Four More Teams, Part 3

I started this column by picking four teams whose drafts I wanted to critique, just as in the last two posts, but as I began writing, I started to include off-season moves and recent drafts for context, and I began to notice that these organizations all seem to have some systemic problems.

I try to examine why. Not surprisingly, I think in many cases it goes back to the owners. Poor owners make poor hiring decisions, either because they don’t evaluate front-office talent well or because good front-office talent doesn’t want to work with them because of the owners’ flaws, from stinginess to excessive meddling to general incompetence.

Let’s look at how the recent moves these teams made fit into a chain of bad decision-making– and, in one case, how they could be signs of an end of an era of it. This one’s a fair bit longer than the last two…

Detroit Lions

The more I read about the Detroit organization, the more it seems to be a dysfunctional mess. The owners have been notorious bumblers for years. The team’s discipline problems both on and off the field (including the head coach) are well documented. They’ve blown a significant number of high picks in recent years– to say nothing of the Matt Millen era– as they seem to focus on on-field production without regarding how likely it is that they will actually be able to get the players they draft onto the field. (Not that they’ve found a lot of gems among the guys who have stayed healthy.) And, of course, the calendar department is among the worst in the league.

Louis Delmas. Jahvid Best. Titus Young. Mikel Leshoure. Ryan Broyles. What do all these picks have in common? Detroit took them all in the late first (Best) or second round (the rest), and they have all missed significant time due to injuries or, in Young’s case, some apparent mental disorder which somehow escaped everyone’s notice at draft time.

Part of this may be due to something wrong with the Detroit training staff and/or the team’s approach to injuries– I have no medical experience, so I have no idea. Part of it may just be bad luck– it happens. But part of it is bad process. Some of these players had extensive injuries when they were drafted. Ryan Broyles was considered a second-round talent with a good chance to move into the first if he had a strong senior year… and then he tore his ACL. The Lions selected him in the second round anyway. After seven games of significant action, he tore his ACL again. Who would have thought?

Jahvid Best might have been an even worse selection. Best had elite talent, but he also had seven concussions at Cal, and, if you’ll allow me to slip into my John Madden impersonation for a moment, “Running back is a position in the NFL that gets hit in the head a lot.” He missed a large chunk of 2010 with turf toe; he suffered another concussion in the 2011 preseason, and then a subsequent one during the season whose effects (either individually or cumulatively; I don’t know for sure) have left him yet to be cleared to play, more than eighteen months later.

The Lions knew about all these concussions, and yet traded up to get back into the first round to draft him. When you consider how fungible the running back position is beyond the most elite talent (which is to say, it’s easy to put together a capable rotation at the position cheaply), it’s a deeply misguided use of resources to trade up for one who at the time seemed like maybe a 50-50 proposition to actually see the field.

So by now, you’re probably thinking to yourself “I didn’t come here to read about the Lions’ past, I want to know how they did this year!” Well, who did the Lions take in the second round in 2013? Another defensive back with injury problems! Mississippi St. cornerback Darius Slay is going to miss rookie camp due to a torn meniscus. It’s a minor surgery and he should be ready to go in a few weeks, but I imagine Lions fans are feeling like they’ve heard that one before.

The Detroit Lions seem to completely neglect injury reports when it comes to evaluating prospects. Jim Schwartz made a joking evaluation of the Jahvid Best pick at the time: “Some people watch adult videos on their computer. I go to YouTube and watch Jahvid Best highlight clips. That’s what gets me going.” Funny, but it hints at the problem: Best’s highlights are worth a first-round pick; his durability and consistency are not.

Larry Warford was a terrific value pick and I believe he will be able to step in as a starter at guard from day one, which is great, because the Lions lost three starters on an offensive line that wasn’t all that swell before both tackles left (I don’t think anyone is crying any tears over Stephen Peterman). Unfortunately, that leaves two holes on the line– Riley Reiff is moving to left tackle, which leaves the other guard spot and right tackle still open.

