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Waiting for the dominoes to start falling

Draft King Analysis
April 11, 2018
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com

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15 days out from opening night. We're approaching the stretch run of NFL Draft season, and business is about to pick up, as Jim Ross would say.

There has been speculation that the Cleveland Browns might be floating Southern Cal QB Sam Darnold smoke signals to entice the New York Giants to trade up from the #2 spot, but I don't buy it. The Giants still have a capable QB in 37-year-old Eli Manning, and while new Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman didn't trade down during his time as GM of the Carolina Panthers, this is a unique situation for the Giants.

Also, such a move would be very risky for Cleveland, unless new GM John Dorsey and company see it as a photo finish between the top two QB prospects on their board. And, even with that, the optics of such a move down would not be good for a team which has gone a combined 1-31 over the past two seasons. Whoever they select at #1 will become the new face of the franchise, which is important beyond just the on-field product for the Browns.

To point, here is only a partial list of names from the revolving door at quarterback that the Browns have had since returning to the NFL in 1999.

Remember, the NFL doesn't sell football; it sells hope. And after years of enduring mediocre-at-best results, including going three seasons without a team, Browns fans deserve something to believe in for the long-term. And, while I'm sure Dorsey wants to do his due diligence as far as gauging trade interest, all indications at this point are that the Browns aren't going to budge from the top spot. And, however it plays out, that's probably the right move.

So, what makes the most sense at this point? Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com (and a contributor to multiple Cleveland-area media outlets) is one of the very best NFL beat reporters out there, and she wrote two days ago that "It seems to me they'll opt for Darnold" regarding the Browns at #1 overall. Her latest column today did nothing to dissuade me from that line of thinking, either.

It appears to be a two-horse race between Darnold and Wyoming QB Josh Allen for the top spot, leaning slightly toward Darnold at this point. But, with more than two weeks still to go, the Browns legitimately might not know who they want to take at the top -- aside from the position, of course, as it would truly be stunning if Cleveland kept the selection and then didn't take a quarterback at #1 overall.

There has been plenty of chatter connecting the Browns with Allen at the top of the draft. And perhaps we will learn more after Allen's visit with the Browns, which is scheduled for tomorrow. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is slated for Friday, and after that Cleveland might be able to decide on its quarterback of the future. It's an ultra high-stakes decision.

Accuracy is more important than ever before in the NFL due to rule changes made for safety reasons over the past 10-15 years. And while Allen is a gifted passer with a cannon arm, to the point where Allen running normally mundane passing drills at the NFL Combine became captivating television, his career college completion percentage (56.2%) remains a major concern.

The ghosts of low college completion percentage QBs of the somewhat recent past like Jake Locker and Logan Thomas linger in the minds of NFL executives, and the NFL is a copycat league. The success found last season by the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo (6'2") and Case Keenum (6'1") reveals that having prototype height (6'5") is not necessary to being effective at quarterback in the modern NFL. Though it doesn't hurt, obviously, but accuracy is a must.

Darnold's 63.1% last season at Southern Cal certainly looks better in comparison with Allen, but how concerned should Cleveland be with Darnold's 26 TDs against 13 interceptions in 2017? And how much of Allen's poor completion percentage was due to the limitations of his teammates at Wyoming or his mechanics, which have improved this off-season? And how much should Cleveland take Allen's reportedly very high Wonderlic score of 37 into account?

As always, player evaluation in a sport as complicated as football is an inexact science.

Further to the point of the Giants not being likely to trade up, Tony Pauline of draftanalyst.com (who does some excellent work) reported on speculation about the Buffalo Bills likely having a framework in place for a trade with the Giants to move up to #2 overall and draft a quarterback. I had suspected Buffalo might line up an if/then trade scenario, but his sources seem to think it's more the Giants wanting to wait until late in the process to potentially field a better offer than Buffalo is pitching.

And, really, that makes sense. For example, if the top QB on the New York Jets' board is not drafted by the Browns at #1 overall, they might be willing to trade up with an offer that would allow the Giants to remain in the top three and likely still get the player they want, only at one pick below and with compensation to go with it. Buffalo has two 2018 first-round selections, but a drop from #2 to #12 is potentially a tough sell, even in combination with the #21 pick.

Beyond that, when in doubt, look to the wagering line for answers. At last check, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield was at a 6.5 over/under, down slightly from the 5.5 o/u he had been for some time prior, which makes sense considering that the Denver Broncos (picking at #5 and potentially targeting a quarterback) were able to learn about Mayfield in-depth during the week of the Senior Bowl.

