On Friday night at the NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Windsor, Ont., native Tyrone Crawford in the third round, with the 81st overall selection.
The pick was announced shortly after 10 p.m. EDT here at Radio City Music Hall.
Crawford was a pass-rushing specialist at defensive end at Boise State University.
“When I got the call I was surprised,” Crawford told me by phone late Friday from his mom’s home in Windsor.
“Dallas is a great destination. Obviously they’ve got great coaches and a great defence, and I can’t wait to play for them.”
A 6-foot-4, 282-pounder, the supremely athletic Crawford rose up draft charts following a strong performance in January at a post-season college all-star game, the East-West Shrine Game.
He played two seasons at Boise State, following two at Bakersfield Junior College in California.
Crawford said it was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones himself who gave him the good news by phone.
“He said he thought I was a great player, that I’m the type of guy that they want,” Crawford said.
He is the Cowboys’ second pick of the draft, after the club traded away its second-rounder. On Thursday the Cowboys took LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall selection. Claiborne said his mom is a huge Cowboys fan.
Guess what? So is Crawford’s mom, Tara. Crawford said he himself liked Dallas while growing up just three miles from the Lions’ Ford Field — in Windsor, a city that borders Detroit.
And, as with Claiborne, the Cowboys did not tip the pick; they did not meet with Crawford, nor work him out, before the draft.
“I’m so happy to be their second pick,” Crawford said, his excitement still bubbling. “It’s crazy!”
Did Jones mention anything to him about his being a Canadian?
“Yeah, he made fun of me a bit, in a way,” Crawford said. “I forget what he said.”
Either on Saturday or Sunday morning, Crawford will fly to Dallas to meet Jones, team management, the coaches and the Dallas press.
Fourteen NFL teams had met with Crawford since February, including the Patriots (twice), Colts and Lions.
At Boise State in 2010, Crawford made an immediate impact. As a non-starting but often-rotated-in defensive end, Crawford recorded 13.5 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks.
Last fall as a senior, Crawford started and was often unblockable. He rang up another 13.5 TFLs, forced three fumbles, recovered two fumbles (racing one back for a touchdown) and had 6.5 quarterback sacks. He was an all-conference defender in the Mountain West.
So Crawford, 22, now goes from being a Bronco to a Cowboy.
NEW YORK — Thirty-two tidbits of news, views and reminders on the morning after Round 1 of the NFL draft:
1. Of all the trade-ups and trade-downs, the move of the night was made by the Dallas Cowboys.
America’s Team traded up from 14 to 6, in a swap with St. Louis, to get top-ranked cornerback Morris Claiborne of LSU.
No one saw it coming. Not even Claiborne.
He said the Cowboys had never been in touch with him, according to reports. No meetings. No visits. No emails. No reach-outs of any kind.
For weeks, insider reports claimed the Cowboys were hot to trade up to the lower Top 10 to nab the top safety, Bama’s Mark Barron.
Deliberate misinformation, we’re guessing, to keep their true intention secret. That they pulled it off in this day and age of news leaks? Impressive. And damn smart.
2. I asked Pats head coach Bill Belichick at the NFL annual meeting if he felt an urgency to shore up his leaky defence, with Tom Brady now in his mid-30s.
No, he said, they’ll just do what they always do this off-season and blah-blah-blah.
The Pats traded up twice in the first round, when they normally trade down.
Who’d they draft? Pass-rushing specialist Chandler Jones from Syracuse, and dynamic linebacker Dont’a Hightower from Bama.
Project Urgency is on in Foxboro.
3. Browns fans were livid the team didn’t take a wide receiver with its second first-round pick, at 22. The club was reportedly about to draft Baylor wideout Kendall Wright, but Tennessee grabbed him at 20.
Rather than take another playmaking WR, the Browns took QB Brandon Weeden, who will be 29 in October, is four years older than current maligned Cleveland starter Colt McCoy, and is considered by many to be a first-round reach.
Can’t the Browns and their fans ever see eye-to-eye?
4. Many Bears fans were praying that Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd would fall all the way to their spot, at 19.
The Cardinals grabbed him at 13, and if that team can ever find someone to throw the ball, Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald might soon form the league’s most dynamic wideout tandem.
The Bears took Boise State DE/LB Shea McClellin, an off-the-charts prospect coveted later in the first round by several teams. A good pick.
Expect the Bears to grab a wideout at 50th overall in the second round.
5. Only four of the five expected University of Alabama first-rounders were drafted Thursday. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw awaits the call and, presumably, remains in New York City.
6. Eight of the first 18 players picked are from the Southeastern Conference. That league rules college football because it has the best players. Period.
7. Ten college teams had at least two players drafted Thursday: Alabama, Stanford, Baylor, Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Illinois and Boise State.
8. Sprite Zero is not a sponsor of the NFL. I was asked to either put that pop bottle under my desk in press row HH, or rip off the label.
9. Here’s hoping the NFL never attempts to squelch, remove, reduce or eliminate the fans.
They were rowdy. They were rude. They barely ever shaddup. They booed commish Roger Goodell mercilessly at almost every opportunity.
And they were great.
The fans in attendance — wearing caps and colours of every team in the league — are largely responsible for making the atmosphere as electric as it is inside Radio City Music Hall. Otherwise, it’s a business meeting.
