Welcome to Draft Day
How far will Gareon Conley fall?
NFL teams that had strong interest in the Ohio State corner before the April 9 rape accusation against him were scrambling to figure that out Wednesday. And simultaneously, they were furiously trying to gather any information they could on what happened that night at the Cleveland Westin. And Conley was on the phone to coaches and general managers giving his side of the story.
Now, the problem: This probably won’t be settled by Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
If Conley’s guilty, then he deserves the fate that’s likely awaiting him. But there are questions that need to be answered about what happened in that room, whether it was consensual, and what the woman’s motive was after Conley kicked her out, which is the one event in the timeline that matches up in the stories of both the accuser and the accused.
I asked one NFC personnel chief, who likes Conley as a player, about where he stood. Answer: “Confused.” An assistant coach for an AFC team said, “I don’t know enough yet, I just don’t know enough. Could it be a setup? I don’t know.” An AFC executive was more definitive: “He’s going to drop. It could be BS, but uncertainty prevails, and I don’t think he’s cleared by Thursday.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll get to which teams control this year’s draft, and break down how four very interesting positions could fall over the next few days. And we’ll get to more of the draft rumors and buzz. And I’ll give you a mock.
We start with the story of the day, which is the big story in the same way Laremy Tunsil became the big story on the fly last year and La’el Collins became the big story two years ago. In each of those cases, news broke too close to the draft for the players to respond. Tunsil was expected to go in the top 5 or 6 picks and fell to 13th. Collins was a borderline first-rounder and went undrafted.
Before the rape accusation, scuttlebutt in league circles had Conley connected to the Saints at 11, the Eagles at 14 and the Colts at 15. After talking to teams now, it seems likely Conley’s drop will be more precipitous than Tunsil’s, but he probably won’t fall out of the draft like Collins.
Some facts on Conley …
• NFL teams viewed him as one of the cleaner prospects among potential first-rounders from a character standpoint. That doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty. But if he had a thick file of previous incidents, a lot of clubs would probably say, “forget this” and just move on. Teams that were lukewarm on him to begin with, or don’t have a big corner need, probably will treat this that way. Teams with a genuine interest will do their homework the best they can in the time available. One such club said that in five days of combine interviews, Conley was the most impressive player they talked to, and displayed off-the-charts football IQ.
• Ohio State coaches, at least the ones I’ve talked to at (full disclosure) my alma mater, were stunned to hear the news. Suffice it to say, Conley was among the last of their players they expected to be accused of a crime this serious. One assistant said, “I don’t know what happened, but I’d stand on the table for the kid.” Again, doesn’t mean Conley is innocent. But teams have been calling Columbus, and that kind of feedback is part of the picture.
• The strength of the position in this year’s class will hurt Conley, as it figures to hurt Washington’s Sidney Jones, who suffered a torn Achilles at his pro day. I wrote last week that one team had 35 corners with draftable grades (more on that later), and there’s a feeling that potential rookie-year starters in the secondary will be available into the fourth and fifth rounds. So it’s easy for teams to look at Conley, decide that—no matter the truth—it isn’t worth the risk and move on to another player with a similar grade.
So where are teams now? Conley has reached out to as many head coaches and GMs as he could over the past 36 hours to give them his side of the story. Teams have been talking with other witnesses (one is a childhood friend of Conley’s, another didn’t know him before April 9) in the case too, and going back to re-vet Conley’s character.
Of course, there have been plenty of cases in which a player with a pristine reputation was guilty of a heinous crime. No one saw Ray Rice coming. No one saw Darren Sharper coming. So while it’s relevant that no one seems to have seen this coming with Conley, it’s not in any way definitive of anything.
That uncertainty is going to cost Conley a lot of money.
There’s a chance he falls out of the draft all together, but teams I’ve talked to figured he could land in the third or fourth round now if teams feel comfortable he’ll be cleared. At that point, the upside is you get a potential high-end starter at premium position for a bargain basement price. And if he’s guilty of what he’s been accused of, you can cut him without much penalty. The reality is he’s the one paying a price here.
Let’s say he’s the first pick in the fourth round. Last year that was Cleveland’s Joe Schobert, who signed a four-year, $2.974 million deal with $633,956 guaranteed. Without the accusation, I’d have mocked Conley to Philly at 14. Last year’s 14th pick, Oakland’s Karl Joseph, did a four-year, $11.884 million deal, and all of it was guaranteed.
One AFC head coach said Wednesday morning, “No matter what happened, there’s going to be a lesson for all these kids going forward.”
If Conley’s guilty, it a lesson (hopefully) few have to be taught. If he’s not—based on what Collins and Tunsil went through, and Conley probably will—it’s one that more guys need to learn.
