Top 10 Takeaways from NFL Draft Day 1

Scott Janovitz@@BrainTrain9Featured ColumnistMay 9, 2014

Top 10 Takeaways from NFL Draft Day 1

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    Every year, the NFL draft changes players' lives and teams' fortunes. Some franchises use the opportunity to play it safe and take the obvious help they can get, while others take major risks. Despite the different approaches, however, each team drafts with the same dream of playing for a Super Bowl.

    With Day 1 of the 2014 NFL draft behind us, it's time to consider some of the night's most important developments.

    Every team improved—some more than others. 

    Without further ado, we explore the top 10 major takeaways from Round 1. 

10. It Pays to Be Big

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    The top of the draft is usually reserved for quarterbacks. Between 1998 and 2012, passers were taken with 12 of the 15 top overall picks. That’s an astonishing number—80 percent, in fact. The top of the board this year, however, was all about the humongous physical freaks.

    With defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going first overall to Houston and offensive tackle Greg Robinson going second to St. Louis, the first two picks are a combined 13 feet, 598 pounds. More importantly, they move in ways that guys their size shouldn’t. They are both considered once-in-a-generation athletes, and their draft spots prove it.

    Interestingly, while a QB may have not been taken in the top two, the position’s value was as apparent as ever on Thursday night. Houston drafted Clowney specifically to compete with an elite divisional signal-caller—Andrew Luck of Indianapolis—while St. Louis drafted Robinson to protect its future—QB Sam Bradford. At slot No. 3, Jacksonville reached big time to draft UCF QB Blake Bortles.

    Even when the top of the draft isn’t openly about quarterbacks, it’s actually about quarterbacks.

9. In the Trenches

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    Speaking of linemen, St. Louis landed not just one but two trench monsters in the first round. In Robinson, the Rams grabbed the draft’s top offensive lineman and bolstered a unit in desperate need of fortification.

    Additionally, St. Louis snagged Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald with pick No. 13, and he’s considered the draft’s second-best defensive lineman, trailing only Clowney.  

    In addition to being super productive in college (28.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks in 2013), Donald was a workout warrior at the combine. He will team up with Robert Quinn and Chris Long to give the Rams potentially the best defensive line in football.

8. Betting on Bortles

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    It’s not a knock on Bortles—who put UCF football on the map—but Jacksonville made a bold move selecting the QB at No. 3. For starters, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was available and is considered far and away the better prospect.

    More importantly, Jacksonville can’t afford to miss with another top pick, and Bortles is far from a sure thing. After failing miserably with QB Blaine Gabbert (selected 10th overall in 2011) and watching last year’s No. 2 pick—Luke Joeckel—miss all but five games, the Jaguars need serious production out of this year’s top selection.

    Passing on safer prospects with higher grades—like Watkins and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack—to draft a project in Bortles seems like a risk that the Jaguars couldn't afford to take.

7. Going to the Air

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    Like most sports leagues, the NFL is about trends. What’s in or works now may not a few years down the road. At the moment, the league has become pass-happy—quarterbacks and wide receivers are valued at a premium. It’s one of the reasons the running back position has been so devalued in recent years.

    So with passing on the mind, it’s awfully hard to ignore what Tampa Bay and Detroit achieved Thursday night.

    The Bucs selected the draft’s second-best WR—a 6’5”, 231-pound freak in Mike Evans of Texas A&M—to pair with a 6’5”, 230-pound freak in elite wideout Vincent Jackson. If newly acquired QB Josh McCown can get the job done, or second-year signal caller Mike Glennon can develop into the guy, there will be two dominant receivers waiting in the wings to catch passes.

    Likewise, Detroit nabbed by far the draft’s top tight end in North Carolina’s Eric Ebron. Some have questioned taking a TE so high, but the position is hugely valuable in today’s NFL. The Lions drafted him to play a Jimmy Graham-type role. If Ebron turns into anything even similar to Graham, he will be a terror opposite Calvin Johnson.

6. Sneaky Good

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    For various reasons, certain picks make more noise than others. No matter who or where they took him, the selection of Johnny Manziel was going to make some serious noise. For reasons mentioned in the previous slide, Tampa’s pick of Evans grabbed the attention of many.  

    However, some high-quality selections fell under the radar. In successive picks, Miami, New Orleans and Green Bay all did serious damage without making much noise.

    Miami desperately needed help along the offensive line—QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked an unacceptable 58 times last season—and made an inspired move at No. 19 in taking Ja'Wuan James—a guy I covered closely in high school. After adding left tackle Brandon Albert in the offseason, Miami needed specific help at right tackle, where James started in all 49 of his college appearances.

