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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.

TEAM REPORTS

Miami - Bye

Minnesota - Penalty Box

New England - Penalty Box

New Orleans - DE Charles Grant (7-0, 1 sack, 1 FF) has been hobbled but led the Saints in tackles and had a breakout game... he had 6 tackles and no sacks in the first three games COMBINED. Georgia has turned out exceptional defensive talent in recent years (including Champ and Boss Bailey, Sean Jones, Odell Thurman, Thomas Davis and David Pollack), and the former star prep RB fits in with these Bulldog IDP luminaries. Slow start notwithstanding, Grant is one of the top young DEs in the game (just turned 27) along with Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney. Unlike many sack artists, he has proven capable of being stout against the run in his short but superior body of work thus far (career high 65 tackles in 2004). The next five New Orleans/New York/San Antonio/Baton Rouge IDPs in the box score were DBs. Prized free agent ex-Buc FS Dwight Smith (5-0) was shifted to SS with the season-ending knee injury of Jay Bellamy. High second round FS Josh "Never Mind The" Bullocks (4-2) graded out as a top two FS in the 2005 class (with Brodney Pool) and his time-table for starting has just been rapidly accelerated. The former Cornhusker is a playmaker and led the nation in INTs in 2003. If he can avoid too many typical boneheaded rookie mistakes, Bullocks has a chance to do some damage... FS Tebucky Jones put up fairly productive tackle numbers from that spot last season, and a potential league best DE rotation of Grant, Darren Howard (2-0, 2 sacks, 1 FF) and good looking 2004 first rounder Will Smith (2-0, 1 sack) will put more heat on opposing QBs than a pot of Jambalaya brought to a rolling boil. Bad news has surfaced in recent weeks regarding the Saints LBs. Since nobody has emerged from among the starters of MLB Courtney Watson (1-3), WLB Colby Bockwoldt (2-1) and SLB James Allen, the DC has decided to employ a rotation (with the likes of Cards MLB retread Ron McKinnon and third round bust SLB Sedrick Hodge)... until and IF somebody does distinguish themselves, this of course makes every Saints LB a tenuous IDP starter. Bockwoldt was merely a late round fling, and Allen is the latest culmination of a string of recent third round LB busts including Hodge and Cie Grant (it is hoped 2005 third rounder Alfred Fincher breaks this nasty cycle of ineptitude, and he in fact has a chance to be the MLB of the future as soon as 2006)... but far more was expected of 2004 second rounder Watson and his demotion can be filed under the category of a major disappointment. He was supposed to be one of the top three MLB prospects last season (along with Jonathan Vilma and Daryl Smith). There were some scouts who were reportedly of the opinion that he was not physical enough to hold up in the middle, and his exemplary athleticism would be put to better use from the weak side. Perhaps the positional responsibilities from WLB would be more closely aligned with his skill set. A balanced, unflinching appraisal of the status quo in the Haslett regime begs the question... are the Saints front office and coaching staff ill equipped to identify LB talent, coach it up or both?

