This idea was birthed, naturally, from a Facebook post. My high-school friend Nathan Goldstein, avid fan of both the NBA and music, offered up a simple metaphor: “Derek Trucks is the Larry Bird of blues music.”
It was a great line. I, like others I suspect, LOLed.
It was also ground zero for an all-consuming thread that almost threatened my divorce. A week later, Nathan launched into an offshoot discussion between a handful of us on his timeline that included no fewer than 50 comparisons of NBA players to bands and/or musicians, and arguments back and forth similar to the ones that passionate other folk have about draft prospects or politics or gluten-free diets.
It was ridiculous. And extensive. And, I must say, quite thought provoking.
The exercise got us to the point where, without really thinking, we could agree that, yes, Rick Barry was the Don Henley of the NBA (undeniable unique talent but clearly loathed by his peers) or that Lenny Kravitz was, without question, the Vince Carter of rock and roll (came in big, never quite lived up to the hype, even though he was the biggest thing going for 4-5 years, took heat he deserved and some he didn't, now they’re both doing the elder statesman thing rather well).
Thereafter, when a song came on the radio, I started thinking who, say, Jamiroquai was in NBA terms. (They were, Nathan saliently pointed out, Jeremy Lin: “Opening act was irrepressible but whose later work was lame, yet always fun enough to entertain you when you were 10 beers into the evening and grasping for enthusiasm.”)
See what I mean? It got me thinking.
Why not do this — finding musical doppelgangers, if you will — for this year’s top draft prospects? (Note to Roger Goodell: This is what happens when you push the draft back two weeks, mmmkay?)
So I did.
Now you too will think way too much about the odd connection between music and sport and get nothing done the rest of the week. There’s clearly a trick to it: You have to find the connections that are just perfect versus those that work after lengthy explanation. Of course, in some cases, I did not spare you the lenghty explanation.
Here goes …
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney — Jimi Hendrix
Are You Experienced? blew people’s minds the way Clowney’s first two college seasons did, when people were quite literally throwing each other aside and out of the way to watch him play. It was jaw-droppingly effortless stuff.
But by the time Hendrix got tired of the flaming-guitar stuff, people were disappointed. They didn’t want delta blues reimagined; they wanted fireworks and their minds to be bent in half. The same for Clowney: If he didn’t sack the quarterback, rip his helmet off and eat the football, ESPN fed us a buffet of “what’s wrong with him?” fodder for the next three days.
Jimi was a laid-back cat. So, too, is Jadeveon. Both were young and brilliantly gifted when they hit the scene and maybe somewhat agoraphobic and not exactly sure just how good they were or are, even. But we also don’t get a Hendrix or a Clowney too often, either.
(Writer’s note: Let it be known that in all these comparisons that include artists who passed away at a young age, I am not predicting an early death for them! Metaphorical or otherwise!)
Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel — Van Halen (David Lee Roth era)
The first time you heard “Runnin’ With The Devil,” the hair stood up on your neck. Either that, or you’re tone deaf or you listen to Molly Hatchet in a not ironic way. Van Halen seemed to be created in some garage version of the Big Bang Theory with that first album, but really, they had been fine tuning frat-guy rock while dominating the underground high-school and college-campus scene for a few years, and you didn’t know it at the time, but they were innovators. Just like Manziel, who was the high school legend mostly unknown outside Texas.
And like every dude who picked up a guitar trying to play “Eruption” in his parents’ basement, Manziel is the type of quarterback that everyone secretly wants to be: badass, totally original, hair on fire and completely off the rails.
The first time you watched his rock-out-with-his-jock out style at A&M, you knew he was something very different. The dude was scrambling and slinging out there, and it was like a Texas gunfight in which he dodged bullets and fired them back with ease.
Van Halen’s anthemic party-rock style helped usher in the 1980s in 1978, and Manziel’s brand of YOLO ball might open up even the most closed-minded coach to a more freewheeling style of offense if he pulls it off. Admit it: These two mesh perfectly. You watch them play because, even if you don’t publicly admit to liking them, you want to see what they do next ... and even when it’s not perfect, it’s pretty freaking fun.
