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Ear to the Ground

"The cosmos speaks in patterns" - Roger von Oech (paraphrase of Heraclitus)

"Winning is our business" - Bill Parcells (motto for Cowboys 2005 season)

The subject matter of ETTG is IDP with an emphasis on Dynasty leagues. Ear To The Ground was chosen for this column's title to convey a sense of detecting rumblings in the distance... an ability essential to project a prospect from college to pro and rookie to veteran. It will consist of four sections : Team Reports, a Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter, an In-Depth Profile and a strategy section called Cracking the Code. The team reports will be covered on a rotation (ARI - KC, MIA - WAS) every other week. The events that wash over the IDP Dynasty world and alter its landscape move at a slower rhythm and tempo and according to longer cycles than redraft leagues, making weekly coverage superfluous. IDP focus will be on the impact positions of LB, DE and S... exceptional DTs and CBs will be noted for leagues that differentiate DE/DT and S/CB. Dynasty content is geared towards youth. Like most successful working rosters that employ a blend of production and potential, there will be a balance of rookie and veteran coverage in the mix. FBG IDP content is complementary and interlocking. Upgrades/Downgrades and Strong/Weak Plays articles will by their nature see new names bubble up to the surface from week to week. Ear to the Ground will identify key players early on and can be thought of as a watch list for the whole season as it unfolds.

NOTE TO READER -

In lieu of the usual team reports section in every ETTG since its inception, this week will feature a special, "expanded edition" of the running Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter section, with plenty of interstitial commentary about the top rookie IDP prospects going forward (along with the usual In-depth Profile and Cracking The Code sections)...

Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter

Mid-Season Report - A Synoptic Overview of the 2005 Impact Rookie IDPs (so far)...

LB - MLB Odell Thurman has been extremely consistent all season, and has proven to be a big play artist... the second rounder's 4 INTs are more than any safety in the league, at least twice as many as any LB besides Cato June (5) and would be tied for second among CBs (Deltha O'Neal has 6) with a group of a half dozen, including dynasty studs DeAngelo Hall and Rashean Mathis. Thurman's 3 FFs are as many as #1 DT Rod Coleman, would be tied for second after LBs Zach Thomas and Shelton Quarles (4) and fourth best among DEs (IND amazingly has three DEs in the top six in FFs). The former Georgia star leads CIN in tackles (40) and is in a three way tie for second in that stat among rookie LBs (with Lofa Tatupu and Kirk Morrison). His physical nature, telepathic instincts, supreme confidence and former prep RB feet and quickness have added a new dimension to the surging Bengals (7-2), and have helped spearhead the defense's league lead in takeaways and translated to an NFL best turnover differential. Thurman is a bad man who has had a massive ripple-through impact on the team's overall defensive "attitude" and been instrumental in "flipping the script" (these aren't your Dad's Bungles anymore)... one of the most important defining characteristics of a prospective Defensive Rookie of the Year.

First round SLB Derrick Johnson is the fastest of the stellar 2005 LB class, which could go down as the "Year of the LB". DJ has been somewhat up and down but is a proven playmaker (broke NCAA record with 9 FFs in the 2004 season). Scout chatter which questioned his physicality, toughness and ability/willingness to take on and dispatch blocks appear to have been misplaced. The former Texas All American is playing up to his elite, blue chip pedigree as the nation's best LB in college... he leads the Chiefs in tackles (47), and is the top rookie LB and #13 among all LBs in that column.

OLB/DE Shawne Merriman started slow, due to contract problems and lingering injuries, yet based on his past three games (16-3, 4 sacks & 1 FF) he is living up to the moniker "Lights Out" and could emerge as the most dynamic, explosive and game impacting LB from his class. He led the Chargers in tackles (9) against the Jets Sunday and leads the team and is second in the league among LBs in sacks (5), after playing a situational role most of the season and starting for only the past few games. He is settling into a sack a game rhythm and groove... do the math, and this suggests he may be the extremely rare LB (think Lawrence Taylor or the late Derrick Thomas) capable of finishing up among the league leaders in sacks with the elite DEs. Typically rookie pass rushers need physical maturation and development transitioning to the next level... often budding sack artists turn everything outside, flash only a speed move and are effectively reduced to a one trick pony that is easily countered by the stronger, more experienced and technically sound veteran. Merriman is a powerhouse (bigger and stronger than Ware) with the freakish, disruptive kind of strength to mount a nasty bull rush. This should accelerate his curve for expanding his repertoire of moves, mixing up inside/outside counters and stringing moves together... options unavailable to rookies constrained initially to always employ the speed rush. He has a nasty disposition, an active, nonstop motor and tries to run THROUGH ball carriers on every play. He could put more skill position players in the hospital this winter than the flu.