New York Giants - SS Gibril Wilson (10-1, 1 FF) was one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the 2004 season, before having to be shut down for close to the second half of the season with a lingering neck and shoulder stinger. At 6'0" 197 he doesn't have classic, prototypical SS size and compensates by sacrificing his body with a big hitting style. This may not be an ideal tradeoff for IDP owners for the long term (and given the disturbing history of how long it took the stinger to heal). Wilson was a big play machine as a rookie, and in addition to robust tackle production in limited action rode a series of sacks and INTs to become one of the top DBs and most productive IDPs in the league on a PPG basis. It was a bit of a head scratcher when it was recently announced that the football Giants DC Time Lewis was reducing his time over poor play in coverage and run support (seemingly his forte). Two other safeties in the mix are FS Brent Alexander (3-1) and SS/FS Shaun Williams (6-1, 1 INT). Williams is a former UCLA All American and Giants first rounder. At one time it was thought by scouts to be merely a formality before he ascended to the top ranks of SSs in the game. Over the years he teased more than actualizing and fulfilling this athletic "destiny", than his career really got derailed when he blew out his knee in each of the past two seasons (he had to take a pay cut in the off season to avoid being cut). Though Alexander may be headier and more disciplined in coverage, it could be that the best deployment of resources in the New York secondary in order to get the most athletic talent on to the field would be to couple SS Williams with Wilson at FS (arguably his more natural position). Coveted FA MLB Antonio Pierce (7-1, 1 INT) has for the most part lived up to advance billing (fueled by his stellar season with the Redskins in 2004) and been everything the team had hoped for when they signed him to a big contract in the offseason. That said, Pierce whiffed on a disturbing number of tackle in the team's only loss week three to the Chargers. Some scouts think he is a better fit at WLB and can get blown out of the hole if consistently targeted in the run game. If he does have latent weaknesses in his overall game, they could become manifest before long... the Giants have not played a divisional game yet, and still have four games against the Cowboys and Reskins, both featuring a determined, hard case rushing approach. Ex-MLB Nick Gresen (6-4) was inserted into the WLB role and responded with a solid game... Carlos Emmons was slotted to return to his more natural SLB position, bumping an erratic Reggie Torbor from the starting lineup. With the buzz increasing that CB Will Peterson could be shut down for the season, second round CB Corey Webster (injured himself) could be thrust into a starting role ahead of schedule. He has some similarities with stud CB Chris Gamble in that he was originally recruited as a star WR before a spectacularly successful conversion to the important side of the ball in college. The same athletic traits and playmaking attributes that enabled them to be heavily recruited WRs extend to superior aerial skills... they high point the ball better than most opposing receivers they face. Before his final injury-riddled year at LSU, Webster was grading out as a potential top 10 pick. It can be taken as a given that he has been well schooled in fundamentals by NFL-caliber HC/DC Nick Saban, who is both detail-oriented (bordering on obsession... albeit a healthy one) and takes a hands on approach in coverage instruction. This should help to collapse the usual time taken to acclimate to the expanded complexity and speed of the game.

New York Jets - The brilliant 2004 Defensive Rookie of the Year Jonathan Vilma (11-5) has 21 tackles and 8 assists in his last two games, leads the league with 48 combined tackles and is pacing for a monster 140 solos. Pending an unexpected offensive boost from geriatric ward escapee Vinny "And The Jets" Testeverde, the Gang Green stop unit could be putting in a lot of overtime in upcoming weeks... it would be a shock if the offense isn't plagued by a lot of three and outs. Few NFL LBs are as well equipped as the former Miami rocket to convert opportunity into production. Vilma has the goods to perennially be a top 5 IDP, and is an heir apparent to ascend to top LB status once aging vets Ray Lewis and Donnie Edwards sail off into the sunset. Rookie SS Kerry "Colossus Of" Rhodes is #14 overall in combo tackles (31) and third highest among league DBs (after Greg Wesley and Terrence Kiel). He combines outstanding triangle numbers (6'2" 210 4.4), monster hops (40"+ VJ), a nose for the ball (led team in INTs during preseason with 3) and a willingness to fill hard in run support. Rhodes has superior athletic bloodlines and pedigree (cousin of NBA "Sky Walker" Theo Ratliff) and potentially has a higher upside and ceiling than 2004 day two safety find Erik Coleman (5-3, 1 INT). Controversial but ultra-talented DE John Abraham was held without a sack for the first time this season, already has 2 FFs and after concerns he would report out of shape after a contentious contract situation, he did show up 10 lbs heavier... but it was muscle. He appears stouter against the run with 12 tackles and 3 assists in the past two games, and looks like he could be on his way to a huge season... though if the wheels completely fall off the Jets offense, this could impact negatively on his sack opps over the course of the season (if opponenets are playing with the lead a lot, rushing plays are expected to figure prominently in the second half mix as the season unfolds). Also, one reason the front office has been reluctant to re-up the former South Carolina Gamecocks star to a lucrative extension is that he seems to be chronically dinged (only played a full slate of 16 games twice in five seasons). It wouldn't be a surprise if he sucks it up and plays hurt more in a contract year.

