The annual NFL Draft takes centre stage on Thursday night amid considerable labour strife. A court order has forced a temporary end to the lockout, but the future is still uncertain and the possibility of a shortened season is still a real fear. For NFL fans, however, the Draft is a welcome distraction.
The Draft is a seven round extravaganza that takes place over three days, where the NFL’s 32 teams choose from the best college players. 254 players will be chosen in total, with the NFL’s worst team choosing first in each round and the Super Bowl champions picking last. The aim is to benefit the league’s weaker teams and create the type of parity you cannot find in the likes of soccer and rugby.
Possessing an early pick in the Draft is certainly beneficial, but it can be dangerous. Analysing college players and predicting if their skill set can fit in with the pro game is a risky business. High profile busts are as regular as home run successes and general managers and head coaches are only ever a few ill advised drafts away from being fired.
The appeal of the Draft does not come just from the influx of young talent into the NFL. The event is an institution that demands Prime Time billing on US television and generates a sandstorm of analysis and build-up in the preceding months.
The public is inundated with mock drafts from an array of former players, general managers, scouts, journalists and fans. Rumours of failed drugs tests and accusations of questionable character abound. The Combine, where the best prospects runs a series of drills to test their speed, strength, agility and a host of other tangibles, also draws a large audience.
Draft weekend creates unrivalled excitement. Fans, a record 25 top prospects and a cavalcade of media hacks will converge on Radio City Music Hall in New York to witness trades, shock choices and highly touted players slipping into the lower echelons of the Draft.
The public will be treated to a host of trades as the teams move up and down the board trying to gain the perfect player for their system at the right price. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement is finally reached, a rookie salary cap is likely to be enforced. The cap will increase the likelihood of teams trading up to the top of the first round, as the worry of supplying a ridiculous contract, like the $78m given to last year’s top pick Sam Bradford, will be alleviated.
The Draft’s importance cannot be overstated. Free Agency was introduced in the early 1990s and seemed to reduce the need for teams to draft perfectly, but the NFL’s best teams are normally constructed through the Draft.
The famous Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s won four Super Bowls off the back of their legendary 1974 Draft, which is considered the best of all time. The Steelers managed to strike gold when they chose four Hall of Famers, twice as many as any other team has chosen in a single draft class.
The San Francisco 49ers drafted consistently well in the 1980s on the way to five Super Bowls. Trading away dynamic running back Herschel Walker and low draft choices in 1989 for a combination of five players and six high draft picks also allowed the Dallas Cowboys to build a dynasty in the 1990s.
The 2011 Draft
The 2011 Draft will generate even more interest than previous years, with the labour problems disrupting free agency. As ever, feverish speculation surrounds the first pick. Unlike previous years, however, there is no consensus choice.
The St. Louis Rams showed the benefits of choosing first last year, when their selection of quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams rebound from a 1-15 record to challenge for a playoff place. The 2-14 Carolina Panthers, who are lacking talent in most positions, have the first choice this year. Many experts have them taking controversial quarterback Cam Newton, but the danger of selecting quarterbacks early is well rehearsed.
The Draft class of 1983 saw three Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino chosen in the first round, while current studs Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning all emerged from the 2004 Draft. In recent years, the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons have been transformed through the drafting of Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan respectively.
Some of the biggest Draft busts, however, have come at quarterback. Ten of the last 13 number one picks have been quarterbacks, but Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith and, especially, JaMarcus Russell all failed to meet expectations. Other high choices like Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Cade McCown, Vince Young and Matt Leinart have also been busts at NFL level.
Despite these red flags and worries over all leading quarterbacks in this year’s draft, a record eight quarterbacks could be chosen in the first three rounds. Arguably eleven of the first fifteen teams need a franchise quarterback, so Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert should be gone by the Arizona Cardinals’ pick (fifth overall). The second tier of quarterbacks, which includes Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, could all be chosen late in the first round or early in the second.
A host of offensive lineman should also go late in the first round, with numerous teams having pressing needs in that department.
The Patriots, who are renowned for their tendency to trade regularly during the Draft, have three picks in the first 33 selections and will be in prime position to benefit from other teams’ eagerness and urgency to nab a quality offensive tackle or quarterback. The 33rd pick, which is the first pick of the second day, will receive a lot of attention.
The general consensus is that this draft is lacking in high talent players, but fanfare surrounds a number of prospects. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley, linebacker Von Miller, cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara, wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones, outside linebacker Robert Quinn and defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and J.J. Watt figure to be in demand early and most should be off the board by the mid teens.
A quirk of this year’s draft is that the first round might not have a running back. Only once since 1967 has there been less than two running backs chosen in the first round. There have even been seven years where six or more have been chosen. This year, however, Mark Ingram is the only running back receiving any attention in the opening round and his stock has fallen steeply in recent months.
The value of running backs has been in decline in recent years. Running backs endure serious punishment and suffer from short careers. Undrafted free agents, like the league’s leading rusher Arian Foster, have also shown that utilising a high pick on a running back is no longer a necessity for success.
The Draft will provide an entertaining weekend, full of drama and intrigue. Luckily for Irish viewers, ESPN UK will showcase the action from 2am Friday morning and NFL fans will be hooked until late Saturday evening.