Top pass rusher
In areas of need, Patriots will get chance to restock
With a 10-2 record, tied for best in the NFL, it would appear that the Patriots don’t have many weak spots.
The reality, though, is that Bill Belichick and his staff are perhaps doing their finest coaching since upsetting the Rams in Super Bowl XXXV.
“You look at the players individually on film and you wonder how the heck they are where they are,’’ said the general manager of an NFC team. “Obviously [Tom] Brady is the league MVP. He makes the difference. Because that team has holes.’’
With that in mind and with the college bowl season set to commence Saturday, it’s a good time to take an advance look at the draft from a Patriots perspective.
Four NFL general managers/personnel executives were asked to identify the positions the Patriots would most likely be looking to address and the top college players at each position.
The consensus of what the Patriots will be looking for, starting with greatest need: outside linebacker, defensive end, offensive guard/center, running back, offensive tackle.
The Patriots, once again, are well-stocked with picks. They have nine overall, with two in each of the first three rounds, and three likely in the top 33 — their extra second-round pick coming from 1-11 Carolina.
If the Patriots are looking to upgrade their pass rush by adding a complement to rookie Jermaine Cunningham, they might not have to grab one early. One team did a study of the 29 players regarded as starting outside linebackers for 3-4 teams. Only 44.8 percent were taken in the first two rounds, while 31 percent came in the fifth or later.
That could change this year because 15 teams now run the 3-4 and this is not a great year for the conversion types (college ends moving to linebacker in the NFL) the Patriots seem to favor.
A look at the top draft prospects in the Patriots’ areas of need:
Outside linebacker Von Miller, Texas A&M: He’s the consensus top pass rusher, but at 6 feet 3 inches, 243 pounds, he wouldn’t seem to have a place with the Patriots, who like their linebackers at least 6-3, 250.
Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson: Scouts are split on whether the 6-4, 275-pound junior can play standing up. Some compare him to former Patriot Willie McGinest. Others say he’s more like former Broncos bust Jarvis Moss.
Robert Quinn, North Carolina: The junior was declared permanently ineligible for taking extra benefits from an agent. He’s an elite athlete at 6-5, 270, and had 11 sacks last year.
Akeem Ayers, UCLA: The junior will probably be a top candidate if he declares. He has good size (6-4, 255) and speed, but what sets him apart is his versatility and athleticism.
Others: Aldon Smith, Missouri (6-5, 260), Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma (6-3, 267), Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh (6-4, 260), Mark Herzlich, Boston College (6-4, 244).
Defensive line Nick Fairley, Auburn: He’s 6-5, 298, but probably better suited as a 4-3 tackle.
Marcell Dareus, Alabama: Another SEC player probably better suited for 4-3 at 6-3, 306.
Cameron Heyward, Ohio State: The son of former NFL running back Craig “Ironhead’’ Heyward is 6-5, 288, and more likely a 3-4 end.
Allen Bailey, Miami: Would be a better fit in a Cover-2 scheme at 6-4, 285.
Others: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa (6-4, 285), J.J. Watt, Wisconsin (6-6, 292), Cameron Jordan, California (6-4, 283).
Offensive line Nate Solder, T, Colorado: Light on his feet at 6-9, 315, may be the only surefire left tackle in the first round.
Derek Sherrod, T, Mississippi State: Came out of nowhere this season to rocket up draft boards. Goes 6-6, 305.
Anthony Castonzo, T, Boston College: Played on both sides of the line for the Eagles and is probably the most pro-ready (6-7, 308).
Gabe Carimi, T, Wisconsin: Cut from same cloth as Castonzo. Experienced and 6-7, 327.
Stefen Wisniewski, C, Penn State: Not a good year for interior linemen but his uncle, Steve Wisniewski, made eight Pro Bowls for the Raiders (6-3, 306).
Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida: Will be helped by his twin brother, Maurkice Pouncey, becoming an immediate starter for the Steelers (6-4, 310).
Running back Mark Ingram, Alabama: Could be the only running back taken in the first round after a stellar career for the Crimson Tide. The junior would seem to wear well with his stocky 5-10, 215-pound frame, but many teams don’t believe backs are worth the first-round money.
Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech: Had a hamstring injury early but emerged as the season went along (5-10, 202).