Oakland - OLB/ILB Kirk Morrison has been rocketing up the ETTG DROY meter... he is currently #7 overall in the league in combined tackles with 35 (19 tackles, 16 assists), ahead of established stud IDPs London Fletcher, Mike Peterson and James Farrior (fellow LB and Defensive Rookie of the Year prospect Derrick Johnson is #16 in the NFL with 31). Supposedly too small to play on the inside at the next level and too slow to play on the outside, it looks like a case where his detractors underestimated him for the classic reason that he TIMES slow, overlooking and neglecting the fact that he PLAYS fast. Scouts don't yet have a good test to measure what is going on in the noggin... ie - instincts and football smarts. These are critical attributes that allow a young player to ramp up the learning curve tempo and come in and contribute at a high level immediately... allowing him to anticipate where the play is going based on tendencies, and the reflexes to instantly react to what he sees and get himself in position to beat ballcarriers to the spot. Like Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu, they were both less heralded than rookie LBs Odell Thurman, DeMarcus Ware and Derrick Johnson, but their tremendous instincts, intangibles and football IQ serve as great equalizers to help effectively close the athleticism and talent gap.

Pittsburgh - Bye

St. Louis - Penalty Box (inside a series of nested, Chinese Penalty Boxes)

San Francisco - Penalty Box

Seattle - MLB Lofa Tatupu had his second sack in three games (somewhat of a rarity for a rookie MLB... or a MLB period) and a breakout game in the tackle column (9-1). Tatupu was the inaugural In-Depth Profile for the 2005 season in a pre-season edition of ETTG and his success was predicted in this space from the beginning. So far, size and speed concerns have proven to be red herrings... of greater importance have been his off-the-charts football smarts, NFL pedigree (his father Mosi was also a USC star and a long time NFL player) and spooky, near-telepathic instincts. Despite the scouts, insiders and myriad other cognoscenti's admonitions about athletic limitations, he is proving to have among the most pro-ready games in his IDP class. Not the complacent type, he has the work ethic to get a lot better, and the natural leadership skills to already inspire some of the veterans to show up early for extra film preparation. Just four games into what already looks like it could be a long and distinguished Seahawks career, he is getting the defense lined up correctly and with an authority probably not previously seen in the Mike Holmgren tenure. Tatupu is a legit DROY candidate and has a very bright and promising future... the early returns suggest that new Seattle GM Tim Ruskell already has been vindicated for a widely criticized but gutsy and incisive call. SS Michael Boulware (3-1, 1 INT) has had somewhat of a slow start, but he is an ascendant player with the constellation of physical/mental/emotional traits to quickly emerge as one of the top safeties in the game. He also has the bloodlines (older brother Peter is a former Pro Bowl OLB for the Ravens) and the requisite work ethic, hunger to succeed and intensity to be a great one. Ironically it is the underwhelming early season performance of established veterans such as Grant Wistrom and Jamie Sharper that have cast some doubt on team Microsoft's playoff aspirations. FS Kenny Hamlin and CB Marcus Trufant have tremendous athleticism and physical ability, but seem to have regressed somewhat since brilliant rookie seasons.

Tennessee - Penalty Box

Washington - MLB Lemar Marshall (7-0, 1 sack) looks like the real deal... many were sceptical that he could just be plugged into the Antonio Pierce role and emerge with similar stats. If he continues to put up 6-7 tackles on a regular basis and complement that with the occassional sack and INT (he was a safety in college and preserved his ball skills despite blowing up to LB size), he should finish close to Pierce, who was near a top 10 LB in many scoring systems last season. Despite being slightly undersized, he is approximately the same weight as MLBs Mike Peterson, Jonathan Vilma and Odell Thurman. Coaches and scouts don't seem to be so dogmatic about rigidly adhering to classic height and weight positional templates. The league seems to be evolving in the direction of mobile, playmaking MLBs equally adept at coverage and run support (that said, run stuffers like Jeremiah Trotter won't be going the way of the dinosaur just yet... there aren't many 260 lb humans as agile as Trotter, though, limiting their wide-scale deployment for practical purposes). Marshall makes up for sheer size and raw power limitations with exceptional quickness and the ability to close on the ball carrier and QB with explosiveness... he packs a wallop on arrival, too, and seems to have a knack for squaring up and attacking with leverage... it is doubtful that DC Gregg Williams wants him attempting to stack and shed the Brian Waters and Toniu Fonoti's of the world, however. CB Carlos Rogers (6-1, 1 FF) has had his starting time-table moved up with the venerable but geezer-like Walt Harris a weekly regular on the injury report. The former Auburn All American and top collegiate DB award winner was #5 on the FBG Rookie IDP (DB) list, and has made his presence felt quickly. He has an extremely well rounded game, with advanced coverage chops, playmaking skills and a hard-nosed, nasty dispostion in run support... ball carriers will quickly learn that a visit to Mr. Rogers neighborhood could involve an itinerary filled with... PAIN. Though not as highly touted as rookie CBs Antrell Rolle and Pacman, Marlin Jackson and Rogers could end up being as good or better when it is all said and done, and could both be future Pro Bowlers and top 20 IDP DBs. Leading up to the season, Matt Bowen and Ryan Clark were thought to be battling for the SS spot. Along the way, they both were slowed by knee injuries. If Clark emerges (he had better stats on Sunday in the win over the Seahawks), he proved last year he can be a tackle machine and a terror in run support... it wouldn't come as a big surprise if he outproduced the much more highly touted Sean Taylor. Clark led all WAS DBs in tackles in 2004 in just 11 games.

Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter

  1. Odell Thurman, MLB, CIN, 2.16, Georgia (6'1" 230)
  2. DeMarcus Ware, OLB/DE, DAL, 1.11, Troy State (6'4" 232)
  3. Derrick Johnson, SLB, KC, 1.15, Texas (6'4" 235)
  4. Lofa Tatupu, MLB, SEA, 2.13, USC (6'0" 240)
  5. Kirk Morrison, OLB/ILB, OAK, 3.14, San Diego State (6'2" 240)
  6. Mike Patterson, DT, PHI, 1.31, USC (6'0" 285)
  7. Kerry Rhodes, SS, NYJ, 4.22, Louisville (6'3" 210)
  8. Marlin Jackson, CB, IND, 1.29, Michigan (6'1" 200)
  9. Thomas Davis, SS/OLB, CAR, 1.14, Georgia (6'3" 230)
  10. Chris Canty, DE, DAL, 4.31, Virginia (6'7" 290)

    Standin On The Verge Of Gettin It...

  • Erasmus James, DE, MIN, 1.18, Wisconsin (6'4" 270)
  • Channing Crowder, ILB/OLB, MIA, 3.6, Florida (6'2" 240)
  • David Pollack, SLB, CIN, 1.17, Georgia (6'2" 260)
  • Shawne Merriman, OLB/DE, SD, 1.12, Maryland (6'4" 245)
  • Marcus Spears, DE, DAL, 1.20, LSU (6.4 295)
  • Kevin Burnett, OLB, DAL, 2.10, Tennessee (6'3" 235)
  • Leroy Hill, WLB, 3.35, Clemson (6'1" 225)
  • Shaun Cody, DT/DE, DET, 2.5, USC (6'3" 290)
  • Carlos Rogers, CB, WAS, 1.9, Auburn (6'1" 194)
  • C.C. Brown, SS, HOU, 6.14, LA-Lafayette, (6'0" 200)
  • Josh Bullocks, SS/FS, NO, 2.8, Nebraska (6'0" 205)
  • Nick Collins, FS, GB, 2.19, Bethune Cookman (5'11" 193)
  • Adam "Pacman" Jones, CB, TEN, 1.6, West Virginia (5'11" 185)
  • Corey Webster, CB, NYG, 2.11, LSU (6'0" 197)
  • Barrett Ruud, MLB, TB, 2.4, Nebraska (6'2" 240)
  • Jonathan Babineaux, DT, ATL, 2.27, Iowa (6'2" 280)
  • Matt Roth, DE, MIA, 2.14, Iowa (6'4" 270)
  • Brodney Pool, FS/SS, CLE, 2.2, Oklahoma (6'3" 208)
  • Oshiomogho Atogwe, FS, STL, 3.2, Stanford (5'11" 220)
  • Bryant McFadden, CB, PIT, 2.30, Florida State (6'0" 180)
  • Chris Harris, FS, CHI, 6.7, Louisiana-Monroe (6'0" 205)
  • Fabian Washington, CB, OAK, 1.23, Nebraska (5'11 180)
  • Stanford Routt, CB, OAK, 2.6, Houston (6'1" 195)
  • Jerome Carter, SS, STL, 4.16, Florida State (5'11" 220)
  • Alfred Fincher, MLB, NO, 3.18, Connecticut (6'1" 240)
  • Lance Mitchell, MLB, 5.32, Oklahoma (6'3" 245)
  • Luis Castillo, NT, SD, 1.28, Northwestern (6'5" 305)
  • Justin Tuck, DE, NYG, 3.10, Notre Dame (6'5" 261)
  • 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)
  • Fabian Washington, CB, OAK, 1.23, Nebraska (5'11 180)
  • James Butler, S, NYG, UFA (only undrafted free agent on this list), Georgia Tech (6'3" 210)

