Tuesday, May 6, 2014

NFL Draft Storylines

Blake Bortles led UCF to a historic season in 2013, but where will he go in the 2014 NFL Draft?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The 2014 NFL Draft is being hailed by scouts as the best in a decade, and there will be no shortage of storylines during ESPN's three-day coverage extravaganza.

We've already discussed the incredible storylines that came out of the last highly anticipated draft class, the class of 2004, but here are some things that may happen when the draft begins Thursday night.

To Trade, or Not to Trade

It's always a question for the team at No. 1, and this year's Texans are an odd case. They resemble last season's Chiefs in the sense that they are more talented than their terrible record shows, but they'll need to get healthy and find an impact player to shoot them back toward the playoffs.

Jadeveon Clowney is a once-in-a-decade talent, but there are questions about his motor and technique. Basically, we're manufacturing reasons why this freak athlete might not be good.

The Texans know that's BS.

A sure thing doesn't exist in the NFL Draft, but Clowney is pretty close to it.

Still, with Houston's pressing need at quarterback and offensive tackle, there is some thought that the Texans might trade down to pick up one of those two positions later, and add another first round selection.

After Houston, always be on the lookout for a dumb team that needs a quarterback. Said team might trade a king's ransom to move up just a few picks, even to select a player that probably would have fallen to them anyway.

Nominees for that distinction this year include Cleveland at No. 4 (they need Johnny Football!), Minnesota at No. 8 and Cleveland trading up from No. 26 if they pass on Manziel the first time around.

Plus, I would never count out the Raiders trading up for a burner receiver, so look for them to make a move with Jacksonville or St. Louis to make sure one of those teams don't lock up Clemson's Sammy Watkins.

Pick Your Passer

There is no sure-fire, can't-miss quarterback in this draft class, and that means some team is going to end up looking really dumb in about five years.

Most gurus have Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater at the top of their boards, but don't sleep on guys like Derek Carr out of Fresno State or Alabama's A.J. McCarron sneaking into the first round.

Heck, this class may not have a no-brainer top guy, but there is a ton of depth. Georgia's Aaron Murray is as talented as anybody, and LSU's Zach Mettenberger proved to be a star when he was healthy. Throw in Pitt's Tom Savage, small school stud Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois (Tony Romo's alma mater), Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Miami's Stephen Morris, and you could conceivably find a starter after the third round.

They all have potential, but which one is the future star? This year's crop of quarterbacks is as hard to read as any I can remember.

Backing Down

I don't think I need to tell you that the running back position is being de-emphasized by most NFL General Managers. Once the stars of the league, running backs are falling down draft boards as spread offenses emphasize the importance of quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive tackles, defensive backs and pass rushers.

I would contend that having an all purpose back makes a spread offense even more lethal, but clearly teams are viewing the position as a luxury, not a necessity.

That's why only one running back has been taken in the Top-5 the last five years, and I don't think many in Cleveland (or Indianapolis for that matter) view 2012 No. 3 pick Trent Richardson very fondly.

The only other back to go in the Top-10 in that span is C.J. Spiller, a good player to be sure, but he sort of proves the point: Spiller is an effective and explosive back, but without a competent quarterback or game-changing receivers on the outside, the offense still isn't any good.

That's why teams are content to wait on running backs and pay them less in round two and beyond. Last year's second round backs proved to be solid investments, with Giovani Bernard making a splash in Cincinnati, and Eddie Lacy stabilizing the ground game in Green Bay. Le'Veon Bell, meanwhile, looks to be the future of the position in Pittsburgh.

Look for this trend to continue, as studs like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and LSU's Jeremy Hill fall to the second round.

Wide Open

Remember that thing I said about running backs? The opposite is true for receivers, where as many as seven players from the position could go in round one. The best of the bunch is Watkins, but Mike Evans from Texas A&M, Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry of LSU, and Marqise Lee from USC all possess star potential.

If you're looking for a mild sleeper, keep your eye on Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews. A savvy receiver with good height and deceptive athleticism, Matthews will need to get stronger and assert himself more to maximize his potential at the next level. But, if you can grab him in the second round, you could get an immediate starter as a No. 2 and a future No. 1 a few years down the line.

Also look out for Indiana's Cody Latimer and Fresno State's Davante Adams. Both are physical outside receivers that can stretch the field vertically, but there are questions about their elusiveness underneath. Those questions largely come from playing in wide-open offenses where they ran mid to long range routes frequently, but their production and workouts show they could be steals in the second round.

Bucking Trends

We've discussed several trends so far (waiting for a running back, grabbing receivers early, trading up for a QB), but every year the most recent Super Bowl champion sets a few more trends for teams to follow. With the Seahawks taking home the title this past year, here are some league-wide trends to keep an eye on. Will teams follow them?

Tall Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman has brought big corners back into style, but there is no 6-foot-3 star waiting in this year's class. Instead, you have several physical guys between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1 that are getting all the attention.

Still, some team is going to take a chance on a player like Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner (5'8'') or TCU's Jason Verret (5'9''). Those guys are simply too good to last beyond the second round, and either could go in round one. But, with the way the league is shifting, who is willing to pull the trigger on a waterbug corner?

Coverage Safeties: This is the most interesting trend to me, because this draft has two elite safety prospects, and one of them fits the current trend, while the other is the polar opposite.

Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has the range to cover a deep half of the field, and the skills to match up one-on-one with several positions. But, Louisville's Calvin Pryor has the distinction of being the draft's biggest hitter. While he's also adept in coverage (and Clinton-Dix is a capable enforcer), Pryor's real value comes in making receivers pay the price for going over the middle and in run support.

You need both kinds of safeties, as Kam Chancellor showed with a dominant game in the Super Bowl, but Earl Thomas was the most important deep defender in Seattle's scheme. Will his success influence GMs one way or the other with these two prospects?

Mobile Quarterbacks: The league is constantly looking for that perfect guy that can be Peyton Manning in the pocket, Ben Roethlisberger when things break down and Mike Vick once he's in the clear.

Obviously, that person doesn't exist, but the Seahawks seemed to have their version of him in last year's playoffs where a cool, calm and collected Russell Wilson picked defenses apart, escaped pressure, and ran the zone read as a perfect change up.

You might think Manziel is the only guy to fit that bill in this year's draft, but Bortles is surprisingly mobile for a guy his size (6'5'' 235 lbs.), despite a lackluster 40 time. Bridgewater can also move, and Derek Carr is downright speedy for a pocket passer.

But, will a team be willing to take someone like Tom Savage, who ran in the 5.0 second 40-yard dash range at the Combine? Same thing for A.J. McCarron, and will mobility shoot some low-level prospects up draft boards? Could Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas go in the first three rounds, despite a disappointing last couple of years, on the back of a blazing sprint time?

Time will tell.

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