The Daily Briefing Thursday, March 22, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
The words “going to the ground” do not appear in the new catch rule definition being recommended by the Competition Committee. The AP:
The NFL’s catch rule would get less complicated if team owners approve recommendations from the powerful competition committee.
One of the first orders of business when the league’s annual meetings begin Monday in Orlando, Florida, will be a proposal by the committee to clarify what is a catch. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the week of the Super Bowl he would urge simplification of the rules.
“Catch/no catch is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, said Wednesday before outlining the committee’s recommendations.
The owners will be asked to vote on clarifications that eliminate parts of the rule involving a receiver going to the ground, and that also eliminate negating a catch for slight movement of the ball while it is in the receiver’s possession. No calls in the last few years — not even pass interference — have caused more consternation than overturned catches in key situations, including those by Dez Bryant, Jesse James and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
“We were at the point as far as players and particularly coaches who asked, ‘Why is that not a catch?'” Vincent said. “We talked to fans, coaches and players and we asked the groups, ‘Would you like this to be a catch?’ It was 100 percent yes.
“Then we began writing rules that actually apply to making these situations catches.”
Here’s what would constitute a catch if the owners approve the competition committee’s alterations:
— control of the ball;
— getting two feet down;
— performing a football act or;
— performing a third step.
The stipulation that slight movement of the ball while the receiver still has control no longer would result in an incompletion. Vincent pointed to the touchdown catch by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Corey Clement in the Super Bowl as an example of a player never losing possession of the ball despite slight movement.
“That’s what the fans, coaches and players want,” Vincent said. “They are the magical moments people are looking for, and that includes all of those (plays). It’s the biggest (proposed change). Why we want this is this is one call shaping results across the sport.”
Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who recently was cut by Seattle and signed with San Francisco, approves cleaning up the rules.
“I’m in favor of it because it gives the refs more clarity,” Sherman said. “I think anytime you can give the referees more of a straight line, an edge, to call plays, I think it’s better for the game.
“I think obviously there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the catch rule. Last year, my team was at the wrong end of it. A guy caught the ball and ran three or four steps, put his hand in the ground, fell, fumbled the ball and nobody touched him, and they said it was an incomplete pass. It was the most ridiculous thing I think I’ve ever seen.
“I think that they need to do more rules like that. They need to take the gray area out of a lot more rules because the rule book is getting too crazy. It’s getting too extensive. Every year, the refs are getting scrutinized left and right when it’s a bang-bang play. This game is happening at a million miles an hour and there’s really nothing you can do about it. The rule book is so complex. How many times can you think of 1,500 rules in a second of a play and see which ones apply to that particular play? So, I think any time they can simplify the rule book and simplify the ref’s understanding and the public’s understanding is better for the game.”
Competition committee members are chairman Rich McKay, president of the Falcons; Broncos general manager John Elway; Cowboys COO Stephen Jones; Giants owner John Mara; Packers President Mark Murphy; Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome; Saints coach Sean Payton and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
They also are recommending:
— expanding protection of a runner, which also involves quarterbacks when they have given themselves up as a runner. Vincent cited Kiko Alonso’s hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco last season, saying the NFL must avoid an “unnecessary shot.”
“This is strictly a safety move,” Vincent said.
— allowing the officiating staff at NFL headquarters in New York, using video review, to call for an ejection of a player committing an egregious non-football act. That would include throwing punches or being involved in a fight. Vincent pointed to acts by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans last season.
Vincent said there were no discussions within the competition committee regarding protocol for the pregame national anthem. Owners are expected to take up the subject on Monday or Tuesday, but no decisions are likely.
Looking back at past plays, Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com says some of them would indeed be catches under the new rule, most notably TE JESSE JAMES of the Steelers stretching to the goal line to defeat the Patriots.
Two of the most controversial plays in recent NFL history would have gone the other way if the proposed new catch rule had been in effect.
NFL head of officiating Al Riveron tweeted that the infamous Dez Bryant non-catch against the Packers in the 2014 playoffs, and the infamous Jesse James non-catch against the Patriots in the 2017 season, both would have been complete under the new catch rule.
