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Welcome to the 2015 NFL Draft Awards

For a draft that had all the makings of being chaotic but ended up being pretty predictable, there were still some notable moments that deserve recognition.

After all the hype, a draft that had been drawn in pencil for weeks ended up looking a lot like chalk. The first round went mostly to form, with few surprises and just two relatively minor trades amid a reasonably coherent set of selections. While there were a few baffling picks, they mostly came in the late 20s, when successful teams went after luxury items in places where they were already strong. This was a draft in which team needs often seemed to coincide with a reasonably valuable player available at each given spot.

I like chaotic drafts, so I have to admit that this Day 1 wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. There were plenty of notable moments and selections, though, and they deserve to be given their just due. Let’s hand out awards for the brightest and bleakest moments of Thursday’s draft before we get to thinking and talking about what’ll happen in Rounds 2 and 3 tonight.

The Most Ado About Nothing

The Marcus Mariota saga, which ended quietly when the Titans took him with the second pick and immediately told reporters they intended to keep their quarterback of the future. Reports in the hours before the draft suggested the Bears were the mystery team making a bid to move up and grab Mariota, but the Titans were about as uninterested in paying Jay Cutler $31.5 million over the next two seasons as they should have been.

In the end, the Eagles just didn’t have enough to entice Tennessee into trading down. Philadelphia’s offer reportedly included two first-rounders, a third-rounder, and a package of players that included some combination of Sam Bradford, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, and Brandon Boykin. That’s a massive haul, and it was surely the best offer any team was going to be able to piece together for Tennessee’s pick, but it just wasn’t enough for Titans general manager Ruston Webster to justify the deal. The Eagles added USC wideout Nelson Agholor with their first-round pick, but unless they make another trade later in the draft, we finally know they’ll be going into 2015 with Bradford at the helm of a drastically different Eagles offense.

And now, after months of imagining what Mariota would look like in all kinds of uniforms, we’ll have to revert back to the status quo and know that he’s a member of the Tennessee Titans. Mariota, as I’ve written in the past, is hardly the sort of prototypical quarterback that Ken Whisenhunt has seemed to target when he’s had the power to pick in the past. The John Skeltons and Zach Mettenbergers of the world — and let’s all be happy we don’t have to read any more quotes from anonymous Titans scouts who are trying to pretend Mettenberger is a Tom Brady starter kit — don’t look or play like the dynamic Mariota.

Where Whisenhunt should succeed is in crafting an offense that at least considers Mariota’s strengths, even if he doesn’t necessarily play to them in the way that Chip Kelly might have in Philly. Whisenhunt has shifted his offensive game plan across different stops to account for his quarterback’s strengths, going from a downfield passing attack with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh to a quicker, more efficient Erhardt-Perkins variant in helping revitalize Philip Rivers’s career in San Diego. To get the most out of Mariota, Whisenhunt will need to be more creative and go further out of his comfort zone than he ever has. If Whisenhunt didn’t think he could pull it off, you have to believe that the Titans would have traded this pick. If he bet wrong, Whisenhunt might not be around for the second year of Mariota’s rookie contract, let alone its end.

The Least-Exhaustive Exhaustive Search

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who publicly suggested they had talked to more than 75 people in researching Jameis Winston’s background before taking the Florida State star with the first overall pick. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network said during the draft broadcast that the search included more than 100 man-hours of work, which seems like it would be the bare minimum for a quarterback with Winston’s known transgressions.

There’s also one person the Buccaneers didn’t talk to. On Thursday, The Cauldron’s Lindsay Gibbs reported that the Buccaneers had never made an attempt to contact or interview Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student who accused Winston of sexual assault.1 While it’s unfair to speculate whether Kinsman would have been interested in talking to the Buccaneers or whether it would have made any difference in Tampa Bay’s decision, it seems extremely odd for GM Jason Licht to publicly praise his own lengthy search process without the team or the league even attempting to contact Kinsman. You have to wonder if the Buccaneers were happier making their decision without having to consider Kinsman’s side of the story.

The Most Worrisome Comp That I Might Be the Only One Worried About


1.

Kinsman’s identity became public when she participated in this spring’s The Hunting Ground documentary on sexual assault at American colleges and universities.

Dante Fowler and the Jaguars, a combination that gives off some weird Dion Jordan vibes to me. Their college production was remarkably similar, as they each had 14.5 career sacks across three seasons. Their scouting reports are remarkably similar, with both Jordan’s and Fowler’s highlighting their versatility and athleticism while expressing concerns about their ability to hold up against direct runs. They were great athletes and raw talents who needed to be molded into better football players.

