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Making Sense of the NFL Draft

The surprises from Day 1, breaking down the trades, and what to watch for on Day 2

Thursday’s NFL draft was mostly as advertised. Linemen came off the board early and often, as just five skill-position players were taken in the opening round. It has been 38 years since that happened, but that 1975 draft class is highlighted now by one of those five ball carriers, Walter Payton. A lot of players whom even regular college football viewers haven’t heard of walked up to the podium and began to cash million-dollar checks on Thursday, while a number of more notable Saturday performers sat in the green room and waited for a phone call that never came.

There were certainly some surprises, and those rare moments of shock are the bits of the draft worth talking about this morning. (Draft grades won’t mean anything for about five years.) That starts with the double whammy of the day, Miami’s trade into the top three, and what it says about both the Dolphins and this year’s bizarre player pool:

The Surprises

The Dolphins traded up for Dion Jordan. In the first test of the Emergency Spoiler Alert System, the Dolphins traded up and tricked virtually every talking head on television by opting for Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan over Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson. I’ll discuss the value exchanged in Thursday’s trades later on in this column, but seeing the Dolphins go after a pass rusher who was expected to fit into a 3-4 was rather surprising. And by passing on Johnson, they can still fashion a deal with their other second-round pick for Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert, although it will likely require more than the 54th overall selection to make it work.

Jordan is a symbol of this draft in one very prominent way; for whatever dreams his athleticism fosters in the hearts of general managers, he hasn’t actually played all that great during his time at school. His 14.5 sacks would be a nifty senior year total, but that accounts for Jordan’s entire output in four years at school. Jarvis Jones, for comparison, had 14.5 sacks this past season, and that was in a much tougher conference.

And Jordan wasn’t the only one. Zeke Ansah, chosen two picks later, had just 4.5 sacks during his lone season starting at BYU. Bjoern Werner at least had 13 sacks during his final year at Florida State, but four of those sacks came in a 69-3 shellacking of a Murray State team on the first day of their season. These are not unblockable superstars who are about to revolutionize the pro game. Heck, they didn’t even dominate the college game, let alone the pros. They’re projects with upside.

Of the four, Ansah might have both the best hope and the best chance at attrition. Ansah will play on a great defensive line in Detroit and line up every day at practice under Jim Schwartz, who has developed a number of talented defensive linemen both in Detroit and Tennessee. On the other hand, if the Lions go 6-10 and Schwartz gets fired, Ansah likely will be marginalized by whoever takes Schwartz’s place, probably an offensive coach who doesn’t share Schwartz’s developmental abilities with linemen. That happens a lot with prospects when teams change head coaches and/or schemes; the project players they’ve been developing fall by the wayside under new management.

This all left the Steelers licking their chops, as they were able to get Jarvis Jones at no. 17 in one of the picks of the night. That was the perfect spot for both parties. The Steelers get a young, productive pass rusher with time to develop across from LaMarr Woodley, while Jones gets the Steelers seal of approval in terms of their developmental process for young linebackers. He’s going to be very useful.

The Bills go for E.J. Manuel over Ryan Nassib with the 16th pick. One pick before Jones, the Bills had drawn stunned gasps from onlookers by taking Manuel at quarterback ahead of Buffalo’s long-rumored choice, Syracuse product Nassib. Think about what that says for Nassib’s draft stock; it’s bad enough that the rest of the league thinks he’s mediocre, but now it’s even worse since we know that his old college head coach feels the same way.

Buffalo will probably try to follow the Colin Kaepernick blueprint with regard to slowly integrating Manuel into the lineup; but they don’t have Jim Harbaugh coaching their quarterbacks, and he’s pretty essential to that whole process. Rumors have also suggested the Bills will also take Nassib, similar to how the Redskins drafted Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins last year.

That’s a very generous wish, one I don’t even think necessarily exists with the Redskins. Obviously, RG3 is RG3. There’s no chance Manuel suddenly becomes RG3 overnight. The Cousins-for-Nassib comparison is shortsighted in two ways. For one, it’s not clear that a team would want a guy to be Kirk Cousins. Cousins did pretty good work during the regular season on short notice, but he threw only 48 passes, with 10 more coming during the playoffs. Fifty-eight pass attempts isn’t enough to tell us anything about whether Cousins is a viable pro passer. Secondly, the presence of a mostly developed RG3 allowed the Redskins to skip some prep work for their new franchise quarterback; Manuel is not going to get that opportunity. He’ll be getting the bulk of the development and teaching reps, with Nassib (if acquired by Buffalo before Sunday) picking up the leftovers. That would squeeze both of their developmental processes. The Bills need to be all-in with Manuel and use the rest of their draft to shore up holes on the offensive line and at receiver.

Sharrif Floyd’s drop. The Florida defensive tackle was -1000 on Monday to be the third overall pick of the draft, but once the Raiders traded that pick, Floyd kept dropping. The Raiders passed on him again at no. 12, and it took the Vikings at no. 23 to stop Floyd’s free fall into the second round. Floyd is perfect for Minnesota, where virtually every defensive lineman is set to hit free agency after this offseason. I don’t think there was really a problem with Floyd inasmuch as he was just second best on a bunch of draft boards, always very close to being chosen without being the guy until that 23rd pick. Compared to expectations, Floyd was the value pick of the first round.