I don’t really know much about their later-round picks, but their depth at defensive end is so bad that Devin Taylor has a chance to win a starting job opposite Ezekiel Ansah. Speaking of Ziggy, he’s got as good a chance to be an elite pass-rusher as anyone in this draft, and if anyone can coach him up, it’s Jim Schwartz. Unfortunately, I fear the the organization’s other messes with discipline and talent evaluation may mean Schwartz will not get the chance beyond this season.

I haven’t said anything about the Fords. Ask any Detroit fan how they felt about them keeping Matt Millen in charge for seven years. You know a team’s ownership is dysfunctional when the vice chairman, the owner’s son and namesake, publicly says if it were up to him, he’d fire the CEO. (Using the press to manipulate your wealthy father is always a baller move. Reminds me of Logan and Aaron Echolls– and if the Fords are even in the same ballpark of dysfunctional, that ain’t good for the Lions.) Martin Mayhew is an improvement over Millen, to be sure, but is “being better at GM than Matt Millen” really enough? Mayhew’s had five drafts to put together his team, so if they aren’t closer to the 2011 Lions than the 2012 ones in 2013, he will likely be gone.

New York Jets

I’m of a mixed mind on the Jets. On the one hand, I liked some of their moves which to my mind acknowledge the lack of talent on the roster and the need for long-term thinking. On the other hand, they’ve also made moves that seem like they’re trying to patch holes and win now, or seem like a poor use of resources. I am inclined to think that this confusion about the organization’s overall direction is reflective of owner Woody Johnson.

Some draft analysis: I was baffled by the Sheldon Richardson pick until I heard that the team was planning to move Quinton Coples to outside linebacker. I’m not sure why they’d do that– if you could find a credible OLB to rush the passer, it would be that much more devastating to have Coples on the inside– but I guess they thought a Richardson / Coples combination would be better than Coples / OLB X. That’s fine, I suppose, although I think Sharrif Floyd is a better upfield penetrator, and Star Lotulelei is a better all-around defensive tackle whose diversity makes more sense for the Jets. Not my call, though.

Dee Milliner is a fine pick but uninteresting to discuss except for why he was necessary. Suffice to say they needed to fill the hole created by trading away their franchise player, and suffice today trading away your franchise player is almost never a good idea. This one is solely on Johnson, who simply didn’t want to pay Revis, and publicly opened his mouth about it, hanging new GM John Idzik out to dry. Revis is a franchise player. You don’t give away franchise players. You certainly don’t do it when their market value is at a minimum.

Geno Smith may not be a world-beater– his projected draft status vs. where he fell reminds me a lot of Jimmy Clausen– but he pretty much has to be an upgrade over Mark Sanchez. Even if he performs worse, at least the Jets tried. (And remember, they can’t cut Sanchez until next year because of his guaranteed money. So Johnson was willing to pay Sanchez but not Revis?) I don’t think he’ll ever be a star, but I think he could be consistently above-average someday, and that’s valuable. What I don’t know anything about is his mental approach to the game.

Unfortunately for Smith, the Jets have not tried to upgrade their skill positions on offense, and in a league won by passing, their dire lack of offensive talent sticks out like… well, it’s more like eight sore fingers and two healthy, giant thumbs named D’Brickashaw and Nick. While you can’t reach for a player in the draft who doesn’t have the talent to be a good value, you have to find some way to address your weak roster spots. Idzik and Ryan are treating their receiving corps like… well, like A.J. Smith treated his receiving corps (and for that matter, his offensive line) in San Diego in the post-Schottenheimer years: They have only made minimal investment in the positions despite their importance to a team’s success.

I thought Stephen Hill was a bad pick last year: He’s a long-term project for a team that needed players to step in right away, but I also didn’t like his chances of reaching his perceived potential. I don’t think the comparisons to Demaryius Thomas are accurate; Hill looks much worse on tape to me. The only thing they have in common is that they’re tall, run fast, and played “X” receiver in the triple-option Georgia Tech offense. Santonio Holmes is talented but inconsistent and aging (and I suspect his seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards preparation, or at least towards “not smoking weed”, means he will not age well). Jeremy Kerley is a fine value as a slot contributor. But that’s all they have. They let Dustin Keller walk in free agency and replaced him with… nothing. Keller is a fine secondary receiver but not a game-breaker; not re-signing him would hardly be a disaster… if the Jets had any sort of contingency plan. I guess the expectation is that fourth-year player Jeff Cumberland will step into the role, but… why? (I don’t know much about Cumberland’s talent, but I have obvious doubts about the Jets’ ability to develop it.)