The previously mentioned MLB Tatupu leads the Seahawks and is tied for second among rookie LBs in tackles (40). He might have the best intangibles of the group, with NFL pedigree (father Mosi played) and coaching (USC HC Pete Carroll was a pro HC twice and the third time could be the charm) and Jonathan Vilma-like instincts, natural football smarts, work ethic, study habits, intensity and passion for the game. These easily compensate for a lack of ideal triangle numbers and other measurables, physical and athletic traits, and have amply justified the team's faith in him amidst almost universal outcry that he was a reach and potential bust (the misunderstood and undervalued second rounder is playing like a first rounder and future star). The point man for USCs two-time national champ defense has rewarded SEAs foresight by looking like he will be an indispensable fixture in the middle for years after having a revolving door at the critically important MLB position during HC Holmgren's tenure. All players have a unique rate & tempo of developmental unfolding, though Tatupu is well ahead of the curve by almost any measure. He became a respected team leader almost instantaneously for his commanding presence in the huddle, knowledge of the game and rare ability (for any IDP, let alone a rookie) to recognize tendencies, anticipate plays and process this information quickly in order to get the defense lined up in the formation best suited to counter what the offense is trying to do. Hidden agendas of opposing game plans and schemes are like an open book to his spooky "X-Ray Vision" X factor. The former QB has quickly inherited the mantle of QB of the defense and should get nothing but better... all while coming out early as a junior. He has spearheaded a rejuvenation and transformation of the Seahawks stop unit that has helped propel them to becoming a more balanced team. Sporting a bazooka offense but held back by a BB gun defense in recent years, much needed balance could help propel Seattle to being poised on the threshold of the NFL's elite teams... and in a weakened NFC with a pall over the Eagles season... a real possibility of the first Super Bowl berth in the Holmgren era if the team continues to gel, avoids injuries and peaks at the right time.

OLB/DE DeMarcus Ware has been as good as advertised as a sack phenom and prodigy (the first non-CB IDP selected, right before Merriman... he was one of the fastest risers leading up to the draft and just missed cracking the top 10). The former Troy State teammate of the Giants ascendant DE star Osi Umenyiora is second on the Cowboys and tied for third among LBs in sacks (4), after only Brian Urlacher (6) and Merriman (5). Like the Chargers stud rookie OLB/DE, Ware has the raw physical ability, natural talent and multifaceted array of skills to dominate early in his career. Both these guys have future Pro Bowler written all over them. One way to parse their respective abilities and skill sets... Merriman is a physical specimen and possibly mutated life form bigger, stronger and almost as fast as his brilliant Cowboy counterpart, though stiffer. Ware is faster, more agile and athletic (possesses a world class spin move) and may break down in space better... he has the Derrick Thomas-like feet quickness and stop-on-a-dime cutting ability of an elite RB or WR.

The aforementioned third round ILB/OLB Morrison is tied with Danny Jackson for the Raiders' team lead and tied for second among rookies in tackles (40) and leads all rookies (at any position) in combined tackles (61), though the ex-Aztec hasn't been a big play maven with no sacks, FFs or INTs.

Keep an eye out for MIA third round OLB/ILB Channing Crowder, who is seeing significant playing time and is the probable heir apparent to Pro Bowler Zach Thomas. High second round MLB Barrett Ruud is the (near) future for the Bucs, though incumbent Shelton Quarles is not giving up easy... he is tied with Jeremiah Trotter for #6 overall in tackles (51) and with Zach Thomas for #1 in FFs (4) among LBs, but will be 35 as the 2006 season kicks off.

