It's Draft Week ... Finally
My meandering T-minus-three-days draftapalooza column (attaway to sell the column, King!) includes an eye-opener from Mike Mayock, predictions from the cognoscenti, separating fiction from fiction on Johnny Manziel, a rundown of places I think I think I know something about, a way to make a four-day draft sound almost tolerable, and the hottest name in the draft.
My mock draft runs Tuesday on The MMQB. Until then, here's what I know now:
Ten things, from 1 to 32.
From the top of the first round to the bottom, here’s what I'm hearing:
No. 1, Houston. The buzz about a trade-down or Khalil Mack to Houston instead of Jadeveon Clowney won’t die. The Texans are doing a good job of sending mixed signals to the GM community, that’s for sure. Mack’s in the dark, which is to be expected. I can’t see Atlanta mortgaging the farm on any player, so if the Texans want to trade down, the return likely won’t be a ransom.
Nos. 2 and 13, St. Louis. I sense the Rams like Greg Robinson at two—over Sammy Watkins and Jake Matthews. A St. Louis contingent went to Auburn on Thursday to work out Robinson; no negatives surfaced. More mystery about 13. The Rams really like Johnny Manziel, and if he were there at 13 (which is unlikely), they would consider picking him. His workout for the Rams on Friday in Texas, with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer running the show, was impressive, as was the 80-minute post-workout session in the meeting room with Schottenheimer and coach Jeff Fisher, among others. One other piece of knowledge I got confirmed Sunday: Rams GM Les Snead recently went to Texas Tech and met at length with coach Kliff Kingsbury—Manziel’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at A&M in 2012—and came away thinking Manziel could adjust to life well as an NFL passer. Does that mean the Rams will take Manziel if he’s there at 13? I am still dubious. But I can tell you the Rams like him a lot.
No. 3, Jacksonville. A peer of GM David Caldwell said Sunday he knows a big Jag priority will be to play it safe with this pick. Sammy Watkins or Jake Matthews … quite safe.
No. 8, Minnesota. The Vikings are more inclined than ever to get their quarterback out of a bottlenecked group of passers at No. 40 in the second round. Vikes want a front-seven disruptor—defensive tackle Aaron Donald comes to mind—more than anything else up here.
No. 11, Tennessee. Hadn’t heard quarterback and the Titans in round one until Sunday. Now I hear: corner one, quarterback two.
No. 20, Arizona. We’ve been hearing a lot about quarterback here, and with the unpredictability of the QB market this year, it’s entirely possible the Cards could take a Derek Carr. On the other hand, Arizona’s not far away from competing in the NFC West, and is the best use of their draft currency to take a quarterback they’ll likely redshirt this year behind Carson Palmer?
No. 22, Philadelphia. Keep hearing they want in on the prime receiver action, and the receiver they want could be LSU’s Odell Beckham, who can play outside, inside in the slot and as a returner. But the Eagles would have to trade up, and GM Howie Roseman is doing his due diligence, talking to at least two teams in the mid-round neighborhood, when Beckham would likely go. But the cost could be too rich for the Eagles’ blood. They may have to settle for Marqise Lee, who would be some consolation prize.
No. 24, Cincinnati. Bengals like Teddy Bridgewater. They couldn’t. Could they? Well, if you’re Cincinnati, and you’re seriously thinking about making Andy Dalton the center of the franchise and paying him $17 million a year, you might be asking the question about whether Dalton’s worth it.
No. 26, Cleveland. Time to get a quarterback, right? Not so fast. GM Ray Farmer has asked at least one team low in the round about trading back into the first round from Cleveland’s second-round slot. That leads me to think Cleveland wants to get ahead of Houston, another obvious quarterback hotspot, and get a passer with a third first-round pick. That leads me to …
No. 32, Seattle. Think about the advantages of picking, saying, 35th instead of 32nd if you’re the Seahawks. Every dime is going to count going forward because of pricey vets like Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman who must be re-signed. Last year, the difference between the 32nd pick (safety Matt Elam) and 35th pick (tight end Zach Ertz) was $350,000 per year. Not a huge sum, but when you add a $1.4 million total difference between 32 and 35 to the fact that the Seahawks might be able to get a low-fourth-round pick for moving down three slots—and you remember how good Seattle’s been in the later rounds of drafts—you start to think John Schneider has to be thinking about this too. That’s if Cleveland would do a deal low in round one. But it’s intriguing. All Seattle would lose is the ability to add a fifth-year option by keeping its first-round pick. I think the advantages of saving $1.4 million and adding a mid-round prospect outweigh the edge of the fifth-year option.
