Snap Judgments: Need, speed dominate first day of NFL draft
IRVING, Texas -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we put a wrap on the marquee day of the NFL's annual pick-fest, from our vantage point of deep in the heart of Texas....
What hit home again Saturday was that the first round of the NFL Draft has now evolved into an exercise where teams have just three criteria for selecting players: Need, need and more need. All the elaborate and tedious work that teams put into ranking the best available players on their draft board takes a quick backseat to the urgency of filling a vacancy on the depth chart.
--Need is largely why there were eight trades in Saturday's wild and wooly first round, with teams hop-scotching their way all over the draft board to get the players they required.
--Need is why the Saints absolutely felt they had to trade up from No. 10 to No. 7 and get USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
--Need is why Jacksonville felt compelled to travel all the way from 26th to No. 8 to land the defensive end -- Florida's Derrick Harvey -- it craved.
--Need saw the Chiefs bounce up a couple notches from 17 to 15 to ensure themselves of getting the offensive tackle -- Virginia's Branden Albert -- they had targeted.
--Need was behind Carolina giving Philadelphia a ton for its No. 19 pick, which the Panthers used to select an offensive tackle they loved in Pitt's Jeff Otah.
--And need made teams like Atlanta and Houston reach for a couple offensive tackles in USC's Sam Baker and Virginia Tech's Duane Brown, respectively, both of whom were considered second-round talents.
There isn't even any more lip service really paid to the notion of taking the best available athlete when a team's first-round turn comes around. It's a need-driven draft. More than ever.
In Dallas, where I'm spending draft weekend, the big controversy centers on the question of the Cowboys selecting Arkansas running back Felix Jones with their first of two first-rounders at No. 22, when higher-rated Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall was still available (he went 23rd to Pittsburgh). Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was peppered with questions from Dallas-area reporters wanting to know why he bypassed Mendenhall, who was rated the draft's second-best back by many, in favor of Jones, who shared time in college with fellow Razorback first-round running back Darren McFadden and was considered the draft's fourth-best runner?
I thought Jones was at least honest when he and Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips explained their rationale in a post-picking press conference. Dallas wanted a complementary back to go with starter Marion Barber. They weren't looking for another back capable of carrying 20-25 times a game like Barber; they were seeking a runner who could be effective despite getting only maybe half of those touches. And one who was used to being in a two-back tandem. Mendenhall didn't really fit the description, the Cowboys explained. They wanted Jones because they viewed him as a different kind of back than Barber, with more versatility and more open-field, home-run potential.
"Barber, in my mind, gave us the luxury of having a different kind of back,'' Jerry Jones said. "You really will get the most out of [Felix Jones] if you have someone [sharing the load with him]. We're committed to a two-back approach. And Felix has shown he flourishes in a two-back system. That's no issue with Felix.''
Jerry Jones wouldn't say this in so many words, but Dallas wanted Felix Jones because he fit what the Cowboys think they need, higher ranking for Mendenhall be dammed. Thus, Dallas very willingly spent a first-round pick on a runner who will technically be a backup. That's just the reality. The Cowboys would have preferred that Mendenhall hadn't lingered on the board, prompting all these pesky questions about comparative value. Jones was the guy the Cowboys thought they needed, so they took him. End of story.
That's how the first round in the NFL works these days.
The juxtaposition was so stark that it immediately jumped to mind. Watching Matt Ryan walk to the podium in New York on Saturday, wearing a new Falcons hat and posing with an Atlanta jersey, I couldn't help but be struck with how much has changed for that franchise in the span of a year.
It was at last year's draft, which I covered from Radio City Music Hall in New York, that then Falcons quarterback Michael Vick stood on the platform with commissioner Roger Goodell, as the league honored Virginia Tech football players and coaches with a round of applause in the wake of the shooting tragedy earlier that month.
Just days earlier, the Vick dog-fighting story had broken. In a meeting with Goodell, Vick assured the commissioner he had nothing to do with the operation, but had been the victim of actions undertaken by family members. At the time, Goodell chose to believe him, but he warned Vick that he would consider the quarterback responsible for the actions and decisions of family members and associates.
We now know the rest of the story. Fast forward to this year on draft Saturday, Vick is in prison, and the Falcons are debuting a new franchise quarterback in Boston College's Ryan, the third overall pick.
My, what a difference a year makes.
Long live Goodell. The first two rounds of the draft flew by on Saturday, and we've got the Commish to thank for that with his new edict for up-tempo picking. Last year's record first round took an agonizing six hours and four minutes, while the first two rounds this year were done in just 5:50.
Somehow, some way, NFL teams conducted their business more quickly, and the union still managed to survive. Praise be.