MLB/WLB Alfred Fincher has had his development and progress curtailed as a result of a broken wrist early on. With MLB Courtney Watson and WLB Colby Bockwoldt both plagued by a bad case of the sophomore slump, there is a distinct possibility that he could be starting at one of those two positions by 2006, if not sooner. While off the radar of many due to the fact that UConn is not exactly a football factory, film breakdown reveals him to be an active tackler with excellent instincts and first step, whose thick frame, speed and agility should well equip him to play either position in the NFL. He has a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. While not in awe of the challenge he faces in transitioning, not only from college, but from a non-mainstream program (as well as the starting opportunity that could soon await the former Husky), he isn't intimidated by it either, and won't fail for lack of effort or preparation. Fincher celebrated his third round selection by the Saints by running stadium seats... SLACKER! That is an ETTG-type of player. One concern is that New Orleans has been a sort of grave yard for young LBs in recent seasons. Not a concern is that former NFL LB Haslett may have a blind spot when it comes to mapping those traits and attributes it takes to be a successful LB at the next level onto the incoming class of prospects... Fincher appears to be more well-rounded and resilient than a litany of third round flops in recent seasons (Sedrick Hodge, James Allen and Cie Grant). But the teams record when it comes to the development of internal prospects at the position does give one pause and serves as a reminder against unbridled hope. That said, Fincher's compelling talent could enable him to surmount the inherent challenges outlined.

Higher pedigree LB prospects that have languished and underwhelmed for various reasons include... Bengals first round OLB/DE Davis Pollack (won the nation's top DE award but has the requisite athleticism to make the conversion from a three-pointed stance and hand-on-the-ground rusher to standing up, playing in space and in reverse), who has had to battle through an unfortunate contract holdout that was one of the lengthiest in his class, followed by subsequent injuries that have temporarily stalled his progress. Meanwhile, the SLB position is in the able hands of Landon Johnson, who many team observers thought was CINs best LB before manchild Thurman arrived on the scene. Cowboys second round OLB Burnett was also dinged up early, and the Big Tuna is exercising patience in allowing him to learn the nuances of the 3-4 in run support and pass coverage. Dallas insiders think the Tennessee standout has too much talent to not be a contributor on some level soon, with the potential to be a future playmaker in the scheme... possibly even a star.

DL - Other positions have not fared so well among the 2005 IDP rookie class. On the DL, the typically glamor position of DE has so far offered meager representation... probably the best pass rushers are Ware and Merriman, and they have been converted to LB in the pros. First rounder Erasmus James, thought to be the top pure DE prospect as opposed to above tweeners, has failed to distinguish himself with the Vikings thus far. The Cowboys Marcus Spears has overcome a preseason knee injury and is now starting and beginning to show a glimmer and hint of the elite talent that caused him to be drafted in the first round as a key building block in Parcell's retooling of DAL longtime 4-3 into a 3-4. Chris Canty was also viewed as a key piece to that puzzle as a bookend 3-4 DE to complement Spears, with similar first round ability... but at a discount (fourth round) to the premium priced Spears due to a knee injury suffered his junior year at Virginia under Parcells protégé Al Groh, as well as an unfortunate offseason bar fight that almost cost his vision in one eye. Eagles first round DT Mike Patterson got off to a torrid start (13-2, 2 sacks & 1 FF) and flashed big time ability in his first four games, but the former USC star has only three tackles with no sacks since... "Baby Sapp" may be hitting the proverbial rookie wall.

DB - Of the "Big Three" CBs that went off the board within the first ten picks of the draft (three RBs and WRs also went in top ten selections), the Cards promising Antrel Rolle looked like a future super star before blowing out his knee in week three, the Redskins Carlos Rogers (won the nation's top collegiate DB award) has been slowed by injuries and the team's notorious glacial pace at integrating rookies into the starting lineup and Adam "Pacman" Jones has put the pac in packing it in regarding his less than enthusiastic open field tackling, and it is increasingly looking like "Bustman" would be a more appropriate and fitting moniker for the belligerent, star-crossed Titan.

