Archive for April, 2013

Lawrence+Okoye

Okoye will face the toughest battle of his life to make the 49ers opening day roster

The 2013 NFL Draft is over and for those athletes who have spent the last 15 years playing different levels of American Football it maybe time to look for an office job.

For those not selected in this year’s draft there is a ‘lifeline’ in the annual scramble by NFL teams to stock up with undrafted rookie free-agents – the guys who most likely end up as camp fodder or find a home on a practice squad.

These men will hope and pray that the years of running up and down the bleachers in full uniform whilst being shouted at by their maniacal head-coach was all worth it as they strive to upset the odds and end up playing in the NFL.

For one person just signed by the San Francisco 49ers the odds have not only been defied, frankly they have been annihilated.

The man in question has not only never played a single game of competitive American Football in his life, he is in fact not even from North America, or any part of the land of the free.

Lawrence Okoye is 21, from Croydon in England and an Olympic veteran in the discus (having finished 12th in the London Olympics).

Okoye is joined by Menelik Watson, now officially the highest drafted Brit in NFL history, having been selected at 41 overall (2nd round) by the Oakland Raiders.

Watson’s story is also remarkable, considering the impoverished environment he grew up in during his childhood and early teens in Manchester. Watson originally moved to America to pursue his hoop dreams as a basketball player, but he turned to American Football and went on to star at one of college’s traditional powerhouse teams, the Florida State Seminoles (the team that gave the world Deion Sanders – or is it Leon Sandcastle?).

Having visited both Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum (the names the stadiums used to be called) I know Okoye and Watson will immediately fall in love with the Californian lifestyle, the weather, the food and the people.

Watson will be expected to start as a rookie offensive tackle, maybe not for week one, but definitely by the middle of the season. For Okoye it will be a far tougher journey if he is to be wearing a golden helmet come Week 1 of the 2013 regular season.

Okoye has joined a team that had a terrific draft and was only a Michael Crabtree catch away from winning their sixth Super Bowl just two months ago.

Unrestricted free agents face adversity that drafted players do not, as they have to work twice as hard, for little guaranteed money and no guaranteed playing time. Okoye may have a famous name, sharing it with former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian ‘the Nigerian Nightmare’ Okoye, but he has absolutely no NFL experience.

Learning behind the likes of All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, Okoye has landed in a situation where he is surrounded by superstars, and one of the top coaches in the entire NFL in Jim Harbaugh, a master strategist and former NFL quarterback.

Unfortunately the 49er and the Raiders do not meet in the regular season in 2013, and the likelihood of both teams facing each other in the Super Bowl is the same odds as the Washington Redskins signing me to backup RG3.

It is an incredibly exciting time for English NFL fans, and if somehow Okoye manages to get himself a place in the 49ers 53 man roster come September he could be making one of the most high-profile returns to home any athlete has ever made.

Mark the date – October 27 2013 – San Francisco 49ers v Jacksonville Jaguars – location Wembley Stadium, London, England.

Now the cynics among you may think the NFL executives in London have tried to ‘sell-in’ signing Okoye to the four teams coming to England this year, but that collusion disappears once the signing is over and Lawrence starts going up against the likes of Joe Staley and Mike Iuapati in 49ers training camp.

If you were to have approached me 20 years ago and said that NFL teams would be playing regular season home games in London and that Brits would be either drafted in the top 50 and picked up without playing a single down I would have said put down the crack pipe.

These are extraordinary times, and I love the fact I can write about it from the comfort of my living room eating a beef burrito.

Roll on the 2013 NFL season.

My picture of former #1 overall pick Carson Palmer playing in Miami in 2012.

My picture of former #1 overall pick Carson Palmer playing in Miami in 2012.

The last time i tried to do a Mock Draft (in 2012) I think I got about three or four picks correct and one player matched to the right team but at the wrong slot.