The problem with Jordan, even beyond his suspensions, is that the Dolphins never found a consistent role for him on defense. He isn’t a good enough pass-rusher to play ahead of Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake on the outside, but he isn’t polished enough to be a reliable coverage defender as a stand-up linebacker. Whether it is his inability to stay on the field, the coaching staff’s issues with developing his skills any further after he entered the league, or a problem with finding the right role for a guy who isn’t great at anything, Jordan has been a massive disappointment in Miami.

I’d be worried about the same happening with Fowler. There are more reasons to like him than Jordan — he has a wider range of pass-rush moves (even if they’re not refined), he’s better against the run, he seems to have more of a motor — but I’m still not sure how the Jaguars plan on using him. Fowler has suggested publicly that he’s going to fill the Leo pass-rushing role for Gus Bradley’s defense, but that doesn’t really seem to fit. Fowler is a great athlete, but as SB Nation’s Stephen White noted in his film review, Fowler didn’t really rush around the edge all that frequently at Florida. Using him as the Leo would also basically limit Fowler to pass-rushing, which would seem to go against the versatility that became his calling card at school.

It seems more plausible in the long run that Fowler will end up playing the Otto spot, which is closer to the role Bruce Irvin plays for the Seahawks. Seattle drafted Irvin hoping he could be its Aldon Smith, but Irvin has ended up as a disappointing mix of a decent pass-rusher and a competent outside linebacker, leading the Seahawks to pass on picking up his fifth-year option this offseason.

As the Otto, Fowler would serve as essentially a strongside linebacker near the line of scrimmage before transitioning into an edge rusher in clear passing situations. The Jaguars signed Dekoda Watson last offseason to play that role, giving him $1.5 million guaranteed in a three-year deal, and then released him after nine games and just one start. Jacksonville added Dan Skuta from San Francisco and expected to play him as its Otto this year, but in the long term, Fowler’s skill set fits best in that multifaceted role. If the Jags turn Fowler into a dominant pass-rusher, he’ll stay as a supersize Leo, because that’s where he’ll matter most. If he struggles to find a fit like Irvin or Jordan, though, the Jags may very well look back and wish they’d gone for the safer pick in Leonard Williams.

That suit, though? Can’t argue with that one bit.

NFL DraftJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Oh … and the shoes, too.

NFL DraftJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Most Terrifying Talent Stack

Leonard Williams and the Jets, who found the draft’s most highly regarded player on the board at no. 6 and took him without worrying about how he would play in their defense. This is different from the situation I just mentioned with Fowler and the Jaguars. There’s an obvious fit for Williams in New York; he’ll be a 5-technique defensive end, which was always going to be his ideal landing spot. The problem is that the Jets are loaded at defensive end, where they already line up a pair of Pro Bowl–caliber ends in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Defensive end was already the most impressive position on Gang Green’s roster; now, they’ve added the sixth overall pick to the mix.

I can understand hearing complaints about this from Jets fans who wanted the team to add an edge rusher or even another wideout, especially with Kevin White still on the board. But there are dumber things than building your team through a dominant defensive line. The cross-stadium Giants built their championship-winning teams from 2007 and 2011 on deep, athletic defensive linemen, beating the Patriots in a pair of Super Bowls by whipping their offensive linemen one-on-one. Todd Bowles blitzed as much as anybody during his time in Arizona, but if he can get pressure by rushing four, he would be foolish not to take it. When the Jets go into sub packages, Bowles will be able to mix and match his linemen to his heart’s content while keeping them fresh with steady rotations.

The other concern is over Wilkerson’s future. The Jets haven’t come to terms with the New Jersey native on a long-term contract, and there has naturally been post-draft speculation that the Jets selected Williams with the idea that he’ll replace Wilkerson in the starting lineup after Wilkerson eventually leaves town. I find that one hard to believe. Wilkerson is entering the final year of his rookie contract, during which he’ll make just under $7 million. The Jets can franchise him next year while paying him somewhere around $12 million, which wouldn’t be an unfair sum. Wilkerson can get more than that on the free market, but with that leverage, the Jets should be able to entice him to sign a lengthy extension. My suspicion is that Wilkerson will stay and Bowles will get the most out of his new charges.

