During a wildly entertaining first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night, the big three quarterbacks came off the board in three unexpected directions. Curiously, the team that had its choice of passers seemed to make the worst decision of them all. Identifying value and proper process is often a tenuous proposition, but even before Round 2 begins, it seems like the Browns and Vikings did a far better job of repairing their broken quarterback situations than the Jaguars did. In fact, those two franchises might have found a bargain for a bargain in the way they drafted Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater, respectively.
Jacksonville destroyed every mock draft in existence by selecting Blake Bortles with the third overall pick. In the process, they may very well have sidelined their latest rebuilding project. Having maintained total radio silence on Bortles from the beginning of the process, the news that the Jaguars would take him was the first stunning development of the night. Sometimes, a surprising pick can make a lot of sense in hindsight. This is not one of them.
Bortles, whose stock rose dramatically during the five months between the end of the college football season and Thursday’s draft, looks far more like a traditional quarterback than his compatriots in this year’s Big Three. As Chris Brown noted in his excellent breakdown of the three quarterback prospects, that was the defining characteristic of Jacksonville’s last failed quarterback, Mizzou product Blaine Gabbert. The 6-foot-5 Bortles has the prototypical size and arm talent1 you associate with classic pocket passers. He’s not necessarily a mobile quarterback,2 but Bortles is enough of an athlete that teams can imagine sneaking him out of the pocket and having him survive when plays break down.
The problems with Bortles, instead, lie with his rawness. He has managed to whip the ball around despite exhibiting inconsistent mechanics, which have been especially noticeable and problematic against a heavy pass rush. An NFL team sees that and imagines what he can do if he gets with a professional-caliber coach, but there are guys who just never find a way to handle the rush without having their mechanics break down. Gabbert was one of them, which is why a guy who looked like a superstar quarterback in shorts did stuff like this when teams got pressure on him. The Jaguars fired Jack del Rio and brought in a respected quarterback guru in Mike Mularkey to “fix” Gabbert, and he couldn’t do anything.
Jacksonville will hand off the Bortles reconstruction duties to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose track record in improving quarterbacks is limited at best.3 Jacksonville’s offensive line is also pretty brutal; 2013 second overall pick Luke Joeckel had an abysmal time at right tackle before breaking his ankle, and while the team added Zane Beadles in free agency, it lost starters Uche Nwaneri and Brad Meester. It’ll likely add an offensive lineman or two over the remainder of the draft, but the line isn’t doing Bortles any favors.
That isn’t to say that Bortles is an obvious bust, either, because that’s not fair. The Jaguars might very well be right and find that the same guy who made plenty of plays during his time at UCF will require only a little bit of molding and resculpting to become the team’s franchise quarterback. It’s just a very risky proposition for an organization that has failed on exactly this sort of player in its recent past, albeit under an entirely different administration. It may very well look back on Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack and rue passing on other top-caliber talents, but if an organization identifies a quarterback as its guy, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult to pass on him. What makes it a truly frustrating pick is what could have been for the Jaguars — and what came to fruition for the Browns.
Nobody approached the first round in terms of maneuvering and creating value better than the Browns, who managed to come away with Manziel and pick up a potentially monstrous trade asset in doing so. When the Jaguars took Bortles at three, it left Watkins on the board for the Buffalo Bills, who couldn’t resist trading up to grab the wideout of their fantasies. In doing so, they paid a heavy cost. To move up from nine to four, the Bills gave up a fourth-round pick and their first-rounder in the 2015 draft, which could be an incredibly valuable pick for Cleveland.
The Bills haven’t had a winning season in nine years, and over that time frame, their average first-round pick has delivered the ninth overall selection.4 For the Browns, dealing the fourth overall pick for the ninth overall selection in consecutive drafts would be an enormous windfall. Watkins should be a fantastic pro receiver, but even the best wideouts often struggle during their rookie season, and Buffalo’s underrated defense from a year ago lost its best player (Jairus Byrd) and its defensive coordinator (Mike Pettine). If EJ Manuel can’t stay healthy or doesn’t play well, this deal could go south very quickly. It was one thing for the Texans to consider trading down with Atlanta, given that the Falcons would likely have been sending Houston future first-rounders that will likely end up in the mid-20s. There’s a substantial chance Cleveland ends up with a top-five pick next year via this trade.