This time around I’m not going to make a fool of myself and hazard a big ol’ bunch of guesses, considering     the only college game I have any clear recollection of watching was the BCS title game.

To be fair to myself I have done a fair whack of reading about this year’s class of college athletes, from news sites to going on candidates college team websites.

This draft class by most estimations is a bunch of duds. That is if you believe what cynical reporters say. The fact of the matter is that they are just bitter that they cannot predict the order of who will go where, as there are no Andrew Luck or RGIII’s sitting there amongst the cream of the crop.

It’s true not many offensive linemen are used to front up national advertising campaigns, but they do something far more important, they win teams football games, and winning in January helps you get to a Super Bowl.

So what if there is not a big bunch of quarterbacks and running backs projected to go in the top ten (or even 20 to 30) teams in need of improving or even dragging themselves back from the brink need to build by getting quality offensive and defensive linemen.

This draft is rich in big bodies, newly sculpted big bodies, ones that look like walking oak trees. Bulk is on it’s way out and being replaced by athletic, toned and nimble men who eat right, train hard and are highly intelligent.

2013 may not go down as a classic for big names and big buzz, but the moves made on Thursday and Friday may be the ones that turn around the fortune of a franchise. Just ask the St Louis Rams. Their two trips to the Super Bowl may have featured a once in a lifetime group of skill players such as Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce, but without the blocking of Orlando Pace I would say that we would not have seen Dick Vermiel lift a Lombardi Trophy.

I’ll be fast asleep when round one takes place, but I do have a day off work to pour over the first round selections on Friday morning.

The first 32 picks will include plenty of twists and turns I am sure, with teams jockeying to move up and down, making any kind of predicting absolutely futile.

My advice, just sit back, crack open a beer and enjoy the draft unfolding in front of you. With all media partners agreeing to not spoil the pick announcements with ‘green room’ coverage the moment big ginger G goes to the podium will be both entertaining and surprising.

If the Redskins want to make my day they could always try and trade up into the first, but regardless it will be a fun event and   one I will watch plenty of highlights of on Friday morning.

 

Third time lucky for evin Kolb.

Third time lucky for Kevin Kolb.

With the 2013 NFL Draft under a week away, as is par for the course, the talk is dominated by the projected location of rookie quarterbacks.

Unlike 2012 when you were guaranteed quarterbacks going number one and two overall the situation for this position (in terms of projected draft selection) is muddier than a Mississippi mud-pie.

The passer generating the highest volume of column inches and podcast megabytes is West Virginia’s Geno Smith.

Depending on who you read or listen to Smith could get selected as early as number one by the Kansas City Chiefs and possibly fall to the late 20’s and get scooped by a team able to trade back up into the first round.

The way I see it is the Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills are the only likely candidates for Smith. as the other 27 NFL teams either have a veteran quarterback entrenched or a young quarterback they are still testing out (or in Cleveland’s case a second year qb nearing his pension).

Whittling this down you have Kansas City (Alex Smith), Arizona (Carson Palmer) and Buffalo (Kevin Kolb) who have all invested in veteran free agents and Oakland who have also signed a veteran free agent, but a completely unproven one in Matt Flynn. This leaves the Jaguars as the team with the weakest starting quarterback in the league, Blaine Gabbert.

Alex Smith and Palmer are former number one overall picks, and by my reckoning Geno Smith will, by virtue of the value of his position either go number two to the Jaguars, or he will fall faster than Tarzan trying to swing through the trees holding a pat of butter in each hand.

It does leave teams the Bills, Chiefs, Raiders and Cardinals with something to consider as their ‘new’ veteran signal callers could find the situation they move into strictly a temporary stop if they do not perform immediately. This means playoffs immediately in 2013.

Of these four teams I find the most interesting story to be that of the Buffalo Bills and Kevin Kolb. A lot of draft experts in America think that the Bills are going to take the plunge and rise up to the waterline having netted Geno Smith, but I think Kevin Kolb has found a place where he can finally establish his career in the NFL.

