Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 May 2006
Best player available analysis by Sean McCormick
Remainder of Four Downs by Doug Farrar
(Ed. note: For the next round of Four Downs, we're pleased to present Sean McCormick's "Best Player Available" analysis for each division, along with the usual gang commenting on other moves by each team before and since the draft.)
Every year dozens of mock drafts project players to teams on the basis of need. And every year NFL general managers do post-draft interviews where they swear up and down that the guys they took were on the top of their board and that they couldn't believe their luck that the guys were still there. Everyone drafts for need but no one seems to want to admit it. There's good reason for that â€” no general manager has to apologize for taking the best guy on the board if it didn't work out, but if he passed over a player with a higher grade and that player turns into Anquan Boldin or Terrell Owens or (gulp) Tom Brady, then that GM has a lot to answer for. So teams will massage their boards to ensure that their picks will end up on top.
Fortunately, thanks to the Internet it is possible for fans to independently verify the quality of their team's draft choices. A virtual cottage industry has sprung up around the draft, and ex-scouts and professional (and amateur) draftniks have flooded the web with scouting reports, mock drafts and player rankings. While there are always disagreements, there is a surprising degree of consensus that builds up about many of the prospects, so that examining these boards can provide a good impression of what the general perception was about these players on the eve of the draft.
We are going to examine every team's draft to see how it stacks up against a collection of major draft site boards. A player will be considered a steal if he was taken at or beyond the point in the draft that he was projected to go, and a reach if he was taken before that point. He will be considered a major reach or steal if he came off the board more than a round before or after he was slotted. We will also put up the best available player who was available at the time of the selection according to the independent draft boards. The four boards used for this exercise are The Huddle Report, Great Blue North, Scouts Inc. (ESPN), and NFLDraftscout.com (FOX).
|Best Player Available|
|10||Matt Leinart||-||4||-||-||Matt Leinart (4)|
|41||Deuce Lutui||-||1||2||1||Eric Winston (1), Ashton Yobouty (1), Lendale White (2)|
|72||Leonard Pope||3||1||-||-||Leonard Pope (1), Gabe Watson (1) Darnell Bing (1), Ko Simpson (1)|
|107||Gabe Watson||4||-||-||-||Gabe Watson (4)|
|142||Brandon Johnson||-||1||-||3||Brandon Johnson (1), Greg Eslinger (1), DeMario Minter (1), Mark Anderson (1)|
|177||Jon Lewis||2||-||-||2||Jon Lewis (1), Greg Eslinger (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (2)|
|218||Todd Watkins||4||-||-||-||Anwar Philips (1), Stanley McClover (1), Roderique Wright (1), Dee Webb (1)|
Not every draft has a defining moment, a decision or sequence of decisions that profoundly alters the course of two franchises, but one such moment took place at the 9-10 junction of the 2006 draft. Detroit and Arizona were in some ways mirror images of each other. Both teams had invested heavily in their receiving corps. In recent years, Detroit drafted three wide receivers in the first round, while Arizona drafted two in the first and one in the second. Both teams spent the off-season throwing money at the quarterback position in an attempt to lock in at least competent play after years of below-average starters. Both teams had need of an impact defensive player. Both drafts were directed by men on the hot seat who could ill-afford to whiff on the pick. When Detroit was on the clock they opted for need, while the Cardinals took the best player on the board. When Lions fans are watching Matt Leinart hoist the Lombardi Trophy in 2008, all of Matt Millen's wide receiver picks will seem positively benign next to this one.
Denny Green has been drafting BPA since he arrived in Arizona; his first three drafts are textbook examples of how to infuse a team with a base of young talent in a short period of time. By ignoring the composition of his roster and drafting based simply on player grades, he has netted quality young talent like Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Antrel Rolle, Eric Green, Elton Brown and Darryl Blackstock. This year Green followed the same approach, and it's highly likely that this draft class will bear similar fruit. Leonard Pope and Gabe Watson were both considered late first round possibilities, but Green landed them in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Both players have some issuesâ€”Pope is a poor blocker for a man of his size and does not run crisp routes, while Watson is notorious for taking plays offâ€”but each one will step into the starting lineup and provide a tremendous upgrade in size and athleticism. (That Pope plays a position where Arizona had a huge hole is just an added bonus.) Jonathan Lewis and Todd Watkins could have come off the board in the fourth or fifth round, yet Green was able to nab them both at the back end of the draft. In all five of his seven selections were considered the best available player by at least one of the draft boards, and two of them were unanimously considered to be so.
But it is the Leinart selection that will define this draft. Not unlike Carson Palmer before him, Leinart will be dropped into an offensive unit that is stacked at the skill positions. He is going to a quarterback-friendly system that suits his skill set, and will be playing for a coach who has shown himself willing to give young quarterbacks playing time if they earn it. He won't have to worry about inclement weather in any of his home games or any divisional away games. There has never been a rookie quarterback who has come into the league with the sort of on-the-job training Leinart has receivedâ€”three years of excelling in a pro-style offense run by NFL coachesâ€”and there have been few who have been put into as advantageous a situation. Arizona was on the rise anyway thanks to Green's astute eye for talent, but thanks to their draft class of 2006, they are poised to put their reputation as a laughingstock franchise to bed in much the way that Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay teams did in the late 90's.
Arizona signed LB Mark Brown and P Fred Capshaw on May 4th. Brown, who played for the Jets over the last three seasons, had a career-high 65 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season. The former Auburn UDFA will bring much-needed depth to the Cardinals' linebacker corps. Capshaw was cut by the 49ers in their 2003 training camp.
Although Lutui was a good pickup, serious questions still abound as to the potential effectiveness of the Cardinal o-line. Leinart, in particular, will not be used to such a porous front five. That's the downside of the pro-level training he received at USCâ€”he was also the beneficiary of a series of great offensive lines. Edgerrin James will also presumably feel the effects of running without Indy's line, ranked first by Football Outsiders in 2005 in Adjusted Line Yards. Arizona's success will be dependent, first and foremost, on this underachieving unit. Defensively, the secondary requires Antrel Rolle's returnâ€”but the 2005 first-rounder may need arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. This is the same knee that required meniscus surgery and forced Rolle to miss nine games in his rookie season.
Arizona agreed to terms with ten undrafted free agents on May 4th. Perhaps the most interesting talent is Georgia Tech receiver Damarius Bilbo. Bilbo played three seasons at wideout for the Yellowjackets, and enjoyed a career-high 40 receptions for 591 yards in 2005. He's also a lock for induction into anyone's NFL All-Name Team. Another receiver, Pitt's Greg Lee, will be reunited with former teammate Larry Fitzgerald, at least in the short term. Princeton CB Jay McCareins is the younger brother of Jets receiver Justin McCareins, and led Division I-AA with 9 interceptions, 20 passes defended, two interceptions for touchdowns and 236 interception return yards during the 2005 season.
|Best Player Available|
|15||Tye Hill||-||-||4||-||Jimmy Williams (1), Winston Justice (3)|
|46||Joe Klopfenstein||-||1||3||-||Eric Winston (2), Ashton Yobouty (2), Leonard Pope (1)|
|68||Claude Wroten||-||3||-||1||Ashton Yobouty (2), Darnell Bing (1), Leonard Pope (1)|
|77||Jon Alston||-||-||1||3||Gabe Watson (2), Darnell Bing (1), Ashton Yobouty (1)|
|93||Dominique Byrd||2||-||2||-||Max Jean-Giles (1), Gabe Watson (3)|
Anderson (1), DeMario Minter (1), Ryan O'Callaghan (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (1)
Anderson (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (3)
|221||Tim McGarigle||1||1||-||2||Anwar Phillips (1), Roderique Wright (2), Stanley McClover (1)|
|242||Mark Setterstrom||1||1||-||2||Anwar Phillips (4)|
|243||Tony Palmer||-||-||-||4||Anwar Phillips (4)|
The Rams draft is a good example of a team drafting with an eye towards both its current roster construction and its offensive and defensive systems rather than simply grabbing the top rated player each time out. As a result, their draft does not grade out well on the draft boards, even though the players taken may well be effective in their roles. Only one of the Rams' ten selections graded out as a steal on a majority of the boards, and four of them were universally graded as major reaches. Tye Hill does not have the size of Jimmy Williams or Jason Allen, but he has none of the red flags that accompany those two players. Moreover, he has the natural size and skill set to contribute immediately as a nickel back, thus addressing a need. It's possible that in three years the team would be better off with a bigger corner on the outside, or someone with the skill set to match up with Vernon Davis, but in the short term Hill figures to see the field a lot in nickel and dime packages.
The Rams decision to repeatedly attack the tight end position was a direct result of a change in offensive philosophy. Mike Martz did not utilize the position much, but the tight end is a major part of Scott Linehan's offense, so the team felt it was necessary to radically upgrade the unit's playmaking ability. Klopfenstein and Byrd are not the all-around prospects that Leonard Pope is, but each is a superior short-area receiver. Jermaine Wiggins caught 80 balls in the Linehan offense two years ago, and the tight ends St. Louis ultimately chose fit that profile. It's entirely understandable that teams target players to fit their systems, but in order for the strategy to pay off long-term, you need to have coaching stability; otherwise, a new coach with a new system will come in and find a roster that is less talented than it could be, and the process of rebuilding will take longer.
According to the draft board, the Rams did a better job of attaining value on the second day of the draft than they did on the first. Dominique Byrd and Victor Adeyanju were both considered major steals by at least two draft boards, and Tim McGarigle and Mark Setterstrom were considered good value as well. At a point in the draft when many teams are taking players who grade out as unrestricted free agents, the Rams were signing guys who were considered draftable. Look for both players to make the final roster or to end up on the team's practice squad.
On April 30, St. Louis traded TE Brandon Manumaleuna to the Chargers for a fourth-round pick, using that selection to draft Victor Adeyanju.
Hill, a potential first-year playmaker, makes the paucity of talent in the secondary a far less pressing issue. The Rams are hoping that Wroten's off-field problems will a.) Allow them, in retrospect, to have grabbed a first-round talent in the third; and b.) Disappear with his ascent into the big leagues. History is not on Wroten's side â€“ the NFL tends to make you more of what you were before â€“ but if he bucks the odds, he has the kind of explosion off the snap needed by St. Louis in their interior line.
Among the Rams' UDFAs are UConn basketball player Ed Nelson, who aspires to join the ever-increasing number of hardwood-to-gridiron TE converts, and Morehouse College grad John David Washington. Washington is his school's all-time leading rusher, but that's not why he's getting a remarkable amount of press for a Division II player â€“ his father is actor Denzel Washington. The elder Washington played one season at Fordham before moving on to far greener pastures.
|Best Player Available|
|6||Vernon Davis||-||4||-||-||Vernon Davis (4)|
|22||Manny Lawson||-||3||1||-||Jimmy Williams (2), Winston Justice (2)|
|84||Brandon Williams||-||-||1||3||Gabe Watson (3), Darnell Bing (1)|
|100||Michael Robinson||1||-||1||2||Gabe Watson (3), Darnell Bing (1)|
|140||Parys Haralson||2||1||-||1||Mark Anderson (1), DeMario Minter (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (2)|
|175||Delanie Walker||-||-||1||3||Greg Eslinger (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (3)|
|192||Marcus Hudson||2||-||-||2||Greg Eslinger (1), Stanley McClover (1), Roderique Wright (2)|
|197||Melvin Oliver||-||-||-||4||Greg Eslinger (1), Stanley McClover (1), Roderique Wright (2)|
|254||Vickiel Vaughn||-||-||-||4||Anwar Phillips (4)|
The 49ers entered this draft with unquestionably the least talented roster in the league. In such a situation, there is really no excuse for taking anything other than a BPA approach, as you need to give yourself the best possible chance of upgrading your talent all across the board. But the 49ers did not consistently stick to that approach, and their decisions were at least in part dictated by a desire to fill needs with only a few first-day picks to work with.
