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.
GM Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh took a calculated risk on Colorado CB Jimmy Smith in the first round, and it could turn out to be the right one, with one of the strongest veteran-led locker rooms in the league. He fits very well in the Ravens' defense and also filled a Ravens' position of need. Torrey Smith is a local favorite with the vertical speed needed to open up the Ravens' short passing game for Anquan Boldin. The Ravens jumped five spots with the Eagles to land Jah Reid, who can compete for time at right tackle. Tandon Doss brought great value in the fourth round as a slot receiver. Newsome sent his fifth-round pick to Seattle last August for CB Josh Wilson, and he proved to be a very solid addition well worthy of the price. Chykie Brown has the press skills to fit in the Ravens' defense, but his lack of ball skills and character concerns make the pick risky. DE Pernell McPhee has developmental potential but mental limitations - similar to Adalius Thomas - and could bring value in the fifth round in a scheme designed to let players fly to the ball. Tyrod Taylor could bring a wildcat flair to the offense. With a pick acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for Antwan Barnes, they landed RB Anthony Allen, who fits the Ravens' zone ground game well if he can blend into the locker room. Overall, Newsome took a lot of risk on questionable character talent and high-rep players, but with a strong coaching staff and veteran locker room, he can afford to take more chances than most teams. The Ravens' first four picks have starter potential and the addition of Wilson only strengthens the draft. They hit on key needs early and found solid value throughout.
GM Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey sought value over need throughout the draft, neglecting the quarterback position, but landing two immediate starters with their top two picks, DL Marcell Dareus and CB Aaron Williams. They reached on the next two picks - ILB Kelvin Sheppard and S Da'Norris Searcy - but they both fit the defense and may have needed to jump early at very weak positions in this year's draft. Landing only a fourth-round pick, that was used on Clemson OT Chris Hairston, for RB Marshawn Lynch could prove to be a loss, although Lynch had worn out his welcome in Buffalo and needed to go and Hairston has eventual starter potential. In fifth-round addition Johnny White, Nix may have recouped the loss, as White's angry-running style and special-teams contributions could offset Lynch's loss, provided he can stay healthy. ILB Chris White could turn out to be a solid sixth-round addition. Nix broke away from his big-school philosophy in the seventh round with the selection of Richmond CB Justin Rogers and Bethel NT Michael Jasper, who both could be challenged to earn jobs but do fit the Bills' defense. Drafting atop the round as the Bills so often have with the revolving door at head coach and in the GM chair in recent years, they came away from the draft with two instant impact players with their top two picks and focused on adding pieces that will allow them to make the transition to a 3-4 front, which they had to scrap midway through the season last year. Special teams should improve with the concentration of athletic defensive talent. Although he reached in the middle rounds, gave up a great talent (Lynch) for very little in return and did not address some key needs, Nix did do a solid job of identifying talent that fits the Bills' defense and improved considerably on that side of the ball.
After years of adding undisciplined, boom-or-bust talent, GM Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis finally shifted gears and drafted high-character, dependable prospects who could provide the structure, support and consistency that for too long has been absent on the Bengals' offense and has forced Carson Palmer to reach a new level of frustration. Adding A.J. Green was a slam-dunk, can't-miss pick that should bring a perennial Pro Bowl talent to the offense and has to please Palmer. Although Andy Dalton was drafted more highly than he grades on tape, the demand for his services forced the Bengals to reach and he fits extremely well in Jay Gruden's West Coast offense. LB Dontay Moch has the upside to become very good if he can figure it out. Landing OG Clint Boling in the fourth round was a steal, and he could easily plug and play for OL coach Paul Alexander. FS Robert Sands is a hit-or-miss pick who could require an adjustment period, but he adds physicality to the Bengals' defense. WR Ryan Whalen could bring more stability to the slot. CB Korey Lindsey and RB Jay Finley have developmental potential. Brown and Lewis deserve credit for drafting much more soundly than they have in recent years. They did not make any trades, but they plucked off sound football players with each pick and could easily come away with three starters, including an elite, impact playmaker who can define their draft.
