As I've been working on my first 2014 mock draft coming out this week (three rounds of insanely early speculation!), I've been thinking quite a bit about three positions that are really tough to evaluate because of the disparity between NFL and college football: quarterbacks, running backs and safeties.
The New NFL Quarterback
The landscape for NFL quarterbacks has been undeniably altered by the advent of the mobile quarterback across the college level.
It's not just the zone read option (ZRO) or the pistol formation that made landfall in the NFL in 2012. Cam Newton ran for nearly 1,500 yards in his Heisman & Championship-earning 2010 season at Auburn in a very simple ZRO offense. The Tim Tebow/Colin Klein/Blake Bell types don't enthuse NFL front offices, but the first two were very successful in college (and that's an understatement for Skip Bayless' favorite unemployed football player). The Belldozer is a popular darkhorse pick for the Heisman in 2013. So it's not just the systems we've seen in Nevada and Oregon and other places making it tough, though if you're sleeping on Cody Fajardo and Marcus Mariota, those two teams' starting QBs for 2013, you're making a mistake.
At the same time, the various implementations of the spread (that don't use much ZRO) have offered less mobile QBs a different path to the NFL. He're at TST, we're all aware of Sam Bradford's ascent to the pros. I think it's more interesting that a QB like Geno Smith in Dana Holgorsen's version of the air raid drops as far as he did on draft day beyond so many teams that are built for stationary QBs in the same year his top two targets go 8th and 92nd overall...to the same team.
Systems are confusing the game (good read - you should click that link...).
So looking ahead, I'm really apprehensive in slotting QBs on my board. You won't find consensus on Johnny Manziel right now. As fun as Johnny Football is to watch, there are a lot of different takes on his game and how he can fit into the NFL. And what about the aforementioned Fajardo and Mariota? I haven't seen their names anywhere near the Teddy Bridgewaters or Tajh Boyds often. I'm not sure why. Fajardo looks just as capable as Kaepernick did after his junior year at Nevada. I don't hear a lot of 49ers fans upset that Colin's entering his first season as a starter this year...
I'm just torn about how to approach QBs right now. Denard Robinson was an actual thing...and a person. So if you have unlocked this one, let me know cause I need some help.
Back to Running
As was popularly noted after the 2013 NFL Draft's first round came to a close, this year marked the first time since 1963 that no running back was selected in the first round. I don't think we're going to have to wait 50 years to see it happen again.
Unless you're relatively new around here, you know I've been on the bandwagon on the decline in value of the running back at the NFL level for years. Nevertheless, with the junior class as stacked as it is, I think one of them is gone in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon), Lache Seastrunk (Baylor), Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona), James Wilder (Florida St.), Michael Dyer (somwhere in Arkansas...) -- I think they all could be first round selections...today. Seven months time will probably change that for some of those guys.
I'm incredibly interested to see how this year's class pans out...and how that could affect next year's draft. Jonathan Franklin, Marcus Lattimore, Stepfan Talor, Joseph Randle, Mike Gillislee, Andre Ellington and, yes, Zac Stacy all went between round 4 and 6. Should any of those pan out to be a reliable 1,000+ yards guy, it only reinforces the decline of RB value to the NFL.
I think it'll happen. And the fingers are crossed that it's Stacy.
Safety in Numbers
As much has been talked about in defending ZRO concepts, it's accepted that the first step (and therefore arguably the most important) is the scrape exchange -- allowing the backside defensive end to crash inside while the backside linebacker takes the edge. This allows the DE to get to the handoff point quickly if done correctly while the LB offers contain on the backside.
But football is just chess with violence and weirder rules. ZRO schemes are going to prep for this by running more inverted veer sets and let the backside LB take himself out of the play. That leaves the pass off the table, so it's a run defense of 10 guys against an 11 man offense. How do you combat that?
The safety. With the pass rush that the Rams have combined with the quality of corner play, having a great deep safety isn't the biggest need. Especially against the ZRO, it's going to take smarter angles from a box defender (often the safety) to work with Laurinaitis ESPECIALLY in nickel looks when he's the only LB not aiming for the backfield.
Much like this year's RB class is going to have an affect on the overall position stock for the 2014 draft, I'm eager to see how teams take on the Redskins, Seahawks, 49ers and Panthers early this year. Everyone has months to prep, and for teams like the Rams who have five games against those teams (to say nothing of any other teams that might run some ZRO concepts...looking at you, Chip Kelly in Philadelphia...)
I think that's a large reason the Rams took TJ McDonald. I wish we had a chance to see how we might deal with ZRO defense in the preseason.
But it's the NFL. A trial be fire. And in the end, one team is going to get burned...or end up with a tie.
And nobody wants a tie. Nobody.