I’m not a big fan of issuing draft grades right after the fact. And with so much negativity floating around, I opted to stay on the positive side of the coin.
Here are my favorite draft selections for each team.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech--the fourth round pick (#120 overall) wound up in the best possible situation for his NFL potential. He’s got better athletic potential and a better arm than #3 overall pick Blake Bortles, and there are times (the Miami game comes to mind) where Thomas looks like a legit NFL star. Not starter, star.
He was often really, really bad too, and that’s why many groaned when the Cardinals took Thomas in the fourth round. But Bruce Arians uses an offensive system that plays to his downfield strengths, and there’s no pressure to rush his progress. Give him two years of advanced coaching and encouragement, and the Cardinals just might have themselves a franchise quarterback. The reward is worth the risk here.
Jake Matthews, T, Texas A&M--This was a toughie, as they made some very good value picks and fits. Yet Matthews was my No. 1 player in the entire draft, and the Falcons landed him with the sixth overall selection. He’s instantly the best starter on what has been a problematic line for the last couple of years. He’ll be protecting Matt Ryan and clearing holes for another pick I really liked, 4th round RB Devonta Freeman. Matthews is a can’t-miss prospect for a team that desperately needed one.
Crockett Gillmore, TE, Colorado State--Gillmore is a player I really grew to like after seeing him in person at Shrine Game week and Senior Bowl week. He didn’t have a lot to do at CSU, but in those two weeks I saw a sure-handed receiver who could use his big frame to get separation and reach out to pluck the ball from the air. He’s a solid in-line blocker and he can chip and release nicely. Gillmore projects as a very good second tight end, something the team needed. They could have done a lot worse with the 99th pick.
Preston Brown, LB, Louisville--I do really like adding Sammy Watkins to the mix, but I’m not sure they had to give up as much as they did to get him. Brown, on the other hand, is a strong value in the third round. He should be able to line up inside or outside. When I watched Louisville film to break down Eagles 1st round pick Marcus Smith, all I saw was Brown making plays all over the field. He and Kiko Alonso make a very nice young LB tandem for a team that should be on the rise.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State--The giant wideout was the epicenter of some very divisive opinions in the scouting community. I happen to value his athletic gifts, and think his detractors ignored a lot of very strong plays he made under pressure for a championship team. He landed in the perfect spot; Cam Newton has the same style as Jameis Winston and Benjamin will get every chance to shine, and he wasn’t a reach in the late first round. Benjamin is my too-early projection for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Having said that, it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he washed out a la James Hardy either.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech--The Bears absolutely had to upgrade the defense. I like all of their first three picks; Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton are both limited role players, but the Bears sorely needed those roles filled. Fuller has a chance to be a very good cornerback, and he fits schematically. I also like that they didn’t reach to fill the gaping hole at safety, sticking to their board with the higher-end player. The Bears had one of the best drafts of 2014.
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State--Cincinnati landed my 16th-rated player overall and top CB on my board with the 24th pick. Aside from the value they got, Dennard’s aggressive style fits well both within the context of their defense (assuming they keep a similar scheme with the change in coordinator) and in the AFC North. Jeremy Hill could wind up being a very good power RB for them, too, though I think he went too high.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M--I wrote earlier about my mixed feelings on their tumultuous first round. The more I look at the reaction to Manziel and how he’s reinvigorated my hometown, the more I support the decision. He’s a unique player that represents a stark contrast to the “same old Browns”. Johnny Football is the face of the franchise and seems quite capable of handling that pressure. I would not bet against him.
Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor--This one is all about relative value. They badly needed a safety, and Dixon could have gone at least two rounds earlier. He’s stiff in coverage and tested poorly in workouts, but he’s still immediately the second-best safety on the Cowboys roster. They got him with the 248th overall pick deep in the 7th round. I do like Demarcus Lawrence’s potential as an edge rusher, too.
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State--Roby is the top choice with a condition: the Broncos have to get the 2012 version and not the 2013 one. He’s got very similar skills and upside to Joe Haden, who just signed a monster contract extension with the Browns. The Broncos filled their top need with the best value on the board at that spot. It’s risky but should pay off.
Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU--The Lions aggressively pursued the versatile Van Noy, trading up a few spots in the second round to reunite him with his former Cougars roommate, Ezekiel Ansah. He is a perfect fit for the new defensive scheme, which will play more 3-LB sets and blitzes. His biggest weakness--sifting through traffic--is mitigated by the Lions’ strong defensive line in front him. Van Noy could be very, very good right away.
