By Eye on College Football Bloggers
Each week, the Eye on CFB team convenes Voltron- style to answer a pressing question regarding the wild, wide world of college football. This week's topic:
We're not NFL scouts. But we have watched most of the players taken in last weekend's draft for the past three or four years (or, in one particular high-profile case, one year). Based on what we saw during their college careers, which players do we believe were "steals" for the team that selected them? Which were "reaches" which went earlier than they should have?Tom Fornelli: I'll start with the reach because this is an easy answer to me: the very first player taken, Cam Newton.
This is not a dig on Newton personally, or the player he was at Auburn last season. The fact of the matter is that there wasn't a single quarterback in this draft class that I felt was worth a first-round pick. Yes, there were a lot of quarterbacks in this class who were good college quarterbacks, but as we have seen through many examples before, being a good college quarterback doesn't make you an good NFL quarterback. And for me, with the first overall pick -- when I have the opportunity to pick anybody I want, and have that person help my team immediately -- Newton is not the player I'd pick. I'm not saying that I don't believe it's possible that Cam can develop into a good NFL quarterback one day, but I do feel the odds of Newton becoming a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback are pretty slim. And if I'm going to take a quarterback with the first pick of the draft, he needs to give me the impression that he has that kind of potential.
As for the steal, there were a few players who I thought were really good picks for teams in later rounds. There was Green Bay getting Randall Cobb with the final pick of the second round, Da'Quan Bowers slipping to Tampa Bay in the second, and Ahmad Black going to Tampa as well in the fifth round. The biggest steal to me of all, though, was Baltimore picking up Indiana wide receiver Tandon Doss late in the fourth round. In my opinion, Doss may turn out to be one of the most dependable receivers in what was a very deep class this season. He does not have the size and wow factor that guys like A.J. Green and Julio Jones have, nor is he a burner, but he's got great hands and he's a very polished route runner. He's the type of receiver who isn't going to end up in the Hall of Fame, but should pick up a lot of big first downs, make some plays and be dependable for a lot of years. I watch Doss, and I see a player that can be what Hines Ward has been to Pittsburgh for so many years. To get that kind of player in the fourth round is the definition of a steal.
Adam Jacobi: I think to a large degree, Tom's right. I wouldn't go so far as to say there were no first-round QBs in this class, because guys like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and even Newton have all shown a great deal of potential. But let's be honest: this wasn't really a great draft class to begin with. I thought there were only 15-20 first round-caliber guys on the board. But the first round is still 32 picks, no matter what, and I don't think there were 32 better draft picks to make before you got to Newton (or any other quarterback).
That said, yes, Cam Newton was a reach. Right now, Carolina is not a team that has the tools to let a quarterback succeed. They have needs all over the place, and if all they do is give up on Jimmy Clausen after one year so they can plug in Cam Newton instead ... well, they're still a team that doesn't have the tools to let the quarterback succeed. (It's like the Detroit Lions drafting Chuck Long and Andre Ware as first-rounders 20-25 years ago. You really think their failures had nothing to do with the crappy players surrounding them?) I'm of the philosophy that the No. 1 overall pick should be spent on a player with the best odds of making a high-level contribution immediately and repeatedly. That means wide receivers and all but the most experienced, productive quarterbacks are out, as are safeties, guards and centers. That's why I would have preferred to see a guy like Texas A&M's Von Miller go first.
As for steals, I'm going to say Nick Fairley dropping all the way to Detroit, where he can be paired with Ndamukong Suh on the interior defensive line. There isn't an NFC North team left that isn't going to have to dramatically retool its blocking strategy now because of that setup, and even that might not be enough to avoid a franchise quarterback getting broken in half this season. How in the world does Fairley fall to No. 13, past Christian Ponder, the real reach of the first round? Fairley didn't dominate the NFL combine, but you know what? Freakish combine measurements don't really matter for defensive tackles. It's whether they can shed blocks reliably and repeatedly at the next level, and based on the way Fairley performed not only during the season but especially in Auburn's biggest games, he's got the ability to do that. If there's a character concern, you know what? Let the rest of the locker room take care of that. That's where the veteran teammates are supposed to step in, not the scouts.
Outside of the first round, I really like the Sam Acho pick in the fourth round by the Cardinals. At 6'2" and 260, Acho's sort of an OLB/DE tweener as size goes, and he's going to be playing OLB in the Cards' 3-4 system after lining up at end at Texas. But he's fast and disruptive, and was plenty productive with the Longhorns, so he could definitely end up being a James Harrison- type terror for the Cardinals in a year or two.
TF: Not to get too far off the subject, but Adam brought up something that drives me crazy when it comes to the NFL and the way teams draft. All too often it seems like NFL teams become enamored with how a player performs in the combine while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. That's the reason Ponder got taken so early; without linemen closing in on him, he's really good at throwing a football. But it seems like they forget about what these players did while they were actually on a football field.
