Sports Reference Blog

Seven Questions for the NFL Draft

Posted by Jonah Gardner on April 26, 2017

While the NBA Playoffs, MLB season, and Stanley Cup Playoffs may be in full swing, football never sleeps. This weekend, the country's most popular sport will take center stage as the NFL Draft descends on Philadelphia.

Last year's draft showed how a smart team can use the draft to turn their fortunes around at warp speed, as the Dallas Cowboys, who went 4-12 in 2015, took Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott with two of their first five picks and then watched as that duo led the team to a 13-3 record and the #1 seed in the NFC. While it may be too much to ask for a team to replicate the feat of finding two franchise-changing, All-Pro skill players in the same draft, Dallas' experience shows that it's not impossible.

Are any teams out there poised to pull off the same feat as Dallas and go from their division's cellar to its throne by shrewd drafting? Is there another Dak Prescott out there, waiting for the right team? Let's dig into those questions and more, with our preview of the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. What Are the Cleveland Browns Going to Do?

It's perhaps a stretch to say things are going to plan in Cleveland, but as the latest regime prepares for its second draft, it's fair to say that the Browns have had about as successful a year as you could have imagined at this time last year. While the jury is still out on Carson Wentz, he didn't have the kind of instant success that Prescott had, meaning that the Philadelphia Eagles will be sending a very good first-rounder to Cleveland. Add in the Browns' own first-rounder, which happens to be the #1 overall pick, and the fact that Cleveland has nine picks in the first four rounds, and the team could be poised to make a splash this year.

But all this opportunity also comes with enormous risk and it remains unclear how the Browns are going to approach this draft and especially what they're doing with the first overall pick. According to most draft-heads, the top prospect in the draft is Myles Garrett, a defensive end out of Texas A&M who is one of two players, since 2005, to pick up 30 or more sacks in the SEC.

Garrett has the scouting pedigree, the on-field production, and the battle-testing that comes with playing in college football's pre-eminent conference. However, what he doesn't have is the positional value. While edge rusher is one of the most important positions to fill on a football team, it still pales in position to quarterback. That's why, according to some rumors, the Browns are looking at drafting a quarterback first and worrying about the defense later.

Is that wise? In a vacuum, taking a QB is usually the correct choice. Among the 22 QBs taken first overall since the merger, their average career Approximate Value, Pro-Football-Reference's stat for measuring player production across positions, was 76.8, higher than the average AV for a non-QB #1 pick of 52.1. Additionally, just four #1 overall QBs (not counting Jared Goff or Jameis Winston) have failed to reach 60 AV, the overall average for the top pick.

But this draft isn't taking place in a vacuum and picking a QB poses a few enormous risks for Cleveland, starting with the man they'd be passing on.

2. Just How Good is Myles Garrett?

As mentioned above, Garrett put up outstanding numbers in college, notching 31 sacks and 47 tackles for loss. In contrast, the last defensive end taken first overall, Jadeveon Clowney, amassed 24 sacks. Unlike Clowney, who was taken largely on the strength of one monster year in 2012, Garrett has shown more consistency, posting sack totals of 11, 11, and 8 in his three seasons. Even with that decline in his final season, Garrett still had more sacks in his last season than J.J. Watt.

If you go hunting for reasons to be skeptical, you can squint and find some, largely on a team level. A&M only had a Top 20 defense, per defensive SRS, once in Garrett's three seasons on the team. Last year, they barely cracked the Top 40 defenses in the nation, and their pass defense was 47th on a per attempt basis (adjusted for opponent strength).

But even an elite passer rusher can only do so much. To go back to Watt, his Wisconsin Badgers team ranked 37th in passing defense in his junior year and even though Clowney's South Carolina Gamecocks had the second best passing defense in 2011, they were only ranked 17th in 2012, his peak season in terms of sacks and impact.

So those team numbers shouldn't be nearly enough to hold a team back from taking such a talented pass rusher. Especially when the other options don't seem especially tempting.

3. Will Any of the Top Quarterbacks Be Superstars?

This is why I think the uncertainty over Cleveland's first pick is more manufactured storyline than genuine source of intrigue. There's simply not a quarterback with the body of work you'd expect from a number one pick.

For example, while we can second guess the wisdom of the most recent quarterback taken #1 overall, there's no denying that Jared Goff had built up an excellent resume in college. Goff threw over 1,500 passes, amassed over 12,000 passing yards, and completed 62.3% of his attempts. The only player in this year's draft to post numbers like that was Cooper Rush, who did it in the MAC rather than the Pac-12 and isn't exactly regarded as NFL-ready by scouts.

One player who could have matched those numbers is Deshaun Watson, had he stuck around for his senior year. Over his two seasons as a full-time starter, Watson threw 1,070 pass attempts, completed over 67% of them, and passed for 8,702 yards. And that doesn't factor in Watson's contribution to the ground game, where he averaged 5.3 yards per rushing attempt in 2015 before taking a step back to 3.8 in 2016.