The catch rule has been under scrutiny for years, but the Bryant play, which possibly cost the Cowboys the game against the Packers, brought it under particularly intense scrutiny. And the James play, which may have handed the Patriots home-field advantage over the Steelers, appears to have been the last straw.
Whether the new catch rule turns out to be any less controversial than the old catch rule remains to be seen. But it would have changed two of the most controversial plays the NFL has seen.
The Cowboys have signed Joe Thomas, but it’s not the walk-in no-doubt Hall of Fame OT. It’s LB JOE THOMAS. Jon Machota in the Dallas Morning News:
It took the Cowboys a week, but they’ve finally made their first free agency acquisition. According to sources, Dallas agreed to a two-year deal worth up to $4.6 million with veteran linebacker Joe Thomas on Wednesday.
Thomas, who visited the Cowboys on Wednesday, has played in 42 games over the last three seasons with the Green Bay Packers. He had a career-high 70 tackles in 2016.
Thomas signed with the Packers after going undrafted in 2014. He spent that season on Green Bay’s practice squad before Dallas signed him to its practice squad in September 2015. The Packers then signed Thomas to their active roster later that month.
If the NFL is in a fatal downturn due to the overwhelming appeal of ESPN’s NBA, injury issues including a declining player pool and TV ratings issues as millennials age and unplug – no one told the bidders for the Panthers. There is a scramble to buy a deck chair on the Titanic as reported by Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg who names names on potential owners:
The price of the Carolina Panthers has reached $2.5 billion, according to people familiar with bids for the NFL team, which would set a record for a U.S. professional sports franchise.
The rapid escalation in bidding has prompted Michael Rubin, the billionaire executive chairman of sports-apparel company Fanatics, to drop out of the process, said the people, who requested anonymity because the matter is private.
A spokesman for Rubin declined to comment. His backers included Brooklyn Nets investor and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Executive Vice Chairman Joe Tsai.
Remaining bidders include Alan Kestenbaum, chief executive officer of private equity firm Bedrock Industries LP, leading an investor group that the people said is backed by Canada’s third-richest person, billionaire Jim Pattison.
Pattison, reached by phone, said he isn’t currently backing an offer.
Appaloosa Management LP founder David Tepper, already a minority owner of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers, has also submitted a bid. So has Ben Navarro, CEO of Sherman Financial Group, a South Carolina-based finance company that caters to subprime borrowers.
Also looming over the deal is interest from local billionaire Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS Institute Inc., the people said. Goodnight has a net worth of $9.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, while Pattison is worth $7.5 billion.
A spokeswoman for Goodnight declined to comment. Steve Greenberg, the Allen & Co. banker overseeing the sale of the club, also declined to comment.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson put the team up for sale in December after the NFL took over an investigation into workplace harassment allegations against the longtime owner.
Forbes values the Panthers at $2.3 billion, No. 21 on its list of 2017 NFL franchise valuations and worth about half as much as the top team on the list, the Dallas Cowboys.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
C MIKE POUNCEY mulls on the fact that he is finally going to be snapping the ball to an accomplished quarterback. Ricky Henne at Chargers.com:
Mike Pouncey had no idea he’d be in this position even a week ago.
A three-time Pro Bowler, he spent seven seasons with the Miami Dolphins forging a career as one of the top centers in the game.
Then a Thursday meeting with the team’s executives took place that changed everything. While grateful for his time in Miami, Pouncey requested and was granted his release.
As you’d expect, a long line of suitors immediately reached out.
Pouncey estimates between five to seven teams were seriously interested in signing him, but once the Chargers got in the mix, the race to secure his services was virtually over.
He badly wanted to be a Bolt…and for good reason.
“As soon as my agent called me and said the Chargers reached out, they went to the top of my list,” he explained. “They have a great quarterback. A great defense. An offensive line that played really, really well. I felt like I could be a piece that fits in really well to help this offensive line be even better than it was last year. I’m just excited to be here.”
The matter of who he’ll be snapping the ball to also can’t be overstated.
It’s safe to say Pouncey has never had a quarterback of Philip Rivers’ caliber under center.
