AROUND THE NFL

Trees, 21 ornamental cherry trees to be precise, are standing in the way of the NFL’s plans for the draft.  The AP:

 

The city of Nashville won’t cut down 21 ornamental cherry trees to make space for an NFL draft stage, Mayor David Briley said Saturday.

 

In a news release, Briley said he had informed the NFL and Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. that they will have to remove the trees intact and replant them in the city. Any trees that are diseased or near death will be replaced with new, healthy trees.

 

The trees were to be cut down on Monday, just ahead of Nashville’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The festival includes a walk along the cherry tree-lined downtown riverfront on April 13. The 2019 NFL draft takes place in Nashville April 25-27.

 

The Tennessean reports the NFL and Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. had previously said they would donate 200 cherry trees each to Metro Parks for planting throughout the city.

 

After plans to cut the cherry trees were made public, Nashville Tree Foundation Board president Noni Nielsen called the removal “incredibly short-sighted” for a one-time event that will last only a few days.

 

Tracey Shafroth, an advocate for tree planting across the city, said the new trees were not a replacement for the old ones because it would take many years for them to reach maturity.

 

“We don’t plant trees for ourselves, we plant them for our grandchildren,” Shafroth said. “They take a long time to grow, and their benefits grow as they grow.”

 

According to city officials, Briley’s office discussed removing the trees with Metro Parks Horticulturist Randall Lance after learning that the size of the NFL draft stage and other structures would require it.

 

Lance planted the majority of the trees a number of years ago. He said some of the trees in the area are dead or compromised and should be replaced. The city had planned to use their removal as an opportunity to restore the soil and replant new, healthy trees.

 

On Saturday, Briley said in the news release that in addition to the 21 trees that will be relocated, the NFL and Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. will plant 17 more cherry trees at downtown Riverfront Park in previously vacant and new locations.

 

NFC EAST

 

WASHINGTON

The Redskins need more out of CB JOSH NORMAN in 2019 according to Grant Gordon of NFL.com:

 

Drawing acclaim for his trysts with Odell Beckham Jr. and his all-around stupendous play, cornerback Josh Norman was considered to be among the elite in one of the game’s most high-profile positions.

 

It feels like that was a long time ago, though.

 

It was in 2015 when Norman — in his final season with the Carolina Panthers – earned his first and only All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.

 

After that breakout season, Norman inked a huge five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins.

 

Has Norman lived up to the hype and earned that lofty pay day? Most would answer in the negative and it would seem that Redskins coach Jay Gruden is within that group.

 

“To say he’s performed as the best cornerback in the National Football League would be far-fetched,” Gruden said per ESPN. “But I will say this: I’m glad we got him. I think not having Josh Norman, our team would be not quite as competitive as we have been with Josh Norman. Moving forward having Josh Norman on this roster is going to help us get where we want to go.”

 

So, to clarify, Gruden thinks Norman is doing just fine, but has he been playing as one of the very best, which he was paid as? Likely not.

 

Still, Gruden points out that like many top-flight cornerbacks, once you make a name for yourself, passes come in your direction a lot less. Thus, it often becomes difficult to quantify just how well said defensive back is actually doing.

 

“Given the opportunities that he’s had, I think he’s done a pretty good job,” Gruden said. “It’s hard to see superstar play sometimes from corners because offenses may throw away from them. Patrick Peterson, you’ll see him some games and only have one tackle and no pass breakups and you’ll say ‘well Patrick didn’t even play.’ Well they didn’t even throw his way. … We just hope that when those plays present themselves that [Norman] will make those plays in the future. So it’s really tough to judge Josh’s play because he doesn’t get a lot of opportunities.”

 

A physical and aggressive CB, Norman has forced seven fumbles in three Washington seasons with 37 passes defended (though 19 came in the 2016 year) and six interceptions.

 

Perhaps the best way to sum up Norman’s play so far in Washington is that he’s been good, but not great. And he was most assuredly brought in with the notion that he was one of the greatest in the game at his position.

 

With two more seasons to go on the deal and $23 million due him in base salary and a $30 million cap hit over that span, it’s time for Norman to shine bright once more.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Jon Gruden tells Peter King the upside of the trade of EDGE KHALIL MACK:

 

Gruden’s) never backed down from claims that the Raiders couldn’t afford to build a deep roster by paying two players gigantic money. In this case, that would have been, combined, paying Derek Carr and Mack, on average, about $47-million a year. So instead of keeping Mack and paying him, Gruden opted for the cost-controls of five first-round picks over the next two drafts, with the bigger money going to Antonio Brown ($19 million a year, average), Trent Brown ($17 million), Tyrell Williams ($11 million) and Lamarcus Joyner ($10.5 million).

