Welcome to the 2014 NFL Loan DraftStephen Dunn/Getty Images
A couple of weeks ago, against the Vikings, Lavonte David played like he was shot out of a cannon. The Bucs linebacker was all over the place, flying around the field, dragging running backs down three yards into the backfield on seemingly every drive. Yet, on a one-win Tampa Bay team, the meaningful part of David’s season has been over since, well … it’s been a while. As much as Bucs fans probably needed it, watching David spend those plays on a team destined for a top-five pick felt like a waste. So I went looking for a solution.
Soccer, I’m told, has a loan system where, generally, players from bigger clubs are rented out to smaller teams so they can get playing time. But what if we turned that around and let the teams still in contention down the stretch rent out players from the league’s also-rans?
There are a million reasons this would never happen — injuries, late-season runs, it’s too much fun — but let’s just say it did. Following Week 9, the players for every team under .500 go into a draft comprised of every team .500 or better. This year, 19 teams would be drafting. The order goes from worst record to best, almost like the waiver system in outdated fantasy leagues. To give at least some incentive to the teams getting their players poached, the cash due on a player’s salary for the rest of the year is transferred to his new team, but it doesn’t count against the new team’s cap. Who wouldn’t watch this? It’s the much cooler cousin of what the Pro Bowl tried to do last year, and it affects actual football. The best part is, the options are so good that David couldn’t even make the cut.
1. San Francisco 49ers (4-4)
Needs: OL, Edge Rusher
Pick: Matt Ryan, QB
See! A draft where the Niners get the no. 1 pick is already worth doing.
San Francisco’s offensive struggles go way beyond Colin Kaepernick. Thanks to a backup right tackle, a rookie center, and Alex Boone’s issues after his holdout, the days of its once-dominant offensive line are gone, and so is its running game. But the upgrade to Ryan is still worth it here. With their wide receivers, the 49ers should be better than the 23rd-best offense in football — and with Ryan, they would be.
I want to see the spit-take Ryan would do if someone told him the Niners line was an issue. Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin could move to center and guard, and as long as Joe Staley and Mike Iupati were there, it would still be better than the MASH unit Ryan plays behind in Atlanta. None of San Francisco’s receivers is Julio Jones, but Ryan could still do plenty of damage with this crew. And with the way San Francisco has played defense against everyone but Denver, having Ryan under center might make it the scariest team fighting for the NFC wild card.
2. New Orleans Saints (4-4)
Needs: CB, ILB, OL
Pick: J.J. Watt, DE
I’d love to be there for the moment — and the entire night, honestly — when Rob Ryan hears this news. Thanks to quarterbacks being really important and stuff, the Saints are left with the best non-QB there is — both in this fake world I’m making up and the one we actually live in.
New Orleans is desperate for help at corner, but there’s just no one here that would make them hesitate on Watt. He fits what the Saints do defensively, and with him on the field, the secondary just gets better by association.
3. San Diego Chargers (5-4)
Needs: OL, DL
Pick: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE
Figuring out this draft unearthed a few interesting nuggets about how the league’s worst teams are put together. As evident to anyone who watched them get dismantled by the Dolphins, the Chargers are badly in need of help along their offensive line. But there just weren’t many top-flight interior linemen to be found among the bottom half of the NFL. Someone like Trent Williams would be an improvement over either Chargers tackle, but where they’ve had the most trouble this year is inside. I almost feel bad for not helping Philip Rivers. It seems cruel.
Not to worry, though. The Chargers defense has plenty of its own issues. After a relatively strong start, the Denver and Miami games plummeted San Diego to 31st in defensive DVOA. And since it hasn’t been very good against either the run or pass lately, why not give it a player adept at stopping both? There are few front-seven players more versatile than Wilkerson, who’s really improved as a pass-rusher in Year 4 for the Jets. He’s a better scheme fit than Gerald McCoy and would give John Pagano the type of multi-threat lineman he’s never had in San Diego.
4. Baltimore Ravens (5-4)
Needs: CB, S, TE
Pick: Harrison Smith, S
There are better players left on the board than Smith — except most of them play positions where the Ravens are pretty set. Julio Jones is an option, but based on what happened Sunday night, Baltimore might benefit most from some help in the secondary. Smith isn’t the corner the Ravens really need, but he’s the best available addition to the defensive backfield. At least for now, he’d step in for Matt Elam, who’s been disappointing in his second season.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
5. Cleveland Browns (5-3)
Needs: QB, DL, WR
Pick: Gerald McCoy, DT
Julio Jones belongs here for so many reasons. The Browns traded away the pick that eventually turned into Jones during the 2011 draft, and even though it’s a move Cleveland should have made, I’m sure there are still Browns fans who dream of a Jones–Josh Gordon pairing. I would too. Eight weeks of Jones would also help ease the pain — at least a little — of watching Sammy Watkins be Sammy Watkins in Buffalo.