“No disrespect to any of the guys in Miami,” he explained. “I enjoyed my career there for seven years with the Miami Dolphins, but to be able to play with an elite guy like this and a Hall of Fame quarterback is something I always dreamed of in my life. I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get to work with him. He’s a great football player. The way he goes to work out there, approaches the game and how competitive he is. I’d tell my guys all the time about the time we played the Chargers a few years ago, and they called his name and he was high-kneeing it out of the tunnel. He had so much excitement I said, ‘That’s the kind of guy I want to be with.’ This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I couldn’t pass it up.”
Meanwhile, Pouncey’s relieved he won’t have to go toe-to-toe with the Chargers’ ferocious defense. He’s gone up against the likes of Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa and Corey Liuget numerous times in the past, and is thankful to now root them on from the sidelines.
“That’s going to be a good thing that I know I get to play with them,” he said with a mixture of relief and laughter. “Those guys up front are good football players. And to have that combination of Ingram and Bosa, you don’t find that too often in this league. I’m excited to get over here and help these guys get something special, and that’s a Super Bowl.”
RB FRANK GORE may wrap it all up in his hometown. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
Frank Gore has already been excellent in Miami.
Now, he’s at least considering trying it again.
PFT has confirmed that the veteran running back is visiting the Dolphins today, returning to the scene of his college stardom.
Of course, Gore left the University of Miami after the 2004 season, and has racked up 14,026 yards in the NFL since. That means he’s both accomplished and old, as he turns 35 in May.
But the Dolphins could use some ballast, both in terms of the offense and the locker room. And adding a player so widely respected could only be a good thing for a team that’s been in constant flux.
The Dolphins traded bell cow back Jay Ajayi in midseason last year, and don’t have a regular they can count on. Gore could change that.
Mike Reiss of ESPN.com thinks the Patriots have several ways to replace T NATE SOLDER who they let walk to the Giants.
No NFL team has all of its questions answered at this point, and for the New England Patriots, the top one is, “How do they fill the void with starting left tackle Nate Solder departing in free agency?”
Sparked by a suggestion from Twitter follower @illegalact, let’s break down some options in three categories:
Cole Croston: Because he entered the NFL with the team as an undrafted free agent from Iowa, he has flown under the radar a bit. Yet the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Croston outplayed 2017 sixth-round draft choice Conor McDermott last preseason/training camp in the eyes of coaches, so this is also a case where perception hasn’t caught up to reality. Croston was kept on the 53-man roster for all of 2017, and his preseason tape at left tackle shows some promise.
Matt Tobin: The 6-foot-6, 303-pound Tobin, also an Iowa alum, was the Seahawks’ swing tackle last season and has 21 career starts, making him the most experienced option at this time unless the team felt moving flipping right tackle Marcus Cannon was the best choice for the team.
Antonio Garcia: The Patriots thought highly of the 6-foot-7, 302-pound Garcia in last year’s draft, trading a third-round pick (96) and fourth-rounder (126) to move up 11 spots in the third round to select Garcia No. 85 overall. So the club obviously sees some desirable traits to work with, but the biggest issue for Garcia is his health. He missed his entire rookie season after reportedly developing blood clots in his lungs, and he needs to gain weight back. Garcia wrote on Instagram on Tuesday that he was cleared to play.
Marcus Cannon: A top-flight right tackle, Cannon’s career elevated to a higher level once the Patriots decided to lock him in on the right side. When Cannon took reps at left tackle, or even guard, it seemed to limit his ceiling. So moving him to the left side comes with risk as it could hurt the Patriots in two spots.
Orlando Brown (Oklahoma): A son of the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown, who played for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns (1993-95), his poor testing results at the combine made some headlines. He has been considered a first-round prospect, in part because of his rare physical makeup – he’s 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, with long arms.
Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame): The 6-foot-8, 312-pound McGlinchey is expected to be picked in the first round and is viewed by some as the best offensive tackle in the draft. His background as a tight end reflects his good athleticism, which fits the profile the Patriots generally look for in their left tackles.
Kolton Miller (UCLA): At 6-foot-9 and 310 pounds, he is one of the tallest prospects in the draft. Some have compared his physical makeup to Solder’s. He tested well at the combine, which could help improve his draft stock.
