- Why QBs no longer need to stand tall, teams want players they can plug in now, one position went from overlooked to coveted and why we may see more players swapping teams.
A version of this story appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The Kyler Murray Move
Ten years ago Kyler Murray would have been a middle-rounds pick. It was believed that short quarterbacks simply couldn’t play in the drop-back, passing-centric NFL. But not only did the Cardinals take the 5' 10" Murray with the No. 1 choice, they also traded to Miami—for pennies on the dollar—Josh Rosen, the 10th pick in 2018, who checks all the boxes for a conventional NFL QB.
It's reasonable to say that Murray's ceiling is Russell Wilson-Plus. Murray is a faster and quicker runner than Wilson, plus his arm is livelier. And like Wilson, Murray is a phenomenal touch passer. But it was not the success of Wilson, a largely improvisational QB, that made Arizona more comfortable with Murray; it was Baker Mayfield. The six-foot, No. 1 pick of 2018 ignited the Browns as a rookie, playing at a high level predominantly—but not exclusively—from the pocket. Success inside the pocket will always be vital, but with Mayfield, and now Murray, we’re seeing teams rethink what that looks like.
New Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury is expected to run a highly structured, quick-strike offense. He likely believes that Murray’s obscured vision in the pocket can be mitigated by spread shotgun formations that present quick throws outside and defined reads downfield. College concepts once trickled into the NFL, but in the last five to 10 years, they've gushed in. Hiring Kingsbury and spending a bounty to draft the unique QB he covets represents, by far, the largest investment yet in college-style tactics.
Scheme Fit Emphasis
The rookie wage scale implemented by the NFL’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement has resulted in midlevel veterans being replaced by cheap players fresh out of college. The terms of that CBA also severely restrict how often and hard teams can practice. And so coaches are left with young talent they have had less time to groom. This makes it more critical than ever for them to draft players who can fit their schemes right away.
So, what do the 49ers, Raiders, Jaguars, Bills, Panthers, Chargers and Seahawks have in common? They run fairly straightforward zone-based defenses that are dependent on a four-man rush. All seven teams used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman who, at the very least, can contribute immediately in their third down front: DE Nick Bosa (San Francisco), DE Clelin Ferrell (Oakland), DE Josh Allen (Jacksonville), DT Ed Oliver (Buffalo), DE Brian Burns (Carolina), DT Jerry Tillery (L.A. Chargers) and DE L.J. Collier (Seattle).
Obvious scheme-fit starters were taken at other spots, too: Linebackers Devin White and Devin Bush went to the Buccaneers and Steelers, respectively, both 3-4-based teams that prioritize run-and-chase speed in the middle of the field.
The Lions, trying to become the Patriots of the Midwest, drafted do-it-all tight end T.J. Hockenson to fill the Rob Gronkowski role. And the Falcons and the Vikings, who both feature traditional outside-zone blocking on offense (think ”90s-style Broncos), found quick, athletic guards in Chris Lindstrom and Garrett Bradbury.
Safety First (Or At Least Second)
Expanding your defensive scheme almost always involves safeties, the most maneuverable pieces on the chessboard. Lately, with offenses using more flex tight ends and running the ball out of three-receiver sets, defenses have taken to replacing their third linebacker with a third safety, putting more athleticism on the field. And so it’s no surprise that, after free agency this year brought sizable contracts to a host of safeties (Landon Collins, Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner, Adrian Amos and, on the second tier, Kenny Vaccaro, Tashaun Gipson and Eric Weddle), this draft also proved how highly teams value the position. Since 2010, NFL drafts have averaged 4.7 safeties taken in the first two rounds, but this year, teams selected six pure safeties in those rounds (including Darnell Savage, the first one off the board, at 21 to the Packers), plus two more who may well play the position (Joejuan Williams in New England and Lonnie Johnson in Houston).
In the last two years, we’ve seen an increasing number of star players dealt for high draft choices—WR Odell Beckham, WR Antonio Brown, WR Brandin Cooks, WR Amari Cooper, edge defender Khalil Mack, Frank Clark and Dee Ford, to name a few—and a big reason why is that rookie wage scale. Juxtaposed by soaring free agent salaries, it has made first-contract players extremely cost-friendly and once-untouchable high-priced stars more expendable. But with Mack, Cooks and Cooper helping lead their respective teams to the playoffs last year, there’s justification for taking on those big contracts. With simple accounting driving these decisions, we could see more mega trades moving forward, especially if any of the players who were traded produce big in 2019. If a team can afford a star veteran’s pricy contract, why wouldn’t it bring one on via trade and remove the guesswork that comes with a high draft pick?
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