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 2008
by Sean McCormick
Everybody and their grandmother knew that the Bills were coming out of this draft with a corner and a wide receiver in their first two picks; the only question was which would come first. Most predraft speculation had the top one or two corners already off the board by the time Buffalo picked, leaving them to reach for a receiver like Devin Thomas, even though many analysts didn't think there was a single receiver worthy of a first-round pick. Well, it turns out that no NFL team thought there was a receiver worthy of a first-round pick, but a run on defensive ends and linebackers pushed the corners down, giving Buffalo their pick of the litter in Troy's Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin had been bunched in with three or four other corners, but he separated himself late to become the consensus top cover man. The Bills were 30th in the league defending against No. 2 receivers, and that number should come down with McKelvin in the starting lineup. He was also one of the premiere return men in the country, and he could team with Terrence McGee to form one of the best kickoff return units in the league. On the other hand, McKelvin shows a positively Antoine Winfield-esque aversion to catching footballs -- he only intercepted four passes in his four seasons at Troy -- so he's not going to do much to boost the team's turnover differential.
With the Bills second pick, they addressed their need for a big receiver by taking the biggest one in the draft, 6-foot-6 James Hardy. A former basketball player, Hardy scored 36 touchdowns in just 26 starts at Indiana, and he represents an insoluble problem for any corner trying to cover him in a jump-ball situation. The Bills had all kinds of problems scoring through the air last year, and you can bet that Dick Jauron is going to rip out the red zone package and replace it with a steady diet of fades to Hardy in the corner of the end zone. It may take Hardy longer to make an impact between the 20s, however, as jumbo-sized receivers often taken time learning how to get separation at the NFL level. Hardy is an imprecise route runner, and he lacks breakaway speed when he has the ball in his hands, so he's likely to be a package player as a rookie.
Buffalo spent the second day of the draft quietly addressing needs with each of their eight picks. Anyone watching tape of Matt Ryan in the Virginia Tech games couldn't help but notice Chris Ellis driving him into the turf over and over, and Ellis should step in immediately as a third-down pass rusher. The team added additional secondary depth with the aptly named Reggie Corner from Akron in the fourth round and Pitt's Kennard Cox in the seventh. Kentucky's Steve Johnson was terrific this season hauling in passes from Andre' Woodson, and there's a chance he will prove to be a better pro than Hardy. Kansas tight end Derek Fine, Iowa State linebacker Alvin Bowden, Northwest Missouri State running back Xavier Omon and Northwestern State tackle Demetrius Bell won't light up the scorecards of many draftniks, but each has a chance of sticking in a reserve role.
Between the 1-2 punch of McKelvin and Hardy and the offseason trade for defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, the Bills have effectively addressed most of their glaring weaknesses. Still, the offensive line has to be a concern after ranking 25th in Adjusted Line Yards, and with last year's top pick Marshawn Lynch on the roster, a blocking fullback and a big guard or center to open running lanes for him would have been nice. While it looks J.P. Losman will be back for one more season, it would have made sense to take a developmental quarterback prospect with one of those eight picks so that the team isn't scrambling next year to find a quality backup to Trent Edwards.
Iowa State linebacker Jonathan Banks caught the team's attention playing on the same unit as fifth-rounder Alvin Bowden, and has been invited to camp. Banks is a converted safety who is undersized but rangy. Vanderbilt's Marcus Buggs is another safety convert, and he was productive on both the strong and weak sides while playing in the SEC. Notre Dame linebacker Joe Brockington breaks the mold, as he has good size but ran only a 4.91, so he's strictly an inside linebacker prospect. Wide receiver Jason Jones averaged more than 20 yards per reception at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Bills scout Shawn Heinlein worked Jones out in Arkansas and was impressed by his soft hands and the way he got in and out of his breaks. The team also signed Illinois State quarterback Luke Drone, who struggled last year but had a big junior season throwing to Laurent Robinson, now an Atlanta Falcon. Drone is only 6-1, but he has the athleticism and arm strength to operate in the West Coast Offense.
Depending on whom you asked, the best player in the draft was either Louisiana State defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey or Virginia defensive end Chris Long. You might have gotten a few votes for Boston College's Matt Ryan (we're looking at you, Mike Mayock), or even Ohio State's Vernon Gholston. Just about nobody would have said that Jake Long was the best player in the draft. And yet there was surprisingly little criticism when the Dolphins took themselves off the clock by signing the big Michigan tackle nearly a full week before the start of the draft. For that, Long should probably send a big bouquet of flowers to fellow Big Ten alum Joe Thomas, whose Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season paved the way for Jake Long to go No. 1 overall. Long isn't considered to be as talented a pass blocker as Thomas, but he is a superior drive blocker who proved his strength at the combine by doing 37 reps at the bench, a tremendous number for a guy with his wingspan. Even if Long struggles on the left side, he projects as a dominant right tackle, so there's a built-in safety net for the pick. When you're talking about committing No. 1 overall money to a player who isn't Peyton Manning, it's more important to know you're going to get at least a partial return on your investment, and Long figures to play every game of his five-year deal, whether at left tackle or right. The fact that Long was willing to sign for less than what last year's top pick JaMarcus Russell signed for was simply icing on the cake.
With the offensive line solidified, Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland were able to let the draft come to them. Philip Merling represented terrific value with the 32nd pick; he might have been a top-15 pick had he not suffered a sports hernia that prevented him from working out for teams prior to the draft. A few years ago, Heath Miller slipped due to a similar injury, and the Dolphins hope that Merling will prove to be the same kind of bargain. He's not an edge rusher, and he's a little small for a pure 3-4 defensive end, but Merling has such a nice combination of run-stopping and pass-rushing ability that he should be a three-down player for Miami. With the last pick in the second round, the Dolphins were able to grab Chad Henne, who could well have been the pick at the top of the second had Merling not been available. Henne started 47 games at Michigan and completed 58 percent of his passes, so he's a very safe projection to the pro level. He compares closely to Brady Quinn, who the Dolphins passed on for Ted Ginn, Jr., last year, much to their fans' dismay.
In contrast to Merling, Hampton's Kendall Langford is the prototype five-technique in a 3-4. At 6-6 and 294 pounds, he has both the weight to hold up at the point of attack and the reach to be effective in a two-gap scheme. Just to be sure they had enough defensive linemen, the team added Arizona's Lionel Dotson in the seventh round. The rest of the draft was devoted to combing through college backwaters to improve the inside run game, as the team doubled up on guards -- Utah State's Shawn Murphy and Uconn's Donald Thomas -- and running backs, selecting Toledo's Jalen Parmele and Montana's Lex Hilliard.
You can only do so much in one draft, and the emphasis on building up the lines meant that other problem areas -- like the offensive skill positions and the defensive secondary -- will have to wait until next year. The only moves Miami made to bolster the 28th ranked pass defense were to sign Nathan Jones and to re-sign safety Jeremiah Bell, who is 30 and is coming off a torn Achilles tendon. For all the defensive end picks, there are still question marks in the middle of the line. Parcells takes Jason Ferguson everywhere he goes, but the returns are diminishing with each new stop, and it would have been nice to add a younger player to groom at nose tackle earlier than the seventh round.
Unsurprisingly, the Dolphins went whole hog after undrafted players, ending up with 14 in all, seven on each side of the ball. Parcells personally scouted Georgia Southern quarterback Jayson Foster, who won the Walter Payton Award after ringing up 1,844 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns in the Football Championship Subdivision. Foster will likely follow in the footsteps of former quarterbacks like Antwaan Randle El and Brad Smith and become a receiver who can also run specially designed plays. Davone Bess spent last season catching passes from Colt Brennan for Hawaii, and he has a chance to catch on as a slot receiver. Both Foster and Bess will compete for kick returner duties. BYU linebacker Kelly Poppinga is the younger brother of Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga.
Following a season of firsts, it was only fitting that the Patriots would have a draft of firsts as well. For the first time since 2001, New England had a pick in the top ten. For the first time ever, Bill Belichick used a first-round pick on a linebacker. For the first time in a while, the Pats didn't seem to be a step ahead of the rest of the league. It started before the Pats were even on the clock. There were multiple rumors that the team was interested in moving ahead of the Jets to secure Ohio State pass rusher Vernon Gholston, but when Glenn Dorsey unexpectedly became available, the Chiefs proved unwilling trade partners. Unhappy to be picking seventh in what was generally perceived to be a six-player draft, the Pats traded down with New Orleans, then stayed put at ten and selected Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo. Mayo, a first-team All-SEC performer, was making a late move up the boards, but not many people would have guessed he would end up in the top ten. He played outside for three years before moving inside his senior season, so he has the kind of versatility Belichick prefers, but he's undersized for any of the 3-4 linebacker spots.
Cornerback was a screaming need, and general manager Scott Pioli addressed it in the second round by selecting Colorado's Terrence Wheatley, an Ellis Hobbs clone who had a lot of trouble staying healthy, and then again in the fourth round with the selection of Auburn's Jonathan Wilhite. There were higher rated corners available, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder in the middle rounds, as the question of how a player fits a system generally trumps raw ability. Continuing with the overhaul of the back seven, Pioli selected Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable in the third round and Nebraska's Bo Ruud in the seventh. Crable has ideal size to play on the outside, and nearly a third of his recorded tackles went for losses, so he's comfortable playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Rudd is the brother of Tampa's Barrett Ruud, but if he's going to stick on an NFL roster, it will be for his special teams ability.