On the one hand, I like the picks of Brian Waters and Oday Aboushi as guys who could potentially start this year. On the other hand, the fact that they might have to start a third- and a fifth-round pick on the line this year doesn’t bode well. They lost both of their starting guards in free agency, and while Austin Howard acquitted himself reasonably last year, he represents the best of what had been a lot of bad options at right tackle, not a long-term solution. These are the sort of moves that make me think the Jets are rebuilding, because Waters and Aboushi will probably take their lumps in 2013.

But if they are rebuilding, they made a move that makes no sense: The team traded a fourth-round pick for Chris Ivory after letting Shonn Greene (deservedly; Tennessee gave him a ludicrous contract) leave in free agency. If I were a Jets fan, I would have gone bananas over this trade– to be clear, the wrong kind of bananas. And I like Ivory.

Ivory is a really good runner who suffers from two major flaws:

  1. He is frequently fighting nagging injuries
  2. He is useless in the passing game

Ivory was in a mostly ideal situation in New Orleans– I say “mostly” because his inabilities as a receiver and pass blocker meant the defenses usually knew he was getting the ball if he was in the game– and now he’s going to a team with no offensive identity, where one could make a plausible argument that Ivory himself is now the team’s most talented offensive skill player. (In New Orleans, I don’t even think he was the most talented running back.)

I think Ivory can be a productive runner, but the problem is that he could be productive and this trade could still be a failure.

Here are the next four running backs off the board after the pick the Jets traded, in order: Jonathan Franklin, Marcus Lattimore, Stepfan Taylor, Joseph Randle. One of those guys (Franklin in particular, IMO) couldn’t have provided what Ivory does or even better? And wouldn’t one of them at least been useful in the passing game? The Jets don’t seem to understand that the passing game is what wins football nowadays– how well you execute it and how well you defend against it. I don’t know how much control Rex Ryan has over the roster, but his second GM has so far seemingly taken the same approach to talent acquisition as the first when it comes to (not) building a passing offense.

The Ivory trade isn’t nearly as bad as something like the Laurent Robinson signing, but it has a similar echo: Good teams find undrafted diamonds in the rough and coach them up to be successful NFL players. Bad teams then overpay to sign those guys, and good teams go back to the well to look for more undrafted talent.

So, strangely, the move they did make to improve their offensive talent seems to contradict many of their other moves. The Jets are a team that should be stockpiling picks and trying to find prospects to develop who can be valuable in 2014 and beyond. They won’t contend this year.

But I can’t tell if the Jets actually are trying to rebuild or not. On the one hand, they kept their coach and most of their expensive veteran players. On the other hand, they did let some of their veterans go or forced them to restructure, and they don’t seem to be going out to add much veteran talent. A move like the Ivory trade betrays those confused motivations.

Something needs to change in New York. After the 2012 season, I thought it was Mike Tannenbaum. Now, I think the finger points back to Woody Johnson. Rex Ryan may deserve more of the blame for the team’s roster problems the last couple of years, and I’m sure he certainly feels pressure to win to save his job, but Johnson has owned the team for thirteen years, and they’ve put together only intermittent success since then, as their new coaching hires usually win right away but don’t sustain it or improve. I am willing to give Idzik some time, and maybe Johnson just needed to find the right guy– he gave Tannenbaum far too long after it was clear his way wasn’t working. But remember, one week before the sale of the New York Jets from Leon Hess’ estate to Woody Johnson was finalized, Bill Belichick was promoted to head coach for exactly one day before resigning. Maybe he knew something, maybe he didn’t, but I know he’s glad he made that decision.

