Draft Thoughts Part 1 of 4: A Handful of Team Observations
So it turns out I have a lot more to say about this year’s NFL Draft than I thought I did. In my first draft of this article, this was my opening paragraph:
When enough is said before the draft– and I’ve been saying a lot, at least on Twitter if not on the blog– there’s not much to say afterward. Just a collection of observations from me, some about certain teams or their executives, others about general trends:
Well, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. By the time I got somewhere north of six thousand words, I decided I was going to need to break up my draft posting into multiple entries, to cover the several major topics I intended to cover.
Part 2 will be a deeper look at the Cleveland Browns draft and the idea of analytics in football. Part 3 will be some thoughts on the NFL’s processes as a whole. For part 1, here are some observations I made about a handful of teams’ drafts.
Jacksonville might really have done as well as people think.
The Jaguars arguably made the best pick of the first round by simply sitting still and not screwing up. (Minnesota has also mastered this strategy in the early rounds.) Jalen Ramsey was arguably the top player in the draft, and wherever he lines up for Jacksonville, he fills a huge hole.
Myles Jack has been seen as another big win for the Jaguars, and I think that’s fair. Obviously his knee could cause problems down the line, but as talent-bereft as the Jaguars were, they needed a potential game-changer like Jack. A rookie contract is only four years; even if his knee is destined for problems eventually, it may not be in that time frame.
Here’s what no one’s talking about: The rest of their picks weren’t too bad, either, and continued to address the defensive needs. Yannick Ngakoue could provide some help with the edge rush. Tyrone Holmes might be even better– in truth, I don’t know much about either, but Ngakoue is well-regarded despite his pedestrian athleticism, and Holmes passes the athletic test with flying colors and was very productive at FCS Montana. And Sheldon Day isn’t a world beater, but he’s a solid player who should contribute positive snaps. The Jaguars used five of their seven picks on front-seven players, and given how bad their defense has been the last few years, I honestly don’t mind.
The Cowboys done did good, y’all.
So, right away: Yes, they should have taken Jalen Ramsey over Ezekiel Elliott. And yes, taking Elliott and then Jaylon Smith seemingly betrays two conflicting mentalities: a desire to win now with an immediate-impact prospect, vs. a desire to win later with an injured prospect who may or may not recover his form.
Fact is, though, Elliott is a hell of a player and is going to an ideal situation. The Cowboys are looking at having an offense that’s potentially dominant in all facets. They didn’t draft a bad player, at least. Drafting the 25th-best player at 4 is a mistake. Drafting a guy who’s probably at worst the fourth-best healthy player in the draft at 4 is less so, even if he plays a non-premium position and a comparable talent at a more important position was available.
More to the point I’m trying to make, I really liked their third- and fourth-round picks. Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper are two of the more athletic defensive linemen in this class, and under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli (the rare coach I feel we can definitively say gets more out of his charges than most) they should provide substantial support for the pass rush, particularly if Demarcus Lawrence stays healthy and Randy Gregory can stay un-suspended.
I like Dak Prescott, too, though his game needs refinement and I’m not sure where to slot him on a big board.
I don’t know as much about the later picks (other than that Rico Geathers is the latest former basketball play to try transitioning to football tight end), but I like the value of Collins and Tapper so much that I’m calling the draft a win for Dallas. The Elliott and Smith picks made the splash Jerry Jones loves, but the team also got the starter-caliber players in rounds three and four that are important to filling out a roster. This next guy struggles with that concept a bit…
Mike Tannenbaum still hasn’t learned to value depth, draft picks, or the long-term, and he still primarily cares about flashy headlines.
The Dolphins made the other best pick of the first round by taking Laremy Tunsil #13 overall, but it was sheer luck that made it possible. Teams began passing on Tunsil because of the video that leaked shortly before the draft (more about all this in part 4; it deserves its own topic). Until then, the Dolphins had been commonly linked to names like Darron Lee, Eli Apple, and William Jackson, pretty-good prospects who might have been okay selections in the twenties but were a reach at 13. Miami may have been saved from itself by other teams’ mistakes.
