FROM THE STANDS: 2014 NFL Draft

I’m just going to address the elephant in the room and get right to it this week. Going into the NFL Draft last weekend, the storylines were Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam. Coming out of the NFL Draft, the storylines were Johnny Manziel, Michael Sam and the Texas Longhorns.

To recap in case you missed it, Johnny Football was the headline on opening night as the cameras followed his every move at the Draft. (Did you guys know he won the Heisman Trophy?) As the picks started coming and Manziel started sliding, the all too familiar scenario began to play out: the celebrated quarterback that was invited by ESPN to attend the NFL Draft does not go as high as he, or they, expected and now the entire nation gets to watch him twist and writhe with each pick that isn’t him. It happened to Brady Quinn, Aaron Rodgers, Geno Smith, Colt McCoy … And it happened it again Thursday. The first two picks went as expected (Jadeveon Clowney to Houston, Greg Robinson to St. Louis) and quarterback Blake Bortles of UCF went third to Jacksonville. All assumed Manziel was going next to Cleveland with pick No.4, but the Browns traded their pick to the Bills, dropping down to the No.8 spot, and in that No.4 spot Buffalo took Sammy Watkins from Clemson. The Raiders, who were also looking for a quarterback, took Khalil Mack next, not Manziel. Then Aggies Jake Matthews and Mike Evans went consecutively, and everyone assumed the Browns would complete the Ag hat trick and take Johnny at No.9. Instead they took Oklahoma State corner Justin Gilbert. As everyone processed that, the Vikings, also in need of a quarterback, took linebacker Anthony Barr from UCLA. Now it was starting to get a little nuts as the analysts looked ahead and saw only one realistic spot, barring a trade, for Manziel to go in the first round: Dallas. Everyone else had a quarterback locked up in a big contract. Well, so did Dallas, but Jerry Jones loves attention, and Manziel defines attention. I was sure it would happen, but the football needs outweighed the marketing needs and Dallas took an offensive lineman. After that I honestly wondered if he would go at all in the first round. As the draft moved into the 20’s, it was looking bleak. I thought Manziel handled it well. I remember watching Brady Quinn nearly cry as he sat there, and Geno Smith’s anger, but Manziel seemed to take it all in stride. Finally Cleveland, sensing the Chiefs might take him, traded up and took him at No.22. Aggies everywhere rejoiced. It was dramatic, but in the end the Browns got the guy they wanted all along, but the slide will cost him some NFL dollars in his first contract.

As for Michael Sam, no one expected him to go in the first three rounds, so his day was Saturday (rounds 4-7). As it moved into the seventh and final round, no one had taken him and defensive ends were flying off the board. From the football point of view, Sam is a tweener at 6-foot-2, 261 pounds. He’s not tall and rangy, but he isn’t a monster, either. He was a terrific college player, but that doesn’t always translate to the NFL. Were teams scared of his measurables? The attention he’d bring? Both? It seemed that everyone was going to pass … but with seven picks left, the St. Louis Rams took Sam. It was a monumental and historic day for Sam, the NFL and football as a sport. Now he must make the team, but he has that chance.

And then, as those final picks were called, the story turned to the Texas Longhorns. Since 1937, the Texas Longhorns had at least one player drafted in the NFL Draft. With only thirty minutes to go, something extraordinary had to happen for that streak to continue. As you are well aware, nothing extraordinary happened in those final thirty minutes. The draft ended, and the streak was over and here we are.

What happened? Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about why, how and what’s next.

 

NFL scouts and coaches don’t care all that much about personality or off-the-field issues. They say they do, but in the end it usually isn’t a deal breaker. Abusive boyfriends, deadbeat dads, drug dealers and general bad citizens get drafted every year. Why? Because they run fast, catch/throw/carry the ball better than anyone else and, with the right support from the right team, they can be productive members of a Super Bowl team. The NFL, for all its well-meant intentions to clean up the league, still places the priority on the field rather than in the community. There isn’t anything wrong with that, because these are grown men who are getting paid to do something. Professionals. Of course there are plenty of colleges, most in fact, that look the other way when a player does something wrong/illegal (Hello Jameis Winston), so the NFL is not the alone in that. The difference, however, is the NFL doesn’t care about the off-the-field stuff unless it’s addressing a crime/misdeed that’s happened in the punishment or disciplinary phase… But I am not telling you anything you don’t already know (Pac Man Jones says hello). The reason for this explanation is I wanted to put this in context: Texas didn’t have any players drafted because, as football players, those players were not good enough to be drafted.

The majority of the 2014 NFL Draft was comprised of the recruiting class of 2010. There are some early entrees (2011) and 5th year seniors (2009), but most were from that 2010 class. For Texas it was all 2010 and 2009. Two fifth-year seniors (Chris Whaley, Mason Walters) and eight traditional seniors (Carrington Byndom, Case McCoy, Adrian Phillips, Mike Davis, Trey Hopkins, Jackson Jeffcoat, Anthony Fera, Donald Hawkins) were realistically eligible, but none chosen. It was bad luck for some due to injuries (Chris Whaley, also a factor for Jackson Jeffcoat) but for the most part the NFL scouts simply didn’t think these guys were draft-worthy.

