Given how long it takes rookies to settle into their new systems and grasp the added nuances of the NFL game, we can’t make too many worthwhile player insights just a few days after the draft ends. And really, we probably need to wait a couple of years before evaluating the success and failure of individual picks. But by taking a look at the team-by-team level, we can see hints of where certain franchises are headed both schematically and in terms of roster construction. So as the draft dust begins to settle, let’s look at a couple of teams with new coaches and/or new personnel people and see what we can project about their futures based on the players they took this past weekend.
New York Jets
Overall, the Jets’ draft plan looked like an extension of what they’d done the entire offseason. Under Todd Bowles, the defense shouldn’t be too different from Rex Ryan’s best groups: They may blitz a bit more, but it’ll be man-to-man defense on the outside with a frightening amount of looks across the front seven. Coming into the draft, the lack of a stand-up pass-rusher was probably their biggest defensive weakness, and they got one in the third round with Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin.
On offense, second-rounder Devin Smith gives the Jets a proven downfield threat to go with more intermediate options in Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. And although Bryce Petty has a ton of adjusting to do as he figures out the NFL, the spread concepts in Chan Gailey’s offense might help in that transition.
The most curious choice came with the sixth overall pick. When Washington passed on Leonard Williams, the no. 1 player on many boards, I briefly entertained the thought of Williams turning into a rich man’s Justin Smith for Vic Fangio’s new defense in Chicago. Then the Jets decided to pick a player whose skills line up with two established defensive stars. But I don’t blame Mike Maccagnan for doing so. Williams is good enough that you pull the trigger and figure out the fit later. The arrival of the 20-year-old could mean that the future of Muhammad Wilkerson — currently in the final year of his rookie contract — is in question, but if I had to guess, Bowles will find a way to consistently get Williams, Wilkerson, and Sheldon Richardson on the field together.
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With Williams gone, it was easy to pencil in Kevin White for the Bears. The departure of Marshall left a considerable hole across from Alshon Jeffery, and although it may take White a year or two to become a consistent contributor, he has everything you could want on the outside. Elsewhere on offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hroniss Grasu, Chicago’s third-round pick from Oregon, give Will Montgomery a run to start at center in Week 1, and Jeremy Langford, who went in the fourth out of Michigan State, could provide the explosive backfield element that the Bears have lacked behind Matt Forte. Chicago also took a running back in the fourth round last year, but Ka’Deem Carey ran a 4.7 in the 40, and Langford tore off a 4.42. That’s clearly a different line of thinking between Phil Emery and new general manager Ryan Pace.
However, finding players that fit the Bears’ new defense was always going to be the bigger challenge, and what Pace did last week seems pretty telling. Despite changing the alignment of its defensive fronts for the first time in a long time, the Bears only added one player in the front seven: 336-pound Eddie Goldman, who gives Chicago the run-stuffing nose tackle that was missing from its roster. But the second-rounder was it. Now, the Bears did add several pieces in free agency that are either familiar with playing in Fangio’s defense (Ray McDonald) or in other schemes that use a lot of 3-4 (Pernell McPhee, Jarvis Jenkins), but their pass-rush options are still limited to players who’ve had a hand on the ground their entire careers. We’ll likely see Jared Allen playing some linebacker this year, but don’t be surprised if the defensive transition has a few intermediate steps, including even-man fronts, along the way.
Man, the Bills must really like Ronald Darby. Without a first-round pick, Buffalo not taking a quarterback in this draft isn’t all that surprising, and actually, I respect the restraint. Drafting quarterbacks in the later rounds rarely works out, and rather than tossing away a second- or third-round pick just to say they went after one, the Bills used what few selections they did have on players they think can actually have an impact. That being said, cornerback was far from Buffalo’s most pressing need, and in Darby, they took one with their first pick.
Buffalo did get a guard in the third round: Louisville’s John Miller, who’s a powerful interior lineman with a chance to start right away. What has a chance to swing the Bills’ entire draft is the La’el Collins situation. Reportedly, Rex Ryan was the first coach to meet with Collins, who returned to Louisiana last week to be questioned in the shooting death of his former girlfriend. If Collins is eventually cleared in that investigation, it’s likely several teams will be interested, all with nothing to offer but a capped free-agent salary and a pitch about how their situation is the best one out there.
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Over the past two years, Atlanta had been playing a lot of 3-4, and that’ll change if Dan Quinn & Co. stick with the type of scheme he deployed in Seattle. Looking at Atlanta’s first two picks, it sure seems like they will. Vic Beasley is a perfect prototype for the Leo in Quinn’s defense: a slightly undersize right end who should get help in run support with bigger bodies on the other side.1 The Falcons also got a potential steal in the fifth round with one of Beasley’s college teammates, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Over the past two years, Seattle used a ton of bodies up front, mixing and matching depending on the opponent. With Clayborn, Brooks Reed, O’Brien Schofield, and now Beasley, Quinn should have plenty of options.
How does 318-pound Ra’Shede Hageman sound? At 280 pounds, newly signed Adrian Clayborn isn’t exactly small, either.
In the second round, Quinn also got his big-body corner in LSU’s Jalen Collins, who should be able to step in and start opposite Desmond Trufant. That leaves some questions about 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford, but he’s a 5-foot-10 corner who doesn’t fit the mold Quinn is used to on the outside and who has played virtually no snaps in the slot.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners spent each of their early-round picks on defense, which makes sense after the exodus of talent over the past few months. What makes less sense is that none of those picks has a clear path to contributing right away. First-rounder Arik Armstead seems like an ideal fit in the 3-4 that Eric Mangini is likely to run, but, right now, his appeal is rooted in potential. Safety Jaquiski Tartt, taken in the second round, will begin his career behind Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid. And Eli Harold, an outside linebacker taken in the third, will be fighting with Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch for snaps. In the fourth round, Trent Baalke followed up those picks with a converted quarterback still learning to play tight end and a backup running back.
Baalke has never been afraid to spend picks on players who wouldn’t see the field right away, but in the past, his roster was filled with more talent than just about any team in the league. His approach hasn’t changed much, but this time it might be because San Francisco is closer to a rebuild than most of us are ready to admit.
It’ll be fascinating to watch how the Broncos offensive line shakes out. Denver came into the draft with pretty glaring needs on the interior, and it started the draft by … trading its starting center? Manny Ramirez was never meant to be a center for Denver, initially filling in because of injuries and then keeping his spot after establishing a rapport with Peyton Manning. At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, he’s about as far as you can get from the quick, 290-pound centers Gary Kubiak wants in his zone scheme.
Yet, even if Ramirez wasn’t a perfect fit for Kubiak’s offense, the Broncos are now looking at Gino Gradkowski snapping the ball. The last offense with Gradkowski in the middle, the 2013 Ravens, was one of the worst rushing teams in NFL history. There’s a chance fourth-round pick Max Garcia takes over that spot from day one, but that doesn’t seem like the safest plan either. The rookie lineman who probably has the best shot be a Week 1 starter is second-rounder Ty Sambrailo, who profiles as the type of athlete Kubiak wants along the line. But even if Sambrailo does step in and play right tackle, real questions remain at center and left guard.
As for Denver’s defense? Your guess is as good as mine. There’s a chance the Broncos had Shane Ray so high on their board that he fell into the “Take him now, worry about it later” group, but did they really need to give up two picks and a player to make it happen? Granted, with the way Denver often uses Von Miller as a linebacker behind four down linemen, it won’t be too tough to get Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Ray on the field together, but the pass rush wasn’t really the problem last year.