What We Learned from the 2014 NFL Draft

Robin Alam/Icon SMI
Robin Alam/Icon SMI

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?

Everett Golson - 2013 Blue-Gold Game
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson (5) in action during the 2013 84th Annual Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Game at Notre Dame Stadium, in Notre Dame, IN. (Photo – Robin Alam / IconSMI)

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.

Troy Niklas - Notre Dame TE
Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Troy Niklas (85) prior to game action. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Purdue Boilermakers by the score of 20-17, at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo – Robin Alam Icon SMI)

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 scottjanssenhp@gmail.com.

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  1. Why is it when an individual comes to a place like ND (or Northwestern, Stanford, etc) to get a law degree or a MBA doesn’t then try to go land a high paying job in their given profession after completing their studies that a lot of grief goes out to a college athlete trying to do the same thing. If an athlete leaves early due to thinking he/she has completed “their course of study” for their given athletic profession (if that happens to be their professional goal versus their formal stated “major”)with a shot in the pro level, what’s really the difference than the JD or MBA doing the same thing in their careers. Frankly, as much as I hate to see early departures from a fan point of view, especially ND football, I say more power to the individual if he/she thinks it will further their own professional career, no damn different from any other folks in their respective given careers from not wanting to improve themselves. The trend of early departures most likely is not going to change unless something changes at the pro level to stop it (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA). I am not advocating that position but early leaving will continue to happen. I wish them the best and hope they achieve the goals they want for their professional & personal lives. As stated earlier, not all athletes obviously go pro, but, those that think they have a chance to make it, especially at early departure, more power to that athlete.

  2. Motivated by money?

    In a free enterprise society?


    You make it sound illegal.

    But thanks for coming out from behind the steel curtain to share that with us.

  3. Lou wasn’t allowed to go to the bowl game this year with the team. He already had an agent. Making him ineligible to travel with the team. He wasn’t even part of the team then. He was a pro already. Pope is right, the man crush has blurred your vision. Ha

  4. Lou got in shape when he knew it meant money. To start the year he was overweight and didn’t do much for ND the whole season. We know u have a man crush. Get over it he didn’t meet expectations this year. His sliding in the draft shows it.

  5. The criticism of Nix’s “character” is a joke.

    At one time early in his ND career he tipped the scales at 368 lbs.
    At the time of the combine he weighed 331 lbs. a difference of almost 40 lbs. (and that was coming off knee surgury)

    Financially, he came from a rather modest family where his mother worked so much she was unable to attend most of his games and a family where he was the eldest of 11 siblings.

    He commited to ND (and stuck to it) at a time when the ND football team was down and had no head coach.

    He completed his studies and earned his degree in December 2013.

    He has never had any off field issues, and was a great team mate, and a class act, which was on display as recently as the lead up to this year’s Pinstripe bowl where he elected to announce his decision to go pro early, opening up his roster spot, and allowing another team-mate the bowl game experience in his place.

    On the field he was loved by team-mates, coaches, and fans.

    Anytime I hear of one of these unproven “rumors” I’m always reminded the 1983 NFL draft where Dan Marino slid all the way to the 27th pick largely in part to a rumor, started by who knows who, that he had a drug problem in college.

    No one knows who started that rumor, but we do know who benefitted the most from it… the Miami Dolphins, who got the future Hall of Famer at a bargan price.

  6. The criticism of Nix possibly being too “playful” isn’t outlandish at all. I’m not the least bit surprised to hear that report. Then when you factor in how he fell on his azz during the board jump in the combine, it is clearly safe to say he didn’t do himself any favors.

  7. First of all, I agree with Duranko’s comment above. The fact that we had early departures is a positive sign that we have great talent. It is normal for a great program.

    I think the compelling factor for leaving early is the risk of injury. Niklas had high school concussions. He went to my high school…I know. He saw what happened to Spond. As coach Kelly said when our fine RB went down, “football can be a very cruel sport.”

    The guys are so big and powerful now that the risk of injury is greater than ever. If it was my kid and he was a first or second rounder, I’d tell him to take the money and run. Finish your degree in the offseason and play no more than 10 years so that you don’t end up like Tony Dorsett or Junior Seau.

    This sport can destroy your health and your life if you are not smart. They are modern day gladiators.

    Go IRISH!


    PS Regarding the first comment on this thread, the reason we had a weak season last year was Golson being kicked out. Kelly had to go with TR. Actually, I thought Kelly did great last year. We did beat MSU and USC. The game that depressed me was Pitt.

  8. I was most disappointed by Niklas leaving early. That really did blow my mind. ND is well known as Tight End U and leaving a year early may have cost him millions. He showed signs of being another elite tight end. Tuitt leaving was more or less a foregone conclusion. So no surprise there.

    Also, as a NY Giants fan, I’m sad to see Martin go to the Cowboys. I have to imagine Frank feels the same way since he’s an Eagle’s fan. One think Giants and Eagles fans share is a dislike for “America’s Team”–Ugh. I was hoping the Giants were going to pick him up. I would have been fine with almost any team, but Dallas. Ugh.

