Providing some perspective on the top 5 ‘reaches’ of the 2019 First Round

Jan 22, 2019; Mobile, AL, USA; South defensive end Montez Sweat of Mississippi State (9) battles with South offensive tackle Tytus Howard of Alabama State (58) during the South squad 2019 Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Critics are panning picks made by the Raiders, Giants, Texans, Falcons and Seahawks. Should they? Let’s dig deeper.

If there are hundreds in today’s NFL-draft frenzied world who publish mock drafts, there are thousands with opinions after the first round and virtually all of them, it seems, are providing immediate grades for the teams.

The premise of grading a player before he takes a single NFL snap is ridiculous, of course, though it is also entertaining. I am quite confident in my ability to evaluate players but so much more goes into it than the physical abilities evident on tape. Personality, health and the schematic plans that only the coaching staff inside those 32 NFL buildings are also critical to players playing up to expectations or not.

Of the 32 first round selections Thursday night, five have generated the most anguish on social media, where we all know the “real experts” reside (Hashtag # sarcasm).

Below is a breakdown of those five picks, as well as a reflection on the grades I gave each of those franchises three years ago for their work in the 2016 NFL draft to give you, the reader, a better feel for if you are right to be concerned about the player your favorite NFL club just selected.

Oakland Raiders – Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, No. 4 overall

I won’t suggest that I saw the selection of Ferrell coming this early – I projected him 22nd overall in my final first round mock - but I am a big fan of his game, ranking him as my 8th overall prospect. He does not possess the elite quick-twitch of Raiders’ predecessor Khalil Mack but raw speed is what last year’s selection, Arden Key, is supposed to provide. Ferrell is a classic 4-3 defensive end with length, strength and off-the-charts intangibles. He will quickly emerge as a leader on Oakland’s defense. I gave this pick a solid B.

Here is what I thought about Oakland’s draft in 2016, when, of course, Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock were not employed by the Raiders.

The Raiders pulled of the major surprises of the first round with safety Karl Joseph at No. 14 overall. Joseph warranted this high of a pick, as he is a fierce hitter, with terrific ball skills and is the consummate locker room guy but he is coming off a torn ACL, potentially impacting his ability to play right away. Oakland gambled up upside in the second round with former wide receiver and safety turned defensive lineman Jihad Ward, who really turned heads at the Senior Bowl. Third rounder Shilique Calhoun was a three-time All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His burst, agility and refined hands could make him a very effective edge rusher in the NFL too. Much will be made of the selection of Connor Cook in the fourth round. Rather than an indictment on youngster Derek Carr, this could be an example of Reggie McKenzie following in the footsteps of Ron Wolf in Green Bay, who was known for investing in young quarterbacks in the hopes of developing them and peddling them for future picks. Vadal Alexander’s stock slip in 2015 because he played out of position at right tackle but Oakland’s seventh round selection could prove a “surprise” if slid back inside at guard, where his lack of agility would be mitigated. Grade: B

New York Giants – Daniel Jones, QB, Duke, No. 6 overall

While the Raiders’ pick was a shocker, due to terrific reporting by Yahoo.com’s Charles Robinson (among others), virtually everyone “knew” that the Giants were high on Daniel Jones. I just didn’t believe it, as I am not as high on Jones, ranking him 55th overall on my board. Now, Jones does possess four of the five traits I believe are most important at the quarterback position – accuracy, anticipation, athleticism and attitude. Based on tape and watching him in person at the Senior Bowl, however, I believe that he possesses below average arm strength. Perhaps that will improve as Eli Manning takes reps. Certainly, he is a better fit in Pat Shurmur’s offense than in others, as many of the passes he will be asked to make are going to be relatively short dump offs to Saquon Barkley, throws down the seam to Evan Engram and lobs over the top to speedster Sterling Shepard, where Jones’ accuracy and pillow-soft touch are prioritized. But, when the winds pick up in the winter in MetLife Stadium, defenses could tighten up and force him to throw through some awfully tight windows. I gave this pick a D.

Given that both Dave Gettleman and Shurmer were elsewhere in 2016, I provided the Carolina Panthers’ grade – where the former was serving as GM.

While cornerback and offensive tackle were considered bigger needs by those outside of the building, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman may have been thinking about the future contracts of defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei with the first round selection of Vernon Butler, a long, powerful athlete who wowed at the Senior Bowl after starring at Louisiana Tech. With his need for a “hog mollies” satisfied, the Panthers shifted towards corners to potentially replace Josh Norman, selecting three consecutively in the middle rounds. Small schooler James Bradberry has exciting size (6-1, 211) and physicality but is facing a big jump from Samford. West Virginia’s Daryl Worley (6-1, 204) has a similar frame and game but comes with off-field issues. Zack Sanchez lacks their bulk but is a playmaker with 15 interceptions over his career, projecting best to the nickel position. Grade: C

Atlanta Falcons – Chris Lindstrom, OG, Boston College – No. 14 overall

I have never understood why some in the media grade teams and/or draft picks low simply because the selection did not fall in line with their own personal board. Lindstrom was not included in any of my mock drafts this year and I ranked him 46th overall so I cannot suggest that I thought he was a great value pick. However, the knock on the Atlanta Falcons for years has been a lack of toughness along the offensive line. Lindstrom (as well as No. 31 overall pick Kaleb McGary) offers an instant upgrade in that department. He is a terrific athlete, battle-tested against elite competition and generally regarded as a plug and play starter at either left or right guard. I do have some questions about how quickly he will see the field given the millions previously allotted to veterans on Atlanta’s offensive line. I gave the Falcons a C+ for this selection.