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The Draft Power Brokers
OK, so in the past, I’ve written on the power brokers in each year’s draft. And it’s not only about who has the most capital—anyone can count up picks—but also who will have the flexibility to move and strike.
As much as anything else, that can be defined as a team that can do things that others can’t. Which is why, even though they have three picks fewer than the Browns and Bengals, I’m going with the Titans this year.
Here’s the deal: Because of the depth of this class at several spots, this year’s draft is one in which teams that want to trade down will have trouble finding suitors. And yet, I think the Titans are in a position to deal down, and more than once.
With the fifth pick, Tennessee sits right in the vicinity of where the first quarterback could go. At 18, the Titans are just ahead of an expected run on offensive linemen—there are four (Alabama’s Cam Robinson, Utah’s Garrett Bolles, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramcyzk and Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp) who seem to have separated from the pack—in a year where the demand greatly outdistances the supply.
So if you want in on the top quarterbacks, you’ll call Titans GM Jon Robinson. And if you’re a playoff team in need of offensive line help, ditto.
“Those will probably manifest themselves closer to when the draft starts, depending on what players are available when our pick gets close,” Robinson said from his office on Tuesday afternoon. “I’d like to think, based on our movement last year, teams would be willing to call and see if we’d be willing to slide around a little.”
And all of this will close the loop on the Jared Goff trade between the Titans and the Rams.
So far, the Titans have flipped that one pick—the 2016 first overall pick, which they deal to the Rams in mid-April last year—into starting right tackle Jack Conklin, bulldozing former Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and reserve (for now) nose tackle Austin Johnson. Tennessee has two picks left from that deal—fifth overall tonight, and 100th overall Friday.
“The players we took last year with that trade, that certainly paid dividends for us,” Robinson said. “And I certainly hope the players we can acquire with those picks in this year’s draft can pay dividends. So it’s the culmination of both draft classes. … We’re certainly excited about the opportunity to add guys, and glad we have all these picks this year.”
What’ll make it easier to hit now is the job that Robinson and coach Mike Mularkey have done creating an identity for the roster and patching holes. It’s not as if they don’t have needs—receiver is one, and corner is another. It’s just that those needs are not glaring to the point where the Titans wouldn’t be able to, say, sit and take someone at another position, like an O.J. Howard, fifth overall.
So coming off a nine-win season, playing in a winnable division, and with a franchise QB in tow, Robinson seems poised to set up his team’s next step, with plenty of reason to be happy with where the Titans stand.
“We set out wanting to add tough, dependable guys, guys that could play that style of football,” Robinson said. “That’s been my background, certainly has been Mike’s background. So to find those guys, and get those players to buy in, both in free agency last year and then in the draft and in this most recent free agency period, it’s been good.”
And with a real chance to get better. And with that, here are six other teams in position to be power brokers over the next three days:
Total picks: 11
Picks in the Top 50: 3
Picks in the Top 100: 5
The Browns know the score—having all this capital is great, but they have to start turning it into players. Coach Hue Jackson told me back at the combine, “Where we go, where we’re headed, this offseason is such a huge piece.” The week after that exchange they splurged on the offensive line. This week they could add a generational defensive talent and a quarterback, and still have a bushel of picks to spend.
Total picks: 8
Picks in the Top 50: 2
Picks in the Top 100: 4
The Panthers have a pick in every round, and their eight total are spaced nicely, with the Josh Norman compensatory pick bolstering the haul. They also sit in a spot in the Top 10, at No. 8, where teams could look to come up for a quarterback. And the depth at tight end and running back—two positions rival teams suspect the Panthers will consider filling if they stick at 8—gives Dave Gettleman and company flexibility.
Total picks: 11
Picks in the Top 50: 2
Picks in the Top 100: 3
The Bengals have made the list on raw volume, and benefit from the rule change allowing trades of comp picks—they have four of those. The fact that they have 11 gives them the freedom to potentially wait on needs to take an O.J. Howard or John Ross at 9. And also take a risk, as is their tendency, with a guy like Joe Mixon at the top of Round 2. Worth noting: They’ve got four picks between 138 and 193.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Total picks: 7
Picks in the Top 50: 3
Picks in the Top 100: 4
With three picks inside the first round-and-a-half (11, 32, 42), New Orleans can take one last stab at trading for Malcolm Butler. Or they could move around. The 32nd pick could be a valuable chip to deal to a team looking to come up for a quarterback, given the fifth-year option on first-round deals and the expense of the position. And the Saints have two more picks in the third round, which will make them a Friday power broker.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Total picks: 10
Picks in the Top 50: 2
Picks in the Top 100: 3
Getting value for the second pick will be tough, but with GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan carrying six-year contracts and a roster with a ton of problems, there’s a real chance for the Niners to maintain a top-guy-on-the-board approach throughout and take advantage of the strengths of the class. And they do have a cluster of six picks between 143 and 219 that should facilitate movement.
