Four things we learned at draft
A scintillating draft moment; plus, why NFL must create developmental league
NEW YORK -- Fittingly, the 2014 NFL draft was great theater. Day 1 had the drama of Johnny Manziel falling to the 22nd pick. Day 2 offered the stunning news that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon might be suspended for the season because of a positive test for marijuana, possibly depriving Johnny Football of his best pass-catcher. Day 3 featured the first openly gay player being drafted.
The 2014 draft had a ton of talent because 98 underclassmen applied and 61 were drafted. Among the notable trades were wide receiver Stevie Johnson going to the San Francisco 49ers from the Buffalo Bills and the Bills' acquisition of running back Bryce Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Here is what else we learned during the draft:
1. A fitting ending to a great NFL draft: Seeing Michael Sam cry after hearing the news that he was selected in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams was perhaps the greatest scene in NFL draft history. It was a historic moment for Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted, The Rams and head coach Jeff Fisher turned this well-scrutinized story into a moment that will be remembered for a long time. Sam, the 249th player selected, joins a Rams franchise that had perhaps the best draft of any team and already has the best defensive line in football.
One of the biggest questions on Day 3 was what the Houston Texans were going to do at quarterback. In the fourth round, the Texans selected Tom Savage from Pittsburgh over AJ McCarron of Alabama and others. The Texans elected to stay away from developing the flashy Manziel. Derek Carr wasn't an option because of the failures of his brother, David, the first pick of the Texans in 2002, their first season in the league. Savage will work behind Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Browns never resolved wide receiver problems created by the potential season-long suspension for Gordon and the re-fractured arm of Nate Burleson. Cleveland's only pick on Day 3 was cornerback Pierre Desir. All their other picks were traded.
As expected, the Seattle Seahawks used Rounds 3-7 to build. They ended up with seven Day 3 draft choices, many of them pretty exciting choices. After taking a wide receiver and tackle in the first two days, the Seahawks generated buzz by getting a pass-rusher (UCLA defensive end Cassius Marsh), a receiver (Kevin Norwood of Alabama) and an athletic linebacker (Kevin Pierre-Louis from Boston College).
2. How the spread offense has changed draft boards: When running offenses ruled the game and 3-4 defenses were more in play, teams drafted differently than they did in 2014. To anchor their 3-4 defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers used a first-round pick on massive nose tackle Casey Hampton in 2001. That doesn't happen anymore. The 2014 draft defined the new NFL. Given a choice between a 330-pound anchor or a 200-pound safety, teams will take the safety. Unless an inside linebacker can show range and some coverage ability, his ratings might drop the player to the third day of the draft. The message became clear Thursday. Nine defensive backs were chosen in the first round, including four safeties. Nose tackle Louis Nix III, a projected first-round pick, had to be rescued 83 picks into the draft by the Texans because he might play only on run downs, which could be less than 35 percent of the snaps.
Teams have incorporated playing time into draft ratings. Pass defenses are going to be on the field more than 60 percent of the snaps. Slowly, but surely, teams are downgrading pure run players and upgrading the pass defenders or linebackers who can play the pass. One benefactor was Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. As a pure safety, Ward, 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, was a second-round prospect. The 49ers made him a first-round choice because he can play safety and slot cornerback.
Many were surprised when the New England Patriots drafted Dominique Easley in the first round. He's a 288-pound defensive tackle who has had two ACL surgeries. One of his strengths is providing an inside pass rush. With the field being spread by receivers and tight ends, inside pass-rushers are gaining in stature. Michael Bennett of the Seahawks parlayed his inside pass rush into a $7 million annual contract. In the 2014 draft, inside and middle linebackers were affected. Only two inside linebackers -- Ryan Shazier of the Steelers and C.J. Mosley of the Baltimore Ravens -- were first-round picks. Only two inside or middle linebackers went in Rounds 2 and 3.
3. NFL should consider a developmental league, especially after seeing how the draft went for QBs: Seeing Jimmy Garoppolo go to the Patriots in the second round should remind the NFL about the importance of a developmental league. Ryan Mallett has spent three years in New England, where he gets great coaching from a great organization. But after three years, he has thrown only four passes in the regular season. Players can't be players unless they play. Few years were as quarterback-rich as the 2012 draft that featured Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. The previous really great quarterback draft was 2004. Blake Bortles, Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Carr will get their chances to play as early as their rookie seasons, but what about the rest?
Nine quarterbacks went on the third day of the draft, including six in the sixth round. Savage may get his chance in Houston. Normally, lower-round picks tend to be third-stringers. With draft choices being more reasonably priced under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams with great quarterbacks are willing to invest a significant draft choice on a talented quarterback. They are under contract for four years. But if the starters are healthy, those young quarterbacks waste four years if they don't play. If Tom Brady plays the entire season as expected, Mallett will hit free agency with almost no experience. In Denver, Brock Osweiler has thrown 20 regular-season passes in two seasons and won't get many more in the next two seasons behind Peyton Manning. The creation of a league in which quarterbacks and other players can be developed is long overdue.
4. Running backs took another step back in this draft: It took 54 picks before a running back was selected. That was no surprise. The surprise was some of the teams that selected them. The Cincinnati Bengals used a second-round pick on Jeremy Hill even though they have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. San Francisco selected Carlos Hyde in the second round even though it has running backs Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore. The Bengals and 49ers stayed true to their draft boards, but the changing nature of the game has dropped draft ratings for running backs to a point good teams don't mind taking what might have been first-round picks years ago and letting the player sit for a season or two. The cost of running backs has dropped. Top unrestricted free-agent running backs typically don't get more than $3.5 million per year. Chris Johnson, cut by the Tennessee Titans, received a $4 million-per-year contract from the New York Jets.
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