The old saying goes that there's no such thing as bad drafts, just bad drafters. But the tune you're hearing now about the 2011 draft class is pretty different from the word on the street at this time a year ago.
The 2010 draft class was widely known to be talented and deep, with some general managers commenting on how many "good kids" there were at the top of the heap. Conversely, this year, teams aren't finding the same "slam dunks" they did last year.
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That doesn't suggest the top prospects are all of poor character, can't run or jump, or have bad tape. It does mean there are fewer players at the top who evaluators would consider the "total package" like, say, Ndamukong Suh was last spring.
"There may be three or four guys you'd consider top 10-type of picks, and then there could be 20, 25 good players right after that," said one veteran NFC personnel executive. "What sticks out is that this is the time when it's usually starting to come together, and it's still hard to say who's going in that top 10. Take the defensive ends. There's eight of them, maybe, depending on whether you're a 4-3 team and you count Von Miller.
"Well, who's the first one and who's the eighth one? That changes daily. They're all pretty good, but if you ask 32 teams, you have those eight guys ranked differently every time. So this is one year where you'd normally say, 'No way this guy will fall to us.' You might say, 'Yeah, that guy could fall. He could go 12. Or he could go 24.'"
With less than three weeks left until the draft -- which is the only scheduled event left on the league's lock-out calendar -- that area is a good place to start as we look at themes teams see in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Lots of good, little great
Sam Bradford was selected first overall in 2010 and had one of the better rookie campaigns by a quarterback in some time. He wasn't even one of the five first-year pros to make the Pro Bowl, with an on-deck circle of prospective Hawaii-bound young talent (Joe Haden, Rodger Saffold, Rob Gronkowski, etc.) joining him in reserve.
This year? The senior class isn't nearly as strong and overall doesn't have as many pro-ready players, which could be exacerbated by the lockout costing rookies practice time. That means this is a better year to be in the 17-32 range than the 1-16 area.
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"You might have five players you're comfortable with in the top five, and the other guys are a projection based on potential," said an AFC personnel director. "But 17-32, it'll be very strong. You could get a defensive lineman who could start immediately at 25. You could get a left tackle at 27 or 28 who'll start for you. And those are premium positions. They're not elite, but there are guys who'll play and play for you for a long time in those groups."
The NFC personnel exec said there are "Jordan Grosses, not Jonathan Ogdens" to be had late in the first round. Good if you're, say, the Steelers with a need for a tackle at No. 31. Not so good if you have that same need and you're the Bills at No. 3, though it might mean teams in that position can wait until the second round to get their man.
Filling the need
One reason for New England to sign veteran Marcus Stroud to play defensive end in their 3-4 scheme right before the lockout was the added flexibility he gives the team, on the field and on the draft board. That spot is a need area for the Patriots. So by getting a stop-gap player, there's now less of a need to reach for that position during the draft.
If the right player is there for the Patriots, then so be it. Most teams couldn't do enough of the above without free agency, which means more clubs have more holes going into draft weekend. That means you might see more "runs" on positions than normal, with teams moving up the board as certain positions become thin.
"I think when those players are leaving the board in a need category, teams are really going to feel the uncertainty of free agency and start grasping for those needs," said the AFC personnel director. "You don't even know what the rules are going to be in free agency -- 'Is this five-year or four-year guy gonna be available? What's the deal?'
"A team like Indy, maybe you're on that run of left tackles earlier, say 12-22, and they're sitting down there and say, 'We have to have a left tackle.' So they feel they've gotta go get that last guy. Normally, you'd go into free agency looking to fill a need and go get them. Now? Once they're gone in the draft, it's over."
QB supply and demand
The glarding lack of complete prospects in this draft is especially true at quarterback. Adding to the fact that each of the top eight teams in the pecking order could select a signal-caller -- and the Redskins, Vikings and Dolphins are also in the top 15 -- makes this a screwy year at the position.
"That could create a supply-and-demand issue," said an AFC personnel executive. "If you take a poll, I bet everyone says none of these quarterbacks are ready, Day 1, to walk in the door and be a front-line starter. A few you hope can be starters, but all would benefit from sitting a year. There's no Sam Bradford. But someone could be drafted to do what he did."
It leads to the idea a frenzy for quarterbacks could be set off at the bottom of the first round. Miami could trade down (they're looking to recoup the second-rounder lost in the Brandon Marshall deal). If they don't fill the need at the top of the draft, teams like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Arizona, Tennessee, Washington or Minnesota could deal up from the top of the second round to leapfrog the others.
The most likely scenario has Cam Newton going first overall, with Blaine Gabbert coming off the board somewhere in the top 10. Then, if Jake Locker gets past Washington at No. 10, there might not be another quarterback selected until the draft gets into the 20s. That could set off the above turn of events, with Locker, Ryan Mallett, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick in the mix.
Making sense of the dollars
There's been just one trade involving a top-six pick (the Mark Sanchez deal) over the last six years, and just four involving top-10 picks. The reason is really simple: The prohibitive cost.
Most folks expect that the next CBA will put a curb on rising rookie salaries that resulted in Bradford getting $50 million guaranteed last summer. But that doesn't mean, in this draft, that teams are operating under the assumption it will happen this year. In fact, teams are operating with the feeling they might have to pay the same freight as in the recent past, which would be the case if an injunction to lift the lockout is granted and the 2011 season is played without a CBA in place.
"It's a gray area," said the AFC personnel exec. "No one knows the timetable, and there are no guarantees. And even if there is a rookie wage scale, we don't know the numbers."
Translation: The same problems over dealing picks in the top quarter of the first round will continue to exist and might be made worse by the aforementioned holes in the profiles of the top prospects.
Dearth of skill position talent
For teams looking for a playmaker to threaten defenses, good luck. After Georgia receiver A.J. Green and Alabama receiver Julio Jones, there isn't a ton of quality or depth at receiver or tailback. The tight end class is, according to our AFC personnel director, "the worst we've seen in a long, long time."
So there might be jockeying early for Green and Jones, and reaching for such players thereafter.
"I think you'll see teams (looking to add explosive playmakers) have to force that need and, in a year or two, they might regret taking these guys," the AFC personnel director went on to say. "I just don't think many of them are gonna amount to much."
Other positions widely considered to be thin are safety and inside linebacker. But for teams looking to improve along the line of scrimmage, this is a good year to do it.
Overall, the consensus holds that this is not at all close to the 2010 draft. But teams that draft well usually find a way to make the most of even the worst years.