The NFL Draft All-Value TeamAdam Hunger/AP
One of the great absurdities surrounding the NFL draft is the way we immediately judge picks. Everybody knows that the day after the draft is too early — by a number of years — to start doing that. Everyone with a column or podcast or radio show spells out this caveat. And yet everyone still does it anyway. It’s the nature of the beast. We’ve spent close to four months obsessing over draft stock and mock drafts and all kinds of scenarios — it would be nearly impossible to move on without trying to put what happened into perspective.
Grades simply aren’t fair to anyone involved, at least not yet. So, in lieu of trying to project what five years of performance will look like before these players have even stepped onto an NFL field, let’s recast this past weekend in a different light. I’ve put together an All-Value team from the 2015 draft, using general pre-draft estimates of where those players were expected to be selected as baselines of value. That’s hardly foolproof, of course, but enough players land in the places we expect after months of draft prep that it’s reasonably fair.
This is weighted toward players taken in the earlier rounds of the draft; it’s difficult to get lopsided value in the upper half of the first round, but it’s also far more meaningful to find a first-round talent in the third round than it is to nab a fourth-round talent in the sixth round. And this is also about player value in a vacuum, so while some of these players won’t necessarily fit clear needs for their new team, they should still be valuable relative to the point at which they were drafted. Breshad Perriman was a great pick for the Ravens because they needed a speedy wideout, but the 26th spot was right around where he probably belonged, so he’s not on this list.
Let’s run through the team, starting with the one spot where it’s virtually impossible to find value in the draft.
Quarterback: Marcus Mariota (Round 1, Pick 2), Titans
Quarterback value is more binary than that of just about any other position in the league; you’re either a valuable starter or a dispensable backup, and as much as teams fetishize the Josh McCowns and Matt Cassels of the world with meaningful guaranteed money, the second group is eminently replaceable. So it’s hard to really peg midround selections like Garrett Grayson as valuable, because they project to be roster filler.
Instead, the best “value” at quarterback from this year’s draft is probably Mariota, who might very well be as good of a prospect as Jameis Winston, if not better. The Titans turned down massive trade offers in order to keep Mariota for themselves, but coming away with a 1-A quarterback at the second spot is valuable enough in itself.
Running back: David Johnson (3-86), Cardinals, and Jay Ajayi (5-149), Dolphins
With more athletes at the position (two) coming off the board in the top 15 this year than in the four previous drafts combined (when there was one, Trent Richardson), it’s fair to say that Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon gathered most of the attention for this year’s running back class.
There were a variety of backs with different skill sets available in the second tier, though, and Johnson stood out to me as one of the more interesting candidates available. At 224 pounds with a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine, he earned himself a speed score of 109.0, suggesting his mix of size and speed should play up at the professional level. The Northern Iowa product profiles as the power back in a rotation with Andre Ellington, but he’s hardly the sort of Brandon Jacobs–style bruiser who lacks versatility; as a solid pass protector and above-average receiver, it’s not out of the question that Johnson becomes Arizona’s primary running back.
Ajayi, meanwhile, profiles as the sort of receiving back every NFL team needs in 2015. He unquestionably fell in the draft because of long-term concerns about his knee, but there’s something silly about knocking a running back because of what might happen down the line, given the attrition rates that even healthy backs go through at the professional level. Like many college backs, Ajayi needs to work on his pass protection, but there’s a chance he turns into, say, Shane Vereen.
Wide receiver: Jaelen Strong (3-70), Texans, and Justin Hardy (4-107), Falcons
The leaguewide interest in bigger, stronger cornerbacks after the success of the Legion of Boom in Seattle has naturally made size more meaningful for the wide receivers who have to line up across from those cornerbacks. Enter Strong, who dominated the Pac-12 during his two seasons in Arizona State’s spread attack. Strong’s 6-foot-2 frame drew attention, but after he ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at the combine, he began to attract first-round grades from some observers. One anonymous scout even called him a faster Larry Fitzgerald, although that seems aggressive. Strong didn’t have the tape to justify a first-round pick, but the Texans traded up to nab him early in the third round, and he’ll serve as a downfield weapon.
Hardy is the polar opposite. At 5-foot-10 and without game-breaking speed (he ran a 4.56 40 at the combine), he really shouldn’t have a professional career. He will, though, because he’s the poor man’s version of Anquan Boldin. Watch Hardy’s college highlights and you see a player who repeatedly manages to create separation through his route running and his feel for defenses before making people miss after the catch. I ran the numbers once on the frequency with which players who caught third-down passes short of the first-down sticks managed to pick up first downs, and Boldin was the best in football. You can imagine Hardy following in those footsteps.
