The 2016 NFL Draft giveth storylines. Four teams exhibit contrasting approaches to the upcoming season and beyond.
Bargain shopping for the future
Remember that great competitive advantage the Seattle Seahawks enjoyed from 2012 through 2014, which held quarterback Russell Wilson in captivity at bargain (third-round rookie) rates? By not having to pay their up-(and up)-and-coming signal caller starter-level wages, the Seahawks used that cap advantage to sign other key personnel (Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch, Marshawn Lynch again, others) to big money deals.
At least not in Seattle. Wilson got his overdue megabucks, long-term contract before the 2015 season. The playing field is no longer tilted toward the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the field may be leaning toward Colorado.
In Denver, there’s reason to believe general manager John Elway held his water long enough to have landed his quarterback of the future (first-round selection Paxton Lynch) at bargain rates. As the 26th pick in the draft, Lynch will eventually sign a four-year contract in the neighborhood of $9.4 million.
That’s not “Russell Wilson rookie contract” low, but it’s a steal if he is the player the Broncos think he is. Compared to the Broncos’ first and presumed option when Peyton Manning hung up his cleats, the four-year, $72 million contract former 2012 Broncos draftee Brock Osweiler signed with the Texans, the amount of money the Broncos are saving puts them in recent era Seahawks-level spending.
I hate to do math equations, but even I can attest that the difference between $72 million and $9.4 million equals a lot of salary cap flexibility. Yes, the Broncos also brought in Mark Sanchez (1 year, $4.5 million) to hold the reins for now, but they were going to have to bring in a veteran quarterback even if Osweiler had stayed.
The Super Bowl champions, with the NFL’s stingiest defense, can shore up their roster elsewhere for years to come — a la the 2012–2014 Seahawks. The 2016 Seahawks, are now shopping at Ross and Marshall’s inking few, moderately / low-priced free agents and looking to shore up needs with a very Seahawkian draft.
The right profile
With the exception of a handful of teams with new regimes (Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins) NFL teams have a draft profile. They do what they do.
In this year’s draft the Dallas Cowboys (swing for the fences) and the Green Bay Packers (tried and true) stayed within their well-established lanes. Did they draft the best? Nobody knows. We won’t know for several seasons. But did they stray from their personalities? Not this year.
It’s funny how despite having won one Super Bowl as a general manager and three overall as an owner, Jerry Jones is often derided as a meddlesome, counterproductive leader at the helm of the Dallas Cowboys’ fortunes. A 20-year Super Bowl drought will do that.
The Cowboys, whose reputation for Jonesing for quick, risky fixes, either via free agency (Greg Hardy, La’el Collins, Rolando McClain, Alex Barron, Ryan leaf, Mike Vanderjagt) or draft (Dak Prescott, Randy Gregory, Joseph Randle, Dez Bryant, Quincy Carter) is well-earned.
The 2016 NFL Draft helped reinforce the Jones men’s (Jerry and son Stephen) draft profile. Their first-round selection, running back Ezekiel Elliott, does not represent a character risk, but a value risk nonetheless. Despite the public outcry of hot takes from draft shmexperts across the Twittersphere, the Cowboys believe they found the key to returning their offense to its 2014 12–4 output: stud runner, stud offensive line and healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.
Nobody takes running backs at the fourth overall spot of the draft in today’s NFL. Nobody except Dallas, that is. At the running back position continues to dwindle in emphasis, the Cowboys are betting on a renewed modern version of The Triplets. Like during the Aikman/Irvin/Smith golden years and briefly through 2014 with DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys are aiming squarely at the same formula.
The risk surrounding Elliott is contrasted with conventional football wisdom. The risk surrounding their next selection, injured linebacker Jaylon Smith, may be the most Cowboys-esque draft move of all.
At one point, Smith was considered the top NFL Draft prospect. Upon shattering his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl, those plans evaporated. Some doctors advise he’ll be able to play in 2017; others wonder if nerve damage, in addition to tendon damage, may prohibit him from ever regaining form.
That’s a 10-gallon gamble, if there ever was one. Smith plans on playing in 2016. Few outside of Dallas are counting on that.
Straight and narrow
The Green Bay Packers, in contrast, have for more confidence they’ll get serviceable assistance from their top two draft picks: defensive tackle Kenny Clark from UCLA and offensive lineman Jason Spriggs from Indiana.
Sticking closely to their playbook, the Packers predictably filled their two most pressing needs with two picks in the top 48 (they traded up with the Indianapolis Colts to grab Spriggs before the Chicago Bears could). With a thinned defensive line and revolving door at linebacker, the Packers clearly needed help in the front seven. They chose their highest graded remaining defensive tackle, who will be expected to at the very least provide significant rotational snaps in place of departed nose tackle B.J. Raji and suspended tackle Mike Pennel.
Clark will play and be expected to contribute from day one.
The Packers’ second-highest need was to address the nearly clean slate they will face at offensive line in 2017. No, Spriggs isn’t expected to crack the starting lineup in 2016, but come 2017, three current starters (David Bakhtiari, T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton) and the offensive line’s top backup (J.C. Tretter) will all be free agents. That’s a lot of potential change for the one position group deemed to rely upon chemistry most.
Both of Green Bay’s starting tackles (Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga) missed games due to injury in 2015, so Spriggs is well-advised to not get too comfortable in a back-up role. By 2017 (if not sooner), the athletic, versatile Spriggs will be tasked with starting for the Packers at any one of four spots (excluding center).
The Packers went by the numbers, as is their wont. Sure, general manager Ted Thompson traded up (a rarity, but not as rare as most claim) in round two, but the Packers’ well-known needs were seemingly met with real Packer-esque picks: major college, solid citizen, athletic achievers.
It’s fair to wonder if the selections of Clark and Spriggs are need picks. However, given Thompson’s long history of selecting and developing top college talent for both immediate and long-term needs, the longer term upside for both actually outweighs their potential immediate contributions. That’s value picking.
In other words: good ol’ Ted.
Also on The Hit Job:
Draft, shmaft — Why the NFL Draft is the biggest crapshoot in sports
The NFL Draft is the worst way to build your roster. Except for all the others.
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