* * *
Four men look into the crystal ball.
I asked Mike Mayock, Todd McShay, Mel Kiper and Gil Brandt, “When round one is over Thursday night, tell me a story line or two that will surprise people."
Mayock: “I’m going to give you this one: Stanley John-Baptiste slips into the first round. He’s what today’s NFL is all about. He’s too long [6-3 and 213] and moves too well for this not to happen.”
"I think Johnny Manziel will go in the top five, but not number one," Gil Brandt says. "And I think Khalil Mack gets picked ahead of Jadeveon Clowney."
Kiper: “If I predict something that would shock me now, then it probably won’t be too shocking when it happens. But there could be as many as eight wide receivers in the first round—and no running backs. Although if this was 1988, Carlos Hyde would have a top-15 grade. The real shock would be no quarterbacks going before 16, but I really don't think that’ll happen.’’
McShay: “I’ve got Ryan Shazier going ahead of C.J. Mosley. I just updated my mock draft today. I’ve got Shazier going to Arizona at 20, Mosley to Green Bay at 21. Shazier is lean, but he can fly.’’
Brandt: “I don’t think Teddy Bridgewater falls to the second round. I think Johnny Manziel will go in the top five, but not number one. And I think Khalil Mack gets picked ahead of Jadeveon Clowney."
* * *
Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin is this week’s Hottest Guy in the Draft.
Mayock surprised me the other day by saying he thought Martin will come off the board “between nine and 13 … He’s too good. He’s too safe. He’s about as safe a player as there is in this draft.” Mayock told me Sunday he saw a Notre Dame practice last summer in which Martin had to be shifted from his usual spot, left tackle, to guard because of an injury, and when he watched the tape of the practice, “It looked like he’d been playing guard for years.’’ I know one team in the top 10 seriously considering him.
An idea for a four-day draft.
I’ll make a trade with you, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: You put the draft back in April, and I’ll support a four-day draft. I actually don’t think a four-day draft is a terrible idea. I don’t love it, but digest how the draft breaks down now, using the 2014 draft as an example:
Day 1: 32 picks.
Day 2: 68 picks (including four compensatory picks).
Day 3: 156 picks (including 28 compensatory picks).
It's misleading to say Day 3 is four rounds. It’s actually five, if you include the nearly full round of compensatories. Those 156 picks come in a cascade, with little time for interpretation. Moving it to a fourth day, logically, would make Day 3 cover rounds four and five, with the final day wrapping up rounds six and seven—but with something added at the end. How about this revamped schedule for April 23-26, 2015:
Day 1: 32 picks.
Day 2: 68 picks (including four compensatories).
Day 3: 76 picks (including 12 compensatories).
Day 4: 80 picks (including 16 compensatories) … plus a two-hour “Top Undrafted Free-Agents Show” to follow.
If 7.5 million people watch some portion of the NFL scouting combine, then some appreciable fraction of that will watch to see who has a shot to be the next Arian Foster or Kurt Warner. ESPN would drop off at the end of the seventh round, most likely, and the NFL could get ratings juice by putting two hours of Daniel Jeremiah and (if he still has a voice left) Mike Mayock on NFL Network, breaking down the first two hours of the annual post-draft land rush that sees teams sprinting to sign preferred undrafted players.
