It is never fair to evaluate drafts before players are given a chance to prove themselves in the NFL, as too many uncontrolled variables can affect the development of talent, and even the most talented players can fail if the structure is not in place for them to succeed. Furthermore, toughness, intelligence and competitiveness can take players a lot further than any amount of natural talent and cannot immediately be measured, as the sixth-round selection of Tom Brady would attest.
Nonetheless, there is an art to understanding the value of talent, how to manipulate a draft board and build through the draft. And those who understand the value of talent generally produce the strongest drafts.
PFW's research has shown that the average draft produces two starters in any given year. Ideally, those starters will be produced from the first two rounds, where the financial commitments are greatest.
Irrelevant of whether they come from the first round or the seventh round, however, it is very realistic to expect every team to produce two starters and a player who minimally can contribute heavily in nickel situations. PFW uses a sliding scale included below to grade each draft, with two starters being the standard benchmark all teams minimally should be able to attain in any given year.
Picks that were traded and veteran acquisitions acquired last year were taken into consideration where teams were without selections. Future picks were also weighed.
4 projected starters: A (Outstanding)
3 projected starters: B (Good)
2 projected starters: C (Average)
1 projected starter: D (Questionable)
0 projected starters: F (Poor)
An additional quarter point was awarded to teams who wisely manipulated the draft board and acquired future picks; for teams who drafted very soundly in the first two rounds where the greatest financial premium exists; for those who filled pressing needs; for the addition of elite, impact performers; for those who found ways to upgrade special teams, especially with late picks; and for those who likely filled five roster spots, with sixth- and seventh-round picks not expected to make solid rosters.
Also taken into consideration was the competitive-balance penalty that perennial winners regularly face, as they are slotted at the bottom of the round and not as well positioned to acquire elite talent.
The risk of picks, considering medical, mental and character questions, also was considered and weighed into grades, as was the drafting of projections who might have a steeper learning curve and include more overall risk to make it in the NFL. A half-point was subtracted for teams who drafted daringly relative to value of the pick.
Lastly, the ability to match talent to schemes and coaching staffs was weighed.
With plans to add a veteran quarterback, Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves did not address the team's most glaring QB need, instead choosing to follow a value-based approach with the selection of CB Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals also filled other needs at tight end, outside linebacker and by revamping the backfield. The competitiveness of their first two picks — Peterson and RB Ryan Williams — stands out, and both players should step into starting jobs immediately, with Peterson's game-breaking return ability adding a big plus on special teams. TE Rob Housler filled a glaring, stretch-the-seam element missing on the roster. OLB Sam Acho has eventual starter potential and was a very safe fourth-round selection who will add character to the locker room. FB Anthony Sherman could take over as Williams' lead blocker and help on special-teams coverage. Landing LB Quan Sturdivant in the sixth round was a solid value pick. DE David Carter and WR DeMarco Sampson have developmental potential. Williams' injury history is concerning, but collectively, the Cardinals easily could land three starters from this draft with minimal risk.
After finishing atop the NFC standings, the Falcons sought a difference-making offensive playmaker and were bold about landing him, jumping a whopping 21 spots into the top 10 to secure WR Julio Jones, who could make an immediate impact and give the offense the much-needed balance it was lacking. GM Thomas Dimitroff paid a heavy price, dealing next year's first- and fourth-round picks to Cleveland, along with the Falcons' first-, second- and fourth-round picks this year. In theory, the Falcons dealt the equivalent of three solid starters to net one impact performer this year, and the trade will be judged in large part by whether Jones can stay healthy and push the Falcons over the hump in the playoffs. They also addressed some key need areas at linebacker and running back with the addition of Akeem Dent and Jacquizz Rodgers, two very productive, determined players who fit the locker-room leader mold that Dimitroff has done an excellent job identifying. P-PK Matt Bosher is a jack-of-all trades who can replace Michael Koenen. And OG Andrew Jackson and DE Cliff Matthews have potential to become solid contributors. The Falcons paid a steep price in mortgaging the future for Jones, and the net result does not translate well in PFW's formula, but the Falcons deserve credit for landing a premium player at a key position of need, upgrading special teams and landing six players who can make the roster. The aggressive approach could turn out to be the right one for the Falcons this year, but they put a lot of eggs into this year's basket and detracted considerable long-term ammunition that penalizes a strong crop of talent.
