Who Should Host SNL In Its 40th Anniversary Season?

Anyone who knows me will eventually discover that I am a huge Saturday Night Live geek. I’ve read far too many books and articles detailing the behind the scenes antics.  Through the good seasons and bad, I have watched the show…often all 90 minutes of it (no matter how painful).  Early on, my parents would record it on the VCR and I would wake up Sunday morning to devour Eddie Murphy’s latest sketches.  By the late 80s/early 90s the show was so good that I usually stayed awake through SNL’s 1am sign off; then during the week I would entertain my friends at school with a pretty damn good impression of Dana Carvey’s George Bush.  (In fact, I was once asked – for charity – to get on stage and, this is a direct quote here: “do an impression of George Bush sitting on the toilet talking about Sadaam Hussein.”  Needless to say, I killed.)  Now there are DVRs and the internet to keep me in the SNL loop, and of course cable has been kind enough to rerun the shows featuring the original cast that aired when I was simply too young to watch.  I admittedly know far too much about SNL.

Nevertheless, for me, one of the most exciting moments of an episode is finding out during that second or third commercial break who will host the following week.  Regardless of the perceived quality of the show, hosting SNL still has an appeal that attracts some of the best and brightest: the show is an institution and hosting is a rite of passage.  Of course, that hasn’t always been enough of a draw – there are plenty of big names out there who have never taken center stage in Studio 8H.  For some it’s simply a matter of timing, for others it might be a fear of doing a live broadcast, but whatever has kept these performers off that stage, they have a chance to jump into that spotlight this season due to the fanfare surrounding a milestone few television shows ever reach.

Saturday Night Live turns 40 this season.  Specials are already slated to air over the course of the season celebrating the show’s Ruby Anniversary, but the hosting gigs from week-to-week will offer a special opportunity for the show to attract some top talent as part of the ongoing festivities.  This being SNL, you can be sure they will contact some of their most well known and beloved prior hosts to appear once again – the Steve Martins and Justin Timberlakes of the world come to mind – but I’m just as interested in the shows where newbies take the stage.  In a 40th anniversary year, the show should go after some of those big names who have never had the pleasure of hosting.  That’s why I have compiled a list of people I think would be excellent hosts for the 2014-15 SNL Season.  But first, the rules:

Rule #1 – This list only features people who have never hosted and never been a cast member (cameos are okay).  You have to be an SNL virgin to make this list.

Rule #2 – This list only goes eleven deep.  Why eleven?  I looked at a handful of seasons and, out of the typical 22 episodes, about half feature first-time hosts.

Rule #3 – I’m sticking with tv and movie personalities.  A politician or an athlete hosts every now and then, but they have a much higher bust-rate than people who are actual professional performers.  Why flirt with likely suckitude if you don’t have to?  Besides, all the big name athletes – LeBron, Peyton, Brady, Jeter – have already hosted, and you will never see a sitting President, the likely next presidential candidate, nor her famous former-President husband do anything more than a cameo.  However, for the record, while I can’t think of a first-time, big name athlete who should host, the political figure who I think would be a big hit is Michelle Obama (after the mid-terms).  I have no clue if she’d be good, but I’d sure as hell tune in to watch her try.  I just don’t think there’s much of a chance she would do it considering the toxic political climate these days.

Rule #4 – These 11 potential hosts have to be BIG NAMES, people whose star-power would attract additional viewers all by itself.  It’s a 40th Anniversary season so you want the best of the best.  I have another list brewing with performers who aren’t necessarily household names saved for another time, but this list feeds off the A-List.

Your top potential hosts, in no particular order:

Denzel Washington – Do we know whether Denzel can be funny?  Can he do intense?  Absolutely.  Indignant?  No problem.  Evil?  Go see Training Day.  But funny?  The guy has two Oscars and 53 acting credits to his name since 1974 and I have absolutely no clue if he can crack a joke.  I suppose I’ve seen him tell a humorous story or two on a late-night talkshow, but nothing to make me think he’s hilarious (his wife’s assertions notwithstanding).  But this is Denzel we’re talking about – the guy can act circles around most anyone so you have to figure he could get a laugh on SNL just making fun of his characters’ intensity alone, right?  Plus, we’d have the opportunity to see Jay Pharaoh do his fantastic impression of the man right to his face.  I don’t know if Denzel is funny, but I definitely want to find out.

Kristen Bell – Is Kristen Bell on the A-List?  Anyone with kids who has heard her as Princess Anna in Frozen will answer with an unqualified “Yes.”  Perhaps being on the A-List for the 10-and-under set isn’t quite what you had in mind, but as SNL’s disastrous Justin Bieber episode proved last season, Lorne Michaels is certainly willing to aim for a younger demographic, and Bell is approximately 8 billion times better than the Biebs (and that includes singinging ability).  Besides, we already know she can get a laugh from her work in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Veronica Mars, and on Funny or Die.  Anna Kendrick hosted last season; Kristen Bell can easily be this season’s Anna Kendrick.

Leonardo DiCaprio – Unlike Denzel, I’m pretty sure Leo is funny.  Sure, he does intense and brooding almost as well as Denzel, but he throws in a touch of crazy to keep things a bit off kilter.  Just think how nutty he was in films like Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, and The Aviator and then put that energy on stage at 30 Rock with the SNL cast and let the magic happen.  His movie career tells us he’s willing to do pretty much anything on-screen and he already seems somewhat willing to give SNL a try: he made a cameo during Jonah Hill’s (his co-star in Wolf) hosting gig earlier this year.  Most importantly, a show with Leo means we may finally get that Growing Pains parody we’ve been waiting for all these years.  Bottom line: DiCaprio has the makings of a great host and he should have done this long ago.  Get him on the air ASAP.

Beyonce – I know, I know…I said this would only include tv and movie personalities, but you can make an exception for the Queen B.  Besides, she has actually appeared in a handful of films, the most notable for our purposes being Austin Powers in Goldmember as SNL alum Mike Myers’ co-star, Foxxy Cleopatra. I can’t say she was amazing in the movie, but she held her s**t together while staring at Austin Powers’ goofy mug for 90 minutes, which is probably more than enough preparation for hosting an episode of SNL.  Moreover, she has already appeared on the show as a musical guest five times (twice solo, twice with Destiny’s Child, and once singing with Jay Z) and has been the subject of numerous sketches, including THIS fantastic Single Ladies parody from 2008.  Among the marquee musicians who could pull off hosting duties, Beyonce is at the top of the list (followed by Adele – her first album in years comes out this winter and, frankly, she seems like a pistol) and she has the added bonus of potentially bringing her husband along for the ride.

Stephen Colbert – This one is a no-brainer.  The Colbert Report closes up shop at the end of 2014 while his gig at the Late Show doesn’t start until some indeterminate time in 2015 (whenever David Letterman decides he’s officially ready to retire).  That leaves a nice gap between the two shows during which Colbert can host SNL.  I won’t attempt to convince you that the man is a comic genius – that’s already been firmly established – however, it is worth noting that Colbert has some history with SNL: Colbert voiced Ace, the leader of the Ambiguously Gay Duo (Steve Carell voiced the duo’s other half, Gary), the hilarious cartoon that had several installments on the show in the 90’s and 00’s.  Given Colbert’s apparent availability and his connection to SNL, there’s a legitimate chance this potential host could turn into an actual one.

Emma Watson – Daniel Radcliffe hosted two years ago so it only makes sense that the other famous Harry Potter alum should take the stage.  Since wrapping the 8th film in the Potter series, Watson has proven she can play more than a witch with strong performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bling Ring.  She also demonstrated a good sense of humor about herself in a brief, axe-wielding turn in last year’s very funny This Is the End.  And if you’ve ever caught her in any of her five appearances on Letterman, you know she’s charming as hell.  Most importantly: everyone loves Hermione.  Also: Watson will get major bonus points if she can find a way to respond to Lindsay Lohan’s admittedly funny portrayal of Hermione back when Lohan was still in our good graces.

Chris Pratt – A year ago, Pratt didn’t have a high enough profile to make this list, but following the massive success of The Lego Movie last spring and Guardians of the Galaxy this summer, his lead role in Jurassic World next year, plus more serious turns in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, he has broken through to the A-List.  Of course, his work on Parks and Recreation over the past six seasons alone should be more than enough to get him on SNL – the man is the funniest physical comedian on television since Michael Richards and has been known to improvise some of the best lines in the show, to say nothing of his working with one of the best SNL cast members ever, Amy Poehler.  Simply put, Pratt is the kind of host SNL loves: a star on the rise with a strong comedic background, SNL connections, and a show on NBC.  As with Colbert, I think Pratt hosting has a good chance of happening.  UPDATE: Score one for the Ziz – just 12 hours after I wrote this paragraph, SNL named Pratt the host of the season premier on September 27th.

Meryl Streep – After 3 Academy Awards, 18 nominations, and more fantastic performances than I can remember, I don’t think there’s any reason to make a case for Streep – she’s one of the greatest actors of all time and would undoubtedly be awesome hosting SNL.  The only question to ask is: why would she bother?  She has accomplished just about everything an actor can accomplish and she certainly has nothing to prove.  Hosting SNL would be, for all intents and purposes, just another notch on the bedpost for her.  The only decent reason I can think of is that it would give her the chance to do something she hasn’t done before – perform live sketch comedy on television, i.e. do it for the challenge.  I don’t know if that would be enough to convince her, but perhaps it’s enough to get her to drive down from her house in Connecticutt for a week.

Brad Pitt – Like Denzel and Leo, Pitt has a certain intensity he brings to the screen which, in recent years, has been tempered by a sense of weariness.  But we forget that Pitt also has a slightly crazy streak and a sly sense of humor that he busted out in movies like Inglorious Basterds, Ocean’s 11, Burn After Reading, and especially 12 Monkeys.  That mix gives him all the makings of an excellent host.  Of course, the primary reason I’m lobbying for him is that there’s the ever-so-small chance he could take that great Dr. Zizmor ad from Taran Killam a couple of seasons ago and attempt a sequel.

Sandra Bullock – Dear Sandy…you really should host SNL this year.  We’ve all seen you in The Heat, Miss Congeniality, While You Were Sleeping, and The Proposal so we know you can do comedy while winning our hearts; everyone loves you; you’re not filming anything this year; and you just made $70 MILLION for Gravity – with that kind of free time and money in the bank, why not do something fun that’s not a long-term commitment?

