The NFL Draft is great for two reasons.
For one, the NFL is replenishing its rosters with young players, many of which will become big time stars in the league. The second one is that after months and months of teams saying things about their draft philosophies, positions that need addressing, and on-field philosophies it all gets thrown out the window. That's when we’re able to find out what teams are truly thinking, see through the rumors and mocks and learn how each team is trying to build right now and for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, here are our biggest takeaways from the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Broncos wanted to get more athletic across the board
There’s a clear common theme in all the Denver Broncos draft picks with the exception of maybe Chad Kelly, as everyone who they selected tested particularly well in athletic combine-style workouts, especially in the 40-yard dash. Our own Zac Stevens reported the Broncos have used an analytics department this year. A big part of analytics like that is finding trends in size-athleticism data that translates and has worked in the past. Garett Bolles ran a 4.95, DeMarcus Walker a 4.76 at his pro day, and Jake Butt and Kelly aside (who are injured and unable to put up athletic testing numbers) everyone else they drafted ran in the 4.4s. Those are outstanding numbers across the board at all positions. Denver didn’t just add juice to the offense, they wanted to get faster downhill all around and did that.
There’s another clear trend in the Broncos draft, and that’s the return of the bubble screen game on offense with Mike McCoy calling the plays. Coach Vance Joseph’s already spoken about Demaryius Thomas being used more in the screen game, but now the offense has a left tackle that can get out in space where he’s at his best. They've also added two more receivers and one running back who are dynamic in space. That was a clear focus.
As was special teams, an area in which a team with a great defense like Denver can easily pick up more points or positive yardage. By adding two if not three returners in Carlos Henderson, Isiah McKenzie, and Brendan Langley, special teams should get a big boost. Langley, who might not be a returner though he could be and has been used in that role before could be important as a gunner as well on special teams.
While questions at quarterback and the offensive line still linger, the Broncos added players that can put up points or gain chunks of yards without great play from their QB’s or o-line. A sound way to hedge your bets as you wait for those units to hopefully come along.
The Browns and Niners are trying to build for the long haul, the rest of the league isn’t
The Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers have different timelines than other teams. The Browns are trying to build a team the “right way,” attempting to avoid shortcuts in the form of a supposed franchise-saving quarterbacks and in San Francisco they seem to be doing the same.
More so than the Browns, the 49ers have a new regime that’s been given ample patience in the form of six-year contracts to both the GM and head coach.
It also looks like GM John Lynch wanted to focus on the defense in this draft allowing Kyle Shanahan to work with the offense, see what he has, and then make the necessary changes in 2018. Patience isn’t a word that exists in NFL vocabularies typically, but these two teams seem to be trying their very best to take a different approach.
That philosophy is directly opposed to how the Chicago Bears are trying to build or every other team that moved up to draft a quarterback in the first round the past two drafts. There are six such teams including the Bears - and Broncos for that matter. Teams like Denver, the Houston Texans, and even the Kansas City Chiefs are in contention windows, and you could argue that all of them are only missing a quarterback to give the New England Patriots a run for their money in the AFC. Houston’s particularly desperate and has gone all-in on two different quarterbacks, thus compromising their 2018 draft without their top two picks.
But teams like the Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, and Bears aren’t in that situation, though unlike the Browns and Niners they’re much closer to contention.
The QB debate will forever rage in the NFL, but these two lone bottom dwellers doing things the “right way” is very interesting. Cleveland and San Francisco could also be looking forward to the 2018 draft class that promises to have more talent at the quarterback position.
Carolina and Tennessee want to fly and are tired of the old ground and pound
We know the Carolina Panthers love to run the ball. They did so in 2015, losing only one game all the way to the Super Bowl. But the type of runners they picked in this draft choosing Christian McCaffrey first and Curtis Samuel afterward were very different from the players they’ve used in their backfield in the past. The Panthers clearly want more versatility; more high percentage passes for quarterback Cam Newton and more explosiveness on special teams. As hard as Newton already is to defend against, Carolina just added two huge matchup threats making their offense a hard one to match up with.