Geno Smith leaves town. It was a little harrowing when Smith talked before the draft about how he was going to focus on the positives and ignore the negatives, as if that were a possible thing to do for a human being in Smith’s situation. It was always going to be tough for Smith, and he didn’t even wait until the end of the first round to start packing up his things and heading home. No, not to his hotel — he’s apparently heading back home after Round 1. This got the bargain psychoanalysts out for discussion, and they were sure that Smith leaving showed his inability to handle adversity. I discount that logic heavily, but I’m more interested in the game film than I am with ascribing personalities to a quarterback. I still think Smith will come off the board somewhere on Friday, but now he’ll have to express his happiness via Skype or Powwownow or ICQ or something. UPDATE! So, according to Adam Schefter, Smith has decided to stay in New York after all. Don’t worry, much will still be made of his brief decision to skip town.

There weren’t many trades. Rumors had up to a dozen trades in the first round, with teams going up and down to wait for their specific player. As it turned out, that trade volume mostly didn’t exist, and just five trades were consummated during the opening round. In truth, there were plenty of teams that were interested in trades, but many of them wanted to move in the same direction: down. Because of the flat, relatively unimpressive player pool in this year’s draft, just about everybody was trying to trade down for an extra pick or two, with very few teams willing to trade up. Everybody undoubtedly wanted to make that oft-rumored deal with the 49ers, which helped drive the price down for San Francisco and make the deal unpalatable for most other suitors in the process. It’s one thing to want to trade down, but you wouldn’t want to give up 12 spots in the first round for a spare third-rounder next year. Most teams eventually decided they would rather have the player of their choice than pick up some tiny sliver of trade value, and you can’t really blame them considering this year’s selection.

Trade Winners and Losers

It’s hard to judge drafted players before they’ve played an NFL game, but we can do a decent job of judging the currency used to trade for those players. Chase Stuart of built a nifty draft-pick value calculator using his findings for historical draft pick returns to try to measure the value retained by each pick. Of course, those figures are in a vacuum, and they don’t account for the player scarcity or value available in this specific draft. So, as usual, the numbers will be a starting point, not the conclusion. Let’s start with the first trade of the night, the Miami-Oakland swap at no. 3.

Dolphins acquire the third overall pick from the Raiders for the 12th and 42nd overall picks.
Quantitative winner: Oakland (which received 7.2 percent more pick value than the amount it gave the Dolphins)
Real-life winner: Oakland

The Raiders can’t afford to choose between stars or depth. After gutting their roster over consecutive offseasons, they need to atone for their financial sins under the final days of Al Davis and begin to nurture the young talent that will become the next great Raiders team. They need more lottery tickets, and an extra second-round pick should yield another young starter for their roster for the next few seasons. Miami didn’t pay an enormous premium to move up, but this was a move the Raiders had to make.

Rams acquire the eighth and 71st overall picks from the Bills for the 16th, 46th, 78th, and 222nd selections.
Quantitative winner: Buffalo (18.4 percent more in return)
Real-life winner: Buffalo

The Rams and Bills swapped first- and third-round picks here, with the Bills picking up an extra second- and seventh-rounder in the process. Again, the Bills are not a deep team, so they need all the help they can get to support their few stars on either side of the ball. If the Bills had their hearts set on Manuel, too, it was incumbent upon them to move down and pick him in a spot where other teams were at least considering him as an option.

It’s not a terrible trade for the Rams, but they might have been smoke-screened into the move by the Jets. New York spent most of the past two days talking up its interest in Tavon Austin, which got the Rams all agitated and encouraged them to move one pick ahead of the Jets, into that eighth spot. I think Austin will do very well in St. Louis and was the best wideout in the class by a wide margin, so I don’t think the 18.4 percent figure from the numbers reflects an accurate view of how Buffalo might have won this trade. It was a win-win trade with a slight lean toward the Bills.

49ers acquire the 18th overall pick from the Cowboys for the 31st and 74th picks.
Quantitative winner: Dallas (22.9 percent more in return)
Real-life winner: Dallas

Even though they already have arguably the deepest roster in football, the 49ers went into this draft with more picks than anybody else. That could be great for a rebuilding team in a great draft year, but this is one of the weakest draft classes in recent memory. The 49ers won’t have roster spots for more than four or five players from this draft class, so it makes sense to trade some of those picks away to either move up or wait for a better draft in future years. Dallas could use an extra pick or two after trading away its 2012 second-rounder in last year’s Morris Claiborne deal. Again, a slight win for the team trading down.

