The Mock draft

M piece on Marcus Mariota aside, the draft is today, and I have put together my first round mock draft while I was taking a break from studying (my version of events) or procrastinating (everybody else’s version of events). So without any suspense at all, the first overall pick is…

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, quarterback, Florida State: I can’t see how this doesn’t happen. You have a head coach who comes from a long line of offensively conservative former defensive coordinators. (Translation: a spread-option quarterback probably has as much appeal to him as would a leper.) You have a team that has been inept at the quarterback position for the longest time. You have a quarterback in Winston whose conduct gives you considerable pause, but who has shown he can play a pro-style offence at a very high level in 2013. The Bucs will talk themselves into thinking there is a reasonable explanation for every question mark about Winston. In fact, they already have. Put it in your draft prediction. Next Thursday is when we get confirmation that Winston’s first NFL uniform will be an XFL one.
  2. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, Defensive tackle, USC: I have gone back and forth on this so many times, I can’t describe it. My first version had the Chargers trading up to this point to send Philip Rivers to Tennessee and drafting Marcus Mariota. But I hit this problem: the trade makes a ton of sense for Tennessee, but for San Diego, it means rather minimal returns for a franchise quarterback who still has gas left in the tank. There will be talk of a trade until the very last second, but it won’t happen. This will leave the Titans with the pick. I don’t believe they think as highly of Zach Mettenberger as they pretend to. However, I do think a coach like Ken Whisenhunt is as skeptical of a spread-option quarterback fitting into his system as any NFL coach, and I don’t think he’s willing to change what he’s doing for the sake of a adapting to a different type of signal caller. That leaves Williams, who can be a productive 5-technique in a Titans defence that could be quite a group if they can stay away from injuries. A front that includes Williams along with Jurell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo can be an annoying proposition for any offensive line, especially the rather weak ones of the AFC South.
  3. New York Jets (Trade with Jacksonville) : Marcus Mariota Quarterback: The Jets now have something resembling a receiving crew. The new administration wants to start anew with a new player under centre. Mariota has a great personality to handle Gotham City, and the Jets have to come up in order to beat the Browns, also reportedly looking to trade up, and grab Mariota. Here comes the Jets’ next saviour. For his sake, let’s hope he doesn’t end up like the other ones.  
  4. Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama: This team needs pass catchers in the worst way and management is celebrating at landing Cooper, a polished receiver who knows how to get open and is very hard to tackle. He will give Derek Carr a much-needed no.1 receiver. A slam dunk pick.
  5. The Washington pro football team: Dante Fowler, Defensive end/Rush linebacker, Florida: The Washingtonians will entertain all kinds of offers. This is Daniel Snyder, so he’ll flirt with a flashy offensive pick (i.e. wide receiver), but ultimately, they lost Brian Orakpo, and Ryan Kerrigan is not a good enough athlete to work through constant double-teaming. Fowler was used in all sorts of funky ways at Florida, as Will Muschamp had him dropping to many different spots. This suits the 3-4 Fowler will insert himself into in Washington. With seemingly every other pass rusher trying to hurt his stock with off-field incidents, grabbing the pass rusher who is a model citizen is a must.
  6. Jacksonville Jaguars (trade with New York Jets): Kevin White, Wide Receiver, West Virginia: My case for the Jags making this pick, and not taking a pass rusher, in four parts. 1. The Jags quietly had 45 sacks last season (sixth best in the league), which is more than their combined sack totals of 2012 and 2013. According to the website Football Outsiders, their adjusted sack rate was second in the league. Nobody saw it because next to everything else about this team sucks, but the Jags defence put really good pressure on quarterbacks last season. The traditional stats don’t always reflect it because their offence was so woeful. 2. Who would Vic Beasley or Bud Dupree be replacing? Chris Clemons looks as though he has at least one good year if not two in the tank, and going for a pass rusher here either means a reach or an off-the-field concern. 3. The Jags lost Cecil Shorts, who, while not a superstar, gave them underrated production. What Jacksonville will want to add at receiver will be a size-speed combo guy who will provide a deep threat. Do I really have to mention that they can’t count on the “weedster extraordinaire” Justin Blackmon? 4. The Jags have put all their eggs in the Blake Bortles basket, and they clearly understand this means giving him as many tools to work with as possible. They signed Julius Thomas, they drafted two second-round wideouts last year, one of whom is an all-around guy who can do good work after the catch (Lee). What the Jags are missing in their receiving corps is a pure deep threat. White, who has drawn comparisons with Julio Jones, fits the model. Last question: Who’s going to block for Bortles?
