Thursday, April 28, 2011

NFL Mock Draft: Picks 11-32

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I lied, today's version will include pick 10 as well. After some thought and dissension from my peers, the Redskins don't take Da'Quan Bowers. I considered putting Jake Locker or Prince Amukamara in that spot, but I'm going to stick with my initial instinct that they go with a defensive end. It just won't be Bowers due to the uncertainty surrounding his knee (which I don't worry about) and his better fit in a 4-3.

This mock is all based on teams staying where they are. I will mention potential trades I've been reading about, but no triggers will be pulled. So without further ado, the rest of the first round.

*10. Washington - Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina

Same logic as yesterday, different player. Quinn's upside is that of a top-five pick in this draft but he also comes with risk after his rules-violation suspension last season and resulting apathy. But the Redskins are not opposed to taking risks and if Quinn pans out, opposing offensive coordinators could have nightmares trying to stop him and Brian Orakpo.

11. Houston - Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

The Texans pass defense was terrible last season. I've heard rumors that they love Patrick Peterson and I could definitely see them making a trade with Arizona if he's still on the board when the Cardinals pick at five. Assuming they don't make that trade, Amukamara is a decent consolation prize.

I've seen people predicting Aldon Smith to the Texans here, but with Mario Williams already in tow as a pass rusher and a huge hole in their secondary, I don't see it. Houston drafted Kareem Jackson in the first round in 2010 but he was torched constantly last season; Amukamara is the best player on the board and fills a big need.

12. Minnesota - Jake Locker, QB, Washington

Minnesota seems unlikely to re-sign Ray Edwards opposite Jared Allen, so Aldon Smith is also a possibility at this spot. But Joe Webb is not the answer at quarterback and honestly, Jake Locker is. The Vikings want to move down for Locker, but I think Miami is a threat to take the Washington quarterback with the 15th pick.

If they want Locker, I think Minnesota needs to take him here. He went from the potential top overall pick last season if he came out to a possible second-rounder and now back into the early-to-middle portion of round one. The Vikings are getting much better value out of this pick than the Panthers taking Newton with the top pick and should be happy with Locker here.

13. Detroit - Anthony Costanzo, OT, Boston College

The Lions needs to keep Matthew Stafford healthy. This pick is similar to the Browns taking Julio Jones at six; it's being made mostly to help the team's quarterback. If Dallas moves out of the ninth pick the Lions will get Tyron Smith here but if the Cowboys stay in the top 10 and take Smith themselves, Costanzo should be a Lion.

Left tackle Jeff Backus is 34 and he's no world-beater anyway. If Detroit can keep Stafford on the field they have a chance to compete for a Wild Card berth (yes, I just said that) and drafting Costanzo can go a long way towards that goal. He has the height and size (6-7, 311) along with the athleticism to anchor their left side for years to come.

14. St. Louis - Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri

The Rams would have loved to see Julio Jones fall here and in early mock drafts, he did. But now that he seems likely to go to the Browns, the Rams will have to look elsewhere to find a go-to target for Sam Bradford. Mark Ingram is a possibility as well, but the Rams do still have Steven Jackson and can find a running back later.

For me, this pick comes down to Smith or Illinois DT Corey Liuget. The Rams have more of a need at defensive tackle, but Smith is the better player. James Hall is coming off a 10.5-sack season but hadn't had more than 6.5 since 2004 and is 34 years old. Smith can be a rotational player until Hall moves on and then form a dynamic pass rush with Chris Long. I think Liuget is a reach at 14; I don't even have him in my first round.

15. Miami - Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama

Mark Ingram was projected here by many experts until a few weeks ago, but I haven't seen many mocks lately with him going to Miami. Most mocks have them taking either Florida guard Mike Pouncey or Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. I'm a huge fan of both players; Pouncey is a versatile lineman who can help Miami's interior line and Mallett has the upside to be the next Peyton Manning. He also has the downside to be the next Ryan Leaf.

If Locker was available at this spot, I think the Dolphins would be more than willing to give up on Chad Henne for him. And while Pouncey fills a need, I think Miami should take Ingram. There have been questions about his knee but Ronnie Brown has never been a perfect picture of health and is a free agent. Brown was healthy last season, didn't even run well and is pushing 30. If Miami can't rely on Brown even when he's healthy, they need to move on. With Ingram.

16. Jacksonville - Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue

I'd love to see Jacksonville take Cameron Jordan here, who I feel is more talented, but I hear they love Kerrigan's character and leadership ability. It would also be nice to see the Jags steal Jordan from New England but the Patriots might be moving up anyway, making Jordan unavailable at this spot. Jacksonville benched 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey last season and Kerrigan seems to be his likely replacement.

17. New England - Cameron Jordan, DE, California

I've heard rumors of New England using their two-first round picks and overall draft depth to move into the top 10, potentially trading with Dallas who has the ninth pick. The Patriots like Jordan, he fits into their defense and he's the son of a coach. All of these things work great for Bill Belichick, but I'm not sure they need to move up to draft Jordan. He's a possibility for the Rams at 14 and the Jaguars at 16 but I think the Pats can wait. Whether they will is another story.