 

Follow my math here. The 10 key Raiders right now—Carr, the four big free agents this year, and the five first-rounders over the next two drafts, averaging about a $3.5 million per player per year—will be a weight of about $99 million a year over the next three to four seasons. If the Raiders had kept Carr, Mack and wideout Amari Cooper and signed all the market contracts, that would be three players for about $65 million per year, on average.

 

“If we did come up with the money to make the [Mack] contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about now,” Gruden said. “We would not have Trent Brown. We would not have Antonio Brown. We wouldn’t have Lamarcus Joyner. We wouldn’t have [linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and we wouldn’t have Tyrell Williams. And we wouldn’t have the three first-rounders that we’re talking about.

 

 “So, you have to consider all of it like the Nobel Prize winner did and digest it for yourself. I’m not gonna sit here and say that I didn’t cry for three days. I wanted to coach Mack and Mack knows it. But that trade allowed these acquisitions that we’re talking about today to even happen.”

 

It’ll be a fascinating experiment in roster management by Gruden and his new GM, Mike Mayock. But it’s damn hard to find Khalil Macks, even high in drafts.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Peter King on Robert Kraft and his legal strategy:

 

1. I think this Robert Kraft battle over his prostitution charge—and all the various legalese tributaries that go along with it—makes zero sense to me. I do not understand apologizing for something and then fighting to prove innocence, or whatever Kraft is trying to prove, in the same case … all the while keeping his name in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I haven’t been in his shoes, either in wealth or status or this case. But this could have gone away quickly if he’d simply said a few more things when he apologized recently:

 

a. I’m guilty, and I will not fight the charges.

 

b. I’ll do whatever the legal system requires.

 

c. Though I had no idea and still don’t if there was any use of human trafficking in this place I frequented, I’ll contribute X dollars to fight the scourge of human trafficking, and I’ll meet with local and national experts to do what I can to stop human trafficking in the United States.

 

d. Though I believe my history as an NFL advocate and cornerstone should be considered, I’ll take my punishment from the NFL without complaint.

 

2. I think there’s no chance of any of that happening, but I still think it’s the best idea. Take your medicine. Get the story out of the headlines. What he’s gaining by this—other than a fight that may be futile to keep the video of the incidents from ever seeing the light of day—I have no idea.

– – –

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com looks at some tight ends that the Gronk-less Patriots might look at:

 

After studying the tight ends in this year’s class, I can say the Patriots will have plenty of intriguing options to choose from when looking for replacements. Although the odds are against one of the prospects emerging as a perennial Pro Bowl candidate like Gronk, the Patriots have enough resources — including a league-leading 12 draft picks — to grab a “Y” (traditional tight end) and “flex” (pass-catching tight end) to fill the void created by his departure.

 

With that in mind, here are a few intriguing combinations that the Patriots might be able to put together to address their tight end needs via the draft:

 

Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson (Y) and Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger (flex): Hockenson is the quintessential “Y” tight end in today’s game. He’s a rugged blocker in the running game but also displays the route-running skills and pass-catching ability to dominate between the hashes. Sternberger is a dynamic vertical threat with big-play potential as a “seam” runner over the middle.

 

Iowa’s Noah Fant (flex) and Boston College’s Tommy Sweeney (Y): Fant is a “jumbo” wide receiver with the speed and explosiveness to exploit mismatches against linebackers and safeties on the perimeter. Sweeney is a blue-collar player with outstanding blocking skills and soft hands.

 

Alabama’s Irv Smith, Jr. (flex) and Washington’s Drew Sample (Y): Smith could be classified in either category as a swift pass catcher with B-plus blocking skills. He can align anywhere within a formation to create mismatches in the passing game. Sample is a hard-nosed player capable of moving defenders off the ball in the running game while also making an occasional play as a pass catcher.

 

Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox (Y) and UCLA’s Caleb Wilson (flex): Knox is the rugged “Y” that every offensive coordinator covets in their “21” (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) and “11” (one RB, one TE, three WRs) personnel packages. The Ole Miss product is a sticky blocker with the body control and relentless effort needed to win consistently on the edges. Wilson is a pass-catching tight end with soft hands and outstanding route-running ability. He is a natural “flex” tight end with the potential to exploit mismatches in space.

 

Stanford’s Kaden Smith (Y) and San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (flex): Smith is a polished “Y” with a solid all-around game. He is a sticky blocker with a non-stop motor and a nasty demeanor. Oliver is an athletic playmaker with the speed and post-up skills to be a difference maker in the passing game. He should be an effective “jumbo” slot receiver in a spread offense designed to create mismatches in space.

– – –

Here’s Peter King on Week 1 of the season:

 

I think there was lots of guessing on the Sunday Night Football opener in Phoenix, with the league making it official that Green Bay and Chicago would open the season on Thursday night, Sept. 5. New England will host Sunday night. Guessing:

 

a. I doubt the Patriots’ foe will be Cleveland. The Browns are the sexiest team of the offseason, of course. But my experience as a schedule-watcher is that the league might want to save Browns-Pats for a little later in the season, while giving the Browns a national Sunday-nighter at home (Steelers at Browns?) early in the season to capitalize on local fervor.

 

b. I doubt the Patriots’ foe will be Kansas City. Two years in a row the Chiefs have played in prime time at New England on NBC; a third is unlikely, though not impossible. The other networks will be clamoring for Brady-Mahomes after NBC got the first Brady-Mahomes match in 2018.

 

c. Jets? Not impossible, with Le’Veon Bell providing some glitz. But there’s no guarantee the Jets will be good, so I’m iffy on that one.

 

d. Steelers? Could be. No reason not to, especially since CBS has had the last two meetings of the teams on doubleheader Sundays. Also could be a big Thursday-nighter for FOX.

 

e. Cowboys? That’d be my guess. Pretty good team, pretty good attraction. A good headliner for the first Sunday of the season, and ratings gold because of Dallas, but hardly one of the great games of the season.

 

Of course, you are taking one of FOX’s two “traditional” games with the Patriots away.  But in the world of FLEX scheduling, things can be adjusted.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

INTERFERENCE REPLAY

 

Peter King with some good reporting on the creation of the new interference replay and the cans of worms now opened.

 

Owners, head coaches and top club officials of the 32 franchises, 100 or so people in all, sat in the room, with the eight-man Competition Committee and commissioner Roger Goodell front and center. In the audience, a few noticed the odd couple together in the middle of the stage. In the center: Goodell, the authoritarian commissioner. Next to Goodell: Saints coach Sean Payton, who has had a rocky relationship with the commissioner, suspended by Goodell for a year over the Bountygate scandal in 2012 and, more recently, not happy with the league’s blithe treatment of an uncalled penalty that might have kept the Saints out of Super Bowl 53.

 

Now, the vote—31 teams in favor of a rule that would allow replay challenges on pass-interference calls and non-calls for the first time ever, one team against. Forty-eight hours earlier, asked for a show of hands for how many teams favored allowing replays of uncalled interference plays, fewer than 10 hands were raised. And now, a 31-1 vote to approve. Pretty big upset, in other words.

 

One club official who noticed strange bedfellows Goodell and Payton sitting together also noticed Goodell slap Payton on the leg when the vote came in. We did it! That’s what the slap of camaraderie seemed to signify.

 

This column is about a significant vote, but it’s also about where the National Football League is right now, a year after the foundation of the league felt tremors from declining TV ratings, a president bullying the league over anthem protests, the Colin Kaepernick case, the smoldering embers of the Goodell-Jerry Jones rift, and the sharp rise in concussions—a waking giant of a problem that, if uncorrected, would threaten the future of the sport.

 

This year was different. Much different. The owners knew Goodell wanted a rules tweak to cover the egregious no-interference call in the NFC title game. Plus, there was a don’t-worry-be-happy vibe at the Biltmore. The only negative on the NFL landscape was the Robert Kraft/prostitution embarrassment, but that felt like almost a non-sequitur to be dealt with by Goodell. On league matters, there was cooperation, a feeling among owners that if something was so important to the commissioner and the coaches (and replaying interference calls and non-calls certainly was), ownership should be a good collective partner and vote for it.

 

“Dead on,” said Payton, speaking of the cooperative nature at the meeting. “A lot has changed. This was a really good teamwork meeting.”

 

Historic Time

 

One of my first league meetings was in 1989, when Pete Rozelle, worn down by two late-tenure player strikes and endless litigation with Al Davis, unexpectedly resigned as commissioner in Palm Desert, Calif. In the 30 years since, the annual spring meetings, a time of reviewing the good and bad from the previous year and setting the table for the future, have most often featured internecine strife over labor or TV or expansion or replay or player health and safety … something. Often, two or three somethings.

 

Nine years ago, during the coaches’ annual golf outing at the league meetings, owners passed a rule mandating both teams touch the ball in postseason overtime games, unless the first team with possession scores a touchdown. The coaches were dead-set against it, figuring it added another layer of decision-making that they didn’t want. (Though it has hardly turned out that way; the coin-flip winner almost always takes the ball to start OT.) I remember coaches returning from golf had this attitude of, The owners did WHAT?!

 

Over the years, that kind of it’s-our-game attitude by owners has been common. But this year, from the start, it was different. This was a kumbaya year. Eight days ago, arriving for the meetings, Giants co-owner and Competition Committee member John Mara told me there wasn’t nearly enough support to replay-review interference not called on the field. I thought there was no chance of the league approving what had been the owners’ great white whale—allowing replay on a subset of plays that didn’t get flagged by officials on the field. Then five things happened, in chronological order:

 

1. Goodell told the owners stridently Monday that though replaying pass-interference calls and non-calls wasn’t perfect, it was important to fix a problem laid out for all the world to see in the climactic moments of the NFC title game. They needed to pass a rule allowing replay to address interference. Though Goodell’s reputation in the public eye has been badly tarnished in recent years, he still gets high grades as a diplomat among the 32 owners. “Roger felt strongly in favor of being able to put a flag on the field, in response to the NFC Championship Game,” said a club official close to the process. “He was definitely a vital person to all this.”

 

 

The infamous play in the NFC Championship Game changed everything. (Getty Images)

 

2. The coaches met as a group Monday and stressed how much they wanted interference addressed in the replay process. One coach in the meeting said: “Technology is too advanced to leave replay alone. All of America sees a huge mistake that we can do nothing about.”

 

What the coaches really wanted was an eighth official in the upstairs officiating booth, the so-called Sky Judge, but the league was steadfast against that because of the presence already of a replay official at each game, and of league officiating czar Al Riveron conversing with the on-field ref during replay reviews. The Sky Judge would be superfluous, the league believed—plus there’d be a challenge to get 17 Sky Judges ruling with the same standard from crew to crew. Interesting side note: Monday began with a full-league meeting during which international play and players, new marketing plans and gambling preparedness plans were discussed. And so when the coaches’ meeting stretched from its scheduled one-hour length to an hour-and-a-half, then close to two hours, a couple of coaches wanted to hurry things up. Not New England’s Bill Belichick, who had a few pointed words about the time they’d spent on the non-football stuff that morning and told his peers, essentially, We’re not hurrying out of this meeting. This stuff’s too important.The coaches left after two-plus hours, giving their two Competition Committee members, Payton and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, their proxy to push hard for some form of replay on pass-interference.

 

3. “Let’s hear from everyone who has something to say,” Competition Committee chair Rich McKay said to open a full league meeting Tuesday morning. Dallas coach Jason Garrett, a member of the coaches subcommittee of the Competition Committee (and a Princeton grad), had something to get off his chest. He spoke for about four minutes, and when he was finished, the room gave him a loud ovation. One top club official told me that in more than a decade at these meetings, he’d never heard such a reception for a speech. I found Garrett late Tuesday and asked him what he’d said.

 

“I talked about the credibility of the game and the focus of the game,” Garrett said. “And what resonated with me after the two Championship Games was this: The four teams playing at the end of January, the best teams in our game, play overtime games. Fantastic football games. And what is America talking about? Officiating.

 

“The two best teams in the NFC play this unbelievable game. Great coaches, great players. A Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, and so no one is even talking about the game and all of those elements after the game. They’re talking about one thing: the call that was missed. And so for me, the idea of somehow finding a way within the structure that already exists to be able to rectify that play, that egregious mistake, is paramount. If we all put our heads together, we can solve this situation. As we go forward, we can clean this up so that this isn’t the focal point of everybody at the end of this unbelievable game. It goes to the credibility of the game and the integrity of the game.”

 

“A pivotal moment,” said this top club official. “I think when people heard it in such a convincing and simplistic way, even those who were really opposed to reviewing plays that hadn’t been flagged started to think we needed to do something about it.”

 

This club official, by the way, had been opposed to being able to review non-called interference plays. His team—his owner, actually—now was on the fence.

 

4. The Competition Committee met again at midday Tuesday and settled on the fourth proposal they’d considered on pass interference. The committee was now split, 4-4, on support of “putting a flag on the field,” as everyone called it—allowing coaches to replay-challenge pass-interference both called and not called. Still opposed on the Competition Committee: Dallas’ Stephen Jones, Green Bay’s Mark Murphy, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Denver’s John Elway. The last tweak, rules proposal 6C, had the key element: making pass-interference reviews allowable either after flags or with no flags, with the proviso that in the last two minutes of the first half and the game that the calls be subject to booth review only.

 

The important element here: Hail Mary plays. Some teams felt if coaches could challenge a Hail Mary on the last play of the first half or game, it would lead to every one being challenged, and coaches pushing for interference to be called the same on Hail Mary plays (when everything but a tackle or egregious shove is overlooked). That was the key change. Murphy and Elway switched to being in favor of 6C. And soon, after more discussion, Jones and Tomlin changed, and now the Competition Committee was 8-0 in favor of 6C … allowing all pass-interference plays, called or not called, to be eligible for review, with all reviews in the last two minutes of a half called only from the replay official upstairs.

 

5. The vote was anticlimactic. Cincinnati was the only team opposed, with 83-year-old owner Mike Brown, who thinks replay is far too intrusive on the sport, casting the no vote. The meeting to approve the new standard lasted only about 25 minutes.

 

Fair question to Payton from Sal Paolantonio in a gaggle of reporters afterward: “Think the coaches staged a coup?”

 

“Not at all,” Payton said. “Anything but. I think that today, this set of owners meetings, forget the specific rule, there were just a lot of great, healthy discussions about our game. Someone asked about our fans specifically in New Orleans. I said, ‘Look, when you’re on this committee, there’s a little bit of a responsibility for the game and football fans in general.’ That’s what this meeting was about.”