There is no question that the 49ers did well with their first selection; Vernon Davis was universally considered to be the best player on the board when they chose him. He will step immediately into the starting lineup and provide the only semblance of a matchup problem for opposing defenses. The 49ers traded away their second- and third-round selections to Denver for the 22nd pick overall, and it seems likely they did so with the specific idea of grabbing Lawson to replace the departed Julian Peterson. With more teams switching to the 3-4, the supply of edge rushers isn't as plentiful as it was even a few years ago, and so half the reason for employing the defense to begin withâ€”the ability to find players that will fit the system at various points in the draftâ€”has largely evaporated. While the draft boards largely agreed that Lawson was taken at good value, none of them felt that Lawson represented the top player on the board at the time of the 22nd pick. And because the 49ers were short on first-day picks, they felt compelled to grab receiver prospects with three of their next four selections simply to fill out their depth chart, and in all three instances there were players with significantly higher grades available. In effect, the decision to fill an immediate vacancy had a cascading effect that degraded the overall quality of the players the 49ers were able to select.
The 49ers did score some points with a few of their second day picks. Parys Haralson, the hustling defensive tackle from Tennessee who projects to end in the 3-4, was widely considered a good selection, and Marcus Hudson came off the board a round later than he was projected by two of the draft boards. The opinions were split on Michael Robinson, the Penn State quarterback who will try to convince Mike Nolan that he really is better than Alex Smith, even as Nolan refers to him as â€œRobinson El.â€? The Robinson pick is a perfect example of the copycat mentality that permeates the league. Many of the college quarterbacks who have been projected into other positions have not panned out, but everyone was watching the Super Bowl and couldn't help but notice the versatility that Randle El brought to the Steelers attack. By all accounts Robinson is a good athlete, but the high risk that goes along with projecting a player to a different position than the one he played in college pushes him down on three of the draft boards.
San Francisco added a mentor for Alex Smith in the form of Trent Dilfer, trading Ken Dorsey and a low 2006 pick to Cleveland for his services. Dilfer could be classified as this generation's Steve DeBerg â€“ an always unheralded player whose ability to assist young quarterbacks on their way to greater things will likely mark his career more than the Super Bowl he won with Baltimore. If Smith wants to retain a bit of optimism after his horrible rookie campaign, he should ask former sixth-round draft pick Matt Hasselbeck how much Dilfer had to do with the maturation of the NFC's current best signal-caller.
The additions of Antonio Bryant and Vernon Davis will be enough to bolster the passing game â€“ or at least allow it to rise somewhere above comatose. The 49ers are hoping that Lawson and Haralson can replicate the rookie successes of Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill in Seattle, but asking two rookies to anchor a formerly depleted group isn't generally an instant total success scenario. The most obvious need for San Francisco remains the secondary, and the team has done remarkably little to address this issue. San Francisco's 2006 season could turn out to be an object lesson in the value of defensive backs versus wide receivers on draft day â€“ especially when creating positional depth in the later rounds. Having said that, it's hard to criticize personnel maven Scot McCloughan too harshly. His mission is to rebuild a team with debits at just about every position, and under those circumstances, you could second-guess any direction he chooses.
USC's Tom Malone was one of the nation's top punters in 2005. Long Beach State power forward Onye Ibekwe, a 6'5â€?, 256-pound monster, will join St. Louis' Ed Nelson and the Giants' Jai Lewis as undrafted free agents who played no football at the collegiate level. All three players are being asked to follow in the footsteps of Antonio Gates by transferring their athletic skills to the tight end position. San Francisco also picked up two tackle prospects â€“ Mississippi's Bobby Harris can play guard as well, and was on quite a few top 40 lists at his position. Florida's Tavares Washington is a JuCo transfer who started 10 games for the Gators last season. He is also quite probably the only professional football player named after a group who sang on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
|Best Player Available|
|31||Kelly Jennings||-||1||-||3||Jimmy Williams (2), Winston Justice (2)|
|63||Darryl Tapp||-||3||-||1||Eric Winston (1), Leonard Pope (1), Darnell Bing (1), Ashton Yobouty (1)|
|128||Rob Sims||2||-||-||2||Mark Anderson (1), DeMario Minter (1), Ryan O'Callaghan (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (1)|
|163||David Kirtman||-||-||-||4||Stanley McClover (1), Babatunde Oshinowo (3)|
|239||Ryan Plackemeier||-||-||-||4||Anwar Phillips (4)|
|249||Ben Obomanu||1||-||1||2||Anwar Phillips (4)|
When you have a 13-3 team with ostensibly only a few open roster spots, the question of whether or not you are better off focusing on need is an interesting one. The very paucity of job openings accentuates each argument; you need to draft for need because a player will only have a good shot of sticking at a position where the team is weak, or you need to draft BPA because it maximizes your chance of grabbing a player who is good enough to win a spot when on a team where the level of competition is very high.
