Sunday, April 27, 2008

Appreciations

Another NFL Draft come and gone. Roger Goddell made good on his promise to leave no one twisting in the wind backstage, as the six green room invitees went in the first six picks of the draft. Maybe that's why this draft felt so blasé - where was the high drama involved with letting at least one guy stew back there, feeling for the first time in his life what it means to (figuratively) get picked last?

Notre Dame players came out on the high end of expectations, mostly, with a draft fit for the birds. Confused? Well...
John Carlson -- 38th pick overall (7th pick, 2nd round), Seattle Seahawks
Trevor Laws -- 49th pick overall (16th pick, 2nd round), Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Zbikowski -- 86th pick overall (23rd pick, 3rd round), Baltimore Ravens
John Sullivan -- 187th pick overall (21st pick, 6th round), Minnesota Vikings
All four were among the first five players taken at their position. Additionally, Joe Brockington and Travis Thomas signed UFA deals, Brockington with the Buffalo Bills and Thomas with the Browns, while JJ Jansen latched on with the Packers. Also on the move was 2006 draftee Anthony Fasano, who got packaged in a late Friday night deal to Miami, where he figures to be a prime contender for the starting TE spot. Sure beats languishing behind Jason Witten.

There's no shortage of storylines for the Irish as they move forward - for instance, how about a potential Philadelphia defensive line of Laws and Victor Abiamiri? Or Tommy Z taking tips from Ed Reed? Before turning our attention to the long hot summer and the 2008 football season, one last roll call of appreciation for four more Irish looking to play on Sundays.

From The Express-Times, on Philadelphia's newest defensive tackle:
Laws went 49-0 on his way to a (wrestling) state championship as a junior and was a member of state championship teams in each of his final three seasons.

Football was his true calling however, and that's how he wound up at the NovaCare Complex on Sunday, less than 24 hours after being selected in the second round with the 47th overall pick.

"It's been a crazy ride for me," Laws said. "The last 24 hours, I had my family over to my house, my real close friends and family. The Eagles called, I saw the Pennsylvania number. I picked it up and didn't really know what was going on. They were talking about a couple little things but not really giving away that they wanted me.

"All of a sudden, (coach Andy) Reid comes on the phone and my name rolls across the screen and they announce my name and I got mobbed by my family. I actually ended up hanging up the phone (accidentally) on Coach Reid. It's been wild. I flew out this morning at 6 a.m. and got a little shuteye. It's been good."

This marks the second straight year the Eagles have drafted a Notre Dame defensive lineman in the second round. They took end Victor Abiamiri with the 57th overall pick a year ago.

Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence, Fighting Irish head coach Charlie Weiss suggested.

"Andy and I are very close," Weiss said, "and he knows that he can ask about all the little idiosyncracies of our guys. But what it really comes down to is the Philadelphia organization being able to evaluate the guy and see if he fits."

Weiss is certain the Eagles received first-round value in Laws.

"Despite the fact that we had a bad performance as a team, Trevor was extraordinary," Weiss said. "I mean, tackles for loss, playing hard, playing against the (best) guys every time we'd match up ... he's a pain in the butt to block, he doesn't stay blocked, he has a wrestling background and although he's not tall, he plays with a low center of gravity and he's got a great motor."
Three years later, and reporters still can't spell the Notre Dame head coach's name right. C'est la vie, I guess. From the Chicago Tribune, on the newest hard-hitting Raven safety:
Since he planned to spike his exasperatingly unreliable cell phone against the nearest wall as soon as possible, Tom Zbikowski had people call it repeatedly Saturday and Sunday, to test the reception and sheer functionality.

The Baltimore Ravens had his home number, as it turns out. And soon after they rang it to take the former Buffalo Grove and Notre Dame standout in the third round of the NFL draft, someone half-seriously suggested sending Zbikowski's sister, Kristen, out to buy some team gear. In Baltimore.

As these episodes suggest, patience is not a virtue with the Zbikowski clan. Still, Tom Zbikowski will need to develop an even keel as he heads into an apprenticeship with one of the NFL's stingiest defenses.

"I still don't think it's sunk in," Zbikowski said. "In a couple of days, I'll be strapping it up in the same huddle as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It's ridiculous thinking about that."

It was a mercy pick, though Baltimore didn't know it. Zbikowski agonized over the wait. Sleep was a worthless endeavor Saturday night. He had four televisions on throughout the house early Sunday, not to mention a bevy of charts and lists in the family's own mini-war room.

Now he has clarity at last, going from Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year to Notre Dame All-American to this.

"There are definitely a lot of feelings I can't even explain and put into words," Zbikowski said. "It's been a long time coming—years of hard work, since you were a little kid playing in the street, saying one day you wanted to play in the NFL. It's finally come true."

