Athlon Sports covers the storylines, players and teams to follow on Thursday night
The 2013 NFL Draft will commence tonight (8 pm ET) with the first round in primetime on ESPN. While 222 players will be taken on Friday and Saturday, it's the 32 whose names will be called in the first round that have everyone's attention.
Unlike last year when it was a foregone conclusion that Andrew Luck was going with the first overall pick and Robert Griffin III with the second, there appears to be very little consensus who Kansas City will take with the No. 1 overall pick, let alone what will happen after that.
Rather than presenting a pick-by-pick mock of how the first round could go, here are some key storylines, players and teams to watch as the action on Thursday night unfolds.
Who's No. 1?
As hard as it may be to believe, Kansas City actually picked a bad year to have the No. 1 overall pick. It's not that the Chiefs won't end up with a quality player who has the potential to be really, really good, it's just that there isn't a surefire, no-doubt No. 1 option on the board. Last year you had two in Luck and Griffin III. This year's draft class has much more of an eye-of-the-beholder feel to it with some team's apparent preferences dictated somewhat by positional need.
Which bring us back to Kansas City. Even though it may not be unanimous, the general consensus among so-called draft experts appears to be that Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel is the No. 1 player on the board. The problem for the Chiefs is that they don't really need a left tackle, since they have Branden Albert already on the roster, for now anyways. The Chiefs used the franchise tag on Albert this offseason, and he has made it known that he would prefer a long-term deal instead. Adding to the intrigue is that Albert also has said he doesn't want to move to the right side of the line to make room for Joeckel. Thus the numerous that the Chiefs and Dolphins are in trade discussions regarding Albert.
Not only is there not a no-doubt No. 1 option on the board, there doesn't seem to be any interest whatsoever in a team swapping places with the Chiefs either. So Kansas City and new head coach Andy Reid, barring a late development, will be making this pick. But who will it be? There seems to be plenty of smoke to the Albert trade talk with the Dolphins, which then seemingly would result in the Chiefs taking Joeckel. If Albert doesn't get traded, do the Chiefs still stick with the former Aggie and worry about bruised egos later? Or do they change gears and go with the second-best available offensive lineman on the board, which happens to be another tackle in Central Michigan's Eric Fisher?
I think it's between Joeckel or Fisher, but it also wouldn't shock me if the Chiefs went a completely different direction and took a defensive player. It's going to be that kind of draft folks.
Moving Up or Moving Down?
Last year 14 picks in the first round alone were traded and that doesn't include two other picks that were involved in previous transactions. Of those 14 traded picks, two were traded a second time before a team selected a player.
While it's almost a guarantee that several picks will be swapped before the night is done, the interesting thing about this year's draft is that there appears to be more interest in trading down rather than trading up. Again some of this is due to the general perception that the talent level among the top players is generally even.
Last year, Washington initially had the sixth pick, but then swapped places with St. Louis for the No. 2 pick, which the Redskins used to take Griffin III. Minnesota and Jacksonville, who already were among the top seven picks, also worked out trades to move even higher up and Dallas also got into the act, trading the 14th pick to St. Louis for the sixth pick the Rams got from the 'Skins.
This year, the Cleveland Browns are in the No. 6 spot and are one of the many teams rumored to be interested in moving down, not up. While there are undoubtedly some teams that would love to move up to increase their chances of getting their guy, it remains to be seen if they are willing to pay the price. St. Louis got three first-round picks and a second rounder from Washington for one pick. Considering how well Griffin performed in his rookie season, no one's really second-guessing Washington for making the trade at this point. But again, there's no RGIII in this year's draft.
In the end, there may not be many trades in the first round simply because there are no takers for those earlier picks. However things play out, this certainly bears watching as all it takes is one team to move up a few spots to shake things up the rest of the way.
