I crashed the draft into the bridge. And I don't care! Let's kick things off with some quick takes.
A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action. Jerry Jones compared Johnny Manziel to Elvis Presley after passing on Manziel in the first round. When most owners say things like that, it sounds like they fear a media circus. Jones sounded worried about being upstaged.
The Cowboys had Manziel atop their draft board; serious Jones watchers knew that this guaranteed the team would not draft Manziel, opting for an interior lineman instead. Jones is not one to listen to his scouts or coaches, but he presumably also tunes out his grandson, who can be seen following him with a tablet wherever they go. The Jones grandkids are known for hobnobbing with the likes of Taylor Swift, so while they may not have the authority to overrule Jason Garrett just yet, they are probably expected to freshen Jerry's pop-culture references a bit. "Justin Bieber, Pop-pop. Johnny Manziel is like Justin Bieber."
The world is not ready for Jerry, Johnny and Tony Romo in one place. It would look too much like that "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" lithograph with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in it. Get working, Photoshoppers!
Shift Work. The revamped J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Louis Nix Texans defensive line has the potential to be something future generations speak softly of. At worst, it should be like the current Lions line: dominating for two games, infuriating for a third.
Both Clowney and Nix have a reputation for going on staycation for the occasional series/game/2013. Such reputations are nearly always media embellished: all college big men have series where they are obviously giving less than 110 percent (it comes from being 300 pounds and having to play every single snap of every game, for free); and the guys with serious motivational issues, even if they are athletic archetypes, slip into the seventh round to be chosen by the Bills. But the Texans can incentivize Clowney and Nix's mutual need for breathers: sack the quarterback, strip the football and you take a whole bunch of plays off!
Seriously, though: assuming there is some smoke beneath the stories of their lack of competitive fire, it may make more sense to draft two players with stamina/motivational issues than one. Romeo Crennel's staff can emphasize cardiovascular training and the need to show intensity during practice reps without singling any one guy out. As a teacher, it was easier to have a class where three teenagers could not reduce fractions than a class with one: I had an excuse to just teach the fractions without embarrassing one poor soul.
I am @ItalianScrapple Until Sports on Earth Tells Me I Cannot Be: Numerous sources revealed that one reason Nix fell into the top of the third round was a concern among teams about Nix's social network habits.
Nix goes by the Twitter handle @1IrishChocolate. He explained the name in a SBNation interview weeks ago: "Me being Irish Chocolate, I want to be this nice, humble guy, but at the same time ... just picture chocolate, it's creamy, smooth, that's what I want to be, but at the same time, too much chocolate, it'll kill you." Nix's Twitter backdrop is an Autism Awareness ribbon. A quick scan of his pre-draft tweets finds mostly chatter about final exams, cookies and the NBA playoffs. The most inflammatory comments -- about Donald Sterling -- could have appeared in any sports column written in the past month. There were some pictures of Nix and his buddies, and I donned my DeSean Jackson x-ray-into-the-soul specs to see if their high-fives were actually Gang Symbols™, but to no avail. What a scoundrel this Nix fellow is! But then, he mentions so much Easter candy and the like that maybe teams were more concerned about his training regimen.
NFL teams would not be the first employers to overreact to innocent (or slightly edgy) social networking, though I submit that a defensive tackle should be held to an easier standard than, say, a middle school teacher. When trying to comprehend the NFL's mindset on anything from Irish Chocolate to Manziel's 1950s rock 'n' roll star status to Michael Sam, it is best to not think of a monolithic multi-billion dollar inherently-evil industry. Think instead of something more like the school board in some Midwestern town, full of people who are small-"c" conservative and extremely comfortable remaining a decade or so behind the cultural/technological cutting edge. Irish Chocolate? Is that a code word for something dirty? Sounds a little fishy to me, you betcha!
While we all have the right to free speech, employers still retain the right to strongly suggest that their workers avoid saying stupid things on Twitter. My employer, of course, requires me to say stupid things on Twitter, so I do everything possible to remain creamy, smooth and deadly.
Turning the Battleship. The Browns had an exceptional Thursday: they acquired both Manziel and a much-needed cornerback in Justin Gilbert, adding a 2015 first-round pick and some sundries in the process.
Hours later, as you know, news broke that Josh Gordon faces a potential year-long substance abuse suspension. Tack on a minor minicamp injury to Nate Burleson, and the Browns went from having no need at wide receiver to a critical need. They then went into apparent deep denial, spending two days actively avoiding wide receivers in the deepest wide receiver draft in history.