18. San Diego - J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin

The Chargers will definitely be looking defense without any huge holes on offense, despite great statistics on that side of the football. Watt is the best front seven player available here and will be the pick. I haven't heard much about San Diego trading out of this spot, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that as well.

19. NY Giants - Mike Pouncey, OG, Florida

The Giants will be very happy if the Dolphins pass on Pouncey at 15. With Costanzo already off the board and a serious need along the offensive line, New York would be left with few options. I've heard Mark Ingram rumors but I don't see it; he's a good prospect but not likely a superstar and the Giants do still have Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw in their backfield. Ingram can be better than both, but it's not necessarily a need pick.

New York could really use a linebacker, but there aren't any good ones available at this spot. They could trade down but their offensive line is getting old and has had issues with injuries over the past few seasons. Pouncey would solve a lot of their problems.

20. Tampa Bay - Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson

If Aqib Talib hadn't tried to kill his sister's boyfriend, this would be an easy pick for Tampa Bay. Defensive end is their biggest need and Bowers fits well in their 4-3 scheme. Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith is also a legitimate possibility here as Talib is likely going to be released once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached and Ronde Barber isn't getting any younger.

Bowers' precipitous drop in this draft due to questions about his knee should end here. After hitting with Gerald McCoy and Brian Price at defensive tackle last season, the Bucs will be young on the defensive line but also very talented. Bowers was a potential top-10 pick a few weeks ago and has the ability to make Tampa Bay very happy if he falls to them.

21. Kansas City - Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

This was a tough choice between Carimi and Colorado tackle Nate Solder, but Carimi is more ready to contribute right away and that's what the competing Chiefs are looking for. As a four-year starter at Wisconsin, Carimi could step right in to Kansas City's starting lineup at right tackle, as he might lack the skill and footwork to play left tackle early in his career.

22. Indianapolis - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

Like the Chiefs, the Colts need help along the offensive line. While Peyton Manning is a one-man blitz detector, Solder has the athleticism and ability to eventually man the blind side, as well as the size (6-8, 320) and growth potential to improve his run blocking and end up at right tackle.

23. Philadelphia - Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

The Eagles have Da'Quan Bowers' knee problems to thank for Smith falling to them and filling their biggest need. If Bowers wasn't available for the Bucs at 20 they surely would take Smith, but instead Philadelphia will take the talented but risky cornerback. Smith failed three drug tests in college, one for codeine, the same drug that has been linked to Jamarcus Russell, who is now out of the NFL.

Dimitri Patterson just won't cut out on the other side of Asante Samuel, while the 6-2, 211-pound Smith has the size and athleticism to be an excellent corner once he matures and develops his game. He may not start right away, but he could very well crack into the Eagles' lineup after a few weeks this season. He could also bust but at 23, his talent is worth the risk.

24. New Orleans - Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple

Even when they won the Super Bowl, New Orleans had issues on defense. They were just masked by a ball-hawking secondary and a defense that forced lots of turnovers. Last year, they were exposed and drafting Wilkerson will help their interior defensive line and pass rush.

Wilkerson was a tackle in college and many teams are targeting him as a 3-4 defensive end as well. But at 6-4, 315 pounds, he has enough size to play inside of a 4-3 where New Orleans will need him. His athleticism and versatility will also help New Orleans, as they can move him around their line to exploit mismatches.

25. Seattle - Andy Dalton, QB, TCU

The fourth quarterback taken, Dalton is one that has been rising up draft boards. His poise and leadership ability has been discussed ad nauseam but that makes him more attractive than a quarterback like Ryan Mallett, who has better physical tools but questionable leadership characteristics and intangibles. Dalton is a stronger-armed, more athletic Chad Pennington.

Dalton is also extremely accurate, which can't be said for many of the top quarterbacks in this draft. He isn't the running threat that Cam Newton or Locker is, but he can escape the pocket and pick up yards on the ground well enough to survive in today's NFL.

26. Baltimore - Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State

It seems more likely that the Ravens will trade this pick rather than take Heyward, considering Smith and the top six defensive ends will be off the board. This is the point in the draft where many teams will be looking to jump into the back end of the first round for a quarterback, and it's very possible the Titans could make a move for the Ravens' pick to take Mallett Florida State's Christian Ponder.

If the Ravens do stay at 26, Heyward will fit well in their defense. He has the ability to outplay this pick but likely will never be a dynamic pass rusher, something the Ravens will be fine with as a 3-4 defensive end. Good value at this point, but I still think Baltimore trades out.

27. Atlanta - Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa State

The Falcons are another late first-round trade candidate but if not, Clayborn would be an excellent fit for a team that needs a pass-rushing defensive end. John Abraham is still good but is no spring chicken and Kroy Biermann's biggest claim to fame is his touchdown last season rather than any of his work rushing the passer.

Clayborn has the size (6-2, 281) to play a 4-3 defensive end and the speed (4.81 40-yard dash) to wreak havoc in the backfield. The Falcons' defense is built on speed and the explosive Clayborn would be a great fit. His erb's palsy, which causes slight weakness in his right arm, is cause for concern for some general managers but he's a top-20 talent in this draft that will fall due to that and the overall depth at defensive end. If Atlanta stays here, they should be happy with Clayborn.

