2014 NFL draft first round critique

OK, a first thought to kick off this post-first round chatter: I really think that this dogma that has teams taking a quarterback and ONLY THEN worrying about surrounding him with actual talent is, to put it at its mildest, silly. So much of a quarterback’s success or failure in the NFL comes down to circumstance, and the graveyard of NFL quarterback busts is clogged with guys who just didn’t have the talent around them to get anything done. I’m nostalgic for teams that understand that you build franchises from the lines out and that once you can protect your quarterback and get after the other team’s, good things will happen, and you might even win big without that “franchise guy.”

So my Clowns Jags took Blake Bortles at 3. It’s not that I don’t think that he has talent; he clearly does. But when I hear the attributes that get scouts excited about him (arm strength, size, mobility, ability to make every NFL throw), I think of another guy by the name of Blaine Gabbert, who also had those things. Yet, when the time came to it, Gabbert stepped in with a Maurice Jones-Drew diminished by injury, not much of an offensive line, and when the Jags got Justin Blackmon, they couldn’t manage to get both he and Gabbert on the field at the same time. Next thing you know, Gabbert flops and is now the butt of every joke as to why the Jags are currently the NFL’s most irrelevant franchise, which they are.

Meanwhile, look at a team like the 49ers. They have what is undoubtedly the most loaded roster in the league right now. Look at how they built it. They picked three first-round offensive linemen in Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. They picked tight end Vernon Davis, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and loaded the defence with playmakers. During this time, who did they have playing quarterback? The marginally gifted (physically anyways), uninspiring game manager Alex Smith, who had himself been thrown to the wolves too early with no supporting cast earlier in his career. And when the talent around him was good, even Smith looked like he could play. Only when the foundations of a consistently good team were laid did the Niners replace Smith with the franchise guy, Colin Kaepernick.

Now, I can see you coming: Colin Kaepernick was a second rounder! You don’t get a Kap in the second round every year! No, you don’t. But even in the absence of a Kap in the second round, you know what becomes more expendable to you with a talented roster? Draft picks! And then you find a sucky team that could use extra picks, and then you make a deal with them, and then you go up and get your guy. This hardly seems like rocket science. Even today, as I write this, the Niners acquired receiver Stevie Johnson from the Bills. Johnson gives them a deep threat that they’ve been sorely missing for the past few years. The price was a fourth round pick in 2015 that could become a third rounder. Translation: peanuts. It’s amazing how, when you’re a good team, you easily find bad teams like Buffalo, who just dealt their 2015 first rounder to the Browns to move up five spots for a guy who hasn’t played a down yet, and get a chance to take their lunch money. And I shouldn’t say “take.” These teams will beg to give it to you.

The Jags might get lucky. They might take a guy in the second round who’ll provide enough pass rush to compensate for the fact that they pinheadedly passed on a player who was such a perfect fit for their defensive scheme they couldn’t have drawn him up any better (Khalil Mack). Better yet, they might use a lesser pick to find a receiver who’ll give them an alternative to Cecil Shorts, given that Justin Blackmon, a potential superstar when on the field, is apparently trying out all the possible ways to get suspended by the NFL. I like Gus Bradley, I thought he sent out a positive message last year when he drafted Luke Joeckel ahead of other potentially sexier but ultimately lesser candidates. It looked as though he understood how a durable foundation was built. Which is why watching him pick Blake Bortles when a Khalil Mack was sitting there is so deflating. After showing real poise in their personnel dealings, he and GM David Caldwell jumped the gun and picked an overly raw quarterback one year early. After stabilizing the offensive line with Luke Joeckel and other free agents, it was time to find that player who would redefine the team’s defensive identity. That could have been Mack, just like Patrick Willis was in San Francisco. But perhaps sound drafting today and Saturday will unearth the gems that this new-look Jags team will be built on. And maybe these guys can help ensure Bortles’ transition to the NFL is smoother than I fear it will be.

Because right now, the Jags are giving us the “Chad Henne is our starter” schtick. Easy to say now. But, you know the only guy who’s more popular than the backup quarterback? The backup quarterback who was this year’s Top 5 pick. So when Henne struggles in any way, a bad incompletion, a bad interception, and all 15 people in EverBank Stadium are screaming for Bortles, how long can Bradley and his staff resist the pressure to put in Local Boy? There’s another thing Bradley assuredly understands about the NFL, and profound rebuilding jobs. You have to find your quarterback, but once you send out the message that you have, the countdown to your firing begins. I think Gus Bradley could have delayed the start of that countdown by another year by waiting on that so-called franchise quarterback and instead selecting a franchise player at another position. He’s chosen to pass up that chance.

