Is it better to spend in free agency or wait, be patient and build through the draft?
That's the NFL's version of Republican or Democrat—and just like politics, it's a heated debate when you talk to different front office personnel across the league. Now that we're in the thick of free agency, it's fascinating to see which teams are going for broke (hello, New York Giants) while others prefer to wait, play it cool and then go bargain shopping for players in the coming days and weeks.
If you're a fan of the New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers, this isn't a very exciting time for you, but the records speak for themselves, right? Last year's Free Agency Champions, the Miami Dolphins, are already restructuring the contract of their big get (Ndamukong Suh) in order to sign more players. And a reminder, they fired their head coach last year and had a top-10 pick in the draft before trading it to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Some will point to the Denver Broncos as a recent example of winning through free agency, but the core of that team—Von Miller, Chris Harris, Demaryius Thomas, Danny Trevathan, Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe—all came through the draft or undrafted free agency. Sure, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib helped, and Peyton Manning's play in previous seasons made Denver a popular destination, but the nucleus in Denver was built through the draft.
It's just something to remember this week as your favorite NFL team is either spending or not spending in the opening days of free agency.
The Scout's Report
— Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez is building momentum among NFL teams after the combine and a solid pro day. One area scout I spoke with this week, from an NFC West team, said Sanchez was a late first-rounder on their board.
— The Minnesota Vikings' signing of guard Alex Boone, and their flirtation with tackle Andre Smith, should signal the team will address the wide receiver position in the draft. That was made even more clear when they released Mike Wallace. A team source tells me they have a high grade on Josh Doctson from TCU after the combine.
— An area scout in attendance at the Alabama pro day texted me to say linebacker Reggie Ragland was struggling. Ragland, who opted not to run the 40-yard dash, looked "slow, sluggish and heavy," according to the scout. There's a real chance he falls to the second round due to concerns about his play speed.
— "Go ahead and take [Christian] Hackenberg out of the first round." That's a text I got immediately after the Houston Texans signed Brock Osweiler in free agency. Former Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien was seen as the best option for Hackenberg in the NFL. He's now looking like a second- to third-round player.
— Speaking of the Texans, scouts I've spoken with there feel the team needs to address wide receiver and nose tackle early in this draft after its big spending in free agency.
— After Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback most teams are interested in on the trade block is Mike Glennon. I'm told by multiple general managers and pro personnel directors that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have floated that they want a first-round draft pick for him, but would accept a third from a team with a high pick in the round.
— Following the Alabama pro day, I was told by an AFC East general manager that defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson is viewed by his team as a two-down player, and not someone they'd draft in the first round. Robinson has been out of the first round in my last two mock drafts.
— "I'd rather have Dak [Prescott] in Round 2 than the Memphis kid [Paxton Lynch] in Round 1." That's from a general manager of a team in need of a young quarterback to develop.
— Utah running back Devontae Booker is a favorite of mine on film, but three NFL teams have told me they're scared off by a torn meniscus that required surgery in November, and then a cleanup right after the Super Bowl.
— "Take [Robert] Nkemdiche out of your mock drafts. No one is that stupid." These are the texts you get when you take a flier and put Nkemdiche to the Seattle Seahawks in Round 1. This, from a general manager competing with the Seahawks in the NFC West, was too good not to share.
5 Names to Know
5. Safety Kent London, SE Oklahoma State
If you've heard this name before, you're the biggest NFL draft fan around. But keep his name in the back of your mind, as there is considerable buzz about London from NFL teams. He finished the season with five interceptions in the team's last three games and has the footwork to play either cornerback or safety. London (6'1", 215 lbs) started his college career at Houston before transferring to SE Oklahoma State.
London's pro day will be Tuesday, March 15 at Ouachita Baptist University, and the four games I've seen show a rangy, athletic safety with draftable skills.
4. Cornerback Artie Burns, Miami (Fla.)
Jalen Ramsey, Vernon Hargreaves and Mackensie Alexander have been discussed at length this fall and winter, but as spring nears the one player I keep going back to is Miami cornerback Artie Burns.
At 6'0" and with 33 ¼" arms, Burns fits the mold on the hoof of what NFL teams want in an outside cornerback. And on film, he shows quickness and burst in short areas that make his 4.46 time at the combine seem like less of an issue. Burns is an opportunistic playmaker at corner, and he'll gamble on some routes, but he's a better athlete than a Kendall Fuller or KeiVarae Russell. He just doesn't have their technique...yet.