    Injured Reserve

  • Dan Cody, OLB/DE, BAL, 2.21, Oklahoma (6'5" 265)
  • Antrel Rolle, CB, ARI, 1.8, Miami (6'1" 202)

In-Depth Profile

Bob Sanders, FS/SS, Indianapolis Colts (from the Pre-Season IDP Sleepers Report)

A little stick of dynamite. Actually, he is less little than he is short. Though technically about 5'9" 210, he plays like (and more importantly, hits like) the sawed off 6'0" 230 he is. Stood head and shoulders above the other DBs at the combine in the measurables department. Left contrails during a supersonic, elite CB/WR-like 4.3 and than had a cup of coffee while waiting to descend back down through the stratosphere after launching a position best 41"+ vertical. His HC Kirk Ferentz said after he came to the Iowa program, it was like as if you had been losing a fight to some neighborhood bullies, and all of a sudden your big brother joined into the fray and started stomping people! He will go fast in dynasty drafts... too fast, maybe, given his troubling injury history in the past year. But if healthy, has "it"... whatever "it" is, he's got it. The charisma, inspiring intensity, magnetic presence, incandescent talent, electric quickness and telepathic instincts to elevate the level of an entire defense... in fact, to rock a whole stadium and city. Some scouts said if he was four inches taller and 10 lbs heavier, he might have carried a similar grade to Sean Taylor. That is saying a lot, as Taylor was one of the highest graded safeties in the history of the draft (with the likes of Kenny Easley, Ronnie Lott and Roy Williams). Along with good looking FBG Top Three Rookie DB Marlin Jackson, the "Hitman" may have what it takes to do the unthinkable... field a stop unit worthy of the #1 overall offense, instead of being like a Shelby Cobra body welded to a Pinto frame. If the explosive impact Sanders and Jackson are as good as advertised, this could be the long awaited year for Colts fans they get by the conference road block otherwise known as the New England Patriots and soar into the Super Bowl... in the Motor City, a fitting destination for a high octane offense and the FS with pedal-to-the-metal intensity.

Cracking the Code - Compelling Talent Sometimes Supersedes Opportunity

Some potentially important lessons can be gleaned from events in the IDP world in the past two seasons. A typical maxim in fantasy football is that talent PLUS opportunity are both important components in equating to success (especially important in redraft leagues)... based on this cardinal principle, many owners last season broke down the top two LBs like so... D.J. Williams > Jonathan Vilma... and again in 2005... Barrett Ruud > Odell Thurman. In the first case, between the highly regarded Miami teammates, Williams appeared to have the clearer and relatively more unimpeded path to a starting WLB gig. Vilma looked to be stuck behind veteran MLB Sam Cowart. After a week one injury to the vet, Vilma didn't look back on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year. Williams had a very good year, but from the slightly less desireable WLB position, and with the re-signing of ex-WLB Ian Gold (after a one season hiatus in sunny Tampa Bay) in the off-season, he has been shunted to the really less desireable SLB position. The productivity challenges from that position may be more than even this supremely gifted athlete (John Madden once said the former USA Today Defensive Player of the Year was the only prep he has ever seen that could in his estimation have gone straight to the pros) Williams can surmount. For those who scouted Vilma as the better IDP prospect, their faith that the cream would rise to the top was amply rewarded. Fast forward to the 2005 LB draft class and the IDP world was presented with a similar thorny dilemna. Thurman was a phenomenal physical talent, but was listed behind the young and promising second year MLB/OLB Landon Johnson. Ruud SEEMED to have a straighter and relatively less obstructed path to starting, with only the average Shelton Quarles standing between him and the Bucs MLB gig. Those who thought Thurman was the superior physical specimen were vindicated as he has quickly ascended to the Bengals starting MLB role and is an early favorite for the 2005 DROY award (he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month winner for September, and a spearhead of the Bengals defensive and overall resurgence). Ruud is still an outstanding prsopsect long term, but looks like he will languish behind Quarles for at least this season... possibly longer if the rejuvenated incumbent refuses to go quietly in 2006? In dynasty leagues, in most cases (such that it can be viewed as a smart percentage play if you have patience)... THE CREAM RISES TO THE TOP.

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