Commentary

Defensive decisions loom large

How pass-rushers pan out will help determine draft's ultimate winners and losers

Originally Published: April 30, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Owners and general managers knew the relatively hard-line rookie salary pool would have positive impacts on team economics and cap management.

What they underestimated were the positive effects it would have on the three-day draft process. Ratings for the 2012 draft rose significantly because of the increased incentive to make trades, which in turn increased action.

For the Redskins, the trade from No. 6 to No. 2 to get Robert Griffin III will cost them roughly $1.11 million a year more than the four-year, $16 million deal the Skins would have had to pay if they had stayed at No. 6. For a franchise quarterback, that is a steal.

Teams executed 27 draft-day trades, including eight in the first round. The amazing part is the quick pace of the draft despite the trades. Most teams didn't need to use all of their allotted time to trade picks and make selections. The first round zipped by in three hours. The other six rounds took only 11 hours, less than two hours a round.

The pace was so fast the league will have to tighten up the follow-up on stage during the selection process. By the time players invited to the event hugged commissioner Roger Goodell and had family pictures taken on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, two and three picks had been made.

Overall, though, the 2012 draft was a great show. Here were the five biggest trends from the draft:

[+] EnlargeBruce Irvin
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIThe Seahawks surprised many by taking the talented but somewhat unproven Bruce Irvin at No. 15.

1. Bold moves on defense: With the NFL being a quarterback-driven league, teams and coaches find their biggest challenge is getting someone who can pressure the quarterback. How the early pass-rusher picks pan out will go a long way toward determining the ultimate winners and losers of this draft.

Seven pass-rushers were taken between picks No. 15 and No. 28. Many of the choices were initially criticized. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll started the run on pass-rushers by trading back three slots and picking defensive end Bruce Irvin from West Virginia. Few would debate Irvin being perhaps the quickest pass-rusher in the draft. Where Carroll is criticized is the uncertainty about whether Irvin will ever be a three-down player. Irvin never started a game at West Virginia.

Jets coach Rex Ryan took North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples. Ryan thinks Coples could be a Shaun Ellis-type "five technique" defensive end. But would the Jets get more bang for their buck had they taken pass-rushing linebacker Melvin Ingram, whom the Chargers selected at No. 18? The Bears followed at No. 19 by taking Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin instead of Whitney Mercilus, an Illinois defensive end whom the Texans took at No. 26 to be an outside linebacker. McClellin's college sack numbers were down because he dropped into coverage so much. Many scouts think he could be a better 3-4 linebacker than a 4-3 defensive end.

The Patriots may have gotten lucky at No. 21 because Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones fell to them. At No. 28, the Packers believe Southern California linebacker Nick Perry can be the pass-rusher to help out former Trojan Clay Matthews, who had only six sacks last year.

2. One unit's failure changes draft strategies: The Packers, Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the league's three worst defenses last year. To fix the problem, those three teams went on the offensive trying to find defensive players. In the case of the Packers and Patriots, their drafts were historic. Both teams used their first six picks on defenders. From 1967 to 2011, that happened only six times. Four of the Bucs' first five picks were defenders.

The Patriots hope Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower will start right away and that Tavon Wilson can work his way into the safety rotation. The Packers hope Perry and defensive end Jerel Worthy can upgrade their front seven and Casey Hayward can be a third cornerback.

On the flip side, the Colts finished 30th on offense and used their first four choices on offensive threats -- quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

3. Bad teams stock up: The four worst teams in the league in 2011 -- Indianapolis, St. Louis, Minnesota and Cleveland -- each finished the draft with 10 picks. As it turned out, the Rams and Vikings were movers and shakers. The Vikings may have bluffed Cleveland into giving them three draft choices to allow the Browns to move up one spot to take a player -- running back Trent Richardson -- Minnesota wasn't considering.

The Rams, already rich in choices because of the trade with the Redskins, picked up an additional second-rounder and a fifth-rounder with trades in the first two rounds. At one point, the Viking had 13 choices. They made some other swaps and finished with 10 picks this year and an extra fourth- and sixth-rounder next year. The Vikings and Rams are among the least talented teams in football. They needed to load up on picks.

4. More QB panic picks: Once again, the need to upgrade at quarterback forced teams to draft players higher than expected. Luck and Griffin III were probably the two best players in this draft, so they were destined to go in the top two picks. Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden became first-round picks out of necessity. The Dolphins and Browns were desperate for quarterback help. The Dolphins couldn't get Peyton Manning to visit their headquarters even though he was a free agent and has a condo in Miami. The Browns were outbid in the Griffin III trade and wanted to end the Colt McCoy era.

The Dolphins felt they had no choice but to select Tannehill at No. 8. It marked only the third time in the modern draft era that three quarterbacks went in the top eight. If Weeden starts as expected in Week 1, it will be the first time in NFL history that three rookie quarterbacks start on opening day.

Last year, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert went in the top 12 because the Titans, Vikings and Jaguars didn't want to risk not getting a quarterback until the second round.

5. High demand for safeties: Alabama's Mark Barron should thank some of top active and retired safeties of the 2000s. The search to find the next great safety shot Barron's value to the seventh spot in the first round.

In a controversial move, the Buccaneers were willing to lose the chance to take cornerback Morris Claiborne by dropping down two spots to take Barron. They gained a fourth-round choice. Barron became only the fifth safety taken in the top seven since 1992.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer