The NFL Draft starts on Thursday, ending months of speculation as to who will go in the first round, and especially who will be taken at the very top. The best-of-the-best prospects. The ones that may either become elite talents or spectacular disappointments.
The guys that tilt the franchise.
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This is the philosophical reasoning behind the draft order. Give the worst teams the best picks so that they can get better, rise up the standings, keep a constant shuffle between the top of the league and the bottom ... it's about parity, right? Except that the philosophy, as much as we all stand by it, doesn't seem to work very often.
The 2011 draft, arguably the most talented draft in decades, does have examples of teams improving from their early picks:
The Panthers and Cam Newton, the Broncos and Von Miller, the Bills and Marcell Dareus, the Bengals and A.J. Green, the Cardinals and Patrick Peterson, the 49ers and Aldon Smith, the Cowboys and Tyron Smith, the Texans and J.J. Watt. (Even still, the Bills haven't made the playoffs, the Texans and Bengals haven't been serious playoff threats. We will get into more of these later.)
It also hasn't stopped some teams from showing up in the top 10 of the draft more often than Samuel L. Jackson shows up to a set without any idea what movie or commercial he's going to be doing that day. The Browns, Jaguars, Raiders, Bucs, Titans, Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Rams, Redskins, Vikings, Texans, Chiefs, and Bears haven't done a good job of helping themselves over the last 10 years. Of course there are a few exceptions every now and again each season, but that's almost half the league that is regularly absent from the playoffs.
So how does a team really turn itself around? It's about a lot more than high draft picks. The high draft pick can be an important piece of the puzzle (is any piece of a puzzle more dominant than the others? A corner piece, maybe?) but still just another piece. By itself, it's not usually as important as what you do with your other 10 important moves during a turnaround.
The Seahawks went from 5-11 to 11-5 in three years and then won the Super Bowl in year four. How did they do it? Let's look at their most significant changes in those years.
Changes in 2010:
- Fire Jim Mora Jr., hire Pete Carroll and John Schneider.
- Draft Russell Okung sixth overall.
- Sign Mike Williams, trade for Leon Washington, trade for Marshawn Lynch, draft Golden Tate in second round.
- Trade for Chris Clemons, move Red Bryant to defensive end.
- Draft Earl Thomas 14th overall, Kam Chancellor in the fifth round.
Changes in 2011:
- Draft James Carpenter 25th overall, move Max Unger to starting center, sign Breno Giacomini.
- Sign Tarvaris Jackson.
- Sign Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, and UDFA Doug Baldwin.
- Draft K.J. Wright in the fourth round.
- Sign Brandon Browner, draft Richard Sherman in the fifth round and Byron Maxwell in the sixth round.
- Sign Alan Branch.
- Fire Jeremy Bates as offensive coordinator, hire Darrell Bevell.
Changes in 2012:
- Draft Russell Wilson in third round.
- Draft Bruce Irvin 15th overall and Bobby Wagner in round two.
- Draft Robert Turbin in fourth round.
- Richard Sherman becomes full-time starter.
Now, what are the key things to focus on here and what element is absent?
They hired a new head coach, they rebuilt their offensive line, they got a new quarterback (twice), they moved players into positions that better suited them, and they added key defensive players. What's absent?
Well, their only top 10 pick has been Okung, who has been a mixed bag of success, injuries, and penalties. They have a home run first round pick in Thomas, but 14th overall isn't extremely high; almost any team in the first round could move up in that range. They also haven't picked as high as that since, and they managed to get better in 2011 (in principle at least) despite picking 25th overall that year because of their division title and playoff win. And then Carpenter was pretty bad anyways. As was John Moffitt.
Let's continue to explore team changes by looking at some other recent turnarounds in the NFC:
The Arizona Cardinals -- From 5-11 to 11-5 in two years
Changes in 2013:
- Fire Ken Whisenhunt, hire Bruce Arians. Add Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator.
- Draft Jonathan Cooper seventh overall, add Paul Fanaika in free agency.
- Trade for Carson Palmer
- Sign John Abraham, Jerraud Powers, and Karlos Dansby. Draft Tyrann Mathieu in third round, Alex Okafor fourth round.
Changes in 2014:
- Sign Jared Veldheer at left tackle, Ted Larsen at left guard.
- Sign Antonio Cromartie, draft Deone Bucannon 27th overall. Improvement of Rashad Johnson and 2013 UDFA Tony Jefferson.