You should have seen the looks on some of the fans’ faces upon entering the theatre. Last time I saw such “I can’t believe I’m here!!!” excitement among fans for such a big event was while standing in line all day at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1981 to catch the Rolling Stones/Santana show.
10. Fifth-best fan chant of the night: “RG3! … RG3! … RG3!” And this was when QB Andrew Luck was being interviewed.
11. Fourth-best fan chant of the night: “ARF! ARF! ARF! …” That from the Cleveland Browns “Dog Pound” when the club took RB Trent Richardson No. 3 overall.
12. Third-best fan chant of the night: “OVERRATED! (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) OVERRATED! …” From Jets fans, when division rival Miami picked QB Ryan Tannehill at No. 8.
13. Second-best fan chant of the night: “J–E–T–S, JETS! JETS! JETS! … J–E–T–S, JETS! JETS! JETS!” Yeah, that team’s fans were pumped beyond belief in anticipation of their team’s pick at No. 16. And then …
14. Best fan chan of the night: “_______.” That is, silence — nothin’. Jets fans deliberately sat on their hands to voice their displeasure when pass-rusher Quinton Coples of North Carolina was introduced as the Jets’ pick. The book on Coples is he takes plays off, and Jets fans still carry fresh scars from pass-rusher Vernon Gholston, a complete bust at No. 6 overall in 2008.
That those fans could organize themselves so quickly up there in the far right side of the second and third balconies was one of the most impressive things of the night.
15. Buffalo Bills pick Stephon Gilmore, the second-ranked cornerback from South Carolina, is tall, solid as a rock, and has huge, strong hands. Looks like a serious, focused young man.
16. I wrote late last night in the fog of replate deadline that there were no shockers among first-round selections. I was wrong. Hardly anybody had Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins going so high, but the Niners grabbed him at No. 30 overall.
17. Speaking of the Niners, what does it say about their confidence in Randy Moss when, after signing him as their supposed deep-threat WR, they proceeded to sign free agent Mario Manningham from the Giants, and now Jenkins?
18. Best suggested headline I saw on Twitter was in reference to the Lions picking up tackle Riley Reiff: “The great barrier Reiff.”
19. Also re the Lions on Twitter, from @PrideOfDetroit: “Interesting coincidence: Like (’60s D-line star) Alex Karras, Riely Reiff wore No. 77 at Iowa and now No. 71 with the Lions.”
20. The draft officially began at 8:03 EDT and concluded at 11:03 EDT. Three hours flat.
21. Andrew Luck in Indy needs a good tight end to throw to. So do many other teams.
Number of tight ends drafted Thursday: zero.
Top-ranked Coby Fleener of Stanford might go as early tonight as the second pick of Round 2, to Indy. Yes, hooking up with his old Stanford pal, Luck.
23. Much is being made today of the fact three running backs were taken in the first round. But two of them were the last two picks. So, really, nothing has changed. Only one of the first 30 picks was as running back.
24. A reminder that New Orleans’ original second-round pick, No. 59 overall, is forfeited. Right, the bounty scandal. Thus, only 31 picks will be made in the round.
25. Teams making their first 2012 draft picks tonight: Denver, Baltimore, Oakland, Atlanta and New Orleans.
26. Fifteen first-rounders play on offence, 17 on defence. Pretty balanced. But, the first five players taken line up on offence. From picks 6 to 19, all but two were defenders.
27. Invitees Fleener, Georgia tackle Cordy Glenn, Georgia Tech WR Stephen Hill, LSU WR Rueben Randle, Penn State DT Devon Still and Upshaw had the shared, crushing experience of leaving Radio City Music Hall with their loved ones, undrafted.
28. Tonight for Rounds 2 and 3, teams have only seven minutes to make a pick. For Rounds 4-7 on Saturday, only five minutes.
29. Tonight’s selections begin at 7 p.m. EDT, and should conclude by 11:15.
30. Saturday’s selections begin at noon, and the 253rd and final pick of the 2012 draft should be made by 7:30 p.m. EDT.
31. Most hated team among the fans? Easy. The Dallas Cowboys. Giants fans booed loud and long when it was announced the Cowboys had traded up to get Claiborne. Gotta love the passion of a football fan.
32. Here’s how fans got tickets to opening night. It wasn’t easy.
Literally thousands descended on Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday, the day before. They lined the building, with many waiting all day to score one of about 2,000 free wristbands to gain entry the next night.
The NFL handed out the wristbands Wednesday at 11 p.m. local time.
On top of that, on Thursday afternoon dozens more fans wearing jerseys and/or hats from just about every NFL team — mostly teens and twentysomething males, it appeared — waited for hours in the sun, and eventually rain, in hopes of getting stand-by tickets.
NEW YORK — Stephon Gilmore was all smiles shortly after the Buffalo Bills made him the 10th overall pick in Thursday night’s NFL draft.
In a one-on-one interview on is way to the media interview room, I got in a couple quick questions to the 6-foot-1, 193-pound cornerback from the University of South Carolina.
On whether he’d talked to Bills GM Buddy Nix yet.
“Yeah, I talked to him,” he said. “He’s happy with the decision. I’m happy they picked me and believed in my talent. I’ll just keep working hard, like I’ve always done. It don’t stop here — this is the beginning. So I’m looking forward to it.”