Mel Brooks – And now we come to the last name on our list.  Four years ago, Betty White hosted the show at age 88 following a late career resurgence.  The show she hosted was one of the best episodes of SNL in the last ten years.  She famously appeared in every sketch of the evening, a rarity for a host of any age, but even more unexpected for an 88 year old.  That episode was so good it got me thinking – White certainly had her fans, but you could make the case that her comedic contributions had gone under-appreciated until her gig on SNL shone a spotlight on her long and distinguished career.  Why not make an effort to have maybe one host a year who is something of a comedian emeritus and ask him or her to host?  The cast and crew would certainly appreciate the opportunity to work with someone of that caliber and the viewers would be reminded of that person’s great career and hopefully reacquaint themselves with their back catalog.  Isn’t this a better way to appreciate a funny person as opposed to the sad retrospectives we’ve seen recently for greats like Robin Williams and Joan Rivers?  So the question is: who now fits the bill of comedy legend who could host SNL for the first time?  The four names that come to mind are Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, and David Letterman.  We can immediately eliminate the notoriously private Allen and Letterman (who will be getting his own sendoff when he leaves the Late Show anyway), so that leaves Brooks and Cosby.  While both are still funny, the younger Cosby (he’s 77) is actually the more cantankerous of the two.  Besides, if Cosby didn’t host SNL back in the 80’s when he had the top-rated show on television, happened to share a nework with SNL, and when SNL was really good, I don’t know that he’d care to host now.  The 88 year old Brooks, on the other hand, still comes across as zany and fun every time he shows up as a guest on Kimmel or Conan where he has made 6 total appearances in just the last 2 years.  And since he’s been pushing several newly released dvds looking back on his career, you know he’s interested in his legacy; also: merchandising!  From SNL’s side, what better way to celebrate its 40 years on the air than by having a writer from the show that was its precursor – Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows – host?  It would be a tribute to one of the all-time greats in Brooks as well as to the history of television sketch comedy in general.  I wouldn’t have an issue with Cosby taking this spot either, but you can never go wrong with the king, so Brooks it is.

Did I overlook anyone?  There are several other people I wanted to include on this list but had to cut due to my self-imposed 11 person limit.  I’d be curious to hear who you might prefer as a host.


Oakland Raiders Draft Preview…But Not Really

I thought about doing a comprehensive draft preview for the Raiders just like I did for the 49ers, but when I really sat down and thought about it, I realized there was no point.  Sure the Raiders have the #3 pick in the draft and are finally embracing the post-Al Davis rebuilding process, but with only six total picks – three of which are in the sixth and seventh rounds – and a roster pared down to the bone, it’s highly unlikely the Raiders can draft enough quality players to have even a mediocre season in 2013.

Seriously, take a minute to examine the state of the Raiders, I’ll even wait a minute while you look at their offense here and their defense here.  That defense?  A wasteland where potentially raiders fannine of eleven starting spots will change from 2012.  That offense?  Slightly better, but the skill positions feature an unproven sixth year quarterback – Matt Flynn – who couldn’t beat out a third round pick in 2012 despite just signing a three year free agent deal worth nearly $20 million, a talented running back – Darren McFadden – who can’t stay healthy, two enigmatic wide receivers – Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore – who also have injury issues, and a pair of tight ends with a grand total of twelve career receptions between them.  Let’s do the math: if I’m generous and ignore their sub-par offensive line, admit that I like fullback Marcel Reece, and count kicker Sebastian Janikowski as a starter, that still leaves question marks at fourteen out of twenty-four starting positions (if I give credit for Seabass, I have to count the punter too)…and we haven’t even discussed the backups yet!

Simply put: the Oakland Raiders will suck in 2013.  And you know what Raiders fans?  That’s actually a good thing. When you suck and fully embrace it, you give yourself the opportunity to start anew.  Ever since they lost the 2002 Super Bowl, the Raiders have been on a long road to nowhere as Al Davis made costly free agent signings and awful draft picks.  When Reggie McKenzie took over as GM last offseason, he probably suspected there were termites in the walls and a crack in the foundation, but discovering the main support beam held together with duct tape and the family of rabid skunks living behind the water heater was a big surprise.  His first response – purging the roster this offseason – was the correct one.  The next step is to rebuild, but that will take a bit longer given the paucity of talent on the roster and the minimal number of draft picks this year – it’s a simple case of too many holes and not enough spackle.  This gap will keep the Raiders at the bottom of the standings in the upcoming season.

2014 is when things should begin to turn around.  First and foremost, Oakland will finally be out of salary cap hell with a whopping $69 million of cap space to sign free agents.  They will have to spend some of that money to get to the league’s mandatory salary floor, but McKenzie  presumably will not sign free agents just for the sake of it – he’ll hopefully extend productive players already on the team and find reasonably priced but solid free agents who can contribute immediately.  Secondly, the Raiders will have all of their draft picks, save for the 5th rounder traded for Flynn, plus at least a couple of compensatory selections for all the free agents they lost this year.  And finally, with another bad season staring them in the face, Oakland will likely get another crack at a top five pick, only this time there will be several blue chip prospects from which to choose. Perhaps they take massively disruptive defensive end Jadevon Clowney, or maybe they trade down and stockpile picks, or they draft one of the many top quarterbacks who will be available like Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Heisman winner Johnny “Football” Manziel, David Fales from just down the road at San Jose State, or Tajh Boyd out of Clemson (see this 2014 mock draft to get a sense of who will be available).  With most of their picks and money for free agency, the team should finally start building towards the success that has eluded them for a decade.

So Raiders fans, take heart: your team has hit bottom and there’s nowhere to go but up.  Enjoy your #3 pick and watch closely to see just how good he is, then get excited for the 2014 offseason when the real fireworks begin in Oakland.

San Francisco 49ers Draft Preview

49ersAbout a month ago, just before free agency began, I examined the potential moves of the San Francisco 49ers and projected the impact they might have on the NFL draft.  Well, the draft kicks off this Thursday and, for better or worse, the Niners have been quite active in free agency since my initial blog post.  Let’s take a look at how those additions and subtractions should impact the team’s draft needs. 

First, a list of the 49ers’ most significant transactions:


  • Anquan Boldin – WR
  • Glenn Dorsey – DL
  • Nnamdi Asomugha – CB
  • Phil Dawson – K
  • Craig Dahl – S
  • Dan Skuta – LB/ST
  • Colt McCoy – QB
  • Cameron Morrah – TE


  • Dashon Goldson – S
  • Alex Smith – QB
  • Isaac Sopoaga – DL
  • Randy Moss – WR
  • Delanie Walker – TE
  • David Akers – K
  • Ricky Jean Francois – DL
  • Tedd Ginn – WR/KR

It’s also important to know precisely which draft picks we’re discussing so here are the 49ers’ thirteen selections:

  • 1st Round – 31st overall
  • 2nd – 34th (from Kansas City)
  • 2nd – 61st
  • 3rd – 74th (from Carolina)
  • 3rd – 93rd
  • 4th – 128th
  • 4th – 131st (compensatory)
  • 5th – 157th (from Indianapolis)
  • 6th- 173rd (from Philadelphia via Cleveland)
  • 6th – 180th (from Miami)
  • 7th – 237th
  • 7th – 246th (compensatory)
  • 7th – 252nd (compensatory)

Let us acknowledge right now that with such a large cache of picks, the 49ers are in prime position to trade up for players they love or trade down when they see an opportunity to stockpile picks (Note: compensatory picks may not be traded so of the Niners’ thirteen, only ten are tradeable).  Indeed, I fully expect them to be among the most active wheelers and dealers over the three-day-long draft-a-palooza.  Nevertheless, I’m not in the business of projecting trades: just as with draft picks, making specific predictions about possible trades is a fool’s errand.  My goal here is merely to tell you which positions I believe the Niners will prioritize over others and why.  Positions are listed from most important to least.  Let’s begin.

Safety – Several players have moved on from San Francisco, but safety remains the only position on the team without a bona fide starter.  All-Pro Dashon Goldson signed a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay and the 49ers’ only response thus far has been the signing of former St. Louis Rams’ starter Craig Dahl.  Can Dahl start for the 49ers?  Sure.  But I’ve watched every San Francisco – St. Louis game over the last four years and not once did I hear Dahl’s name called.  That’s not to say he’s a bad player, just that the 49ers probably don’t envision him as a full-timer.  Indeed, people more knowledgeable than me say Dahl was signed because he can backup both the free and strong safety positions while also playing special teams.  CJ Spillman and Trenton Robinson are the only other potential replacements for Goldson presently on the roster so unless the Niners know something about those guys the rest of us don’t, they’re still looking for someone to start alongside Donte Whitner.  If the 49ers don’t select a safety with one of their first three picks, I will be shocked.  They could pick another one later in the draft as well.

Defensive Line – The signing of Glenn Dorsey fills the hole left by Isaac Sopoaga’s departure and the extension for Ian Williams likely signals that he will take some of Ricky Jean-Francois’ snaps, so the Niners certainly won’t feel desperate to draft a defensive lineman.  However, with Justin Smith a free agent following the upcoming season and the line wearing down from overuse and injuries at the end of 2012, the team really does need to work on its depth up front.  Given the talent along the D-line in this year’s draft, I believe the 49ers will address their issues there by drafting either a pass rushing end or nose tackle in the first/second round, and adding at least one more later on.

Tight End – Losing Delanie Walker hurts.  Though he was technically a backup tight end, he played a very un-backup-like 57% of the offensive snaps meaning the 49ers will need a player better than your average second stringer to replace him.  On the other hand, the trade for WR Anquan Boldin gives the Niners a player who can take some of Walker’s downfield blocking assignments and vastly improve upon his pass catching, thereby offering the team a bit of breathing room in their talent search.  I still believe the Niners will draft a backup tight end, but I don’t believe they will do it with either of their first two picks.  They will pick a TE, but it won’t happen before their pick at the end of the second round and I suspect it will happen in the third or fourth round.

