Despite an abundance of March Madness coverage here at FiveThirtyEight this week, fear not: we didn’t forget about NBA Power Ratings. The short version of how these numbers work: Each team is ranked according to a projection of its strength over the upcoming week — and the upcoming week only — using Real Plus-Minus (RPM) player ratings provided by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. For more details on the methodology, see our introductory rankings post.A few thoughts for this week:The Oklahoma City Thunder have been plagued by injuries all season long, a trend continued by Monday’s news that Serge Ibaka will undergo surgery to address soreness in his knee. Ibaka’s +3.8 short-term RPM rating ranks 28th in the league, so taking him out of OKC’s lineup and replacing him with an average player would drop the Thunder by 3.0 points of power rating. Making matters worse, low-rated Enes Kanter figures to see a corresponding uptick in playing time, a further blow of 1.0 point to Oklahoma City’s power rating.Speaking of the Thunder, they currently have a playoff probability of 78.4 percent, according to our simulations. On the one hand, that’s quite a drop from the 92.7 percent mark they sported in our projections two weeks ago, a dip fueled by the loss of Ibaka and the ongoing absence of Kevin Durant. On the other hand, some might think that probability seems much too high, as the injury-riddled Thunder are clinging to the West’s final playoff spot by a mere half-game over the New Orleans Pelicans. So why does OKC get the nod in our simulations? Despite all the injuries, they still have a slightly superior power rating to the Pelicans; the Thunder also face an easier schedule over the remainder of the season.A week ago, I noted that the Miami Heat seemed to be fading rapidly, dropping from a playoff probability of 93 percent on Feb. 2 to 29.5 percent on March 9. But over the past week, the Heat have seen their postseason odds improve dramatically, and now have essentially a coin flip’s chance of making the playoffs. Although they only went 2-2 in the past week, they project to be much healthier going forward, with Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside all seeing big playing-time boosts (and Michael Beasley seeing a big dip) in our system.The Atlanta Hawks continue to rank lower here than you’d expect from their season-long power ratings, which speaks as much to the importance of Kyle Korver as anything else. Korver carries a +4.6 short-term rating, 14th-highest in basketball. So his projected absence this week due to a broken nose costs the Hawks 1.9 points of power rating if he’s replaced with an average NBA player. (And in reality, many of Korver’s minutes will go to Kent Bazemore, whose -3.3 RPM is far below average.)Going into this week, the tank-tastic Philadelphia 76ers had claimed either last or second-to-last place every time we issued our rankings. But the Minnesota Timberwolves have now dipped below Philly (but not the Knicks!), thanks to day-to-day injury statuses for Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic — and more playing time for the low-rated trio of Justin Hamilton, Chase Budinger and Zach LaVine. As an aside: How bad has LaVine (who carries an NBA-worst short-term RPM rating of -7.1) been as a rookie this season? He’s not quite as far from the mean in a negative direction as LeBron James is in the positive direction (+8.9), but LaVine is roughly as far from zero (in the opposite direction) as Chris Paul (+7.0) and Kawhi Leonard (+6.8)!
Mike TomlinPIT95-6+24 Ron RiveraCAR51+145+1543 Bruce AriansARI30+120+125<1 Marvin LewisCIN130+184+10140 Gus BradleyJAX30+8-1851 Herman Edwards2007KC47% Jack Del RioOAK10—+37<1 Andy ReidKC30+185+841 Mike McCoySD31+32-1055 Jeff FisherSTL40+124-5613 Dan QuinnATL10—+6<1 Neill Armstrong1980CHI22 COACHTEAMSEASONSPLAYOFF WINSBEFORE 2015DURING 2015CHANCE OF FIRING Dick Jauron2008BUF25 Jason GarrettDAL61+141-11735 Dave Campo2001DAL39 Things look bad for Chip Kelly and his Eagles. Fans are calling for his head; discord is rampant in the locker room; Kelly seems to be linked to every college job not nailed down or on fire; and the Eagles have found themselves on the receiving end of consecutive beatdowns so humiliating that mayor-turned-governor-turned-commentator Ed Rendell — a man last seen in public supplication outside a McDonald’s, begging for a McRib — was so ashamed that he hid his head in a bag. If Kelly is the NFL’s mad scientist, the lab is on fire.In the short term, Kelly is probably safe. He has two years left on his contract after 2015, and his newfound authority over Philadelphia’s roster — wrestled away from Howie Roseman in a power struggle in January — makes him a little more entrenched than your typical head coach. But the Eagles have also been one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams, by both the eye test and fancier metrics. So while Kelly the personnel czar still has some rope, we can entertain ourselves with a thought exercise wondering just how often such a disastrous season traditionally leads to a coaching change.To measure