National Football League

10 Observations Entering the NFL Draft

I. When it comes to the Rams’ second first-round selection (No. 22), the pick might be more of a mystery than people think. If Tavon Austin falls to them at No. 16 (and I think he will), then he seems to be the most logical choice. His lack of size is a concern, but the Rams need offensive playmakers and he can score in a variety of ways. That’s a simplistic view of the situation, but it’s also the truth. But your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the No. 22 pick. Addressing the safety need would appear to be a top priority, but Jeff Fisher is also the same man who didn’t have an issue starting Craig Dahl for 16 games last year. The front four is the team’s identity, and the fact is that this year’s class is deep at safety. Thus, Fisher and Les Snead might target running back, linebacker or guard at No. 22 and address the need at safety later. (Trading down is also a realistic possibility.) Again, safety makes the most sense. But Fisher has surprised before. (How many of us thought Michael Brockers would be one of the top players on Fisher and Snead’s board last year?)

II. No general manager was more aggressive in free agency than Miami’s Jeff Ireland, who might have one more trick up his sleeve come draft night. The Dolphins currently list Jonathan Martin as their starting left tackle, but the bottom line is that he’s barely tolerable as a right tackle, let alone as Ryan Tannehill’s blindside protector. No, the Dolphins are still very much in need of a left tackle after Jake Long signed with the Rams. And while some have suggested that Miami could trade up for Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson, think bigger than that. If Ireland can put a package together to get up ahead of the Eagles and Lions, he could put himself in position to select Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher, who arguably has as much upside as Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel (if not more upside). The Raiders don’t have many picks this year thanks to Hue Jackson’s boneheaded trade for Carson Palmer two years ago. They would make the perfect trade partner for the Dolphins at No. 3.

III. It wouldn’t be shocking if Florida State’s E.J. Manuel were drafted in the first round next week. He’s the best fit in this year’s class to run the read-option, so if there’s a team that wants to jump on the latest NFL trend, Manuel is their safest bet. For starters, he actually ran the read-option in college (unlike Geno Smith) and is a legitimate running threat thanks to his athleticism. While his accuracy and decision-making need to improve if he’s going to be a consistent passer, Manuel is more intriguing than fellow quarterback prospect Matt Barkley, whom some believe could be selected in the first round.

IV. It’s interesting that LSU safety Eric Reid was invited to Radio City Music Hall and Florida’s Matt Elam wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that Reid will be selected before Elam, but the odds are now in his favor. Elam and Kenny Vaccaro are universally rated as the best safeties in this year’s class, but it wouldn’t be shocking if teams have fallen in love with Reid’s size (6-2 and 208 pounds). The LSU product is also renowned for his football intelligence and intangibles, as well as his ability to play centerfield in the deep middle. Personally, I don’t think Reid recognizes plays quickly enough, and he doesn’t break on the ball as fast as he should. He’s also inconsistent in coverage and will be caught flat-footed at times. But regardless of what my notes suggest, Reid is headed to New York and is likely to be a top-32 selection.

V. If you Google search 10 mock drafts, you’ll likely read eight of them that have either Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper being selected in the top 15. But NFL teams don’t seem to value guards as highly as draftniks. Case in point: David DeCastro. Not many people had the Stanford guard falling out of the top 15 last year, and he wound up dropping to the Steelers at No. 24 overall. In fact, since 2004 the average pick for a guard is No. 23. Thus, don’t be surprised if both Warmack and Cooper are still on the board once the top 15 teams have made their selections.

VI. The consensus is that the Steelers will draft a receiver at No. 17, which is rational considering they lost Mike Wallace in free agency and could lose Emmanuel Sanders next offseason if they don’t sign him to a long-term deal. But don’t rule out the possibility of Pittsburgh drafting tight end Tyler Eifert, who spent a lot of time lining up wide for Notre Dame last season. No other tight end in this year’s draft class highpoints the ball as well as Eifert, who is a mismatch against linebackers and corners in the slot. Keep in mind that Heath Miller also tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in Week 16 last year and is due $6.02 million in 2014 at age 30. If the Steelers are scared off by Tavon Austin’s size or the fact that Cordarrelle Patterson is raw, Eifert still fills the team’s need to add offensive playmakers.

VII. Many scouts aren’t high on Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, which is why he’s projected to go in the third or fourth round next week. But his intangibles could make him the sleeper quarterback in this year’s draft class. Thanks to Sam Bradford’s shoulder injury in 2009, Jones was essentially a four-year starter at OU. And while defenses in the Big 12 are Charmin ultra soft, he still faced top competition week in and week out. He also finished as the all-time leading passer in Big 12 history and won 39 games as a starter, which give his 16,646 career passing yards context. Is he a perfect prospect? No, which is why he might watch as up to five quarterbacks are drafted ahead of him. But given his experience, productivity and prototypical arm strength, teams could do much worse than Jones in the middle rounds.

VIII. A lot of the focus leading up to this year’s draft has been on the depth at safety, but teams in need of a cornerback won’t be hurting for choices, either. Dee Milliner is the best of the bunch, but Xavier Rhodes is arguably the top press-man corner in this year’s draft. Meanwhile, Desmond Trufant doesn’t display much toughness in run support, but he has as much athleticism and speed as any corner in this year’s class, and his fluidity in coverage could make him a top-25 pick. Johnthan Banks timed poorly in the forty, but he finished with 16 career interceptions at Mississippi State thanks to his instincts and intelligence. Teammate Darrius Slay could also find himself coming off the board in the bottom of the first round thanks to his speed and athleticism. Following his strong showing at the combine, Connecticut’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson is gaining attention heading into the final week before the draft, so again, the choices are plentiful at corner.

IX. It’s widely assumed that Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson will be the only left tackles taken in the first round. But at 6-5 and 310 pounds with 34-inch arms, Menelik Watson could be a fit as a left tackle in a zone-blocking scheme. He’s light on his fight, displays a quick first step and moves well in space. After being invited to Radio City Music Hall last week, chances are high that the former Seminole will be a top-40 pick.

X. GM Buddy Nix on if the Bills would be reaching if they took a quarterback at No. 8 overall: “This quarterback class is better than everybody thinks. Five or six of those guys – maybe seven – do a lot of things good and do them good enough to win.” This is from the same man who handed Ryan Fitzpatrick a massive contract based on six good games, passed on the likes of Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the middle rounds, and just signed Kevin Kolb to be his starter.

Teams in need of a quarterback, beware. Buddy Nix approves of “five, six, or seven of them.”