Though a follower of the draft for over two decades, 2009 was the first year I started doing tape breakdowns and informing myself about prospects. Not with Mel Kiper analysis or googled scouting reports, but by watching and evaluating the players myself, while taking cues from analysts I respected. Before 2009… I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of authority on the draft before that.
With that caveat in place, I have no doubt that the 2013 NFL Draft is the deepest draft I have ever seen. A few days ago, Mike Mayock made similar comments when he said the 2013 draft was the deepest he’s seen in at least ten years.
No area is deeper in this draft than the wide receiver position. Approximately ten wide receivers have received a first or second round projection, and that list does not include some of my favorites. As many as six tight ends have been talked about in that same range. In the first round, we might be witnessing perhaps the best offensive line group ever. Mayock has gone so far as to say that the 25th pick is going to feel a lot like the 5th overall pick this year. That surplus of talent will push into the middle rounds as well, because you probably won’t see ten of the first sixty picks being receivers, six tight ends in the first sixty, and so on.
In a draft that is almost unbelievable in it’s reserves, one position stands out as the exception: Linebacker. Even at the top, this isn’t a great linebacker class. I’d take Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David, Dont’a Hightower and Mychal Kendricks over any linebacker this year. What’s really striking to me is how few “fast” linebackers there are in this group that are quality prospects. To be sure, there are some gems out there later on- I’ll cover them in a future post- but they’ll likely be snatched up quickly and it won’t be long until you’re sifting through ashes just hoping to find this year’s version of Korey Toomer or Malcolm Smith.
It’s something that rival head coach Jeff Fisher brought up at the combine during his media session yesterday, although his complaints centered around a lack of inside linebackers and linebackers with size. I would agree with Fisher, except I am not lamenting a lack of big linebackers, but a lack of truly fast ones that fit Pete Carroll’s mold well enough.
John Schneider had his own presser of course, and he said something that I found interesting. He talked about his process of upgrading over parts of the roster and specifically name checked Bobby Wagner and Malcolm Smith.
This name drop interested me because it implied that Malcolm Smith is a starter. Malcolm Smith is fast, he’s smart, and he’s a more of a football player than an athlete- and he’s a good athlete. But he’s never been a full time starter, in large part to his being 6’0″ and just 226 pounds. Though a standout at USC, Smith was injured constantly, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising given his size. The only comparably sized player to be a long term starter in recent years that I know of is Cato June (6’0″, 225 pounds), who had just five starting seasons in seven years before retiring. Though a very good player, the scarcity of similar success stories and the brevity of his career suggests that he was an exception that proved the rule.
In a league where 240 pounds is considered preferable for 4-3 linebackers and 230 pounds is treated as a cutoff point, it strikes me as a tough sell to walk into next season banking on Malcolm Smith as your starter all season (and postseason) long. This is no slam on Smith, who I think is one of the teams very best backups. But players of his size typically remain backups.
Maybe Seattle would start him anyway. Maybe a weak linebacker class could scare them more than a 226 pound player with 3 NFL starts and an extensive injury history in college. Maybe they bring Leroy Hill back for one final season. Maybe. But I doubt it.
I’m open minded, and I won’t tell anyone there is a right and wrong answer on this. But I would guess that Seattle is hunting for another starter at linebacker this offseason. A fast one. If you want a starter caliber player in this draft, you will probably have to grab that player in the first four rounds. If you want a difference maker, someone like Alec Ogletree, Khaseem Greene or Arthur Brown, and he’s there at #58, you almost have to take him. I do not think Seattle will go so far as to draft a linebacker with their first pick, but if they did, I’d understand why: they might not get another chance. Certainly, if a top option remains at #58, I expect they’d rush to the podium.
Fortunately for us, 4-3 weakside linebackers are rarely drafted in the first round. It’s happened just once in the previous three drafts (Sean Witherspoon in 2010). Some of these players, such as Alec Ogletree, might be considered as 3-4 inside linebackers and get taken early as a result, as was the case for Dont’a Hightower last year. Tony Pauline’s big board lists Arthur Brown 40th overall and has Khaseem Greene (funny enough) 58th overall- the same spot as Seattle’s 2nd round pick.
Finally, there is one other factor to consider. I can’t link a source or anything, but I’ve heard third-hand that John Schneider grades his entire roster with a numbering system and makes draft picks based not on the draft grade, but on the upgrade differential of his starters and that draft grade. I can’t imagine that Malcolm Smith carries a very high starter grade- I’m not even sure he’s a starter at all. It’s hard to envision Seattle ignoring that as they work through the very early rounds, especially if a great value presents itself in round two.