On whether he did board work with the Bills on his pre-draft visit:
“Yeah, I did a lot of board work, and I like how they play. They’ve got some great coaches. They’re an upcoming team. They had a good year last year, so I’m just looking (to be) a piece so they can make more plays this year.”
On whether he knows any of the Bills defenders:
“I don’t know ‘em, but it’s a great feeling, man. It’s a dream come true, and I’m just happy with it.”
NEW YORK — Experts predicted it would come in the final week before the NFL draft. And, ohhh, has it come.
It’s deliberately planted by some clubs, in an attempt either to scare off teams nearby in the draft order from a player they actually covet — or to profess love for a lower-graded player, to entice teams down the order to trade up to get him.
Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, for one, has had it.
“There’s so much stuff out there that just drives me crazy right now,” he told reporters Wednesday morning, before the NFL’s PLAY 60 Youth Football Festival at Chelsea Waterside Park, attended by 26 top draft prospects.
“I just go back about two weeks, or three weeks ago, and trust what I feel like is the right thing to trust. There’s way too much misinformation out there.”
Case in point: Justin Blackmon. The Oklahoma State star had been the top-rated wide receiver for months in just about everybody’s ratings and mock drafts — until the past week or so.
“I think Blackmon is still going to be a solid Top 6 pick,” Mayock insisted. “I can’t see him falling beyond that.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY I:
“I’ve been spending my time just trying to watch the Disney channel.”
— LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne (above), on how he avoids the pre-draft speculation circus.
CORNERBACKS DISCUSS BUFFALO VISITS:
After Claiborne, a Top 5 lock, Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama are seen as the next best corners.
Both have visited Buffalo. And, yes, with both being Southerners they felt a kinship with Bills GM Buddy Nix, a native Alabamian whose drawl remains thicker ‘an a horse-trader’s mule.
“I’m from the country, his kind of country,” Gilmore told me (That’s my snap of him, at right). “I think I’d blend in well in Buffalo. If they believe in me, I’ll be happy with that decision, because I’m going in to work hard.”
Kirkpatrick told me he and Nix are practically Bama neighbours.
“He’s from Talladega, and I’m from Gaston, so we’re 35 minutes away from each other. So that’s a connection we had.
“When I first met him, me and him just clicked. He had a positive energy with me, and we pretty much connected from the jump. We had a couple of great talks.”
Some were about football, even. And those went well too.
“The thing that impressed them was how fast I learned their plays, the plays they put up on the board for me,” Kirkpatrick said.
Last year the Bills drafted Kirkpatrick’s former Bama teammate, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
“They’re growing,” Kirkpatrick said. “If I go in there, I’d be trying to bring the best possible energy and enthusiasm that I could.”
The stock of Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill — the third rated QB — is all over mock-draft map.
“I just try to ignore it all,” Tannehill said Wednesday. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have any inside information or anything like that. I just try to stay out of all the predictions and all that stuff.
“I’m blessed to hear my name called, whether it’s early first, late first, second round — whatever. It’s not really about where you get drafted. It’s about how you play after you get drafted.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY II:
“Yeah, I wonder how the NFL worked that one out. They have a crazy way of getting things done. But it’ll be fun. In that game, neither of us will probably play very much.”
— QB Robert Griffin III, on the fact his soon-to-be Redskins play Andrew Luck‘s Colts in a pre-season game, announced earlier this month.
RG3 THINKS HE HURT COLTS’ FEELINGS:
At one point following the scouting combine, the Colts asked Griffin to work out privately for them.
“But I refused everybody,” Griffin said Wednesday. “I didn’t do any private workouts.
“I think after that, feelings might have been hurt (in Indy), or something like that. I went to D.C. on a visit, and (the Colts) didn’t offer a visit at all — so we kinda new what direction they were going in. There’s no hard feelings … I’m not going to hold personal vendettas against anyone.”
It’s no secret the Detroit Lions need help at cornerback — in a big way. They might have one of the league’s nastiest defensive fronts, but their secondary got scorched repeatedly in 2011.
Mayock doesn’t see help coming from the first round, unless the Lions reach. They pick 23rd.
“I did about 10 mock drafts last night, and I couldn’t find a way to get a corner to the Lions,” Mayock said. “There are three first-round picks that don’t have significant off-the-field issues — and I think Claiborne, Gilmore and Kirkpatrick are all gone before 23.
“So from my perspective, if they want a corner they’re going to either have to move up, or take a guy with significant off-the-field issues.”
Not that such a player would be a stranger on the Lions.
QUOTE OF THE DAY III:
“I told (Vikings GM) Rick Spielman that if they draft me, they won’t worry about a left tackle for the next 10 years.” — USC’s Matt Kalil.
MR. VERSATILE, MR. HUMBLE:
Alabama running back Trent Richardson was asked by a youth reporter from Sports Illustrated Kids what his biggest strength is.
“I don’t have just one,” Richardson said matter-of-factly. “I think (I’m) versatile — being able to catch the ball, run the ball, and block and break down the whole defence.”
Gee, thanks, Trent!!!
Mayock on why QBs are so valuable:
“The numbers are almost shocking. If you look at the last eight drafts for first-round quarterbacks, 15 of 23 are starters. In the same time period, there have been I think 83 quarterbacks taken in Rounds 2 through 7 — and only seven of them start.”
NEW YORK — Reading “tea leaves” to guess which player an NFL team might select with its first-round draft pick is pure folly.
