Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest the second and third rounds of the 2016 NFL draft in Chicago...
• A few months back, Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack were very much in the discussion in terms of who would go first overall in this year’s NFL draft. At the very least, they were considered perhaps the two best defensive prospects available this year. As of Friday night, they’re rookie teammates, which is why the Jacksonville Jaguars have every right to believe they stand on the cusp of that long-awaited turnaround season.
Ramsey, the Florida State cornerback-safety, went fifth overall to the Jaguars Thursday night and in a burst of fortuity Jacksonville then doubled its defensive pleasure by coming back up to nab the sliding Jack with the fifth pick of the second round Friday night, trading a fifth-round choice to Baltimore to move up two spots to that No. 36 selection.
What a monster defense the Jaguars might be building if Ramsey and Jack can add instant impact, along with defensive end and 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler—who lost his entire rookie season to a knee injury—and top-shelf free-agent signing Malik Jackson. Overnight transformations are truly rare in the NFL, but no one in the league has done more to remake and improve a problem area than Jacksonville has on defense. And if that side of the ball takes a quantum step forward, the playoffs could legitimately be within reach, given the production and potential the Jaguars’ emerging young offensive talent flashed last season.
There is of course the matter of Jack’s knee to factor into all this optimism. He suffered a torn meniscus last September, and reportedly has a degenerative knee issue. But if Jack is sound, at least in the short term, the Jaguars defense is suddenly a force to contend with in the AFC South. For most of the long pre-draft buildup, Jack was considered the favorite to land with the Jaguars at No. 5. His health issues sent him careening out of the first round, but he still wound up in the city he was born to play in (Jack-sonville), and the Jaguars somehow came away with Ramsey, too. The speed and athleticism quotient on that Jacksonville defense just rose dramatically.
Kudos to Jaguars general manager David Caldwell for being willing to place a second-round bet on Jack, suspect knee and all. The Jaguars haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, and have won just 12 games in the first three seasons of the team’s Gus Bradley-Caldwell coaching/front office tandem. It’s time to finally win in Jacksonville, and that called for a bold approach in this draft.
“We want to be great,” Caldwell said Friday night after picking Jack. “We’ve got to take chances. We’ve been pretty conservative in our time here and in our philosophy in drafting, and in some of our free-agent acquisitions. There comes a point in time where we’ve got to close the talent gap, and you’re not going to do that without taking risks. This is one that we just felt [was a] calculated risk. He’s going to play out his contract and hopefully he’s here for 10, 12 years and we’ll look back at it as a good thing for the Jaguars.’’
From the scant perspective of just a couple of hours, it already appears that good things are definitely on the horizon in Jacksonville.
• The Jaguars weren’t the only long-suffering Florida-based NFL team to help themselves considerably on defense over the past two nights. I love what Tampa Bay has done so far on that side of the ball, too. Like Jacksonville, the Bucs also haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, but they look significantly more dangerous on defense after selecting Eastern Kentucky pass rusher Noah Spence in the second round Friday, after picking Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III at No. 11 in the first round.
Spence carried considerable risk at No. 39, given his history of failed drug tests at Ohio State in 2013 and 2014, and a couple of arrests in 2015. But if he can mature and grow into a professional, his dynamic pass-rushing skills could be exactly what Tampa Bay has lacked for so long. Spence’s play could also help elevate the production of Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who won’t draw quite so much attention if there’s a legitimate sack threat there at defensive end.
• NFL draft 2016: Analysis of every third-round selection
The Bucs did their research on Jameis Winston last season and came to a comfort zone with his off-field character issues, drafting him first overall. That move has paid off handsomely so far, and if Tampa Bay gets the Spence pick right as well, it might have a foundational player and talent to build its defense around.
• NFL commissioner Roger Goodell deserved every one of those boos he continually heard Friday night in Chicago, whenever he emerged to announce a selection or introduce another guest on stage. I’m not into piling on Goodell and slamming him gratuitously for everything he says or does, but he was completely tone-deaf with his comments Friday morning when discussing Laremy Tunsil’s first-round slide Thursday night—an event that at least seemed to be greatly influenced by his social media accounts being hacked in a clear attempt at career sabotage.
Asked on ESPN's “Mike & Mike” about Tunsil’s tumble to the Dolphins at No. 13, Goodell sounded either heartless or clueless when he said: “I think it’s all part of what makes the draft so exciting. Clubs make decisions. Sometimes they take risks. Sometimes they do the right things. Sometimes they don’t, and we’ll see. Hopefully he’s going to turn out to be a great young player.”
I’m not taking Tunsil completely off the hook for being responsible for his own actions and mistakes, but Goodell made Tunsil’s humiliation and discomfort sound like it was good for TV ratings and the dramatic element of the draft. Since the NFL is constantly re-evaluating how it does things, and how to improve the state of the league—like the new extra point rule—maybe it’s time to question whether it’s really necessary to continue to have the commissioner be the face of the draft.
At some point, you’ve got to have the good sense to know when you’re not wanted or welcome. And I do believe football fans have consistently spoken on that front in recent years, rather full-throatedly.
• Raise your hand if you had Jaylon Smith going before Myles Jack in your last pre-draft two-round mock this week? Anyone? I’ll wait...