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State: “Explosive’’ is the word most associated with the 5-8, 197-pounder, but he’s not an every-down back.
When going is tough, Eagles are going southAfter getting dominated in all three phases of the game by the Bears in a 31-26 loss Nov. 28, the Eagles seemed to bounce back nicely with a 34-24 win over the Texans in a Thursday night game four days later.
But underneath the Eagles’ 8-4 mark lies a potentially fatal flaw: terrible red-zone defense. The Eagles have given up 14 touchdowns in 17 opportunities in the last five games, even as they’ve won four of those five.
On the season, the Eagles have allowed red-zone touchdowns at a 78.8 percent rate (26 in 33 trips), the worst in the league. It’s also the worst mark in the NFL in the past 22 years. No team has made a conference title game with a rate higher than 70.
“It’s too much,’’ Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “We’ve got to do a better job there. [Defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott] is beating himself up over that.
“One of the things he did during the extra couple of days off [after Thursday’s win over Houston] was go back through it and study it and evaluate it. He’ll make some adjustments with whatever phase he feels needs it, and we’ll go from there.
“We’ve got to just continue to put guys in the right position, and guys, when they have the opportunity to make plays, they have to make plays. It’s really that simple.’’
The ironic thing is that under the late Jim Johnson, their former defensive coordinator, the Eagles were outstanding in the red zone. In Johnson’s 10 seasons as coordinator, the Eagles went over 50 percent only twice. And only once did they finish ranked lower than 15th in red-zone defense.
The Eagles finished 26th in red-zone defense last season (56 percent), McDermott’s first as coordinator.
Part of the problem is youth. Five regulars have 11 career starts or less: safety Nate Allen, defensive end Brandon Graham, cornerback Dimitri Patterson, linebacker Moise Fokou, and defensive tackle Antonio Dixon.
“Having a young defense, you’ve got to make sure you have the right mind-set,’’ McDermott said. “When you get down there, the chips are stacked against you, so to speak, and you need to hold them to a field goal.’’
MANNING FACES NEMESIS
Minnesota has been Giant problem for QBLook for Giants quarterback Eli Manning to try very hard this weekend to get a monkey off his back: the Vikings.
Manning (left) enters today’s game at the Metrodome with an 0-4 mark vs. Minnesota. The Vikings are the only team Manning has faced at least twice and not beaten.
“I haven’t really thought about the history of all of this,’’ coach Tom Coughlin said, “but the competitor that he is, even if he hasn’t thought about it, if you mention it to him, he’ll have some inner thoughts.’’
Manning has 10 interceptions against two touchdown passes in the four games against Minnesota. He has thrown four interceptions in a game twice — both against the Vikings (2005, ’07).
The Giants lost the 2007 game, 41-7, at home, with three interceptions getting returned for touchdowns, prompting New York general manager Jerry Reese to say Manning appeared “skittish.’’
Manning and the Giants rebounded to win the Super Bowl that season over the Patriots.
“I guess at some point you think about it,’’ Manning said. “But really our focus is this year, have our game plan, and know how we have to play to have a chance to beat this team.’’
Those close to Manning say he’s irritated having to answer questions about his struggles against the Vikings.
“I think he’ll use the motivation to play his best football and silence all of the critics,’’ tackle David Diehl said. “That’s all he’s ever done. It’s not about what he says, not about any of that stuff. It’s only about his actions.’’
“I think that’d probably bother anybody,’’ tight end Kevin Boss added. “I’m sure he’s looking to come out and have a good game.’’
Manning will be making his 100th consecutive start today, becoming only the sixth quarterback to reach that mark. Brett Favre, whom Manning will likely face today, leads with 297. The others in the 100 consecutive-start club: big brother Peyton Manning (205), Ron Jaworski (116), Tom Brady (111), and Joe Ferguson (107).
