The snow has melted, the grills are being busted out, and it seems as if Spring is upon us. Baseball is back with a painstakingly boring vengeance (I
tolerate love you baseball, I do), the NBA is gearing up for the playoffs, and finally, oh finally, it’s officially #DRAFTSZN.
YAAAASSSS, ROGER, YAAAASSSS ! ! !
Two weeks from now, the beloved commissioner will be booed to the podium inside of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University. If you hadn’t heard, the league is taking their talents to the Windy City, having spent forty-nine years in New York, with the past eight drafts being held at the hallowed Radio City Music Hall.
And while the draft destination now seems to be up for grabs on a yearly basis, the draft process itself is just as fluid. That’s the beauty of it all. No one really knows what’s going to happen on the night of April 30, 2015. Sure, teams can speed-date prospects in interviews at the combine, strip them down to their underwear, and do their due diligence when sizing players up, but only one name can be written on that first round draft card. Each organization’s performance that Thursday night, and for the duration of the draft, is the culmination of a year long research assignment. Some teams draft well, others chunk up a brick. That’s the nature of this beast though. When the bullets start flying, the unpredictability of the war room is first rate entertainment, and largely why the draft process has been elongated as a four day extravaganza, both on site and on television.
Between teams trading up to snag coveted targets, and other squads making mind-numbingly idiotic selections, there is no sure fire way to predict how it’s all going to go down. Regardless, it’s always fun to speculate, so I’ve put together a list of five first round talents paired with teams that would be a sound fit. All five players would instantly enter their team’s 2015 equation, and quite honestly that’s who you want to spend your first round selections on (
way to go, Chip).
Without further ado, let’s take a peek at my five first round fits.
1. Leonard Williams – Defensive End – Jacksonville Jaguars (3rd Overall Selection)
Who do you think is more likely to shit their pants when Williams slips to the Jags on draft night — Gus Bradley, or Andrew Luck? There seems to be an increasing likelihood that Oregon’s Marcus Mariota will be drafted at the number two slot, whether the pick’s current owner, the Tennessee Titans, are the team that takes him or not. Rumor has it that a number of other teams are interested in Mariota at the two spot, which would allow one of the youngest, and arguably best talents in the draft to fall to Bradley and the Jags at number three. That is, if the roof of Auditorium Theatre doesn’t collapse if Daaaa Bears ditch Jay Culter for the Hawaiian Heisman.
Formerly Seattle’s defensive coordinator, Bradley will be in heaven if he can get his hands on the USC product. At nearly 6’5″, and registering in at a tic over 300 pounds, the native Floridian defensive lineman would offer supreme versatility across the Jags defensive front, a unit that already boasts inside presence Sen’Derrick Marks, and Dolphins import Jared Odrick.
In his three years at Southern Cal, Williams racked up the awards and the stats to add to his freakish ability. He uses his hands well to get separation and diagnose plays, and he’s got the quickness and footwork to sift through the line and close on the ball carrier. Williams exhibits effective hands skills and violence as a pass rusher, but it’s his ability to locate the ball and stop the run that sticks out to me. In a year where we didn’t have two supreme quarterback talents, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see Williams as the number one overall pick. He certainly has the talent for it, but right now it’s looking like Jacksonville will luck out on draft night.
“If they pick a quarterback over me, they better know I’ll take him down later.”
2. Amari Cooper – Wide Receiver – Oakland Raiders (4th Overall Selection)
All signs are pointing to Fresno State second year man Derek Carr being the Oakland Raiders leader at quarterback for the foreseeable future. That being said, I’m not going to label him their franchise guy or anything like that after only one year. The younger brother of former number one
pick bust David Carr, Derek was drafted by Oakland in the early portion of last year’s second round. He posted a more than respectable rookie campaign out in the Black Hole, throwing for 3,270 yards and 21 touchdowns against 16 total turnovers (12 int., 4 fumbles). No other rookie quarterback threw for more yards than Carr, and his 21 TD’s through the air are 7 more than the next closest rookie signal caller, Teddy Bridgewater, who accounted for 14. Carr’s performance, while admirably impressive for a rookie, did not register much in the win column for Oakland. Why? WEAPONS.