Didn’t think so. But so often the stuff we think we know for months and months gets blown to bits once the clock starts running and the picks start coming in.
• WATCH: Jaylon Smith, other players react to being selected at NFL draft
I applaud the Cowboys’ conviction for taking Smith, the Notre Dame linebacker who suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl and won’t play at all in 2016. Dallas has Jaylon’s older brother, Rod Smith, on its roster as a running back, and the Cowboys team doctor, Dan Cooper, performed Jaylon’s knee surgery and has talked optimistically about his chances for recovery.
But this is a move that simply has to work out for Dallas to avoid major ramifications, because the No. 34 overall pick is too high to completely miss on. Especially with all of the Cowboys’ rather immediate defensive needs, and what amounts to a redshirt season for Smith.
• The Titans simply aren’t messing around with this “exotic smashmouth’’ approach that coach Mike Mularkey has talked so much about. Tennessee is going to run the ball and dare defenses to stop it. After taking Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin at No. 15 in the first round, the Titans, at No. 45 in the second round, turned in the card for Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner and the quintessential workhorse back.
With Tennessee having traded for 2014 NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray in early March, the Titans now have a two-headed backfield and very clear intentions. They’re going to pound away on the ground, taking as much of the load off the shoulders of second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota as possible. Henry should make for a heck of a closer in Tennessee, with Murray doing the early work and Henry wearing down a tired defense late in the game when the Titans have built a lead.
In theory it all sounds good and should lead to real improvement for the 3–13 Titans. But how far can that approach really take a team in the pass-happy NFL of 2016? We’re about find out in Tennessee.
• Maybe we all underestimated just how much Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was hurt by all those leadership and temperament issues that swirled around his draft prospects this spring. I never really thought the lack of being one of his team’s full-time captains was going to hurt him in the draft, but something has certainly damaged his reputation, because he’s by far the biggest name remaining on the board as the fourth round approaches on Saturday.
Cook was ignored in the second and third rounds, and it spoke volumes when the Jets instead opted to select Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg at No. 51. Then, in the third round, North Carolina State QB Jacoby Brissett went 91st to New England and USC’s Cody Kessler was the pick of the QB-needy Browns at No. 93. After all, Hackenberg had plenty of his own questions about his play to deal with, and boasted nowhere near Cook’s production, while Brissett and Kessler weren’t considered to be prospects in the same ballpark as Cook.
Cook can always cling to the example set by his predecessor, Kirk Cousins, of course. Michigan State’s Cousins lasted until the fourth round and the 103rd pick in 2012, and things eventually worked out pretty well for him in Washington. But Cook’s path to the NFL is not taking anywhere near the expected path so far, and his continued fall will be the story of the day on Saturday until it mercifully ends.
• The way I read it, the Jets taking Hackenberg is an admission that neither Geno Smith nor Bryce Petty really look like a long-term answer in any way in New York. I still expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to re-sign at some point and be the Jets' starter this season, but a short-term deal is now probably the best he can hope for. Smith is likely the odd man out once Fitzpatrick returns, because Petty still has the benefit of having had just one season to either raise or lower his stock in New York.
I’ll be surprised if the Jets' depth chart doesn't have Fitzpatrick, Petty and Hackenberg as the 1-2-3 quarterbacks come September.
• I don’t know which of these stats is more staggering: 1.) That Ohio State had 10 players selected between picks No. 3–94, or 10 in a possible 92 draft slots. That’s basically one Buckeye per every nine players taken. Or, 2.) That 42 of the 67 players (or 63%) selected in the second and third rounds were defenders. A whopping 22 of the second round’s 32 picks came on defense, and that’s the most players taken on defense in the Common Draft era. All told, 58 of the draft’s 98 players selected so far have been defenders, another Common Draft era record for the opening three rounds.
• Has anyone had a better draft thus far than new Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler? The Texans have gone all in on helping the former Broncos part-time starter succeed this season, drafting lightning-fast Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller in the first round, then coming back Friday and taking Notre Dame center Nick Martin and Ohio State receiver Braxton Miller in the second and third rounds, respectively.
Those are three pretty helpful cogs if you’re Osweiler, who needs to start fast in Houston to justify the big contract the Texans gave him and get his new fans firmly in his corner. Fuller and Miller add great speed to a Houston lineup that was sorely missing it last season. Their skill sets fit Osweiler’s big arm, and Martin adds a stabilizing factor to the Texans' offensive line, another key for any winning quarterback.
• I know, I know: You don’t take kickers in the second round, it’s against all the draft rules. But I still like Tampa Bay landing Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo, who was a points-making machine in college. It is curious that the Bucs felt the need to trade up 15 spots into the second round to take him at No. 59, jumping teams like Carolina and New England, but maybe they thought the Patriots were about to swap out Stephen Gostkowski for a younger version?
Draft value says kickers aren’t to be drafted high, and when Oakland used a first-rounder on Florida State’s Sebastian Janikowski in 2000, there were howls of protest. But “Sea Bass” is still booting them for the Raiders all these years later, and who’s laughing now at that pick? Not me. For about a decade, Janikowski was the best, most reliable player on the once-sad-sack Raiders.