The Browns later explained that they chose to stick to their initial draft strategy, even after learning about Gordon's issues in the days leading up to the draft. That sounds stubborn to the point of insane. But while the Browns should have been a little more flexible, there was some wisdom behind sticking to the script, though that wisdom is a residue of the team's recent self-inflicted injuries.
When you and I whip up a draft strategy for an NFL team, we look at a depth chart, look at a prospect list, insert tab A into flap B and declare mission accomplished. I put more effort into something like a mock draft than most people, but in the end I am just playing matchmaker without consequences, grabbing guys I liked at the Senior Bowl or that Russ Lande vouched for and pounding them into apparent holes on rosters.
The real process of assembling a draft board, as we all know, involves weeks of meetings that rely upon the results of months of scouting, interviewing and investigating. Coaches must coordinate with college scouts, who must coordinator with pro scouts, cap people and execs handling free agency and contract extensions. Just grabbing Jalen Saunders or Jarvis Landry and sliding him up the draft board because of an emergency could be disastrous: Kyle Shanahan might not be comfortable with those players, the scouts may not have focused on giving Mike Pettine and Shanahan the information they needed (resources are finite) and so on. In terms of the process, stubbornly sticking to the draft board was not a "classic Browns" move. Panicking and grabbing receivers the team did not fully vet would have been the "classic Browns" move.
Part of the problem was the Browns' truncated offseason, the result of the team's ever-present turmoil: Ray Farmer took over administrative reins just days before the Combine, and Pettine and Shanahan were the last coaches hired. Last year's scouting was done for last year's schemes and last year's executives, and as late as the Senior Bowl the current power structure was not in place. Just coordinating the Browns' pre-Gordon needs and expectations was an accelerated chore. The Patriots can pivot quickly after 14 years of organizational stability. The 49ers and Seahawks have built lockstep procedures in recent years: there may be some squabbling in Niners headquarters, but scouts know what coaches want and logistical paths are well-worn. The Browns simply do not have that infrastructure after less than three months under the current administration.
The Browns should have found room for a little flexibility. Players like Robert Herron, a blurry-fast Gordon surrogate from Wyoming, were still twiddling their thumbs in the sixth round. But abandoning the Gilbert strategy might have left them weak at cornerback, without Manziel and overreacting in an effort to land Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans on Thursday. In isolation, the Browns did a great job drafting talented players. Let's hope it is the start of a bright future, not more penance for sins past.
The Firth of Fourth
The fourth round of this year's draft may have been my favorite round of any draft in years. It was chuck full of interesting players that I loved when doing my scouting thing. Here is an incomplete list of fourth-round favorites:
Jaylen Watkins, CB, Florida (Eagles): Watkins was not the biggest, fastest or toughest cornerback at the Senior Bowl practices, but he had an ideal combination of those three skills, and he blanketed lots of receivers until suffering a minor foot injury on the final day.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State (Falcons): A short-rugged back who bounces off tacklers and has a nasty cut block when pass protecting.
Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma (Jets): Your basic jitterbug slot receiver, though tougher than many.
Bryan Stork, C, Florida State (Patriots): A technician and weight-room guy who battled hard against first-round defensive tackles at the Senior Bowl.
Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina (49ers): The 49ers won the draft and appear to be winning everything on earth except their own division. Ellington is a small receiver who blocks so well that Steve Spurrier used him as a red zone tight end, because Steve Spurrier wants what's best for his young scholars.
Justin Ellis, DT, Louisiana Tech (Raiders): Another Senior Bowl fave. Looks like a computer-generated Avengers villain. Moves well for a medium-sized hillock.
Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke (Bills): A Cover-2 type who does not have ideal deep speed but can bump-and-harass receivers to distraction.
Andre Williams, RB, Boston College (Giants): John Riggins, only cerebral and with some receiving ability.
Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson (Steelers): Only in this draft class would a size-speed project like Bryant, who was also productive at a major program, last deep into the fourth round.
Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood (Browns): Yet another Senior Bowl standout! An outside-the-box candidate in the Search for Richard Sherman sweepstakes. Desir is not Sherman huge, but he is pretty big, very bright and has the athleticism to become a starter once he ramps up.
And on and on. There were more picks to love in the fourth, from Daquan Jones and Ka'Deem Carey through Brent Urban and polarizing quarterbacks Logan Thomas and Tom Savage. The fourth round was fan service for lovers of college All-Star games and deep draftnik diving: the players were noteworthy enough to generate discussion (as opposed to the kickers and guys from tiny schools of late rounds) but obscure enough to be both on the boards and underexposed.
