After months of empty nonsense, the NFL’s 32 organizations will actually make 256 draft picks over the next three days, starting with the first 32 selections in prime time tonight. Everyone has been ready for this draft for weeks now, and yet there still might not be a surefire match of team and player at any single spot in the first round. Any of the teams in the top five could very well trade their pick or take one of several different players. It’s going to be a fascinating opener.
Let’s set the stage for tonight’s event. Here are the things you should be watching for and the unsettled questions that will be answered during the first round of the NFL draft:
1. What will the Texans do with the first overall pick?
Amazingly, the fate of the draft’s opening selection remains up in the air. The last time Houston had the first overall pick was in 2006, when it waited until the evening before to make the shocking announcement that it had come to terms on a contract with Mario Williams (instead of Reggie Bush, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and presumptive top pick). That was under the old CBA. The new CBA offers little contractual negotiating room regardless of draft position, so even if the Texans have made up their mind, they can afford to leave their announcement until tonight.
My suspicion is still that they will end up holding on to the first pick and drafting Jadeveon Clowney. For all the talk over the past few days about how great Khalil Mack is, Clowney has been ahead of him on just about every draft board every step of the way for a reason. When you find a pass-rusher whose playing style roughly approximates an At the Drive-In song, you should take him and ask questions later.
So why would the Texans be so aggressive in leaking stories that they might be considering someone besides Clowney with the first overall pick? Probably to encourage trade offers. If they get the word out that they’re interested in taking somebody else, they’re going to be approached by teams that are interested in trading up to the top spot to take the former South Carolina star. That’s likely to yield better trade offers than reaching out to other organizations and asking them to come up with a possible deal for the top pick. I think the Texans would rather have a massive haul of picks than Clowney, but it’s unclear whether such an offer is coming. There were reports on Wednesday that the Texans were asking the Falcons for an RG3-like haul to move from six to one, and another suggesting the Falcons could move up for a first- and third-rounder. Nobody knows, including the Texans.
Or maybe they’re really going to draft Johnny Manziel with the top pick. Who knows? In any case, when the commissioner begins his “With the first overall … ” announcement, it’s going to be the most suspenseful one in years.
2. How badly will Roger Goodell be booed?
Goodell does not have a fun time at these drafts. He was booed heavily during the 2011 draft with the lockout looming. Even after the lockout was lifted, Goodell took it on the chin in 2012. The birds got him again in 2013. It’s hard to feel sympathetic for a guy who made 44 times as much as Russell Wilson in 2012 and responds to the Twitter question If I want to be an NFL head coach, what should I take in college? with “Leadership,”1 but booing hurts, man.
Of course, booing commissioners is hardly a Goodell-specific trend. Gary Bettman is booed on sight by hockey fans. David Stern was booed for years at the NBA draft before handing the announcement baton over for the second round to then–deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who would receive raucous cheers. (I suspect Silver will, in light of recent events, be cheered at this year’s draft, too.) If anybody cared about the Major League Baseball draft and Bud Selig announced picks in front of a crowd while it was happening, he would get booed too. Perhaps there’s no escaping it.
The one guaranteed cheer the commissioner gets each year is when he brings the brave servicemen and servicewomen of the United States on stage for a well-deserved standing ovation. Goodell is not dumb. Maybe this is the year he brings a soldier with him for each pick.
3. Will there be an awkward Draft Day tie-in at any point?
Ironically, moving the draft from late April to this early May date might have killed the opportunity to do an embarrassingly bad semi-ad for what became the NFL’s equivalent of The Internship. Draft Day was, curiously, released on April 11, nearly a full month before the real thing. Maybe the league thought desperately bored NFL fans would satiate themselves with something vaguely resembling the real thing? In any case, it didn’t work. The movie has made just $26.7 million against an estimated budget of $50 million, and it’s difficult to imagine that it’s going to make all that much in international release. The film performed, well, a lot like its depicted franchise, the Cleveland Browns.
Still, the NFL has to do something to entertain fans during the draft, and with Cleveland picking twice in the first round, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kevin Costner trotted out to announce a pick. Our only hope can be that he’s bitter about the film and uses it to get his revenge by saying something like, “With the fourth overall pick, the Cleveland Browns ruin the life of Johnny Manziel …”
4. Where are all these quarterbacks going to end up?
The three most prominent quarterbacks in this year’s draft class have been haphazardly tossed around the first round over the past few weeks. The final gust of wind came Wednesday, when Mike Mayock’s mock draft left Manziel out of the top 15. Nobody is talking about Blake Bortles. And everybody is talking about poor Teddy Bridgewater, whose stock continues to drop with each passing day.
I know I’ve talked about this before, but allow me a brief aside. People are now dropping Bridgewater from the top five of the draft to the second round because of a pro day. A thing that simulates a vague approximation of what football is. If you had no other evidence from which to base your evaluation of Bridgewater’s ability to play football — if, say, you were gauging his ability to be an astronaut from his work in a flight simulator — it would be reasonable to make this test a huge part of your evaluative process. But we already have information that tells us how Bridgewater might do as a quarterback! It’s game tape! Where he does the same thing he’s going to have to do in the pros! Unless, of course, Bill Belichick decides to pull out his latest stunning schematic trick against Bridgewater in the playoffs and takes all of his defenders off the field during overtime, becoming the first coach to run the pro day defense. Otherwise, it seems like the tape should matter a lot more than the pro day, but what do I know?