Green Bay Packers
Khyri Thornton, DT, Southern Miss--Third-round pick Thornton is an odd fit on the surface. He’s a one-gap upfield penetrator who doesn’t tie up blockers well despite being a large man, and that tends to fit better in a 4-3 defense than Green Bay’s variable 3-4 front. Yet I love his energy and the reckless edge he brings. He’s a poor man’s Nick Fairley without the baggage, both off-field and in the midsection. Thornton is an agitating instigator of a defensive lineman, something this defense badly needed. I really like Davante Adams in the second round too, though he’s not apt to contribute much as a rookie.
Jadeveon Clowney, Edge, South Carolina--Houston had to be tempted by a quarterback, but they smartly held off and added the defensive prospect with the highest talent ceiling to hit the draft in the last 25 years. He’s not a sure thing, but passing on Clowney could have been as disastrous as passing on Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony for Darko Milicic. Clowney could be the LeBron James of the NFL. Could be. You have to take that gamble with the #1 overall pick.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss--I’m not going to lie here: I have major reservations about what GM Ryan Grigson has done in the last 15 months, and this draft did not help his cause. Moncrief is a great value with the 90th overall pick, but he carries some risk. While he’s a dynamic athlete who looked like a first-round talent at times, he also has a lot of disturbingly lethargic and disinterested games too. A team with limited draft resources probably should have opted for a safer route, though if Moncrief is a hit, he’ll be a big hit. I’m optimistic he will.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State--The Jaguars took two wideouts in the second round, and I love both picks. Marqise Lee went earlier, and the USC receiver has a chance to be special if his knee gets healthy. Robinson came later in the round (61st overall) and should prove more than worthy of the trade up to nab him. His size and leaping ability nicely compensate for a lack of top-end speed, which Lee brings. I love that they got two receivers who complement one another so well. Now about that massive reach for a quarterback in the first round…
Kansas City Chiefs
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, T, McGill--The 200th pick of the draft was a complete mystery to many, but for those of us who saw “Larry” in person at the Shrine Game practices, we know how good the giant Canuck can be. He was every bit as dominant in St. Pete as Terron Armstead, the 75th pick in 2013, was a year earlier. He’s light on his feet but very tough and strong. Once he learns the American game (Canada has different rules on the line), he can be an above-average starting left tackle. The Chiefs got him in the 6th round. I also like guard Zach Fulton from Tennessee, their other sixth rounder. KC could very well have landed two starters in that round.
Jordan Tripp, LB, Montana--The Dolphins had an interesting draft. I like a lot of their players, but they almost universally went about 15-20 picks higher than I liked. Not so with Tripp, whom I graded a solid 3rd round talent. They got him in the 5th, and he’s got a chance to be a solid starter if he can add some functional strength. Billy Turner in the third could wind up being better than first-rounder Ja’Wuan James, and I say that as someone who liked James too.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville--Absolute jackpot pick. GM Rick Spielman was patient in watching Bridgewater fall, and then he pounced on the best quarterback in this draft by trading up into the 32nd pick. The best part is they don’t have to rush him onto the field if he isn’t quite ready, though I suspect he’ll be starting for Minnesota by Halloween and will be for a very long time. I like the Anthony Barr pick at 9, too, especially since they pilfered an extra fifth rounder from Cleveland and still got him. That’s good, because none of their Saturday picks might make the final 53-man roster.
New England Patriots
Jemea Thomas, DB, Georgia Tech--With their third 6th round pick, and I like all three of them, the Patriots scored with the versatile Thomas. He can play the nickel corner over the slot, but he also plays big enough to handle safety duties. He’s small and that limits his upside, but Jemea Thomas is a smart, quick-twitch football player. Guard Jon Halapio from Florida, the first of their 6th rounders, will start sooner than later too.
New Orleans Saints
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State--Not only did the Saints get their replacement for Lance Moore, they just might have gotten their new #1 wideout. Cooks is smallish but freakishly quick, and he catches the ball effortlessly. He answered the speed questions, as silly as they seem in watching lots of Beavers tape, by running a 4.33 at the Combine. He should prove worthy of the move up to the 20th overall pick; he was not going to fall to 27th. The NFC South isn’t exactly crawling with defensive back talent, so he could be very good very soon.