28. New England - Brooks Reed, LB, Arizona

Reed has drawn favorable comparisons to Clay Matthews and New England needs helps in their pass rush. I get the feeling they won't be picking at this spot; whether they trade the pick to move up or trade back with a team that wants a quarterback. But if they stay at 28, Reed is the perfect Patriot.

Reed is smart, coachable and brings the attitude to improve that the Patriots covet. Akeem Ayers is also a possibility at this spot, but Reed's intangibles give him the edge when a team like New England is picking. Bill Belichick knows that the Jets are giving Reed a long, hard look as well and he would love nothing more than to stick to New York.

29. Chicago - Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State

Jay Cutler could use some protection on the blind side and Sherrod, despite a second-round grade from many draft sites, is the best player available at the Bears' biggest position of need. He can't be worse than Frank Omiyale, the player currently slated to start at left tackle for Chicago.

At 6-5, 310 pounds he will need to add strength to become a solid player but he has the athleticism and upside to justify this pick. Sherrod is a much better pass protector than a run blocker but the Bears' offense is pass-heavy and Matt Forte can just run right. Chicago doesn't need another Cutler injury in the playoffs to derail their chances at a Super Bowl run.

30. NY Jets - Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

This pick could go two different ways if both Taylor and UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers are available, but I think the Jets will take Taylor. A 3-4 defense needs a mammoth nose tackle and with Kris Jenkins gone, the 6-3, 334-pound Taylor should fit nicely. Sione Pouha did a great job replacing Jenkins last season but is more of a 4-3 tackle or 3-4 end. Drafting Taylor would allow Pouha to move outside and form a solid three-man line along with Shaun Ellis.

Ayers is a possibility as well but the Jets could still bring back Bryan Thomas to play outside linebacker opposite Calvin Pace and address the position later in the draft. With the Jets in win-now mode they will want a player who can produce right away and Taylor, despite concerns about his character and 2009 weight issues, can step right in and clog up the middle of the Jets' defense, allowing David Harris and Bart Scott to roam unimpeded.

31. Pittsburgh - Danny Watkins, G, Baylor

Watkins and Taylor become the second pair of college teammates drafted back-to-back after Solder and Smith go 22 and 23. The Steelers are unlikely to find a player at this spot who will start for them considering their current roster, but they could use help along the inside of their offensive line and Watkins could be a nice complement to budding star Maurkice Pouncey.

The downside to Watkins is his advanced age; he will be 27 in November. But that wouldn't preclude the Steelers from taking him here and looking to get him into their starting lineup this season or next season. Pittsburgh is a team looking to win in the present and Watkins is a quick learner and is ready to produce wherever the Steelers will need him.

32. Green Bay - Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA

The Packers would love to get Ayers at this point and create a future outside linebacker tandem of Ayers and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Clay Matthews. Frank Zombo is an overachiever who played well last season, but doesn't have the same talent level as Ayers.

Ayers can rush the passer but that would primarily be Matthews' job, while Ayers could focus on stopping the run and pass coverage. A talented all-around player, the former Bruin will be a perfect complement to Matthews on the outside if he falls to the 32nd pick.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NFL Mock Draft: Picks 1-10

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With the NFL Draft coming up tomorrow night, this will be my first of a two-part segment on the first round of the NFL Draft. Today, I will break down who I feel each team in top 10 takes, why they take them and who they should take or would take if the draft played out like I think it should.

1. Carolina Panthers - Cam Newton, QB, Auburn

Why they take him: Despite spending a second-round pick on Jimmy Clausen last season, the Panthers don't believe he's the answer after an atrocious rookie performance. They seem to really like the do-it-all skill set Newton can bring to the table, especially with a dearth of talent along their offensive line and in their receiving corps, especially if Steve Smith has played his last down as a Panther. I like Newton more than most, but I don't think he's the right pick here.

Who they should take: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

There is no Ndamukong Suh in this draft (or even a Sam Bradford), but Dareus is the best player on the board. Carolina also has serious issues on the interior of their defensive line, so Dareus represents a need as well as the best value. I also think Clausen deserves another season to prove himself. If he fails, the Panthers might very well end up with the first pick in 2012 as well and the rights to Andrew Luck, Stanford's can't-miss quarterback prospect.

2. Denver Broncos - Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

Why they take him: As I just said, Dareus is the best player in a weak draft. The Broncos have all sorts of issues defensively and while Patrick Peterson could also help them, they just re-signed Champ Bailey for another four years.

Who they would take: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

If the Panthers were smart enough to take Dareus and not reach on the quarterback position like so many other franchises do in the draft, the Broncos would jump all over Peterson as Bailey's heir apparent. Von Miller and A.J. Green would be options if Denver didn't spend a 2009 first-round pick on outside linebacker Robert Ayers and a 2010 first-round pick on receiver Demaryius Thomas.

3. Buffalo Bills - Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M

Why they take him: It's rare to see an outside linebacker go this high, but this year's draft is weak and Miller is one of the consensus top-four players available. The Bills need serious help in their front seven and with Dareus gone, Miller is easily the best pick and one of the few the Bills hopefully don't screw up.

