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NFL Draft may lack star power, but not intrigue

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was badly injured in the Fiesta Bowl, but how badly have his draft prospects been hurt?
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was badly injured in the Fiesta Bowl, but how badly have his draft prospects been hurt? Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/File 2016

The Offseason Super Bowl, otherwise known as the NFL Draft, is about to arrive, with the first round taking place Thursday night, Rounds 2-3 on Friday, and Rounds 4-7 on Saturday.

This year’s draft doesn’t exactly have the sexy story lines that we’ve seen in the past — no polarizing figures like Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, no potential Pro Bowl quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, and very little star power. There’s also not a lot of intrigue at the top, with the Rams likely to pick Jared Goff and the Eagles then locked in on Carson Wentz.

So to get ready for this week’s event, let’s take a look at some of the big story lines.


■   Where will Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith get drafted — if at all? Smith had the world at his fingertips in January. He was a consensus All-American, won the Butkus Award as the top college linebacker in the country, and had a chance to get drafted in the top 10 and earn millions.

But Smith’s dreams were shattered on Jan. 7, when he tore his ACL and LCL in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. He also reportedly suffered nerve damage.

Now Smith’s story is by far the most fascinating — and perhaps the saddest — of draft week. He’s definitely going to drop out of the first round, which could help him collect some or all of his $5 million insurance policy. But will he drop past Day 2, as well? More poignantly, will he go undrafted altogether?

We remember Willis McGahee still getting drafted 23d overall in 2003 despite suffering a bad knee injury, but Smith’s injury is more significant, and similar to the one suffered by South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore in 2012. The talented running back ended up getting drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round in 2013, but he never played a down and was forced to retire.


Here’s hoping it turns out better for Smith, but we’re not holding our breath.

■   How far will Robert Nkemdiche slide? The defensive tackle from Ole Miss, a 6-foot-5-inch, 293-pound wrecking ball up the middle, generated a lot of buzz last fall as a potential No. 1 overall pick. But Nkemdiche is this year’s “red flag” prospect, and he may have cost himself a spot in the first round, let alone the No. 1 pick.

Nkemdiche skipped some drills at the NFL Combine, and reportedly was terrible in his interviews. And in December, he fell from a hotel balcony and was charged with marijuana possession. At the combine, he explained that he was drunk, and said he got the marijuana charge because his name was on the hotel room.

Last year’s “red flag” prospect, Nebraska pass rusher Randy Gregory, dropped all the way to the Cowboys at No. 60. How far will Nkemdiche fall?

■   Who are the top prospects this year? You already know a little about Goff and Wentz, the two quarterbacks who will go 1-2. Who else should you know?

There are two elite cornerback prospects: Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, who could go as high as No. 3, and Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III, who might slip into the top 10. Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil was a candidate for the top pick, and won’t slide further than sixth. Two other tackles, Michigan State’s Jack Conklin and Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, should go in the top 15.


Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, the son of a former first-round pick (Boston College’s John Bosa), gets most of the attention and should be a top-five pick, but Oregon pass rusher DeForest Buckner is a beast at 6-7 and could end up being the most disruptive player drafted. Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott has a chance to be selected in the top 10, which would mark the second year in a row for a running back (Todd Gurley).

With as many as 15 draft prospects, the Buckeyes have a chance to break some draft records — most players selected in the first round (six, by Miami in 2004) and most players drafted overall (14, by Ohio State in 2004).

Defensive lineman Joey Bosa will be one of several Buckeyes headed to NFL teams.
Defensive lineman Joey Bosa will be one of several Buckeyes headed to NFL teams.Jay LaPrete/Associated Press/File 2015

■   Pressure points. Location matters when it comes to the NFL Draft, and there are distinct markers that affect a player’s compensation and his future.

There’s a big difference between the 10th and 11th overall picks when it comes to the fifth-year option for first-rounders. The formula for determining the fifth-year option is different for picks 1-10 than it is for picks 11-32 (we won’t get into the complicated formula here), but the difference is about $3 million-$4 million less for the 11th pick than the 10th.

Later in the first round, the 19th overall pick gets a fully guaranteed four-year contract, while picks 20 and lower get only the first three years of their contracts guaranteed.