Tannenbaum “winning the offseason” has been a common criticism of him throughout his career: The perception is that he cares more about splashy moves and signings than he does about building a quality team from top to bottom. It makes a certain sense: Getting your name in the headlines is a good way to seem like you’re an effective general manager, even when you’re not.
Tannenbaum’s draft moves with the New York Jets certainly fit the bill, as he regularly traded up and was regularly short on picks as a result. Despite trading his second-round pick in 2006 for a future pick in 2007, the team only had four picks in 2007, lost a third-round pick in 2008 from trading up, and only had three picks in 2009 and four in 2010, in large part due to the Mark Sanchez trade and another trade for Kris Jenkins. (The Jets had New Orleans’ second-round pick from the Jonathan Vilma trade, and Tannenbaum still found a way to create a pick shortage.) Right from the get-go this offseason, it seemed like Tannenbaum was off to a similar start in Miami, trading from #8 to #13 to acquire a deeply overpaid cornerback and a frequently injured linebacker.
Still, though, that was nothing compared to what happened on Friday and Saturday.
Miami traded up in the second round, giving up a fourth-round pick, in order to select… Xavien Howard, a cornerback of decidedly mixed tape and unimpressive, even poor, athleticism. It’s a selection that only makes sense because he’s six feet tall and the next cornerback off the board, Mackensie Alexander, is 5’10”. (Howard doesn’t even have longer arms!)
Miami’s third round might have been even worse. First, they made Kenyan Drake the third running back off the board, something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. I don’t even know where to begin with criticism of that decision. But then, Miami traded a sixth-rounder and next year’s third- and fourth-rounder to Minnesota to get a second third-round pick! That pick, Leonte Carroo, is a fine player, but also arguably a completely unnecessary one, given the presence of DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry, and Kenny Stills as the top three options at wide receiver. And Miami gave up a chance to acquire three players who could help them, including at picks next year that could land one starter and one contributor.
Miami made two more trades on day three, and ended up getting their own sixth-round pick back. But Miami’s philosophy– Tannenbaum’s philosophy– seems far too focused on targeting certain players as “their guys” and giving up too much in trade compensation for them. And that’s how you end up with a thin roster, especially if you’re not doing a good job at identifying players worth trading up for. Which takes me into my next topic…
I’ve almost managed to talk myself into living with the Saints’ trading up.
The mere fact that the team didn’t trade up in or back into the first round was a win after years of watching them trade up for gems like Jonathan Sullivan and Mark Ingram. (Nope, finally getting it together in your fifth year as a running back will never justify giving up a second-round pick and a future first-round pick for a physically average talent at a position where if you aren’t superlative, you’re replaceable.) However, they did still make two trades up this year, leaving them with only five picks. (They started with only six due to a trade up last year, and they’ll start next year short a pick because of a trade this year, as well.)
On the bright side, I was happy with the Saints’ first two selections, even letting out a fist-pump and a “YES” when Michael Thomas was both available and the selection at 44. (My reaction was less enthusiastic for Sheldon Rankins only because I felt the draft was deep at defensive tackle, and because I’d heard that pick projected for several weeks in advance.) If you read my big feature on the Saints’ draft history, you’ll know how disappointing it’s been under Loomis and Payton. Last year, with Jeff Ireland taking over the department of college scouting, the team seemed to have a stronger class on the whole and consistently find players past the first round who could contribute. (The jury is out a bit on some of them, to be sure, but considering the team only has one of its six picks from the 2014 class still on the roster, even getting a significant number of snaps from players like Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Marcus Murphy is a win– and those are just the day-three picks.)
Now, to the specific players they traded up for. I honestly don’t know a thing about Vonn Bell. He’s highly regarded in some circles, having been talked about as a potential first-round pick, and he’s something of a jack of all trades from what I understand. I know the coaches felt they lost something in the secondary last year when third safety Rafael Bush was injured, and this pick may be a response to that. If Bell is versatile and can cover, then he might be a necessary addition to the Saints’ secondary, especially if Jairus Byrd is going to be cut as soon as financially viable.