But the league has to come to its senses and help teams out here by realizing that holding the draft 19 weeks after the regular season—and just 11 weeks before the start of training camp—hurts teams’ chances to get rookies ready to play on day one of the regular season. This is not just a media or public issue (though the public is so sick of draft prep now, from what I get on Twitter from fans, that they could scream); it’s an issue of football preparedness. You don’t think two more weeks of being inside the playbook isn’t going to help Johnny Manziel be ready to start opening day, if that’s what his team prefers? It’s unfair to hamstring the 32 coaching staffs by not giving them their rookies in any sort of camp setting until the middle of May—for no good reason.
* * *
If you watch one highlight this week, watch this.
The audio isn’t great on Peyton Manning singing “Folsom Prison Blues” at his Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital charity gala last week (the second stanza gets better), but the visual is tremendous—Manning in a business suit, complete with pocket square. Check it out here.
The best thing is to hear Manning, if you strain, singing one of Johnny Cash’s most memorable passages ever, with country singer Jake Owen by his side.
“When I was just a baby my mama told me, ‘Son,
always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.’
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die …
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.’’
Offseason karaoke. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Manning is due to appear on the “Late Show With David Letterman” tonight in New York. If there is a God, Letterman will ask Manning for a rerun. With better audio.
* * *
Happy trails, Gary Smith.
In a pleasant way, the long-time long-form Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith has always gone against the grain. No interest in social media, no interest in covering the biggest events … but an abiding interest in telling the best stories in sports. Not the most famous stories, or the stories involving the biggest names. But stories to be loved by the biggest fans and people who don’t care about sports at all. That’s his gift—to make everyone read stories about sports people voraciously. Smith, one of the best writers in any genre, said last week he was retiring from the magazine business. He’s going to write a book of fiction and see how he likes it.
I caught up with Smith as he drove from his home in South Carolina to a meditation retreat in Maryland. A few thoughts from a man I don’t know well but admire greatly, starting with meditation, drifting to his favorite stories, and what life holds for him:
“Meditation’s very interesting. I really enjoy it. I’ll get away for eight or nine days. During the day, you get totally silent. You meditate for seven or eight hours a day. Then you talk in the evening. I think I learn more in those eight or nine days than I would learn doing anything else for the same period of time.
“It’s so hard to pick stories, but I think I would have to start with ‘Damned Yankee.’ The stories that spilled out of John, the unbelievable psychic residue of carrying a loaded secret for most of his life, the suffering he went through. The potency of the material was overwhelming. We still talk today. Then I’d have to say the  story about Muhammad Ali and his entourage. That’s a story about a rocketship that stops on a dime, and how everyone close to Ali, in all walks of life, had to remake their lives. I loved that because it tells the story of what happens when the money train stops. Where does everyone go? What do they do? Then the  Andre Agassi story, about how hard he worked over the years to find himself. I never worked with someone who wanted to figure himself out alongside of me. At the beginning, he thought I was going to story on one facet of his life. Just one. I said, ‘No. I want the whole thing.’ ”
That led to this tremendous Smith passage, setting up the story:
“One Andre, two Andres, three Andres, four. Five Andres, six Andres, seven Andres, more. Has any athlete ever changed as much as Andre Agassi? Sure, you'd watched Tiger Woods change his swing, Michael Jordan change his sport. But who changes himself? Metamorphosis is the rarest achievement in sports. Why would a man bother to change when he's got the American dream by the throat? Maybe it's just too damn risky; what if it puts out the fire that forged his steel?"
I told him I loved his Pat Summitt story, because of the angle he told it from. He could have tailed Summitt for a few days and heard everything, but no, he found one of her Tennessee basketball recruits, Michelle Marciniak, who could tell the story even better—because of the overpowering effect Summitt had on her life, and on so many lives.
Smith: “Sometimes you have to move the camera to a different side of the room. After a few days, I began to focus on Michelle. Michelle in the cauldron. Imagine being a teenager and being thrown into this intense world. That turned out to be a much better way to tell the story."
