THE DRAFT REDUX: DOING THE RIGHT THING
After all the waiting and the extra speculation, the Texans did the right thing, and used the Draft's first pick overall to select Jadeveon Clowney, the one guy with a unique skill set. They then doubled down and added Louis Nix in round three, which was ridiculous value for an already-strong defensive line. Because Houston refused to reach, the QB draft fell neatly into place, although not quite as everyone predicted. Because although I was right about the only three QBs to go in round one, Jacksonville fooled us all by picking Blake Bortles third overall. The pick makes sense; Chad Henne is their number one, and Bortles has a similar skill set. These Jags appear to be working on a long-term plan, and thus they're likely to let Bortles sit and learn unless something goes drastically wrong. The Jags had a pretty good draft, adding receivers in round 2 and some good value picks, including Aaron Colvin (another long-term choice as he rehabs an ACL).
The Draft has become the NFL's version of reality TV, and with Bortles gone to the Jags the X factor was Johnny Manziel. Watching his fall was like watching the kiss and cry at a figure skating event. The Browns finally delivered the TV money shot, doing the right thing and taking Justin Gilbert early, then grabbing Manziel at 22. With only five picks, and all in the first three rounds, the Browns drafted well, but with Josh Gordon suspended and Greg Little released, they surprised people by not addressing the deepest wide receiver group anyone could remember until after the draft. Chandler Jones, signed undrafted out of Fresno State, can replace Little; no one will replace Gordon for them. Undrafted DT Calvin Barnett is a player, and RB Isiah Crowell could complement Terrance West.
With Bill Belichick coveting Dominique Easley, and the Seahawks reportedly targeting him, there was no trade at 29, so the Vikings, as they did last year, traded back into the back end of round one, and took Teddy Bridgewater at 32. I likened him to Russell Wilson last month, and I stand by that (I didn't liken the Vikes to the Seahawks, though). The Vikes had a couple of good value picks in G David Yankey and DT Shamar Stephen, and signed four undrafted O linemen who were all draft-worthy. Tiny Richardson got the attention, because some rated him as high as round 2, but Zac Keirn could start, Austin Wentworth might play, and Matt Hall could develop.
The Raiders grabbed Derek Carr with the fourth pick of round two, having taken Khalil Mack, perhaps the best edge-rusher available, with pick five in round one. Their draft wasn't flashy, except for the Round 7 risk on Seantrel Henderson, a talent whose behaviour got him suspended three times at The U. That takes some doing. I thought Jonathan Dowling was a real steal in round seven.
You couldn't argue that the Draft is a free market, but the marketplace worked in terms of quarterbacks this year because no one went need crazy. Most of these guys fell to the level you would have expected. And that's true for the fifth QB off the board, Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the Pats took in round two as long-term insurance against Tom Brady retiring, as Ryan Mallet is leaving when his contract's up this season. We then waited until day three for the rest, and I thought Ken Whisenhunt was back in Phoenix when big armed and wild Logan Thomas went to the Cards. Bill O'Brien took Tom Savage right after; all that first-round hype disappearing as a developmental project went about where he should have. Of the next five guys, all but Keith Wenning (Ravens) seem to demonstrate continuity: Aaron Murray, when he's healed, will be a lot like Alex Smith; AJ McCarron I already compared to Andy Dalton; Tajh Boyd is so much like Geno Smith he only went to Clemson after they lost Smith to West Virginia. John Fales ought to thrive in Marc Trestman's combo CFL West Coast offense. The Rams drafted Garrett Gilbert, from Jeff Reinebold's SMU and Zach Mettenberger wound up in Tennessee, which is the NFL's version of QB Limbo. Among the undrafted guys I thought the Falcons were smart to try Jeff Matthews, who's like a 1-AA version of Matt Ryan, and the Seahawks signed Keith Price from down the street at Washington; he's another guy with some Russell Wilson qualities. In Bryn Renner Denver got a guy who shows a few Manning qualities, right down to coming off a shoulder injury.
I know that Sammy Watkins has rare skills, but at WR I'm not sure it's worth paying the price the Bills did to take him with the fourth pick. It's not like they're the Falcons paying a price for Julio Jones because they think they can get over the playoff hump. Their division rivals Miami did a better job of overall rebuilding, and in Jarvis Landry got in round two a receiver I'd compare with Anquan Boldin. They only had five picks; two in round five, but all could wind up starting; Billy Turner might in the long-term be better value than Ja'Wuan James. And they added four more potential contributors (DT Antonio Johnson, C Tyler Larsen, T/G Evan Finklebergand RB Damien Williams, another guy kicked off his college team) in a solid undrafted class. Receiver depth went all the way down to the undrafted guys: as well as Jones, the Saints' Brandon Coleman is a 6-6 225 guy from Rutgers who's a Marques Colston replacement, while Kadron Boone didn't start at LSU but could play for the Eagles, despite their drafting of Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.