As much as I want to, though, I can’t give Jones to Cleveland. Gordon will be back in a few weeks, and I think the Browns’ offensive decline has more to do with their quarterback and losing their center than it does their receivers. This team’s weakness is still its inability to stop anyone on the ground. Cleveland is 31st in rush-defense DVOA and giving up 4.77 yards per rush — 29th in the league. It’s also 29th in yards per carry before contact, a sign it’s getting little penetration along the defensive line.
That’s where McCoy comes in. All he’s done this year is cause destruction, to the point that I heard Gareth Edwards is planning on just using McCoy highlights for Godzilla 2. Poor Nick McDonald. He would have to spend the next two months trying not to look McCoy in the eye.
6. Buffalo Bills (5-3)
Needs: OL, CB, QB
Pick: Eli Manning, QB
Throw the Bills in with the other teams that need help at guard but can’t find any here. Since he’s taken over, Kyle Orton has been … well, Kyle Orton. Buffalo’s offense got a boost, but Manning would take that a step further. His rough week against Indy aside, Manning has had a nice year. Buffalo’s defense is more than good enough already, and with Manning, the ceiling on its offense would make this worth the risk.
7. Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
Needs: DL, OL
Pick: Aaron Donald, DT
Seahawks fans don’t need an introduction to Donald. For anyone repressing the memory, he’s the guy who more or less bought a condo in your backfield a few weeks ago. Since he started to get regular run, Donald has been insane. He’s good for at least one “What the what?” play a week, and that’s just what Seattle needs on the interior of its defensive line. As pass-rushers, the Seahawks have gotten nothing out of the defensive tackles in their base defense.1 Donald would help with that.
8. Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Needs: LB, DL
Pick: Luke Kuechly, LB
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I was tempted to give Kuechly to Seattle, which could use a linebacker with Bobby Wagner gone, but the Packers are the most linebacker-needy team in this entire group. After watching Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk for the past few years, I feel like we’d have to ease Packers fans into watching Kuechly in coverage. It’d be like someone who grew up blind suddenly being able to see for the first time.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
9. Miami Dolphins (5-3)
Needs: G, WR, CB
Pick: Julio Jones, WR
Another interesting side of this gimmick was figuring out which teams, at this point in the year, had the fewest problem areas on their rosters. Miami was up there. It’s hard to find a weakness on the Dolphins defense — not surprising, considering their dismantling of the Chargers pushed them to second in defensive DVOA. I guess they could use another corner, but we’re just nit-picking now.
Offensively, the Daryn Colledge–Dallas Thomas combo at right guard is the most glaring problem, but Jones is too good to ignore. I like Jarvis Landry, and Mike Wallace is what he is, but Jones gives Ryan Tannehill a true no. 1 option in the passing game — a big, physical receiver who can run all kinds of routes all across the field. That’s an element Miami just doesn’t have right now.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (5-3)
Needs: T, G, WR
Pick: Trent Williams, LT
An offensive lineman! Part of me feels like taking this long means I failed, but Williams lasting 10 picks says more about the other guys available than it says about him. With Jones off the board, offensive line becomes the most pressing matter for Kansas City, and a guy who’s been a top-five left tackle for a while now isn’t a bad find at this point. When the Chiefs took Eric Fisher first overall last year, they were probably hoping for a Williams-type player. Now, they get one.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1)
Needs: DE, ILB, C
Pick: Nick Mangold, C
Passing on an edge rusher here isn’t easy, but for the Bengals to be the team they want to be offensively, they need to do everything they can to run the ball well. We know what losing a great center does to a team’s running game (see: the Browns), so adding Mangold to the Bengals would be an experiment in the other direction. Mangold is on the opposite end of the spectrum from fourth-round rookie Russell Bodine.
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-3)
Needs: ILB, OLB, DL
Pick: Sheldon Richardson, DE
This entire list was fun to put together, but Richardson ending up with Indy is my favorite of these made-up scenarios. It’s easy to picture him in a Colts jersey — and he really is a perfect fit. Stopping the run is still where the Colts have the most trouble — they’re 20th in run-defense DVOA — and that’s where Richardson is best. He’s also picked it up as a pass-rusher, and without Robert Mathis, Indy could always use some help there too. The Colts are getting reasonably consistent pressure, but they have to send a lot of extra guys to do it. Only St. Louis, Washington, and Green Bay are blitzing on a higher rate of dropbacks than Indianapolis, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
13. Dallas Cowboys (6-3)
Needs: DE, LB, CB, S
Pick: Thomas Davis, LB
Speaking of picturing a guy in a uniform, JPP would look great as a Cowboy (sorry, Giants fans), but I’m going with need over intrigue here. Justin Durant just joined Sean Lee on the list of Dallas linebackers gone for the season, so the Cowboys could use a ground-covering linebacker. Davis may be the best one in the league.
