Welker, Woodhead proving stereotypes wrong

Welker, Woodhead proving stereotypes wrong

Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010
Posted 5:50 PM
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead are spending a fair amount of time this season making NFL defensive backs look bad. They also are making more than a few so-called personnel experts look downright stupid.

They are living proof that living well is indeed the best revenge.

Welker is a shade under 5-9 and about 195 pounds, roughly the size of Carolina's Steve Smith or the Bears' Rashied Davis. He 'towers' over Woodhead, who lists at 5-7, 200 pounds.

Welker wasn't initially offered a scholarship, then was given one to Texas Tech when another player backed out of a commitment. Woodhead at least had the distinction of being given the first full athletic scholarship to Chardon State College (Neb.).

Welker was not invited to the NFL scouting combine. After all, he only ran a 4.65-sec. in the 40. Neither was drafted out of college. And for Welker, who has gone on to be named to Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams, those slights have mattered.

"I don't so much think about it anymore," Welker said. "Maybe earlier on but really I just try to do my best because I want our team to be successful, move the ball and do some things like that."

Welker in 2009 joined Brandon Marshall, Marvin Harrison, Herman Moore and Jerry Rice as the only receivers in NFL history to catch 100 passes in three straight seasons. He currently leads the Patriots with 72 catches (next closest is Deon Branch with 49) and 7 receiving touchdowns.

Woodhead this year has 355 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns and has caught 28 passes, one of those for a TD.

Both Welker and Woodhead have the unspoken satisfaction of shattering the cliched thinking that too often governs NFL personnel evaluators.

"I hope so," Welker said. "I think it's definitely something to look at and the main thing you can really do is look at the tape, see how a player plays and see what kind of production he's had. I think those things are the most key things to look at when you look at a player and not get enamored with the measurables when the Combine comes around."

Making an impression

Welker went to camp with San Diego in 2004 but was cut and went on to Miami. What he did there was deliver performances that specifically had to impress his future bosses.

In his rookie year Welker became just the second person in NFL history to return a kickoff and a punt, kick an extra point and a field goal, and make a tackle in the same game.

That was against none other than the New England Patriots. In Miami's second game against New England that season, Welker broke a punt return 71 yards to set up a touchdown.

The Patriots had a good memory. They traded second- and seventh-round draft choices for Welker in 2007, perhaps figuring it was a good way to avoid having to deal with him twice a year on special teams.

And he fit some of the key concepts that the Patriots look for in personnel, notions that have served them well this decade.

"There are a lot of things we look for and it varies from position to position but in the end each player has his own unique set of skills and strengths and weaknesses; we all do," said coach Bill Belichick.

"The question really is what is the total balance in production of that whole skill set and how can it be used in a particular system or particular position. That varies a lot from player to player and sometimes from year to year."

Busting stereotypes

Welker and Woodhead also have gotten shots at receiver and running back despite the reality in some minds that NFL personnel evaluators look askance at white players at their positions the way personnel thinking made it difficult for black players to earn fair chances at quarterback, center and some other positions.

Welker does not rule out the possibility of a white player being overlooked but as far as that being common, "I don't think so," he said. "I think if you can play, you can play. I think there are plenty of white guys at the receiver position. I wouldn't know how many exactly but at the same time I wouldn't say someone's overlooked or it can't happen. If you can play, they're going to find a spot for you."

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."