By dealing down with the Falcons after their top two selections came off the board, President Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert received terrific trade value, dropping down to the 27th spot and landing a bevy of picks that helped bolster a roster lined with holes, adding a second- and fourth-round pick this year and a first- and fourth-rounder in 2012. They filled three key needs with their top three picks, sacrificing their third-round pick to move up six spots and beat Kansas City to the punch for the draft's top nose tackle, Phil Taylor, manipulating the board to land a key target capable of replacing Shaun Rogers. DE Jabaal Sheard had injury concerns, and Greg Little has maturity issues, but both have legitimate starter potential and could bring immediate returns. TE Jordan Cameron could turn out to be a steal in the fourth round if he hits. FB Owen Marecic is a throwback who can pave lanes for Peyton Hillis, who was acquired in exchange for Brady Quinn, a sixth-round pick this year that was dealt to Minnesota (to move up for OT Jason Pinkston in the fifth round) and a conditional 2012 pick, which clearly swung in the Browns' favor. Fifth-round CB Buster Skrine could compete for time in the slot. The Browns gave up their seventh-round pick to acquire QB Seneca Wallace, and added backup safety depth with the selection of S Eric Hagg in the seventh. The addition of two solid veterans, Hillis and Wallace, along with all the ammunition they acquired on the trade front this year and next could allow the Browns to come away with an additional starter (Little) this year and potentially another next year. Across the board, on need, value and trade fronts, the Browns stood out in every category, and Heckert's first draft fully at the controls in Cleveland significantly upgraded the roster, although he did take character and medical risks with all three of his top picks.
John Fox, football czar John Elway and GM Brian Xanders landed a difference-making pass rusher who can factor on every down in OLB Von Miller. The Broncos dealt down from their second-pick to land the first safety in the draft, Rahim Moore, and picked up another, Quinton Carter, in the fourth as a result of the deal, with age catching up to Brian Dawkins. ORT Orlando Franklin could help replace free agent Ryan Harris and was selected with one of the two second-round picks Josh McDaniels acquired for dealing Brandon Marshall last season. Third-rounder Nate Irving may have been a slight reach, but coupled with Miller and sixth-rounder Mike Mohamed, brings more versatility to Fox's LB unit. The Broncos traded up to land developmental TE Julius Thomas and took a flier on a free-falling Virgil Green in the seventh round. Concerns about Green's knee pushed him down the board. The two new tight ends significantly upgrade the speed at the position. McDaniels lost out on the trade for Brady Quinn, sending Peyton Hillis, their sixth-round pick and a conditional 2012 pick to the Browns. They added Laurence Maroney with a simple swap of a fourth- and sixth-round pick, but he has proven to be unreliable. DE Jeremy Beal could be well worth a seventh-round flier. Broncos' brass did a solid job of addressing key needs throughout and understood value, but they took a number of chances on players with character/immaturity issues (Moore, Franklin) and injury concerns (Irving, Green). Nonetheless, they tended to draft good football players. On the veteran front, the loss of Marshall, Hillis and picks while netting only Quinn and Maroney proved to be detrimental to the roster, although it should not count against the new regime.
GM Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak may not have pieced together a flashy draft, but their first three picks could prove to be one of the most solid and productive of any in this year's class. With an offense that works, they focused on supplying Wade Phillips' the pieces he needs to successfully transition to an odd front, landing DE J.J. Watt, OLB Brooks Reed and CB Brandon Harris (who they sacrificed their third- and fifth-round picks to secure) with their first three picks, following a similar blueprint as reigning Super Bowl champion GM Ted Thompson when the Packers shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front (landing B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews with their top two picks). They dealt back in the fourth round, sending their fourth- and two fifth-round picks to Washington and continued to bolster their CB need, selecting Rashad Carmichael. The trade allowed them to add fifth-round SS Shiloh Keo, who could help on special teams, and QB T.J. Yates, who fits Gary Kubiak's West Coast offense well. OT Derek Newton could earn a roster spot as a developmental zone blocker. OLB Cheta Ozougwu has the motor to convert from end. The Texans drafted very soundly and the addition of high-effort, highly intelligent talent could go a long way towards correcting the scheme discipline issues that were all too present on the Texans' defense the last few years. They matched talent very well to their scheme, aggressively manipulated the draft to fill cornerback needs and found character talent that will strengthen the chemistry in the locker room.
