San Diego Chargers’ 2015 Draft — Quick Reaction

A few quick thoughts on the Chargers’ 2015 Draft. Hopefully, more content to follow.

Trading Up in the 1st Round — In principle, sacrificing two Day-3 picks for the opportunity to move up a few spots in the teens of the Draft’s first round seems fine. Historically, the aggregate talent in the top 13 or so picks far exceeds what’s available from about 15 through 40. Sacrificing fourth- and fifth-round picks to move up and nab an elite talent that’s still available could yield positive results over time (especially given that the fifth rounder falls in 2016); someone please write if this conflicts with more modern assessments of draft pick values. In the end, however, given the player the Chargers took at 15, and the way they executed the rest of the draft, I think they should have stayed at 17.

Melvin Gordon III — Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco sees Gordon as an elite talent. I disagree, and I also think he’s a somewhat awkward fit for the Bolts zone-blocking scheme. I’ll post a more complete breakdown forthcoming.

Denzel Perryman — I never saw the tape of Perryman defending the run at an elite level that everyone else so passionately references. Given the talent available (at positions of need, if it matters) when the Chargers picked in the second round, the Chargers made a very, very troubling choice here.

Craig Mager — We may come to view Mager as the most talented player the Chargers selected in 2015 – and the pick still concerns me a bit. I hope to review Mager in an upcoming post, as he has a lot of good (and some bad) tape. But I get the feeling, as I did last year, that the Chargers selected a player in the third round that they would have taken in the fourth, given that option. This suggests a lack of commitment to the team’s supposed “best-player-available” strategy. Of course the Chargers traded their fourth rounder each of the past few years, so they were forced to select a coveted player in the third round or run the risk he wouldn’t be there in the fifth. Thus, the downside of the team’s Day-1 trade.

Kyle Emanuel — I didn’t see Emanuel show the burst up the field or the agility to make an impact as an NFL pass rusher, and he looked really uncomfortable playing in space on the few occasions he dropped into coverage. I simply don’t see how he succeeds at outside linebacker for this team. Until Emanuel proves me otherwise, I consider this a wasted pick. I certainly doubt very highly that Emanuel will provide any kind of answer for the Bolts’ pass-rush woes.

Darius Philon — Philon adds a bit of depth to the Chargers’ corps of defensive ends. His skill set played well in a one-gap scheme against SEC competition. He’ll need bulk, for starters, to hold up effectively in the Chargers’ two-gap system.

At first blush, I think other teams got a lot better, and the Chargers largely flubbed this draft. But I hope to explore the pros and cons of each pick in a bit more detail in the coming weeks…

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Wondering how Manziel projects? Look no further than this rising NFL star.

Johnny Manziel was the proverbial ‘black box’ of this year’s NFL Draft: even seasoned analysts and coaches were compelled to shrug with uncertainty when asked how his seat-of-the-pants style would translate to the NFL. Yes, the chicken-legged gunslinger made SEC defenders look silly for two seasons. But on Sundays? No one was quite sure how to peg Manziel’s projection to the next level.

Watching Manziel execute against professionals for the first time on Saturday, the contents of the black box were revealed. Manziel’s pro game compares to a current NFL quarterback, with some physical limitations built in.

Manziel is a six-foot Colin Kaepernick.

Lets get the obvious differences out of the way. Kaepernick has a much stronger arm, effortlessly zipping the ball downfield on a line. Manziel, by contrast, really needs his legs to do the work on his throws. If Saturday is any reflection, Manziel seems unlikely to gallop gazelle-like through NFL defenses in quite the same way Kaepernick has for nearly two seasons. (Manziel saw less daylight than we’re accustomed to on his scrambles in part because the Browns offense draws more defenders into the box than the Texas A&M spread.)

manziel
kaepernick

But Manziel and Kaepernick have more in common than you think. Both players can make defenders miss with the ball in their hands. Both players are transitioning from a spread offense in college to a pro-style approach, and consequently struggle to progress through their reads. And both players show less accuracy than you would like. Manziel will make some of the same jaw-dropping plays that Kaepernick has made routine; Kaepernick’s struggles will be Manziel’s.

Was “Colin Kaepernick Light” worth the 22nd pick in the NFL Draft? Tough call. Even with their quarterback a regular feature on Sportscenter, the 49ers generally go as far as their defense and smashmouth running game take them. When Josh Gordon gives way to the likes of Miles Austin at the end of training camp, this Browns team may well wish that Brian Hoyer had Kelvin Benjamin to throw to. Or another piece in the secondary. Or help along the offensive line.

