A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on why the perceived value of safeties in the NFL Draft needed to change in accordance with the evolution we were seeing in defensive rules and the corresponding shift of offenses towards a greater emphasis on the passing game. Without rehashing the argument completely, it basically went like this: The NFL is more of a passing league now than at any time before in it’s history. With that change, it’s time to re-examine how we value the position of safety in the NFL. Quality safety play is essential to a solid defense in today’s NFL. Moreover, elite safeties are able to impact the game as much (or more) than any defensive position (see: Reed, Ed; Polamalu, Troy) and thus should be highly coveted in the NFL Draft. As the league has became even more of a passing league in the two years since I made this argument, I believe it to be even more valid today than when I first stated it.
The reason I began to think about this argument, and eventually make it in this space is that I wanted my favorite team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to draft (then) Tennessee safety Eric Berry at #3 instead of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. I did not believe then (and do not now) that Gerald McCoy was as close to being a dominant tackle as most draft experts believed. And I certainly didn’t think he was anything near to Ndamukong Suh’s equal. After two injury filled campaigns, I still do not believe that Gerald McCoy will be a dominant defensive tackle in the mold of Suh or former Buc Warren Sapp. And though he missed most of last year with a torn ACL, I do believe that Eric Berry will soon be among the best and most impactful safeties in the NFL.
Why do I bring all of this up? Because this year there’s another case to be made for going against conventional draft wisdom. Interestingly enough, it goes against draft wisdom that has evolved as the NFL has become the passing league it is today. By now, we all know that running backs are not highly valued in NFL circles. In fact, running backs have become so undervalued that there are many NFL scouts and GMs who say they’d never draft a running back in the first round. I understand this. Most running backs wear down and are out of the league by 30. And that’s the really talented running backs. Further, there are numerous examples of All-Pro running backs being acquired in the 2nd & 3rd rounds and even some later than that. But does that mean that no running back should ever be drafted in the 1st round? What about the top 10? Top 5? Certainly not. There are many examples of running backs who have more than lived up to their high draft positioning. LaDainian Tomlinson (5) transformed a moribund Charger franchise into a contender. Steven Jackson (24) has been the only decent offensive player on the Rams for the better part of a decade. Even second rounders Matt Forte (44) & Maurice Jones-Drew (60) have carried an extremely limited offenses for the bulk of their entire career. Both Adrian Peterson (7) and Chris Johnson (24) have been the offensive centerpieces of playoff contenders. Running backs are valuable. Extremely so. Today’s NFL just requires a keener eye for running back talent and a more detailed examination of the risk/reward consequences of drafting a running back in the first round.
One running back who is certainly worthy of not only first round consideration but also top 5 consideration is Alabama’s Trent Richardson. Richardson is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. And while he lacks Peterson’s explosiveness, Richardson is far from a plodder. On top of that, I contend that Richardson is a more complete back. Peterson wasn’t a 3 down back upon entry into the NFL (Chester Taylor was Minnesota’s 3rd down back early in Peterson’s career) while Richardson is immediately ready to step in and play in every situation. He excels in pass protection and was Alabama’s leading receiver last year. Additionally, Richardson has shown himself to be more durable than Peterson at the same stage in his career while also having less carries than Peterson at the same stage due to his role as Mark Ingram’s backup as a freshman and sophomore. Simply put, Richardson is as close to a sure thing tailback as you’ll see in the NFL. He’s worth a top 5 pick. He’s even worth trading up into the top 5 to acquire him. And even though I know it’s not going to happen, I’ll be silently, hopelessly wishing for Tampa Bay to move up to #3 and draft Trent Richardson tonight. Even if he’s done by 30, I’ll take 9 years of Trent Richardson as a Buccaneer and be damn happy about it.
If the Bucs were to draft Richardson instead of Morris Claiborne they’d still be in need of a corner. Lucky for them, the best pure cover corner in the draft played 3 years of college ball less than 2 hours away from their headquarters. I’m speaking of course of Janoris Jenkins. He of the multiple weed arrests and four children (Janoris Jr, Legend, Paris & Janorian) from three different women. Jenkins is a stud. And I’m not just saying that because he was a Gator. Mel Kiper had him rated as a 1st rounder LAST YEAR. He’s that good. Just go back and look at what he did as a junior at Florida when matched up one-on-one with AJ Green and Julio Jones. Two top ten picks at WR last year who scouts had rated higher than either Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd this year. I understand that Jenkins has the always worrisome “character concerns” but he’s too good a player to pass up in the 2nd round if he’s still available and your team needs a corner. Besides, his character concerns stem from his inability to wear condoms and and smoke weed in the privacy of his own home. Are both of these “mistakes” signs of poor decision making? Certainly. Did nearly every member of the G:TB staff make these same mistakes while in college? Yes. Many, many times.