Who they would take: Miller. The Panthers pick should not affect Buffalo's decision unless they take Newton and the Broncos take Peterson, in which case Buffalo should be ecstatic to draft Dareus. Newton should not be a consideration here with the other players available. Ryan Fitzpatrick can win football games and while he's likely not a championship quarterback, the Bills can improve their record with him under center.

4. Cincinnati Bengals - A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

Why they take him: With Terrell Owens and likely Chad Ochocinco gone, the Bengals need a wide receiver badly. Green will be the best player on the board in most scenarios and maybe adding him could convince Carson Palmer to stay in Cincinnati. Green has star written all over him.

Who they would take: Green. There are rumors that the Bengals want to trade out of this pick, move down and draft a quarterback with all the uncertainty surrounding Palmer but if they stay at #4, Green should be their man.

5. Arizona Cardinals - Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri

Why they take him: John Skelton and Max Hall were drafted last season but unlike Clausen, they were late picks who the team didn't invest much into. Skelton has the arm strength and physical ability to develop into a starter down the line but if the Cardinals don't believe he can take the reigns this season, they will likely go with Gabbert.

Who they should take: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. If picks one through four go Newton, Dareus, Miller and Green, I think the right pick for Arizona would be Peterson. I like Gabbert but a secondary with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Peterson along with Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson might be the NFL's best. The Cardinals can always bring in a veteran quarterback to start while they wait on Skelton and if he doesn't develop, they can draft one next year or the year after. Gabbert isn't a no-brainer. Peterson is.

6. Cleveland Browns - Julio Jones, WR, Alabama

Why they take him: The Browns do have a need at defensive end and, with both Robert Quinn and Da'Quan Bowers available at this spot, could go in that direction. Cleveland spent a first-round pick on Joe Haden last season, so Peterson is out of the discussion, but the Browns have a young quarterback to develop in Colt McCoy and zero receiving talent to help him progress. Jones is a need pick for this team if they want to get the best out of McCoy this season and down the line.

Who they would take: Jones. None of the players the Browns covet seem likely to go in the top five, but it would be difficult to fault them taking either Quinn or Bowers. I just think if they pass up Jones, they are leaving McCoy in a no-success situation.

7. San Francisco 49ers - Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

Why they take him: Peterson is the best player available at a position of need for San Francisco. Nate Clements is 31 years old and on the downside of his career; he's a better fit as a second corner at this point. This is a pick that 49ers fans will love for years to come.

Who they would take: Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. If Peterson is unavailable, which is unlikely but possible, the options become Quinn, Bowers and Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. I like Amukamara but he's not Peterson and probably isn't one of the top seven players in this draft. San Francisco will have multiple options here, but I think Bowers is the right pick over both Amukamara and Quinn. I really think they'll get Peterson though.

8. Tennessee Titans - Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

Why they take him: Three months ago, the Titans never thought Fairley would be available at this spot: There were many experts projecting him as the top overall pick. But his stock has fallen since then and rightfully so; he had one good season in college and isn't a completely clean prospect. The Titans have been looking for somebody to replace Albert Haynesworth and Fairley seems like their guy.

Who they would take: Fairley. There have been rumors of the Titans going quarterback with this pick and they like both Jake Locker and Andy Dalton. I can definitely see Tennessee trading into the back of round one to pick Dalton or taking Locker here, considering he would have gone over Bradford to the Rams last season if he came out. But Tennessee would rather get both Fairley and Dalton than Locker.

9. Dallas Cowboys - Tyron Smith, OT, USC

Why they take him: Dallas' offensive line is a mess and after watching Tony Romo go down last season, the Cowboys will want to protect his blind side. Enter Smith, the best lineman in this draft. Amukamara is also a possibility at this spot to replace Mike Jenkins and while I believe he's a better prospect than Smith (barely), the Cowboys have a bigger need at left tackle.

Who they would take: Smith. None of the top eight teams will take Smith so if he's who the Cowboys want, he's who they get.

10. Washington Redskins - Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson

Why they take him: The Redskins' defense was terrible in all facets last season, finishing in the bottom five against the pass and bottom ten against the run. Amukamara is again a possibility here but with D'Angelo Hall and Carlos Rogers locked into their starting roles, Washington likely passes. This pick could also be UNC defensive end Robert Quinn.

Who they would take: Cam Newton, QB. If Newton falls out of the top nine, which I think should happen but don't think will happen, he becomes an intriguing pick for the Redskins. I said I like Newton more than most and see a decent amount of Daunte Culpepper in him, hopefully minus the injuries. Newton shouldn't fall out of the top ten, but it seems likely he won't fall out of the top one.

Coming tomorrow: The rest of Round One.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rangers on the brink of elimination after fluky double-OT goal

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Heading into the third period of Game 4, the New York Rangers were feeling good about their chances of taking the series back to Washington tied at two. A three-goal second period staked them to a 3-0 lead, one that goaltender Henrik Lundqvist could surely hold.

The Madison Square Garden crowd was as intense as ever in response to Washington coach Bruce Boudreau's comments after Game 3 that the Garden's reputation as a tough place to play was overstated. Fans came out with a "Can you hear us?" chant as the Rangers took control of the game in the second period.