  9. More players drafted but still the same average record. Kelly’s head scratching decisions in game have to stop if we want to be a factory that wins instead of just a minor league team to the NFL.

  10. Nicklas lost money by leaving early. Even the coach of the Cardinal said
    has he waited until next year he would have been a top 10 pick. He only
    started one year

    1. Niklas can also make more money by starting his NFL career sooner and playing longer, which his size, physical ability, and a little luck, should allow him to do.

  11. Check out ND’s lacrosse game this past weekend against Albany. ESPN calls it an epic comeback by the Irish. It’s inspiring.

  12. “But he who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage existed, and Judas Iscariot existed, and Castlereagh existed, and this man exists!”

  13. bj
    I assume you have placed your order for the ND turf they are selling at $150 for a 2×5 section.

      1. What’s up gitty? Can’t wait to see what you’ll think of next. Would you care for a skinny margarita?

    1. Based on the artical in Forbes, ND is rated as the Nation’s 2nd most valuable team behind only Texas.

      This is mostly the result of an established a world wide fan base, the addition of an extra home game, and the $6.2 million in profit from the 2012 national championship game which the Irish got to keep all of because of their independent status, and also points to the combined efforts and coordination between improved coaching, recruiting, player development, the current administration, and saavy business decision making.

      It said nothing about the selling of souls.

      1. Chill out Ron. Isn’t Ron Burgundy a So Cal guy anyway. Go give trojan fans a hard time. I read the same about Nicklas and can actually see why he left. Wasn’t a bad decision in the end.

    1. actually, Niklas picked up two years in the quest for his second contract. One year is because first rounders have to wait an additional year to negotiate their second contract, and you add a year because Niklas left early.

      Further, there is no assurance that Niklas would have been a first rounder if he stayed. Cf Nix, Tuitt.

      This is the new normal. FOR GREAT TEAMS. Just check the number of players who have
      left early from Bama and LSU over the last five years or so.

      If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to be able to have players be able to leave after three years and not blink with them.

      Being for or against it is like being for or against the Rocky Mountains. Your opinion is irrelevant to the reality.

  14. Leaving early can suck the life out of a program. Staying that extra year could mean a better draft position or a career ending injury. There is a lot at steak, although I haven’t really heard of anyone staying their senior year and getting hurt so that they do not get drafted. The money is out there to lure those juniors into giving up their senior year. The 3 ND players mentioned above would have benefitted staying one more if they could avoid injury. It’s a gamble many potential pros do not want to take. Go Irish!

  15. Leaving early has become the new normal, and will likely remain so at every elite program, including ND.
    The NFL’s rookie salary contract limits encourage athletes to get started so their next contract
    two to three years down the road will be the motherlode past players received upon initial signing.
    For every Zach Martin, there will be three players with eligibility
    (see:Davarius Daniels, Kelvare Russell, et.al. next year) who will pursue their NFL dream;
    like Jerome Bettis, they will talk about returning some day to get their degree,
    but their life circumstances will determine if they do, as is their prerogative.
    Can we blame them? I read where three to four years is a common career NFL expectation
    with injuries, concussions, and next gen wonder athletes developing earlier than ever before
    replacing them on NFL rosters.

    This is the new pattern, with the rookie salary cap in place.
    The NFL has done its part to open the floodgates of early departures.
    Expecting different from our student-athletes appears naive to me.
    Enjoy them while you have them and, please,
    table the “save them for their fifth year” eligibility philosophy.

    If they’re good enough to get an ND scholarship offer,
    they’re likely considering moving on to the next level
    (see: Niklas, Tuitt,) the first chance they get,
    without the ND degree in hand.

    1. I don’t buy that the new rookie salary cap encourages players to leave early. Let’s look at this:

      Old Cap: in 2010 #1 overall Sam Bradford signed a 6 year rookie contract with $50M guaranteed
      New Cap: in 2011 #1 overall Cam Newton signed a 4 year rookie contract with only $22M guaranteed.

      Rookie contracts are now getting shorter and smaller. Given the short careers of NFL players due to injury risk and other factors, players should not assume they will last the ~3-4 years needed to obtain a next contract. This should incentive players to earn the highest possible 1st contract, which theoretically should push them to stay in school.

      There is one valid argument for players leaving early. Increased data on players that ‘burn out’ with too many repetitions in college may push players at certain positions to head to the NFL while they still have miles left on their engines(think Trent Richardson vs. Eddie Lacy). However, I think this is more validated from a health perspective than anything to do with contracts.

      Lastly, and I know this doesn’t affect players like Tuitt and Niklas, but there were over 30 underclassmen that entered the draft this year and were not selected. True, they can go back and get their degree if they want, but they will have to pay for it (no small fee at ND) and forego all housing/meal/swag benefits they currently get as varsity athletes.

      In summary, my opinion is if the student is graded as a first round, it may be tough to pass up that ‘guaranteed’ money at the risk of a senior year injury. Other than those players though, I think it is misguided to leave early and ‘play for the second contract’

  16. I think it is refreshing to see so many ND players drafted. One question: With so much talent, why five losses? Answer: The coaching.
    While Kelly may be doing a good job of getting players ready for the draft, his in-game coaching decision making and strategy stink.

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