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Draft King Analysis
April 24, 2014
Lou Pickney,

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This has been an unusual off-season for the NFL for two reasons: the league moved the draft from late April to early May and this is the first time that the 2011 CBA "fifth year option" has come into play. The former is easy enough to understand, but the latter takes a little more explaining.

Under the 2011 CBA, first-round selections are inked to a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth year. But there is a caveat: the team must decide after year three if they will pick up the team option for year five. This, in turn, will create some very awkward final year situations where a team has made it clear to its former first-round pick that he isn't seen as being worth that final year, even though that rookie deal is crafted under rather strict parameters that limit a given player's negotiating wiggle room.

In a related note, Roger Goddell's success in that protracted negotiation is not to be overlooked. The owners won and you won't be able to convince me otherwise. Despite the lengthy negotiations, the only game that was lost was the worthless Hall of Fame game. Sorry, Canton, it's true, and even if I end up moving to Ohio as it looks like might happen soon... to quote Captain Spaulding from The Devil's Rejects, "Well, I calls 'em like I sees 'em."

But in hindsight that's no surprise. As I've told several people, the NFL has some very very smart people working for it. My visit to the NFL headquarters and behind the scenes of the draft two years ago was eye-opening to me. I met so many super sharp, brilliant people who don't have the social awkwardness that often comes with a high level of intelligence. I was impressed and I went in with high expectations.

But, to get back on topic, let's say that the Titans, as expected, don't pick up the $13 million 2015 option on QB Jake Locker. It's the equivalent of a "no confidence" vote, though the cash would also be more for one season than Locker will have made through his first four seasons. So it's a lame duck situation for Locker, though it is also in many ways the equivalent of a guy playing on a a "prove it" one-year contract. But there is one important caveat: if Locker has a breakout 2014 season, the Titans can still use their franchise tag on him. The 2014 QB tag is roughly $16 million, just three million more than Locker would make in 2015 if the Titans were to pick up the fifth-year team option on him.

Until recently I had thought it was going to be a quarterback for sure going to the Houston Texans at #1 overall. Now? There seems to have been a major shift toward South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney going in that top spot. The fact he wasn't able to enter the draft until now is something I've railed about for some time on here and will continue to complain about, but that is immaterial relative to the Houston decision.

Where things get very interesting in the draft is that the most vital position in the NFL by far is quarterback, more than ever with rules made for safety reasons tilting the game considerably in favor of the passing game. There's a reason that we might see a second consecutive draft without a running back taken in round one, something that had never happened before, even in the early years where there were less than ten teams drafting and thus single digit first round picks in a given year.

How bad can the desperation get? Look at 2011 where the Titans (the aforementioned Jake Locker at #8), the Jaguars (Blaine Gabbert #10) and the Vikings (Christian Ponder #12) all arguably stretched to take a QB. It was, much like this draft, one that was solid to the top. Besides the three aforementioned QBs, 12 of the other 13 guys in the top 16 all have made at least one Pro Bowl, with only Lions DT Nick Fairley out of Auburn not quite living up to expectations.

The parallels with 2011 and 2014 run beyond just that, particularly with Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick going in the high second round and plenty of speculation that there will be similar approaches by teams needing QBs in 2014. But, of course, speculation is one thing and action is another, and it wouldn't surprise me to see teams trading up toward the bottom of round one to take a QB. Under the current rookie salary structure it's a potentially immense bargain if you land the right guy.

Another factor to keep in mind is the possibility of a talented backup being traded. It's an immensely risky move for a team to do unless they have a third QB who they believe can adequately handle a backup role. New England QB Ryan Mallett might be tempting, and spinning him for a first-rounder after using a third-round pick on him would be vintage Belichick, though it appears that's not going to happen. No worries for New England: he is an inexpensive backup behind Tom Brady, who turns 37 in August. There aren't many players in the NFL anymore who are older than me, but Brady is (by all of three weeks) and the clock is ticking on him.

One other question to consider is if last year was an aberration with so many quarterback prospects falling out of the first round or if teams are looking for the next Dalton or Kaepernick or even Russell Wilson, super bargains in the world of high dollar quarterbacks. I tend to think that won't be the case, not with the fear of a team missing out on "their guy" by not trading up and also because there are some quality prospects in the mix. But it's tough to know how it will play out, particularly with so much uncertainty at the very top of the draft. Then again, that's what makes this so fun and so maddening at the same time.


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