Dallas Cowboys

Reports came out after the first day of the draft that Jason Garrett and the scouts were extremely upset with the Cowboys’ decision-making that day. From what I’ve gathered, Garrett and the scouts wanted the team to stay put at 18 and draft Sharrif Floyd, which makes perfect sense even if you don’t think Floyd was a steal there– they need 4-3 players as they make that transition on defense, and Floyd can basically replace Jay Ratliff long-term– but that owner Jerry Jones and GM Stephen Jones overruled them, trading with San Francisco from 18 to 31 in exchange for a third-round pick, and then selecting Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, whom most pundits had rated closer to a third-round pick.

Set aside the difference in value between Floyd and Frederick; we don’t know for sure which one will be a better pro anyway (although I admittedly have a hard time setting aside trading a top-five value for two top-75 values). If you want, you can even set aside the thought that the Cowboys didn’t get enough from the 49ers for trading back so far– and the Minnesota-New England trade provides a pretty good counterpoint to suggest that they didn’t. There’s a bigger issue here, one that speaks to the heart of the Dallas Cowboys’ twenty years of dysfunction:

IF YOU’RE PAYING SCOUTS TO SCOUT TALENT, WHY ARE YOU OVERRULING THEIR JUDGMENT WHEN IT MATTERS?!

Good leaders hire people they trust to do their jobs well. Bad leaders hire people who either tell them what they want to hear, or don’t and get overruled and fired anyway.  It seems like Jerry and Stephen Jones fall squarely into the latter camp.

I just can’t get over that. To my mind, it takes a special level of arrogance to overrule the people you hired because they do a job well how to do that job. It’s doubly so when you have no experience in that job.

Jerry Jones isn’t a longtime NFL coach who got lucky on some investments and bought a football team. Stephen Jones isn’t a scout who worked his way up the ranks to become a GM. Stephen Jones got the job because his dad owns the team. (Check out that laundry list of accomplishments. You can even click through to his bio on the Cowboys team page!) Jerry Jones owns the team because he made a bunch of money in oil and gas. This isn’t their field. If they want to build a successful team, they shouldn’t pretend they’re experts.

Maybe the worst thing for Jerry Jones has been that he absolutely nailed his first hire. Jimmy Johnson– with the help of the insane Herschel Walker trade, which would never happen today– crushed his job, and built a team that went 1-15 his first year but eventually won three Super Bowls in four years. Unfortunately, Johnson was only around for two of them. He quit after the second one because he got sick of Jones’ meddling.

I think Jerry Jones’ hire of Jimmy Johnson and the team’s subsequent success convinced him that he knew a lot more about football than he did, when what he really knew was how to hire good management. It’s not a coincidence that he took over the GM duties and then hired a bunch of soft personalities and yes-men as head coaches (along with Barry Switzer, football’s Jimmy Buffett). The one time he didn’t do that, he hired Bill Parcells and actually let him build the team. They made the playoffs twice and went 13-3 five years after the Parcells hire.

Of course, Parcells wasn’t around to enjoy it, because he’d gotten sick of Jones after four seasons.

Now, to be fair, Parcells gets sick of every job in a hurry. The Cowboys were the third team he quit after four years or less, and I don’t think Jones even expected him to stay a long time. But instead of searching for another strong coach, he promoted another laid-back guy and a guy who had repeatedly proven to be a failure as a head coach in Wade Phillips. He also took control over personnel moves again.

Jones has to learn to sublimate his ego if he ever wants to own a consistently winning football team again. He needs to acknowledge that he’s not good at football decisions, hire people who are, then let them make those decisions. The conflict in the war room on day one of the draft is an awful, awful indicator that this isn’t coming anytime soon. The Cowboys won’t win until they have personnel and front-office executives who aren’t the owner and his son.

I don’t even care about the rest of their draft. If the reports were true, then the draft process in Dallas is so fundamentally flawed they should get an “F” every year until they actually start listening to the people they pay to evaluate players. (Maybe a “D” this year because I like Terrence Williams as a value pick.)

I couldn’t find a way to fit this anecdote in the story, but this pick reminds me of the story sourced here and here: Charley Armey arguing with a scout over Alex Smith in the Rams war room in 2005. The scout didn’t like Smith; Armey was in love with him based on a highlight tape, and he tried to convince the scout to raise his grade of Smith to support him. The scout didn’t and was later fired. Backwards decision making in an office full of infighting. That’s a recipe for disaster, dysfunction, and in the NFL, long-term losing.

