps Cyrus Kouandjio of Alabama, although he may be a risky first round pick.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12; .574) needs DE, TE, OT, WR

Mike Evans WR Texas A&M

We are now into the “what do other teams do” draft position.  If a real stud is still on the board, teams will be tempted to take them regardless of need.  Tampa is seemingly all set to go with Mike Glennon and it would only be right to give him a weapon to try to move the team forward next season.  Clemson’s Sammy Watkins of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans are the two best WR’s in the draft (with USC’s Marquise Lee third) if the Bucs decide to go that way and give Vincent Jackson a bit of help in the passing game.

8. Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1; .512) needs QB, DE, OG

Blake Bortles QB Central Florida

The Vikings didn’t know what they were doing at quarterback this season.  Christian Ponder is not the man.  Matt Cassel is not the man.  Josh Freeman is not the man.  This leaves them likely to take a QB in the 2014 draft and there will be at least one of Brett Hundley, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Tajh Boyd or AJ McCarron left here.  I’m not sure any of them are sure fire first-round successes, but by the 8th pick, with so many teams above them likely to take a QB, the Vikings will have to strike and perhaps reach for just such a player.  I think, based on an impressive bowl performance against Baylor, Bortles is the guy.  He might be the most solid QB in the draft.  That doesn’t always translate to NFL success, of course.

9. Buffalo Bills (6-10; .520) needs OT, S, DE

Khalil Mack LB Buffalo

It’s too neat not to happen – Buffalo’s Khalil Mack to partner with Kiko Alonso in the Bills D for next season.  Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame is a good option if the Bills decide to strengthen at Defensive End.  With Mario Williams finally seeming to come into the sort of form that the Houston Texans hoped he would display when they drafted him first overall back in 2006, Tuitt could see the Bills D become a real force next season.

10. Detroit Lions (7-9; .457) needs CB, WR, S

Darqueze Dennard CB Michigan State

Where do the Lions have real weakness?  It’s hard to say precisely.  They had no discipline for starters, but you can’t draft discipline, you can only appoint it at the coaching level.  Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State is an elite prospect as a cover corner and plays the Michigan State style of football that (much as it does in basketball) translates very well to the professional level.

11. Tennessee Titans (7-9; .504) needs LB, S, DE, QB (maybe)

CJ Mosley LB Alabama

I’m pretty sure the Titans are going to stick with Jake Locker this season.  He hasn’t been all that durable, but showed signs of improvement last season before two injuries that forced Ryan Fitzpatrick into the side.  They have been pretty poor against the run, though, and a physical LB like CJ Mosley of Alabama makes a lot of sense here.  Tuitt at DE or perhaps Louis Nix III, also of Notre Dame, might also be considered.

12. New York Football Giants (7-9; .520) needs TE, LB, CB, OL

Vic Beasley LB Clemson

The Giants did not have a great season, exemplified by Eli Manning’s gajillion interceptions.  They could certainly improve in most areas.  Offensively, perhaps they will use their first rounder on a tight end.  North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is seemingly the favorite TE in this draft and offers a combination of speed and skill and size that tempt a lot of teams when it comes to strengthening the tight end position.  They could also consider Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro for TE.  If they fall, the Giants will perhaps also look at Mack, Clemson’s Vic Beasley or Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier to fill their need at LB.  I think that Beasley is the best available at this stage and that’s the way the Giants will go.

13. St. Louis Rams (7-9; .551) needs OL, WR, DB

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu CB Oregon

The Rams have the luxury of a second pick in the first round and will perhaps aim to strengthen their defensive backs with their second selection.  If Dennard falls, he’s the obvious contender, but if not Ifo Ekpre-Olomu from Oregon is the next best option at CB.  Also look out for Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State if other teams take CB’s early on in the draft.  Given the early season struggles of Dee Milliner with the Jets, it seems unlikely that too many teams will take CBs in the first round, though.