    At No. 20, the New Orleans Saints managed to get Drew Brees college football’s most productive receiver in Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, who had 1,730 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013.

    Finally, Green Bay stole Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at No. 21. In addition to filling a huge position of need for the Packers, he was expected to be a top-15 pick and therefore represents tremendous value for Green Bay. 

5. Houston Nearly Struck Gold

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    According to most, Houston got by far the best player in the draft when it took Jadeveon Clowney first overall. In doing so, however, the Texans passed on taking a quarterback, which is clearly the team’s biggest need.

    It seemed far-fetched that Houston could get Clowney and an elite QB. Yet the Texans came unbelievable close to doing so and still actually may.

    Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater, whom some considered to be the best signal-caller available, wasn’t taken until Minnesota traded up and grabbed him at No. 32. That means Houston was literally a pick away from getting both Clowney and Bridgewater, who was deemed a potential top overall pick mere months ago. That two-round haul would have had the chance to go down among the best ever.

    It’s worth noting that Fresno State QB Derek Carr is still available and could give Houston a player with great upside at pick No. 33. 

4. Adrian, Meet Teddy

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    If quarterback is the most important position in the game, you have to feel badly for an elite talent like running back Adrian Peterson, who in seven seasons in the league has yet to play with a legitimate NFL starter at the position.

    Say what you want about Teddy Bridgewater’s pro-day struggles, the Louisville QB was as good as any quarterback in the country last year in actual games.

    In the last two season, he lost just three college games while throwing 58 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. He’s uniquely tough, has an unmistakable South Florida swag and possesses far more talent than anyone whom Peterson has ever played.

    Congratulations, Adrian.

3. Playing It Safe

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    Atlanta’s offensive line was horrific last season. The team’s most important player—QB Matt Ryan—was sacked 44 times (it would have been worse if not for his uncanny ability to get rid of the ball quickly) and pressured on 203 occasions—more than anyone else in the league.

    With all that said, the Falcons played it too safe by taking Jake Matthews at No. 6. Atlanta has an unquestioned need along the offensive line but one that could have been filled in Rounds 2 and 3. Will the team's win total be any different with Matthews at left tackle than it would have been with, say, Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio?

    Atlanta's regular goes—Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina—all have multiple stars on defense, while the Falcons have none. The Birds could have moved up from No. 6 to No. 5, filled a huge need by landing a defensive difference-maker in Khalil Mack (Atlanta ranked second-to-last in 2013 with 32 sacks) and still managed to fill their offensive line needs in subsequent rounds.

    Instead, the Falcons played it safe and failed to get the type of game-changing talent they so desperately need.

2. Swinging for the Fences Is Cool

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    If swinging for the fences is cool, consider Buffalo, Cleveland and New England to be Miles Davis.

    It’s tough to win in sports at the highest level without taking some risks. Executives in Cleveland, New England and Buffalo agree.

    The Bills swapped picks with the Browns and gave up first- and fourth-rounders in 2015 to get Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whom just about everyone considers to be a true difference-maker. Buffalo QB EJ Manuel still has a lot to prove, and the team isn’t exactly knocking on the Super Bowl’s door, but it’s hard to fault the Bills for aggressively pursuing the draft’s top playmaker.

    Similarly, Cleveland and New England went with upside over the sure thing. The Browns moved up to No. 22 to grab Johnny Manziel. He is small (5’11”, 207 pounds) and an active runner—two traits that have helped keep exactly zero NFL quarterbacks healthy in the past. And answer this question: Is his passing in the pocket strong enough if you ask him to scrap his running ways?

    Regardless, if Johnny Football manages to answer these questions, his upside is tremendous.

    Finally, New England drafted Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who has had significant operations on both knees. The Patriots were willing to take the risk, however. They know that, when healthy last season, he was the best defensive player in college football. If the Florida product avoids injury, New England landed a top-10 talent with the 29th pick.

1. Draft Depth Is Round 2's Gain

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    This year’s draft has been well-publicized as one of the deepest in years. It’s one of the reasons you saw so few trades on Thursday night. With so many quality players available, few teams were willing to give away assets in the name of moving up.

    It also means that game-changing talent is available at the top of Round 2. Here are some marquee names to listen for when Day 2 commences:

    • Fresno State QB Derek Carr
    • USC WR Marqise Lee
    • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
    • Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt
    • Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews
    • Missouri DE Kony Ealy
    • Notre Dame DT Louis Nix III
    • Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
    • Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio