- Round 1: Josh Freeman, Quarterback
- Round 2: Julio Jones, Wide Receiver
- Round 3: Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver
- Round 4: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Offensive Tackle
- Round 5: Paul Kruger, Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
- Round 6: Alex Boone, Guard
- Round 7: Desmond Bryant, Defensive End
- Round 8: Courtney Upshaw, Outside Linebacker
- Round 9: Vontae Davis, Cornerback
- Round 10: Greg Olsen, Tight End
- Round 11: Cameron Heyward, Defensive End/Defensive Tackle
- Round 12: Tyvon Branch, Strong Safety
- Round 13: Chris Conte, Free Safety
- Round 14: Darren McFadden, Running Back
- Round 15: Jeremy Kerley, Wide Receiver
- Round 16: Chris Hairston, Offensive Tackle
- Round 17: Cam Thomas, Defensive Tackle
- Round 18:
- Round 19:
- Round 20:
- Round 21:
- Round 22:
Round 1, Pick 32: Josh Freeman, Quarterback
It’s easy to think of the tag ‘elite’ as both binary and immutable, but it is in fact neither of those things. During his age 24 season, Aaron Rodgers threw 28 passes. At that age, Drew Brees was 2-9 with 11 TDs and 15 INTs. Eli Manning completed just 52.8% of his passes when he was twenty-four, while 24-year-old Joe Flacco was three full years (and many gigabytes of criticism) away from becoming Joe Flacco™. Sam Bradford went 1-9 with 6 TDs and 6 INTs in 2011, which was when he was 24 years of age. A twenty-four year old Ben Roethlisberger led the league in interceptions; so did Brett Favre. Matt Ryan suffered a sophomore slump at age 24, back in 2009. Tony Romo was two full years away from throwing his first NFL pass at age 24, while Philip Rivers had thrown one career touchdown at that point.
It’s easy to forget how young Josh Freeman was last year, but by now you can guess that he was only twenty four years old. Freeman is two months younger than Colin Kaepernick. Read that again. He’s only six months older than Ryan Tannehill and ten months older than Russell Wilson. All of this is a way of reminding you that Freeman is more prospect than finished product. He’s five years younger than Jay Cutler, which made this choice a slam dunk.
Freeman’s three years at Kansas State were during the Ron Prince era, who was singularly capable of making Raheem Morris look like Vince Lombardi. As for Morris, the man in charge during Freeman’s first three years in the NFL, I would hesitate to trust him to run a garage sale, much less a football team. In 2012, Freeman was finally given something resembling professional coaching, thanks not necessarily to the hiring of Greg Schiano but that of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Under the right tutelage, Freeman can make the jump and become a franchise player.
The Bucs weren’t on the national radar last year, so you might not have noticed that Freeman had a strong season. For the third straight year he lowered his sack rate, the sign of a maturing quarterback. He ranked second in the league in yards per completion, which helps explain his otherwise unimpressive completion percentage. Freeman has the size and arm strength you look for in a franchise quarterback. Last year, he ranked 10th in Net Yards per Attempt, my favorite predictive measure of quarterback play. He helped the Bucs finish 13th in points scored.
He has some of that ‘it’ factor, on full display in 2010 when he led the Bucs on five fourth-quarter comebacks, the most in the NFL. Freeman is a high-ceiling player that simply needs to mature into a consistent player, but we saw his potential in a shootout with Drew Brees and the Saints last last year. Freeman threw for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns but saved his best work for the final frame. Trailing by 14 in the 4th quarter, Freeman led Tampa Bay on an 81-yard touchdown drive. Trailing by 7 with 1:50 to go, Freeman took the team 70 yards in 105 seconds. Facing 4th and goal from the 9 with five seconds remaining, Freeman was flushed out of the pocket but kept his cool and delivered the game-tying strike to Mike Williams in the back of the end zone. Unfortunately, a flag was thrown as Williams had been pushed out of bounds, nullifying the play, but Freeman’s ability was on full display in that game.