 

Later, to me, Payton said: “Bill Belichick said it best when he talked to the media—it’s an honor to be part of the process. This was not a Saints rule or a Rams rule. It’s an NFL rule. Maybe that play in the championship game was the Titanic, and it led to this moment. But what happened this week was about making the game better. I truly believe we did.”

 

When Payton left the Flagstaff Ballroom, he picked up all his papers—the rules proposals and his notes—and he organized them neatly, and took them home to New Orleans. For him, those papers are souvenirs from a week he’ll want to remember.

 

Tougher Gig For Al Riveron

 

Now what?

 

The man who preceded VP of Officiating Al Riveron, Dean Blandino, thinks about the details now. Riveron, I’m sure, is thinking of them too. I requested some time with Riveron on Thursday, and the league declined, preferring to get its new plan together before putting the man in charge of it out front.

 

“The important thing,” Blandino said, “is establishing a standard. There is already so much pressure in that job [VP of Officiating] anyway. I doubt you’ll see a lot of calls overturned. My feeling is there is so much contact downfield the standard will have to be high to overturn the call, or to give a pass-interference penalty when one wasn’t called on the field.”

 

That is my biggest question: We know the bar will be very high, as it always has been, for an interference call on a Hail Mary play. There will have to be a clear tackle, or a two-hand shove, for an interference call in the end zone, according to two members of the Competition Committee I spoke to. Good. Hail Marys should require a mugging for a flag.

 

But what of borderline pass-interference calls or non-calls? In regular replay, to overturn a call requires incontrovertible evidence that the call on the field (or, in the case of some interference calls, the non-call on the field) was wrong. What would be the standard for interference? The same?

 

As former ref Terry McAulay, now an NBC rules analyst, said Saturday: “What about the Brandin Cooks play?”

 

Very interesting. With 4:28 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 53, New England led the Rams 10-3. Jared Goff threw deep down the right sideline for Cooks, who had a step on cornerback Stephon Gilmore, with safety Duron Harmon sprinting over from center field. As the ball fell to earth around the New England five-yard line, Gilmore reached toward Cooks and grabbed his left forearm. As Cooks reached for the ball, Gilmore had his hand on the arm for maybe half a second. As the ball got to Cooks, the Ram receiver appeared to get both hands on it, but he could not make the catch.

 

In real time, it was hard to notice any sort of early grab or touch by Gilmore. And Cooks did manage to get his left hand in position to help try to make the catch, though the left arm was clearly slightly restricted. The ball fell incomplete.

 

On the next snap, Goff threw an interception. For the Rams, that was the game.

 

Via NFL GamePass, I was able to see the replay of the Super Bowl 53 game telecast Saturday. I watched the Gilmore tug/grab/arm-restriction between 20 and 25 times. On the replay, CBS’ Tony Romo said, “Gilmore grabs his arm just a little bit.”

 

Jim Nantz said: “Gotta make that catch.”

 

Romo: “ … Gilmore’s got a little bit of his arm right there.”

 

From the time Cooks stands up after the contact to the time the next play is snapped, 37 seconds pass. That would be enough time, clearly, for Rams coach Sean McVay to be told in his ear by an upstairs replay analyst to throw the flag—or at least to tell him there might be something there.

 

That is the kind of play that could torment Riveron and his New York officiating staff next fall. It’s close, the kind of play that, if called, you could understand and support. There’s a restriction, though not a killer restriction. Are these close calls the kinds of game-turning plays you’d want to have reversed?

 

But the Competition Committee reviewed the Cooks play in the runup to the meeting, and viewed it as a foul that should have been called. So when the league proceeds to define interference in review, it’s likely with that letter-of-the-law direction from the committee in mind. This is something that needs to be studied and resolved by Riveron and the NFL office. In 2017, Riveron got ripped for a series of ticky-tack replay calls. He was better in 2018. But it could be a rocky road in 2019, with interference calls and non-calls added to Riveron’s already crowded plate.

 

I would understand a reversal there, but I don’t think I would have overturned it.

 

“I absolutely feel the same way,” McAulay said.

 

“In my opinion,” Blandino said, “that is a good example of the on-field standard being different than the replay standard. In real time it’s so close the only way to consistently officiate it is to not call the foul, which is what they did. With the ability to slow it down on video you can see the contact is early. This to me is the biggest issue with making these plays reviewable.”

 

No—the biggest issue is how tortuous and controversial pass interference is as a foul. That’s why I think the standard for overturning a call or non-call on the field has be a high standard. The evidence has to be overwhelming. “To think the two of us can watch the same play and agree on pass interference all the time, that’ll never happen,” Raider coach Jon Gruden said at the meetings. “For us to think we can look at a replay in super, super, super-slo-mo and determine whether it is or it isn’t is unrealistic. I tried to do it in [the ESPN Monday night] booth for nine years.”

