Monday, May 4, 2015
2015 NFL Draft Winners and Losers
Over the next several 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 judgments 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.
There's one exception to my rule about not analyzing individual players: I don't think this was the right year to draft a quarterback early. Jameis Winston is not Johnny Manziel or JaMarcus Russell, but no matter how much ability he has, I'd be awfully worried about drafting him. Even good-character guys like Robert Griffin can turn into headaches when the hype and the money get to them. Choosing Winston first overall was a massive risk, and not one that I think was a good idea.
I don't believe Marcus Mariota will ever be an elite NFL quarterback. There are smart people who know a lot more about evaluating draft prospects than I do, who love Mariota. But even in the 59-20 Rose Bowl/playoff win over FSU, I didn't see an Andrew Luck or a Russell Wilson. I saw a Ryan Tannehill. This isn't about Oregon's spread offense; I just don't see Mariota's skill set translating into a top-level NFL QB.
2015 Draft Winners
* New York Jets — First-round pick Leonard Williams was widely regarded as the best prospect at any position. Second-round WR Devin Smith addresses a need, and they got Baylor QB Bryce Petty in the fourth round. Jarvis Harrison looks like a value pick in the fifth round. But what really sold me on the Jets' draft was a pair of choices they didn't make. New York traded away their fifth- and seventh-round picks in exchange for Brandon Marshall and Zac Stacy. Marshall is one of the best wide receivers in the game, and Stacy is a young player (24) who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie. This year's draft picks might not make an immediate impact in 2015, but the veterans should.
* Detroit Lions — The Lions landed on the winners list before they sent a card to the podium. They traded a pair of mid-round picks for Pro Bowl DT Haloti Ngata, and a trade down in the first round brought offensive lineman Manny Ramirez from Denver. Both should start in Week 1. Detroit drafted a huge guard, Laken Tomlinson, in the first round. Ramirez and Tomlinson allow the Lions to not only replace retired center Dominic Raiola, but to upgrade their interior line. Their second round selection, Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah, is a great athlete, and I like the pick a lot. I'm not worried about his size. The Lions needed another DT, and when Auburn's Gabe Wright slipped into the fourth round, Detroit traded up to get him. If I'm a Lions fan, I'm happy today.
* Florida State Seminoles — Five players selected in the first three rounds, most of any university. That includes the first overall pick, QB Jameis Winston. Over the past three years, 29 FSU players have been drafted, breaking the modern record set by Miami from 2002-04.
* Jacksonville Jaguars — Showed faith in last year's draft. They focused on the pass game in 2014, and they're letting that play out. Third overall selection Dante Fowler could finally be the answer to their pass-rushing woes. They went RB and OL in the second and third rounds, to stabilize their lost ground attack, and they got a highly-rated DT, Ohio State's Michael Bennett, in the sixth round. They won't be contenders until they find a quarterback, but this draft should make the team better.
* Pittsburgh Steelers — Lost out on TE Maxx Williams in the second round, but they got NFL Combine sensation Bud Dupree, a freak athlete with a very high ceiling, and two cornerbacks to supplement their age-depleted secondary. The Steelers expect Dupree to be the latest in a long line of elite pass rushers. Third-round WR Sammie Coates is another great athlete, but one who needs some polish on his football skills. The second and fourth rounds both yielded CBs, a need position for Pittsburgh. Gerod Holliman was last year's Thorpe Award winner and an All-American, and they got him in the seventh round.
* Baltimore Ravens — Drafted Breshad Perriman to replace free agent departure Torrey Smith, and snagged Iowa DT Carl Davis in the third round to help fill the void left by Haloti Ngata. They traded up in the second round to draft TE Maxx Williams ahead of division rival Pittsburgh.
* Wide receivers — Thursday night's first round saw six wideouts drafted, and eight of the first 40 picks were WRs. Altogether, 13 went in the first three rounds. Last year's class of rookie receivers was among the best in history, and evidently a number of GMs see this year's rookies the same way.
* Chicago Bears — New coach John Fox has the luxury of a multi-year rebuilding project. The defense, which ranked 30th in yardage and 31st in points, is still a mess. But with three of their first four picks spent on offense, the Bears chose a receiver to fill the gap left by trading Brandon Marshall, an offensive lineman, and a third-down back to spell Matt Forte. Working within the confines of the Jay Cutler contract disaster, the Bears have addressed their most obvious needs on offense. Going forward, they can focus on rebuilding the defense.
* New Orleans Saints — I would have liked to see them land a game-breaking receiver to replace Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, but they still put together a nice draft, with five picks in the first three rounds. The Saints went offensive line with their first choice (Stanford's Andrus Peat), and inside linebacker (Stephone Anthony) with the extra pick they got from trading Graham. New Orleans got a pass rusher in the second round, then QB Garrett Grayson, whom the team really wanted as a successor for Drew Brees. Four of their last five picks went to defense, and you expect at least one of those to produce a pretty good starter.
* Cleveland Browns — They've been building toward this for three years, trading away picks and players. The Browns finally cashed in, with two first-round draft picks, five in the first three rounds, 11 altogether.
The Browns allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL last year (142/gm, 4.5/att), and they addressed that in the first round, with 330-lb. nose tackle Danny Shelton. He ran a slow 40 at the NFL Combine, but Shelton had a great bench press, and he was a multi-sport athlete at the University of Washington. I would have liked to see Cleveland do more to restock its secondary — Buster Skrine went to the Jets, Jim Leonhard retired, and Tashaun Gipson is a restricted free agent — but sixth-round selection Charles Gaines has upside, and with three early picks spent on defensive linemen, the Browns obviously have a plan. I'm interested to see what they do with former Miami Hurricanes RB Duke Johnson.
