Alabama G Chance Warmack has a chance to be one of the highest drafted guards in the past 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com
Trades aplenty — Several trades are likely during the draft’s early rounds for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is lesser financial commitment in the form of guaranteed money to high draft picks. In short, less risk equals more potential action. That said, teams and their salary caps have adjusted to the rookie wage scale by now — 2013 will be the third draft conducted during the current Collective Bargaining Agreement — and the perceived distribution of talent in this year’s draft pool is a key motivating factor for trade talk. The 2013 rookie crop isn’t remarkably top-heavy, but its overall depth is appealing, particularly in rounds two through five.
Meanwhile, teams with currency to maneuver should find willing dance partners. The defending NFC champion 49ers, for example, have a league-most 13 selections at their disposal. That degree of flexibility provides GM Trent Baalke with options in every direction, including trading up to grab elite talent with instant impact ability or even bolstering their presence in the 2014 draft.
The NFC West division, in particular, will be a major player early on, as in addition to the 49ers inevitable influence, the Cardinals pick seventh overall, the Rams have two first-rounders and the Falcons are a wild card at No. 30. Overall, expect a lot of movement and “#TradeDown” to be trending as early as minutes into Thursday night’s festivities.
New GMs — The league has seven new general managers in 2013, including Mike Lombardi, an old face in a new, familiar place (Cleveland). The others are David Caldwell (Jaguars), John Dorsey (Chiefs), Dave Gettelan (Panthers), John Idzik (Jets), Steve Keim (Cardinals) and Tom Telesco (Chargers).
Dorsey and Caldwell, positioned at picks No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, will make first impressions immediately. Dorsey is expected to tab Texas A&M’s stalwart OLT Luke Joeckel, but it will be interesting to see if Caldwell chooses conservatively with a high-floor prospect such as Central Michigan OT Eric Fisher, or if the rookie GM swings for the fences with a defensive playmaker.
Lombardi figures to add speed to the Browns roster, while Keim and Cardinals will have to strongly consider Barkley at No. 7 given the team’s revolving door at quarterback since Kurt Warner. Idzik and the Jets have already made a splash by trading away All-Pro CB Darrelle Revis, arming the team with picks No. 9 and 13. The situation is reminiscent of 2006 when then-rookie GM Mike Tannenbaum traded veteran star John Abraham to pick twice in the first round, landing D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. The struggling, rebuilding Jets are in desperate need of a similarly foundational haul this year.
Meanwhile, Telesco, who learned under Bill Polian in Indianapolis, seeks to turn around the Chargers’ recent history of fruitless drafts. Telesco will look to bolster Phillip Rivers’ protection, add a starter-caliber cornerback and infuse the Bolts’ skill positions with some playmaking ability.
Also worth monitoring is the draft execution of sophomore GMs, including John Elway (Broncos), Phil Emery (Bears), Ryan Grigson (Colts), Reggie McKenzie (Raiders), Les Snead (Rams) and Ruston Webster (Titans). Snead and Grigson, in particular, had impressive first drafts a year ago.
Lackluster QBs — As early as last summer, it was clear this year’s group of quarterback prospects would not inspire confidence, and that was before USC’s heralded passer Matt Barkley posted a disappointing senior season. In fact, one can argue there isn’t a single quarterback prospect deserving of first-round consideration. However, in a quarterback-driven league, the likes of Barkley, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Ryan Nassib and Geno Smith, among others, will inevitably be overdrafted. Teams which reach for need do so at their own risk, as evidenced by the NFL careers of Cade McNown, Patrick Ramsey, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Jason Campbell and Tim Tebow, all of whom were drafted in the first round despite glaring concerns over their ability to become franchise players. The concerns proved warranted, and Pro Bowlers such as Jevon Kearse, Andre Gurode, Willis McGahee, Dallas Clark, Stephen Jackson, Roddy White and Devin McCourty all were drafted shortly after the aforementioned busts. Where this year’s lackluster quarterback prospects land adds viewer intrigue, and you can bet on a few cringe-worthy reaches in rounds one and two.
Elite guards — Thursday’s first round should be monumental for offensive guards, historically the most underappreciated position group. Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, both considered rare prospects with minimal risk, have drawn comparisons to Hall of Famers, and how quickly they come off the board could set a precedent. The last time a pair of guards was so highly regarded was 1982 when Penn State teammates Mike Munchak and Sean Farrell went eighth and 17th overall. Ironically, Munchak is the head coach in Tennessee, which could be a landing spot for Warmack or Cooper.
