Monday, May 12, 2014
2014 NFL Draft Winners and Losers
Over the next two paragraphs, I'll explain why I rated teams where I did. If you don't care about the methodology, by all means skip ahead.
I'm an NFL writer, and I don't follow college football closely enough to make insightful judgements about which players are and are not likely to succeed at the pro level. Instead, for each team, I'm looking at two fundamental goals:  Did the team get good value for its picks, and  Did those picks fill needs?
I'm looking for teams that addressed their needs without reaching for lesser talent, made profitable trades, and selected highly-rated players long after we thought they'd be off the board. Conversely, even if you got good players, taking someone who probably would have been available a round later — I don't see that as a good pick. Most drafts are close to average, so not every team is listed.
2014 Draft Winners
* Houston Texans — If I have learned anything from covering the NFL draft, it's that you don't get away from the obvious to make a sexy pick. Everyone knew Julius Peppers was the best player in the 2002 draft, but Houston took David Carr. Everyone knew Calvin Johnson was the best player in the 2007 draft, but Oakland chose JaMarcus Russell. The Rams picked Sam Bradford over Ndamukong Suh. Sure, Houston needs to figure out a plan at QB. But Jadeveon Clowney, playing across from J.J. Watt, gives the Texans a really dangerous defensive front.
Xavier Su'a-Filo should start at guard in Week 1, and C.J. Fiedorowicz can help fill the void created by Owen Daniels' departure. Louis Nix is a natural nose tackle, and Pitt QB Tom Savage gives the team a prospect who shouldn't be rushed into action. No one knows how these players will pan out, but it was a really sensible draft, and the Clowney-Watt combination has got to worry opponents in the AFC South.
* San Diego Chargers — I loved their 2013 draft (D.J. Fluker, Manti Te'o, Keenan Allen), and I like this year's, too. San Diego ranked 29th in pass defense last season (4,139 yards, 96.4 passer rating), so TCU cornerback Jason Verrett made a lot of sense with their first pick. He's small (5-9, 189), but fast and athletic. The biggest worry is probably whether or not he stays healthy. The Bolts traded up for outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, a good fit for their defense, and picked up guard Chris Watt in the 3rd round. Fifth-round selection Ryan Carrethers is among the most intriguing picks from the last day of the draft. Carrethers is a nose tackle, big and strong but not real quick. That may hold him back at the pro level, but he's an interesting prospect at an important position.
* Cleveland Browns — They laid the groundwork last year, sacrificing 2013 picks for earlier choices this year, then trading away Trent Richardson for an extra 1st-round pick. They made four more trades during this year's draft. Cleveland only drafted six players this year, but all in the first four rounds.
A pair of trades dropped the Browns from 4th overall to 8th, but added Buffalo's 1st-round choice in 2015 (which could easily be a top-10 selection). With that 8th pick, Cleveland took Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert. Some people questioned this selection, but I like it a lot. Gilbert is a physical marvel who had an impressive Combine, but he also produced on the field in the Big 12. He intercepted seven passes in 2013, and finished his college career with eight non-offensive touchdowns. Paired with Joe Haden and free agent acquisition Donte Whitner, Gilbert gives Cleveland an intimidating defensive backfield.
The Browns also traded up to get Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner. Manziel was seen as a possible top-10 pick, and the Browns got him late in the 1st round, 22nd overall. Even with the likely suspension of all-pro wide receiver Josh Gordon, Cleveland had a very nice offseason with regard to its roster. The team added Whitner, RB Ben Tate, and LB Karlos Dansby in free agency, without any major subtractions. Wide receiver is probably a concern at this point. Manziel needs people to throw to.
* Defensive backs — Thursday night's first round saw nine defensive backs selected. Five cornerbacks is a lot, but it's especially unusual to see four safeties drafted so early. This does continue a trend, however: one safety in the first round of 2011, two in the first round of 2012, three in 2013, and now four. I'm betting against five in 2015, though.
* Oakland Raiders — Dynamite offseason, adding some big-name players in free agency. Most of those guys are a couple years past their primes, but not to the point they aren't valuable. Oakland's first-round draft pick, Buffalo LB Khalil Mack, is widely viewed as a can't-miss NFL talent. QB Derek Carr made a ton of sense in the 2nd round, especially in combination with the 6th-round pick they traded for Matt Schaub, who can play while Carr develops. They traded down in the 3rd round and still got Gabe Jackson, who should compete for a starting job on the offensive line. If Schaub plays the way he did a couple years ago, the Raiders could be a playoff team.
* St. Louis Rams — Let's re-visit the RG3 trade. The Rams had the 2nd pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. They traded it to Washington (who selected Robert Griffin III), and after some further wheeling and dealing, that trade two years ago yielded Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Rokevious Watkins, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey, and Eric Robinson.
