NEW YORK, May 11, 2014 — The first day of the NFL Draft is about star power. The second day is about filling needs. The third and final day is about finding diamonds in the rough.
Working backward, the 256th and final pick in the draft was free safety Lonnie Ballentine. The Houston Texans selected him with a compensatory pick. Ballentine is now given the official title of Mr. Irrelevant for 2014. For an entire week known as “Irrelevant Week,” Ballentine will be celebrated at various NFL functions along with his teammate Jadavean Clowney, the very top pick in the Draft. While it is a long shot for Mr. Irrelevant to make the team when the season starts, Ballentine is every bit a football player as anybody else selected.
One pick before Ballentine had the Atlanta Falcons selecting outside linebacker Tyler Starr. He gets no parade, just the chance to compete.
One player who is as far from irrelevant as it gets was selected only a few spots before both Ballentine and Starr. In the seventh and final round, with the 249th overall pick, NFL history was made. The St. Louis Rams selected Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Sam announced he was openly gay in the weeks before the Draft. As the subject of fierce debate before the Draft, it is impossible to discuss Round 3 without bringing up Michael Sam.
The reaction to Sam’s coming out was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Cynics could accuse owners of passing on him out of bigotry, but Sam brings far less of a circus atmosphere than Johnny Manziel. Owners want to win. On the flip side, the first person is a trendsetter, and Sam knows this. It would be insulting and cynical for a team to draft him just for publicity. Thankfully this did not happen.
Rams Coach Jeff Fisher knows defense. He is a Buddy Ryan disciple who believes in sending eight defenders to crush quarterbacks. This was a football selection, pure and simple. While Sam was the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, there are plenty of successful college players who are not seen as NFL-ready.
Michael Sam being drafted in the last round was not out of bigotry. Sam’s negatives are that he is undersized, leading to questions of durability. His positives are a burning desire and strong work ethic. The bottom line is that Sam is a Jeff Fisher type of guy. The Rams play in the toughest division in football, and Sam’s sexuality will be an afterthought once he belts Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson to the ground.
One quarterback happy to have the chance to be belted to the ground is Alabama’s A.J. McCarron. The very public star is more than Miss Alabama Katherine Webb’s fiancé. McCarron could be the next Tim Tebow, a guy with consecutive college championships who flamed out in the pros. The Cincinnati Bengals took a chance with McCarron in the fifth round, but the real story is what this may mean for Red Rifle Andy Dalton. Dalton improved the Bengals from laughingstocks to division champs, but three straight opening round playoff losses has fans wondering if he is the guy moving forward.
McCarron had to suffer plenty of indignities before getting selected in the fifth round. The Arizona Cardinals wanted a successor to Carson Palmer, and they resisted Manziel early on. In the fourth round, Arizona took Thomas Logan. The Houston Texans badly needed a quarterback, and late in the fourth round they took Tom Savage. Even pass-happy Walrus Lite Andy Reid passed on McCarron. Alex Smith may not be the answer, but Reid went with Aaron Murray late in the fifth round. One pick later, McCarron finally went off the board.
Gays are not hated, but in the NFL, running backs are. They break down, and the league is now a pass-happy game. Once again, the first round went with zero running backs being chosen. On Day 2 it was Bishop Sankey going to the Tennessee Titans with the 54th pick to finally get a running back off the board.
Zach Mettinger had to wait even longer. The Tennessee Titans were considering a replacement for quarterback Jake Locker, and with the second pick of the sixth round, they took Mettinger. The Ravens even selected Keith Wenning in the sixth round, although he is not expected to seriously challenge quarterback Joe Flacco. The same can be said about quarterback Tajh Boyd going to the Jets, but not Garrett Gilbert going to the Rams one pick later with the next to last pick in the sixth round. Sam Bradford could have some competition on his hands.
For those desperate for news about punters, the Bears took Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round. In the seventh round, the Redskins and Lions with consecutive picks took kickers Zach Hocker and Nate Freese. No information on long-snappers was available.
The players have been selected. For the next four months, the only thing left to do is analyze them all to death as leatherheads eagerly await the kickoff to the 2014 season in September. The first step is seeing if these drafted players can fend off training camp challenges from undrafted free agents.