GM Marty Hurney has been one of the best in the draft at nailing first-round picks, but he took much more risk than usual with the selection of Cam Newton, forcing offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to redesign the offense and perhaps creating an unhealthy competition between two entitled quarterbacks in Newton and Jimmy Clausen. The decision to couple a new head coach (Ron Rivera) with a new franchise quarterback was logical, and Newton has potential to make a more immediate impact than any other quarterback in the draft, with the capability to become an impact performer. Hurney's decision ultimately will be judged by Newton's development and the sustainability of the spark he can bring to the offense. The Panthers were without a second-round pick, dealt last year for Armanti Edwards, and they are still waiting for the light to come on for him. He made zero impact last season while transitioning to the slot. DT Terrell McClain and CB Brandon Hogan both possess starting-caliber traits, but also came with some risk. For where they were drafted, the risk might well meet the reward. NT Sione Fua and WR Kealoha Pilares can become solid contributors. The Panthers have had a knack for adding OL depth late in the draft, and C-OG Zack Williams and OT Lee Ziemba have developmental potential. LB Lawrence Wilson could help on special teams. The Panthers addressed key needs, and Rivera's ability to deal with prima donnas makes the high risk that defines this draft more tolerable. However, for a team drafting so highly, the Panthers' draft was dangerously volatile.
With heavy influence from a strong-willed coaching staff featuring three former head coaches, GM Jerry Angelo addressed his two biggest needs at left tackle and defensive tackle with the selection of Gabe Carimi and Stephen Paea. The Bears aggressively moved up nine spots to land Paea, sacrificing the fourth-round pick that initially had been dangled in a trade gone bad with Baltimore. Neither Carimi nor Paea is flashy, but they are both sound, high-character talents capable of contributing readily. At California, FS Chris Conte wore the same No. 17 jersey that John Lynch once donned at Stanford and is not as big, strong or physical as Lynch but Angelo can hope he becomes a similar type of player. Mike Martz will get the opportunity to upgrade his backup quarterback situation with Nathan Enderle, a smart, heavy-footed, analytical pocket passer. West Virginia LB J.T. Thomas will have to fight for a roster spot. The Bears surrendered their seventh-round pick to select RB Harvey Unga in last year's supplemental draft. The Bears deserve credit for making sound selections in the first two rounds and manipulating the draft, even if they spurned the Ravens. They did a solid job filling needs.
Jerry Jones lined the roster with some very explosive, athletic talent with his first three picks — OT Tyron Smith, OLB Bruce Carter and RB DeMarco Murray — and the selection of Smith filled a primary need at tackle. All three, however, have durability concerns, as Smith was off some draft boards for medical reasons, Carter will be forced to begin the season on the PUP list and Murray never has been able to stay healthy. OG David Arkin, CB Josh Thomas and WR Dwayne Harris were all solid value picks who could carve out niches. Murray and Harris have potential to help in the return game. The seventh-round pick sacrificed for Illinois NT Josh Price-Brent in the supplemental draft has turned out to be worth it. With the pick the Cowboys received from San Diego for WR Patrick Crayton, they selected FB Shaun Chapas, who also could help on special teams and contend for a job. C Bill Nagy has developmental potential. With a very deep roster, the Cowboys can afford to take more chances on medical risks, and they managed to add explosion to the roster. However, their early picks involved risk. As has been characteristic of their drafts, Rounds 4-7 appear to be strongest part of their draft.
