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NFL Draft 2015: First Round Grades

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For the first time in 51 years, the NFL Draft will be held in Chicago. For the first time in—well—ever, I’ll be assigning grades for all 32 picks of Thursday night’s first round. The general format will be as follows: I’ll assign a letter grade to the pick (including a plus or minus as appropriate), explain my reasoning, and then I’ll put on my GM cap and tell you who I think should’ve been selected. Note that in the event of a trade, I’ll factor in the value of the picks/players included, to a degree.

Note: Grades will be assigned over the course of the next several days. Picks will be updated as they are announced.

2015 NFL Draft, Round 1

#1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State University

Grade: B+

The worst-kept secret of the draft is that the Bucs plan to select Jameis Winston first overall. Josh McCown was a disappointment last year, and the team now has a gaping void at the game’s most important position. Of the quarterbacks in this class, Winston is the most ready to deliver immediately. Plus, Tampa has already invested in a number of receiving threats in Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, so adding a QB that can get them the ball could actually turn this team into a playoff contender (assuming the NFC South continues its stinkfest from last year).

Winston has off-field concerns, the most glaring of which is a rape charge against him that is still open. Football merits aside, is that really the type of guy you want as the face of your franchise? Furthermore, if those issues aren’t something Winston has put solidly in his past, his career could be short-lived, especially as the league attempts to clean up its act in terms of domestic violence and sexual abuse. I would hope the league initiates a zero-tolerance policy in the near future, which could make this pick a complete bust for totally non-football reasons.

For now, however, Winston gets the benefit of the doubt, and the Bucs get a potential QB of the future. A ‘B+’ seems fair.

My Pick: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State University

Though I actually believe Marcus Mariota has a higher ceiling than Winston, he’s going to need more time to refine his pocket passing skills for the NFL. With the way Tampa’s roster is currently constructed on offense, there’s no reason to wait for that development to happen, and Winston is a much better “win now” option.

#2: Tennessee Titans select Marcus Mariota, QB, University of Oregon

Grade: B+

So much for being “all in” on Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee made the smart decision to upgrade their quarterback position with Mariota, who has the full skill set you want in a modern quarterback, with his ability to pick up yards through the air or on the ground. His ceiling is arguably higher than Jameis Winston, but his floor is also lower, as he’ll need to work on his reads and his technique. Looking at his throwing mechanics, Mariota seems to break down a bit under pressure, and will need some good coaching to tighten things up. Fortunately for him, Ken Wisenhunt should be up to the challenge.

My Pick: Marcus Mariota, QB, University of Oregon

I’m more excited to see how Mariota develops in the NFL than Winston, who has picked first overall. The comparisons to Russell Wilson may be premature, but you can understand where it comes from. Mariota possesses 4.52 speed, is clean off the field, and takes care of the football. Plus, he’s 6’4″, so the height isn’t even an issue. Mariota has a great chance to develop into a star, but then again he could bust. Still, it’s exceptionally hard to get a franchise QB without a top pick, so you have to roll the dice when the opportunity presents itself. Mariota was the right pick.

#3: Jacksonville Jaguars select Dante Fowler Jr., DE, University of Florida

Grade: B+

Last year, Khalil Mack was taken with the fifth overall pick by Oakland. Fowler is in many ways a clone of Mack, as both are roughly 6’3″, 260 lbs. and run in the 4.6 range in the 40 yard dash. Mack had a solid rookie campaign, and the Jaguars hope the local kid from UF can do the same. In Fowler, I see a guy with excellent straight line speed and good, but not great, change-of-direction, but the big concern for me is that he often stands straight up at the snap, and I’m concerned that’ll get him washed out by tackles in the NFL. It’s 100% a technique thing, and scouts rave about his motor and passion for the game, so there’s every reason to believe he can refine his craft, but I don’t expect him to be on Mack’s level at least in his rookie season.

My Pick: Dante Fowler Jr., DE, University of Florida

The NFL is a passing league, which makes QB the most important position on the field. After that, you need someone to protect him (LT) and then someone to chase down opposing quarterbacks. With Andrew Luck (and now Marcus Mariota) in their division, Jacksonville has to be able to rush the passer. Whether you believe Leonard Williams or Dante Fowler Jr. is the best overall player in this draft, the positional value that Fowler carries makes him the right choice at this pick.

#4: Oakland Raiders select Amari Cooper, WR, University of Alabama

Grade: B-

Cooper has the size, speed, and skills to be a legit #1 receiver. Oakland drafted Derek Carr last year, and if they want him to take a step forward in his second season, he’ll need someone to actually throw it to. Cooper has the ability and willingness to work the middle of the field as well as the sideline, so Oakland will be able to line him up all over the place and (hopefully) deploy him in ways that create mismatches. So what’s my gripe? Leonard Williams was still on the board, and this draft class is deep at receiver. If the Raiders were dead set on improving on the offensive side of the ball, moving down could have gotten them a better value.

My Pick: Leonard Williams, DT, University of Southern California

At 6’5″, 302 lbs. and able to run a 4.97 40, Williams is not your typical plodding defensive tackle. In fact, he has the athleticism to line up as a defensive end as well. Oakland could have paired him with Khalil Mack—last year’s first round pick—to make for a formidable pass rushing attack. Williams was the best player available, and fit a need for the team. A desire to prop up their quarterback forced the Raiders to miss out on some value.

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