Takeaways from Last Week – May 5, 2014
Only a few more days until the 2014 NFL Draft and the wait is agonizing.
The draft was moved back two weeks this year due to the fact that Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s permanent home since 2006, was hosting an Easter celebration the weekend that the draft normally happens. That show was subsequently cancelled.
But I heard a year ago on Rich Eisen’s podcast that a May draft has always been the goal of the NFL because it will better mesh with sweeps weeks to bolster ratings and subsequently advertising dollars.
Will the draft move back to late April next year? Who knows? The fact that the league is mulling over expanding the draft to four days from three indicates that fan feedback isn’t what is driving their decision making. Almost no one likes the extra two weeks of waiting and the idea of a four-day format just sounds exhausting.
The three-day format is already long enough. While the opening night is exciting, any fervor is dramatically reduced by the time the third day rolls around and you’re about a round or two into the draft.
Adding another day would be akin to pulling teeth by the time the seventh round rolls around on either Saturday or Sunday.
But again, feedback isn’t driving the bus. Fans and media personalities can moan and decry a four-day May draft, but it’s not going to stop them from watching. It’s certainly not going to stop me.
I can’t remember the last time I did not watch the entirety of the draft from start to finish. I just can’t get enough of it.
This year will probably be the first time in many years where I won’t thanks to my sister-in-law graduating from grad school this Saturday. That will consume much of my afternoon. But if I had a choice about supporting her or just mindlessly watching as players I’ve never heard of get drafted in the fifth round on Saturday, I’d choose the latter.
Ultimately, until fans are willing to turn off their television sets when it comes to the draft, there is going to be no incentive for the league itself to not keeping going down this path. Eventually, the draft could be in June and last a full seven days, one per round, and it would still likely be the highest-rated television event for that week.
But I can’t wait for Thursday and Friday night this week as the 2014 NFL Draft will finally be upon us. I’ve gotten fatigue in writing about what the Falcons will do week after week, and most of it involving the decision to trade up for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Will the best defensive prospect in years wind up a Falcon? That has been the big question of the offseason, and it seems that everything they’ve done so far will be easily eclipsed if the answer is yes.
Clowney is a huge get for the Falcons from a public relations standpoint. Simply put, he’ll put butts in seats if he’s anything like Jevon Kearse or Julius Peppers were as rookies. But the more pressing question is whether he’ll make the team substantially better.Yes, it’s obvious that a team with Clowney is better than a team without him. But given the assets the team may be forced to give up to be put in a position to acquire him, it may not be a net positive.
The fear of a Falcon team with Clowney is that they go the way of the Detroit Lions, where they have a few big names, but are largely a mediocre team. The Lions are headlined by quarterback Matt Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and running back Reggie Bush. Four names that look really good on a marquee, but aren’t enough to win you a title. But for years the Lions mired at the bottom of the league because they lacked balance to their offensive attack, did not have a good offensive line, and couldn’t reliably get stops on defense. Sound familiar?
Marquee talent is easier to sell to the fans, but doesn’t necessarily make your team substantially better. Individually, it’s really only the quarterback position that has a substantial impact on a football team.
Replacing a mid-level starting quarterback like Carson Palmer with an elite one like Drew Brees will have a dramatic impact on your team. Frankly, putting a player like Palmer on a team versus John Skelton or Kevin Kolb also will have a dramatic impact, as we saw in Arizona this past season.
Individual Non-Quarterbacks Are Overrated
But that impact is much, much less once you move away from the quarterback position. For example, Calvin Johnson, an elite receiver is not going to individually add substantially more than a mid-level receiver like Brian Hartline of the Miami Dolphins.
That does not seem right at first glance, but it’s true. Johnson makes a team better than Hartline, but it’s not the stark night and day difference that we’ve seen occur over the years when a quarterback is changed.
It’s really just simple math. Johnson was thrown the ball 148 times (per premium website Pro Football Focus) last season in 14 games, roughly 10.6 per game. Moore was thrown the ball 127 times in 16 games, or 7.9 times per game.
Johnson clearly is impacting more because he’s affecting a larger amount of plays, but ultimately any one individual receiver isn’t affecting that many. The Lions dropped back to pass 668 times last year, while the Dolphins dropped back 661 times. Even when you factor in the difference between Johnson and Hartline (roughly 2.6 targets per game or 42 over 16 games), that only represents about six percent of all the Lions dropbacks.
That’s probably an oversimplification, and obviously Johnson is going to have a larger impact than that. He’s going to be able to turn routine plays into big gains because of his skills. Johnson is also going to draw coverage, potentially opening up greater opportunities for teammates.
But the point still remains that there’s a finite amount of value that Johnson is ultimately adding. Just how much better can Johnson run a slant route than Hartline?
A quarterback on the other hand has a chance to affect all 668 dropbacks. His decision-making, accuracy, arm strength, mobility, etc. can potentially effect each and every one of those throws, so that is why a team can go from Kelvin Kolb to Carson Palmer and become a playoff contender in the process.
