Thursday, May 14, 2015

Evaluating Broncos 2011 and 2012 Drafts

Following up on my previous posts about what I believe one should expect from a draft pick in each round, let's look at how the Denver Broncos 2011 and 2012 draft classes measure up.

2011 first round: Von Miller -- I think everyone knows the answer to this question. Now we just need to hope that, at some point in the future, Miller and the Broncos will agree to an extension.

2011 second round: Rahim Moore -- Moore struggled as a rookie, but improved his second season. His third season was cut short with a health scare, but he fared well in his final season. I'd call him a good pick.

2011 second round: Orlando Franklin -- I think everyone will agree that Franklin, a four-year starter on the offensive line who got better each season, was a good pick.

2011 third round: Nate Irving -- Irving had to go through a learning curve before he finally cracked the starting lineup late in his third year, although some might argue that was out of necessity. He entered his fourth year as a starter, had a good start, then injuries cut his season short. While I would lean toward him being a good pick, I can understand why someone might argue he was overdrafted, given he didn't contribute as much as some may have wished.

2011 fourth round: Julius Thomas -- Not only was Thomas a good pick, he was good value.

2011 fourth round: Quinton Carter -- Carter worked his way into the starting lineup as a rookie, then injuries sidelined him the next two seasons. He emerged as a rotational player his fourth year, but again, injuries sidelined him. Injuries can neither be prevented nor predicted in every single instance, so I tend to lean to Carter being a good pick because the Broncos got a little mileage out of him. Again, though, I can understand if someone would call him overdrafted.

The rest of the class: Virgil Green was clearly a good pick. Jeremy Beal and Mike Mohamed weren't with the team for long, but as I've mentioned, that's not necessarily a big deal, given that expectations were that they weren't going to be roster locks each season.

2012 second round: Derek Wolfe -- Do you remember the time when a certain Denver radio personality admonished the Broncos for failing in the 2012 first round? Do you remember how, after several players didn't fall to the Broncos, that they failed big time when they traded down with Tampa Bay, who took Doug Martin? Do you now realize just how silly that looks in retrospective? As we have learned, Doug Martin was overdrafted, while Wolfe has been a quality starter for three seasons. You can now tell that radio personality what a good pick Wolfe has been.

2012 second round: Brock Osweiler -- This one will certainly be debated. It's true the Broncos had no idea what they would get from Peyton Manning when they signed him. On the other hand, they could have drafted Russell Wilson, or drafted another quarterback after the second round. Then again, if they had taken Wilson, and Manning still performed at the high level he did, Wilson is sitting on the bench, and who knows if Osweiler might have excelled elsewhere. I do think it's fair to call the Osweiler pick a case of overdrafting a player. With that said, this could change depending on circumstances. If the Broncos, at any point, indicate they want to extend Osweiler past his rookie deal, that's a sign they still believe he can be the quarterback of the future. If they extend him, and he proves to be a worthy starter, we can certainly reconsider Osweiler's case.

2012 third round: Ronnie Hillman -- This one is easier to categorize. Hillman has had his moments in his three seasons, but it doesn't appear likely he'll be the starter this coming season. I think we can safely label Hillman an overdrafted player.

2012 fourth round: Omar Bolden -- Bolden has been a quality special teams player, and last season, gave the Broncos a kick returner they desperately needed, and handled himself well when asked to start. I'd call that a good pick.

2012 fourth round: Phillip Blake -- Blake spent his rookie year on the practice squad, then was cut in training camp before his second season began. He never played in an NFL regular-season game. He's absolutely an overdrafted player, and while my criteria does not apply a "bust" label to players taken in the fourth round or later, I certainly understand why other people may label Blake a bust.

2012 fifth round: Malik Jackson -- Jackson has emerged into a quality rotational player during his three seasons. That's certainly a good pick.

2012 sixth round: Danny Trevathan -- Trevathan emerged as a starter in his rookie year, then broke out in his second year as one of the team's best defensive players. Injuries cost him most of his third season, but there is hope he can bounce back in his fourth year. I definitely call him a draft-day steal, and if this year, he plays at or above the level of his second season, the "draft-day steal" label shouldn't even be debated.