They say “everything starts with the right quarterback.” Perhaps. But what’s undoubtledly true is this: everything ends with the wrong one.

With that said, here are my thoughts and grades on every pick made yesterday in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft:

1. Houston Texans: Jadaveon Clowney, Defensive end, South Carolina: It was becoming increasingly likely that Clowney was going to be the first pick. The only question was to whom. I had Atlanta moving up for a trade and getting Clowney, but Houston’s asking price was surely too high. Clowney was the best player in the draft and while the identity of their starting QB remains an important question, given that an ESPN reporter said his sources tell him the Texans will take Marqise Lee with their first pick tonight, the South Carolina freak gives Houston another tool to harass quarterbacks. As someone tweeted yesterday, Andrew Luck hated this pick. Grade: A

2. St.Louis Rams: Greg Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Auburn: I said yesterday that, for my money, I would have taken Jake Matthews. But with Jason Smith being a bust and Jake Long’s health always a question mark, Robinson gives them an insurance policy and another superior talent of the offensive line. I love that Jeff Fisher understands that you build successful teams on both lines. The plan, Adam Schefter says, is to start Robinson at left guard if Long is healthy, and to groom him as Long’s successor down the road. The price of a second overall pick given this plan is high, but considering all three top offensive tackles were gone when the Rams picked again at 13, it’s understandable. Grade: B+

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, Quarterback, UCF: Here is what I posted on Facebook last night about the Bortles pick for my sorry yet beloved Jags: “The more I think about the Blake Bortles pick, the less I like it. The guy clearly has talent, but he’s not starting this year unless Chad Henne gets hurt or if you pull a 180 on your plans for him. And if Bortles starts this year, cue the Gabbert 2.0 jokes; he’s not ready. The Jags needed an impact player who would start right away. Bortles isn’t that guy. Gus Bradley just discarded his second honeymoon year with me.” I stand by that, and I’ll add one more thing. Not only is Bortles not ready, the team isn’t ready for him. Suppose he plays. Who is he going to throw the ball to besides Cecil Shorts (nice player, but not exactly Calvin Johnson)? Marcedes Lewis is a slow tight end, Justin Blackmon might not play this year, and the Jags have nobody else about whom opposing defensive coordinators won’t have to ask team scouts, “Who’s that guy, again?” Bortles might be a better talent than Blaine Gabbert, but given the lack of an adequate supporting cast, a similar fate is staring him in the face. Grade: C+

(An anecdote about the selection: I read the article on nfl.com that analysed the Bortles pick, and in the comments section, one pessimistic fan said that “The Jags are headed for at least three more years of failure.” To which another fan, who is sure to win the Stephen Hawking Showcasing Human Evolution Award, responded: “Your face is headed for several more years of failure.” At 6:3o AM with insufficient sleep, I laughed.)

4. *Buffalo Bills (trade with Cleveland) : Sammy Watkins, Wide receiver, Clemson: That filthy traitor who went to Clemson Watkins is truly an excellent player, but the Bills gave up next year’s number 1 pick to the Browns to come up five spots to get him. I mean, Buffalo now has a group of pass catchers you really have to gameplan for, but the price of it is extremely (read: too) high. Playing the “one player away” card when you’re clearly more than one player away is dangerous, especially if EJ Manuel’s progression is slower than expected. This is the kind of pick that smells of a coach who thinks he must win now or get fired. And ironically enough, it just might get him fired if it doesn’t make Buffalo a playoff team. This grade would be much lower if not for the quality of the player. Grade: B-

5. Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, Outside Linebacker, Buffalo: Usually, the Raiders are the team that screws up, which allows smarter teams to reap the benefits. This time, the Raiders were the smart team, landing a player who will instantly improve their talent on defence. I’m not sure I see the great pass rusher everyone seems to, but it’s a fair bet coach Dennis Allen, who worked with Von Miller in Denver a few seasons ago, will use Mack in a similar capacity. This is a good, no-nonsense pick for the Raiders. Grade: A

6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M: I pegged Atlanta to go up to number 1 and take Clowney, but as long as that didn’t happen, this is the ideal pick for the birds. Matthews gives necessary protection to Matt Ryan, and while I don’t like him quite as much as I did his teammate from last year, Luke Joeckel, Matthews was my top offensive tackle for this year and possesses all the traits of a high-level blindside protector. Grade: A+

