The NFL Draft may simply be a number of team executives sitting in chairs picking names, but the league has elevated the draft to become a sporting phenomenon and reality TV spectacle. For months, football fans have read scouting reports, watched combine results, read mock drafts and debated endlessly about the pros and cons of various players and which teams need players at which positions. With the completion of the first round of the draft, discussion has only continued to grow, with some fan bases of the Texans, Rams and Vikings all deeply pleased, while others sit befuddled about the decisions of their team’s braintrust.
Some picks, like the Texans selecting Jadeveon Clowney first overall, the Rams and Falcons picking offensive tackles in the top ten and the Buccaneers taking receiver Mike Evan seventh overall were surprises to few who had read some of the many mock drafts selected across the Internet. Others, like the Ravens selecting CJ Mosley, a middle linebacker known for his on-field intelligence, awareness and good attitude, or the Patriots gambling on Dominque Easley, a defensive tackle with injuries but potential top-level talent, or the Packers selecting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix when he fell to them, were not predicted but make perfect sense considering their organizational tendencies.
Others still, however, came as big surprises to fans and analysts alike, in both positive and negative ways. Whether these surprise moves make or break the franchises who made them remains to be seen, and may not be fully decided for many years to come, but the immediate consequences of their moves are already making waves throughout the league.
5. Detroit Selecting TE Eric Ebron 10th Overall
Ebron will certainly be a fit for Detroit’s dynamic passing offense, joining Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Brandon Pettigrew and Reggie Bush. Ebron’s speed, hands and size will help them in the middle of the field and in the red zone, but the Lions were already third in passing yards, eighth in total touchdowns and receiving touchdowns. While their offense was just 13th in points scored, the most glaring reason is that the team was 31st in number of field goals scored with just nineteen and 31st in field goals attempted with twenty-four. The team has already moved on from 39 year old David Akers, and has two young, inexperienced kickers, but could address the position with a lower round pick as well.
With the passing offense clearly not an urgent need, Detroit may have been wiser to use their first round pick on defense. The team was tied for 17th in interceptions, 28th in sacks, 24th in forced fumbles and 15th in points allowed per game, showing need in most areas. The Lions have already spent three first round draft picks in recent years on defensive linemen, but another lineman or a ball-hawk in the secondary would have filled a greater need.
If Ebron excels and the Lions win by outscoring their opponents, then it will turn out to be a wise pick. If the Lions’ defense fails to hold up its end of the bargain, however, fans may look back at this pick as a wasted opportunity for the team to improve.
4. Raiders and Cowboys Pick Smart
One of the most popular franchises in the NFL, the Raiders have both made several risky or unsuccessful first round picks in recent years. The Raiders traded away their first round picks in 2011 and 2012, and from 2007-2010 they selected JaMarcus Russell first overall (no longer in NFL), running back Darren McFadden (struggled with injuries and had fewer rushing yards in 2012 and 2013 combined than in 2010) wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (now on the Steelers) and linebacker Rolando McClain (retired after failed workouts and trouble with the law). Last year’s first round pick, cornerback DJ Hayden, looks capable of being an excellent player, but is still overcoming injury and health issues. This year, however, the Raiders selected linebacker Khalil Mack fifth overall, considered by some to be the most talented player in the draft and a safe bet to excel in the NFL. As a quick linebacker capable of making lots of tackles and contributing sacks, he should immediately improve a Raider’s defense that finished 29th in points allowed and 22nd in yards per game allowed.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, have had mixed results in the first round. 2012 first round pick Morris Claiborne has not lived up to expectations at corner, while linebacker Bobby Carpenter (2006) and running back Felix Jones (2008) never fully became the players the Cowboys hoped they could be. Wide receiver Dez Bryant (2010), center Travis Frederick (2013) and linebacker Anthony Spencer (2007), however, all worked out well. After speculation the team would select quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys took the safe route and selected tackle Zack Martin to help Tony Romo stay upright. Martin is not the most exciting pick to re-ignite the hopes of Dallas fans who have watched their team finish 8-8 three straight years, but he makes their team better right away and should be seen as a strong pick.
3. Johnny Manziel Goes to the Cleveland Browns 22nd Overall
Though he was not the first quarterback selected in the draft, Manziel certainly received more coverage than any player during the first round. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was not seen by many pundits as a top-10 pick, but the drama was undeniable as fans watched the Raiders (5th), Browns (8th), Vikings (9th), Titans (11th), Rams (13th), Cowboys (16th) and Jets (18th) all pass despite some level of interest. Once the Browns traded with the Eagles to move up four spots from 26th to 22nd with their second first-rounder, it was rightly assumed the Browns had landed their new franchise quarterback.