3. Linebacker Deion Jones, LSU
The small, athletic linebacker that can stay on the field in coverage is now what NFL teams want—even in a 3-4 defense. That's great news for Deion Jones, who at 6'1" and 222 pounds would have been a safety a few years ago. Now, Jones is being compared to Deone Bucannon and former teammate Kwon Alexander. Don't be surprised if he ends up in the second round of many teams' boards by late April.
2. Center Jack Allen, Michigan State
Jack Allen isn't the biggest (6'1", 294 lbs), but he's a blast to watch play. Allen is tough, agile and plays with the leverage and hand technique to go from a late-round pick to a starter. Some teams may discount Allen for his size, but he has the look of an NFL starter when he's going against Big Ten defensive tackles either in a gap or head-up on him.
1. Tight End Ben Braunecker, Harvard
In a weak tight end class, every NFL team is looking for an under-the-radar player who can do something special. Harvard's Ben Braunecker is one of the better athletes in the class—he finished in the top five of every workout among tight ends—and shows on film that he's not afraid to be a blocker on the end of the line. At 6'3" and 250 pounds, his athleticism and what he brings to the table as a three-down player have Braunecker moving up my board.
Scouting Report: Josh Doctson, TCU
Throughout the 2016 draft season, I'll highlight one draft prospect each week with a first-look scouting report.
|Ht.||Wt.||Arm||Hand||40-yard||Bench (225 lbs)||Vertical||Broad||3-cone||Short shuttle|
|6'2"||202||31 ⅞"||9 ⅞"||4.50s||14 reps||41"||10'11"||6.84s||4.08s|
A senior from Mansfield, Texas, Doctson began his college career at Wyoming before transferring to TCU before the 2013 season. During the 2011 season at Wyoming, Doctson caught 35 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns before sitting out the 2012 season due to transfer rules.
At TCU, Doctson caught 180 passes for 2,785 yards (both second in school history) and with 29 touchdowns (most in school history). Doctson suffered a wrist injury against Oklahoma State and played little throughout the rest of the season and bowl game. He missed the Senior Bowl due to the injury.
There is a lot to like on Josh Doctson's tape. He's willing to fight for the ball in traffic and can create separation with his length. Doctson doesn't necessarily play big but plucks the ball out of the air well when contested by defenders.
Doctson's best skill set is his ability to get open as a route-runner. He has exceptional vision in the open field—both to find the ball and to find openings as a runner. In space, Doctson knows how to use his hips and feet to create doubt in the mind of a cornerback and then use that small opening to make his break in the route.
The production Doctson has put on film is worth noting. He was a touchdown magnet at TCU and has the leaping ability to be a factor in the red zone. He also has the strong hands to go up and attack the ball and bring it down with consistency. His footwork is good enough to be an effective sideline receiver.
Doctson didn't get rattled in college and showed his football intelligence and awareness by always working back to mobile quarterback Trevone Boykin when things broke down in the pocket. He's a gamer. If you're looking for a receiver who may not blow the doors off when testing but just makes plays on film, you'll like Doctson.
Doctson will turn 24 years old in December of his rookie season, making him eight months older than Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson and one-and-a-half years older than Oakland Raiders wideout Amari Cooper. Teams should question whether Doctson's dominance in college comes in any way from being an older, more physically mature player.
The first thing you notice with Doctson is that he's rail thin on a 6'2" frame and has average arm length (31 ⅞"). Doctson's frame doesn't need to get much bigger, but he has to at least get stronger if he expects to beat press coverage as an outside receiver in the pros.
Press coverage is something Doctson didn't see often at TCU. Given the scheme there, he operated in the comfort of space both coming off the line and in his route tree. That led to his never having to develop great play height coming out of breaks or in his burst off the line. He plays tall, and for a high-waisted (long legs, short torso) player, he has to learn to sink into his breaks better.
The biggest issue with Doctson's current tape that isn't coachable or something he can improve with training is a lack of burst coming out of breaks. He often sits down in space and doesn't have to explode into and out of transitions in his route. Combine that with his erect playing style, and it's a sizable concern.
Pro Comparison: Marvin Jones, Detroit Lions
Doctson's tape and athleticism combine to make him a potential starter at wide receiver and grade as a top-50 pick. My comfort level with him, in this draft class, would be the late first round.