First round Colts defender (one of the few, with Dwight Freeney) Marlin Jackson is being gradually eased into the starting lineup by "Godfather of the Cover Two" Dungy, but is expected to quickly become a difference maker in the secondary with future star potential. The diminutive DEN special teams ace Darrent Williams has been one of the most pleasant surprises to emerge from the 2005 CB class and has already ascended to starter status. He and fellow Bronco rookie and nickel back Dominique Foxworth are tied for the league lead among rookie CBs in tackles (31), comprise a dynamic upgrade in pass coverage AND run support and have elevated the Mile High defense as a whole. This could bode well if the surging Skeletor's minions are on track for a third straight playoff collision with their AFC nemesis, the Colts... Peyton Manning has carved them up like a holiday turkey the two previous years. Raiders first rounder Fabian Washington was selected for being one of the fastest prospects at the combine (at any position)... his debut, inaugural season in the Black Hole hasn't until recently gone as quickly. The former Nebraska speedster is coming off easily his most impressive performance of the season, leading the team in tackles (9) in the gut-wrenching loss to the Chiefs Sunday, in the process racking up nearly as many tackles as he had in the previous seven games COMBINED (11).

Safety has also been a mixed bag with ups and downs, with perhaps more of the latter than former. First round SS/OLB Thomas Davis of the Panthers did not turn out to be as versatile as thought, looking badly miscast as a safety and just too raw in coverage to be a functional element in the defensive scheme at the current time. Many (most?) scouts thought he was a natural LB, anyway. Scouts may have to wait until 2006 to see if the former Bulldog star (and teammate of DROY favorite Thurman) confirms another hunch... that he could be a Derrick Brooks-like OLB and has the physical attributes and constellation of traits and skills to dominate from that position at the next level.

High second rounders Brodney Pool (CLE) and Josh Bullocks (NO) have looked as good as advertised in limited action, and the Saints rookie FS and ex-Cornhusker star played well enough to be inserted into the starting lineup after the season ending injury to Jay Bellamy. Packers second round FS Nick Collins from tiny Bethune-Cookman (CB Rashean Mathis' alma mater) was not as raw as originally feared and was quickly installed as a starter. He has spectacular measurables and will flash impressive athleticism but is still very much a work in progress and may be for a while. Rams twin-barrelled third and fourth round safeties, Oshiomogho Atogwe and Jerome Carter, have not had as much impact as anticipated, with the emergence of former WR/FS conversion Mike Furrey, but should get a shot in the future. Texans sixth rounder C.C. Brown got off to a smokin start and looked like he might emerge as one of the top unheralded day two rookie IDPs and safety prospects from the 2005 class, but lately has shown more fizzle than sizzle (in fairness, he has had to play through a banged up knee).

Probably the most pleasant surprise among the class of 2005 deep patrollers is Jets day two (4.22) SS, Kerry "Colossus of" Rhodes. A superb athlete with great bloodlines... he is the cousin of NBA shot blocker, Theo Ratliff. The former Louisville Cardinal has looked impressive from his very first game and leads ALL rookies, including LBs, in tackles (45) at the season's midpoint. That ties Rhodes for third with Eagles Pro Bowler and budding SS star, Michael Lewis, among NFL safeties... and ahead of fellow Pro Bowl SSs Roy Williams and Troy Polamalu, the heartbeat of Chicago's league-best defense, SS Mike Brown, and ascendant star FS Bob Sanders. Rhodes has also flashed some playmaking ability (adding an INT and FF) and appears to have a nose for the ball. He is still on the upward ascent of his career arc and trajectory, and the arrow is pointed up on his future dynasty prospects. Based on the smooth segue by which Rhodes has transitioned to the next level, he may have one of the highest ceilings and upsides among IDPs from the class of 2005... at any position.

Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter

  1. Odell Thurman, MLB, CIN, 2.16, Georgia (6'1" 230)
  2. Derrick Johnson, SLB, KC, 1.15, Texas (6'4" 235)
  3. Shawne Merriman, OLB/DE, SD, 1.12, Maryland (6'4" 245)
  4. Lofa Tatupu, MLB, SEA, 2.13, USC (6'0" 240)
  5. DeMarcus Ware, OLB/DE, DAL, 1.11, Troy State (6'4" 232)
  6. Kirk Morrison, OLB/ILB, OAK, 3.14, San Diego State (6'2" 240)
  7. Kerry Rhodes, SS, NYJ, 4.22, Louisville (6'3" 210)
  8. Darrent Williams, CB, DEN, 2.24, Oklahoma State (5'8" 188)
  9. Channing Crowder, ILB/OLB, MIA, 3.6, Florida (6'2" 240)
  10. Josh Bullocks, SS/FS, NO, 2.8, Nebraska (6'0" 205)

    Standin On The Verge Of Gettin It...

  • Barrett Ruud, MLB, TB, 2.4, Nebraska (6'2" 240)
  • Thomas Davis, SS/OLB, CAR, 1.14, Georgia (6'3" 230)
  • Marlin Jackson, CB, IND, 1.29, Michigan (6'1" 200)
  • Marcus Spears, DE, DAL, 1.20, LSU (6.4 295)
  • Carlos Rogers, CB, WAS, 1.9, Auburn (6'1" 194)
  • Chris Canty, DE, DAL, 4.31, Virginia (6'7" 290)
  • Mike Patterson, DT, PHI, 1.31, USC (6'0" 285)
  • Dominique Foxworth, CB, DEN, 3.33, Maryland (5'11" 180)
  • Leroy Hill, WLB, SEA, 3.35, Clemson (6'1" 225)
  • Shaun Cody, DT/DE, DET, 2.5, USC (6'3" 290)
  • Brodney Pool, FS/SS, CLE, 2.2, Oklahoma (6'3" 208)
  • Kevin Burnett, OLB, DAL, 2.10, Tennessee (6'3" 235)
  • Alfred Fincher, MLB, NO, 3.18, Connecticut (6'1" 240)
  • David Pollack, SLB, CIN, 1.17, Georgia (6'2" 260)
  • Erasmus James, DE, MIN, 1.18, Wisconsin (6'4" 270)
  • Justin Tuck, DE, NYG, 3.10, Notre Dame (6'5" 261)
  • Fabian Washington, CB, OAK, 1.23, Nebraska (5'11 180)
  • Matt Roth, DE, MIA, 2.14, Iowa (6'4" 270)
  • Bryant McFadden, CB, PIT, 2.30, Florida State (6'0" 180)
  • Nick Collins, FS, GB, 2.19, Bethune Cookman (5'11" 193)
  • Chris Harris, FS, CHI, 6.7, Louisiana-Monroe (6'0" 205)
  • C.C. Brown, SS, HOU, 6.14, LA-Lafayette, (6'0" 200)
  • Adam "Pacman" Jones, CB, TEN, 1.6, West Virginia (5'11" 185)
  • Corey Webster, CB, NYG, 2.11, LSU (6'0" 197)
  • Oshiomogho Atogwe, FS, STL, 3.2, Stanford (5'11" 220)
  • Jerome Carter, SS, STL, 4.16, Florida State (5'11" 220)
  • Jonathan Babineaux, DT, ATL, 2.27, Iowa (6'2" 280)
  • Stanford Routt, CB, OAK, 2.6, Houston (6'1" 195)
  • Lance Mitchell, MLB, 5.32, Oklahoma (6'3" 245)
  • Luis Castillo, NT, SD, 1.28, Northwestern (6'5" 305)
  • Travis Johnson, DE, HOU, 1.16, Florida State (6'5" 285)
  • Donte Nicholson, SS, TB, 5.5, Oklahoma (6'2" 216)
  • Justin Miller, CB, NYJ, 2.25, Clemson (5'11" 200)
  • Eric Green, CB, ARI, 3.11, Virginia Tech (6'0" 197)
  • Daryl Blackstock, SLB, ARI, 3.32, Virginia, (6'4" 240)
  • Ron Bartell, CB/FS, STL, 2.18, Howard (6'1" 213)
  • Travis Daniels, CB, MIA, 4.3, LSU (6'1" 184)
  • Kelvin Hayden, CB, IND, 2.28, Illinois (6'0" 198)
  • Stanley Wilson, CB, DET, 3.8, Stanford (6'0" 190)
  • James Butler, S, NYG, UFA (only undrafted free agent on this list), Georgia Tech (6'3" 210)

    * Injured Reserve

  • Jordan Beck, MLB, ATL, 3.26, Cal Poly (6'2" 230)
  • Dan Cody, OLB/DE, BAL, 2.21, Oklahoma (6'5" 265)
  • Antrel Rolle, CB, ARI, 1.8, Miami (6'1" 202)

In-depth Profile

This section will draw from and point back to preseason work, such as the IDP Rookie and Sleepers articles, as well as include new profiles in-season as events dictate.

