The ‘Torturous’ 2014 Draft
That description—courtesy of an NFL head coach, on the process of evaluating this year’s QB prospects—also fits the interminable walkup to the league’s pushed-back May draft. With two weeks to go, here’s what we think we know
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — In my travels over the past week to watch Johnny Manziel game tape with people who know quarterbacks and quarterback play (more about that next week in Sports Illustrated and The MMQB), I had a coach tell me that trying to figure out which passer to pick this year is “torturous.” I’ll have a good chunk about the quarterback dilemma with one under-pressure general manager’s view of the QB market … and why he agrees with the “torturous” description.
But 17 days before the draft begins (Lord help us: Seventeen more mind-numbing days of this), here’s what I’m hearing:
- Houston, at No. 1, isn’t set on Jadeveon Clowney. In fact, one FORS (Friend of Rick Smith) told me the Texans general manager likes Khalil Mack over Clowney, and we still don’t know which quarterback Houston would choose if it chooses one first overall. I still think the Texans would go with a more sure thing with the first overall pick than a quarterback—and that sure thing could also be tackle Greg Robinson. But imagine Mack, the outside linebacker from the University of Buffalo, being the first pick in a stacked draft. Wouldn’t that be something—a second straight Mid-American Conference player (Eric Fisher, Central Michigan, by Kansas City) as the top pick in the NFL draft?
- Jacksonville is the most logical spot for the loser of the No. 1 pick derby between Clowney and Mack. GM David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley want a pass-rusher, badly.
- Detroit taking a tight end? I doubt it, but North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, the clear top player at the position in this year’s draft, was asked by one team he visited recently who he thought would pick him. “Detroit,’’ he said.
- Arizona is sweet on a couple of quarterbacks, Derek Carr and A.J. McCarron, who are first- and second-round possibilities. With coach Bruce Arians’ love of the deep ball, McCarron in round two seems a bit of a reach. I will say this about McCarron: He doesn’t have a great deep arm by any standard, but he’s an accurate deep-ball thrower when he does air it out.
- Pittsburgh likes Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks at wide receiver, and one or both should be there at No. 15 if that’s the direction the Steelers go—and they need to replenish the position after losing two receivers in free agency in two years. (I’d go corner if I were GM Kevin Colbert.)
- Tampa Bay is partial to, among others, Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans at No. 7. I’ve watched a lot of Johnny Manziel tape recently, and I’ll say this about Evans: supremely talented, extremely hot-headed. He’d better cure his immaturity on the field, and fast.
- Hot guys right now: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Notre Dame tackle/guard Zack Martin, Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Cold guys right now: Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
- If Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan gets past Detroit (picking 10th in the first round), the Giants (12th) and the Steelers (15th), I doubt sincerely Baltimore would pass on him.
- Oakland? Clueless there. Sorry, Black Hole people. The Raiders seem like a logical place for Johnny Manziel, but Oakland hasn’t exactly been the bastion of quarterback wisdom in this century. (See Stat of the Week.)
* * *
Why this is a bad year to stake your reputation on a quarterback.
As I said, I’ve been traveling to measure what smart people think about Manziel. In so doing, and in talking to a few of the decision-makers whose necks will be on the line, I’ve reached a conclusion about the position and the men who are charged with picking the passers this year.
It is a torturous decision, as the coach of a quarterback-needy team told me. As a GM, if you take a quarterback in the first round, any of them, you’re going to go home and not sleep well that night. If you pass on a quarterback with some spellbinding tools—Manziel, for instance—you’re going to go home and not sleep well that night, fearing what you’ve passed up.
The measuring for one such team, Minnesota, begins today. The Vikings begin eight days of final meetings to set their draft board this morning at the team facility south of Minneapolis. And GM Rick Spielman knows that his job, and the job of his coaches and scouts, might well ride on the two- or three-year results of what they do on this draft weekend. Because this is the year the Vikings should be in position to get their quarterback of the future.
Whomever that is.
“The torture part of it,’’ said Spielman, “is you see a player sitting there when you pick who you know can help you right away, a significant player at another position, an impact player as a rookie. Then you ask yourself, ‘How do we feel about our options at quarterback in the second or third round? Is it close? Is there a big separation, or is it close?’ We’ve broken them down in all the ways we could think of. Analytically—measuring them against their five toughest opponents, indoor-versus-outdoor, by psychological testing, and it is such a mixed bag.
