The annual free agent frenzy is upon us and what happens over the next few weeks will shape how the draft actually plays out. Teams needs will be changing daily as veteran free agents fill roster spots and trades make holes in teams that didn't have them before. Add in college pro days happening on campuses all around the country and teambuilding season is in high gear.
1.) This time of year everybody gets excited about everything player-personnel related. Fans clamor for free agents they are sure will put their teams over the top and moan loudly about "losses" of players to division rivals. It makes for a noisy scene to try and cut through, but sanity can be achieved by keeping one simple rule in mind: not every player is a fit for every opening. This rule is good for both the free agent spending spree and the draft. Just because your team needs a safety, does not mean that every veteran safety who gets cut or expensive free agent at the position is a good fit for your club. Maybe your team needs an enforcer to play the run and the guy in question is a great player against the pass but is allergic to hitting anyone. Knowing your team's specific needs based on scheme, cap situation and player acquisition strategy (young cheap talent preferred or a coach who favors experienced veterans?) will go along way towards keeping you sane when a division rival signs a popular player at a position of need. Knowing that he was lousy fit for what your team needed (and was likely not pursued because of it) can actually make you feel better about how your front office functions rather than worse.
2.) The same axiom can be used as the draft approaches to keep you from clamoring for players who are not likely to fit in your team's grand plan. Defensive line is an excellent example in this year's draft. It is a very deep position group so fans tend to think that options for all D-line needs can be found at any round range within the draft. That's not exactly true as a lot of the defensive lineman are somewhat scheme-specific. When you add in roles that a team needs a player to perform, the pool of possible candidates is reduced even further.
Need a defensive lineman with enough size and strength to play DE (5-tech) in a 3-4 alignment? Good news is there are a few targets who will fit that description perfectly in this draft. Want that player to also be able to add in some pass rush? Your pool of candidates just shrunk in a big way. Not many 300 pound men have the ability to stand up the defender in front of them consistently (usually an OT), control the gap on either side of themselves against a rampaging running back AND add in pass rush moves and the speed to chase down even a semi-agile QB in today's NFL. If you need that magical combination, your choices in this draft are very slim indeed.
3.) We need to talk about measurements. It's 2016 and I think we should be better about how things get measured than we apparently are. With as much riding on what the actual physical and performance measurements are for potential NFL prospects, you'd think the league would have devoted some more resources to normalizing how they are taken and what is acceptable. We've already talked about the difference between what colleges list about athletes and their actual size, but this year there were some large differences in measurements between the numbers recorded at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine; less than 1 month apart. Hand sizes that varied by almost an inch, arm lengths that were longer by more than inch, and heights that did not match up either. I am not sure what the rationale for all of the differences was but it's a little concerning based on how much attention is paid to these numbers.
And then we have the famous 40 yard dash. There are professional track meets all over the world and they seem to have a method for timing athletes that works well enough to confidently pay the winners tens of thousands of dollars based on the results. The combine is nothing if not a track meet, so why not use the established system? Many of the prospective NFL prospects have spent time on a track in their athletic past and are already more than familiar with how that timing works. That would put an end to all the silliness we see every year about "unofficial" times, "adjusted" times, "actual" times and team-recorded "hand" times. The motion-based system the NFL currently uses is ridiculously buggy and leads to less certainty about what time a prospect actually ran, not more.
4.) As I wade through hours of game tape this time of year I am reminded how much broadcast teams influence fan's perception and enjoyment of college football. A good team of announcers calls the game action correctly, points out the actual players responsible for a play's outcome and (in the best of circumstances) helps a fan understand the deeper meaning of why something on the field happened. That kind of good work in the booth can really boost a fan's understanding of the game and knowledge of what certain players are (and are not) good at.
A lousy team of announcers will incorrectly (or fail to) identify actions that occur on the field, rarely or mistakenly report which players were responsible and will stick to preconceived narratives about what schools/coaches/players are good even if all the visual evidence in front of them points to the contrary. This can be infuriating to fans trying to appreciate the game on a broader and more complete level. At worst it can make you believe things about schools, coaches or players that are simply not true. If you think you might be listening to a team of talkers that has no idea which way is up, cut your losses: turn down the TV volume, crank up some of your favorite music and call it a win. You'll be happier (and smarter) in the long run.
