The backdrop was unsettled, the atmosphere turbulent and the moves sometimes mind-bending. Just another weekend in the NFL's off-season from hell
This is an article from the May 9, 2011 issue
How odd was the 2011 draft? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got the kind of boos New Yorkers normally save for Pedroia and Youkilis. Six quarterbacks flew off the board in the top 36 picks, while the rocket-armed passer most ready for the pros went No. 74 and straight to the bench to sit behind Tom Brady. The Falcons traded major chunks of two drafts for the receiver they wanted, while the star-crossed Browns gladly took the treasure trove of five Atlanta picks in return. A pass-rush demon who might have been selected first six months ago free-fell to 51st. The Saints got defensive end Cameron Jordan; the Browns, tight end Jordan Cameron. The doormat Lions had a great weekend; the kingpin Patriots not so much.
And halfway through the three-day event came a major reality check: At 6:47 p.m. Eastern time last Friday, a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled that the league could reinstate its lockout. Four days earlier Eighth Circuit judge Susan Nelson in Minnesota had issued an injunction lifting the league-imposed work stoppage, and veteran players began turning up at team facilities, however unwanted, on Tuesday. By Friday morning, acting on guidance from the league office, teams had officially opened their doors, welcoming Thursday's first-rounders, handing them playbooks and scheduling rookie training sessions. Then those doors closed once more, leaving the courts again to decide how long the renewed lockout would last. For the draft, the upshot was that Washington quarterback Jake Locker, taken eighth by the Titans on Thursday, could visit Nashville and take home a playbook on Friday afternoon, while TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, drafted 35th by the Bengals on Friday night, traveled to Cincinnati on Saturday and met with coach Marvin Lewis, but was not permitted to take home any study materials.
The strangeness didn't stop when the Texans selected Rice defensive end Cheta Ozougwu with the 254th and final pick at 7:25 on Saturday evening. "Usually we're in the middle of three hours of chaos right now, trying to sign the undrafted free agents," Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said an hour later. "Not this year. It's very quiet." That's because undrafted college players cannot be signed until the lockout is lifted, one way or another.
"The whole weekend's been sort of bizarre," Reinfeldt said. Sort of? These are some of the biggest oddities of this weirdest of draft weekends.
SECONDS SHALL BE FIRST
The two quarterbacks picked in the second round—Dalton and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, who went 36th to the 49ers—have a better chance to succeed than the four picked in the first, and not just because the pressure will be less. Cincy's new offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, younger brother of Jon, will install a short-passing, move-the-quarterback offense that will fit the mobile Dalton well; moreover, the Bengals took a can't-miss (and there's a dangerous draft-weekend description) receiver, Georgia acrobat A.J. Green, with the fourth overall pick.
"I liked Andy Dalton more than any other quarterback in this draft," said former first-round quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN. "I think he goes to a good spot with Gruden. He's a big-time quarterback and a leader of men.
"Kaepernick's a football junkie, and he'll be trained 24/7/365 by [new San Francisco coach] Jim Harbaugh. Every aspect of his life will be about being an NFL quarterback. Perfect guy for Harbaugh."
Cam Newton is the most physically gifted QB of the 2011 class, which explains why he went No. 1 to the troubled Panthers, who were 2--14 last year. Locker is an athletic marvel but scatter-armed. Blaine Gabbert (taken 10th by the Jaguars, who moved up six spots in a deal with the Redskins to get him) has terrific potential but must move from a gimmicky spread at Missouri to a classic pro-style offense. Christian Ponder, the Vikings' choice at No. 12, is an acquired taste; he never played very well under pressure at Florida State.
The heat didn't get to the Bengals and the Niners in the panicky 2011 quarterback market. Cincinnati has traded up just twice in its 44-year draft history; with Dalton on their mind from the middle of the first round on, the Bengals stood pat for 20 picks and let him come to them. And San Francisco learned a lot about the intelligence-gathering and guts of its first-year general manager, Trent Baalke.
The Niners had the seventh selection but didn't intend to spend it on one of the available quarterbacks, instead taking Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith. Baalke and Harbaugh had targeted Kaepernick and Dalton, in that order, before the draft. Late in the first round Baalke tried to trade up with a package of picks starting with the Niners' second-rounder, at 45, but couldn't swing a deal. He started again a half hour before the beginning of Friday's round 2, calling the Patriots, who held the first pick (No. 33) that evening. The Raiders, who'd dealt their 2011 first-round choice to New England in September 2009 to get defensive tackle Richard Seymour, were also trying to get the Pats' pick. That gave the Patriots leverage. San Francisco offered two third-round picks (one from this draft, one from 2012) to move up, but New England wanted a third-rounder this year and a second-rounder next year. Baalke thought that was too much, even if it meant losing his quarterback of the future. The Patriots drafted Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Baalke knew the Bills weren't going to take Kaepernick or Dalton at 34, and he figured Cincy would take Dalton at 35. So he focused on the pick after Cincinnati's, held by the Broncos, and dealt fourth- and fifth-rounders this year to Denver. Cool Hand Baalke got his man, and at significantly less than he would have paid New England.