So let’s give it a go.
Our test case: the Buffalo Bills.
Based on what GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have said to me over the past two months, I am absolutely certain (ahem) who the Bills will pick at No. 10 overall on Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall.
At the scouting combine in February, Gailey lamented his team’s awful defence — rated 26th in 2011. The offence markedly improved, so now it’s the defence’s turn, he said.
With the league so in love with the pass, Gailey said by far the two most important positions on any defence are “corners and pass rushers — that’s where it is. That’s our game.”
The next day I asked Nix if he agreed.
“I do,” he said. “But I think, too, that cover linebackers are also important. Those are our definite concerns and needs.”
Then Nix added a caveat.
“I think you can get by with lesser corners if you can get pressure on the quarterback. If you can disrupt a quarterback’s rhythm, you’ve got a chance, and that’s a priority.”
A few weeks later, of course, Nix took care of that priority with the monster signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, pass rushers extraordinaire.
By the NFL annual meeting in late March, most mock-drafters were sure the Bills will take the best offensive tackle available at 10, with Demetress Bell bolting to the Eagles.
“I hear (that),” Nix told me in Palm Beach. “We feel good about Chris Hairston at left tackle, but we do need some depth there.”
Scratch OT, then.
What about a speedy wide receiver? The offence sure could use one.
“I think that’s important. We need that,” Nix told me at the combine. “Stevie (Johnson) is a medium route runner. He separates good underneath, but he’s not going to stretch the field much. We need somebody to do that. We think we’ve got two or three candidates already on the squad, but we still need to add one or two.”
Neither Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State nor Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, however, is a field-stretching burner, even if they’re the top rated WRs.
And so, bearing in mind that both Nix and Gailey said their off-season priority is upgrading the defence — and considering the WR class this year is ridiculously deep, meaning they can always get one with one of their other nine picks — I think the Bills will select a defender at No. 10.
I don’t think it will be a cornerback, for as Nix told me, the need to get a top cornerback has been lessened with the huge upgrade to the pass rush.
Two more things to consider.
Nix said “if you can get a guy who can start for you for 10 or 12 years, you’d have a good pick.”
And he has tried to convince every reporter and his dog that “we won’t reach. We won’t go past a playmaking guy that we’ve got graded higher to go down the board just to fill a position need. We won’t do that. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. We’ll take the best player.”
What, then, about one of Nix’s three priorities for his defence — a pass-covering linebacker?
Namely, Luke Kuechly of Boston College?
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls Kuechly one of the 10 best players in the draft, and “the best pass-dropping inside linebacker I’ve ever seen in college football … He’s never been hurt. He’s got no significant injuries. He’s clean off the field. Intelligent. He’s got great instincts, and he’s a better athlete than people think.”
What’s more, Kuechly can play any of the three LB positions in a 4-3 — Mike, Sam or Will. And to beat the Patriots in the AFC East you have to defend the short passes that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady loves to throw — hooks, ins and outs to his tight ends, backs and slots. Who covers a lot of those routes? Linebackers, not cornerbacks.
In Palm Beach I asked Nix about Kuechly. His eyes lit up.
“I think Kuechly will play 10 years in this league, barring serious injury,” Nix said. “I think he’s that good a player. I think he blew everybody away … He would certainly be a consideration (at No. 10 overall).”
Will he last that long, though?
“There’s a pretty good chance he’d be there, I say.”
And if he’s the highest-rated player on the Bills’ board at No. 10?
“That means he might be the guy,” Nix said coyly, playfully or uncomfortably — I couldn’t tell which.
What’s more, with Kuechly helping to back up the new, ferocious line in Dave Wannstedt’s new 4-3 defence, the Bills suddenly would have one of the best front sevens in the AFC.
That’d be a helluva one-year improvement on defence. Exactly what Nix and Gailey are after this off-season.
I think the Bills will draft Luke Kuechly at No. 10.
As bitterly cold winds blew sleet and snow outside, Mario Williams worked out for the first time with his new Buffalo Bills teammates on Monday morning.
The Bills began their voluntary off-season program — consisting of conditioning and weightlifting drills — at their indoor training facility in Orchard Park.
Even for Buffalo, such a burst of winter in the last week of April is almost as unseasonal as the record-high, summer-like weather that greeted Williams in mid-March, when the NFL’s premier 2012 free-agent defender signed with the Bills for $96 million over six years.
“Yeah, I think he was a little confused from his last visit,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said in a telephone interview after the morning workout.
“This isn’t like Florida — beautiful long summers and all that. But this is very fitting to have the weather like this on the first day, just to give everybody a nice introduction to Buffalo.”
For his part, Williams told reporters that, weather-wise, “it was good to kind of get both sides of the deal.”
His new teammates noticed, and appreciated, that Williams arrived early for the 7:30 a.m. EDT start of the first of two optional Monday sessions.
“I met him this morning,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was here at 7 a.m., ready for workouts. And it seems to me that he just wants to be one of the guys.
“He’s in there working hard, not asking for any special treatment, and not thinking that he deserves something more than any other guy. And I think that’s what’s really going to help him fit onto this team, and into this locker room.”
The re-signing in March of the team’s top wide receiver, Stevie Johnson, plus the free-agent signings of star defensive ends Williams and Mark Anderson from the arch-rival New England Patriots, has the team more optimistic and excited than usual, Fitzpatrick said.