Overall, John Elway and his staff did a terrific job of drafting in 2011, and did pretty well for themselves in 2012. If I was grading drafts, I'd definitely give the Broncos an A for 2011, and lean toward a B for 2012.

NFL Draft Evaluations: Judging Picks By Expectations

We're a couple of weeks removed from this year's NFL draft and plenty of people handed out grades, mostly based on whether or not teams addressed immediate needs.

But as we have learned so many times, how well one drafts doesn't simply come down to how well you addressed needs, but how much the players contributed, particularly based on what round you took them.

Therefore, a better time to analyze how well a team has drafted, is to do so several years after the draft has taken place. It also helps to know what the expectations should be for a player, depending on what round the player is taken.

It's a good time to assess the Denver Broncos 2011 and 2012 draft classes, because each of those drafts took place several three years ago. We have enough time to assess what the players contributed, and how that compares to expectations based on the round they were drafted.

What would be those expectations? Here's my thoughts:

First round: A player taken in this round is one you expect to be part of your franchise for the long term. In other words, after his rookie deal expires, you expect he'll be a player you will want to make every effort to re-sign. There are a few thing to keep in mind, though.

* It is true that first-round picks are signed for four years, with a club option for a fifth year. But to consider the player a good pick, it's not necessary that you pick up the option, as long as you make it clear you want to re-sign the player. The Houston Texans declined the option on Whitney Mercilus, but later gave him a four-year extension. The Seattle Seahawks declined the option on Bruce Irvin, but hope to extend him. Both teams likely want better value than the $7.7M salary the rookie option would have been. But because the Texans extended Mercilus, it's clear they want him for the long term, and the Seahawks' intentions to extend Irvin indicate the same. In both cases, the pick can still be considered a good one.

* If a team clearly wants to extend a player, but is unable to do so, even after picking up the option and using the franchise tag for a year, it's still a good pick. There will be those situations in which a team wants to keep a player, but the player prefers to test the market and get what he thinks will be a better deal.

* One can consider a first-round pick not used well when the team makes it clear it does not intend to extend the player when the rookie deal expires. In such a case, it matters not if the option year is exercised. Washington, for example, exercised its option for Robert Griffin III, but that is likely because it viewed the option year a better deal than declining it, then needing to use the franchise tag, should RG3 have a strong 2015 season. But if RG3 does not perform well the next two seasons, and Washington's front office makes it clear they are not keeping him, then one can call the selection of RG3 a poor usage of a first-round pick.

* We should consider the difference between overdrafting a player and a busted pick. Let's say a team drafted a player in the first round, and either stood pat with its original pick, or traded down in the first round and took the player. If that player becomes one the team decides not to retain when the rookie deal expires, the player should be considered overdrafted. A recent example of an overdrafted player would be Tennessee Titans 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker, who had his moments in his brief career, but the Titans did not pick up the option year, nor make any attempt to extend him. Had Locker been selected in a later round, it still might not have been the best usage of a pick, but expectations for Locker to excel would not have been as high (we'll get to other rounds later).

On the other hand, if the team waives the player at any time prior to the rookie deal expiring, it is safe to call the pick a bust. The same would apply if a team traded up in the first round, particularly if it gave up a lot in return to get the player, then chose not to extend him. The Cleveland Browns' 2012 first-round selection of Brandon Weeden was certainly a busted pick, as he was waived after just two seasons with the team. Briefly getting back to RG3, if Washington does not extend him after the 2016 season, he could be called a bust, because Washington gave up a lot to move up in the first round to select him.

Moving on to other rounds, and keeping in mind all drafted players get four-year contracts:

Second round: Players taken in this round should be starters for at least three of the four years they are with the team, and two of them need to be at least as good starters. If a second-round pick spends four years with the team, but never becomes a good starter, he's an overdrafted player. A second-round pick would be a bust if he not only never became a good starter, but is waived by the team before his rookie deal expired.

Third round: Players taken in this round should be starters for at least a year, and have been at least a good rotational or depth player for two years prior. This is because third-round picks are thought of as players that might take a year or two to develop, and might have to wait behind more experienced players before they get to start. If the player doesn't start by his fourth year in the league, he's overdrafted. A third-round bust is one who is waived before his rookie deal ends.