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, Wide receiver, Texas A&M: I’ve made no bones about the fact that that I’m no Evans fan, but this was rumoured to be as much of a lock as there was going to be in this draft, and the Bucs did need someone to play opposite Vincent Jackson. I’m a big believer in having receivers with complementary skills, and Evans, in a best-case scenario, is going to become another V-Jax. That being said, this feels like TB is trying to replicate what the Chicago Bears have with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, two very similar receivers who successfully challenge defences. If Evans and Jackson accomplish that, then I’ll have to eat my words. In the meantime, I’ll give the Bucs the benefit of the doubt to some extent. Grade: B

8. *Cleveland Browns (Via Minnesota through Buffalo): Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State: Gilbert was widely considered the best cornerback in the draft, but the pick surprised some, including me, given the depth of this cornerback class and the fact that some marginally talented dude named Joe Haden already is patrolling the other side. I have to take from this that, given Cleveland’s lack of offensive firepower, the skill position players they liked at that spot were gone and that the Browns just went with the top player on their board. If, as some people suggest, Gilbert was the guy they wanted all along, I can’t say I understand it. Grade: B

9. Minnesota Vikings (trade with Cleveland): Anthony Barr, Linebacker, UCLA: I challenge you, dear readers, to find me another mock draft than that of yours truly that called for Barr to go to the Vikings. Barr is a boom-or-bust type who will either be another unimpactful flop who will struggle to find the field like Dion Jordan or Vernon Gholston or an unstoppable force in two-three years. The Vikings resisted going for a quarterback (at nine, anyways), but Barr is as risky a pick as taking a quarterback would have been here. Still, the upside is there. Grade: B

10. Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron, Tight end, North Carolina: This is an illustration of the limits of the “best available player” model. The best player at this point might well have been Ebron. But for Detroit? Really? This is a team that just re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, and while he’s not a fearsome receiver, the Lions’ defence is just short of abysmal in the back end. Any cornerback or safety would have improved the Lions vastly more than Ebron. I’ll say one thing for the pick, though: The Lions have added Golden Tate and now have Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Ebron at tight end. If I’m the Lions offensive coordinator and I still see Matt Stafford forcing balls to Megatron in triple coverage next year, a chair will fly dangerously close to his head. Grade: B-

11. Tennessee Titans: Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle, Michigan: This pick carries one of the same problem the Jags’ pick does: The Titans are not good enough to have a redshirt first rounder, and it seems as though that’s what Lewan will be unless he’s so dominant in camp that the Titans feel safe about trading Michael Roos’ expiring contract. I’m also not a fan of Lewan’s soft running blocking, though his pass blocking skills are excellent. Meanwhile, this is a team that’s still in search of an impact pass rusher (because I can’t see how Jurell Casey can be as productive in a 3-4 as he was last year in a 4-3) and of a nose tackle more athletic than Sammie Hill. Grade: B

12.  New York Giants: Odell Beckham, Wide Receiver, LSU: I’m a Beckham fan, but I’m not crazy about the pick for two reasons. First, as much as I like Beckham, I thought the Giants reached for him a little though they needed someone to replace Hakeem Nicks. Secondly, Zack Martin would have been a reach too, but with the Giants’ offensive line being the mess that it is, it would have been a wiser reach. Beckham is a really nice player, but Eli Manning might not have the time to get the ball to him. Grade: B-

13. St.Louis Rams: Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh: The sucker that I am for pass rushing 3-techniques adores this pick. The neutral observer does too. Donald has the quickness and the pass rush moves to be one of the league’s most dangerous inside pass rushers. I was a bit surprised because Jeff Fisher teams usually field two-gap defenders at the position, but this is a pleasant surprise. Oh! and for those keeping track, the Rams now have four first-round picks on the D-Line. Four. FOUR!! I love it. Blocking those guys is going to be positively uncool. Why must it be the Rams? Grade: A+

14. Chicago Bears: Kyle Fuller, Cornerback, Virginia Tech: This is a pick for the future. The Bears appear set at corner for now, but Charles Tillman is not getting any younger and the Bears would rather have his replacement ready when the time to let him go arrives. Besides, you need three good corners in today’s NFL, and at worst, Fuller will see lots of action when teams put three receivers on the field. I didn’t have Fuller rated quite that high, but this is a solid, dependable pick for the Bears. It’s highly unlikely Fuller doesn’t work out for them. Grade: A-