Total picks: 7
Picks in the Top 50: 1
Picks in the Top 100: 3
The Seahawks’ setup is interesting Friday night, with three picks clustered between 90 and 106, and at least the perception that you’ll be able to get good cornerbacks, safeties, receivers, tight ends and running backs at this juncture. So Seattle could just sit and take advantage of the draft’s depth at the end of Round 3, or they could move one or more of those picks to go up or down.
Others to watch: Broncos (10 picks, 1 in Top 50, 3 in Top 100); Chiefs (10 picks, 1 in Top 50, 3 in the Top 100); Redskins (10 picks, 2 in the top 50, 3 in the Top 100).
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FIRST AND 10
1. I’ve talked to two teams that have Pitt’s Nate Peterman among their top five quarterbacks. And some compare him to Kirk Cousins. Interesting Day 2 guy.
2. Speaking of quarterbacks, important to remember what might be available in 2018: Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. That’s part of the equation tonight.
3. I’m interested to see Adrian Peterson’s fit in a Saints offense that’s always put a value on versatility. Can he reinvent himself? Will he look the same in such a multiple scheme? Should be interesting to watch.
4. Marshawn Lynch’s fit in Oakland is more natural. He’ll complement the Raiders’ stable of Taiwan Jones, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, all of whom lack the size and power Lynch brings.
5. I think the issue for the Saints in pursuing Malcolm Butler isn’t the idea of trading away any one pick. It’s the idea of parting with multiple picks. New Orleans only has seven total, and the defense needs help in a bunch of areas.
6. While we’re there, at least notable that the Patriots brought likely first-round OTs Ryan Ramczyk and Garrett Bolles to Foxborough, when they don’t pick until 72nd overall. Tells you they’re at least prepared for a trade.
7. If the Vikings don’t exercise Teddy Bridgewater’s option for 2018, then both he and Sam Bradford will be in contract years. Not ideal for a team that used the Bradford trade last year as a beacon that it was in a championship window.
8. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten this week left his future open-ended—he’s now under contract until 2021—and that underscores his amazing career. Try to find another tight end as durable and dependable through 14 years.
9. The Cardinals getting back Daryl Washington could, conceivably, fill a pretty significant hole for the team at linebacker. He’s 30 now, and hasn’t played in four years, but was a heck of a player before substance issues derailed him.
10. All the best to everyone affected by the ESPN layoffs. And especially to Jean-Jacques Taylor and Calvin Watkins, two guys who this punk kid learned a ton from in his short time in Dallas.
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1. Where and when will the QBs go? OK, so this is what everyone wants to know, and this is probably the hardest position to predict. Some questions have to be answered. First, will the Jaguars take Deshaun Watson? The closer we get to draft day, the stronger the whispers have become that Tom Coughlin loves Watson, and that he really could take him over Leonard Fournette, which would mean the end of Blake Bortles is near.
Second, will the Browns land Mitch Trubisky? EVP Sashi Brown knows where he’s going, but my bet is the compromise will be taking Myles Garrett first and being aggressive with 12 to go get Trubisky.
Third, will the Chargers take a quarterback at 7? Will the Bills take one at 10? The former has been coy about its QB interest; the latter has been outward.
Fourth, does Arizona pull the trigger on Patrick Mahomes at 13? Word is, Bruce Arians gave him high marks, but the call here is GM Steve Keim’s, and Arians may be retired in a year or two.
And then later, you have Houston, who, I’m told, was impressed with Watson; and the teams with older QBs (Chiefs, Giants, Steelers) that could be suitors for either Mahomes or Davis Webb, both considered raw prospects who would benefit from a situation in which their team is under no pressure to play them.
There’s a scenario where three QBs in the first 15 picks. There’s another where one or two go that high, and then there’s a run at the end of the first round. Should be entertaining to watch.
2. The Reuben Foster dilemma. In a vacuum, each of Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster’s problems are workable. The issue now is that his file has gotten thick. According to sources with four teams, there is some drug background from early in Foster’s time in Tuscaloosa. But because it was just marijuana, and because his football character has been beyond reproach, it wasn’t seen as an issue. Then he failed his combine drug test, which means he’ll be in the drug program, and raised another set of questions about his discipline.
