Almost all mock drafts are educated guesses for one simple reason: no one knows how teams have specific players rated or any idea what particular teams' draft boards look like. So we all discuss, postulate, hypothesize, theorize, propose – all more sophisticated ways of saying that we guess, and lo and behold, people actually believe us!
With that in mind, I am going to present my thoughts on two teams that select in the top 5 of Thursday's opening round of the NFL draft: the St. Louis Rams at No. 2, and the Cleveland Browns at No. 4. My reasons are founded solely on football, nothing more. One I strongly believe will happen, the other I feel would be best for the team based on my overall analysis.
Let's start with the Rams. Rewind for a moment. Quarterback Sam Bradford started the first seven games of the 2013 season; his numbers were impressive, with 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions as St. Louis went 3-4 before he suffered a season-ending injury. His backup was Kellen Clemens, a journeyman who had thrown 100-plus passes just once in his previous seven seasons. At that point, Jeff Fisher and staff committed to running the football with rookie Zac Stacy as the foundation back. Over the course of the next next games, Stacy averaged 22 carries and 84 yards per game (by comparison, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch averaged 18-75 over the same nine-game stretch; San Francisco's Frank Gore 17-65).
The Rams, for the most part, were highly competitive with Clemens at quarterback, and Stacy driving their offense. They hung tough with the Seahawks, losing by five points in Clemens' first start. They physically manhandled the Bears, and two playoff teams, the Colts and Saints.
It was old-school football: run the ball, play outstanding defense (Robert Quinn is the best 4-3 DE in the game), and utilize the quarterback as a complementary player, limiting his throws, and by extension, his mistakes. In nine starts, Clemens threw 22 or fewer passes four times, all Rams wins. Think about this: the two quarterbacks who attempted the fewest passes of all 16-game starters in 2013 were Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. The added caveat was Wilson ran the ball 96 times, and Kaepernick 92 times, both by design and improvisation (Cam Newton was the only quarterback with more carries – 111).
The Rams were competitive, and at times dominant, executing the template that defined the Seahawks and 49ers – the two best teams in the NFL, and the Rams' divisional opponents. There was one significant difference, and it cannot be minimized: Wilson and Kaepernick both exhibited, to varying degrees, the trait that former 49ers coach Bill Walsh viewed as vital to high-level quarterback success: "spontaneous genius," the ability to make the great, instinctive play when needed.
Spontaneous genius can undoubtedly take many forms, but Clemens was not that kind of quarterback. The quarterback that best exemplifies that attribute in the 2014 draft: Johnny Manziel. He would give the Rams two things: the perpetuation of their 2013 profile, and the capability to compete with the Seahawks and 49ers on their terms. There would certainly be growing pains with Manziel, whose "genius" often crosses the line to the reckless and careless. But when evaluated purely from a football standpoint, Manziel to the Rams with the second overall pick makes perfect sense. It would not be a surprise; it would be logical.
With the fourth pick in the NFL draft, the Browns select …
Offense is about dimensions; the more you have, the greater the stress you place on the opposing defense. You force defensive coordinators to have more tactical answers for the problems they will face. That makes it more difficult to game plan during the week, and to execute on game day. Right now, Brian Hoyer is Cleveland's starting quarterback. I understand many are uneasy about that (I'm not in that camp), but let's leave that alone for the purpose of this presentation.
The Browns made some excellent moves this offseason. They hired a defensive head coach in Mike Pettine, one of the sharpest minds in the NFL – aggressive and cutting-edge in his concepts. And by the way, this is a team with a strong cast on the defensive side of the ball, especially with the free-agent additions of Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. They hired Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator, with an outstanding background in the zone-run scheme and the play-action passing game. They signed Ben Tate in free agency. Durability is a legitimate concern, but Tate excelled in the same scheme in Houston when he rushed for more than 900 yards in his first full season (2011) as the secondary back behind Arian Foster. His talent as a zone runner is not a question.
Cleveland has a tight end many might not be aware of in Jordan Cameron. He's a vertical receiver who can stretch the seams and run the deep crossers as well as any tight end in the league. That puts tremendous pressure on the middle of the defense. You can control the area between the hash marks with Cameron. You demand that the defense have answers for him, whether it's zone-based or man-to-man. That defines, and in some ways limits, what defensive coordinators can do. The more predictable looks and coverages you get, the more quickly defined it is for the quarterback; a smart and aware player like Hoyer becomes an even more efficient player.
An under-the-radar signing by the Browns this offseason was Andrew Hawkins. He was under-utilized in Cincinnati, but few possess his lateral explosion and run-after-catch ability. He's a tough cover man-to-man, and he adds a dimension that is now critical to success in the passing game: the dynamic slot receiver that can not only move the chains but create "chunk" plays.
Then there's Josh Gordon. He's 6-foot-3, almost 225 pounds, and you could easily make the case that he's the most dangerous vertical wide receiver in the NFL. Gordon led the NFL last season in receiving yards (1,646), averaging 118 per game; perhaps the most telling statistic – and the truest measure of his offensive value and defensive concern – was his 30 catches of 20 or more yards, easily the highest total in the league (and he missed the first two games of the season). He achieved all this with little continuity at the quarterback position.
The template is taking shape: a zone-run scheme with a 220-pound back; a tight end who can stretch the field both inside and outside the hashes; an explosive slot receiver; and a big, talented wide receiver who can win one-on-one on the perimeter, the gold standard for the position.
We come to the moment of truth. With the fourth pick in this year's draft, the best choice is … Sammy Watkins.
From a football perspective, it makes too much sense not to happen. There is no quarterback worthy of that pick; you'd be reaching for a "maybe." More importantly, you'd likely be passing on the best wide receiver prospect to come out since 2011, the year of A.J. Green and Julio Jones. (Some believe he's the best since Calvin Johnson in 2007.)
These "new" Browns would present many dimensions on offense, especially in their "11" personnel package (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers). That personnel grouping would be as strong as any in the NFL; in addition, it fits Shanahan's scheme beautifully. The foundation is zone-run concepts both inside and outside, and the run-action passing game. How will defenses match up out of their nickel sub-package? Will they get a safety involved in run support?
There are multiple ways to do that, but they all create one-on-one matchups outside the numbers for Gordon and Watkins. One important point to remember: in 2008 and 2009, when Shanahan was the OC in Houston, Matt Schaub was the best first-down passer in the NFL, the large majority off play action. Of course, not all of it came out of "11" personnel, but the overriding point is valid: You add Watkins to this offense, both from a personnel and schematic standpoint, and you have both sustaining and explosive dimensions.
Watkins to the Browns at No. 4, Manziel to the Rams at No. 2: They make too much sense not to happen.