Brian O’Neill (Pittsburgh): A tight end who transitioned to tackle, the 6-foot-7, 305-pound O’Neill is considered a good athlete (a 4.82 time in the 40 at his size is impressive), has long arms, and projects to fit in a zone-type blocking scheme like the Patriots’ run.
Connor Williams (Texas): Starting at left tackle as a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Williams enters the NFL draft after his junior season that was shortened by a knee injury. Some viewed him as a top-10 pick entering last season, but now he could slide.
LaAdrian Waddle: Having first joined the Patriots in December 2015, he has played in 15 regular-season games (four starts). The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Waddle visited with the Cowboys on Monday, and he was back at Gillette Stadium late last week, presumably for a physical.
Cameron Fleming: The 2014 fourth-round draft choice from Stanford has been praised by Belichick for coming through whenever the Patriots called on him, as he has played in 47 career regular-season games, with 20 starts. He’s a powerful run-blocker on the edge and is probably a better fit on the right side, but the Patriots have won with him on the left side.
NEW YORK JETS
Should an owner take an active interest in the biggest investment his team is going to make? For the Jets, the answer seems to be no with the same guy who drafted CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG on his own. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
When Browns owner Jimmy Haslam turned up at Southern Cal quarterback Sam Darnold‘s pro day workout yesterday, it sparked reasonable concerns about his level of involvement in a process his team hasn’t previously gotten right under his leadership.
At least the Jets don’t have to worry about that as they search for the same kind of answer at the position.
According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Jets CEO and chairman Christopher Johnson is not accompanying the team’s football decision-makers as they make the rounds of private workouts with the top four quarterbacks in the draft — Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield.
The Jets have already traded up to the third overall selection, where they should be able to land a quarterback — or the top player at another position.
Johnson, who took the reins of the team from his brother after Woody Johnson was named ambassador to the United Kingdom, apparently had scheduling issues which prevented him from making the trips. And if he isn’t going to make all of them, it’s better not to turn up at any, since it would be interpreted as interest or a preference.
By Haslam making himself visible yesterday — he was seen chatting with Darnold’s family in the stands — it helps create the impression that the Browns may have a preference for Darnold, whether that’s the case or not.
The Jets have fallen into this trap before. Woody Johnson attended the team’s predraft workout and dinner with quarterback Mark Sanchez in 2009, accompanying coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum, before they traded up to take Sanchez fifth overall.
THIS AND THAT
REMAINING FREE AGENTS
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com looks at what is left of the free agent market:
One week after free agency started, only two of the top 20 players are still available from our Top 101 Free Agents: Ndamukong Suh and Bashaud Breeland. Going deeper on the list, only 10 of our top 70 available players are still looking for a job.
Despite that, there are plenty of signings left to go. Games are won during the regular season with the help of low-cost “Phase 2” free agents who usually sign at a discount. Here’s a look at the best fits for some of the biggest names left:
Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle: LOS ANGELES RAMS. It’s rare to see the best defensive free agent still looking for a job a week into free agency, but Suh is dealing with extenuating circumstances. He wasn’t even available until after free agency technically started, meaning that some potential suitors had already ear-marked money elsewhere. Suh is also the rare top-shelf free agent who must get used to a world where he’s making less money — likely far less money — than he once did.
Suh has already taken trips in free agency to New Orleans, Tennessee and Los Angeles, with Oakland next up. The old-school tour has been Suh’s way of “building up a market,” according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, although it’s fair to wonder if the tour would exist if Suh’s market was anywhere close to what it was in 2015.
(UPDATE: Suh cancelled his trip to Oakland and has gone home to consider his choices, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network’s Michael Silver reported Wednesday.)
Fair or not, the concern that Suh might not fit in every locker room could be depressing his value. He should prioritize the situation that gives him the best chance to wreak havoc and win playoff games on a one-year contract before heading back to free agency next season. Both the Rams and Saints would be excellent places to make that happen, but L.A. gets the edge as the best fit because I selfishly want to see Suh line up next to Aaron Donald every week and destroy football as we know it.
Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver: CLEVELAND BROWNS. One year after turning down a multi-year offer from the Browns to settle on a “prove it” deal in Washington, Pryor will likely be forced to prove it again. NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported that the Rams, 49ers and Browns all showed early interest, while Pryor first visited the Seahawks and then met with the Jets on Tuesday.
Still only 28 years old, Pryor’s priority should be finding a home that can maximize his skill set as an outside receiver without trying to make him into something he’s not, like the Redskins did last season. Even though the Browns have a compelling trio in place with Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry and Corey Coleman, Pryor should do whatever he can to get back in Hue Jackson’s good graces. Signing your No. 1 receiver from 2016 to be your No. 3 or No. 4 receiver in 2018 would qualify as progress for the Browns.
Martellus Bennett, tight end: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS. Bennett is getting slept on as a free agent this time around after the Patriots let him go on March 7. While he wasn’t necessarily worth $6 million coming off his injury-marred 2017 season, Marty B put up 701 yards and seven touchdowns in his last healthy season with the Patriots.
Teams like the Texans, Broncos and Saints could use help at the position, but a return to New England at a lesser price could make the most sense for Bennett if big offers aren’t coming. Bennett and Rob Gronkowski make each other better, not to mention making the Patriots’ offense a lot tougher to defend.
Of course, all of this is moot if Bennett decides to hang ’em up — something he said he’s considering Wednesday on “The Rich Eisen Show.”
Colin Kaepernick, quarterback: MIAMI DOLPHINS. He’s not giving up on his NFL career, as video of his recent workout in Houston indicated. So I’m not giving up on his career, either, because Kaepernick would be ranked higher than any free-agent quarterback currently available. (Some of the top names left include Geno Smith, Matt Moore and Blaine Gabbert.) Some of the most logical landing spots — like the Jaguars and Ravens — very publicly chose to pass on Kaepernick a year ago. There’s no telling if their position has changed in the meantime, but his grievance filed last year under the CBA alleging collusion could stall any interest.
The Dolphins are a team that checks a lot of boxes (SEE: starting quarterback recovering from a major injury, lack of depth, an ownership/coach group that expressed openness to Kaepernick last offseason). It will likely take until after the draft — at the earliest — for Kaepernick to sign, but his career shouldn’t be over at age 30.
NaVorro Bowman, linebacker: DALLAS COWBOYS. Once one of the great pursuit linebackers in football, Bowman is settling into a phase of his career where he isn’t necessarily on the field every snap. He would be an excellent addition for a team needing depth, leadership and some protection against injuries. The Cowboys have been quiet in free agency, but adding Bowman to the LB corps would make a lot of sense. After all, Anthony Hitchens left town, Sean Lee is an injury risk and Jaylon Smith had understandable ups and downs in his return to the field after missing his rookie season while recovering from a serious knee injury.
Jordan Matthews, wide receiver: INDIANAPOLIS COLTS. Remember him? Matthews’ production in his first three NFL seasons (225 catches for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns) is far greater than what free agents like Paul Richardson, Taylor Gabriel, Marqise Lee, Albert Wilson and Donte Moncrief have achieved, but Matthews is the one in that group without a job. He might have a limited skill set as a slot receiver and is coming off an injury-plagued year in Buffalo, but he can help a team looking for help on the inside.
Teams like the Texans, Ravens, Vikings and Cardinals could all use another trusted pair of hands, but I’d give Matthews the best chance at rehabilitating his value in Indianapolis. The Colts are very thin at receiver, and general manager Chris Ballard has already shown a keen eye for value in the second wave of free agency. Matthews would make Indy’s offense look more professional at a cheap price.
ROMO ON TOUR
Tony Romo is in the Dominican Republic this week, playing a PGA TOUR event. Matt Bonesteel in the Washington Post:
Most of golf’s elite will be in Austin this weekend for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play event, leaving the field at the PGA Tour’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic lacking for star power in its first year as an official tour event. Thankfully, Tony Romo is still giving this golf thing a try, and last month he received a sponsor’s exemption into the event. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS Sports NFL analyst tees off Thursday at 8:10 a.m. Eastern in a threesome with Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.
