The NFL draft serves as the ultimate fact checker to months of pundit conjecture, floated rumors and disinformation campaigns. Would the Houston Texans select South Carolina standout Jadevon Clowney or Texas A&M lightning rod Johnny Manziel with the 1st overall pick? Was the rumor the Detroit Lions would trade up for Clemson standout wide receiver Sammy Watkins true or merely a smokescreen to force another team’s hand? Is it true that ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s never-changing hair can cut glass?
Most questions had light shed upon them by the time of the NFL’s annual Mr. Irrelevant selection. Now that hard data is on the books and the uncertainty surrounding the origin of Mel Kiper’s hair disappears for yet another year, what information can be gleaned from the 2014 NFL Draft for Notre Dame fans?
Notre Dame is finally producing NFL talent on a consistent basis
It isn’t unusual to see Notre Dame mentioned by the likes of ESPN after the NFL draft comes to a close. What makes 2014 different from headlines in more recent years, however, is the discussion of the number of draft picks the Fighting Irish produced rather than the lack thereof. Eight golden domers were selected in this year’s NFL draft, the most in 20 years. The draft selections were enough to tie Alabama for the second most drafted players behind the LSU Tigers, and with former captain Nick Martin being selected in the 1st round by the Dallas Cowboys, head coach Brian Kelly has now surpassed coaching legend Lou Holtz for the most 1st round draft selections in their first five seasons in South Bend (Kelly 4, Holtz 3).
Irish eyes should be focused on Johnny Manziel
Notre Dame fans watching the 2014 draft may have experienced brown paper bag inducing flashbacks of Brady Quinn when Johnny Manziel began to slide in the 1st round and squirm on national television before the Cleveland Browns traded up to save the day. But why would the career trajectory of Manziel in Cleveland matter to Notre Dame fans?
Perhaps no one will be watching how Manziel fares more than Notre Dame’s projected starting quarterback, Everett Golson. During Golson’s hiatus from the football program last season he underwent training from quarterback guru and former Johnny Manziel trainer, George Whitfield. Whitfield refined Golson’s footwork and mechanics, particularly his unorthodox way of handling the laces of a football. The cost of such mentoring was shouldered by Golson to the tune of roughly $8,000.
“At this point, I don’t know if it’s politically correct to say it like this, but it’s a business decision for me,” Golson said to college football reporter Bruce Feldman regarding his workouts with Whitfield.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees proved a quarterback lacking in stature can excel in the NFL, and Russell Wilson has shown an undersized dual threat signal caller can win at the highest level. If Manziel manages to invigorate a Cleveland Browns program down on its luck for decades, the NFL’s willingness to draft smaller, mobile quarterbacks will continue trending upward.
While Golson has not produced at the college level anywhere near the level of Johnny Football, Brian Kelly is looking to open the offensive playbook in 2014 after the departure of many defensive starters to the NFL or graduation. Should Golson have an impressive season, and should Manziel thrive in Cleveland, Everett Golson may seek a return on his investment sooner rather than later.
The cost of charm
One of the surprises of this year’s draft came courtesy of Louis Nix, a projected late 1st round draft pick who stumbled to the Houston Texans during the 3rd round. Why the tumble? There were potential red flags, such as knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus. There was also a drop in production from 2013 due to playing through a nagging knee injury. Oddly enough, none of these factors seemed to be as relevant as Nix’s personality.
Reports are beginning to surface that Nix’s comical social media persona may have played a role in his unexpected slide, with some scouts expressing concern that the ND standout nicknamed “Irish Chocolate” is a bit too playful and may lack the focus necessary to compete on Sundays. While such a criticism may seem outlandish, it isn’t any more bizarre than the scrutiny current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton endured three years ago over his red hair, with scouts questioning whether a red haired quarterback could ever succeed in the NFL.
The ‘what if’ game
Brian Kelly had an excellent track record of convincing impact players to delay entering the NFL draft to return for one more season, at least until 2014. Kelly managed to persuade star wide receiver Michael Floyd into one more season as well as team captain Zach Martin, both of whom would eventually become 1st round draft selections. Kelly may need to develop new talking points after the early departures of Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas.
Both Tuitt and Niklas possessed first round draft potential had they stayed for one more season. Tuitt never fully recovered from hernia surgery prior to the 2013 season and played 30 pounds above his 2012 playing weight, leading to a decline in production. Niklas, who only played tight end for two years after moving from linebacker his freshman season, would have benefited greatly from another year of seasoning in college, as the 6’7” jumbo athlete only had one full season as a starting tight end in South Bend.
Overall, while Notre Dame certainly could have benefited from the return of elite players such as Tuitt and Niklas, the program has transitioned under Kelly’s watch from trying to get NFL caliber players on the roster to trying to stop them from leaving early for the NFL draft. And it’s a problem Notre Dame has waited 20 years to experience.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.