When it comes to the wide receiver class of 2012, its generally accepted that Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd are at the head of the class. They’re the only 1st round prospects in a class that lacks any other elite pass catchers but is said to be especially deep. And even though both Blackmon and Floyd are each considered 1st round prospects most people agree that Blackmon is far and away the best receiver in the class. I am not most people. I actually think that Floyd is the more talented receiver of the two. He’s bigger, times out faster and has produced fantastic numbers in an offense that’s not nearly as wide open as the offense Blackmon played in at Oklahoma State. Add to that the fact that Blackmon had a significantly better QB throwing to him the past two years and you begin to see where I’m coming from. I’m also a bit skeptical of Blackmon’s numbers since he played in the Big 12. A conference which has morphed into the PAC-10 of our youth. You know what I’m talking about: Prolific passing offenses, tons of points and only a passing interest in defense. In fact, I’m beginning to become a little skeptical of all the offensive skill position players from the Big 12. Just look at some of the QBs produced by the Big 12 in recent memory. I mean, are any of us completely sold on Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman or Blaine Gabbert? I didn’t think so. And no, I wasn’t trying to bum you out, Redskins fans. Just saying I think the Big 12 may inflate passing & receiving numbers a tad. Anyway, back to Floyd. Playing with very average QBs in 2010 he put up 79 catches for 1,025 yards and 13 TDs. Not quite on Blackmon’s level but, again, he didn’t have an NFL early round QB prospect throwing to him. Floyd won’t go as high, due in large part to his proclivity for the Irish Taxi but I think the careers of he and Blackmon are worth watching for comparison's sake.
Finally, because it’s getting late and I’m still very lazy are five possible 1st Round prospects I love and five I hate.
Stephon Gilmore (CB: South Carolina) - Good size/speed combo. A starter since day one at South Carolina. Never got into any trouble during college and he fared well against a number of big time receivers during his time in Columbia.
Chandler Jones (DE: Syracuse)- A great athlete with good size who has flown under the radar because Syracuse is awful at football. Has a brother who plays in the NFL and another one you may have heard of. His name is Jon Jones and he’s currently the baddest man in MMA by a wide, wide margin. Good genes in this family.
Courtney Upshaw (DE/LB: Alabama)- He was great off the edge at Alabama. And hes built like a Mack truck. Scouts are said to have doubts about his athleticism but I remember hearing the same things about LaMarr Woodley. In the right system (3-4) I believe Upshaw is a double digit sack producer.
Melvin Ingram (DL: South Carolina) – Apparently Ingram lacks elite burst and has short arms (sounds like TJ). I understand why that might concern scouts but his game film is enough for me. He wreaked havoc on SEC OLines and is a good enough athlete that he scored a 50+ yard TD on a fake punt last year. He’s versatile enough to play DT and even slide out to DE in certain situations. I’m all in on Melvin Ingram.
Dwayne Allen (TE: Clemson) – He was often the best player on a prolific Clemson offense this past year. Which is saying something anytime Sammy Watkins is involved. Tight Ends are impact players in today’s NFL and Allen has all the tools you want in a pass catching TE. He’s not very tall, but either is Aaron Hernandez and he seems to be doing okay.
Kendall Wright (WR: Baylor) – I did like Wright during the season but then I saw that he showed up to the combine with 16% body fat. Not the work ethic I’d like to see from my 5’11” first round receiver.
Dre Kirkpatrick (CB: Alabama)- He has all the physical tools you’d want in a corner. Elite size and speed. He tackles well and played for Saban (a HUGE plus for a DB) but he doesn’t have elite cover skills and isn’t a ballhawk (just 3 ints in two years as a starter). He’ll be solid but not a #1 CB in my opinion.
Stephen Hill (WR: Georgia Tech) – Hill is a physical specimen who’s stock shot through the roof after he put on a show at the combine. He’s very similar to former Yellow Jacket Demaryius Thomas in that respect. Like Thomas when he was coming out (and still to a certain degree), I have my doubts. Georgia Tech runs a high school offense and as a result Hill’s not an experienced route runner or pass catcher. I’m just not sure he’s anything more than a workout warrior. Certainly not sure enough to spend a first round pick on him.
Ryan Tannehill (QB: Texas A&M) – Extremely inexperienced. Turnover prone in many key second half situations last year for a team that was a horrid in the second half. Oh yeah, that whole “not so sure about Big 12 offensive skill position players” thing applies to him as well. Top 10? No. Fucking. Way.
Lamar Miller (RB: Miami) – He put up impressive numbers the past two years but never felt like a dominant tailback to me. Too often his big rushing numbers resulted from one or two long runs. He’s got a future as part of a two back combo in the NFL but I can’t see him as a primary option. Doesn’t play as big as his size would suggest.
As always, these are nothing more than my opinions. Most of which are formed from long Saturdays spent drinking, gambling and watching college football on my couch. Feel free to disagree with me and/or call me an idiot. That’s fair. This isn’t my NBA Draft Preview, which we all know is 100% right at least 60% of the time.