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.