Player's Lounge - Every week I will look at a player who is trending in the draft process
Every year there a few schools that turn out a pair of draftable players at the same position. The numerical odds of this are fairly low but it happens consistently. This year it's pairs of safeties and 3 schools have quality tandems in the draft. The thing that sets this bunch apart is the overall quality of the group. 5 out of the 6 may go in the top 5 rounds. As the Bear's could certainly use a safety this year let's take a closer look the tandems in question.
West Virginia - This pairing might be the best of the bunch. Karl Joseph is a talented and aggressive playmaker who will likely be the first of all the players mentioned here off the board. He hits like a ton of bricks (evidence posted below), has very solid range against the pass and instincts that near the top of the charts. If he is still available by the middle of round 2 I'd be surprised. His running mate for the Mountaineers is KJ Dillon. Dillon made some noise at the Senior Bowl blowing up RB's, but the plays he put on film this season are not shabby. Despite toiling in Joseph's sizable shadow he shows up plenty on film. Definitely a later-round choice but don't be surprised if a team takes a chance on him earlier than is currently being predicted.
Ohio State - Vonn Bell is the leader of this duo and will likely be off the board before round 4 is finished, quite possibly round 3. He has plenty of skills but his fellow Buckeye defensive back Tyvis Powell is not going unnoticed by scouts. Like Dillon, Powell is likely a later-round selection, but has great size (6'3", 211) and could be a special teams force from the beginning in the NFL.
Clemson - I profiled Jayron Kearse in 2015 and he was being talked about as a top-of-the-draft safety. Opinions have cooled as scouts have spent more time with his tape but he'll still be selected due to his physical gifts alone. His running mate TJ Green represents one of the rare cases where evaluators who came to look at Kearse actually came away talking about his teammate (Green) more. This happened last year with a pair of safeties from Louisville. Everyone was excited by Gerod Holliman's 14 interceptions on the season but as scouts dug into the tape they found his teammate James Sample to be the more complete player. Sample went early in the 4th round while Holliman was picked late in the 7th and did not make his team. In Clemson's duo Kearse is bigger but Green is the better football player at this point. Expect both to be selected anywhere from the late 3rd to the late 6th rounds depending on how teams value production over potential.
Reader Question of the Week - I'll pick a question from a reader each week and answer it here. If you have a question you'd like to be considered you can either leave it in the comments section below, or send it to me directly on Twitter (@thedraftsmanFB) with the hashtag #askEJ.
WCG user Joey Doughnuts asked: "I'm pretty interested in Eli Apple and Vonn Bell in some later rounds maybe?"
I talked about Bell in the column above and also happened to do my full workup on Apple this week so Joey's question fits nicely on two fronts. Basically, you are not the only one Joey. All of the NFL is looking at Ohio State this year and specifically at Apple after the combine. With the Buckeye's high profile nationally, the athleticism and overall quality of their draft class there is no way Apple or Bell last until the later rounds. Both will be gone in the top half of the draft. Apple is the classic case of younger player that scouts didn't study a ton until he declared he was entering the draft. Of course they had seen him on film but they simply did not have time to concentrate on his game until late in the process. Once they started to focus in on him specifically they all realized he has excellent potential. After a very solid combine performance he is what you call "a riser" in the draft process.
He has great size (6'1", 199) for a corner and is likely not done growing (he's only a redshirt sophomore). Eli has good speed and is plenty physical. As you might expect at his age and experience level his technique is not a finished product. But when you combine his physical talent with the potential he's shown on tape playing against top-level competition his potential ceiling in the pro game is very high. I've seen him sneaking into the last few picks of the 1st round in multiple mock drafts since his combine performance. Whether that comes to pass in reality remains to be seen, but don't discount it as a distinct possibility.
Film Study Summary:
Top tier players remaining: 36
Total players studied: 61
Players marked as 2nd tier: 30
Days until the draft: 49
Random players studied this week: Paul Perkins, Michael Thomas (OSU), Sheldon Rankins, Tyler Matakevich, Xavien Howard, Justin Simmons