When I say weapons, technically I mean a lack-thereof. Aside from an emerging tight end target in Mychal Rivera, and a few exciting runs from Latavius Murray, the Raaaaidas offense was severely pedestrian this past season. How shitty were they, Alex? Well, their rushing attack was ranked last in the league, accounting for only 1,240 yards (3.7 ypc) and a measly 4 touchdowns, and while their receiving corps was not nearly as dreadful, there was never one distinct go-to guy in Oakland’s passing attack.
Enter Amari Cooper. Already possessing the work ethic and mentality of a consummate professional, the Bama product is the best receiver that this year’s draft has got to offer. Fending off West Virginia wide out Kevin White for the top spot, Cooper possesses all the tools required of an elite number one guy. Under first year OC Lane Kiffin, Cooper and the rest of the Crimson Tide offense showcased a sophisticated Pro-Style hurry up offense. The Bama O averaged a school record 277.5 passing ypg, and Cooper accounted for 123 of those yards each contest. The junior from Miami, Florida finished third in this year’s Heisman voting after catching 124 balls for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Cooper’s game is polished in every aspect, and while he doesn’t possess blinding speed (4.4 40-yard dash), he gets separation by excelling as a route runner. I’m not entirely ready to anoint Carr as the savior of the AFC’s West Coast graveyard, but pairing him with Amari Cooper (and the recently signed Michael Crabtree) would be a great place to start. Oakland’s passing game would have an immediate deep threat for Carr to stretch the field with, and the duo could have the potential to turn into a dangerous tandem down the line. All signs are pointing to Cooper being available at the fourth spot for the Raiders come draft night, but honestly it’s the Raiders so who the hell knows who they’re gonna pick?
3. Randy Gregory – Outside Linebacker – San Fransisco 49ers (15th Overall Selection)
When he was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach this past offseason, my guess was that San Fran head man Jim Tomsula assumed he would take the reigns with All-Pro Patrick Willis and rookie standout Chris Borland at his disposal. If so, he assumed wrong. Citing health issues, Willis turned the lights out on an impressive eight year career, having been named an All-Pro five of those seasons. Borland on the other hand, made a shocking move by calling it quits after only one season in the NFL. The Niners do finally get back NaVorro Bowman after he blew out his in the 2014 NFC Championship, but it’s the team in general that is in need of a new identity. It’s bad enough they lost their stalwarts in the middle, but Justin Smith is still mulling retirement, and the Niners have undergone a noticeable overhaul at their skill positions.
Considering the state of flux their roster is in, the Niners brass have a number of options with the 15th choice this year. Linebacker is obviously their most pressing need, but with spots up for grabs spread across their starting unit, they could conceivably choose from a number of positions (OL, DL, LB, CB) with their first selection.
One potential fit could be with Nebraska outside linebacker Randy Gregory. Gregory played defensive end for the Cornhuskers the past two years, but at nearly 6’5″ and a slender 243 pounds, he looks to transition better to a 3-4 outside backer role as a pro. Gregory proved to be adequate at setting the edge at the collegiate level, but he’s going to have to shovel down the Rice-A-Roni if he plans to do it in the NFC West. Even still, it’s his pass rush skills that team’s salivate over. He has long arms, bends well around the edge, and his quickness to the ball is second to none in this year’s class.
With the frame and the skills to be a top ten pick in this year’s draft, San Fran would be extremely fortunate to have a talent such as Gregory fall to pick fifteen. Other pass rushers, like Clemson’s Vic Beasley, and Missouri’s Shane Ray, are projected to be drafted higher than Gregory. Those two didn’t test positive for marijuana at the combine. Gregory did. A bonehead thing to do, yes, but I don’t anticipate it hampering his draft stock too severely. Since the positive test, Gregory has addressed the reports maturely, saying “I’ve had conversations with (NFL) coaches. I believe we all have an understanding of why I did it. But I feel like I’m improving. I know I am.” He’ll be admitted into the NFL’s substance abuse program and hopefully he can figure things out off the field.
Gregory has had his problems in the past (he was a non-qualifier out of high school), but can San Fran pass up this much talent at the linebacker position? There is no doubt they have done their research on him, so it is going to be a game of wait and see, but the Niners are going to need pass rushers if Justin Smith really is on his way out. Another Smith, Aldon, restructured his deal this past offseason, and he and the Niners will have to figure out a long term extension if they want to keep the four year pro after this season. A tandem of Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory off the edge comes with a ton of red flags, but it also has the potential to render sweet rewards.