But never fear, there is always hope a long-struggling franchise will turn its fortunes around…

Arizona Cardinals

Okay, I’ll try to end this piece with some optimism. For years, the Bidwill family have owned the Arizona Cardinals. They have been primarily known for being notoriously cheap and only vaguely giving a shit about the product on the field. Their goal seems to be to keep fans “not disgruntled enough to stop paying.”

The team has experienced a minor Renaissance recently, though. The second life breathed into Kurt Warner after the combination of his poor Giants tenure and Matt Leinart’s failures had the team in the playoffs two years in a row, including an appearance in Super Bowl XLIII, which they very nearly won.

Unfortunately, the team has struggled to replace Warner since he retired after the 2009 season. Their inability to do so got GM Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt fired three years later.

So at least the team is trying to move forward. They promoted Steve Keim to GM, hired Bruce Arians after he filled in for Chuck Pagano in Indy and coached them to the playoffs, and picked up Carson Palmer from Oakland on the cheap. It’s a new era, and the last five years or so contain some hope that the Bidwills have stopped being cheap and started caring about winning. Anyway, let’s look at their draft, because I liked it and feel like it fits what they’re trying to do.

Draft Picks

  • 7. Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
  • 45. Kevin Minter, ILB, LSU
  • 69. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
  • 103. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
  • 119. Earl Watford, G, James Madison
  • 140. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
  • 174. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M
  • 187. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
  • 219. D.C. Jefferson, TE, Rutgers

Trades

  • Traded the #38 pick to San Diego for the #45 pick and the #110 pick.
  • Traded the #110 pick to the New York Giants for the #116 pick and the #187 pick.

Okay, so one of the biggest reasons I liked the Cardinals’ draft is that I was familiar with most of the players they got and thought they got good value on them. Those are my own personal evaluations, and I’m not one of our film scouts, so that and a dollar will get you… nothing, because you can’t buy anything for one dollar anymore. Sad, isn’t it?

While I generally don’t advocate drafting for need, sometimes a need is so dire that filling it offers so much greater return on investment than just taking the best player available. Guard is usually not considered a premium position, but Arizona’s guard play last year was of a level I lack superlatives to describe. I wouldn’t argue that they made a good move if Jonathan Cooper was closer to the 20-25th rated prospect in the draft, but in a draft where the talent curve is roughly flat and one of the can’t-miss prospects is at a position of lesser importance, it’s fine to take him if his worth to your team is higher than it would be ordinarily. (In other words, I would be fine with the pick even if they had, say, Dee Milliner rated equally.)

The team immediately bid goodbye to Adam Snyder. Levi Brown returning means D’Anthony Batiste is going back to the bench, or to a nice farm family upstate, or on the Mississippi Fun Bus. (ed. note: We’re not suggesting that D’Anthony Batiste’s race prevents him from playing left tackle. We just really like Mr. Show. For commentary on race relations in Arizona, I direct you to Chuck D.)

Arizona loves its LSU defenders. Patrick Peterson has been dynamite for them since they drafted him to be their #1 corner and punt returner in 2011. This year, they added Kevin Minter in the second round– a guy I hadn’t considered for them, but who makes sense to pair next to Daryl Washington at ILB, and whom I like as a value pick there. Hopefully the two of them can keep Tyrann Mathieu in line.

I have high hopes for Mathieu. I don’t think his marijuana issues are overblown, but I do think marijuana as an issue is relatively overblown, if that makes sense. (If Denver or Seattle had drafted Mathieu, would his behavior at LSU even get him into trouble if he continued it?) Part of Mathieu’s problem seemed to be that he was in a state with no tolerance for marijuana and that he hung out with a bunch of royal idiots. (The arrest that got him kicked out at LSU happened because Jordan Jefferson broke into the front gate of Mathieu’s apartment complex, so someone called the cops, and the apartment-dwellers consented to a search. Use the gate buzzer, idiot. And know your rights.)

