meet the cubs: lydon murtha

>> 5.01.2009

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Lydon Murtha, Nebraska OT: the first of three picks in the seventh round, huge-framed (6'-7", 315) Lydon Murtha was a significant contributor at right tackle from day one.  A massive kid coming out of Minnesota, Lydon was a Rivals four-star, and Tom Lemming at ESPN had him as ranked as his class's #1 overall OT recruit, nationwide.   His official bio reveals how hard it is to write bios for players that don't generate statistics, but reading it definitely gives a sense of his career.  Murtha was going to play right away at Nebraska, but a smattering of injuries in spring ball and training camp got him a redshirt year.  As a redshirt frosh, he saw action in nine games, and was pressed into service for three starts at left tackle, due to an injury to the starter.  His sophomore year, he played every game, and again started three games at left tackle.  Finally, he got his chance to start in his junior season, starting this time at right tackle for the first eight games, until an injury forced him to the sidelines for the last four games.  Still, he made the Honorable Mention All-Big 12 list, and was also named to the Academic All-Big 12 first team.  His senior year, unfortunately, was a clone of his junior year.  He punished people from the right side for eight games--missing the first two and last two--and got another round of Honorable Mentions for his trouble.

There is no doubt that this kid has an NFL body:

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Seriously, the guy is 6'-7", 315, and looks like he could add another 30 pounds of weight without even showing it.  At the combine, he led all offensive linemen with both his 4.89 40 time, and his 4.34 short shuttle.  Allow me to repeat that for emphasis: Lydon Murtha ran a 4.89 40  and 4.34 short shuttle at the combine.  These times are nearly identical to James Laurenitis', except Lydon is half a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier.  There's absolutely no doubt that physically, Murtha looks like a franchise tackle in the making.  He's got all the size, all the speed, all the agility.   The problem, of course, was right there in the bio: Murtha's been unable to stay healthy.  His senior year it was first a staph infection, then a sprained foot.  In 2007 it was a different foot injury.  In 2005 it was a bruised calf, a hamstring, and a shoulder . . . everything I've read says the same thing: the kid is a fine tackle when healthy, but there have been just enough nagging injuries to make you worry if he'll stay healthy.  The other issue is productivity.  He's been quite good when healthy, but not  the dominant force you'd expect given his size.  You can see it in how he was moved between right and left tackle . . . if he was unreservedly amazing, he'd have been placed at LT and left there.

Nevertheless, what expert analysis I've read says they can't believe he was there for the Lions in the mid-seventh.  Here's an absolutely OUTSTANDING video breakdown of Murtha's skill set, as shown in predraft camps, practices, and the combine:

I think that tells you everything you need to know.  I truly believe that this kid has the ability to be a quality starter in the NFL--it's up to Murtha himself, as the video says.  However, it's also up to the Lions' coaching staff to properly build, groom, and motivate this young man so that he can become the player he was born with the potential to be.  


ding, dong, the terrible cornerback is dead

>> 4.30.2009

Nick Cotsonika is reporting that Travis Fisher has finally, finally, been served his walking papers.



meet the cubs: zack follett

Zack Follett, California LB: In researching this 6'-1", 238-pound spark plug, it quickly became obvious: Zach Follett is going to be the next inductee into the Lions Fan Hall of Fame.  Players like David Kircus, Scotty Anderson, Casey Fitzsimmons, David "Blue" Adams, Greg Blue, and Buster Davis have been drafted late (or signed as a UFA) by the Lions, made a big play or two in training camp or preseason, and become cult heroes--often, with fans insisting that these practice squadders and/or bench riders would be immediate upgrades over the current starters, if only they were given the opportunity.  Zack Follett perfectly fits this profile; I have no doubt we'll be seeing Follett jerseys in the stands sooner rather than later.

Follett's official bio tells the story: Follett's a wrecking ball of a linebacker.  Coming in as a four-star recruit, Follett was ranked by Rivals as the eleventh-best inside linebacker in the nation (Maualuga was #1, Laurenitis was #28).  As an interesting side note, during four years at Cal, Follett apparently shrunk an inch and lost a step.  You gotta love the recruiting racket . . . Anyway, unlike Dan Gronkowski, Follett was not a self-made player.  Gronkowski was recruited by nobody--at least, not as a quarterback--then switched positions, and through sheer brains and strength, played his way into some playing time.  Follett, however, was a highly touted recruit, and Cal didn't bother redshirting him--Follett was expected to contribute immediately, and did.  