Each of the Seahawks' six selections, save Darryl Tapp at pick 63, were considered to be major reaches by at least two of the draft boards. When you are drafting punters and fullbacks, that's inevitably going to happen. (This was, believe it or not, the third draft in the last five where Seattle drafted a punter.) But the top half of Seattle's draft doesn't grade out much better. Opinions were divided on OSU guard Rob Sims; he was either a major reach or a major steal, depending on which board you are looking at. Tapp was considered a solid second rounder. The most interesting Seattle decision took place in the first round. Kelly Jennings is a poor man's Fabian Washington, a corner who has top end speed but who didn't play like a first round pick in college. Jimmy Williams, who was projected as a top 10 selection based on his play at Virginia Tech before being pushed down the board for character concerns, was still available. When a team takes a lesser prospect at the same position as the best available player, they are admitting that they are making a football decision based on something other than the player's ability. Sometimes an emphasis on character means you do things like take Kevin Dyson ahead of Randy Moss. Sometimes a failure to emphasize character means you draft Lawrence Phillips ahead of Eddie George. Either way a front office is in danger of getting egg on its face, and in this case the Seahawks chose the safer route.
The Seattle draft provides an interesting example of how decisions to address needs can backfire and ultimately result in a lesser collection of talent at the same position groups than would have been possible through a BPA approach. Seattle used their first-day picks to select a cornerback, a defensive end and an offensive lineman. Even assuming that Williams was a character red flag and not on the Seahawks' board, they could have come away with Eric Winston or Winston Justice for the offensive line, Ashton Yobouty or DeMario Minter at corner, and Mark Anderson or Stanley McClover at defensive end. In each case, the players who the Seahawks had to pass over in later rounds because they'd already addressed the positions carried higher grades than the players the Seahawks actually selected.
The Seahawks traded their sixth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for safety Mike Green, who had fallen out favor in the Windy City. Green fell victim to a rash of pass interference penalties last season, but he's a good special teams player who can back up at both safety spots. Green was also the Mr. Irrelevant of the 2000 draft class â€“ picked 254th overall out of Northwestern State (Louisiana). He re-signed with Chicago in 2003, receiving a five-year, $10 million contract. The Seahawks are also hoping for the full return of FS Ken Hamlin, who is participating in the team's current non-contact minicamps after suffering a serious head injury in an off-field incident last October.
The reigning NFC champs took care of their two most pressing needs with Jennings and Tapp. The latter will find a place as a dedicated edge-rusher, a â€œluxuryâ€? position more easily manned by a rookie. Jennings will be in the crosshairs from the word go â€“ Seattle's interest in Ty Law seems to be dwindling daily, and the former Hurricane will compete to start over nickel corner Kelly Herndon right away. Should Hamlin's return to the field prove unsuccessful, Seattle will have a hole at the starting free safety position. Hutchinson's infamous move to Minnesota leaves the Seahawks bare from an elite guard standpoint, but the team's impressive o-line depth allows them to plug multiple options in next to Walter Jones through training camp and the preseason until the right replacement is found.
Auburn CB Kevin Hobbs impressed at his Pro Day with a 4.37-40, but he's shown more athleticism than true coverage ability throughout his career. Florida State TE Matt Henshaw is a hard-working blocker who father George coaches tight ends for the Titans. Boston College center Pat Ross could surprise â€“ he's a cerebral, smallish player who can fold in a bull rush, but uses technique to overcome. At least one national draft expert ranks him as the top center not selected.
Perhaps the most interesting talent on Seattle's UDFA roster, Montana State QB Travis Lulay put up some crazy numbers in Division 1-AA ball (10,746 yards, 58 touchdown passes, 23 rushing touchdowns) and was renowned for pulling his team through several fourth-quarter comebacks.
117 comments, Last at 07 Jul 2006, 4:21pm by FAN