Fantasy Football Has Skewed Perception of Individual Players
Personally, I blame the popularity of fantasy football for the root cause of why the value of individual non-quarterbacks is overestimated. Fantasy football has its roots in fantasy baseball, which is a sport where by and large the team is a sum of its individual components. Football is a much more complex and intricate beast.
An individual missing a blocking assignment on a screen can be the difference between a two and 18-yard gain. And the difference between those two plays can mean the difference between a three-and-out and a touchdown.
And most of the league is within a touchdown of each other score-wise. The Lions ranked eighth in the league last year with 48 touchdowns scored while the New York Giants ranked 27th with 32, again, the difference of one touchdown per game.
It’s a game of inches, but the best teams have 11 guys that can help get those inches rather than relying on just one.
So while it’s easy to get enamored with a single individual’s skill level, unless he’s a quarterback, don’t overestimate it.
Assessing the Falcons Options in First Round
If the Falcons remember this, then I think ultimately they will decide the price to trade up for Clowney is too high. And they will instead settle on someone else as their top selection. Who that player is, I’m not sure. Although I would learn towards Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews.
If Matthews is gone, I think UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr is the most likely option. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons opening up the draft selecting someone that isn’t an edge rusher or an offensive lineman.
All the trade back scenarios that have been mused upon are possible, but I don’t see them as likely. I don’t believe the trade market will be as big as people estimate at the top of the draft. There will be trades of course, but my suspicion is that teams picking in the middle of the first round will have far greater activity come Thursday.
This has been deemed a deep draft class by most, and teams will be reluctant to give up the high picks necessary to move up in the early portion of the draft. So I suspect there will be some movement in the top 10 picks on Thursday night, I wouldn’t bet on the Falcons being involved.
I’ve been wrong before, and it could be very amusing reading this column a week from today in which every point I’ve covered is completely off the mark.
Which of course raises the next point in just how much the draft is a crapshoot. Predicting the draft is merely guesswork. Those can be educated guesses based off recent draft history and trends and based off individual teams’ tendencies, but at the end it’s just a guess.
Guesswork of Draft Makes it Exciting
Outside those individual organizations, few have any idea of what a team is trying to do. And then trying to figure out what 32 of those teams will do is nearly impossible.
It’s one of the reasons why fans like myself can’t turn away from the intrigue of the draft. There are going to be unexpected things to happen.
Given the amount of media coverage and the length of the offseason, you could certainly argue that nearly all permutations have at one point been calculated.
There’s a scenario where the Falcons trade up for Clowney and others where they trade up for Khalil Mack or Greg Robinson. There’s also a scenario where they stay at sixth overall and select the best player on the board or move back a handful of spots. At one point in time, I’ve seen it suggested where the Falcons select Clowney, Mack, Robinson, Matthews, Barr, Aaron Donald, Hasean Clinton-Dix, or Taylor Lewan with their first selection.
All are certainly possibilities and with the extra two weeks of time, we’ve started to become stir crazy with considering them all.
Thursday can’t come any sooner.
A Look Ahead to Julio Jones’ Next Contract
The Falcons exercised their fifth-year option for Julio Jones this past week, installing a fifth season on the original rookie contract he signed in 2011. He is now set to make nearly $10.2 million in guaranteed money in 2015. That money is guaranteed for injury now, meaning if he gets injured he’ll still make his money, but if he’s cut or traded, he won’t. If he’s on the roster at the start of the 2015 season, that money will be fully guaranteed, which means the Falcons will have to pay it regardless.
I doubt it gets there, since the Falcons could easily lock up Jones to a long-term deal in the next 16 months between now and then.
The sooner the Falcons get a deal done, the better for their finances. With his 2014 base salary of roughly $2.58 million guaranteed as part of his original deal, Jones is set to rake in about $12.756 milion in guaranteed money over the next two years.
By no means pennies, but not quite what he could make if he got a market-value contract. Eric Decker, who landed the biggest free-agent contract at wide receiver this offseason got paid $15 million in guaranteed money over the first two years of his contract. That figure pales in comparison to what Mike Wallace signed a year before, which netted him $27 million in guaranteed money over his first two seasons with the Dolphins.
Any deal that Jones signs over the next year and a half will likely exceed that deal. But Jones is coming off a foot injury, and frankly has a lot less leverage now than he would if he has another highly productive season in 2014.
While Jones’ agents, Pat Dye and Jimmy Sexton, might salivate at the prospects of signing a deal that rivals that of Calvin Johnson, it would be hard for them to turn down a deal today that would more than double the guaranteed money in Jones’ and subsequently their own pockets.
Johnson signed a deal that averages $16 million a year, while Wallace got $12 million annually. The Falcons could potentially offer Jones a deal that splits the difference ($14 million per year) and includes somewhere between $25 and $28 million in guaranteed money.
Waiting a year only increases the chances that Jones’ contract substantially exceeds that and is on par with that monster deal that Johnson signed in 2012.