just what it takes for a coach to get fired in the NFL, I trained a classification model on data for every NFL coach since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, looking for the factors that predict whether he’ll return the following season. The best model, in terms of having the lowest “out-of-bag error,” accounts for how long a coach has been with his team, the team’s outlook going into the season, and how many playoff wins the coach has recorded during his tenure with the team. Coaches are typically given more leeway early, with firings peaking three to six years into their tenures, and unsurprisingly, playoff wins buy more job security. We used our Elo ratings as a proxy for team outlook; whatever you think of its predictive capabilities, Elo is a fantastic gauge of team perception and expectations.According to that historical rubric, no current coach1So, excluding Joe Philbin and Ken Whisenhunt, both of whom were fired earlier this season. should be feeling the heat more than Kelly, whose indicators have traditionally led to termination a shade over half the time (through 11 games): Pete CarrollSEA67+276-37<1 Lovie SmithTB20-59+4517 John FoxCHI10—+50<1 Todd BowlesNYJ10—+34<1 Sean PaytonNO96+94-7619 COACHYEARTEAMCHANCE OF FIRING Mike McCarthyGB107+136+202 Sam Wyche1994TB30 Mike ZimmerMIN20+4+995 Bill O’BrienHOU20+120+10<1 John HarbaughBAL810+117-741 Mike PettineCLE20+32-8319 Chip KellyPHI30+144-8652% Jay GrudenWAS20-28+55<1 Rex RyanBUF10—-22<1 Chan Gailey2011BUF28 The idea here is to measure what sort of team performance, somewhat devoid of context, would get a typical coach fired. You’ll notice in the table that Marvin Lewis — a coach pretty unlikely to be fired — is third on this list; that’s mainly because he’s been with the Bengals for 13 years and has zero playoff wins. The real world context is that while that is a broadly undesirable outcome, the Bengals being the Bengals, the team has more than exceeded the existential target of being Not The Browns. (You can see the lasting improvement that Lewis has brought to Cincinnati in the “before 2015″ column, which shows how much the team’s Elo rating improved between the time he got the job and the beginning of this season.) So Marv, like Chip, is probably fine, for reasons that are very different but just as amusing.As for Kelly, he’s in his third year of his tenure with a club, after winning zero playoff games in Years 1 and 2 — a scenario that has traditionally been the death zone for NFL coaches. Coaches in that predicament must show progress to keep their jobs: Roughly two-thirds of surviving coaches improved their team’s Elo rating (relative to preseason expectations) in Year 3, while nearly three-quarters of those fired oversaw an Elo decline from the preseason. So the Eagles’ 86.4-point Elo drop this season doesn’t look good for Kelly — since 1970, only 15 of the 128 coaches in Kelly’s position (Year 3 with a team, no previous playoff victories) oversaw a bigger drop-off in Elo through 11 games of the schedule, and two-thirds of them were fired before the following season began. Jim CaldwellDET20+66-645 Chuck PaganoIND43+173-316 Bill BelichickNE1621+164+761 ELO CHANGE John Mackovic1985KC28 Sometimes coaches still survive odds like Kelly’s. This table shows the coaches whose jobs were in the most jeopardy 11 games into a season yet went on to keep the job. But if Kelly does manage to stick with Philly beyond this season, he would set a new mark for unlikely job retention.Kelly’s trajectory wasn’t always so negative. After Philly beat Dallas in early November to make their record 4-4, there was only about a 5 percent chance that Kelly would be fired according to the model. But the Eagles’ current three-game losing streak has caused his probability of being fired to skyrocket: Gary KubiakDEN10—+66<1 Jim TomsulaSF10—-103<1 Tom CoughlinNYG128+81+217 John Mazur1971NE29 Jim Hanifan1983CRD26 Dave McGinnis2002ARI21 There’s still time for Kelly to turn things around. For one, the average coach who was fired since 1970 was assigned a 76 percent probability by the model at this stage of the season, so Kelly, at 52 percent, has some room left to fall. Second, despite their abiding awfulness, the Eagles somehow have a 15 percent chance of winning the NFC East, which would put a little shine on the turd. Although one of the most similar coaching seasons to Kelly’s2In terms of the arc his probability of being fired has taken each week. resulted in Wade Phillips being fired by the Denver Broncos in 1994, other similar years belonged to coaches who held on for another year (Bruce Coslet with the 1993 Jets) or even unexpectedly went to a Super Bowl a year later (Jim Fassel with the 2000 Giants).However the season plays out, Kelly will probably hang onto his job — particularly given the personnel control matter we mentioned earlier. But based on what typically gets coaches fired, Kelly should be thankful that he’ll (probably) remain employed when the smoke clears on this garbage fire, because historical precedent says it should pretty much be a coin flip whether he gets swept out with the ashes.