First-round RB streak in jeopardy — Is this the year running backs are on the outside looking in? The first round has contained at least one running back every year since 1963, but two factors could combine to break the streak: 1) The league has devalued the position. In the golden age of passing, teams recognize running backs are dispensable and capable replacements can be had later in the draft. 2) The 2013 running back crop does not have any “blue” talents on par with Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson or even Trent Richardson, who went third overall last year. If the Packers don’t tab Lacy at No. 26, it might take a team trading into the back end of the round to preserve the streak.
Austin a 1? — Will West Virginia WR/RS/RB Tavon Austin be a first-rounder? Prior to the Combine, we wrote:
“Austin’s playmaking exploits are widely known. The Paul Hornung Award (Most Versatile Player) winner’s production was exceptional and the exciting manner in which he accumulated yards and touchdowns makes him one of the draft’s most intriguing prospects. He comes with one obvious caveat, however: his size. Historically, Austin’s height (likely a shade under 5-9) would be enough to push him into the second round. You have to go all the way back to the 2001 to find a comparable player selected in the first round: Miami WR/RS Santana Moss, who measured 5-9 ½, 181 pounds and ran in the 4.3s. Also worth noting that year was the drafting of Wisconsin CB Jamar Fletcher (5-8, 7/8, 180 pounds), the last player drafted in the first round who measured below 5-9. A cautionary tale? Perhaps, but Austin is a superior athlete with eminently better transferrable skills which make for a more confident NFL projection.”
As expected, Austin took care of business at the Combine, exhibiting 4.3 speed and bolstering an impressive résumé which includes rare production and tantalizing tape. He is the exception to the rule, and his rare combination of speed, agility, explosiveness, versatility and playmaking ability trumps his less-than-ideal dimensions. He’s worth a first-round pick.
Polarizing players — They’ve been scrutinized by the media and poked, prodded and interrogated by NFL personnel. You know the names by now: Notre Dame ILB Manti Te’o, West Virginia QB Geno Smith, North Carolina State CB David Amerson, LSU’s CB Tryann Mathieu. For these guys, fit is more important than how high they come off the board. It will be interesting to see how teams weigh risk, reward and value in deciding when to pull the trigger.
Disappointing testers — Another group to monitor consists of prospects whose disappointing workout numbers tempered enthusiasm built in the fall, be it based on production or hype. The list includes Jones, whose 4.9 speed could scare teams off; Mississippi State CB Johnthan Banks, whose average speed and explosion likely nudges him out of the first round; Vaccaro, who opted out of the Senior Bowl and was not in game shape at the Combine; Moore, who recorded alarmingly slow 40 times and strength numbers (12 bench-press reps); and Cal WR Keenan Allen, who ran in the 4.7s at his pro day.
Who slides? Every year there’s a player or two who slides further down the board than anticipated (See: Rogers, Aaron, 2005) as a result of unexpected reaches, medical concerns, position runs, etc. Who are this year’s candidates to slide? Don’t be surprised if West Virginia QB Geno Smith and possibly Alabama CB Dee Milliner endure a restless night.
Character risks — Prospects branded with the infamous “character risk” label (be it personal or football character) can be wild cards because of their boom-or-bust nature. Last year, the Rams were rewarded for their confidence in second-round choice
To a lesser extent, the Bengals took a flier on Arizona State’s talented, albeit immature, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who posted an impactful rookie season. However, the draft graveyard is strewn with physically gifted, character-risk prospects who failed to reach their potential, and in some cases, cost executives jobs.
Here’s a group of this year’s prospects in the character crosshairs: West Virginia QB Geno Smith, Tennessee QB Tyler Bray, Texas A&M RB Christine Michael, Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham, Tennessee Tech WR Da’Rick Rogers, Virginia Tech WR Marcus Davis, Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills, Washington State WR Marquess Wilson, Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce, Michigan State TE Dion Sims, Texas A&M DE Damontre Moore, LSU DE Sam Montgomery, Michigan State DE William Gholston, Tennessee-Martin NT Montori Hughes, Georgia LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia LB Cornelius Washington, Oregon LB Kiko Alonso, North Carolina State CB David Amerson, LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu, ex-Florida State CB/RS Greg Reid, Hawaii CB Mike Edwards, Texas S Kenny Vaccaro, Florida S Matt Elam, S Duke Williams, LSU P Brad Wing.
Hayden’s recovery and ascent — The remarkable story of Houston CB D.J. Hayden took a positive direction when he was cleared medically and ran in the 4.3s at his pro day, paving the way for him to become a first-round selection. If you’re unfamiliar, Hayden’s story is worth Googling. In November, he tore his interior vena cava vein and required emergency, life-saving surgery, at which time the Cougars’ team physician explained the injury is 95 percent fatal. Five months later, Hayden’s borderline miraculous recovery could culminate Thursday night in an emotional, feel-good, first-round selection.