I am always fascinated by the immediate need to evaluate, dissect and ultimately judge the quality of each team’s pick in the NFL Draft literally seconds after that selection is made. The reaction to the picks has become almost as momentous as the excitement, the enthusiasm, and the emotional debates in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Judging from many of the Twitter responses I received, a large number of fans base their opinion of a player solely on where he is drafted. Rueben Randle, the wide receiver from LSU, was a prime example. I liked Randle on film. I saw similarities to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks. As the second round advanced, and Randle remained on the board, many tweeted to essentially say I had misevaluated Randle. My response, and one to keep in mind over these next few months: no one is right or wrong about a player based on where he is drafted. He has not played a single down in the NFL. By the way, I since learned that the Giants, if RB David Wilson was not on the board at pick 32 in the first round, would have selected Randle in that spot. Their GM, Jerry Reese, one of the best in the business, also made the Randle/Nicks comparison in his press conference.
All this is prelude to a discussion of the NFC West, the division that produced the most raised eyebrows the first two nights of the draft.
- It began with Seattle’s choice of West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin with the 15th overall selection. On cue, we immediately heard the time-worn clichés “reach” and “overdrafted.” I assumed those two terms were intended to convey the following: 1) Irvin was not good enough to be chosen that high, in the middle of the first round; and 2) the Seahawks could have waited to select Irvin later in the draft. Really? How does anyone know that? All the “experts” were familiar with every team’s draft board, thus knowing where Irvin was graded by each team? It’s so absurd it’s laughable.
Let’s discuss Irvin the player, and place him in the context of NFL 2012. It could easily be argued based on tape study that Irvin was the most explosive edge pass rusher in the draft. Think about that for a minute. The most important defensive priority in today’s NFL is rushing the quarterback. You can go all the way back to Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh in the 1980s; Walsh, always a step ahead, said that fourth quarter pass rush was the key to winning. His theory has evolved to the point where it encompasses all four quarters. Thus, the Seahawks selected a player with explosive attributes at a premium position.
What about the argument that he’s not a “three-down player”? That’s another use of “conventional wisdom” that does not withstand further scrutiny. Irvin will likely be on the field close to 60 percent of the plays in an increasingly pass-first league. In the NFL, if you cannot defend the pass, you will not win. Last year, the San Francisco 49ers selected Aldon Smith with the seventh pick in the first round. I watched every 49ers defensive play in 2011. Smith did not play more than 20 snaps in the base 3-4 defense. He was exclusively a sub-package player, playing only in nickel and dime personnel. He had 14 sacks in the regular season, and two more in the playoffs. Was he a poor draft choice because he was not a three-down player? Please, let’s think before we react.
- The 49ers turned heads with their selection of wide receiver A.J. Jenkins at No. 30. Jenkins was another player not discussed much in the weeks prior to the draft. Minimal publicity translated into a reaction of “reach” when his name was called near the end of the first round. Again, based on what criteria? Those who evaluated Jenkins on film, i.e. NFL teams, saw a complete receiver who ran short, intermediate and vertical routes at Illinois. He was naturally quick and fluid as a route runner, he showed excellent body control and flexibility, and at times he displayed explosive vertical ability. Jenkins was a quick accelerator; he reached top speed in a hurry, especially with free access to the ball.
Remember what team drafted him: the 49ers. This is a team whose offensive foundation features run personnel and run formations. That almost always results in defenses responding with fronts and coverages that require a safety to be involved in run support. Corners, in run-based defensive concepts, rarely play press on the outside. That gives Jenkins the free access mentioned above — a circumstance that will maximize his vertical strengths. One more thing you saw watching Jenkins on film: he played both outside and in the slot, so he has experience in multiple alignments.
- The next wide receiver chosen, by the St. Louis Rams with the first pick of the second round, was Brian Quick from Appalachian State. The Rams selected him ahead of more celebrated and widely discussed receivers Stephen Hill and Randle. Quick was another player who, seconds after his name was read, was branded with those disparaging descriptions of “reach” and “overdrafted”. That resulted from two things: he came from a smaller school and he struggled early in Senior Bowl week against higher quality competition.
Many will use the small school component of Quick’s résumé to suggest he will have a much larger learning curve to adjust to the NFL. Again, another myth tossed around as if it’s gospel. Watch any college wide receiver, especially one that played in a spread, and you will see limited routes. Justin Blackmon went to Oklahoma State, and he has no greater route running experience that Quick. They both played in spread offenses. In fact, studying both extensively on film, you can make the argument that Quick, who’s significantly bigger than Blackmon, is more naturally athletic. Quick is a very fluid and smooth athlete with excellent lateral quickness and deceptive vertical speed due to stride length. It’s not a stretch at all, when you analyze Quick’s physical and athletic attributes, to understand why the Rams selected him early. With his size and overall skill set, he has a chance to be the best wide receiver in this draft class. I know some teams saw him that way. Certainly, there are questions, and many variables will factor into the equation, as they do with any receiver entering the NFL, including Blackmon and Jenkins.
My point is this: Think through the process and all that’s involved before you come to a conclusion. Challenge accepted assumptions. NFL teams spend a lot of time studying, evaluating, and researching, not only players in any given draft, but trends and tendencies over time. Of course, they will make mistakes, as we all do. But as I said earlier, and it’s worth repeating, no 2012 draft choice has yet played in the NFL so his value cannot yet be accurately quantified.
For more thoughts from Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter at @gregcosell.