Tight end: MyCole Pruitt (5-143), Vikings
In one of the weaker tight end classes in recent memory, the best value is probably going to be a lottery ticket. Pruitt doesn’t have the height that makes athletic freaks like Jimmy Graham stand out, but at 6-foot-2, he should still be able to create mismatches against smaller defensive backs and slower linebackers. A better comparison would probably be Charles Clay, who took a couple of years before eventually finding his role in the Miami offense and developing into a worthwhile contributor. Pruitt needs to improve his blocking, but Norv Turner should be able to find a limited role for him in the Minnesota offense as early as this year.
Offensive tackle: Jake Fisher (2-53), Bengals, and T.J. Clemmings (4-110), Vikings
You could have made a case the Bengals didn’t need to draft a tackle, given that they already have one of the league’s best on the left side in Andrew Whitworth. Right tackle Andre Smith was a mess last year but has been better in years past. The Bengals took Cedric Ogbuehi in the first round, but it was even more shocking to see them draft another tackle with their second selection. Fisher might very well have been Cincinnati’s pick in the first round if Ogbuehi had been gone, so you can imagine how pleased they were to see him at 53. The Bengals can give him a year to bulk up, but given his skills as a pass protector defending Mariota at Oregon, Fisher — not Ogbuehi — might end up as Cincinnati’s left tackle of the future.
Vikings GM Rick Spielman made another astute midround pick by adding Clemmings, who fell to the fourth round over concerns about a stress fracture in his foot, which teams fear could become degenerative. Clemmings didn’t miss any time in college with the injury, and while he’s still raw after having played just two seasons on the offensive side of the football, he’s an athletic run-blocker who could replace Matt Kalil at left tackle if the Pro Bowler continues to struggle.
Guard: A.J. Cann (3-67), Jaguars, and Jarvis Harrison (5-152), Jets
Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell found a promising young guard in last year’s draft when he traded up to grab Brandon Linder; here, he had one of the draft’s better interior linemen fall into his lap in the third round. The Jags had more pressing needs elsewhere, but Cann just has too much impact as a run-blocker to pass up at that spot. He doesn’t have a clear path to the starting lineup with Linder and Zane Beadles locked in as Jacksonville’s guard combination, but Cann could end up as the team’s long-term solution at center if Stefen Wisniewski’s one-year deal doesn’t work out. Having already added running back T.J. Yeldon with their second-round selection, the Jags clearly put effort into improving their running game this draft. If Luke Joeckel can’t keep pressure off Blake Bortles, a solid running game might.
The Jets should rely heavily on their running game in 2015, and while I doubt that their trade for disgruntled Rams back Zac Stacy matters much in the long run, they found an intriguing line prospect in the fifth round with Harrison. Harrison spent most of his time at guard at Texas A&M but had the athleticism to briefly fill in at left tackle, a position that has yielded three first-round picks for the Aggies in recent years. Harrison probably doesn’t have the range to play tackle regularly at this level, but he could end up serving as a utility lineman and eventual starter at guard for Gang Green.
Center: Hroniss Grasu (3-71), Bears
The second-best center in the class after first-round pick Cameron Erving, Grasu should end up as the long-term successor to Olin Kreutz as both Chicago’s center and its offensive heartbeat. The Bears have made do with Roberto Garza and may hand the job over to Will Montgomery in 2015, but Grasu should be the starter as early as 2016. He played alongside Bears teammate Kyle Long at Oregon, and Grasu’s athleticism allowed him to serve as an effective zone-blocker while executing one of the nation’s fastest-paced offenses at a high level. Long was pretty excited about the pick:
Defensive end: Leonard Williams (1-6), Jets, and Owa Odighizuwa (3-74), Giants
Yes, when you get the guy who was widely regarded as the best player in the draft independent of position at no. 6, it represents great value. Williams will be splitting time with an already fearsome duo of defensive ends in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, but all three will likely play when the Jets go to their nickel package, with Wilkerson outside at defensive end while Williams and Richardson line up as defensive tackles. The key to beating the Patriots in years past has been dominating their offensive line with a four-man rush, and the Jets can do that with the talent they’ve assembled up front.
Odighizuwa is a more conventional value pick. The Giants have a long history of targeting freakish athletes to play defensive end and refining them into valuable contributors, and that’s clearly their plan with the UCLA product. The Giants once took Justin Tuck with this same 74th pick in the draft and worked him into a meaningful role by moving him inside on passing downs before eventually pushing him outside after he developed. Odighizuwa isn’t the same sort of pass-rusher Tuck was coming out of college, but he’s a similar sort of athlete; the Giants hope he can follow in their former star end’s footsteps.
Defensive tackle: Malcom Brown (1-32), Patriots, and Carl Davis (3-90), Ravens
What do you know? The Patriots and Ravens both needed interior defensive line help to replace departed legends, and without needing to trade up or sacrifice future picks, they somehow managed to come away with players who fit their needs to a tee. Weird! Almost like they manage this draft stuff well.