  7. Chicago Bears: Danny Shelton, Nose tackle, Washington: With both top receivers gone, John Fox turns to Chicago’s porous run defence. Shelton can play as a nose tackle in a 3-4, as a 1-technique in a gap charge scheme or as a two-gapper in a gap control scheme. He will instantly improve the Bears’ run defence, which is especially important after losing Stephen Paea. And until he gets traded, you still play Adrian Peterson twice in that division.
  8. Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, Defensive end, Clemson: So… Atlanta has no pass rush. They have hired Dan Quinn from Seattle, who will presumably install the Seattle defence for the Falcons. Beasley, undersized for a defensive end, is the most polished pass rusher in this class, and is absolutely tailor-made for the Leo role, which compensate for his lack of power by allowing him to rush for outside the tight end. This just might the best fit in the entire draft.
  9. New York Giants: Brandon Scherff, Offensive Line, Iowa: The Giants need offensive line help if they don’t want Eli Manning to die during the coming season. Scherff is a guy who can help at either guard or tackle, so they can’t lose here.
  10. New Orleans Saints (Trade with St.Louis Rams): Bud Dupree, Outside linebacker, Kentucky: The Rams don’t like the need/value balance here, so they trade down and allow the Saints to jump on a riser who has been able to stay away from the ganja. Besides, it’s not like the Saints couldn’t use him.
  11. Minnesota Vikings: Trae Waynes, Cornerback, Michigan State: There are a lot of places where the Vikings don’t quite know what they have on their hands. They can still use help at cornerback, and Waynes’ press ability complements that of Xavier Rhodes.
  12. Cleveland Browns: DeVante Parker, Wide receiver, Louisville: The Browns could use some help at receiver given the uncertain future of Josh Gordon and the overall lack of talent of the remainder of this unit. They’re happy Parker is still here after certain mock drafts placed him in the Top 10. The quarterback situation remains complete chaos, but at least there would be a #1 receiver candidate on the roster.
  13. St.Louis Rams (Trade with New Orleans): Andrus Peat, Offensive tackle, Stanford: The Rams are another team that isn’t completely what they have on their hands, especially at the receiver position. After a few years of looking like a bust, Brian Quick started showing flashes of why the Rams spent a second-round pick on him a few years ago. And while they have not yet figured out how to use him yet, Tavon Austin still has tantalizing potential. So with these questions, they go the safe route and bring more beef on the offensive line.
  14. Miami Dolphins: Nelson Agholor, Wide receiver, USC: Who the hell knows with Miami? This is the team that grabbed Juwan James in the first round last season. They can’t possibly be content with the talent they have at receiver right now. Agholor is a slight reach here, but he’s the kind of all-around talent teams like to have as a no.1 receiver.
  15. San Francisco 49ers: Malcolm Brown, Defensive end, Texas: The 49ers realize that Aldon Smith is not the same player without the contribution of a strong defensive end like Justin Smith. Brown has the strength and quickness to force teams to devote some attention to him, allowing for Smith to take advantage of favourable matchups on his way to the quarterback.
  16. Houston Texans: Ereck Flowers, Offensive tackle, Miami: The Giants don’t like that they missed out on the offensive linemen. However, they don’t have a free safety on the roster. Collins is more of a strong safety type, but frankly, just getting a playmaker in the middle of that secondary would give this disaster zone of a Giants defence a big boost.