Wide Receiver – This is the wild card position in the 49ers’ draft.  With Boldin and Michael Crabtree as their starters, the Niners have one of the better one-two punches in the league at wideout.  However their depth is suspect: both Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are coming off serious knee injuries (Williams could be back to start the season; Manningham might return mid-season if he returns at all), 2012 #1 pick A.J. Jenkins caught ZERO passes as a rookie, and free agent signees Marlon Moore and Ricardo Lockette are unknowns at this point.  Moreover, Boldin, Williams, and Manningham all become free agents in 2014.  As such, while the Niners don’t necessarily need a starter for 2013, they absolutely need someone who can contribute  next season and potentially start further down the road…and the ability to return kicks and/or punts wouldn’t hurt.  Though I don’t think it’s likely, if the right player slips down the board I could see the 49ers using their first round pick (again) on a receiver.  It’s more likely, though, that that they take one in the third or fourth round.

(Backup) Quarterback – Colt McCoy has twenty-one career starts (with Cleveland) which  probably makes him the backup by default.  Then again, Scott Tolzien knows the Niners’ playbook and they like him enough enough to have kept him around as their third string QB for the last two seasons.  Will the presence of either prevent the Niners from drafting another quarterback to compete for the backup role?  That depends on just how much the team actually likes McCoy and Tolzien.  I don’t know what the front office thinks, but considering the 49ers like to use training camp competitions to flush out the best talent, I think Baalke and Harbaugh will add one more QB when all is said and done.  They might just wait until Sunday to sign an undrafted free agent, but I could see them drafting one in the fourth round or later.

Offensive Line – The 49ers had the best offensive line in football last year and with every starter returning and healthy, this is not a position of need.  Additionally, the Niners spent a fourth round pick on Joe Looney (G) last year and a fifth rounder on Daniel Kilgore (G) the year before so they have young backups waiting in the wings.  Some have speculated that with center Jonathan Goodwin in the last year of his contract at age 34, the Niners will look for a replacement in this draft; they might, but I suspect they are grooming either Kilgore or Looney for that role.  No, if the 49ers draft an offensive lineman this year, I’m reasonably sure that they will go after a tackle to backup Joe Staley and Anthony Davis since last year’s backup – Leonard Davis – was not re-signed.  Look for the team to draft one in the 4th round or later.

Cornerback – All of the Niners’ starters return healthy and Nnamdi Asomugha has been added to the fold, making this a stable position group.  However, while Asomugha, Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, and Carlos Rogers are all decent enough, none is irreplaceable, especially in an era when 4000+ yard passers are a dime a dozen.  It is also worth noting that corners often double as return men, an area where the Niners need help following the departure of Ted Ginn.  With that in mind, the 49ers could easily select a CB at any point in the draft to shore up their secondary.

Linebacker – As at offensive line, this group ranks as the best in the NFL, and it’s not even close.  The team could, however, use a backup to help with their depth since Larry Grant is still un-signed (and suspended by the league for four games), Parys Haralson is coming off an injury as is last year’s fifth round pick, Darius Fleming; and new 49er Dan Skuta was signed as a special teams ace, not as an every down linebacker.  The team could select one in the fourth round or later.

Running Back – If Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James are all healthy, then the Niners have one of the deeper and more dynamic groups of running backs in the league.  However Hunter is coming off a knee injury, Frank Gore turns 30 this year – an age where RBs typically begin to see their production decline, and fourth stringer Anthony Dixon made the squad mostly for his special teams contributions.  It is not imperative that the Niners take a back this year, but with Hunter and James on the small side, looking for a bigger RB who can run inside and potentially replicate Gore’s production would make sense.  The 49ers might not draft a RB at all, but if they do it will happen no earlier than the third round.

Kicker – In my preview, I thought the Niners would go cheap at kicker and draft one in the fifth or sixth round.  With the signing of Phil Dawson they could still pursue an undrafted free agent to see if they can find (cheap) lightning in a bottle, but using a draft pick on a kicker now seems highly unlikely.

If you enjoy making player-specific predictions, I’d love to see them in the comments.

The JaMarcus Hustle

Let’s face it, quarterback is by far the most important position on the football field. Yeah, it’s a team game and no one succeeds without quality players at every position, but a good QB is disproportionately valuable whether you’re lining up for the sectional title game in high school or the Super Bowl.  As a result, lousy teams lacking a satisfactory quarterback pay an inordinate amount of attention to them as the NFL draft approaches.  The problem is that they are unable to divert that attention when the available quarterbacks do not deserve it.  So when Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert), Oakland (Matt Flynn), Philadelphia (Michael Vick, but rumored to be interested in drafting a QB), Buffalo (um, Kevin Kolb I guess?), the Jets (Mark Sanchez), and Cleveland (Brandon Weeden) step to the podium next week, they would do well to keep in mind the following story about a colossal (literally and figuratively) draft bust: JaMarcus Russell.

Back in the spring of 2007, I scored an internship with an agent who represented several good NFL players.  With our lone free agent finally signed in mid-March and no potential draftees in our stable, we had plenty of time to speculate about the upcoming draft.  Now I’m not a huge college football guy – I enjoy checking in on a key game every now and then but my Saturdays are largely free in the fall.  At the same time, I’m a huge NFL fan so I pay attention to college ball enough to know who the key players are since they will inevitably end up in the discussion come draft day.  So as the pre-draft hype kicked into high gear, I noticed that everyone’s golden boy QB – Brady Quinn of Notre Dame – had dropped down the mock draft boards.  I asked my boss what he thought of this JaMarcus Russell guy who had suddenly become the expected top pick.  His answer proved prophetic: “The kid has talent, but he’s raw.  That’s why he was rated a 3rd round pick back in November – because the physical ability is there but he needs time to refine those skills.  He won’t get that time if he goes #1 overall.  Do you remember Akili Smith?  If JaMarcus goes #1, he’ll be Akili Smith.  Guys rated as 3rd rounders who jump to the top of the draft AFTER the season ends usually don’t do well.”  My boss was 100% correct – by 2010 Russell was out of the league and one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory.  What happened?

Elephants Never Forget, But Scouts Sometimes Do

When the 2006 college football season began, Jamarcus Russell was not considered the top quarterback prospect in the game – that honor fell to Notre Dame’s Quinn who had finished 4th in the Heisman TJaMarcus Russellrophy voting the year before.  Russell did not make the Pre-Season All-America Team; he was not ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks in the game; hell, he wasn’t even named LSU’s starter until just before their first game.  Russell had a decent enough 2005 season: the Tigers finished 11-2, good for a #6 ranking in the final AP poll and Russell did a decent enough job passing the ball when Joseph Addai wasn’t running with it.  But Russell hurt his shoulder in the SEC Championship game, forcing him to miss the Peach Bowl (now the Chick-fil-A Bowl) against Miami.  In his place, backup Matt Flynn stepped under center and led LSU to a convincing 40-3 win which still ranks as the largest margin of victory in the bowl game’s history.  Following Flynn’s performance, Russell had to convince his own team he was good enough to lead them, let alone the scouting community.

When the 2006 regular season ended, Russell had led the Tigers to a 10-2 record and #4 ranking behind 3129 yards passing, 28 touchdown passes against only 8 interceptions, and a 67.8% completion percentage.  Nevertheless, he was not named a first, second, or third team All-American; he did not receive a single Heisman vote even though three other quarterbacks did; and – most importantly for our purposes – he was still not considered a first round draft pick let alone #1 overall.  It is difficult to find in-season 2007 mock drafts from reputable sites that don’t require my credit card, but if you take a look here, you will see hundreds of fan-generated mock drafts from right after the end of LSU’s regular season.  You will notice that Russell appears in just a handful of these mocks, and even when he does he’s usually projected as a mid-second rounder at best.  However, jump ahead a mere three weeks to mid-December and all of a sudden JaMarcus is a consistent mid-first rounder who occasionally sneaks into the top ten.  Russell had a good, but not great 2006 season so why did the perception of him shift so dramatically in a three week span during which he didn’t throw a single pass?  I have two words for you: Sugar Bowl.

A Series of Fortunate Events

For JaMarcus Russell, his Sugar Bowl matchup became the launching pad that shot him to the #1 pick in the 2007 draft: Russell’s #4 ranked LSU Tigers were set to face Brady Quinn’s #11 Notre Dame Irish.  Russell’s performance during the season put him on the radar, but the irresistible storyline of this quarterback matchup provided the fuel to shoot him up the draft board on hype alone.   At this point, his arm strength was a known commodity as was his size (6’6″, 256 lbs.) – going head-to-head with the projected top QB then became a perfect opportunity for JaMarcus to cement his status as the #2 QB at a bare minimum.   Then they played the game.  While Quinn stumbled to the tune of 15 of 35 passing for 148 yards, 2 TDs and 2 interceptions, Russell dominated on 21 of 34 passing for 332 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 interception as LSU rolled to a 41-14 win and JaMarcus was named the game’s MVP.  Never mind that the LSU defense faced by Quinn was significantly better than the Notre Dame defense faced by Russell – JaMarcus’ performance against the perfect opponent had finally thrust him into the conversation for the #1 overall pick.

Things only snowballed from there.  At the LSU pro-day in March of 2007, Russell put on one of the greatest shows in pre-draft workout history.  He dropped back to pass and hit his receivers right in the numbers nearly every time.  He threw passes 60 yards downfield on his seventy-fifth pass just as easily as he did on his first.  Jon Gruden, then coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and something of a QB guru was so impressed he effused “The workout Russell had was Star Wars. It was unbelievable.”  High praise indeed.  Of course, all this ignored the fact that Russell wasn’t throwing into the teeth of a pass rush or that he had never played in a pro-style offense or that he routinely only had to look at one receiver before throwing and his primary WR – Dwayne Bowe – was one of the best in the country.  Nope…none of that mattered because JaMarcus Russell was big and strong and could throw the football far.  The teams looking for a QB were blinded by that dazzling arm.

Let’s keep in mind that mock draft boards solidify partly because of signals sent out by the teams doing the drafting.  In that respect, Russell couldn’t have chosen a better team to have the #1 pick than the Oakland Raiders that year.  Al Davis ran the Raiders’ draft right up until the very end, refusing to relinquish control of his beloved team.  It was common knowledge that Davis loved speedy receivers and a vertical passing game.  To re-implement that style of passing attack following (former Raiders’ coach) Gruden’s foray into the west coast offense with Rich Gannon at the helm, Davis would need a big armed QB to get the job done.  Enter JaMarcus Russell.  With that tremendous arm of his, there was no way Russell would get past the Raiders and he didn’t – to the surprise of no one, Oakland selected Russell with the #1 pick in the draft.  His rise from a mid-round pick to the top was complete.