No matter who you feel won Tuesday’s blockbuster Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade — the likes of which were unprecedented in NBA history — there is an irony worth considering in all this.After years of making win-now moves, the Cleveland Cavaliers began straddling the line between immediate contention and considering the future — a must, given Irving’s messy trade request last month and the threat of LeBron James’s pending free agency. In beginning to walk that tightrope, the Cavs effectively switched places with the Boston Celtics, who, until now, had been stingy with future assets, wanting to win the East while also playing the long game.At its core, this all-star point-guard swap was one of survival for the Cavs, even if it did net them a sizable haul. Irving made it known he wanted out, limiting any sort of leverage for the team. And Cleveland had to thread the needle here by not only getting a good, if not great, player to replace a chunk of Irving’s impact, but also landing something for the future in case James bolts next summer.Thomas, who averaged almost 29 points per game last season, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick clearly checked off those two boxes. But for all the similarities Irving and Thomas share — they’re both undersized, top-flight scorers who struggle on defense — the way they go about generating offense is a bit different. Thomas should be able to shoulder just as much ball-handling responsibility as Irving did. But he played in a free-flowing offense with the Celtics, who boasted the league’s second-best assist percentage. Boston utilized handoffs more than any NBA team — about seven a game, according to Synergy Sports Technology — seeking to take advantage of Thomas’s quickness off the dribble.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ithandoffblur.mp400:0000:0000:10Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.By contrast, James and the Cavs — 20th in assist percentage — used the second-fewest handoffs in the NBA, with fewer than three per night. Only 22 percent of Irving’s 2-pointers were assisted last year, which suggests that he’s a bit more more self-sufficient from close range than Thomas (34 percent) is.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/irvingisojazz.mp400:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/kyrieiso.mp400:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Picking up Ante Zizic and Jae Crowder, a solid wing player who can both defend and shoot, should be viewed as icing on the cake for the Cavaliers.1Even more reason for celebration if you’re Cavs owner Dan Gilbert? According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the team saved more than $29 million in luxury taxes Tuesday by trading Irving. Probably not championship-level icing, though.Yes, Crowder gives Cleveland an additional perimeter defender, something the club badly needed in last year’s finals against the Warriors. That’s paramount, since Golden State might be more difficult to guard than any team in league history, given all the weapons they boast, and the highly unusual way they use off-ball screens to spring shooters open. But for all the ability Thomas possesses as a scorer — including the disappearing acts he performs around the basket — he stands 6 inches shorter than Irving, and, thus, is even less capable than Irving of stopping anyone on defense. A troubling omen: The Warriors feasted on Thomas’s lack of defense the past three seasons, scoring 108.6 points per 100 plays against the Celtics with Thomas on the court. For context, they only managed 87.2 points per 100 plays against Boston with Thomas on the bench, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.2In 170 minutes on court and 69 minutes off court over those three seasons with Boston.Besides being a liability on one end of the floor, Thomas, a 28-year-old who figures to want a max contract next summer, is still slowly working through the hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals last postseason. If he isn’t right physically, and can’t get there next season, that figures to leave James overburdened offensively in a year when the Cavs are hoping to leave a positive lasting impression ahead of their superstar’s foray into unrestricted free agency.Should the Cavaliers get out to a hot start amid these changes, they could opt to go all-in to take greater aim at the Warriors by dangling the Nets’ pick in hopes of landing a player like DeMarcus Cousins. That would carry an absolute ton of inherent risk, though, given James’s status.The safer choice, of course, would be to hold onto the pick in case James decides to walk. If and when that happened, Cleveland — in hopes of bottoming out and rebuilding through the draft — might decide it makes sense to let Thomas do the same as opposed to signing him to a rich, long-term contract.For the Celtics, who got the best player in this deal, the calculus is more clear-cut: They got a better, younger and taller version of what Thomas was, and one who’s under contract at a reasonable dollar figure for a longer time. (The Celtics — who traded stud defender Avery Bradley to shed salary for Gordon Hayward’s max deal — were already facing cap challenges. Trading for Irving eliminates the max-or-no-max decision on Thomas and gives the Celtics an extra year to take stock of where they are before Irving hits the market.)3ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday that the Celtics are confident that Irving will stay in Boston long term.It’s fair to wonder whether Boston may have handed over a future No. 1 overall pick in this deal for Irving, though that seems a bit more unlikely this season, given that the Nets have a halfway respectable roster, albeit a young one.4D’Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker are on the roster, among others.But beyond the players who were dealt, the teams seemingly swapped their long-term outlooks. The Celtics have reached a new stage — one where they finally felt they were within striking distance of LeBron. Only time will tell whether the gamble works out in their favor. The Cavaliers, showing Celtic-like prudence, found a way to replace their disgruntled No. 2 star — while also building an escape hatch should they lose their biggest star.