But Manziel, for all his limitations, will probably give this team an offensive dimension that it has lacked for so long. He will frustrate with his penchant for bailing from the pocket, and errant balls that fall harmlessly to the turf in August may land in the arms of the first-team defenders Manziel will face during the regular season. But he will also get this team first downs with his legs; he’ll keep plays alive when less athletic QBs might have gone down; and he may eventually command enough attention that his receivers will find a bit more running room across the middle of defenses.

It will be fun to watch Manziel grow as an NFL quarterback. And while his future is unwritten, we do have a bit of a roadmap: a raw, lanky, exceptionally athletic gunslinger that emerged from a spread offense a few years ago. Browns fans can only hope that their team’s fortunes turn the way the 49ers’ did.

Norv Turner sending Mike Evans deep, and other ideal fits for NFL Draft prospects

Sportsthink doesn’t do mock drafts. Not because I hate them, as some critics are wont to say these days. It just requires psychic powers beyond the means of a simple sports blogger. My NCAA tournament bracket was bad. Predicting how 32 NFL teams will react in such a dynamic environment can’t turn out much better.

It’s always fun to stoke our anticipation for the draft by matching players to teams, though. And certain players would make particularly great additions to certain squads. Here’s three players whose fit with a prospective team should ignite a lot of excitement with fans:

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the New York Jets — Christmas comes in May if Rex Ryan gets his hands on Clinton-Dix. Ryan loves innovating to bring pressure, shifting from his base front to as many as seven DBs with regularity. How about a little Cover Zero to really dial up the pressure? The Alabama free safety might be the best defensive back in man coverage in this draft, giving Rex Ryan yet another way to surprise offensive coordinators.

An Alabama defensive back for the second year in a row might be just the thing for Gang Green.

An Alabama defensive back for the second year in a row might be just the thing for Gang Green.

Mike Evans to the Minnesota Vikings — Norv Turner filled up the Chargers’ receiver corps with basketball players moonlighting as football players. Watching Phillip Rivers fake a handoff to Ladainian Tomlinson and hit Malcolm Floyd on a deep in or Vincent Jackson on a deep post was a beautiful thing to watch. Almost all of the pieces are in place in Minnesota: an outside receiver with top-end speed, a multi-dimensional tight end, and the best running back in the NFL. How about adding a massive, athletic wideout with good hands to the mix?

Darqueze Dennard to the Tampa Bay Bucaneers — If an NFL coach could dream up the perfect Cover 2 corner, Dennard might come close. He shines when the play is in front of him, diagnosing run/pass and blanketing short passes outside the hashes. He’s also great in run support. Lovie Smith’s defense will tap into these strengths, and but won’t ask Dennard to play much press man, where he struggles to flip his hips.

One Game Can Tell the Story

Sometimes, watching a number of a prospect’s games can still leave you with an imprecise sense for his strengths and weaknesses. You understand the player and where he fits within an offense or defense generally. And you see him execute some things, but not others. But you don’t draw any big conclusions about him.

And then one game will tell you all you need to know.

This post focuses on two games that, for sporsthink, defined the evaluation of the respective players involved. In one case, I saw the player struggle through several games and wondered what the allure was; one game clued me in. For the second player, a single game confirmed a lot of concerns I had about him, but had struggled to articulate.

Marcus Martin, USC v. Notre Dame – Martin didn’t win me over the first few times I watched him. “This guy is projected to be the first center off the board?!” Martin could stand to improve his balance and lateral agility in his pass set, and needs to sustain blocks more effectively in the run game. That much was confirmed many times over on tape.

Nix didn't roam free for much of the day...

Nix didn’t roam free for much of the day…

So what exactly makes Martin a second round pick in some evaluators’ eyes? Look no further than Martin’s body of work against Louis Nix of Notre Dame. No one has pushed Nix around during his college career the way Martin did. Seeing Martin do that against such a powerful defensive tackle made me realize just how dominant he could be in the run game. Draft analysts in the media, and undoubtedly a few NFL insiders, must think that Martin could be a real difference maker in the middle of an offensive line.

Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State v. Air Force — Lawrence has many of the traits that seem to project success for an NFL edge rusher: quick hands, a long frame, accleration up the field on pass plays. I wasn’t overwhelmed by much of his tape: in particular, I didn’t see him consistently translate speed to power. But there were some appealing athletic traits.