The Browns, who already had the most draft capital of anybody in the league, then used some of their picks to move up and grab the players they wanted. Having moved down to nine, they swapped picks with the Vikings at eight by giving up a fifth-rounder to snag Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, which shored up a spot of weakness for them across from Joe Haden. Then, after Manziel somehow slipped through the draft and past the Cowboys and Cardinals, the Browns dealt their extra third-rounder to the Eagles to move up and grab Johnny Football with the 22nd pick. It was a master class in how to use your draft picks. While I generally favor trading down and acquiring as many lottery tickets as possible, it also makes sense to occasionally trade up and grab a player who you think might represent a sound value proposition at a given point in the draft. At 22, grabbing a player like Manziel makes a lot of sense.
The Jaguars had the same opportunity to trade down and chose not to, which certainly seems like the wrong decision. Had they traded down to nine, they could have picked up — at the bare minimum — that incredibly valuable 2015 first-rounder while still retaining an excellent chance at acquiring Bortles. Is it possible the Browns, Raiders, Buccaneers, or Vikings would have chosen Bortles had he been available? Sure. It certainly doesn’t seem likely, though, given how the other quarterbacks in this tier fell to the bottom of the first round. Jacksonville’s roster is so impossibly bereft of talent after years of mismanagement that it needs all the first-round picks it can possibly get. There will be more quarterbacks. Bortles certainly has promise, but he’s also not Andrew Luck or somebody who is a lock to succeed in the NFL. Jacksonville should have been looking to trade down at just about every opportunity, and it’s a move that Browns fans should savor.
Manziel also enters a more promising situation in Cleveland than Bortles does in Jacksonville. Manziel has got a much better offensive line in front of him, a pair of excellent receivers in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, and a reasonably well-regarded offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan. While Washington unquestionably lost the plot last year, Shanahan did a good job during his first year with Robert Griffin of molding an offense that played to Griffin’s strengths from the college level. To take advantage of Manziel’s unique skill set, Shanahan will need to do the same here. His biggest concern will undoubtedly have to be keeping Manziel healthy; like Griffin, the ultracompetitive Manziel can be his own worst enemy at times in terms of keeping plays alive and playing through pain. It’s unclear whether the Browns will turn to Manziel in Week 1, as they have (perhaps ill-advised) faith in incumbent Brian Hoyer, but Manziel represents the most exciting quarterback the Browns have drafted since Brady Quinn,5 whom they also drafted with the 22nd overall pick after being linked to him with a much earlier selection in the 2007 draft. That was different; the Browns gave up their 2008 first-rounder to move up 14 picks and grab Quinn. This time around, they got the quarterback they wanted and might have picked up another top-five pick to go with it. It certainly seems like a much smarter process, even without knowing how Manziel will turn out.
And then, just as the night was about to end, the Vikings snuck back into the first round and might have made the best pick of them all. With Seattle on the clock, Minnesota gave up a fourth-round pick to move up eight spots from 40 to 32 and acquire Teddy Bridgewater. I’ve put my thoughts on Bridgewater on record before; the pre-draft process has failed him in stupefying ways, and I firmly believe he’s an underrated asset.
He’s also in the right situation to succeed. The Vikings were not a great football team last year, but they’re about as well-positioned for a young quarterback as you can imagine. They have an excellent offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, one who actually does have a long history of developing unproven rookies into worthwhile starters. (Just don’t let him manage fourth quarters.) Minnesota has Adrian Peterson, who makes any quarterback’s job easier, and a young, talented offensive line to protect Bridgewater. Minnesota doesn’t have Josh Gordon, but with Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and Kyle Rudolph, Bridgewater should have a variety of useful targets if everybody stays healthy. The only downside is that Minnesota has moved out of the Metrodome and will be playing its home games outdoors for the next two seasons; those who were concerned about Bridgewater’s arm strength will have to see him pass in the middle of a Minnesota winter before they believe in him.