The team obviously has high hopes for Robinson, while Brockers and Ogletree are already success stories. Brockers has 9.5 sacks in two seasons, which is phenomenal for a defensive tackle, and he started all 16 games last year on a defensive line that is among the best in the NFL. Ogletree didn't receive any votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he easily could have, after ending the 2013 season with the team lead in tackles, plus 6 forced fumbles, 10 passes defensed, and a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Rokevious Watkins played only one game for the Rams, but the RG3 trade yielded an immensely promising linebacker (Ogletree), a good defensive tackle (Brockers), a starting offensive tackle (Robinson), a starting cornerback (Jenkins), a running back with potential (Pead), and a backup WR (Bailey). That's a tremendous value from one draft pick.
In addition to Robinson, the Rams spent their own high draft picks on Combine sensation Aaron Donald, FSU cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, and running back Tre Mason. Joyner may have been a reach, but the Rams need a corner to replace Cortland Finnegan. Donald solidifies that already-powerful defensive line, presenting opponents with a matchup nightmare.
* Green Bay Packers — Drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the bottom half of the 1st round, filling a critical need at safety, and picked Fresno State WR Davante Adams to replace James Jones, who left in free agency. The Packers had two 3rd-rounders, and used both to address free agent departures. Khyri Thornton is a 300-lb defensive tackle, and Green Bay will need him to contribute in 2014. Richard Rodgers is a candidate to earn Jermichael Finley's old job. I'd still like to see the Packers add a quality offensive lineman before September, but they drafted positions they needed.
* Texas A&M Aggies — Three first-round picks — tied for the most of any school — including two top-10 selections, and QB Johnny Manziel at 22nd. The Aggies had two players chosen in the top seven; no one else had two in the top 20. This was A&M's fourth straight year with a player drafted in the top 10 (Von Miller, Ryan Tannehill, Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans).
* Alabama Crimson Tide — This was the fifth season in a row that multiple players from 'Bama were selected in the first round. No other school even has two years in a row like that, or three of the last five. Since 2010, Alabama has sent Rolando McClain, Kareem Jackson, Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, James Carpenter, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower, Dee Milliner, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, C.J. Mosley, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the first round of the NFL Draft.
* New York Giants — Drafted for need. Odell Beckham fell to them in the first round, and he'll likely start at wide receiver in Week 1. They got an offensive lineman in the 2nd round, a much-needed defensive tackle in the 3rd, and a power running back in the 4th. If Beckham lives up to expectations and one or two of the others emerge as viable starters, this was a strong draft.
* Detroit Lions — Raised eyebrows by using their first pick (10th overall) on North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. It certainly wasn't a need pick for a team stocked with receivers, including TE Brandon Pettigrew, who signed a new four-year contract in March. But Ebron is a great talent and a sound "best player available" selection. He joins a good offensive team where there's no pressure to become the next Vernon Davis overnight, and he'll benefit from the attention paid to Calvin Johnson.
Some analysts loved Kyle Van Noy, and others weren't sold on him, but not many people expected him to be available with the eighth pick of the 2nd round. The Lions opted to make value picks, but it's not obvious how much they improved the team this weekend.
* Jacksonville Jaguars — Blake Bortles was a surprise with the third overall pick. From a P.R. standpoint, drafting a quarterback from Central Florida was probably a good idea. From an on-field perspective, though, you're not going to convince many people that Bortles was the best player available. There was no consensus that he was the best QB in the draft, and Jacksonville's offense is so bad, you wonder how Bortles can possibly succeed, no matter his skills. The Jags followed up with two WRs and an offensive lineman, so at least they recognize that they need to support their young QB. That earns them a reprieve from the "loser" label, but I think they're going to regret choosing Bortles ahead of guys like Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack. They probably could have traded down and gotten Bortles later.
* Carolina Panthers — If you don't follow the Panthers, you may not realize how many players they lost in the offseason. The glaring holes are wide receiver, defensive backfield, and offensive line. Carolina's top four WRs from 2013 are all gone, including Steve Smith. Both starting safeties left in free agency, as did starting CB Captain Munnerlyn and nickel back Drayton Florence. Longtime left tackle Jordan Gross retired, and Travelle Wharton is a free agent. Carolina got a few free agent WRs to patch the leaks, but no one who excites you. The team does not look ready to pick up where it left off at the end of the season.
The Panthers addressed their needs in the draft. They took a big possession receiver (FSU's Kelvin Benjamin) in the 1st round, a guard in the 3rd, DBs in the 4th and 5th. But how many of those guys can start in Week 1? It wasn't a bad draft, but Panther fans have to be disappointed at not seeing a couple more guys who look ready to make an impact.
* Washington — I liked what they did in the second and third rounds. A trade with Dallas turned the 34th overall pick into NCAA 2013 sack leader Trent Murphy and Nebraska guard Spencer Long. Some mock drafts had Washington choosing Morgan Moses in the 2nd round (34th), and they got him in the 3rd (66th).
But they didn't draft any defensive linemen, they didn't get an inside linebacker to replace London Fletcher, and it's their second straight year without a 1st-round pick.
* Minnesota Vikings — For the second year in a row, they made multiple picks in the first round. The question is when the players will be ready to contribute. Anthony Barr has a lot of potential, but he may be a project. You can't just plug him into Jared Allen's old spot on opening day. Teddy Bridgewater was terrific at Louisville, but he's probably not a starter in 2014.
