The NFL Scouting Combine begins next weekend and will mark the beginning of one of the most important offseasons in the Super Bowl era. These last playoffs served as a reminder that the league that was once the definition of parity is seeing its level of competition spread farther and farther, especially between the top and bottom playoff seeds. Just five years ago there were two #6 seeds and a #4 seed in the conference championships. This year every team that had a bye advanced, with NFC first seed Seattle Seahawks beating fellow top seed Denver for the title. So much for parity.
For the first time since the New England Patriots won its second title, the question has shifted from, “Can the champs repeat?” to “Can anyone top these guys?" and though the league may have lost its equality it will never stop plagiarizing from the teams at the top. If a league executive were to look to see what this Seahawks have done to be effective he will see many things depend on where his franchise is at. If the executive is in charge of a team in the bottom quarter of the league, it will see how John Schneider was able to build an offense without a quarterback that was effective enough to win half its games. If he is the head of a team on the fringe of the playoffs (about half the league right now) then they would look to the synchronicity between the coaching staff and front office that plugged up every hole on the roster. Everyone else is looking at what separated the champs from an outmatched Denver team two weeks ago; Youth.
The Broncos were depleted at multiple defensive positions going into the Meadowlands and their replacements consisted of veterans and players not athletic enough to start against today's offensive schemes. The Seahawks on the other hand discharged players like TJ Houshmandzadeh and Sidney Rice in favor of fresh legged kids in Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette. The loss of Brandon Browner was supposed to be undoing of the Seattle secondary, but Carroll and Co. had 25 year old Byron Maxwell waiting in the wings. The commitment to depth paid off, and while Seattle dismantled the Broncos with the speed at power these young'uns brought, the youth is what will stand out most GM's feeling the warmth under their seat.
This emphasis of young talent makes this year's draft all the more important. Thanks to the CBA, the draft is now cheaper than ever and every time an owner is asked to shell out a $10+ million dollar contract to a guy that has been in the playing for six or more years he would be wise to look at the Percy Harvin deal and how that worked out in terms of financial efficiency. The free agency class is deep, but that won't stop franchises from staying away from spending season entirely and focusing on making good on every last one of their precious draft picks.
Most precious are the first ten picks, which have allotted teams so many pro bowlers these past couple years. Most of these teams are at the bottom of the league and will be hard pressed to bring in a game hanging player that the coach, general manager and team store can hang its hat on. So in honor of Valentine’s Day, let's play matchmaker with the first ten teams that will be on the clock in spring.
1. Houston Texans: Teddy Bridgewater (Quarterback, Louisville).
Short of trading down, the Texans really have two options left with this pick. The first is to take Jadeveon Clowney and address the quarterback issue at a later date. The second option is to take one of the top throwers in the draft, whether that be Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles. The day two options at rush linebacker are plentiful—Trent Murphy was dominant in the Pac-12, especially against Oregon and Oregon State, and is still projecting in the second round. Unless the Texans fall in love with Tajh Boyd or think Derek Carr will slip down far enough it is hard to believe Houston passes up on a quarterback here.
Bortles is the rising player, but he seems to be the least mobile of the three and has a slowish release. The choice is really whether to pick the hometown boy in Manziel and the favorite in Bridgewater. Manziel could take the lead during the combine and would be an instant star. However, Bridgewater's talent is superior would come will much less risk and hoopla. Barring a perfect spring form Johnny Football, this slot is Bridgewater’s to lose.
Day two targets: Kyle Van Noy (Rush Linebacker, BYU), Shayne Skov (Middle Linebacker, Stanford), Bradley Roby (Cornerback, Ohio State).
2. St. Louis Rams: Jadeveon Clowney (3-4 Rush Linebacker/4-3 Defensive End, South Carolina).
Confession: I am a Rams fan. Another confession: I hate Sam Bradford. Extrapolation: I should want the Bradford era to end with a pick of Manziel or Bortles.
