Grading a draft immediately after it concludes is akin to giving your compliments to the chef before the meal has been served. Sure, the food might sound good (or bad) based on the ingredients listed on the menu, but the true evaluation won't come until after the product has been tested.
It will take at least three years before we can truly assess how the 32 NFL teams fared over the weekend. But what is readily apparent is the different approaches that were taken, from going for the best available talent to focusing on team needs to gambling on character concerns and long-term potential.
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Having surrendered the second most rushing yards in team history last season, the Bills needed to address their defense. General manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey clearly understood that, using their first four picks on the defensive side the ball, most notably adding the draft's best run-stuffer in defensive lineman
The Dolphins identified their most obvious weaknesses and set about fixing them with their first two selections. Mike Pouncey solidifies the interior of the offensive line and former Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas will prove to be a steal in the second round. The Dolphins added much-needed speed at receiver in Abilene Christian's Edmond Gates in the fourth round, giving the club the big-play threat it has been lacking since trading away Ted Ginn, Jr.
With perceived needs along the front seven of its defense, New England surprisingly elected to focus on other areas of concern, including, of course, rescuing the falling Ryan Mallett in the third round. As well as the Patriots protect the passer, Mallett could be in position to succeed in New England, as his talent as a passer is unquestioned. He'll also have the consummate professional in Tom Brady to develop behind. Just as important for Mallett and Brady was the Patriots' addition of two massive men along the offensive line in former Colorado Buffalo Nate Solder in the first round and 6-5, 358-pounder Marcus Cannon in the fifth. In between, the Patriots added a pair of runners in Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the second and third rounds. Vereen, one of the draft's more pro-ready backs due to his hands out of the backfield and blocking skills, could step in immediately. Ridley's power makes him the Patriots' short-yardage back of the future. Considering the Patriots yet again put themselves in a position of strength next year by acquiring another first-round pick, this was another strong effort from New England, despite the absence of pass rushers.
New York Jets: B-
The Jets were thought likely to invest an early-round pick in a pass-rushing outside linebacker, considering the age and declining effectiveness of their current outside linebackers. Instead, New York found better talent along the defensive line, adding Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round and the massive Kenrick Ellis from Hampton in the third. Ellis could prove a steal, as the Hampton star (South Carolina transfer) was viewed as a second-round talent. Character concerns pushed him down the board. It is hard to find fault with adding a combined 650 pounds of beef up front. Saturday's selection of former Louisville running back Bilal Powell could prove a steal.
Baltimore Ravens: A-
Despite a trade snafu with the Chicago Bears that allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to sneak in front of the Ravens, Baltimore added the player it was targeting all along in Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. Smith's character concerns have been well-documented, but so has his talent. He could prove the reincarnation of former Ravens Pro Bowler Chris McAlister. With their need for a cornerback satisfied, the Ravens were able to shift to the offensive side of the ball throughout the rest of the draft, adding local speedster Torrey Smith in the second round (a player many thought the Ravens might have been considering in the first) and another lanky receiver with return skills in Tandon Doss in the fourth, sandwiching one of the better developmental offensive tackle prospects in the draft in Central Florida's Jah Reid in the late third round. The gamble on Smith makes this a boom or bust draft for the Ravens, but with the leadership in place to corral him, the Ravens look like one of the draft's winners.
Perhaps Carson Palmer should re-think his pledge to never play for the Bengals again, as they quietly enjoyed a strong 2011 draft. Georgia's
With the bevy of picks acquired in their trade with the Atlanta Falcons' move up for
One of the primary reasons for the Steelers' consistent winning ways is their focus up front. In adding Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward and Florida offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert in the first and second rounds, the Steelers followed their time-tested formula of adding big, physical players from top programs. Neither is flashy, but both are safe and perfect schematic fits. Addressing the need for cornerbacks after a torching from Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, the Steelers added Curtis Brown (Texas) and intriguing developmental prospect Cortez Allen in the middle rounds. While not flashy, the 2011 class will prove yet another productive draft for the Steelers.