The fourth round was so great, and the subsequent rounds so increasingly dire, that perhaps we can marry the NFL's desire to promote the draft as crazily as possible with the player's desire to have more employment mobility and negotiation leverage. Set up a draft schedule like this: Round One on a Sunday night (great television exposure), Rounds Two-Three on Monday, Rounds 4-5 on Tuesday and done. A shorter draft is a collective bargaining negotiation chip, something that could be traded for an 18-game schedule. (It will happen one way or the other; at least we shorten the draft a bit this way.) It is well known that undrafted free agency is better than getting selected in the seventh round, and that the switch flips somewhere in that fifth round, so this is a win-win, right?
Ratings are up for the draft, which has more to do with Johnny Manziel being slightly more interesting than Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher than the late draft date, but try telling the NFL that. I may just be willing at this point to propose anything that keeps the NFL from introducing The Memorial Day Weekend Five Day Draft Extravaganza.
The Songs Remain Inane
Draftees got to select their "walkup" music when their names were announced at this year's draft, and it was a fun, cute idea. I don't recognize or like most of their selections, because I am old and boring, but after years of "Georgia on My Mind" when the Falcons selected and "Philadelphia Freedom" for the Eagles, the change was welcome. We even spent some pre-draft hours on Twitter discussing our own walkup choices. I am torn between "Fat Man in the Bathtub with the Blues" for myself and John Cage's "4'33"."
But the NFL also decided to play a horrendous concoction of terrible Top 40 nonsense in between the selections. To this, I object. We are not talking about hip-hop, here. We are talking about "What Does the Fox Say" and the song about crashing a car into a bridge, plus other idiotic stuff they edit the cuss words out of for Junior High dances. I can stomach the poppin' tags stuff and really love that Janelle Monae girl, but I guarantee that less than one percent of the people in Radio City Music Hall wanted to hear "Moves like Jagger" or any of the other un-differentiable Auto-Tuned outdated teeny-bopper nonsense that played at top volume until late on Friday night, when someone staged a Steely Dan coup that may have swung a little too violently in the other direction.
So yeah, get off my lawn. Or at least recognize that your audience is full of 20- to 50-year-old dudes (about 75 percent male), plus lots and lots of middle aged people working on trying to select players or write about them. NONE OF US LIKE "WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY." Mix some modern hits with Motown and classic rock basics. Heck, let Johnny Manziel DJ: I trust his instincts better than those of anyone Roger Goodell would employ to provide "upbeat entertainment."
Also, if half of the draftees want to walk out to Drake, maybe the NFL should just invite Drake to perform. It would boost ratings! RATINGS RATINGS RATINGS!!!! Just trying to get the league's attention by speaking its language.
(Telephone conversation recorded Sunday 05-11-14 at 2330 Eastern Time by NSA satellite 2112.5440.362436. Transcript released publically in accordance with Article XLVII of the Freedom from Privacy Act.)
MALE VOICE: San Francisco 49ers headquarters. Coach speaking.
FEMALE VOICE: Jimmy? Jimmy is that you?
MALE VOICE: Of course it's me, Ma. Why are you calling so late?
FEMALE VOICE: I … I was just calling to make sure my phone still worked.
MALE VOICE: Phone still worked? That means you are mad. Why? What did I … Oh my God, Ma, Happy Mother's Day.
FEMALE VOICE: Oh, it's just another day on the calendar, Jimmy. I don't need a gift. Or a card. Or a phone call from my baby boy, who I carried in my belly for well over nine months.
MALE VOICE: Ma, I am sorry I forgot. I just got busy. The crazy NFL moved the draft back two weeks, so I was working in New York all weekend, and stuff just slipped my mind. I was really busy: we had about 75 draft picks, and we even made a major trade.
FEMALE VOICE: Oh, I know you are too busy for your old mother. And I didn't need a special dinner. I just ate some leftover ravioli from the freezer. I didn't even bother cooking them. I just ate them frozen.
MALE VOICE: That's not true, Ma. You are being dramatic.
FEMALE VOICE: Well, that's what I was planning on eating when afternoon came and I had nothing -- not even a phone call -- from my Jimmy. But then Joani and Tom came over and took me out to a nice dinner at the country club. I'm glad she married that Tom. He's a nice boy. He is a big, important coach, too, but he doesn't lose sight on the important things, like some people.
MALE VOICE: Ma, Tom is a college basketball coach. He has plenty of time in May. I bet Johnny forget, too.
FEMALE VOICE: Your big bother sent me beautiful flowers and a lovely card during the week.