 

I’ve always said that from Labor Day till early February, the most important job in the league belongs to the commissioner. Number two: the vice president of officiating. For Riveron, that job gets a lot tougher in 2019.

 

 

MOCK DRAFT OF THE DAY

Today’s Mock Draft comes from Chad Reuter of NFL.com.  We like that he projects a couple of first round trades as teams go up to get QBs. 

 

His draft runs through the fourth round at NFL.com and you can see it here.

 

1 – ARIZONA

Kyler Murray – QB

School: Oklahoma | Year: Junior (RS)

Murray’s arm, mobility and ability to run Oklahoma’s offense make him the odds-on favorite to land at the No. 1 spot, either as a Cardinal or with another team moving up to pick him.

 

2 – OAKLAND (from San Francisco)

Drew Lock – QB

School: Missouri | Year: Senior

PROJECTED TRADE WITH 49ERS. Jon Gruden gets his quarterback by moving up two spots. Gruden coached Lock at the Senior Bowl, and it’s easy to see him appreciating the former Missouri quarterback’s demeanor and physical tools. If the Raiders don’t move up to get him, the Dolphins, Broncos or Giants could make a deal with the 49ers to land Lock.

 

3 – NEW YORK JETS

Nick Bosa – Edge

School: Ohio State | Year: Junior

Nick ends up as the No. 3 pick in the draft, like his brother Joey was three years ago. The heavy-handed younger Bosa is the base end the Jets need.

 

4 –  SAN FRANCISCO (from Oakland)

Quinnen Williams – DT

School: Alabama | Year: Sophomore (RS)

PROJECTED TRADE WITH RAIDERS. Williams adds yet another elite talent to San Francisco’s defensive front. In this trade, the 49ers will likely gain the Raiders’ fourth-round pick this year (Oakland does not have a third-round pick after the Antonio Brown trade) and their 2020 second- or third-round selection.

 

5 – TAMPA BAY

Josh Allen – Edge

School: Kentucky | Year: Senior

The Bucs are switching to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Todd Bowles, and Allen fits like a glove at outside linebacker. In fact, he’d fit at linebacker in any system.

 

6 – NEW YORK GIANTS

Rashan Gary – Edge

School: Michigan | Year: Junior

GM Dave Gettleman ignores the cries for a quarterback at No. 6 and picks his highest-rated defensive lineman remaining. Gary is versatile enough to play anywhere from the 3-technique to the outside.

 

7 – JACKSONVILLE

Jawaan Taylor – OT

School: Florida | Year: Junior

New Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles will be thrilled to have a strong right tackle in Taylor protecting him.

 

8 – DETROIT

Montez Sweat – Edge

School: Mississippi State | Year: Senior

The only thing better than having one very good pass rusher is having two very good pass rushers. Sweat and Trey Flowers should make opposing quarterbacks nauseous.

 

9 – MIAMI (from Buffalo)

Dwayne Haskins – QB

School: Ohio State | Year: Sophomore (RS)

PROJECTED TRADE WITH BILLS. If the Giants pass on Haskins at No. 6, the Dolphins can find their future starter and have bridge quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick run things in 2019 (or until the team thinks Haskins is ready).

 

10 – DENVER

Devin White – LB

School: LSU | Year: Junior

Denver gets the defensive leader at ILB that it needs now that Brandon Marshall was allowed to move on. White’s an all-around talent who should eventually be a Pro Bowl candidate.

 

11 – CINCINNATI

Andre Dillard – OT

School: Washington State | Year: Senior (RS)

The difference between left and right tackle has become blurred over time, and the Bengals really struggled at RT last year. Dillard’s pass-protection skills will be valued on the right side and he could shift to the blind side once Cordy Glenn’s time with the team comes to an end. The Bengals re-signed Bobby Hart, but he slides into backup duty in this scenario.

 

12 – GREEN BAY

T.J. Hockenson – TE

School: Iowa | Year: Sophomore (RS)

It’s a coin flip whether the Packers take Ed Oliver or Hockenson here, but in this scenario, Green Bay gets a receiving threat for Aaron Rodgers and a fierce blocker for the run game.

 

13 – BUFFALO (from Miami)

Ed Oliver – DT

School: Houston | Year: Junior

PROJECTED TRADE WITH DOLPHINS. Oliver’s a top-10 talent despite his average size, and the Bills could use another body on defense. Don’t be surprised if they ask him to stand up to rush the quarterback. The Bills should gain at least a third- and fifth-round pick in this trade, as the Raiders did when they dropped from 10 to 15 last year so the Cardinals could move up for Josh Rosen.

 

14 – ATLANTA

Christian Wilkins – DT

School: Clemson | Year: Senior

Wilkins is an agile and mobile tackle. He and Grady Jarrett will be a fine interior defensive line duo for the Falcons.