“It’s about competition, it’s about just getting into your own bubble and creating an environment that you’re comfortable in and then going to do what you know how to do,” Romo said Tuesday, per Golf Digest. “Golf obviously wasn’t my sport most of my life, but I’ve put in a lot of time preparing for this, so I’ll be prepared to play the best I am capable of this week.
“I’m not putting in any expectations on myself, like you guys I’m anxious to see what that is, what level is that I don’t know.”
Like NBA star Stephen Curry, who drew a smattering of criticism after he was awarded a spot in a lower-level Web.com Tour event last year, Romo’s inclusion at this weekend’s tournament is likely to raise some eyebrows. But his exemption is apparently on the level and doesn’t violate the tour’s so-called “Mark Rypien Rule,” instituted after the then-Redskins quarterback got an invite to the 1992 Kemper Open and proceeded to finish dead last by 13 shots and miss the cut by 28 strokes. In January, a PGA tour official explained to Golf Digest that any amateur with a USGA handicap of 0.0 or better may receive an unrestricted sponsor’s exemption. Romo currently sits at +0.3.
Romo, who shot rounds of 80 and 82 at last year’s Western Amateur and missed the cut by six strokes at a local U.S. Open qualifier in May, doesn’t consider this a lark.
“I’ve played enough golf where I feel comfortable in venues with size and people around, that part of it won’t be that much different,” he said. “I’ll be treating it very serious, I think for me the approach I’ve taken, my wife will tell you, she hasn’t seen much of me over the last month, but if you know me at all I think you know that if I care about something I’m going to commit to it 100 percent, so, like I said, you’ll get the best I got this week.”
2017 DRAFT RE-GRADE
Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN.com points out that the teams that really crushed the 2017 draft weren’t necessarily the ones that got the best draft grades from the “experts.” It is tremendously long here with excerpts below:
As the 2018 NFL draft inches closer — seriously, it’s next month — it’s time for my annual tradition of evaluating last year’s draft, tearing up my grades that come out the night the draft ends and starting from scratch based on how each rookie performed in Year 1. We saw several injuries crush several of these classes, but there were also a lot of surprises and sleepers who outperformed their draft positions. Either way, it’s a good time for a progress report.
As a reminder: The updated grades are just a fun exercise in seeing how the draft class appears to be shaping up. It’s a check to see how players are coming along. A few parameters:
I look at first-year impact from the rookie class based on relative value — contributing to a winner is worth more than piling up reps for a bad team.
I included rookie undrafted free agents added after the draft, as those are an important part of the process. And there were a few teams that had big contributors from UFAs.
As with the rookie rankings, I try to ask whether players who contributed could do so for most teams. Again, relative value matters.
We’ll start with the highest-graded class — it should be no surprise — and go in order of best to worst grades, with teams in alphabetical order for grades that are the same. And click the links below to go directly to a team:
New Orleans Saints
Post-draft grade: B
Where do we start with the class that had both the offensive and defensive rookies of the year? It was sensational, one of the best rookie groups since I’ve been covering the draft. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore locked down one side of the field and had five interceptions. Ryan Ramczyk started every game, making a flawless switch from left tackle to right tackle once Terron Armstead came back healthy. Safety Marcus Williams is going to be remembered for the touchdown he gave up in the divisional-round loss to the Vikings, but he’s a really good player. He had four interceptions and 71 tackles.
Then there’s running back Alvin Kamara, a pick I questioned last year. Here’s what I wrote: “A big question mark here was the value given up to draft Kamara. Even if you question any possibilities beyond 2017 for Mark Ingram or Adrian Peterson, trading a second-rounder to move up and take my No. 88 overall player is iffy.”
OK, so the Saints traded a 2018 second-round pick to move into the third round in 2017 — and got one of the most versatile backs in the NFL. Kamara led all rookies in receptions (81) and yards after the catch (696), and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. He had 14 total touchdowns. I got this one wrong. Absolutely.
New Orleans also got meaningful snaps from Alex Anzalone, who started the first four games before hurting his shoulder and being placed on injured reserve, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who had two sacks.
Again, this is a fantastic class. Enjoy this A, Saints.