Smith's advice to young writers: “I think you have to be on two tracks. One: Write a lot. Keep a journal. Practice your writing all the time. Two: Interviewing … I think it is so much about your own development as a person. Can you get virtual strangers to deliver intimate material? If you are going to write great stories, you have to be able to do that. So you have to read a lot. Read about different human beings. Read about different things. Travel a lot. Walk into any world, any place, any sociological environment, and get comfortable. That’s important.
“My decision … I got the sense I’d be more lit up creating something else, something new. I’m trying a novel. Who knows? I haven’t second-guessed my decision at all. I am incredibly grateful for all the wonderful things people have written about me. Some of the things … Joe Posnanski wrote something so beautiful … Do you have his email? Can you get it and text it to me? I have to thank him."
So now Smith disappears into himself at the meditation retreat.
“After a few days of getting my ego over-inflated, it’ll be good to go somewhere and get a giant needle for that."
Quotes of the Week
“I’m sad to see some of these guys retiring. I’m not far behind."
—Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, on the field at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. He was in New York to see friend Derek Jeter play for the last time, and he’ll stay today to tape the Letterman show. Jeter and Letterman have both announced plans to retire.
“It’s not something we’re counting on. It’s something that would be a relative surprise."
—Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell, on the status of suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the fifth pick in the first round just two years ago. He was suspended twice last year, the second time indefinitely, for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and the team hasn’t been in contact with him—per league guidelines—while he’s been in rehab.
Hard to think Sammy Watkins won’t be in the final couple of options for Jacksonville when the number three spot in the first round comes up Thursday night.
“We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players."
—Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta, to Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB, in Vrentas’ enlightening story last week about the Ravens’ love of compensatory picks, and how they intentionally try to obtain more compensatory picks than other teams through a sort of planned obsolescence of their own veterans.
I strongly recommend you give Vrentas’ story a read if you have not already.
"He’s got the balls of a burglar."
—Rich Gannon, former NFL quarterback and 2002 NFL MVP, to me, on Johnny Manziel, in my virtual roundtable with five quarterback experts dissecting Manziel this week.
“For far too long the NFL has been sitting on its hands doing nothing while an entire population of Americans has been denigrated. How long will the NFL continue to do nothing—zero—as one of its teams bears a name that inflicts so much pain on Native Americans?"
—U.S. Sen Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on the floor of the senate last week, on the “Redskins" name.
"Frankly, I would probably change the name."
—U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), asked on “The Dan Patrick Show” by Patrick what he would do about the Washington team name.
So two of the biggest political leaders in America, who can’t agree that today is Monday, went on record in the past week as saying they would change the name of the Washington Redskins. The story’s not going away. Eventually the league and Washington owner Dan Snyder are going to have to come to the realization that “Redskins" is too objectionable to too many people.
I understand all the status-quo fans of the team, and Snyder, who think this is PC America run amok. And whatever the reason Snyder is spending time and money on Native American causes through his Original Americans Foundation, I applaud him for trying to help a depressed segment of our society we often overlook. But Snyder risks being on the very wrong side of history if he chooses to make the name of the team an Armageddon cause.
Stat of the Week
Asked a veteran personnel man this week how many players his team had with “make-it’’ grades on his draft board, and he said 170, which is up about 25 players from a usual draft. Different teams I’m sure will have different ways of looking at this board; I’m just saying this draft probably has more players who would make an average NFL roster than most recent drafts.
The 170th pick is the 30th pick in the fifth round this year. San Francisco owns it. Here are the teams that, theoretically, could have the biggest injection of new life on their rosters this fall, the teams with the most picks among the top 170:
8: Cleveland*, Jacksonville, San Francisco.
7: New York Jets.
6: Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, Minnesota, Green Bay.
* Cleveland’s top eight picks all come in the first 145 slots.
On the other end of the spectrum, the teams with the fewest picks in the top 170:
3: Indianapolis (and the third one is 166 overall)
4: Tennessee, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, Washington, Tampa Bay, Seattle.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Dallas draft picks in the top 228 slots this year: 5.