MALE VOICE: Flowers and a card? What a predictable gift. Incredibly predictable. Ma, Johnny had Gary Kubiak send that gift to you.
FEMALE VOICE: Well, that may explain why Ethel next door intercepted it and claimed it was hers. Anyway, it's the thought that counts, isn't it?
MALE VOICE: Yes, Ma.
FEMALE VOICE: If your father were here to see your poor mother waiting by the phone all day, waiting for her baby boy to pick up the phone and tell her he loves her, I don't know what he would have done.
MALE VOICE: So where was Pa today, since everyone knows he is 100 percent alive?
FEMALE VOICE: There was some race over at the Brickyard. He just got home a little while ago. Let me put him on.
MALE VOICE: No, Ma, I …
OTHER MALE VOICE: I am very disappointed son. You know how your mother gets when we forget things.
MALE VOICE: Yes, sir.
OTHER MALE VOICE: Father's Day is in a few weeks, and I assume there is no minicamp or extra draft that weekend.
MALE VOICE: No sir. What will it take to make you proud of me again?
OTHER MALE VOICE: Callaway Apex, the full iron set. And a new bag.
MALE VOICE: Yes sir.
OTHER MALE VOICE: And I would be teeing off at Prairie View at about noon that day with the mayor and Father O'Donnell. It would be great for Colin or Anquan to call and wish me a Happy Father's Day on your behalf sometime on the back nine. Preferably Anquan.
MALE VOICE: Yes sir. Can you put mom back on now?
FEMALE VOICE: Oh Jimmy, I feel better now that I talked to you.
MALE VOICE: I love you Ma, and I am sorry. This is a stressful job, and I had a really productive weekend! I mean: Jimmie Ward, Steve Johnson, Carlos Hyde, Chris Borland. C'mon!
FEMALE VOICE: I am so happy you are doing swell at work. But you know what would make your poor mother even happier? If you were more like your big brother. You know: with a ring on your finger …
MALE VOICE: You had to go there, didn't you?
Happy belated Mother's Day, on behalf of disappointing and draft-obsessed sons and spouses everywhere!
Draft grades will land by Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. I will be using my three-category holistic scoring rubric, and the grading takes extra time, because I re-watch tape, tighten my knowledge of mid-round guys and do other things besides tally up the players I have heard of and assign a letter.
Commitments and Confirmations
The NFL draft is like a secular baptism. If Roger Goodell just hauled off, grabbed new draftees by the scruff of the neck and dunked them face-first into a ceremonial font of sponsored Gatorade on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, all the while chanting something beautiful-but-portentous in Latin, you would think, "Hmm, the draft seems slightly more excessive this year." The rites of entry into a new community are all there: formal wear, family gatherings, processions, man-hugs.
What Richard Sherman experienced the day before the draft, when he became one of the first (and by far the most famous) of the post-2011 lockout generation to sign a lucrative contract extension, was more like a confirmation, a totally new NFL sacrament we will soon get used to.
A quick explanation for non-Catholics in the audience: Catholic families baptize their children as infants. In the old days, we feared that an unbaptized baby who died would go to limbo, a joyless state of being theologically equivalent to getting drafted by the Browns. The church did away with limbo many years ago (it's a Starbucks now), but baptism is still a baby thing. When a young adult is ready to make a lifelong commitment to a complex set of philosophical and ideological principles that will have an enormous impact on every fundamental aspect of his or her life from that point forward (age 14 or so), the church administers a spiritual booster shot known as Confirmation.
I am going for gentle irreverence here, not blasphemy, but an unexpected storm front has moved in, so let me get to the point. Glibness aside, there are multiple advantages to this two-phased approach to a serious commitment, both for the institution and the individual. Everybody looks one another in the eye and publically affirms they are sticking together, which forces both sides to put a little more thought and energy into the decision.
The NFL has had its draft baptism for 80 years, but for most of NFL history there was no official booster shot. Until the start of free agency, players were bound for life to their teams, while teams were bound to their players for as long as they felt like it. Free agency brought a cacophony of negotiations, holdouts and mysterious salary cap machinations. Ballooning salaries with unwieldy lengths and stipulations were one result of the chaos. By 2010, the vows between the top players in the draft and their teams had become a death grip with the potential to strangle both parties.
The rookie salary cap became one of the major bargaining chips of the 2011 lockout, and the players acquiesced to a rigid contract structure for incoming rookies. First-round picks received four-year contracts with a fifth-year option, to be exercised within a prescribed time window. Everyone else received four-year contracts. No one can negotiate in the first three years, and teams exercising the fifth-year option must declare their intentions (or negotiate a brand new deal) in year three. As a consequence, the NFL added a new quasi-event to its calendar: "Option Season." We enjoyed our first option season in the weeks before the draft, though it did not make the major headlines that, say, an ESPN person with a Manziel opinion generated.