New grade: A
Post-draft grade: A-
This is a great class, and it gets a boost with Buffalo picking up an extra first-round pick in 2018 for trading down from No. 10 with Kansas City. The Bills already have used that extra draft capital to get in contention to move up in April’s draft and pick their quarterback of the future, though they still like fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman — I wrote last year that I wouldn’t be surprised if Peterman, now known for his disastrous five-interception debut, “is the starter in a year or two” — and added AJ McCarron on a short-term deal. After moving on from Tyrod Taylor, they have to find an answer there. This was a 2017 playoff team, but the Bills overachieved.
As for the picks, first-round cornerback Tre’Davious White started every game and had four interceptions. Now they need to figure out the spot across from him. Dion Dawkins was so good filling in for Cordy Glenn at left tackle that Buffalo traded Glenn and installed Dawkins on the blind side. Linebacker Matt Milano had 43 tackles in limited snaps and looks like a useful Day 3 pick. I liked the pick of wide receiver Zay Jones on Day 2, but he did not have a great rookie season, catching only 27 of 74 targets.
If Jones improves and Peterman turns into a competent starter, this class is an A without question.
Post-draft grade: C+
Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been accused of hating Deshaun Watson. That’s just not true. In reality, I ranked him as my No. 3 quarterback in a class that wasn’t very deep. I had him No. 34 on my Big Board, which put him at the top of the second round. I liked him, but I thought he had some flaws.
Houston obviously thought a lot of him, moving up 13 spots and giving up its first-rounder in 2018. What happened next? After a rocky first half from Tom Savage in Week 1, Watson starred, throwing 19 touchdown passes in only six starts. As I noted with regard to my All-Rookie team, that’s more passing TDs than Joe Flacco, Tyrod Taylor and Marcus Mariota had all season. Bill O’Brien did a fantastic job of tailoring the offense to Watson’s strengths — more movement passes, more run-pass options — and the Texans were legitimately fun to watch. Then it all came crashing down when Watson tore his ACL in practice in early November. Houston went 1-8 afterward. And those 2018 picks it dealt to Cleveland to get Watson (and get rid of Brock Osweiler) ended up being extremely valuable — Nos. 4 and 35 overall.
Now, I suspect the Texans’ front office would make those moves again in a heartbeat. Watson could be a superstar (though two ACL injuries is a concern), and finding a superstar at quarterback can change the direction of a franchise. Even after a 4-12 season, this team is headed in the right direction — assuming Watson returns healthy.
Houston also got production out of linebacker Zach Cunningham (82 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble) and running back D’Onta Foreman (two touchdowns before tearing his Achilles in November). Day 3 picks Julien Davenport, Carlos Watkins and Kyle Fuller all started games too, while undrafted free agent Dylan Cole had 32 total tackles and two interceptions in part-time duty.
So that’s a lot of production from rookies, but it’s not quite an A because of what it gave up in 2018.
New grade: B+
Post-draft grade: C+
I quibbled with the Jaguars taking Leonard Fournette at No. 4 overall — if I were a GM, I’ve long said I’d never take a running back anywhere close to the top 10 — but there’s no denying his immediate impact. He had 1,040 yards (only 3.9 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns, plus another 36 catches for 302 yards. That catch total is almost identical to his total in three seasons at LSU, so it’s an example of a college system sometimes working against a player’s strengths — Fournette has decent hands. He also added four rushing touchdowns in the playoffs as the Jags were a few plays away from making the Super Bowl. It’s a defensible top pick for Tom Coughlin’s first draft back in charge.
The Jacksonville offense wants to be run-first with Blake Bortles at the helm, and second-round pick Cam Robinson, who was forced to play left tackle immediately after Branden Albert retired, had a strong rookie season. He started 18 of the Jags’ 19 games, though his 10 total penalties was among the most in the league. The Jaguars also added deep threats for Bortles in Dede Westbrook, who had 27 catches for 339 yards and a touchdown in just seven games, and undrafted free agent Keelan Cole, who averaged 17.8 yards per catch and had 748 receiving yards. They’ll have to step up with Allen Robinson gone, but those are stellar starts. Two more undrafted free agents — linebacker Donald Payne (12 special-teams tackles) and defensive tackle Eli Ankou (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks) — pitched in.