As a true freshman, Follett garnered 32 tackles and two sacks.  He saw action in every game, came up hugein Cal's bowl game, and was named to Rivals' Freshman All-America first team.  His sophomore year, he only started one game--yet lead the team in tackles for loss (12.5), tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5), led the Pac-10 in forced fumbles (4),  had 62 total tackles, and was honorable mention All-Pac 10.  Again, this is all coming off the bench.  In his only start, he had 10 of those tackles, three for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble (returned by another Bear for a TD).  As a junior, he was second-team All-Pac 10, again with 12.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks, plus 64 total tackles.  This, despite missing part of one game and all of two more with a neck stinger--thanks to an aggravation of a bulging neck disc discovered in high school.  Finally, came his senior year, where the Bears switched to a 3-4, partly to maximize Follett's abilities.  Here's a great interview with Follett immediately prior to his senior year:

"The 3-4 defense is really going to increase my role," Follett said. "Last year, I was eating up blocks when I played outside. We tried different schemes to give me the chance to pressure the quarterback, but now with the 3-4, it's inevitable that I'll have my chances to go after the passer and go off the edge for sacks. I had 5.5 sacks the last two years, but that should be two games now with this defense. Anything less than double digits this season will be a disappointment."

Follett was anything but a disappointment in 2008, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks.  He also led the Pac-10 in tackles for loss (23) and forced fumbles (5).  He was named first-team All Pac-10 (a conference that includes USC and their three-headed-monster LB corps!).  He was also MVP of the Emerald Bowl after racking up 9 tackles (8 solo), four of them for losses (-33 yards).  That also includes two sacks, one of which forced a fumble.

Follett has just enough size and more than enough speed to play 4-3 middle linebacker--but his downhill, attacking style is best suited for a blitzing 4-3 OLB, or basically any of the four 3-4 linebacker spots.  He's at his best when he can tee off on runners and quarterbacks--get in a lane, come flying up it, and absolutely level fools.  What do I mean by "level fools"?  I mean this:

Enough said.  Now, what did we see in that montage?  We saw a defender get into the backfield--over, and over, and over again.  We saw him pursue, catch, hit, and bring down quarterbacks and running backs alike.  We saw suddenness, burst, good tackling technique, and good strength.  Now, is this guy a complete linebacker?  No.  Can he line up over an NFL tight end and smother him with impeccable coverage?  Probably not.  Does he have the ideal size for an NFL run-stuffer?  Definitely not.  For those hoping for an immediate starting middle linebacker, you will have to look elsewhere.  Thanks to the Lions' great trade for Julian Peterson, Follett won't push for starting time on the outside, either.  But, does he have a place on the roster?  Sure.  Spake the Grandmaster:

“We drafted a good football player that was productive and, at that point, (he) was on the board too long. He’s extremely productive. I guess the best words you’d describe him are ‘good football player.’ (He’s) versatile, he’s played inside, he’s played outside, even lines up as a pass rusher with his hand in the dirt.”

And how does the young man himself see his role?

"His master plan for making the Lions' roster is to 'go out on kickoff and blow some guys up'-- let the pads do the talking, the same way he got himself noticed a few years ago as the new kid in the Cal program. 

'You've just got to be on the field to make a play,' he says. 'I'm gonna find a way to get on the field whether I'm starting or I'm on special teams. I'm gonna keep flying around trying to make a name for myself.'"

I have no doubt he'll be able to do exactly that. In most of my research, the first thing that comes up is amazement that this kid was available in the seventh round.  Apparently the neck stinger that limited him in 2007 scared enough LB-hungry teams to engender a big fall--still, that is the kind of risk you want to take with a seventh-round pick.  If it pans out, you have an immediate special teams monster, a situational contributor by the end of the season, and a significant piece of the defense from there forward.  You talk about finding value in the late rounds of the draft; you're talking about a Zack Follett.


larry foote released - or not

>> 4.28.2009


Killer's now reporting that Foote has NOT been released, and while the speculation is that he'll be released after this weekend's minicamp as insurance against any injury to Timmons, that's far from a done deal.  More updates as they come . . .

As I tweeted a few minutes ago, the Steelers have released ILB Larry Foote.  Foote hails from the Detroit area, and a friend said several months ago that Larry always wanted to finish his career in Detroit.  Foote, however, immediately shot that notion down:

"That was one of my boys just talking stupid stuff in the paper," Foote said this week. "I think all players say that toward the tail end: 'I'll just end up going home and finish up there.' But that was just talk." ... "Would somebody want me? I don't know. I've never been a free agent. I've never been on the market," he said. "I don't know if the Lions even want me. My play hasn't dropped off, just my (playing) time has dropped off. I can be as productive as any linebacker in the league with the opportunity."