But the Garden intensity wasn't enough to break Washington's spirit, as a tough break around the net and some good passing from the Capitals brought them within a goal in the early minutes of the final period. They would eventually tie the game on a long slap shot with 7:53 remaining in regulation.

After that goal the teams played over 40 minutes of scoreless hockey, including an Alexander Ovechkin breakaway in overtime that was turned away by Lundqvist, who stopped 49 of Washington's 53 shots in the game. By comparison, the Rangers had just 39 shots on goal.

The game-winner finally came in the second overtime when Marion Gaborik attempted to clear the puck in front of his own net. Instead of letting the puck trickle to Lundqvist, who was looking to cover it, Gaborik's clear went right into the chest of Washington's Jason Chimera, who let the puck drop to the ice before slamming it into the open net vacated by Lundqvist.

Down 3-1 in the series, the Rangers should take solace in the fact that just last season, the Capitals were the Eastern Conference's top-ranked team and held a 3-1 series advantage against the Canadiens, who won the final three games to advance to the second round.

Is history doomed to repeat itself for the Capitals? Rangers fans sure hope so, but their team desperately needs a road win to bring this series back to the Garden. If they can pull that off and represent at home to tie the series, anything can happen in Game 7. Anything.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Knicks miss golden opportunity at home court with second-half collapse

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The New York Knicks had a great chance at stealing Game 1 from the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. They had a 51-39 lead at halftime only to let the Celtics climb back in the second half, much like the third meeting of the season between the teams.

In that game, New York was ahead 51-37 at the half and got outscored 33-17 in the fourth quarter to lose by ten. The game was much closer in crunch time this time around, but Carmelo Anthony made sure the Knicks didn't win.

After a scoreless first quarter due to instant foul trouble, Anthony scored 12 in the second quarter, making four of his seven shots and looking like the efficient version of himself that finished the season strong. But a 1-for-11 shooting performance in the second half doomed the Knicks, as Anthony was launching long threes out of the rhythm of the offense.

He hit two three-pointers in three attempts in the second quarter, but made none of his next five attempts in the second half. In the Knicks final seven possessions, he had more missed shots and turnovers combined (four) than points (zero). The Knicks outplayed the Celtics for most of the game, yet came up empty.

The worst part about Anthony's late-game struggles? Amar'e Stoudemire was on fire, scoring 12 of the Knicks first 18 points in the quarter to give them an 82-78 lead. He was hitting mid-range jump shots, driving the basket aggressively and finishing around the hoop. His 360 reverse layup in between multiple Celtics may be one of the year's best shots, followed shortly thereafter by a posterizing dunk

After a turnover with 2:15 left, it's like Stoudemire wasn't even on the floor. He barely touched the ball as the offense started to run through the cold Anthony again and the Knicks couldn't atone for their defensive breakdowns that allowed Boston to make up an 85-82 deficit in the final 37 seconds.

An alley-oop off of a half-court inbounds pass in the playoffs is inexcusable. I know the Knicks were worried about leaving Ray Allen open for a three-pointer (more on this later) but you still have to defend the basket.

On the next possession, Anthony was called for an offensive foul. The refs claim they let the players play more in the playoffs, which they should, but this was one of Paul Pierce's better flop jobs. And he's well-known for flopping.

When two All-Stars are battling for position 15 feet from the basket, you don't call a foul when they're ripping their arms through each other to establish position. Anthony ripped his arm through Pierce, whose Academy Award-worthy performance drew the foul and set up the game-winning possession.

Toney Douglas was tripped by Kevin Garnett setting a screen, leaving Allen open for a three with 11 seconds left. I knew it was in before it reached the basket. It's hard to fault the competing Douglas, the Knicks' best perimeter defender and the man who put them up three, as replays show a blatant trip.

With no timeouts remaining, the Knicks had to push the ball the length of the court for chance to tie. Anthony demanded the ball off the inbounds, didn't get it and jogged down the court. When he finally got the ball 40 feet from the hoop with eight seconds left, getting to the basket for a tying two-pointer seemed out of the question.

Anthony was double-teamed and rather than pass to an open Toney Douglas at the top of the key for the win, pulled up for another awful 25-footer that fell way short. This came just 50 seconds after Anthony took a contested three-pointer with a new shot clock after an offensive rebound. Overall, a terrible playoff debut in a Knicks jersey for Anthony.

An even bigger issue for the Knicks is the health of the geriatric Chauncey Billups. Did Denver know something we didn't (besides his age) when they were so adamant about moving Billups? He had been healthy as a Nugget but as a Knick, he's already been hurt twice.

Billups' first injury cost the Knicks a few games of building chemistry, while this one threatens any hope they have of upsetting the Celtics. Billups isn't necessarily needed for late-game shots with Anthony and Stoudemire on the team but losing him will be a big blow to New York's depth at guard.

Douglas has filled in more than admirably for Billups in the past but lacks the same level of playoff experience. Billups played 35 minutes in Game 1 and is expected to miss Game 2, meaning those minutes will be distributed among Douglas, Landry Fields, Anthony Carter, Bill Walker and even Shawne Williams. I like all of those players, but an expanded role means their weaknesses will be further exposed.

