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Previously on the 2013 RSP Football Writers Project…

Introduction/My Picks in Rounds 1 and 2
My Pick in Round 3
My Picks in Rounds 4 and 5
My Picks in Rounds 6 through 11

You can also view every pick in this draft recap.

Rounds 12/13

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, TE Greg Olsen, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Alex Boone, 3-4 DE Desmond Bryant, 3-4 DE Cameron Heyward, 3-4 OLB DE Paul Kruger, 3-4 OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Vontae Davis

Branch can be a valuable weapon in today's passing environment

Branch can be a valuable weapon in today's passing environment

With 26 safeties already off the board and 62 picks between my next pair of picks, I decided I wanted to double-up at safety at this turn. The best remaining safeties from 2012 — Kerry Rhodes (who went at 14.04), George Wilson (not yet drafted), Charles Woodson (not yet drafted), and Ryan Clark (13.06) — have serious age concerns going forward. I want to have a young team that is peaking in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and have drafted as such thus far.

Safety is a young man’s game — the position requires speed to cover wide receivers, the size and athleticism to take on tight ends, and the durability to sustain the physical elements of the running game. Research shows that safeties don’t generally age well, so this late in the draft, I chose to focus on youth rather than elite production. Safety is also a difficult position to grade, so I chose to place more emphasis on revealed preferences (games played, snap counts) than player ratings.

Oakland’s Tyvon Branch doesn’t turn 27 until December and has started 51 games for the Raiders at strong safety over the last four years. Branch is above-average in the box and is capable of guarding any tight end (he shut down Rob Gronkowski in 2011). While Branch missed three games with a neck injury, he’s one of the more durable safeties in the game: he’s one of just 14 safeties to start 60 games over the last four years. Branch is a capable blitzer, too, and when he’s on, he can be an elite safety. The hope is that on a better team, he turns into a more consistent player.

Branch is best paired with a free safety, and Chicago’s Chris Conte is a great complement. Conte just turned 24 in February, but he has already started 24 games for one of the league’s best defensive teams. For a free safety, Conte is an above-average tackler, but his value to my team comes in his youth and ability as a pass defender. Conte has teamed with Major Wright in the Bears secondary the past couple of seasons, and think he’ll be even better with Branch. Conte isn’t “there” yet, but a 24-year-old safety with starting experience is nothing to sneeze at.

Rounds 14/15

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, TE Greg Olsen, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Alex Boone, 3-4 DE Desmond Bryant, 3-4 DE Cameron Heyward, 3-4 OLB DE Paul Kruger, 3-4 OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Vontae Davis, FS Chris Conte, SS Tyvon Branch

McFadden politely asks not to be touched

McFadden politely asks not to be touched.

Having selected defensive players with five of my previous six picks, I was ready to turn my attention back to offense. A running back and another offensive linemen seemed like the obvious picks. With 26 running backs already off the board, I didn’t expect much left. When I scanned the list, I was surprised to see Darren Sproles still available, and I felt comfortable taking him. The downside is that Sproles turns 30 in June, but he’s more like a receiver than a running back; he ended up being selected a round later at 16.09.

I looked at the most productive running backs over the last couple of years still available, and a list which almost exclusively consisted of old backs who might be out of the league in two years: Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, Michael Turner, Willis McGahee, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But then I looked and saw that Darren McFadden was still on the board.

Maybe I’m a little too excited about a player who is always hurt, but I find it hard to believe that McFadden isn’t one of the 25 most valuable running backs in the NFL. Shane Vereen and Ryan Mathews were the players picked just before him; Mikel Leshoure and Vick Ballard went before them. I quickly settled on McFadden at 14.32.

What about that other pick? I wanted the best slot receiver available, and was hoping there would be someone Jeremy Kerley-like still available. As it turns out, Kerley was available, making this an easy pick.

The top 5 slot receivers in terms of yards per route run last year were Randall Cobb, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, Kerley, and Danny Amendola. If you prefer raw receiving yards from the slot, the top five doesn’t change except Reggie Wayne jumps in while Amendola falls out. Keep in mind that Kerley was playing with Mark Sanchez and still produced like a top-five slot receiver. With Jones and Marshall on the outside, I needed a slot weapon, and Kerley fits the bill. He’s just 25 this season, giving me a core group of weapons that will be productive over the next three-to-five years.

Rounds 16/17

Already on team: QB Josh Freeman, RB Darren McFadden, WR Julio Jones, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Jeremy Kerley, TE Greg Olsen, LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, G Alex Boone, 3-4 DE Desmond Bryant, 3-4 DE Cameron Heyward, 3-4 OLB DE Paul Kruger, 3-4 OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Vontae Davis, FS Chris Conte, SS Tyvon Branch

After fifteen picks, I need 7 more starters: a guard, a center, a right tackle, a nose tackle, two inside linebackers, and a second cornerback. I don’t place a premium on most of those positions, while I never found the value available at nose tackle or corner that appealing.

By my count, 100 offensive linemen have been drafted, so grabbing two would have set me ahead of the pace. There were several solid guards left, but the best players remaining were on the other side of 30 and not talented enough to make me ignore their age-related concerns. A few younger players caught my eye, but I suspect one of them or one of the older players will be around in 62 picks. A similar situation exists at center, and the main two players I looked at there will almost certainly still be around in Round 18. Fortunately, there was a player at tackle who stood out from the pack.

Cam Thomas can get to the quarterback

Cam Thomas can get to the quarterbacks.

Buffalo’s Chris Hairston is hardly a household name, but he’s a solid tackle. He also just turned 24 and has experience starting at both left and right tackle; those traits made him the most desirable offensive linemen left. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just 2 sacks in 583 snaps last year and is an above-average run blocker. He missed the last month of the season with an ankle injury, but that isn’t a concern going forward. At 6’6, 330, the former Clemson star is an imposing presence and should slot in well on the right side.

San Diego nose tackle Cam Thomas has been blocked behind veterans Antonio Garay and Aubrayo Franklin the past couple of years, but 2013 could be a breakout year for the fourth-year player. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas has played about 400 snaps each of the past two seasons, and he’s graded well in both run defense and as a pass rusher. He is your prototypical 3-4 nose tackle with excellent athleticism for his size (6’4, 330). He was part of an outstanding defensive line at North Carolina in 2009, where he joined with Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, and E.J. Wilson (and sophomore Quinton Coples) to form the backbone of a defense that finished sixth in the country. Thomas will play alongside Bryant and Heyward, giving me a young and athletic (albeit unproven) front line.

  • Shattenjager

    I rather wonder about your comment that you “don’t place a premium” on center and guard. I think of your gate analogy from last year’s version of the RSPWP, which seems to conflict with taking a good LT and an elite guard in the top six picks and then waiting on the rest of the line.

    Is it just that you feel comfortable with so many guys left at the other positions so far and so have felt it was poor value to draft them? (To phrase that perhaps more understandably, you feel that there are still a bunch of guys left at center, guard, and right tackle who would make perfectly acceptable weakest links and therefore you can continue to wait on those positions.) Or is there something else going on that’s causing you to seemingly deviate from the idea that the weakest link is more important than the strongest?

    • Chase Stuart

      Good question, Shattenjager.

      For me, the LT and guard picks were more about value than philosophy. Picking on the edge means you have to wait a loooong time between picks, and sometimes you just want to scoop up on value. Ideally, I would have five players who are roughly equal, but that’s hard to do in this type of draft. I also think based on who my quarterback is, having some elite linemen is probably a good idea. But in general, I’m definitely still thinking about the “weakest link” theory.