So fair or not, Foster is dealing with that. And his medical (shoulder, knee) has been troublesome to some teams. The flip side? He’s overcome a lot to get where he is—one evaluator called it a “miracle” he’s made it this far—and he showed growth both as a player and a person in his time in college. “I’ll be surprised if he falls too far,” said an AFC personnel executive. “He’s talented enough to play on every down—he can play the run, play the pass. You have to have a plan, give him structure and direction, and follow his maturation and development on and off the field. But he’s got a chance to be a special player.”
Before the medical issues and drug test result came to light, I’d have said Foster was a contender to go as high as second overall to San Francisco. Now, I think he goes in the teens. And that fall has opened the door for one of the draft’s very best stories—Temple LB Haason Reddick—to go on the fringes of the Top 10.
3. Corners galore. Maybe the draft’s most interesting position, outside of quarterback, is at corner. We mentioned that one team considers more than 30 cornerbacks draftable this year, which is an enormous number. Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore is likely to be the first one taken. Who comes next is anyone’s guess. Ask five people and you might get five different answers. And while there are two safeties who have separated from the pack—LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker—there’s depth there too that could lead to two more players (maybe Washington’s Budda Baker and Utah’s Marcus Williams) slipping into the bottom of the first round. And if teams want to wait at either spot, they can.
“I’d say going into this draft, there’s more middle-round guys that can play,” said one AFC defensive backs coach. “Last year after the second round there just wasn’t much. This year we’re gonna say, ‘This guy went in the fifth round and he’s starting.’ It legitimately goes at corner this year into the fourth and fifth round. And at safety, it’s solid into the third or fourth round. Take [Rayshawn] Jenkins, from Miami. He loses 10 pounds, and you get him in the fourth round, and you may have something. All the way, you’ve got some good players that have certain traits that generally don’t get that deep into draft.”
One reason this particular coach gave for that was the slowing of a trend that had seen college coaches put all their multidimensional athletes on offense. An example: Both Lattimore and Hooker arrived at Ohio State without a firm position and landed on defense.
4. The return of the tight end. An interesting fact I found the other day: It’s been 11 years since multiple tight ends went in the first round of the draft. It’s good bet that the drought ends on Thursday. My sense is that Howard is a near lock to go in the top 10, maybe as high as fifth overall, and Miami’s freakish-but-raw David Njoku comes off the board somewhere in the 20s, maybe to Detroit at 21 or the Giants at 23.
And beyond just those two, there is depth. Adam Shaheen, from Division II Ashland (Ohio) University, is a 280-pound monster. Evan Engram from Ole Miss and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett are versatile H-back types. Michigan’s Jake Butt, recovering from a torn ACL, is a strong traditional-style prospect who has the look of someone who’ll play in the NFL for a long time. Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges has potential. And all of this is a welcome development for GMs and coaches after a six-year run during which only two tight ends (Detroit’s Eric Ebron and Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert) went in the first round, and teams have been scouring even the college basketball ranks to find prospects at the position.
Why the dry spell? Well, we had West Virginia coach Dana Holgerson on our SI.com set Wednesday to tape for our draft show (tune in Thursday night!) and he bemoaned people complaining that he hasn’t used the tight end in his offense, adding “They aren’t easy to find.” And when you think about the combination of height, weight, speed, strength, toughness and ball skills it takes to play the position and play it well, that makes sense.
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OFFSEASON LESSON TO TAKE WITH YOU
I make tons of calls this time of year—and I love the interaction with all the coaches and personnel folks (s/o to all you guys for the help) over these weeks. I hear lots of things, and by the time the draft arrives, my brain is mush.
But this year there was one thing someone said to me that’s pretty much marked everything I’ve done since.
“I feel bad for you guys having to predict all of it this year. Even we don’t know.”
So here’s your lesson going into Thursday night: Mock drafts are never that accurate at baseline, because the draft is hard to project, and this year might be the hardest one to forecast I can remember.
The problem is the positions that are strong are also deep. That goes for corner. It goes for safety. It goes for running back and tight end. It goes for the pass rushers. So while Myles Garrett is the consensus top player, there are a lot of different opinions on who’s second, third and fourth, and there’s widespread disagreement on the order players at each position come off the board.
So of course, I’m making excuses for what’s ahead. Here’s my mock draft. Hopefully, under these harrowing circumstances, I can get a few right.
1. Browns: Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett. The Trubisky buzz is real. And I think Cleveland will be aggressive to get him after going chalk at 1.
2. 49ers: Stanford DE Solomon Thomas. Yes, this would be their third straight year with a first-round DL. But their Seattle-style scheme demands numbers up front. Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore is also in play.