Chris Gamble, CB, Carolina Panthers - One thing to like about Gamble... despite the fact that he is a budding star, opposing OCs and QBs would rather challenge him than the more experienced (in terms of years of NFL service as well as playing the CB position) Ken Lucas... meaning he will continue to be tested and see opportunities presented to him like the stellar 2 INT effort with a 60+ yard return TD (his first as a pro... but almost certainly not his last) against Chris Simms and the Tampa Bay (CH)bUC(KIE)S. He has been devoting himself to film study and breaking down his opponents strengths and weaknesses. When his head catches up with his raw talent and formidable natural ability through reps and experience, he has a chance to be special and one of the top CBs in the game...

Probably one of the top half dozen athletes in the NFL... and the Panthers have two of them with Peppers, too! After not focusing on CB for most of his life (he was recruited to Ohio State as a WR... showed the stamina and endurance of a cyborg by taking the most two way snaps in several decades and helping the Buckeyes to a National Championship) and engaging in two way exploits in the collegiate ranks ala Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson... still the only Heisman winner not to play primarily on offense... Gamble somewhat surprisingly claimed the starting gig for Carolina early and didn't look back, being among NFL INT leaders (6) in an extremely auspicious debut. He tied for the NFC lead in INTs with former Seahawk Ken Lucas, who is coincidentally now his teammate thanks to the miracle of free agency. Gamble was a liability against run initially, but got stronger as the season progressed and as he got more reps (he never played the position until goofing around with some friends on the field before his sophomore season)... about what one would expect given how raw he was given his defensive inexperience. Not a finesse offense guy playing defense... he had no problem aggressively sticking his nose in for run support, after being coached up. Scout's scout Frank Coyle thought he had the raw, prodigious talent to emerge as the top CB in his class (Dunta Robinson is no doubt the top CB prospect from the 2004 draft for dynasty IDP purposes, with Gamble arguably second ahead of DeAngelo Hall) Though "real world" football chops don't always translate to IDP production, he looks like he will get a lot of tackles in that system. Could be the rare player who gets a lot of INTs from season to season... just because he is so much more gifted athletically than 99% of the skill position players he will ever line up against. Plays the ball phenomenally well in the air (on the atho-lete riff, he led his Florida HS team to a State Championship in hoops as a junior, before duplicating the feat on the gridiron his senior season), and will no doubt score a few TDs over his career as he is a threat whenever he has the ball in his hands between his freakish athleticism and skill position experience. Gamble and Lucas have gone on the record saying they each will get 10 INTs in 2005. A winner at every level he has ever played, across different sports and in some cases... from different positions. His ceiling is as high as virtually any player in his draft class at any position. Still improving by leaps and bounds. Big upside, especially in leagues that differentiate DB scoring and require CBs.

Cracking the Code - Buy Low and Sell High

In leagues that use auction and bidding style waiver wires, use sound prioritization of team needs, roster spots and funds where availability intersects with positional scarcity. Don't skimp when it comes to potential impact IDPs you have identified as potential breakout candidates, in which oftentimes you may only have one chance to get them during an initial preseason waiver wire window or in the first few weeks of the season. This can be a tightrope, as you also don't want to overspend too much on one or two players, so you will be able to acquire several over the course of the season. Take some chances. You will inevitably have some misses, but some hits, too... if you are active, aware of opportunities and engaged in trying to capitalize on them as they are presented. Potential future studs such as Gary Brackett, Lemar Marshall and Kerry Rhodes were available in many leagues in the preseason but would have been long gone by the opening weeks of the season.

* dedicated to K

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