Wednesday, April 30, 2008

This will be fun

It will be fun to watch how the careers of running backs Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall play out in Dallas and Pittsburgh, respectively. For that matter, it will be interesting to see how the respective careers of all four first-round running backs compare over time.

Darren McFadden of Arkansas was the consensus first choice, and with good reason. Still, much of the pre-draft talk highlighted concerns about McFadden's off-field distractions (we have a feeling he'll be just fine), and whether he will be anything more than a straight-line outside rusher in the NFL (we have a feeling he'll be exceptional).

Most mock drafts projected Mendenhall would be the second running back taken and would land in the top 15.

The second back taken, however, turned out to be Jonathan Stewart of Oregon, who was selected much higher than most people anticipated, despite still being in a walking cast after off-season surgery on his foot. He has an injury history. If he's healthy, he should have a tremendous career – but you hate to have that "if" in there for such a big investment.

The real drama, and this is where it get really interesting, is how the careers of Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall will compare. These two will be forever linked simply because they were selected with consecutive picks (Jones by Dallas at No. 22, and Mendenhall by Pittsburgh at No. 23).

Dallas owner Jerry Jones obviously made a conscious decision to draft Jones over Mendenhall.

Much of the pre-draft speculation had Jerry Jones him taking Felix Jones at No. 22 – but there's no way he could have foreseen Mendenhall would also be available, as Mendenhall was the higher-rated player.

Even last year, after Jerry Jones swung the 2007 Brady Quinn deal with Cleveland that netted him an extra first-round in the 2008 draft, there was widespread talk that Jerry Jones (who, like McFadden and Felix Jones, attended the University of Arkansas) would try to maneuver into position to land McFadden; or, sit tight with his two picks at 22 and 28 and gladly draft Felix Jones. And that's exactly what he did.

His choice of Felix Jones over Mendenhall suggests he was fixated on the one player (Felix Jones). It's as if Jerry was so set on landing Felix that he just couldn't recalibrate his thinking to envision of the possibility of Mendenhall in a Dallas uniform.

Sometimes you get the feeling, too, that Jerry Jones likes to show that he is smarter than everyone else. It's called "hubris."

He explained his thinking afterward and, yes, we understand his rationale. Jerry envisions Felix as a speedy scatback complement to Marion Barber, the team's bruising workhorse feature back. Jerry concluded that because Mendenhall's style was closer to Barber's, he wouldn't represent as dramatic a change of pace or style as Felix Jones.

That is to overlook several salient points, however, not least of which is this: Mendenhall is actually faster than Felix Jones. And, with an additional 20 pounds, Mendenhall gives every indication he will be the more rugged, durable back, as well.

Why wouldn't Mendenhall be just as good a complement to Barber?

You can debate the old football axiom, if you want, but there is some merit to it: Faster is better than slower, and bigger is better than smaller. Rashard Mendenhall is faster and bigger than Felix Jones (or Jerry Jones, for that matter).

In Dallas, there has been considerable second-guessing of Jerry Jones' decision to draft Felix Jones over Rashard Mendenhall (see the links below). Lots of reasons, including Marion Barber's touchy contract situation, are in the discussion.

In Pittsburgh, on the other hand, there's been virtually no second-guessing about the decision to draft Mendenhall. A radio talk show host asked Steelers' personnel director Kevin Colbert
what he might have done had Dallas selected Mendenhall instead of Jones. Colbert tactfully evaded giving a direct answer, but it seemed clear the Steelers would have passed on Jones.

Paraphrasing here, he said, essentially:

  • Dallas was looking for a certain type of back to complement Barber, and Jones fit their criteria for a change-of-pace scatback to stretch defenses. Fair enough.
  • While Jones complements Barber nicely, his style of play more closely resembles Parker's. In Pittsburgh, therefore, Mendenhall fits the Steelers' scheme better and will complement Parker perfectly.
  • Besides, the Steelers had other needs.
  • Colbert, of course, would not tip his hand about which other player the team might have chosen, or whether it would have traded out of the No. 23 slot to add extra picks.

So, we're left to speculate, but it seems clear the Steelers would not have selected Felix Jones had he been available.

While discussing Felix Jones, by the way, Colbert was complimentary. No disrespect, none at all He noted that Felix Jones reminds him of Eric Metcalfe, who had a fine career as a similar type of speedy, role-playing, third-down change-of-pace scatback.

It seems a fair comparison.

Keeping in mind, however, that if styles make the match, Steelers offensive coordinator compares Mendenhall to a young Edgerrin James – and that seems a valid comparison, too.

So, Steeler fans, who would you rather have? Thought so.

Again, nothing against Felix Jones. He's an exciting player, and we wish him luck in Dallas. It's just that we're thrilled to have Rashard Mendenhall in Black 'n Gold.

Yes, styles make the match. And it will interesting to see how the Cowboys and Steelers match up when they play each other Dec. 7 at Heinz Field..

Yup, this will be fun to watch.


Links From the DFW Metroplex:
"Mendenhall -- the best back in this draft -- was the right pick for Dallas"

"Wrong selection for the Cowboys? You don't draft a complementary player in the first round when you have an opportunity to select a franchise back. Ever. But that's what the Dallas Cowboys did Saturday by picking Felix Jones over Rashard Mendenhall"

"I wouldn't have picked him (Jones) over Rashard Mendenhall. I would've gone with the guy who is bigger, a shade faster, just as quick and catches the ball just as well, although he doesn't return kicks. T he Cowboys could build their offense around him if Marion Barber were ever unavailable."

"Wrong back for the Cowboys?"

Pre-draft scouting report on Mendenhall, including very interesting commentary from Reggie Hayward, his position coach at Illinois:

A Dynamic Duo

Steelers fans and coaches are still pinching themselves over their good fortune on draft day.

Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians appears positively giddy with visions of Rashard Mendenhall paired with Willie Parker in the same backfield. Arians, who was an assistant coach in Indianapolis when Edgerrin James was in his prime, likens Mendenhall to James, who has been one of the game's elite running backs during his distinguished career.

Not to get ahead of ourselves – Mendenhall has yet to don a uniform in the NFL – but the comparison seems right on. James and Mendenhall have very similar styles of running; and, if anything, Mendenhall may be a tad faster and a little bigger than James.

Mendenhall's likeness to James is striking. Both players even wore the same uniform number (No. 5) in college (James at Miami; Mendenhall at Illinois).

The prospect of having a young Edgerrin James in his prime, with his whole career ahead of him, and running out of the same backfield as Willie Parker and Ben Roethlisberger …oh yeah, that's exciting for Steelers' fans.

Parker himself welcomes the addition of Mendenhall. Of course he does. After all, the Steelers cannot keep giving Parker 370 carries a year and expect him to last very long, or be optimally productive. Mendenhall can only help Parker's productivity and longevity.

Like everybody else before the draft, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls had no idea Mendenhall would fall all the way to the Steelers at pick No. 23. It seemed impossible. Figuring the Steelers would address offensive line later in the draft, and having reservations about all the top wide receivers as first-round picks, and having qualms about most of the defensive players likely to be available, we advocated drafting Miami safety Kenny Phillips – our rationale being, among other things, that pairing the best safety in the NFL (Troy Polamalu) with the best safety coming out of college (Phillips) would give the Steelers better value at that point in the draft than other options.

This is way more exciting. Pairing Parker (the NFL's leading rusher until his broken leg, from which he will be fully recovered by training camp) with Mendenhall (one of the top running backs, and arguably the best running back coming out of college) presents possibilities for a truly Dynamic Duo.