Dallas draft picks in the bottom 28 slots this year: 6.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
After years of being told, “You’ve got to go to Jazzfest,” I finally went to the New Orleans spring staple, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on Saturday … to see Bruce Springsteen at the old lady of a racetrack there, The Fairgrounds. I’ll be returning. It was a gorgeous day and a great Americana scene. Thousands of people—maybe 50,000 or so—walking from venue to venue, listening to gospel music in the Gospel Tent or blues in the Blues Tent, eating an array of local food (I chose the catfish tacos), enjoying the sun and the music. Springsteen was his usual indefatigable self. How does a 64-year-old man keep up that pace—not just for 2 hours and 35 minutes, but the pace of touring and keeping it so fun night after night? Coolest part of the show: He brought up John Fogerty—and Fogerty's two sons to play maracas—and they combined on “Green River” and “Proud Mary.”
At the same time Springsteen played, you could have (and thousands did) seen elsewhere on the property Trey Songz, Foster the People, Better Than Ezra, Al Jarreau, Johnny Winter, The Head and the Heart (a Seattle-based Steve Gleason favorite) … or Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers.
Three bits of lagniappe from the day in New Orleans:
1. Saw Rob Ryan, the Saints’ rock star of a defensive coordinator, and NBC’s Brian Williams, a huge Springsteen fan, at the show. You see what Williams, the Yankee fan, is doing in this photo? He’s covering up the Red Sox logo on my shirt.
2. Out for a drink after the show, I got to meet Nils Lofgren and Mrs. Nils. Very nice people. They live in Phoenix. Big Arizona Cardinals fans.
3. I visited Steve Gleason, who spent some time in the hospital this week with pneumonia. He’s feeling better, but his ALS is advancing inexorably. It’s such a cruel disease; muscles controlling his ability to swallow now don’t work. Cutest thing I saw all weekend: Gleason’s son Rivers sitting on his lap in his wheelchair, watching a Jimmy Kimmel skit on YouTube.
Tweets of the Week
As noted by @GregABedard, Ray Farmer picks #4 & #26 after replacing Mike Lombardi, exactly the same position for Ozzie Newsome back in ’96.
— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) May 4, 2014
Headed to NYC for #NFLDraft2014. TSA agent at DFW: “I’m gonna pat your head… because of the gel.” #pleasedont #youdidanyway
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 4, 2014
Ian Rapoport sports a Kiper Jr. hairdo.
Surprising as it may seem to some, good drafting teams spend more time setting lower rounds than premium rounds. That's how you build a team
— Greg Gabriel (@greggabe) April 30, 2014
Adam Silver just banned Donald Sterling for life. As for the afterlife, I’ll take it from there.
— God (@TheTweetOfGod) April 29, 2014
I don’t know who that is, but I like the handle.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I’m in favor of the draft rotating sites. As Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said the other day, he’s in favor of the idea of putting it at the team’s stadium in Arlington. I like it too. Why not take it out to the fans around the country?
2. I think it sounds very much like Bruce Arians isn’t a fan of the Cards potentially being on “Hard Knocks.” I mean, what coach is?
3. I think I don’t understand the Bucs apparently being open to dumping quarterback Mike Glennon. This is a player with potential, and a sponge, who doesn’t have to have anything handed to him, and could be a part of the long-term solution at quarterback for the Bucs. To get, say, a fifth-round pick for Glennon is just not commensurate with what he delivered last season in a promising rookie year.
4. I think the GM under the most pressure this week is Rick Spielman in Minnesota. He cannot pick the wrong quarterback if he wants any job security.
5. I think one of the big questions anyone should have about Pitt quarterback Tom Savage was raised the other day by Gil Brandt. “It’ll be interesting to see how much of a factor it’ll be that Savage basically went 1,000 days without playing a game,’’ he said. “Did you know that?” Can’t say that I did. But I looked it up. And yes, it was 1,022 days between the last game Savage played at Rutgers in 2010 and the first game he played at Pitt in 2013.
