The early stages of a NFL draft usually features a good balance of offensive and defensive talent. In the last seven years, 50 offensive players have been drafted within the top fifteen picks compared to 55 players on defense. In five of the last seven years, there’s been an 8-7 split in favor of one side of the ball with just two drafts edging towards the defense (nine defensive players to six offensive players in 2010 and 2006). In 2008 eight of the first eleven picks were defensive players.
The last draft that weighed heavily in favor of the offense came in 2004 when ten of the first fifteen picks were offensive players – a class that included Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Robert Gallery and Ben Roethlisberger among others.
Aside from that, there’s a balance between the two with a slight edge going to the defense. The last few years have contained some ‘obvious’ stock talent on the defensive side of the ball – players that were projected to go early pretty much from day one. Think Ndamukong Suh, Eric Berry, Patrick Peterson, Gerald McCoy Marcell Dareus and Chris Long. This year I’m struggling to find a single player worthy of an absolute top-ten projection, a striking review of the defensive talent that could be available next April.
Perhaps it’ll simply be a year similar to 2004, with the early picks being dominated by offense? Andrew Luck will be the #1 overall pick and it appears likely at least one more quarterback will be drafted early. Offensive tackles such as Matt Kalil, Jonathan Martin and Riley Reiff could become high picks and with a degree of depth at receiver there’s every chance we could see an early run on wide outs too.
Even so, there’s an uncomfortable feel to a class that lacks quality defensive talent.
Many have projected Quinton Coples as a top-ten player, something I’ve argued against on the evidence we’ve seen so far. When you see the lack of alternatives on defense, perhaps it’s worth considering that someone will tap into the physical potential of Coples even if he’ll be entering the NFL with a lot to prove? Kansas City found themselves in a similar situation in 2009, choosing to reach for Tyson Jackson due to the unappealing alternatives on the board with the #3 overall pick. Coples is far from a lost cause but his physical potential and appearance on the field at the moment far outweighs his perfomance and production.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne has enjoyed a strong start to the 2011 season with three interceptions to go with the five he collected last year. Could he rise to the top of someone’s board? What about a playmaking cornerback like Jayron Hosley at Virginia Tech who lacks ideal size at 5-10 and 171lbs and will give up some plays – but is the definition of a playmaker with 12 interceptions in less than one and a half seasons? Dre Kirkpatrick gets a good review due to his height and background working under Nick Saban at Alabama, but I’ve not been impressed with his tape so far.
Janoris Jenkins is the forgotten man of the 2012 draft, but he flashed top-ten abilities at Florida. He may have transferred to North Alabama after a series of problems off the field, but let’s not ignore that Julio Jones, AJ Green and Alshon Jeffery had their worst games against Jenkins last year. If you feel confident he’s a reformed character with greater responsibility and maturity then he maintains a high grade.
I’m not a huge fan of a slightly over rated group of linebackers, but you can foresee a situation where a player like Vontaze Burfict goes earlier than perhaps he should. The same could be said for Boston College linebacker Luke Kuelchy or Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. Personally I see North Carolina’s Zach Brown as the superior linebacker prospect so far.
The nose tackle position has taken on an increased level of importance and Alameda Ta’amu may not be an obvious choice early in round one but he has the size, mobility and potential to be a very effective player at the next level. Memphis tackle Dontari Poe is in a similar situation – having the frame and potential but offering teams more physical potential and scheme fit than proven production.
Several defensive ends are starting to draw attention – Marshall’s Vinny Curry is a battering ram of a defensive end with 9.5 sacks already in 2011. Andre Branch at Clemson is starting to become a consistent performer with seven sacks this season and Oklahoma’s Frank Alexander has 6.5. The most impressive defensive lineman I’ve watched this year – Florida State’s Bjoern Werner – will not be eligible until 2013.
Curry looks like a first round level talent so far, but he’s not an explosive player off the snap and he lacks game changing speed off the edge. You can’t fault his effort, size, mobility and effective hand-use, but teams may be put off by average straight line speed. Branch is lighter on his feet and has a greater initial burst – he’s one to keep monitoring as Clemson keeps winning. Tigers teammate Brandon Thompson impresses on tape but has an alarming lack of end product in the stats column over a four year career. Jared Crick has been patchy and inconsistent at Nebraska, but offered a skill-set similar to JJ Watt. He will miss the rest of the 2011 season with a torn pectoral muscle and could drop slightly if it impacts his ability to be 100% for draft work outs.