Not only did Luck and Griffin III go in the first two picks of last year's draft, but Ryan Tannehill (No. 8) and Brandon Weeden (No. 22) also went in the first round. And of course, we can't forget about Russell Wilson (3rd, No. 75) either. What about this year? How many signal callers will hear their name called tonight?
There could just be one quarterback taken in the first round and it may not be the one you think. West Virginia's Geno Smith is widely considered to be the best available quarterback in this year's draft, but that doesn't guarantee he will be taken in the first round.
Several of the teams seemingly in need of a quarterback - like Jacksonville, Arizona, Buffalo and the New York Jets - are in the top 10, but none seem that interested in going that high to take Smith. In fact, the general feeling is that if the Bills do decide to draft a quarterback with their pick, No. 8, they will take Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and not Smith.
Nassib's ties to new Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone, who was the quarterback's coach at Syracuse, are hard to ignore, but my guess is that the Bills' desired preference would be to move down in the first round to get Nassib. That may not be possible, however, with the Bills' AFC East rivals, the Jets, lurking at Nos. 9 and 13. One way or another, the Bills will draft at least one quarterback by the end of this draft, it's just a matter of who and where.
Now back to Smith, if the Bills are focused on Nassib where does that leave him? Again, I don't think the Jaguars or Cardinals will take him where they sit right now, picking second and seventh respectively. That would put the Jets in play, but after that I don't see another team that would take Smith, let alone a quarterback in the first round.
A potential dark horse in the Smith sweepstakes is Philadelphia. The Eagles are currently sitting at No. 4, but Smith seems to be an ideal fit for new head coach Chip Kelly's offense, at least when you consider the type of quarterbacks he had at Oregon. I don't think the Eagles will pull the trigger if they stay where they are. If they move down, however, that changes things.
In the end, I think one quarterback is all but guaranteed to go in the first round. I'm leaning Nassib to the Bills, who decide to stay put after being unsuccessful in trading down, but I'm also not ruling out one of the aforementioned teams either moving down or trading back into the first round late (more on that later) to grab Smith. If he doesn't get taken in the first round, Smith's wait shouldn't last very long once the second round gets going on Friday.
Where are the Running Backs?
Can you name the last time no running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft? Don't be ashamed if you can't. The last draft that did not feature at least one running back taken in the first round was the 1963 NFL Draft, which consisted of a total of 14 picks. For what it's worth, there were no backs taken in the first round (8 picks) of the AFL Draft that year either.
While I don't think we will witness history in that respect tonight, that's not to say there's no chance of that exact scenario playing out either. Last year, three running backs were picked in the first round. Cleveland selected Alabama's Trent Richardson with the third overall pick (after moving up from No. 4 by trading with Minnesota), while Tampa Bay traded back into the first round to grab Boise State's Doug Martin at No. 31 and the New York Giants ended the first round by taking Virginia Tech's David Wilson with the 32nd pick.
The last time only one running back went in the first round was just two years ago when New Orleans took Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram with the 28th pick, and I think another Alabama back will factor into the first round discussion this year. Eddie Lacy has seemingly established himself as the top option at his position, but similar to Geno Smith, that doesn't guarantee him as a first-round lock.
Although Lacy played at Alabama like Richardson and Ingram and had a hand in multiple national championships, he doesn't come into the draft with the same Heisman pedigree or track record of production as that of his fellow Crimson Tide. Simply put, Lacy isn't viewed the same way Richardson or Ingram were, which affects his first-round chances.
Another factor hurting not only Lacy's draft stock, but every other running back in this year's class is the fact that the NFL as a whole is going away from the workhorse running back and moving to more of a timeshare or two-back system. This committee approach, if you will, alone places less of an emphasis or impacts the perceived value of running backs, especially come draft day.
So will we see history happen tonight or can Lacy (or someone else) keep the running back's first-round streak alive? The teams to watch in this regard are St. Louis (Nos. 16 and 22) and Green Bay (No. 26) and maybe the Jets (Nos. 9 and 13) or Cincinnati (No. 21), especially if they are able to move down. It's also possible that one of these teams or a mystery team (San Diego? Pittsburgh?) could try and sneak back in at the end of the first round should Lacy fall that far.
