Oh, and then this year, there’s this nonsense about Khalil Mack being the best player in the Draft.
NFL general managers struggle to sort out the good pass rushers from the bad. Don’t believe me? Here’s all the evidence you need: Tyson Jackson, Aaron Maybin, Larry English, Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, Shea McClellin, Nick Perry, Dion Jordan, Jarvis Jones.
And that’s just the past few years.
Anyone with access to the internet can distinguish the college players who rack up sacks from those who don’t. The challenge is filtering out those who will struggle at the next level despite college production (see list above), and occasionally projecting success for a player who didn’t put up huge college numbers for one reason or another (think, Ziggy Ansah). The NFL executives charged with separating the wheat from the chaff consistently struggle to do so.
sportsthink doesn’t pretend to have a magic formula. Like most, I simply consider the demands of the NFL game and college players’ game film to decide who can meet those demands.
Where many draft analysts – not to mention scouts and GMs – seem to fail is in considering college-level film that is simply irrelevant to an NFL projection. An easy example is the coverage sack. In the NFL, the quarterback has thrown the ball before 2.5 seconds elapse. Almost without fail. So the college player who registers a sack four or five seconds after the snap may have shown none of the skills necessary to succeed in the League. While he should be congratulated for his effort, that player has to find a way to apply that effort to get to the quarterback faster. If he hasn’t accomplished that yet in college, signs don’t look good that he’ll do so in the pros.
What follows are three players in this year’s draft who will struggle with the college-to-pro transition more than most think, followed by three others who may make the transition much more adeptly than they’re being given credit for.
I have my doubts
Dee Ford – It’s tantalizing to project double-digit sacks in the NFL based on Ford’s quick first step. Suppress that urge. Ford has a limited power element to his game. He is also too small to play defensive end in the League, so he’ll have to take on the responsibilities of an outside backer. Ford had three sacks against SEC competition in four seasons coming into 2013; that doesn’t erase his performance this year, but it certainly makes you question which is the exception and which is the rule. At his best, hopefully he’s a valuable situational rusher in the mold of Bruce Irvin two years ago.
Khalil Mack – Khalil Mack deserves a lot of credit for forging a top spot in this year’s draft. He consistently performed at Buffalo, stepping up on the biggest stages, and certainly presents none of the character concerns swirling around Jadeveon Clowney. He just isn’t the athletic equal of a player like Clowney – or several pass rushers rumored to go much lower in the Draft.
Anthony Barr – Barr reminds me so much of Dion Jordan, it’s scary. He dominated in college on athleticism. But his pass rush game is undeveloped, meaning he may have to play off the line. And he will encounter a different class of athlete in the pros. Think about it: Luke Kuechly is almost Barr’s dimensions, but blankets underneath routes and fights through blocks to crush ballcarriers. That’s the standard; Barr is nowhere close.
Like Their Chances
Jeremaiah Attaochu — Attaochu overflows with athletic talent — the kind that translates to success around the line of scrimmage in football. He has quick-twitch movement and plays extremely violently. He also has lateral agility, meaning he can combine on stunts effectively and drop into coverage. He looked adept in every phase of the outside linebacker position at Georgia Tech, and will find a way to be productive in the NFL. If he wasn’t just a bit undersized, he would be in contention for first-round pick.
Josh Mauro — Sneaking in an interior lineman here. I think Mauro’s ceiling is as good as almost any 3-4 end in this draft. He is thickly built with a quick first step. On his best days, he disrupted the run by pressing hard to the play and shedding blockers with good timing, and pressured the quarterback with deceptively quick stunts and an impressive spin move. He won’t put up huge sack numbers, but picture a raw version of Justin Smith to pair with a quicker edge rusher. Mauro is inconsistent, and needs to improve on fundamentals. But the upside is there. He should get a look in the third round or so.
Boseko Lokombo – He’s 225 pounds. So he’s a few years away from significant playing time. But Lokombo may be the best quick-twitch athlete coming off the edge in this year’s draft. He embarrassed college offensive tackles with lightning fast spin moves at times. He also looked awfully comfortable dropping into coverage. I have seen him projected as undrafted; from the fourth round on, his name should be in play.
Like the American auto industry that the Steel City helped fuel, the Steelers are a team running on fumes. It was apparent on the field in 2012, as stalwarts like James Harrison and Troy Polamalu struggled just to get out of the trainer’s room. It was apparent in the box score, too, as the Steelers sputtered to an 8-8 finish, scoring just 20 more points than their collective opposition all year.