He may not be a top-ten quarterback right now, but at 24 years old, he’s not the quarterback he’ll be in 2015 or 2016. He needs to be an elite quarterback from 2013 to 2017, and I’ve seen enough of him to think he can be just that. Picking at the end of round 1 means I am behind the eight-ball for the 2013 season, but my goal is to build a young team around Freeman and have them mature together. Freeman is on the far left of the age curve, and if he’s 20% better in three years, he’ll be a franchise quarterback. The only quarterbacks to throw for 4000 yards and 25 touchdowns during their age 24 season were Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning and Freeman. I was forced to watch 31 players go off the board before my first pick, but I was fortunate to land a player capable of being a difference maker for a dozen years at the most important position.
Round 2, Pick 33: Julio Jones, Wide Receiver
So, how do I help Freeman reach his massive potential? By giving him the best young wide receiver I can find, which happens to be Atlanta’s Julio Jones. Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson are better receivers, but both are a little too old for my plan to peak over the next five years. Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant are great and young, but Julio Jones is even younger and has an even higher ceiling. Pairing a deep threat like Jones with a gunslinger like Freeman leaves me in good shape for my championship window. Jones was a little raw coming out of college, but we saw him capitalize on his potential with an 11-catch, 182-yard, two-touchdown performance against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Jones is three-and-a-half years younger than Megatron, too. In the last 20 years, only Jones, Rob Gronkowski, Larry Fitzgerald, and Randy Moss have pulled off the trifecta of 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection at 23 or younger. With Jones you get all the upside of a young player with none of the risk, as he has already established himself as one of the game’s top players. If Freeman isn’t a great quarterback now, Jones will help turn him into one.
The 32nd spot presented some challenges. Not only was I going to be behind the curve at quarterback, but I felt the need to take one because by my next pick (#65), all the remaining quality quarterbacks will be gone. I can’t win go toe-to-toe with the owners with Manning, Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, who are going to be in a better position to win in 2013. But I can forge a battle on my terms, and prepare for the long haul. With Freeman and Jones, I know I’m well prepared to excel in a passing league for the next ten years.
Round 3, Pick 65: Brandon Marshall, Wide Receiver
I wanted to grab an elite player since I won’t pick again for nearly two full rounds. And there’s no more elite player on the board than Brandon Marshall, whom I have written about frequently over the last two months. I noted that Marshall led the league in yards per team pass attempt and was responsible for an incredible 46% of the Bears’ receiving yards in 2012, the first receiver to do so since 1975. He also ranked 2nd in yards per route run according to Pro Football Focus, behind only Andre Johnson. I’m a believer in targets as indicators of quality, and Marshall lapped the field by absorbing 40% of Chicago’s targets last season. With 118 catches, 1,508 yards, and 11 touchdowns on just 529 team pass attempts, he was easily my number 1 receiver in 2012.
And, of course, Marshall fits perfectly into my plans. Josh Freeman is an intriguing prospect at quarterback but he needs to be surrounded by talented weapons to reach his massive potential. With Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall, even a quarterback with accuracy issues like Freeman is going to put up big numbers. Both receivers are capable of running the short, intermediate, and deep routes, and defenses will be in the unenviable position of having to double both players or leave one of them alone in single coverage. Marshall is one of the top three receivers in the league today and in the prime of his career, while Jones will be a top-three receiver soon. Despite having the last pick in the draft, I’ve managed to build the cornerstone of an elite passing offense for the next five years.
Round 4, Pick 130: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Left Tackle
After selecting Josh Freeman, Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall early in the draft, I needed to use my picks in round 4 and 5 starting to build the rest of my team. The two most critical positions I had ignored so far were left tackle and pass rusher. Fortunately my need largely coincided with what was left: I didn’t see a true difference maker at corner or defensive tackle, so it was easy to focus on 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 ends.
