We take a look at the key story lines leading up to Thursday’s first round of the 2012 NFL draft.
1. Chances are that when we look back in five years, 10 years, 20, how many ever years, this will be known as the Andrew Luck-Robert Griffin III draft. Trent Richardson might be an Adrian Peterson-like runner, and Morris Claiborne could turn into the next Darrelle Revis, for all we know now. There are plenty of talented players to consider. But quarterbacks are the biggest thing going, and these two top dogs are the story here. We’ll be dissecting their careers from Jump Street, so here in this space we’ll keep it to a minimum. One thought, passed on from a longtime league evaluator who has seen extensive work from both quarterbacks. Paraphrasing a conversation we had last week, he had a few interesting thoughts. The evaluator’s take: Griffin, not Luck, will be the player who makes the more immediate splash. Despite all the talk that Luck is the more ready-made pro, the evaluator thinks RG3’s skills fit the Redskins’ offense “ideally” (his careful word choice) and that Luck will have less to work with, especially on his O-line, in Indy. He had questions about what was in front of Griffin but thought the Baylor QB was very strong inside the pocket in college and would have no problem working behind a slightly suspect group. Anyway, it was an interesting — and maybe slightly contrarian — view on the league’s two biggest names. And one final thing to think about: Quarterbacks have gone 1-2 four times in NFL history, and only two of those pairs (Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning, 1971; Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer, 1993) were both what you would call non-busts, although none of the four is a Hall of Famer. Tim Couch (drafted before Donovan McNabb in 1999) and Ryan Leaf (just after Peyton Manning in 1998) are two of the more famous busts in recent NFL history.
2. On to the lingering drama … There’s intrigue at Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6, even though those picks might be taking some tangible shape. The Vikings appear to be picking between USC OLT Matt Kalil and LSU’s Claiborne. If it were up to the people PFW’s Nolan Nawrocki has been talking to, the choice would be Kalil. And there’s sense in that, considering you want to protect your best assets in QB Christian Ponder and Peterson. But you also have you think about where you play. The Texans picked Mario Williams over the more heralded Reggie Bush because they needed a Manning hunter. The Vikings have a 30-year-old Jared Allen to chase down Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler for the next three years or so, but having a great cover corner might come in handy, too. It’s something to think about and something Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Co. no doubt have weighed heavily as they put their draft board in order next week. Trading down, as Spielman told me a few weeks ago, remains an option they’ll consider — even while they are on the clock.
3. So if the Vikings stay there and go with Kalil (as was the choice in our correspondents' mock draft), it sets up the Browns at No. 4 to take Richardson. Is it a QB-driven league? Yep. Do they need a receiver? Sure. But Richardson could be a franchise changer. He carried Alabama on his back to a national title, and most people agree he’s better than Mark Ingram was coming out and will be a better pro going forward. There are league trends and all of that, and you need a quarterback to win — period. But you also need warriors. You also need hope. Richardson could provide that. The Browns have Colt McCoy, and you can make a fair argument that (the Browns believe) he will never be special. But he can hold down the fort well if concussions are not a problem. Don’t forget about next season: The draft could include blue-chip QBs Matt Barkley, Landry Jones, Tyler Wilson and Geno Smith. We’ll get to them in six months or so. And the Browns might be able to get the perfect middle reliever in soon-to-be 29-year-old Brandon Weeden in the back half of the first round — they pick 22nd also and, rumor has it, will explore trading into the first round for a third first-round pick if the offensive tackle or receiver of their dreams also remains on the board. So that’s why Richardson makes the most sense — over the flavor of the month, Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill — and might be the most immediate help for a starved Browns franchise.
4. Tannehill is the draft’s mystery man. He’s done the media circuit, and his people have done a great job of building the hype. It’s there — like Cam Newton and his 280 Division-I attempts a year ago, there must be a fair amount of projecting when it comes to Tannehill and his 19 college starts. But scouts see the athleticism, the arm action and the smarts, and they understandably get excited. He’s in play at No. 3 (if the Vikings trade down), at 4 (if the Browns pull the trigger) and at 8 to the Dolphins and anywhere in the next few picks, depending on what moves happen. Jacksonville (7) and Kansas City (11) appear to be trade-down type of teams. The consensus is that no way Tannehill falls past Seattle at 12, even though they signed Matt Flynn. The fascinating thing could happen if the Dolphins pass on Tannehill. Like the QB himself, they are one of the wild-card teams in this draft. Like the Ted Ginn pick a few years ago, I was told to prepare myself for anything to happen there and not assume it will be a QB.