However, Watson didn't get that third full year, so the sample size is not quite as large as you'd like, especially if you're passing on a universally acclaimed, generational talent to draft him. Additionally, players like Robert Griffin have shown the added injury risk that comes with drafting quarterbacks who generate part of their value in the running game. Watson will have to be used as a runner, as well as a passer, to meet his full potential as a game-changing force in the NFL, and that exposes him to NFL defenders.

While Watson appeared to me to be the best QB in this year's draft, most of the rumors have pointed to Mitch Trubisky as the favored passer in Cleveland. However, Trubisky is even riskier than Watson. While Watson had over 1,000 pass attempts and two years as a starter, Trubisky has only thrown 572 in total and only spent one year as a starter, where he didn't even crack 500 attempts. Trubisky's North Carolina Tar Heels were not outstanding on offense, ranking 25th in SRS compared to Clemson's 12th. While it's true that Trubisky posted an impressive 67.5% completion rate and 9.0 adjusted yards per attempt for his college career, those numbers are only marginally ahead of Watson's 67.4% and 8.4 AY/A in a larger sample size.

More to the point, the fact that it's a debate is a knock against taking a quarterback here. There's no debate over who the best defensive prospect, or even the best overall prospect. While taking a QB might have the higher ceiling, it also has a much lower floor, especially since one of these QBs (or perhaps Patrick Mahomes, who's also well-regarded and put up video game numbers at Texas Tech) will probably still be around when Cleveland picks again at 12.

4. Who Will Be This Year's Dak Prescott?

While most teams who have a star QB got theirs by picking him early in the draft, a lucky few have managed to strike gold later on. For the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks finding a Tom Brady or Russell Wilson late in the draft gave them greater flexibility in building teams that could contend for championships, and the Cowboys seem to be well on their way along the same lines with Prescott.

This kind of story captures the imaginations of football fans and executives precisely because of how rare it is. But it might not be too much to hope for lightning to strike in back-to-back years. While Brady played in such a different era for college football that he's not as useful for comparison, Prescott and Wilson have a couple of commonalities that can at least help us put together a model of what to look for. For one thing, both players entered the draft as seniors, rather than juniors, giving them an extra year of experience. For another, both played in power-five conferences, meaning they faced great competition. Lastly, neither player was a secret; both had excellent senior years.

Nathan Peterman of Pitt largely fits the bill. Peterman was a senior who ranked seventh in AY/A this season, and he even transferred like Russ. Most projections have Peterman going in the late second or early third round, making him more Russell Wilson than Dak Prescott. C.J. Beathard and Davis Webb are deeper sleepers, but while both were four year players in power-five conferences, neither had the kind of excellent senior year that Wilson and Prescott put together. Instead, teams might be better off forgoing the extra year of experience and taking Miami's Brad Kaaya, who averaged 8.6 AY/A while throwing twice as many passes for his career as Trubisky.

5. What About the Running Backs?

QB isn't the only position that's stacked this year; the NFL is preparing to welcome a bumper crop of excellent running backs, with most mock drafts suggesting two superstar runners may go in the Top 10: Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.

Fournette had a disappointing 2016 following his breakout 2015, but that was due to injury. In the seven games Fournette appeared in, he averaged 6.5 yards per carry, identical to his mark in 2015. The highlight was his 16-carry, 284-rushing yard masterpiece against Ole Miss, a career high in rushing yards that was also one of the four best individual performances by an SEC RB since 2000. Of course, one of the other four rushing performances came from Derrius Guice, Fournette's teammate. Just around a month after Fournette's own 284-game, Guice posted 285 vs Texas A&M. So is there reason to be concerned that Fournette was more a product of LSU's system and offensive line?

Maybe. While it's true that A&M's rushing defense was superior to Ole Miss, it also took Guice 37 carries to match what Fournette gained on just 16. And although the Ole Miss game was a career high, it's hardly Fournette's only moment of dominance. In fact, Fournette had the most career 200-yard games of any SEC player since 2000.

Still, Fournette wasn't the only player who took a step back after a dominant 2015. Heisman Trophy Finalist Christian McCaffrey had a hard time following up his sophomore season, where he challenged for the single-season record in yards from scrimmage. However, like Fournette, that surface-level headline is a tad deceiving. McCaffrey actually improved as a rusher on a yards per carry basis, bumping from 6.0 Y/A in 2015 to 6.3 Y/A in 2016. Instead, the problem was the passing game, as McCaffrey's yards per reception fell by nearly six yards per catch.