Then I saw Lawrence face Air Force. The Falcons’ run-heavy, misdirection offense exploited everything that Lawrence struggles with. Lawrence was consistently washed out of the play on runs his way, even by lighter offensive tackles and tight ends. He fell victim to cut blocks play after play, and never used his hands effectively or recovered afterwards. Even when the play went away from him, Lawrence lacked the top-level burst to track down the ballcarrier.

Lawrence will earn his paycheck on Sundays rushing the quarterback, so some of the Air Force game was a side act. Nevertheless, I thought it highlighted the areas Lawrence desperately needs to improve: play recognition, using his hands to engage and dispatch of blockers, and accelerating from a standstill, whether that be to put pressure on the quarterback or chase down a run the other way. Lawrence may yet transform himself into a star, but it will be a steep learning curve for him. Teams have to factor this into his draft position.

Toby Gerhart, and Rethinking Free Agency

A guy with a track record for doing this in the League has to be able to step into the Jags starting roll better than anyone in this draft, right?

A guy with a track record for doing this in the League has to be able to step into the Jags starting roll better than anyone in this draft, right?

Toby Gerhart probably feels overlooked. Rightfully so. A podcast host suggested to vaunted draft pundit Greg Cossell recently that the Jaguars starting running back gig was Gerhart’s to lose. Cosell’s response? “He’s not going to be the guy that carries the ball 25 times a game.”

Gerhart disagrees. “I can come in and be the dominant guy.” He points out, essentially, that he has a veteran’s feel for the game, without any of the unwanted tread on his tires.

With all due respect to Cossell, he thought Trent Richardson was the second coming. So even the great ones get one wrong now and then.

So let’s take Gerhart up on his proposition: how does his body of work stack up against others who might be taking their first snaps as a full-time starter in the NFL this season?

Gerhart is obviously a bigger back, and plays like it in many ways. He squares his pads up to the line of scrimmage, even when moving laterally. He keeps his feet moving and runs through contact with very good balance. He doesn’t explode towards the line of scrimmage, though, and sometimes seems plodding in his movement.

Gerhart also plays like a smaller back at times. He has pretty good lateral agility for his size, including some stop-start movement in the backfield, and jukes in the open field. He has very soft hands, and looks comfortable in the screen game. He presses the hole on inside runs, but flashes good cutback ability.

Gerhart has always lacked either the flexibility or the instinctive timing to lower his shoulder effectively, though. When tacklers come in high, Gerhart shakes them off rumbles for another ten yards; when they come in low, Gerhart hits the turf hard. If Gerhart is ever to hit 200 carries behind an unproven Jaguars offensive line, he’ll have to run behind his pads more effectively, and will have to lower his shoulder to meet tacklers.

Overall, I like Gerhart’s game.

What’s more, I think Gerhart’s situation reflects a certain tunnel-vision in the League. Execs often prioritize building their team through the Draft. The team gets younger players at a more affordable price, the strategy goes, while free agents sometimes come with skeletons in their closet and don’t always integrate their game into a team’s scheme effectively. Some execs seem to barely bat an eye as good free agents flock to other teams at a good value.

Although drafting well is important, targeted investments in free agency can complement a team’s draft strategy. It’s widely recognized that rookie running backs stand to have as much early success as almost any other position, at least amongst the skill players. Why shouldn’t the same be said for a low-mileage veteran back? Given the short careers NFL running backs face, Gerhart may have as many productive years in front of him as any rookie.

Gerhart will likely give the Jaguars better carries than any back drafted in the early rounds. Gerhart is at least the equal of Carlos Hyde, for example, a player widely considered a top-50 pick. The Jaguars got Gerhart at a modest $10 million over three years, and the team gets to fill other needs on Draft day.

2013 NFL Draft Grade: New York Jets

The Jets don’t get nearly enough attention for a five-win team, right? Short of Rex Ryan orchestrating an assassination attempt on Mark Sanchez – would the lion cage at the zoo really be so different than the fourth quarter of a preseason game? – it’s hard to picture a team with less talent generating much more controversy. Shad Khan would switch places with Woody Johnson in a heartbeat.

