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Replacing Patrick Kerney

I still can't wrap my head around Patrick Kerney's 2007. Like running backs, defensive ends rely on their acceleration--both to get around blockers and to close in on the ball carrier--and like running backs, most ends' best days are behind them by 30. From 2004-2006, only 9 of the top 90 (split 30 a season) sacks-recorded seasons were accomplished by players 30 or above. Of that 9, 6 were accomplished by Simeon Rice, Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan--all future Hall of Fame players. I was openly unhappy about the signing. In retrospect, it taught me something about evaluating a player based on generalizations. That's one big reason I didn't piss and moan about the Julius Jones signing. Sure, his 2007 was less than stellar, but watching him it's obvious he didn't pair well with the Cowboys blockers and was clearly demoralized. It takes imagination, but visualizing Jones behind Seattle's line, in Holmgren's blocking schemes, I've become confident he will succeed.

I digress. Kerney bucked the trend in 2007. How he did it isn't perfectly clear. Seattle's secondary helped, as Kerney enjoyed a fair number of hustle/coverage sacks. But, moreover, he didn't suffer the kind of loss in acceleration you might expect of an elder defensive end. Qwest might have something to do with that. 9 of Kerney's 14.5 sacks came at home, on Qwest's field turf. Another 3 came at the Edward Jones Dome, another field turf field. Kerney, like most of Seattle's defense, was very quiet against the Packers in the hoary, sloppy confines of Lambeau that benighted day. Playing on an overall better defense certainly benefits Kerney, too, but, really, there isn't a single, definitive reason for Kerney's later career resurgence.

Knowing that, it's probably a pretty damn good idea for the Hawks to recession proof their pass rush. A decline of some measure is almost certain for Kerney, and a collapse isn't out of the question. That's why Quentin Groves is becoming a very attractive pick at 25.

I'll cut to the quick, Groves looks and plays a lot like Dwight Freeney. Both are laser-quick edge rushers, and both contribute beyond their sack numbers. Groves is 6'3" even, precisely the same height as Chris Long and Vernon Gholston, but a touch lighter (259 versus 266 and 272, respectively). Nevertheless, many scouts believe Groves is destined to be an OLB in a 3-4. I don't see it. Groves has an athletic frame that could add muscle without compromising his speed. And though his speed is elite, it's his first step that makes him deadly around the edge. Groves has special burst off the snap and has embarrassed more than a few offensive tackles. Like...

This is pretty nice.

But I like this even better.

Now, Alesana Alesana is a borderline NFL prospect, so apply as much salt as you'd like, but the fact is Groves embarrassed the young man. Groves's a special athlete, with a lot of what you have to love about Freeney, foremost, the incredibly disruptive edge rush, but a bigger body and a really rare blend of power and quickness. He's not just fast in line, his agility is top notch, and when he pursues, he catches his man. From the "he's small so he can't..." department, some worry about Groves' running stuffing ability, but he recorded 11 solo tackles for a loss in 2006, 9 combined (solo + assisted) in 2007 despite missing time, and recorded 11 combined playing part-time in 2005. He's not a two gap end, but the Hawks don't need him to be.

Pass rush, disruption, cutting off rushing lanes, penetration, that's what it's all about in the NFL. Analyst rehash "game of inches" clichés ad nauseum, but the NFL is really a game of seconds. Milliseconds. A route developing, a hole opening, a pass rusher arriving, time, timing, that's what defines the NFL. Speed is merely a measure of progress over time. Tim Ruskell built his defense to be fast, to cover ground in a flash, and I can't help but think the flash-paper quick, mature young end from Auburn, the all-time sack leader at Auburn, must be on his radar. Whatever Kerney does in 2008, his career is trending down and towards retirement--a long term replacement is needed. Groves makes an intriguing option.