NFL Draft 2012: What Are This Year's 8 Biggest Storylines?
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The annual draft in the National Football League is always a soap opera of sorts, complete with pulp fiction, hearsay, perceived risers and fallers along with the long-awaited payoff of many questions. It is part of why the event so fervently captures the hearts and minds of so many. This despite not a single touchdown scored, red flag thrown or last-second game-winning play.
The draft promises and delivers so much each April because it is the climax of so many months, a year or more in some cases, of intellectual and emotional rigor as it applies to each NFL team.
This relevance encompasses football operations personnel (general managers, head coaches and scouts with their player evaluations and draft strategy) and fans alike. The latter's hopes and expectations for their rooting interest are tied so closely to the results.
The draftniks and media types navigate the in-between, couching their own projections against the canvas of capturing the most compelling storylines for their audience. The wins and losses in this theater can come from the results of mock-draft accuracy and/or player evaluations, along with striking a resonant chord with their readership.
Last year, a huge point of suspense was who the Carolina Panthers would end up selecting first overall. There was ample debate in the analysis community, and probably even within Panthers headquarters, for Cam Newton, but also Blaine Gabbert, Von Miller and Marcell Dareus.
Full disclosure: I vehemently opposed the Newton selection to Carolina; I was in the Von Miller camp. And while Miller certainly had a great rookie year in justifying the argument for him in that spot, so did Newton equally do so in proving my camp wrong.
I never thought he would have a season of passing success throughout his entire career like he did as a rookie, coming off a truncated preseason, no less.
But what are the big questions in 2012? Scroll forward in this slideshow to check out the eight biggest storylines as we head into the draft in two weeks. Due to the highly subjective nature of each subplot's significance, they are not listed in any particular order.
What Pick Brings the First Draft-Day Trade?
Floyd could be the target of the first draft-day trade.
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No. 4 - The Cleveland Browns' current regime has shown a willingness to trade down out of the top 10, having done so just a year ago with the Atlanta Falcons when Julio Jones was targeted. If Holmgren and Heckert are not sufficiently enamored with one of the big three at this spot (Morris Claiborne, Trent Richardson or Justin Blackmon), including their value, they could be enticed into moving out of the spot and adding some nice picks like in 2011.
No. 6 - The St. Louis Rams would be the next candidate to possibly engage in the first trade on draft day. I skipped over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because I think they will select whichever falls to them between Claiborne and Richardson.
The Rams could be in an actionable spot despite the apparent need of a No. 1 wide receiver and both Blackmon and Floyd likely to still be available. But if Rams general manager Les Snead understands the draft market well, he knows a top wideout does not have to be sought this high.
This could result in consideration for offensive lineman Riley Reiff and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Both could be argued as slight reaches at No. 6 so, in conjunction with the benefit of adding picks for a talent-starved roster, trading out could make sense for them.
No. 7 - The Jacksonville Jaguars may also find themselves in the catbird seat if any team is specifically motivated to leapfrog the Miami Dolphins in order to have perceived first crack at Ryan Tannehill. A recent rumor has the Philadelphia Eagles possibly considering such a move.
I see the Browns remaining at four and taking their preferred player between Claiborne and Richardson. I have high hopes that Snead and the new Rams' brain trust will avoid the Blackmon pick, and go Cox, but I have my doubts.
And Gene Smith and the Jaguars have held a similarly-slotted choice the last three seasons and have stayed put each time, not being shy either with perceived reaches and upsets.
In my latest mock draft, where I did not predict any trades, I pegged Blackmon to the Buffalo Bills at 10. But I can see this being the first critical pivot juncture of the first round, hinging on two ingredients.
1) A player may unexpectedly fall that at least one other team views as a surefire top-six or eight talent, triggering an impromptu scramble up the board. Candidates could be Richardson, either Blackmon or Floyd, or even a defender like Cox, Quinton Coples or Luke Kuechly.
2) Buffalo wants a left tackle with its first-round pick but does not care for the value at 10 and seeks to drop anywhere from several to 10 slots before targeting a Reiff or Jonathan Martin, gaining an extra pick or more in the exchange.
To Which Team and at What Pick Goes Ryan Tannehill?
It has been hard to keep a lid on all of the Tannehill talk.
