NFL Draft Top 10 storyline overview, or an exercise in overthinking

The 2016 NFL draft is in 10 days and, as usual, the storylines are legion. Taking up most of the spotlight are the Rams, who have acquired the first overall pick in a blockbuster trade with the Titans that had people thinking back to 2012, when the Rams traded out of the second overall pick and allowed Washington to grab Robert Griffin.

We should be thankful that we’ve heard the last of the Rams telling us they’re confident in their ability to win with Case Keenum at quarterback. They are taking a signal caller with the first pick. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t picked the best season to swing for the fences on a QB. Their choice is between North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, and California’s Jared Goff.

In an ideal world, both of them would sit next year, although we all know that’s never going to happen. Conventional wisdom suggests a significant adjustment period awaits the two of them. Wentz played FCS football, so we can imagine the speed of the game will be another universe for him. However, the system he played at NDSU is recognized by most as rather similar to what he’ll be asked to do in the NFL. Meanwhile, Goff has faced top competition in the Pac-12 Conference, but comes from an Air Raid offence that features very different reads from those he’ll have to make at the NFL level.

Ultimately, there are two lenses through which to view the Goff/Wentz debate. The first is about upside. Here, most people agree the nod goes to Wentz. Goff has terrific pocket presence, a quick release, and a good arm. However, Wentz has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles because of his large build, big arm, and sneaky running ability. Some have even made parallels between Wentz and Cam Newton (a strong exaggeration, at least in terms of running ability).

The second is about the aforementioned learning curve. For some, playing in the Pac-12 has prepared Goff to deal with the speed of the NFL. Moreover, the beating he took during three years of bad O-Line play at Cal while still making great throws is an enticing prospect for teams looking to stick him into a bad lineup. On the other hand, Wentz backers care more about the adjustment to an NFL system, which they say, favours the NDSU product. It’s fairly clear Wentz would be the uncontested no.1 in the eyes of most people had he played in the FBS, so how much does the level of competition really matter if Wentz checks out all other boxes? If the passing concepts, the reads, and the audible systems are similar to what he’ll see in the NFL, does the jump in level of play become somewhat overstated?

The information coming out of L.A. seems to indicate it’s going to be Goff. Given that Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams’ head coach and GM, are trying to save their jobs, picking Goff makes sense if we accept that the Cal pivot is the most pro-ready of the two top quarterbacks. However, smokescreens are key during draft season, and this is just my gut, but I can’t help but think there is an appeal to an all-ball guy like Wentz to someone like Jeff Fisher. As they say on television, to be continued…

The two best players

Meanwhile, the trade at the top of the draft also creates some uncertainty for the draft’s top offensive lineman and my second-rated prospect, Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil. He is the best blend of size, strength, and athleticism to enter the NFL at the tackle position in several years. Before the trade, draft experts were almost unanimous in their belief that Tennessee would take him first overall. Now, it’s a virtual certainty the Rams haven’t traded up to get him, and Cleveland – who owns the second overall pick – isn’t in the market for an offensive tackle unless they trade Joe Thomas.

That leaves the Chargers, holders of the third overall pick, as the likeliest team to pick Tunsil, but it’s not a given. They could very well go in the direction of my favourite player in the draft, Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey. I’m not saying this just because I’m an FSU diehard. Ramsey’s ability to play at a high level at both cornerback and safety means that the only potential limit for him will be his defensive coordinator’s creativity. As Charles Woodson retires, Ramsey could become the new Woodson: a guy who redefines how NFL defensive backs are used.

The Chargers are tough to read on the Ramsey front, though, because they have Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett at cornerback, they’ve brought in Casey Heyward as a potential nickel and they have Dwight Lowery at free safety. Stick Ramsey anywhere in there, and he’s an upgrade. Yet, whether San Diego decides to go with him or not depends what the plan for him would be, which is what makes evaluating Ramsey’s draft prospects so hard. Meanwhile, Tunsil would serve as an upgrade over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap’s improvement during his NFL career has been nothing short of spectacular, but he still struggles a bit with the league’s elite edge rushers. If the Chargers go with Tunsil, Dunlap would be an improvement, athletically at least, over Joseph Barksdale at right tackle.

Dallas doesn’t need Tunsil at all, but is a strong suitor for Ramsey given their need for help in the secondary. If they were to go in another direction, Jacksonville would surely have a hard time passing on a player who could help revitalize a secondary that was subpar at best last season. With the release of Sergio Brown, the Jags are likely buyers in the defensive back market. They couldn’t find a better one than Ramsey. However, they are far from certain to get him at five.

