Lombardi: NFL draft buzz and why the draft begins at No. 6

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When I was working for the Raiders, our draft room was always the same. The room, the methods, the process were frozen in time.  Before entering the room, the year might be 2001, but once crossing over the sill of the door, you were back in 1967. Al Davis had great success drafting players, and he wasn’t about to change his method with fancy magnetic cards detailing critical information. The highest security clearance a CIA operative can obtain is called Top Secret, but when they add the letters SCI (standing for “sensitive compartmentalized information”), this allows the operative to examine anything.  There were maybe two people at the Raiders with that classification -- no one knew what Davis was thinking.

Towards the end of the day’s meeting, Davis would ask Mickey Marvin, his former guard and now area scout with good penmanship (Davis required good penmanship in everything he was given to read) to stand next to the magnetic board and write the positions along the top of the board, starting with quarterback and ending with kicker and punter. On the side of the board, he would tell Marvin to write 1A, 1B and 1C in big letters, then continue further down with 2A, 2B and 3.  Once the rounds were written, Davis would start placing players in those categories.  In the 1A category, Davis might only have six to eight players he felt were elite. He was not alone in his separation of the first round, as other teams also break down the first round in sections, treating 1A like the Navy treats Seal Team Six, the best of the best. Remember: Not all first rounders are true first rounders, and the separation helps clarify the draft day plan for teams. 

Setting the line, understanding the value -- which then places the line of demarcation -- allows teams to prepare for trades in either direction. Each team might have a slightly different order of their 1A but for the most part, the names are similar. 

For the sake of argument, let’s say there are six players in the 1A tier this year: Travon Walker, Aiden Hutchinson and Ahmad Garner on defense, and Evan Neal, Charles Cross, and Ikem Ekwonu on offense. You might want to include wide receiver Garrett Wilson, safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive end Kayvon Thibodeau in the mix, but for a team like Carolina who wants to add a quarterback and offensive lineman, their 1A group might be condensed. The Panthers drafted Jaycee Horn a corner last year and re-signed Donte Jackson, so even though Garner is a great player, can they afford to select another corner? Especially at No. 6 overall? Probably not, so their potential picks might be down to five, but the value of their 1A remains at 6. Regardless of how much hype the quarterbacks receive in the mock and from draftniks, there is no quarterback in this year’s draft in the 1A category … which is why this draft becomes ultra-interesting at the sixth spot.

Carolina will have one of three options:

-Stay at No. 6 and select an offensive lineman, if available, or any one of their five potential players

-Trade down for a team that might want Gardner

-Stay at No. 6, select a QB and know it’s a reach. 

They must be prepared to pick, because trading down is much easier on paper than on draft day, especially in the top 10.  Teams don’t want to pay for a high pick, unless it fills a need, or for a sure-fire quarterback. And if anyone trades away assets to move up for any of these quarterbacks, they are hoping for a prayer to be answered.

A team like the Seattle Seahawks, which at times under general manager Jon Schneider hasn’t liked to trade in the first round, often moving down in other rounds, the draft starts at No. 6. Schneider needs a QB, but he also could use one of those other six players (along with the leftovers, excluding Hamilton).  Does he reach and take Willis?  Does he stay and take the best offensive or defensive lineman still available?  Does he trade away from Wilson?  Does he react to the Panthers if they pick a quarterback at No. 6, or if they don’t?  Those are the questions being answered as the draft moves closer.  Who would he pick, whom would he pass on and whom would he stay and select?

Continuing this exercise, say Schneider only has four players in his 1A category. The chances of Schneider getting one of his four at No. 9 is slim, so he starts preparing to trade down to a cluster of players on which he has similar grades, all while attempting to convince everyone he is taking a quarterback to potentially bring value to the trade down. When Schneider arrived in Seattle, the Seahawks never invested a first- round pick for a quarterback, instead using other avenues to secure the position: Signing Matt Flynn as an unrestricted free agent, trading for Charlie Whitehurst and using a third round pick on Russell Wilson.  Will Schneider continue to try other procurement avenues to fix the position? 

Even though everyone in the league believes they love Willis, it doesn’t fit their pattern of drafting and Schneider has never gone with conventional mock wisdom.  Often his picks are not viewed by the mock community as true first rounders, which doesn’t make him right or wrong, only unafraid to challenge the status quo. 

One thing we know for sure is that teams will force the quarterback even though the player isn’t in their 1A category.  Atlanta has done extensive work on Matt Corral and many think they could select him at No. 8, which seems rich. Schneider has heard the rumors about Corral and Atlanta, so if he makes a move with Carolina or the Giants, it will be for a quarterback. 

So much focus has been on the quarterbacks, but there are offensive lineman that have great potential.  Does Jacksonville take Neal or Ekwonu at No. 1?  If the Jaguars take Ekwonu, they could play him at guard and at the end of the year move on from their franchise tag left tackle Cam Robinson, or keep both. Most teams feel Walker is the best pass-rusher in the draft, and Hutchinson is the safe pick, as he will bring the intensity night after night.  Many feel the pick could be between Ekwonu and Walker, but don’t rule out Hutchinson. If Hutchinson slips past Jacksonville, the Lions would be ecstatic. 

My guess is the quarterbacks slip a little, the line is now 2.5 go in the first round.  The way the over hits, is if the Titans who have been linked to Desmond Ridder at their pick at No. 26 make that a reality.  Does Corral get selected if he slips past Atlanta?  Hard to tell, as the medical concerns, the lack of size, make him a wild card.  In a normal draft, he would be a second- or third-round pick; in this one, it’s hard to tell.

I know one thing, if Al Davis was back in the draft room, Jordan Davis would be a Raider.  A man that big and fast would have his attention, and Marvin would have written his name on the 1A spot first.    

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