It’s that time of the year when even as successful as the season has been for the New Orleans Saints people want to know who to keep a close eye on when it comes to college players for bowl time and all-star games.
Here is my look at 6 prospects that look to be late first round picks for the 2014 NFL draft in May.
1. Jarvis Landry-Wide Receiver LSU
2. Cyril Richardson-Offensive Guard Baylor
3. Travis Swanson-Offensive Center Arkansas
4. Justin Gilbert-Cornerback Oklahoma State
5. Trevor Reilly-Outside Linebacker/Defensive End Utah
6. La'El Collins- Offensive Tackle LSU
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a signature season for the Tigers in 2013, but what he will be remembered for is how he finished his senior season.
Mettenberger completed 64.9% of his passes for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and 8 pass interceptions in 2013 and he led a team with a mediocre at best defense to a 9-3 regular season finish.
But it was how he played through an injury that everyone should remember him for.
It was obvious since the Ole Miss game that the flame-throwing Mettenberger had a lower-leg injury and a knee issue. He played through that injury and the 6-4, 230 pounder was still a really good player for the Tigers after a sizzling early season start.
While Mettenberger is not a “get in your face” type leader for criticism or encouragement he really caught everyone’s attention for his toughness, his grittiness and his quiet leadership on a team void of a “big man” leader on offense and also on the defensive side of the ball.
While being banged around quite often against Alabama and again against Arkansas Mettenberger showed the type intangibles that the pros were looking for and for some, it was in question.
You might question his decision making process at times, his lack of quickness in the pocket and a lack of a take-charge presence out on the field, but you can’t question Mettenberger’s toughness as a player and how much football means to him.
I strongly believe that Mettenberger will end up being a late first round pick in the 2014 NFL draft and my comparison to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco coming out of Delaware will be the one you will hear quite often over the next couple of months.
Just a couple of years back one of the most highly-sought after football players in the country was Thibodaux High School star quarterback/athlete Trovon Reed. Reed had his choice of just about any school in the country to choose from before he decided to sign with Auburn over LSU.
A player on that Thibodaux High School team who was overshadowed due to the exploits of Reed was offensive tackle Greg Robinson.
Robinson was also a highly coveted player and like Reed he also signed on with Auburn.
But in college Greg Robinson has emerged as the star performer from Thibodaux and emerged as one of the top left tackles in the Southeast Conference.
This season the second year fulltime starter has emerged as one of the elite left tackles in the SEC and he has caught the eyes of NFL scouts.
The 6-5, 320 pound Robinson redshirted in 2011, but he earned a starting spot in 2012, starting 11 games and this season he has been outstanding in pass protection and also being a huge impact player as a run blocker.
While Robinson is listed as a redshirt sophomore he is three years out of high school and his play has him in my eyes as a probable top-100 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, if he decides to come out early. Robinson has not only been a good player, but he has been dominant at the left tackle spot displaying excellent athleticism and “power” skills as a run blocker.
While Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio will be named 1st team All-SEC and he will probably be a top-12 pick in the 2014 NFL draft I really think the best left tackle all season long in the state of Alabama has been Greg Robinson.
When the(9-2) New Orleans Saints play the (10-1) Seattle Seahawks it will be a playoff game with mother-load of implications for both teams.
The Seahawks are riding a 13-game home winning streak. They have outscored their opponents 405 to 172 in those 13 games.
The only teams to score more than 20 points on the Seahawks in those 13 games were the New England Patriots (23) in 2012 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24) in 2013.
The Seahawks have one of the best young signal-callers in the game in Russell Wilson, who in so many ways reminds you of Drew Brees off the field and for his command of the moment on the field.
The Seahawks have the best runner in the NFL for yardage after initial contact in Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch is as physical a runner as anyone in the NFL and stopping him is the key to this contest.
The Seahawks also have the best run after catch yardage receiver in the league today in wide receiver Golden Tate and one of the most explosive slot-end/return specialists Percy Harvin in the lineup.
The Seahawks are known for putting great pressure on opponents with their front four and have one of the top young middle linebackers in the league in Bobby Wagner.
And they have the best secondary in the NFL.