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No. 4 - It seems the least likely of the scenarios given how high the pick is, Cleveland's staunch public support of Colt McCoy and the more favored talent at this spot (Morris Claiborne, Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon). But Holmgren and Heckert may have been playing it cool this whole time, surmising they will get a quarterback who is close in talent and upside to Robert Griffin III but without giving up the haul Washington did.
No. 6 or 7 - These two spots seem like the consensus boiling point for an organization later in round one that wants to trade up and feel sufficiently confident that it will be in prime position to take the Texas A&M product.
Buffalo (10), Kansas City (11), Seattle (12), Arizona (13) and Philadelphia (15) could all be possibilities to set off this kind of fireworks. Each of these five clubs has a veteran in place that would allow the organization to continue in its present window, possibly with success, and not rush Tannehill.
And with the Eagles being the lowest-slotted, all of these teams are within reasonable striking distance of the sixth or seventh selection so as not to prohibitively implode the remainder of their draft class.
In my eyes, Tannehill is an enormous risk play. If a club's evaluation concludes that he is going to be an above average, at least, if not franchise quarterback, then the height of his selection in the top 10 is understandable.
Understandable but disagreeable. Without digressing into my previously platformed doubts on Tannehill, I will stick to the point and call for Cleveland and the later teams in the round to leave well enough alone with him and this pick.
This points to the Miami Dolphins and the somewhat vexing front-office show in South Beach that is owner Stephen Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland. Rampant reports of their organizational structure and communications practices have plagued their efforts to bring in high-class talent at the head coach and quarterback spots.
While I do not agree with it from a football operations perspective, because I think if this team is properly improved elsewhere that Matt Moore or a healthy David Garrard can lead them to the playoffs, I see Miami getting their guy with Tannehill, eighth overall, and selling that future to an irked fanbase.
Who Will Be the Second Running Back Taken and When?
Martin would be all smiles if the second back in the class.
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David Wilson, Virginia Tech, 5'9.5" 205 lbs, 4.45-40, 41" vertical, 11' broad jump. Wilson is strongly built despite being a little on the light side, and fans of him point to an electrifying blend of explosion and top-end speed.
His physical talent is abundant but I reside in the camp that has questions about his inside running instincts and willingness along with fumbles and some inadequacies in pass protection.
Lamar Miller, University of Miami, 5'11" 215 lbs, 4.40-40, 35.5" vertical, 10' broad jump. Miller combines solid size with cat quickness, the best amongst the top-tier running back prospects in fact, and also blazing top-end speed.
I prefer him to Wilson and, their skill sets are similar enough that if a team is leaning toward the smaller speed class of potential feature backs, Miller would be the pick for me.
Chris Polk, University of Washington, 5'11" 215 lbs, 4.50-40, 31.5" vertical, 9'3" broad jump. Polk plays bigger than his size, which is nearly identical to that of Miller, because of great initial burst and excellent feel between the tackles.
He also possesses by far the best ball security of any back in this class, having fumbled only three times in 885 career touches in college (or once every 295 touches), including none his senior year in 2011, when he toted it 324 combined rushes and receptions.
I actually do not believe that Polk has any shot at being the second running back taken in the draft, behind the accepted top-10 consensus of Trent Richardson, but he is my No. 3 guy in the class ahead of both Miller and Wilson.
I simply prefer the traits he brings to the table in terms of a complete package (already a fine receiver and pass protector), inside running ability and ball security.
Doug Martin, Boise State University, 5'9" 225 lbs, 4.55-40, 36" vertical, 10' broad jump. I see Martin as a better overall version of Polk, other than the ball security, because of ideal build and strength at the position.
He projects very well already in pass protection and is also an accomplished receiver. And while his top-end speed is not equal to the others, his balance and agility make him extremely dangerous at the second level in his own right.
If the first-round board falls a certain way, Martin could go as early as the 21st pick to the Cincinnati Bengals. If this does not occur, he could fall to the late first round to a team trading up from the second round for him or simply land directly to a club in the early second.
I do assert that Martin is the No. 2 running back prospect in the class but he could be as low as the fourth-drafted if the RB-needy teams in question want a sports car instead of a luxury-performance vehicle.
What Will Be the Order of the Top 3 WRs and Who Will Be the Fourth?
Will this Tiger toe the end of the first round as the fourth WR?
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The majority opinion in the analysis community seems to be that either Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd will be the first wide receiver selected in the draft with the other one going second. Although, there are multiple evaluators that do contend Kendall Wright is the best wideout in the class.