The Big Board
Nothing turns the NFL draft on its head like free agency. Months of roster examination to determine team needs get erased in 24 hours. And with this year's free-agency opening also including a trade that affected the first round, it's definitely time for a fresh mock draft and a new look at each team's biggest needs.
*Disclaimer: Free-agent signings mean this mock draft could be outdated before publishing. I'll do my best to update right up to the last free-agent signings before my deadline.*
|Team||Pick||Need 1||Need 2||Need 3|
|1. Tennessee||T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss||T||CB||S|
|2. Cleveland||QB Carson Wentz, NDSU||QB||WR||WR|
|3. San Diego||CB Jalen Ramsey, FSU||T||DE||CB|
|4. Dallas||DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State||DE||CB||QB2|
|5. Jacksonville||LB Myles Jack, UCLA||CB||C||DE|
|6. Baltimore||DL DeForest Buckner, Oregon||DE||CB||WR|
|7. San Francisco||QB Jared Goff, Cal||QB||WR||CB|
|8. Philadelphia||CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida||CB||RB||DE|
|9. Tampa Bay||DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson||DE||FS||SS|
|10. NY Giants||WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss||WR||MLB||WLB|
|11. Chicago||T Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame||T||CB||DE|
|12. New Orleans||DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville||WR||DT||DE|
|13. Miami||RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State||RB||RG||FS|
|14. Oakland||T Jack Conklin, Michigan State||T||DE||MLB|
|15. Los Angeles||WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State||FS||WR||C|
|16. Detroit||DL Maliek Collins, Nebraska||T||DT||SS|
|17. Atlanta||LB Darron Lee, Ohio State||WLB||RG||FS|
|18. Indianapolis||OLB Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky||OLB||ILB||RB|
|19. Buffalo||DE Kevin Dodd, Clemson||WR||RT||DE|
|20. NY Jets||QB Paxton Lynch, Memphis||QB||CB||T|
|21. Washington||NT Jarran Reed, Alabama||LG||C||NT|
|22. Houston||WR Corey Coleman, Baylor||WR||C||NT|
|23. Minnesota||WR Josh Doctson, TCU||WR||WLB||CB3|
|24. Cincinnati||WR Will Fuller, Notre Dame||WR||NT||DE|
|25. Pittsburgh||CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson||CB||NT||T|
|26. Seattle||T Taylor Decker, Ohio State||LT||C||RT|
|27. Green Bay||OLB Leonard Floyd, Georgia||OLB||ILB||TE|
|28. Kansas City||NT Andrew Billings, Baylor||CB||NT||S|
|29. Arizona||OLB Kamalei Correa, Boise State||OLB||CB||C|
|30. Carolina||CB William Jackson, Houston||CB||T||LG|
|31. Denver||T Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M||QB||RT||DE|
|New England||No Pick||WR||CB||S|
8. If San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke can get a Day 2 draft pick for quarterback Colin Kaepernick—and that's what I'm hearing as I write this Thursday morning—the fans should throw him a parade.
Whether it's the Denver Broncos or New York Jets or some unknown franchise desperate for a quarterback, if Baalke can get a second- or third-rounder for a quarterback the 49ers benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert...well, that's criminal, folks.
Kaepernick may have been within five yards of a Super Bowl victory, but time has made too many people forget that 49ers team was led by an elite defense with Patrick Willis at his best, Aldon Smith as a top-two outside linebacker in the NFL, a young and healthy NaVorro Bowman and a great defensive lineman in Justin Smith. Oh, and Frank Gore was unstoppable behind what looked like the NFL's best offensive line.
The front office in San Francisco should shoulder some of the blame for Kaepernick's struggles, but the best thing for him (and them) is a change of scenery. And if that means moving him to Denver for a second- or third-round draft pick, then I'd count the 49ers as winners.
7. As we turn from free agency to the NFL draft, one term you're going to hear a lot is "blue-chip player," but what does that mean?
The simplest explanation—which may not apply to every team—is that top-ranked players are often color-coded with a blue draft card. This is how most teams refer to those elite players in each draft class. For example, one team I've talked to uses a blue card for first-rounders.
Each team may be different, and some analysts may use the term to refer to the best-of-the-best-type players. But as a general catch-all, it's fair to say a blue-chip prospect is expected to be drafted in the first round and should be a rookie starter.
6. The NFL announced Wednesday that it would strip the Kansas City Chiefs of a 2016 third-round pick and 2017 sixth-round pick after the team violated tampering rules before signing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin last year. The Chiefs will appeal.