3. Bears: LSU S Jamal Adams. There’s been buzz that John Fox likes OSU safety Malik Hooker, and Alabama DL Jonathan Allen could be a fit. But Adams is the safe play for GM Ryan Pace.
4. Jaguars: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. I’m 50/50 with Watson and LSU RB Leonard Fournette here. But if Tom Coughlin is smitten with Watson …
5. Browns (trade with Titans): North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky. If Cleveland comes away with both objects of its affection, that’s a win. The hope would be those two do what 2014 draftees Khalil Mack and Derek Carr have done for Oakland.
6. Jets: Alabama TE O.J. Howard. I’ve vacillated on this. But teams see Howard as close to a sure thing as there is. Also, won’t hurt the QBs to have him.
7. Chargers: Clemson WR Mike Williams. There are whispers about QBs here, and Hooker’s been the logical pick. But the Bolts did late work on Williams.
8. Panthers: Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey. Shocker! Fournette isn’t the first back off the board. Instead, Cam Newton gets a Swiss Army knife for his arsenal.
9. Bengals: LSU RB Leonard Fournette. I’ve heard Washington WR John Ross, Alabama LB Reuben Foster and Howard here. But if Fournette drops in their lap, things change.
10. Bills: Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore. How serious Buffalo is about the QBs is an open question. But if Lattimore or Howard fall, the Bills would be happy.
11. Saints: Temple LB Haason Reddick. Such a great story, and a guy who can be a foundation piece for New Orleans’ defensive rebuild.
12. Titans (trade with Browns): Alabama DL Jonathan Allen. He is as good a college player as any in this draft. Shoulder issues are there. Tennessee is the beneficiary.
13. Cardinals: Western Michigan WR Corey Davis. Texas Tech QB Pat Mahomes is in play here. Instead, Arizona gets a guy who will help, rather than eventually replace, Carson Palmer.
14. Eagles: Ohio State S Malik Hooker. I’ve heard Tennessee DE Derek Barnett here. Of course, that scenario supposes that Hooker doesn’t fall this far.
15. Colts: Missouri DE Charles Harris. GM Chris Ballard likes pass rushers with athletic juice. And while he needs some work, Harris can bring that.
16. Ravens: Alabama LB Reuben Foster. No one gets more background on Bama players than Ozzie Newsome. And I hear he’s OK with Foster’s flags
17. Redskins: UCLA LB Takkarist McKinley. Redskins are hunting for pass rushers. My sense is they’d like Harris. If he can get healthy, McKinley might be better.
18. Titans: Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey. Could see him going as high as 13 to Arizona. This fit, with what Mularkey and Robinson are building, makes sense.
19. Buccaneers: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett. I’ve heard Dalvin Cook strongly here, but getting a pass-rusher is a priority and there will be backs later.
20. Broncos: Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk. Ramczyk’s a fit for what Mike McCoy wants to do. The question is how comfortable Denver is with his hip.
21. Lions: Miami TE David Njoku. GM Bob Quinn comes from tight end-loving New England, and Njoku makes sense to eventually replace Ebron.
22. Dolphins: USC CB Adoree’ Jackson. Miami will invest in its defense, and with the pass-rushers off the board, it starts at corner.
23. Giants: Utah OT Garrett Bolles. He’s not without his warts, and he’s a little older, but Jerry Reese needs a pass protector. In this group, that’s Bolles.
24. Raiders: Florida LB Jarrad Davis. It’s a crying need. And if his health holds up, Davis belongs right in this area. Oakland can address corner later.
25. Texans: Alabama OT Cam Robinson. I believe they’ll make an effort to go up and get Watson, and consider Mahomes, before settling on a right tackle.
26. Seahawks: Washington CB Kevin King. Big, long Pete Carroll type of corner makes sense as GM John Schneider starts to look to the future on defense.
27. Chiefs: Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes. I see this as the floor for Mahomes, who could go much earlier. That said, K.C. would be an ideal landing spot for him.
28. Cowboys: UConn S Obi Melifonwu. Free agency decimated the Dallas defense, and this rising prospect could well grow into a cornerstone.
29. Packers: Florida CB Quincy Wilson. Green Bay needs to overhaul this position and Wilson is a solid fit for Dom Capers’ scheme.
30. Steelers: Washington WR John Ross. Could go as high as 9, falls all the way to 30, exemplifying this volatile draft. I almost put Cal QB Davis Webb here.
31. Falcons: Utah S Marcus Williams. Atlanta could trade up, maybe all the way to the late teens. Failing that, Dan Quinn gets his centerfielder.
32. Saints: Washington S Budda Baker. This is a hunch, and a sense that this Bob Sanders clone would bring the edge Dennis Allen wants from his D.
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