There’s a big distinction in getting drafted with the last pick of the first round compared with the first pick of the second round: the first-rounder has to wait an extra year to reach free agency because of the fifth-year option, while the second-rounder has no such restraint and can look to sign a long-term contract extension after his third season.

A player would likely rather get taken with the first pick of the third round instead of the last pick of the second round, as third-rounders are eligible for player performance raises for their fourth season, but second-rounders are not.

And a player would rather go undrafted instead of being taken with one of the final picks in the seventh round. Being an undrafted free agent allows the player to weigh offers from different teams and pick his best landing spot. Undrafted rookies also get three-year contracts and can renegotiate after two years, while seventh-round picks are locked into minimum-salary deals for four years.


Knighton’s deal heavy in bonuses

Defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton signed one of the most extensively incentive-laden contracts that we’ve seen in some time. He can make as much as $4.55 million with the Patriots in 2015, but about 75 percent of the total value of the contract is based on being healthy, productive, and at his ideal weight.

In addition to a $250,000 signing bonus and $900,000 salary, Knighton has $500,000 in per-game bonuses ($31,250 per game active) and a $100,000 workout bonus if he attends 90 percent of the offseason workouts. Those are the easy ones.


He can make up to $2.5 million in performances bonuses, with $500,000 based off making the Pro Bowl on the original ballot, and $2 million in playing-time bonuses. The breakdown, per a copy of his contract obtained by the Globe:

40 percent of snaps: $200,000

45 percent of snaps: $200,000

50 percent of snaps: $200,000

55 percent of snaps: $400,000

60 percent of snaps: $400,000

70 percent of snaps: $350,000

80 percent of snaps: $250,000

Those markers won’t be easy for Knighton to attain. He’ll be sharing snaps with Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Markus Kuhn, and perhaps a rookie. Last year, Brown played the most snaps of any Patriots defensive tackle, and that was only 47.8 percent. Knighton played only 35 percent of snaps with Washington last season and 48 percent of snaps with Denver in 2014.

But in 2014, Vince Wilfork played in 73.3 percent of snaps with New England, so Knighton could have the opportunity to play a lot. The releases of Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, and Sealver Siliga should add to Knighton’s playing time.

Knighton also has the chance to make an additional $300,000 this offseason if he lays off the pot roast. He has four weigh-ins at $75,000 each: under 375 pounds on April 18, 365 pounds on May 18, 360 pounds on June 15, and 355 pounds on the first day of training camp.

That last weigh-in bonus is also contingent on Knighton passing the team’s conditioning run on the first day of camp.

New Patriot Terrance Knighton can belly out his contract with some incentive payments if he keeps his weight in check.
New Patriot Terrance Knighton can belly out his contract with some incentive payments if he keeps his weight in check.Matt Hazlett/Getty Images/File 2015


Questions with Norman move

The Panthers’ decision to cut bait with cornerback Josh Norman was one of the most surprising moves of the last decade. Norman is the first player to have his franchise tag rescinded since the Seahawks did it with Leroy Hill in 2009, and Hill re-signed four days later. The Panthers decided not only to rescind Norman’s tag, but to move on without him.

It’s understandable that the Panthers didn’t want to meet Norman’s contract demands. His franchise tag was going to pay him $13.9 million, and Norman is seeking a long-term deal that pays him an average of $16 million per season, the top rate for cornerbacks.

The Carolina defense is built around strong play from the front seven, and Norman, mostly a zone cornerback, might not be worth all that money in such a scheme. Plus, the Panthers already have massive contracts for Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly on the books, and don’t want a third one to tie up their salary cap.

That said, we’re having a hard time accepting general manager Dave Gettleman’s explanation that the move was simply a “business decision” and had nothing to do with Norman’s character or any off-field event. The Panthers already had Norman’s $13.9 million on the ledger, and were still $18 million under the salary cap. Now they have $31 million in cap space, and while some of that can be used to give defensive tackle Kawann Short a contract extension, the Panthers were doing just fine on the cap before deciding to release Norman.

