Each year, the NFL Draft’s escalation/descent toward a more audacious and ludicrous spectacle becomes more obvious, but amid this backdrop of pomp and bluster is a troubling, inane trend.
Hunter Henry predictably left Arkansas after three solid years in which everything that made him one of the country’s most coveted prep tight end prospects was enhanced. Statistically he was easily the best in the nation in 2015, and the Mackey Award went to him almost by default. But the subtle upticks from year to year in every measureable were in play. Henry’s junior year revealed a much different, hungrier player than the one who had been an appreciable asset over 2013-14. He was more aggressive and versatile as a route runner, better in the blocking phase, and far more visible at crunch time.
Ergo, it made perfect sense for the former Pulaski Academy product to go 35th overall to the San Diego Chargers. The choice had “logical fit” all over it: entrenched Antonio Gates is winding down his Hall of Fame-caliber career and the second option, LaDarius Green, capitalized on free agency to sign with Pittsburgh. Henry will produce immediately, barring injury, and should theoretically thrive early for the Chargers’ ingrained tradition at that position.
The rest of the Draft, though, was baffling if you were tracking the Razorback prospects. In the fifth round, a running back who just lost his entire senior season to injury (Jonathan Williams) went ahead of his early entrant compatriot whose third 1,000-yard season was easily his best to date (Alex Collins). As the first four rounds went by without Collins’ name being called, many wondered if he had made a mistake declaring early. Some even could muse similarly about Williams’ decision to bolt, considering he could have redshirted and returned for 2016 healthy and energized.
But those decisions weren’t made in a vacuum. Collins had just run for nearly 1,600 yards against the most vicious array of defenses in the country, and scored a single-season school record 20 touchdowns. When Williams took an August practice foot injury, that put the onus on Collins to handle more touches and produce better against SEC competition: He answered that with 10 games of 100 yards or more, and five contests in which he logged 25-plus carries. After taking some knocks for a perceived lack of breakaway speed, he tore off a 70-yard run against UTEP in the opener and ripped off a brilliant 80-yarder in a road demolishing of LSU.
Collins falling to the fifth round would’ve made more sense had Ohio State’s mercurial Ezekiel Elliott not been taken by the Dallas Cowboys with the fourth overall selection. Sure, Elliott was regarded as the genuine can’t-miss guy at the position, but he also made some questionable comments last year after Ohio State got bounced from the national championship picture by Michigan State. Thereafter, several running backs with arguably lesser credentials than Collins went — DeAndre Washington, Wendell Smallwood, Jordan Howard and Paul Perkins all went in the fifth round ahead of both Collins and Williams — and it seemed so bizarre to think that a shifty, proven and durable guy would find himself lagging behind that company.
Conventional wisdom of late is that running backs must be rare talents to be taken that high. Yes, the Cowboys demonstrate a general sense of teeming illogic when it pertains to personnel decisions; but my goodness, Collins and Williams, two guys who have generated five 1,000-yard rushing seasons between them against the fastest and hardest-hitting defenders in the country didn’t merit anywhere near the plaudits that were extended to other guys with arguably lesser credentials. Is Ezekiel Elliott going to be a full four-plus rounds better as a pro than Collins or Williams?
It’s a rhetorical question because, well, he likely will be if for no other reason than he’ll be afforded the requisite latitude. The fourth overall pick will have the leash to succeed or fail, and this is not to denigrate Elliott at all, but to note that Williams and Collins fell victim to the malaise that now plagues this damnable three-day exercise. If you grade out as an nth-round product by scouts, then that information is every bit as useful to you as a potential draftee as advice on what watchband best complements your suit.