Before I get to other rounds, I do not consider any players taken in the fourth round or later to be busts, because the expectation is that they are not guaranteed to become starters. But there is a particular expectation for the first of these rounds.

Fourth round: A player taken in the fourth round should become at least a good depth, rotational, and/or special teams player during his time with the team. If the player is waived before his rookie deal ends, he has been overdrafted.

Fifth through seventh rounds: The final rounds are when you pick players who will likely have to compete for roster spots. If they become depth players, that's good. If they become good starters by their second year in the league, then you have a draft-day steal. If they never make the active roster, then it's not necessarily a big deal, because you didn't draft them with the expectation that they were locks for the final roster.

A quick note about trades: If a team drafts a player, and trades him before his rookie deal expires, what determines him a good pick or not depends on what the team gets in return. If the player was drafted in the first through third round, and the team gets far less in return than what it spent to get the player, then the player is a busted pick.

What if the team gets more in return? Well, it's definitely not a wasted pick if you get more in return than what you spent to get the player. On the other hand, because the team is trading the player, you should ask why the team is doing this, before judging the pick as a good one.

I will examine the Denver Broncos 2011 and 2012 drafts in a future post.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Broncos Continue to Build for Now and the Future

I used to be one of those people who assessed a team's draft solely based on how well they filled their needs. I've changed that approach, though, because when you do that, you are often looking at immediate needs, not future needs. Addressing both is part of the team-building process.

Additionally, there's no telling how well any of these players are going to do. There are countless players who were drafted, who never lived up to expectations. Grading a draft is like grading a student based on the material chosen for a research paper. You are making a judgment before you know what the finished product will look like.

And when it comes to the Denver Broncos, I've found more often than not that John Elway has been a good judge of talent. His 2011 draft class was strong, as of his nine picks, seven of them contributed extensively for at least one season. Yet if someone was handing out draft day grades that year, that someone was wondering why Elway didn't draft a defensive lineman until the seventh round. But time has told that Von Miller was very much worth the second overall pick in the draft, and that the likes of Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, and Julius Thomas were worth the picks used.

Elway continued to do well in 2012,with fourth-round pick Phillip Blake the only real miss. The jury is still out on the 2013 draft class, but there is hope that Montee Ball can get back on track, that Sylvester Williams could be the answer at nose tackle, and that Kayvon Webster could take a bigger role in the defense.

With all that said, Elway was wise to not only think about the future when he moved up in the first round to select defensive end Shane Ray, but to minimize his risk when he moved up the board. As I discussed last week, what makes a move up the board wise is when you don't give up too much or jeopardize your ability to build your team. The Broncos accumulated compensatory picks this year, so they could afford to part with one fifth-round pick this year. They will get more comp picks next year, so parting with a 2016 fifth-rounder was fine. And it wasn't likely that offensive guard Manny Ramirez was going to stick around, so it made sense to include him in the trade package.

From there, Elway's strategy became clear about looking for value. Some think offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo was taken a round too early, but if that's who was at the top of the Broncos' draft board, then that's who they should have taken if they weren't able to trade down. Always remember this rule of thumb when drafting: Trade down if you can, but if you can't, stick to your board and don't worry about perceptions of reaching for a player.

I liked the Broncos' pick of tight end Jeff Heuerman in the third round. Owen Daniels was a good value signing, but he isn't a long-term solution, and Heuerman will get a couple of years to develop before entering the starting lineup. Fourth-round pick Max Garcia is a versatile offensive lineman, and it's clear that Gary Kubiak wants versatility out of most of those players.

Now comes the time when we find out who fits in where. At this point, we can safely say that Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez will have the left tackle and right guard spots nailed down. I wouldn't rule out Michael Schofield at right tackle just yet -- my hunch is that he will win the starting job. Meanwhile, Sambrailo can be given time to develop. One thing to keep in mind: Sambrailo might be a better fit at left tackle, but consider that Clady's future beyond 2015 is uncertain, and the Broncos might view Sambrailo as the guy who can replace him. At left guard and center, it remains to be seen who will emerge, but having multiple players who can handle either position is better than having multiple players who are a fit at just one position.

