Where is the NFL Headed? (Draft Trends)

Updated: April 28, 2015

The draft will be in Chicago this year; what other new trends will we see?

Where is the NFL going? Can draft night help us get a lay of the land?In a time where we have questions aplenty regarding the ability for college-bred spread quarterbacks to translate into the face of an NFL franchise, we miss the more telling draft trends right in front of us. This coming weekend, those looking will be able to get an infrequent view into the minds of NFL front office decision makers; a myriad of personalities with plans in place for several years to come.What will we notice this year? I’ve always been keenly interested in how the front office “brass” operates in the league, but recently I’ve been taking a closer look at the changing landscape.

Marshawn Lynch was the only 2014-15 Pro-Bowl RB to be drafted in the first round.

1) Running back value over the years has plummeted.

We’re at the point where draft pundits have voiced a preference to not take a tailback in the first round. The NFL is transitioning more to a league of passing and elusive athletes than ever before. Spreading the field, getting your players in space and production of points is in, colliding bodies and helmets at full speed is out. We’re also seeing a renaissance of pass-catching backs, which further displaces the traditional tailback (and fullback for that matter) from the game plan. Add these factors into a position where players’ bodies age quickly and where players are forced to specialize in a platoon scenario and you’ll notice that this philosophy makes sense.

2) Big bodied trench players are viewed as the prospects who translate quickest and best into the NFL.

Quickly, anyone can point out the busts in areas of pass-rusher, wide-receiver, running-back as well as quarterback in any given year. The first round is annually peppered with offensive and defensive linemen whom are guys who end up paying off the most by way of unheralded dividends to their teams – and quickly, I might add. This isn’t to say these players can’t bust (see: Courtney Brown, Glenn Dorsey, Matt Kalil, to name a few), but it’s been looked at as the safer route.

Eric Fisher, an offensive tackle out of Central Michigan, went #1 just in 2013, followed by Luke Joeckel. They made history as two offensive tackles had never gone first and second in the modern NFL. Mario Williams was seen as a safer pick than both Reggie Bush and Vince Young in 2006. The first QB taken last year was Blake Bortles at 3, after an offensive tackle and Jadeveon Clowney. Jerry Jones even had to keep himself from indulging in the Manziel hype because his football people saw Zack Martin, a guard, as the wise choice. Remember Chase Warmack and Jonathan Cooper? Both guards drafted within the top-10 picks. Leonard Williams is seen as the “safe pick” this year. If teams have made anything clear it’s that they see a lot more NFL-ready traits in the trenches of the college game than they do skill players operating in space.

Drafted 1 & 2 in 2012, these QBs were the first victims of draft salary slotting.

3) Changes in the salary of draft slots and the emergence of the spread offense in college has not made a noticeable impact on where Quarterbacks are drafted.

In my observation above, I mention that it’s getting tougher and tougher for NFL front-office decision makers to evaluate the ability for skill players and Quarterbacks to translate spread-centric talents into tangible NFL skills. The risk of taking a Quarterback very high in a time where teams must extrapolate how they’ll translate more than before might be higher than ever; however, a counter-balance was put in place as of the 2012 draft. Slots have been put in place for salaries of draft picks, effectively ending large signing bonuses and rookie hold-outs. Gone are the days where if you took a Quarterback, you are on the hook for a massive contract. Teams now also have “ownership” of a player for up to five years once they draft that player. Suddenly, the once simmering potential for QBs to be passed due to cost has evaporated. The risk is now hedged and, thus, Quarterbacks are still flying off the board early. Even if the lackluster combo of EJ Manuel and Geno Smith serves as a deviation from the trend, we’ve seen enough desperate teams atop the draft risk their future on a Quarterback simply because they affect the game that much.

These are my thoughts on how the draft has been playing-out recently, with the above observations as telling hints into how those responsible for finding and maintaining a competitive advantage, or differentiator, see the competition landscape changing. While we’re programmed to pay attention to box-scores and stat-lines, it’s always been intriguing to delve inside the minds of personnel to see the numerous intricacies that are important to the NFL game beyond watercooler talk. In the interest of good discussion, I urge everyone to think about these trends this coming Thursday and over the weekend. I bet you’ll come out realizing you know more about the game.

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