How did the Super Bowl XL Champions fall so far so fast? The players that initiated so many bone-crunching plays over the years can hardly be blamed for showing a little wear on their tires. And the coaching staff that orchestrated routine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship remains largely intact. Rather, it seems the Steelers’ personnel department has fallen off in recent years.
Seems unfair to criticize a group that has seen its fair share of success over its tenure? Maybe. But the stars of this team largely came on board before the February 2010 departure of now-Buffalo General Manager Doug Whaley. Steelers’ drafts from 2010 forward have included such early round selections as Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. Hardly household names amongst Steelers fans. Certainly not the All-Pros we have become accustomed to in Pittsburgh.
So I can hardly say I was surprised when the Steelers spent the draft’s 17th selection on the player I predicted to be this year’s biggest bust: Jarvis Jones. Jones may have talent to spare. Despite tipping the scales at 245 pounds, he was almost balletic at times at outside linebacker for Georgia. I saw plays where he floated just outside of the tackle’s reach, then quickly dipped a shoulder and countered back inside to close off a crease and wrap up a running back for no gain.
But Steeler fans will not mistake Jones for the recently-departed Harrison. Only occasionally did Jones even attempt, let alone execute, anything that could be described as an NFL-style pass rush. He shunned contact with offensive tackles, and often took advantage of delayed rushes and great coverage by the SEC’s best defensive secondary. These are not the kinds of tactics that get you to an NFL quarterback in under three seconds. If the Steelers can mold Jones into a serviceable professional outside linebacker, it is a testament to Mike Tomlin and Co., not the personnel department.
The Steelers also went off my board with their second round pick, Le’Veon Bell. Bell clearly has talent, too: he is an attractive combination of size and elusiveness. I still worry about his transition to the NFL. He tended to glide towards the hole rather than jam on the accelerator, and possibly as a function of injuries, struggled to lower his shoulder and protect his knees. Bell also put the ball on the ground a number of times this past year, albeit in the course of a whopping 382 carries. When you consider that Eddie Lacy was still on the board, I would wager that Steelers fans look back on this pick with a twinge of regret.
One thing at which the Steelers have unquestionably succeeded, before and after the departure of the aforementioned Whaley, is drafting wide receivers. The Steelers have added Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown, all from the third round on. They made another sound selection in Markus Wheaton in 2013. Wheaton runs crisp routes, has reliable hands, and sports excellent speed. Wheaton also competes from the moment he steps onto the field, whether fighting defenders for jump balls or blocking on running plays. The one question mark with Wheaton – size – is an afterthought. He was a steal in the third.
I saw a lot to like about Shamarko Thomas on tape, including a passion for hitting and range in coverage. He also took enough questionable angles and somehow played himself out of the action with enough frequency to make me wonder if he was worth a third-rounder – essentially the 2014 value the Steelers paid to get him. The trade aside, I think he was good value here. I also think he’ll stick with the team as a special teams ace, so he’ll certainly have an opportunity to play his way onto the field.
Amongst other problems, the Steelers also appear to show their hand leading up to draft day. The team was widely speculated to take Jarvis Jones in the first, and they were similarly linked to their fourth-round selection, Landry Jones. I like this pick here. Jones has as much arm talent as any quarterback in the draft, deftly flicking the ball downfield on a rope at times. His discomfort with NFL-style timing patterns and his inability to cope with pocket pressure were on full display during the Senior Bowl, though, so he will need some serious clipboard-time before he’s ready to take over for Roethlisberger. Luckily, he has just that.
Terry Hawthorne may wind up being this draft’s late round stud. Hawthorne has good size and plays an extremely physical corner. He also breaks quickly on routes and plays the ball well. I am confident he will land in the Steelers starting lineup before his rookie contract is up.
Justin Brown looks good against college defensive backs, but presents a very slight risk of impacting an NFL roster. He is big and uses his body to shield defenders from the ball effectively, in the mold of current Steeler Jerricho Cotchery. Defensive backs had to respect Cotchery’s speed in his prime, though; Brown runs a 4.6.
I didn’t see enough tape of Vince Williams or Nick Williams online to make an intelligent judgment.
The 2013 draft was not a total loss for the Steelers. They replenished their skill positions with decent talent in the wake of departures by Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall. They may have added a few useful cogs to an aging defensive unit. They may even have found a good developmental quarterback prospect.