As Harbaugh was leaving the 49ers' offices on Friday night, he ran into Baalke and shook the general manager's hand heartily. "You were a stud today!" Harbaugh said. "Great job in there!"
THE LIONS (!) ROAR
Under former G.M. Matt Millen (don't say that name too loudly in Michigan), Detroit became infamous for first-round bombs—Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Ernie Sims—that set the franchise back years. But Millen's successor, Martin Mayhew, and coach Jim Schwartz did their part to make up for those busts last weekend. The Lions had perhaps the best draft in the league, nabbing three potential impact players in the top two rounds: disruptive defensive tackle Nick Fairley of Auburn, a DeSean Jackson--like playmaker in Boise State wideout Titus Young and the top running back on a few teams' boards, Mikel Leshoure of Illinois.
Fairley's drop to 13 was the biggest shock, considering the consistent disruption he caused for the national champions. In 14 games for Auburn last year he had 35½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 11½ sacks. That's reminiscent of the best interior lineman in last year's draft, Ndamukong Suh. Now Fairley will be playing alongside Suh, the 2010 defensive rookie of the year, in Detroit.
"What helped us tremendously was the dynamic of the system this year," Schwartz said on Saturday. "Because you couldn't make player trades or sign free agents, teams that wanted a quarterback had to pick one high to make sure they got one. People couldn't go with the value on the board; they had to go for the need. That pushed some really good players down. And when our pick came, you don't question why a guy like Nick's still there. You just say thank you and take him."
ATLANTA PLAYS THE NUMBERS
How do you calculate fair-market value for one of the best receivers to come out of college football in the last decade? You consult the well-worn NFL draft-pick value chart. The invention of Cowboys scouts two decades ago, the chart is used—religiously by some G.M.'s, casually by others—to assign a numerical value to each draft position for the purpose of trades.
Falcons G.M. Thomas Dimitroff wanted an explosive offensive weapon, and the two big and fast receivers, Green and Julio Jones, were sure to go in the top 10. After throwing out some preliminary offers to move up from his slot in the first round (27) to the Browns' (six), Dimitroff got out his calculator. According to the chart, Cleveland's pick was worth 1,600 points, so he offered the 27th choice (680 points), the 59th (310) and the 124th (48) this year. Then, assuming the Falcons would draft in the same spots next year—but those picks would be worth 20% less because they won't take the field for another season—he calculated the value of the 27th (544) and the 124th (38.4) choices in 2012. The total worth of those five positions: 1,620.4—essentially making it a straight-up trade.
I asked eight personnel directors or G.M.'s about the deal over the weekend, and seven thought Dimitroff overpaid. He may have. Dimitroff is not a typical football G.M. Last summer at training camp, between two-a-day practices, he hosted me in his office for green tea and organic biscuits. In pursuing this deal he reasoned that barring a 4--12 finish in the next few years—hard to imagine with Matt Ryan as his quarterback—he would never get a receiver like Jones unless he made a major move like this.
RYAN MALLETT MAKES SENSE ...
Sometimes it looks as if Bill Belichick enjoys the game of collecting draft choices more than actually using them on good players. But with Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett dropping so far because of a few off-field issues, the Patriots selected him 74th.
Tom Brady was the seventh quarterback taken in the 2000 draft; Mallett was the seventh QB picked this year. That is likely to be where the similarities end. If Brady, who turns 34 in August, stays healthy, the only playing time Mallett will see is mop-up duty. But that's O.K. Mallett, who had a slew of red flags flying around him (reported marijuana use in college, an alcohol-related arrest, missing a day of predraft meetings with the Panthers under disputed circumstances), can use his time with the tightly disciplined Pats to rehab his image. Say he stays out of trouble over the next three years, and Belichick and Brady talk about what a great guy and teammate he is. Or say Brady gets hurt sometime in 2012 or '13, and Mallett rides in to save the day the way Matt Cassel did in '08. New England might be able to get a first-round choice in '14 for Mallet. The only way Belichick doesn't get at least 74th-pick value, either on the field or in a future draft, is if Mallett messes up in the wee hours. But I like the gamble.
... BUT THE PATS ALSO HAD FUN
Belichick traded the 193rd pick in the draft to the Eagles for the 194th. That's it. Straight up.
"A salary-cap move!" Philly coach Andy Reid joked on Saturday night. The truth is, Reid and Belichick had made a deal with each other for 10 straight years, and here it was, the sixth round, and they hadn't made one yet. So they got on the phone and Reid said, "Listen, our streak is in trouble." Here came the no-harm, no-foul deal. Both took linebackers whom the other team wouldn't have picked—Philly drafted Ohio State's Brian Rolle, and New England picked Markell Carter from Central Arkansas. Who said Reid and Belichick are always serious?
