How Early Free Agency Signings Could Affect the 2014 NFL Draft
The NFL-watching world was shocked by the incredible rush of signings in the first 48 hours of free agency. Many of the biggest names and best players were snatched up within hours. More big names, like new Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis, hit the market when they were released—then got snatched up too.
Teams' needs in the draft changed almost overnight as a result. With so little time elapsed between free agency's start and its effective finish, and the nearly two-month wait from the finish of free agency until the NFL draft, clubs will have plenty of time to ruminate on who they'll be targeting.
Too much time, as it turns out.
Back in 2013, when the change was being discussed, Sports Illustrated's Peter King quoted an anonymous owner as sarcastically saying his general manager "would just love this...more time to obsess on final decisions he made a month ago."
With free agency dramatically changing the landscape of the NFL's rosters, how will the draft be affected?
Pro Day Planning
Teams don't just send scouts to college pro days to watch the top prospects work out; they also send coaches, executives and even general managers.
Whether a team landed a big target at a certain position can have a big impact on who teams send to which college campuses—and the opening free-agency blitz settled personnel situations for many teams before many of the top players worked out.
Before free agency, many pencilled in Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III at the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 15 overall pick.
That was before the Steelers signed free-agent nose tackle Cam Thomas, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, to a two-year deal, per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.
The Steelers are famously loathe to start rookies, especially on defense. Now, instead of sending everyone to Notre Dame on March 20 to see if Nix can improve on his combine performance, the Steelers could be focusing on Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov.
Left Tackle Shuffle
When we last checked in with top draft prospects at the NFL scouting combine, massive, athletic left tackle prospects like Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan were rocketing up mock drafts with standout performances.
Soon, it became easy to project a first round much like 2013's, when left tackles went with three of the first four draft picks.
But then, Jared Veldheer, Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Rodger Saffold, Anthony Collins and Michael Oher all signed sizable free-agent deals that effectively locked them down in starting left-tackle positions.
The number of teams in the top 10 looking for a franchise left tackle is minimal; only the Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons would really be in the market, and Oakland could well take a quarterback. All the money Robinson made himself in Indianapolis may have just dried up.
Former Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner was the prize of the free-agent cornerback class, and as soon as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers landed him, they released Darrelle Revis, the class of all NFL cornerbacks.
The Denver Broncos plucked Aqib Talib from the New England Patriots, the Patriots signed Revis and former Broncos top corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie signed with the New York Giants. When the carousel stopped spinning, the Titans were the only team without a horse to ride.
New Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton has typically preferred strong cover cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden.
This class isn't dripping with them, though, leaving Tennessee almost no choice but to take a corner like Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard with the No. 11 overall pick.
One of the most shocking signings was the allegedly cap-strapped New Orleans Saints signing safety Jairus Byrd.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey's No. 1 overall free agent of 2014, Byrd is sure to give Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan all sorts of crazy ways to attack opposing offenses this coming season.
Byrd went to a team not necessarily crying out for safety help, and second-best available safety T.J. Ward went to the theoretically cap-strapped Denver Broncos.
Thus, the safety dance was done in an unanticipated direction: Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins went to Philadelphia, the Cleveland Browns signed former 49ers safety Donte Whitner to replace Ward and the 49ers signed former Colts backstop Antoine Bethea once Whitner left.
The burning need across the NFL for two-way safeties was evident in the wake of the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl win—and unlike the left tackle shuffle, the safety dance seemed to create more needs than it filled.
Now the Bills (who've lost two impact safeties to free agency in consecutive years), the Colts and teams like the Lions will all be looking for safety help in the draft. Suddenly, rookie safeties with athleticism, like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, could be much more in demand.
The consensus best starting quarterback option available in free agency, Michael Vick, is still unsigned. The same is true for many of the other free-agent signal-callers out there: Shaun Hill, Matt Flynn and Josh Freeman have all been regular starters (or shown starter potential), yet languish unsigned, with little apparent interest.
Teams at the top of the draft are taking a second or third hard look at this class's enigmatic crop of quarterbacks—and they're likely biding their time until they have a better idea of who'll be available when they pick in May.
Mucking things up further, the Houston Texans and New York jets aren't releasing Matt Schaub or Mark Sanchez, respectively.
Schaub would quickly be connected to the Cleveland Browns (due to the presence of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who worked with Schaub in Houston). Further, the potential opening in Green Bay would be a perfect fit for Vick; their offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, helped engineer Vick's dramatic NFL comeback.
The question is, will teams who sign veteran starters be bowing out of the quarterback derby in May? Or would they be looking to pair a youngster like Johnny Manziel with a veteran like Hill or Schaub? Could the top few quarterbacks actually fall down the draft board (something that rarely happens)?
Tight End Vacuum
There are just no good tight ends available this season.
When Dennis Pitta, Garrett Graham and Brandon Pettigrew re-signed with their original teams, Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey's big board had just two quality tight ends left: Jermichael Finley and Owen Daniels.
Due to both players recovering from injury, they haven't had hot markets for their services.
Per Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller, Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro appear to be first-round talent; Ebron "is a player to get excited about."
That said, teams like the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, searching for a long-term answer at the position, could be forced to draft Ebron or Amaro in the first round, before the "considerable" dropoff from those two to the second- and third-tier prospects.
Two of Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey's top three defensive ends re-signed with their original teams. The fifth, Jared Allen, can't seem to find a suitor.
The dominant 2013 seasons by the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers set this season's blueprint: Deep pass-rush rotations disrupt opposing quarterbacks, while big, tough and athletic defensive backs smother opposing wide receivers.
There were plenty of cornerbacks to be had, but pass-rushers like Michael Johnson were few and far between— even the new Tampa Bay Buccaneer doesn't come without question marks.
Unfortunately, after last year's pass-rush-rich class, the speed rushers are pretty thin on the ground.
The best pass-rusher, Jadeveon Clowney, will certainly go in the first handful of picks, and not necessarily to a team that "needs" a pass-rusher due to his unrivaled skill set.
That leaves Dee Ford, likely a 3-4 outside linebacker, and Kony Ealy, ideally a 3-4 end or 4-3 strongside end, as the top two pass-rushers available. It seems likely both of these players will be overdrafted, and possibly by a team that's not an ideal scheme fit.
Languishing Interior Linemen
As evidenced by the big, quickly signed contracts for relatively unknown interior linemen like new Atlanta Falcon Jon Asamoah, there's a clamoring for guards and centers this offseason.
However, not only was this 2014 free-agency class pretty thin at all three interior line spots, the draft class isn't any better.
After a 2013 draft class where three guards were taken in the first 20 picks, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller doesn't have a single interior lineman ranked in the first 32. In fact, his best available guard, Stanford's David Yankey, is his 40th-best overall prospect.
Teams looking for centers may have it even tougher.
Miller's top-ranked center is USC's Marcus Martin—whom Miller has ranked No. 59 overall. Yet Miller says that Martin, Weston Richburg and Travis Swanson are all "worthy of starting right away in the NFL."
Could we see a repeat of last season, when center Travis Frederick—Miller's second-best 2013 center, ranked 100th overall—was reached for at No. 31 overall by the Dallas Cowboys.
Though many panned the pick, Frederick panned out right away, stepping in and playing well. Could Martin, Richburg or Swanson repeat the feat?
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