“That’s a big reason why we made it a high priority to sign Matt Cassel back. Every one of these quarterbacks … nothing is a sure thing. There’s no Andrew Luck, no Peyton Manning. It is such a mixed bag with each player—every one of them has positives, every one of them has negatives. And if that’s the way you end up feeling, why don’t you just wait ’til later in the draft, and take someone with the first pick you’re sure will help you right now?
“I agree with that coach, whoever it is. It is torturous this year.”
Spielman said the big benefit for Minnesota will be that, on the weekend before the draft, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will get his hands on Cassel and Christian Ponder on the field during head coach Mike Zimmer’s first mini-camp of the off-season. So Spielman would have had his eight days of meetings, and Turner would have had his three days on the field with the quarterbacks, and then the staff would be able to know: How urgent is our need at quarterback, and how much of a consensus do we have on one of the college guys in this draft?
“Ideally,’’ said Spielman, “if we did pick a quarterback this year we would want to redshirt him anyway, and when he’d be ready to go, he’d play. But he’d probably use this year as a learning year. I can say that now, before our meetings, we’ll have the coaches and scouts speak, but if we are going to consider a quarterback at eight, I better have consensus in the building that this is our guy. We all better feel good about one guy.’’
I asked Spielman about the pressure of picking a quarterback in a year when all of them have zits.
“There’s always pressure,’’ he said. “This year, there’s more.’’
This year reminds me of 2011. In fact, GMs should learn from that year. Check out the quarterbacks picked in the top 100 that year:
1. Cam Newton, Carolina
8. Jake Locker, Tennessee
10. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville
12. Christian Ponder, Minnesota
35. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
36. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
74. Ryan Mallett, New England
My point: Don’t put the pressure on Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles by picking them so high. Pick a surer thing in the first round, then a quarterback from a large pool in the second round. Or third.
Just as in 2012, when the Seahawks (Russell Wilson, 73rd overall pick) and the Eagles (Nick Foles (88th) picked quarterbacks at the right time, teams could do the same this year. Should do the same, really.
Remembering Pat Tillman … and his case for Canton
As America celebrates the 118th running of the Boston Marathon today—and the renewal of life a year after the terrorist attack there killed three and wounded 264—we also should remember that Tuesday is the 10-year anniversary of the death by friendly fire of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.
Tillman is a unique player, and man, in recent NFL history. The only time I ever spoke with him was an hour or so before a Cardinals practice in 1998, in Tempe, Ariz. Tillman was a rookie safety, drafted in the seventh round from Arizona State to the team that was just a couple of miles from where he went to college. And he showed up for work that day—and for our interview—riding a 10-speed bike. That’s the only player I ever interviewed who arrived on a bike. The rest of the story is incredible, and incredibly sad. After 9/11, he chose to give up a potentially lucrative free-agent contract to join the Army and suit up to defend his country in Afghanistan. And while on duty April 22, 2004, Tillman was shot three times in the head by one or more of his countrymen. The circumstances around the death, which took place in a firefight with enemy forces near the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, remain a mystery.
However he died, Tillman was a hero to millions in the country for sacrificing his NFL career to serve in the military, and that legend only grew when he died. He is one the most memorable, and admirable, figures of our time. It would be just to take a moment tomorrow to remember Tillman and his service and his sacrifice.
Now, I hadn’t thought of the Hall of Fame part of it in several years, until Cris Collinsworth tweeted this on Sunday, after ESPN ran a tribute to Tillman:
If I live to be a million years old, I will never understand why Pat Tillman is not in the NFL Hall of Fame. Thanks ESPN. Great reporting.
— Cris Collinsworth (@CollinsworthNBC) April 20, 2014
Collinsworth and I have discussed this. He remains unconvinced by my argument, which is this: Should all 26 NFL players who have died in service to our country—either in World War II, Vietnam or Afghanistan—be enshrined in Canton? Is one NFL player’s service worth more than others’? Should every player who served in wartime be enshrined, or put in a wing of the Hall of Fame? For instance, quarterback Eddie LeBaron was twice wounded in the Korean War, earned a Purple Heart, and came back to play in the NFL; he’s not in the Hall—should he be? And what about others who played football and went on to great things? Byron “Whizzer” White, a running back in the NFL, went on to be a Supreme Court justice. Jack Kemp quarterbacked the Bills, then became a nine-term Congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Should they be in?
I think football players and coaches and executives should be in the Hall of Fame for what they accomplish as football players and coaches and executives, and not for anything else.
There is, by the way, a large area of the Hall devoted to NFL men who have served, including a big display for Tillman. I highly recommend seeing it when you visit Canton and see the vastly improved Hall.