14. Chicago Bears (7-9; .465) needs DL, S, OL

Stephon Tuitt DE Notre Dame

The Bears will take a defensive lineman here, almost certainly.  Again, this depends on availability, but Tuitt or Nix III are good options from a Notre Dame team that made the national title game only a year ago.  It wasn’t all Manti Te’o!  Same goes for Kouandjio if he is still on the board, or, if they want to pick a safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is probably the best option there.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8; .469) needs DB, OT

Justin Gilbert CB Oklahoma State

The Steelers were a mess early on, with holes all over their lineups.  They got it together later and were about 6 inches away from a playoff position.  I personally don’t think that the Steelers need to draft an offensive lineman.  The line sorted itself out very well once the various injury problems had been overcome.  If Kouandjio is still on the board, they may be tempted to take him, but the Steelers major need is going to be at defensive back.  Ike Taylor can only lock down AJ Green.  Which is great…twice a season.  He’s also talking about shifting to safety.  Ryan Clark will surely retire.  There are other guys in the Steelers squad who are capable DBs but the team (not to mention the fans) are sick of giving up the deep ball to opposing teams.  If Dennard, Ekpre-Olomu or Gilbert are available, the Steelers will surely take one of them.  Also look out for Texas Christian CV Jason Verrett here.

The other play the Steelers could make is to strengthen the defensive line.  If a guy like Louis Nix III is available, that could be the way they go.  I think they desperately need talent in the defensive backfield, though, so a defensive lineman might have to wait until round 2.

The next two picks will go to a coin flip as the teams are matched on record and strength of schedule

16. Baltimore Ravens (8-8; .484) needs WR, OT, CB

Cyrus Kouandjio OT Alabama

The Ravens will take whichever of Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins or Marquise Lee is available, unless they go with an offensive tackle like Kouandjio.  I suspect they will consider that they have enough weaponry at WR and they do have a lineup of guys who can make plays, so they’ll go for the big OT out of Alabama.

17. Dallas Cowboys (8-8; .484) needs DE, DB

Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix S Alabama

Again, as with all the picks, so much depends on availability.  Clinton-Dix would be a great pickup for the Cowboys here who could certainly use some help at safety.  If he is gone, then perhaps Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, a real playmaker at the collegiate level will be their choice.

Timmy Jernigan from Florida State, as a defensive tackle, could be an option here – and the Cowboys D is certainly in need of revitalization at arguably every position.  Jernigan could be the guy assuming Louis Nix III is not still available.  Will Sutton from Arizona State is another who has impressed at the DT position this season and has the advantage of being played across the defensive line this season – which will allow the Cowboys to be a little more creative in how they line up next year.

18. New York Jets (8-8; .488) needs WR, OG, CB

Marquise Lee WR USC

Geno Smith was not great, but neither was he horrendously bad.  If he is to get another shot as the Jets QB, the team will probably pick a wide receiver to give him the best chance of success.  Ryan is not an offensively minded coach, but his only real need on the defensive side is at DB and it seems unlikely that any elite DB prospects will remain at this stage in the draft.  I suspect they’ll take the best WR on the board at this stage which looks likely to be Marquise Lee.  Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson of Penn State and Kelvin Benjamin are also prospects if the Jets go for a receiver.

19. Miami Dolphins (8-8; .523) needs OT (duh!), OG, RB

Taylor Lewan OT Michigan

Obviously losing two offensive lineman in a matter of days hurts.  Cameron Erving of Florida State has been very good protecting Heisman winner-Jameis Winston but I think that Taylor Lewan of Michigan is the pick here for the Dolphins who might also look to someone like Stanford’s David Yankey, if they weren’t perhaps afraid of drafting linemen out of Stanford.