In the end, JaMarcus Russell failed in the NFL for a number of reasons: a prolonged holdout during his rookie season, an inability to implement a pro offense, weight problems, bad coaching, and general immaturity.  And given the six years of stats we have since that draft, we know that none of the other QBs selected would have helped the Raiders much more than Russell did.  But the Raiders and every other draftnik who stuck JaMarcus atop their draft board should have seen these signs leading up to the draft.  At his pre-draft workout, scouts were pleased to see he had lost nine pounds since his appearance at the combine, a bright red flag for a 256 lb. football player who already looked more like a linebacker than a quarterback.  Game-tape should have shown everyone what kind of offense he worked in and scouts were certainly aware that LSU frequently took advantage of a wide talent-gap with its non-conference opponents.  When wrapped in a slightly less impressive physical specimen, those traits would have overridden the flashy Sugar Bowl and workout performances and knocked Russell down a few pegs, maybe to the middle of the 1st round or out of it altogether.  With less pressure as a lower pick, who knows, perhaps JaMarcus could have succeeded, but the Raiders and everyone else ignored the warning signs and picked him #1 anyway.  The rest, as they say, is history.


Have NFL teams learned anything from the JaMarcus Hustle?  Not all of them.  Take a look on the interwebs for mock drafts and you’ll find that nearly every single one has West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith going in the top ten (Philadelphia at #4 seems to be the popular destination at the moment) along with any of a handful of other QBs going to Buffalo at #8 and to the Jets at #13 (for prognosticators brave enough to project a Darelle Revis trade to Tampa Bay).  Seeing a top QB go #4 in the draft normally wouldn’t cause anyone to think twice since guys like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan have all been drafted even higher in recent years.  However everyone agreed that not only were those players the best quarterbacks in the draft, they were also among the very best players overall.  No one thinks that about Geno Smith or any other QB this year.  Most seem to agree that Smith is the top signal-caller in his class, but peg him as a late first rounder when compared with every other potential draftee.  The other QBs – guys like Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib, etc. – all grade out in the second round or lower.  Yet teams still seem to consider these guys as top talents worthy of valuable high draft picks.  This is the blindness caused by the JaMarcus Hustle: overvaluing a player simply because he is a quarterback and then drafting him higher than his talent warrants.  When all the evidence on hand says the player you’re drafting at #4 is only the 24th best player, then you’re doing it wrong.  As my boss said, “Guys rated as 3rd rounders who jump to the top of the draft AFTER the season ends usually don’t do well.”  That hasn’t changed in the six years since the Raiders drafted JaMarcus Russell, but no one seems to remember that.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, even in football.


American League Predictions 2013

With my National League Predictions already in the books, I figured I’d go the obvious route and post an American League version.  Unlike in the NL where there appears to be a top strata of teams and then everyone else, the AL looks more wide open.  There’s a reason I waited this long to do the AL: the more I looked at the teams, the more uncertain I felt about my picks.  Sure, there are some pretty good teams, but all of them have noticeable flaws.  And while the remaining teams appear sufficiently average (exceptions: Houston and Minnesota who will be horrible), the more I examined them the more I started to see faint glimmers of hope leading me to believe that, given the right circumstances and a bit of luck, most of them at least have a chance.  After all, teams that finished below .500 the previous season have made a habit of crashing the playoffs lately – Baltimore and Oakland last year, Arizona and Milwaukee in 2011, Cincinnati in 2010, Colorado in 2009, and Tampa Bay and the White Sox in 2008.  So while my picks here are fairly conventional, I think the flaws at the top and the glimmers in the middle make it more likely the next “surprise” team will emerge from the American League.


As in my previous entry, I will examine each division and tell you which team(s) I think will make the playoffs, highlight a lesser known hitter and pitcher in each division to keep an eye on, and then give you my picks for the major awards and the World Series at the end.  Got it?  Then let’s play ball!

AL WEST: Oakland A’s (Division Champs); Texas Rangers (Wild Card); Los Angeles Angels (Wild Card) – Before talking about the good teams, it’s imperative that we talk about one particularly bad team that is new to this division as well as the American League.  The Houston Astros lost 107 games in 2012 while playing in the NL Central, a division that had another 100+ loss team in the Cubs and the perpetually sub-.500 Pirates.  The Astros now reside in a more difficult division while also slashing their payroll from $60 million to $21 million.  To put that in perspective, there are eight PLAYERS who make more individually than the entire Houston TEAM.  When you take a squad that set a franchise record for losses in each of the last two seasons and pare $40M from its already low payroll, you’re setting the stage for an epically awful season (120 losses by the 1962 Mets is the number to watch).  Conversely, playing nineteen games apiece against Houston gives the A’s, Angels, and Rangers a decided advantage in the playoff race over teams in the other divisions.

Offense will not be a problem for these three teams.  With Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and now Josh Hamilton in the middle of their lineup, we know the Angels can hit.  The Rangers won’t hit quite as well as they did due to the loss of Hamilton, but they will still score plenty of runs.  Even the A’s, despite question marks at 2nd and 3rd base, should score about as frequently as they did last year with the additions of the underrated John Jaso, Jed Lowrie, and Chris Young.  The real separation in this race comes on the mound where Oakland is simply better and deeper than the Angels and Rangers.  Brett Anderson, now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, and a corps of improving, young pitchers will keep the score down and let the excellent role players in the bullpen finish things up.  In Texas, Yu Darvish could easily prove himself a bona fide ace and I think Alexi Ogando will surprise people, but 18-game winner Matt Harrison already has back problems and the 4th and 5th starters are shaky at best; throw in an average bullpen and you can see that Texas won’t win many games on pitching alone.  The worst situation is in Los Angeles where the Angels replaced starters Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana with the questionable Tommy Hanson and retreads Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas, then signed the oft-injured and still disabled Ryan Madson as the closer for an already muddled bullpen.  The Angels’ offense is strong enough to outscore the opposition, but their mediocre pitching will give them headaches all season.  Bottom line: the old adage that pitching wins titles holds true as Oakland pulls off a semi-surprising repeat as AL West champs.  (LAST SECOND NOTE: The more I think about the Angels, the less confident I feel.  I just know I’m going to regret picking them as the wild card – I should have gone with Toronto or Kansas City.)

Pitcher to watch:  Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers – The 26-year old from Osaka had a good rookie campaign, winning 16 games, striking out 221 batters (5th most in the AL), sporting a 3.90 ERA, and finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting.  He did, however have one big problem: walks – 89 of them to be exact.  Seeing as Darvish did not have this problem during his five impressive seasons in Japan, there’s reason to believe the uptick may stem from his adjustment to the majors since he settled down in September and October to walk only seven batters in 43.1 innings.  If that high walk rate proves to be a one year aberration, then Darvish could easily challenge for the AL Cy Young award.

Hitter to watch: Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Oakland A’s – Hitting .292 with 23 homers, 82 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, and an .861 OPS in your rookie season is impressive enough, but when you consider that Cespedes missed thirty games and couldn’t hit breaking balls at the beginning of 2012, you realize how much better he can get.  Of course, while Cespedes is an excellent all-around player, it’s his power that really stands out.  When Oakland fans saw him hit this 460 foot bomb on a chilly night last April, they knew he was special: anyone who has visited the Coliseum on a cold, blustery evening knows how rare ANY home run is in those conditions; to clang one off the second deck in the left-centerfield alley is damn near impossible, and yet that’s exactly what Cespedes did in just his third major league game.  Need more proof of his power?  Watch this video where he hits one out with the donut still on his bat.  With a healthy season, Cespedes could hit 40+ homers and make a run at the 30-30 club.

AL CENTRAL: Detroit Tigers (Division Champs) – Out of 56 preseason predictions at CBS, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated, every single “expert” picked Detroit.  It’s easy to see why: the defending AL champs have arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander, two of the best hitters in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, an already good starting rotation that should improve with a full season from Anibal Sanchez, a strong lineup around their big guys which should improve with the return of Victor Martinez, and a manager – Jim Leyland – who knows how to navigate the postseason.  All of this is 100% true and why I picked them myself, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Detroit’s Achille’s Heel: their bullpen.  The Tigers’ relievers pulled themselves together during the playoffs just long enough to win the pennant, but they were also the reason Detroit only won 88 games in the regular season.  This year, their former closer now toils in the minors along with his supposed successor who failed to impress in spring training, thereby leaving their major league brethren in a state of uncertainty that threatens the stability of the team.  I have no doubt that the Tigers will eventually trade for a closer because their eighty-three year old owner desperately wants to win right now, but the longer they wait to fix the problem, the longer they leave the door open for an upstart to take their place.

One of those upstarts could be the Kansas City Royals.  I’m not picking them for the wild card because, um, well, because of habit I guess, but the potential is there.  With Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez, the Royals have a surprisingly deep and versatile lineup that could emerge as one of the better offenses in the league.  KC also has several young fireballers in the bullpen who should keep other teams at bay in the late innings.  The team’s problem lies in its middling starting staff – the addition of James Shields helps but the rest of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired.  Nevertheless, Kansas City looks like an improved squad and could challenge for a wild card spot; if not, they should at least finish above .500 for the first time in a decade.

Pitcher to watch: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – In his first season as a starter, Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts.  All-in-all a very successful season for the former first round pick.  Many, however, are concerned by the 24-year old’s innings pitched increase from 71 IP in 2011 to 192 in 2012, a 121 inning jump.  Such a large bump is indeed a concern with young pitchers, but the White Sox training staff has done a good job of keeping its hurlers healthy, including such notable injury-magnets as Francisco Liriano and Jake Peavy, so I’d give Sale a better chance than most to stay on the mound.  Assuming he does, there’s every reason to believe he can repeat as an All-Star in 2013.

Hitter to watch: Billy Butler, DH/1B, Kansas City Royals – The Royals’ 27-year old has quietly turned into the best DH in the game.  For years he managed to hit right around .300, but could never quite find the power stroke everyone expected.  That all changed last year when some of his annual 40+ doubles turned into home runs – he finished the season with 29 as well as a career-high 107 RBIs.  With an improving lineup to protect him, Butler should start to earn recognition as one of the better hitters in the game.

