With few dominant skill position players, NFL draft full of surprises

For those that don’t follow the NFL too closely, or for those who do but just came out of a coma within the past few days, the NFL draft took place last week. It was an unusual draft for a number of reasons, most notably the lack of offensive skill position players chosen in the first round. The top of the draft was dominated by offensive and defensive linemen, with big uglies making up ten of the top-15 picks.

Offensive tackle Eric Fisher of Central Michigan went first to the Kansas City Chiefs, who surprisingly preferred him to Texas A&M tackle Luke Joekel, who was chosen second by the Jacksonville Jaguars. With the pick, Fisher became just the third offensive tackle ever to be taken first overall, and was also the first player from the Mid-American Conference to ever be the top choice in the draft.

Meanwhile, the usual fixtures of the start of the draft were conspicuously absent. Only one wide receiver (West Virginia’s Tavon Austin to the St. Louis Rams at number 8) and no quarterbacks or running backs were selected with the first ten picks. When a quarterback was finally taken with the 16th pick, it was the truly baffling selection of Florida State’s E.J. Manuel by the Buffalo Bills. While he is admittedly a physical specimen, Manuel perennially underachieved while under center for the Seminoles, a fact that casts doubt on his potential to lead an offense at football’s highest level.

In choosing Manuel, the Bills eschewed the draft’s consensus top signal-caller, Geno Smith of West Virginia. Originally expected to be a top selection, Smith fell all the way to the second round before finally being picked up by the quarterback-challenged New York Jets with the 39th pick. Smith will be charged with the seemingly insurmountable task of replacing the now-departed Tim Tebow, whose unsurpassed dominance led the Jets to great heights last season.

Despite the disappointment, Smith was far from alone in his misery, as he was accompanied by several high profile players who, due to various factors, had left NFL teams unimpressed and saw their draft stock plummet accordingly. Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman trophy runner-up Manti Te’o, he of the deceased fake girlfriend, dropped to the San Diego Chargers at 38 as a result of his embarrassing no-show in the national championship game against Alabama in January as well as his bizarre love life. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu, another star plagued by off-field issues, waited until the third round before going to the Arizona Cardinals, and USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who just a year ago was considered to be a top-tier prospect on the same level as stalwarts Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, fell clear to the fourth round after a poor senior campaign. Barkley’s story is a case study on the dangers of college stars foregoing the draft to stay in school, a decision which, while romantic, can potentially cost players millions of dollars in devalued draft stock.

And yet after all the excitement, the most important question remains to be unanswered: Which team had the best draft? The answer will not become clear until after the coming season or perhaps after several seasons, but of course that hasn’t stopped sports fans and commentators from prematurely crowning champions and ridiculing losers. So far, the 49ers, Steelers and Bengals have attracted the most praise, while numerous teams, including the Browns (surprise), Cowboys and Raiders have been criticized for failing to properly address their team needs. Ultimately, however, the best pick-ups and the biggest busts of the draft will show themselves on the field. Tests, interviews and college game tape can only prove so much about an NFL prospect and are nowhere near as illuminating as that most important statistic in sports: wins and losses.