Unfortunately this would be an unwise choice. Next year will host another deep crew of quarterbacks (Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty, the inevitable breakout guy from a smaller school) so with a can’t miss player in Jadeveon Clowney on the board it is better to grab the best player here and pick up a flyer on a guy it the later rounds (David Fales perhaps) to hold the team over in case of a Sam Bradford injury/collapse.
This would create a surplus at defensive end with Robert Quinn and Chris Long already making up one of the top pass rush tandem in the league, but that sounds like one of them good problems. Like the guys at Walter Football have mentioned, they could cycle him on first and second down on long drives and move Long into the middle in passing situations. Another intriguing option is to have him play downs at outside linebacker alongside James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, which would create a pretty daunting front seven. An effective front seven is especially important in the NFC North, where the 7-9 still finished fourth. The Rams probably won't be able to leapfrog San Francisco or Seattle for at least another couple of years, so it is better to establish the defense now and add the game changing quarterback down the road.
Day two targets: Dion Bailey (Safety, USC), Gabe Jackson (Guard, Mississippi State), Jarvis Landry (Wide Receiver, LSU).
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles (Quarterback, Central Florida).
This is definitely the hardest pick of the top ten for me to mock. While it is obvious the Jaguars need immediate help at quarterback (insert Blaine Gabbert joke here), I can’t help but wonder if the Jacksonville front office looking to next year or to next year’s draft. If Gus Bradley wants to win as many games as possible and save his job then the obvious choice is Bortles. The downside to that plan is that even with Bortles at the helm, I don’t think anyone can see Jacksonville cracking .500 is and winning meaningless December games would only hurt them going forward.
The alternative is to take a impact player on defense (Anthony Barr or Khalil Mack), a playmaker on offense (Sammy Watkins of Mike Evans) or you trade down and build at multiple positions. The thinking here would be that since there is no way the Jags pass Indianapolis or Houston in the division, it is better to tank one more year and set up an opportunity to select Marcus Mariota or local hero Jameis Winston in 2015. Unfortunately I don't think Jacksonville is willing to steer into the skid, and now that Winston is planning to stay through his junior year, I am going to slot Bortles (either a more accurate Ben Roethlisberger or a skinnier Byron Leftwich) to them for the time being.
Day two targets: Carlos Hyde (Running Back, Ohio State), Travis Swanson (Center, Arkansas), Carl Bradford (Rush Linebacker, Arizona State).
4. Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel (Quarterback, Texas A&M).
This is a match made in heaven; Browns get their best quarterback since Kosar, Cleveland gets to crown another savior, America finally has a reason to watch the Browns. I love to hate Manziel as much as the next guy but how could I not be on board with a evil, scrambling, bomb heaving mouth-breather running the offense of the most disjointed sports franchise of the past two decades.
The only thing holding me back from is that this all feels too good to be true. Houston could fall in love with him, and acquiesce to all the A&M fans who want to keep him in state. Jacksonville (or, rather Gus Bradley and David) can’t afford to tank this pick, but could they decide that the allure of Johnny Football is worth the risk. Could the media run Manziel into the ground and turn him into the next Tebow. All of that is possible. One thing we do know is that given how much the Browns front office is smitten with him, there is basically no chance of the Cleveland passing on him. Hopefully he will last this long and so can all hate watch Johnny and the Browns for the next decade.
Day two targets: Ka'deem Carey (Running Back, Arizona), Shayne Skov (Middle Linebacker, Stanford), Deone Bucannon (Safety, Washington State).
5. Oakland Raiders: Anthony Barr (Rush Linebacker, UCLA).
Sure, the Raiders don't get the quarterback they need. But to quote the pilot of Cheers,
“They have a first round pick and what do they get? A jackrabbit for the backfield? No. A Gunslinger at quarterback? No. The chose a linebacker. A linebacker.”
“I don’t know, Coach. I’ve seen a good linebacker turn a whole team around.”