AL EAST: Tampa Bay Rays (Division Champs) – The year was 1993: only football had wild card teams, Barry Bonds’ cap size was still a normal 7 1/4, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would not exist for another five years.  More importantly: that was the last time neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox played in the post-season.  Following years of profligate spending, New York and Boston are finally entering a down cycle providing a golden opportunity for the Rays to take control of the division.  They will.  The name of the game in Tampa is pitching and defense.  2012 Cy Young winner David Price is the ace of the staff followed by up-and-comers Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, with Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) as adequate, if unspectacular fourth and fifth starters.  Down in the pen, the Rays continue their tradition of taking castoffs from other teams and turning them into excellent role players.  On defense, they combine sure-handed fielders with advanced metrics and one of the best managers in the game – Joe Maddon – to prevent as many runs as possible.  That pitching/defense mix allowed 51 fewer runs than the next best AL team (Oakland) in 2012 for a Major League best 3.19 ERA – all the more impressive for an AL team that sees a designated hitter every night.  On offense, the Rays are nothing special.  Evan Longoria has MVP potential and Ben Zobrist is underrated, but this team is built to do just enough at the plate to give the pitching and defense a chance.  But with the rest of the division either regressing (Baltimore, New York), rebuilding (Boston), or falling short (Toronto), Tampa has more than enough talent to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six years.

A few more words on the other teams in the East since they are all decent enough to make a playoff push:

  • Baltimore – They were one of last year’s biggest surprises, winning 93 games and a wild card berth.  They also went 29-9 in one-run games, the best record in such contests in 122 years.  Unfortunately for the Os, repeating that feat is as difficult as those 122 years would indicate so their record will slip as they lose some of the tight contests they won last season.  The offensive trio of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters will carry this squad at times, but their starting rotation is sub-par and will keep them from sustained success.
  • Boston – The fallout from fried chicken and beer, toxic team chemistry, and a full season’s worth of Bobby Valentine led the Red Sox to their worst record in 47 years.  Nevertheless, this team is more talented than their 69-win debacle suggests.  They’re not likely to make the playoffs, but if players like Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino can regain some of their mojo and young players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks step up, Boston could make some noise.
  • New York – Injuries have really taken a toll on this team as they began the season with five starters on the disabled list.  Though Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter will eventually return, this simply isn’t the same powerful lineup we’ve seen in New York over the last eighteen years.  And while CC Sabathia is still pitching strong, you have to wonder how much longer the Yankees can rely on 37-year old Hiroki Kuroda and soon-to-be 41-year old Andy Pettitte (Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova were never reliable in the first place).  That said, the Yankees are not devoid of talent, they’re merely losing it slowly to age and injuries, so they could contend – it’s just unlikely.
  • Toronto – The Blue Jays played the offseason aggressively, acquiring Mark Buehrle, 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera in the hope that they would quickly improve a 73-win team.  Even though the Jays should finish closer to 90 wins than 70, my gut tells me that their starting pitchers aren’t as good as they think and the bullpen is still a disorganized mess.   They could rectify this with an in-season move or three, but it probably won’t be enough to catch the Rays or a wild card spot.

Pitcher to watch: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays – Heading into 2012, Moore was the top pitching prospect in baseball after blowing through the minors and a stellar performance in game one of the 2011 ALDS.  With Rookie of the Year hype ringing in his ears, he disappointed with an 11-11 record and 3.81 ERA.  Upon further examination, however, we see that his first half struggles (4.42 EA) abated and he closed strong with a 3.01 ERA, fewer walks, and a strikeout an inning over his last 14 starts.   Now finally comfortable in the majors, Moore is poised to join the ranks of the pitching elite.

Hitter to watch: Adam Jones, CF, Baltimore Orioles – One of the big reasons for Baltimore’s 2012 resurgence was Jones.  He spent the previous four seasons slowly refining his hitting skills and it finally came together last year with a .287 average, 32 home runs, 16 steals, and an .839 OPS.  Simply put – Jones is one of the top all-around outfielders in the game and, at age 27, still has room to grow.


AL MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays

AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

AL Manager of the Year: Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals

AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays


Wild Card: Texas over Los Angeles

ALDS: Detroit over Texas; Tampa Bay over Oakland

ALCS: Tampa Bay over Detroit

World Series: Washington over Tampa Bay

National League Predictions 2013

Nostradamus was a charlatan.  Miss Cleo‘s third eye was blind.  Punxsutawney Phil is just a fat, frightened, little rodent (though he’s a surprisingly good driver for a quadruped).  Me?  I haven’t correctly predicted anything since I foretold the soup of the day at Coco’s back in November of ’95 (it was clam chowder).  I am generally skeptical of all prognostications unless they come from Nate Silver, and even he couldn’t predict who would play in the most recent Super Bowl.  So why would I bother predicting the results of the newly minted 2013 baseball season?  Because making stupid predictions about sports is as much of a national pastime as ogling celebrities, eating too much fast food, and – you know – baseball.  Also: it’s fun.crystal baseball

Here’s the quick and dirty: I will examine each division and tell you which team(s) I think will make the playoffs, highlight a lesser known hitter and pitcher in each division to keep an eye on, and then give you my picks for the major awards and the World Series at the end.

NL WEST: San Francisco Giants (Division Champs); LA dodgers (Wild Card) – No, that lower-case ‘d’ in dodgers is not a mistake: as a longtime Giants’ fan, I refuse to give our hated rivals to the south the honor of capitalization.  As such, you can take this prediction with a big ole’ grain of salt, but I swear I’m being (mostly) objective when I say the Giants are a bit better than the dodgers.  The dodgers won 86 games last year and, much as I hate to admit it, a full-season’s worth of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, whatever they get from the currently injured Hanley Ramirez, and the additions of Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu to the rotation make them a better team.  Unfortunately for Los Angeles, declining skills, injuries, poor team chemistry, and a mediocre manager will mitigate those improvements and keep them from surpassing the Giants atop the standings.  The World Series champs should take the division crown because their pitching staff remains excellent from one through twelve, their lineup is slightly stronger with Brandon Belt assured of regular playing time plus full seasons from Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro, they have a stout defense, and Tim Lincecum simply can’t be as awful as he was last season (I will repeat this as much as possible in the hope that the presence of those words in the ether makes it so).  Arizona could give both teams a run for their money, but the Diamondbacks’ pitching still lags behind their rivals’.

Pitcher to watch: Madison Bumgarner, SF – He’s not entirely unknown, but given the pedigrees in this division – Cy Youngs for Lincecum, Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw (to say nothing of Barry Zito) – and Matt Cain’s perfect game and All-Star start, Bumgarner gets a bit overshadowed.  Only 23 years old, he strikes guys out, doesn’t issue a lot of walks, keeps hitters off balance with his angular delivery, and he already has 37 career wins plus two huge victories in the World Series.  The lanky lefty could easily join the division’s Cy Young club this season.

Hitter to watch: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, AZ – Goldschmidt very quietly broke out in Arizona last year with 20 home runs, an .850 OPS, and an unexpected 18 stolen bases.  If he can convert a few of his 43 doubles into homers, he may very well be an All-Star.

NL CENTRAL: Cincinnati Reds (Division Champs) – Even without 2010 MVP Joey Votto who missed 51 games, the Reds still managed to win 97 in 2012.  With Votto healthy, Johnny Cueto and Mat “Yeah, there’s only one T” Latos anchoring the rotation, and Aroldis Chapman leading one of the top bullpens in the league, there should be little dropoff in the Queen City.  The loss of the woeful Houston Astros to the American League might take a small bite from their win total, but the truth of the matter is that the Cardinals are the Reds’ closest divisional competition and St. Louis has an unproven starting rotation after Adam Wainwright, several light hitters in their infield, and a great catcher – Yadier Molina – who is unlikely to repeat his amazing 2012 performance at the plate.  I will be very surprised if anyone challenges Cincinnati for the division title this year.

Pitcher to watch: Jeff Samardzija, Chi – The Cubs’ big righty didn’t even move out of the bullpen until last May so his ascendance was something of a surprise even in the Windy City.  Samardzija always had great stuff, but he struggled with his control.  Not so in 2012 when he cut his walk rate and struck out more than a batter an inning using one of the best split-fingered fastballs in the game.  With a spot in the rotation assured for 2013, look for Samardzija to emerge as one of the top 15 pitchers in baseball and the best player for an otherwise mediocre Chicago team.

Hitter to watch: Allen Craig, 1B, StL – Craig clearly has talent as the 22 homers, 92 RBIs, .307 average, and .876 OPS last year would indicate.  The problem is he can’t stay healthy enough to put together a full season having made four trips to the DL since 2010 (he played in just 119 games last year).  At 29 years old with his injury history, he may never play 162 games in a season, but if he can get to 140 he’ll rank among the top hitters in the National League.

NL EAST: Washington Nationals (Division Champs); Atlanta Braves (Wild Card) – Put simply, Washington is the deepest and most complete team in the National League.  They won 98 games last season and stand a good chance of reaching that number again after making several smart tweaks to their roster: the underrated Denard Span is now the Nats leadoff hitter and centerfielder, Rafael Soriano takes over as the closer, and Dan Haren rounds out an already strong pitching staff as the Nats’ fourth starter.  Throw in another year of development for young stars Bryce Harper (20) and Stephen Strasburg (24) plus the removal of his controversial innings pitched-cap and Washington is poised for a deep run into October.  The only thing that could derail them is a spate of injuries…or perhaps the Atlanta Braves?  Everything would have to break right for Atlanta to overtake the Nationals, but the possibility exists.  Young guns Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran have the potential to take the Braves’ pitching to the next level.  On offense, the newly acquired Upton brothers give the team serious power throughout the lineup – with those two as well as Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and maybe even Dan Uggla, the Braves could have five players with 25+ home runs…of course they might also set a team record for most strikeouts, but at least the fans will get plenty of souvenirs.  Ultimately, Atlanta will finish behind the Nats due to pitching: Washington’s best starters are in the prime of their careers while they guys in Atlanta are still building towards theirs; and the Nationals’ bullpen is deeper, Craig Kimbrel notwithstanding.

