2014 draft may not have a Ben Roethlisberger, but listen to most any draft analyst and he'll tell you it shapes up as the deepest in decades
May 3, 2014 11:47 PM
James Hilston/Post-Gazette illustration
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The deepest NFL draft Kevin Colbert has seen "across the board" in 30 years does not make it the best, necessarily. Check back in five years to get a better idea on that.
Except that people such as Colbert, the Steelers general manager, do not have five years; they will put their opinions on the line Thursday night through Saturday in the first draft to start after the Kentucky Derby and end Mother's Day eve.
What Colbert and his colleagues across the league see right now is a wealth of potential talent they probed and prodded the past four months like none before and seemingly without end.
All that talent coupled with all that time to evaluate it might lead to a draft that is "quite a bit different," according to Tom Modrak, director of BLESTO, one of the NFL's two scouting services.
"It probably makes the strategy a little different as far as teams are concerned," Modrak said. "They see the numbers and pushing it back is a big thing; they have more time to study players or the players who get in trouble, one or the other.
"You can overanalyze, which is always a worry; you can overdo certain things. You want to cross all of your T's and dot your I's, but you don't want to do it four or five times. You'll put yourself in gridlock.''
Having said that, Modrak and others like him agree that the draft is brimming with more talent than ever, partly because a record 98 juniors opted into it.
"It's an outstanding draft and I think Kevin was one of the first to recognize it too," said Gil Brandt, senior analyst for NFL.com and former director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for 29 years.
"There's just a bunch of good players in this draft. I had a team tell me last week that when they finished their grading on offensive players, they had more offensive players they thought would be first-round picks than they had combined offensive and defensive players last year."
The wide receivers in this draft run as deep as a Mike Wallace route, with much quality at the top and throughout. Cornerbacks are plentiful, although not nearly as are the wide receivers.
"The interior offensive line is deeper than I can remember in a long time," said Tom Donahoe, senior football adviser for the Philadelphia Eagles. "But there also are some positions that are not deep at all - maybe starting with quarterbacks. It doesn't look like there's great depth in the defensive line. Safety would probably be another spot."
Despite a down draft for quarterbacks, four could be selected in the first round and a fifth, Pitt's Tom Savage, could go at the top of the second. In a sport that values quarterbacks so highly, that should not be surprising.
Yet Modrak believes some teams might back off taking a quarterback high because there is no consensus that any of them will be the next Andrew Luck.
"The flaws on quarterbacks are going to be magnified because everyone watches them, everyone knows them and there will always be mistakes," Modrak said. "It has to be a fit for what you're doing too. Yet they're extremely important.
"I still think there will be a couple quarterbacks who come out of this. Maybe they won't go as high, but I think they'll play well."
As the NFL evolved, the importance of certain positions has increased and decreased, none so radically in recent years as running back. Fullback long ago was downgraded, but halfback today is among the least desirable positions at the top of the draft, and not necessarily because of a lack of talent.
"I think it's a better running-back class than a lot of people give credit for. But you just don't see the elite first-round back for the second year in a row," said Rob Rang, senior draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, The Sports Xchange and CBSSports.com
"It's amazing how the opinion on running backs has shifted," said Modrak. "The value you put on a good running back who may not go as high because of the circumstances of the way the game is played now. You always think you can get one later on."
No running back was drafted in the first round in 2013 for the first time since 1963, and another might not appear in the first round Thursday night.
There will be many offensive linemen in that first round, though. As many as three left tackles - considered by many the second-most important position on the field - could be gone in the first dozen picks. There is a consensus that Auburn's Greg Robinson, football blueblood Jake Matthews of Texas A&M and Michigan's Taylor Lewan are a trio of can't miss left tackles, and those almost always go quickly.
"For offensive tackles, I think it's another good year, and another one will be coming up," said Modrak, who has turned to evaluating prospects for the 2015 draft. "That's turned out to be a very good area."
Add Notre Dame guard Zack Martin to that list of linemen who should be swept up in the first round.
There are good, quality linebackers at the top in this draft but it's not deep. With the proliferation of 3-4 defenses in the NFL, that often means that linebackers, particularly those on the outside, may be drafted higher than their ratings say they should.
While there is consensus the overall draft talent is bountiful this year, it never comes with guarantees. Chuck Noll said the draft is not a science. Mistakes are made and surprise gems are discovered every draft by many teams. Knowing what he did his first four years in the pros, would Antonio Brown be a sixth-round draft pick today? Would Limas Sweed be a second?
"I don't know how people make statements about drafts, who knows?" Donahoe said. "You try to do your homework, you hope guys are there that you like and have graded correctly and then time will tell.
"One of the things that happened this year is you had so many juniors come out. But when you start studying those juniors, you come to the conclusion a lot should not have come out.
"Just because the numbers are up doesn't mean you're getting more NFL-caliber players."
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