The Patriots might have very well considered Davis at 32 if Brown hadn’t been on the board. As it were, New England has to be delighted to come away with the Texas product, who profiled as one of the best run-stopping defenders in college football last season. At 320 pounds, Brown has the size to two-gap and control the line of scrimmage, just as Vince Wilfork did for so many years. Brown isn’t quite the athlete that Wilfork was coming out of Miami, but next to 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley, he should form the core of the next great Patriots defensive line.
Baltimore shouldn’t be upset about its pick. Davis, also 320 pounds, might actually be quicker than Brown and could offer more as an interior pass-rusher, which would be a nice addition for the Ravens, who lost Pernell McPhee to the Bears in free agency. Davis likely fell in the draft out of concerns surrounding his college knee injuries and worries about his motor, but the Ravens should be able to coax the most out of the former Iowa star. He’s not going to be Haloti Ngata, but Davis should be a valuable rotation piece for Baltimore in the years to come.
Linebacker: Randy Gregory (2-60), Cowboys, Eli Harold (3-79), 49ers, and Eric Kendricks (2-45), Vikings
You’re already familiar with Gregory, who had the ignominious honor of being the last player in the NFL’s greenroom to be drafted this year. While Gregory’s issues with marijuana were already publicized, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport noted during the draft that the linebacker had shown up late to one meeting with an NFL team and blown a second meeting off altogether, which didn’t do Gregory any favors. Others were concerned about his thin frame; as Robert Mays noted in his pass-rusher preview, there have been only two players in league history who were 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds or less and produced a season with double-digit sacks. At some point, though, Gregory’s tape and athleticism should have seen him come off the board earlier. Dallas, desperate for pass-rushers, may have gotten a bargain at the end of the second round.
Harold had also attracted some speculation as a first-round pick, which made it especially surprising that he slipped through the second round and made it all the way to the middle of Round 3 before the 49ers snatched him up. He remains a work in progress, and he’ll need to get better at shedding NFL-caliber blockers as a run defender, but the athleticism he showed at the combine and on tape points to a player who could grow into a starting role. If the 49ers move on from Aldon Smith next offseason, Harold could be starting across from Aaron Lynch in a new-look 49ers pass rush in 2016.
Admittedly one of my favorite players in the draft, Kendricks is the sort of rangy linebacker whose skills play up in the modern NFL. Finding a player with the instincts to diagnose complex offensive concepts and the athleticism to ruin them is tough, but like older brother Mychal, Eric has the speed to run with just about anybody he’s going to cover at this level. He fell to the second round because the value of inside linebackers has been depressed for years now, but with Minnesota struggling to find a long-term solution at middle linebacker, the Vikings have to be thrilled the UCLA star was still available at no. 45.
Cornerback: P.J. Williams (3-78), Saints, and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (7-241), Browns
The concept of an undervalued cornerback is an oxymoron these days, but there are a couple who managed to fall through the cracks. Williams slipped in part because of a DUI arrest, but those charges were recently dropped, and he should be an interesting candidate for a Saints team that appears to be moving toward more press-man coverage after adding Brandon Browner. Williams isn’t the sort of powerhouse former Legion of Boom member Browner is, but he’s a willing run defender who was able to lock up smaller receivers at the line of scrimmage at Florida State. He could end up as Browner’s replacement in 2016 or 2017.
Ekpre-Olomu fell for more obvious reasons. Regarded as a possible first-round pick during the 2014 season, Ekpre-Olomu tore his ACL in December while practicing with Oregon before the first College Football Playoff. He may not be healthy enough to play for part of the 2015 season, and with his 5-foot-9 height already counting against him, he fell further than just about anyone expected. Given his pedigree as a playmaker and his history of outplaying his measurables, though, it’s shocking that a risk-friendly team like the Patriots or 49ers didn’t take a shot on him in the fifth or sixth round. He could end up turning out like an Al Harris–esque slot corner if the knee cooperates.
Safety: Landon Collins (2-33), Giants, and James Sample (4-104), Jaguars
Let’s finish up with a pair of safeties who should help improve their respective teams’ run defenses. The Giants traded up at the top of the second round to grab Collins, and while I can’t endorse a middling team like New York trading away picks, it was bereft of options at safety. Giants GM Jerry Reese thinks Collins can be a well-rounded safety and defensive leader in the long run, but at the very least, Collins should contribute as a run-thumper who gets into the box and makes plays. With Dallas and Philadelphia in the division, the Giants can’t afford to be the league’s sixth-worst run defense again in 2015.
Sample is a bit of a wild card, having spent just one year as a starting safety at Louisville after transferring over from Washington and American River College. He wasn’t Calvin Pryor, but Sample was a willing strong safety who also managed to come away with four picks. The Jags already have a promising strong safety in Jonathan Cyprien, but Sample might have the athleticism to play free safety. At the very least, he should be an above-average member of Jacksonville’s coverage teams.
Filed Under: 2015 NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals
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