This draft wasn't much of a reach
Decades from now, the 2014 NFL draft will be remembered for the social significance of Michael Sam becoming the NFL's first openly gay player picked. The defensive end from Missouri was selected in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams, who in 1946 broke another social barrier by making Kenny Washington the league's first African-American player of the modern era.
But this draft was also significant from a purely football standpoint, i.e., teams overwhelmingly held true to their early-round player evaluations instead of reaching for prospects out of desperation, need or ego. Outside of Buffalo trading a future No. 1 pick, no one compromised future drafts for immediate gratification. Decision-makers largely focused on value instead of bold headlines and "SportsCenter" moments.
Coaches and executives like to say that public sentiment doesn't matter in draft maneuvers, but that's as specious as commissioner Roger Goodell saying owners face the same high level of scrutiny as players under the personal conduct policy. The reality is that every year multiple teams seem more interested in winning the news conference than in winning games. They select players higher than their draft boards say they should go because they want to fill a need and, perhaps subconsciously, appease a hungry fan base and the skeptical media.
The importance of star power and splashy moves was addressed earlier this offseason by Jerry Jones, who said "creating some aura, creating some excitement" is the reason his Dallas Cowboys have been a ratings magnet despite three consecutive 8-8, non-playoff seasons. But even Jones was on his best behavior in the first two rounds.
When Johnny Manziel, the rock star of this year's draft, fell to Dallas' spot at No. 16, Jones, an admitted fan of the Texas A&M quarterback, passed on him to take -- gasp! -- an offensive lineman. The move was so sound, so smart, so unspectacular that personnel people around the league sat upright. When Jones took defensive end Demarcus Lawrence in the second round, they arched their eyebrows.
Jones is to restraint what Miley Cyrus is to understatement. He's a "go big or go home" type of guy. But in this instance he fell in line with nearly every other decision-maker and stayed true to the process, particularly early on.
With the exception of Buffalo surrendering first- and fourth-round picks in next year's draft to climb from ninth to fourth, where the Bills selected Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins, there were no "mega" deals in the opening round despite pre-draft hype that hinted at wheelings and dealings to come. "It was amazing how the first 18 picks came off as 'the best player available,'" Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim said.
The tone was set with the first pick. Everyone knew the Texans needed a quarterback -- unless you believe Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to lead them to the holy grail -- but general manager Rick Smith didn't succumb to that need in the first round, in the second round or with either of his two third-round selections. Instead, he waited until the fourth round to select Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage.
The reason: value. The Texans weren't going to overspend just to say they had a QB of the future.
Ditto the Browns, who also had a major need at the position. But instead of reaching for one with the fourth pick, they traded down to the ninth spot (then up to No. 8 after throwing in a fifth-round pick to swap spots) and took cornerback Justin Gilbert. They ultimately landed their quarterback -- Manziel -- at No. 22 because that's where their draft board said they should get him.
"That's truly what we're focused on, staying true to the beliefs of what's important in the process," Farmer said. "There's a reason we pay the scouts. There's a reason we pay to have these [pre-draft] meetings and bring everybody into town to organize the board, have the coaches involved to adjust the board, then meet again to talk through scenarios and put our plans in place ... and stay true to our board."
That philosophy was tested throughout the three-day event for the Browns, who learned a couple of weeks beforehand that star wideout Josh Gordon is a facing a season-long suspension for a failed drug test. News of the possible discipline surfaced on the eve of Round 2, but instead of panicking as fans and media harped on the need to select a wideout, Farmer stuck to his board and used his final four picks on other positions. Whether that was sound or suspect will be determined in the fall, but it was consistent with the tenor of this year's draft.
"At the end of the day, a lot of teams held their water, made their picks and let the board come to them," Farmer said.
That was most true at quarterback, a position where players often are selected above their draft grades because teams are desperate to fill the most important spot on the roster. Only Central Florida's Blake Bortles (No. 3 to Jacksonville) was among the first 21 players selected, and just five QBs were taken in the first two rounds.
"Teams paid more attention to value than need," said one NFC general manager, speaking on the condition his name not be used. "You can parlay that off a few years ago when everyone drove the value of that position up and got burned."
The reference was to 2011, when quarterbacks Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder went in the top 12. Only Newton has established himself as a franchise player, and the three others have displayed such limited promise that their teams did not exercise the fifth-year option in their contracts (Gabbert was actually traded this year to San Francisco, where he'll compete to back up Colin Kaepernick).
"If you go back to that draft and look down on it with a 30,000-foot view, you can say we propped that position up and almost every one of those players busted," the GM said. "So I think the attitude now is, 'Let's treat the quarterback position like every other position. Let's give them their true value, and if they're there when it's our turn to pick in that round, we'll take them.' Teams were definitely more disciplined."