20. Arizona Cardinals (10-6; .517) needs OT, OG, CB

Cameron Erving OT Florida State

Lewan and Erving look unlikely to make it out of the first round and indeed also seem unlikely to fall to any of the playoff teams.  Whichever one is on the board at this stage will probably be the Cardinals pick unless they go for a guard like Cyril Richardson or David Yankey.  The Cardinals might also think about what quarterbacks are available at this stage.  Carson Palmer had a decent season in Phoenix but is getting on.  They still have an impressive array of receivers who could make life a lot easier for a young QB.

The remaining positions are still TBD

21. Green Bay Packers (8-7-1; .453) needs TE (maybe), S, LB

Austin Sefarian-Jenkins TE Washington

Austin Sefarian-Jenkins from the University of Washington could be the Packers pick here if they decide that Jermichael Finley cannot come back from the serious neck injury he suffered this past season.  Of course, if Finley can return and return healthy, perhaps the Packers will look at what defensive backs and linebackers are still available.  If they look towards their defensive backfield, Ed Reynolds of Stanford might be their pick here.

22. San Diego Chargers (9-7; .496) needs CB, OG, LB

David Yankey G Stanford

If the Chargers take a CB, it’ll likely be TCU’s Verrett or maybe Bradley Roby from Ohio State, but Roby is ranked in the 40s by a few “experts” so might be a bit of a reach.  There are still likely to be high quality guards available like David Yankey, Cyril Richardson or Zack Martin and I suspect that they will go with Yankey, who at 6’5″ but 314 is a little lighter than Richardson but has the size and strength as part of a huge Stanford O line to excel at the next level.  The improved performances of David DeCastro, the last Stanford guard to go in the first round, will also help his cause.

23. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6; .453) needs LB, DB

Ryan Shazier LB Ohio State

If the Eagles decide they need a linebacker more than anything else, they’ll take Ryan Shazier, the Ohio State junior.  The quality of defensive back still available at this stage in the first round is unpredictable.  There are between two and four CBs who are considered first round material, but it would be a reach to take someone like Bradley Roby here.  The Eagles defense struggled at times this past season, whilst the Chip Kelly offense started to purr.  One interesting wrinkle here would be if Marcus Mariota decided to declare for the draft.  He has already said he would return to Oregon next season, perhaps under advice from “sources close to Coach Kelly” but while Nick Foles was excellent for the Eagles this past season, his skill set is not that of a typical Kelly quarterback.  Whether Foles can adapt to Kelly or Kelly is prepared to adapt to Foles remains to be seen.  Foles has definitely earned a starters job in the NFL and there is no logical reason for the Eagles to cut him loose at this stage in Kelly’s tenure, but if he plans to take his fast paced offense another stage further next season, it may require a slight change in personnel.

24. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5; .445) needs WR, DL, LB

Kelvin Benjamin WR Florida State

The Chiefs are perhaps one team where another weapon at WR is an obvious move.  They excelled in the running game this past season, but in order to help keep teams honest, they might well decide to bring in another deep threat.  Kelvin Benjamin is perhaps the most likely candidate for “fourth best WR” in this draft class.  He’s tall and athletic and has been a huge factor in the success of FSU this season.  Jameis Winston has to throw to somebody who can make plays.  Benjamin is that guy.  Alternatively Louis Nix III could interest them if he is still available.

25. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5; .480) needs CB, LB, S

Bradley Roby CB Ohio State

There are still likely to be linebacker prospects available at this point, but guys like Shayne Skov of Stanford might be a stretch in the late first round.  Even Brigham Young’s Kyle Van Noy is projected as a first or second rounder.  Equally, the quality of defensive back might have dwindled somewhat by the mid-20s, especially if Clinton-Dix is off the board.  Bradley Roby is a bit of a stretch, but the need at defensive back is probably the greatest factor for the Bengals who might not mind stretching for a player at this stage, particularly a Buckeye product.  The other option here might be Missouri’s E.J. Gaines.

