NFL teams love to say how they strictly draft the best player available, but as history shows, the way free agency plays out has almost as much of an effect on the order in which players are drafted (more so, how they are valued) as anything else.
They way players are valued is a combination of need, positional value and, of course, how good the player actually is. As the NFL continues to evolve and positional values and scheme trends change, the way both free agency and the draft is approached should be treated as its own entity each league year.
This is one of the most unique drafts in recent history, with a scarce amount of elite talent but tremendous depth at just about every position besides quarterback.
Let’s take a look at how the ways teams are going to attack the draft has changed since free agency opened last Tuesday.
Offensive Linemen at a Premium
This is a good draft to be in the market for an offensive lineman (with the exception of the center position), but the market for such players is going to be intensely competitive, particularly at the top.
The Kansas City Chiefs have positioned themselves to take Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, who is widely regarded as the top-overall player in this draft. Not only did they put a damper on the possibility of a quarterback going first overall (although Andy Reid insists that Geno Smith is in play for the top pick, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com) with their trade for Alex Smith, but they released right tackle Eric Winston, creating room for Joeckel in the starting lineup.
Assuming Joeckel is the No. 1 pick, there is going to be intense competition for the “other” elite offensive tackle, Eric Fisher. The Lions lost both of their tackles (Gosder Cherilus and Jeff Backus) from last season to free agency and retirement, respectively, but they will have to cross their fingers and hope the right tackle-needy Jaguars and Raiders are interested in using their top picks elsewhere.
This also helps the stock of Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson. Johnson lacks power in the run game, but he is a pass-blocking specialist—the basis of which left tackles are graded on.
Meanwhile, in the second half of the top 10, we could see two guards taken.
The Arizona Cardinals failed to make any improvements to what is the worst interior offensive line in football. The Buffalo Bills couldn't retain Andy Levitre, and the Jets still have one starting guard position up for grabs after replacing Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson with one player (Willie Colon).
Taking a guard in the top 10 is going against conventional draft wisdom, but if there was ever a year to do it, this is the year. Many of the top draft experts, including Greg Cosell of NFL Films, believe that both Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper are better prospects than David DeCastro, who was taken in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012:
It is always difficult to maximize value by taking a guard in the top 10, but Cooper and Warmack are rare prospects that are primed to be perennial All-Pros that could end up defining the next 10 years at the position.
Kenny Vaccaro: Top-10 Pick?
After the Cardinals and Jets parted ways with both of their starting safeties, Texas product Kenny Vaccaro could see himself being taken very early on Thursday night.
Not only are the Jets and Cardinals in the market for a new safety; the Eagles, Jaguars and Titans all have massive needs at the position.
Vaccaro is exactly what NFL teams are looking for in a safety: able to play in man coverage (often used as a nickel corner at Texas), deep zone and up in the box against the run.
In today’s NFL of spread no-huddle offenses, having safeties who can cover as well as play the run are becoming more of a valuable commodity than ever. If a team is able to blur the lines between its strong and free safeties, it can be more multiple in its coverage schemes without having to rely on an offensive huddle to change personnel.
Yes, teams picking in the top 10 tend to have plenty more needs to address besides safety, but Vaccaro’s rare skill set will be hard to pass up for any of the teams picking early in the first round.
Could Teams Wait on Cornerbacks?
One of the biggest surprises of the free-agency period is just how little cornerbacks were coveted.
Victimized by a relatively flat salary cap and a crowded market, there were several Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks who had to accept mediocre contracts. Now nearly two years removed from Nnamdi Asomugha's five-year, $60 million contract he signed with the Eagles, teams have been much more careful about the kind of money they are doling out to cover men.
Below is a table of some of the top cornerbacks' contracts this year:
|Player||Team||Total Dollars (millions)||Years||Average||Source|
A far cry from Nnamdi's mega-deal in 2011.
How does this effect the draft? Clearly, teams are not as desperate to spend valuable resources on the position, which could translate into teams waiting until the middle rounds to choose a cornerback.
Dee Milliner, this year's consensus top corner, will likely not make it out of the top 10, but some of the mid-first to early second-round corners may have to be more patient than they anticipated.
This will mostly affect corners who are projected to go somewhere in the latter part of the first round, such as Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Oregon's Jordan Poyer. The teams picking at that point are mostly contending playoff teams that may not want to rely on a rookie to round out their rosters.
Instead, they can sign one of the remaining corners still on the market looking for work. There are several quality defensive backs, such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Brent Grimes, DeAngelo Hall and Antoine Winfield, who can help a team immediately and allow them to spend an earlier pick on a more pressing need.
This is not to suggest that all of the first-round corners are going to suddenly drop into the second and third rounds, but the surplus of talent on the open market dilutes the urgency for teams to rush and trade up for players at the position.
Expect Quarterbacks to Be Overdrafted ... Again.
As much as you have probably heard that this is not the year to be in need of a quarterback (because it isn't), teams are going to spend whatever it takes to get themselves a passer they can rely on in the long term.
Not so coincidentally, just about every team in need of a quarterback is picking in the top 10. In fact, of those teams, one could argue that only the Lions and Chiefs have a quarterback who is a virtual certainty to be their opening day starter.
The Jets have all but admitted that they need a new young quarterback by bringing in David Garrard to compete with Mark Sanchez. The Bills have given up on Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has found a home with the Titans, and the Cardinals have parted ways with arguably their best option at the position in Kevin Kolb. The Eagles appear to be prepared to roll with Michael Vick, but that has not stopped them from setting up a meeting with Geno Smith.
Smith is widely regarded as the top prospect in this class, with players like Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson, Zac Dysert, E.J. Manuel and Mike Glennon following in just about any subjective order.
One possible connection is a rather obvious one between the Bills and Syracuse prospect Ryan Nassib, as Doug Marrone was Nassib's coach at Syracuse.
After releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills suddenly find themselves with the most desperate quarterback situation in the league. If a team as desperate as the Bills does not take a shot on Nassib early, it would be a huge, albeit unintentional, slight against him.
As we saw in the 2011 draft, when Jake Locker and Christian Ponder were drafted much higher than expected in the top half of the first round, odds dictate that one or two of this messy cluster of flawed quarterbacks are going to end up with the title of "former top-10 selection" before all is said and done.
Second-Round Safeties Sneaking Up
While there is a significant drop-off in talent after Kenny Vaccaro, there is a slew of safety prospects who are fringe first-rounders and could hear their names called on Thursday night. Several teams picking in the back end of the first round have holes at the position and a limited remaining market.
The Houston Texans failed to retain Glover Quin, and it appears as if their courtship of Ed Reed has left them coming away empty-handed:
Meanwhile, the 49ers let Dashon Goldson escape to the Buccaneers, and the Ravens find themselves needing a new strong safety after releasing Bernard Pollard. After watching Rahim Moore end their season, the Broncos may want to add another playmaker at the position so they don't have to relive this play:
One name to watch is Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien, who, despite coming from a smaller program, is a well-built athlete who is capable of playing the run and pass. Players like LSU's Eric Reid or South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger could sneak into the first round for teams in desperate need of a safety.
In the end, the most well-run teams have already filled out their rosters to enter the draft with as few needs as possible, which would ideally prevent them from "reaching" for an inferior talent.
Still, as much as teams would like to simply take the best player available, every roster has weaker areas that it wants to improve with young talent. For teams looking to fill a need immediately, they must consider the value they can get in the free-agent market before spending a high draft pick on a player.
The one thing we know for sure is that no one knows exactly what these teams are thinking behind closed doors and that we are primed to be stunned with what the NFL has in store on April 25.