The first round of the 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. Surprises were in short supply at the top of the draft, with Buffalo trading up to 4th position to get Sammy Watkins being the biggest surprise. As was expected, both Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater fell to the lower half of the draft and the Texans surprised nobody with their choice of Jadeveon Clowney as the number one overall pick. So what did we learn from 2014’s first round?
1. Defence is Number One.
By selecting a defensive end with the first overall pick, the Texans bucked the trends of recent years. Heading into last night’s draft, a defensive player had been selected with the overall first pick just three times in the previous 20 drafts. In fact the last time it happened was in 2006 when the Texans selected another defensive end, Mario Williams, at number 1. The NFL though is notorious for being a copy-cat league. Teams are always looking for the next trend they can follow to success. In February, the Super Bowl pitted the league’s best defence against the league’s best offence and defence emerged with a resounding victory. As a result, it should come as no surprise that defence dominated this first round with 18 of the first 32 picks going on defensive players. Nor should it be a surprise that in a year that defence dominated the Super Bowl, the honour of being the first overall selection went to a defensive player.
2. Influence of “The Legion of Boom”
Following on from point number one, a large part of Seattle’s Super Bowl victory was based around their much vaunted secondary – “The Legion of Boom”. Their hugely talented corner back pairing and physical safeties dominated the Broncos record breaking receivers. This would explain the increase in selection of defensive backs (corner backs and safeties) in the first round of this year’s draft.
In 2012 there were 5 defensive backs selected in the first round, in 2013 there were 7. This year, there were 9 defensive backs selected in the first 32 picks. Teams have looked at the fact that having a top quality group of defensive backs can shut down even the great Peyton Manning and once again looked to copy a successful strategy. The top two corner backs selected were both six foot tall, physical backs similar to those fielded by the Seahawks.
3. The Continued Decline of the Running Back Position.
Historically, only the quarterback position has taken on more importance than running back in drafts. The number one overall selection has been a running back on 23 occasions, second only to quarterbacks (31). As recently as 2012, Trent Richardson was selected with the third overall pick after superstar QBs Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (RG3).
The 2013 draft marked the first time since the NFL and AFL held the inaugural common draft in 1967 that no running back was taken in the first round. This trend continued in 2014. For the second straight draft, there were no running backs selected in the first round. The fact that Richardson has so far been massively underwhelming (and was traded away by the Browns after just one season) may have scared some teams off drafting a running back. But there are also growing trends league-wide against running backs. Teams have moved away from a single “franchise back” and towards rotating a group of running backs. The league has also sought to increase the protection of QBs in an effort to increase the emphasis on pass over run. This, coupled with the relatively short peak that can be expected from running backs has seen teams place less importance on drafting a running back early.
4. The Importance of Off-Field Performance
The NFL draft is a truly unique sporting occasion and may be difficult for those of us on this side of the Atlantic to fully understand. The college football season ends in late December/early January. In the 4 months between the last college football action and the draft, a player’s stock can rise or fall dramatically. The NFL Scouting Combine puts players through a series of physical and mental tests including the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test as well as individual interviews between players and prospective teams.
Individual players will also often hold their own ‘Pro Day’ when scouts are invited to come watch them work out and go through a series of drills. Often these performances are actually given more weight than a stellar on-field college career.
In late December, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater finished his college career with an MVP performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl. At that point he was widely considered the best QB prospect in the draft and a potential number one pick. However, in 4 months of painstaking analysis, teams and scouts convinced themselves there were concerns about his size and throwing mechanics. As a result, the guy who was a potential number one pick the last time he played a game of football, ended up as the 32nd and final pick of the first round.
5. The Value of Trades
The Minnesota Vikings were the big winners of the first round in 2013. Through a series of trades they ended up with three first round picks with Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and particularly Cordarrelle Patterson having promising rookie seasons. This year the Vikings again traded to have multiple picks in the first round. With the 9th pick they got one of the best linebackers in the draft in Anthony Barr and they traded up into the first round again to take Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd and final pick of the first round. By trading up the Vikings got two top level prospects, and in Bridgewater they may finally have the QB they have needed for years.
The Cleveland Browns too enjoyed a good first round. By trading away Trent Richardson last September, they scored a first round pick from the Colts. Having a second first round pick in the bank allowed the Browns to take the safer pick of highly rated corner back Justin Gilbert at number 8 pick and still get the QB they needed. The question marks about Johnny Manziel’s attitude made him too risky for the Browns to take with a top ten pick. But using a late first round pick on a guy with such massive potential seems about right.
As is always the case, it is hugely difficult to judge a draft class before the players take to the field in the NFL. The 2014 first round may have been low on shock value but certainly for the first 9 teams to pick (not sure about the Lions at 10), the draft seems to have provided them all with low-risk, high-reward talents in positions they needed.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.