In the end, there were far fewer surprises in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft than were rumored—and perhaps that was the surprise. The Chargers didn't trade Philip Rivers to the Titans to grab Marcus Mariota. Instead, they moved up two picks to select Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon. The Browns stayed put with their two picks, grabbing valuable additions to both lines with Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and Florida State center/tackle Cameron Erving. And nobody went all-out for Adrian Peterson. The Cardinals stayed put at 24 and took Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, and the Cowboys remained at 27, taking Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones. The Chargers and Broncos were the only teams to move around—Denver took Missouri pass-rusher Shane Ray with the 23rd pick it got from the Detroit Lions—and for the most part the players taken in the first round had first-round talent.
Still, there are always those picks that have you scratching your head and wondering just how it all happened. And in this first round, the New York Giants made a very interesting call with the ninth overall pick.
Ereck Flowers, OT, Giants: General manager Jerry Reese, head coach Tom Coughlin and VP of player evaluation Marc Ross all believed that Flowers was the best available player with that ninth pick. And each of those fine gentlemen know far more about football than I do ... but I had seven offensive tackles ranked ahead of Flowers this year. At 6'6" and 329 pounds, Flowers is the very model of a tough, nasty run-blocker, but he's got a lot to work on in pass-protection. He's not particularly agile, and his footwork is a work in progress. Most likely, he'll kick over to right tackle after playing on the left side for the Miami Hurricanes, allowing Justin Pugh to move to guard.
“Ereck is, as you have probably heard, a physical, nasty, tough football player and you just don’t see that too often anymore in college football,” Ross said. “He is a man-child physically. He is gigantic. He has long arms. He just turned 21 on Saturday. Super productive against the highest level of competition there, the Florida States and the Nebraskas. He is a good player who is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.”
Coughlin seemed to view Flowers as a superhuman prospect.
“We are excited about Ereck Flowers,” the coach said. “We had Jerry Reese, Pat Flaherty and Marc Ross, all of those gentlemen were at [Flowers’] workout in Miami. The kid is an outstanding athlete. He is very young, as you know. He is a battleship, an aircraft carrier or however you want to describe him. Strongest guy in the draft. Outstanding feet. Those things, together with the desire to improve both our offensive and our defensive lines, to be honest with you, we think we have made a good start here. You sit there and people start coming off the board and then the guy in front of you [takes] a very prolonged amount of time and you are wondering if in fact … we had heard St. Louis would like an offensive lineman as well. Were they coming above? That was a factor, obviously. We are very excited about this young man and looking forward getting him in here and getting to work.”
As for the technique fixes, Reese understood that there was work to be done.
“All college players have to learn the speed of the game when they get up here and play against these defensive linemen and these defensive schemes in this league, but obviously he’ll have to catch up to the speed of the National Football League. But he’s played at a high level of competition and we think he’ll catch up pretty quickly.”
That's possible, but it's just as likely that Flowers will need quite a bit of time to refine that rudimentary footwork. Eli Manning was pressured on 28.7 percent of his dropbacks last season—not horrible, but the Giants would clearly like to see that improve.
Arik Armstead, DL, 49ers: At 6'7" and 292 pounds, Armstead is one of the more impressively athletic players in this draft class, regardless of position. But like Flowers, he's a young player who needs a lot of development. When he gets low in his stance and transfers speed to power, he's a real handful to deal with. But just as often, Armstead will come off the snap more slowly than you'd like, and with so many positions of need for the 49ers this off-season, it's interesting that they took a developmental prospect in the first round.
Stephone Anthony, ILB, Saints: Anthony was a very productive player in 2014 for the best defense in college football. There's no doubt that Clemson had something going on. But Anthony was projected by many to be a second- to third-round prospect. And given the Saints' needs at receiver and pass-rusher, the pick of an inside linebacker was curious. Anthony is big and athletic (6'3", 243 pounds, and he ran a 4.56 40 at the combine), and a natural downhill thumper, but he'll need some time to get the speed of the NFL down. At this time, he relies more on speed and power, and will bite on misdirection at times.
Shane Ray, DE, Denver Broncos: Ray led the SEC in sacks (14.5) and tackles for loss (22.5) in 2014, showing a ridiculously fast first step and great change of direction. When he was cited the week of the draft for a traffic citation and possession of marijuana, most assumed that his draft stock would slip. And it most likely did. Ray had the tape of a top-15 prospect, and the Broncos got him in the mid-20s. He should be a perfect fit as an edge rusher in Wade Phillips's defense, and executive VP of football operations John Elway talked about the process of vetting Ray, who was busy calling teams to let them know that he wasn't the kind of person this mistake made him out to be.
“We had several people talk to him,” Elway said. “We had [director of player development] Ray Jackson talk to him, so we had several people that talked to him. He was very remorseful. He realized he made a mistake. He told me it wasn’t going to happen again. We feel like we’ve got a great support system for him. We just felt like he was a football player that we had an opportunity to move up [and draft]. We felt the price was right. Where Shane fell on our board, we just felt like it was something we couldn’t pass up. We have the utmost confidence in Shane that in talking with him that he realized the mistake that he made and guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen again. Having the chance to get to know him and the time that I did spend with him, I felt very comfortable with him. We feel good about him and realized that he made a mistake, but also the type of football player that we got. We got a guy that plays with his hair on fire, rushes the passer, loves the game of football, is competitive and is going to be a great fit for us.”
If Elway's right about the off-field stuff, Ray has the talent to be a major force in Denver's defense.
D.J. Humphries, OT, Arizona Cardinals: Of all the tackles in this class, Humphries might just have the most appealing combination of strength and athleticism. He might have been a top-10 player but for the MCL sprains in both knees and ankle injury that befell him during his collegiate career. The 6'5", 307-pound Humphries is a bit of a risk in that regard, but head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim saw a long, rangy player who moves like a really big tight end at times, and he was too good to pass up with the 24th overall pick. If he stays healthy, Humphries might be the best overall value in the first round.