NFL vs. COLLEGE FOOTBALL
THE EXPERTS DEBATE: IS COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREPARING YOUR KID FOR THE NFL?
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THE CHAMPIONSHIP INGREDIENTS available at last year's NFL draft whetted the appetite of even the most casual college football fan. The Bucs and the Titans, picking first and second, respectively, each needed a franchise quarterback—and there sat the previous two Heisman Trophy winners, each with his particular set of skills. There, too, for the taking was Amari Cooper, a flawless receiver prospect from the most successful college program of the decade, and Todd Gurley, who some considered a transformational talent at running back and the best college player at the position since Adrian Peterson. Even to a Jets fan whose annual college intake is a hung-over New Year's Day spent bowl-surfing on the couch, that sells.
The 2016 version? It simply isn't that kind of draft. We're on the far other end of the spectrum, the type of draft where crystal-football-hoisting QBs and All-America receivers from storied programs are replaced by hog mollies and anonymous hard hitters. Sure, there will be QBs. But they'll be, from the top, a two-year starter on an FCS team (Carson Wentz) and a small-handed product of a West Coast program that plays its football after most of the country has hit the pillow (Jared Goff). There will be receivers, but they'll come later, and they'll be less polished than in the recent past. For the first time in five years, the top of the draft is headlined by defense—by run stuffers and shutdown corners, by sack men and sideline-to-sideline jacks-of-all-trades. And honestly, that absence of sexy skill-position players would usually feel like a horse pill going down. Slowly. Over three days.
But the Broncos just made that gulp a whole lot smoother.
Let us consider Denver's Super Bowl formula. Sure, by the end of that playoff run Von Miller (below right) started to look less like he was playing football and more like he was Godzilla kicking down buildings. But the Broncos' win was fueled by their entire group up front. Malik Jackson (now a Jaguar) and Derek Wolfe dominated the interior of the Panthers' O-line, and the result was Jonathan Stewart gaining just 29 yards on 12 carries. With the running game cut off, the Carolina passing game, too, unraveled.
And while there probably isn't a Von Miller in this draft—because there isn't a Von Miller in most drafts—there are players who fit the other archetypes that comprised Denver's defense. Just like Jackson (6'5", 293 pounds), Mississippi State's Chris Jones (6'6", 310) is a tall, quick defensive tackle (1) who lived rent-free in opposing backfields last year. Wolfe was a block-eating, run-stuffing force for Denver's D. This crop has plenty of guys like that, including the Alabama duo of A'Shawn Robinson (2) and Jarran Reed (3).
More than any one particular trait, what set the Broncos' front four apart was the full range of their skill sets. Jackson and Miller, for example, were just as adept against the run as they were rushing the passer. And here's where this draft gets so exciting: These are the very strengths that have Ohio State's Joey Bosa (below left) and Oregon's DeForest Buckner (4) generally considered the top two D-linemen of this class. Staying on the field for all three downs inherently makes a player more valuable; for a linebacker, that's typically tied to how well he moves. And move happens to be what, collectively, this year's group does best. UCLA's Myles Jack tears around like a running back because, well, he used to be one. Ohio State's Darron Lee, to name another, has the 232-pound frame and 4.47 speed that make him a prototypical 'backer in today's NFL. The Bears pried Danny Trevathan away from that Denver defense (four years, $24.5 million) because they feel the same way about him.
The Broncos' secondary was the accent piece that in the playoffs brought the whole room together: a pair of big, physical corners in Bradley Roby and Aqib Talib; plus do-it-all chameleon Chris Harris Jr. Among this class, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey (5)—who, at 6'1" and 209 pounds with a 41½-inch vertical leap, looks like the next step in the human evolution chart—is most like Roby. And Clemson's smart, fiery Mackensie Alexander (6) has a chance to be like Harris.
Every Super Bowl winner spawns imitators. Teams get a real-time look at a collection of talent that works, they hire assistants from that team to run their own, and the clones multiply. This constant race to keep up has mixed results, but this much can be said about the 2016 draft: If a franchise is looking to add functional pieces to a modern NFL defense, the players are there. There may not be much of a visceral thrill when those names are called this month—really, who does get cheered at the draft?—but there will be plenty to celebrate when one of these draftees is the reason some team lifts the Lombardi Trophy.
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