15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier, Linebacker, Ohio State: This one caught me by surprise. Shazier has uncommon athleticism at the linebacker position, but he really doesn’t strike me as a 3-4 player. He’s doesn’t have the size or pass rush repertoire of a 3-4 outside linebacker and his lack of size hurts him when the time comes to take on blocks inside. Defenders of the move will suggest the same could have been said of Lawrence Timmons when he came out of Florida State, but it remains to be seen how Shazier will react to playing inside backer in a 3-4 rather than playing the Will backer position in a 4-3 he is so obviously suited for. Grade: C+

16. Dallas Cowboys: Zack Martin, Offensive lineman, Notre Dame: Martin is, by all accounts a good player. No doubt he’ll help keep Tony Romo upright. But Dallas’ defence was the worst in history. They are an unmitigated disaster. I get that top defensive linemen were gone (still would have taken Timmy Jernigan), but how do you not upgrade with so many value picks in the secondary? Clinton-Dix, Pryor, any of the corners; all those guys were still on the board when the Cowboys picked. The idea of taking Manziel, which would somehow have made the likes of Skip Bayless happy though the ‘boys signed Tony Romo to a deal in excess of $100 million, was just ludicrous, though it kept us on the edge of our seats (because you never know with Jerry Jones). Still, with a defence this bad, I can’t figure out how the Cowboys ignore it here. Grade: B

17. Baltimore Ravens: CJ Mosley, Linebacker, Alabama: That’s another one you could see coming a mile away. The Ravens, known for their dominant defence, were not so dominant there last year. Mosley, a talented and polished defensive player who brings great toughness and leadership, will help re-establish the Ravens to their usual status. Grade: A

18. New York Jets: Calvin Pryor, Safety, Louisville: I was surprised by this one, because I really thought they’d go offence. If Eric Decker is your most prolific receiver, you’re in trouble. That’s the Jets. Yet, Pryor is a solid talent who figures to be an impact player in Rex Ryan’s defence. Grade: B+

19. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Wuan James, Offensive tackle, Tennesse: Oh, dear Dolphins! So many things wrong with this. Picking up on the Jonathan Martin fiasco, the Phins drafted a guy they could have gotten a round later (at least). In fact, they drafted a guy who wasn’t considered the top offensive tackle on his college team! (That would be Antonio Richardson.) Meanwhile, the Dolphins could have gotten value at positions where they still could have used help (though maybe not as dramatically as they do at right tackle, but still…), such as defensive back and receiver. This kind of pick reminds us of why the Phins have been a nondescript franchise for a while now. Grade: D+

20. *New Orleans Saints (Trade with Arizona): Brandin Cooks, Wide receiver, Oregon State: Sure, another receiver. Why not? The Saints have been the greatest show on turf for a while now, and it’s scary that they added Cooks, scorching fast with great route running ability who gets downgraded strictly because of his size, to the mix of Graham, Colston and co. Cooks instantly becomes the early favourite for offensive rookie of the year. Not sure the Saints’ defence is all set, but they didn’t get easier to stop on offence with this pick. Grade: A-

21. Green Bay Packers: Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Safety, Alabama: Possibly the best value of the first round. The Packers sat patiently and waited to pick a guy who, on talent alone, would have left a solid 7-8 picks earlier. The guy in question also happens to fill one of the Packers’ biggest needs. Sometimes, it’s amazing what happens when you just sit by and let other teams screw up. Grade: A+

22. *Cleveland Browns (trade with Philadelphia): Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M: Even though they’ve been one of the NFL’s worst-run franchises pretty much since their return, the Browns continue to be an endless stream of entertainment. Manziel is a player who belongs in his own category and who ranks as perhaps the ultimate boom-or-bust pick. Very hard to grade. Grade: B

23. Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford, Outside linebacker, Auburn: I love Ford, but it’s strange to see the Chiefs picking him. Sure, Tamba Hali is not THAT young anymore and Justin Houston is an unrestricted free agent next year, but do the Chiefs really plan to let either one of them go at that point? Meanwhile, excellent receivers were still on board, guys who could have complemented Dwayne Bowe nicely and given Alex Smith another target to throw to, seing that the trade with the 49ers for AJ Jenkins isn’t giving them another reliable player. Grade: B-

24. Cincinnati Bengals: Darqueze Dennard, Cornerback, Michigan State: Why does it seem as though when it comes to cornerbacks for the Bengals, it’s garbage in, garbage out? They seem to draft one every other year. Still, I think Dennard is a terrific pick and good value at 24. He instantly gives the Bengals a physical presence in the secondary and isn’t afraid to make tackles in a division where he’ll clearly have to. He was pretty much the best fit/best available at this point. Love this pick. Grade: A+