“Yeah, me too.”
The Raiders may be weak at quarterback, but they are also weak at linebacker, and cornerback, and safety, and wide receiver, and… just about everywhere else. Even the punting game, the one consistent strength they had over the last 12 years, suffered with the loss of Shane Lechler to Houston. Terrelle Pryor showed some promise early and Matt McGloin was a consummate game manager. A good competition between them should be good enough to hold them over until next year’s draft.
Barr should be a good fit in Oakland, as he fits the prototype athlete mold that the Raiders have coveted in the past. Barr has great athleticism and seems to always be around the ball. Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie spent eight years in the Green Bay Packers organization, so might fall in love with Barr, who has a similar skill set to Clay Matthews. The Raiders could probably get Barr later in the top 15 picks, so they should consider trading down so that they can fill in more holes.
Day two targets: Derek Carr (Quarterback, Fresno State), Xavier Su'a-Filo (guard, UCLA), Jackson Jeffcoat (Defensive End, Texas).
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews (Offensive Tackle, Texas A&M).
Unfortunately for Atlanta there are no stud defensive tackles like there were in last year’s draft. The Falcons ranked 31st in run defense and Jonathan Babineaux is a free agent, so they will have to address it sometime in the later rounds. Louis Nix and Tommy Jernigan are projecting in the 20’s, so Atlanta will have to hope one of them slips into round two. Cornerback is also a big need so they might consider Justin Gilbert is he has a big combine.
As it stands now Jake Matthews is the best choice without trading down. Matthews is a prime physical specimen and is remarkably spry for someone his size. There is also a low chance of him bombing in the pros considering his pedigree (father Bruce was a Hall of Famer at tackle) and the fact that he spent the last two years dominating SEC defensive lines. If the Atlanta want to return to the playoffs, they will need someone who can play right away, someone who can approve the Falcons league worst rushing game and someone who can withstand the constant pressure that Carolina and New Orleans (first and fourth in total sacks, respectively) will bring. Matthews fits all of that and will come much cheaper price than a free agent.
Day two targets: Ra’Shede Hageman (Defensive Tackle, Minnesota), Dominique Easley (Defensive End, Florida), Bishop Sankey (Running Back, Washington).
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Khalil Mack (Rush Linebacker, Buffalo).
The only team that Atlanta didn’t have to worry about getting to Matt Ryan was Tampa. The Bucs had just 35 sacks (just four more than league worst Jacksonville) and would have been even more miserable if not for nine and a half coming from Gerald McCoy. New head coach Lovie Smith's teams in Chicago where famous for bringing pressure from anywhere at anytime, but I don’t think he would complain about having a pass rusher as talented as Mack.
Taking a sack specialist from a smaller school is always dicey because of how hard it is to gauge the ability of the offensive lines they play against. For every Demarcus Ware there is a Larry English and even can’t miss guys from marquee schools (*coughVernonGholstoncough*) have failed to make an impact. I doubt this is the case with Mack who has the explosive first step that scouts love and has the great intuition that coordinators drool over. Tampa Bay also needs a guard and help at middle linebacker but if Mack or Anthony Barr are on the board at this point they have to go after them.
Day two targets: Gabe Jackson (Guard, Mississippi State), Chris Borland (Middle Linebacker, Wisconsin), Center for Disease Control (Government Agency, Atlanta).
8. Minnesota Vikings: Justin Gilbert (Cornerback, Oklahoma State)
The Vikings are facing a big dilemma with this pick. Anyone can see that if this team could get a decent quarterback they would be back to playoff contention immediately but no one is certain where that quarterback will come from. Josh Freeman was garbage last season although that can be blamed on the awful coaching situation in Tampa and having very little time to pick up the Vikings offense after being picked up. Matt Cassel has the skill set of a career backup and Christian Ponder has not shown much sign of improvement from year to year. The remaining options in the draft aren’t much better. Derek Carr is a reach at the eighth pick, and Tajh Boyd is seeing his draft stock rapidly deteriorate. With only Oakland still needing a quarterback, Minnesota would be wise to wait until day two or trade for a late first round pick (the Browns and Saints might be willing to trade down to achieve more depth) if they want Carr especially with guys like David Fales and Jimmy Garoppolo looming as potential third or fourth round sleepers.
