There are few dull moments in the life of an NFL draft analyst. Last week, it was the Alex Smith trade that sent ripples through the league and caused a shake-up in mock drafts and offseason planning. This week, it's the decision by Josh McDaniels to go back on his word in the final hours before he was to be announced as the new head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
There were rumors that McDaniels was having cold feet all the way back at the end of Senior Bowl week, but those sounded like nothing more than speculation. Apparently, that speculation grew as McDaniels was set to fly to Indianapolis to assume his new duties. In fact, the Colts had gone as far as to set up his office, lay out his new gear and had even signed several assistant coaches to contracts. This sucker was done except for McDaniels' signature on the contract—which couldn't be done until his season with the New England Patriots had ended.
This will hurt McDaniels' future chances of employment outside New England—top agent Bob LaMonte actually fired him as a client because of the ordeal—but if the rumors are true and McDaniels is primed to succeed Bill Belichick as head coach of the Patriots down the road, who cares?
So how does this affect the 2018 draft?
One high-level executive at a rival team said, "To me, this means the Patriots are going to find their quarterback of the future this offseason, and everyone in that building knows how important it is that [McDaniels] be there to help identify and develop that player."
With only five picks in the entire 2018 draft class as of now, it's not likely the Patriots would try to package picks No. 31 and 43 (received in return for Garoppolo) to move up and select a top-tier passer. That means having McDaniels around to help scout and coach is more important than ever. And if you watched the Super Bowl you saw how badly the Patriots need to draft for defense. That means the front office has to be smart in where they value a quarterback. Being able to draft someone in Round 3 (or later) that McDaniels can develop makes everyone's life easier.
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That note is important. The Patriots have 40-year-old Tom Brady and 32-year-old Brian Hoyer on the roster but no one else after trading away Jacoby Brissett and then Jimmy Garoppolo. If there's a plan of succession from Belichick to McDaniels, what's the plan for Brady to the next quarterback? This offseason will be when we see some of that plan.
Outside of New England, this will assure that the cold war between the Patriots and Colts is renewed. General manager Chris Ballard even said as much when he ended his press conference by saying, "The rivalry is back on."
It's been a wild couple of weeks, and the offseason is just getting started. Here's what else is going on in the NFL this week:
- News, rumors and notes from around the league
- Risers, fallers and sleepers following the Senior Bowl
- Front office shake-ups in Baltimore and Cleveland
- Stick to Football with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and 2017 draft grades
The Scout's Report
• Coming out of Super Bowl week, one rumor I've heard from so many places is that the top four picks in this draft are for sale. The Cleveland Browns wouldn't trade both the first and fourth picks, but they will take calls on moving one of them. The New York Giants (No. 2 pick) and the Indianapolis Colts (No. 3 pick) will also consider trading down.
• Regarding the Browns and the first overall pick in the draft, I was told by multiple sources and confirmed with others that general manager John Dorsey would have aggressively shopped the selection if he had pulled off a trade for quarterback Alex Smith.
• Free agents Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum will have a major impact on the top six picks in the draft. If Cousins signs with the Denver Broncos or New York Jets, they wouldn't be likely to draft a quarterback early. But what if Keenum signs with the Broncos—would they still draft a quarterback at No. 5 overall? In talking to a Broncos front office member this week, I learned the team likes Keenum, and signing him would allow Denver to go elsewhere in Round 1.
• Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome announced he will step down after the 2018 season. This move allows longtime second-in-command Eric DeCosta to assume the general manager job. DeCosta has been near the top of every candidate list I've made for open GM jobs in the last seven years. The Ravens are in good hands with him sticking around to run the team. The biggest difference we might see is fewer Alabama players drafted to Baltimore once Newsome, the former Crimson Tide tight end, is retired.
• How good is Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson? Said one director of player personnel to me this week: "If you want to call him the best player in this class, no one can argue with you, and there's no way he'll bust. As safe as they come."
• Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan is an interesting prospect, and he'll undoubtedly dominate the combine based on his athleticism. I'm still lower on him than most because of inconsistent film. Bryan is unstoppable at times but disappears for stretches and seems to only win with speed/strength and never technique or leverage. He's a player I'll be studying a lot more in the next three weeks.
• One player I did a deeper dive on this week was Clemson wide receiver Deon Cain, and he's moving back up my board after a midseason fall. Cain has all the tools to be an NFL starter, but his 2017 numbers were disappointing. Put that on the quarterback situation and not Cain. He's a polished route-runner with the goods to be a starter. I'm putting him in Round 2.
• LSU cornerback Donte Jackson will burn up the track at the scouting combine in three weeks. After accessing the team's All-22 film, it became clear to me that Jackson is one of the fastest players in this class. I only wish there had been time to see him in person now. As long as everything checks out off the field (injury, character, etc.), Jackson could sneak into Round 1.
The Big Board
Now is a good time to announce/remind you that our NFL Draft 400 series will be launching again soon. In it, two assistants and I write scouting reports on the top 400 prospects in the 2018 draft class as well as grade and rank them. Because that work is getting started, it means my rankings are changing frequently. Here's an updated look at the top 50.
1. RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
2. DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
3. OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
4. EDGE Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State
5. QB Sam Darnold, USC
6. QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
7. QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
8. CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
9. LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
10. LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
11. OT Connor Williams, Texas
12. CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
13. QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
14. WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
15. RB Derrius Guice, LSU
16. S Derwin James, FSU
17. RB Ronald Jones II, USC
18. LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
19. DL Maurice Hurst, Michigan
20. RB Sony Michel, Georgia
21. C Billy Price, Ohio State
22. EDGE Harold Landry, Boston College
23. CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
24. OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
25. WR Courtland Sutton, SMU
26. DL Da'Ron Payne, Alabama
27. EDGE Marcus Davenport, UTSA
28. DL Vita Vea, Washington
29. C James Daniels, Iowa
30. OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia
31. EDGE Arden Key, LSU
32. LB Malik Jefferson, Texas
33. S Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
34. EDGE Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
35. CB Carlton Davis, Auburn
36. OT Kolton Miller, UCLA
37. TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
38. DL Harrison Phillips, Stanford
39. DL Derrick Nnadi, FSU
40. WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
41. LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
42. WR D.J. Moore, Maryland
43. S Justin Reid, Stanford
44. TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
45. OG Will Hernandez, UTEP
46. CB Mike Hughes, UCF
47. CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
48. CB Donte Jackson, LSU
49. S Kyzir White, West Virginia
50. WR James Washington, Oklahoma State
10. The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off February 27 in Indianapolis, and this week the list of participants were announced. You can find that at NFL.com (or click the link above).
9. Who are the biggest snubs? Offensively, UMass tight end Adam Breneman is a player I thought deserved an invite. He'll be drafted as long as his knee issues that forced him to retire from Penn State aren't an issue for NFL teams. Breneman has NFL qualities and the production to back it up.
Defensively, Texas defensive tackle Poona Ford deserved an invite. He's not what the league loves in terms of size (6'0", 306 lbs), but his play both in college and on the all-star circuit this offseason proved he can perform at a high level as a nose tackle. His lack of height and length might keep him in the later rounds, but he has an NFL future.
8. One more combine note...how great is Alabama?
It's also great to see former powerhouses like Miami and Penn State back on this list. For Florida State and LSU, it's confirmation that great athletes are still coming from Florida and Louisiana but shocking given the lack of success from those schools lately.
7. NFL Draft Sleeper: West Virginia running back Justin Crawford
Justin Crawford always impresses on film but isn't getting a ton of national love from the media or scouts. I still think in the right situation (zone scheme, complementary back) he could be a great player. Crawford has quickness to make cuts and can run away from defenses. At 6'0" and 202 pounds, he has quality size and has also shown good hands. He's not a power runner, which is why I like him best as a complementary piece, but I'd be all over him Day 3 as a fit in a rotation.
6. NFL Draft Riser: Florida State safety Derwin James
Here's why it's important to watch as many games as possible on a player. Early in the season, I had James ranked high based on how impactful he was as a freshman before suffering a knee injury and losing almost all of his sophomore season. But once the meat of the season got here, James looked timid and a little lost, so his ranking fell. Thankfully, I got around to watching the last four games of the season because James was one of the best prospects when the year ended. Especially for players coming off injury, I try to see every game that season. Doing so has James pushing into my top 20 players.
5. NFL Draft Faller: Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli
Wisconsin fans aren't going to like this, but after a little more film study, I'm just not loving Troy Fumagalli. He's a fun player and a good college tight end, but he's undersized and not a great athlete. There will be some schemes that will value Fumagalli as an H-back-type, but even there, his lack of agility and flexibility are weaknesses. He's a Day 3 prospect for me.
4. Scot McCloughan has been praised by those in the media, fans and even fellow scouts as one of the best in the business. After ESPN's Seth Wickersham profiled him in 2014, McCloughan quickly picked up a cult following and was then hired as general manager of the Washington Redskins. That marriage ended last spring amid reports that McCloughan had had multiple alcoholism relapses in his two years as Washington's general manager.
Now McCloughan is working with the Cleveland Browns as a consultant for the 2018 draft. Perhaps it's a toe-in-the-water test to see if he can handle the pressures of scouting before Cleveland offers him a larger role. Whatever it is, for at least the next few months, the Browns have one of the most talented group of scouts in the NFL all in one room.
McCloughan joins general manager John Dorsey, assistant general manager Eliot Wolf, co-vice presidents of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith and Andrew Berry and director of college scouting Bobby Vega to form an Avengers-like scouting department. If this group can't fix the Browns, no one can.
3. Watching NBA Twitter explode this week as the Cleveland Cavaliers almost entirely change their roster makes me jealous as an NFL writer. We saw a small taste of it this season with Jimmy Garoppolo and Alex Smith being traded, but how cool would it be to see a team like the Browns start selling off parts now that a new regime is in place? I understand why it doesn't happen—NFL teams are less likely to give up on talented players under salary-cap control on the rookie-wage scale—but we can always dream about a scenario in which marquee players are moved and teams are rebuilt at the trade deadline.
2. Indianapolis Friends: Stay tuned to the Stick to Football Twitter account for details on a meet-up and a live podcast recording during combine week.
1. The Stick to Football Wednesday episode is a good one this week, featuring Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes and NFL draft grades from me and Connor Rogers.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.