25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, Cornerback, TCU: For the Chargers, cornerback was such a huge need that it was hard to imagine them not taking one. The only question was which one. Verrett is a smaller cornerback (which undoubtedly scared off some teams), but he plays big and has the ideal cockiness and selective amnesia of the great corners. His talent and level of play probably warranted a higher pick. Grade: A

26. Philadelphia Eagles: Marcus Smith, defensive end/outside linebacker, Louisville: The Eagles did need another pass rusher, but reached pretty badly for Smith, who belonged about one round later. There were other positions where the Eagles needed help and where they could have found better value while still getting Smith in the second. Smith’s burst is good, but not great, and while he does have characteristics in common with Trent Cole, Cole was no first-rounder, either. To become a viable NFL pass rusher, Smith will have to brush up on his technique, because his sheer initial quickness and burst won’t get him nearly as far in the NFL as they did in college. Grade: C

27. Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon, Safety, Washington State: A second consecutive reach, Bucannon was reportedly rated much higher by some teams than others, and so the Cards didn’t want to take the chance to miss out on him. Bucannon is an impressive tackler and an fierce hitter, but you have to think the Cards could have traded back even more if he was the guy they wanted all along. Also, I struggle to wrap my head around the idea that the Cards don’t fancy an upgrade at quarterback. How much could they really have disliked Teddy Bridgewwater? Grade: C+

28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, Wide receiver, Florida State: The Panthers went with the upside of Benjamin over the polish of Marqise Lee. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear early stories of coaches’ frustration with Benjamin, who has to cure his tendency for clutch drops and improve his route running. But, clearly, guys with Benjamin’s physical package are fairly rare. A much better vertical threat than his timed speed would indicate, Benjamin is also a load after the catch and a flat-out unfair jump ball matchup in the end zone. The boom factor is greater than with Lee, but so are the chances of him busting. Regardless of the player though, reinforcements to Carolina’s depleted receiving corps were a must. In fact, don’t be shocked if they take another one in the draft. Grade: B+

29. New England Patriots: Dominique Easley, Defensive tackle, Florida: On talent alone, Easley is absolutely worth this pick. But it’s not like the Patriots to gamble on an injury-prone player like Easley, who has torn both ACLs during his college career. You can see this pick as recognition by Bill Belichick of the importance of subpackages for his defence, as Easley is not really a traditional 3-4 lineman. However, a healthy Easley will give opposing offensive line fits, especially in a division where the offensive lines are fairly weak. As far as his health is concerned, though, it’s a big “if.” Grade: B-

30. San Francisco 49ers: Jimmie Ward, Cornerback/Safety, Northern Illinois: Evaluators were all over the place on Ward, whose rank varied more than that of the average prospect. The Niners expect to use Ward as a nickel corner, which brings the pick another layer of unpredictability. That being said, the Niners clearly evaluate players differently than most teams do, and they reach (according to the draft media) more than most, with results ranging from the very good (Aldon Smith) to the very bad (AJ Jenkins). Ward clearly looks the part of a solid player, so I’ll give the Niners the benefit of the doubt and assume they know what they’re doing here. Grade: B

31. Denver Broncos: Bradley Roby, Cornerback, Ohio State: There are lots of things about Roby that scare you: the inconsistent effort and technique, the lousy tackling… However, in terms of talent and positional need, Denver is spot on here. Roby, especially if he gets good hard coaching early, gives the Broncos a player of considerable talent with the ability to play man coverage of which the Broncos defence was almost completely devoid last year with the over-the-hill Champ Bailey and the committee of nondescript players getting deep-fried on the opposite side. Grade: B+

32. *Minnesota Vikings (Trade with Seattle): Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Louisville: I’m so happy for Bridgewater. And this is a good move for the Vikings, who have now signalled their intention to move on from both Christian Ponder and Matt Cassell. Bridgewater has been knocked around considerably this offseason with his bad pro day, small hands (which people deduce because he played with a glove on his throwing hand (?!)) and subpar size (I missed the memo that declares a 6-2, 215-pound quarterback undersized). However, intellectually, he is by far the top quarterback in the class and his technical flaws can be fixed, and likely will, given the chip Bridgewater will carry on his shoulders. The Vikings have nabbed my favourite quarterback in the draft with the last pick in the first round. I can’t hold back on the kudos. Grade: A

 

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