Now, like I said, I do think Mathieu had some issues with marijuana, either in terms of being unable to quit or not caring whether he got caught. I doubt he could have kept it up and been a successful NFL pro. But I also think that, away from his old environment, he has a pretty good chance to clean up. Mathieu doesn’t have a history of violent behavior or a criminal record otherwise. He just likes to smoke a lot of weed. That’s much more common, much easier to kick, and much less indicative of some criminal personality disorder. And I think having two former teammates around in Minter and Peterson will really help him in that regard, and in learning how to be a professional. It’s always easier to make a transition when you have someone you respect who can mentor you along.

Last reason I’m excited for Mathieu: the coaching staff has already announced they plan to play him at free safety, not cornerback. This really goes a decent way to alleviating my worry that the team that drafted Mathieu would not use him in a manner that highlighted his strengths. As I’ve written previously, Mathieu was best used as an all-around playmaking threat, either covering the inside receiver, roaming in space, or blitzing. Trying to make him a standard cornerback would be a mistake; Mathieu has outstanding football instincts and the speed to make plays with them, but he doesn’t have a traditional cornerback skill set– and he’s severely undersized for the position, anyway. He’s almost more of a defensive all-purpose player. I don’t know if he’ll start right away, but I expect him to make an immediate impact in nickel and dime packages as well as on special teams.

As far as the rest of Arizona’s draft: Alex Okafor is a guy some people thought would go higher based on his production but who fell, probably due to his pedestrian athleticism. I’m not sure if he’ll play OLB or DE in Arizona, but I think he profiles to be a contributor, if not a star. Earl Watford came from the extra fourth-rounder they got from San Diego (well, actually it came from the pick they got from the Giants after they traded down again), and I don’t know anything about him, but they are so bad at guard that I like the pick. He could also conceivably start at guard someday soon, and a Brown – Cooper – Sendlein – Watford – Massie line looks much better than whatever mess they trotted out last year, especially when factoring in Bobby Massie’s improvement at right tackle. (Apparently the most common lineup in 2012 was Batiste – Colledge – Sendlein – Snyder – Massie. Yikes.)

I liked the value the team found in skill positions on day three. The running game has been completely revamped– the team already cut Beanie Wells and signed Rashard Mendenhall, but to that they added Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round and Andre Ellington in the sixth. I didn’t think much of Ellington when pundits listed him as a second- or third-round pick, but as a sixth-round pick I think his speed can be useful to a team. I don’t know much about Taylor but he seems like a decent all-purpose back.

Ryan Swope at WR is a guy I liked as a talent closer to the third round, but concussions made him fall on draft boards. If he can stay healthy, I think he can be a great fit as a third receiver, perhaps as a deep threat along the seams or outside.

What they didn’t do is reach for a quarterback. I liked that. They know they need to develop a young quarterback. If they don’t think any of the guys who were in the draft could be a long-term franchise guy, there’s no reason for them to take one. The team can get by with Palmer for a year or two while they find and groom that guy– and 2014’s quarterback class projects to be much richer, especially if a couple of guys take strides and everyone who’s eligible to come out does so. (What if Johnny and Teddy both declare? What if Brett Hundley makes a big leap and does too? What if Logan Thomas figures out something about the position besides “Run hard and throw hard”?)

It may sound contradictory, but I do like it when a team doesn’t address obvious needs in the draft, because it means they don’t believe in drafting for need. (Now, if they don’t address obvious needs in free agency, either, that’s a problem. But then, if you could find a young franchise QB in free agency easily, everybody would be doing it.) Your draft, especially in the higher picks, is supposed to be comprised of your foundational guys, the guys you build your team around. You can’t use those picks reaching for temporary needs, especially if you can just sign a veteran to plug that position with adequate play for a year until some better options come along.

I think the Cardinals got off to a decent start this offseason. Maybe the era of the Bidwill Curse is over. (The curse is just “They suck because he’s cheap.”) And maybe that’ll provide hope for fans of teams with bad ownership. Hell, Dan Snyder’s team found a franchise quarterback and won the NFC East last year. Anything is possible!

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One thought on “Four More Teams, Part 3

  1. Pingback: The Dallas Cowboys Draft Board Shows What A Mistake They Made | Zone Reads

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