With surprises and gas masks distracting things on draft night, Denver quietly moved up in Round 1 and selected the heir to Peyton Manning. Here’s how patience helped John Elway pull it off. Plus 10 things I think, including Laremy Tunsil‘s free fall and the best players left for Round 2
Weird night, wasn’t it? Myles Jack, undrafted. The two first-round-lock Alabama defensive tackles, Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson, undrafted. Keanu Neal and Joshua Garnett (who?!), drafted. And then The Case of the First-Round Pick and the Gas Mask Bong.
No, the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft was not boring.
“It’s 15 minutes before the draft,” said one personnel man of a team considering drafting the gas-mask-bong guy, Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil, “and we’re trying to figure out what happened with this bizarre story, with the crazy image like none of us had ever seen with a guy with a gas mask on smoking pot. It was macabre, like a seventies horror movie. You knew after seeing that he’d crash.”
I’ll let my colleague Emily Kaplan of The MMQB take the story from there. But suffice it to say Tunsil was very lucky the Dolphins stopped his free fall, picking him 13th overall. If not, who knows how far Tunsil would have tumbled.
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Aside from Tunsil, the story of the night, to me, was the Broncos tabbing the heir to Peyton Manning. Mark Sanchez likely will start opening night for the defending Super Bowl champions, but he’s likely keeping the seat warm for one season for the mobile Paxton Lynch. The story is not just that Denver traded up five spots in the round, from 31 to 26 with Seattle, to take Lynch. The story also is what a good job GM John Elway did in managing a minefield situation after the decline and retirement of Peyton Manning, with the mega-expectations that come with trying to repeat as champs.
Consider, first, the financial implications on a franchise trying to keep most of its star players.
Lynch, with his 26th-place slot in the round, will sign a four-year contract worth about $9.1 million.
Brock Osweiler, the one-time heir to Manning, bolted to Houston for four years and $72 million, after starting seven career games in Denver.
The next option after Osweiler, Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, balked at taking enough of a pay cut to satisfy Elway, who had a target of about $7 million this year in mind. Kaepernick will make significantly more this year, $11.9 million, than Lynch will make in four.
The next option, which just went kaput hours before the draft, was unhappy Eagle Sam Bradford, with his $7-million salary this year. Elway thought Eagles GM Howie Roseman was asking too much for a quarterback who’s had three significant injuries in six years and has just been okay on the field.
Elway looked like he was getting painted into a corner. But then, to move up five spots in the round Thursday night, he outbid Dallas for Lynch by paying a third-round pick, the quite palatable 94th overall choice (last five picks at No. 94: Ty Montgomery, Terrance West, Brandon Williams, Jayron Hosley, Kenrick Ellis) and landed his prize.
“Do I have any regrets about this whole thing?” Elway asked from Denver late Thursday night. “No. We’re thrilled to have ended up where we are, with Paxton. If you had said to me, ‘Here are your four options,’ and you named the four we just went through, this is the one we’d take. We think Paxton, long-term, is a perfect fit for our offense.”
What I like about Elway, and the way he runs his team, is he understands some bad things are going to happen. And he understands he’s going to have to take the emotion out of the decision-making. Last spring, after Peyton Manning in his first three Denver seasons threw more touchdown passes than anyone in football, Elway told him he’d have to take a $4-million haircut. That couldn’t have been easy. Elway the player would have fumed if he’d been asked to take a cut, and here he was, telling one of the all-time greats he was cutting his pay by 20 percent.
“I just think there’s always more than one solution to a problem,” Elway said. “It may not be exactly the solution you’d want, but in football, it’s not about taking the easy way—it’s about taking the right way.”
Then Osweiler got this incredible offer from Houston—and I’m sure Elway, who offered close to what Houston did, has to think he made the right call by not exceeding the Houston deal. And not knowing who Kaepernick really is right now, Elway wanted to set a number and get Kaepernick if he could; if he couldn’t, he’d move on. And Bradford was never really a strong consideration.
“You’re right,” Elway said. “Losing Brock … at the end I thought Houston was probably going to get him no matter what. With Colin, I thought we were really close. That one surprised me a little. And I did talk to Philadelphia about Sam. I just thought they were asking way too much.
“I just think there’s always more than one solution to a problem. It may not be exactly the solution you’d want, but in football, in forming a roster, it’s not about taking the easy way—it’s about taking the right way. All the resources you have go into building your team, and if you use too many resources in one area, you have to account for that in another area. So I am comfortable how we used our resources here.”
We can quibble about the quality of resources the Broncos have now. Clearly the 2016 quarterback is highly questionable, easily fourth in the four-team AFC West. Clearly the defense is going to have to carry this team most weeks. How soon Lynch can be ready—Week 11 2016, or Week 1 2017?—could be the key to their season. Said Lynch on Thursday night: “I wouldn’t say I am a project. Obviously every quarterback coming out of college, we have stuff we need to work on. I don’t think any quarterback is ready so I guess you could say every quarterback is a project when they first get in.”
But Denver has to face the very real possibility that Sanchez could be the quarterback this season, as the Broncos try to win it again. That’s not altogether appealing.
I asked Elway: “So you’re comfortable now, with Mark Sanchez starting your opener and maybe starting the whole season?”
“Sure,” he said. “Yeah. I would also say we never say never to anything.”
That’s why Paxton Lynch, in Florida, was on the other end of a call from Elway, who welcomed Lynch to Denver. Lynch broke down, crying. It was one of the coolest scenes of draft night. Because Elway never says never, and because he won’t be held hostage, Denver drafted the next man up Thursday night. No one knows how it’ll work out. But Elway’s comfortable with it, because the other options were simply untenable to him.
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Quotes of the Night
“I'm gonna make the most of my opportunity and be great ... The Cardinals are receiving one of the greatest players of the future. I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be.”
—Robert Nkemdiche, to Deion Sanders of NFL Network, after being picked 29th overall by Arizona
“At this point, I’ve got a ton of empathy for Jack and none for Tunsil.”
—Mike Mayock on NFL Network, at pick No. 10 of the first round, as Myles Jack was falling because of concerns over his knee, and Laremy Tunsil was falling after a photo surfaced of him in a gas mask smoking a bong.
“I don’t know what that did for 31 other teams. We had earmarked Jack Conklin for a while now.”
—Titans GM Jon Robinson, on the effect of the bong-smoking
“I watch Shaq Lawson play Ronnie Stanley at Notre Dame. Even if they played a doubleheader, [Lawson] wouldn’t have registered a sack.”
—Jon Gruden, on the ESPN telecast Thursday night.
“We’re not using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip. This is real … It’s going to be a great marriage.”
—Oakland owner Mark Davis during an appearance in Las Vegas on Thursday, pledging to put $500 million into a proposed $1.4-billion stadium project if his move to Nevada becomes reality.
One day, you might look back on April 28, 2016, as the day one of the football stories of the year—or any year—got buried by the NFL draft. The owner of the Raiders, pledging everlasting love for Las Vegas.
“You got to be really careful with this. You know how important the regular season is to us, and the number of teams that qualify for the postseason affects that. We want every game to mean something in the regular season and we want our postseason to be as dramatic as possible. Right now we have a pretty good formula.”
—Roger Goodell, throwing some cold water on the playoff expansion talk (from 12 teams to 14), to ESPN on Thursday.
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Headline of the Night
“Halfback wears half shirt to NFL draft”
—The Associated Press dispatch from Chicago, reporting that Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott wore a half-shirt, a nod to his preferred on-field attire, as a part of his suit for NFL draft night festivities.
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Stat of the Night
The Seahawks haven’t have a top 30 pick in the past four drafts. Details:
|2016||31||Germain Ifedi, OL, Texas A&M|
|2015||63||Frank Clark, DE, Michigan|
|2014||45||Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado|
|2013||62||Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M|
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Factoid of the Night That May Interest Only Me
Steve Serby of the New York Post asked new Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz for his three dinner guests, of any people in history. He chose:
• Jesus Christ
• Brett Favre
• Walter Payton
In that order, I suppose.
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Tweets of the Night
Paxton Lynch at the bowling alley with plenty of emotion to ... spare.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) April 29, 2016
After the Broncos called to tell Lynch they were picking him, Lynch, at a bowling alley in Florida, began weeping.