But compare the Steelers to a team like the Packers. Green Bay walked away from the draft with perhaps its best two running backs, a 280 pound defensive lineman who projects to cause nightmares for opposing offenses, and at least one lineman who could probably start today for the Steelers. (And word is, he may do just that for the injury-plagued Pack.) When you consider that Green Bay drafted an average of 12 spots or so behind Pittsburgh in every round of the draft, its no wonder that the Steelers are losing steam – and fast.
sportsthink will be issuing its first annual Most Valuable Players in the Draft this coming week. We will throw in a few honorable mentions or also rans with the list, just to give some insight into why certain players didn’t make the cut. For now, here’s a handful of players who present the biggest risk in this year’s draft.
First round busts are not just bad, they destroy a franchise. You cannot just return to Radio City Music Hall a year after spending a high draft choice on an under-performing player and figure you’ll make up for last year. You need starters year over year to make up for big mistakes.
How do we know? We have a few pieces of evidence. First, a team is only likely to find an all-pro caliber player in the first thirteen picks, as a historical matter. (Thanks, Draftmetrics.) There are 7-9 teams drafting outside the top thirteen picks this year. A team can miss the playoffs, year after year, and never get a chance to draft a transcendent football talent. So you have to make those high picks count.
Can gems like Tom Brady be found on Day 3 of the draft? Sure. But relying on the later rounds to add talent is NFL franchise suicide, as a rule. In fact, the NFL has an actual example of a team that has essentially wasted its first round picks over the last half decade, and it’s not pretty. It’s the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland’s haul from the first rounds of the last six NFL Drafts looks like this today: four players drafted, one still with the team. They gave up their 2011 and 2012 first rounders in trades. Prior to that, they obsessed over combine numbers (Heyward-Bey), athletic feats (Jamarcus Russell), and championship credentials (McClain), to the exclusion of all other considerations. They were burning through draft picks while the rest of the League sat back and laughed.
Oakland still pays the monetary penalty for such mistakes, as high first round picks used to cost millions more in signing bonuses. Just as importantly, the team has been unable to replenish an aging talent base. So they routinely finish under .500, and they will again this year.
So teams need to avoid the siren call of players who present appealing numbers or physical attributes, but who will just not pan out. Here are the five players with the biggest bust potential in the early rounds of the 2013 Draft.
Jarvis Jones — This one is a softball. Forget about his combine numbers or 40 time: Jones doesn’t even work hard on the field. He played on a defense that featured all-conference performers at virtually every single position. While the secondary locked down the opponent’s receivers and the rest of the defensive front fought like mad to collapse the pocket, Jones frequently sat just outside the action, disengaged from a lineman, waiting for a chance to track down a flustered quarterback like a wounded gazelle. Rarely are NFL offenses so overmatched that they would fall victim to the techniques Jones practiced at Georgia. Occasionally Jones showed quick-twitch pass rush moves or the ability to shed a blocker when the play came to his side. But pity the coach charged with honing the skills Jones flashed in rare moments into an every-down player. He’s being talked about in the first round, and I wouldn’t touch him in the second.
Terron Armstead — Given the habits he showed on tape against FCS competition, I was surprised he even performed as well as he did at the Senior Bowl — and that wasn’t even very good. A lot of development stands between Armstead and a starting NFL tackle gig. Why spend a second-rounder on a player that may never develop at all, and may be wrapping up his rookie contract even when the light does come on?
Justin Pugh — I heard a former scout say he’d “bang the table” for Pugh. Decisions like that couldn’t have helped him stay employed as a scout. I don’t know where Pugh fits, but it’s not as the fourth or fifth best tackle in this draft, like some pundits claim. He drops the anchor effectively enough as a pass blocker, but lacks the athleticism to keep up with upper-echelon college edge-rushers. His pad level as a run blocker leaves a lot to be desired, too. Taking him before Day 3 seems like a mistake.
Tyler Wilson — His throws under ten yards look better than anyone in this draft. You know what NFL coaches call plays that feature a throw under ten yards as a first option? “Screens.” Wilson struggles desperately to complete passes outside the hashes and down the field. Number 1 quarterback in the Draft? Maybe first quarterback taken on Day 3.
Sharrif Floyd — Discussing him as the highest defensive player chosen in the Draft is basically projecting him to be JJ Watt. He’s not JJ Watt, and almost assuredly never will be. He’s a very agile big man that can establish the line of scrimmage, gets off the ball quickly (so do a lot of NFL players), and can rush the passer just well enough to stay on the field on third down. Saw him compared to Corey Liuget, and that’s probably accurate: a reliable 3-4 defensive end with just a bit of wiggle. There’s 15 to 30 players more valuable than Floyd in this draft class.