On offense, my choice at left tackle was made easy once Jake Long, Trent Williams, and Tyron Smith went off the board at the end of round four. I had D’Brickashaw Ferguson with those four in my final tier of what I would consider above-average left tackles, and Ferguson ranked second to only Williams. His reputation took a bit of a hit with a a poor 2011 and the Jets general implosion, but Ferguson quietly had a nice rebound season last year. He allowed only two sacks in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, and came in as PFF’s #7 left tackle. He’ll only turn 30 in December, so I think my team can count on him for another five years at least. He’s got great size and athleticism and keeps himself in great shape, so he seems unlikely to fall off a click as he ages. As the 14th offensive tackle off the board, I think Ferguson represents strong value this late in the draft. He’s capable of being a franchise left tackle, which makes him a great pick at the end of the fourth round.
Round 5, Pick 131: Paul Kruger, Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
On defense, my first goal was to take a player capable of playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end. Paul Kruger is an ideal player because of that exact versatility, and the 27-year-old has improved every year of his career. According to PFF, Kruger actually ranked as the top pass-rushing 3-4 OLB last season in their pass rushing productivity metric. While Kruger had 9 sacks in the regular season and another 4.5 in the playoffs, the most impressive statistic he posted was 33 hurries in just 359 pass-rushing snaps last year. He had 2.5 sacks, four tackles, and five hits on Andrew Luck in the Ravens initial playoff game, one of the most dominating performances by any player this past postseason.
Kruger is not great against the run, and there are certainly question marks about his ability to maintain this level of production. He’s only done been great for one season, and perhaps he won’t be the same player when he’s not teamed with Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. But that’s why he’s available in the fifth round and not the first. I’m happy to take a chance on an ascending player who was stuck behind Jarrett Johnson early in his career and then broke out last season. He just turned 27 last month, making him a player that can be a defensive cornerstone for the foreseeable future.
Round 6, Pick 192: Alex Boone, Guard
Taking the best available player was going to dictate my philosophy for one slot, while I felt time was running out to get started on my defensive line. I didn’t love what was left at running back, cornerback, tight end, or the defensive line — and I wasn’t going to take an inside linebacker — so I scanned the offensive line lists. I was a bit surprised to see that only six guards had been selected and that Alex Boone wasn’t one of them. Boone doesn’t have a long track record, but at age 25 last year he was one of the three or four best guards in the league. I love the physicality of all of the 49ers linemae, and Boone is no exception. At 6-7, he keeps my team firmly in the lead for “team most likely to be mistaken for a traveling basketball squad.”
Round 7, Pick 193: Desmond Bryant, Defensive End
Twenty-seven defensive ends and fifteen defensive tackles were drafted in the first six rounds, so I felt the need to take my first defensive lineman. With the first pick in the seventh round there were no obvious choices, but Desmond Bryant seemed like the best combination of production, youth, and physical ability. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now a backup and this fabulous mugshot, Bryant is the new person announcers will repeatedly tell us went to Harvard. Bryant played as a tackle in the Raiders 4-3 in 2012 and picked up 20 quarterback hurries and 11 hits last year. He also played end for the Raiders in ’11, but signed with the Browns this off-season (like Kruger) and will play as a 3-4 end in Cleveland. That’s where I see him lining up for me, too, but I like having the versatility of playing Kruger at end and Bryant inside if my team plays a 4-3.
Round 8, Pick 256: Courtney Upshaw, Outside Linebacker
I had been penciling in “pass rusher” and “best available cornerback” for awhile with these picks. A pass rusher was needed just because the well was about to completely dry up if I didn’t take one, while I was already one of the few teams left without a single member of the secondary.
I like Courtney Upshaw for several reasons. He was a first round talent that slipped in the 2012 draft, allowing the Ravens to select him with the 35th pick last April. He’s only 23-years-old, and he has experience playing alongside my other pass rushing specialist. Upshaw isn’t your prototypical edge rusher, but he’s a young, improving player who can hold his own as the second outside linebacker in a 3-4. Good pedigree and decent production is the most you can hope for with a young player this late in the draft. Plus, Upshaw is a also member of this very selective group.