Columbus did not have much to be thankful for in its longest road trip of the season.Late-game letdowns were the cause. The Blue Jackets (12-9-4) have lost five games in a row, the longest winless stretch of the 2009-10 campaign. Four of the five losses were during the road trip, and the team continued its fall Saturday against Calgary with a 4-3 shootout loss at home.Before the road trip, the Jackets marked down back-to-back home shootout wins against Anaheim and Edmonton. The team looked re-energized after an embarrassing 9-1 loss against Detroit Nov. 11.But now, Columbus, like a younger brother getting bullied in the backyard playground, looks worn out against the rest of the NHL. It has been hard to watch.This team can win games. Last year, the club never went more than three consecutive games without a win.But this time around has been different. What happened to the Blue Jackets finishing out a hockey game? The club has been ahead in each of the last five games, but failed to hold onto the lead.The Montreal game was a hard one to digest. The Jackets led 3-2 headed into the final period but allowed three unanswered goals as the Canadiens came roaring from behind for the 5-3 win Nov. 24.Coach Ken Hitchcock said after the loss that not managing the game has been the story of the season for the club. He’s right about that.Columbus is third-last in the NHL in goals against, giving up an ugly 86 goals in 25 games with 32 suffered in the third period alone.Saturday night was the worst of the worst.Columbus seemed in control late in the third period with a 3-1 lead, but Calgary scored twice in a 1:19 span to tie it. The Jackets consistently struggle in the third period. They just seem to be outmatched.Sophomore goaltender Steve Mason looked good for most of the night against the Flames. But he gave up three goals on four attempts during the shootout, allowing Calgary constant open spaces between the pipes. He is now 0-4 in shootouts.Maybe he’s moving too fast or seeing the puck too quickly. Whatever it is, the 2009 Rookie of the Year should not panic. He will need to continue to work with the coaching staff to get back where he was last season.These next two games are crucial for one of the youngest clubs in the league. Columbus has back-to-back division games starting tonight against St. Louis at home. The Jackets travel to Chicago Tuesday night to face the Blackhawks, who are on top of the division with 35 points.Standing at 28 points, the club can climb right back to where it was to begin the year in the Central Division with two wins.Losing is contagious. It affects a player’s attitude on the ice, in the locker room and even at home.All it takes is 60 minutes of physical hockey to wipe away the frustration. The losses will be forgotten, the third period woes will vanish, and the Jackets can get back to a winning mindset.
The likely momentum gained from back-to-back wins against Wisconsin and Minnesota wasn’t enough to help spark Iowa to an upset win against Ohio State men’s basketball Saturday.The No. 6-ranked Buckeyes (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) traveled to Iowa City, Iowa, and ended the host’s two-game winning streak, defeating the Hawkeyes, 76-47. Sophomore forwards led the way for OSU as Jared Sullinger poured in a season-high 28 points while Deshaun Thomas contributed 10 points as well.In the Buckeyes’ first road test since a Dec. 31 loss to Indiana, OSU also improved their record away from the Schottenstein Center to 2-2.Iowa’s leading scorer, junior guard Eric May, managed only nine points. For the game, the Hawkeyes shot 32 percent and committed 20 turnovers.OSU continues conference play Tuesday at Illinois. Tip off is scheduled for 9 p.m. and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.Milestone winSaturday’s win against Iowa was also senior guard William’s Buford 100th career OSU victory. Buford scored eight points and tallied 11 rebounds and five assists in the win against the Hawkeyes.
Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger was named one of 15 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award Tuesday. The award, named after former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, recognizes the top player in college basketball. Sullinger is the only player on the list who was a 2011 Wooden Award All American. He was also named first-team All-American by Sporting News for the second straight year. The Buckeye big man has averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds for the No. 7-ranked OSU basketball team this year as the team compiled a 25-6 regular season record. Sullinger’s 14 points and 10 rebounds helped OSU beat Michigan State, 72-70, Sunday and give the Buckeyes a share of the Big Ten regular season championship along with the Spartans and Michigan. MSU senior forward and Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green was the only other player from the Big Ten named a finalist for the Wooden Award. Other notable names include Kentucky freshmen forwards Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kansas junior forward Thomas Robinson, and North Carolina senior forward Tyler Zeller. The list, which also requires the student-athletes to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, was comprised of three freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and seven seniors. The Big East had three players on the list, which was the most of any conference. The Wooden All-American teams will be announced during the week of the “Elite Eight” round of the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, Sullinger and the Buckeyes will travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament. They will play Friday at approximately 9 p.m. against the winner of a game between Nebraska and Purdue. After the tournament ends Sunday, the team will learn its seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State’s football’s coaches might spend days working on a game plan for the Buckeyes’ games on Saturdays, but offensive coaches have found that planning for the first three games of this season seems ineffective at times. The opponents’ defensive schemes, some coaches say, have been entirely different from anything they’ve seen on film. Rather, the opposition’s strategy has been geared toward stopping the running ability of sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. “I’ve seen defenses in the last three weeks that I never dreamt of in my mind to try and stop the QB from trying to run the football,” said offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “It’s an interesting quandary to be in when you have such a dynamic runner back there, that defensive coverages tend to be completely skewed opposed to what you grew up knowing.” This specialized preparation by OSU’s opponents has shown in games. So far this season, the Buckeyes have scored a total 122 points and only 20 have come in the first quarter. That is eight points or more below in comparison to any other quarter. Coach Urban Meyer shared Herman’s sentiment. “All three defenses we’ve faced have been (unique)- we didn’t practice what they played because we didn’t know. So that tells you what they’ve been doing all offseason working on this one game,” Meyer said. Sophomore tight end Jeff Heuerman is aware of the differences in schemes by opponents’ defenses, but said he realizes it is something to be expected. “Not every team is going to do exactly what they say they are going to do,” Heuerman said. “They ran a different defense and a few other teams ran some stuff that we haven’t seen yet. That’s all a part of being Ohio State, you gotta come up with some unique to beat you.” The Buckeyes’ next opponent, University of Alabama at Birmingham, might present a similar problem, but Meyer said he does not expect to see such bizarre styles of defense once they enter Big Ten play in two weeks on the road against Michigan State on Sept. 29. “It’s harder as the season progresses for a team to do that, because they can’t just say, ‘We’re working on Ohio State,’ because they have some previous games. So after this game, we’ll see usually what we see, and that is what teams play, because you can’t change defenses in the middle of the year normally,” Meyer said. OSU is scheduled to play UAB in Ohio Stadium at noon Saturday.