It is hard for me to get my head around the desperation and lack of historical draft context that would result in two receivers going in the top 10. But I do acknowledge that it is a possibility with slots four, six, seven, eight and 10 all potential suitors.
Two wideouts went top-10 a year ago, A.J. Green and Julio Jones, but it is hard to find many evaluators that think any receiver in this class is on either of their levels as prospects.
Once the top-three order has been etched in stone with their respective selections, the hot debate over which player will be the next receiver off the board will be answered. This pick figures to occur in the late first or early second round.
Following a long-anticipated pro day, in which he weighed in at 213 lbs. and ran a consensus 4.5-40, Alshon Jeffery is a candidate. Stephen Hill is another with his freakish combination of size (6'4" and 215 lbs.) and speed (4.36-40 at the combine).
A dark horse is FCS-level basketball conversion Brian Quick out of Appalachian State University, who Mel Kiper recently anointed his fourth wide receiver in the class.
Michael Floyd's draftnik perception has really surged in recent weeks, such that it would not be much of a surprise if he usurps Blackmon for the top spot come April 26.
And I also acknowledge the possibility that the first team that drafts a wideout may prefer the skill set and traits of Kendall Wright over the two bigger options, though that seems less likely at this point.
To me, Blackmon is still the most trustworthy of the trio, with Floyd being the least of the big three, because he combines solid movement skills and routes with strong receiving ability and run-after-the-catch dynamic.
Even down the line when using productivity to judge how these three compare to one another, it is imperative to keep in mind the effects of quarterback quality and system type on the numbers each man puts up.
With regard to the fourth wide receiver on the board, my prediction is Rueben Randle because he carries the least risk in his immediate translation when pitted against Jeffery (weight and separation issues), Hill (route-running and nuance for the position) and Quick (overall rawness, including ball skills).
Which 'Faller' Makes the NFL Pay the Most in 2012?
Murray punished the NFL for underestimating his skill set.
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A "faller" is different than a sleeper whose evaluation grade and projection was, for the most part, consistently low enough that it resulted in a perceived on-time selection in the middle or late rounds.
I define faller as a player that at one time carried a first-round grade, even a high first-round grade (Jimmy Smith, cornerback to the Baltimore Ravens) even onto draft day, but that nearly every team passed on at least once for well-publicized and specific reasons.
Technically, not every team had a shot at Smith because the Ravens did pop him 27th overall in the late first. But he would still qualify as a faller that vindicated his status as a rookie because there were some opinions that he could be the best all-around corner in the 2011 class.
Concerns over his off-field makeup, however, were substantial enough that he fell to the late first and was the third corner taken behind Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara.
But DeMarco Murray is my vote for the 2011 draft faller that made the league most sorry for its questioning of his translation. While Mark Ingram was the agreed-upon top running back prospect in the class, Murray showed undeniable first-round ability and was the most complete (rushing, receiving, pass blocking) NFL-ready back in the class.
He was downgraded, and rightly so in my opinion, for his durability issues and upright running style that at times appeared on film to lack urgency or conviction. Ultimately, he fell all the way to the third round and the Cowboys' 71st pick overall.
This slide set the stage for the University of Oklahoma product when he became the 'Boys' feature back following an injury to Felix Jones. He ended up making seven starts, before suffering a season-ending injury of his own, and was somewhat of a revelation.
According to Pro Football Focus, Murray was in on 389 snaps and produced an overall score of 9.2, including positive marks in rushing, receiving and pass blocking.
Perhaps more impressively, especially for a rookie with an abbreviated preseason due to the lockout, he only had one game that was graded as significantly poor (a score below negative-1).
2012 candidates: Janoris Jenkins, CB, University of North Alabama. Jenkins has been discussed as the best pure coverage player in this class. But his personal transgressions make Jimmy Smith's profile from a year ago look like that of a Boy Scout.
Mike Adams, LT, Ohio State University. Adams is built the way NFL evaluators and offensive line coaches would draw up a specimen at the blindside position (6'7" and 325 lbs.) with nimble feet. But questions about his play strength (also reinforced by only 19 repetitions of 225 lbs. on the bench press), sometimes lackadaisical play and problems with speed rushers could push him to the late first or early second round.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, University of South Carolina. Jeffery has been viewed as a top-10 talent, and still is by Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller because of his size, catch radius and ability to win so many jump balls with his vertical skills and body. This shine has given way to questions about keeping his weight in check and the ability to separate consistently from NFL corners.
