Mailbag: Five subtle draft trends

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Sunday, May 3, 2015

Holding this year's NFL draft in Chicago appeared to be a great move. Seeing close to 60,000 football fans watching a draft in a waterfront park was amazing.

There is no word yet about next year's location, but it's doubtful the draft will be held again in longtime home New York anytime soon. But the venue wasn't the only thing that changed in this year's draft.

Plenty of little nuances in the way teams evaluate players surfaced over the weekend. The 2015 draft was strong for quantity and quality at wide receiver, offensive line, pass-rusher and running back. Beyond that, there are some subtle trends that emerged.

Here are five things we learned during the 2015 draft:

1. A clear list of top-tier players minimized the number of first-round trades. Most teams and draft observers felt two quarterbacks, two running backs, three wide receivers, three offensive linemen, at least two pass-rushers, two defensive linemen and one cornerback were the elite talents in this class. The only debate was about the order in which those players would go. There were no surprises in the top 16 picks and only one trade into that group, with the San Diego Chargers moving up to get halfback Melvin Gordon at No. 15.

There was only one other first-round trade. The last time there were only two first-round trades was in 2011, a draft in which 12 of the first 16 picks have become Pro Bowlers. Because the ratings of these players were so strong, teams were reluctant to give up their early picks unless they received a great offer. The Tennessee Titans weren't going to give up quarterback Marcus Mariota to a team in the middle of the draft order unless they received at least three first-round picks. Teams in the top six were willing to listen, but Jacksonville wasn't going to give up Dante Fowler Jr. and Washington wasn't going to give up the chance to take a pass-rusher or offensive lineman Brandon Scherff without loading up on picks.

It's in the years when the top of the draft isn't strong that you see a lot of trades. The 2013 draft wasn't considered strong and had five first-round trades, including two in the top 10. The 2012 draft was considered better than 2013's, but there were nine first-round trades, including four in the top 10. Looking back to 2012, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne were taken in the top six, but they haven't lived up to their billings.

2. Drafting for schemes is taking some of the sizzle out of the draft. Fans yawn seeing versatile safeties, slot cornerbacks and inside pass-rushers drafted in the 20s of the first round, but get used to it. Teams are drafting scheme-specific players. The Green Bay Packers used first-round picks over the past two years on free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and safetyDamarious Randall. Some were scratching their heads with Carolina's selection of linebacker Shaq Thompson. He fits in as a weakside linebacker who can work well in pass coveragein the mold of Thomas Davis.

Once the draft gets past the 20th pick, most players on the board have second-round grades, even though some will be first-round picks. Because teams drafting from 21 on down in the first round are playoff teams, they usually already are strong enough that they can draft for spots in the top 30 on their roster. That might not be sexy, but it works.

3. A pattern is developing for prospects with off-the-field issues. If a first-round talent has off-the-field problems, this year's draft illustrated the drop in his ratings might be a round or two. If the problems are more concerning, the drop is into the third round or lower. Linebacker Shane Ray clearly saw his value drop on paper, but that didn't stop him from being a first-round pick. Some had him going in the top six until he was cited for marijuana possession the Monday before the draft. Denver rated him 10th on the board. The Broncos traded up to No. 23 to get him. The drop cost him millions, but it gave the Broncos a chance to grab a top-10 talent.

Dorial Green-Beckham was considered a first-round receiver by some, maybe the fourth-best receiver in this draft. He fell into the second round and was taken by Tennessee at No. 40. Pass-rusher Randy Gregory (second round to Dallas) and cornerback P.J. Williams (third round to New Orleans) had off-the-field issues that contributed to them falling from the first round. LSU tackle La'el Collins didn't get drafted after the story broke about an ex-girlfriend who was fatally shot. Though police say he isn't a suspect, they want to question him as part of the investigation. Collins basically became undraftable until his role in the case is completed.

4. The spread of spread quarterbacks is working against their entry into the NFL. Mariota might be considered the best spread quarterback coming into the league in recent years and was taken second overall by the Titans.

Bryce Petty of Baylor and Brett Hundley of UCLA weren't as fortunate. Petty went in the fourth round to the Jets and Hundley is now stashed behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay after being selected in the fifth round. They come from pure spread offenses that didn't allow them to work out of a huddle or do three-, five- and seven-step drops.Garrett Grayson of Colorado and Sean Mannion of Oregon State came from pro-style offenses and went ahead of them. Based on this year's draft, it appears teams might be willing to take pure spread quarterbacks only as developmental players, which lowers their stock into the middle of the draft. Overall, only seven quarterbacks were taken.

