By Mary Cunningham
Eagles coach Chip Kelly may be a relative NFL newbie, having been hired two years ago and recently been elevated to Supreme Leader, but he sure has a handle on this period in the NFL’s year.
“It’s the silly season,” Kelly said at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix last week.
“The NFL draft hype is the craziest thing in the world. Guys are going to go up, guys are going to go down. [People said] Cam Newton couldn’t play: ‘There’s no reason to draft him in the first round.’ All of a sudden, he goes No. 1. It’s crazy.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have this year’s top pick, say they are comfortable with the thought of selecting Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, despite his baggage. Winston is tremendously talented, but has made a string of poor decisions off the field that have people questioning his maturity and readiness to be the face of a franchise.
Still, there’s a general belief that he’ll be the No. 1 pick, and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota could go second to Tennessee — even though this is not considered a strong quarterback class. Five times since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 have quarterbacks been selected 1-2 in the draft.
That happened in 1971 with Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning, 1993 with Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer, 1998 with Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, and 2012 with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In 1999, the first three picks were quarterbacks: Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith.
The Titans, who took Louisiana State quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round a year ago, are taking a hard look at Mariota, said Coach Ken Whisenhunt.
“I’ve gone to his workout and worked him out and was very impressed with him,” Whisenhunt said of Mariota, who won the 2014 Heisman Trophy after Winston won it a year earlier. “We spent an hour and a half with him in the classroom, then went out on the field and worked out with him. He did a really nice job.”
Then again, the mobile Mariota doesn’t necessarily fit the type of offenses Whisenhunt has run in the past, and Mettenberger showed some promise last season. So there’s a lot of conjecture the Titans will use the second pick on USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
Even more speculation has the Eagles trading up from the 20th spot to somewhere near the top of the draft to land Mariota, whom Kelly coached at Oregon. Kelly has called him “the most talented kid I coached in college.”
Asked this week what he might give up to move into position to get Mariota, Kelly said he didn’t want to get into hypotheticals. He laughed off all the chatter.
“You’ve got nothing to talk about on sports radio right now, so let’s talk about trades,” he said.
This year’s draft class is particularly deep at running back, with a good chance that two of them — Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon — go in the opening round.
A year ago, the first running back didn’t come off the board until Tennessee made Washington’s Bishop Sankey the 22nd pick of the second round. That set the record for the longest a draft has gone without a running back being selected. It was also the second consecutive year none was taken in the first round.
This also figures to be a deep year for receivers, although not as robust as the 2014 class, which produced standouts such as Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin and John Brown.
Last year was an anomaly in that so many first-round receivers panned out. Of the aforementioned group, only Arizona’s Brown was taken later, drafted in the third.
“Receiver is a little bit of a crapshoot in the first round,” Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “It turns out, it’s a crapshoot in every round. A lot of receivers, they’ve been seventh-round picks, fifth-round picks, third-round picks and they’ve turned out to be Hall of Fame-type players. Then you’ve got first-round picks that have never really done anything.”
This draft is also loaded with players who can pressure the passer.
“If you’re in the edge rusher market, whether you define them as defensive ends or outside linebackers, I think that this draft is rich in that area,” Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said.
Like quarterbacks, the people making these draft decisions are under constant pressure.
Kelly, for one, is especially mindful of how much the Eagles might have to give up to achieve what they want to — whatever that is.
“I want to build through the draft,” he said. “So if you gut yourself for one year and one guy, philosophically I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
Of course, philosophies evolve.
“There are exceptions to every philosophy,” he said. “People used to think the world was flat, philosophically. Until that guy took the boat and just kept going and didn’t fall off the edge, right?”