Here’s why the Arizona Cardinals drafting Kyler Murray isn’t such a lock

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What happens if we’re all wrong? What happens if the Arizona Cardinals don’t do the lead-pipe-lock thing of the 2019 NFL Draft, which is to use the first pick overall on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray? What happens if they shock the world April 25 and trade the pick, or take someone else?

It’s 10 days before the first round kicks off, and we’ve talked ourselves into being sure the Cardinals will take Murray and pair him with the coach who lusts after him, rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury. And if I had to do my mock today, I’d give Murray to Arizona. (Useless Information Dept.: MOCK DRAFT ALERT!! Mine is next Monday.) It makes a lot of sense to pair your McVayesque head coach with the quarterback he loves.

I’m not positive Murray to the Cards plays out like that. I’ve got a few reasons, after a round of phone calls in the past few days.

Let’s run ’em down:

• I don’t believe there is unanimity inside the Cardinals building today either to take Murray, trade down for a passel of picks to a Murray-loving team, or to sit at one and take an impact player for the defense like edge-rusher Nick Bosa. Then again, if GM Steve Keim and Kingsbury both want Murray, that’s going to be the pick.

• The Cards’ personnel brains—led by Keim and VP of player personnel Terry McDonough—are extremely confident people. If you run a team’s play-acquisition department, of course you should be confident. But Keim and McDonough are at the upper end among NFL personnel people in belief in their ability to pick players. I think Keim wouldn’t blink about trading the first pick. Keim won’t be scared to buck conventional wisdom.

• Suppose the Raiders, picking fourth, and coach Jon Gruden, who was openly covetous of Murray at the combine, decide that three of their five first-round picks in the next two drafts are worth using to get the first pick. Theoretically, suppose the Raiders trade the fourth and 27th picks in round one this year, plus one of their two first-rounders next year, to deal up to Arizona’s pick, and the Raiders take Murray. Then suppose they could recoup one of those first-round picks by trading quarterback Derek Carr to Miami or Washington or the Giants for a 2020 first-rounder. Over the next four years, the Raiders would save about $13 million a year by paying a first-pick quarterback an average of $8.5 million a year, as opposed to the $21.5 million average on the remaining four seasons of Carr’s contract.

• If you’re the Cards, and you could have four first-round picks in the next two years, including the fourth overall pick this year, and you have a coach you believe could make Josh Rosen 20 percent better, it might make sense to try to ransom the pick. To take the Murray pick and deal it, and be in position to choose a defensive centerpiece like Josh Allen or Quinnen Williams and two more first-rounders … tempting.

• Few teams in the NFL need a transfusion of talent at multiple positions like Arizona. The respected player-rating site Pro Football Focus ranks players top to bottom at each position. In 2018, Arizona had only two players from its starting 22 rated in the top 15 in the league at their positions: middle linebacker Josh Bynes (fifth) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (ninth). Arizona did not have a top-30 guard, center, tackle, tight end, running back, quarterback, defensive tackle or safety. Alarming. Trading the top pick could be medicine for a lot of personnel issues in Arizona.

But it Keim thinks Murray’s going to have Mahomes-like impact, or even close, he should resist temptation, pick Murray, and deal Josh Rosen 10 nights from now. Peter Schrager made a good point the other day on “Good Morning Football:” In 1984, the Portland Trail Blazers had a young shooting guard they liked, Clyde Drexler, who went on to be a Hall of Fame player. Owning the second pick of the ’84 draft, with Michael Jordan on the board, Portland picked center Sam Bowie. Some 35 years later, it’s still the worst NBA draft decision ever. If the Cards see star power in Murray, their decision should be made.

Who knows how good the 5-10 Murray will be? But living with passing on him would be something Keim, and steward-of-the-franchise president Michael Bidwill, must consider with one of the biggest decisions this team has had to make since moving to Arizona in 1988.

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Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.