Pitcher to watch: Kris Medlen, Atl – Medlen showed great promise back in 2010 before tearing a ligament in his elbow and undergoing the dreaded Tommy John surgery.  The Braves brought him back slowly in the bullpen last season, only moving him into the starting rotation on July 31st.  From that point on he was as unhittable as anyone in the majors – a perfect 9-0 record, a miniscule 0.97 ERA, and 84 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings against only 10 walks – earning himself NL Pitcher of the Month honors for both August and September.  Now fully recovered from his injury, he’s a sleeper pick for the Cy Young Award.

Hitter to watch: Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Mia – In the history of Major League baseball, only ten players have hit 100 home runs before they turned 24: five of them are in the Hall of Fame (Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, and Frank Robinson), another soon will be (Ken Griffey Jr.), and the rest are Tony Conigliaro, Andruw Jones, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez.  Stanton will join that select group with just seven HRs this season.  The 23 year old slugger hit 37 last year, good for second most in the NL despite playing only 123 games due to a knee injury.  The Marlins may not be worth watching these days, but you should at least check out their highlights every now and then just to see Stanton, you know, break a scoreboard or two.


NL MVP: Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds

NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals

NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

NL Rookie of the Year: Kyuji Fujikawa, RP, Chicago Cubs


Wild Card: Los Angeles over Atlanta

NLDS: San Francisco over Cincinnati; Washington over Los Angeles

NLCS: Washington over San Francisco

(No) Thank You Dr. Zizmor!

I have long had this theory that each and every metro area, no matter how big or small, has its own set of ridiculous local commercials that burn themselves into the brains of the citizenry.*  For instance, I grew up in the Bay Area and I’m quite certain that every kid from Salinas to Ukiah who grew up in the 70s and 80s would know that the proper response to a shout of “Glue, I need glue!” is “YOU’RE GONNA NEED LOTSA GLUE!!!”  Or they would go into a fetal position and break out in hives at the mere mention of Paul from the Diamond Center.  Whether the spot featured a couple of goofy puppets or a creepy dude with bad production values, a Cheshire grin, and a porn-stache, everyone in the greater Bay Area was united in their desire to immediately change the channel whenever these ads appeared…except for the fact that tvs back then had knobs instead of a digital receiver and you had to walk, like, eight whole feet to change it and you were sure your little brother was going to steal your spot if you got up so screw it.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect this theory will only apply to those of us who grew up pre-DVR.  [Read the rest in a crotchety old man voice:] These kids today with their fancy shmancy 1000-channel cable satellite internet phones don’t have the patience to sit down for a 30-second ad featuring a chimp trying to sell a used car, let alone the opportunity.  Back in my day, we had to sit through all the commercials and that’s the way it was and we liked it!  (No we didn’t…I love my DVR.)

As for other regions?  Well, I couldn’t tell you about the weird ads that aired in Boston or Peoria or Kalamazoo, but that’s the point, right?  These abominations of broadcasting existed purely within a local television bubble and, since youtube didn’t exist back in the day, no one outside the bubble had a clue what the people inside were suffering through…except for me.  Back in 1993, one of those bubbles reached out and swallowed me.  Why?  Because I am related to one of the most infamous local advertisers in these United States: Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, aka New York’s famed Subway Doctor.

Dr. Zizmor adBack in ’93, I vaguely knew of Dr. Zizmor.  While I may be a California native, the rest of my family is from New York so I had visited, seen his subway ads (above), and heard the story about how that guy under the rainbow was actually my first cousin once removed.  Of course I had never met him, and even though my dad saw young Jonathan at Passover every year while growing up, he’s pretty sure he hasn’t seen his first cousin in person since the late 70s.  So you can imagine my surprise when nearly every New Yorker I met during my freshman year at Cornell would ask if I was related to THE Dr. Zizmor, and then about 50% of them would begin excitedly reciting one of his strangely hypnotic ads.  Needless to say, shouts of “Thank you Dr. Zizmor!” rang in my ears for much of my first semester.

And you know what?  After I got past the weirdness of those crazed New Yorkers, it was actually kind of fun being connected to his notoriety.  After all, I could honestly say I didn’t know the guy so the jokes never embarrassed me.  It ended up being more of an icebreaker than anything else considering about 50% of my class seemed to be from the Tri-State area.  Hell, had I been a bit more of a “playa”** during the summer I lived in Manhattan, I probably could have used our connection as the basis for a lame pickup line to score with the lovely ladies of the New York bar scene.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed having that goofy relationship with Dr. Z – not only did he give me a good talking point, but his infamy assured that no New Yorker would ever commit one of my biggest pet peeves: mispronouncing my last name.

**  Everyone I know, ESPECIALLY my wife, will tell you I am decidedly NOT a “playa”…seriously, the closest I ever got to being a playa was visiting a beach in Mexico.

Of course, as the internet blossomed, the most popular advertising doctor of dermatology in the NYC Subway system saw his fame spread beyond the five boroughs.  When Hillary Clinton first ran for the Senate, a New York paper suggested the Chicagoan prove herself a true New Yorker by taking a quiz – one of the questions was “Who is Dr. Zizmor?”; in 2003 there was a piece on him in the New Yorker; to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the subway system in 2004, an A-Z list of subway-born terminology featured “Zizmor” for the letter Z; a 2006 New York Times article practically called him a city icon; Saturday Night Live spoofed him in a fake commercial; and some advertising genius over at Snickers came up with this brilliant piece of work:

snickers-zizAll of this was instantaneously forwarded to me by friends from around the globe who recognized my unusual last name associated with someone they had never heard of.  In all honesty, these blips of recognition became an amusing little joy of mine – I liked getting a sliver of reflected glory…until recently that is.

Just a few weeks ago, my good friend over at the I Am DB blog (if you love movies, then check out his blog – seriously, he knows his s**t) sent me a link about the good doctor.  I initially thought it would be yet another silly story about Dr. Z, but what I read really pissed me off.  According to many sources covering the series finale of the tv show 30 Rock, their writers asked my cousin to appear in an episode AND HE TURNED THEM DOWN!  I repeat, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor had the opportunity to associate himself with Tina Fey on one of the funniest tv shows of the last twenty years where he could reach millions of viewers, and decided that wasn’t a good move.  To quote Ms. Fey, “What the what?!!?”  How could a relative of mine, smart enough to become one of the most well-known doctors in one of the best cities in the world through the pioneering use of ADVERTISING do something so stupid?  And then it hit me: for all the success, for all the accolades, and for all the recognition, he was still no more than New York’s version of Paul from the Diamond Center…just another local guy whose ads made him a bit too big for his britches.  In the end, Dr. Zizmor was simply the guy who inexplicably thought green-lighting THIS ad was a good idea.  Thank you Dr. Zizmor: your boneheaded decision has freed me from following your exploits now and forevermore.  But, hey, have fun removing those tramp stamps from suddenly saggy 42-year-olds with a belated sense of buyer’s remorse.

(Please share your experiences with Dr. Zizmor or your own local version of him in the comment section)

An Offseason With Your Friendly Neighborhood 49ers

First, the bad news: the San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl.

Now, the good news: they’re still one of the best teams in the NFL, are in ok shape salary cap-wise, and are relatively young at most key positions.  In short: this squad should remain a playoff team for years to come, and by “playoff team” I really mean Super Bowl contender.  Unless a ridiculous run of bad luck leads to Colin Kaepernick falling ill from a toxic tattoo, Andy Lee getting arrested for punting his neighbor’s yappy dog into the next county, and/or Jim Harbaugh literally exploding in a white-hot fireball of rage when the waitress at Hobee’s gives him scrambled eggs even though he ordered poached, there is every reason to believe the 49ers will remain a top team in the upcoming season.  So shake off that post-Super Bowl-malaise and gear up for 2013 with me: your San Francisco 49ers will have plenty going on to keep you entertained between now and kickoff next September.

Roman Empire

If you were paying attention to some of the crappier teams in the NFL you might have noticed that a whopping EIGHT of their head coaches (that’s 25% of the league) got fired.  You also might have noticed that one of those teams – the Jacksonville Jaguars – not only fired their coach, but their general manager as well and proceeded to replace him with a college teammate of Greg Roman’s.  Once the rumor mill started to work its magic, losing Roman to the Jags seemed inevitable.  But a funny thing happened: it turns out that owners are so impatient these days that they can’t even wait for the good assistant coaches on playoff teams to, you know, finish the playoffs when they can rejoin the interview process.  You would think that really bad teams would want to hire guys from the really good ones, i.e. the Super Bowl teams, but there’s a reason those teams are bad and this is one of them.  Instead, the Jags hired someone else days before the NFC championship game, thereby filling the last head coaching vacancy and giving the 49ers a little more time to enjoy their Roman holiday (I know, I know…but that lame joke was coming no matter what…I can’t help myself).

I’m here to tell you that the retention of Greg Roman is already one of the biggest moves of the 49ers’ offseason. Gripe all you want about the playcalling on the team’s final set of downs in the Super Bowl, but Roman is one of the most innovative offensive coordinators in the game and he is not long for the red and gold.  Indeed, I’m predicting right now that he’ll be coaching somewhere other than San Francisco (unless the aforementioned Harbaugh explosion happens) come the 2014 season.  Nevertheless, 2013 is all that matters for our purposes and Roman will be firmly ensconced in the Candlestick coaching box next autumn.

What makes Roman so important?  Keep in mind that Colin Kaepernick didn’t start until the Niners’ tenth game of the season; he played only a few snaps in five of the previous games and replaced the injured Alex Smith in another; he saw no action whatsoever in the remaining three games.  In other words, except for a handful of plays using Kaepernick’s running ability as a change of pace, very little of the 49ers’ basic offense was designed to accommodate him.  That’s not to say that Roman and Harbaugh didn’t add new plays or change their playcalling in the ten games Kaepernick did start – the Green Bay playoff game is proof positive that they did – it’s just important to recognize that Kaepernick was primarily running an offense designed with Alex Smith in mind.  It’s a credit to Harbaugh, Roman, and the rest of the coaching staff that they were able to make as many effective adjustments as they did during the team’s playoff run.  But that all changes in the 2013 season.