The two offensive selections were both head-scratchers. Kevin O'Connell is an intriguing quarterback prospect with some upside; the Patriots do have the reigning NFL MVP lining up under center, however, so there's not much chance that this third-round pick will see the field in the next few seasons. It's the kind of pick that could pay off big down the road, but O'Connell will need to demonstrate that he is significantly better than players like Erik Ainge or Andre' Woodson, who were taken in the fifth and sixth rounds, if he is to justify the use of such a high pick. New England traded up in the fifth to make sure they got UCLA receiver Matthew Slater. Slater is the son of Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, so clearly the Patriots were banking on bloodlines with their later round picks, but it was still surprising to see them trade up for a receiver who has spent most of his college career playing on the defensive side of the ball and who didn't seem to be a guy that other teams were targeting at that point in the draft. Slater's primary value is as a kick return man, and the pick was probably made with that in mind.
While the two corners should help restore some depth, the lack of size at the position could end up being a real problem. Young blood at strong safety is also a must, as Rodney Harrison is getting old enough to require carbon dating. After the Giants soundly whipped the New England offensive line in the Super Bowl, there was some thinking that the team might add a lineman or two to compete on the right side, but it would have been more luxury than necessity. More young bodies at receiver, at running back and at linebacker would be welcome, but again, there's no reason to feel uncomfortable with what is on the roster now. (The team did go 18-1, after all.)
Center Ryan Wendell is the latest product of the pipeline from Pat Hill and Fresno State to New England. Wendell was a four-year starter at both center and guard, so if he sticks he could provide depth at two positions. Chris Gould, the younger brother of Bears kicker Robbie Gould, was signed to give Stephen Gotkowski some competition in camp (and so the Patriots could cover all their bases in the acquisition of relatives of current or former NFL players). Linebacker Vincent Redd started off playing for Al Groh at Virginia before being dismissed from the team for undisclosed reasons, so he transferred to Liberty College. At 6-5, 263 pounds, he's got terrific size to go along with 4.6 speed, so whatever bad things Groh had to say about Redd weren't likely to dissuade the Patriots from having a look-see.
Nothing says "draft day" like a shot of agonized Jets fans moments after the team has announced their first-round pick. It's a rite of passage, but in reality it's a little outdated, as the franchise has come a long way since the days of drafting fullbacks in the first round. They haven't hit many home runs, but few teams have hit as steady a succession of doubles as the Jets from 2000-2007.
Well, the fans cheered this year, but Vernon Gholston is the definition of a boom-or-bust prospect, so we'll see if they're still cheering three years from now. No player split opinion like the Ohio State pass rushing terror. Several analysts, including our own Michael David Smith, considered Gholston the best prospect in the draft. Others looked at his 37 tackles on the season and his tendency to disappear not just from play-to-play but from game-to-game and labeled Gholston another Mike Mamula, an undeserving player translating a huge combine performance into a big payday. Ohio State's scheme is built around freeing up the linebackers at the expense of the defensive line (which is why James Laurinaitas will be joining A.J. Hawk as a top five selection next year), and the Jets think that Gholston will have more consistent impact in a scheme that lets him pin his ears back and chase the quarterback.
Fortunately, the Jets fans got their chance to boo when the team traded back into the first round to take a tight end they'd never heard of, Dustin Keller of Purdue. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock likens Keller to Dallas Clark: "He is an explosive vertical threat, gets up the field, catches the football. He's not a good blocker. He's kind of a move guy, you have to move him a little bit, play him in the slot like Indianapolis does, for instance." The Jets were in dire need of a third option in the passing game beyond Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, and while most people expected them to address it with one of the receivers, Keller should fit the bill. In the fourth round, the Jets took San Jose State cornerback Dwight Lowery, who was considered a top prospect after his junior season but then regressed his senior year and followed it up with bad 40 times, never a good combination for a defensive back. At the very least, Lowery gives the Jets a bigger player to work into the mix opposite Darrelle Revis. Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge is built like Peyton Manning but throws like Chad Pennington. The rumors that the team wanted Matt Ryan were more smoke than fire, but Ainge provides a low-cost alternative who can be developed behind Pennington and Kellen Clemens. In a twist on the AFC East's predilection for the younger relatives of NFL players, Ainge is the nephew of ex-Boston Celtic Danny Ainge. Kansas receiver Marcus Henry and Arkansas tackle Nate Garner round out the class.
For a team coming off a 4-12 season, the Jets have surprisingly few needs thanks to their free agent splurge. The biggest hole is at cornerback, where there is no clear No. 2 starter. Justin Miller, Hank Poteat, Manny Collins and Lowery will all get a look, but the team may need to address this area with a veteran camp cut. A young running back capable of working in behind Thomas Jones and Leon Washington would be nice, as would a traditional slot receiver.
Chadron State's Danny Woodhead is the NCAA's all-time leading rusher. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in each of his four seasons and scored more than 100 touchdowns, but the only numbers that NFL scouts paid attention to were his height (5-7) and weight (197). Woodhead has terrific speed and clearly has some wiggle to him -- however much you need at Chadron State, at any rate -- so he has a chance to stick as a return man. The team had good success with N.C. State receiver Jerricho Cotchery, so they took a shot on another one by inviting John Dunlap to camp.
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