5. One NFL decision maker had a fun text this weekend: “Gonna be fun to watch all the mock drafts blow up (this) weekend.” His point is that trades, maybe more than in the past few seasons, will be a big part of the first round. Teams would be more willing to move up in Round One now than in the past because of the fact that top-10 picks no longer are earning top-shelf salaries; they are more than in line with above-average starters — as, really, they should be — coming into the league before having played a pro snap. Also, last year, veterans were not able to be traded on draft weekend (only picks) because of the labor strife and moratorium on player movement. It led to only four trades involving first-round picks. (The years with the most trades involving first-rounders, for what it’s worth, were 1995 with 15 and 2001 with 14.) But another wrinkle that could change the draft-trade dynamic is the fact that first-round picks will sign four-year deals with a fifth-year option. For top-10 picks, that option would come at the NFL’s transition number, paid an average of the top 10 salaries at his respective position (the one he played the most snaps at during his third year in the league). For picks 11-32, however, that number drops to an average of the third through 25th salaries at the position he played most at in Year Three. That could come out to a few million dollars’ difference. Never underestimate teams’ considerations for finances when you consider whom they might pick and what moves they might make.
6. Last year was a pretty good draft when you think about it. From Newton (Rookie of the Year) to the final few picks of the draft with guys such as Bill Nagy (pick No. 252, who was a starter before getting hurt) and Chris Neild (two sacks in 16 games played as a backup nose tackle). Four quarterbacks started at least 10 games as rookies, and none had more interceptions than touchdowns. There were no dominant runners, but six backs had more than 100 carries and three with more than 50 carries averaged more than five yards a rush. A.J. Green was a star in Year One, and several more receivers were very strong. Julio Jones and Torrey Smith lived up to the hype, and Greg Little, Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and Titus Young came on as non-first-rounders. OLs Tyron Smith and Mike Pouncey looked like future anchors, and Nate Solder, Stefen Wisniewski, Danny Watkins and others could join that group soon. Aldon Smith, Von Miller and Ryan Kerrigan became feared pass rushers from Day One. The highly rated D-linemen (Marcell Dareus, J.J. Watt and Phil Taylor among them) stood out. Patrick Peterson might not yet be a shutdown corner, but he was a four-TD punt returner. Heck, even kickers (Dallas’ Dan Bailey) had their moments. It was a strong draft class now that we’ve had a year to marinate and rethink what transpired.
7. Now that teams have had a chance to put the players on their board for this year, step back a bit and look … this might be a fairly average draft. Yes, it feels like we have said this, what, eight of the past 10 years. But it has the feel of a good but hardly great crop — even if Luck and Griffin become stars. Guards such as Stanford’s David DeCastro rarely see the top 20. One reason is because he’s a great football player (Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton described him to me as an Olin Kreutz clone, and that’s lofty praise indeed). But the last time a guard found himself that high was Shawn Andrews (16th) in 2004. That also was a fabulous QB draft (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger) with some high-pick misses and some real failures in the back half of the first round. But that draft class was pure excellence compared to the only other time a guard went that high in Round One, back in 2001. It featured Hall of Fame types in LaDainian Tomlinson and Richard Seymour and next-level talent such as Michael Vick, Justin Smith and Casey Hampton, but also a host of colossal busts. Guessing this year’s class is somewhere in between the strength of ’04 and the very mixed bag of ’01.
8. So who needs a big draft this weekend (besides everyone)? Really, though, there are a few teams with first-round picks who probably need to come up big. Jacksonville (No. 7) is in a tough spot in what appears to be a top tier of players that includes five or six guys, depending on whom you speak with. Could one of them magically fall if Tannehill goes early? Sure. But you get the idea they could go a little off the map if they stay put — something similar to the Tyson Alualu pick a few years ago. The Dolphins (8) have been taking it on the chin most of the offseason, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear path to greatness unless the bizarre occurs. Let’s assume for a minute that Tannehill is not the guy. Could they be a Michael Floyd team? Hey, it’s possible. Could they stun everyone and take S Mark Barron? That’s about the earliest Barron would go off the board, and it would crush the Cowboys and Jets, picking a bit further down the line. Maybe a trade comes in here. Those Cowboys and Jets also face some pressure to get better. It’s amazing how many people appear to be in line to pick the Jets going 7-9 or 8-8, and the Cowboys might finish anywhere, first to fourth, in the NFC East, which might be back to its formerly great level in 2012. The other interesting wrinkle: The Jets and Cowboys (employing coaches named Ryan, it turns out) might be seeking the same 3-4 defensive players. We could see some dueling between two of the more gutsy and aggressive Draft Day brokers in Jerry Jones and Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum. Expect some kind of maneuvering involving these teams.
9. You’ve got Justin Blackmon and Floyd, both of whom could be top-10 picks (the last Notre Dame receiver taken in the top 10 was Tim Brown, in 1988) and don’t figure to escape the top 15. The rest of the position looks talented and deep, too, but as Nawrocki notes, there are questions about every one of them. Rueben Randle, Stephen Hill and Kendall Wright are three completely different receivers, and each of them has a chance to make the top 32. So does fast-rising Coby Fleener, who is seen as a detached Y-receiver with a smallish body for an in-line tight end. But will any of these guy, Blackmon and Floyd included, be great? As in Calvin Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald/Andre Johnson great? “I’d say no,” was the response I got via email from an NFL personnel man. “The ceiling is just below for (Blackmon and Floyd) and maybe Hill, but you don’t know how long it will take with him.” Anytime a player averages 29 yards a catch, as Hill did, you take notice. His Combine workout was drool-worthy, too. But it remains to be seen if he can be great right away.”