Colin Kaepernick is now the unquestioned starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 and with that certainty comes a whole new game plan.  Greg Roman gets to take a playbook that Kaepernick did a pretty good job with (in the playoffs: 61% of passes completed, 798 yards passing, 264 yards rushing, 4 passing TDs, 3 rushing TDs, and a 100.9 QB rating) and expand it to more completely take advantage of his dynamic passing and rushing ability.  Remember, as good a season as Alex Smith had, his average arm-strength kept him from having any significant success outside the numbers, especially downfield; and it also made him somewhat timid when choosing which throws to attempt since he wasn’t strong enough nor did he have the pinpoint accuracy to fit passes into tight windows.  Kaepernick proved time and again that not only does he have perhaps the strongest arm in the league, but that his accuracy doesn’t suffer from it.  Indeed, while pundits initially compared him (favorably) to Randall Cunningham, by the Super Bowl they were comparing him (favorably) to John Elway.  This superior passing ability significantly expands Roman’s options in the air.  Add Kaepernick’s rushing ability and mastery of the Pistol offense to the mix and you have the potential for an offense that could be one of the best in the league.

Before Kaepernick even took a snap in 2012, Roman already had the 49ers running one of the more complicated offenses in the NFL: they had significantly more formations, pre-snap motion, and personnel packages than most teams.  Once Kaepernick took over the starting job, Roman did a good job of gradually adding more Pistol-Formation and read-option playcalls to take advantage of his quarterback’s running ability; he similarly called for more downfield passes to take advantage of Kaepernick’s rocket arm.  Clearly this was not an offensive coordinator afraid to take an unconventional approach to an offensive gameplan.  But this was all done on the fly during the rigors of a Super Bowl run.  As good a job as Roman did rejiggering the offense following the QB change, imagine what he can do with an entire offseason at his disposal.  He now knows that defenses will likely commit a player to spy on Kaepernick due to his running ability which in turn will create more space for his WRs, TEs, and RBs.  He also knows his quarterback can make any throw in the playbook so he can ditch the conservative passing game and air it out.  What will defenses do if Roman puts Frank Gore, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter in the Pistol backfield with Kaepernick?  What happens if Roman realizes he can shift out of those Pistol or read option looks into a spread formation?  Will Roman add some trick plays  – say, a reverse out of a read option – to further confuse the opposition?  The possibilities are endless.  Greg Roman started to transform the 49ers’ offense last season so it’s only fitting he gets to see the job through in the next one – the mix of read-option, Pistol, and conventional plays at the end of 2012 was just a preview of the offensive fireworks to come.

Mr. Smith Goes to Kansas City

Over the last couple of weeks, I have written more than I care to admit on the topic of Alex Smith’s 49er-hood and then deleted most of it as the story changed faster than, well, Colin Kaepernick being chased by a Packers’ linebacker.  Who knew that the combination of multiple teams with severe quarterback issues, a draft class devoid of any impact passers, and a weak group of free agent QBs would lead to Alex Smith becoming the most discussed player in the league?  However, it seems as though the latest news that the 49ers have an agreement in place to trade Smith to Kansas City for a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft and a conditional pick in 2014 should (hopefully) put a stop to the madness.  While it’s true that that no trades can officially occur until the league year begins on March 12th and either team can change its mind between now and then, let’s just assume for the moment that Alex Smith will be the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs next September, if only for my sanity.

For the 49ers, this is a fantastic deal.  Let’s face it: Alex Smith is a solid quarterback who can be successful with the right team, but he’s probably no better than the 15th best QB in the league.  In another season with better draft prospects, a quarterback like Smith would not have fetched anywhere close to two high draft picks.  After all, this is the same quarterback who had interest from exactly one other suitor (Miami) when he tested the free agent market a year ago immediately after taking his team to the NFC Championship game.  Fortunately for Trent Baalke, the draft, free agent class, lousy QB situations around the league, and Smith’s strong performance in 2011-12 all came together to maximize his trade value.  In a draft whose strength lies in its depth from the mid-first round through the early third, adding the second pick in the second round to the eleven picks the Niners already had (plus the three compensatory picks they’re likely to get) gives them the ability to do almost anything they want: they can package multiple picks to move up and take a player they really want; they can stand pat and get several good players who could contribute right away; or they can trade some of this year’s picks for even higher picks next year.  Hell, they’ll probably do all three at some point.

This trade will also work well in the 49ers locker-room.  While I think there’s little doubt that Colin Kaepernick should be the team’s quarterback going forward, Alex Smith had plenty of friends in his corner.  It was one thing for him to play the good teammate as Kaepernick took over following Smith’s concussion; it would be another thing entirely to ask him to go into the 2013 season as the presumed backup.  Given Smith’s recent play and how well he handled a difficult situation, he certainly deserved to be treated well by the organization.  Though the best treatment would have been Smith’s outright release to free agency, the 49ers did the next best thing and traded him to a team that probably wasn’t as bad as its record and has a head coach – Andy Reid – with a track record coaching QBs every bit as impressive as Jim Harbaugh’s.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say this makes the players love management – these guys are very much aware that football can be a cold and calculating business – but seeing the team do right by a player certainly goes a long way toward building trust between two camps traditionally at odds with each other.  Also, it keeps the players from having to answer any Colin-Alex quarterback controversy questions which I’m sure they appreciate.

The only downside to the deal is that the 49ers now need to address their backup quarterback situation.  At the moment, that player is Scott Tolzien, someone who has yet to take a snap in a regular season game.  We can assume that the 49ers like him since they kept him as the third string QB last season over Harbaugh protege, Josh Johnson (who signed with Cleveland in late December), but with little track record to go on, there’s no obvious reason to think Tolzien will have the job handed to him on a silver platter.  Actually, let me clarify: Tolzien won’t have the job handed to him because the Niners strongly believe in fostering competition for every job on the team, especially one where the player competing has little experience.  That said, we should probably consider Tolzien the favorite for two reasons: (1) the aforementioned weak QB draft class and (2) the aforementioned weak QB free agent class.  (You’ll find more on the backup QB situation below.)  Nevertheless, trading Alex Smith doesn’t suddenly become a bad trade because the backup spot is now a question mark – it’s merely an outcome of the move worthy of some discussion.

The bottom line is that, regardless of the backup QB’s identity, the trade of Alex Smith was a great one.  Considering the 49ers thought of not pursuing him as a free agent following the 2010 season and kicked the tires on Peyton Manning following Smith’s strong 2011 campaign, getting two high draft picks for him is as good as it gets.  That the players perceive Smith’s trade in a positive light is gravy.

Free Agents, Draft Picks, and Bears, Oh My!

In all honesty, projecting which players will be drafted where is a stupid proposition.  The so-called experts almost always get the #1 pick right, they’re usually on target for picks two and three, and they occasionally hit paydirt on the next few picks as well, but once you get past the fifth or sixth selection, it all becomes a crapshoot.  Sometimes a trade throws the predictions off, other times it’s a team drafting a low-rated player way too high (see: Heyward-Bey, Darrius), but no matter the reason, the worthlessness of those mock drafts increases exponentially as it approaches the 49ers’ first selection at #31 overall.  As such, I will not mention any names when discussing the Niners’ draft, only positions I think they need to address.

Of course, how the 49ers approach the draft depends in large part on how they approach free agency.  For instance, by cutting David Akers and failing to sign a free agent replacement, the odds would greatly increase that the Niners use one of their late round picks to fill that void.  Also keep in mind that the team will need to address potentially big contracts for key players like Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis over the next few seasons, making them reluctant to dish out big deals to less essential personnel right now.  More to the point, following the release of Akers and the eventual trade of Alex Smith, the 49ers will be approximately $12M under the salary cap.  Some of that is earmarked for draft picks leaving around $8M for free agency.  Taking all that into consideration, we can surmise that while the 49ers may sign a few free agents if they can find them at the right price, they are more likely to shore up their depth and free agent losses through the draft where players are always cheaper.  To figure out where the 49ers will focus in the draft, let’s examine the team’s current crop of free agents:

Dashon Goldson, Free Safety – Of all the 49ers’ free agents, Goldson will likely be the highest paid, but by whom?  Two years ago, Goldson rejected the 49ers long term contract offer hoping to score a big deal in free agency.  In part due to the screwed up free agent market following the lockout and in part due to his average play, Goldson ended up re-signing with San Francisco for one year and $2M.  He subsequently had an outstanding, hard-hitting 2011 season that earned him a Pro-Bowl berth and, again, he wanted a long term deal from the 49ers, but not at the price they offered.  This time, the team placed the franchise tag on Goldson leaving him to earn $6.2M in 2012.  Now having proved himself with another Pro-Bowl berth and his first All-Pro selection, Goldson will surely be looking to finally score that long term deal in 2013.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear likely he’ll get it from the 49ers.

The simple fact is that while Goldson is a heavy hitter who provides fantastic help in run support, he is not particularly strong in pass coverage, a problem that was on display for all to see in the playoffs against both Atlanta and Baltimore.  His propensity for dumb penalties (7 personal fouls in 2012 alone) doesn’t help matters.  Were he strong all around then the 49ers might feel differently about re-signing him, but that’s simply not the case here.  Regardless, Goldson  is reportedly seeking a contract worth $8M a year which would rank him among the highest paid safeties in the game.  Considering the Niners decided not to exercise the franchise tag on him and the tag would have cost the team less than his $8M asking price, it seems unlikely the two will come to an agreement unless Goldson significantly reduces his demands.  That could happen once Goldson explores free agency: there are several other decent safeties on the market as well as a strong class in the draft; the volume of safety talent may drive salaries down to the point where Goldson ends up back in the 49ers’ price range.  However, that can only happen once Goldson actually tests the market and it seems almost certain that he will.  He probably will not receive his desired $8M/year contract, but I suspect someone will offer him more than the 49ers are prepared to pay for a safety who doesn’t excel in coverage.

David Akers, Kicker – The 49ers already released Akers.  Considering his much publicized struggles in 2012 (69% FG made, 30th in the league) and the team’s signing of Billy Cundiff during the playoffs, this is hardly unexpected.  That Akers had a cap-unfriendly $3M salary only hastened the move.  There is little chance he returns, even at a reduced salary.