Though some may like Brian Hoyer, Manziel, if nothing else, offers excitement to a team in need of it. Hoyer stands as an excellent mentor to Manziel and possible temporary starter while Manziel adjusts to the NFL and learns the Browns’ system. Manziel, however, is undoubtedly the starter in waiting, if not this season, then in 2015. The Browns have twice previously drafted a quarterback at 22nd overall, neither turning out well (Brady Quinn in 2007 and Brandon Weeden in 2012), but the team obviously expects far better results on their third attempt. With offensive players like receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron and running back Ben Tate, Manziel appears to have landed in a spot where he has the chance to live up to his expectations early on in his career.
2. The Bills Trading Up to Select Sammy Watkins 4th Overall
The reason for the surprise of this pick has nothing to do with the idea of the phenomenally talented Watkins, the best receiver in the draft, going fourth in the draft, and everything to do with the Buffalo Bills. By adding another weapon to go along with receivers Stevie Johnson and newly acquired Mike Williams (from Tampa Bay), running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and tight end Scott Chandler, who led the team in receiving yards last year, the Bills are loaded on offense. The team also has one of the league’s more underrated offensive lines. The selection of Watkins, however, also serves as a show of faith in second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who struggled last year to find make reads, find open receivers and avoid sacks and turnovers. If Manuel does not improve in his second year, with such a bevy of talent around him, Bills management will need to seriously re-assess their plans going forward. Manuel still has plenty of time to improve and has not come close to reaching the levels of his potential, but the Bills’ faith in him nonetheless remains a serious risk that could jeopardize a series of otherwise well-considered decisions.
The Bill’s decision to move up in the draft by sending Cleveland their ninth overall pick and their first and fourth-rounders next year also represents a heavy investment in their current players. Unlike the Seahawks, who traded the 32nd overall pick to Minnesota to acquire second and fourth-rounders this year, the Bills have relinquished their first-round pick to get fewer players, not more. The Bills roster still needs a lot of work, and I doubt the team can afford to lose a first-round pick next year in their rebuilding process. Watkins is unquestionably a talented player, but the Bills have taken such a risk and given up so much to acquire him that he is now under tremendous pressure to perform to make the move worth it, a far from ideal situation for any young player.
1. Jacksonville Selecting Blake Bortles 3rd Overall
Speaking of tremendous pressure to perform and a team needing more pieces to rebuild, the Jaguars have placed Bortles under almost unimaginable pressure in a situation that is not suited for him to succeed early on. Bortles was not the consensus pick as best quarterback, as a number of scouts felt Manziel or Minnesota selection Teddy Bridgewater were better players, nor was Bortles an assumed top-5 pick. Bortles was unquestionably a first-round pick, but Jacksonville’s decision to take him third overall leaves more questions than answers.
Why didn’t Jacksonville try to move down and still take Bortles later in the first round? Perhaps Jaguars executives heard rumors that another team wanted to pick him in the top ten and decided it was the safest bet, but if there is any team in the NFL that could have benefited by trading down to acquire more picks and add more talent at any position to its roster, it’s the Jaguars. The team was last in points per game and second last in yards per game and rushing yards per game, so it’s clear the team was not a quarterback away from becoming a good offense. Their defense was also 27th in yards per game allowed, 28th in points per game allowed, last in the NFL in sacks and 26th in interceptions. This team needs more talent everywhere, and trading down would have been a start at addressing those needs.
If Bortles was the quarterback they wanted and believed in, more so than Manziel or Bridgewater, then I can respect their choice in that sense. The Jaguars do not have the talent around him to help him do well, however, which could hurt his development in a number of ways. With Justin Blackmon potentially sitting out the entire 2014 season, Bortles has no one to throw to, or even to serve as a safety net when he’s in trouble. With a 31st ranked rushing game, Bortles can’t rely on the ground game to make up offense if he struggles, putting the pressure squarely on his shoulders. And without an All-Pro offensive line to mask those deficiencies, Bortles will have to think and act fast in the pocket, before he gets flattened by Clowney and J.J. Watt in Houston or any other team with a good pass rush.
In short, Jacksonville is betting everything that a quarterback who was not a consensus top pick, like Andrew Luck or Matt Ryan, can turn a team with relatively few assets into a competitive organization again. If Bortles can do it, then he deserves any and all credit for his success. If not, however, then blame an organization who asked too much too soon from a young quarterback, repeating the mistakes of so many before them.