Quotes of the Week
“I don’t see how people can say some of the things that they say when you have a guy that rushed for almost 1,100 yards with a torn meniscus. But a player like myself, that’s accomplished so much in my career, it’s always great to have things to put a chip on your shoulder, to have things to motivate you. I think I can turn a bad thing, [with] what people are saying, into a good thing. For me, that gives me motivation, keeps me hungry and keeps a chip on my shoulder to prove those naysayers wrong, because no matter how good you are, no matter what things you do—I could have rushed for 1,500-1,600 yards last year for the Titans and if we didn’t make it to the playoffs, or we didn’t win games, there would still be things that would be said.’’
—New Jets running back Chris Johnson, on the criticism he heard last year, when he averaged a paltry 3.9 yards per rush while playing hurt for part of the season.
“His father treated him a little bit differently than he treated us. The abused don’t always have to become abusers. Children of alcoholics don’t have to produce dysfunctional families. And children who grew up poor don’t have to repeat that cycle.”
—Lions coach Jim Caldwell, via the Detroit News, speaking to inner-city high school students in Detroit on Wednesday. Caldwell’s father, the coach said, went to work at age 9, was kicked out of his home at 13, and went on to work for General Motors for 35 years. His message, in part, was to read a lot, and make do with what you have. He told a story about making a kite out of paper and fishing line for a Cub Scout competition—and the kite flew higher than everyone else’s.
“I’m going to give it a heavy shot. I would love to do it, and if I can do it, I’m keeping it in Buffalo.”
—Donald Trump, who says he will make an effort to buy the Buffalo Bills, to the Buffalo News.
“I really just should have coached the team, but he [owner Randy Lerner] didn’t want me to.”
—Former Browns president Mike Holmgren to me last week, on whether he had any regrets about his years in Cleveland.
“If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised. In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years. To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.’’
—The last public words of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the former middleweight boxer and convicted-murderer-turned-wrongly-accused-cause-celebre, in a column he wrote for the New York Daily News two months ago when he was dying of prostate cancer. Carter succumbed Sunday in Toronto.
The New York Times wrote an excellent, thorough obit of Carter.
Stat of the Week
With Oakland considering releasing Terrelle Pryor (Alex Marvez reported Friday the backup quarterback will be cut if not traded), the nightmare that is Oakland’s history of drafting quarterbacks in the last decade of Al Davis’ life is alive and well. It’s frightening, how bad Oakland was at picking quarterbacks this century. Detailing the four passers Davis drafted among in the top three rounds between 2001 and 2011, and whom the Raiders bypassed while picking each passer:
|Year||Round-Pick||QB||How bad was he?||Player bypassed (overall pick)|
|2001||2-59||Marques Tuiasosopo||2 starts, 90 career attempts||WR Steve Smith (74)|
|2005||3-69||Andrew Walter||2-7 as starter, 3-16 TD-Int ratio||DL Justin Tuck (74)|
|2007||1-1||JaMarcus Russell||65.2 career rating. Out of NFL by 2010||WR Calvin Johnson (2)|
|2011||3-78*||Terrelle Pryor||56% passer, 3 career wins||QB Nick Foles (88)|
*Pryor was drafted in the summer of 2011 with a 2012 third-round supplemental pick. The third-rounder would have been the 78th overall pick in the ’12 draft, but the Raiders forfeited that pick by taking Pryor.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
According to an official of the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series I met in Boston on Friday as the running community gathered for the Boston Marathon, Bill Belichick will run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Nashville on Saturday. My guess is, with the long-range forecast for temperatures in the high 70s Saturday in Nashville, Belichick will be hoodie-free.
Minnesota special teams coach Mike Priefer had a good idea this month: He decided when his kicker and punter—Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke—reported back for the start of official (but not mandatory) workouts this spring, he’d have them go to TCF Bank Stadium, meeting with the University of Minnesota kicker and punter, and discuss the wind patterns and kicking conditions inside the stadium. Walsh and Locke went, took notes, and reported back to Priefer. It’s the first of several trips they’ll make to the stadium to research how to adjust their games, if at all, kicking outside for the next two seasons while the new Vikings stadium is being constructed in Minneapolis.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
It was good to be in Boston Friday, watching the city prepare for such an important, healing event—this morning’s Boston Marathon. In the Hynes Convention Center, where runners and their families were picking up racing bibs and going from booth to booth to shoe and apparel and nutrition companies, the mood was bright. The One Fund, which had a goal of $10 million for those injured and affected by the terrorist attack last year, has raised $70 million and is still going strong. The city was packed with joggers and walkers and people excited for the marathon to be back. I met a San Diegan, 64 years old, who was new to marathoning and was surprised to find out last year he qualified for Boston because he ran a qualifying time in his age group in a San Diego race. “I had to come,’’ he said.