There’s also a hidden advantage to taking Bridgewater in the first round. Minnesota will have to pay Bridgewater a little more than it would have if it had selected him in the second round, but it gets something in return: a team option. Under the new CBA, while all first-round picks get four-year deals, teams can also tack on a fifth year to that contract by exercising a team option. That option will cost the Vikings only the average salary of the quarterbacks ranked between third and 25th in compensation, which would be a bargain for a successful young quarterback. Minnesota doesn’t have to decide on that option until Bridgewater’s fourth season in the league, at which point it’ll already know whether he’s the answer to its prayers. There’s no such option for second-round picks.
Like the Browns, the Vikings were able to supplement another part of their team while adding their quarterback of the future. By using the ninth overall selection on Anthony Barr before later adding Bridgewater when he became too valuable to pass up, Minnesota has mitigated some of the risk in adding a quarterback by placing its new passer in a better situation to succeed. Cleveland did the same. I can’t say the same for the Jaguars, and if Bortles isn’t the quarterback they’re hoping for, it’s going to set the franchise back yet again.
A Few Round 1 Awards
While Robert Mays covered how the rich got richer, I should really hand out a few other awards to celebrate some of the best and worst moments of Thursday night. Let’s start with a fun one …
The Most Incomprehensible Pick Award
The award goes to Tennessee, which chose a player it might not be able to use in 2014. Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan slipped to the Titans at 11 after being mocked as high as the top six, and I’m always fond of teams that want to build from the lines out, but the Titans don’t have a place for Lewan to actually play right now. They just spent $20 million in free agency to bring in Michael Oher from the Ravens to play right tackle. Tennessee invested heavily in guards last year, signing Andy Levitre away from the Bills on a six-year, $47 million contract before adding Chance Warmack with their first-round pick. Lewan’s not a center.
The landing point for him is left tackle, but the Titans already have a pretty good left tackle in Michael Roos. Lewan profiles as his replacement, but the 31-year-old Roos still has one more year left on his deal at a relatively comfortable $6.6 million. If the Titans want to start Lewan, they’re going to have to get rid of Roos, which they would have to do with no leverage and little likelihood of getting anything of consequence in return. If tackle Mike Otto returns, Lewan spends the year on the bench or filling in as an injury replacement, which is wasting a year of value on his rookie contract and slowing his development. And, for a team that has major holes on defense (especially at cornerback), there’s a serious opportunity cost in going best player available and drafting a tackle who might actually be a little worse than the guy he’s replacing. Lewan might end up as a very good tackle, but this was very odd timing for Tennessee.
The Strangers Passing in the Night Award
I’m one of the biggest Tony Romo defenders on the planet, and even I wanted the Cowboys to draft Manziel at 16. I really think the scoreboard in AT&T Stadium might have fallen down from all the noise. However, it would have been incomprehensibly short-sighted. It would have turned the Cowboys season, which often uses brief stretches of football as a backdrop for soap opera drama, into a coronation ceremony for their starting quarterback of the future. The home crowd would have chanted “We want Johnny” as Romo walked off the field after his first failed third-down conversion in Week 1, and continued to do so at the slightest hint of disappointment until Manziel made it into the lineup. The Cowboys couldn’t have moved on from Romo this year — it would cost them $30 million in cap space they don’t have — but cutting him is a serious possibility in 2015, when the move could save Dallas nearly $8 million in cap space, albeit while leaving $19 million in dead money on the cap. It would have been stupid to make that pick, but people’s heads would have exploded, and that would have been fun. Instead, the Cowboys made a boringly smart decision by drafting versatile offensive lineman Zack Martin, who will put out fires along the Dallas line for years to come.
The “Oh, That’s Kind of a Perfect Pick” Award
This goes to the Ravens and Packers, who each came away with stars from Alabama’s perennially dominant defense in their respective positions of need. Baltimore took inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who profiles as Ray Lewis’s long-term replacement alongside Arthur Brown at the heart of the defense. That leaves Baltimore with arguably the deepest core of linebackers in the league, as it goes three-deep at outside (Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw) and inside (Mosley, Brown, Daryl Smith) linebacker.
The Packers, meanwhile, filled an enormous hole at safety by drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who also overwhelmed onlookers with his incredible suit. Green Bay, which allowed more pass plays of 30-plus yards than all but three other teams last year, desperately needed a cover safety who can fill in against guys like new Detroit tight end Eric Ebron while providing a security blanket upfield. He even has a clean injury history, which is a rarity for a Packers draftee. The rich get richer.