“Everybody on the team was buzzing a little bit this off-season.”
And, in the case of Fitzpatrick and several other banged-up players, recovering.
Fitzpatrick said he is healed from whatever mid-section injury (which he won’t disclose) he suffered in the middle of last season.
Fitz’s play dropped off dramatically after getting crushed on a hit to the mid-section in the Washington game at the Rogers Centre. His QB rating was 97.8 before that, but 66.5 thereafter, as the Bills lost eight of their final nine games in a 6-10 season.
It was an injury so severe that sometimes Fitzpatrick “barely could say a full play under one breath” in the huddle, Johnson told me last month.
“Yeah, I’m 100% and feeling great,” Fitzpatrick said.
Williams said he, too, is fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss the final 11 games of the 2011 season with the Houston Texans.
“The time we’ve had off from the season until now is always something you look forward to, to let your body heal,” Fitzpatrick said. “A lot of guys are coming off surgeries in the off-season, too, so having that time to recover … is always a good thing.”
Even the release of the 2012 schedule last week had Fitzpatrick pumped.
“Being able to visualize what time of the year it’s going to be, who we’re playing the week before, and who we’re playing the week after, really gets you going for the season,” he said.
The Bills kick off the season in 139 days, on Sept. 9 at the New York Jets. Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs in 13 years.
“Things need to change around here, and that’s definitely what we’re going after,” Williams said.
MARIO AND MARK: ENDS OF A NEW BEGINNING?
Mario and Mark are together again. This time in Buffalo.
Defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson signed as free agents last month with the Bills.
Previously, they played one season together on the Houston Texans, in 2010. Last year, Anderson was a pass-rushing specialist with the New England Patriots.
Did the fact Williams signed with Buffalo on March 15 compel Anderson to follow suit on March 21?
“It really wasn’t key, but it didn’t hurt either,” Anderson said in a telephone interview Monday, after the start of voluntary team workouts.
“Because I played with him at Houston, I know what type of guy he is on the field and off the field. And we’re pretty close.”
Williams said at his session with reporters on Monday that the duo’s mutual friendship and knowledge will help on the field.
“I think the biggest thing is not just his presence,” Williams said, “but it kind of makes it a little bit easier for me in the transition … I’ve kind of got a little feel for him already, for what he’s going to do.”
Coincidentally, the two arrived at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Sunday at about the same time.
“He rode with me over to the stadium, and then to the hotel,” Williams said.
Some pundits now rate the Bills’ defensive line — which includes inside tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus — as not only the best in the AFC East, but with the potential to be among tops in the league.
We haven’t talked about anything like that,” Anderson said. “Eventually we’ll have that (goal) in stone, but right now we’re just trying to get back in shape, work out hard, and get ready for the season.”
What’s it like for Anderson to now have Pats quarterback Tom Brady as a target, instead of a teammate?
“I wouldn’t even pinpoint Brady,” he said. “We’re trying to get every quarterback.”
HAIR’S TO A NEW ‘DO FOR FITZ:
Upon re-signing with the Bills in March, wideout Stevie Johnson convinced quarterback and good friend Ryan Fitzpatrick to get a commemorative haircut.
A mohawk mullet with the words ‘HE’S BACK’ cut into the left side.
Seven weeks later, it’s gone.
“Yes, I got that off my head just as soon as I could! It’s back to normal now,” Fitzpatrick said.
— John Kryk
They’re enormous. Ferocious. Relentless. And, lately, they all leave Madison, Wisc., headed directly to one place — the NFL.
We’re talking about the University of Wisconsin football team’s offensive linemen.
Three were selected in last year’s NFL draft, and all started (see sidebar chart).
Two more for sure, and maybe a third, will be picked later this week in the 2012 draft. Centre Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler will be taken either late Thursday night in Round 1, or Friday night in Round 2. Injury-riddled tackle Josh Oglesby might be a late-round pick.
That would be six offensive linemen in two years from the same school. Unheard of. With apologies to Russell Crowe, that’s 1,900-odd pounds of grunt.
What’s more, in 2007 the same Badgers program produced offensive tackle Joe Thomas, an all-pro in each of his first five seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and arguably the best OL in the league.
“Offensive linemen are doing things at a high level at Wisconsin. I think that’s how they’re being looked at,” said Bob Bostad, who was OL and tight ends coach, as well as running-game coordinator, for the Badgers from 2006 until this past January, when he moved to the University of Pittsburgh. Just a month after that, Bostad, accepted another job — as offensive line coach with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under new head coach Greg Schiano.
So what’s their big secret up in cheesehead country?
We pitched that question to Bostad, and to two of this year’s OL crop — Konz (my photo of him, above, at combine) and Oglesby. They offered the following insights.
“You’ve got to give the kids credit to have the internal motivation to do what they’ve done, and to take the coaching — I think that’s where it starts,” Bostad (right) said in a telephone interview, just a few days before he left Pittsburgh.
“I thought one of the best indicators was that from their junior to their senior years, their performances were still getting better. There’s always room for improvement, but not every kid improves. I felt like our kids were getting better. We were getting the max out of them. And I think that goes back to coaching, and to the beginning component — their willingness.”
One reason the players were highly motivated was because, with the exception of Oglesby, they weren’t highly recruited out of high school. The Ohio States, Penn States and Alabamas never looked their way. Thus, they had a lot to prove.