To win Game 2, the Knicks will need a big game from Douglas, hot shooting from Walker and Williams and an efficient Anthony; a tall task against Boston's defense. Even an Anthony that recognizes when his shot is off and is willing to defer to the hot hand, especially when that hot hand is a fellow star in this league, would be nice.

When he's shooting well the ball should be in Anthony's hand at the end of games but when he's not, there's a reason the Knicks have two top scorers. Pass the ball, Melo. Even if it's to someone like Douglas, whose three-pointer with under 40 seconds left broke a tie and put the Knicks ahead.

The day Anthony learns to trust his teammates when they're open in key late-game situations is the day he will become a winner in the playoffs. I'm just not sure I see it happening overnight, which is tough news for Knicks fans who were hoping for a surprising playoff run in 2011.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scouting Yankees prospect Jesus Montero

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Working with the Rochester Red Wings, I have the opportunity to see a lot of baseball's top prospects in person. Last year, it was Stephen Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, Freddie Freeman and Yonder Alonso.

Strasburg and Freeman performed at a high level when I saw them play and reached the majors in 2010, although Freeman didn't get there until September. Chapman struggled with his control as a starter during his visit to Rochester, but he has been great throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs out of the Reds bullpen since getting the call last season.

Alonso also came to Rochester and raked at the plate but likely needs to be traded to see a starting job in the big leagues anytime soon, considering Joey Votto's presence in Cincinnati. The possibility of playing Alonso in the outfield remains, but the Reds are set there with Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs and Jonny Gomes as well. With Gomes' contract expiring after this season, Alonso could take over left field in 2012 if he's still a Red.

Like Alonso and Freeman before him, Jesus Montero comes highly regarded. As the fourth-rated prospect by ESPN's Keith Law, expectations are high for the 21-year-old prized catching prospect.

Montero projects as a player who will hit for both average and power and all of his hitting skills were on display in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's four-game series against the Red Wings. Rochester may not have a lights-out pitching staff but Montero looked awesome with three three-hit games and a two-hit game, going 11-for-21 in the series.

Montero had four extra-base hits (three doubles and a home run), drove in two runs and scored six in the series. He even hit the ball hard when he recorded outs and while he didn't draw a walk in the series, two out of every three balls he hit were frozen ropes. He has an effortless right-handed swing and produces a lot of power with his 6-3, 235-pound frame.

Montero was also solid behind the plate and is far from a liability at the catching position, with a good arm and decent quickness and reaction time blocking balls in the dirt. The obvious drawback to him catching in the big leagues would be the necessary time off required, taking his bat out of the lineup on days where he doesn't DH.

With Russell Martin enjoying a resurgence behind the plate and Jorge Posada entrenched as the Yankees' designated hitter for the rest of this season, there really isn't a spot for Montero in the majors. That's a shame because his bat is ready and he has nothing left to prove in Triple-A.

If an injury were to befall either player, the Yankees would not be in dire straits. As much as I like Francisco Cervelli, he's nothing more than an energetic backup on a championship-caliber team. Montero should be the starting catcher in New York if they lose Martin for an extended period of time and probably should move into the DH role if an injury hits the aging Posada, something freaky like running the bases or getting hit by a pitch.

The Yankees could use Andruw Jones in the DH role as well, at least against left-handers, who he's proven he can hit already this season. But Montero could platoon with Jones and get the majority of at-bats against righties if he produces right away.

At the tender age of 21, Montero and his bat are ready for the show. Whether he will hit right away like Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun did remains to be seen, but there is little left for him to accomplish at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It will take an injury to a key Yankee for Montero's time to come in 2011 but if it does, New York has no reason to worry. The kid is for real.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Red Sox wake up, take series from Yankees

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After scoring 16 runs in their first six games this season, the Boston Red Sox lineup finally came alive against Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and C.C. Sabathia, scoring 17 runs in the three-game set at Fenway and taking two of three games against New York.

Hitting Hughes, whose fastball has been ordinary in two starts so far this season, and Nova, who is in his first full major-league season, is no real accomplishment. That's especially true considering the Yankees bullpen came in and shut down Boston's lineup in game two once Nova was pulled.

Making Sabathia work, however, is a great sign for the Red Sox. Sabathia labored through 5.2 innings, throwing 118 pitches, allowing nine hits and walking four batters. Boston worked the count against the Yankees ace and got him out of the game before the seventh inning, allowing them to load the bases and score twice against Joba Chamberlain in the seventh.

The Yankees were able to beat up on John Lackey and Clay Buchholz in the first two games, but couldn't solve Josh Beckett in the rubber match. Beckett allowed just three baserunners in eight innings and struck out 10, a far cry from his struggles against New York in recent seasons, especially at Fenway.

Am I worried about the Yankees' bats? In a word, no. They scored at least four runs in their first eight games and were missing Alex Rodriguez in the middle of their lineup. I'm far more worried about the rotation behind Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, who has pitched surprisingly well in his two starts this season and has kept the walks to a minimum (11 innings, three BB).

It's still early in the season and it may just be a case of Hughes needed to get his arm completely loosened up, but the Yankees need him to be productive. They should be able to score enough runs during the regular season to withstand average starts from Hughes, Nova and Freddy Garcia but come playoff time, New York cannot have just two starters pitching well, especially since Burnett is no lock for consistency.