And, though Mayfield is only 6'1", again remember that the NFL is a copycat league. Taller is better, of course, but Mayfield going in the top five would be a reflection of one of the many ways in which the NFL has changed.

The last time a quarterback 6'1" or shorter went in the top five of the NFL Draft was Michael Vick (6'0") at #1 overall in 2001. That was 17 years ago, and in some ways a lifetime ago in how quickly certain aspects of the game have evolved.


"Why don't you like Lamar Jackson?"

That was the question my Summer 2017 girlfriend, Christi, a whip-smart attorney originally from Montana who knows her sports, asked me early last September after I published a revised mock draft. At that point I had Jackson coming off the board at #21 overall to Arizona.

I explained to her the separation between what I think should happen and what I think will happen in the draft. I'm actually quite bullish on Jackson, just as I was with Deshaun Watson the year before, albeit for different reasons. But I'm not an NFL GM or consultant, and thus what I think should happen is immaterial.

Christi and I didn't last much longer -- the new tradition of early football season break-ups for me, two years running now. Doing play-by-play for Father Ryan High School varsity football broadcasts on Friday nights, then all-day immersion watching college games for sometimes 14+ hours on Saturday, and then NFL RedZone paradise on Sunday does not leave much time for Relationship Lou in the fall.

And I'm sure some of you can relate.

To be clear: there is no doubt that Jackson is a special player with some unique skills. And I believe Jackson has a bright NFL future if he can stay healthy. Though his over/under at last check was at 17.5, just past the middle of round one, which is an interesting spot since that would mean him sliding past some teams you might think would consider drafting him. But there have been strange things going on with Jackson in this long, arduous pre-draft process.

While I am high on Jackson's NFL potential, it has been interesting to hear the whisper campaign against him for not hiring an agent. Kind of like how Richard Sherman was criticized for cutting his own deal. Notice how this keeps happening, and if you wonder why, just ponder about how the sources of certain leaks are agents, and agents in my experience are not stupid people.

If negotiating without an agent becomes popular, particularly among rookies with the current CBA limiting negotiating room on contracts, that hurts business for the agents. So when there is an opportunity to point out perceived mistakes being made by those without agents, it makes sense for savvy dealmakers to spread the word to their media contacts.

But this goes beyond agents angling to keep their spot, as there is a strong perception in some circles that Jackson not having experienced representation, and instead using his mother to handle/coordinate the process, has put him at a disadvantage. Of course, Jackson's mother likely isn't going to demand 3% of his pay. But if there are teams that aren't able to fully evaluate and vet him as a potential prospect, that obviously is a potentially very problematic thing. 100% of a second-round deal is not going to be more than 97% of a first-round contract.

Then there is the curious situation surrounding UCLA QB Josh Rosen and the lack of whispers about interested teams connected with him. Perhaps it's just good leak control, but as I noted on Twitter, Rosen actually reminds me a lot of myself at his age. Speaking his mind with impunity, even potentially to his own detriment. Asking questions and being curious about things beyond just his specialized field. Having confidence in his professional skills to the point of it possibly being mistaken for arrogance.

There are legitimate concerns about Rosen, including his mobility and durability. But at 6'4" he is within one inch of prototype height, and if there is any doubting his fighting spirit and capacity to lead his team to a big comeback against improbable odds, rewatch the 2017 Texas A&M/UCLA game (sorry Aggies fans) where Rosen led the Bruins roaring back from a 44-10 deficit late in the third quarter, opening the fourth quarter down by 27, and then rallying all the way back to grab an unlikely win in the final minute of the game.

Here's how the fourth quarter scoring played out, fittingly with the great Gus Johnson on play-by-play for FOX:

UCLA TD 13:22 Darren Andrews 9 yd pass from Josh Rosen (JJ Molson kick) 44-24 TA&M
UCLA TD 8:12 Darren Andrews 42 yd pass from Josh Rosen (JJ Molson kick) 44-31 TA&M
UCLA TD 3:10 Theo Howard 16 yd pass from Josh Rosen (JJ Molson kick) 44-38 TA&M
UCLA TD 0:43 Jordan Lasley 10 yd pass from Josh Rosen (JJ Molson kick) 45-44 UCLA

There is a new ESPN The Magazine story with an interesting look at Rosen that I recommend you read. He responded to some of the big criticisms about him in detail.

If you're still not sold, watch this segment with Rosen and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.

But, again, what I think should happen doesn't matter. If Rosen slides, and he might, some team is going to luck into a night one bargain.

There is plenty to discuss with the draft beyond quarterbacks, if you can believe that. But this is starting to border on the length of my August 2003 Las Vegas mega-column, so it will have to wait until next time.

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