David Onyemata is intriguing: While I’m often skeptical of players described as “projects” (the label often doesn’t fit for one reason or another, something I’ll expand on in part 3), Onyemata’s relative lack of football experience makes the reason for the label obvious, and his athletic testing suggests the potential to be an impact player on the defensive line. Defensive line and pass rusher seem to be where athleticism most correlates to NFL success.
I even liked a couple of the Saints’ undrafted free agents at a major position of need. The Saints have holes at guard right now– Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete are listed as the starters, and I’m not confident in either– and Max Unger is 30 with an injury history. Their interior line needs help. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these two UDFA signings is an opening-day starter at guard, and even less so if the second one is the long-term answer at center.
North Carolina guard Landon Collins was a guy I had seen ranked in the second or third round early in the process, and while I confess to not knowing much about interior offensive line play, I find it hard to believe that the draft process revealed he was that much worse than initially believed. (Both Josh Norris of RotoWorld and Dane Brugler gave him fifth-round grades– getting a fifth-round talent as a free agent counts as a win, right?)
Even better was Michigan State center Jack Allen, who went from being regarded as a late-round or undrafted talent, to a potential day-two pick in many evaluators’ eyes, after his Senior Bowl performance drew their attention and got them watching his film again. (For example, Norris ranked Allen as a top-50 prospect.)
Allen, however, measured in at 6’1″ at the NFL Combine, the shortest offensive lineman there, and only weighed 294 pounds. So, of course, he didn’t get drafted. (Again, more thoughts on this in part 3.)
For another example of opinion on Allen’s talent, former Saints center and current proprietor of offensive line development camps LeCharles Bentley had strong words for Allen going undrafted. (Well, kind of strong, anyway– I assume we all know what “how the freak” really means.)
But that reminds me, Allen does factor into one of the funnier sequences of the draft, involving his Michigan State teammate…
As ridiculous as trading up into the second round for a kicker is, nothing in the draft, for sheer comedy value, will beat the 8-9-10 string of selections.
I can’t say anything about Roberto Aguayo that this column doesn’t say better, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll get to the half-hour or so that had me howling with laughter the most.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this. All three picks were hilarious in their own right– Floyd was drafted about 10 picks too soon, Apple and Conklin about 20-30– but perhaps the best part of all was the fact that Jack Conklin and Leonard Floyd were both reputedly favorites of the Giants. I don’t think much of Jerry Reese’s front office acumen these days (the guy drafted Ereck Flowers ninth overall, for God’s sake, and Reese’s roster building has led to a team that is constantly swamped by injuries), so I found both reports believable.
Floyd is a linebacker who teams mistakenly think should be an edge rusher; he has some skill there, but he’s never going to be elite at it, and his versatility is more notable anyway. He’d be a fine pick in the twenties, but the top ten is a mistake. (He’s an older prospect, to boot.) Conklin tends to be the recipient of a lot of praise about his toughness and road grader mentality and the like, most of which overlooks that when Jack Allen had to fill in for him at left tackle in college, he arguably looked better in the role. And Apple is inexperienced and young, but he’s 6’1″ so that obviously makes him a better cornerback prospect than Vernon Hargreaves. (By now, you’ve probably realized that part 3 involves substantial discussion on how superficial traits and labels are used in player evaluation.)
I understand Tennessee’s move least of all. Even if everything works out perfectly: You really gave up that much draft capital for a right tackle? Would staying put and getting Taylor Decker at 15 plus keeping the second-round picks you lost in the trade have been so much worse?
So it’s not only hilarious to me that both Conklin and Floyd were linked to the Giants much sooner than they should have been drafted, but that other teams traded up to beat them to the punch on both of them! And then, for the icing on the cake, the Giants passed on an elite prospect at cornerback to take one who was taller.
It’s my favorite kind of comedy, though: The kind that makes me think. I’ve spent a lot of time the last few days thinking about how NFL teams generally approach the draft, and the number of inefficiencies and poor processes that plague so many parts of drafting, and that’s why I couldn’t stop writing tonight.
Part two will run Wednesday, focusing on Cleveland’s unique approach to the draft this year and my thoughts on it. On Thursday is part three, on the general patterns of and types of mistakes I see NFL teams making.