The injury should be of little concern with Jones because his durability doesn’t change the fact that he’s a special player. And when he’s on the field, he’s worth every penny. He doesn’t have to prove he can stay healthy to earn that sort of contract, because his talent level and potential has already earned it for him at some point. Whether that’s paid by the Falcons or another team down the line, it’s an inevitability rather than a possibility that Jones is going to net a market-value deal.
Jones’ lack of durability doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the team’s core players. It would be a different matter if Jones was “middle-aged” by football standards around 27 or 28, but he only turned 25 a few months back. And top-level receivers like him typically will play well until there around the age of 35, meaning that Jones has roughly a decade of production ahead of him. He may not play in every game over that span, he doesn’t need to in order to live up to his contract.
Locking Jones up sooner, not only keeps his overall price down, but also can give you some help in terms of cap space over the next two years.
The worry is going to be that a team like the Cincinnati Bengals in their attempts to lock up A.J. Green to a long-term deal wind up setting the market for Jones’ deal to follow suit. If Green signs for $16 million/year, then there’s a very good chance that Jones will seek the same amount when his deal is up.
It’s really no different than the Matt Ryan contract, when the Falcons could have saved a few million per year and a significant amount of guaranteed money had they worked out a deal with him following the 2011 season versus 2012.
It would be a prudent move for the Falcons to work out a deal with Jones sooner rather than later, although it’s probably unlikely to happen. The Falcons have a tendency to delay handing out big money contracts until it’s absolutely necessary. They waited until six months before his contract expired before working out a new deal with Ryan last summer, even though they had known for two or more years that he was their franchise quarterback of the future. The Falcons shuffled their feet on getting a deal done with Brent Grimes a few years back and it subsequently poisoned the well in those negotiations.
I doubt the same happens with Jones, as I doubt the Falcons will come to any conclusion that overlooks Jones as they did Grimes. Frankly, because of what the team gave up for him in the 2011 draft, the powers that be in Atlanta will long be associated with Jones. Letting him walk at any point would only call that trade into question even further.
Besides Ryan, Jones thus far has been the one player that the current front office regime can say they’ve hit on. Sam Baker and William Moore are the only other players that have earned a substantial second contract with the team, and whether Baker deserved his deal has been called into question. Sean Weatherspoon is the next player on deck to get a new deal, and it remains to be seen if he gets one.
Weatherspoon Faces Uncertain Future
Like Jones, Weatherspoon shares durability concerns. But unlike Jones, Spoon hasn’t proven yet that he’s a core piece. In 2011, he certainly was where he was arguably on par with Lance Briggs as the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league. But in the years under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s hybrid scheme, Spoon has been far less. The title of top 4-3 linebacker is now held by Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David, while Spoon has missed time due to injuries and rarely had big games when he has been healthy.
2014 represents the final year of Spoon’s contract, and unless he can prove that he can stay healthy and play at a relatively high level, he won’t really deserve a market-value contract next spring. Such a contract for a linebacker like Spoon could average anywhere between $8 and $10 million per year with $20 to $25 million in guaranteed money.
Another injury-marred season or one where he fails to impact in a significant way, and that money will dry up. Instead, Spoon might be only able to sign for “Philip Wheeler money.” Wheeler signed for a deal that averaged roughly $5 million per year and received less than $15 million in guaranteed money last offseason.
After explaining why the individual impacts of certain players is overestimated, it’s hard to then justify why there is such a disparity between the contracts of Jones and Weatherspoon. Why is Jones such a safe investment, while there is risk involved with Spoon?
Partly it may be because of the positions they play. Wide receivers such as Jones and Calvin Johnson are versatile and can fit in virtually any offense. Essentially because a wide receiver’s role in an offense isn’t going to be substantially different from scheme to scheme. They’re going to be running the same route tree, just the frequency of certain routes will change. Linebackers, as is the case with most defenders, depend heavily upon scheme to put them in the right places to make plays.
Spoon is a good enough player that he can play in any scheme, whether that is lining up inside in a 3-4 or outside in a 4-3. But he’s not quite at the level where he can excel in any scheme.
And ultimately it’s that ability to excel beyond scheme which is why certain individual players may be overvalued by teams. Johnson and Jones can be plugged into any offense and be top-level playmakers. That doesn’t apply to Weatherspoon, and I don’t think it applies to Clowney.
Now the positive for Clowney is that rushing the quarterback isn’t going to change much scheme to scheme. The only real change from a schematic standpoint for any pass-rusher is where you line up on the field and whether or not you’re standing up or putting your hand in the dirt.
And as Mario Williams has proven in recent years, as long as you can get pressure on the quarterback, no one really cares how you do it. Williams is far from the 3-4 prototype, but has had success in 2011 and 2013 playing primarily as a stand-up outside linebacker in those schemes.
Ultimately Clowney is the type of prospect that you build your defense around, and I think that’s why there is so much interest and intrigue emanating from Flowery Branch when he is involved. Like Jones is on offense, Clowney can be the centerpiece of your defense.
And if the team does what I don’t expect and manages to trade up for him, it’ll be because they want to acquire that level of player. I just believe they should be cognizant that they may wind up giving up too many other pieces to acquire that centerpiece.