It’s like everyone there says—no act of evil or people with evil intent will take away their race. Today’s going to be a great, great day in Boston.
Tweets of the Week
For those not understanding the buzz on Tom Savage: It’s not about what he is now as a QB; it’s about what he’ll be 3-4 years.
— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) April 17, 2014
Craig Sager get well asap!! Going to miss u this post season. Prayers sent up to u and the family!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 19, 2014
Sager announced last week he has acute leukemia and will begin treatment now. In his place, his son Craig interviewed San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich on Sunday’s playoff telecast, and the Spurs coach was quite classy. “We miss you,” Popovich said into the camera. “We want your fanny back on the court.”
So it’s Chad Quatre-vingt-cinq now
— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) April 17, 2014
Last Thursday, Chad Johnson reached agreement with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. There, if he makes the squad, he’ll team with Cris Carter’s son, Duron Carter, to catch passes.
There is a weariness and frustration over Smith’s behavior that I’ve never heard involving any recent 49ers player. Until this week.
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 15, 2014
Kawakami believes Smith will not play for the 49ers in 2014.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think Arizona will take a quarterback in the first two rounds.
2. I think the Rams will take a quarterback in the first three rounds.
3. I think you shouldn’t be surprised at that last one. Has Sam Bradford done enough to be untouchable in his four seasons with the Rams (18-30-1 record, 58.6 completion percentage, 6.3 yards per attempt)? I don’t think so.
4. I think Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray helped himself Wednesday, showing good mobility and the passable arm strength NFL teams expected when he worked out in Athens, Ga., less than five months after he tore his ACL. Murray wore a brace on his surgically repaired left knee at Georgia’s Pro Day. “I think I showed these teams they don’t have to worry about my knee, they don’t have to worry about someone who’s not going to be able to participate in the preseason,’’ Murray said. Time, and some pre-draft physicals, will tell. But Murray looks like a Day 2 pick.
5. I think I chuckle when the Lions say they are not concerned about Ndamukong Suh skipping Detroit’s off-season workout program as he tries to work out a new contract with the team. It is 111 days since the season ended and Suh was last with his team. The Lions have a new coach, and a new defensive coordinator, and a new defensive line coach. Suh is the best player on the defense. Not concerned? The correct quote, if club president Tom Lewand were on truth serum, would be something like, Pretty lousy start to our off-season program when our best defensive player’s a no-show—particularly when he’s the guy who most has to buy into the new staff since he’s going to be the highest-paid defensive player in our history. Yeah, we’re ticked off. Wouldn’t you be?
6. I think my Beat Writer of the Week is Mike Klis of the Denver Post. The controversy over Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterback Peyton Manning both being in Tuscaloosa the other day talking to the Alabama coaching staff raised a stink because coaches and their players cannot be working together in any form until the start of the official off-season program (which, for Denver, begins today). So Nick Saban mentioned that Gase and Manning were on campus, and if they were researching or working together on anything, it would be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. Klis called the Alabama sports information office and requested an interview with Saban to clarify what happened. He was told he’d be hearing from Saban, from a “BLOCKED” phone. But now it was Friday night, and Klis had another assignment—his weekly umping job. He was in the first game of a slow-pitch softball tripleheader in the Golden, Colo., men’s rec league near his home Friday night, doing a game between—and I love this matchup—the Alcoballics and the Sons Of Pitches. (Why didn’t any of us think of those names for our softball teams?) A batter had just singled, and Klis felt his phone vibrate. He called time. The screen on the phone said, “BLOCKED.” It was Saban. He asked Saban to hold on a sec, and he told the two teams he had a call he had to take. “Sorry, guys,’’ Klis said, and he went behind the backstop and talked to Saban for seven minutes. Saban told him he didn’t talk to Gase; Gase had family not far from there, and he just came by to talk to his assistant. He said he did talk to Manning. So Klis thanked him, went back and finished that game, and then dictated a chunk of a story plus quotes to his fellow Postie, Troy Renck, in his first week on the job after years of covering the Rockies. “That’s a welcome-to-the-Broncos-beat moment,’’ Klis said. Renck got the story up. Then Klis worked the last two games and hustled home to make adds to the story. “It was one of those situations that just happens sometimes in the job when you’re trying to live your life,’’ Klis told me Saturday. “I can’t exactly say to Nick Saban, ‘Hey Nick, can you call me between games?’”