Then there's nose tackle, a position many wondered why the Broncos didn't spent an earlier pick after Terrance Knighton departed in free agency. Keep in mind that the Broncos aren't giving up on Williams just yet. He'll enter training camp as the starter, and this season will tell whether or not the Broncos will want to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Marvin Austin can provide the depth behind him. If not, that's the reason why the Broncos took Darius Kilgo in the sixth round, to give the Broncos depth, and perhaps a potential starter if Williams doesn't pan out.

I remain skeptical about certain moves the Broncos didn't make, such as not doing more to retain Orlando Franklin, and misjudging the market for Rahim Moore. I didn't care for the Broncos' trade for Gino Gradowski, in which they sent a fourth-round pick to the Ravens, even if they got a fifth-round pick back. (Sending a sixth-round pick to Baltimore and getting a seventh-round pick would have been better.) But, for the most part, the Broncos minimized their offseason risks.

Looking at some other teams and what they did in the draft:

* The New York Jets did well for themselves. The problem I saw under John Izdik was that he didn't make it clear enough to fans and ownership that the team needed to rebuild. More importantly, he retained a head coach whose mindset was that the Jets just needed to reload. New general manager Mike Maccagnan started from scratch with the coaching staff and, while his free agency moves indicated he wanted to reload, his draft showed he was thinking as much about the future as he was about the present. Leonard Williams was a great pick, Devin Smith was worth taking to develop behind Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and the trade down with the Texans allowed the Jets to accumulate more picks, after trading several away earlier in the offseason. It was a step in the right direction, and perhaps the Jets can get back to relevancy, as long as Maccagnan continues to project the idea that the team wants to win now and in the future.

* The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are two teams I see heading in the right direction. Each team was similar in that the previous regime was making too many mistakes and every mistake kept setting back the franchise.

Former owner Al Davis had done good things for the Raiders in the past, but was too stubborn to adjust his approaches, and it led to a string of poor personnel decisions. His son Mark is not without his faults, but he's at least willing to admit he's never been the personnel guy his father once was.
General manager Reggie McKenzie started slowly, but has gotten better with his drafts each year. He did well to get Khalil Mack and Derek Carr last year. There's still hope for 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, and while McKenzie did take him early in the draft, he made one move down the board, then the time he spent making the selection suggested McKenzie was trying to move down again. (Remember, the rule of thumb  to try to move down, but if you can't, stick to your board.)

This year, McKenzie did well with his selections of Amari Cooper, Mario Edwards, and Clive Walford. McKenzie was also wise to trade back twice on Day 3, allowing him to accumulate more depth. The key, though, is for Mark Davis to remain patient with McKenzie, allow the players to develop, and only insist on change if coaches aren't working out.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, had been decimated by the constant moves up the board by the previous regime. The mindset was clearly that the Jaguars were just a few players away from returning to the playoffs, when the reality was that it was time to rebuild. It wasn't just that the players they selected didn't pan out, but what they gave up to get them.

It's still too early to judge Jacksonville's 2014 draft class, but the good news is that Blake Bortles gets another year to develop a rapport with receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. There is still hope that offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, the team's 2013 first-round pick, can get on track. And this year, the Jaguars did well to get outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and running back T.J. Yeldon. It's understandable that head coach Gus Bradley will need to show he can get the Jaguars to at least a .500 record this year. But more importantly, it's imperative that patience be shown for general manager David Caldwell, who is slowly getting out of the mess the previous regime left him, and needs time to show what his work in the drafts can yield.

* I've liked what I've seen from current Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman the first two years he's drafted. His 2013 first-rounder, Star Lotulelei, has been very good, and 2014 first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin looks like a keeper. And he's finally dug himself out of the salary cap mess left for him, so he should be in position to get Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly extended.

But this year, Gettleman fell into the worst trap a general manager can fall for: Panicking. This was the case when he traded up for tight end Devin Funchess. Giving up third- and sixth-round picks was an example of not minimizing risk. Additionally, Gettlemen's judgment that other teams were going to draft receivers proved incorrect. That move reminds me of when Mike Shanahan traded up to select Jarvis Moss, after limiting his board to a select few players. I have no idea if Gettlemen limited his board, but regardless, he gave up too much.

Now Gettlemen needs to hope that Michael Oher can turn things around, or that fourth-round pick Daryl Williams can start at right tackle. It's true you don't draft for need just to do so, but giving up those picks might have cost Gettleman a chance to further help his team's situation.