6. I think it should come as no surprise to any Vikings-watcher that Christian Ponder didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up—though I believe the whole fifth-year-option exercises have been overrated. Take Aldon Smith. If you’re a Niners fan, you probably were surprised the team picked up his 2015 fifth-year option after all his troubles. But it’s not really surprising. The fifth-year option is simply a place-holder, with minimal risk, as our Andrew Brandt explained last week. The only risk is that if a player gets hurt badly in 2014 and his status for the fifth year is in question, his 2015 salary would be guaranteed. But if Smith, say, has one more run-in with the law and San Francisco chooses to let him go after 2014, they’re under no obligation to pay him big money in 2015. So I think the fifth-year options are much ado about very little.
7. I think Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk is on to something. He reported Sunday that of the 32 first-round picks in 2011—all, of course, eligible now to talk new contracts with their teams—none, apparently, is close to a long-term extension. Not J.J. Watt, not Cam Newton. There’s probably a logical reason—that teams don’t have to do anything now before the draft, and talks will heat up after the middle of May. But if they don’t, you can be sure players will press the collusion button.
8. I think when Greg Cosell of NFL Films talks, I listen. Not many in the prospect-analyst business are as smart and concise and opinionated about players as Cosell.
9. I think, when it comes to the debate about who’s going to start at quarterback for the Jets, it’s all meaningless palaver until Geno Smith and Michael Vick show up at camp and compete in practice and preseason games. Of course Smith is the incumbent and Vick would have to beat him out in August. We’ve known that since the day Vick signed. Nothing has changed, and no amount of words or pronouncements will make it change before, say, late August.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Has V. Stiviano’s 15 minutes expired yet?
b. Could it? Quickly?
c. My favorite line from this sap’s interview with Barbara Walters: Asked about her relationship with Donald Sterling, Stiviano said, "I’m his right-hand arm man. I’m his best friend, his confidant, his silly rabbit."
d. I wish I had a right-hand arm man. Any volunteers?
e. The NBA is not my forte, but night after night it is great drama. The other night, when the Damian Lillard three-pointer at the buzzer went in to win the Portland-Houston series, I screamed at the TV. Imagine what Portlandians did. Fantastic theater.
f. Mike Tirico’s call was terrific too. “Foul to give for Houston. Nine-tenths left. A three wins the series. It’s Lillard … He got the shot off! LILLARD GOOD! GOOD! AND THE BLAZERS … WIN THE SERIES … FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 14 YEARS!!!’’ Then nothing but the crowd in Portland, which was nutso. That’s the way to make a great call.
g. Great stat from NBA.com’s John Schuhmann after the Nets eked out the game seven win at Toronto 104-103 Sunday afternoon: The Nets and Raptors played 11 times this season, and each scored 1,070 points in the 11 meetings.
h. Coffeenerdness: I could use a darker roast, Community Coffee, but you always make New Orleans a passable coffee stop on the road.
i. Beernerdness: In Atlanta Friday, I was fortunate to be introduced to SweetWater Brewing’s SweetWater Blue ale, with a hint of blueberry. Not a fan of the overwhelming kind of blueberry beers I’ve tasted, and this one definitely isn’t. It’s almost a light ale, and I found it delicious. No surprise there. SweetWater is a great brewery.
j. Congrats, Vince Ranalli (my nephew in Pittsburgh) for completing the Pittsburgh Marathon in five hours Sunday … and in a The MMQB shirt, no less. Heck of a job.
k. The week’s definition of pathetic: Yankee fans incessantly booing Robinson Cano on his return to New York. They’d have all turned down three more guaranteed years for $65 million more than the Yankees offered. Right.
l. And don’t blame me for Red Sox fans booing Jacoby Ellsbury. That’s awful too—and, for the record, I was at his first game back at Fenway Park and stood and cheered. To each his own, but the rancor in both cases is stupid and misplaced.
m. Leave Xander Bogaerts alone, by the way. He’s 21, a huge talent, and he’s learning. Let him have his growing pains. Don’t devour the kid.
n. And finally, just when you thought you couldn’t feel any older, Billy Joel turns 65 Friday.
The Adieu Haiku
Three days and counting.
Our long national nightmare
is almost over.