These Washingtonians lacking in diplomacy Things have gotten so bad with the Redskins and Albert Haynesworth that ex-players are getting into it with current ones. Brian Mitchell, the NFL’s all-time leading return man, blamed Haynesworth’s suspension on Mike Shanahan, then took off on end Phillip Daniels, who had criticized Haynesworth, on Washington’s 106.7 The Fan. “Who they gonna get, who’s gonna be much better next year?’’ Mitchell asked. “You watched [the way] that damn defensive line played [in last Sunday’s loss to the Giants]. I don’t think anybody on that defensive line has a right to say a damn thing about anybody. They sucked. Phillip Daniels sucked. Everybody on the defensive line sucked. So if they want to start knocking people, get off of their [butts] and play better football.’’ Daniels fired back on Wednesday. “It’s one thing to be ignorant, but to be two-faced, too, that’s kind of bad,’’ Daniels said. “I don’t deserve that. I work hard. I do all the things I need to do. You don’t stay around this league 15 years and you suck. It’s sad that he would target me like that. I never said anything about anybody’s play on the field. All I said was, ‘Play for your teammates.’ I guess he’s trying to get his ratings up. I’ll meet with him in person. I don’t shy away from anybody and we’ll go from there. I respect the guys that paved the way for me, but don’t go out there and bash me because I’m trying to help this team be better.’’
Brothers in arms When Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford was about to undergo shoulder surgery last year, he sought counsel from the Saints’ Drew Brees, who suffered a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder in the last game of the 2005 season in San Diego. The two face off today, as the Rams visit New Orleans. “I just kind of asked him what the rehab process was like,’’ Bradford said. “He was awesome. He answered every question I had. Very helpful.’’ Brees has missed just one game in five standout seasons. Bradford hasn’t missed a snap. “It means a lot,’’ Bradford said. “When you start any season, you never want to be injured, you never want to miss any time. I’ve been fortunate this year to not miss any snaps and to be able to be out there with my guys all the time.’’
Fun, fun, fun After gaining a season-high 103 yards and scoring two touchdowns in last Sunday’s win over the Redskins, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said something no one thought possible. “I’m having a lot of fun playing,’’ he said. “I think I’m having more fun this year than I had in 2007, when we won the Super Bowl. I just want to continue to have fun and keep on winning.’’ Jacobs and fun? The same guy that lost his starting job in preseason, threw his helmet into the stands, and stopped just short of demanding a trade a few months ago? Apparently, a sit-down with coach Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese in late September cleared the air. Outside of a verbal sparring match with fans a few weeks ago (he was fined $20,000), Jacobs has been a good soldier. “I let go of it all,’’ he said. “I just want to win. We’re toward the end of the season, no one’s keeping secrets, we’re playing football. I’m really fresh right now. I’ve never felt so good in my career at this point in the season. I’m just going to give this team everything I’ve got, leave it all out there and work hard.’’
By the numbers 0: Times in the 73-year history of the Rams franchise that they’ve won road games in three consecutive weeks. That can change with a win today in New Orleans.
52: Combined sacks for linebackers taken in the first round of the 2009 draft: Brian Orakpo (13th overall), Brian Cushing (15th), Larry English (16th), Robert Ayers (18th), and Clay Matthews (26th). Aaron Maybin of the Bills, selected before any of them at 11, has yet to record a sack and has started just one game.
46: Consecutive games with a catch by Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe before Denver’s Champ Bailey shut him out last week.
The good book Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for that football lover in your life? “The Ultimate Super Bowl Book’’ by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel comes with my highest recommendation. If you’re looking for in-depth analysis of why each team won the biggest game, the real X’s and O’s of it from head coaches (Bill Belichick was interviewed for several hours), assistant coaches, and personnel executives, then you should buy the book. Personalized copies are available from McGinn by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
View from the outside The Patriots will have to block the league’s leading quarterback knockdown artist today, according to numbers from FootballOutsiders.com. Bears end Julius Peppers leads the league with 14 knockdowns (hits that put a quarterback on the ground after a pass; sacks are not included, but penalties are). Other top quarterback hunters: Jared Allen, Vikings (13), Aaron Kampman, Jaguars (12), Antonio Smith, Texans (12), Justin Babin, Titans (12). Tully Banta-Cain leads the Patriots with five, followed by Rob Ninkovich with four. Israel Idonije is second on the Bears with seven. As a team, the Bears are tied for seventh (39), while the Patriots are tied for 26th (25). Bears quarterbacks have taken 38 hits (eighth overall), and Tom Brady has been knocked down 22 times (tied 26th). Donovan McNabb of the Redskins leads with 49, although Jaguars quarterbacks as a group have 50.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.