By Neil Patrick Healy
Reality television is one of the biggest forms of entertainment in this country. We have shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” that are enormously popular for some reason. The sports world has its own reality show: the NFL draft. Three days of arguing over who’s going to be a bust and who’s going to be a steal. Three days of siding between the main characters, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, and which mock draft is most accurate when neither is going to be even close. Three days of trying to analyze players from hundreds of programs that we’re convinced we know, but we’ve only watched about 25 minutes of their game film.
I’m not going to be a gasbag and pretend I know the entire draft, because no one really knows who’s going to be good and who doesn’t. Instead, here are some interesting storylines to follow and watch the character development unfold. Let’s get it on.
Most interesting team: Tennessee Titans
The Titans are the team that comes into this draft with the most assets. After trading the No. 1 overall pick to the quarterback-deprived L.A. Rams, Tennessee has nine picks overall and six in the first three rounds in 2016, while also acquiring the Rams’ first- and third-round picks in 2017. With all of that capital, what is Tennessee going to do? Keep swapping picks and go trade crazy? Package those picks and move up for someone the front office has been targeting all along and just hasn’t said anything? There are so many interesting possibilities that Tennessee could pull off that could make this a Herschel Walker-like trade that turns the Titans around.
What happens with Jaylon Smith?
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is a storyline that is extremely captivating. Drawing comparisons to LeBron James in terms of pure athletic ability from Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, Smith had one of the best seasons by a Notre Dame linebacker in program history. After racking up 114 total tackles, winning the Butkus Award for best linebacker in the country and earning consensus All-American honors, Smith was widely considered a top-five pick before injuring his knee in the Fiesta Bowl. With a surgically repaired left ACL and the fear of nerve damage, a top-five pick before the injury will most likely fall out of the first round. Which team will take advantage of a perennial talent falling in its lap? Will he fall out of the second round as well? Drafting Smith seems like a total Patriots move, where he’ll basically be redshirted for the entire 2016 season, but from 2017 on he’d be a staple of the defense for the next decade.
Who’s going to reach for a QB?
The classic move for NFL teams on draft night is to reach way too high in the first round for a quarterback who isn’t ready to start right away. 2016 will be no different, as the Rams and the Eagles have moved up to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the draft to gamble on potential franchise quarterbacks. With those spots going to Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz (which QB goes where is still up for debate, but consensus opinion says Goff is going No. 1 to L.A.), that leaves the rest of the NFL teams that need a quarterback scrambling to find a plan B. Enter Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who is widely considered a project and not ready for the NFL. But just because he isn’t ready doesn’t mean a team won’t gamble on him anyway.
And what about prospects like Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg? Both are not considered ready to start right away, but if a desperate team that needs a quarterback like the Jets or Broncos drafts one, they’ll get baptized with fire and have to start right away. It’s a sweepstakes of bad decision making.
Will the Browns screw up (again)?
Speaking of bad decision making, let’s play a game I like to call “What are the Cleveland Browns going to do wrong this year?” The Browns will be looking to avoid their recent first-round failures like quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, running back Trent Richardson, linebacker Barkevious Mingo and defensive tackle Phil Taylor (only Mingo is still with the Browns).
Cleveland looks to be following the Money Ball strategy that Paul DePodesta is introducing by trading the No. 2 overall pick for five draft picks over the next three years (three in this year’s draft) and looks to just have as many picks as possible. The mood around the league is that the Browns made the right decision, but it’s still the Browns. This organization is a tire fire on a good day. It’ll be amusing to see what the Browns do that leaves everyone scratching their heads.
Interesting players to watch: C.J. Prosise and Rico Gathers
Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise comes into the draft with an interesting story. He arrived in South Bend as a safety before he moved to slot receiver, where he played two seasons. After being used effectively on reverse runs, the coaches decided to use him sparingly at running back. In spring ball he was listed as third string, but due to one back leaving school and another suffering an Achilles’ injury, Prosise became the starter and thrived. In 10 games, he rushed for 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns before being nagged by injuries. He comes into the draft a raw talent, but if he ends up in the right system and has time to develop he can become the modern-day NFL running back. He is a good pass catcher due to his days at receiver, is good size and has breakaway speed. He is a project, but he could be well worth a third-round pick.
Another interesting project is Baylor’s Rico Gathers. Gathers hasn’t played a down of organized football since he was 13 years old, but was a star basketball player for the Bears. He plans to go into the league as a tight end and the entire league is contemplating what he could do in the league. At 6-foot-7 and 276 pounds, Gathers has “NFL tight end” written all over him. He is just the latest basketball player turned tight end in a long line of success, which includes future Hall of Famers Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzales and pro bowler Jimmy Graham. It’ll be interesting if a team uses a sixth- or seventh-round pick on him and see if he develops into a NFL caliber player.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NP_Healy.