“We were real fortunate to have kids who came from pretty humble beginnings — humble and honest, and they were sponges,” said Bostad, 45, who was born and raised in Wisconsin. “They didn’t go through a cycle like highly recruited kids go through, where in high school as sophomores they’re courted, as juniors they’re courted, and as seniors they’re courted hard.”
As for technique, Bostad said it’s not that he taught the Badgers linemen anything revolutionary or different.
“They’re time-tested techniques — that not everybody might agree with. But it’s working,” he said.
Oglesby, who persevered through five knee surgeries at Wisconsin (after one in high school), said there was one drill the Badgers did daily in summer camp, and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the season, that instilled in the offensive linemen both confidence and a mindset of physical superiority.
“It was what we call the Inside Drill,” Oglesby told me at the scouting combine in February (my photo of him, right).
Konz elaborated the next day.
“Inside Drill is about 10 minutes of rapid-fire plays,” Konz said. “Blitzes and everything. There’s no huddle. Coach just calls out a play, you get down, it’s on the quick, you go.
“That really got us prepared for a game … So when it got down to the wire, you knew you could push through. And I think that’s part of what made us successful.”
Another important factor: Wisconsin implements all the various blocking schemes used in the NFL, which gives scouts all they need to see from Badger linemen on game film.
“They can see our zone stuff, or our pulling stuff, or our gap schemes,” Bostad said. “Everybody who’s interested in our kids can legitimately evaluate them for their team and what they do, and feel good about what they see. I think that helps.”
- – - – - -
THE BADGER ROAD-GRADERS
Three University of Wisconsin offensive linemen were selected in last year’s NFL draft, and all started as rookies. Two or three more will be picked this week. A look at the BIG six:
2012 DRAFT PROSPECTS:
DRAFT PROJECTION: late 1st round
QUOTE: “Throw me anywhere. I’d be happy because I love playing football.”
DRAFT PROJECTION: late 1st or early 2nd round
QUOTE: “There’s been a great tradition of offensive line (at Wisconsin). We respect it. Nobody wants to be the guy that stops it.”
DRAFT PROJECTION: 6th or 7th round, if at all
QUOTE: “(Browns OT Joe Thomas) is arguably the best offensive lineman in the league right now, but there were good offensive linemen (at Wisconsin) before Joe Thomas.”
DRAFTED: 1st round, 29th overall, by Chicago
ROOKIE YEAR: Started first two games at RT before suffering season-ending knee injury.
DRAFTED: 3rd round, 75th overall, by Seattle
ROOKIE YEAR: Started first nine games at RG before suffering season-ending knee injury.
DRAFTED: 7th round, 252nd overall, by Dallas
ROOKIE YEAR: Started first four games at C before fracturing ankle and missing remainder of season.
So how exactly does an NFL club determine if a potential draftee has those dreaded “character” issues — as a result of a run-in with the law?
And what qualifies? A DUI? An arrest for pot possession? Or does it have to be a much more serious crime?
Or is it all about repeat offenders?
This past week, I asked Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix — a longtime NFL front-office talent evaluator — if he uses specific criteria for making such assessments.
“I wish I could tell you it’s scientific, but it’s not,” Nix said at the Bills’ pre-draft news conference. “It’s more of a gut feeling.”
Nix, though, underscored that there are some transgressions that can be written off merely as “immaturity,” and which are wholly different from serious crimes.
“They do it their first year (or) sophomore years, and then you say, ‘Well, he’s changed.’ But most of that comes from learning about life and how to act, so we think that that doesn’t really eliminate a guy. But if it’s a repeat offender and it’s the wrong kind of trouble, then we stay away from it.”
One such player that many teams are now staying away from is cornerback Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama. Virtually every analyst had him as an upper first-round lock a couple of months ago, but his stock has since slid.
Why? Because he’s Mr. Character Issues this year.
Once a star at the University of Florida, Jenkins was kicked out of that school after his second arrest for marijuana possession, and after being Tased and arrested for ceasing to back off during a street fight. At North Alabama he tested positive for marijuana and later admitted to using it there.
Plus, he has four kids, from three different mothers.
Reports say that while some team might just ignore all that and take Jenkins on the basis of his supreme cover-corner talents, others wouldn’t take him with the last pick in Round 7.
“You get enough trouble without getting one that you know is a problem,” Nix said, in reference to players such as Jenkins.
Another top corner, Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama, was arrested in January for misdemeanor pot possession, but charges were dropped. It was a one-time incident for Kirkpatrick, thus he’s still regarded as a likely Top 15 pick.
With regard to pot and alcohol, repeat offenders are the ones who turn the sirens on.
Brian Billick, former Ravens head coach, says of repeat lawbreakers: “It’s like testing positive at the combine. You’re too stupid to play for me … It’s more of an intelligence issue than a character issue.”
Timing is everything. It came out last week that Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams tested positive for pot two months ago at the combine. This, on the heels of having been suspended for a big chunk of his senior year at OSU for his role in the tattoos-for-equipment scandal that rocked that school’s football program.
Bad decisions now seem to be a trend with Adams, and his stock is falling accordingly, probably right out of the first round.
Alcohol is the black mark against wide receiver Michael Floyd. He had three alcohol-related brushes with the law in his last three years at Notre Dame — two in his home state of Minnesota for underage drinking, and the third last spring, a DUI.