“I want it on the record. I want people to understand I know I messed up. I’m owning up to it. I realize it. But at the same time, I’m taking the right steps to get better and to fix it.”
4. Landon Collins – Safety – Pittsburgh Steelers (22nd Overall Selection)
The second Bama prospect on this list, Collins strung together an impressive three year campaign while down in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban’s program has had a safety taken in the first round for the past two drafts, and it’s a foregone conclusion that Collins will continue the trend. The underclassman safety carries the bulk (6’0″ 220 lbs) and tackling ability to make a difference in the run game, but he’s also got good enough speed and closing ability to contribute solid zone coverage. He lettered in two of his three years at Bama, but even in his true freshman season he was tied for the team lead with 10 special teams tackles. He’s got the ability to be a nuisance all over the field, which would fit in quite nicely for Mike Tomlin and and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s no argument that Troy Polamalu had the greatest hair of any NFL safety ever, but he might have been one of the most talented of all time as well. Collins would have some mighty big shoes to stuff in the Steel City, but he’s got a blue collar playing mentality that will mesh nicely with with the culture Mike Tomlin has sustained in his tenure as the head guy. The Steelers have some pretty big holes on the defensive side of the ball, as they not only lost Polumalu this off-season — Ike Taylor and Jason Worilds called it quits as well.
With that in mind, Pittsburgh has proper justification to address the safety, corner, or outside backer position in this year’s first round. As the top safety in this year’s draft pool, Collins might tickle the fancy of a team before Pittsburgh’s slot at number 22. With that very likely to be the case, it will be up to the Steelers war room to trust their board. If they think Collins is the heir to the throne, they might have to make a move. If not, they could look in the direction of a guy like Washington’s Marcus Peters, or an outside backer like UVA’s Eli Harold. Gregory may even slide to them, who knows? But with the Steelers going up against Jeremy Hill and AJ Green twice a season for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to draft a well-rounded safety like Landon Collins.
5. Melvin Gordon – Running Back – Arizona Cardinals (24th Overall Selection)
Coming into last season, Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals were viewed as one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Despite a myriad of injuries, they still managed to be one of them. The Cards began the year hot, going 9-1 with mix-and-match defensive unit picking up the slack despite Arizona’s offensive woes. Unable to persistently prevail, AZ’s offense halted in the first round of the playoffs, and the Cards’ season was shot down. Going into the draft, Arizona has a lot of holes they need to fill on the defensive side of the ball (especially off the edge), but choosing running back Melvin Gordon out of Wisconsin might be the right pick at the right time for Arians and his squad.
The Cards have a versatile back in Andre Ellington, but the former Clemson product provides the skill set of an all-purpose guy as opposed to an every down workhorse. Gordon, coincidentally, could be that workhorse. This is the kind of dude that sets up speed ladders in his front yard at 3 AM just so he can flex on his homies and remind them that he is the nation’s best back. That’s the answer you will get from him at least. While 2014’s first round did not include a single running back selection, 2015’s class has a couple guys that have something to say. Both Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley were absolute studs throughout their collegiate careers, and while Gordon showcased better durability, Gurley is rumored to have the upper hand right now for the position’s top spot. Ultimately it will come down to how teams have the two situated on their respective boards, but odds are that the Wisconsin product will be available for Arizona at pick 24.
Gordon has got game-breaking ability, as showcased by his Heisman trophy contending (and Doak Walker award winning) performance this past year for the Badgers. The Wisconsin offense revolved around his absurd workload (343 carries), but Gordon’s durability prevailed, as he rushed his way to 2,587 yards and 29 scores, only 41 yards short of Barry Sanders all-time single season mark. His power and speed would pair well with Ellington for a one-two punch in Arizona’s backfield, and with a healthy Carson Palmer back at the helm for the Cards, their offense could be situated to make a gigantic leap from last year’s disappointment.
It’s a crap shoot trying to sift through the innumerable possibilities of names that will eventually populate the 2015 NFL first round draft board. While we can sit and speculate, the fact remains that unless you have a direct line into the war room, you are going to have to wait until Adam Schefter tweets your team’s pick three minutes before it actually happens. Until then, let these five fits marinate on your mind. We will be coming with a few more draft themed goodies as April 30 approaches. Stay in m o t i o n . . .