The Lions sought explosive talent with their first three picks and landed plenty of it in DT Nick Fairley, WR Titus Young and RB Mikel Leshoure. However, all three enter the league with character and maturity concerns, possess boom-or-bust potential and will have to be managed closely. Fairley has potential to become an impact performer, and Young and Leshoure could provide a spark to the offense. Young's slight frame will be more susceptible to injury in the pros, and at a position where competitiveness and instincts are of primary importance, Leshoure does not grade out highly in those areas. The Lions swapped picks with the Seahawks and sacrificed their fourth-round pick to move up 18 spots and land Leshoure in the second round. They also acquired DE Lawrence Jackson from Seattle before last season for a sixth-round pick. Doug Hogue could fill a LB need and fits Jim Schwartz's defense well, but his injury history is concerning. OT Johnny Culbreath has athletic talent to make the roster but could be very challenged by the playbook. Collectively, the draft has a strong hit-or-miss element that could make a difference early but might leave the Lions with little in the long term.
Green Bay Packers
Packers GM Ted Thompson is one of the most underrated evaluators in the league, quietly spending as much time on the scouting trails as any other GM. He has a very good feel for identifying value throughout the draft and identifying scheme fits, which he masterfully plucked throughout the draft. His top two picks, OT Derek Sherrod and WR Randall Cobb, were both very safe selections that filled positions of need but also brought value. RB Alex Green might have been drafted early, but he fits Mike McCarthy's ground game very well. New Mexico State CB Davon House has the raw physical traits to be molded and fits Dom Capers' defense very well. Thompson made several trades from Rounds 5-7, and landed six character players with developmental potential in TE D.J. Williams, OG Caleb Schlauderaff, LB D.J. Smith, DE Ricky Elmore, TE Ryan Taylor and DE Lawrence Guy. Drafting at the bottom of the round might make it more difficult for this class to have heavy impact on a deep roster, but Thompson sought talent that could fill niche roles and drafted very well in the first two rounds.
If there is a stigma attached to Rick Spielman's evaluation career, it is that he has struggled to correct the quarterback position, and Spielman opened up more potential criticism with the selection of Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Intangibly, Ponder grades out very highly and he was a fast riser in the draft process, but questions still remain about his decision making and long-term durability. Although he fits well in Bill Musgrave's offense and addresses a primary area of need, selecting him so highly could turn out to be a considerable reach that defines Spielman's new control in the Leslie Frazier era. TE Kyle Rudolph was a safe selection in the second round. The Vikings dealt their third-round pick to New England for Randy Moss's short-lived tenure. DT Christian Ballard could turn out to be a steal in the fourth round if he matures. CBs Brandon Burton and Mistral Raymond could both fit into Frazier's defense well as press corners, and OT DeMarcus Love and C Brandon Fusco could provide depth on the offensive line. LB Ross Homan could turn out to be a solid special-teams performer, and DE D'Aundre Reed and WR Stephen Burton have developmental potential. Collectively, the Vikings added 10 players who could challenge for roster spots and did a very good job of matching talent to their schemes and coaches. The draft could produce several starters, but the Moss trade amounted to nothing and the very early selection of Ponder defied value logic.
New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis did a very good job of recognizing value in the draft, filling a primary position of need at left defensive end with the selection of Cameron Jordan. After the division champion Falcons made a splash trade for Julio Jones, the Saints made a run for a Tide talent of their own, dealing their second-round pick and next year's first to New England to land Mark Ingram, the every-down back Payton has been searching for. As part of the deal for sending Jammal Brown to Washington, the Saints gave up their fifth-round pick but landed an additional third that they used on SLB Martez Wilson, who has first-round physical traits and should benefit from the hard coaching of Joe Vitt. If CB Johnny Patrick can be kept in line, he can turn out to be a solid contributor for a late third-round pick. The Saints gave up their fourth-round pick to trade up for C Matt Tennant in last year's draft, although he has yet to make much of an impact. They dealt their sixth-round pick to New England for TE David Thomas, who was a solid addition when healthy. The Saints recognized value in the seventh round with the selection of injury-prone DE Greg Romeus and LB Nate Bussey, who could factor readily on special teams. The loss of next year's first-round pick coupled with the departure of a Pro Bowl left tackle offset what was a very solid draft that addressed key areas of need for the Saints.