Cameron-Erving-triGrant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Most Confusing Talent Stack

Cameron Erving and the Browns. Cleveland took the Florida State center with its second selection in the first round, and while I can’t fault the team for adding mammoth Washington nose tackle Danny Shelton with its selection at no. 12, the Erving pick doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

As much as my podcast partner Robert Mays loves the idea of investing in interior linemen, the Browns have spent a lopsided sum on centers and guards over the past two years. They used a second-round pick on left guard Joel Bitonio in 2014, which has worked out wonderfully. Cleveland also matched a massive Jacksonville offer sheet for center Alex Mack, only for Mack to break his leg five games into the 2014 season. Right guard John Greco isn’t a superstar, but there were far bigger holes on the roster than the one the Browns will be filling here, with Erving presumably moving to play right guard as a rookie.

Erving gives the Browns a replacement if Mack opts out after this season, but the Browns are paying the opportunity cost of signing a bad deal last offseason. The Jaguars offered Mack an absurd deal that was heavily weighted in his favor to try to prevent the Browns from matching. His five-year, $42 million contract contains $16 million in guarantees and $18 million in compensation during the first two seasons while allowing Mack to opt out afterward. It’s a lose-lose for the Browns. If Mack doesn’t recover from the injury or isn’t playing at a high level, he’ll stay and earn another $8 million in guarantees in 2016. If he plays well, the Browns will lose him while having paid a disproportionate cap figure last year.

General manager Ray Farmer made a mistake after the 2013 season when he tagged Mack with the transition tag as opposed to the franchise tag, which wouldn’t have allowed Mack to negotiate with other teams. Now, because they had no leverage with the Mack contract, they were forced to prepare for a future without him by using their valuable first-rounder on a center in lieu of drafting a much-needed wideout. Erving may very well be a good player, but his pick was emblematic of the sort of mistakes the Browns seem to repeatedly make as a franchise in permanent transition.

The Nearest-to-WrestleMania Moment

Danny Shelton, who looked — just for a moment — like he was about to give Roger Goodell an overhead belly-to-belly suplex. I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to suplex the commissioner, even though I’m also pretty sure there isn’t a rule in the NFL’s bylaws saying that you can’t toss the commissioner over your head.2 Shelton probably would have been suspended, but it also would have been the greatest moment in draft history and turned him into the biggest babyface in football.

Best Quote


2.

Also see Jon Bois’s oral history of punching the commissioner in the face.

Kevin White, who had this to say:

I’m more of a Piercing Pagoda man, myself.

Most Awkward Moment

Thomas Davis, who accepted the Walter Payton Man of the Year award with class before revealing Carolina’s first-round selection. The rangy cover linebacker announced that the Panthers had selected Washington product Shaq Thompson, who profiles at the NFL level as … a rangy cover linebacker. The Panthers may try Thompson as a quasi-safety in some packages this year, but make no bones about it: Davis probably introduced the guy whom the Panthers drafted to be his long-term successor. It also would have been awkward to see Cam Newton’s reaction when he realized the Panthers will go with Michael Oher as his left tackle this season.

Most Surprising Pick

Washington taking Brandon Scherff. No. 5 was going to be an interesting spot for Washington, given that it wasn’t really in the market for a wide receiver like Kevin White and has invested heavily in defensive ends Jason Hatcher and Stephen Paea in consecutive offseasons, which would seem to limit its interest in Williams. Washington might have gone after an edge rusher, but with Fowler off the board, it seemed like Scot McCloughan’s best bet might have been to trade down and acquire more picks for his threadbare roster.

Instead, McCloughan surprisingly stole a page out of a rival’s playbook. The Eagles and Cowboys have risen to the top of the NFC East during dominant years from their offensive lines, and by adding Scherff, McCloughan is hoping Washington can do the same. Scherff, who was under consideration by teams as both a guard and a tackle, will slot in at right tackle as a replacement for the departed Tyler Polumbus. It’s about as big of a talent improvement as a team can hope for, even assuming Scherff struggles some as a rookie.

It’s interesting to see a team go for a player whose ceiling is this low this high in the draft. NFL teams have underestimated Iowa tackles for having short arms in the past, as Riley Reiff can attest, but this is less about Scherff and more about Washington’s roster. One of the few places Washington has a talented young player in his prime is at left tackle, where 26-year-old Trent Williams is in the final year of his deal. There’s no way Washington is letting its three-time Pro Bowler walk anytime soon, if only because left tackles this good never hit the market.

