When it comes to the NFL Draft, there are some organizations that just straight up get it. The team that sticks out in my mind and easily had the best draft is the San Francisco 49ers. Before we get too much into that, let’s be clear, I don’t like grading drafts. You don’t know how good players will actually be and you should really wait until three years after a draft to grade it. I mean hell, look at my evaluation from 7th grade on the Lions 2003 draft, talk about jumping the gun…
Ah to be young and ignorant again…that’s why I just like to pick some knee-jerk reaction winners and losers. No grades, just teams that did a very good job of identifying needs and picking very good players. Obviously this has serious faults as well, but it’s not as bad. I think this year, more than normal because of the depth, a lot of teams did a very good job. It was the hardest time I’ve ever had cutting down the list and finding “losers”. I included six winners, as well as six honorable mention, so you might as well just call it a “Top 12 List”. You might recognize some of these teams from last year too.
San Francisco 49ers
This is a franchise that just keeps doing it better than everyone else year after year. Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have the draft down to a science. They trade in and out of spots and collect draft picks and then take chances on high-profile guys that were hurt or catch falling players that have serious potential like Bruce Ellington. The Jimmie Ward pick gives them a combination of two young safeties that are absolutely fantastic (Eric Reid being the other). Then, with the uncertainty of Marcus Lattimore’s future, they went and got one of the best running backs in the entire draft in Carlos Hyde. With Frank Gore getting up there in age, you now have a running back of the future to groom. Marcus Martin is arguably the best center in the draft and Brandon Thomas would have been one of the first guards taken off the board if he didn’t tear his ACL working out for the New Orleans Saints before the draft. They can stash Thomas and he is a potential replacement for Mike Iupati if they can’t re-sign him. Then add in Chris Borland and Bruce Ellington and that is a helluva first four rounds. So they essentially got a running back for the future, added a second young elite safety to their defense, got younger on the offensive line and picked up a falling wide receiver with talent. Sounds like a perfect draft to me.
Another reason the 49ers are fantastic, look at this infographic they put out for their fans. Some teams should take a lesson.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams did a phenomenal job utilizing their last picks from the RG3 trade. Adding Greg Robinson gives them a guy who can develop into a starting tackle and a guy who will likely start his career off at guard with Jake Long and Roger Saffold still under contract. Aaron Donald is one of the best defensive tackles to enter the NFL since Ndamukong Suh and adding him to their already potent defensive line with Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Michael Brockers has to scare the crap out of other NFC West teams. Lamarcus Joyner is a playmaking corner/safety who will start off playing the nickel spot and Tre Mason gives the Rams a legit starting runningback. The rest of their draft did a good job of adding depth, but they got four starters with their first four picks and that is a grand slam.
The Houston Texans had one of the best drafts this year, which is a very good start to the Bill O’Brien tenure. Some people will criticize the fact that he didn’t get a quarterback early on, but there is a very good crop of quarterbacks coming out next year. Drafting Jadeveon Clowney was the prudent thing to do and putting him with J.J. Watt is going to be phenomenal. Xavier Su’a-Filo is the best guard in the draft and whoever ends up playing quarterback will feel a lot safer with him in front of them. C.J. Fiedorowicz isn’t an outstanding tight end, but he can be a very efficient player and will be a good blocker in the running back. Picking Louis Nix III in the third round was an absolute steal. Nix will be a pure nose tackle for them in the 3-4 and should start immediately. The Tom Savage selection is intriguing, and if he can develop like everyone talked about and hyped up before the draft, he could be the quarterback of the future. Alfred Blue gives them a solid backup to replace Ben Tate, but the health of Arian Foster is still going to be a major factor in the success of the Texans offense. On paper, this draft filled all of their major needs and worst case scenario, they pick up a guy like Brett Hundley or Bryce Petty next year to be their quarterback of the future (assuming they aren’t picking in the Top 10 again).
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is getting up there in age so it’s only fitting that they start working to add some youth into it. Ryan Shazier gives them fantastic outside linebacker to pair with Jarvis Jones and Stephon Tuitt will give them a solid 3-4 DE to work into the lineup and eventually be one of their starters. Dri Archer may have gone a bit higher than some thought, but he is an explosive kick returner and will be a good player to get into space. Martavis Bryant is one of my favorite receivers from this draft class and he will give Ben Roethlisberger another nice target to throw to, which they need after losing Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders in back-to-back years. Shaquille Richardson and Jordan Zumwalt are two underrated players that will add nice depth to the defense and I think Richardson could end up starting at cornerback for them someday.
The Cleveland Browns had one of the best drafts, despite not taking a wide receiver to help stem the loss of Josh Gordon. Hopefully Gordon’s suspension isn’t for the full season, but the Browns did sign Earl Bennett and Miles Austin to help offset the loss. They traded back and gained an additional first round pick next year, which was simply a brilliant move. Trading back up to draft Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel were also two solid plays. Gilbert gives them a legit #2 cornerback and pairing him with Joe Haden immediately improves the Browns secondary. Johnny Manziel may not have gone to the best situation in Cleveland, but I think he’s the best quarterback in the draft. It will be tough to keep the fans at bay to keep them from asking for him while they let Hoyer start, but it’s a smart call. It’s pretty much the reason the Cowboys didn’t take Manziel because they knew all hell would break loose when Tony Romo struggled. Joel Bitonio was a very good pickup, who can play guard or tackle. He gives the Browns three very sturdy pieces on the offensive line with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. I don’t know much about Terrance West, but he should be a solid backup for Ben Tate, who will finally get a shot to be the #1 guy. West was a guy that was coveted by the Ravens, so the Browns did the prudent thing and got him for themselves. The pick of Pierre Desir gives them another solid cornerback, who could develop into a very nice player. With Gilbert and Haden there will be no rush, and if Desir develops well, then that is a very solid top 3 corners.
