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Solid backing with these two

Scouts have praise for Willis and Mayo

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / October 5, 2008
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One scout dug up his old notes to help with the comparison between two of the NFL's rising inside linebackers who will step onto the same football field today: San Francisco's Patrick Willis and New England's Jerod Mayo.

Willis was a first-round draft choice in 2007, the 11th overall selection. Mayo was a first-round pick this year, 10th overall.

This is what jumped out at the scout who worked out both players:

Willis - 6-1/240/4.39

Mayo - 6-1/239/4.58

"They are both similar size-wise, but look at what Willis ran," said the scout, who works for an AFC team. "It's just freakish. It might be the fastest time for a linebacker in the last 15 years."

The 4.39 seconds that Willis clocked in the predraft 40-yard dash is indeed in another world when it comes to linebackers. Mayo was almost two-10ths of a second slower, but "slower" is a relative word.

"Make no mistake, 4.58 is still fast for a player at that size," said a second NFL scout, who works for an NFC team. "When you saw that time, you're going back and saying, 'We have a fast linebacker here.'

"But Willis in the 4.3s? What you're talking about there is not just a fast linebacker. He's probably faster than anybody on your team."

When seeking the nitty-gritty on players, scouts are often the best source of information because they've tracked prospects over multiple years, working them out but also getting to know them off the field.

In making the comparison between Willis and Mayo, three national-level scouts - all of whom have double-digit years of NFL experience - spoke with the understanding that their identity would not be revealed. None of them works for the 49ers or Patriots.

All three reflected on how each player entered the NFL. Willis declared for the draft after his senior year at Mississippi. Mayo, who played at the more high-profile Tennessee, came out after his junior season.

"In Willis's case, he was injured a little bit more," relayed the third scout, who works for an AFC club. "He had wrist and ankle stuff. You watched him play, and you saw him with casts, ankle sprains, a lot of stuff. Mayo was healthy. The only thing with him was that he moved to inside linebacker his junior year and that was a transition for him.

"From a football standpoint, I'd say Mayo is probably a bit more physical at the point of attack, while Patrick shows more burst. I remember one play against Arkansas when [Willis] ran down [Darren] McFadden on a sweep, and those were the type of things that caught your eye."

Willis was named Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL last season. San Francisco coaches credited him with 226 tackles, a total that surely is inflated by a liberal grading system but still reflects how often he is around the ball. Mayo, through three games at inside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme, has been credited by New England coaches with 30 tackles - the second-highest total on the team.

In terms of style, the NFC scout sees similarities.

"Both are what I would call run-and-hit guys, meaning they need to be protected," the NFC scout said. "They're not going to take on a blocker like the big guy from USC [LB Ray Maualuga] who is coming out this year. So I see them as needing to be protected by a lineman, so they can scrape off that block and make the play.

"In the end, I think you can do more with Willis because he can drop into coverage and be effective. You saw it a few weeks ago when he intercepted a pass and took it to the house [86 yards against Seattle] for a touchdown. I think that's where Willis separates himself. He's the closest thing to Ray Lewis that I've seen."

Willis, it turns out, wears jersey No. 52 because of his affinity for Lewis.

On the whole, the scouts seemed to enjoy the compare-and-contrast game with Willis and Mayo. All were in agreement that both players were solid picks.

"Both are smart kids, both are good kids, both are fast, although Willis has the rare speed," said one of the AFC scouts. "Both are explosive and tough, and they like to play the game. You can see it right there on the film when you watch them. It's easy to like players like that."

Firing line ends here
Credit Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt with having a good sense of humor.

Though his team got crunched, 56-35, by the Jets last week, Whisenhunt kept it light when discussing what challenges he sees in today's home game against the 4-0 Bills.

"What I'm very concerned about is the last two coaches that this team has played, they've fired those guys," he cracked.

Indeed, the Bills have back-to-back wins over the Raiders and Rams. Both clubs made coaching changes last week, the Raiders canning Lane Kiffin and the Rams severing ties with Scott Linehan.

Kiffin was replaced by offensive line coach Tom Cable, and Linehan by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

Whisenhunt, now in his second season in the desert, need not worry. His team, unlike the Raiders and Rams, has been headed in the right direction since he arrived.

Edwards's top billing in Buffalo seems secure
Since Jim Kelly retired as their starting quarterback from 1986-96, the Bills have not had the same No. 1 signal-caller for more than three consecutive seasons. While it's still a bit early, second-year man Trent Edwards is giving the fans of Western New York a reason to believe he finally could be a long-term answer at the position.

The Bills are 4-0 for the first time since 1992, and Edwards has helped engineer three straight fourth-quarter comebacks, the first Bills quarterback to accomplish that feat since Kelly in 1990.

Edwards is completing 65 percent of his passes, averaging a solid 7.82 yards per attempt, and has four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Talk to Bills officials about the drafting of Edwards in the third round in 2007 - 92d overall - and they reflect on a few anxious moments. The Patriots were scheduled to pick 91st, but when that selection was traded, the Bills thought for a moment they might lose Edwards to whichever club was acquiring the pick.