The Fantasy Freakout Award
You’re going to want to grab Brandin Cooks in all of your fantasy drafts. Cooks, whose freakish determination was the subject of a Mays profile before the draft, just ended up in receiver heaven. The wafer-thin Saints probably shouldn’t have given up their third-round pick to trade up in the first round, but that’s their problem. While wideouts in the Saints’ offense are often frustrating because Drew Brees spreads the ball around to different guys on a weekly basis, Cooks is going to be an integral part of the game plan. He’s going to get the weekly volume of a player like Darren Sproles, but he also has the afterburners to pick up the long touchdowns that used to go to the likes of Robert Meachem or Devery Henderson. As the Saints transition away from Marques Colston and, perhaps, Jimmy Graham, Cooks could become one of the most productive receivers in football.
The Why Learn From Your Mistakes Award
The Biggest Disappointment Award
This goes to the concept of playing walk-up music for players as they were drafted. Instead of leaving the songs as a surprise, the league released the song list before the draft. The songs were also entirely inaudible during the television coverage, to the extent that I’m not entirely sure they were actually played.
And, if I’m being honest, it was a pretty tepid list of choices. Jadeveon Clowney actually chose “The Man,” which ESPN aired 748 times during the first round anyway. Five players drafted yesterday chose Drake songs, including Manziel, who had the obvious advantage of being name-dropped in Drake’s “Draft Day.” The as-yet-undrafted Cyrus Kouandjio chose “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, which is about as brutally boring as the NFL might have hoped. Hell, even the NFL picked a song by the Go! Team for a Play 60 commercial that’s more interesting than Imagine Dragons. Khalil Mack didn’t even come out to “Return of the Mack” like the world demanded.
Let’s do this again next year, but keep it a surprise and actually make the music audible. Oh, and like Matthew Weaver suggested on Twitter, somebody needs to come out to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s theme song next year.6
They weren’t selected in the order anybody expected on Thursday night, but most of the players who were projected to come off the board in the opening round did so at one point or another. Just six of Scouts Inc.’s top 32 players remain on the board. While there were only five trades in the first round, teams will be on the phones this afternoon trying to move up for one of the first-round grades still left on their boards. Among the players who could be drafted at the top of the second round are these notables:
Jimmy Garoppolo and Derek Carr are the two most prominent quarterbacks left on the draft board after the Bridgewater pick. The Texans could consider either of them at 33, although it would certainly be difficult to imagine Texans fans taking kindly to David’s brother in Houston. The Texans are also rumored to be close to a Ryan Mallett trade, which might not involve this pick, but would allow them to focus their efforts elsewhere for somebody like …
Louis Nix III, the mammoth Notre Dame nose tackle who can be a run-stuffer in somebody’s 3-4. If the Texans don’t draft him at 33, the paucity of 3-4 teams at the top of the draft could leave Nix falling into the middle of the second round before somebody snatches him up.
Marqise Lee was a dominant receiver in 2012 before a nagging knee complaint sapped his explosiveness in 2013; he’s going to be a buy-low proposition for a wideout-needy team at the top of the second round. Could he be one of Bortles’s new targets in Jacksonville?
Morgan Moses and Cyrus Kouandjio are likely the two best tackles left on most draft boards, but they each have injury hiccups. Houston, Jacksonville, Washington, and even Seattle could be interested in a tackle early in the second round. I know which team of those four I would want to play for.
Carlos Hyde is the highest-rated running back on the board, but for the second consecutive season, nobody used a first-round pick on a halfback. The teams that did wait until the second round to draft running backs came away with good value last year, as the Packers didn’t draft Eddie Lacy until the 61st pick, while the Bengals took the dynamic Gio Bernard at 37. Hyde will come off the board somewhere between those two spots. Tennessee, which cut Chris Johnson without really replacing him, lurks as a possible candidate at 42.
Round 2 is, by some measures, the sweet spot of value in the NFL draft. The names aren’t as big, but with impact rookies like Lacy and Kiko Alonso coming off the board in the second round a year ago, the players on hand can be just as important as the guys who were drafted Thursday. What’s more fun than rooting for surplus value? Well, this is the next best thing until actual football comes back, so enjoy the rest of this draft weekend.