The Viks gave up an astonishing 4,595 yards and 37 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks last year, which is like playing against a 2004 Daunte Culpepper week in and week out. This is understandable when you have to play two games each against Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and the duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but it won't get the Vikings back to January. The Viks need a corner across from Xavier Rhodes and would benefit greatly from an upgrade at safety. This leaves Ha Ha Clinton Dix and Justin Gilbert and given how stacked the free agent class is at safety, Gilbert would be the better choice. I am not very high on Gilbert due to how weak the Big Ten was at quarterback last year but Gilbert and company shut down Bryce Petty when Baylor came to Stillwater. Gilbert has exceptional ball skills and has a very similar to Patrick Peterson in terms of athleticism and return ability.
Day two targets: Derek Carr (Quarterback, Fresno State), Allen Robinson (Wide Receiver, Penn State), Ty Zimmerman (Safety, Kansas State).
The Bills would be extremely happy to get Robinson with this pick. Robinson has been rising up draft boards after being the unsung hero in Auburn’s miracle run and might end up being best player in this draft. Robinson is a good pass blocker, but he stands out most when he does the other things that are required of tackles in today’s offense. He is adept on crashing down on read options, getting down field on screens and gets tremendous leverage out of a two-point stance. Robinson is prone to holding calls and will get caught out of position when the defense blitzes against the pass, but those problems can be solved with time and by playing with center Eric Wood who excels in changing pass protections at the line.
The addition of Robinson would fill the Bills hole at right tackle and would open things up for Doug Marrone from a play calling perspective. EJ Manuel and CJ Spiller both struggled last year, partly due to injuries and partly due to the ineffectiveness of Spiller in the screen game and Manuel in the option game. If Robinson could come in and make things easier for EJ and CJ in those regards it would allow Marrone to continue adding new looks to an offense that was flat for much of the year. If Robinson isn’t available here, the Bills could look to Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans at wide receiver, Ha Ha Clinton Dix at safety, or CJ Mosley at linebacker.
Day two targets: Brandon Cooks (Wide Receiver, Oregon State), Troy Niklas (Tight End, Notre Dame), Dakota Dozier (Guard, Furman).
10. Detroit Lions: Sammy Watkins (Wide Receiver, Clemson)
I haven’t slotted a wide receiver yet because of how deep this class is. St. Louis, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Buffalo are all in need of pass catchers. Detroit is the first team were it is the biggest need and luckily for them there are two studs waiting for them in Watkins and Mike Evans. It may seem strange that a team that racked up the third most passing yards needs another weapon, but that is exactly what the Lions are looking at. Titus Young, Derrick Williams and Brandon Meriweather have all failed to provide Matthew Stafford with a consistent second options and while Reggie Bush and Ryan Broyles were both productive last season defenses kept throwing double and triple coverages at Calvin Johnson. Johnson can beat those coverages more often than anyone else, but it still creates interceptions for Stafford and limits Detroit in the red zone.
Watkins would be the pick here over Evans because of his track star speed, elusiveness as a catch and his versatility. Watkins can beat people out wide and excels at creating space over the middle. The Lions could work him out of the slot, have him come out of the backfield or have him return kicks where he is perhaps most dangerous. Watkins will get comparisons to guys like Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin but Watkins provides a toughness that will be key to surviving seventeen weeks of NFL defenses.
Day two targets: Loucheiz Purifoy (Cornerback, Florida), Travis Swanson (Center, Arkansas),
Dee Ford (Outside Linebacker, Auburn).