How valuable is a defender who can sack the quarterback?
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put that premise to a huge test on Thursday, when he made West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin the No. 15 selection in the draft. No pass-rushers were taken in the first 14 picks. Carroll and general manager John Schneider felt comfortable enough to drop back three spots, pick up fourth- and sixth-round choices and take Irvin.
The criticism across the league stemmed from conjecture that Irvin might be only a pass-rush specialist. Is a backup defensive end who can average 11 sacks a season worth the 15th pick in the draft? Under the NFL draft's best-player-available theory, the team with the 15th choice should take a potential starter.
Can 11 sacks a season change that premise? Maybe. The 49ers got a 14-sack rookie season out of Aldon Smith, even though he didn't start a game. He made the most out of 48 percent of the snaps. But the 49ers believe he can develop into an every-down starter. A defender has registered 10 or more sacks despite having five or fewer starts just 42 times in NFL history, but most of those came from veterans who filtered into pass-rushing roles later in their careers or young non-first-rounders who could rush the passer.
In the salary-cap era, though, this is a novel idea. Carroll believes that Irvin will fit into a role that will be worth 600 plays a season, even if he doesn't start. The problem is whether he can get enough starts to justify his second contract. Eleven-sack players make more than $10 million a year, but that's not the case if they don't start. Carroll isn't worried about four years from now. He wanted a player who can get to the quarterback this season.
This move will be the most scrutinized in the draft.
From the inbox
Q: Like many other people, I was skeptical if Ryan Tannehill was even worth a top-10 pick. Miami is going nowhere this year, especially with every team in the division improving, and has many positional needs besides quarterback. Wouldn't it have made better sense using this year's first-round pick on another problem area and then drafting a quarterback next year, when they might have a higher pick?
Derek in Staten Island, N.Y.
A: The Dolphins owe it to their fans not to tank a season just to get a quarterback. Plus, the decision-makers lose their jobs if the team loses the 13 or 14 games that would put the franchise in position to draft a Matt Barkley. General manager Jeff Ireland owes it to the fans and the organization to get the best quarterback available when he's available. One of the reasons the Dolphins haven't found the ultimate replacement for Dan Marino is their records usually haven't been bad enough to get the best quarterback. When they were that bad, they screwed up by not taking Matt Ryan. They are still paying the price for that. Look at the 2011 season. You can never figure out which team is going to be bad enough to get the first pick in the draft. The Colts lost Peyton Manning and ended up getting Andrew Luck. What if the Dolphins ended up with the eighth pick again? They made the right move drafting Tannehill.
Q: I was in a friendly argument with a co-worker regarding which team would be better -- a team ranked first in offense with a mediocre defense or a team ranked first in defense with a mediocre offense. What, in your opinion, is the better team?
YP in Ohio
A: It depends on the quarterback. If the quarterback on the mediocre offense is elite, he can get hot like Eli Manning. Since 2004, only six teams have won Super Bowls, and all had elite quarterbacks. This is a quarterback-driven league that thrives on offense. The two best regular-season teams in 2011 had the two worst defenses. For your bet, I'd say being ranked No. 1 on offense is the answer. If the team is No. 1 on defense and has a mediocre quarterback, it isn't winning a Super Bowl.
Q: With the entry of college QBs into recent drafts who are so much more prepared than those of the '80s and '90s, do you think we're far from every NFL team having an elite QB?
RJ in New Orleans
A: As nice as that would be, I can't see that happening. I can't see a league that has more than 16 elite quarterbacks. By the time some of the young quarterbacks become elite, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and some of the great quarterbacks from the class of 2004 will be getting out of the league. But I do agree with you that quarterbacks are coming out of college more prepared than in the past. It makes for a better league.
Q: Why are players who may be past their prime but still effective fetch only late-round picks when traded? Asante Samuel is a four-time Pro Bowl pick, yet didn't get the Eagles anything in first, second or third rounds.
Zubin in Stamford, Conn.
A: Blame the salary cap and franchise economics. Sure, a team trades for a player, but it also trades for the contract. Samuel was scheduled to make $8.5 million in 2012. He's in his 30s. A losing team isn't going to trade for him and that contract. Most of the playoff-caliber teams weren't going to pick up that contract. To make the trade work, Samuel had to take close to a 50 percent pay cut so he could be a Falcon. Because of the limited market, the Eagles couldn't do any better than a seventh-round pick.
Q: I was thinking about how the league is "trying" to keep the games as short as possible (about three hours). Don't you think it is a little bit ridiculous to say that when we are absolutely swarmed by publicity? Sometimes watching a football game goes like this: one play, injury, advertisement, two plays, timeout by the coach, advertisement, one play, touchdown+extra point, advertisement, kickoff and so on. I know that money and networks rule everything, but don't you think they could make a deal to reduce the publicity time (maybe make a maximum time for an ad)?
Guillaume in Montreal
A: To keep games on free television, networks have to have enough time to sell their inventory of ads to make a profit or break even. Rights fees are going over $1 billion a year per network. Fortunately for fans, the league makes it a point to keep all games available on free television. Changing that equation would lead toward turning the NFL into a pay-per-view league. That wouldn't be good for fans. You can take every play from an NFL game and see it in 30 minutes. Two-and-a-half hours of a three-hour game are tied up with setting up plays, commercials and stoppages of plays.
Q: Why is Andrew Luck rated higher than RG3? RG3 played in a tougher conference and against better defenses -- he also put up better numbers. He's not Michael Vick or Cam Newton because he's a pass-first QB.
Shawn in Jacksonville, Fla.
A: Luck has the highest quarterback rating in decades because he's an established pocket passer who can run. Griffin hasn't established himself as a pocket passer yet because that's not part of the Baylor offense. The scouts got it right coming into the league. Griffin has the chance to have a better career than Luck. It will be fun to see how that plays out.
Q: Ravens fans have sometimes thought their players are victimized by penalty flags on the field due to a hard-hitting reputation. After some years of John Harbaugh changing the culture, it appears that that perception has died down some. Is it possible that Saints players will be flagged more by referees due to the bounty scandal, or will it only be perception?
Ryan in Eldersburg, Md.
A: Great point, and it's very possible that could happen. Because of the bounty story, more teams will be getting into more physical games with the Saints, which could lead to more penalties. Look at the second week of the season: The Saints play the Panthers, and the Panthers organization can't get over the fact that Cam Newton was a target of a bounty. There will be extra contact that could lead to penalties in the 49ers game. The Ravens sometimes get too overzealous after plays, which leads to penalties. The Saints will go into games with officials expecting more physical games and more penalties.
Justin in Baltimore
A: The Panthers plan to stay in a 4-3, but if they keep Davis, they could use a few 3-4 looks to confuse teams. Switching to a 3-4 full time wouldn't work. The Panthers paid $12.6 million a year for defensive end Charles Johnson, and his game doesn't translate into a 3-4. The Panthers have 4-3 personnel. Panthers coach Ron Rivera can coach both schemes, but his preference is the 4-3.