10. So which players are ready to contribute right away? It’s hard not to find an anonymous scout saying that Boston College ILB Luke Kuechly will be a 150-tackle performer as a rookie. We know about Luck and Griffin. Richardson and probably Kalil, too. DeCastro and Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox appear to be ready to roll now, and the teams drafting OTs Cordy Glenn and Reilly Reiff probably envision them as Day One starters. Hard to imagine Blackmon or Floyd struggling mightily right away. Same with Barron and Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith at safety. But here’s another player to think about being a Week One starter, even if his stock is a bit cool right now: At least one evaluator thinks Alabama ILB Dont’a Hightower has special talent, which you would translate to immediate production in some form or another.
11. And on the flip side, which players could take longer to contribute? We’ve got obvious choices in players such as Tannehill, but it appears that the defensive line might really be the biggest boom-or-bust position going this year. Cox seems fairly safe to project, but the other top talents not so much. The knock on Memphis NT Dontari Poe and LSU DT Michael Brockers is that their immense upside sits in the form of physical skill and has yet to really materialize in games. With Poe, he’s a freakish athlete, but his production was hardly commensurate, considering the conference he played in. Brockers faced off against more seasoned talent in the SEC, but he, too, needs to improve as a player. DEs Quinton Coples and Melvin Ingram are serious wild cards, as well, and no one has a clue where they will land. Chandler Jones might land with a 3-4 team in Round One, but he had 10 sacks at Syracuse for his career. Jerel Worthy, Kendall Reyes, Nick Perry and Whitney Mercilus — they all carry some real risk. Expect the defensive line, as it often is, to be one of the biggest bust positions when we look back years later. There are few sure things like Watt in this class.
12. You’ve probably noticed a running theme here. Richardson. Barron. Hightower. Throw in OLB Courtney Upshaw and CB Dre Kirkpatrick, and you have five Alabama players who could land in Round One. That would not be a record, however. The 2004 Miami (Fla.) class of Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, Vernon Carey and Vince Wilfork will continue to hold the title at six. (Amazing, too, that none of them can be considered true draft busts.) I talked to Winslow about that team for a feature that never quite materialized — but someday could. A snippet of what he said on that 2001 team that produced so much talent: “It was the best team I ever played on, even in the pros,” he said. “You really don’t know … we knew we were good. We knew we were the best. But you really don’t appreciate it until you leave. You didn’t know how good it was until you leave. We were so good. We went against each other every day. We were so close.” I have a feeling we could be talking about the ’Bama kids this way one day. Not quite to the Miami level but not far off, either.
13. South Carolina has had only nine first-round picks in its history (and none since CB Johnathan Joseph in 2006), but that number could be 11 after Thursday. Ingram might not be the top-10 pick he once was pegged to be, but he won’t fall far. But the real riser is CB Stephon Gilmore. One of the more hotly debated prospects in the draft, Gilmore could rise all the way up to No. 7 and Jacksonville. An insider told Nawrocki that he sees Gilmore as a second-round player on tape, and it could just be that the need for cornerbacks is so great in this day and age that he goes in Round One anyway. The position is muddled after Claiborne. Kirkpatrick should be a top-40 pick but could go as high as the teens. If Janoris Jenkins had no character questions — but, lo, he has plenty — he might be second at the position. Heck, he still might. Then you have a series of smaller-school players and a guy who was arrested last weekend for allegedly beating up a cop. As I said, a mess of a position to sort out.
14. It’s always interesting to see the division of talent on offense and defense at the top of a draft. Last year was an even split — 16 on each side of the ball — for offense and defense. Since 1990, there never have been more than 19 players taken in the first round from either side in a single draft. If you take a look at PFW’s exclusive draft value board, which places players into tiers within each round, Nawrocki projects another halves draft with 16 on each side. But if you look just a bit deeper, to the 2A (early second round) and 2B (mid-second) categories, you’ll see 12 players on defense in those slots and only seven on offense on the corresponding tiers. A sign that maybe the late first round and early second round could be dominated by defense? Perhaps.
15. For the diehards — and we at PFW salute you — there are always the later rounds, which separate the diehards from the casual fans. To those of you who watch every pick, we’ll be right there alongside you. But even armchair NFL historians know that in recent years there have been gems to be had in the fifth (Rodney Harrison, Joe Horn, Robert Mathis, Michael Turner), sixth (Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Birk, Terrell Davis) and seventh (Marques Colston, Jay Ratliff, Donald Driver) rounds. The same will be true this year — and there probably will be a few gems who go undrafted altogether. It’s the way the draft goes: inexact science at its finest. So as you mine your way through the wee hours of Saturday’s picks, check out the names of a few developmental defensive linemen of note. Keep in mind some lesser-known pass-rush prospects who could surprise. Looking for the next Brian Waters or Jeff Saturday? Here are some lower-round blockers to follow. Seeking the next Horn or Colston or Miles Austin? Check out these obscure receivers of promise. And, of course, if your can team use a kicker or punter — and this, traditionally, is the area of the draft where they are picked — then it would do well to look between the hedges for these two excellent prospects.