Yet again, draft provides no shortage of stories to talk about
The Browns, Vikings and 49ers all made smart trades during draft weekend
Rams felt more comfortable taking Janoris Jenkins because of all their high picks
My draft awards; Quotes of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think and more
So what were 39.6 million people doing over the weekend? Watching the draft. At least one minute of it, according to NFL numbers released Sunday. I won't cover all three days of it here. Instead, I'll pick and choose the things that most interested me, and then ... well, let's just get it going. There's so much to say.
I was in Radio City Music Hall for round one Thursday night, then went to south Florida Friday morning to report on the Dolphins and Ryan Tannehill for Sports Illustrated. Along the way, I checked in with the new face of sports in the District of Columbia, the strange draft of the Seahawks, the smart trading of Trent Baalke in San Francisco, the relative merits of taking a punter in the third round, rookie GM Les Snead treating the draft like a mutual fund in St. Louis, a controversial draft in Indianapolis (plus Jimmy Irsay's tremendous affection for me), and a general manager in Miami with a lot on his mind.
For all whose teams I didn't cover here, my apologies. Barring unforseen events in the league today (such as bounty discipline), I'll have more draft thoughts in Tuesday's column.
Where to begin? Chronologically.
Good trade by the Vikings. Not a bad trade by Cleveland.
Remember on the famous NFL Films clip when Bill Parcells is exhorting his Giants team back in the '80s by saying, "There's a reason you lift all them weights!'' And in this draft, there's a reason Cleveland built up all those draft choices entering this draft -- a league-high 13 in all.
I've been hearing GM Rick Spielman of the Vikings took advantage of a Browns team that didn't want to risk losing Trent Richardson, which is true. I've been hearing Browns GM Tom Heckert got snookered into throwing fourth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks. That's a load of crap. This is the easiest Monday Morning Quarterbacking to do (hey, that's trademarked!) after the draft.
There's no way Heckert could know what real offer Spielman had on the table. Spielman, as it turned out, had talked to Tampa Bay about the pick, but the Bucs were never seriously interested in it. But Heckert had no way of knowing that at the time. General managers making vital decisions for the long-term cannot sit there and say, "I wonder if Spielman really has something, or if he's bluffing.'' They have to make decisions on the fly. The Browns kept the top five picks of a vital draft intact and got the guy they wanted, Trent Richardson, and still had 10 picks to work with. I don't castigate Heckert. I applaud him.
To Kalil or not to Kalil. That was the question.
What it came down to for Minnesota, a team that desperately needed corners, is that the cornerback market was deeper than the tackle market -- and the tackle market had one great player in their eyes. And while I'd have gone corner-corner at the top or the draft and hoped a Bobby Massie type slipped to me in the third round, I understand why they did what they did. They went Matt Kalil at four, traded up to get safety Harrison Smith ahead of some interested teams at the bottom of the first round, and settled for Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson at the top of the third. Hope he's got a short memory. Robinson will need it, with Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford on the schedule six times a year for the foreseeable future.
"When our coaches coached the Senior Bowl,'' Spielman told me, "they fell in love with Harrison Smith. At safety, the depth after him got really thin. So we felt that was a guy we really wanted to get where we got him. That's the point with what we did -- you've got to look at the depth at each position. Where we picked, we liked Morris Claiborne. We liked Justin Blackmon. But with Kalil, my point was, you've got to look at the depth and make your choice not only for that position but for what you think will be there at the other positions you need. And that's what it came down to for us.''
Spielman, clearly, was going to take Kalil all along. When he said in the days before the draft he was considering Claiborne, Blackmon and Kalil, he invented a market for a draft choice that should probably have had no market. That's what general managers have been trying to do since the beginning of drafts in all sports. With Spielman and the Browns, it clearly worked.
Is there any doubt the NFL will settle for nothing less than total world domination?
So you want to know what the draft is all about these days? Media, baby. All media, all the time. Check out Robert Griffin's two-hour, eight-minute media experience after being the second pick in the draft Thursday night.
I mean that: 128 minutes of doing interview after interview. Happily, apparently. I was in about the 111th minute, and he greeted me with, "Hey, I read the story in Sports Illustrated! Great stuff!'' (We put him on the cover last week, in a story I wrote.)