The Cincinnati Reds decided to hire in-house to its open managerial position.The club’s front office announced the promotion of pitching coach Bryan Price to manager at a Tuesday press conference. News of the hire first surfaced Monday night on Twitter from Fox’s Ken Rosenthal.Reds General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Walt Jocketty said Tuesday that despite a long list of candidates, he and the rest of the front office did not interview anyone else for the job.“Once we had the meeting with Bryan, we saw no reason to go forward (with other candidates),” Jocketty said at the press conference.The club’s CEO, Bob Castellini, described Price as “exceptional,” and said if the Reds did not hire Price, he likely would be heading elsewhere.The two sides agreed to a three-year contract running through 2016.Price, the 61st manager in team history, steps in for Dusty Baker who was relieved of his duties Oct. 3 after the Reds lost six consecutive games to close out 2013, including the National League Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.Baker went 509-463 (.524) during his six seasons in Cincinnati; he took his team to the postseason in three of the past four years.Price has served as the Reds’ pitching coach since 2010. During the 2013 regular season, the Reds’ pitching staff owned the MLB’s fourth-best ERA and led the NL in strikeouts. The year before, Price’s repertoire of bullpen arms led the Majors in saves (56) and was fourth in ERA (3.34). The 2012 Reds’ starting pitchers became just the eighth rotation in MLB history with five pitchers making at least 30 starts each.Price, who has never managed at the professional level, pitched as high as AAA in the minor leagues and served as the pitching coach for both the Mariners’ (2000-2005) and Diamondbacks (2006-2009) before coming to Cincinnati.The San Francisco, Calif., native interviewed for the Miami Marlins’ managerial vacancy last offseason, and was rumored to be a possible candidate for the Seattle Mariners current opening at the position.Starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who becomes a free agent as soon as the World Series ends, told the Cincinnati Enquirer how he felt his former pitching coach would do as a replacement when news broke of Baker’s firing.“I think he’d be unbelievable,” Arroyo said. “He’s as organized as anyone in the game; he holds people as accountable as well as anyone I’ve seen. He doesn’t buy into stereotypical things in the game … Price looks at evidence. He’s a freaking smart guy, he makes his decision on reasonable evidence. Sometimes in baseball we go by hunches, what someone else said or the way things have gone in the past. He doesn’t do that.”According to a September article at mlb.com, Reds’ starting pitcher Homer Bailey also had positive things to say about Price’s ability to hold people accountable, an area some feel Baker struggled with.“We are held accountable,” Bailey said. “We demand certain things out of everyone here, whether you’re the No. 1 starter on the team or the mop-up guy, it doesn’t matter. Our expectations are held so high. Some things are just unacceptable. Our starters are expected to go seven innings. We are expected to keep our team in the game. We are expected to put up quality starts.”Price thanked Baker during Tuesday’s press conference, saying “he became a friend and confidant.”Jocketty said other coaching staff decisions for vacant roles have not yet been made.Price will join John Farrell of the Red Sox and the Padres’ Bud Black as the only active managers who were previously a pitching coach.
OSU junior H-back Curtis Samuel (4) celebrates as he scores a rushing touchdown in second overtime to win the game for the Buckeyes on Nov. 26 at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 30-27. Credit: Mason Swires | Assistant Photo EditorAlthough the Ohio State football team will not be breaking records in the NFL Draft like it did last season, there are still eight former Buckeyes who are vying for the chance to play at the highest level in 2017. After the 2017 NFL Combine, a few of those players might be hearing their names called a little earlier after solid workouts. However, it isn’t positive for all OSU’s hopefuls.Center/Guard Pat ElfleinPrediction: Pick 114 (Washington Redskins)Pat Elflein’s switch to center worked well for the Pickerington, Ohio, native. A starter for 40 consecutive games and the indisputable anchor of the Buckeyes on the offensive line last season, Elflein mentored now-redshirt senior Billy Price, who will be following in his teammate’s footsteps next season by sliding over from guard to center.At the combine, Elflein looked leaner, with a more slim yet powerful frame. Even with a body that appeared much more in shape, Elflein managed just 22 reps, a rather low number for an offensive lineman.Elflein was not pleased.“It’s OK for right now,” he told the media. “But I’m going to do more at pro day.”While his stock might drop slightly because of less-than-stellar testing, Elflein is a workhorse who can bring a lot to an NFL franchise. Although he is known to have short arms for an interior lineman and lack some fundamental strength, he can still be a late steal.Wide receiver Curtis SamuelPrediction: Pick 37 (Los Angeles Rams)Curtis Samuel did not have the best hands last season, and had a habit of dropping passes. Regardless, Samuel entered the combine as a wide receiver rather than a running back, and showed off his most valuable skill: his speed.Samuel put in a blazing 4.31 40-yard dash time, the second best mark behind only John Ross of Washington, who ran an absurd 4.22 dash time. It was the fastest time of any Buckeye at the combine ever.It remains to be seen where Samuel actually ends up playing in the NFL. His 18 reps on bench press are a relatively high number for a wide receiver and predict his ability to create separation, but would also show his ability to bounce off tackles in the NFL as a running back.Regardless, Samuel earned himself quite a pay-bump with his quick feet.Linebacker Raekwon McMillanPrediction: Pick 53 (Detroit Lions)A leader in the middle of the OSU defense for three years, Raekwon McMillan is another example of a quality linebacker from Columbus. With more than 100 tackles in his senior season alone, McMillan showed his ability to be a reliable and formidable force in the middle on run defense. As a player who is wise beyond his years, McMillan’s ability to drop back in coverage and chase down ball carriers are the biggest questions ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft. One thing that can’t be questioned is the leadership of McMillan.