Where will they all actually land? There just aren’t many spots with an obvious match of a team desperate for a passer and good value. Three teams with an obvious need for a quarterback — Houston, Jacksonville, and Cleveland — draft in the top four. The public perception suggests that there are four elite players in this draft, none of whom are quarterbacks. Chalk would see Clowney, Mack, Greg Robinson, and Sammy Watkins come off the board first in some order. If that’s what happens, the quarterbacks should fall pretty hard. Oakland could (but likely won’t) draft a quarterback at five. The Bucs will probably pass at seven. Minnesota has been heavily linked to a defensive player at eight. Tennessee would be the next landing spot at 11, but after that, it’s a long drop to the bottom of the first round.
That’s the most logical spot, especially for Bridgewater and Bortles. If Cleveland doesn’t take a quarterback with the fourth pick, it would make sense to go after a passer with its second first-rounder, either by drafting one at 26 or trading up into the early 20s. One entirely arbitrary prediction: Somebody will draft a quarterback with the 29th pick, currently held by the New England Patriots. It just won’t be them.
5. Which songs will the draftees choose as their entrance music?
For the first time, the NFL is allowing players to choose music to accompany them for their walk to the podium after they’ve been selected. This will inspire a few “In my day, we didn’t even have music …” speeches from cranky broadcasters, but overall, this should be wildly entertaining. We should absolutely be able to identify at least one player in the first round who will be a bust based solely upon the walkup music he chooses. Ryan Leaf would have chosen “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground, and the Chargers could have just cut ties then and there and saved us all a bunch of time.
I don’t want to be presumptive and pick songs for each draftee, but of course I have my thoughts. Mack should come out to “Return of the Mack.” Derek Carr should come out to “My Brother’s Keeper” by Lloyd Banks, but OK, yeah, somebody could draft Lloyd Banks himself and the dude wouldn’t come out to Lloyd Banks in 2014. About 18 guys are going to want to use “Draft Day” by Drake, but Manziel’s going to be the one who ends up with it because, you know, bros.
One thing I am sure of: Bridgewater will dig through crates and choose some immaculate classic like “Hey DJ” and teams will move him further down their draft boards for being too much of a hipster. I’m only half-joking. There will definitely be some player who takes criticism for some equally dumb reason for choosing the wrong song. This is the No Fun League for a reason.
6. Will any current NFL players be part of a draft-day trade?
While most trades during the first round exclusively involve draft picks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a player or two change organizations for a midround pick as early as Friday. These sorts of trades are hardly inconsequential; think back to 2007, when the Patriots traded a fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, who promptly caught 23 touchdowns the following season. The Raiders used the pick on cornerback John Bowie, who played all of five pro games across three seasons in Oakland. Pretty good trade for the Patriots.
Most trades won’t have that sort of impact, but teams can find some useful talent available in the right swap, especially with regard to players who might benefit from a change of scenery by leaving organizations that turned over their coaching staffs and personnel departments this offseason. Some plausible, semi-notable candidates who might be available this weekend include:
Tyson Alualu: One of the many failed picks from the Gene Smith era, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft won’t be a starter in Gus Bradley’s defense in 2014, which will likely be the final year of his tenure in Jacksonville.
Brandon Flowers: Some rumors have suggested the Chiefs might be interested in moving on from Flowers, who endured a tough year at times before being knocked out of the wild-card loss to the Colts. Kansas City has high hopes for Marcus Cooper, who looked promising during the first half of the season before Peyton Manning TKO’d him and his confidence. This is probably just speculation, but with Kansas City missing its second-rounder from the Alex Smith trade, some enterprising team might try to see if there’s a match.
Brandon Graham: The Eagles linebacker has exhibited some promise as a pass-rusher, but profiles as a better fit for the 4-3 scheme he was drafted into than the 3-4 defense the Eagles currently employ.
Will Hill: The talented but embattled Giants safety is reportedly facing another suspension after failing a drug test; he’s appealing the case, but it’s difficult to imagine the Giants having any faith in the known massage enthusiast.
LaMichael James: LaHeisman has been frozen out of the San Francisco offense since his fumble in the Super Bowl, as he was limited almost exclusively to return duties in 2013. With a returning Marcus Lattimore on the horizon, the 49ers might choose to move on from James while they can still get a pick in return for their 2012 second-rounder.
Case Keenum: The Houston product is probably out of a job if the Texans draft a quarterback at any point, and if there’s anything coaches love in a backup, it’s NFL game tape, even if it’s not any good. Rumors have linked Keenum and T.J. Yates to Baltimore, where former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is the offensive coordinator.
Mikel Leshoure: Detroit’s 2011 second-rounder was out of favor with the old Detroit coaching staff, and he hasn’t endeared himself to the new staff by skipping voluntary workouts.
Christian Ponder: Like Keenum’s situation, if the Vikings were to draft a quarterback, Ponder’s time with the team would rapidly draw to a close. The difference? Keenum makes $495,000 this year, while Ponder is owed $1.76 million.
Stevan Ridley: New England’s former starter lost his confidence and his role in the lineup during an infamous run of midseason fumbles. The Patriots moved on from LeGarrette Blount during the offseason, but with Ridley and Shane Vereen free agents after the 2014 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them draft a back this weekend. That could free up a Ridley trade. Kyle Arrington could also be available, but with Greg Schiano no longer in a position of power, it’ll be hard to move him.
This should be one of the more exciting drafts in recent memory. With an incredibly deep pool of talent, a CBA that makes trades easier than they used to be, and an extra two weeks of talent overanalysis, we should see more aggressiveness from teams in this year’s draft. And as we know, in a setting like this, aggressiveness leads to surprises — which are fun. After four months of mock drafts and leaked stories, the draft’s ability to surprise us might be the biggest surprise of them all. Here’s to a fun first round tonight.