Huh.  Well, Larry, now you're a free agent, and you're on the market.  Let's see if the Lions even want you . . . I can't see how they wouldn't.  Foote would immediately fill the obvious hole in the middle of the defense.  Of course, just like Grady Jackson, Foote's at the tail end of his career.  This defense is desperately in need of a leader, someone to walk into that locker room and show all the greenhorns how to win in the NFL.  Foote's a polished veteran, a skilled leader who's as valuable off the field as on.  Moreover, he's spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Steelers--arguably the toughest and classiest organization in football.  Even more, moreover, the man has a couple of rings.  This seems like a no-brainer.

UPDATE: John Niyo gets a cookie: Foote is now openly declaring the Lions his #1 choice, the leader in the clubhouse, and in talks with his agent.  Please, for the love of Bubbles/Blades/Beast, get this deal done!


on the draft

>> 4.27.2009

This morning, I woke up to the sounds of my alarm failing to go off.  The morning sun was warming through the miniblinds, the cats were pawing at the basement door, and my eldest child was sneaking around the house doing things she knows she's not allowed to do.  Typically, waking up like this means I'm already well past late for work, and the day will be an exercise in futility and frustration, of running behind and losing my head.  Today, however?  Today was different.

It's spring.  The sun comes up earlier these days--and with it, come the early rays and the chirping birds, the joggers and the potholes.  Today was the first weekday where I made it all the way out to the car without ever once considering wearing a coat.  In fact, I had to go back into the house to fetch my money clip from said coat--and opted to leave the coat right where it sat.

I twisted the keys in the ignition, and as my mount quickly purred to life, it hit me: four months ago, nearly to the day, I started this blog.  In some ways, that day was the complete opposite of today--yet in other ways, it was exactly the same.

"When I walked out the door into the early morning darkness, the wind was a stinging, bitter smack to the face. After a warm and lovely holiday weekend, where most of the near-foot of accumulated snow and ice melted off, last night Winter came roaring back. A silvery sheen of frost and ice glazed over everything, including my car. After cranking the engine, I began the routine: hacking, scraping, brushing, and scouring the exterior glass--while my car desperately tried to maintain a series of small fires inside a solid metal block chilled to a temperature well below freezing. With the grueling work done, I collapsed into the driver's seat. It was then that the voice on the local sports talk radio station smacked me in the face with an even colder reality: I'm a Lions fan."

At that moment, it was the morning after a landmark in Lions (and NFL) history.  It was the nadir; it was rock bottom.  The edges of the winter wind cut and sliced my skin like thorns, yet didn't hurt half as badly as the 0-16 knife in my chest.  That bitter, freezing day smacked me in the face, and then kicked me in the stomach.  This morning, however?  It was the morning after the new start.  There were buds on the trees, daffodils already in bloom.  This morning was the first day of the spring, the first day of the new Lions.  Then first day of the Matt Stafford era.

Yes, the Matt Stafford era.  The Lions chose to make Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford the face of the Lions for at least the next four years--and paid him at least $41.2 million do it.  On a team with few--possibly no--veteran leaders, Stafford will look to fill the huge power vacuum in the huddle.  He'll also need to fill the huge performance vacuum under center.  The Lions have not had consistently good quarterback play . . . well, ever.   But beyond that, Stafford and the Lions are now incontrovertably bound together.  From this day forward, no matter who you wanted the Lions to draft #1 overall, no matter how you felt about the contract, no matter what you think about Stafford's chances at the next level: if you are a Lions fan you will root for this kid's success with everything you have.  If he succeeds, the Lions will be contenders every single year for the next decade or more.  If he fails, the Lions might well have to have yet another regime change at the top, and we'll all be in for another six more years of winter.

As far as the rest of the draft goes, the Lions did what they said they would do: they drafted for talent, not need.  They took the highest-rated player on their board, except for when they made (brilliant) trades back for more picks.  They drafted like they had a clean sheet of paper from which to start, and--especially on day one--they took the rest of the NFL to school on how drafting the best players is done.  They didn't draft to reach for 2009 needs--they knew that the Week 1 roster for 2009 was going to have holes in it no matter who they drafted this weekend.  Most importantly, they took players that everyone agreed on.  The scouts, coaches, and front office folks came together to draft players that will never be anyone's pet project or sacred cow.  These players will all get plenty of opportunity to compete, and all will ultimately be judged by their efforts when granted those opprtunities.  As I've already said, in two or three years, when other teams' fans review other teams' 2009 drafts, these Lions are going to be named over and over and over as the players those other teams "could have had".  To me, that alone speaks volumes about the change in direction, change in execution, and change in the weather.  That's not to say we won't see stormy days--we will, and sooner rather than later.  But it comes down to this, what I said four months ago:

