Notes from a typical spring Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall....
The Foregone Conclusion
J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are lined up on the opposite side of the ball. Your job: Figure out how to block them.
Don't worry about the defensive tackle between them. You cannot worry about him anyway; you have enough on your plate. Who do you double team? Watt? Clowney? Both? If the answer is both, and it probably is, the Texans have accomplished their mission. Their linebackers, like Whitney Mercilus and Brian Cushing, would like a word with your quarterback.
If Clowney is on the opposite line, you cannot hope for a reprieve because of his passion or his effort. That would wishful thinking, or overthinking. He's Jadeveon Clowney, the most disruptive collegiate defender to enter the draft since Ndamukong Suh. Suh's effort and focus come and go, too. When he is on, nothing can stop him. When he is "off," he is still a decent starter, penalties and all. And unlike Clowney, Suh does not have the luxury of being the second best player on his defensive line. Clowney, banged up and with (yes) half an eye on what would inevitably happen on Thursday night, grew weary of chasing all the backs and option quarterbacks running away from him in 2013. With Watt on the same line, ball carriers will be running toward him. Or for their lives. Or nowhere fast.
Give the Texans credit for not over-thinking matters. Best athlete available. One of the most unique talents of the last decade. The best prospect in college football since the day the 2013 draft ended. Heck, since the day the 2012 draft ended. Steve Spurrier did not think Clowney had the work ethic to succeed in the NFL. Steve Spurrier does not have the work ethic to succeed in the NFL, but his self-serving skepticism spread like a virus. No, Clowney did not spit nails in 2013. Let's see if his motivation changes now that he has the chance to make money for someone besides Steve Spurrier.
And let's see how the AFC South blocks Clowney and Watt. Chances are, they will do it the way they blocked Antonio Smith and Watt in 2012: hardly at all.
The Texans are not your typical 2-14 team. They suffered a bad-karma collapse in a weak division. They entered this draft a few assets away from competing for a wild card again. The most important asset, a quarterback, has not yet been acquired. But Clowney was the best asset available. He and Watt are coming. Good luck stopping them. Don't count on them stopping themselves.
Bye, Bye Johnny
Johnny Manziel slipped to the 22nd pick in the draft, where the Browns (the wheeler-dealers of the night), traded up to grab him. The reasons so many of us thought he would go higher are complicated. But they boil down to two core concepts: a) We all assume that teams will climb over themselves to draft quarterbacks a little too high; and b) OMG this kid is so cool to watch he just has to get picked early.
At any rate, here are some things to like about the move:
- The Browns got both an additional need player (more on him later) and a 2015 first-round pick by keeping their powder dry and waiting for later in the draft for Manziel. General Manager of the Moment Ray Farmer kept trading as though there would be no next year, because that's how Browns executives are conditioned to think. But all of the assertive dealing increases the chance that Farmer may make it to next year.
- Kyle Shanahan can dust off the old Robert Griffin playbook for Manziel. He just has to make sure he does not dust off the old Robert Griffin personality conflict as well. But that was all daddy's issue, according to the tell-all memoir.
- At the end of a Manziel mega-scramble, Josh Gordon could be two miles away. And Manziel might be able to reach him.
- Vince Young is already on the roster to provide an amazing counterexample for Manziel.
Reasons to dislike the move:
- IT'S THE BROWNS THEY ARE DOOMED EVERYTHING THEY TOUCH CRUMBLES TO DUST AND THEN THE DUST CATCHES FIRE AND BURNS THEIR HANDS AND SMELLS BAD WHEN IT BURNS.
- The fact that Manziel was drafted 22nd, in the same slot as Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, makes the fatalism of the rant in point 1) excusable.
- The awesome nightlife of Cleveland may be too much for Manziel. Though it that's the case, the only safe place for him on earth may be Antarctica. Or perhaps Buffalo.
Round One Roundup
Here are some picks to love, picks to loathe and picks that puzzle from a Thursday night that was exciting at the beginning and end, but soft and squishy in the middle.
Picks to Love
Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: The team we all thought would trade up or trade down stood pat and selected a player who should start at left tackle for a decade.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M: Entering Thursday night, the Buccaneers' No. 2 receiver (with Vincent Jackson No. 1) was Skye Dawson, who is also that foxy hacker on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They also had Chris Owusu, who formerly was one of their kickers in the 1980s. Now they have Evans, who can go up passes thrown into traffic, no matter who is throwing them.
Cleveland Browns: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State. This pick may not be getting a lot of love, but Gilbert is a very good prospect who represents a major upgrade at a need position. The Browns were fifth in the NFL at defending opponents' No. 1 receivers, but 20th against No. 2 receivers, according to Football Outsiders. Joe Haden needed help, and now that he has it (don't forget Donte Whitner), Mike Pettine can do some of the things on defense that he used to do with Rex Ryan.
Giants: Odell Beckham, WR, LSU: With Hakeem Nicks gone, the Giants had no receiver on the roster who averaged more than 15 yards per catch. Incumbent Rueben Randle is the former LSU receiver you settle for. Beckham is the former LSU receiver you will see racing up the sideline against the Cowboys.
Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: Football Outsiders ranked the Chargers 31st at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers and 32nd at stopping No. 2 receivers. Verrett is a mighty-mite type, and the Chargers really need two of him, but you can only draft players one at a time.
Patriots: Dominique Easley, DT, Florida. If you hate the Patriots, feel free to hate the latest example of a Great Belichick Swindle. If you love the Patriots, gloat. And if you are confused, read this.
Picks to Loathe
Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, Central Florida. A tragic marriage of the worst possible player to the worst possible situation with the highest possible stakes. For all of his physical gifts, Bortles is as much of a developmental project, if not more, than Johnny Manziel. Bortles will be forced into the lineup too soon -- Chad Henne's purpose in life is to get leap-frogged on the depth chart by the hot prospect du jour -- for a team with an uninspiring supporting cast.
The only hope for Bortles is that the Jaguars may use a deep draft to stock the shelves at running back and wide receiver, as well as center. With the Browns bouncing all over the early draft board and the Bills itching for Sammy Watkins (an intriguing pick for them), the Jaguars could have traded down and easily come away with Bortles and a pick. Or possibly a better fit and a pick. This feels like the Blaine Gabbert selection all over again, except for the optimism.
Titans: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan. The Titans think of their offensive line like a butterfly garden. If they make it appealing enough, a whole swarm of quarterbacks will flutter into team headquarters and land behind center. Unfortunately, it does not work that way, so at the end of Round One, we were still bracing for another year of Gypsy Moth Locker season. Though he will be well protected as he bounces passes at his receivers' feet.
Steelers: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State. Trapped for years in a vicious cycle of trying to rebuild yet one more iteration of the Steel Curtain, with ever-diminishing returns, the Steelers reached for a linebacker who cannot tackle. A future of Shazier and Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker is potentially terrifying for the Steelers faithful: Jones fails to reach the quarterback, while Shazier bounces off when he arrives.
Dolphins: Ja'Wuan James, OT, Tennessee. At least Lewan is a legitimate first-round prospect. The Dolphins, with an obvious and intense need on the offensive line, stood pat while Lewan and Zack Martin (Notre Dame, to Cowboys) left the board and took James, a low-upside player who may not be ready immediately (which is when he is needed) and may have been on the board in the second round. This selection had that musty Jeff Ireland smell.
Picks that Puzzle
Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. As a Bridgewater believer (a "Bridgeliever"), I believe he is an outstanding value at 32, where the Vikings selected him (after taking UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr earlier, then trading up with the Seahawks). On the other hand, the Vikings had several feisty medium-arm try-hards at quarterback in recent years, and look where it got them. Bridgewater combines Christian Ponder's athleticism with Matt Cassel's competence; no, I am not sure if that is a compliment or an insult either. Bridgewater gives the Vikings the potential to be the Bengals of the NFC. Again: Not sure if that is a compliment or an insult. Factor in a season at the University of Minnesota's icy stadium -- small-handed off-speed pitchers struggle in the cold, and Bridgewater got discombobulated in a Freezer Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats -- and the Vikings have reasons for very cautious optimism. Which is better than no optimism at all.
Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo. I love Mack. He was the best all-around prospect on the board when the Raiders selected. But he is an outside linebacker, and he is joining a bad team with so many needs that a linebacker might not be able to do much good. Mack is going to absorb a ton of blocks when his over-the-hill mercenary defensive line fails to protect him -- a very different experience than what Clowney will face. Teams will run away from him and roll protection to block him. I cannot shake the impression that four years from now Mack will be averaging five sacks per year -- but will then sign a huge contract with a better team looking to rescue him from a typically dire Raiders situation.
Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron, TE, Lions. Yes, Jim Caldwell uses a two-tight end offense. And the Lions got caught in a playmaker bind last year when several of Calvin Johnson's Howling Commandos got injured from playing football or delivering pizza or being Ryan Broyles. But with Golden Tate, a re-signed-for-big-bucks Brandon Pettigrew and now Ebron in the fold, just how many footballs does Caldwell think there are to go around? And how many resources can the Lions commit to their passing game? Perhaps Caldwell plans to never run the football at all. Reggie Bush is the Lions running back, so that strategy has its merits.
St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh. The Rams also drafted Auburn right tackle Greg Robinson, giving them two of the best interior thumpers in this year's draft. Also, Donald gives the Rams the NFL's best front four, though they may have already had that. So either Robinson and all of those young skill-position players finally combine to stop the Rams from listing sideways on offense, or all of their games will be preempted to broadcast the film All Quiet on the Western Front, which features less trench warfare attrition.
Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State: Benjamin is the kind of player who can score three touchdowns and drop three passes in the same game, then disappear for a few weeks because he runs only a few routes well. For some team stacked at wide receiver, he would be a great developmental player. For a team with Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, Benjamin will make a few big plays, a ton of big mistakes, and spend a lot of time standing around on the field wondering what he is supposed to do when Cam Newton scrambles. This would be a "pick to loathe" if there were not about 30 good receivers still in the draft pool.