In fielding one of the league's worst defenses -- and certainly the NFL's least-reliable tackling units -- the Texans went to work on draft day investing their first five picks on that side of the ball. Even before drafting Wisconsin defensive end with the No. 11 overall pick, the Texans used the equivalent of a first-round pick in adding Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator. His impact will be every bit as important to Houston's improvement defensively as Watt -- though the former Badger is a prototypical five-technique defensive end. I'm not as high on Arizona's Brooks Reed as some, but he does give the Texans competition with Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin as threats off the edge. The Texans did get nice value in former ACC cornerbacks Brandon Harris (Miami) and Rashad Carmichael (Virginia Tech) later in the draft and took a quarterback in North Carolina's T.J. Yates who demonstrated the leadership and intelligence that could someday make him a surprise starter in the NFL.
Considering the Colts only selected five players in the 2011 draft, I love what they did. Boston College offensive tackle
Give Jaguars general manager Gene Smith credit. Every time we think we've got him pegged, he surprises us. Last year he shocked with Cal's Tyson Alualu in the first round -- a pick largely panned as one of the real reaches of the draft (though not by me), who proved a very, very solid selection. This year, he aggressively traded up as Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert started to slip. Gabbert is in an ideal situation for success, as he'll have time to develop behind David Garrard. Having successfully located a few diamonds in the rough in recent years (Terrance Knighton, Derek Cox, among others), Smith focused on strictly small-schoolers the rest of the way in 2011, adding guard Will Rackley (Lehigh), wideout Cecil Shorts III (Mount Union), free safety Chris Prosinski (Wyoming) and cornerback Rod Isaac (Middle Tennessee State) in the middle and late rounds. Rackley could compete for immediate playing time. Shorts could surprise on a team needing playmakers.
Selecting Washington quarterback
Denver Broncos: B-
Had the Denver Broncos not been lacking defensive tackles on their roster and their draft class, their efforts over the three days of the 2011 Draft would rank higher. The addition of pass rusher
As typical of a Scott Pioli-led draft, the Chiefs' 2011 class featured a few highly productive, criminally underrated prospects in the middle rounds who will prove future NFL starters. Those players, former Florida State guard Rodney Hudson, Colorado cornerback Jalil Brown and Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi, helped to save a class that otherwise was very uncharacteristic of the Chiefs and Pioli. First-round wideout Jon Baldin (Pittsburgh) has undeniable talent, but isn't as physical as his imposing size (6-4, 228 pounds) would indicate and he was a headache, at times, for the Pittsburgh coaching staff. Georgia's Justin Houston, likewise, is a bit of a 'tweener whose collegiate production was over-inflated by scheme. He also reportedly failed a drug test at the combine. The Chiefs were deservedly recognized as having a spectacular draft last year. This one, however, leaves me scratching my head.
Oakland Raiders: C+
Perhaps the least surprising draft of the year was turned in by the Oakland Raiders. With their first pick, the 48th pick overall, the Raiders selected Penn State star Stefen Wisniewski. If the name sounds familiar, it should, as he's the nephew of former Raider standout Steve Wisniewski. As nice of a story as that is, this is the NFL, not a college fraternity, and legacies don't necessarily warrant a top 50 selection. Of course, Al Davis loves speed and his club drafted precisely that in cornerbacks Demarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, each of whom timed in the 4.3s at the combine. With their second fourth-round pick, the Raiders took another speedster in Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones. I love Jones' open-field running ability, but with carries split already between Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, where is Jones going to get his touches?