Of the 32 first-round picks in the 2011 draft, 21 had their fifth-year options picked up. The options brought premium salaries for 2015, based on draft position and playing position: Cam Newton will earn $14.67 million, for example. These players have been "confirmed" by their teams. That does not mean that the other 11 are heading to h-e-hockey-sticks, however. Nick Fairley of the Lions, for example, will probably fetch a huge salary on next year's free agent market: the Lions simply cannot afford him because they are saddled with so many pre-2011 contracts. Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn has not played up to an option value in the $6 million range, but if he improves upon his 2013 performance he will be a premium free agent. Jake Locker and Christian Ponder would have earned more money under the old system, and it would have bought them status as cap-choking albatrosses.
Money that used to get locked up by the top five or six picks is now spread among quality non-superstars who were selected later in the first round: players like Prince Amukamara and Anthony Castonzo got picked up to the tune of about $7 million each for 2015. The bar for confirmation is not set all that high. (Check out Over the Cap for a more in-depth fiscal look at fifth-year options.)
The redistribution of wealth is hardly perfect, and while plenty of options were picked up, there have been no flat-out extensions among the 2011 first rounders. In fact, few 2011 rookies have received extensions at this point. Have teams been viewing draftees from the last three years as low-priced short-term leases? Is the 2015 free agent market destined to be flooded with talent from the 2011 draft class? If so, we all know what a flooded market can do for salaries.
Even before the Seahawks made Sherman the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, there were signs that teams plan to be proactive with 2011 rookies. The Eagles signed center Jason Kelce to a seven-year contract with $13 million guaranteed and $37.5 million theoretical in late February. That contract spoke more directly to the new nature of "commitment" than Sherman's deal. The Eagles' first-round pick in 2011 was regrettable guard Danny Watkins. Even if he had not already been released, Watkins would quietly be playing out the final season of his affordable rookie contract, with no option exercised for 2015. Kelce, a sixth-round pick that year, might well have earned an extension under the old system, but the Eagles might also have locked up too much money in a five-year Watkins deal to be flexible. Kelce has essentially earned the money Watkins failed to earn: the players get something closer to a meritocracy and the Eagles get better value for their expenditure.
But centers don't draw much attention. Richard Sherman draws attention. So do the defending champions, who happen to face the ultimate test of the new salary catechism next year, when Russell Wilson's contract becomes negotiable. The Seahawks needed to set precedent with Sherman, both to define future budget parameters when dealing with Wilson and to demonstrate their willingness to get deals done. When the Super Bowl winner sets a precedent, they set a league-wide precedent. Sherman and the Seahawks set the stage for extensions for everyone from Wilson to Colin Kaepernick to Jurrell Casey, the Titans third-round pick in 2011 who will either earn an extension or a huge 2015 free agency payday.
In a few years, option-extension season might become its own thing, like free agent season and draft season. With the draft likely to remain in May, the "will they or won't they" element of options can generate some April drama, starting with the 2012 draft class: we get a complete do-over of that quarterback class! The extension/fifth-year/decline scenario becomes a bang-marry-kill game for the Luck-Griffin-Tannehill set.
With drama and a regularly-scheduled due date comes the opportunity for programming. Why not have a two-hour "option special" on NFL Network in prime time? The Washington Redskins are now on the clock to pick up Robert Griffin's option, decline it or announce a new deal. Mock drafts can give way to "extension watches" for Sherman types, and we can nominate All-Extension Teams and the like. Are you thinking Jon Gruden's Extension Camp? Because I am.
Okay, that would be getting carried away. But options and extensions could soon become each team's most important decisions: preemptive strikes against using the franchise tag, stage-setters for offseason strategies. The most significant event of last week was not the Texans drafting Jadeveon Clowney, it was the Sherman extension. All of the mock drafts and "smokescreens" of the last month combined to not add up to an item of news as important as the fact that Cam Newton, J.J. Watt et al. are now under contract for 2015 while Jake Locker, Nick Fairley et al. are all but assured to be free agents in 2015. A Catholic scholar will tell you that while families make a fuss over baptism, which is important, confirmation is where the real theological and practical action is. The new NFL salary structure is shaping up the same way. We just have to adjust to the new shape of the liturgical calendar.
And this is the last time I ever write Mandatory Monday after substitute teaching religious education classes. Amen.