The remarkable depth of this year's crop of wideouts is not a coincidence. It's a result of the increasing influence of the college game, and spread offenses, on the NFL. The NFL has always been a game of match-ups, but today's offenses look to isolate and create one-on-ones, what I have called the basketballization of football. In such situations, two types of receivers have benefitted: big, strong guys who can go up for jump balls, and little slot guys who can outrun linebackers or out-quick safeties. Don't be mistaken, talent like Sammy Watkins' is rare (although he's still raw in terms of route-running) and Odell Beckham would be a first-rounder in any draft. Mike Evans would be too; think of Plaxico Buress in the pre-spread days. Andrew Healey at Football Perspective wrote recently an interesting article showing how receivers who played with top QBs in college have tended to disappoint in the NFL. But look down the draft and you'll see lots of bigger guys who 15 years ago would be questionable because they were 'long-striders', couldn't get off the line smoothly, and are not precise with their routes. Now coaches scheme to get receivers like Matthews, Donte Moncrief, Kelvin Benjamin, Allen Robinson, or Cody Latimer open. Many of them have straight-ahead speed: 4.5 or lower, and many of them might not have turned to football first 15 years ago.
The little slot guys this year were headed by Brandin Crooks, who's 5-9, 186 but ran 4.33 40. He went in the first round, to New Orleans, where Sean Payton will know how to use him, and he is a total package, able to play outside, run over the middle, as well as do all the routes we associate with Wes Welker types. Few have Crooks' combo of skills, but watch for John Brown, out of Pittsburg State (round 3 to Ariz), Jalen Saunders of Oklahoma (r4 to Jets), or even free agent Albert Wilson, a Steve Smith type from Georgia State signed by Kansas City as Andy Reid again eschewed drafting receivers. And of course there's always room for 'sneaky fast' guys: the Packers drafted Jared Abbrederis, who wasn't in a pass-happy offense at Wisconsin; everyone was comparing him to Jordy Nelson for reasons I can't understand. In fact, the new Nelson might well be seventh-rounder Jeff Janis from Saginaw Valley, who's 6-2, 220, ran 4.42 and had 189 catches and 31 TDs in the last two years at Division II. The Pack also took Davante Adams from Fresno in round two: he may fill the Greg Jennings dangerous over the middle role. Needing to replace Jermichael Finley they drafted Richard Rodgers, but signed Colt Lyerla undrafted; the former Oregon player has Finley's skill set, but massive off-field issues including felony coke possession. I also loved them getting Adrian Hubbard undrafted; a natural OLB fit for a team that needs depth there.
The college game has also affected runners, and there are far more third-down types proving more and more valuable. Sometimes the difference is hard to figure: some guys around 5-9, 210 will be every-down backs (Bishop Sankey to the Titans) while others may not (Tre Mason to the Rams) and it's often simply a question of pass protection. Look at DeAnthony Thomas (to Kansas City as a Dexter McCluster clone) or Dri Archer to Pittsburgh (5-7 175 but 4.26 speed) where it's a question of how they'll use him. Archer had trouble at Kent State when they went up against bigger schools' defenses, and the Steelers haven't been successful with Darren Sproles-types recently, but you never know. Oddly, I think the Eagles, who signed Sproles, may have found a clone of their own, in undrafted Henry Josey from Missouri.
Power runners will always have a place in the game, and it was no surprise Carlos Hyde was the first runner taken. The Niners are a power-run team, and Hyde could be their next Frank Gore. The Bengals want to control the ball, and Jeremy Hill went right after Hyde and Sankey to do just that. The Giants, another bad-weather northern team, still play that game, and Boston College's Andre Williams could be great value from round four, especially if he shows he can catch one or two balls a game.
I've mentioned the Giants and Steelers, two teams who traditionally let the draft come to them. The Giants with Beckham and Williams, Justin Tuck-lite Jay Bromley, and C Weston Richburg may have nabbed four starters from the first four rounds, and added two more who might play in undrafted DE Kelcy Quarles and TE Xavier Grimble. The key to the Steelers draft may be Shaquille Richardson; the fifth-round corner needs to help their secondary now. But I saw a lot of Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt on Eurosport and they are both good fits; Shazier reminds me of Lawrence Timmons. Martavis Bryant played in Watkins' shadow, but has size and speed, and NT Daniel McCullers has no speed, but lots of size; if he can keep his weight down to 350 or so he's a sixth round steal. C Chris Elkins and DE Josh Mauro both should have been drafted and could contribute.
Finally, a chapeau to Ozzie Newsome. He had six picks in the first four rounds, and each one seems to be a smooth fit for their system, except that power-back Lorenzo Taliaferro promptly went out and ripped the window off a taxi. LB CJ Mosley could move inside and be a Ray Lewis for them. Terrence Brooks offers the kind of versatility in the defensive backfield that teams need when you play more than half the game in a sub package, and Crockett Gillmore has talent that needs to be developed at tight end. Undrafted, Newsome got James Hurst, a draftable talent who's rehabbing an injury and Virginia Tech nose tackle Derrick Hopkins, a 5-11, 309 fireplug of a nose tackle. He was born to be a Raven.