NFL Draft: Expect the unexpected

March 24, 2018 GMT

If chaos is a ladder, don’t walk underneath the 2018 NFL draft unless you want the bad luck. It’s going to be crazy.

This is what happens when the top of the draft is weak, the overall strength of draft lacks players at premiere positions, and most importantly, there are myriad quarterbacks expected to go in the top-40.

Depending on the source, the best player in the draft is either a running back or a guard. Some might even say it’s an off-ball linebacker. The top pass rusher isn’t a Myles Garrett-level athlete, though who is? Connor Williams, the Texas tackle many believed would be the first offensive lineman selected, came in with alligator arms and now looks more like a guard. Calvin Ridley tested as one of the worst top-flight receiver athletes we’ve seen in years. And the draft’s top cornerback, Denzel Ward, may be an outstanding athlete, but he’s still under 5-foot-11 and just 183 pounds.

We can’t know who teams are going to like because there aren’t clear tiers of talent, starting with a lack of blue chippers. Usually there’s a Garrett or a Jadeveon Clowney at the top of the draft for everyone to point to and agree is a top player. There’s a Marshon Lattimore-level corner, or an A.J. Green-level receiver. More and more, we’re seeing disagreements about the top quarterbacks of late, but rarely does it look like this draft class, where any one of four or five players could be considered QB1.

As a result, there’s only a marginal difference between the fifth-best player in the draft and the 25th. A receiver one team thinks is the best receiver in the class, may be WR5 for another team by virtue of specific team-based preferences and the specialization of modern schemes.

There’s always been a schematic difference in how teams covet and value players, but because this draft lacks clear tiers of players and how dramatically different player deployment is team-to-team, those preferences will stand out even more this year.

The league’s shift to specialization exacerbates the fogginess around the talent tiers. Each team now has such unique positional roles as schemes have changed, grown, and evolved. The whole league isn’t looking for the same 4-3 right defensive end or bell cow running back. They want a player to fit their offense or defense, and increasingly teams recognize the need to differentiate prospects as such. As a result, it’s impossible for outsiders—read: all of us in the media—to predict how one team could value a slot-only receiver compared to a boundary receiver on another team because they’ll be used in critically different wants. That means they’ll be valued in potentially diametrically opposed fashion depending on the team.

Consensus is out the window.

A team may take a player No. 8 overall that five other teams didn’t believe was a first-round player because he fits a very specific role on their team. A team could also get a player at 50 it gave a first-round grade for the same reason. Types, and athletic profiles, matched with scheme are going to matter more than ever before in deciding the outcome of the draft.

The specificity of this talent also throws the predictability of this draft completely off kilter. If Saquon Barkley, Quenton Nelson, and Roquan Smith are the three best players in this draft, how will teams value them relative to players who play premium positions? How should a top-tier guard be stacked against a lesser talented cornerback for example?

The same goes for Minkah Fitzpatrick, who put up somewhat uninspiring testing numbers in Indianapolis and appears clearly better suited for a roving, overhand defender role not clearly defined by traditional football terminology. Football teams avoid risk, preferring archetypal players at easily recognizable positions. Fitzpatrick won’t fall as far as a player like Jabrill Peppers, but there are similar issues of impactful fit questions.

Answering these questions could have lasting impacts on drafts to come, but for now the NFL is behind the college game in its usage of players like Fitzpatrick, Derwin James and other versatile defenders who can play safety, cornerback, and linebacker.

To wit, the Browns drafted Peppers and then proceeded to put him 30 yards from the line of scrimmage on every play. Why should we trust them to maximize a player like Fitzpatrick, and why would they prioritize a player like him when they clearly don’t seem to understand his best fit in a defense?

Someone as talented as the Alabama All-American shouldn’t be a square peg in a round hole, but the problem for him in the NFL is he’s a square peg in a box of cereal. It doesn’t even compute for some teams still stuck in 1998 (we’re looking at you, Jon Gruden). But for another team, he could be seen as the best player in the draft. The Fitzpatrick example is a microcosm of why this draft offers so much intrigue.

And that’s before we even discuss the quarterbacks.

Sam Darnold is the frontrunner to be the No. 1 overall pick, but after that, NFL draft observers are flying blind. The Giants reportedly want to make a run with Eli Manning, leaning toward eschewing a quarterback with the second pick. They could trade out, take Saquon Barkley, or surprise everyone and take Josh Rosen. Or Baker Mayfield. Or Josh Allen. Or simply take Bradley Chubb, maybe the safest pick in the draft at a premium position, to replace the recently-dealt Jason Pierre-Paul.

That’s what makes this such a fascinating and unpredictable draft. Every prospect is flawed and nowhere is that more evident than the quarterbacks. It’s the Goldie Locks problem: there’s no quarterback who is just right. Baker Mayfield is too short or too brash or both. Josh Allen and Sam Darnold are too inconsistent and too mechanically unsound. Josh Rosen is too aloof and too turnover-prone. Lamar Jackson is too skinny and too inaccurate.

On the other hand, Mayfield was wildly productive, fiery as a leader and possesses tremendous accuracy. Darnold and Allen showed off mega-talent with their huge arms and playmaking skills. Rosen clearly demonstrates the most polish and nuance. And Jackson could end up being the most dynamic dual-threat quarterback since Michael Vick.

It’s an exercise in confirmation bias, a Rorschach Test for NFL evaluators. The players they love say as much about them and their preferences as it does about the players themselves.

We do know a little about some teams and their interest level in the quarterbacks. The Jets and Dolphins like Mayfield. The Browns like Allen and Darnold. Apparently no one really likes Rosen because he’s too smart (no, seriously), and all of that could turn out to be completely useless or erroneous information once draft day arrives. Circumstances and the adrenaline have a way of changing people, of inciting action they wouldn’t otherwise take and ramping up the pressure to make a move.

Team X doesn’t love Player Y right up until the moment the clocks starts and then, all of a sudden, it’s time to pull the trigger. We could see two quarterbacks go in the top five or we could see five. Saquon Barkley might be the second pick in the draft or could sit in the green room through the entire top 10.

The composition of this class, without clear blue-chip talent at the top, the cadre of quarterbacks, and increasing specialization in the league converge together to form a lightning bolt of uncertainty in the draft.

There’s only one thing we can say for sure: it’s going to be wild.

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