Mot of these suggestions wouldn’t enter the early first round discussion in previous years, but such is the class of 2012 some of these players may end up being high picks. It’s possibly less of a concern for teams in the era of the rookie wage cap, but the stigma attached to missing on draft picks can be costly for reputations and continued employment.
The question I get asked the most – and I wish I could answer it in a more satisfactory way – is what defensive talent will be available as a consolation prize if the Seahawks miss out on a quarterback? The honest answer is there will be a shortage of big name college defensive players for people to invest their hopes into. I’m yet to find someone like Colorado’s Jimmy Smith who lit up the screen and flashed under rated elite skills and unmatched potential. Last April San Francisco and St. Louis both drafted defensive ends in Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn, yet no player of that quality is making themselves known for 2012.
Perhaps of more concern for the Seahawks – a lack of great defensive talent may push teams towards one of their other great passions, the quarterback position. We saw a run on quarterbacks last year with four being drafted in the first twelve picks. Could the same happen again next April, with players being over drafted like Christian Ponder? It could happen, even if I’ve offered a less than favorable review of Landry Jones and am yet to be convinced by Ryan Tannehill. Seattle will have to be on it’s toes if the intention is to select a specific quarterback in round one.
So what can we project so far? If I was compiling a top-prospects list today I suspect it could be completely different in a months time. This group continues to ask an awful lot questions and the answers are taking a little longer to work out. This is potentially how I see the top seven players so far:
#1 Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford)
#2 Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
#3 Matt Barkley (QB, USC)
#4 Matt Kalil (OT, USC)
#5 Dwight Jones (WR, North Carolina)
#6 Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama)
#7 Jonathan Martin (OT, Stanford)
If I was putting together a bigger board I wouldn’t necessarily be able to make a logical case to separate the player at #8 and the player at #22. For example, I like Zach Brown enough to put him at #8 but is he any more likely to have an impact at the next level than Justin Blackmon? At his best Blackmon has a little Roddy White to his game and maybe a little Greg Jennings. He has the ‘alpha male’ streak that could take him to the top on a good offense. He also suffers from basic mental errors that will frustrate you, he’s not a consistent hands catcher, he’s not got incredible size and he won’t run a brilliant forty time.
In terms of importance to a team, the nose tackles and defensive lineman could crack the top ten and so could the cornerbacks such as Morris Claiborne and Jayron Hosley. You come back to Quinton Coples and just wonder what he could be like if he had a consistent motor or was a little quicker off the edge?
So what am I sure about? Trent Richardson is playing at a different level this season and with the rookie pay scale making the running back position a more enticing early pick, there’s every chance he could go in the top five.
Let’s say Indianapolis has the second overall pick next April, with Miami winning the race to draft Andrew Luck. The Colts may not automatically move on to the next best quarterback as a long term replacement for Peyton Manning. They drafted a finesse left tackle in Anthony Castonzo last year and I feel uncomfortable projecting him to the right hand side given his frame and skill set. Von Miller – last year’s #2 overall pick - signed a fully guaranteed four-year $21m contract. Assuming Manning can recover from his current injury, $21m for a player who will be a day one starter and offer an immediate explosion of talent doesn’t seem like a stretch. Without the rookie pay scale you’re looking at a deal similar to Ndamukong Suh’s $68m contract with $40m in guarantees. The difference is quite incredible and it’s why running backs will be back on the agenda at the top of round one.
The 2012 draft will be the first time we see the true impact of the rookie cap, with positions like receiver and running back perhaps getting more of an opportunity as they did before the big boom in contracts. Dwight Jones has been a revelation this season for North Carolina and is the complete package at receiver. He could really help a team breaking in a young quarterback. One of Jones’ greatest qualities besides hands, speed and size is his ability to adjust to the football and make difficult catches from imperfect throws. He could be a dream pick for a player like Sam Bradford, Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton with St. Louis, Jacksonville and Carolina set to pick early again in 2012.
The end of loaded contracts could also see teams rolling the dice more often on quarterbacks in the hope of finding ‘the guy’ for a league dominated by elite signal callers. This won’t avoid reputations being tarnished by bad decisions, but it will allow teams to move on if a player doesn’t work out as hoped. We could see a continuation of last year’s boom in quarterbacks going early despite my own projection of just two players with first round grades at the position.