Back in the spring of 2006, Dave Spadaro had me on as a guest on Eagles Live! I was there to discuss prospects for the upcoming draft. At one point, he asked me to name a player that might be flying under the radar. I started talking about this guy that I had just been watching tape of the night before. This prospect was a great college player. He had a great showing at the East-West Shrine Game. He then went to the Combine and blew me away with his athletic ability. He played on the line in college, but watching him in the linebacker drills was something else. The guy had fluid hips and great feet. He moved with ease. He changed directions so fluidly and quickly that you just knew he could be something special. Leaving this guy at defensive end was a waste. He needed to play linebacker, where some team could fully utilize his athletic gifts. This player's name, in case you hadn't figured it out - Chris Gocong.
Things have changed a bit since then. Gocong started at SAM linebacker for all of 2007 and 2008. He started there for most of 2009. He has been a solid starter, but has never shown us the athletic ability that I saw that day at his Combine workout. We got a good run defender out of the situation, but not the athletic linebacker that we hoped for. So much for the best laid plans of mice and men.
Projecting players from college to the NFL is hard. You simply never know how a player is going to adjust to pro football. I heard an analyst sum things up pretty well the other day. He made the point that football goes from being a sport to being a job. Some players struggle with that. I think that was a big problem for Matt McCoy. We took him at the bottom of the second round back in 2005. I loved the pick. Go watch the tape of San Diego State playing Michigan from 2004. McCoy will stand out big time. He played with a ton of passion and energy. He was the Tasmanian Devil, running around and hitting everything he could. McCoy got to the NFL and found out that going 100 miles an hour on Sunday wasn't enough. You had to be disciplined and play smart. You had to work at the game.
Tony Hunt was picked in 2007. He had a terrific career at Penn State. Anyone who watched his final college game had to be impressed. Penn State played Tennessee in a bowl game. Hunt carried the ball a lot in the fourth quarter and helped lead the Nittany Lions to victory. Tennessee knew he was getting the ball every snap on a late drive, but simply couldn't stop him. There were several NFL players on that defense. The headliner was Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. Hunt went to the Senior Bowl and played well there. That had to mean he could handle the NFL, right? Not even close.
This isn't a knock on the Eagles at all. Every team has guys that don't work out as planned. Teams who are great at drafting like the Ravens and Colts will miss on players. The Patriots have to stay active in pro moves because they have so many picks that don't work out.
My point is simply to keep things in perspective. This is the time of the year when we all start to get excited by draft prospects. The Senior Bowl is in the books and the Scouting Combine is coming up in less than two weeks. Even casual fans will start to get draft fever. As good as players may look in college, at the Senior Bowl, or at the Combine, you simply don't know what you'll see when they hit the field in the NFL.
Back to Gocong for a second. He will be a restricted free agent with no new CBA in place. I'm sure the Eagles are interested in bringing him back. The SAM linebacker spot is wide open at this point. Gocong started most of the year, but lost the spot to rookie Moise Fokou late in the year. The coaches may be leaning toward Fokou as the starter next year, but we need competition. Gocong is a good special teams player and has been a solid starter. There is wisdom in keeping him around.
I'm sure many people, including Gocong, are still curious about why he was benched. Players are held to certain standards. A first-year starter is given a lot of leeway. He's expected to have some mistakes, but needs to show that he can get the job done. The next year that same player needs to get better. There needs to be fewer mistakes and more plays made. Year three has an even higher standard. Gocong simply hadn't shown the kind of progress that was expected.
Gocong seems like a high-character player. I hope he gets a legitimate shot to win his job back. He is the kind of person that I can see responding to the challenge with everything he's got. Osi Umenyiora got benched in New York and then told the press he expected to start or wanted out. Gocong took things in stride. I'm sure he's mad, but he is handling the situation smartly. Let your play do the talking. If you are the better player on the field, you will get the job.
The team could always decide to go in a different direction. They could make a trade or sign a free agent. Prior to Gocong the last two SAM linebackers were free agent additions. There are also some potential draft targets that could factor into the mix. We really have multiple options. I'm just not sure which way the team is leaning right now.
News From Around The League
• The biggest talk out of Washington is whether new coach Mike Shanahan will go after a quarterback with the No. 4 pick overall. As an Eagles fan, I hope so. Every quarterback that goes before us pushes down another player that might be of more interest. Veteran Jason Campbell has struggled with consistency throughout his career. On the surface, you would think Shanahan would pass on him. The hang-up is that Campbell is an ideal fit for Shanahan's system. Campbell has a strong arm. He is mobile and throws well on the move. Drafting an offensive tackle and keeping Campbell has to be a tempting option. Let's hope Sam Bradford has great workouts and is too good for Washington to pass up.
• Have things gone wrong for Donte Stallworth since leaving the Eagles or what? He played well for us in 2006. He caught 38 passes and scored five touchdowns. Since leaving Stallworth has caught 63 passes and scored four touchdowns. He also had the nightmare legal situation where he killed a pedestrian while driving under the influence. NFL players should learn a lesson from this situation. Stallworth was a good fit for our offense. He was offered a good deal. He and agent Drew Rosenhaus passed, instead looking for a mega-deal. That never came. Stallworth spent one year as a Patriot and one as a Brown. Now he's back on the market. The lesson to learn is to put a lot of value on finding the right fit and not just the right contract. If Stallworth could do it all over again I guarantee you that he'd sign the Eagles offer and never leave. He found a home in Philadelphia, but decided to listen to his agent and chase big money. I don't expect players to play for cheap deals, but they need to be careful about obsessing on getting maximum value. What price do you put on happiness?
• There have been reports linking the Denver Broncos with Donovan McNabb, should he become available. Don't believe this for a second. Coach Josh McDaniels will want a young quarterback who doesn't have an established way of doing things. Expect him to stick with Kyle Orton for now and find a young player to develop.
• The Giants recently cut middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. The recent Giants defense has been built around a terrific defensive line, but the heart of the unit was unquestionably Pierce. Unfortunately, he's gotten old in the last couple of years. I remember watching Brian Westbrook run away from him in a 2008 game. Pierce was never a speed demon, but neither was Westbrook. After that play, I began to see Pierce's athletic limitations on a more regular basis. He's still a great leader and good tackler, but linebackers must be able to run unless they are 250-pound guys that can dominate the middle. Pierce isn't a huge, physical guy. There will be a lot of speculation about who will sign him. Honestly, I'm not sure that he will get a starting job in 2010. Pierce has a lot of great qualities, but older linebackers are just not a hot commodity. He'll be 32 at midseason. I always liked Pierce, despite the fact he played for the Redskins and Giants. I hope he finds a spot. Some coach may covet a veteran linebacker to run his defense. Remember, Pierce only needs one team/coach to want him. It doesn't matter what the other 31 teams think.
• I'm not sure what the future holds for LaDainian Tomlinson. The future Hall of Fame player is likely going to be cut this off-season, but I don't know where he'll end up. His numbers are way down the last couple of years. Tomlinson is no longer a star. I'm not sure that he has much of a chance of finding a starting job. I do think there is a place for him. Tomlinson has scored 23 touchdowns in the last couple of years. He still knows how to run in the red zone. There has been talk that the Ravens may cut backup runner Willis McGahee. If that happens I could see Tomlinson going there. Ray Rice is the Ravens starter, but offensive coordinator Cam Cameron coached Tomlinson for several years in San Diego. Baltimore could use Tomlinson's red zone ability and he would be a good mentor for Rice.