Losing two draft picks for talking to a player a day too early seems ridiculous in the modern era where NFL teams, and even the NFL-owned network, are breaking news on agreements with free agents before the official free-agent period begins.
There may be some gray area here, but in today's NFL, every team and every agent is talking at the scouting combine and laying the groundwork for free agency. In fact, one general manager I spoke to over a month ago already knew which free agents his team would target and which it was likely to sign. That may not be tampering, but it's foolish and naive to think teams aren't talking to players well before the "legal tampering" window opens.
I would expect the Chiefs to win on appeal—doesn't everyone when challenging some strong-arming from the NFL these days—and maybe be penalized one draft pick instead of two.
5. The NFL can't compete with Major League Baseball or the NBA when it comes to trades, which made the swap of first-round draft picks by the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins a pleasant surprise this week.
The Eagles sent the No. 13 overall pick, cornerback Byron Maxwell (whom they signed last year in free agency) and linebacker Kiko Alonso (also acquired last year, in a trade for running back LeSean McCoy) to the Miami Dolphins for the No. 8 overall pick in the draft.
It's unfair to grade any trade two days after it happens, but from the surface, the move looks smart for the Miami Dolphins. They added a starter-caliber linebacker now further removed from the injury that erased his 2014 season and a cornerback good enough to have been paid as a top-tier player just one year ago. Maxwell struggled in the Eagles defense, that's for sure, but if Miami runs more of a zone scheme (like what he ran in Seattle), he can be a contributor.
The Eagles moved up five spots in the draft, but they gave up two starters to do it. Going from No. 13 to No. 8 may allow them a better shot at a cornerback like Vernon Hargreaves or a defensive end like Shaq Lawson, but five weeks before the draft, this one looks like an odd move for the Eagles.
4. Today's fun fact, provided by Tom Pelissero of USA Today: Brock Osweiler will make $7 million more than Tom Brady in the next two seasons.
3. The frenzy of free agency has passed, but that doesn't mean the good players are all taken. Here's my top-10 list of the best remaining players on the market:
|10. CB Casey Hayward||Green Bay Packers|
|9. ILB Jerrell Freeman||Indianapolis Colts|
|8. T Andre Smith||Cincinnati Bengals|
|7. DE Robert Ayers||New York Giants|
|6. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick||New York Jets|
|5. DE Chris Long||Los Angeles Rams|
|4. T Russell Okung||Seattle Seahawks|
|3. FS Reggie Nelson||Cincinnati Bengals|
|2. CB Prince Amukamara||New York Giants|
|1. FS Eric Weddle||San Diego Chargers|
2. It's always fun to look at the big-money deals made on the first day of free agency, but how about the steals and smart deals teams make? Here are my 10 favorite bargain deals:
|Guard Jeff Allen||4 years, $28 million||Houston Texans|
|Defensive end Derrick Shelby||4 years, $18 million||Atlanta Falcons|
|Linebacker Keenan Robinson||1 year, $3.5 million||New York Giants|
|Defensive tackle Cedric Thornton||4 years, $17 million||Dallas Cowboys|
|Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu||5 years, $32.5 million||Atlanta Falcons|
|Tight end Ladarius Green||4 years, $20 million||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|Tackle Mitchell Schwartz||5 years, $33 million||Kansas City Chiefs|
|Defensive end Jaye Howard||2 years, $10 million||Kansas City Chiefs|
|Linebacker Danny Trevathan||4 years, $24.5 million||Chicago Bears|
|Running back Matt Forte||3 years, $12 million||New York Jets|
1. Let's get back to the draft.
I was asked on a radio show in San Diego who I would draft for the San Diego Chargers at No. 3 overall. My answer? Jalen Ramsey. That led to a longer discussion on Twitter about where Ramsey would be the best fit and who I would draft him over in this class.
The answer is easy—I would draft Ramsey over every player in this class, regardless of position.
With our NFL Draft 400 series about to launch, it's time to put a number grade on each player, and Ramsey comes in at a 7.99 (see my grading scale here). That grade makes Ramsey the highest-ranked player in this class, last year's class, the class before that (2014) and the class before that (2013).
I haven't yet dug in to see where he'll grade on a historic scale against Von Miller, Patrick Peterson and Ndamukong Suh, but that's something I'll be doing in the near future.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.