That’s not a knock on anyone that played football for Texas and was eligible for the draft. It’s unbelievably hard for a guy to get drafted: only 7% of draft eligible players (underclassmen included) get drafted. 7%. So there is no shame in being in the other 93%. Most of the seniors listed above are already signed as free agents and will have a shot at making an NFL roster, so the opportunity is still there, but that’s not the point. The point is at least one of these guys should have been in that 7%. For seven decades, there has been at least one player from Texas in that 7%. Why is this year different? What changed? Texas was terrible in 2010 and still had three players drafted. The 1997 team was 4-7, and they had someone drafted (Chris Akins in the 7th round by the Eagles). What gives? That’s easy. Development.

The 2010 Texas recruiting class was ranked No.3 in the nation with two 5-star players (Jeffcoat, senior-to-be Jordan Hicks), 19 four star players and four 3-star players. These guys came out of high school as superstars and several had terrific college careers, but none developed into elite college players. That is entirely and completely on the Texas coaching staff. The job of a college staff is not to develop talent for the NFL; it’s to win college games. But in the process of winning college games, a staff develops those players from elite high school prospects to elite college players, and those elite college players, if they are lucky, get a shot to start that whole process over in the NFL. They develop their bodies and attitude through strength and conditioning, their minds with film study and their game with endless reps over the course of 3-5 years. In the case of the Texas guys in the 2014 Draft, the NFL didn’t see enough development in their bodies, minds or game to warrant them being a draft pick. We could spend a very long time discussing how, exactly, these players were not developed far enough along to be considered NFL picks. From misses in the recruiting process by the staff, wasted freshman years with little or no playing time and no redshirt, poor accountability in the summer during workouts, poor accountability in the fall for subpar play… All of it could be (and has been) broken down extensively, but the bottom line is the staff did not do a good job of getting their best players in a place to be drafted. And that has a far reaching impact beyond those undrafted players. All of the superstars in high school have dreams of playing in the NFL and college coaches feed the dream in their recruiting pitch. Texas had a “DBU” video that was a compilation of all the former Texas defensive backs in the NFL they would show potential defensive back recruits and it was followed with a simple, “Don’t you want to be the next highlight reel on there?” It’s powerful stuff. Watching A&M’s Heisman winner sit in the green room with two other Aggies going in the first 22 picks is recruiting momentum for Kevin Sumlin. It’s the opposite of having no players drafted for the first time since TV was invented. The 2014 NFL Draft was an indictment of where the Texas Longhorn football program is right now, and while it really sucks, it had to be this way. And I truly believe it’s going to end up better in the long run.

Better? What? Yes, better. I am the eternal football optimist, so I understand if you are hesitant to believe me, but hear me out. First of all, it had to be this way to get everyone on the same page. There were plenty of people that wanted Mack Brown to get that one more year to fix this. I know several of you that feel that way. Surely some players feel that way as well. Mack was a terrific, charismatic man that truly cared about his players, their families and lives outside of football. He was a father figure to a lot of guys… But even the staunchest Mack Brown supporters realize now that it was time for a change. That is obvious as anything I can remember is sports. For years Texas led college football in the total number of former players actively in the league, and Texas celebrated that at every turn. You walk through the Texas football complex and every NFL logo is on a wall with the former Longhorns that played there listed below it. It’s a big deal to get in the NFL and colleges (and Texas) love to promote it. For a very, very long time Texas was the best of the best at getting guys to the next level. That era is over. The best of the best on the Texas team were passed over for guys from McGill, Linwood, Concordia St. Paul as well the injured, the drug test failers and the guys who COULDN’T FINISH THEIR OWN PRO-DAYS. That, obviously, is not the good news. The good news is the any of the players, staff and fans that might have been fighting the change in regimes can see now, CLEARLY, that the old model was not working anymore. Could you even imagine the firestorm online and in the media if Mack Brown were still here and this happened? It makes me shudder when I think how ugly it would have gotten. But I don’t have to, because he is not here. Charlie Strong is here. And Charlie Strong is not having any of that.

Strong and staff have blown up that old model and replaced with a new one. Best practices are in place: new strength and conditioning practices and habits, new work practices and habits, new accountability for not abiding by those practices and habits. The result will be new players with new practices and habits, and now that new staff has market research to show their methods work: three players taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. That’s measurable, concrete success that current players, recruits, parents and the fan base love. Sometimes you have to hit the bottom before you start to rise up, and Texas hit bottom last week at the NFL Draft. It happens to every program (remember John Blake at ou?) and it’s our turn. Fortunately for Texas, I think they have the right man in charge (Steve Patterson) and the right coach for the job (Charlie Strong) to get this turned around.

For all the players that signed free agent deals with NFL teams, I wish the best. I can’t wait to hear you say “Texas” when it’s your turn on Monday Night Football. Here they are, the future NFLers from the Texas Longhorns.

 

Carrington Byndom- Carolina Panthers

Mike Davis- Oakland Raiders

Donald Hawkins- Philadelphia Eagles

Trey Hopkins- Cincinnati Bengals

Jackson Jeffcoat- Seattle Seahawks

Chris Whaley- Dallas Cowboys

 

How is Anthony Fera not on this list? And where is Max Wittek? See you next week as we break down the summer wish list for the Texas Longhorns.

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