But the reason why I picked Van Halen for Manziel — and not just DLR himself, or even Eddie Van Halen for that matter — is that the whole thing is bound to go wrong at any moment in any band/team format. What did Yeats say about the center cannot hold? You have to have the whole package with Johnny: turmoil, sparks, flaws and all.
(An aside: You didn't really think I was going to pair Manziel with his buddy Drake, did you? Too lazy — and really, Drake might already be on the way out, my wife tells me.)
Central Florida QB Blake Bortles — The Black Keys
When the Keys first hit the scene — meaning: when they escaped Akron, Ohio — there was a raw, simple, scratchy beauty to their sound. It was stripped-down rock with a heartbeat and a backbeat and you couldn’t help but stick with it, even if it all sounded roughly the same. Somehow, they managed to make same sound fresh and different.
Bortles has that same little-engine-in-a-big-frame-that-could about him. He’s not there yet, but there are glimpses of greatness; he’s surprisingly nimble at times, but with a little bit of power and the right amount of finesse. A little sloppy at times, rough around the edges for sure, and he needs fine-tuning.
But wasn’t this the Keys before Danger Mouse came on board to produce Attack & Release? Look, it was still mostly guitar and drums, still pretty basic, but the Keys added texture and nuance to their sound, and out came a more finished, polished product. It was exactly what they needed to take that next step.
This is Bortles, too: The parts are all there. He just needs the right producer/coach to coax it out of him.
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins — Randy Rhoads
Watkins doesn’t fit the typical No. 1 receiver mold, either physically speaking, skill-wise or as per the diva personality. Oh, he’s quietly confident, and you might even say a bit stone cold in this way. But the only showy thing is in his playing. He touches the ball and the sparks fly. Fierce, determined and also really smooth with the ball, but he’d just as likely run through you than around you.
The kid is maybe a little immature, but he’s growing out of that. We now look at a 2012 pot arrest as a whatever moment. He’ll never be an outspoken guy, and yet he’s not Calvin Johnson quiet either.
But he might be the kind of player who, two years from now (the Russell Wilson of receivers?), everyone is trying to compare their next guy to. Stop. It’s pointless.
Rhodes, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist in the early 1980s, was like that: all about the talent. Not a sex god like Jimmy Page. Physically, he almost seemed overwhelmed by his guitar. And then he started to play …
He was a break-the-mold virtuoso who reinvented metal by bringing in classical scales and technique to it. What also made Rhoads so quietly brilliant and essential was that he found the right quarterback — Ozzy — at the right time, on the upswing of his career. Will Sammy?
(Again, reminder: Just because Rhoads died at, like, 25 doesn’t mean I predict that end for Mr. Watkins. Just the talent, people. Not death.)
Auburn OT Greg Robinson — Carter Beauford
I don’t know much about Beauford the man, and I profess to not being a huge Dave Matthews guy either. But when I hear the band play (not the bubblegum-meets-coffeehouse stuff, I mean), there’s a real effortless thump to it, and that’s the Beauford backbone with his drumming. He can really rattle the skins, and yet he’ll always play second fiddle to Dave’s crooning.
It's kind of the same for me with Robinson — all I have is the game tape, it's pretty damned good, and it grows on me daily. Robinson might be the awe of the NFL now, but he’s destined to be one of those quietly dominant blockers who just goes about his business, ho hum, knocking the snot out of those who find themselves in his way, and that’s that. Onto the next play. Oh, he’ll flash — just as Beauford has 2-3 ear-popping solos per show, I’d imagine.
Every great band needs a Beauford, and every offense in the NFL wishes it could have a Robinson.
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater — Taylor Swift
We’ve seen Bridgewater go from favorite son to stranger in a strange land, where somehow his breaking onto the scene now has opened him up to misguided and curious criticism.
Swift can relate. You know what she is? A determined, gifted, mocked, impossible-to-box talent who has neither the time nor the energy to fight her critics. She just squeezes out hit after hit and lives in her own category of critically dismissed pop.
Both are tireless workers, and yet they have a rhythmic, almost childlike style to their play that makes their work seem natural and flowing and also with room to grow. And Bridgewater is going to have to endure what Swift does daily — success soaked in a series of “yeah, buts” every step of the way.
What is Swift’s main appeal? It’s hard to pin her down exactly, just like the multi-talented Bridgewater who is something of a jack of all trades as a quarterback, with no major flaws in his game.