Delanie Walker, Tight End – I suspect the 49ers would like to keep Walker if at all possible.  He’s a very good blocker who does an excellent job sticking to his assignments in the Niners’ complicated run schemes, and he’s more than willing to give his all on special teams.  True, he drops a few too many passes for a guy who played wide receiver in college (and he seemed to drop even more once the strong-armed Kaepernick took over at QB), but he seemed willing to work on that issue.  The problem for the 49ers is that they already have Vernon Davis, the second highest paid tight end in the league, and paying a lot for a backup is something of a luxury.  On top of that, the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis of the world have turned the tight end into the new “it” position, bringing not only glamor to a long overlooked position but inflated salaries as well.  There will be several tight ends with better track records in this year’s free agent market, but a team looking for a slightly less expensive player with the skills of a starter could easily zero in on Walker and pay him more than the Niners are willing to.  The 49ers will likely make an effort to retain Walker, but don’t be surprised if the lure of having a starting job all to himself and the salary that goes with it takes Walker away from the bay.

Ricky Jean-Francois and Isaac Sopoaga, Defensive Line – The fates of these two players are intertwined.  Sopoaga, a 4th round pick in 2004, has been a strong and reliable member of the 49ers d-line for the last eight years.  Never flashy, he excelled at the dirty work of holding the point of attack so the linebackers could get a clean shot at the ball.  He has never been much of a pass rusher, but that was never really expected of him either.  In short: he is a run-stopper.  Jean-Francois was a 7th round pick who worked hard to earn his way into the defensive line rotation and had a solid 2012 as the primary backup to all three starters.  Though a bit more difficult to evaluate since he has played fewer snaps than his line-mate, Jean-Francois appears to have a very similar style of play to Sopoaga’s with perhaps a slightly better ability to rush the quarterback.  Truth be told, the only glaring difference between the two is their age – Sopoaga is five years older – and for that reason alone, the 49ers would prefer to keep the younger guy.

Ironically, the relative youth of Jean-Francois could mean the 49ers ultimately re-sign the older Sopoaga.  Simply put, if being 26 makes Jean-Francois more attractive to the Niners, then that same bias applies to every other team on the market.  That in turn could drive the price for Jean-Francois right out of the 49ers’ range and, at the same time, push Sopoaga’s down to an acceptable number.  Indeed, Jean-Francois has reportedly been contacted by five teams while little has been said about Sopoaga.  Considering Jean-Francois has had the (relatively) low salary of a 7th rounder for four years, chances are he will jump at the best deal he can get.  Even though the Niners would like him to stay, they typically set a salary for a player and tell him to take it or leave it (look at what happened with Alex Smith a year ago).  Those two stances point to Jean-Francois playing elsewhere next season.  On the other hand, Sopoaga made $3.8M last season and probably won’t find anyone – San Francisco included – willing to pay him that much again.  Assuming he’s willing to take a pay cut (don’t worry about Isaac, he’ll still make a million or two), I think Sopoaga will get a one or two year deal to continue his run stuffing and help mentor the next generation of 49ers defensive linemen.

Randy Moss, Wide Receiver – He’s gone and he’s not coming back.

Ted Ginn Jr., WR/KR/PR – In 2010 and ’11, Ginn was one of the best return men in the game; in 2012 he was merely middle of the pack and appeared to have lost a step.  Add in an abysmal performance as a wide receiver – just TWO receptions – and four fumbles and there’s no reason to believe Ginn will return (see what I did there?) to the 49ers in 2013.

Now that we’ve covered the potential holes in the lineup, we can finally talk about the draft.  Here are the 49ers’ selections by round:

1st round: 31st overall
2nd round: 34th overall (from Kansas City) and 61st overall (own pick)
3rd round: 74th overall (from Carolina) and 94th overall (own pick)
4th round: own pick
5th round: pick from Indianapolis and own pick
6th round: pick from Miami and own pick
7th round: pick from Cincinnati and own pick

That’s twelve draft picks already and three more likely to come once the league announces compensatory picks (the draft picks from the 4th round onward do not have definitive spots in the overall order because those same compensatory picks have not been revealed just yet).  As I said previously, there is little chance the Niners will use all these draft picks in 2013 because they have fewer competitive roster spots than selections.  Expect lots of trades both up, down, and for future picks.  Let’s go through the positions the 49ers are most likely to address in order of importance:

1 – Defensive Line:  While it was popular to bash the secondary for some of its breakdowns in the post-season, the real problem was the lack of a pass rush after Justin Smith tore his triceps against New England.  Even when he returned to the lineup, the d-line simply didn’t generate the same pressure it had previously.  A healthy Smith will hopefully solve that problem for 2013, but even if he does, the line’s performance without him makes clear that they need another disruptive presence to provide a safety net in case of another injury.  With the potential to lose one or both of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois to free agency; and Justin Smith (a) coming off an injury, (b) turning 34, and (c) entering the final year of his contract, the 49ers’ need to add some fresh blood to their d-line rotation becomes more urgent.  They could address it in free agency, but proven pass rushing linemen don’t come cheap and if they do, they’re usually situational players at the tail end of their careers like John Abraham or Dwight Freeney.  Guys like that might help immediately, but do little to help the team down the road.  That’s why I think the Niners will address the defensive line with at least one of their first three picks regardless of whether they sign any free agents (which they might – Abraham visited the team on Saturday).

2 – Safety:  Recent reports make it appear more and more likely that Dashon Goldson will leave via free agency.  If he does, then the 49ers will need a new starting free safety.  It’s possible the team believes they already have a potential replacement in C.J. Spillman whom they signed to a three year, $6M contract before the 2012 season – he is about the same size as Goldson and is a big hitter in his own right – however, he has played primarily on special teams thus far in his career and has yet to prove himself a starter.  The Niners also drafted safety Trenton Robinson in the 6th round last year, though he is a bit on the small side for the position.  This year’s draft is supposed to be deep at safety so if the Niners are not completely confident in Spillman, Robinson, or anyone else on the roster, I expect to see them select a safety with one of their early picks.

3 – Wide Receiver/Return Man:  Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are both coming off serious injuries, first round pick A.J. Jenkins caught zero passes last year, Randy Moss already said his goodbyes, and Tedd Ginn Jr. will probably do the same.  In short: Michael Crabtree is the only reliable receiver currently on the Niners’ roster.  There are several intriguing players available in free agency and it wouldn’t surprise me if the team adds someone on the cheap, but they really need someone to stretch the field and since they won’t pay Mike Wallace $12M a year, they’re going to have to mine the draft for that guy.  A wideout with the requisite speed can probably be found within the first three rounds; if he can double-up and return kicks and/or punts then all the better.

4 – Kicker:  There are five names to consider when talking about kickers – the first two are Phil Dawson and Lawrence Tynes; the other three are Justin Tucker, Blair Walsh, and Greg Zuerlein.  Dawson and Tynes are free agents who both successfully kicked in outdoor stadiums known for swirling winds.  Either would be a great replacement for David Akers, but Dawson is coming off a good season in which he was paid $3M and Tynes will be seeking a similar amount.  On the other hand, Walsh and Zuerlein were both drafted in the 6th round last year and Tucker was an undrafted free agent.  All three had stellar rookie campaigns (Walsh was an All-Pro and a Pro-Bowler) at minimal cost to their teams.  Considering the 49ers have higher priced needs at other positions, it seems unlikely they would target Dawson or Tynes for $3M/year when they could draft someone late and lock them in for four seasons at an average of $500K/year.  Though a free agent signing wouldn’t completely surprise me, I expect the 49ers to use a late round pick on a kicker, sign an undrafted one afterward, and let them duke it out in training camp.

5 – Backup Quarterback:  As mentioned previously, the pending trade of Alex Smith leaves the Niners with only two quarterbacks on their roster.  How they approach the situation is a mystery since no one seems to have a strong sense of their opinion of 3rd stringer Scott Tolzien.  If they believe Tolzien is ready to step in as the #2 man behind Colin Kaepernick, then they won’t feel tremendous pressure to sign someone and could easily use a mid- to late-round selection on a QB, trusting that Jim Harbaugh can mentor him to competence.  If, on the other hand, they’re uneasy about Tolzien’s development, then they will look a bit more closely at the free agent market to find some experienced competition.  Unfortunately, the free agent class is almost as bleak as the one in the draft so this isn’t exactly a slam dunk move – Josh Johnson looks like the most obvious candidate for a call from Trent Baalke.  Even with a free agent signing, I could see the Niners taking a late-round flyer on a QB, perhaps one with read-option experience.  I guess the only real difference between this and my first scenario is that, in the first one, Tolzien is the presumptive #2 whereas, with a free agent signing, #2 and #3 remain unclear until the third exhibition game.

6 – Tight End: Whether the 49ers spend a draft pick on a tight end depends primarily on the status of Delanie Walker.  If he re-signs, then drafting a TE becomes a low priority – they could take a late round flyer on a TE to compete with Garrett Celek for the third string spot, but anything earlier would be a shocker.  If Walker leaves, then adding a tight end becomes an immediate priority and the position moves up to third or fourth on this list.  There are several quality TEs in free agency so the 49ers could go that route – they’re looking for a backup so that should keep the price reasonable.  Nevertheless, even with a free agent signing I would still expect them to draft a tight end at some point.

7 – Cornerback:  By tendering a one-year deal to Tramaine Brock, it’s likely every single cornerback on the 49ers will return this fall.  That said, with the rising emphasis on the passing game these days, teams can’t take their defensive backs for granted.  No matter how much the Niners like Brock, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver, they have to keep a constant vigil for even better talent.  I have this position rated seventh because the 49ers do not desperately need another CB, but corners are so valuable that I could easily see them drafting one with ANY of their picks if the right player is there for the taking.

8 – Everything Else:  Just because the above seven positions are the most important does not rule out the drafting of players at other unmentioned ones.  The moves made during free agency will ultimately shuffle this list and make it more likely that another position gets selected.  Do the 49ers want to draft a center to eventually take over for the 34 year old Jonathon Goodwin?  Do they want to begin grooming a replacement for Frank Gore?  Who are their backup linebackers?  The Niners’ current front office has shown that they’re always thinking two steps ahead when it comes to their roster so every position is on the table as a draft possibility.

The Beginning

We’re now 5000+ words into my first ever post and the sad truth is this is only the beginning of a very long offseason.  While I’m confident in my predictions, free agency will soon change the landscape rendering much of what I’ve said moot.  Of course, this being a blog, I can just write some more – that’s the point, right – so please check in periodically as I plan to discuss the 49ers’ moves as they happen.  I hope you enjoyed what will hopefully be the first of many entries.  Tell any 49ers fans you know to stop on by and leave a comment or two.