1. Jadeveon Clowney-Defensive End South Carolina
2. Teddy Bridgewater-Quarterback Louisville
3. Anthony Barr-Outside Linebacker UCLA
4. Marcus Mariota- Quarterback Oregon
5. Jake Matthews-Offensive Tackle Texas A&M
6. Taylor Lewan-Offensive Tackle Michigan
7. Brett Hundley-Quarterback UCLA
8. Cyrus Kouandjio- Offensive Tackle Alabama
9. C.J. Mosley-Outside Linebacker Alabama
10. Johnny Manziel-Quarterback Texas A&M
11. Odell Beckham Jr.- Wide Receiver LSU
12. Mike Evans- Wide Receiver Texas A&M
13. Khalil Mack-Outside Linebacker Buffalo
14. Stephon Tuitt- Defensive End Notre Dame
15. Sammy Watkins- Wide Receiver Clemson
16. Louis Nix- Defensive Tackle Notre Dame
17. David Yankey-Offensive Guard Stanford
18. Jason Verrett- Cornerback TCU
19. Ha Ha Clinton Dix- Free Safety Alabama
20. Eric Ebron- Tight End North Carolina
21. Marqise Lee-Wide Receiver USC
22. Trent Murphy-Outside Linebacker Stanford
23. Antonio Richardson-Offensive Tackle Tennessee
24. Tajh Boyd-Quarterback Clemson
25. Ryan Shazier-Outside Linebacker Ohio State
26. Zach Mettenberger-Quarterback LSU
27. La’El Collins-Offensive Tackle LSU
The most of amount of quarterback sacks for the New Orleans Saints in the Sean Payton-era was 38 back in 2006.
With 5 games left in the season the Saints now have 37.
With this sort of pace the Saints look to be in the mid-40’s when the 2013 season is over with.
Give defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a lot of credit for putting the players in the right spot to make a big play defensively, but don’t overlook the emerging talents of Akiem Hicks, Cameron Jordan, John Jenkins, Glenn Foster, Junior Galette and Tom Johnson along the defensive front.
In the 9 victories this season the Saints defense has held opponents to 20 points or less in each winning contest.
A couple of years back I had an opportunity to sit down for quite some time with future NFL Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed. Arguably Reed, now with the New York Jets, may go down as the greatest defensive player to ever come out of Louisiana and he spoke to me about what is the most important feature to have a cover man in the NFL as a cornerback or safety.
“Most of the time it is not about athleticism, it is about being mentally tough. There are some really talented athletes who have played the position, but because they can’t take the fact that you will get beat at times and teams pick on you no matter who are they crack physically and then mentally under the pressure.
Every year you watch these Combine athletes and you see these really good college players hit the league and few make an impact. In the NFL they don’t care about your resume in high school or college. They challenge you over and over again. You have to shake off a bad play and make them pay the price to challenge you again. Some guys get beat, it affects the next play and it is like an odor that comes off them that teams notice and with body language. It’s like that in other professions too. You can see who has been challenged and who produces. It’s called mental toughness.
In the NFL you are not always going to defend or shut down your opponent. But what makes someone great is making plays when you have been challenged and getting ready because next week they will come after you again. Enjoy being challenged and make so many plays that they look another way. I am not afraid mentally when I hit the field. I know Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Ronnie Lott, Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis played with that same mentality and the younger guys today in Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Lardarius Webb and Earl Thomas play that way. You better be mentally tough to play cornerback or safety in the NFL today. You can talk all the smack you want, but you had better be prepared to be challenged, no matter how good you are. ”
Saints cornerback Corey White take note of that advice from one of the greatest defensive players to ever put on a jockstrap and shoulder pads at his position.
The battle will happen again next week and the following ones.
When the 2013 NFL season started virtually everyone thought the offense of the New Orleans Saints would again be one of the very best in the NFL due to the return of Sean Payton as head coach and offensive play-caller and there was no sign of age or decline in the play of quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints offensive line has played better over the past three games, but it is still an area of concern. It is easy to see this offensive line is not as stout in run blocking as the group they had in 2009 and 2011, but what is still a concern for me is the leakage happening in the pass protection part of the game.
In 2013 with 5 games left to play the Saints have given up 23 quarterback sacks. The most they have given up as a unit was 26 in both 2012 and 2010, but it has also been the hurries and pressures.
Down the stretch that is the area to watch closely.
The Saints need to do a better job protecting Brees for him to throw downfield against defenses like the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams.
But what I wrote about in early August has been even better than I could have imagined and that is the maturing and production increase of the Saints defensive line.
It has been a main reason why the Saints with 5 games left on the schedule have given up just 21 touchdowns.
Last season this defense gave up 53.
Keys for 2013 Saints
The New Orleans Saints will open their 2013 training camp when players report on Thursday, so it is that time of year to figure out the team’s keys to success this season.
For a team that is still enjoying the “Golden Age of New Orleans Saints football,” the keys for success aren’t really that hard to figure out this year, especially with the Saints football boss Sean Payton back in town in 2013.