Lavonte David, LB, University of Nebraska. Mel Kiper (21) and Todd McShay (29) both have him graded inside the first-round, and have for weeks, on their latest respective big boards. But his lack of ideal size (6'0.5" 230 lbs.) and projection to a low-value position (weakside 4-3 linebacker) have him almost universally falling to the early part of the second round.
I view David as one of the best defenders in the class, regardless of position, and think his impact in the NFL, even if he remains exclusively at WLB, will bear out his draft slot as fairly light.
I also think that it is not out of the question that he can transition to middle linebacker in a 4-3 and be a playmaking missile, provided he is properly protected up front by his defensive tackles. This is an opinion also shared by former NFL player, and burgeoning draftnik, Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle on Twitter).
Which Top-10 Selection Is the Most Likely to Bust?
Gabbert's Top-10 bust could be a lesson for 2012.
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Quinton Coples, DE, University of North Carolina. Coples carries the distinction of being looked at as the most physically gifted and ideally built defensive end in the class. And this may hold true for projections to both an even or odd front.
At 6'6" and 285 lbs., along with a 4.78 time in the 40-yard dash, the excitement over his natural gifts is quite sensible. I much prefer Coples in a five-technique spot, playing defensive end in a 3-4, where his quality leverage and lower-body strength play up as a run defender and his somewhat limited pass-rush ceiling is less detrimental.
If a 4-3 team selects him in the top 10, Jacksonville and Mr. Gene Smith I am looking at you, and expects him to be their prize sack artist, then the bust parade is on for me. I simply do not see the suddenness, explosion and closing speed desired of a pass-rusher taken at this height in the draft.
Melvin Ingram, DE/OLB, University of South Carolina. There is a lot to like here because of his size and athleticism intersection; violence and speed that do show up on film.
He also projects a degree of versatility that the right defensive coordinator could properly take advantage of in terms of moving Ingram around for favorable match-ups and keeping him out of the grasp of quality-protecting offensive tackles.
There are questions about Ingram's ability to win consistently in pass-rush situations where he must engage in traditional combat with an offensive lineman because of his substandard height (6'1.5") and arm length (31.5 inches).
My biggest issue when watching Ingram on film and then projecting him as an elite defensive producer in the NFL was his propensity to disappear from games for long stretches at the college level. While not even star defensive players consistently impact every game, the combination of this occurring before he even reaches the NFL from a player that could go top-10 is what gives me pause.
I will maintain a familiar mantra here and still declare Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M, as my most likely bust of the projected top-10 picks. It will significantly help his case, in opposition of mine, if his drafting team has the personnel means and patient leadership to let him sit, learn and develop from the sidelines.
The reality of my fear, however, is that when a quarterback is drafted as highly as we are supposing Tannehill will be, and comes with the exciting tools and upside that he undeniably possesses, that puppy is usually under center somewhere in the middle of his first season.
While they are different prospects from an evaluation standpoint, the disaster we witnessed in Jacksonville in 2011 when they cut quality veteran starter David Garrard just before the regular season and thrust Blaine Gabbert to the forefront on the heels of a short preseason, serves as a stark cautionary tale against similar handling of Tannehill.
What Day-3 Projection Has the Most Impact Upside?
Short height will likely push Wilson to late rounds.
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Chris Rainey, slotback/return specialist, University of Florida. I remain very curious how far Rainey actually falls in the draft. Unless I am forgetting a singular reference, which is possible this time of year given all of the research and writing we draftniks pore through, I have only ever seen him projected to the third day, which coincides with my grade also.
But he is not to be slept on. Rainey has elite top-end speed and agility, both of which play on the field when he gets the ball in space and looks to make something happen.
When I finished my film evaluation of him, I saw partial traits in common with Percy Harvin, Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles. If the right team and system bring him in with an eye on designing some plays to capitalize on his skill set, he could be a very dynamic weapon.
Micah Pellerin, cornerback, Hampton University. Following an offseason that saw two former small-school corners (Brent Grimes, Division II Shippensburg University and Cortland Finnegan, FCS Samford University) command the biggest markets at this position, we are reminded how much latent defensive-back talent falls each year in the draft.