With Larry English and Ryan Matthews underwhelming as the Chargers' past two first-round picks, general manager A.J. Smith made the wise decision of ignoring the specifics of scheme and simply taking a very good defensive lineman in Illinois'
The Cowboys answered one of their primary concerns with the No. 9 overall in USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith. While Smith's athletic upside is limitless, I have reservations about his ability to provide the physicality needed to play at right tackle immediately or transition quickly to the left side -- a position he never started at while at USC. The Cowboys took a similar gamble on pure athleticism in the second round with workout wonder Bruce Carter (who is coming off a torn ACL). When healthy, Carter has shown the speed and explosiveness to be a playmaker in every phase of the game, but his lack of instincts is a concern. One Day Three prospect who could surprise is East Carolina wideout Dwayne Harris. Unlike the Cowboys' first two selections, Harris isn't a phenomenal athlete. He was very productive, however, and is a tough, versatile player who could surprise as a target in the slot. This was a typical Jerry Jones draft -- heavy on flashy athletes, but lacking the game-to-game consistency that translates into NFL victories.
New York Giants: A-
The Giants allowed the draft to come to them, exercising the "best player available" strategy to perfection. Cornerback wasn't a primary area of concern, but
The Eagles' selection of a 26-year-old guard with the No. 23 overall pick will be criticized by some, though certainly not by me.
Historically known for aggressively trading up in the draft, the Redskins took the opposite strategy in 2011, deftly moving down the board, picking up more selections and still addressing keys area of need. Having run a 3-4 defense for the past few seasons despite fielding a team largely built on 4-3 personnel, the Redskins added a prototypical edge-rusher in
Despite their well-documented aborted trade with the Baltimore Ravens, the Bears overall did a very nice job in the 2011 draft. The Bears surprisingly found one of the safer offensive tackles still available to them at No. 29 in Wisconsin's
Detroit Lions: A-
It doesn't get much better than the Lions' first three selections, as general manager Martin Mayhew proved just as capable of finding talent when drafting outside of the top 10 as he had in selecting Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh the past two years. Though the team had bigger needs, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley falling into their lap could prove a coup, especially considering the talent already on Detroit on the defensive line. Just as frightening as the combination of Suh-Fairley-Vanden Bosch is on defense, the speed of running back Jahvid Best will be well complemented by the power of Mikel LeShoure. In between, the Lions simply added arguably the draft's top deep threat in Boise State's Titus Young to better take advantage of Stafford's big arm. Syracuse linebacker Doug Hogue, the team's fifth-round selection, could surprise. Only their limited number of picks keeps the Lions from ranking among the elite drafts in this class.
General manager Ted Thompson is one of the more astute talent-evaluators in the NFL and strong, unspectacular drafts such as this one show precisely why. Recognizing the unique talent they have in Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, the Packers protected him up front with versatile offensive tackle
Full disclosure: I am higher on Christian Ponder than most, so if you're thinking I'm going to knock them significantly for their perceived "reach" of him at No. 12, you're wrong. I will certainly admit that the No. 12 overall pick higher is higher than a quarterback coming off two arm surgeries should go, but the Vikings needed a passer who could play right away and Ponder is, in my opinion, the most pro-ready passer in this draft. If -- and it is a big if -- he can stay healthy, he'll prove worthy of this pick. Arm-strength, intelligence and mobility are not questions, in my mind. The Vikings found solid talent throughout the rest of the draft, as well. The selection of Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph was a surprise considering the emergence of Visanthe Shiancoe. Versatile defensive lineman Christian Ballard (4th round), competitive cornerback Brandon Burton (5th) and developmental center Brandon Fusco (6th) highlighted a busy Day Three for the Vikings.
Atlanta Falcons: B-
I generally reward teams with high grades for aggression on draft day. I also understand the need to surround Matt Ryan with weapons and believe that
The Panthers drafted eight players this year, but the success or failure of the first one will determine their final grade. With presumably no trade opportunities and no other players worthy of the No. 1 overall selection, the Panthers swung for the fences with Cam Newton as the top pick. There are certainly red flags with Newton, but as the NFL Draft proved -- when only four Tigers were drafted (Newton, Nick Fairley and seventh-rounders Zach Clayton and Lee Ziemba) -- Auburn's ride to the BCS Championship was largely based on Newton's astounding physical talents and poise despite mounting pressure on and off the field. In a division featuring Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman, the Panthers' only chance at success was to find their own franchise quarterback. Other than Newton, the Panthers added two underrated defensive tackles in Terrell McClain (South Florida) and Sione Fua (Stanford) in the third round. The club took advantage of its day three selections with talented (if troubled, injured) cornerback Brandon Hogan (West Virginia), playmaking wideout Kealoha Pilares (Hawaii) and an athletic, productive linebacker in Lawrence Wilson (Connecticut), among others.