Here are eight keys I think are important for the Saints this year.
1. KEEP DREW BREES HEALTHY
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the best football player to ever wear the team’s black-and-gold jerseys.
In a time when you have signature quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and a growing group of “read-option” signal-callers in the NFL, Brees is still considered one of the elite players in the game and don’t kid yourself.
Without Brees, the Saints would’ve been luck to win four games last year.
Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he has led the team to four playoff appearances, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl title.
He has thrown for over 4,400 yards in six of his seven years in New Orleans, which include three 5,000-yard seasons.
Brees has passed for 244 touchdowns in seven seasons, and he has completed 65 percent or more of his passes in five of those seven years.
Brees has led the team to score over 500 points twice (2009 and 2011). There have only been 17 teams since 1960 to reach that mark.
The Saints have been jackpot lucky to not have him go down to a serious injury in that span and that is again the most key for this team in 2013.
That means everyone will be watching closely what happens at the left offensive tackle spot. With Jermon Bushrod taking his talents to the Chicago Bears, Charles Brown has the opportunity to seize the moment and become the full-time starter.
Brown, the former Southern Cal standout, has had a long history of injuries since entering the league, but it is his job to lose, if he can stay healthy.
If not, then rookie Terron Armstead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff could be inserted into the starting lineup.
If the Saints can keep Brees healthy, I think they are a playoff contender, especially with Payton back in the mix.
2. GENERATE A CONSISTENT PASS RUSH
This feature has been lacking on the Saints since the 2006 season.
The Saints don’t have a signature pass rusher on the team today, and while they have some “maybe” players, there is not much on their resumes at this point.
It is amazing today to think that the Saints have been such a successful team without having a consistent pass rush. The most sacks the Saints have had in one season in the Payton-era was 38 in 2006.
Since then, they have recorded 32 sacks in 2007, 28 sacks in 2008, 35 sacks in 2009, 33 sacks in 2010, 33 sacks in 2011 and 30 sacks in 2012.
In today’s game, you need to have the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback at crucial times in a game.
Right now the Saints don’t have that type player on the roster.
In all honesty the Saints thought that Victor Butler, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys, might give them that element.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury during offseason workouts, and again, this part of the Saints is a mystery.
New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is going to find out quick that not having someone like he did in Dallas in DeMarcus Ware means he will have to find some very innovative ways to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
3. DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS ON DEFENSE
The Saints have a host of young and talented players on the defensive side of the ball.
I liked what I saw with the development of defensive end Cameron Jordan last season, and defensive end Akiem Hicks has the athleticism to one day be a very good starting defensive end in the NFL.
Those two young defensive ends, along with development of outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, rookie nose guard John Jenkins, cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White and safety Kenny Vaccaro are keys for this defense to get better in 2013.
4. CONTROL THE CLOCK BETTER WITH RUN GAME
Last season, the Saints got away from what was so successful for them in 2011 and 2009. The Saints were sixth overall in the league in rushing in 2011, but last season they again became the Brigham Young of the NFL.
You can’t always have Brees throwing 45-50 times per game and expect to win.
The percentage of winning games when you throw more than 47 times per game drops off dramatically.
Expect the Saints to again go back to more of a run-oriented attack and balance the scales more with the rushing attack.
It also keeps a developing defense without a signature pass rusher off the field.
Watch for Mark Ingram to be the “bell cow” rusher for the Saints in 2013 with also a big dose of help from Pierre Thomas.
5. UTILIZE LEWIS AND VACCARO
New additions in Keenan Lewis and Vaccaro will have to play big for the Saints.
Lewis, a former O. Perry Walker High standout and New Orleans native, was the biggest free agent addition to the Saints in 2013.
He is the perfect size for what Rob Ryan wants in a cornerback. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has the size, physicality and arm length Ryan craves in a cornerback.
I just wish he could catch the ball better when it is thrown in his direction. He makes a lot of knockdowns as a cover man, but making the big interception could really bolster this defense.
I have to admit I was and still am a big Jarvis Jones advocate. Jones was a superb college pass rusher at Georgia and I think that will translate very quickly to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I also think highly of safety Vaccaro.
The former Longhorn standout is physical, very strong in run support, he has excellent football instincts and he matches up well in one-on-one coverage spots against the very athletic tight ends.
Vaccaro doesn’t have great hands for the interceptions, but he has top-of-the-line football instincts and a knack for putting himself in a position to make a play.
I expect big things and quickly from the former University of Texas standout.