The Tennessee Titans have truly built their offense the “right way,” focusing on their quarterback of the future, building around the line and running game. Having done that and added ample draft capital after trading out of the first pick a year ago, they went all out on their receiving talent, adding speed and weapons all around. Maybe not the philosophically opposed pickups Carolina made, but Tennessee went all out on receiving targets, leading them to reach a few times on players they had a major need for, starting with their two first-round picks. Even their one defensive selection early on, cornerback Adoree Jackson, might just be best as an offensive weapon and returner. The Titans now have what they need on paper to be a juggernaut in a few years on offense; there aren’t any excuses for Marcus Mariota or the coaching staff.
Coaches and regional scouts matter on draft day
One little anecdote from my mini two-day pro day adventure this year going from Fort Collins to Boulder, to Larimer; One person stood out above all, and it was Atlanta Falcons regional scout Sae Woon Jo. Jo kept everyone in line and on schedule throughout the three pro days. Over two days, you notice that and if he carries the same type of authority in the Falcons draft room it’s no surprise Atlanta went out west with their very first pick and then went back to the left coast for three of their final four picks. Scouts will get the chance to make picks by day three and given what I saw it’s no surprise they gave their western regional scout so much say.
It’s also important to have a plan in place for draft picks when you pick them, and there were lots of picks made specifically for certain coaches during the draft's three days.
In Denver, the raw and talent Langley was taken as a developmental piece for Vance Joseph and Joe Woods to work on as they’re some of the most highly regarded defensive backs coaches in the NFL.
The 49ers, who’ve added Shanahan and his fateful running backs coach Bobby Turner, who’s one of the best in the league went after two running backs in this class. One through trade in Kapri Bibbs (who I’m sure Shanahan consulted Gary Kubiak about before making the trade) and another in Joe Williams who has great explosiveness.
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles went defense heavy to satisfy their big name defensive coordinators, while the Seattle Seahawks stuck to their bread and butter going after defense.
The quarterback selections were also coach driven with Bill O’Brien taking Deshaun Watson in Houston, who fits the accurate, quick release QB he’s had success with in the past. In KC, Andy Reid got a big-armed athlete in Patrick Mahomes to groom.
Matching up a high-risk prospect with the right coach and scheme can be the difference between a bust and a star. Teams were cognizant of that in many cases.
Tedd Thompson and Ozzie Newsome are still the best at hunting for draft value
There’s always lots of debate amongst fans and media leading up to the draft as to how a team should approach things With "best player available or need?" Being the most controversial subject of all. The truth is there’s an art form to it, and the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens are always some of the best in marrying those two things. 2017 was no different as both found great value all the way till day three.
The New England Patriots who were largely absent in the draft - as they did most of their business in trades during the season's opening calendar period - also found some great value with only four picks.
There’s a reason that good teams stay good and the draft is the biggest one of all.
The Seahawks OL problems don’t concern them, just keep the ‘D’ great
As opposed to how Denver chose to operate, addressing their biggest need first on the o-line and focusing most of their draft on fixing their offensive unit, the Seahawks seemed to do things differently. The Hawks stuck to defense in seven of their first eight picks and didn’t draft a tackle - their biggest need - until pick 210. Keeping the defense good and deep is important, but as Russell Wilson and the offense have started to carry more of the load in recent years you would have expected them to be more cognizant of their needs on the offensive line.
The New York Giants also adopted this philosophy instead focusing on adding more offensive playmakers and touching up the defensive line.
The Panthers and Broncos arrived at Super Bowl 50 despite having below average groups up front but given the successes of teams like the Cowboys, or Titans who’ve made the trenches a priority it’s an interesting switch of philosophies for these two teams who chose to ignore a weak draft class.
Another trend in Seattle, the Seahawks have been looking to play more man coverage than their typical cover-3 boundary zone and the pick of Shaquill Griffin supports that trend. Griffin is a speed-and-size type cornerback prospect who’s an interesting fit for them. As they transition a bit more to man, look for more athletes like him to come along.
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