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Friday, May 9, 2014
Inside Slant: Matching players and teams

By Kevin Seifert

Some NFL draft decisions are obvious and need little explanation. There isn't much analysis needed, for instance, to explain why the Oakland Raiders selected playmaking linebacker Khalil Mack at No. 5 overall Thursday night. Other decisions require further examination, and more often than not, we can find answers within the vast droves of data now available to anyone who wants it.

So with that in mind, let's dig deeper into five of the 32 first-round picks we saw fly off the board at Radio City Music Hall on Friday. All data is courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted:

One of the most vexing issues the Minnesota Vikings faced over the past three years was quarterback Christian Ponder's shaky performance against the blitz. Ponder's career completion percentage in those situations is 51.0, the third-worst mark in the NFL since the start of the 2011 season. He also threw 16 interceptions in those situations, the league's third-worst mark.

So it's no surprise that Ponder's replacement performed on the far side of the spectrum during his college career. Teddy Bridgewater's accuracy against the blitz (70.1 percent) ranked second in college football last season, and he also threw 15 touchdowns and one interception in those situations.

It's true that Bridgewater will face faster and more aggressive defenses in the NFL, but generally speaking, accuracy against the blitz/under pressure is one of the most important traits NFL teams seek in quarterbacks. After watching Ponder struggle under pressure for the past three seasons, it's easy to understand why the Vikings valued Bridgewater.

The Buffalo Bills traded up to draft Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins even after starting the night with a fine stable of receivers, from Stevie Johnson to Robert Woods to Marquise Goodwin to Mike Williams. Their punchless offense last season could be attributed to quarterback EJ Manuel's injuries as much as anything else, but it's still interesting to note how Watkins should enhance and complement this group.

The Bills finished the 2013 season ranked No. 29 in yards after the catch, routinely failing to make more of their receptions than the routes allowed. Watkins, on the other hand, excelled at extending plays at Clemson.

He led all of college football with 1,044 yards after the catch in 2013. In his career, he gained 66 percent of his yards after the catch. No receiver prospect in this draft had a higher percentage.

There's no doubt that Clemson's scheme played a role in those numbers. But at the very least, Watkins showed he is not simply a speed receiver. He is a playmaker who has demonstrated extensive ability to get the most out of every pass play in a way their incumbent group has not.

The Green Bay Packers were the only team last season who did not get a single interception from a safety. Fifth-year player Morgan Burnett stalled in his development, and the Packers already have parted ways with the two players -- M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian -- who tried to hold down the position opposite of him.

So it's no surprise that the Packers drafted a safety at No. 21 overall. Their choice was Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who had a team-high seven interceptions over his final two seasons. If they were seeking a pure playmaker, another option was Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward, who intercepted the second-most passes (seven) of any FBS player last season.

Ward went to the San Francisco 49ers at No. 30 overall. Either way, it was difficult to imagine the Packers passing up a safety in the first round.

Why did the Arizona Cardinals target a safety at No. 27 overall? Here's one way that Washington State's Deone Bucannon might be able to help right away: Defending tight ends when the Cardinals blitz.

Last season, the Cardinals sent an extra pass-rusher more frequently than any other NFL team (49.6 percent of opponents' dropbacks). But that aggressiveness came with a price. Opposing quarterbacks had a 96.0 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) on passes thrown to tight ends when facing a blitz, including 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions, fourth-worst in the league.

Buccanon measured 6-foot-1,  211 pounds, at the NFL scouting combine, the kind of size you would hope helps him match up against NFL tight ends.

You hate to dismiss a match between player and team on the night of the draft. So I'll just say it will be interesting to see how the Carolina Panthers will use receiver Kelvin Benjamin -- a pure downfield threat -- after scaling back their offense noticeably during their breakthrough 2013 season.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton averaged 8.49 air yards per pass last season, a drop from 9.31 during his first two seasons as starter. (The latter ranked No. 4 in the league during that period.) The Panthers found more success with the underneath routes, and Newton's 28.1 completion percentage on passes of at least 15 yards downfield ranked No. 36 among 37 qualified NFL quarterbacks.

Was that deficiency due to the Panthers' receivers or Newton's accuracy? The Panthers must be banking on the former. Benjamin caught eight touchdown passes on passes that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage last season. He also averaged just 4.9 yards after the catch, the lowest rate of any of the five receivers taken in the first round.

In the best-case scenario, Benjamin helps the Panthers rediscover their downfield passing game. In the worst-case, he is a downfield receiver drafted into a short-range scheme.