“Everything we did on defense (at OSU) came through me,” he said. “I can do the same thing for their program. I’m never gonna give you a reason to let me go from the team, and I’ll always be a leader … never a follower.”With 23 reps on bench press, and a solid 4.61 time in the 40-yard dash, it seems strange that fans and coaches still question the ability of the Georgia native. Still, the combine is not an actual game. McMillan will be able to play at the next level, but will still have to prove himself at OSU’s pro day. Any team that takes a chance on him will likely benefit from one of the most intelligent and mature players in the draft, but that team might have to wait a year or two before he develops into a well-rounded middle linebacker.But when he is fully developed, McMillan could be one of the league’s best.Cornerback Marshon LattimorePrediction: Pick 12 (Cleveland Browns)Marshon Lattimore went through lingering hamstring injuries throughout his college career before having a stellar year in 2016, picking up four interceptions and returning one for a touchdown. And yet, every team still seemed hung up on his hamstring. Lattimore said he was asked multiple times about his hamstring, often with the question being the first thing asked.After an x-ray signaled he was fine, Lattimore reported injured his hamstring again, but he said it was hip flexor.Before the apparent injury, Lattimore ran a 4.36 40-yard dash, which showed his hamstring was in order (later ruined by reports of another injury). Lattimore has speed, and has the ability to play zone and press coverage, but his health is a major question mark. Still, Lattimore is confident.“At Ohio State, they prepare you the best, I feel like,” Lattimore said. “We perform in college, and then we perform in the league.”A team is going to take a shot at him in the first round, but the question is, who will be willing to take on the risk of a cornerback who can’t stay on the field?Punter Cameron Johnston Prediction: Pick 247 (Green Bay Packers)It’s hard to judge punters in combine testing. Most of what is known about a special teamer is established well before the combine.In Cameron Johnston’s case, he was one of three punters to run the 40-yard dash, and posted the slowest time among specialists of 4.92 seconds. This isn’t exactly an important stat for punters, but it’s worth noting.Johnston is a rugby-style punter who can really boot the ball deep, and could add a nice twist to a team looking for a proven player at the position. He won’t be taken off the board until late, if at all due to the fact he plays a position that is extremely undervalued. Safety Malik HookerPrediction: Pick 7 (Los Angeles Chargers)“The Freak” proved all doubters wrong in 2016 after coming into Columbus as a somewhat forgotten about three-star recruit. He dominated college football as a ball-hawking safety who could hit as hard as a linebacker. A powerfully built frame, and hands like a wide receiver, Malik Hooker is easily one of the top-10 best players in the entire draft. Offseason surgeries have limited his ability to show off his talent at the combine, but his draft stock has not fallen far.A sports hernia surgery and a procedure to repair a labrum in his hip have slowed Hooker temporarily, but he told reporters at the combine that he played through the injury during the Fiesta Bowl.“That was never a thought,” Hooker said. “Just because I put too much work in with those guys. It would be like I’m letting them down.”Hooker will still remain a top-10 selection in the draft, even though he will have to wait until rookie camp to actually contribute and work towards playing. Cornerback Gareon ConleyPrediction: Pick 31 (Atlanta Falcons)Gareon Conley is the man people forget from the OSU secondary in this draft, which is disappointing considering he is a quality player and one of the top cornerbacks in a cornerback-heavy class. He solidified that with a solid 4.44 40-yard dash time.In skills drills, Conley was right up there with the cornerbacks who were considered leaps ahead of him, and had a good enough showing to make him seem like a potential pick in the first half of the first round.This likely won’t happen for Conley, as teams have bought into the hype of his former teammates Lattimore and Alabama standout Marlon Humphrey. But his testing at the combine, paired with a career of success with the Buckeyes, shows how much Conley can bring to any team that selects him.Conley is projected to drop out of the first round, but that isn’t stopping him.“I don’t worry about it, but I try to motivate myself to get there,” he said. “I definitely want to be a first-round pick. Nobody doesn’t want to be a first-round pick, so I’m going to work as hard as I can to be a first-round pick.”His solid testing and positive attitude just might have gotten him there.Wide receiver Noah BrownPrediction: Pick 83 (Tennessee Titans)Noah Brown’s decision to leave OSU early was a surprise to many. He hopped on the hype train of players leaving after one solid year of production.Only problem, Brown’s numbers were not solid.With the exception of his absurd four-touchdown night against Oklahoma early in the season, Brown did not show much of anything to demonstrate he is going to make a difference in the NFL. The big-bodied receiver has the size to produce, but has far too many question marks to give him a clear distinction as a top-ranked wide receiver.Brown had a solid 19 reps on the bench press, but did not run the 40-yard dash, electing to wait until OSU’s pro day on March 23 to show off his speed. This draft is deep enough at receiver that Brown needed to wow in order to draw more interest. His body and strength alone have given him some consideration for teams desperate for wide receiver, but Brown could not have done himself any favors in the combine.