* Miami Dolphins — I think they basically targeted the right positions, and Jay Ajayi could be a great value in the fifth round, but I do not understand the Kenny Stills trade. In March, the Dolphins traded linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round draft pick to the Saints, in exchange for Stills. That trade seems like a rip-off to me, with Miami on the short end. But that was before the Dolphins signed Greg Jennings and used their top draft pick on DeVante Parker. This team has a lot of wide receivers now, but it might be missing Ellerbe and that extra draft pick.
* Dallas Cowboys — I'm rooting for Randy Gregory. But the news that he missed several appointments with teams doesn't breed confidence that he'll be a player the Cowboys can rely on. If Gregory lives up to his potential, he was a steal in the late second round. If he washes out, that's a waste of an early draft pick. The Cowboys selected Florida OT Chaz Green in the third round, and it's a curious pick on a team widely considered to have the best offensive line in the league. You can never have too much depth on the line, and obviously the Cowboys felt they were getting a good, undervalued player. But it was a surprising position for the team to target on the second day.
* Carolina Panthers — Shaq Thompson was a surprise in the first round, a guy analysts expected to go later. The Panthers traded up to get Devin Funchess, essentially spending both their second- and third-round picks to acquire him. I think Funchess is a great fit for Carolina, but they paid a high price to obtain him. The team also moved up to select Oklahoma offensive lineman Daryl Williams in the fourth round.
The Panthers have done this repeatedly in recent years, trading lavishly to target the players they want. It's mostly worked out, with the team winning back-to-back NFC South titles, but it requires a lot of faith in your scouting, and prospects generally don't justify that degree of confidence. I would have liked to see them go after a pass rusher or defensive back at some point.
* Denver Broncos — I really wish they had done more to address their interior offensive line. Orlando Franklin and Will Montgomery left in free agency, and they traded Manny Ramirez. Is fourth-round draft pick Max Garcia their starting center in Week 1? Maybe Ty Sambrailo, whom they drafted second, will play guard?
In the first round, Denver traded up to get Missouri pass rusher Shane Ray. He's a terrific talent, but it's not obvious how he fits in 2015, on a team with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. He was also arrested a week ago, and that's a huge red flag in today's NFL. That's why Ray was available 23rd, so he could be a bargain, or a washout.
2015 Draft Losers
* Blockbuster trades — There were no trades into the top 10, no one trading away their first-rounder next year, or mortgaging the whole draft. That's probably wise, but it's not as much fun.
* Washington — I don't understand their draft. They bypassed Leonard Williams with the 5th pick, then chose a pass rusher and a running back. I'm not sure where Preston Smith fits on a team with Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan and 2013 NCAA sack leader Trent Murphy. Matt Jones seems redundant on a team with Alfred Morris. They didn't address a leaky defensive backfield until the sixth round.
* San Francisco 49ers — I guess they got some good players, but they just ignored their needs. Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired, but the Niners didn't draft an inside linebacker. They waited until the sixth round to draft an offensive lineman. They didn't take a cornerback. At some point, you want to address the holes on your roster, and I can't see that the 49ers did that.
* La'el Collins — Lots of questionable-character, off-field issues players saw their draft stock suffer, but most of them still got drafted. Collins, viewed as a first-round, possible top-10 talent, didn't get picked at all. He can't re-enter the draft in 2016 (as initially reported), but expect multiple teams to go after him if his legal issues blow over.
* Ohio State Buckeyes — The NCAA national champions had no players selected in the first round. Wide receiver Devin Smith, 37th overall, was the first Buckeye off the board.
* Tennessee Titans — I don't think Marcus Mariota will ever be an elite NFL quarterback, but even beyond that, the Titans almost certainly turned down generous trade offers to move up to the second spot. Look at what the Rams have done with the RG3 heist, and it's beyond foolish to turn down that kind of opportunity. I also think the Titans have misdiagnosed their problem. Their leading receivers last year were Delanie Walker, Kendall Wright, and Nate Washington. I'd rather see what Zach Mettenberger can do with Kevin White or Amari Cooper than watch Mariota throwing to Walker, Wright, Washington, and Hakeem Nicks.
Tennessee did draft Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round, but that's a high-risk selection. Green-Beckham has great physical potential, but it's doesn't always translate to the field, and he has serious off-field concerns. The Titans have so many needs they failed to address in this draft.
* Big 12 — Only had three players drafted in the first two rounds. The Washington Huskies had more first-round draft picks than the entire Big 12 conference, combined. Washington, Florida State, and Mizzou each had more players chosen in the first two rounds than the Big 12.
* Notre Dame Fighting Irish — Only one player drafted this year: tight end Ben Koyack ... in the seventh round ... 229th overall ... to the Jaguars.
* Tennessee Volunteers — At least Ohio State and Notre Dame had players drafted. For the first time in more than 50 years, no one from Tennessee was selected in the NFL Draft.
* Buffalo Bills — Gave away their first- and fourth-round picks in last year's trade to move up for Sammy Watkins. Ronald Darby looks like a nice value 50th overall, but Buffalo had the 3rd-ranked pass defense in the NFL last year, and I would have preferred to see them target a different position. Their offense need more weapons in the passing game, and I thought they would draft a linebacker to replace Kiko Alonso. Watkins played well last season before his injury, but the Bills are still paying for him.