Now that Thursday night's opening round of the 2014 NFL draft has brought an end to the five-month slog known as #MockDraftSeason, it's time to break out everyone's second favorite draft tradition: #DraftGradeSeason.
As a practice, putting grades on players four months away from stepping on the field is dumb. We know who we think is going to be good, but we are so very, very often wrong. Post-draft grades are an inherently easy way to mock media types two and three years down the line, which is perfectly OK because we sportswriters deserve our fair share at times.
But knowing the flaw of the process, allow me to present an explanation for the way I grade individual selections. This is decidedly not a prediction on how good an NFL player each selection will become. Anyone who says they know is a #hottakes artist who should be roundly ignored. These grades are a representative of a subjective combination of perceived value and team need.
Case in point: I believe Brandin Cooks will be a very good NFL player. Had the Bills taken him over Sammy Watkins, however, it would have been a wild reach on a player who wound up being available at No. 20. Buffalo could have traded back rather than up and still landed the player they wanted. Likewise, I like Johnny Manziel but had the Seahawks traded up and selected him, it would have been insane.
Those are extremes, but that's the general point. As a second note: No individual pick will be graded below a "C." Because, especially early in the draft, these are all pretty darn good players. With those caveats out of the way, here's a breakdown of how the first round played out.
|1.||Texans||Jadeveon Clowney||DE/OLB||South Carolina||A|
|2.||Rams (from WSH)||Greg Robinson||OT||Auburn||A-|
|6.||Falcons||Jake Matthews||OT||Texas A&M||B+|
|7.||Buccaneers||Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M||A-|
|8.||Browns*||Justin Gilbert||CB||Oklahoma State||B|
|10.||Lions||Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina||B+|
|12.||Giants||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR||LSU||B|
|14.||Bears||Kyle Fuller||CB||Virginia Tech||B-|
|15.||Steelers||Ryan Shazier||OLB||Ohio State||B|
|16.||Cowboys||Zack Martin||OG/OT||Notre Dame||B-|
|20.||Saints*||Brandin Cooks||WR||Oregon State||A-|
|22.||Browns*||Johnny Manziel||QB||Texas A&M||A|
|24.||Bengals||Darqueze Dennard||CB||Michigan State||A-|
|27.||Cardinals*||Deone Bucannon||SS||Washington State||B-|
|28.||Panthers||Kelvin Benjamin||WR||Florida State||B|
|30.||49ers||Jimmie Ward||SS||Northern Illinois||B|
|31.||Broncos||Bradley Roby||CB||Ohio State||A-|
Best of the Best
Jadeveon Clowney, DE/LB, Houston Texans (No. 1 Overall): Give the Texans credit for swallowing hard, going against the "need" pick and taking by far the best player in this class. Clowney is an interesting fit in Houston's 3-4 defensive system. He'll be playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career after three years of terrorizing SEC offensive linemen from the down stance. Some front offices would have just taken Khalil Mack, a more natural 3-4 fit, over taking the best possible player. Others would have been pressured into going quarterback—regardless of whether they feel there's a franchise guy. The Texans stuck to their guns. Now the AFC South will have to figure out ways to block Clowney and J.J. Watt on the same play. Good luck.
Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo (No. 5 Overall): Substitute most of the compliments given to the Texans and apply them to Oakland. There was a lot of smoke being blown in recent days about the Raiders taking Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network even reported there was a "belief" they would take Evans over Mack if both were on the board. While going wide receiver wouldn't have been the worst move, Mack is the right call. He might be the safest bet in the entire draft. A smart, instinctive player with infinite physical gifts, Mack has all the tools to be one of the league's best edge rushers. The Raiders' pass rush has been mediocre or outright terrible for a long time. They needed this.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns (No. 22 Overall): At the very least, the Browns did it for the Vine. Cleveland refused to take the Texas A&M signal-caller with the No. 4 pick, first trading back to No. 9 and then up one spot to grab Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. With Manziel nose-diving out of the top 20, though, it became too perfect a match for Ray Farmer to not put in a call to Philadelphia. No one knows whether Manziel will be a star or bust. That's the beauty of this selection. The franchise with a seeming hex over their quarterback position taking one of the most polarizing prospects in recent draft history. This will either end with a Super Bowl ring or a whole lot of schadenfreude from Manziel detractors. No matter, it will be fun for us regardless.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota Vikings (No. 32 Overall): I'm pretty sure all sportswriters are required by law to praise all things Bridgewater. So here goes nothin'. Bridgewater remained my top-graded quarterback throughout the draft process, slightly higher than Manziel and a pretty significant leap over UCF's Blake Bortles. There was nothing a poor pro day could do to change that, nor is the revelation his hands aren't catcher's mitts all that noteworthy. What is, however, is Bridgewater's impeccable game tape. There is no quarterback in this class better at making pre-snap reads, going through his progressions or finding open receivers on time. Bridgewater is an intelligent quarterback who consistently showed the ability to make all the necessary throws. Is he going to be Peyton Manning? Probably not. But the Vikings got the safest first-round quarterback third. Kudos.
The, Umm, Not So Best
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3 Overall): If you don't succeed with one incredibly raw quarterback with unlimited physical gifts, try, try again. Or something. It's safe to say the Jaguars didn't totally learn their lesson from the whole Blaine Gabbert fiasco. Bortles boasts a far better resume than Gabbert had coming out of Missouri and is just a better player in every conceivable fashion, but boy is Gus Bradley pushing in all his chips. I'm also curious about how hard the Jaguars pushed to trade back. The drops of Manziel and Bridgewater out of the top 20 and Derek Carr out of the first round entirely makes me wonder if Bortles could've been gotten later. The Browns nabbed a 2015 first rounder and a fourth rounder to trade back from No. 4 to No. 9. Couldn't Jacksonville have done something similar?
Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings (No. 9 Overall): This is more a question of value than anything. Barr tantalizes scouts with his physical gifts. He's a converted running back who is still learning how to defend, and the tape shows he's not all the way there. Too often he can be taken out of plays or overpowered even at the Pac-12 level, so there is going to be some adjustment before he can start making plays. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer develops linebackers as well as any coach in football, though, so I have faith this will work out long term. Barr was still really productive despite his limitations and was a first-round prospect for most. Very few expected him to wind up being a top-10 pick, so it's at least fair to wonder if Minnesota should have traded back a second time.
Ja'Wuan James, OT, Miami Dolphins (No. 19 Overall): The Dolphins threw value out the window and had need tunnel vision. That about sums this up. Miami has been reconstructing its entire offensive line this offseason as it tries to purge the memory of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito fiasco. James was their top tackle remaining and they really didn't hesitate much turning in the pick. I liked Virginia's Morgan Moses a good deal better, but we're judging value here—not the player. Either way, Miami got a little overzealous.
Marcus Smith, DE/OLB, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 26 Overall): Apologies. I'm still processing this one. The Eagles taking Smith ranks right up there with Dallas' selection of Travis Frederick on the surprise scale. No one had linked Philly and the Louisville hybrid rusher before the draft. No one. And if they did, it certainly wasn't in the first round. ESPN's draft board had Smith ranked as its 80th-best player—easily the lowest-ranked guy taken Thursday night. Chip Kelly's defensive staff obviously sees something other evaluators do not. I just wonder if he realizes that there is a second round in which players can be drafted. Oh well.
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