Laremy Tunsil's press conference cut short. 3 minutes, 51 seconds.— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) April 29, 2016
Uh oh they messed up and let me and @DeForestBuckner back together again.— Arik Armstead (@arikarmstead) April 29, 2016
The 49ers reunited Armstead with former Oregon teammate Buckner.
I don't care if u smoke weed. In a gas mask. But if you are dumb enough to hang with people who video you doing it?? And allow them to? Smh.— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) April 29, 2016
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Ten Things I Think I Think After Round 1
1. I think if I’m Cleveland vice president Sashi Brown, the Browns’ draftmeister, I am filling out the card right now for the first pick of the second round … and turning it in at 6:59 p.m. today for the 7 p.m. ET start of Round 2. The card would have Myles Jack’s name on it. Regardless of his long-term future and whether he’ll eventually need microfracture knee surgery, Jack is so worthy of going so much higher than 32. Myles Jack, second round. Blows me away.
2. I think the best players available, in order, to start day two of the draft are:
• Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
• Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
• Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson
• Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
• Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
• Jason Spriggs, T, Indiana
• Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
• Cody Whitehair, G, Kansas State
• A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
3. I think the Colts made a brilliant pick in Ryan Kelly, based on my recent talks with people around the league on Kelly. I was sure he’d last well into the twenties, only because of the relative strength of the center crop this year and the feeling by GMs that centers aren’t as important as tackles. But with a quarterback like Andrew Luck, GM Ryan Grigson knew he didn’t want to scotch-tape such an important position for the franchise’s long-term future anymore, and it was a relatively easy call.
4. I think I understand what Jon Robinson says when he insists he had Jack Conklin ahead of Laremy Tunsil on Tennessee’s draft board. But that just speaks of the worry around the league about Tunsil—even before the bong images showed up late Thursday. Teams were worried about him for the off-field stuff, and Miami had better have a huge support system to make sure he doesn’t stray. South Florida. Youthful indiscretions. What could go wrong? Tunsil worries me. A lot.
5. I think the Browns have an incredibly enviable position from today through the end of the 2018 draft: six picks in rounds two and three today … two first-round and two second-round picks in 2017 … and a first-round and two second-round picks in 2018. That’s an incredible run of riches for a team that has drafted poorly in recently years—and now has a great chance to make up for it and be the power broker in the next two drafts as well.
6. I think the secret San Diego GM Tom Telesco did such a great job of keeping is this: Joey Bosa was the top-rated player on the Chargers’ draft board at the beginning of September last year—and no one ever passed him. San Diego liked Jalen Ramsey and really liked Ronnie Stanley. But Telesco loved Bosa, and that love remained solid during a final college season that some evaluators thought was tepid compared to Bosa’s previous play.
7. I think Deion Sanders had his best moment that I’ve seen in those side-stage interviews Thursday night, asking Tunsil about the person who he suspected leaked the bong images, “And it was your stepfather?” Good for Sanders, even though Tunsil side-stepped it.
8. I think A’Shawn Robinson, 21, looks much closer to 41. He might look 51 by tonight, after unexpectedly being bypassed through 31 first-round picks.
9. I think there are few teams (in fact, the Giants and Jacksonville might be the only ones) that have improved their defensive front sevens as much as Arizona, after Chandler Jones (for a second-round pick) was imported to play right end, and Robert Nkemdiche—the first-rounder—was picked Thursday night to play left defensive tackle, mostly likely.
10. I think you have to hand it to the Cardinals, who judge individually strange cases such as Nkemdiche’s—he jumped from a hotel window late in his 2015 season at Ole Miss after using marijuana, and was suspended by his team for the school’s bowl game—and delve into them thoroughly. Sometimes they get burned, as they did with former star linebacker Daryl Washington, who got two drug suspensions and a domestic-violence conviction. Sometimes they hit a home run, as they did with Tyrann Mathieu, the troubled LSU defensive back who has been a pleasant surprise in his second-chance career in Arizona. “We worked harder on Nkemdiche than any player in the draft this year,” said GM Steve Keim late Thursday night. “What it came down to is I felt he was genuinely remorseful for his mistake. I really grew to like him. I had Tyrann meet with him, and he loved his passion. Sometimes you have to make tough calls. This time we felt good about Robert.” Keim also credited president Michael Bidwill for his help as a good people-reading person. Bidwill, after meeting Nkemdiche, signed off on the pick.
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