For instance, look at Acho. NFL teams see his size and they're not entirely sure what to do with him. They don't seem to pay as much attention to the fact that Acho was a kid that did his job on the field at Texas and did it well. He made plays. It's why I think Tampa got a steal in Florida's Black. For the last few years, Black was one of my favorite players to watch because he just had that knack for making things happen. However, all NFL scouts seemed to see was that he didn't have top-notch speed. Nevermind the fact that he played in the SEC -- which I believe is the home of that ESS EEE SEEE SPEEEED -- and played well.
Jerry Hinnen: I agree that the draft over-rewards potential and underrates production, which is why I never thought I'd see the day when an NFL team reached for the occasionally erratic run-first quarterback out of the gimmicky option offense, and stole the rifle-armed pocket statue with a former NFL play-caller for a coach. But as the draft day fates of Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Mallett illustrate, there's a first time for everything.
Let me first say this about Kaepernick: as a college quarterback, he was under appreciated, having accumulated an incredible 10,000 yards passing and 4,000 yards rushing over his four years at Nevada, the only quarterback in FBS history to do so. In 2011, he joined Tim Tebow and Newton as the only players in FBS history to run and pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. Kaepernick was, simply, one of the most exciting, most fun, best college football players of his era.
But having watched him ever since he exploded onto the scene against Boise State in 2007's overtime classic, I can't say I ever saw him as a blue-chip NFL prospect. Kaepernick was always a substantially greater threat on the hoof than in the pocket, where his awkward throwing motion and come-and-go accuracy led to outings like his 12-for-23, 149-yard, two-interception clunker to open the 2009 season at Notre Dame, or the 14-for-26, 159-yard, four-turnover debacle at Hawaii that led to the Wolf Pack's only loss of 2011. The greatest strengths of Kaepernick's unique skill set -- his ball-fake jujitsu within the pistol, his surprising speed and agility as a ball-carrier, his ability to throw outside the pocket -- won't do much to make an already difficult transition from the pistol to an NFL offense any easier. Jim Harbaugh's right pinky knows more about quarterbacking in the NFL than I ever will, obviously, but I remain stunned Kaepernick went as a high second-rounder rather than a late-round flyer. (Which brings me to an aside in response to Tom: we can debate Newton all day, but if Kaepernick is the 36th overall pick, Newton -- in a different class athletically, more polished as a passer, proven in SEC competition -- is something akin to the negative-17th pick.)
But where Kaepernick never struck me as meant for NFL stardom (or even starterdom), Mallett is the sort of prospect whose very double-helixes probably unwind to spell out "PROFESSIONAL QUARTERBACK" under the microscope. 6'7", possessor of likely the strongest arm in college football, with his two years under former NFL head coach Bobby Petrino yielding better than 7,400 passing yards, better than 9 yards an attempt, and a 62-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Mallett couldn't have looked the part of a future NFL signal-caller any better either on the field or on paper. But of course he looked like something else in the headlines and gossip factories, thanks to those pesky drug admissions and work ethic rumors. But the facts are that Mallett was arrested just once at Arkansas (for public intoxication), was never suspended, and by all accounts enjoyed the respect of his teammates. Yes, he's a character risk, but so were plenty of players who went in the first and second rounds.
Were I in a quarterback-needy NFL team's shoes, I'd worry more about his penchant for forcing the spectacular throw when the easy one would do--but that's not the kind of worry that would have caused me to pass him up twice.
AJ: I can't say New England taking Mallett is a steal. He's on a spectrum where the high end is Drew Bledsoe and the low is Ryan Leaf, and nowhere in-between is a Super Bowl ring.
Chip Patterson: I'm not sure if it was one of the biggest "steals" of the draft, but seeing how highly rated Robert Quinn was on many boards, the Rams had to have been happy to grab him at No. 14. Quinn just got things going at North Carolina before he was suspended for his junior season during the NCAA investigation of the football program; he'd finished second in the ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting as a sophomore in 2009, just two years after battling back from brain surgery to remove a tumor. Quinn continued to impress throughout different stages of the process, but according to reports he was not cleared by several team doctors. Many teams were likely on the edge about Quinn because of the off-field activity at North Carolina, and may have just needed one more reason to bypass the budding defensive end. Battling back from brain surgery to all-conference honors seems more like a positive intangible than a negative one to me, but I'm not the one making the million dollar moves. (Yet.)
My colleagues have covered a fair share of the quarterbacks, so I'll point out the very next pick in the draft: Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins didn't want this pick, and in fact they tried desperately to trade down. Pouncey addresses a need and will likely be an immediate starter, but there's little about Pouncey's performance at Florida that makes him seem like a No. 15 pick. He was the highest drafted center since 1993, the kind of accolade that's usually placed on a uniquely talented individual. Pouncey will help the Dolphins' running game, especially with his experience as a pulling guard, but he does not stand out to me as a "unique talent." The Dolphins didn't make a huge mistake by drafting him, but it just doesn't seem like the best talent for the pick.
JH: See, I tend to think the point of a mid-first-round pick is to simply not make that "huge mistake," so I thought drafting a solid future pro (if not a future Pro Bowler) like Pouncey was a smart move. But looking back over this discussion, we're clearly all haters of one stripe or another.