OSU sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) selfies with fans following the Buckeyes 62-3 win over Maryland on Nov. 12. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Former Photo EditorFrom Joey and Nick Bosa to Jacoby, Justin and Zach Boren, Ohio State has had no shortage of brothers suiting up in scarlet and gray. The family lineage grew when 2018 three-star cornerback Marcus Hooker, the brother of former Buckeyes and current Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker, committed to play football for Ohio State Thursday evening.Hooker’s decision didn’t take long to transpire. Wednesday night, at 9:01 p.m., he tweeted that he received an offer from the Buckeyes. Then, the next day at 12:26 p.m., he pulled the trigger and committed.“I wanna thank everyone who believed in me throughout my recruiting process and showing me the right way to doing things,” Hooker wrote on Twitter when announcing his commitment to Ohio State.One of the those who had his ear during the recruiting process was his brother, Malik.“I was happy for him just to see, especially over these last couple of weeks, him stressing out about not been offered by Ohio State already and him wanting to train harder so that he could get that offer and show that he’s capable of playing there,” Malik said.Malik’s mother called the Colts safety the day Marcus finally received his coveted Ohio State offer, then the rising high school senior called his brother and told him that he was going to commit the next morning. Marcus told Malik that as soon as the Buckeyes offered him a scholarship, he wanted to go there.“Just to hear the excitement in his voice, there is nothing better than that as a big brother and somebody that he looks up to,” Malik said.It’s rare for someone to have a brother to learn from who has gone through the recruiting process such as Malik did as a three-star athlete from New Castle, Pennsylvania, in the class of 2014. It’s even rarer when that brother realized his dreams just a few months ago as Malik did when he was selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.Given his experience through the recruiting process and in college, Malik wanted to be there to give Marcus advice.“He asked me a lot of advice about just how to go with it, how to pick the school he wanted to go to but it was never advice like, ‘Do you think I should follow your steps and go to Ohio State?’ or nothing like that,” Malik said.Instead, Malik said he told Marcus to follow his heart and get a feel for the schools he fit best.But, don’t get the idea that the 2016 first-team All-American safety isn’t biased in favor of Ohio State. He believes it is “the best of the best.”“I have high praise for Ohio State,” Malik said. “They have done a lot for me and obviously he sees where they have got me to this far so he wanted to follow my footsteps pretty much.”Malik and Marcus aren’t the same type of player – Malik said he’s a pure defensive back, but he believes Marcus has the size and physicality to play linebacker and defensive back – but both are rated three-star prospects. Marcus is one of just two three-star players in Ohio State’s still-incomplete 16-person 2018 recruiting class, according to 247Sports composite rankings. Malik was the 17th-highest ranked player in his Ohio State class. He believes Marcus will surprise people as a lower-ranked recruit just as he did.“I just can’t wait to see him out there and prove a lot of people wrong because like people were telling me in high school, ‘You’re not capable of going to Ohio State,’ I’m sure he is getting that too,” Malik said.Since Marcus will enter Ohio State with the last name of a player who had as much success as his brother, he will have ample expectations. But, Malik said he hasn’t had that discussion with his brother yet, and isn’t overly concerned.“He was always one of those kids that shined brighter than a lot of other kids because he was blessed and gifted athletically so I’m not really too concerned with him feeling like he is pressured because obviously they offered it to him for who he is,” Malik said. “ So, why go out there and try to change something that he already has been his whole life?”