Around the Board: Random Observations About the NFL Draft

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Even though I’m on a run of three straight football columns, I’d almost feel like my time writing for SI KIDS would be incomplete if I didn’t do my yearly draft column. The NFL Draft combines wild exaggeration, hypothetical scenarios, and Chris Berman into one huge event, and naturally I couldn’t miss writing about it. Either way, this will be the last football column for a little while unless Gregg Williams is seen sneaking into Roger Goodell’s office with a crowbar. So, without further ado, here are some random observations about the NFL Draft.

No matter what any scout or TV talking head will tell you about the draft, it’s all one big game of chance. The scouts can prop draftees up with lingo like “measurables,” “closing speed,” and “great hands,” but those words are just there to tell you what a prospect could, maybe, might possibly do if he realizes his potential, falls on the right team, and has his lucky breakfast. Even though Tom Brady is the clichéd example of how chance-based the draft can be, he’s also an example of how useless the traditional measures of a prospect can be. An article by Jen Floyd Engel details how scouts described Brady as “looking like he had never picked up a weight” (I think they might be confusing him with Mark Sanchez. Yes, I’m a bitter Jets fan). It just goes to show how much of an inexact science the draft is and how one good pick can turn your whole team around.

Along the same lines as the first point, have you ever done something that required a lot of thought for a long time, and then tried having a normal conversation right afterwards? I spent roughly three hours going back and forth between homework and breaking down the NFL Combine. Needless to say, they started running together. I was studying for my U.S. History Presidents Quiz and I had the first five Post-Lincoln presidents written on my study sheet as Johnson, Grant, Luck, Griffin, Kalil. I also unwittingly described our dinner that night as having “tremendous upside”. This draft just needs to happen already before I start sleep-talking a whole argument with myself about who should draft Morris Claiborne.

In my opinion, the most likely player to bust is Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback out of Texas A&M. This is a player who, as recently as two and a half months ago, was projected as a second round pick. A Bleacher Report article published around that time compared him to Ryan Fitzpatrick. So he’s either a rich man’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or a poor man’s Cam Newton at best. In games against teams that were ranked at some point in the season, Tannehill threw 18 touchdowns and 13 picks. Take away one monstrous six touchdown game against Baylor and that becomes 12 touchdowns and 12 picks. Now he’s suddenly a top 10 pick? I don’t get it. But hey, any chance that you get to take a one year starter who has no accuracy is a chance you have to take.

The best feeling that you can possibly have in the draft is when your team trades up. It’s unexplainably exciting when your team trades up in the draft, especially the first round. That’s a surefire sign that they’re about to make a big move, that they’re acting instead of reacting. And that feeling of excitement can either last decades (Jerry Rice) or about a minute and a half (Tyson Alualu).

The draft’s most overlooked player is Matt Kalil, the left tackle from USC. Everybody wants to see Luck, Griffin, and Richardson get taken early because the NFL is trending in a direction where everybody wants to see big plays. The Packers, Giants, Patriots, and Saints have all proven that you’re better off having an explosive offense and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that is motivated by injuring opposing players for- whoops that’s just the Saints. My bad. The point is that even though Kalil is undoubtedly the best left tackle prospect of the past decade, a surefire third pick this year that’s about as safe a pick as you can find, nobody is going to talk about him. And knowing what we know about the Vikings’ history in the draft, it’s not at all unlikely that the Vikings pick Morris Claiborne or trade down for a wide receiver. You might even see the Vikings’ representative drop their draft card in to the paper shredder on his way to hand it to Roger Goodell. All I’m saying is, don’t underrate Matt Kalil.

As a distant cousin of the draft over exaggeration lingo, the constant comparisons to other NFL players is a mainstay in just about every analysis of a prospect. Andrew Luck isn’t just good, he’s the next John Elway. Quinton Coples could be the next Julius Peppers, but his Albert Haynesworth-like work ethic isn’t a good sign. And Ryan Tannehill gives Blaine Gabbert a real run for his money as the quarterback who’s rookie card will be worth less than 10 cents in five years.

If there was a positive that came out of the insufferable 2011 lockout, it’s the rookie wage scale. Remember when the Raiders signed JaMarcus Russell to a six-year contract for $61 million? Of that money, just over $30 million of it was guaranteed. If you do the math, that means the Raiders were pretty much bound to JaNormous Russell for three years. Of course, after throwing more dirtballs than 2003 Jeremy Bonderman, JaLeafus Russell took the Raiders’ salary cap hostage for at least three years if not more. A first-round pick still matters, but no longer can a single pick completely destroy your team. That’s the way the draft should work and if it took the Raiders being thrown in to the trash bin for six solid years to do it, then it was worth it.

We need to have ESPN and NFL Network do a joint broadcast on draft day. Why? Because what would be more entertaining than Chris Berman, Rich Eisen, Steve Mariucci, Deion Sanders, and Mel Kiper on the same set? If we could just leave Michael Irvin and Jon Gruden at home or pay them not to show up, that’s got to be the broadcasting equivalent of the ’27 Yankees.

Finally, I love the draft because it gives everyone a sense of hope. The NFL is based on the concept that everyone has an equal shot at becoming the best. Unlike baseball and basketball, where teams that have large payrolls and play in big markets, respectively, have distinct advantages no matter how competent the front office, football rewards a team’s smarts and that’s it. The Giants have no more or less of an advantage than the Bills when it comes to signing players and staying competitive year in and year out. They won the Super Bowl in part because they outsmarted the rest of the league. Championship teams are not built in the playoffs. They are not built in the regular season. They are not even built during training camp. They are built through the offseason. They are built through trades and signings. And they are built here at the draft. Each team is looking for their Eli Manning, their Ray Lewis, that one player that you can point to and say “He changed everything”. Some teams have those players. Others have been waiting for decades. But whether your team goes 16-0, 0-16, or anything in between, just know that every team enters the draft thinking the same thing; that this is our year.