There is simply too much to like about the flash and force of the Saints' 2011 draft to not rank it among the top talent collections of the year. New Orleans found a falling star in Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, whose size and versatility will be put to great use by coordinator Gregg Williams, one of the more creative minds in the business. The aggressive trade up for Alabama's
The Bucs entered the 2011 draft desperately needing to find pass rushers; Stylez White led the team last year with 4.5 sacks. In adding Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in the first round, the Bucs seemed to ease their concerns. They may have eliminated them entirely in the second round by taking the gamble on Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers returning to the form that saw him register a nation-leading 15.5 sacks last year. Statistical production was clearly important to the Bucs on draft day, as they added Washington linebacker Mason Foster -- who racked up more solo and total tackles last year than any other player in the draft. With local products in Florida safety Ahmad Black and Florida International cornerback Anthony Gaiter on the third day, the Bucs not only appealed to their fans, but added playmakers to their secondary. The 2011 class proved that Mark Dominik (and his staff) is indeed one of the true rising stars in the talent evaluation business. Only Bowers' medical concerns keep this from ranking among the elite draft classes.
For all of the excitement brewing in Detroit about the combination of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley working the inside together, the Cardinals' tall, athletic duo of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Patrick Peterson might prove just as terrorizing to the opposition. Peterson, my No. 1-rated player in the 2011 draft, was a steal for the Cardinals at the fifth pick. With shutdown corners on each side, Arizona didn't have to reach for a pass rusher, instead taking advantage of Texas' Sam Acho falling into their lap in the fourth round. In between the two picks the Cardinals served notice to former first-round pick Beanie Wells that his lack of durability and pass blocking isn't going to cut it by drafting Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams in the second round. Williams' burst gives the team big-play potential from the backfield, something they've been lacking with Wells and Tim Hightower. Among the late picks, inside linebacker Quan Sturdivant could prove a steal in the sixth round.
St. Louis Rams: B+
Like the Cardinals, the Rams were in the fortuitous position of having a true playmaker fall to them. Some teams were worried about the North Carolina pass rusher Robert Quinn's benign tumor and year-long suspension, but at No. 14 overall, Quinn simply presented too much value at a difference-making position to allow to fall further. Quinn, 6-4 and 265 pounds, gives the Rams an explosive edge rusher who will complement the play of emerging base end Chris Long and veterans James Hall and Fred Robbins. Quinn, whose 2009 tape showed the type of explosiveness to warrant top five consideration, could emerge as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in St. Louis. With a defensive standout added in the first round, the Rams added playmakers for young franchise quarterback Sam Bradford with their next three selections, adding Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks and a pair of prototypical possession receivers in Boise State's Austin Pettis and Hawaii's Greg Salas. Pettis and Salas, each big, strong and possessing excellent hands, are essentially carbon-copies of each other. They'll give Bradford a pair of reliable targets, but neither has the speed to stretch the field. It was also surprising to see the Rams not select a running back to take some of the pressure off of Steven Jackson. Of the Rams' late day three picks, I'm actually highest on their last one -- Oklahoma safety Jonathan Nelson -- taken in the seventh round.
Though the 49ers used their first-round pick on Missouri pass rusher
The Seahawks clearly have a plan in place for a quarterback, as they did not take one despite having nine draft picks. That plan might be to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck, find another veteran or simply run with Charlie Whitehurst, the passer they added through trade last year. What Seattle didn't get at quarterback, they certainly added in toughness up front, taking Alabama offensive tackle
Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.
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