7. I think, absent of much more proof that Manning and Gase planned a trip to Tuscaloosa together and met there to discuss anything, I doubt the league will sanction the Broncos over this. But if I’m John Elway or John Fox, I’m telling my coaches and players, “Let’s not have any more coincidences about being in the same place hundreds of miles away at the same time in the off-season.”
8. I think that’s a cool honor that John Harbaugh got Saturday, being immortalized with a bronze statue at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He’s the ninth coach to be so honored among football men in the aptly named Cradle of Coaches. Good company in the Miami Cradle of Coaches: Paul Brown, Red Blaik, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel, Weeb Ewbank, Ara Parseghian, John Pont, Bo Schembechler. “This cradle is the greatest honor in coaching, if you understand what it’s all about,’’ Harbaugh told Joe Kay of the Associated Press.
9. I think the draft should be Thursday, not two weeks from Thursday.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. My very best to my friend Jenn Aparicio, the wife of Baltimore radio personality Nestor Aparicio. Jenn has a rare form of leukemia. “This is heavy lifting,’’ Nestor says. Jenn is one tough person, and an extremely optimistic, bright one. Her story is on Facebook, at #JennStrong.
b. Story of the week: Jesse Katz in Los Angeles Magazine, on the harrowing journey of Yasiel Puig from Cuba to Dodger Stadium. A terrific and vivid account that I highly recommend.
c. Great note on the FOX baseball telecast Saturday: The Angels have not been over .500 since opening day 2013. That is amazingly preposterous.
d. Not a big fan of Major League Baseball making the Red Sox and Orioles play Sunday night baseball, with the annual Patriots Day 11:05 a.m. start this morning at Fenway featuring the same two bleary-eyed teams.
e. I’ve always felt the biggest thing wrong with the NBA, from very much an outsider’s perspective, is how bad teams embrace losing so it will help them rebuild. And when I read the Philadelphia 76ers owner, Josh Harris, tell USA Today after the team finished 19-63 this season, “I think the season has been a huge success for us,’’ there aren’t many other ways to spin that. The 76ers used this year to get into the best situation for the future, which involved clearing out the roster and losing as much as possible to be in the best draft position in 2014. Imagine being a Sixers fan, knowing your team hopes it doesn’t win many games, and asking you to pay regular prices for tickets to see a bad team.
f. Great line by a sprung prisoner, Jonathan Fleming, to the New York Post, after being freed from prison when evidence surfaced he’s been falsely imprisoned for 25 years for murder. He had a coffee. Starbucks. Latte. “Which kind am I drinking?’’ Fleming said to the Post. “Latte? Much better than Tasters Choice and cream. Much better. It’s real good. My first time ever at Starbucks. Coffee was like 40 cents when I first went to prison.” Good news: The coffee’s better. Bad news: It’s not 40 cents anymore.
g. Mark Buehrle, Toronto: 4-0, 0.65 ERA on April 21. Yeah, we saw that coming.
h. Who’s going to start the Giancarlo-to-Boston-for-young-pitching rumors?
i. Please learn to run the bases, Mike Carp. Please.
j. Coffeenerdness: Memo to Starbucks: If you care about quality, please address the situation at your BWI Airport locations. You’ve got some very long lines there, if a couple of stops last week are any indication.
k. Beernerdness: I have found it—the beer in the world that’s closest to the refreshing and hooray-it’s-spring taste of Allagash White. I found it in the Minneapolis airport the other night: Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison, from the Lift Bridge Brewing Company in Stillwater, Minn. (And kudos for the airport bars at this great north hub, for having so many Minnesota microbrews and brews.) Light and refreshing and full of taste, “ale brewed with orange peel” as the label says, and worth your effort to find it.
l. One of the great sports TV shows I’ve seen was the “Hillsborough” ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the 25-year anniversary of the English soccer tragedy when 96 fans died in a soccer-stadium stampede. Vivid and chilling and heartbreaking—and rewarding at the end. A tremendous piece of journalism on TV.
m. Shouldn’t ESPN’s “Sports Reporters” show be called “Sports Columnists?”
n. You’ve still got it, “Veep.”
The Adieu Haiku
Hey Mel! Mel Kiper!
I miss my “Draft Report” book.
Bring it back next year.