Like the Yankees, Boston has rotation issues behind ace Jon Lester. Lackey and Buchholz both struggled this weekend and while Beckett threw well, he's as much of a guarantee as Burnett in New York. Daisuke Matsuzaka has proven he's no more than a fourth or fifth starter.

The AL East will be a hitting-heavy division this season if the first week-and-a-half of the season is any indication. That still favors New York and Boston in the long run, but Toronto's lineup is dangerous and if Baltimore's young pitchers continue to throw well, they may be able boast the division's best rotation. Could the AL East be more interesting this season than people expected?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Is it time for the 0-6 Red Sox to panic?

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I saw a statistic on ESPN yesterday that said after the Red Sox 0-6 start, their projected win total dropped from around 95 to 86. The same computer decreased their chances of making the playoffs from approximately 66 percent to 36 percent. I know that simulation takes into account the fact that their current struggles make future success less likely, but those numbers seem drastic.

Through six games, most thought a team like Boston would be 4-2, much like the Yankees. Through six games, they have four fewer wins than "projected." So I ask, how does that drop their win total for the season by nine games?

I understand that they can't hit. And outside of Jon Lester's sterling start yesterday, their pitching has also struggled. But anybody who knows baseball realizes that this team isn't going to stay down for long. Not after picking up two of the top five players at their respective positions in the offseason (1B Adrian Gonzalez and OF Carl Crawford).

Starting in a little over an hour, Boston will play host to the Yankees for a three-game series at Fenway Park. Let's say they win two out of three games to climb to 2-7. New York will be 5-4, three games ahead with 153 games to play. If New York goes 85-68 to get to 90 wins, Boston needs to go 88-65 to tie the Yankees.

What I'm really trying to say is that this 0-6 start isn't half the big deal people are making it out to be. As a Yankees fan, I love to see Boston struggle. But they still scare me. Teams have made up three games in the standings in the final week of a season before, who's to say Boston can't do it in five-and-a-half months.

For comparison's sake, if this was football the Red Sox would be down big at halftime of their FIRST GAME. Because the baseball season is so long, an 0-6 start really doesn't doom a team and represents less than 1/25 of the entire season. So why the panic?

The Boston lineup will be fine, there's no doubt in my mind about that. So will Jon Lester and to a lesser extent, Clay Buchholz. But John Lackey? Josh Beckett? Daisuke Matsuzaka? Those three are legitimate reasons to worry for Red Sox fans, but the Yankees have similar issues at the back end of their rotation.

If Boston gets swept at home by New York to fall to 0-9, then there may be some reason to panic. A seven-game lead after the season's first nine games is a much bigger hole than three or four, particularly when the team you're chasing is just as good if not better on paper.

For anybody who was wondering, I don't count the Orioles as a legitimate threat. Their young pitching has been superb so far and guys like Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta come with high upside. But let's not forget how good the Blue Jays were early last season, only to fall off as the season wore on.

There's a good reason the AL East is arguably the best division in baseball year in and year out and Baltimore will find out that it's hard to stay at the top when you have to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox all season.

Even with an 0-6 start, Boston is likely to end up near the top of this division with the Yankees in the end. The only question is whether they can overtake them or clinch a Wild Card berth in the American League. But it's way too early for Sox fans to panic, as much as I love to see turmoil in Boston.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What to make of the Mets?

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Through five games, the Mets are tied for second in the NL East with the Marlins at 3-2. They won two of three games against Florida in their opening series, boucing back from an Opening Day loss to win the last two.

Mike Pelfrey started on Opening Day with Johan Santana on the DL and many thought his success last season would lead to the former first-round pick taking another step forward this season. The early returns have not been promising.

The Mets are 0-2 when Pelfrey starts and 3-0 when anybody else starts. It's a small sample size, but he's allowed at least five earned runs in both of his 2011 starts and is coming off a two-inning, eight-hit, six-run debacle in Philadelphia. Pelfrey was much better at home (2.83 ERA) last season than on the road (4.95 ERA) and not coincidentally, both of his starts this season have been away from pitcher-friendly Citi Field.

Jonathon Niese, R.A. Dickey and new addition Chris Young all pitched well in between Pelfrey's starts, with Niese and Dickey picking up where they left off last season. Young was in trouble in almost every inning but has always been a pitcher who puts runners on base and makes pitches when it counts. Citi Field will help him put together a solid season barring health, which is always the concern with him.

The bullpen has been solid so far, allowing just seven runs in 19.2 innings and despite Francisco Rodriguez blowing his lone save opportunity so far, the Mets rallied to win that game in extra innings behind David Wright, who is hitting .364 with one home run, five RBI and a .962 OPS early in the season.

Ike Davis leads the team with a .368 batting average and should improve on his rookie numbers, while Willie Harris has been a surprising early-season contributor in place of the injured Jason Bay. Carlos Beltran has struggled so far, but that is no surprise while he works his way back to full-time duty.

Overall, I've been slightly impressed with what I've seen from the Mets so far, with the obvious exception of Pelfrey. Why the Mets inexplicably chose over Andrew McCutchen in 2005 because they thought Lastings Milledge (ha!) was a better version of McCutchen I will never know. When you're wrong, you're wrong.