5. There is a little bit of a push for more power running offenses. The St. Louis Rams drafted Todd Gurley and two offensive linemen to use more power runs. The Redskins drafted Scherff to give them more power runs to the right. Detroit took guard Laken Tomlinson and fullback Michael Burton with the idea of running the ball. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted two tackles in the first two rounds to ensure the ability to power run in the future. After seeing Marshawn Lynch in two Super Bowls, teams are appreciating the value of the power run.

From the inbox

Q: I'm very happy with the Lions' first round. Tell me if I'm looking at this wrong. Last month we traded a fourth- and fifth-rounder for Haloti Ngata. On Thursday, we traded the 23rd pick for the 28th pick (OLLaken Tomlinson), OLManny Ramirez and two fifth-rounders. The two fifth-rounders pretty much cancel out what we gave up for Ngata, so our first-round haul this year is two offensive linemen and Ngata. Assuming Ramirez and Tomlinson are starters, I think that was brilliant.

Davis in Little Elm, Texas

A:Detroit GM Martin Mayhew had a very smart draft. It was tough to lose Ndamukong Suh and two other defensive tackles. I thought Mayhew did a great job of filling some voids. I love the fact he's added depth to the offensive line. The Lions are in position to get to the playoffs in back-to-back years.

Q: Is it me, or did the Titans just make a bad poker move? Don't get me wrong, I like Marcus Mariota, but the offers that were out there for the No. 2 pick seemed to be pretty good. They would look better with the two picks the Browns made or even better with Phillip Rivers and Melvin Gordon (San Diego's pick). Also, I heard a few Philly beat reporters saying the Eagles were offering two first-rounders plus Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks. How could Tennessee turn down multiple young starters for a QB who doesn't fit the team's coaching style? And please don't say it's a quarterback league, because I think Mariota can flourish, but probably not with the Titans.

DJ in Philadelphia

A: Chip Kelly said he didn't offer any players. It's pretty clear the Titans wanted the equivalent of three No. 1s for the No. 2 pick. The Titans believe Mariota can be a franchise quarterback. Why trade him?

Q: What is the marijuana threshold for college testing vs. NFL? I know the NFL increased the threshold, but I am wondering how are so many guys caught failing drug tests even with a raised threshold?

Matt in Richmond, Virginia

A: What happens in college doesn't go against the player at the NFL level, so you might not hear about positive tests until the combine. If you have a positive test at the combine, you go into the drug program at Stage 1. That's important to know. Some people think college positive tests work against the player. There is no NFL carryover before the combine.

Q: I have noticed that certain NFL teams constantly go through QBs and head coaches and yet they continue to have losing seasons. Wouldn't you think after a while that maybe a team like the Browns would realize that the problem lies elsewhere? Seems to me that they should maybe stick with QB and start building the rest of the team.

Jason in Halifax, Pennsylvania

A: I agree. Changing coaches causes roster issues because the new coach wants his players, not necessarily the players from the previous regime. Quarterbacks going through constant offensive coaching changes might regress, which prompts teams to change quarterbacks every few years. It's a bad cycle. The Browns are among a handful of teams with those problems.

Q: With Johnny Manziel coming out of rehab, Dion Jordan getting a year suspension for substance abuse, and it being draft time again, it feels timely to ask if the league is doing enough to let new players know how easy it is for them to ruin their careers, lose out on a lot of money, and most importantly ruin their health? What can the league do to make it clear that once you are drafted or signed, your college party time is over?

John in St. Petersburg, Florida

A: All the league can do is educate players and make sure the sanctions are strong enough to sway their behavior. Teams then have to be more cautious about selecting players with substance issues. Jordan, Manziel and Justin Blackmon are former first-round picks whose careers are at a crossroads. It's scary.

Q: My thought on the extra point/field goal is to move the spot of the holder up 1 yard so he can line up only 6 yards behind line of scrimmage. This would create more blocks/misses. The plays would be less automatic and remove their somewhat anti-climactic nature.

Michael in San Jose, California

A: I would rather see that than putting the ball for two-point conversions at the 2 and the extra-point spot at the 15. I still don't see the benefit of making extra points more challenging. If the thought is to promote more decisions and excitement, promote the idea of going for more two-point plays instead of making it more difficult on the kicker.

Short takes

Curt in Ripon, California, is hearing the NFL wants to create a permanent site for its offices, studios and the draft. He wonders if Stan Kroenke could offer that site. I doubt it. Kroenke, the Rams' owner, is doing his own deal in Los Angeles. The NFL will work on its own if it wants new digs, but I believe it likes being in New York.

Craig in Rochester, New York, wonders why the Giants, whose defense was one of the worst last year, didn't make a play for Ndamukong Suh. There was no way they would pay $19 million a year to a defensive lineman. From a salary-cap standpoint, they couldn't do it. Philosophically, they wouldn't do it.

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