Because GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn were in Atlanta three years ago, their look-back grade is perhaps the fairest, thus far, of this article. It may give Falcons’ fans some solace remembering that some (including me) who questioned Atlanta’s selections then and how that draft has turned out since.

The selection of Florida safety Keanu Neal will be perceived by some as a reach but the Falcons were desperate to add physicality to the back seven of Dan Quinn’s defense. Neal is a punisher in the mold of Seahawks Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor, who, of course, Quinn knows well after coaching him in Seattle. Quinn (who also served as a defensive coordinator at Florida) also knows Neal well, as he helped recruit him to the Gators. The Falcons added more speed to their defense with highly athletic (but raw) linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the second and fourth. Late picks Wes Schweitzer and Devin Fuller could struggle to make the roster, despite needs at these positions on this club. Grade: C

Houston Texans – Tytus Howard, OT, Alabama State – No. 23 overall

While the afore-mentioned Giants and Falcons’ selections will be perceived by some as “luxury” picks, it was clear that the Texans needed help along the offensive line. And yet, because Howard played his college ball at Alabama State and was not a consensus top 50 selection, his selection is being panned by some. Those who watched him dominate Auburn or at the Senior Bowl, however, were not surprised to see him get selected much higher than expected. I won’t suggest that I thought Howard would be a first round pick. He was featured in my annual Diamonds in the Rough article (which is, at least in part, designed to highlight players who won’t go this early). I love his mass, strength and physical playing style. I do have some reservations about the jump in competition, of course, but I believe Howard will eventually be one of the top tackles from this class; practicing against JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney daily will help with that. I just hope Deshaun Watson survives the growing pains until that happens. I gave this selection a B-.

As you can see below, I was very high on the Texans’ draft class back in 2016, which was led by then-GM Rick Smith.

Given the big investments in Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller, as well as the extraordinary body control of No. 1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, first round pick Will Fuller should prove the perfect vertical threat complement. Houston only reinforced their splashy offseason with the selection of steady interior offensive lineman Nick Martin in the second round, silky smooth athlete Braxton Miller in the third and my favorite third down receiving specialist running back Tyler Ervin in the fourth. When was the last time an offense in the NFL was so dramatically different in just one offseason? Watch out for heavy-hitting safety K.J. Dillon and developmental nose guard D.J. Reader to surprise, as well. I’m not as high as some on Fuller but there are some terrific schematic fits here for the Texans, earning them one of the top grades this year. Grade: A

Seattle Seahawks – LJ Collier, DE, TCU – No. 29 overall

Like the afore-mentioned Texans, everyone knew the Seahawks had to prioritize getting another pass rusher given the trade this week of Frank Clark to Kansas City. Before trading back from their original No. 21 overall selection to acquire more picks, Seattle was in position to nab perhaps the most physically gifted edge rusher in this class in Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat (who went 26th overall to Washington) but the club clearly had the same concerns as many others about his health and football character. Collier does not possess the same quick-twitch explosiveness of a Clark or Sweat but he is powerful, tenacious and position-versatile. Along with Howard, he was one of my biggest risers following the Senior Bowl and was also included in my Diamonds in the Rough article because he did not become a full-time starter until his senior season. Despite that fact, he played a lot for the Horned Frogs (initially inside at defensive tackle before sliding outside to DE as a senior), showing much better fundamentals than anticipated for a player with his lack of career of starts. Recently, I listed Collier as one of five "mock-busters" who I thought might surprise by getting selected in the top 32. I gave this selection a B-.

Like Dimitroff and Quinn in Atlanta, head coach Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s success in finding their kind of guys deserves some respect. Here is what I wrote about their 2016 class.

The clear top priority in Seattle was upgrading the offensive line, which the Seahawks did with Germain Ifedi in the first round, a long and powerful blocker used to protecting for a mobile quarterback and with the positional versatility offensive line coach Tom Cable prefers. The Seahawks nabbed Ifedi while also acquiring an extra third round pick by trading down just five spots. Durability issues plagued Rees Odhiambo at Boise State and he will be asked to make the conversion inside to guard after playing tackle, but when healthy he showed top 50 talent, making him a nice value for the Seahawks in third round, as well. The most immediate impact might be made by defensive tackle Jarran Reed, however, a powerful run stuffer who will take over for free agent departure Brandon Mebane (San Diego) at nose guard. Seattle added talent at running back in ultra-athletic C.J. Prosise, hard-charging runner Alex Collins and little-used former Clemson rusher Zac Brooks to complement last year’s rookie phenom Thomas Rawls and could see contributions from tight end Nick Vannett (who can block, as well as catch) and fifth round defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson. Center Joey Hunt lacks size but not smarts. Kenny Lawler has the body control and strong hands to surprise, as well. Grade: B+

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