However, that sort of decreased success in the passing game could be expected with the departure of Kevin Hogan, Stanford's starting QB in 2015. The Cardinal struggled under his replacement, Ryan Burns, and switched QBs to Keller Chryst halfway through the season. The team had more overall success, winning six in a row to end the season, but Chryst himself put up mediocre numbers and represented only a marginal improvement on Burns in terms of stats:

Passing Table
Rk Player Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
1 Ryan Burns 102 167 61.1 1151 6.9 5.6 5 7 120.5
2 Keller Chryst 77 136 56.6 905 6.7 7.5 10 2 133.8
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 4/25/2017.

In other words, McCaffrey didn't really take a step back in 2016, the Stanford passing game did.

6. Should Teams Really Be Looking at RBs That Early?

Still, while criticism of Fournette and McCaffrey's records looks more like nit-picking than red alert warnings, there is some risk in taking a player who seemed to stagnate in his final year. With Fournette, the risk is more on the injury side, but considering the nature of the running back position, that's something that needs to be strongly factored in.

In the NFL, teams tend to follow trends and look to replicate another team's success. After the Cowboys went from worst to first in the NFC East by drafting Ezekiel Elliott, it's natural for teams with a high draft to want to repeat the formula. However, the history of taking running backs that high, especially as the game has trended towards the pass, is troubling.

Don't take my word for it. Here's the list of every RB taken with a Top-10 pick since 2001, the year the (now)-Los Angeles Chargers drafted LaDainian Tomlinson, the last RB taken in the Top 10 and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

Drafted Players Table
Year Pick Pos Tm AP1 PB St CarAV Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD College/Univ
2016 4 Ezekiel Elliott RB DAL 1 1 1 16 322 1631 15 32 363 1 Ohio St.
2015 10 Todd Gurley RB STL 0 1 2 12 507 1991 16 64 515 0 Georgia
2012 3 Trent Richardson RB CLE 0 0 3 17 614 2032 17 113 912 2 Alabama
2010 9 C.J. Spiller RB BUF 0 1 3 34 710 3451 12 198 1484 9 Clemson
2008 4 Darren McFadden RB OAK 0 0 4 39 1301 5423 28 254 2114 5 Arkansas
2007 7 Adrian Peterson RB MIN 4 7 8 88 2418 11747 97 241 1945 5 Oklahoma
2006 2 Reggie Bush RB NOR 0 0 6 61 1286 5490 36 477 3598 18 USC
2005 4 Cedric Benson RB CHI 0 0 5 34 1600 6017 32 120 833 1 Texas
2005 2 Ronnie Brown RB MIA 0 1 5 41 1281 5391 38 246 1966 2 Auburn
2005 5 Cadillac Williams RB TAM 0 0 4 26 1055 4038 21 148 1002 4 Auburn
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/25/2017.

Out of that group, Adrian Peterson is the only player who was an unqualified success for the team that drafted him. You could put Elliott in that category, but you'd have done the same with Todd Gurley at this time last year, and he had trouble replicating his success in year two.

Indeed, even the players who lived up to the kind of production you'd expect from their draft slot, like Reggie Bush, changed teams because of down years or the general risk of handing out a long-term contract to a running back.

Of course, it's possible that what happened from 2011-14, when the only Top-10 RB was a historically laughable bust, represented an overcorrection too far away from running backs. Perhaps teams should have been more aggressive in taking players like Le'Veon Bell earlier. But while Bell is the most productive player to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft, according to AV, he was also the second RB picked. If a team had decided to ignore conventional wisdom and grab the top-ranked RB in the Top 10, it's likely they'd have been drafting Giovani Bernard, who went 11 picks ahead of Bell. Given that history, teams may be better off looking for more stability than they'd get from Fournette or McCaffrey

7. Who Will Be the Next Cowboys?

That's not to say that the Cowboys' formula isn't totally impossible to replicate, just that it was more about a team finding the perfect player to plug an obvious hole. Dallas' offensive line was good enough to allow Darren McFadden to average 4.6 yards per carry, meaning that a better ball-carrier, and an upgrade at backup QB from 2015 Tony Romo fill-ins like Brandon Weeden, would turbo-charge the team's offense.

One team that would seem to fit the bill is the Carolina Panthers. Like the Cowboys, Carolina went from a division title to a top-10 draft pick in the span of a year. Also like Dallas, they're built to win now, with a talented quarterback in Cam Newton and a veteran defense. The problem is that Carolina's biggest need is offensive line, even after signing Matt Kalil to a $55 million contract, and most mock drafts don't have a single offensive lineman going in the top 15.

Instead, I'm curious to see what the Tennessee Titans do. The Titans finished 9-7, have a young QB who is developing nicely, and seem poised to make a leap in the NFL's least competitive division. It might not be reasonable to expect yet another huge step forward from Marcus Mariota, but considering his top target in 2016 was Rishard Matthews, it's fun to think about what kind of passing season he could have with a better weapon at wide receiver. The Titans aren't an exact parallel with last year's Cowboys, since they're only picking in the top ten because of their trade with the Los Angeles Rams, but a shrewd draft could catapult them into being a top team next season.

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