Friday, May 9, 2014

The Night The NFL Mostly Made Sense

In a mostly unpredictable night during the first round of the NFL Draft, most decisions actually made sense.

The NFL Draft can be the crappiest of crapshoots with rarely a guarantee of which players selected will be successful in the NFL. Even though the draft can be one big guessing game, teams can tend to not help themselves out by overthinking their picks under the illusion they know something other teams don’t. If there’s anything we’ve learned from past years, it’s that even the best teams can’t beat the draft. After months of inane talk of what teams might and might not do, the NFL, more specifically people in charge of running teams, seemed to make a big step forward in the first round. For the most part, the picks throughout the first round of the draft made sense.

Now, making sense and being predictable are two very different things. The first round of the draft was anything but predictable. No one could predict what the picks would be, but once they were announced the amount of second guessing a team’s thought process was not as prevalent as it has been in years past. There might not be any more evidence of this needed than the Dallas Cowboys making a completely logical pick at No. 16 by taking offensive lineman Zack Martin from Notre Dame.

While there’s no way to know yet whether these picks will pan out for each team, but what we can look at is the process each team used coming into the pick. In that regard, most teams did pretty well.

No one manipulated the draft board better than the Cleveland Browns in the first round. Regardless who they drafted, the Browns would have come out a winner after their trade with the Buffalo Bills. Cleveland added Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2015, along with a 2015 fourth-rounder to move back five spots in the draft. The Browns would technically receive that extra pick to only move four spots back as they traded up from No. 9 to No. 8 with the Minnesota Vikings. Some question trading up one spot, but the Vikings probably convinced the Browns another team made an offer to move in front of Cleveland and with the amount of draft capital the Browns had to play with, the cost of a fifth-round pick wasn’t a lot in the long run.

Cleveland shocked many by taking Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth pick, but the pick was just using the draft board to their advantage. After the pick I noted on Twitter Gilbert gives the Browns two good cornerbacks, which is never a bad thing and enough leeway to move up from the 26th pick if they felt the need to move up again for a falling quarterback. That’s exactly what they did, moving up four spots to No. 22 and selecting Johnny Manziel. Coming out of the first round with a cornerback to put on the outside of Joe Haden, a quarterback and an extra first-round pick in 2015 is a win.

Of course there were a couple questionable decisions from teams, including Buffalo’s side of the Cleveland. The difference in value between the fifth and ninth pick is 5.2, according to Football Perspective’s Draft Pick Value Calculator. According to these values, the 101st pick in the same year — the first pick in the fourth round — has a value of 5.2, making future first- and fifth-round picks a steep price compared to that difference. The Bills, however, are in a situation that doesn’t lead to sound decisions about the future. Buffalo hasn’t had a winning season since 2004 and has finished 6-10 in four of the past five seasons with the lone exception a 4-12 season in 2010. General manager Doug Whaley has been with the team since 2010 as an assistant general manager before becoming GM in May of 2013. With the passing of Bills owner Ralph Wilson and the uncertainty around a sale of the team, Whaley could feel he needs to show improvement for the roster now or he won’t be around to deal with the effects of a lost first-round pick next year.

The one real shock of the draft happened right in the beginning when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected UCF quarterback Blake Bortles third overall. Of the three quarterbacks to go in the first round, Bortles had been talked about the least. The shock isn’t completely that Jacksonville had Bortles as the top rated QB, but they felt comfortable with his value as the third pick. It’s impossible to know when Bortles would have been taken had the Jaguars passed, but with how both Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater lasted until the back half of the round, it’s hard to imagine other teams had Bortles valued that highly. It’s also easier to say “this team should have traded back for more value” than it is for a team to actually do so. Each trade takes two teams to complete and it’s not as simple as a team trading out of its pick simply because it doesn’t like the value.

Even questionable decisions like Pittsburgh’s selection of Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Philadelphia’s pick of Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith can be justified when considering the coaching staff. The Steelers have enough history of turning players like this into useful defensive pieces even though the recent history isn’t as favorable. In Philadelphia, the new regime has soured on the scheme fit for defensive end Brandon Graham and have already started efforts to move on. Chip Kelly should also get the benefit of the doubt for personnel decisions until given reason otherwise.

Meanwhile, some of the best decisions of the draft were ones that weren’t made. A team like the Atlanta Falcons came out ahead by not doing anything. The Falcons were rumored to be discussing a trade for the No. 1 pick and Jadeveon Clowney, at a high price. Entering the 2013 season, Atlanta was constructed like a true stars and scrubs roster and their 4-12 record can be attributed to how much those scrubs had to play. Instead of sacrificing more roster depth for another potential star, the Falcons decided to stay put. The result was getting an offensive lineman who can help the team in 2014, the ability to build the back end of the roster in later rounds this year and keeping their first-round pick in 2015.

Maybe the most logical non-moves of the first round came in keeping the second-tier of quarterbacks exactly that. In the ideal round, Teddy Bridgewater shouldn’t have lasted until the 32nd pick, but at least the Vikings saw the opportunity to take him and acted accordingly. What we didn’t get, though, were quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Jimmy Garappolo or Tom Savage taken ahead of Bridgewater in the first round like some were predicting. These quarterbacks will now be taken in the second and third rounds, where they were originally projected to go at the start of draft season.

In a draft that had the potential to leave many puzzled at the end, the results were fairly positive. Whether these players will translate to on-field success is a different beast, but the process in making these selections was mostly sound. It wasn’t perfect, but it could have been much worse.

Follow Dan on Twitter @DanPizzuta

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