DA'QUAN BOWERS FALLS FREE
One of the biggest issues surrounding the draft concerns players who flunk team physicals. Some clubs push the player way down their draft boards; others remove him entirely. Take Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, a possible No. 1 pick when he decided to leave school a year early last winter. He had minor meniscus surgery in January, but teams feared there was more damage in his right knee. Entering the draft, at least one team believed career-threatening microfracture surgery was next for Bowers.
The Buccaneers, who would have graded Bowers the best player if he had no knee trouble, didn't flunk him but took him out of the first round. And after round 1 ended, Tampa Bay G.M. Mark Dominik told his staff that if Bowers was there at 51, they'd grab him.
"You do your medical research," Dominik said, "and you try to figure out when it makes sense to take a player. I don't know if he's going to play one play or 10 years, but we don't think the knee needs surgery now, and we're going to give him whatever time he needs to rehab. His knee will have to be monitored closely his whole career."
It's a classic boom-or-bust pick, which made perfect sense in this boom-or-bust NFL off-season.
GRADES? WAIT AWHILE
Remember the leaguewide excitement in 2006, when purported franchise players Mario Williams, Reggie Bush and Vince Young went 1-2-3, and the Cardinals were lauded for getting two-time national champion quarterback Matt Leinart at No. 10? That draft now serves as a cautionary tale against making instant evaluations. With hindsight, these are the marks I'd hand out for the top 10 picks of '06.
1 Mario Williams, DE, TexansB+
2 Reggie Bush, RB, Saints C-
3 Vince Young, QB, TitansD
4 D'Brickashaw Ferguson, T, Jets B
5 A.J. Hawk, LB, Packers C
6 Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers B
7 Michael Huff, S, Raiders C-
8 Donte Whitner, S, Bills C+
9 Ernie Sims, LB, Lions C-
10 Matt Leinart, QB, Cardinals F
Looking for grades on the draft class of 2011? Check back in five years.
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK ABOUT THE 2011 DRAFT
Senior writer Peter King does a little Monday Morning Quarterbacking on the NFL weekend
1 I think Matt Hasselbeck made a lot of money in this draft. The free-agent quarterback turns 36 in September, and this off-season he turned down what I hear was Seattle's final contract offer. At least four teams—Arizona, Tennessee, Washington and Minnesota—left themselves with big veteran quarterback voids after the draft. Look for the Cards and the Titans to go hard after him.
2 I think if I'm a Patriots fan, I'd wonder how bad the pass rush has to get before Bill Belichick addresses it. New England's top sacker last year was defensive end Mike Wright with 5½. The Pats had three of the top 33 picks and used them on an offensive tackle, a trade for a '12 first-round pick and a cornerback. Three shots at even a lesser pass-rush prospect like Jabaal Sheard of Pitt, and no action.
3 I think this year showed how devalued the running back has become in the draft. Ryan Williams (38th, to Arizona) and Mikel Leshoure (57th, to Detroit) would have been first-round feature backs a decade ago. But with the advent of the two-back rotation on most teams, early runs on backs are now rare.
4 I think, to further that point, the best Day 3 pick will turn out to be Oregon State back Jacquizz Rodgers (inset), taken by the Falcons in the fifth round as a likely replacement for speed back Jerious Norwood. In Atlanta's offense Rodgers could put up 1,000 combined yards in his rookie year.
5 I think I would have questioned any team that had drafted Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith—who flunked three drug tests in college among other off-field issues—except the Ravens, who have the kind of coaching staff and defensive veterans to keep him in line.
6 I think the Bengals—who in the first three rounds got a playmaking receiver in A.J. Green, a promising QB in Andy Dalton, and pass-rush help in Nevada's Dontay Moch—had a franchise rarity: a very competent draft. And I don't think QB Carson Palmer will return to the team in '11.
7 I think it makes no sense to not sign undrafted college kids because of the lockout. None. They're eventually going to be signed. Why leave 400 prospects in limbo, maybe for months?
8 I think showing Mark Ingram crying live on ESPN was inappropriate. After Ingram was picked by the Saints, ESPN's Suzy Kolber read him an e-mail from his jailed father, a former Giants wideout, and the son broke down and turned away from the camera. Surprise, kid! We're going to make you cry on cue! Tawdry.
9 I think the one player you'll be surprised to watch this season is Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick from 2005. The 49ers think he'll fit Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offense well, and assuming he signs as expected with the Niners as a free agent, it'll be the closest thing to what he ran in college since, well, college.
10 I think the booing, the heartiest at a draft since Eagles fans killed the Donovan McNabb pick in 1999, got to commissioner Roger Goodell.