Geno Smith

What’d We Learn From the 2013 NFL Draft?

Geno Smith

The 2013 NFL Draft left its share of lessons behind.

From the trading frenzy that took place during the entire duration of the event, to key positions being looked at through a new lens. It was a wild, unpredictable 3-day stretch by any measure. Here’s a look back at what we learned as we prepare for the upcoming draft.

The value of running backs is diminishing

No running backs were taken in the first round of the draft in 2013. That’s the continuation of a trend that’s gone hand in hand with the league moving toward a more quarterback-centric, pass-first philosophy.

In comparison, just 10 years ago, three running backs were taken in the first round and 10 overall were selected in the draft. And five years ago, it was three and 20. Last year, it was zero and 24. While more running backs are being taken overall, even fewer are being taken early. 

Teams are willing to wait. More and more, late-round runners and undrafted free agents have turned into featured backs. Most teams don’t rely on the run as the staple of their offense. Emphasis is on athleticism, receiving ability and versatility. 

As evidence, the consensus top talent at the position, Eddie Lacy, was the third back taken. He came after Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati) and Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh). Both Bernard and Bell were versatile backs with the ability to be a threat in the receiving game. Lacy was envisioned as a more classic bruising back. 

Analysts have been warning of this trend for years, but 2013 was the first time it became obvious. In the run-up to the 2014 draft, little buzz has been made about the running backs available. It’s no longer a question of whether a running back will be taken in the first round, but where will they fall on Days 2 and 3.

Teams can stand to wait on potential franchise quarterbacks

Leading up to last year’s draft, there was a ton of talk about how teams would handle one of the weakest quarterback classes in years. After years of having “sure things” available in twos or threes each year, the top-rated quarterback in 2013, E.J. Manuel, was a consensus unknown when it came to how he would perform in the pros.

Teams historically have reached for quarterbacks to fill a need. There are plenty of horror stories strewn around the NFL of signal callers who didn’t pan out. From Heath Shuler to David Klingler, teams have swung and missed badly in the early rounds.

But 2013 was different and could be the sign of a more patient market. Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, and the New York Jets (twice) all passed on Manuel before he was taken at 16th overall by Buffalo. That’s the longest run of picks without a quarterback in the first round since the Jets picked Chad Pennington 18th overall in 2000. The previous four drafts all featured a quarterback going first overall. After Manuel, no quarterbacks were selected until the Jets took Geno Smith with the 39th pick. There hasn’t been a draft with fewer than two first-round quarterbacks taken since 2001 when only Michael Vick was selected by Atlanta.

And 2014 brings another talked-about quarterback class with more talent but without a clear frontrunner. Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, and Derek Carr all have potential suitors interested in their services. It will be interesting to see a second year with a murky talent pool. If teams continue to be less willing to take risks under center, it could be the start of a different valuation on the most important position on offense.

Teams are more willing to trade up and/or down

There were 12 trades involving first-round picks alone in last year’s draft. The 22nd overall pick was traded twice. Teams are more willing than ever to make deals to accumulate picks with teams that are targeting someone specific.

Why is this happening? It’s because teams are building through the draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers have never embraced free agency and their small binge this year (in terms of number of players signed and not in money spent) has stood out because of its rarity. They’ve managed to sustain success for the better part of two full decades thanks to skillful drafting. All 32 teams are following this model now.

The other big change that made this possible was the slotting system for salaries. When the players retained complete bargaining power for their rookie contracts, teams were apt to stay away from the higher picks because they’d involve a higher cap number. With salaries mostly pre-determined, teams feel more comfortable about making a deal.

Offensive, defensive linemen are becoming more valuable and landing in the early rounds

Eight of the first ten players drafted in 2013 played on the offensive (5) or defensive (3) line. Those positions, particularly the offensive linemen, are not considered skill positions or glamorous occupations. For years, the rule was that skill position players on offense or defense came first.

A run of teams struggling to field workable offensive lines started to change the trend. Teams are now more willing to protect their investments at the quarterback position by investing up front. Eight offensive linemen came off the board in round one last year and four in 2012.

The salary system is to blame here as well. Paying a guard the same as a star quarterback prospect seemed ludicrous when top-ten picks demanded near-record contracts each season. With things settled before the draft and holdouts less likely, teams can choose freely from the first pick to the last.

Looking back at last season, 41 offensive linemen entered the league through the draft. 16 of those, or almost 40 percent, were taken in the first three rounds. Teams have finally wised up about protecting the quarterback. Paying a passer $100 million or more on his multi-year deal is fine, but it only works if he can stay upright.

Teams are happy to make moves to accumulate more early-round picks and build through the draft

Another salary-based change in the draft has been the willingness to accumulate higher picks. The St. Louis Rams have raised this to an art form with GM Les Snead wheeling and dealing his way to multiple first-round picks whenever possible.

Without the danger of having to commit an entire salary cap to a select few players, teams can trade up as much as they can afford to, to get those specific players they want for their systems. This is a game changer because it makes each pick more valuable since more teams are likely to place the call to ask about trades.

The 12 first-round trades in 2013 is only part of the story. The Minnesota Vikings dealt their way to three picks in the first round last year. St. Louis and the Jets each had two in that round. The draft, even in the other rounds, has become a game of pick-accumulation for most teams. The more young players infused into a roster, the better chances a team remaining competitive.

Free agency drives this alteration as well. With rookie contracts now depressed by the cap, veteran players are asking for bigger pieces of the pie. Teams who wouldn’t have had the cap money a few years ago now are being asked to give more to older players. Unwilling to do this, many teams have gone the route of allowing players to leave, picking up extra picks through the compensation system and/or trading around to pick up more players in the draft.

Very few teams in 2013 had fewer than seven drafted players. Many teams brought in somewhere between nine and 11 new players. This trend will likely continue as more teams have more success.

The NFL is on its way to becoming a global brand

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might be getting the international brand and game he yearns for, but just not in the way he’s hoping. Goodell, who seems to want to expand into London at some point, might be getting a more diverse set of players instead of locations.

Last year, a record 11 players from other countries were drafted by the league’s 32 franchises. That shattered the previous record of five, which was set in 2012.

Those players played at U.S. colleges, but it’s a great step in the right direction. It shows a deepening talent pool abroad and also an ability for more football players from more places to live their NFL dreams.

The uptick in players from abroad is good news for the commissioner as he tries to sell more games in more foreign countries. If the league is recruiting players from the furthest reaches of the globe, then the NFL could do well in those places as well as others. If Goodell wants a team in London or to make the National Football League an international league, this is the best way to lay some groundwork for owners who seem averse to broad changes to the league they operate.

More than NFL Europe and other failed ideas, an influx of players from around the world can help diversify the game as the league moves toward it’s centennial.

About Nick DeWitt

A longtime fan of all Pittsburgh sports, Nick DeWitt has been working as a sportswriter since 2008. Before becoming a contributor to The Sports Daily, he'd been a Steelers Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a contributor for 412 Sports Talk. Beyond his work in sportswriting, he's a teacher, historian, and professional photographer.