New York Giants
Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State--I freely admit to a major bias here. Richburg was my favorite player in this entire draft, my prospect man crush. I even told him so when talking to him during Senior Bowl week, and he accepted it graciously. He’s a smart tactician who can play guard or center, and he adjusts on the fly to opponents as well as any center in the NFL right now. He helps fill one of the gaping holes along their lines. Side note: he was a high school teammate of Baltimore’s above entry, Crockett Gillmore.
New York Jets
Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech--Their second-round pick was rated much higher on my board than their first-rounder, safety Calvin Pryor. Amaro is a monster of a target on crossing and out routes, and he can lay out unsuspecting defenders as a blocker. You can pencil him in for 65-75 catches for 850-950 yards and 5-8 TDs every year. Fourth-round guard Dakota Dozier is a promising project, though he probably won’t contribute much as a rookie. Shaq Evans was a solid pick too.
Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo--Their first four picks could all realistically emerge as quality starters by the middle of 2015, but only Mack has the potential to be great. No matter what they ask him to do--blitz, cover, play end, stuff the A-gap--Mack can do it all very well. Hopefully they unleash him quickly instead of playing it safe. I am a Derek Carr supporter, too.
Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon--The first pick of the fifth round could very well end up being a much better player than the man they took 26th overall, Marcus Smith. Hart is a smart, aggressive, strong end who disengages and chases very well for a 280-pound guy. Coach Chip Kelly knows what he’s got in him. I really like adding his Duck teammate, WR Josh Huff, in the third round too.
Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA--He’s not a great player, but Zumwalt is a consummate Steeler. His throwback style and almost scary toughness scream Pittsburgh. I expected him to be a 4th round pick, but he slid to the sixth. He is the ying to first-round pick Ryan Shazier’s yang. I happen to like Shazier’s fit here too, as the Steelers are finally acknowledging their egregious lack of range in the back end of their defense. Wesley Johnson was a strong pick, too.
San Diego Chargers
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU--This is another great pick with a condition. Verrett is an outstanding, sticky man-coverage corner, but he’s got serious durability questions between his small frame and balls-out style. His fight/size of dog ratio is off the charts. As long as he stays healthy, the Chargers got themselves a very useful player they desperately lacked with their first round pick.
San Francisco 49ers
Marcus Martin, C, USC--I did an in-depth scouting report on Martin, which you can read here. He was a very fun player to study. Martin has some warts, namely a lack of strength and a bizarre lack of second-level vision, but everything wrong with him can be fixed with experience and good coaching. He could be the best guard from this draft class too, though I think he should stick to center. Good developmental pick in the third round for a team that didn’t have any pressing needs to address. Though I don’t issue draft grades, the Niners still earned no worse than an A-minus.
Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama--The second of their three 4th round picks could very well be the only player the Seahawks picked who makes their active roster in 2014. While he lacks second-rounder Paul Richardson’s blazing jets, Norwood does every single other thing a receiver needs to do, including catch the ball, better that the one-dimensional Colorado Buffalo. Fourth-round LB Kevin Pierre-Louis has great athleticism that Pete Carroll can work with, though he’s smaller and weaker than some safeties.
St. Louis Rams
Greg Robinson, T, Auburn--This was not a no-brainer of a #2 overall pick, and I rated Jake Matthews higher, but Robinson was a smart choice and a better fit for the Rams. Coach Jeff Fisher cherishes his combativeness and truly devastating power, even if he will have some pass protection struggles. I really like 6th round corner E.J. Gaines, who completely erased #7 overall pick Mike Evans from the field at Missouri.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington--The big tight end will make for a fantastic red zone target, and at his pro day he proved his athleticism came back after being asked to bulk up in 2013. ASJ is a great weapon at a position of dire need for the Bucs. First-rounder Mike Evans should wind up being a very good wide receiver, but I worry they’re going to ask him to do too much too soon.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington--Sankey is a great fit for the Titans, a very quick, efficient slasher with great hands out of the backfield. He should reliably move the chains. I like the concept of him running behind first-rounder Taylor Lewan, though they took the Michigan tackle a few spots higher than I preferred. Third round DT DaQuan Jones was a nice pick.
Washington Football Team
Zack Hocker, K, Arkansas--This probably comes off as a dis on the earlier picks, but I really do like their 7th round placekicker. He’s got a booming leg and should be a mainstay in Washington for years. Fourth-round corner Bashaud Breeland has major talent but fell because of some off-field concerns and spotty reliability. Third-rounder Morgan Moses has some tools. Did I mention how much I like Hocker?