The Jags’ fifth pick becomes a real point of interest for the neutral fans (and a point of depression for Jags’ fans) if Ramsey is gone but Tunsil is still there. This situation would force the Jags to think long and hard about their confidence in Luke Joeckel as their starting left tackle. After being picked second overall in 2013, Joeckel struggled mightily early in his career, but has looked increasingly competent ever since. His lack of upper-echelon athleticism will likely prevent him from becoming the force he once was projected to be, but if the Jags think they can win with Joeckel at left tackle, they’re getting into coin-flip territory in terms of whom they pick. Do you go for the draft’s other versatile defensive dynamo, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who’s coming off a season-ending injury, or bring in even more D-Line help with Joey Bosa? Or do you trade down a few picks with someone who wants to leapfrog Baltimore for Tunsil and try to grab Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the bottom half of the top 10? (Note: If Laremy Tunsil falls to Baltimore at six, Ozzie Newsome is doing celebratory backflips in the Ravens’ war room.)

The interesting case of Dallas

Dallas sits at four. They need Ramsey… something fierce. Their secondary is atrocious, and if he’s when Dallas pick, it has to be Ramsey.

UNLESS…

Do we know, and I mean KNOW, that Dallas ISN’T in the market for a quarterback in the first round? We know Jerry Jones has said so, but again… draft and smokescreens, brother and sister… The quarterback is such a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ current predicament. With a high draft pick, an ageing-and-injury-prone-but-not-yet-washed-up quarterback, and a roster that’s better than their pick in the draft would indicate, especially on offence, you couldn’t find a better scenario to pick a quarterback that would benefit from sitting out a year or two. Avoiding a dropoff because they’ve prepared Tony Romo’s successor before Romo retires has to be on the cards for Dallas.

One big problem, though: St.Louis trading up, coupled with the increasingly widespread rumour that Cleveland is looking to trade down, is a paradigm changer for Dallas. When Tennessee was picking first, there was no way Goff and Wentz were going one and two. Suddenly, that scenario becomes a probability. Therefore, if Dallas wants the quarterback the Rams don’t take, they very well may have to become Cleveland’s trading partner at two. If you’re Jerry Jones, do you pull the trigger on that trade given your (many) needs on defence?

Besides, that quarterback could be a guy like Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round. Hackenberg’s case is especially interesting. The physical tools are outstanding, but mentally, whichever team takes him will have to rebuild him from the ground up. Dallas may decide they can afford to go defence in the first round and groom a player like Hackenberg behind Romo.

However, the risk with a guy like the former Penn State star is far greater than with Wentz or Goff, both A+ personalities. Some talented college players go through rough patches and never recover, and there’s something about Hackenberg that emits that sort of vibe. As for Cook, there’s no guarantee he’s a better player than Kirk Cousins. I can’t say I’m a fan.

If Cook/Hackenberg doesn’t work out, that means you’re going back to the drawing board and drafting a rookie to start, and we all know the perils of that situation. Take Jacksonville as an example. The Jags were encouraged by the improvement of Blake Bortles last season, but he still made too many mistakes for them to be a playoff contender, and let us avoid reminiscing about his god-awful rookie year. Besides, if Dallas were to put a rookie in Romo’s place two years from now, that rookie may learn on a similar curve to that of Bortles, but he could also be the new Blaine Gabbert.

If they go defence, Dallas could also opt for Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, although the risks of that proposition have been listed by yours truly in a previous post. If neither Baltimore nor Dallas takes Bosa, it could set up the former Buckeye for a mini-fall.

Afterwards…

Baltimore is the ultimate best-available-player team, so the only question is, what does their draft board actually look like? Oregon’s DeForest Buckner makes a lot of sense for them, given their lack of both depth and quality on the defensive line, but projections like this one can go out the window if a player like Ramsey or Tunsil slips to six.

Baltimore could also accelerate the run on offensive tackles (there is a big dropoff after the top four at the position) if they take Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley at six. Tennessee not picking first overall (and likely drafting Tunsil) would seem to hurt the chances of it happening, but if the Ravens do pick the Notre Dame standout, we’re probably looking at Michigan State’s Jack Conklin slipping into the Top 10. That would leave Ohio State’s Taylor Decker as the only tackle worth taking in the teens with several teams picking in that range who could use him. Lots of interesting trade prospects there at that point.

So, 1,800 words later, all I can think of is Stewie Griffin tapping Brian on the leg repeatedly, and shouting, “Oh, this is fun!” I’ll see you in a few days with my mock draft, dear readers.

 

 

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The Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

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