In Chris Polian's first draft calling the shots, the Colts addressed key needs on both lines and focused on building inside-out, adding much more size to the offensive line with the addition of OTs Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, two college left tackles with the feet, smarts and versatility to help at a number of positions. Castonzo could be a fixture at left tackle for the next 10 years, and Ijalana likely will start at guard and eventually replace Ryan Diem. DT Drake Nevis perfectly fits Larry Coyer's defense and can bring much needed explosion inside. RB Delone Carter was a great value pick in the fourth round and can earn carries inside. The Colts gave away their fifth-round pick to jump up four spots in the second round to secure Ijalana and landed CB Chris L. Rucker in the sixth round, despite character questions. Polian did a great job of addressing needs and adding more physicality to the run game, while supplying the defense with the most critical piece that has been missing at the heart of their defense. The offensive line should have two immediate starters, and Nevis and Carter ought to contribute readily.
GM Gene Smith was aggressive trading up a number of times, starting with their move up six spots to secure QB Blaine Gabbert, which cost them their second-round pick, and again in the third round, when they moved up four spots to secure OG Will Rackley, dealing their sixth-round pick to the Niners. Gabbert should have a year to sit and learn but is loaded with upside. Rackley will have the opportunity to compete readily. In the fourth round, Smith took a shot on two small-school talents, WR Cecil Shorts from Mount Union and FS Chris Prosinksi from Wyoming, using an additional pick acquired last year from the Saints. Prosinski shot up boards with an excellent pro-day workout. Fifth-round CB Rod Isaac out of Middle Tennessee State could bring help in nickel packages. The Jaguars did a solid job manipulating their draft board to land key targets and positions of need, but their draft is defined by raw, underdeveloped and small-school talent. Jacksonville might not have the coaching staff in place to develop the raw prospects properly, a handcuffing organizational flaw given the two years remaining on Jack Del Rio's contract. They dealt their seventh-round pick to Miami last year in exchange for OG Justin Smiley, who has provided depth on their line. The Jaguars have had a knack for hitting on underpublicized talent, and if Gabbert can become a franchise quarterback, the draft alone will be worth it, but the returns on this year's draft will not be immediate and will require as much patience to evaluate as any other class, especially given the coaching situation.
Kansas City Chiefs
GM Scott Pioli traded back six spots in the first round and surprised with the selection of Jonathan Baldwin in the first round. He has first-round athletic talent and could benefit by the presence of former WR coach Todd Haley, who has been able to handle divas. Selecting Rodney Hudson in the second round as a projection from guard and with concerns about his back involved some risk, but he has the intelligence and toughness to become a 10-year starter and would not have lasted much longer at a very thin position. OLB Justin Houston (secured with the trade down with Cleveland) could bring value in the third round and be given a year to learn from and potentially replace Tamba Hali. DE Allen Bailey is an ideal scheme fit and could provide needed depth as a five-technique end. Landing CB Jalil Brown in the fourth round and QB Ricky Stanzi (with a pick acquired from dealing Alex Magee) in the fifth could prove to be very good values. OLB Gabe Miller has developmental potential. NT Jerrell Powe could provide depth inside. Yale FB Shane Bannon emerged from the pro-day circuit with an intriguing size-speed ratio and could become a hammering lead blocker for a run-first offense. With many needs to fill, the Chiefs dealt down and landed what easily could be 3-4 starters and a number of others with intriguing developmental potential, while drafting very well for their scheme. However, Pioli did take some medical and character risks.