6. BEST TANDEM OF TIGHT ENDS IN THE NFL
With the numerous injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the very serious court issues surfacing for Aaron Hernandez with the New England Patriots, the Saints one/two punch of Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson gives them the best tight end tandem in the NFL today.
If there is a superstar on the Saints team other than Brees, it is Graham. He has great size, tremendous length, excellent hands and athleticism and he is a nightmare to cover in the red zone.
In Watson, the Saints are getting a crafty veteran who has excellent athletic gifts, sure hands for the catch in the medium range areas of the field and he is a very good blocker.
NFL teams have trouble matching up against one very athletic and sure handed receiving target at tight end, and the Saints have two of them to go up against.
7. FINDING A STRETCH RECEIVER
As good as the Saints offense is, it is really effective when they can stretch the deep part of the field. Devery Henderson was an effective “deep threat” for a number of years with the Saints, but last season you saw some dropoff in his play and also some loss of speed.
Joe Morgan has the speed to be that type player, but he needs to show more focus and understand the complicated Saints playbook better.
Last season, Morgan made some highlight film catches, but he was not in the lineup more because he didn’t always know what to do from play-to-play.
If he gets a better grasp of this offense, he is the guy to really help stretch the field. Without him doing that, the Saints will have to develop rookie Kenny Stills, who is more of a faster version of Lance Moore than a “stretch” receiver.
The Saints will also have to see if Jarred Fayson, who really impressed me in the team’s offseason workouts, or a real speed-burner but rough around the edges route runner in Saalim Hakim, can fill that void.
Teams will adjust and try to cut off the short-to-medium range areas of the field, so the Saints must find that “stretch” receiver.
8. SHORE UP SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter/kickoff artist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the business and the best special teams performer for the Saints since Morten Anderson, but this team broke down at times last season with their coverage units and also in the return game.
Just take a glimpse of the New York Giants game and see that opposing teams spotted a vulnerable part of the coverage units.
While the return numbers for Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet were good, there weren’t enough to be those big returns to shorten the field for the Saints offense.
Other than a turnover on defense, nothing gets a team pumped up more than a special teams score.
Kicker Garrett Hartley has shown he has the skills to be a very good kicker in the NFL, but at times, he has some focus issues. With Payton back running the show, he better not miss too many because Payton will pull the plug on him quick.
Throughout the years covering the Manning Passing Academy, there has been a host of top quarterbacks working with Eli, Peyton and Archie Manning as counselors for the more than 1,000 high-school football players.
Quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Matt Stafford, Jake Locker, Matt Barkley, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, E.J. Manuel, Christian Ponder and Colin Kaepernick have all made it to Thibodaux to watch how to play quarterback from the First Family of Quarterbacks in the NFL ... the Mannings.
This year, the most decorated college quarterback of 2012 and the most dynamic personality, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, was the most significant member of the Manning Passing Academy counselors, other than Eli and Peyton.
"It's great to be here and to soak in the knowledge and the technical side of the game Eli and Peyton bring to the table," Manziel said. "I have been here as a high-school quarterback, but this is a great experience for me to observe and just watch how two of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today operate and why they are at the top of their field. Some just feel like you just go out there and play, but there is a lot of hard work and repetition to this game. To just watch how they run the same drills, almost precision wise, on each snap is really something special. I need to learn how to compartmentalize on and off the field distractions better. It's part of the growing up process."
Manziel, the only freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, has worked hard in the off-season to improve upon one of the greatest seasons ever for a Texas A&M Aggie.
"This offseason, I have worked really hard on improving my footwork and also my set up and delivery in the pocket. I will always use my foot speed and quickness to elude defenders and buy some time, but I knew I needed to work on getting more accurate throwing the ball from the pocket better. I have also worked hard to get stronger in the weight room and just trying to play smarter on the field. It also involves a lot of film room work and understanding defenses and different alignments better. The defenses will know me better this year, so I need to know them a lot better to grow upon what we accomplished last season."
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner says he spends a lot of time watching other top quarterbacks in both college and pro football.
"I watch a lot of film, and I try to pick up little things from watching what Eli and Peyton do and also guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady," Manziel said. "Growing up in Texas, I tried to emulate what I saw Vince Young and Colt McCoy do at Texas, Robert Griffin at Baylor and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma. Everyone has a little different way of making things work, but all those great players have a superb workout ethic and they pay attention to the little things on and off the field. For me, it is about focus and learning how to deal with the distractions. That is what makes the Mannings so impressive, and they can compartmentalize this game so well."