Kolb has only played 21 games in six seasons, so he has the advantage of half a dozen seasons learning about schemes and studying the intricacies of the game but under 4 games a season actually playing. This lack of games played has advantages in terms of freshness, but disadvantages in terms of a proven ability to play a full season, something every coach, GM, team-mate and fan wants to see.

Kolb has been injury prone, and as a result never played more than nine games in a season, but as recently as last season he helped the Arizona Cardinals to a surprising 4-0 record. Yes Kolb’s record turned south quickly to 4-2 before the injury bug struck, but this was behind a pedestrian offensive line and a seemingly ever-changing backfield.

If Geno Smith is still on the board when the Buffalo Bills pick at number eight then he may end up getting used to the cold weather, but I will be rooting for Kevin Kolb to finally get his shot at leading a team for a whole season and beyond.

Yes there is a scenario where the Bills draft Smith and let him carry a clipboard as a rookie, but more and more the old-school scenario of letting a quarterback learn the ropes before the spotlight shines on him is becoming scarce.

Kolb himself did not throw a pass as an Eagles rookie, he just took some sacks in a blowout win over the Detroit Lions (in 2007).

Life has changed and I don’t see a happy families situation for Kolb and Smith together. Let’s hope the only time they both see the field together in 2013 is as opponents.

Anyone following North American sport cannot fail to acknowledge the NCAA College basketball tournament, where it is all about surviving in order to move on.

Unlike the debacle that is the current NCAA College football post-season, the basketball post-season is at least simple to follow. It is a simple knockout tournament. You win you stay alive. You keep winning you get to the ‘final four’ and then a chance to lift the shiny trophy.

The NFL have tried to capitalise on this wave of ‘bracketology’ discussions by launching their own knockout competition to decide the greatest ever NFL play.

With the parallel timing of the ‘final four’ NFL plays and the ‘final-four’ NCAA College Basketball games it’s all about getting to the final this weekend.

I am a little saddened that the final four NFL plays are dominated by modern-day plays; Marshawn Lynch running ‘beast-mode’ (2011); DeSean Jackson’s game winning punt-return touchdown (2010); Troy Polamalu’s ‘over-the-top’ tackle (2010). The remaining play is from 1988, Steve Young’s insane run through the entire Minnesota Vikings defense, and it is without doubt the best of the four (in my eyes).

If I had it my way I would have made the top 64 plays far more eclectic, with one play from every year over the last 64 seasons.

So where would I go with my top plays of all time? It’s a tough call and I don’t know the order quite yet, but here I go with some of my personal favourites…

  • Leonard Marshall forcing a fumble by Joe Montana in the 1991 NFC Championship game. I was 17 at the time and thought Joe Montana was invincible. That single play knocked the stuffing out of ‘Joe Cool’ and it was five Giants field-goals that gave the visiting team the win.
  • Darrell Green’s punt-return in the 1987 Divisional playoffs. Withe the scores tied 14-14 and a minus 10 wind-chill factor Green picked up a punt around midfield and ran it back for a score. Green had been playing cornerback all game and even tore his own rib cartilage half-way through the return after hurdling over a wannabe tackler.
  • Eli Manning’s 10 yard touchdown run at Wembley in 2007. For the 81,176 fans at the first ever regular season NFL game played in England it was the realisation of the dreams of fans like myself, who fell in love with the sport at a very young age but never even imagined they could see real NFL teams in a real NFL regular-season game. Manning’s scramble and the whole game may have been soggy and scrappy, but right there and then the NFL had truly ‘touched-down’ in England. 
  • Santana Moss’s 70 yard touchdown catch in 2005. Under four minutes left, down 13-0 and in Texas, Redskins wideout Moss caught not one but two bombs delivered by Mark Brunell. The second, a 70 yard catch, was the winner and helped his team to make it into the playoffs (later in the season).

More to come soon, but what do you think so far?