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Draft King Analysis

October 18, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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We're a little more than six months away from the 2012 NFL Draft, which is slated to take place from April 26-28, 2012. A connection of mine in the NFL has a standing invite for me to attend the draft in person in New York City. I haven't been to NYC since January 2006 when I had a fantastic two week run in Manhattan working with the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show at Sirius satellite radio's headquarters in the McGraw-Hill Building. In some ways it feels like yesterday; in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it up there for 2012. But, if I do, I'll be sure to promote the hell out of it on here. I've learned a thing or two about self-promotion along the way.

There are many, many games and evaluations and decisions to be made between now and the last weekend in April, but some things appear rather clear at this point. Much like a summit in the distance, or a tall building far away, the top is the clearest spot. That is normally true of draft projections (which is why mocks are generally strong at the top and weaker the further you get from #1), but it's especially true this year.

There's been little doubt since this past January, when Stanford QB Andrew Luck opted to return to school for his redshirt junior season, that he would be the favorite to be the #1 pick in 2012, presuming that he opted not to go back to Stanford for his redshirt senior season in 2012. There was tremendous risk in Luck's decision to put off starting his NFL career for a year.

Consider this gauntlet: sustain a serious injury? Problem. Struggle under a new coach? Problem. Regress from 2010 for other reasons? Problem. But Luck has managed to avoid all of the potential pitfalls so far, and short of him getting hurt or pulling a Matt Leinart type decision to play his redshirt senior season (which he's already said he's not planning to do), he will be the #1 pick in 2012. Luck has shown that he doesn't need Harbaugh, or anyone for that matter, to excel at the quarterback position. That is impressive, particularly when you look at what his former head coach, Jim Harbaugh, has done across town for bust-turned-standout QB Alex Smith with the currently 5-1 San Francisco 49ers.

This might be a good spot to complain about major college football's horribly antiquated postseason setup and the lack of a playoff system, but that would be a broken record on repeat akin to Danielle Rousseau's message on a loop from the radio tower in Lost saying the same thing over and over, only in English instead of French.

Everyone knows that I-A/FBS college football's postseason is broken -- even the talking heads on ESPN who have to pretend it isn't when they slow-roll the standings out like they did on Sunday. Eventually the pressure will be too much and the fat cats desperately holding the status quo together will lose control and be thrust out into the night. At least that's what I try to tell myself.

I try not to think about it too much, because it makes me want to explode in a blast of profanity that neither my advertisers nor many of my readers want to see on here. Suffice to say that it's maddening for almost all involved, save for the corrupt bastards running the bowls who are laughing all the way to the bank, modern-day profiteers making huge cash off the back of "student-athletes" who are deprived of as much as possible to fund the power brokers at the top.

One caveat: as much as the BCS is maligned, it's still better than pre-1998 when you could have two major conference teams like Michigan and Nebraska (1997) run the table and not meet on the field, even without any other major conference unbeatens in the mix. Put 1997 rules in place last year and it's Auburn in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon in the Rose Bowl (tough luck, TCU!) and possibly ending up with a split national title, which is even worse than what we have now. It's faint praise for the BCS, but it's the truth.

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck is expected to be the #1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. (Icon SMI)
Beyond #1 and Andrew Luck is where things get interesting. Attempts by the NFL to prevent wide receivers from suffering dangerous hits that could cause long-term health problems have resulted in passing numbers the likes of which we haven't seen since the pre-1994 rule change that lead to big scoring in the first two weeks of that season. Last week saw a somewhat less crazy volume of 300+ (or 400+) yard passers, but it's unclear if it just took longer in 2011 for defenses to adjust to the new rules or if it just happened to be a down week for scoring.

But, unlike the 1994 rule changes, what the NFL has done has drastically altered the game. Wide receivers can now go over the middle with impunity, a stark contrast from the days of head-hunting safeties and sometimes all-too-literally crippling hits cutting the careers of wideouts short. The values of certain positions have changed, with accurate QBs and playmaker WRs becoming more valuable than ever before. The value of franchise running backs has dropped, something that started in the Colts/Bears Super Bowl but which has become even more true in the modern NFL.

Think I'm wrong? The Vikings have arguably the best running back in the NFL (Adrian Peterson) and, prior to this past Sunday, averaged more rushing yards per game than passing yards, but they are 1-5. The Titans broke the bank to bring star RB Chris Johnson back into the fold, but he has struggled out of the gate, the Titans are dead last in rushing yards per game... yet Tennessee is 3-2. Why? Because they paid $9,000,000 guaranteed to free agent QB Matt Hasselbeck, who has come in, thrown with accuracy not seen in Nashville since the late Steve McNair lead the team, and helped the Titans find ways to win, even with star WR Kenny Britt out for the season with a knee injury.

I'll put it like this: ten years ago, Cincinnati starting rookie QB Andy Dalton and rookie WR A.J. Green would have been a recipe for disaster, a likely 3-13 or 4-12 or 5-11 type season, and no one would have thought twice about it. Now? The Bengals are 4-2, and that's despite having aging RB Cedric Benson put up pedestrian stats running the ball.