Round 9, Pick 257: Vontae Davis, Cornerback
I then scanned the lists of available corners and determined that Vontae Davis was the best of an uninspiring bunch. Davis turns 25 in May, so his youth gave him an advantage over a dozen of other mediocre starting corners in the NFL. He has first-round athleticism and good size, making him one of the better cornerbacks in the league against the run. Davis isn’t a standout in coverage, but my hope is that I can add two other solid cornerbacks around him.
Round 10, Pick 319: Greg Olsen, Tight End
Fifteen tight ends had been taken through the 31st pick in the 10th round, and I hadn’t drafted a skill-position player since the third round, so it felt like the appropriate time to dip back into that market. Greg Olsen seems like solid value as the 16th tight end off the board after his breakout season with the Panthers last year. Olsen fits in with my “big target” philosophy for Freeman, and his 6’6 frame worked just fine for Cam Newton in 2012. With 843 receiving yards in 2012, he ranked 4th among tight ends in that category. Olsen turned 28 last month, making him a little older than I’d like, but you can’t be too picky in the 10th round. He also ranked 4th in Pro Football Focus’ yards-per-route-run metric, behind only tight ends that caught passes from Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.
Round 11, Pick 320: Cameron Heyward, Defensive End/Defensive Tackle
If you thought things were ugly on the defensive line when I selected Bryant, it looked even worse at the start of round 11. With Kruger, Bryant, and Upshaw in place, I have the makings of a 3-4 defense, but need another end (anything resembling a difference-maker at nose tackle was long gone). At defensive end, most of the top remaining players (Brett Keisel, Mike Devito, Antonio Smith) were too old for my tastes. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward won’t be 24 until May. The former first round pick hasn’t done much yet, but it’s too early to label him a bust, too. Dick LeBeau brings along his defenders slowly (Lawrence Timmons started two games in his first two years), but this is purely an upside pick in the hopes that the young, former first-rounder can develop into a quality 3-4 end. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always ask him what’s with this thingy.
Round 12, Pick 381: Tyvon Branch, Strong Safety
With 26 safeties already off the board and 62 picks between my next pair of picks, I decided I wanted to double-up at safety at this turn. Most of what I consider the top remaining safeties — Kerry Rhodes, George Wilson, Charles Woodson, Ryan Clark — are simply too old for me to select. I want to have a young team that is peaking in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and have drafted as such thus far.
Safety is a young man’s game — the position requires speed to cover wide receivers, the size and athleticism to take on tight ends, and players lose tread from physical play in the running game. Research shows that safeties don’t generally age well, so this late in the draft, I chose to focus on youth rather than elite production. Safety is also a difficult position to grade, and I place a significant amount of emphasis on the revealed preference of a team known as snap counts.
Oakland’s Tyvon Branch doesn’t turn 27 until December and has started 51 games for the Raiders at strong safety over the last four years. Branch is above-average in the box and is capable of guarding any tight end (he shut down Rob Gronkowski in 2011). While Branch missed three games with a neck injury, he’s one of the more durable safeties in the game: he’s one of just 14 safeties to start 60 games over the last four years. Branch is a capable blitzer, too, and when he’s on, he can be an elite safety. The hope is that on a better team, he turns into a more consistent player.
Round 13, Pick 382: Chris Conte, Free Safety
Branch is best paired with a free safety, and Chicago’s Chris Conte is a great complement. Conte just turned 24 in February, but he has already started 24 games for one of the league’s best defensive teams. For a free safety, Conte is an above-average tackler, but his value to my team comes in his youth and ability as a pass defender. Conte has teamed with Major Wright in the Bears secondary the past couple of seasons, and think he’ll be even better with Branch.
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