Save the Best for Last?
And speaking of sneaking back in, a draft that's seemingly as wide open and up in the air as this one is shaping up to be is an excellent candidate for a flurry of activity, such as trades, as the first round winds down. Last year, Minnesota and Tampa Bay both worked trades so they each could take another player in the first round.
Depending on how things shake out early, the same could happen this year, especially if teams that don't currently have a first-round pick (Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington) see someone they really like and are able to work something out with one of the teams at the end of the round.
Should that happen, that could then make teams picking early in the second round, such as Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati or Cleveland, think long and hard about trying to move up themselves in order to ensure they get the guy they were hoping would be there for them initially. The ingredients are certainly there for some late fireworks. It's just a matter of a team or two lighting the fuse.
Other Players to Watch
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The dynamic, all-purpose threat that teamed with Geno Smith to put up ridiculous numbers at West Virginia is considered the top wide receiver on the board. Last year, Jacksonville took Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon fifth overall followed by Arizona selecting Notre Dame's Michael Floyd at No. 13. I don't see Austin matching Blackmon's spot, but I do expect him to be off the board not too long after the 13th pick, if not before. If everyone stays where they are, I think either St. Louis at No. 16 or Pittsburgh at 17th are the farthest the diminutive (5-8) Mountaineer will fall.
After Austin, the question then becomes who's the next wide receiver taken and how many total go in the first round. California's Keenan Allen, Tennessee's Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, and USC's Robert Woods are probably next on most team's draft boards in some order, and outside of the Rams and Steelers, teams like Minnesota (No. 23 and 25), Houston (No. 27) and even New England (No. 29) could be in the market for another wideout option. The same could be said for the Browns, Chargers, Jets and Raiders, who all pick earlier.
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
There's no questioning the talent and his production (14.5 sacks, 24.5 TFL last season) in the SEC, but the former All-American's Pro Day performance left much to be desired and there appear to be plenty of questions regarding his maturity and character. His stock has definitely slipped, but there are several teams (Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tennessee) that could use someone with his athleticism and talent. Does the potential trump his apparent warts? Or is it possible teammate Alec Ogletree and/or another linebacker ends up going ahead of Jones? I don't see him falling past the Bears at No. 20, if he even lasts that long.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
At one point the Utes' defensive star was considered the No. 1 overall prospect. But then red flags were raised when he was prevented from working out at the Combine based on some test results on his heart. Lotulelei was medically cleared soon after the discovery, but the damage had already been done regarding his draft prospects despite a strong showing at his Pro Day. I fully expect him to be a top-10 pick, but will that be as high No. 2 overall to Jacksonville or will he "fall" all the way to Tennessee at No. 10?
Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
There's little dispute that Milliner is the top defensive back in this year's draft class, if not a top-five prospect overall. Milliner, however, has a fairly large medical folder of his own as he has undergone five surgeries. His most recent one was on his shoulder, which was done in March and will reportedly sideline him until the start of training camp in the fall. Will this affect his draft status? At what point does the potential reward outweigh the risk for any team interested in taking him? I think his ceiling is around the fifth pick to Detroit and his floor is no lower than 15th. There's a good chance Milliner may be hanging around in the green room tonight a little longer than he anticipated.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
It has quieted down somewhat, but you know ESPN is going to milk all the air time they can out of the Te'o soap opera, especially if he happens to fall down the board. For all the attention he's received for his off-the-field matters, Te'o is still considered a first-round prospect and you can't dispute how good he was for the Fighting Irish last season. Even though Notre Dame got blown out by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, the Irish wouldn't have been there if not for the efforts of Te'o. Now all that matters is which team is the one to call his name tonight? If Jarvis Jones is off the board when Chicago comes up at No. 20, I think the Bears will think long and hard about giving Te'o a chance at filling Brian Urlacher's big shoes. If not there, I don't think Te'o will have to wait much longer, not with Cincinnati and Minnesota next up. I also wouldn't rule out Baltimore with the last pick (No. 32), but I doubt Te'o will last that long. Probably would make ESPN happy though.