The roster of Griffin's interviews:
1. NFL Network.
3. The NFL's in-house interview at Radio City, heard only by fans at the draft.
4. SiriusXM NFL Radio
5. FOX Sports Radio
6. The BBC.
7. A Waco, Texas, radio station.
8. ESPN radio.
9. Redskins media conference call back to club headquarters in Ashburn, Va.
10. Redskins Nation TV.
11. Washington-area media at the draft.
12. A radio interview with Eddie George.
13. Press conference with national media at the draft.
14. Wounded Warriors on site at the draft.
15. Four brief one-on-one interviews with Washington-area media.
17. Nippon TV (Griffin was born in Japan, where his parents were stationed in the military. "I just want to say to all the fans -- I take pride in where I came from, Japan."
This was my favorite scene backstage at the draft. Redskins PR czar Tony Wyllie was taking Griffin from one interview to the next, and trying to make sure everyone got a little piece of him, and Nippon TV was on its fourth question when Wyllie said urgently but quietly: "Hey Japan! You said, 'Two questions!' '')
18. Armed Forces Radio.
19. Pro Football Talk.
20. Another ESPN interview.
When I got to him, I marveled that he was still able to answer questions with some thoughtfulness. "I want to be fair to everyone,'' he said. "Plus, my teammates might be watching. I want to be sure I make a good impression. Then, once this is all over, I won't have to talk about myself for a while.''
Au contraire. You've only just begun to feed the monster, young man.
Morris Claiborne is still smiling.
I met the LSU corner for the first time backstage at Radio City, and all of us who did were impressed with his sincerity, poise and emotion. He was thrilled to go to Dallas in the trade-up from 14 to six in the first round. I covered much of his story at the top of my column Friday, but what's the most fun about the draft, after all the ridiculous hype and snoozy buildup, is when a great story happens, stunningly. And Claiborne, the best corner in the draft, who no one thought had a prayer of getting beyond the fifth pick in the draft, was there for the Cowboys to pluck at six after trading. Dallas missed the playoffs last year because it couldn't play pass defense in the fourth quarter of the biggest games. And now the Cowboys have rebuilt the secondary (Claiborne, Brandon Carr) in one offseason. Claiborne was shaking with emotion talking about how his son now "is never going to want for anything. Now I'm a Cowboy ... It's ... just ...
"Amazing. Amazing. Following in the footsteps of Deion Sanders. Amazing.''
Jeff Ireland, aka "Fireland,'' puts his career on the line with an Aggie.
I first met Jeff Ireland 10 years ago this month, working on a Dallas Cowboys draft story. Owner Jerry Jones opened the process for me, and I was able to watch the Cowboys prepare for the 2002 draft on the inside, in the meetings of scouts, coaches and the front office. In so doing, I saw the respect afforded national scout Jeff Ireland. When he spoke, the room listened. So when I went to Davie, Fla., to report on the Tannehill pick, I wanted to hear the story of how Ireland got to the point where the Dolphins had only passing interest in Matt Flynn and never were a real competitor to trade up for the second pick in the draft and the chance to pick Robert Griffin III. It's because, as he explained, they liked Tannehill so much.
"I got enamored last August,'' he said, sitting in his office, the one with the framed photo of Walter Payton with his arm around Ireland the kid at a Bears training camp long ago.
But first, the elephant in the room. The fact that Ireland is public enemy No. 1 in south Florida. Ireland doesn't shy away from it. Fans flew a plane at the final home game of the 2011 season begging owner Stephen Ross to fire Ireland. There was a protest of about 30 fans outside the team's headquarters in March asking Ross to fire Ireland. But Ross, to me, was resolute about Ireland's future. "I wouldn't keep him here if I didn't think he had a good long-term future. Our draft last year was a darned good class. We have confidence this year it'll be good as well. I've got faith in Jeff.''
Said Ireland: "This too shall pass.''
I doubt that. But he went on.
"It's a little strange,'' he said of intense heat, and I didn't mean the weather. "It is what it is. I love the fact that the fans are passionate, and they want what I want -- to win. I believe what I do. I have a strong conviction in what I'm doing. I'm a meat-and-potatoes football guy, and I can handle the heat.''