A generation or two ago, had we tried this experiment, we might have come up with Jackson Browne or James Taylor for Bridgewater — the young, hungry singer-songwriters desperately trying to be Bob Dylan and also escape his shadow at the same time. But the young QB would be a scrubbed, apolitical version of either one, and I for one can’t yet say that Teddy is HOF material.
Instead, he’ll have to keep clawing his way back to the top. Swift has shown us how that’s done: blissfully, with a smile, and damned well.
And they're both too damned skinny, amiright guys?!
North Carolina TE Eric Ebron — Snoop Dogg/Lion
Ebron is the supremely gifted athlete at the position that finally has earned some respect in the NFL, enough for teams to carve out a big chunk of the playbook for it, just as Snoop came along at the time where rap was now a mainstream phenomenon and not going anywhere.
Both also have this in common: They are way better as sidemen. Heck, Snoop might be the best sideman ever — who doesn’t want to, or hasn’t already, work with the guy? But also, every one of his albums has like 20 guest spots for a reason. He can't carry a team. He needs help.
I feel like Ebron is the player who needs the good quarterback (naturally) but also the right wingman receiver, creative coordinator or something else to pull it together make it work at peak efficienct. Like, you probably don’t want Ebron as your front man for a decade. That just won’t fly. He’s confident enough to think it’s what people really want, but it’s just not there.
Buffalo LB Khalil Mack — The Shins
If you start a conversation over beers of the best musical acts going right now, it might take you a good 40 minutes to get to The Shins. But it’s entirely possible that once you get to them, you might stay on them for just as long. They’re good enough at what they do to make you sound smart, savvy and sober.
That’s the type of player we think Mack will be: never enough of a media darling, even as a top-five pick to-be, to be considered elite, but firmly in that level right below that, whatever that is.
The Shins came out of relative obscurity when they opened people’s eyes with the “Garden State” soundtrack. It was cool to like them and listen to them with giant headphones in airports with your eyes closed. They were a band unto their own then.
For Mack, the Ohio State game was his “Garden State” moment. Last fall, he did his best to try to singlehandedly hand the shorthanded Bulls a victory with a performance for the ages in the toughest of environments: 10 tackles, 2½ sacks, 45-yard INT return for a touchdown, even as the Buckeyes pulled away late in the third quarter.
The Shins were stars in the eyes of rock critics, just as Mack has become considered elite by scouts and the draft literati. They’ve sustained a noble career since, and people still talk about them in revered tones. It’s just a bit hushed now. That’s what Mack could be: The burst-on-the-scene guy who maybe doesn’t get quite the respect he deserves when it’s all said and done.
UCLA LB Anthony Barr — early Radiohead
Barr is a great prospect for what he could be. Not what he is.
A look at his tape shows a player with incredible physical skills and more raw talent in his left pinky than most players ever wish they had — truly rare, and standing apart amongst his peers. He looks great getting off the bus and shows you just enough to keep wanting and waiting.
This was Radiohead in the early going: Were they grunge? Emo? Did they rock? Did they even care about rocking? You knew they were different, and a bit all over the place, and all you could keep coming back to was … once they get this thing together …
Which, of course, happened. To the point where Radiohead now could remix emu mating sounds, and you’d buy it. Barr has that kind of (to use an annoying rock-critic word) leitmotif in his play: It’s tantalizing but incomplete, but also tough to imagine him ever being a complete flop with all that skill.
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan — Henry Rollins
The Black Flag front man is one of those guys who is smarter and more nimble than you are, and you kind of hate him and like him all at the same time for that. His skill and intelligence are obvious, and he’s quite fearless, but are you really buying everything that comes out of him?
It might seem a bit odd to pair Lewan, who played at the buttoned-up University of Michigan, with Rollins and his L.A. punk background. But Rollins quit his job at Häagen-Dazs to join the band and has admitted later he was really scared of the cops for most of his early life. So for as much machismo as he emitted on stage — tantamount to the kind of haymaking Lewan has earned a reputation for in college — there is a tender, insecure side too.
