For 32 young men, Thursday night was a dream come true. For the rest of the players hoping to hear their name called this weekend, it will be a long 24 hours as they wait for the 2014 NFL draft to continue Friday night.
The Houston Texans selected South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick, a decidedly mundane pick for a draft that would prove anything but. Starting with the Jacksonville Jaguars' selection of Blake Bortles with the third pick, one of the more surprising and unpredictable drafts in recent memory got underway.
There were trades, surprises and Johnny Manziel photoshops galore, so many that our heads are still spinning trying to figure out what just happened. So, naturally, it's time to turn to one of the draft's greatest traditions—wildly premature draft grades.
We are still four months away from Week 1, so I use "wildly premature" as a qualifier. It's impossible and wildly unfair to judge a player or the team that drafts said player. Draft grades at this point are a subjective combination of perceived value and positional need.
When the Dallas Cowboys took Travis Frederick last season, few were judging him as a player—and he was very, very good as a rookie. What they questioned was taking an interior lineman graded as a second-day pick at the end of Round 1. That's what we're doing here. There is a very big difference between grading a player and a pick.
With that caveat out of the way, though, let's check out how the first round shook 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-|
Welp. I guess the saying goes if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. The Jaguars are doing just that with raw, incredibly physically gifted young quarterbacks.
They're not the same player, but it's impossible to not draw parallels to Blaine Gabbert. Like Gabbert, Bortles is a big, strong-armed quarterback from a non-traditional football power who rocketed up draft boards as the process went along. Gabbert also had the same issues with inconsistent footwork and being more of a thrower than passer at the collegiate level. There is a fair criticism here of Jacksonville not learning from its mistakes, and the tepid overall reaction to the selection is telling.
That said, Bortles is not Blaine Gabbert. He was an infinitely more productive college player whose "sudden" ascent has more to do with our collective ignoring of UFC football. Bortles was great in 2013. He has the arm power to drive the ball anywhere on the field, and though Jacksonville's coaching staff will have to rework his mechanics, not every quarterback has to be an instant superstar.
We've become spoiled in the Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson era. Successful players can take wildly different trajectories and still pan out. Bortles will have a chance to sit behind Chad Henne at first, though, if he's not able to push Henne that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. Henne is among the league's worst starting quarterbacks and the No. 3 overall pick should in theory be better—even if he's imperfect.
Gus Bradley and his staff just need to understand they made a long-term investment. Gabbert was thrown into the fire far too early, failed miserably and lost his confidence amid a sea of derision. Even if Bortles performs admirably in camp, they need to temper expectations early and make a concerted effort to ensure he can handle an NFL rush.
That said, it's hard to temper anything at No. 3 overall. The Jaguars made a big-time reach here. Bradley better hope his risk works out far better than his predecessor's.
Bills Go All-In to Land Sammy Watkins
Looking back through history, teams that trade future first-round picks typically live to regret it. The Redskins are Exhibit A-Z this season, giving the St. Louis Rams the same exact selection (No. 2 overall) they acquired to select Robert Griffin III in 2012. There are some success stories, but you better be sure you hit a home run when you mortgage a high future pick.
Sammy Watkins is as close to a sure thing as one can get. The Bills sent their 2015 first-round pick and a fourth-rounder to move up from No. 9 to No. 4 in a deal with the Browns. It's a move that was mildly surprising given Buffalo's need on the offensive line, but it also sacrifices little in the present. They can still take an offensive tackle in Friday's second round and walk away filling two of their biggest needs. This is a move designed by a team that plans on winning now and giving Cleveland a pick in the mid-20s.
With talent everywhere defensively and EJ Manuel heading into his second pro season, Watkins might help push the Bills over the hump. The former Clemson star is about as close as a lock for stardom as you can get at wide receiver—typically a difficult position to evaluate. He doesn't have Calvin Johnson's body, but he plays bigger than his 6'1" frame and has one of the best athletic profiles in the class.
At the combine, Watkins ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, had a 34-inch vertical leap and looks even more athletic on film. Watkins' speed isn't just in shorts and an Under Armour tanktop. He's quick off the ball and runs right past defenders even when he's just gliding along. There will be some issues with Watkins learning a more complex route tree—Clemson's offense is effective but uncomplicated. Watkins will also have to be more diligent in regard to his route consistency, which could screw up timing with Manuel.
These are small flaws, though. The difference between being exceptional and very good. Buffalo already has 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods, who looked like a potential No. 2 wideout as a rookie. Stevie Johnson is still only 27 years old, though his production dipped mightily in 2013 due to injury. Add Watkins and Manuel has an array of weapons to work with.
The Bills just better hope Watkins is the star we all think. Otherwise, next season they might find themselves with the same feeling pervading the nation's capital at the moment.
Vikings, Browns Move Up to Land Their Franchise QBs
While Bortles came off the board far earlier than most were expecting, the exact opposite scenario played out for Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
As mocked time and again, Manziel became a Cleveland Brown. It just didn't happen at No. 4—or No. 8 after the Browns traded back. Cleveland was able to get the former Heisman Trophy winner at No. 22. Browns fans will remember that pick in particular because it's the same spot from which they reaped the rewards of Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden.
So, OK, not exactly the best memories. But landing Manziel, viewed by some as the best quarterback in the draft, in the early 20s is a steal. Even if Manziel busts out—and there is a distinct possibility he does so—it's a risk worth taking. Manziel is one of the more unique and unpredictable talents of his generation. The ceiling on him is somewhere in perennial Pro Bowl status, while the basement is becoming a high-paid TV analyst in a few years. (Hey, Tebow!)
"Obviously, the team really wants to win and they want to win now," Manziel told reporters. "I've been a winner everywhere that I've been. Whatever the situation may be, I'm going to work extremely hard to put myself in the best position to continue that trend of being a winner."
For the Browns, a franchise whose history of wretched quarterbacks almost makes one believe in actual Football Gods, it's a no-brainer. Manziel will epitomize the plight of Clevelanders or be the exact type of talent necessary to break the curse. Given the relative small cost (a third-round pick, per Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL.com), Cleveland walks away a big winner.
Same goes for the Vikings, who landed a player in Bridgewater many considered a potential No. 1 overall pick in December. The former Louisville signal-caller dropped all the way to the final pick in Round 1, allowing Minnesota to execute a deal with the Seattle Seahawks to leapfrog other quarterback-needy teams.
There is literally nothing bad to be said here. Bridgewater is excellent, and his drop on draft boards remains perplexing. He has an impeccable college resume, looks pro-ready on film and has far fewer obvious flaws than either Manziel or Bortles. I'm not enamored with Minnesota reaching for Anthony Barr at No. 9, but the Bridgewater selection was enough to make Mike Zimmer's first draft day as a head coach a success.
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