26. Cleveland Browns via Indianapolis Colts (11-5; .484) needs still everything

Jordan Matthews WR Vanderbilt

Boy that Trent Richardson was really worth the bother, wasn’t he?  The Browns really need a running back, but they wont want to draft one here, so Matthews makes sense to partner with the impressive Josh Gordon and hopefully provide weapons that their new QB can exploit to perhaps bring some success to northern Ohio.  Penn State’s Allen Robinson might be another option here.

27. New Orleans Saints (11-5; .516) needs OT, LB, CB

Cyril Richardson G Baylor

There are a couple of directions the Saints could go here.  If they are taking an offensive guard, Baylor’s Cyril Richardson or Stanford’s David Yankey are the most likely players available this late in the first round.  Alternatively, Cameron Erving, another vital cog in the Florida State machine, a left tackle, could be the pick made by the Saints.  They could perhaps also look at the remaining linebackers, but

28. New England Patriots (12-4; .473) needs OL, DL, CB, TE

Jace Amaro TE Texas Tech

With Gronkowski down with another serious injury and assuming that Aaron Hernandez doesn’t make a surprise comeback (if he’s able to of course – I do think that if Hernandez is found innocent then he’ll be back in the NFL within weeks though) the Patriots could benefit from whatever tight ends are on the table at this stage.  One could be Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, assuming he decides to declare for the draft.  Of course, if he’s informed that he is a likely first round pick, he’d be crazy not to…right?  The other would be Eric Ebron, if he falls this far, which is possible given that most teams picking earlier than the Patriots will be fairly happy with their current TE options, or perhaps have more pressing needs.

29. San Francisco 49ers (12-4; .494) needs WR, DL, CB

Louis Nix III DT Notre Dame

If Nix falls this far, the niners will be getting a bit of a steal.  Some boards have him ranked in the top 10 picks, but knee surgery last month has seen questions raised about his health.  He is an excellent run-stopper at DT and will only boost one of the strongest defenses in the NFL.  If the niners decide not to roll with Anquan Boldin again, then look for them to consider one of the remaining receivers.  Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks could be considered here, or perhaps Allen Robinson.

30. Carolina Panthers (12-4; .494) needs WR, CB, OL

Brandin Cooks WR Oregon State

Steve Smith is not getting any younger.  Carolina will be tempted by Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, who is long and athletic – just like a great many of the current crop of wide receivers, but probably off the table.  Marquise Lee could still be on the board here and Carolina would probably pick him ahead of Matthews.  Probably.  Thing is, Lee is likely already gone at this stage.  Brandin Cooks becomes the obvious next pick.  The other areas of possible improvement might see them go for Taylor Lewan, the Michigan left tackle or perhaps Lamarcus Joyner, the CB from Florida State

31. Denver Broncos (13-3; .469) needs another two years out of Peyton, OT, CB, DL

Morgan Moses OT Virginia

If Denver is going to get another two years out of Peyton Manning, they need to protect him better.  Virginia’s Morgan Moses is perhaps the best OT likely to still be on the board when the Broncos pick.  Indeed, they might even venture further up the board to try and secure a leading offensive tackle just for this purpose.  Notre Dame’s Zack Martin is another option here, although he has been projected as a guard at the NFL level despite playing tackle in college.

32. Seattle Seahawks (13-3; .490) needs WR, TE, OL, DB

Eric Ebron TE UNC

This pick really depends on the long term health of Percy Harvin.  If Harvin is going to be fit to play next season, the Seahawks will likely look to the tight ends available, which include Amaro, local product Sefarian-Jenkins and UNC’s Eric Ebron.  I think Ebron is the guy here as the other two are more likely to go to the teams with need at TE earlier in the draft.  Of course, Seattle’s position could change, in which case they might go in another direction with their pick.

They might have some players who need replacing in the defensive backfield as well, but they can always bring in some kid from the CFL and allegedly pump him full of PED’s, can’t they?  Allegedly.