Tannehill and the rest of the players, and the scouts and coaches, will see the heat. They'll feel it. As I write in the magazine this week, the new quarterback will be paying for the sins of people he doesn't know or has only recently met.
One of Ireland's points to me about Tannehill, and why he feels so good about the pick, is he put a grade on the quarterback in December and it never changed, all the way up to draft day. His scouts understood the implication. Tannehill was not only going to have to be good enough. He was going to have to be mentally tough enough to handle what was going on outside the building -- the negativity built up from a decade of chasing the Patriots and some of that time chasing the Jets, with so many draft picks blown, with the quarterback position a revolving door of (mostly) incompetence.
"They see the protesters, the negative stuff going on outside the building,'' Ireland said. "They know what's going on. It's a tough business, and the expectations never change.''
Ireland and coach Joe Philbin spoke of the plan for Tannehill, a plan no one knows exactly right now. In his office Friday afternoon, Philbin pointed to the practice fields outside and said: "Out there is where we're going to find out about Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore and David Garrard. I don't remember a master plan that said, 'Here's when Ryan's going to play.' If there is one, I was never told about it. We'll let them come to work, and the best man will win.''
The best man had better be Tannehill by sometime late this season, at the latest, unless Moore keeps riding the magic carpet he found late last season in Miami's 6-3 finish. Ireland's handling the heat well enough, but he won't be able to survive if Tannehill's not the guy.
I'll give Ryan Grigson credit: He stands firmly behind the Colts' draft, which is a trait I'd want in the guy who picks my players.
Grigson, the Colts' rookie GM, inherited a team switching to a 3-4 defense, a team that gave up 27 points a game last year. But eight of the 10 players in his first draft class play offense. The first defensive player he took, Alabama defensive tackle Josh Chapman, in the fifth round, had surgery to repair a torn ACL in January, and his status for 2012 -- at least the beginning of the season -- is murky.
Grigson did set the Indy offense up well, surrounding top pick Andrew Luck. In come the first two tight ends on their board, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and a speed receiver, T. Y. Hilton, to help replace the missing pieces that walked out the door at the same time as Peyton Manning. At the end of the draft, late Saturday night, Grigson would have loved to see the draft fall differently for the Colts. But he had no regrets.
"I've been in a lot of draft rooms,'' Grigson said, "and I've seen people reach way down, into the bowels of the draft board, to fill a need position. Then, once they come in and get in pads and they start playing, you figure you really haven't solved the problem you needed to solve. So we targeted some [defensive] guys, but when we couldn't get them, we had players on our board we knew could help us, and help us now.
"There are teams I've followed over the years and admired. Baltimore stays true to its principles and drafts smart. I've looked up to Ozzie Newsome, and he doesn't force things, even when I'm sure he feels the temptation to fill glaring needs. Instead of emotion getting in the way, he follows his board. Look where the Ravens are. They contend every year for the Super Bowl.
"All the days you spend on the road. All the hotels, all the flights, all the workouts, all the Pro Days ... It's late at night, and I'm having my Ruby Tuesday burger somewhere, thinking I've just seen a player I really like, and you start to think about how he might fit into the board. I mean, it's night after night. You feel confident you've got the players in the right order. And then because the board falls differently, you want to change all of that? I won't do it.''
A tight end like Fleener, Grigson said, "might not come out for another three years. I'm not going to turn down a player like that, with great value staring us in the face and a quarterback who can use the tight end so well. And Allen -- the tight end's an in-vogue thing now in NFL offenses.''
Considering the Colts signed a tight end, Dominique Jones, from Reading of the Indoor Football League this spring, the need was obviously there. Time will tell if those Grigson passed on were smart decisions.
The Colts are better, obviously, with Luck and two security blankets. But unless some incumbent 4-3 defenders -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be first-time outside linebackers this year after careers at end -- can make a smooth transition to the new defense, Luck's going to have to be as explosive a rookie as Cam Newton was a year ago for Indianapolis to be consistently competitive this year.
"This is not a one-day job,'' Grigson said. "I'm fortunate to have a coach and owner who trust me, and we're fortunate to have a quarterback now. We're chipping away.''