Jacksonville is clearly trending up, and it will have a handful of 2018 starters from this class. That’s impressive. Now it gets to pick outside the top 10 for the first time since 2007. Yes, seriously.
New grade: B+
Here is a team that went the other way in Mel’s eyes:
New England Patriots
Post-draft grade: A
More than a few people thought I was too high on New England’s draft initially, but as I wrote at the time, Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy were essentially the Patriots’ first- and second-round picks. They added an extra third-round pick in the Ealy trade with the Panthers and also got Dwayne Allen plus a sixth from the Colts (for a fourth) and surrendered their fifth-round pick for Mike Gillislee.
So, yeah, not all of those deals turned out well. Cooks is a stud, but Ealy didn’t make it out of training camp with the Patriots. Allen caught just 10 passes and was basically used as an extra tackle. Gillislee had three touchdowns in the season opener, then couldn’t get on the game-day roster.
As for actual picks, both of the Patriots’ third-rounders played zero snaps — Derek Rivers tore his ACL in the preseason, and Antonio Garcia was on the non-football injury/illness list. Fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise looks like a steal, though, as he had seven total sacks (two in the playoffs), while undrafted defensive tackle Adam Butler pitched in with four sacks (two in the playoffs).
Garcia could be in the mix to replace Nate Solder at left tackle, and Rivers has a ton of potential as an edge rusher. But those are unknowns, and Bill Belichick & Co. need much more out of their younger guys.
New grade: C+
At least to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com, QB SAM DARNOLD hit it out of the park at his Pro Day on Wednesday.
Given an out, USC quarterback Sam Darnold declined to move up his throwing session at his school’s pro day on Wednesday, choosing instead to throw under a steady rain in front of a throng of NFL decision-makers.
“I don’t think it would have been fair to change the schedule with all of the other guys training for the pro day,” Darnold said. “So I just wanted my guys to be comfortable — my teammates — that was first and foremost.
“But I also think it was a perfect opportunity to be able to throw in the rain and show these guys I could throw in the rain.”
The decision proved fruitful, as Darnold looked impressive in making about 60 or so throws in front of a Cleveland Browns contingent that included owner Jimmy Haslam in the stands, with general manager John Dorsey, head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the sidelines.
“One of my first football experiences was playing mud football in the rain,” Darnold said, smiling. “So it was cool to come out here and throw one last time with the guys that I’ve been throwing with for years now.”
The Browns hold the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, and Darnold said he met with Cleveland brass and participated in a private workout Tuesday.
Darnold said he also met with decision-makers from the New York Giants before his workout. The Giants hold the No. 2 overall pick.
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur was on hand to watch Darnold’s workout, along with New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles, Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks and Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn.
Darnold said he has a couple visits lined up before the draft in April, but he did not disclose the teams.
Darnold did not throw at the NFL scouting combine in February. However, he said it was important to answer questions about his throwing mechanics at his pro day, and he believes he’s worthy of the No. 1 overall pick.
“I feel like I’m definitely capable of going No. 1,” Darnold said. “What the Browns are doing right now is really good. They’ve got a lot of good pieces right now. I think going there and being able to lead the way I lead and play the way I play, I think it would be a good situation.”
Darnold said he has been working with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer to try to get his hips looser so he can use them more when he throws.
Darnold also has spent time with former NFL head coach Bill Parcells to help get prepared for life in the pros.
“I think the main thing with him was just get back in the huddle — that was the main phrase he kept saying,” Darnold said about Parcells. “No matter what the score is on Sunday, no matter what happens on Sunday, Monday or Thursday, just get back in the huddle that next week.”
Palmer addressed Darnold’s quiet, unassuming nature, saying that the quarterback’s level-headed approach will be a plus for NFL teams willing to draft the USC product.
“Sam is not the kid you speed date; he’s the kid you marry,” Palmer said. “So as he goes through this process and gets to spend some time with these other teams, it’s very predictable for people like myself that are in his circle that people will fall in love the more they get to know him.”