Still, both are pent-up teeth-gritters, they don't mind testing society's boundaries for what will fly in the collective eye and they are talented enough to remain on the seen for perhaps an annoyingly long time as a result. Lewan is surprisingly agile as a player, but he’s also tough and durable — a noble survivor. Like Rollins, gotta give him his due.
Pitt DT Aaron Donald — Nate Dogg
If we can forget about Dogg’s — how should we say it? — off-the-field troubles for a moment, consider his influence: He’s the (metaphorically speaking) undersized artist who deserves way more cred than he’s given, and even in death with his media-darling acolytes serving their pallbearers’ duty, Dogg wasn’t given his proper due outside the rap community.
Donald could be that way — the kind of 10-year pro who does nothing but kick other people’s tails when they absolutely must be kicked and yet he’ll never have the Q rating of Ndamokong Suh. Watching him ragdoll blockers at the Senior Bowl was borderline amusing, and though he stood above all others as an individual player you also came away feeling — like Nate Dogg and all his terrific collaborations — that he's also the guy who makes everyone else around them raise their game a notch or two.
A stretch perhaps, but the kind of stretch we can make when no one, we hope, is taking your words as pre-draft gospel.
Notre Dame NT Louis Nix III — Meat Loaf
Oh, sure, there are the apt and obvious body-type and positional comparisons (Marvin Lee Aday, aka Loaf, played nose tackle at North Texas), but they also share that hammy showman’s quality and personality as well as a burning desire to be taken quite seriously while never turning down an interview request.
Still, even with their relative silliness, they each have a range, and when they are in it, very good things can happen. But you don’t want Meat Loaf doing anything too serious or truly edgy in the way that you aren’t going to ask Nix to rush the passer or stunt too much.
Meat Loaf managed to stick around longer than anyone could have imagined, reinventing himself a few times along the way, and Nix might surprise people with his longevity, reach and breadth. They both have that heart-on-their-sleeves quality that makes you appreciate them, at worst, for that alone.
USC WR Marqise Lee — MGMT
The band had a stunningly good debut, to the point where we were questioning what, if any, were the boundaries. But the second effort showed what the pitfalls were amid less than ideal surrounding conditions and unreal expectations. Live, they're fine, capable of stepping up to the big stage when needed but maybe not a knockout performer every time out.
Lee is that kind of receiver. If you’re expecting Marvin Harrison Jr., it’s just unfair. But we’ll always have 2012 and that Arizona game (16 catches, 345 yards, 2 TDs) in our head every time he takes the field.
MGMT isn’t an opening act and they can’t carry a festival lineup. They, like Lee, are in that ether where some bands eventually shrivel up and die and yet others can find a niche and hang around for several years comfortably, offending no one.
Alabama S HaSean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix — T-Rex
You, music fan, say, “Oh, yeah, they’re the ones who did ‘Bang A Gong’” the way that football fans say, “Oh, yeah, another first-round Alabama DB.” And it’s not completely fair, even if the recent results — Dee Milliner, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kareem Jackson — are decidedly underwhelming. It goes back to the Sabanization of some of his players, and it’s hard to tell at times just exactly how good (or how maxed out) they are entering the NFL.
But you go back and look at their early work (“Jeepster” and “Metal Guru” for T-Rex; all of Clinton-Dix’s playmaking junior year), and you see something that the people should and can be remembering.
It doesn’t hurt that T-Rex is still up there in the annals of great rock nomenclature, and let’s face it: “Ha Ha” is just something that sticks with you, and a hyphenated last name counts for something else entirely cool, too.
Fresno State QB Derek Carr — Andy Gibb
Derek Carr has about as much as much to do with David Carr as the youngest Gibb does to the Bee Gees — really nothing, and yet why can’t we separate the two completely?
Oh, Derek respects his 12-years-older brother in a “Of course, you can totally open up for me on my next tour!” kind of way with talk of older bro backing up baby bro, but he also is quick to put a bit of distance between them when the media are in earshot. He’s the most talented member of the family, and he works at it too, willing to put in the extra time to find his way and blaze his own trail.
But will Carr ever find his true groove? Gibb never quite did but left us with just enough work — plus that famous last name — to remember him. The skills and desire are all there, and so is the extreme likeability factor.
(Again, folks: I am not predicting early death or drug addiction for Carr, or anyone else with their musical equivalent. Maybe we just end it on that.)
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