New York Giants
GM Jerry Reese did a fine job of recognizing value throughout the draft, securing free-falling CB Prince Amukamara at the 19th pick. He could contend for playing time readily. DT Marvin Austin possessed first-round physical tools and with the hard coaching of D-line coach Robert Nunn, will be pushed harder than he ever has been before. WR Jerrel Jernigan could help in the slot and add value to the return game. OT James Brewer adds depth to the offensive line and will benefit from the tutelage of Pat Flaherty. The Giants dealt their fifth-round pick to Minnesota for backup QB Sage Rosenfels and PR Darius Reynaud, two solid additions to the roster last season. The final two rounds brought four players — LB Greg Jones, SS Tyler Sash, LB Jacquian Williams and RB Da'Rel Scott — who can help on special teams. Scott has explosive return ability and offers a home-run threat as a change-of-pace back if he can stay healthy in a limited role. The Giants could easily come away with three starters from this draft, took calculated risks matching talent to their coaches and upgraded their special teams. They deserve extra credit for recognizing value throughout the draft and adding some solid veterans in exchange for very little.
Andy Reid and GM Howie Roseman filled one of their most pressing needs on the offensive line with the selection of Danny Watkins and continued to fill holes on the roster with their 11 picks. S Jaiquawn Jarrett was selected earlier than expected in a week safety class, but has eventual starter potential as a box safety. Curtis Marsh is a raw developmental talent who adds much needed size to the CB position. With a talented roster, special teams became a focus in the final four rounds, with the addition of MLB Casey Matthews, PK Alex Henery — who potentially could be David Akers' replacement — OLB Brian Rolle and LB Greg Lloyd. Landing Dion Lewis in the fifth round was a solid value, and he could carve out a niche as a third-down back. OG Julian Vandervelde and C Jason Kelce have developmental potential. FB Stanley Havili could struggle to make the roster. The Eagles did a fine job of addressing all of their needs throughout the draft, but sought out too much undersized talent from Rounds 4-7 and seemingly continue to get smaller and in turn more injury-prone, which has been a problem in November and December. The concentration on special teams is a plus, but they did reach for needs on all three of their top picks. Nonetheless, the draft should produce three starters and add some solid niche, role players. It was not a flashy draft, but it was solid.
San Francisco 49ers
GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh filled three key needs with their top picks, landing the cleanest pass rusher in the draft with the most upside (Aldon Smith) and a up-and-coming quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) with all the physical and mental traits to blossom under the tutelage of one of the finest QB mentors in football. The Niners aggressively moved up to land Kaepernick, dealing away their second- and fourth-round picks. Concerns about Chris Culliver's durability raised flags about his ability to survive at safety, but he fits well as a corner in press coverage. Landing RB Kendall Hunter in the fourth round was a steal, and WR Ronald Johnson brought solid value in the slot in the sixth. Two converted, small-school left tackles — Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person — could bring depth to the interior of the offensive line. The Niners' final three picks — S Colin Jones, FB Bruce Miller and CB Curtis Holcomb — all could help upgrade special teams and have the warrior-type temperament desired by the new regime to fill out the bottom of the roster. The greatest criticism of the Niners' 10-pick draft haul is that it involves too much positional projection from top to bottom. However, with a strong, technical coaching staff in tow, the Niners can be justified taking additional risk on raw talent. Manipulating the draft to land value, fill needs and line the roster with special-teams standouts were all pluses.
Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider might have reached for talent more than any other team in the NFC, beginning with the first-round selection of OT James Carpenter. They ignored their quarterback need with a veteran likely to return, instead choosing to address a glaring need on the offensive line with the addition of Carpenter and lunchpail OG John Moffitt, both of whom could plug in as scrappy starters. LBs K.J. Wright, selected with a pick acquired from New England for Deion Branch, and Malcolm Smith have developmental potential, and CBs Richard Sherman [drafted with the pick dealt to Baltimore for Josh Wilson] and Byron Maxwell both have the size and press skills desired for Pete Carroll's defense. They did receive great value acquiring Marshawn Lynch from the Bills for a mere fourth-round pick. FS Mark LeGree can provide depth in the secondary. WR Kris Durham was a late riser who could contribute as a possession receiver. Pep Levingston could add depth inside or outside on the defensive line. The Seahawks could land several starters and contributors from this draft and drafted well for their schemes. However, the production lost from dealing Branch and Wilson — who were not great scheme fits in Seattle — detracts from a nondescript crop in a draft marked by reaches. Adding Lynch was the biggest plus of their draft.
St. Louis Rams
Steve Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney addressed all of their major needs — perhaps with the exception of running back — including an upgrade of edge speed with the addition of DE Robert Quinn. Medical concerns pushed him down the board, but he fits well in Spagnuolo's defense and could replace the aging James Hall. Sam Bradford was given three very reliable receiving targets in Rounds 2-4 in TE Lance Kendricks and WRs Austin Pettis and Greg Salas, all of whom could factor readily in Josh McDaniels' offense and can open up the passing game. The Rams continued adding depth and special-teams talent in Rounds 5-7 with the addition of Jermale Hines, CB Mikail Baker, LB Jabara Williams and FS Jonathan Nelson — intriguing developmental talents capable of earning roster spots. Hines and Nelson, who both have eventual starter potential, were acquired in a deal down with Atlanta. Although it rolled the dice on Quinn's medical history with their top pick, the Rams' brass continually recognized value throughout the draft and upgraded its roster with contributing talent. The Rams easily could come away with three starters, potentially five, and upgraded special teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
GM Mark Dominik took as much medical risk as any team in the draft with the selection of the Buccaneers' top two picks, DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. However, for all the risk, the Bucs also potentially landed as much value in the first two rounds as any team, while addressing a very pressing area of need. If Bowers can recover from knee surgery, he can become an impact performer, and Clayborn is very solid in his own right. LB Mason Foster has eventual starter potential and could help on special teams. TEs Luke Stocker and Daniel Hardy could both find roles blocking and receiving, respectively. S-CB Ahmad Black is a great fit for Raheem Morris' defense with Ronde Barber-like traits, and CB Anthony Gaitor could be a very solid final-round addition. RB Allen Bradford fits Greg Olson's ground game well. Dominik did a very solid job of landing instinctive, scheme-specific football players throughout the draft while targeting needs on every level of the defense. He also acquired DE Alex McGee and a sixth-round pick from the Chiefs for a fifth-rounder.
Despite being fleeced by the Eagles last year in the trade for Donovan McNabb, GM Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan converted seven picks into 12 by trading down several times and were able to infuse some youth into an aging roster. OLB Ryan Kerrigan was a very safe first-round selection, but the Redskins reached for DE Jarvis Jenkins, who will project to end in Jim Haslett's odd front. Exchanging a third-round pick with New Orleans for a fifth in return for OT Jammal Brown proved to be well worth it. WRs Leonard Hankerson (third round), Niles Paul (fifth round) both fit Shanahan's offense well and could contribute readily, with Paul having potential to contribute on special teams. WR Aldrick Robinson (sixth round) also could find a role. The Redskins sacrificed their fourth-round pick as part of the deal for McNabb last season, which proved to be troublesome. RBs Roy Helu (fourth round) and Evan Royster (sixth round) are both well-suited for Shanahan's zone ground game. S DeJon Gomes and CB Brandyn Thompson will need to make it on special teams. OG Maurice Hurt could provide depth on the line. Their final two of four seventh-round picks — OLB Markus White and NT Chris Neild — have a chance to earn roles. Uncharacteristically of the Vinny Cerrato-Dan Snyder era, Shanahan and Allen showed more appreciation for building through the draft this year, manipulated it well, and did a very good job identifying talent that can thrive in their schemes. The addition of a disgruntled quarterback offsets the landing of a very solid offensive tackle on the trade front. The Redskins could easily come away with three starters, perhaps more in time, and plugged holes on an old roster.