Want a big target painted on your back? Just make yourself a first- or second-round draft pick. If there are any doubts at all about your long-term pro potential, you'll be loudly denounced as a bust-in-waiting, and the team that picked you will be widely criticized -- if not outright mocked.
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But drafting is not an exact science. Consider the Seattle Seahawks, who were given poor grades by many for their draft haul last year. Nearly 13 months later, it's apparent that their crop of prospects -- which included defensive standouts Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner, as well as a very special quarterback you might be familiar with (Russell Wilson) -- actually should have received an easy "A."
Here's what I think happens: All these guys who put out mock draft after mock draft in the run-up to the real thing develop opinions of players that are based more on hype than fact -- and these opinions swirl together, congealing into some kind of conventional wisdom. Then, when a team drafts someone in the first round who was widely considered to be a sure second-rounder, it's deemed a "bad" pick. Even if the team gave him a first-round grade, the refrain becomes, "Why didn't they just wait to get this guy later?" or "Why didn't they trade down for extra picks?"
It's time to explore that gap between perception and reality. The five rookies listed below attracted boatloads of early criticism. But at rookie minicamp, all five quickly showed why they're likely to outperform expectations. After prompting questions on draft day, these guys look primed to contribute early.
Round 1, 16th overall pick, Florida State
Many question if Manuel can live up to his lofty status as a top-20 pick (and the first quarterback drafted), but I think he'll eventually prove to be the franchise signal-caller Buffalo has long been looking for.
I've known Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett since he was about 8 years old, when his father, Paul, was a coach for the Cowboys. I think he's a very knowledgeable person -- someone who has the look of a future head-coaching candidate -- so I trust his opinion of Manuel, whom he judges as a dynamic person.
Hackett was impressed with how well Manuel knew the playbook at the Bills' minicamp -- how much information he absorbed in a relatively short amount of time. He said Manuel was able to jump right into the huddle and start calling plays without any problems.
Hackett acknowledged that Manuel needs to improve his footwork, but he thinks some tweaking should solve those issues. Manuel did have a less-than-optimal completion rate of 68 percent last season, which is a cause for concern. (The rule of thumb when it comes to projecting how that number will translate to the NFL is to drop it by 10 percent.) In an attempt to help him be more accurate, the Bills are having Manuel change how he holds the football.
While I think Manuel could definitely hack it as a first-year starter, I don't think they should push him. And I should say that Hackett thinks the longer a young quarterback is able to sit and learn in the early going, the better off he'll ultimately be. Still, Hackett also pointed out that Manuel isn't afraid of anything.
Round 2, 39th overall pick, West Virginia
At Jets camp, Smith was able to learn quickly -- though that was never a problem with him -- and the team was pleased with what he did. Moreover, he seems to have impressed the notoriously tough New York media.
As far as I'm concerned, many of the criticisms of Smith seem to have been, well, more or less made up. To the extent that they were valid, I think they stemmed from the less-than-great pre-draft preparation he received, in terms of getting ready to interview -- though the Jets say he even did that well. I talked to Terry Bradway, a senior personnel executive with the Jets, who told me that the team had no issues with a lack of focus or any of the things people have criticized Smith for.
Round 1, 31st overall pick, Wisconsin
The knock on this pick was that the Cowboys took Frederick too high, with some wondering why they didn't wait a round or two before selecting the Wisconsin center. But the way I see it, any time you like a guy, you don't worry so much about drafting him too early. If you wait, it'll be just your luck that some other team will snag him right before your turn comes up again. I think something like that would have happened with Frederick.
I saw Frederick practice three times last weekend, and I think he compares favorably to New York Jets center Nick Mangold, a four-time Pro Bowler who was drafted 29th overall in 2006. Like Mangold, Frederick can be an anchor on the offensive line -- though Frederick actually has better lower body strength.
We're talking about a smart player here -- he is, after all, about to earn an engineering degree. When Cowboys offensive coordinator and line coach Bill Callahan went to work out Frederick before the draft, he put 23 protections up on a board for him to learn, just in case Dallas ended up taking him. Last week, Callahan asked Frederick to draw the 23 protections -- and he was perfect.
It's easy to say that the Cowboys should have waited to nab Frederick, but remember: The first round saw a run on offensive linemen, with eight coming off the board by the time Dallas' pick came around. I don't think the Cowboys will regret pulling the trigger on Frederick, who should start -- and make Dallas better -- as a rookie and go on to play a lot of years at a very high level.
Round 1, 20th overall pick, Oregon
Many thought Long went higher than he should have, given his relative lack of experience, but I think the Bears landed someone who can immediately provide a positive impact on their offensive line.
I talked to Bears general manager Phil Emery, who is a very good player evaluator. After watching Long work this weekend, Emery thinks he could eventually start at either guard position or either tackle position. Emery praised Long's leadership abilities as a rookie, citing one particular occurrence: Long gathered the rest of the linemen, walked them up to the front of the team meeting room and asked if the group could sit in the second row, right behind the quarterbacks.
Long has just two years of experience on the offensive line, and only one of those came at a major-college level. Still, Emery said Long's athleticism is off the charts. Some question if Long has the strength to thrive, but as Tom Landry used to say, you can make them stronger, but you can't make them taller or faster. Long is fast (having run a 4.94-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and tall (6-foot-6); now all Chicago has to do is make him stronger.
The converted defensive end is a mean player with a defensive temperament, reminiscent of his father, Hall of Famer Howie Long, and his brother, St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long. Incidentally, the potential fraternal rivalry should make the Bears' Week 12 battle with the Rams something to watch.
Round 1, 30th overall pick, Georgia
Brandt: Ready-to-go rookies
Gil Brandt looks beyond the prospects picked in Round 1 to find nine rookies in a position to make an immediate impact. More ...
There were two main concerns about Ogletree before the draft: First, that he has trouble taking on and shedding blockers; and second, that he's had off-the-field problems. But he's got talent, and Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of helping players who are possible risks stay on the straight and narrow and make the most of their potential.
Ogletree, who can play either the strong or the weak side, looked really good in coverage drills this week, matching up well against the bigger receivers and tight ends. He also stood out in 7-on-7s. Many scouts felt that the quiet Ogletree was Georgia's best defensive player last season, and I think he's got a better-than-average chance to start, provided he stays out of trouble.
Remember, folks were worried about cornerback Janoris Jenkins when the Rams drafted him last year, but Fisher and his staff did what they had to do to help him, and Jenkins finished 2012 as one of the better defensive rookies in the NFL. Fisher will do the same for Ogletree, and you can bet that the staff in St. Louis will spend many hours teaching him to disengage from the blocker.
Ogletree really landed with the right team, which will give him a chance to be very, very good.