Much to their relief, it was the Raiders moving into the 91st spot, and since Oakland had selected quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall pick, it wasn't interested in Edwards.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 231-pound Edwards slipped to the third round in part because of injuries and coaching instability at Stanford.

But his draft status means little now; after starting nine games as a rookie and beginning this year on a hot streak, he is the unquestioned No. 1, putting his name atop a list that has been anything but stable in Buffalo since Kelly hung 'em up:

1997 - Todd Collins, Alex Van Pelt

1998-00 - Rob Johnson, Doug Flutie

2001 - Johnson, Van Pelt

2002-04 - Drew Bledsoe

2005 - Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman

2006 - Losman

2007 - Losman, Edwards

Etc.
Pioli has an appointment
Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli has been named to the NFL's Management Council Executive Committee Working Group. Pioli joins 11 others within the group, whose purpose is to advise the NFL and the CEC on issues primarily related to operational matters, such as player contracts, free agency, roster rules, organized team activities, and franchise-tag rules.

The importance of Earnest
Tampa Bay's Earnest Graham is not often mentioned among the game's elite running backs, but Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden believes he should be. Graham has totaled 334 yards on 57 carries (5.9-yard average) in four games this season, and has breakaway runs of 46, 47, and 68 yards. Gruden, playing the role of sports editor/TV programmer, said, "I hope somebody recognizes, maybe one of these fancy cable channels, that we have one hell of a back here. I know they have all these other backs they have to cover but somebody ought to step up to the plate and recognize he is a big-time back."

He's a missing person
The Eagles have some concern with normally reliable kicker David Akers, who has missed eight field-goal attempts in a row from 45 yards or longer. Akers, a three-time Pro Bowler now in his 10th season, missed from 50 and 47 in last Sunday's loss to the Bears. The feeling in Philadelphia is that Akers hasn't lost his leg strength, so it's more to do with mechanics.

Criticism wasn't well-received
Some players say they never read the newspapers or listen to television analysts, but Dallas receiver Terrell Owens obviously isn't one of them. Owens caught some flak from ESPN's Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, and Cris Carter for his comments following the Cowboys' loss to the Redskins last Sunday, and it was Johnson in particular whom Owens set his sights on. "He is the ultimate underachiever on that panel," Owens told reporters in Dallas before reminding them that he's the reason Johnson is no longer playing in the NFL. "Everybody is aware when I was brought to Dallas he was the one they let go to get me here."

Horton hears no boos
If the Redskins knew that safety Chris Horton would make such an impact, they probably wouldn't have waited until the seventh round - 249th overall - to select him. Horton, who was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September, stepped into the starting lineup when Reed Doughty came down with a stomach virus in Week 2, and his three interceptions tie him for the NFC lead. The UCLA product also has a fumble recovery, becoming the first rookie since 1982 to post four takeaways in his first four games.

Things go south in the East
In Mike Holmgren's 10 seasons as coach, the Seahawks have posted just a 10-18 record when playing in the Eastern time zone. The struggles continued this year in a season-opening 34-10 loss at Buffalo, and were a topic of discussion again this past week with the team visiting the Giants. An animated Holmgren told Seattle-area reporters he doesn't believe it has anything to do with travel itineraries (the team leaves on Fridays for Sunday games), sleep levels, or anything of the sort. He's calling for a better performance.

Strength and versatility
The 49ers might be an unfamiliar foe to the Patriots, but there is one hard-to-miss New England tie on the club. Duane Carlisle, who is from Haverhill, was named the 49ers' strength and conditioning coach last January. He succeeded former Patriots strength coach Johnny Parker, who has retired. Carlisle took an interesting path to the job, working as a speed consultant for the Eagles from 2000-04 while holding similar positions with the Philadelphia Charge of the Women's United Soccer Association, the New Jersey Pride of Major League Lacrosse, and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Extra points
Through four weeks, 32 teams have elected to receive the opening kickoff after winning the coin flip, with 28 deferring the choice to the second half, which is reflective of the fact that teams are split on the new NFL rule allowing them the option . . . Veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, who has taken over as the starter for the Titans, has a contract that expires at the end of the season. While the sides had spoken about an extension in the offseason, Collins told The Tennessean last week that he's now inclined to wait until the end of the season because he feels he's a starting-caliber player . . . Running back Chris Johnson, the Titans' first-round draft choice, became the club's first Offensive Rookie of the Month honoree since Eddie George in 1996 . . . Former Patriots receiver Deion Branch, now with the Seahawks, is expected to play today for the first time since tearing his ACL Jan. 12 in a playoff game against the Packers.

Did you know?The Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 22 games, the longest active streak in the NFL. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson was the last to reach the mark against them, with 120 on Dec. 10, 2006.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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