  17. San Diego Chargers: Todd Gurley, Running back, Georgia: Gurley is one of the draft’s three most talented players, and he represents the Chargers’ biggest needs on offence. If he stays healthy, this just might be the steal of the draft.
  18. Pittsburgh Steelers (Trade with Kansas City): Landon Collins, safety, Alabama: Troy Polamalu just retired, and Pittsburgh needs a player who can fill his shoes, if not in the same way, at relatively the same level. Collins is a playmaker who has the kind of attitude the Steelers love in their safeties
  19. Cleveland Browns: Arik Armstead, defensive end, Oregon: The Browns continue to stack front 7 talent with a player with terrific physical gifts in Armstead. Can they get the most out of the underproducing Armstead?
  20. Philadelphia Eagles: Jaelen Strong, Wide Receiver, Arizona State: The Eagles have depleted their roster at wide receiver in the offseason, and need to retool the position whether Sam Bradford starts or not. Given the propensity for bubble screens in Chip Kelly’s offence, the strength of strong could be the tie-breaker because of his upside as a blocker and ability after the catch.
  21. Cincinnati Bengals: Randy Gregory, Defensive end, Nebraska: Character concern? No problem for the Bengals, who tend to gloss over these things. They like Gregory’s upside, and remember that there isn’t a great pass rusher on their roster. Given the Bengals’ tendency to sit their first rounders on defence, it gives them time to develop Gregory into what they want him to be.
  22. Kansas City Chiefs (Trade with Pittsburgh): Marcus Peters, cornerback, Washington: Having signed Jeremy Maclin to help with the receiver position, the Chiefs upgrade a position that could use some upgrading.
  23. Detroit Lions: Kevin Johnson, cornerback, Wake Forest: Rashean Mathis is 36. The Lions could also use help at right tackle, but there isn’t a clear pick here. Johnson can be groomed to take over for Mathis next year and can help as a nickel guy this year.
  24. Arizona Cardinals: Melvin Gordon, Running Back, Wisconsin: This pick makes a lot of sense. The running back position is a big need for Arizona, and Gordon is absolutely worth this pick. Provided Shane Ray fell off a cliff on their draft board, the other pass rusher are not good value here.
  25. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Humphries, Offensive tackle, Florida: The Panthers’ options at offensive tackle are atrocious. Like Kelvin Benjamin last year, this pick makes itself.
  26. Baltimore Ravens: Dorial Green-Beckham, Wide Receiver, Missouri: The Ravens are a “best available player” team, but exactly who that player is at this point is not clear. Meanwhile, Green-Beckham helps out a supremely thin receiver position for the Ravens and has flat-out unfair upside.
  27. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Dallas): Eddie Goldman, Defensive tackle, Florida State: The Titans trade back up to grab a nose tackle they need as much as anything else. This defence is now scary.
  28. Denver Broncos: Cameron Erving, Centre, Florida State: The Broncos need offensive line help to keep Peyton Manning upright. Erving is tremendous value at this spot.
  29. Indianapolis Colts: Eli Harold, Outside linebacker, Virginia: Eric Walden? Not starting material. Period.
  30. Green Bay Packers: Breshad Perriman, Wide receiver, UCF: This is a value pick here for the Packers who don’t especially need anything, so they take the best player available on their board.
  31. New Orleans Saints: Maxx Williams, Tight end, Minnesota: The Jimmy Graham trade leaves the Saints with a need at tight end. Williams doesn’t have Graham’s athleticism, but he’s a more complete player and will contribute to the Saints’ running and passing game.
  32. New England Patriots: Jalen Collins, Cornerback, LSU: After losing Darelle Revis, the Pats reload with a raw, but physically gifted cornerback from a school that has a reputation for producing quality players at the position.

Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

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