NFL Draft Round 1 – NFC Grades

NFC East
Dallas Cowboys: CB Byron Jones (No. 27)
Grade: B-
I didn’t see the quick hips and closing speed I would have liked from Jones. I can’t write him off without seeing more tape, though.

New York Giants: Ereck Flowers (No. 9)
Grade: B-
Flowers is a beast in the run game, but he might lack the agility to ever defend against good edge rushers effectively. #9 felt too high for a player who might end up at guard.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Nelson Agholor (No. 20)
Grade: A
Agholor is quick in and out of breaks, sets up defenders, and has breakaway speed. He also sports very reliable hands and won contests for the ball. I’ll take that over Kevin White’s acrobatics any day.

Washington Redskins: OL Brandon Scherff (No. 5)
Grade: B+
I saw one media outlet describe Sherff as a “reach” while in the same breath touting Leonard Williams as the obvious pick here. Williams showed inconsistent effort for most of 2014; I’d venture Sherff has never played a down at anything less than top effort and commitment to technique. Who’s the “reach,” again? (By the way, with their talent at the skill positions and improvement up front, the Washington offense could make a little noise this year.)

NFC North
Chicago Bears: WR Kevin White (No. 7)
Grade: B
He’s good, I just liked other players better.

Detroit Lions: OG Laken Tomlinson (No. 28)
Grade: B
Most linemen I viewed as vastly superior to Tomlinson had come off the board by now, so I can’t hate the pick. But Detroit has a serious opportunity in this draft to restock its defensive line — where talent is a rarer commodity — with players like Jordan Philliips and Eddie Goldman available. They might regret letting that opportunity slip by.

Green Bay Packers: S Damarious Randall (No. 30)
Grade: B+
This team has two young starting safeties that can play the back end and roll up and cover a slot receiver man-to-man. If they want to rush 6 on passing downs, they’re probably free to do it. Sounds a little scary, right?

Minnesota Vikings: CB Trae Waynes (No. 11)
Grade: B+
I liked him, and he went high in the first round. No story here.

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons: LB/DE Vic Beasley (No. 8)
Grade: C+
Beasley struck fear in the hearts of college offensive tackles, okay? He’s lightning fast off the edge, and tackles looking to jump out and defend him often fell victim to agile pass rush moves back inside. I think he has heavy hands for a 225-pound player, too. So there’s potential. But NFL tackles will probably never stay awake at night over Beasley, largely because he doesn’t generate the power into them that makes speed so effective as a complement. The Seahawks apparently want none of Bruce Irvin just four years after drafting him; what makes us applaud Atlanta for taking a similar player in the Top 10?

Carolina Panthers: LB Shaq Thompson (No. 25)
Grade: A
This defense scares the daylights out of me.

New Orleans Saints: OL Andrus Peat (No. 13), LB Stephone Anthony (No. 31)
Grade: B-
Stephone Anthony plays fast and bullies players twice his size. Andrus Peat plays too high and gets bullied by players Anthony’s size. Mixed bag here. (By the way, not sure how many pundits ranked Stephone Anthony the highest inside linebacker in the draft, but yours truly did. Wasn’t the least bit surprised to see him go here.)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Jameis Winston (No. 1)
Grade: A
Jameis Winston is about as prepared to learn the position of NFL quarterback as almost anyone leaving college: good arm, good touch, toughness in the face of pressure, experience making pro-style reads. And not for nothin’: where else were the Bucs going to turn for a quarterback?

NFC West
Arizona Cardinals: OL D.J. Humphries (No. 24)
Grade: A+
Love this pick. Humphries compares favorably to Tyron Smith. ‘Nuff said.

St. Louis Rams: RB Todd Gurley (No. 10)
Grade: A
Best available player. (And weird to see St. Louis draft only once in the first round, right? Zing, DC!)

San Francisco 49ers: DL Arik Armstead (No. 17)
Grade: B
Just like Leonard Williams, whom I wrote about my AFC Grades, Armstead’s motor runs hot and cold. A gamble like that is much more forgivable at 17, but the 49ers may regret passing on superior talent on the offensive line or a player like Agholor.

Seattle Seahawks: No picks
Grade: Incomplete
They lost this pick as a penalty for that terrible play call at the end of the Super Bowl, right?