While the latter incident, which nearly got him kicked out of Notre Dame, can’t be chalked up to the “immaturity” Nix referred to, the first two probably can. That and the fact that Floyd is so good a wideout — tall, speedy, great hands — means that some team is still likely to take him in the top half of the first round. Maybe Buffalo.
As for the old alcohol-vs.-pot debate, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock says times have changed.
“I don’t think marijuana usage is as big a deal as it was 10 years ago in the eyes of most NFL teams,” Mayock says. “I think habitual usage of any narcotic, including alcohol, is (the) concern.”
Bottom line: repeat offences of just about anything illegal are a sure-fire way to have NFL teams, at best, question whether to take a supreme talent so early in the draft — and, at worst, avoid him like a leper.
That’s Philip Blake’s hard-earned advice for those with a dream.
And he’d know.
At age 26, the native of west-end Toronto finally is in position to realize the goal he stubbornly has clung to since playing football for the first time in his “victory lap” year of high school in 2005.
Experts believe the 6-foot-2-3/4, 315-pound centre is one of two Canadians who will be selected in next week’s National Football League entry draft.
Blake’s post-secondary route to the NFL has been slow, circuitous and unlikely — from the Toronto community of Etobicoke; to Lennoxville, Que.; to Tyler, Texas; and finally to Waco, Texas.
Six years in all.
“I knew it would be a long road to get here, but I stuck with it,” Blake says with pride.
* * *
Patience and perseverance. Philip Anthony Blake has had it since he was a kid.
“When he was young, he liked to play computer games a lot,” says Orlando Shaw, Blake’s step-father but the man he has always called Dad. “He would sit there for hours in the evenings and play, after he finished his school work.
“He is the type of person that when he starts the game, he has to finish it. Whatever he started, he wanted to finish it. That’s just how he is.”
* * *
Even though Dad always was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Blake didn’t take to football while growing up.
He liked street hockey. His older brother, Junior, was into basketball. And his older cousin Courtney Hudon, whom Blake considers a second brother, played all kinds of sports, especially ice hockey; Blake would even carry his equipment bag.
It’s rare, but not unheard of, for an NFL draftee not to have taken up the sport until his last year of high school — as Blake finally did in ’05 when he transferred from Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School to Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School.
It was his friend, Jeremy Maruso, who gave Blake the crucial nudge.
“I was walking down the hallway after class,” Blake recalls, “and he said, ‘You’re pretty big. Why don’t you come out and play football (with us)?”
So he did.
“Philip was at least 250 pounds — a big boy,” says Mario Pietrangelo, still head coach at Father Henry Carr. “His commitment was stellar. He would not miss a practice. He really fell in love with the game.
“The first thing that we were impressed with was his foot speed for a big man. We put him at guard … If anybody got in his way, he would roll them over like a snowball.”
Blake’s NFL dream was born. But his raw talent, coupled with the fact his grades weren’t in order, meant that exactly zero U.S. colleges came to recruit him. Not a one.
“Both myself and my assistant coach at that time, Mark Stadnyk, told him, ‘You have to continue to pursue this, Philip. You have great ability,’” Pietrangelo says. “That’s when we suggested the CEGEP route.”
CEGEP is a French acronym for the post-secondary level of education that functions as a segue, of sorts, between high school and university in Quebec.
CEGEP football occasionally produces top-level NCAA players, such as Michigan’s Tim Biakabutuka in the 1990s. Importantly, CEGEP experience does not count against a U.S. college player’s four years of eligibility, so it is well scouted.
Blake spent two years at Champlain Regional College in Lennoxville. When teammate (and future CFLer) Shomari Williams got a scholarship offer from University of Houston head coach Art Briles, Blake saw an opportunity.
“I sent them my highlights tape too, and they called me about two days later,” Blake says. “They took me down to Houston for a visit, and they said, ‘Do you want to play here?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I didn’t want to go through the whole recruiting process. The first school that took me down on a visit and offered me a scholarship, I was going there.”
But the NCAA’s academic clearinghouse still found holes in Blake’s scholastic resume. Undaunted and already in Texas, Blake enrolled at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, a city about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, La.
How much do they love their football in Texas?
“I was just blown away,” Blake says.
It actually took him a while to understand people. But that went both ways.
“Their thick southern accent threw me off. Because sometimes I’d be like, ‘Huh? What’djyall say?’ But about two months in, I was kinda starting to sound like them. I’d call back home and they’d be like, ‘Oh, you don’t even sound Canadian anymore!’
“I used to say, ‘Eh?’ and ‘Abaout’ and stuff like that. But I’m Canadian, and I’m proud of it.”
With the Apaches in 2008, Blake earned second-team all-league honours at left tackle on offence. Even better, Blake crammed two years of schoolwork into three semesters and graduated from TJC with three years of NCAA eligibility yet remaining, instead of two.
By then, coach Briles had moved on and up from Houston to Baylor University in Waco. Briles had not forgotten about Blake and offered him a full-ride scholarship to Baylor, which plays against the likes of Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 conference.
Blake started all 12 games at right tackle in 2009. In 2010 Briles moved him to centre, where 6-foot-2 linemen aren’t deemed too short. Blake blossomed.