This team showed some fight last night climbing back from Pelfrey's 7-0 deficit to tie the game in the fifth, but lost the lead right back and couldn't recover. Either way, it's nice to see a team many project for nothing show the heart to fight against the big, bad Phillies.

Most people think the Mets major competition this year will be the Nationals - for last in the NL East. I think they are far better than Washington and could even beat out the Marlins for third in the division. I don't think they can outpace Philadelphia or Atlanta, but this team has a shot to beat last year's 79-83 record and finish above .500.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Five reasons the Knicks want the Heat in round one

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Butler dooms themselves with record-setting shooting woes

(photo courtesy of

Last night's national championship game may have been the ugliest in NCAA history, dating back to the prehistoric days before the three-pointer and pure athleticism dominated the game. Butler shot under 19 percent and made just three two-point field goals all game! Pathetic.

There was something about this Connecticut team heading into the tournament that intrigued a lot of people, me included. They came off a historic conference tournament run to win the Big East, the nation's best conference.

If you disagree with that statement, understand that Connecticut was 9-9 in conference play, finished ninth in the Big East and won a national title. They were 17-0 this season in games against non-Big East opponents.

Butler had another great run as an under-seeded mid-major and Brad Stevens, Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and the rest of the Bulldogs deserve a lot of credit. They just ran into a more talented team that could match their will to win.

They also ran into a team with a bonafide superstar in Kemba Walker. I wrote in my tournament preview that Walker was the type of player that could carry an otherwise average team deep in the tournament, a la Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry. Lo and behold, he made me look smart.

Walker shot just 5-for-19, but this was the first time this tournament Butler had to worry about a player of his caliber. Neither Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida or VCU had a player who could dominate like Walker.

Despite his struggles, Walker showed how important stars are in the game of basketball, maybe moreso in college with the talent disparity being greater than it is in the NBA. I like Jeremy Lamb but outside of him, the Huskies lack scoring alongside Walker. Butler did a good job defensively making Walker work for shots, but that left other players open to do some damage.

Connecticut's role players did enough to win, but if Butler could have shot even 30 percent from the field they would have won this game. Their defense was outstanding but even if you hold a team in the 50's, you still need to score that much yourself. Their lack of a superstar on offense (sorry Matt Howard, you proved why you're not a pro) cost them when it mattered most.

That's not to take anything away from the Bulldogs, who had another great run. With the way they defend, this is a team built for March Madness and if they continue to recruit guys who will work defensively and make plays, they will continue to outperform their seed come tournament time.

Until they find that one big-time offensive player (like Gordon Hayward last season) to make their title dreams come true, they will continue to fall short. Defense takes you far in March, but you still need to put the ball in the basket. Last night Butler couldn't, and that was the ultimate downfall of the underdog.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Teixeira's homer binge propels Yanks to 2-1 start

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To say Mark Teixeira struggled last April would be an understatement. Teixeira has always been a slow starter, but his .136 batting average, two home runs and nine RBI marked the worst April of his career.

This season, Teixeira homered in all three of the Yankees games in their opening series against Detroit and his RBI total (seven) is just two less than he had all of last April. If Teixeira can keep this momentum going, who's to say he can't contend for the American League MVP award?

Teixeira is widely known around the league as a second-half player but if he puts together an MVP-caliber first half, what will he do for an encore after the All-Star Break? This is the same player who finished second in the 2009 MVP balloting behind Twins catcher Joe Mauer after hitting .200 with three home runs and 10 RBI that April. He finished 2009 with 39 home runs and 122 RBI.

Combine a big season from Teixeira with Robinson Cano, who was third in MVP balloting last season and a healthy Alex Rodriguez and there is no lineup in baseball that can compete with the Yankees, both in the middle of the order and top to bottom. Not even Boston, who just finished getting swept by last year's AL champion Texas.

Other encouraging signs from Opening Weekend for the Yankees:

-A.J. Burnett had a strong outing on Saturday despite fighting a cold. He lasted just five innings and allowed three earned runs, but his six strikeouts compared to just one walk was very encouraging, especially after he struck out 11 and walked none in 13 spring innings.

If Burnett can bounce back and Phil Hughes can pitch like he did in the first half of 2010, the Yankees rotation come playoff time won't be as bad as most people think. Hughes will need to bounce back from allowing two home runs to Miguel Cabrera in his next turn, but more importantly he needs to regain the 2-3 miles per hour he's lost on his fastball.

-The bullpen looks dominant. And with the question marks surrounding New York's rotation, their relievers will be key this season. The combination of Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera is baseball's best in the eighth and ninth innings and if Joba Chamberlain can pitch up to his potential in the seventh, the Yankees can turn most of their games into six-inning affairs for opposing lineups.

-Russell Martin looks fresh and Jorge Posada looks locked in at DH. Martin is hitting the ball well and even stole third base on Opening Day, showing signs that he can tap into some of the potential he showed in his first three major league seasons.

Posada had two homers in Sunday's game and without the wear and tear of catching five times a week and an increase in at-bats, he could see a return to the 25-homer level he hasn't hit since 2003.