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First round value for linebackers, and what it means for Manti

sportsthink’s Pop Culture department, TMZportsthink (sportsthink’s girlfriend), has followed the Manti Te’o saga much more closely than sporsthink’s Draft Analysts have.  The cast of characters (real and fictional) alleged to have taken part in the world’s most famous catfishing scandal made heads spin in the sportsthink War Room.  So sportsthink has been, noticeably I’m sure, devoid of Manti Te’o coverage.

As the time approaches to issue sportsthink’s eagerly awaited Top 50 2013 NFL Draft Prospects, however, our thoughts necessarily turn towards Te’o (and, only because it invokes laughter in the War Room, “Lennay Kekua”).  sportsthink initially penciled Te’o somewhere into the Top 50.  After all, Te’o has exceptional instincts, hits like a freight train, and relentlessly guided the Irish to finishes near the top of the FBS rankings in defense the past few seasons — his struggles against Alabama and 40 yard dash times notwithstanding.

One issue gives the sportsthink researchers pause.  Te’o is, more or less, a two-down linebacker.  He chalked up a few interceptions and passes defended this year.  But his work in coverage tended to be less acrobatic and more blue-collar: he collected most of his interceptions off deflections and misreads by quarterbacks facing zone coverage.  Given that Te’o will, generally speaking, make his NFL living on 1st and 2nd downs, sportsthink wondered just how much teams should value those potential contributions.  Essentially, we looked to test the maxim that teams should only draft three-down players in the first round.

The chart below looks to inform that question.  sportsthink pulled tackling statistics for all linebackers in the 2008-2010 draft classes who were selected primarily for their play in space, not as outside rushers (e.g., those primarily playing in space, such as in the middle or on the outside in a 4-3 set).  sportsthink then plotted the average tackles per game for such a linebacker (collectively referred to as “middle linebackers”) drafted in each of the first three rounds.  The chart also shows the average number of starts a first-, second-, or third-round middle linebacker selection made per year.

Middle Linebacker Comparison

Those draft classes included Jerod Mayo, Brian Cushing, Curtis Lofton, and NaVorro Bowman, in addition to less-decorated players, some of whom are noted in the chart.  Although the sample could arguably be modified, the draftees selected should have all had at least three seasons to establish themselves as NFL players.

A few more notes about the chart.  The data set uses “starts” as a proxy for limiting the body of work on which to judge the players to only in those games where they were given a fair opportunity to succeed — suffering on the bench behind an established veteran didn’t count against the players’ aggregate tackling numbers.  However, this necessarily required excluding tackles accrued on special teams or in sub packages, as a player who accrued 40 tackles with only one start would inflate the statistics.

A low average number of starts could be due to injuries (Keith Rivers), lack of playing time (several third-round selections, for example), failing to make the cut (ditto), or all of the above.

Why good is this, you ask?  It shows a couple of things.  First, it shows that good, downhill middle linebackers are available on Day 2.  When those players started, they accrued tackles at virtually the same rate as first-round selections. Granted, this excludes the players who never reached NFL prominence; more about them in a second.  Also, plotting tackles doesn’t account for a lot of statistics that might prompt teams to upgrade a player to first-round value: examples include passes defensed, tackles for loss, and fumbles forced.  But it’s still a useful statistic.

The chart also suggests that reliable middle linebackers are still awfully plentiful in the second round, but become much harder to find in the third.  Even considering Jordon Dizon’s short stint in Detroit, second-rounders still started at a rate nearly that of first-rounders.  By the third round, though, the pickings got a lot slimmer.  Some players never panned out (Rennie Curran); others have bounced around the League with middling results (Dan Connor).  The third round is very much a diamonds-in-the-rough situation.

Lessons for NFL teams?  Obviously the progress of each draft will dictate when a given player, including a given middle linebacker, represents good value.  Insofar as teams are considering selecting a two-down linebacker in the first two days of the draft, however, a fair reading of the data suggests that good prospects are just as likely to be available with pick 45 as pick 15.

As for Manti: it was a joy to watch him toss aside blockers and sniff out screen plays at Notre Dame; he may do the same in the NFL.  But unless they’re hoping to parlay a Lennay Kekua appearance in the Green Room into a marketing campaign, teams should probably stay away from Manti in the first round.

Unless these two join forces to market season tickets, NFL teams should probably steer clear of middle linebackers on Day 1.

Unless these two promise to join forces to market season tickets, NFL teams should probably steer clear of middle linebackers on Day 1.