CHICAGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from rounds two and three of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theater, where the proceedings got a little more lively on the second night of the league’s annual pick-fest.....
• High marks: It was the Cowboys who sprung last-man-standing-in-the-green-room occupant Randy Gregory Friday night, and that figures. Dallas has a crying need for more pass rush, and Jerry Jones is a riverboat gambler by nature. He thrives on risks to a large degree, and as the early rounds of this draft unfolded this week, it became clear that few carried a larger warning label than Gregory, the Nebraska outside linebacker who once was considered a sure-fire top 10 pick.
Then again, the Cowboys general manager happens to be Jones, who has a lifetime guaranteed contract, so he can better mitigate these kind of issues than your garden variety personnel executive.
• 2015 NFL draft grades: Winners and losers | Team-by-team picks, analysis
But there are character questions surrounding Gregory, and I know for a fact the Cowboys themselves were well aware of other problems that Gregory has dealt with recently other than him failing a drug test for marijuana at February’s NFL combine in Indianapolis. One league source told me those problems involved Gregory being treated with medication for issues that included anxiety and depression. Gregory went from near the top of the first round in projections to near the bottom of the second round (No. 60) in reality partly because clubs were wary of what came along with the dynamic play-making skills he flashed as a Cornhusker.
ESPN reported Friday night after Gregory was selected by Dallas that "some people in the league think there are mental health issues" with Gregory, who himself acknowledged earlier Friday that he has "some issues I’m taking care of, and those I think are up in the air."
But the Cowboys deemed the upside of Gregory’s potential to be worth a late second-round pick. It was a decision they grappled with and went the other way on with their No. 27 pick in the first round, which they used to select Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones after strongly considering Gregory. And I get their thinking. At a first-round investment, Gregory gave NFL teams pause. But at No. 60, the Cowboys saw a bargain that could pay off handsomely if he develops into a standout as a pro.
Gregory promised as much, boldly telling the NFL Network after being picked by Dallas, "Me and the Cowboys, we’re going to take over this league." Dallas is confident that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will help mold Gregory into a force on the field, and that the Cowboys' locker room has enough structure to help him deal with any maturity issues that he may be bringing into the league.
Time will tell, but Gregory’s early career in Dallas is off to a prove-it start. He’s got some ground he’ll never make up in the draft, but he might give the Cowboys reason to applaud their willingness to risk a pick on him.
• Low marks: The Carolina Panthers got aggressive in their pursuit of Michigan receiver and former tight end Devin Funchess, trading up 16 spots in the second round, from No. 57 to the No. 41 slot previously held by St. Louis. The deal cost the Panthers an extra third-round and sixth-round pick, as well as swapping a second-rounder with the Rams.
I don’t think Funchess would even have been my choice for Carolina at 57, let alone 41. True, with Kelvin Benjamin, Funchess and tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers now have a trio of big receivers and big targets for quarterback Cam Newton to aim for, and they’ll be a matchup problem for cornerbacks in NFC South. But until Carolina gets a legit deep receiver threat who can take the top of the defense, it will be playing on a necessarily shorter field than Newton should be limited to. There’s still a need for speed in Charlotte.
• High marks: I love both ends of the Giants-Titans trade that kicked things off in the second round Friday night. New York moved up from 40th to the opening pick of the round, No. 33, to take well-regarded Alabama safety Landon Collins, a piece they desperately needed in the secondary. The Titans, meanwhile, picked up an extra fourth-round and seventh-round pick from the Giants and then selected talented but red-flagged receiver Dorial Green-Beckham of Missouri at No. 40. (By the way, raise your hand if you had the usually play-it-safe Giants trading up in this draft before the go-for-broke Eagles. Anyone?)
The juxtaposition of squeaky-clean quarterback Marcus Mariota in the first round for Tennessee and then the less-than-squeaky-clean Beckham-Green in the second round for the Titans is interesting. Maybe on balance, both picks will average out and be productive play-makers. Green-Beckham has to show he can learn the hard lessons that his spotty collegiate experience provided him, but he has the freaky talents of a young Randy Moss, and watching him and Mariota try to make downfield magic could bring a little excitement back to the moribund Titans.
• Low marks: The Bucs made Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith their second-round pick, at No. 34, bypassing tackle prospects who seemingly had higher rankings, such as Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings and Oregon’s Jake Fisher. Smith has great size and can dominate his opponent at times, but there are also clubs that had issues with his work ethic, and at least one team that he had a private visit with came away unconvinced that he really loved football and burned to be a great pro.
The Bucs are raving about his passion for the game in the wake of selecting him with the second round’s second pick, but that opinion does not seem to be universally shared around the league.
• High marks: The Ravens were smart to jump ahead of No. 56 Pittsburgh to snatch the first tight end off the board in this year’s draft: University of Minnesota’s Maxx Williams. The Steelers have to start planning for Heath Miller’s replacement one of these days, and Baltimore didn’t want to take a chance it might have to face Williams twice a year, trading up from No. 58 to No. 55, a slot the Cardinals previously held.
The Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco have always been pretty lethal on offense when they have a reliable tight end to exploit the middle of the field, but between Dennis Pitta’s injury history and Owen Daniels’ defection in free agency, Baltimore was in great need of a talent injection at the position. And if the Ravens did take Williams away from the hated division-rival Steelers, all the better for Baltimore.
• Low marks: With a much-needed and quality inside linebacker prospect like Miami’s Denzel Perryman still available, the 49ers pulled a bit of a head-scratcher and selected small-school safety Jaquiski Tartt at No. 46, in the second round. Tartt, who played at Samford, figures to be only a special teams contributor and reserve safety behind starters Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, competing for playing time at safety and nickel back with his high school teammate and best friend, Jimmie Ward, a 49ers draft pick a year ago.
Players invariably think they’re going to be drafted higher than they actually go, but not Tartt, who admitted he didn’t expect to be selected until the "third or fourth round maybe."
We were thinking the same thing, Jaquiski. Instead Tartt went in the top half of the second round, a landing spot that no one predicted.
• High marks: There’s still that whole pesky quarterback issue for the Jets, but how can you not like Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s chances to look more like true No. 1 QBs with the Jets’ rebuilt receiving corps at their disposal? New York drafted Ohio State deep threat Devin Smith early in the second round, at No. 37, and now they add him to a greatly improved contingent that includes Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Jeremy Kerley.
The only downside is the chance the Jets’ ridiculously improved secondary—led by Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie—doesn’t demoralize the rookie WR Smith every day in practice.
• Low marks: In Bill They Trust, but the Patriots pulled another stunner with the final pick of the second round, plucking Stanford safety Jordan Richards out of the ether. Richards conjured up memories of past second-day safety selections by New England, like Tavon Wilson in 2012 and Duron Harmon in 2013, and Patriots fans know those aren’t necessarily good echoes to wake up.
Jordan is said to be smart—he did go to Stanford—but he was optimistically viewed as a high third-day pick by many draft analysts, and doesn’t have strong coverage skills. He’s a 5-11, 211-pound strong safety who will likely play in the box for run defense, and Bill Belichick’s recent history for finding secondary help in the draft simply does not inspire confidence.