It also requires a dose of that elusive patience. Though Zbikowski started all 48 games in his Notre Dame career at safety, he's probably going to Baltimore to add depth on defense and play special teams.

Though new Ravens coach John Harbaugh joked on ESPN that Zbikowski would be his bodyguard, in reference to his boxing career, Baltimore put a premium on skills that produced 11.5 yards per punt return and three touchdown runbacks for the Irish.

"[Zbikowski is] physical, fast, can run to the football," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "He can also be a backup returner for us. Those were areas where we got hit pretty hard last year, and we ended up taking guys off the practice squad, taking guys off the street.

"We feel like we've added some real good depth, and over the course of the next three or four years, guys that could become starters for us."

Meanwhile, Zbikowski can soak in lessons from the likes of Reed, a four-time Pro Bowl safety.

"[Who] better than Ed Reed to teach him?" said Zbikowski's father, Ed. "That's like a doctor doing his internship at the Mayo Clinic."
From John Carlson's hometown West Central Tribune:
Carlson didn’t watch the draft on Saturday and was in the basement of his parents’ home in Litchfield playing with his nephew, Tyson, when his fiancée, Danielle Herndon, heard his phone ringing and answered it.

“She came down and told me Seattle was calling,” said Carlson. “And everyone got so loud that I had to sprint upstairs to a quiet bedroom so I could talk. A representative of the team told me they were making a trade to move up in the draft and were going to take me.”

Carlson was then talking to Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren when the selection was made public on television. Carlson could head a collective cheer from the room where family members, friends, his fiancée and her parents were watching.

Holmgren targeted a tight end that could stretch the field much like Mike Chmura did with the Green Bay Packers when he was head coach there. The Seahawks have struggled at that position for several years.

“He told me he wanted me to step in and play right away,” said Carlson. “I was completely flattered. I knew they needed a tight end and I might have a chance to go there, but it was a surprise that they would trade up just to pick me.”

Holmgren has spent nine seasons at Seattle trying to find a tight end that could block and catch passes instead of having to rotate two or three in out of each series.

“The tight end situation was an interesting one because it was no secret that we were looking hard at tight ends,” Holmgren told the Seattle Times. “We probably, as an organization, spent as much time on the tight ends as any position in this draft.

“John Carlson, to me and Tim (Ruskell, the team’s president), was the most all-around solid guy. He’s really a good football player who can play inside at the tight end position. He’s a big man (6-foot-5, 251 pounds) … very good hands, good route runner.

“We love everything about the intangibles — how he plays the game, how he practices, how he conducts his life. I told Tim early on, I think that he is one of these guys, Lord willing and everyone stays healthy, that he can come in and be a really good football player for you for a long time.”

Carlson got a glowing endorsement from Charlie Weis, his former Notre Dame coach who was a former assistant coach with the New England Patriots.

“Coach Weis called me to congratulate me when I got drafted,” said Carlson. “I thought that was nice that he took the time to give me a call. He’s helped me a lot through this whole process. He’s been so supportive.”
And lastly, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune covers John Sullivan, who might one day be snapping to Booty Booty Booty Rocking Everywhere:
Sullivan started all 13 games in 2006 and last season he started 10 games, missing two contests because of a right knee sprain for a subpar Notre Dame team. Sullivan didn’t express concern that the Irish’s poor season caused his stock to drop.

“At this point, I’m with a team that I’m incredibly happy to be with,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with the result of how the draft went and looking at draft stock, up, down, it doesn’t matter to me at this point. I’m on a great team and I’m happy with my situation.”

The brainpower of the Vikings’ center tandem is a bit scary right now. Matt Birk is a Harvard grad and now a Notre Dame kid enters the picture? With Birk entering the last season of his contract, Sullivan could be groomed as his replacement. Sullivan also has the ability to play guard and see he would be comfortable in that role. “Whatever the coaching staff feels is the best for the team, will help the team win, I’m willing to do that and give anything my all,” he said.
This writer mentions brainpower, and certainly all four Notre Dame draftees were packing it on the NFL's much-discussed Wonderlic test. The test, which is actually used by countless businesses to gauge prospective employees, generates a lot of publicity because of how often people tie the score to a football player's IQ. For the most part, the scores (if accurate) confirmed what plenty already knew. Carlson, an Academic All-American, notched a 40 (a perfect score is 50), while Sullivan scored 35 and Laws a 30. Zbikowski scored a 26, best among safeties. Just how close is the Wonderlic to actual intelligence? The only thing the administrators will say is that "a score of 10 essentially means literacy". Special follow-up note: USC QB J.D. Booty? 14. His defensive tackle teammate, Sedrick Ellis? 15. And winning the gold prize, Michigan WR Mario Manningham with a 6. Manningham went in the third round to the Giants.

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