Teams to Watch
The Bengals have 10 picks this year, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade with Oakland that netted them an extra second-rounder. (How did that deal work out for you Oakland?) The Bengals could package one of their second-round picks with their first (No. 21) if they wanted to try to improve their position. The Bengals don't seem to have a huge need along either the offensive or defensive lines, which is where the majority of the perceived top players are in this year's draft class, so they may not want to move up. Perhaps they shift gears and consider using their extra draft ammo to acquire an additional first-round pick?
The Dolphins were one of the busier teams in free agency this offseason, signing wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe among others, but the team also could be in for a productive draft. Miami has 11 picks, which include two each in the second and third rounds thanks to the Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis trades respectively. The Dolphins have the 12th pick and need a new left tackle as former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long left as a free agent to sign with St. Louis. The roster also could use an upgrade at cornerback. Miami may try to use its extra picks to either move up to ensure they end up with one of the best tackles available or perhaps Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, who may or not be there at No. 12.
The Vikings got Seattle's first-round pick in Percy Harvin trade, so they are currently sitting at Nos. 23 and 25. Minnesota signed former Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings as a free agent, but could use another weapon to line up alongside him. They also are in need of a difference-maker at linebacker. Solid options to fill both of these needs should be there for them where they are right now, but they also could try and package the two to move up if there's one player (Tavon Austin? Jarvis Jones? Barkevious Mingo?) they really want. There should be no lack of potential suitors for the Vikings to try and work out a deal with. It's just a matter of how high the Vikings want to get and is the cost worth it?
New York Jets
The Jets changed their draft outlook when they sent All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay earlier this week. New York got the Buccaneers' first-round pick (No. 13) and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2014 that could end up being a third in the deal. With the trade, the Jets now have the No. 9 and 13 selections, putting them in the catbird's seat in many ways. The Jets could simply stand pat and use the two first-rounders to address two positions of need, namely quarterback, safety, linebacker or offensive tackle. Or they could trade one or both to acquire even more picks, should they find the right buyer. This is a make-or-break year for head coach Rex Ryan, so if he still has any pull in the organization, I think he keeps the picks and goes pass-rusher on the first (Barkevious Mingo? Star Lotulelei?) and will take the best available at the next greatest area of need with the second, either a linebacker or tackle. I'm not ruling out quarterback, but I would be somewhat surprised unless the Jets' reported late interest in Ryan Nassib is more than just trying to make division rival Buffalo nervous.
San Francisco 49ers
The defending NFC champions have a whopping 13 picks in this year's draft, including two each in the second, third and sixth rounds. The 49ers don't really have a lot of areas of weakness so they can package some picks to try and move up in the first or improve the position of their second-round pick (already own Kansas City's second-rounder, No. 34), which is at the end right now, to focus on specific targets. The team also could look to make deals with other teams to stockpile future picks, especially if another team's willing to pay a decent price. Otherwise, look for the 49ers to go after certain players to further strengthen the team's depth, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams, just like the Jets and Vikings, have two first-round picks. Theirs is No. 16 and they also have Washington's (No. 22) thanks to last year's trade for the No. 2 overall pick. St. Louis lost wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson in free agency, so it's all but given the Rams will be taking a wide receiver with one of these picks. If Tavon Austin is their target, the team will have to watch closely to see how things unfold before them in case they need to try and move up a few spots to get him. If the board works out in their favor, then the Rams should be in good shape to get Austin first and then either take Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro with their next pick or use it on an offensive lineman or linebacker. Unless something crazy happens, the St. Louis war room should be full of plenty of smiling faces by the end of tonight.
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