The NHL at its best and its worst

It was just a few weeks ago when Shawn Thornton assaulted Penguins Defenseman Brooks Orpik.  For his part in slew footing and punching Orpik (continuing even while Orpik was out cold) Thornton got a 15 game suspension. (if you must see the violence :

But let’s not pretend this kind of stuff is limited to Thornton who is generally seen as a good guy, not a thug. 22 players in the NHL have been suspended this year! (see http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/feature/?id=50596)

That’s a ton. Remember, the NHL season/post-season goes into May. TSN’s venerable Bob McKenzie make the point on Twitter that things were never nice in the NHL, so maybe the players aren’t worse but the rules are changing. All of this though is driven by science, law suits and changing norms about what is acceptable risk and the correct impact of playing sports.

The NFL just settled a law suit for over 700 Million dollars related to concussions. But it still struggles. Hockey though, I would argue is different. It’s more dangerous. The ice is unforgiving, it’s played with sharp skates and sticks, and fighting…real fighting not NFL fights, is allowed. This is the culture of the NHL. Just watch the great hockey movie Slapshot and see how much of this (admittedly fake) movie centers on violence.

Now, I love hockey. When played right, it is perhaps the best team sport in the world. It’s fast, it’s dangerous and it’s very exciting. But I also wonder if the NHL (and maybe the NFL) will survive moving forward. The law suits are just getting started. The players refuse to change. And players continue to suffer terrible consequences. Sidney Crosby, no doubt the best player in the NHL, lost nearly two seasons to concussions. This says nothing to the players who leave hockey and suffer debilitating consequences of brain injuries. I don’t have many answers unfortunately. A strong consensus is for harsher punishments, and to try to force players to change. For example, to stop head shots and boarding. But the players don’t seem to want to change. Are they accepting the risk? Should we not pretend that fighting and the violence of hockey doesn’t attract some people? Tough to say.

NFL

8-8 here we come! Playoffs…

Not so much.

We’re amazingly still in with a chance of making the post-season, despite our 0-4 and 2-6 start to the season.  It will require losses on the part of the Dolphins (vs Jets), Ravens (vs Bengals who might rest some of their stars) and San Diego (vs Chiefs, ditto), but it is technically possible, if not likely.

What a great win over a Green Bay side that showed some real spirit despite being without their star in Aaron Rodgers.  Le’Veon Bell gave us his first 100 yard game – also our first 100 yard game since 1942 (ok, a slight exaggeration) – and Antonio Brown broke the franchise’s single season receiving yards record.  The D also came up big, forcing fumbles and even grabbing a pick-6.  Of course, it wasn’t perfect – what is in week 16 of the NFL season when everyone is on their last legs? – special teams had its highs (a fake punt thrown to Paulson for a nice first down pickup) and its lows (giving up 71 yards on the final return to put the Packers in great position to tie or even win the game) but we came out 7-8 and headed for the heady mediocrity of a .500 season.

Let’s talk for a second about the mind-numbingly awful game management that put us in a position to possibly lose the game.  Green Bay called its last timeout just before Bell’s late touchdown.  Bell broke the goal line with 1m25 remaining.  I don’t blame Bell, what else was he supposed to do?  Unless told to do otherwise, he’s going to break the line of scrimmage and run as far as he can.

Bell scored on a 2nd and 1.  If we took a knee, we could have let the clock run to roughly 45 seconds. Third down…take a delay of game, whatever.  Chip in the field goal and leave them the return and the return alone to try and get through.  Don’t give them 60% of a two minute drill – especially (and hindsight is a wonderful thing) when you can’t stop a return man in his own half of the field.

We were lucky that Green Bay didn’t score.  True, the referees would have owed us after that crazy blocked FG situation which resulted in a touchdown for the Packers, but still.

Tomlin has probably rallied the team enough to save his job.  Maybe even those of the coordinators (although I wonder about Haley’s value given his relationship with Ben).  We should not, however, forget that the team was underprepared for many games early this season.  Nor should we forget a few cases of just amateurish game management.

But first, let’s give the Browns a final doing before we start to think about anything else.