Landing Mike Pouncey in the first round could bolster the middle of the Dolphins' offensive line for a long time. With no second-round pick after dealing it to Denver as part of the Brandon Marshall trade, GM Jeff Ireland parted ways with his third-, fifth- and seventh-round selections to get back into the second round to fill a pressing RB need, drafting RB Daniel Thomas, a finesse big back who should be able to take over as the bellcow for unsigned Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. In the fourth round, WR Edmond Gates could bring value as a speed receiver. Charles Clay could contend for a spot as a pass-catching fullback. Alabama A&M DL Frank Kearse has developmental potential for the Dolphins' three-man line. CB Jimmy Wilson is talented and fits the Dolphins as a press corner, but carries a lot of baggage. The Dolphins also landed an additional seventh-round pick in return for OG Justin Smiley. The Dolphins' first two picks should plug and play immediately and are key pieces to establish a smashmouth identity. Rounds 4-7 brought intriguing developmental talent for a strong coaching staff of teachers. Ireland filled needs with scheme fits and drafted very soundly with his top two picks.
New England Patriots
The king of manipulating the draft, Bill Belichick, once again worked his magic with the help of personnel boss Nick Caserio, stockpiling a boatload of future draft picks while recognizing value throughout. With the pick acquired from Oakland in exchange for Richard Seymour, the Patriots nabbed their left tackle of the future in Nate Solder, who should benefit highly from the tutelage of O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. They dealt their 28th overall pick to the Saints for an additional first-round pick next year and a second this year, used to add change-of-pace RB Shane Vereen late in the second round. Rather than dealing down from the top of the second, they added press CB Ras-I Dowling, who graded out like an early-round talent last season before injuries derailed his season. Belichick acquired third- and fifth-round picks in a deal down with Houston, adding inside banging RB Stevan Ridley and OL Marcus Cannon, who has starter potential in 2012 once he recovers from recently diagnosed cancer. With the pick secured from Minnesota for Randy Moss, Belichick nabbed troubled, heavy-footed QB Ryan Mallett, who perfectly fits the Patriots' offense and should benefit from a veteran locker room. The Patriots sent their third- and fourth-round picks to Oakland in exchange for a seventh-rounder (CB Malcolm Williams) and a second-rounder in 2012. TE Lee Smith could contend for a job as an in-line blocker and LB Markell Carter has developmental potential. To keep alive a string of trades with the Eagles that started when he arrived in New England, Belichick swapped one spot in the sixth round with the Eagles. The Pats also previously shipped off Laurence Maroney for a two-round exchange of picks, acquired Deion Branch for a fourth-round pick and landed Quinn Ojinnaka from Atlanta in exchange for a seventh-round pick. The Patriots were as active dealing as any team in the draft and recognized value extremely well throughout, taking worthwhile chances on Mallett and Cannon, upgrading an aging backfield and coming away locked and loaded for next year's draft. Knowing when to unload disgruntled veterans affecting chemistry in the locker room and which veterans can still function in his system remains a great strength that reflects in the Patriots' drafts. Belichick can be justified taking some calculated risks, as he did, and landed some niche talent to supplement his roster.
New York Jets
GM Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan addressed key needs early in the draft, adding a functional five-technique (Muhammad Wilkerson) in the first and a stout nose tackle (Kenrick Ellis) in the third. They both have starter potential, although Ellis does carry some baggage with a legal situation pending. Their second-round pick conditionally was dealt to San Diego in exchange for Antonio Cromartie. Fourth-round RB Bilal Powell could help on special teams and be groomed. The Jets swapped picks in the fifth-round with the Eagles to select TCU WR Jeremy Kerley and came back around in the seventh to secure Mark Sanchez's childhood friend, WR Scotty McKnight, both of whom can fend for time in the slot and potentially help in the return game. As part of the deal sending Kerry Rhodes to Arizona last year, they acquired a seventh-rounder this year that was spent on QB Greg McElroy. Cromartie played at a high level, but still must be dealt with in free agency. The Jets, more than any other team, could have a drastically different set of needs, depending on how free agency is defined under new rules, yet still managed to fill key areas of need on both sides of the ball and add key pieces to their front seven. Adding Ellis involved considerable risk, but the addition of Cromartie turned out to be a big plus last season and for a team drafting at the back of the round, they fared well.