It’s curious that the Panthers opted to let Norman walk away for almost nothing (they’ll likely get a 2017 third-round compensatory pick) instead of using him for one more season, or trading him on the franchise tag, as the Patriots did with Matt Cassel in 2009. Something had to have happened in the last six weeks to make Gettleman change his mind about keeping Norman around for 2016.

Is there some hidden reason why the Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman, who showed he was a true cover cornerback at a Super Bowl press conference in February?
Is there some hidden reason why the Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman, who showed he was a true cover cornerback at a Super Bowl press conference in February?Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports/File 2016


They’re rallying ’round Chargers

Chargers owner Dean Spanos and the city of San Diego have until January to figure out a long-term stadium solution before Spanos makes a decision about joining the Rams in Los Angeles. And the team and the NFL are using all hands on deck to drum up support from San Diegans.

The Chargers held a rally Saturday to gather signatures for a citizen’s initiative that would help revitalize part of downtown San Diego with a sparkling new convention center and stadium for the Chargers.

And the team brought out the big guns for Saturday’s pep rally: Spanos and Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson, of course, but also quarterback Philip Rivers and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It is the first time we can remember that Goodell played such an active role in helping a team get support for a publicly-funded stadium, and a clear sign of the NFL’s desire to keep the Chargers in San Diego rather than have them bolt for Los Angeles two hours to the north. We don’t recall active players getting involved in many other stadium projects, either.

The current plan, if approved by voters, calls for the Chargers, the NFL, and the city of San Diego to split the costs of the stadium portion of the project, which should be about $1 billion (the convention center would cost approximately $800 million). The Chargers and the NFL would contribute approximately $650 million, and the city would contribute $350 million from a hotel tax hike. The initiative needs about 67,000 signatures to get on the ballot for Nov. 8.

Summer jobs for officials

Inconsistent officiating was one of the biggest story lines of the 2015 NFL season, prompting outcries that the league needs full-time officials. But that won’t necessarily fix the problem.

Much like the players on the field, NFL officials need more game reps to develop their skills, and being a full-time employee won’t help on that front when there are no football games played between February and August.

The NFL’s newest initiative, announced Friday, should help improve officiating much more. Beginning this year, a group of officials — mostly side judges and field judges — will work Canadian Football League preseason and regular-season games in June and July prior to starting their NFL work in late July. In return, several CFL officials will be invited to join the NFL’s Officiating Development Plan.

Of course, what the NFL truly needs is a developmental league like NFL Europe to get meaningful game reps for young players and officials. But getting them more game reps in June and July is at least a start.

Why Eagles dared

I saw a lot of criticism last week about the Eagles’ decision to “mortgage the farm” and trade a bevy of picks to Cleveland for the No. 2 pick and the right to draft a quarterback, most likely Carson Wentz. The Eagles certainly gave up a lot — a first, a third, and a fourth this year, next year’s first-rounder, and a second-rounder in 2018 — but they seem to know what they’re doing. No position is more important than quarterback, and they’ll now have three decent options: Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel, and (presumably) Wentz. Assuming Bradford stays healthy and plays fairly well this year, the Eagles can certainly recoup some of those draft picks with a trade next offseason. Daniel also might have some value if he is forced into the lineup this year and plays well.

Extra points

The NFL concussion settlement that was approved by a federal judge last week doesn’t seem like fair compensation, and lets the league off the hook for whatever role it played in hiding the effects of brain damage and CTE. But now 5,000 ex-players are much closer to receiving money — up to $5 million — that many of them desperately need to pay their medical and cost-of-living expenses, and that’s what’s most important . . . Trying to care about the report of the Pro Bowl maybe moving to Orlando next year. Nope, can’t do it . . . Every NFL team has to play at least once on Thursday night, but the NFL schedule makers sure have been doing the Patriots a favor. They have played their last four Thursday night games at home — wins over the Jets in 2013 and 2014, and wins over the Steelers and Dolphins in 2015 — and they are set to host the Texans in Week 3 this year. The Patriots’ last Thursday night away game was the infamous “buttfumble” win over the Jets in 2012.

Climbing the ladder

The Los Angeles Rams traded two first-round picks, two second- rounders, and two thirds over the next two years to the Titans to jump up to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Here’s a look at the other pre-draft trades for the top pick in the modern era:

Compiled by Michael Grossi

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.