So when you look at a mock draft and see four QBs and three WRs in the top ten, don't think of it as someone who has played too much fantasy football -- the reality is that elite QBs and WRs are more valuable than ever. Ditto for shutdown cornerbacks. As much as Darrelle Revis is making from the Jets, it's still less than what his true market value would be if he was an unrestricted free agent. Elite shutdown corners are more valuable than ever. Ditto for superstar pass rushers, be they 4-3 DEs or 3-4 OLBs. And the same can be said for top-tier offensive tackles, particularly left OTs in the case of teams with right-handed QBs.

So, if they're up, who's down? Run-stopping DTs with limited pass rush skills. Running backs, even elite guys like Alabama's Trent Richardson. Safeties, be they head-hunters or coverage guys. Inside linebackers, which really screws with the projected 2012 draft class which has three elite ILB/MLB players: Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict (and I could write an entire article just about him), Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, and Boston College's Luke Kuechly.

I don't even have Kuechly in the current Draft King 2012 NFL Mock Draft first round. BC fans may bristle at that, but it's with cause. Kuechly averaged an incredible 171 tackles per season coming into 2011, and he hasn't slowed down this year -- through six games he already has a mind-boggling 99 tackles.

So why isn't Kuechly in my first round? Because tackling machines, as great as they are, pale in comparison to players who dramatically impact the passing game. This isn't to say that Kuechly definitively won't be taken in the top 32 spots; he very well could be. He just has the misfortune of excelling at a position that has dropped in value in the modern NFL.

It's not a bias because I live in SEC country. Look at Alabama RB Trent Richardson, the top draft-eligible RB and a guy who would be in line to win the Heisman Trophy if it wasn't for Andrew Luck having come back to college this fall. Richardson is an amazing running back, and the fact that Alabama had him and Ingram and that great defense (albeit one year younger) last fall and blew a 24-0 lead at home to Auburn makes what Cam Newton and Nick Fairley and the rest of the AU Tigers did last fall look more and more impressive as time moves by. But I have Richardson slated to Cincinnati at #23 as of this writing.

Replace Edgerrin James with Trent Richardson in the 1999 Draft and he'd be right up there battling with Ricky Williams among the top players taken. But the NFL has changed, with enough out-of-nowhere undrafted types (Buffalo RB Fred Jackson, Green Bay RB Ryan Grant, New England RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, etc.) succeeding to minimize the value in drafting a running back in a high slot. Much like Cutty discovered in season three of The Wire, the game has changed.

It's possible that my projection of Baylor QB Robert Griffin, III as a top ten pick is a knee-jerk reaction to his great 2011 season, and my biggest Draft King regret of 2011 thus far is making the cut where I did on quarterback projections in July, leaving Griffin off the list of QBs to watch this fall. But Griffin has had a fantastic season and, provided he opts for the NFL after the year (he is a redshirt junior), it's possible that he might actually push Oklahoma QB Landry Jones and USC QB Matt Barkley for the second QB slot behind Luck -- and it's possible that both Jones and Barkley could return to their respective schools for 2012 since both will have remaining college eligibility after this year.

Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer is heading to Oakland. (Icon SMI)

Late update: as I prepared this article for publication, word broke of Oakland trading their 2012 first-round pick and a conditional 2013 pick to Cincinnati for "retired" QB Carson Palmer, who finally gets to return to California. Oakland lost starting QB Jason Campbell for the season on Sunday to a broken collarbone, and the 4-2 Raiders decided to mortgage the future to a degree to better their chances of winning in the short-term.

Multiple sources report that the conditional future pick is a 2013 second-round selection which will become a first-round selection if Oakland wins a playoff game this season. Palmer still has to pass a physical for the deal to go through, but it appears he is heading back to California.

The last time a player was traded for a first-rounder and a conditional second-round pick that could become an additional first-round selection was in 2002, when New Orleans dealt Ricky Williams to Miami. The conditional pick in that trade hinged on how many rushing yards Williams would have in 2002, with it going from a 2003 third-rounder to a 2003 first-rounder if Williams rushed for 1,500 or more yards that fall.

Williams ended up posting 1,853 rushing yards in 2002 for Miami, so the Dolphins ended up losing two first-round picks in the deal. It's worth noting that Williams was 25 at the time of the trade. Palmer turns 32 in December, and while elite quarterbacks generally have longer careers than elite running backs, it's curious to me that the Raiders decided to give up so much to acquire him.

The big winner in this is Cincinnati, which goes from having a retired quarterback vowing to never play for the team again to acquiring two high draft picks, which at worst will be first-and-second round selections and could end up as double first-rounders. Between A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, and now a windfall of draft picks, Bengals fans have reason to be happy, no matter what happened with Palmer in Oakland -- provided, of course, that he passes his physical.

It warrants noting that Oakland has now parted with its first, second, third (Terrelle Pyror supplemental draft pick), fourth, and seventh round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft, and it will relinquish either its first or second round selection in 2013 to Cincinnati. The Raiders may gain some compensatory picks after the season, but as of now Oakland only a fifth and a sixth round selection in next April's draft.


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