If Washington re-signs Williams, Scherff ends up playing right tackle or guard for the vast majority of his rookie contract. He could be a very good player at either of those spots, but is it worth using the fifth pick on a very good guard? Could Washington have traded down to no. 7 or no. 8 and still managed to come away with Scherff before the line-needy Giants picked him up at no. 9? Or does drafting Scherff mean that Washington expects Williams to leave? If you’re a Washington fan, it probably just feels nice to have a first-round pick again.

Worst Landing Spot

Todd Gurley in St. Louis. While Gurley’s stock continually rose during the pre-draft process, the Georgia star could have hoped for a much better destination than St. Louis. I don’t know whether Rams coach Jeff Fisher is going to run Gurley into the ground like he did Eddie George 15 years ago, but as talented as Gurley might be, he’s going to have to make the holes himself.

The left side of the St. Louis line is set, with second overall pick Greg Robinson at tackle and expensive veteran Rodger Saffold at guard. The rest of the line is a mess, with the Rams’ three other projected starters having started a total of four professional games. Tim Barnes, Barrett Jones, and Brandon Washington hardly have much of a pedigree, and while backup Garrett Reynolds has started 27 games, he simply hasn’t been very good at this level. Outside of Tampa Bay, St. Louis might have the worst offensive line in football on paper.

Gurley was linked with teams like the Cardinals and Chargers, both of whom would have provided him with far better chances for succeeding. It’s possible he’ll end up being so good that he’ll outplay his surroundings and make his offensive linemen look great, but that’s hope talking. It’s more likely the Rams will lean on Gurley as some semblance of a lazy offensive identity and end up turning him into an average running back.

Most Brazen Trade Request

Zac Stacy, the Rams back who said “Yikes” on a now-deleted tweet after the Gurley selection before asking the Rams for a trade. If the 2014 fantasy football season is any sign, Stacy’s employers will spend six weeks fruitlessly trying to trade him around the league for useful players before quietly giving up and releasing him onto the waiver wire.

Most Confusing Pick

Indianapolis taking Phillip Dorsett. There’s nothing wrong with the best-player-available approach, especially when you’re a competitive team drafting in the late 20s. And I don’t have anything at all against Dorsett, who profiles as a valuable slot receiver despite being denied the ball at times at Miami. In a vacuum, this pick makes total sense.

Given where the Colts are right now, though? I’m confused. Indy was set at wide receiver with T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, and 2014 second-rounder Donte Moncrief, who should challenge for a bigger role in 2015. The Colts used Reggie Wayne as their slot receiver last year, but with Wayne gone, it seemed likely they would move one of those three (or tight end Coby Fleener) into the slot when the Colts go three wide. Dorsett is earmarked for that role now, but does it suggest the Colts are concerned about Moncrief’s development or their ability to sign Hilton to an extension after his contract ends this year?

It also seems strange given the talent pool that was available to the Colts at no. 29. Having been bounced from the playoffs by a heavy dose of New England’s running game in each of the past two seasons, Indy could have addressed its defense. With a gaping hole next to safety Mike Adams, the Colts could have chosen the safety class’s best run defender (Landon Collins) or cover man (Damarious Randall), or chosen to upgrade their defensive line by drafting Eddie Goldman or Malc—

Least Confusing Pick

Patriots drafting Malcom Brown. How did the Patriots end up getting exactly what they needed without budging an inch? Despite rumors they were going to deal their pick at the end of the first round to the Texans, Bill Belichick’s team somehow came away with a player it could have justified grabbing 15 spots earlier. Although the Patriots were a respectable 13th against the run per DVOA last year, that was with Vince Wilfork, who was a cap casualty this offseason.

While the Patriots can expect to get more out of 2014 first-rounder Dominique Easley this season, the 290-pound defensive tackle simply doesn’t do the same things that Wilfork, nominally playing the same position, did for years and years. The 319-pound Brown can’t expect to play like Wilfork overnight, but he has the frame to hold up as a two-gapping tackle if Belichick wants to use him that way. Brown was regarded as arguably the best run defender in this class, and Belichick will be able to use him for 40 snaps a game to clog up the interior of the defense while Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo run free behind him. We don’t know if Brown will be an above-average pro yet, so it’s impossible to say this is a great pick. Given pre-draft projections and analysis of where the Patriots are weakest, though, it sure seems like a logical one.