It’s always disconcerting as a Lions fan when two of the teams in your division have a really good draft, and this is the second year that this has happened (at least on paper). I’m not sold on Teddy Bridgewater being a solid starting NFL quarterback that can take the Vikings to the next level, but Anthony Barr on Mike Zimmer’s defense is going to be a very big piece for them and was who I wanted the Lions to get. Scott Crichton was a very productive defensive end at Oregon State with a great motor and Antone Exum is another guy I wanted the Lions to take. Exum can play FS or CB and his versatility will be a big time asset. Adding Jerick McKinnon gives the Vikings the most athletic player in the NFL Draft. McKinnon doesn’t have a real position that he is comfortable with yet, but he’s going to make a lot of plays with the ball in his hand and will be a great change of pace running back. The last pick I really liked was David Yankey. Yankey was another player I wanted the Lions to take (see the pattern here) and he is going to be a future starting guard for them. He’s a big body that is a complete road grader and is going to do wonderfully opening holes for Adrian Peterson.
Honorable Mention (alphabetical order):
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers organization have had yet another strong draft. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix gives them a stronger secondary and a future stud at free safety. He’s able to attack the ball downhill and will finally be a strong replacement for Sir Charles Woodson. Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis immediately boost the wide receiving core. Janis is more of an athlete that needs to develop, but Adams and Abbrederis should contribute immediately. With the loss of James Jones to the Oakland Raiders, Adams should start from day one in his stead. Khyri Thornton is listed as a defensive tackle, but he won’t play the nose in a 3-4. He’ll likely play the weakside defensive end spot and give them a future developmental starter. Corey Linsley is a future starter at center as well, and Carl Bradford gives them depth at the linebacker position, which is loaded. Bulking up their defense and giving Aaron Rodgers more weapons is always a good thing.
If the Jaguars hadn’t picked Blake Bortles at #3, this wouldn’t have been in just the honorable mention part. I almost didn’t put it there anyways, but reaching on a quarterback that high is a problem for me. Bortles certainly has the potential, and if he develops like everyone expects him to, this will be the second best overall draft from this year (behind San Fran). Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson are two fantastic receivers and they give Bortles two young targets to pair with Ace Sanders and Cecil Shorts (maybe Justin Blackmon if he figures his life out). Brandon Linder is a versatile guard who will help greatly in pass protection and Aaron Colvin would have been a 2nd round pick (at least) if he didn’t tear his ACL at the Senior Bowl; Colvin is a fantastic cover corner. Telvin Smith may end up being the steal of the draft because he’s a solid athlete that makes plays and is very good in coverage for an outside backer. Chris Smith is a very good pass rushing defensive end and Storm Johnson is one of my favorite running backs in the draft. Storm will give Bortles some comfort in the backfield and he is a very versatile back for how big he is.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots always do a great job drafting and this year was no different. Dominique Easley would have been a Top 15 pick if he wasn’t recovering from injury and the Patriots will be able to move him along slowly as a future replacement for Vince Wilfork. Jimmy Garoppolo is the new heir apparent for Tom Brady, making him the 4th or 5th guy in waiting. My guess is that Ryan Mallett will eventually be traded, though with Garoppolo now in the fold, that means teams will just low ball them. Regardless, Garoppolo is a talented young quarterback and will do well learning from Brady. By not throwing Garoppolo into the fire too quickly, he is less likely to fail. Then, the Patriots did the prudent thing and added major depth and talent on the offensive line. Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio all add depth and Stork and Fleming should be future starters. James White adds to the stable of running backs that the Patriots have and will help offset the loss of LeGarrette Blount. Jeremy Gallon gives them another small, consistent wide receiver in the same mold of player that they covet so much.
New Orleans Saints
Brandin Cooks gives the Saints a wide receiver that can help stretch the field now opposite Marques Colston. Stanley Jean-Baptiste could be one of the best cornerbacks out of this draft given his size and athleticism, depending upon his development. Vinnie Sunseri was always a reliable cover guy for Alabama and Ronald Powell immediately helps to improve the pass rush. It would have been better for the Saints to address the offensive line issues earlier in the draft, but they filled some major holes in their defense, particularly depth-wise.
New York Jets
The New York Jets had a really good draft, with the exception of their major reach on Dexter McDougle. When you take a guy in the third round that I don’t know anything about, there’s a 100% chance that it is a bad pick. That being said, taking Calvin Pryor in the first round was huge. Pryor is a fantastic safety and will help improve a unit that has been decimated by losing Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in back-to-back years. Jace Amaro, Jalen Saunders and Shaq Evans all provide instant impact in the passing game. Saunders will help stretch the field and Evans could take Stephen Hill’s starting spot in the next year. Jace Amaro gives Geno Smith a security blanket at the tight end spot, and all of these weapons should help Geno improve. Adding Dakota Dozier in the 4th round to get more depth on their very strong offensive line was a great move too. It’s tough not to have a good draft when you have this many draft picks.
The Oakland Raiders had a very good draft for the first time in what seems like forever. Khalil Mack will be an instant impact player on defense and Gabe Jackson is this year’s Larry Warford. Mack and Jackson have motors that do not quit and Jackson is a road grading run blocker. Derek Carr was a good pick from a developmental standpoint and lucky for Carr he won’t have to move too far. Schaub can take all the hits and suffer while the Raiders stockpile more talent to help Carr. Keith McGill is another tall and athletic cornerback that could develop into quite a player, but that’s no guarantee. In the end, their first three picks should provide cornerstones for their team.
You can see my 2014 NFL Draft Losers post here.