Manziel, the 2012 Davey O'Brien Award and Manning Award winner, said that the Aggies played with a chip on their shoulders after hearing so much last offseason that they could not compete in the SEC.
"It's something we heard and read about from just about everyone, but we knew we were a pretty good team too and we just wanted to show we belonged in the SEC," Manziel said. "The strange thing is that most of our players were recruited by a lot of SEC teams, so if they thought we were good enough to be recruited by them, then why couldn't we play well against them. We were the team on the hunt last season, but this year we have to adjust to be the ‘hunted' team. I can tell you as a team we didn't accomplish everything we wanted to and we are still a very hungry team. Playing against LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas won't get any easier."
Manziel said adjustments, personnel and scheme wise makes the off-season important to college football teams.
"Every year you have to adjust and just get better overall as a team," he said. "Everyone asks about teams taking away things from my game or what we do best, but our coaching staff works hard and the players work very hard also to make it difficult to take every feature away from our team. If teams try and scheme to take away certain elements of our passing game I can tell you we are just going to run the ball more. People forget we have a strong rushing attack too and our offensive line is really strong. We lost a great player in our left tackle Luke Joeckel to the NFL and Patrick (Lewis), who's from down here in south Louisiana graduated, but we feel real good about what we have returning."
The 2012 AP College Football Player of the Year says he is excited to get to play again with offensive tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans.
"Jake's a superb football player. He got overshadowed a bit because Luke Joeckel got so much publicity, but he's a terrific football player and great technician," Manziel said. "He's going to take Luke's place on the left side this year after starting on the right side the past two seasons. His younger brother, Mike, is our starting center, so I am glad for the Matthews family and to have them on our team.
"Mike (Evans) is something special. He was more known in high school for basketball, but he has turned into a great college end. He's a big target for me to find downfield at 6-(foot-)5, and he's a real physical guy. Mike has really worked hard also to improve his route running skills and so he's a weapon I am glad we have him. Mike was not a heavily recruited guy and he says he almost went to Tulane until A&M came into the picture."
Manziel should know all about being passed over by some of the heavyweights in college football.
Despite throwing for 3,609 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushing for 1,674 yards and 30 touchdowns as a prep senior, Manziel, a Parade Magazine All-American selection, was bypassed by both the University of Texas and LSU during the recruiting process.
"I knew a lot about LSU because of Matt Flynn," Manziel said. "When I was in Tyler, Texas, Matt was the quarterback at Robert E. Lee High School, so I knew a lot about the team and the tradition. They didn't show a lot of interest in me. It really wasn't much. For me, it came down to Stanford, Oregon and Texas A&M during the recruiting process."
Manziel said he is looking forward to playing against LSU this season in Tiger Stadium.
"Last year, we didn't play very well against LSU and a lot of it was because the Tigers were so good," he said. "They were just so impressive in how they ran to the ball and how fast they could converge on a ballcarrier. They had the most athletic defense we played last year and they gave us a lot of problems. It's going to be great to play in Tiger Stadium this year. I have heard so much about playing there and the crowd noise. I am just looking forward to playing there in late November. It can't get any better than that playing college football."
But before Texas A&M and Manziel play the Tigers, all eyes in college football will be watching when the Aggies play the back-to-back national champion Alabama on Sept. 14.
"I am roommates here with (Alabama quarterback) A.J. McCarron, who is a really cool guy and a terrific player, but we can say we were the only team to beat them last year," Manziel said. "But we have to put that aside and understand this is a totally different year and be fully prepared to play the best team in the country. It's going to be great to play them again, and we play them at home this year. Our coach, Kevin Sumlin, always talks about just playing this one game at a time and be fully prepared for every team's best effort, and that is what we strive to do in 2013. I want to be like A.J. and play for the national title and win it. That is our goal as a team."
For Manziel the NFL scouts are watching and it is not so much what he has done on the field that is in question, but some of his actions off the field.
It is very important when you are the face of an NFL franchise.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winning running back and Tennessee Titans All-Pro halfback Eddie George talked about the difference he sees in college football today in comparison to when he played.
"The game today is like basketball on grass," George said. "Offenses today run about 80 plays on an average per game. And offensive coaches talk about stretching that to 90 plays per game. In my day, that was a game and all of overtime. It takes a different level of training and conditioning and also it changes the type athlete you are recruiting. The SEC has dominated because this has now become a wear down type game and teams break your will. Those SEC teams have great depth across their offensive and defensive lines. That is the difference. Just look at the talent and depth teams like Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas A&M, South Carolina and now look at Ole Miss, and you can see why they are playing for the national championship every year."