Despite graduating from Baylor in spring 2011 with a degree in sociology, Blake returned last fall with a senior class of veteran starters, which included a quarterback named Robert Griffin III. Yes, RG3 — the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner and, at worst, the No. 2 overall pick in next week’s draft in New York City.
Blake himself was the first-team All-Big 12 centre.
“We’ve had a journey, Philip and I,” coach Briles says. “And that’s really what I appreciate about him. He’s very mature because of his journey. He was a great player and a great leader for us, so he’ll certainly transfer all that to the next level, and without any question he’ll be a great professional.”
* * *
This past winter, Blake impressed NFL coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl all-star game, and at the scouting combine.
I Iike the big Canuck,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock raved at the combine. “I had a third- or fourth-round grade on him, and I believe that he’s a starting centre in this league … He actually did a tad better in the measurables than I expected.
“The lower-body explosion — really, what I like about this kid is how stout he is. Like I said earlier, he squats the house.”
Well, he can squat 635 pounds, anyway.
Blake now is regarded as one of the top draft-eligible centres. Mayock rates him No. 2, while other experts have him anywhere from No. 3 to 5.
It would be a shock a week from Saturday night if Blake is not taken by the end of the seventh and final round. He might be selected on the Friday night (when Rounds 2 and 3 are held), but more likely he’ll learn his NFL destination on Saturday afternoon (Rounds 4-5).
Dallas, Carolina and Indianapolis have shown the most interest in Blake since the combine. Each has worked him out.
One team that hasn’t approached him? The Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, Dad’s team.
Says Shaw: “The other day I told him, ‘If you go to Cleveland, or Chicago, or wherever — when you come to Pittsburgh, I have to cheer for Pittsburgh!”
Blake says he himself doesn’t have any preference.
“I just want to have a long-lasting career. I’ve put so much into it, I want to at least get back what I put into it. I played six years to get here, so I want six-plus in the NFL.”
Philip’s mother, Patricia Blake, and cousin Courtney will be with him in Waco on all three days of the draft, as he awaits the phone call that has been his obsession for six long years.
* * *
After his football career ends, Blake wants to become a high school teacher — to give back to young people “what all my coaches gave to me.”
Pietrangelo says Blake would make an excellent one: “He has the patience, he has the personality to help young kids.”
Most of all, perhaps, Blake has a valuable message to share.
“Through this whole process, I never gave up, and I never settled,” he says. “I never gave up on my dream, and I never settled for something I didn’t want. I could have stayed in Canada and played university ball there. And there’d have been nothing wrong with staying in Canada, but that’s not what I wanted.
“I wanted to pursue a career in the NFL. So, my advice is to never give up, and never settle.”
How good is Philip Blake?
I asked the most respected NFL talent evaluators in the biz to rate Canadian Philip Blake, a centre from Baylor Univeristy:
Greg Cosell, NFL Films
“A mauler more than a mover. At his best when he engaged quickly. What continued to stand out was his natural strength and power … The question at the NFL level will be how he handles the quickness of defensive tackles. Overall, a solid and consistent player. Chance to start at offensive centre and offensive guard.”
Mike Mayock, NFL Network
“I Iike the big Canuck. I had a third- or fourth-round grade on him, and I believe that he’s a starting centre in this league.”
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN
“I think he falls into that category of maybe a sixth- or seventh-round option.”
Todd McShay, ESPN
“He’s thick, strong and tough. I think he has a chance to come in and become a solid starting centre in the league and has some versatility too … 4th- to 5th-round range.”
Rob Rang, CBSSports.com
“Blake is a gritty blocker who I feel could compete for playing time early in his career. Among the better prospects for teams looking for a centre to lead a straight-ahead drive-blocking scheme … The fourth best centre prospect. He is expected to be drafted in the 4th-5th round.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. —The Buffalo Quote Machine, aka Bills GM Buddy Nix, churned out a few more beauties Wednesday at the team’s pre-draft news conference. (My photo of him, above)
There really isn’t much actual news to report from these things. What, do you think Nix — or director of player personnel Doug Whaley, director of college scouting Chuck Cook or director of pro personnel Tom Gibbons — were going to tip us in any way as to who the Bills might select in next week’s NFL draft?
There were enough Nix nuggets, though, to make the exercise entertaining, and informative. Such as these:
• ON LAST YEAR’S PASS RUSH: “Even my wife knew we didn’t get enough outside pressure.”
• ON THE IMPROVED PASS RUSH: “I think we helped it some with those guys. If we can get that quarterback to throw it from his back, we’ll be better off in coverage.”
• ON HOW HE WEIGHTS THE VARIOUS FACTORS WHEN ASSESSING PLAYERS: “If I had to guess, and put a percentage on it, I’d say for us, we are 70% how-he-played. The other junket that goes into it, all that other stuff, might make a difference in whether or not he’s successful. But that makes up a very small percentage of it.”
• ON IF HE PREFERS PLAYERS FROM THE DEEP SOUTH: “I think I’d be really dumb to turn a guy down because of where he played … The reason we go south is we go where the players are. If we were trying to go by area, all ours would come from Buffalo.”
And the best one:
• ON WHETHER HE FEELS HE OWES IT TO HEAD COACH CHAN GAILEY OR WIDEOUT STEVIE JOHNSON TO DRAFT A WIDEOUT WITH SPEED: “I don’t owe ‘em nuthin’ — they get paid once a month.”