Third-rounder Jerick McKinnon, a running back at Georgia Southern, is a freak athlete who had a terrific showing at the NFL Combine. He ran a 4.4, benched 32 reps, and showed a vertical leap over 40 inches. It's not obvious where he'll play at the pro level, but he's got a ton of potential. I'd love to see McKinnon and Cordarelle Patterson on the field together for kick returns.
2014 Draft Losers
* The GMs who passed on Michael Sam — Yes, it's homophobia. Sam was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, originally projected as a second-day (rounds 2-3) draft pick. Now, we're supposed to believe he dropped to the late seventh round just because he's a "tweener." With so many teams alternating between 3-4 and 4-3 defensive alignments, tweener is practically a position these days. Sam didn't perform well at the NFL Combine, but he had a strong pro day and a great college career. He got passed over because of prejudice, plain and simple.
For a league that tries to sell an image of tolerance and diversity, this is a real problem.
* Texas Longhorns — For the first time since 1937, no Longhorns were chosen in the NFL Draft. As of this writing, five Longhorns have signed as undrafted free agents, including DE Jackson Jeffcoat with the Seattle Seahawks.
* Indianapolis Colts — First pick was wasted in the Trent Richardson trade. I would have liked to see the Colts do more to address their run defense, the problem that sunk them in the playoff loss to New England.
* Seattle Seahawks — Traded out of the 1st round and used their first pick on Colorado WR Paul Richardson, a surprising selection in a draft with a lot of well-regarded receivers. Fellow 2nd-rounder Justin Britt was projected as a late-round (5th-7th) pick. I would have liked to see Seattle prioritize a cornerback to fill Brandon Browner's spot, and a pass rusher to replace Chris Clemons and Red Bryant. They drafted Cassius Marsh in the 4th round, but he's a tweener and probably not an impact player on this defense.
* Johnny Manziel — Like Aaron Rodgers and Brady Quinn, he was projected as a top-10 selection, and dropped into the 20s. That's a few million dollars gone, and a lot of water consumed during the wait to get chosen. Now Manziel joins a Browns team whose only good receiver just failed a drug test and will likely be suspended for the season. He's a rookie quarterback with no one to throw to, in a division with the Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers.
* Todd McShay — The ESPN analyst reported that Manziel was the top pick on the Cowboys' draft board. Mock drafts are never 100% accurate, and McShay's not a loser just because he got a high-profile pick wrong (Dallas passed on Manziel at 16). McShay is listed here because drafting Manziel would have ranked among the worst, dumbest picks in the history of the NFL draft. Even famous busts like JaMarcus Russell and Vernon Gholston appeared to be reasonable picks. But the Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a lucrative, long-term extension almost exactly one year ago. Drafting Manziel would have not only catapulted their Pro Bowl QB, it would have put the team in salary cap hell. Even if Dallas believes Manziel will be a great player, it wouldn't have made sense to draft him.
* New England Patriots — Dominique Easley, the 29th overall pick, could be a steal, but he tore his ACL in 2011 and 2013. No one questions his talent, just his health. I don't like their 2nd-round selection, QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots are contenders right now, and using a high draft choice on a player they hope won't see the field until 2016 or so doesn't make sense to me. I would have loved to see a linebacker or tight end somewhere in their draft.
* Tennessee Titans — There's something to be said for a "best player available" strategy, but you've got to balance that with your needs. Trade up or down, so that the player you want is the best available. Offensive line is one of the few strengths for the Titans, and they puzzled a lot of people by using their first pick on a tackle, Taylor Lewan. They failed to draft a CB or WR to replace Alterraun Verner and Kenny Britt. It's not clear how Lewan fits in 2014.
* Running Backs — The common draft began in 1967. From 1967-2012, there was always at least one running back selected during the first round, even when there were only 25 teams. Last year, UNC's Giovani Bernard was the first RB chosen, 37th overall by the Bengals. The first RB taken in the 2014 draft was Washington's Bishop Sankey, 54th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Trent Richardson, drafted 3rd overall in 2012, looks like a serious bust, but not so bad that teams should devalue the entire running back position.
* Cincinnati Bengals — After strong drafts in 2012-13, they made puzzling choices this year. First-rounder Darqueze Dennard is highly regarded, but the Bengals have depth at cornerback, and it wasn't an obvious need for them. Second-round choice Jeremy Hill is a big running back (6-1, 233), but the pick seems redundant on a roster featuring Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Bernard looks like a star, and the team should be trying to get him more carries, not bringing in another RB to split the load. In the 5th round, Cincinnati drafted Alabama QB A.J. McCarron. That's a high-profile quarterback joining a team with a young, successful passer who is already under fire. I hate the pick, just because of the pressure it puts on Andy Dalton.
Meanwhile, needs on the offensive and defensive lines were largely ignored. The Bengals did draft at those positions in the 3rd and 4th rounds, but they needed guys who can start right away. This team should be gearing up for a Super Bowl run, and I don't believe this draft positioned them well for that.