Richard Seymour turned out to be well worth the first-round pick they surrendered to the Patriots, but the Raiders once again reached for raw talent throughout the draft. Second-round C Stefen Wisniewski could fill a glaring need at center and captain the offensive line. CBs DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa were two of the fastest press corners in the draft, but their tape did not match their workout numbers and they were both overdrafted. Surrendering a second-round pick next year to the Patriots to secure OT Joseph Barksdale in the third round was unnecessary. Despite possessing game-breaking speed, RB Taiwan Jones had a number of issues that could make the pick very risky, including a tendency to fumble. Rounds 5-7 brought vertical WR Denarius Moore, underachieving TE Richard Gordon and raw WR David Ausberry, all of whom have raw physical traits to emerge if they can figure it out. Very typical of Al Davis drafts, the Raiders gambled on upside with not enough regard for football-playing instincts, which could allow the Raiders to remain one of the most physically gifted, yet most underachieving teams in football. Giving away a second-round pick next season could prove to be costly and detracts from the two line starters (Seymour and Wisniewski) landed with the top two picks.
The Steelers were one of the few teams that did not execute a single trade. Football operations director Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin stayed still at the bottom of each round and focused on upgrading both lines and adding size to the secondary. DE Cameron Heyward could occupy space in Dick LeBeau's odd front and brings character to the locker room. Gilbert has starter potential on the offensive line with the type of mass Colbert seeks on the line. CBs Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen both possess ideal length and size for their defense but remain raw and were overdrafted. OLB Chris Carter could prove to be a solid value pick in the fifth round if he can add bulk. OG Keith Williams has backup potential, and seventh-round RB Baron Batch could potentially help on third downs in the passing game. Colbert did a good job of identifying scheme-specific talent with little risk that could fill niche roles and filled key needs, but he did not manipulate the draft at all and too often reached for talent. They will be lucky to come away with two starters, although less can be expected drafting at the back of the round with one of the strongest rosters in football.
San Diego Chargers
GM A.J. Smith addressed key needs on the defensive side of the ball, starting with the solid selection of Corey Liuget, who filled the Chargers' most pressing need. The lack of safety depth forced Smith to reach for versatile DB Marcus Gilchrist. With the pick obtained from the Jets for Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers earned the distinction of making the biggest reach in this year's draft, selecting Michigan LB Jonas Mouton at least 3-4 rounds too early. Despite medical concerns, WR Vincent Brown could prove to be a solid addition and has the ballhawking talent Norv Turner covets in his offense. CB Shareece Wright fits the Chargers' defense as a press corner, but was off some boards because of medical concerns. The Chargers did not have selections in the fourth or fifth rounds after dealing them to San Francisco and Philadelphia in efforts to climb in the draft in 2010. Sixth-round RB Jordan Todman could fight to replace Darren Sproles. Short-armed OG Stephen Schilling will have to battle for a roster spot. OLB Andrew Gachkar has developmental potential. Acquiring Patrick Crayton from the Cowboys last September in exchange for their seventh-round pick was worthwhile, but the loss of Cromartie was costly, even if he had become a distraction in San Diego. Rather than focusing on workout numbers, Smith has done a good job of recognizing good football players, and he did a very good job of filling needs and has proven to have a reliable medical staff that knows when to take chances. Nonetheless, the mighty reach on Mouton, lost picks from last year's draft and the loss of Cromartie offset the addition of some good football players.
GM Mike Reinfeldt and new head coach Mike Munchak put an emphasis on intangibles with the selection of QB Jake Locker. Locker has all the tools to become great and fits well in Chris Palmer's offense if he can correct glaring accuracy issues. The Titans filled a number of pressing needs early, adding depth at linebacker with the addition of undisciplined second-rounder Akeem Ayers and injury-prone fourth-rounder Colin McCarthy. They rolled the dice on DT Jurrell Casey in the third and coupled him with a pair of overachievers, Karl Klug (fifth round) and Zach Clayton (seventh round). RB Jamie Harper was a reach in the fourth round but could fill a niche role. OT Byron Stingily and SS Tommie Campbell offer developmental potential. There's no question this class has potential, but the key will be how quickly it can take to coaching. Reinfeldt let the board fall to him and did not execute a single trade, but he did find solid value throughout the draft and should land many solid contributors.
Link to NFC grades