- Sign Tommy Kelly and Larry Foote.
- Draft wide receiver John Brown in the third round.
What do we see?
Their only top 10 pick has been Cooper, and he hasn't done shit. Their only other first round pick in the two years was Bucannon, and he was near the end of it. Of course, I'd be leaving important information out if I didn't mention that they drafted Patrick Peterson fifth overall in 2011, but he's also seen his value go down recently. They also got to the Super Bowl with Larry Fitzgerald, the former third overall pick, but that also followed adding a new quarterback and head coach.
This current Cardinals team hired a new head coach, got a quarterback, worked on fixing their offensive line, and improved the secondary with low-risk, high-reward players.
The Detroit Lions -- From 4-12 to 11-5 in two years
Changes in 2013:
- Draft Ezekiel Ansah fifth overall.
- Draft Darius Slay in the second round, sign Rashean Mathis and Glover Quin.
- Draft Larry Warford in third round, make Riley Reiff full-time start at left tackle, sign UDFA tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
- Sign Reggie Bush.
- Sign Jason Jones. (Misses most of 2013, starts all of 2014.) Make Willie Young starter at defensive end.
- Sign UDFA Joseph Fauria.
Changes in 2014:
- Fire Jim Schwartz, hire Jim Caldwell. Hire Teryl Austin as defensive coordinator.
- Draft Eric Ebron 10th overall.
- Sign Golden Tate.
- Promote linebacker Tahir Whitehead to starter.
- Sign safety James Ihedigbo.
- Sign George Johnson to replace Willie Young.
Yes, the Lions had two top 10 picks, but Ansah still has much more room to grow and Ebron did nothing as a rookie. What they did do over the two years was hire a new coach, upgrade the offensive line including at left tackle (Reiff was the 23rd overall pick in 2012, started midway through the year and became a full-timer in 2013), revamped their secondary, added a prominent running back, and gave big money to a free agent receiver.
Similar to Seattle, isn't it?
They did draft Matthew Stafford first overall, and if you're looking at Detroit and Carolina, you'll see two playoff teams from last year that went that route in recent drafts showing that the Buccaneers could definitely be making the right decision by drafting Jameis Winston. But the Bucs would still have to do a lot more things -- and do so successfully -- in order for it to matter.
The Philadelphia Eagles -- From 4-12 to 10-6 in one year
Changes in 2013:
- Fire Andy Reid, hire Chip Kelly.
- Draft Lane Johnson fourth overall, Jason Kelce returns from missing most of 2012, Jason Peters returns from missing all of 2012, Todd Herremans moved from tackle to guard.
- Move Fletcher Cox from DT to DE, promote Cedric Thornton to starter on defensive line.
- Sign Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher.
- Draft Zach Ertz, make Riley Cooper full-time starter after Jeremy Maclin injury.
- Nick Foles replaces injured Michael Vick, posts higher passer rating than Peyton Manning.
In just one year, the Eagles turned around after firing their coach, completely rebuilding the offensive line, installing a new defense that required a DT to move to DE, where he has excelled, revamping their secondary, and finding out what they had in a young quarterback.
They did have the fourth overall pick, though Johnson is still just a right tackle. How many people who are fans of teams picking in the top 10 think "If only we get an above-average right tackle, we'll win the division!"?
The Dallas Cowboys -- From 8-8 for three years in a row to 12-4
The cliff notes version of the Cowboys is this: Their highest-drafted acquisition that's had an impact is tackle Tyron Smith, who was ninth overall in 2011. They took Morris Claiborne sixth overall in 2012 and he's been a complete disaster. Their best players were undrafted (Tony Romo, left guard Ronald Leary), or third round picks (DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams, Jason Witten), or mid-to-late first round picks (Dez Bryant, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin.)
There was one NFC playoff team from the last two years that did build thanks to taking a quarterback first overall ...
The Carolina Panthers -- From 2-14 to 12-4 in three years
Changes in 2011:
- Fire John Fox, hire Ron Rivera.
- Draft Cam Newton first overall.
- Trade for Greg Olsen.
- Second-year player Greg Hardy becomes a starter.
Changes in 2012:
- Draft Luke Kuechly ninth overall.
- Draft guard Amini Silatolu in the second round, cornerback Josh Norman fifth round.
- Thomas Davis recovers from missing most of the games between 2009-2011.
- Sign Mike Tolbert.
Changes in 2013:
- Draft Star Lotulelei 14th overall, Kawann Short 44th overall.