So it seemed like an opportune week to review the Jets’ 2013 draft. Teams rarely pull back the curtain on draft-day strategy – Woody Johnson, along with the Irsays, providing the occasional exception – but the Jets showed a remarkable change of direction from the Tannenbaum era. While Tannenbaum bet the house on boom-or-bust players who seemed to bust too often, new general manager John Idzik has imposed a new sense of order on the team’s personnel decisions. (Although the team remains organized chaos on the field…)

Although I like to isolate a team’s draft-day decisions from those that precede it – we don’t hold Reggie McKenzie accountable for the Raiders trading away all of McKenzie’s draft-day ammunition before his arrival – the Darrelle Revis trade is worth discussing. Securing a top-thirteen pick for a 28-year-old player should normally provide cause for celebration. Teams turn over nearly their entire roster in a matter of three to four years. Securing two young, upper-echelon talents – historically, a line drawn after the draft starts to creep into the teens – to add to a roster in transition is a good move. I happen to think, however, that Revis is the kind of talent you can rarely replace in a given draft – a bit like a great quarterback – so I viscerally disliked the trade when it happened. But it certainly shows that Idzik will be making decisions with much more cool objectivity than his predecessor. And, when you consider the toxic relationship between Revis and the team, this probably counts as a big score.

I also liked the players the Jets took with their picks. I had Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson numbered ten and eleven in my “Most Valuable 50” column, which makes them both solid bets to develop into top-tier defensive players. Mike Mayock summed up Milliner perfectly: the player does no one thing exceptionally, but he is good at everything, and he will prove athletic enough to stick at the NFL level. (My opinion hasn’t changed in light of Milliner’s early struggles in the NFL. He gave up position to players like Kenbrell Tompkins in the first two games; he succeeded against better receivers in college, and he’ll turn things around at the pros.)

Richardson looked like an odd fit for Ryan’s three-four – his quickness jumps off the tape more than anything – but he still generates tremendous power and uses his hands effectively enough to succeed in a two-gap scheme. Moreover, players like Quentin Coples and the newly-acquired Antwan Barnes give the Jets enough flexibility to switch to four-three fronts throughout the game.

If Milliner and Richardson made for good picks, Geno Smith was incredible value. I listed him atop my board, more for the position he plays (quarterbacks matter a lot, as any Jets fan can attest) than on pure talent. But Smith clearly showed the arm strength, touch, and pocket awareness to succeed in the pros, despite his accuracy problems.

I would not have let Geno slip last past 13. Think of it this way: the Jets and Bills look markedly better because they improved the quarterback position in the draft; the Jaguars looked putrid because they still have Blaine Gabbert starting. Why risk another year with Sanchez under center? That said, as I mentioned in my review of Ryan Nassib, 20 to 25 NFL teams have good starting quarterbacks at the moment, so few teams were really bound to fight the Jets for Geno’s services. Maybe waiting until 39 was a calculated risk; if so, it paid off handsomely. Again: discipline.

The Jets are gambling that Ivory will spend enough time on the field to make moves like this. Most of the team's moves were much more certain to pay off.

The Jets are gambling that Ivory will spend enough time on the field to make moves like this. Most of the team’s moves were much more certain to pay off.

The Jets took a few more gambles with their later picks. Brian Winters generated a lot of tape during Senior Bowl week – little of it remarkable. Other good players remained at the seventy-second pick of the draft – personal favorites include Keenan Allen, Markus Wheaton, and Corey Lemonier. Thinking more creatively, Eddie Lacy would have made the perfect fit for the Jets’ new running scheme; he was chosen only eleven spots earlier.

Much like the Revis trade, I’m of two minds regarding the acquisition of Chris Ivory for the Jets’ fourth-round pick. It fills a massive hole on the roster – with a player who spent as many games on the injury report as in the lineup for the Saints. Ivory really shines on toss sweeps and off tackle runs, where he can use his speed to get to the corner, then plant and speed upfield. He also shows exceptional instincts on some plays in the open field, and plasters defenders when cornered. The big transition he will face as a Jet – other than staying healthy – is running against a stacked box. Ivory will have to read defenses accurately just to gain positive yardage for the Jets, a problem he has yet to face in the NFL.

Oday Aboushi is a project, but an exciting one. He has the frame and, seemingly, the temperament to play tackle in the NFL, and he has some agility and balance to his game. He also made mistakes routinely in college: he let pass rushers get into his body despite his long reach; he often missed assignments, picking up an outside rusher while leaving an inside man free; and he never really confronted rushers with the power he will face in the pros. He may find more consistent success at guard in the NFL, and I bet he becomes a useful backup to multiple positions for the Jets.

William Campbell moves from nose tackle to guard for the Jets. He does move well for a big man. I guess we’ll see.

Jets fans may look back at 2013 as the year the team reloaded. The collection of talent that brought the team back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship is gone or in decline; last year’s awful campaign also poisoned the proverbial well. This strong draft class combined with savvy, budget free agent pickups like Barnes, Dawan Landry, and Willy Colon have already paid dividends. Maybe most importantly, Idzik seems to have an organization formerly in disarray reading from the same playbook for once.