Atlanta acquires the 22nd overall pick and a 2015 seventh-rounder from St. Louis for the 30th, 92nd, and 198th selections in the 2013 draft.
Quantitative winner: St. Louis (28.1 percent more in return)
Real-life winner: St. Louis

The prevailing logic in evaluating this trade seems to be as follows: The Falcons made a big trade up a few years ago for Julio Jones, and that trade worked, so they’re smart to make this trade up and acquire a player they need. That doesn’t fly here. Jones is a fantastic player, but there are holes sprouting up throughout the Atlanta roster because of the opportunity cost involved with that deal. The Falcons have a middling offensive line and were forced to overpay to keep Sam Baker at left tackle this offseason; their pass rush is virtually nonexistent; and they’re going to be razor-thin at cornerback, even with the arrival of Desmond Trufant. They’re a team that can’t afford to keep giving up mid-level draft picks, because they desperately need some depth behind their stars. If everyone stays as healthy as they were a year ago, the Falcons will be great, but that’s unlikely to occur again. They might have loved Trufant, but this was a situation in which they probably should have waited to take the best cornerback on their board with the 30th pick.

Minnesota acquires the 29th overall pick from New England for the 52nd, 83rd, 102nd, and 229th picks.
Quantitative winner: New England (59.5 percent more in return)
Real-life winner: New England

Note the dramatic gulf between what Stuart’s model thought of the difference in value across the first four trades and what it thought of this one. The Patriots, simply put, took the Vikings to the cleaners. It’s incredible that Bill Belichick seems to pull this off every year, but it’s even more impressive in this draft. Chase’s model estimates, historically, that the 29th overall pick has delivered about 40 percent more value than the 52nd overall pick during their first five seasons in the league. That’s really not that much, and in a flat draft like this year’s, it’s undoubtedly a smaller figure, probably closer to 10 percent or so. For that tiny chance of getting a better player, the Vikings gave up third- and fourth-round picks that could end up producing valuable contributors. In 2007, the 83rd pick delivered Charles Johnson, who became a double-digit pass rusher and one of the highest-paid players in football. The 102nd pick that year was Brian Robison, who himself has 30 sacks over six years in the league. The Patriots aren’t getting worthless picks here.

The Vikings made this move to get Cordarrelle Patterson, which seems shortsighted considering the bevy of second-tier wideouts still left on the market. They could have waited through the end of the first round and the top of the second round, where few teams need wideouts, before pouncing in the middle of the second round. That might only have cost them a fifth-round pick or so. In any case, it took what had been an excellent Vikings draft and ruined their night. And while it might not have been the most exciting return for Patriots fans, it was very clearly the right move to make.

What to Watch for Today

What will the Jaguars do with the 33rd pick? We hear every year that the 33rd pick is a special selection, an asset that will undoubtedly be traded to a team that spends all day Friday (previously Saturday) desperately longing for a given player before losing all inhibitions and ensuring they’ll get their way by trading for the opening pick of the day. The implied price is a first-round pick in next year’s draft, a deal which is a guaranteed win for the previous owner of the 33rd pick.

Should the Jaguars deal the selection if somebody offers them a 2014 first-round pick? Almost surely, yes. There’s no budding star waiting for them at 33, and they’d be naive to go after a quarterback now when they’ll likely have a high draft pick in 2014 to use on a far superior prospect. You wouldn’t want to trade this pick to just any NFL team, because there is some value in getting a player on your roster now as opposed to waiting a year and ending up with the 31st pick in next year’s draft. So you would probably avoid dealing this selection for a future first-round pick from the Patriots, 49ers, Packers, or Seahawks, because you can be pretty sure they’re making the playoffs next year. Everyone else’s first-round pick should be up for grabs, though.

How do those quarterbacks fall? Since Manuel was the only quarterback off the board on Thursday, there’s now a group of passers left with no obvious homes. Nassib probably isn’t joining up with Doug Marrone in Buffalo. Matt Barkley could end up in Seattle with old coach Pete Carroll, but it probably won’t be as a second-round pick. Geno Smith was rumored to go to the Eagles with the fourth overall selection, but they passed; could he be an option for them at 35?

Will anyone draft a running back? This is an uninspiring crop of tailbacks, and they’re coming into the league during the worst possible market for running backs, but somebody has to want a fresh body or two in its backfield. Alabama halfback Eddie Lacy has seen most of his offensive line drafted during the first round, and he should find a home on Friday. His best hopes early on are with the Bengals at 37 or the Jets at 39; otherwise, he might fall all the way to the Packers at 55.

What about that Branden Albert deal? The long-rumored trade of Albert to the Dolphins will need to occur Friday if it’s going to happen at all. The Dolphins will start by sending the 54th pick to the Chiefs for their starting left tackle, and it’ll likely take another selection (probably from the 2014 draft) to get the deal done. If the Dolphins don’t make the trade, they’ll be stuck with a short-term option at left tackle, possibly free agent Bryant McKinnie. For a team that’s really pushing to win in 2013 and earn Jeff Ireland a contract extension, though, there’s too much on the line to not get the Albert trade done.

Where does Manti Te’o end up? I’m as sick of Te’o talk as you are, but he is one of the most notable players (strictly from his on-field performance) left without a dance partner after Day 1 of the draft. Te’o will be best on a 4-3 team that’s thin at middle linebacker, which leaves obvious targets in Cincinnati (37), the New York Giants (49), and Chicago (50).

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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