"I'm a fan. I was born a fan, and I will die a fan. The hooting and derision of the American sports culture has set my resolve. I'm sick of getting snickers on the football-y corners of the Internet. I'm sick of getting reaction takes when I wear Lions gear around town. I've thought about starting this blog for years, but this morning I knew that today was the day. I've pulled my hood tight, I've loaded up the sled with wood, and I've got fuel and spark to spare. I'm going to reclaim my Lions pride. I'm going to fan that little blue flame into the great big bonfire it ought to be, and nobody's going to be prouder than me when thousands are once again carrying torches to rally behind this team."


meet the cubs: Dan Gronkowski

 Now that the 2009 NFL Player Selection Meeting has concluded, there's a whole new group of Lion cubs: ten rookies who represent a desperately-needed shot of talent to the Lions' roster.  Every single one of these players will have an excellent opportunity to not only make the team, but contribute significantly in short order.  Unfortunately, that's not a function of the quality of these players as much as of the dearth of talent on the Lions' roster.  Since I ran my roster review series from defense to offense, I think I'll starts with the runts of the litter, and end with the heir apparent.  So, let's begin with the end: the second-to-last-selection, the penultimate pick, the dude who went as low as you can go without actually winning something for it . . . 

Dan Gronkowski, Maryland TE:

His official bio offers up some much-needed background info.  Recruited to Maryland as a quarterback after a school-record-smashing senior season, Gronkowski and his 6'-6", 255-pound body were quickly shifted to tight end.  In fact, here's an interesting recruiting blurb from Rivals that, in hindsight, suggests that they might have only ever paid lip service to letting him take snaps under center . . .

Gronkowski took to the weight room immediately, earning their Iron Terp status in spring ball every year. His career-best squat, 635 pounds, is second only to Vernon Davis amongst all Maryland TEs ever. Lest you think he's just a meathead, Gronkowski he earned his Marketing BA in just three years, and pursued an MBA during his senior season. He's a two-time Academic All-ACC team honoree. His father actually owns a chain of fitness stores, and he says the best athlete in his family is actually his little brother Rob (Dan has four brothers), who's a tight end at Arizona.

Gronkowski spent most of his career as a pure blocking tight end, but was powerful enough in doing that to start twenty-nine games in his last three seasons. As a senior, he started to flash some recieving skills, and caught 29 passes for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns. Obviously he's not a devastating offensive weapon, but here's a nice little TD catch that shows he's got some potential:

And here's a little post-draft reaction blurb from him and another player. He notes that several other teams called him to say he was the highest player left on their board . . . and yet, he fell. Schwartz's statement backs this up:

"We didn't anticipate taking two tight ends but at that point in the draft with the people that were available he was by far the highest-rated guy and you want to still stick with that."

Don't expect much out of Gronkowski right away, but he will certainly push Will Heller for playing time as "the blocking TE" on the roster--in fact, this may bode ill for Heller's prospects for making the roster.  Either way, the Lions have added an extremely smart, extremely tough young man to the roster, who'll no doubt make an impact on special teams right away--which is about as much as one can hope for from a pick so late.


day two

>> 4.26.2009

One of the worst things about this wretched 4:00 pm start time for Day One is that there's no real layoff time before Day Two to pen breathless, pointless manifestoes.  I'll go in-depth later tonight and tomorrow, but for right now I'll just say that the Lions truly did draft for talent instead of need, and that they got the best players in the draft at three separate positions.  They didn't just go for the "grocery list" and take the best-available player in order of positional need (which is how we ended up with Jordon Dizon in the second round).  When people review this draft in three years, the Lions' players will be on other teams' "could have had" list. 

Moving along to Day Two, who's still out there?  As we remember from last year, the #1 pick on the second day is quite valuable, because the Lions have all night to review their board, review their needs, explore potential trades, etc.  Some players I think the Lions should look hard today:

* CB/KR Victor "Macho" Harris.  A physical corner with good size, good instincts, and excellent return skills.  

* WR Brandon Gibson.  A big, quick target with soft hands and excellent body control, Gibson's a low-first, high-second round talent who was trapped on a rotten Washington State team last year.  Great slot WR prospect, also has return experience.

* OG Kent Urbik.  The road-grader Jeff Backus has never had next to him.

* MLB  Robert Henson Jason Phillips, TCU.  Might make everyone forget about Little Animal.

A sharp-eyed reader also saw that Vanderbilt CB D.J. Moore is still out there, and he'd be an excellent value here in the third.


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