Cornerback would be another option, but similar to how there aren’t many quality guards on the league’s lesser teams, top-notch corners were hard to come by. Davis isn’t the best player left, but he might be the one who gives the Cowboys the most flexibility.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)
Needs: CB, DL
Pick: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB
I came close to crowd-sourcing this pick. It’s safe to say that, as things stand, the Pittsburgh offense should be left alone. Its line has played pretty well all year. Sure, Marcus Gilbert isn’t the best right tackle in football, but he hasn’t torpedoed this offense either.
That leaves the Steelers defense, which I had a hard time pinning down. It feels like they could really use some help on the outside or at safety, and DRC is probably the best player available at either spot. Another pass-rusher would also make sense, but scheme-wise, there are more pure 4-3 ends left than outside linebacker options. Khalil Mack, maybe? I don’t know, Steelers fans. Go ahead and tell me who you’d want.
15. Denver Broncos (6-2)
Needs: OL, LB
Pick: Matt Forte, RB
Shockingly, the Broncos don’t have many holes. They have some of the best corners around, their pass rush is just fine, and they aren’t exactly lacking at receiver, either. Even with how well Brandon Marshall has played, some improvement in the linebacking corps wouldn’t hurt, but there aren’t any obvious choices there.
The Denver offense is actually where the most obvious swaps could be made. The issues they’ve had along the offensive line haven’t been talked about much — mostly because Peyton Manning is always going to hide some of the faults of that group — but as a whole, they haven’t played as well as they did a year ago. Denver is 14th in rushing DVOA, a ranking that’s inherently inflated by teams having to deal with their passing game.
Ronnie Hillman has been of some help in that area, so why not give the Broncos the best possible version of him? Forte is right there with Jamaal Charles as the best pass-catching running back in football, and he’d be a perfect fit for this offense. Going with a running back instead of a guard or right tackle replacement might be a backward way of thinking about it, but compared to any of the linemen still around, Forte is just playing better right now.
16. Detroit Lions (6-2)
Needs: CB, DE, OL
Pick: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE
Did I say Sheldon Richardson to the Colts was my favorite pick? Yeah, I was lying. JPP in Detroit would be unfair. The Lions offensive line could use some patching up, but the appeal of a Pierre-Paul, Suh, Fairley, Ansah front four is impossible to walk away from.
It’s not just about stacking the league’s best defense with another pass-rusher, either. Jason Jones’s main contribution as Detroit’s left defensive end is what he does against the run, where JPP also happens to be great. Swapping him and Jones keeps a top-three run defense intact while also super-charging an already scary pass rush. But we should move on. I need a cold shower.
17. Philadelphia Eagles (6-2)
Needs: DB, WR, G
Pick: Brandon Marshall, WR
Part of me wants to give DeSean Jackson back to the Eagles just because, but Jeremy Maclin has proved to be a more than viable deep threat. Philadelphia’s secondary could always use some work, but someone like Desmond Trufant or Kyle Fuller just isn’t worth missing out on one of these big-time receivers. Marshall — the richest-man-alive’s version of Riley Cooper, and an ideal crutch for Mark Sanchez/Nick Foles/whoever’s playing quarterback for Philly — is a perfect complement to Maclin. With Todd Herremans done for the year, Kyle Long — who Kelly knows well from Oregon — would be another option here, but based on the Eagles’ supposed interest in Vincent Jackson, it seems like they wouldn’t say no to a massive no. 2 receiver to round out their offense.
18. New England Patriots (7-2)
Needs: LB, WR, OL, RB
Pick: DeSean Jackson, WR
We finally have a chance to get the “Andre Johnson to New England” trade we’ve always wanted, but I worry that Johnson doesn’t give the Patriots offense the new level they’d be searching for. Jackson does.
Tom Brady has come back from the dead even without a receiver who can take the top off a defense, but the lack of a deep threat still caps the ceiling for New England’s offense. Jackson would give the Patriots what they haven’t had since Randy Moss left town. With Jerod Mayo done for the year, the Pats could also use some linebacker help, but David is more of a fit for the role Akeem Ayers is playing than the one vacated by Mayo. One more possibility to throw out there: Percy Harvin, a name I’m assuming Belichick has been surrounding with hearts in his spiral notebook for a while now.
19. Arizona Cardinals (7-1)
Needs: TE, G, OLB
Pick: Robert Quinn, DE
Even with the final pick in this draft, there are so many options for the Cardinals. They could replace John Carlson with Greg Olsen. They could send Lyle Sendlein packing and bring in Kyle Long to jolt that stagnant running game. But I’m giving defensive coordinator Todd Bowles what he’s been missing since John Abraham retired: a true pass-rushing terror who would let him ease off all that blitzing.
Quinn isn’t a logical scheme fit for a 3-4 team, but neither was Abraham, and the Cardinals run so many multiple fronts that he would get to spend plenty of time with his hand on the ground. Inside linebacker is the other spot where Arizona could use an upgrade, but even in a down year, the upside of Quinn is just too much. If we were doing this draft last year — and we should’ve — he may have gone 18 spots earlier.