This comes off as counterintuitive since pass defenders, particularly corners, are part of the elite strata in the positional value pyramid. It is explained by the fact that cornerback is one of the more developmental positions, meaning the college player is often very far away from what he could be during his NFL prime.
The other component to this comes from the mental fortitude and psychological endurance successful players at this position must possess due to the isolating and unforgiving nature of its place in football. Naturally, these less physical traits are hard to observe and even more difficult to predict when looking at athletically gifted and largely successful college stars.
Pellerin has a sneaky physical talent profile that grades out as slightly above average across the board. But I also like the way he plays, rarely out of position, never desperate, as if he cannot be beaten and will win the war regardless if he loses a few battles.
And while I rarely place much stock in NFL draft prospects that have been groomed to give impressive interviews, the cornerback population is where some insight into their headiness and makeup can be gleaned.
Have a listen here to fellow draftnik Mike Loyko's conversation with Pellerin. I came away liking his profile even more as a player who will survive the perils of his position and use the chip on his shoulder from being a late-drafted small-schooler to his advantage at the next level.
Due to the impact of the quarterback position, I return to one of my personal favorites in this class in Russell Wilson. Despite some scattered top-100 grades, from myself included, it appears to be an almost foregone conclusion that apprehension over Wilson's height and how it will affect his NFL translation will push him into the third day of the draft.
I do respectfully recognize that it presents some mechanical disadvantages (not throwing mechanics but play and timing ones) because at 5'10.5", his passing windows and throw trajectory are factually limited by the difference in his height from the average NFL signal caller at 6'2"/6'3".
But I feel like these challenges are being lazily overstated as a blanket assassination of his evaluation because another fact is that Wilson has been playing at this height, and behind similarly tall and lengthy offensive and defensive lines, for the last four years at a high level in both the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten Conferences.
He is further enabled in overcoming the potential obstacle because of great feet, command of the offenses he has been in and a strong-armed quick release. Wilson will almost surely be in a situation where he will be brought along slowly, which should give him the time to win over internal critics and possibly be ready to make an impact as a starter several years into his career.
What Will the Patriots Do with Their Two First-Round Picks?
Belichick always seems to be conspiring with his draft picks.
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The Patriots could certainly shock most of the analysis community, fans as well I imagine, by staying put at both 27 and 31 and selecting the two players it most covets on the board.
One factor that could make this more likely than it otherwise would seem is that there should be a lot of quality players in that range whose positional fits line up very well with what New England should be trying to accomplish.
They should be looking hard at each of the three levels of defense in order to get younger and more talented, keeping in mind we know how much Belichick values versatility in his front-seven defenders.
Potential targets include guys like Devon Still and Kendall Reyes along the interior defensive line who have visible projections at both three- and five-technique alignments.
Perimeter pass-rush threats that are also versatile include Shea McClellin, who has good coverage ability and can put his hand down, and Andre Branch who brings a lot of experience in run fits as an even-front defensive end in college.
The defensive secondary seems like an annual rite of passage for this organization and they often oblige with a fairly early pick, something that could occur again in 2012.
New England could also trade both picks and load up on Day 2 choices, something we all can only imagine would tickle Belichick's fancy as he unfolds his draft wizardry. This may seem a little extreme, passing on both opportunities to select a first-round talent given their very clear needs.
But 2012 may be just the year to pull a stunt like this, likely netting four extra Day 2 picks in the process depending on the exact values of the selections involved in the deals. This is due to what is largely being considered a tremendous plateau of talent in this class from picks 25 to 65.
New England selects the best defensive player on its board at pick 27: Whitney Mercilus if he somehow slid down that far, otherwise one of the aforementioned Still, Reyes, McClellin or Branch. The best fit at defensive back, based on my rankings, could be Oklahoma corner Jamell Fleming.
They follow up that pick by trading away the 31st choice to a club looking to jump back in for a player that has slid on its own internal board and who they do not believe will make it to them even in the early second.
It could be the Colts moving up for Coby Fleener or perhaps the Cleveland Browns for Brandon Weeden if they start to get nervous about him reaching 37.
I feel like the split approach will just be too compelling, particularly in light of Belichick's track record, due to the excellent value and fits on the board at 27 and then the extra choices to be gained by dealing back into the early/mid-second round from 31.
As always, I look forward to your comments below and you may follow me on Twitter at @JeffRoemer.