 

15 – WASHINGTON

D.K. Metcalf – WR

School: Mississippi | Year: Sophomore (RS)

Washington needs a playmaking receiver in the worst way. Metcalf met with the team at the combine, so we’ll see if he made a good impression.

 

16 – CAROLINA

Jonah Williams – OL

School: Alabama | Year: Junior

The Panthers can play Williams at left tackle to replace Matt Kalil or at left guard if they prefer to put Taylor Moton on the edge.

 

17 – NEW YORK GIANTS

Daniel Jones – QB

School: Duke | Year: Junior (RS)

Gettleman gets his Eli Manning clone in Jones, though he’ll appreciate the improved athleticism.

 

18 – MINNESOTA

Chris Lindstrom – OG

School: Boston College | Year: Senior

Minnesota brought in former Titans starter Josh Kline to fortify one guard spot, and now Lindstrom takes over on the other side to provide much-needed protection for Kirk Cousins.

 

19 – TENNESSEE

Brian Burns – Edge

School: Florida State | Year: Junior

Signing Cameron Wake was good for this year, but Burns’ skills will be valued in 2020 and beyond.

 

20 – PITTSBURGH

Devin Bush – LB

School: Michigan | Year: Junior

Sometimes inside linebackers become available later in the first round than their talent would warrant, providing great value. The Steelers pinch themselves seeing a player like Bush still on the board.

 

21- SEATTLE

Byron Murphy – CB

School: Washington | Year: Sophomore (RS)

Murphy stays in the Pacific Northwest to add ballhawking skills and toughness to the Seahawks’ secondary.

 

22 – BALTIMORE

Parris Campbell – WR

School: Ohio State | Year: Senior (RS)

The departures of Michael Crabtree and John Brown mean the Ravens desperately need a receiver (or two) for second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. Campbell is growing into a more complete receiver than he was early in his Ohio State career. The sky’s the limit.

 

23 – HOUSTON

Deandre Baker – CB

School: Georgia | Year: Senior

The Texans were looking under every rock at the combine for a new cornerback to replace Kareem Jackson. Baker’s a tough, heady player who will contribute immediately.

 

24 – OAKLAND (from Chicago)

Clelin Ferrell – Edge

School: Clemson | Year: Junior (RS)

Jon Gruden hopes Ferrell can bring back the pass rush the team missed after trading Khalil Mack.

 

25 – PHILADELPHIA

Josh Jacobs – RB

School: Alabama | Year: Junior

Running back is a big need for the Eagles, and Jacobs’ less-than-ideal 40 time (unofficially 4.60 at his pro day, per NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah) has no bearing on his likely success on Sundays. (UPDATE: The Eagles traded for Bears running back Jordan Howard on Thursday night.)

 

26 – INDIANAPOLIS

Dexter Lawrence – DT

School: Clemson | Year: Junior

GM Chris Ballard wants to upgrade his team’s defensive line. Lawrence can be a dominant force when rested and ready to go.

 

27 – OAKLAND (from Dallas)

Noah Fant – TE

School: Iowa | Year: Junior

The Raiders added two good targets at receiver ( Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams) but need to find a tight end, as well. Fant’s athleticism is too intriguing to pass up.

 

28 – LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Cody Ford – OT

School: Oklahoma | Year: Junior (RS)

Ford plugs in at right tackle for the Chargers, who need to shore up that side of the line.

 

29 – KANSAS CITY

Garrett Bradbury – C

School: N.C. State | Year: Senior (RS)

Stalwart pivot Mitch Morse left Kansas City for Buffalo. If Bradbury lasts to this pick, the Chiefs will consider themselves fortunate.

 

30 – GREEN BAY (from New Orleans)

Johnathan Abram – S

School: Mississippi State | Year: Senior

After addressing an offensive need with the 12th pick, the Packers find a leader for the secondary in Abram.

 

31 – LOS ANGELES RAMS

Greedy Williams – CB

School: LSU | Year: Sophomore (RS)

With Aqib Talib on the back end of his career and Marcus Peters coming off an up-and-down season, the Rams may decide to shore up this position.

 

32 – NEW ENGLAND

Hakeem Butler – WR

School: Iowa State | Year: Junior (RS)

Gronk was more than a tight end — he was also the team’s best downfield target. If Butler is still available here, his 6-foot-5 frame, speed and jump-ball ability could entice the Pats to pick him up, or maybe cause a team to trade into this spot for him.

 

 

2019 DRAFT

DT ED OLIVER is rising up NFL draft boards, or at least the draft boards of media draft experts.  One of them, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com on his resurgent case to be the second DL off the board.