- Sign UDFA cornerback Melvin White.
The Panthers went the route of improving with a QB at number one, but they also needed a lot more than that.
They also got a new head coach, saw crazy improvement from Hardy, the return of Davis, and drafted Kuechly, Lotulelei, and Short. Those are a lot of significant changes, additions, and in-house improvements.
Some potential turnarounds to watch for in the next 1-3 years:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1st overall
Like the Lions and Panthers, the Bucs could take Winston and have him do a lot better than Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. It's not just about being great, it's about being greater than the ineptitude you're replacing. If Winston does even just that, it could be worth four wins on it's own.
They also are entering their second season since hiring Lovie Smith to be their head coach. They've also got a head start over most 2-14 teams because Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy are elite defensive players, while Alterraun Verner is very good. On offense, Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Doug Martin isn't a bad place to start. What's left to do?
Well, a lot.
The offensive line is still in need of a major overhaul, which isn't good new for most teams that spend a first overall pick on a QB. The defense consists of those great players I mentioned before and perhaps more than a few that aren't "starter quality" in the NFL. All the more reason that Tampa Bay might be better off trading down, if they get a good enough deal.
The Bucs aren't good candidates to turn around in 2015, but could get there by 2016-2017 if Winston is more like Newton than he is like JaMarcus Russell, or even Sam Bradford.
Atlanta Falcons, 8th overall
New head coach, solid quarterback, receiving weapons, a top-10 pick spent on a left tackle, a rebuilding offensive line, and a top corner. What's left?
The Falcons defensive line is bad but with Dan Quinn in charge, we should expect some of them to be moved around with the intention of putting them in a better position to succeed. How much could Ra'Shede Hageman improve in Quinn's defense? Or even a veteran like Tyson Jackson?
They also need a tight end, a better pass defense, perhaps a star middle linebacker, and a running back. But teams that turn around from 4-12 (Atlanta's record in 2013) to 12-4 (Atlanta's record in 2015-16?) aren't supposed to necessarily look "good" going into their turnaround season. That's why they were bad very recently, right?
Minnesota Vikings, 11th overall
The Vikings could be entering their playoff season. They went 5-10-1 in 2013, 7-9 in 2014, and could be headed for 10-12 wins in 2015. Why?
They hired Mike Zimmer to replace Leslie Frazier in 2014, added their quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, at pick 32 in the draft, and have focused on improving their defense -- Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes -- and offensive line -- there are apt comparisons to the up-and-down natures of Okung and Matt Kalil. Also like the Seahawks, they've spent capital on finding receivers, such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and now Mike Wallace, though perhaps without much success. Just like Seattle.
Also like Seattle, Minnesota will need to get unpredictable contributions from at least one player. Remember, we didn't know what Wilson would do in 2012, just like we didn't know what Sherman would do in 2011. Also like the Vikings didn't know what they'd get out of Jerick McKinnon last year. It's unpredictable, which is why I can't tell you who will do that for Minnesota, but you can take your guesses.
Carolina Panthers, 25th overall
The Panthers? Twice?!
Yes. Just like the Seahawks, Carolina won the division with a losing record, won a playoff game, and are picking 25th despite being 24th in DVOA. They are better than what the 2010 Seattle team was, but they were also pretty bad last season. They already have a lot of the pieces in place though and even if they aren't picking in the top 10, or top 20, that won't stop the Panthers from being a legitimate Super Bowl threat in the coming years.
(They might also not be a legit Super Bowl threat, but it shouldn't be because they're picking 25th instead of 5th.)
In the AFC, I would look at the Raiders (yep), the Jets (yeah), the Texans (they may need to go the route of finding their "Carson Palmer" QB, though I'm not sure if that will be Brian Hoyer), and the Dolphins (revamped o-line, QB in place, have a pass rush.)
The point is that sometimes you have to add a player that helps you rather than one that changes you.
The Dolphins are picking 14th and might find themselves in the same position the Seahawks were when they were picking 12th in 2012. At that time, Seattle was 7-9 (Miami was 8-8 last year) but opted to trade down and pick Irvin at 15. Irvin hasn't even turned out to be a huge get yet, at least not compared to Wagner and Wilson.
Of course, you always want those transcendent players, but as has been proven over and over again, they don't have to be found in the top five, or even the top 10. You can't rely on Amari Cooper or Dante Fowler to be your savior, they're just another piece of the puzzle.
And even then, sometimes they still aren't.