 

It’s not a secret that the NFL draft is an inexact science, with teams often overrating or undervaluing prospects based on how they perform during their final college season. Given the powerful image of the last snapshot of a collegiate career, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a blue-chip player being undervalued at a time when scouts are salivating over the late bloomers and one-year wonders that tend to rise up draft boards around this point in the process each year.

 

With that in mind, I thought it was the perfect time to revisit my evaluation of Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, particularly on the heels of his strong performance at the Cougars’ pro day on Thursday. The former five-star recruit was considered a viable contender to become the No. 1 overall pick entering the 2018 season, but an injury-marred junior campaign, a verbal altercation with his head coach and questions about his size sent his draft stock tumbling a bit heading into the NFL Scouting Combine.

 

Despite alleviating concerns at the combine by measuring a sufficient 6-foot-2, 287 pounds before putting together a solid performance in testing drills (36-inch vertical jump, 10-foot broad jump and 32 reps on the bench press) and a strong showing in bag drills, the buzz didn’t appear to surround Oliver’s prospects to be a top-five pick until my NFL Network colleague Peter Schrager positioned the Houston standout in the No. 4 hole as the Oakland Raiders’ selection in his most recent mock draft earlier this week.

 

Now, I’m not saying mock drafts are always an accurate barometer of how teams are valuing a player, but I do believe well-connected guys like Schrager don’t arbitrarily throw prospects into the top five unless they get a tip that the player has a legitimate chance of landing on that hallowed ground on draft day. However, I’m here to tell you that Oliver not only has a chance of cracking the top five, but, while it seems unlikely, he could be the first defender off the board — yes, before the likes of Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Kentucky’s Josh Allen — if a team drafting early falls in love with him and a quarterback run develops at the top of the draft.

 

While some will suggest Oliver is a reach as a top-five pick, I believe he is worthy of being selected that early and he should be in the discussion as the top player in the draft based on his entire body of work as a disruptive player at Houston.

 

Oliver is a nightmare to block as a three-technique with exceptional first-step quickness, athleticism and closing burst. He has arguably the best “get off” I’ve seen from a prospect since Von Miller entered the league in 2011 and his first-step quickness makes him a disruptive force as a one-gap penetrator at the point of attack. No. 10’s snap-count anticipation and initial quickness enable him to shoot through gaps and avoid double-team blocks on the inside. It’s hard to find defensive tackles with the explosive combination of skills that the 2018 Outland Trophy winner (top interior lineman in college football) possesses.

 

As a run defender, Oliver combines extraordinary strength and power with his quickness to win at the line of scrimmage. He is capable of stacking and shedding blockers at the point of attack but is at his best when allowed to shoot through gaps on assigned games and movement maneuvers along the line. When put on the move, Oliver consistently destroys blocking schemes and racks up negative plays, as evidenced by his 54 career tackles for loss.

 

As a pass rusher, Oliver’s anticipation, quickness, and explosiveness create disruption in the middle of the pocket. He blows past interior blockers and forces quarterbacks off their preferred spot in the pocket. Although Oliver fails to consistently snag quarterbacks on his first attempt, he tallies a number of sacks on extra-effort plays outside of the pocket. He plays at a fever pitch and few blockers can match his energy and intensity over the course of a game. To that point, Oliver’s non-stop motor pops off the tape when studying him throughout his career. He is relentless in his pursuit of the ball and few defenders fly around like No. 10.

 

From a critical standpoint, I believe scheme fit is more important to Oliver than other defensive tackles in this draft. He struggled mightily as a zero-technique nose tackle in Houston’s defense as a junior. He didn’t handle double teams well and the lack of movement along the front limited his effectiveness as a one-gap penetrator.

 

Additionally, Oliver’s high-strung personality led to a highly publicized sideline incident last fall with his head coach during a nationally televised game. Oliver’s outburst came after his coach, Major Applewhite, told him to remove a coat reserved for active players — Oliver was not playing in the game. The next day, Oliver described the incident as “a misunderstanding” and Applewhite downplayed the kerfuffle. Now, some coaches and scouts won’t bristle at coaching a strong personality like Oliver, but it is important for his position coach and coordinator to know exactly what they’re getting when he enters the meeting room.

 

In looking for a pro comparison for Oliver, I believe Geno Atkins is a perfect choice. The two-time All-Pro defensive tackle has been a dominant force as an undersized interior pass rusher with explosive quickness and violent hands. Oliver has similar physical traits and his explosive pass rush can upgrade a front line lacking a difference maker on the inside.

 

While it is important for the defense to feature some games and stunts designed to get the defensive line on the move, Oliver is a blue-chip defender capable of taking over games in a system that allows him the freedom to attack the ball instead of reading and reacting at the snap.

 

If I’m going to spend a top draft pick on a defender, I want to make sure he’s capable of dominating the game and enters the league with a resume that backs up that assertion. When I look at Oliver’s total body of work as a collegian, I have no doubt that he’s worthy of being one of the first five players off the board when the draft begins on April 25.