NFL

Free Agency from a Draft Prospect’s Perspective

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The frenzied start to free agency has captured the attention of NFL fans, who are glued to their computer screens and smart phones waiting to see where their favorite players will sign. But fans are not the only ones paying close attention; draft prospects are monitoring the transactions page closer than anybody, waiting to see which teams fill voids in free agency and which ones wait for draft day.

“I follow things really close just to see where I could go,” said Iowa DT Carl Davis in an exclusive interview with Football Insiders. “It seems like this year there are a lot of defensive tackles that are getting moved around. We saw [Darnell] Dockett leave the Cardinals and we’ll see what happens with [Vince] Wilfork. There are a lot of different things going on. I try to pay really close attention and just talk to my agent to see if maybe he knows anything. But we really don’t know anything until draft day.”

That is the tough part for these rookies-to-be, who will not know their employer until the final day of April (at the earliest). They can meet with a team at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine and come away thinking that will be the franchise they will play for, only to see said team spend big money on a free agent who plays their same position.

Free agency creates a lot of opportunities — openings are made every time a veteran leaves his team — but those holes can close in the blink of an eye.

“I thought I had a feeling [of interest] from a few different teams, but it’s kind of hard with free agency going on right now,” Davis said. “There are a lot of different people getting signed. For example, you just saw [Ndamukong] Suh leave and Haloti Ngata just got traded to the Lions. So you might have thought [Detroit for me], but they just picked up a defensive tackle. You never really know anything until free agency is over. Plus, there are some teams that seemed interested but already have really good depth at the defensive line. It’s all up in the air and I’m just going to wait till draft day to see where I go.”

Suh was the first domino to fall in free agency, landing the biggest contract for a defensive player in league history. That was great news for Davis — as well as all defensive tackles — as a rising tide floats all boats.

While Suh and Davis have very different playing styles, they share one key characteristic: both players occupy multiple blockers while freeing up their teammates to make plays.

“He really raised the bar for defensive tackles,” said Davis of Suh. “A whole lot of people don’t really feel like a defensive tackle should be paid that much, because you see a guy like J.J. Watt and he plays multiple positions and [Suh] gets paid more than him, but Suh is a guy who is able to attract a lot of attention. His stats are not going to jump out at you, but you see how much attention he attracts and that helps to free other guys up. I feel like that’s just as big as making a play.”

Therein lies the connection. Because Davis, like Suh, does not have numbers that jump off the page. He finished his Hawkeyes career with 94 total tackles, including 14.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Those numbers do not typically result in a player going high in the draft.

However, the tape shows Davis dominating in Iowa’s two-gap system, commanding double-teams and holding his ground at the point of attack. Also, as he showed during Senior Bowl week, he is more than capable of winning one-on-one match-ups when given the opportunity.

That versatility has allowed Davis to garner interest from both 3-4 and 4-3 teams.

“I’ve seen teams that I’ve talked to that run a 3-4 and I’ve talked to some teams that run a 4-3,” he said. “Some teams see me as a 1-technique, a 3-technique, a defensive end, whatever. And that’s really a good thing for them to see me as a versatile guy who can play multiple positions.”

There is not much left Davis can do to affect where he will go in this year’s draft, now that the NFL Combine is in the books.

Davis enjoyed his time in Indianapolis, although he says he could have done without the four hours of medical evaluations where he was pulled and tugged on by the training staffs of multiple NFL teams. On the plus side, he was able to meet several players who will be part of his draft class, as well as get in another round of interviews with coaches and scouts.

He made a great impression on at least one team, as the Carolina Panthers have scheduled a private visit with Davis on March 25, two days after his Pro Day. But that brings us back to the free-agency rub: the Panthers re-signed DT Dwan Edwards to a two-year deal on Tuesday, keeping intact the team’s four-tackle rotation of Edwards, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Colin Cole.

This, of course, does not preclude the Panthers from picking Davis, but it certainly makes his path less clear.

It is tough to project the frontrunner for Davis’ services, just as it is difficult to predict when he will hear his name called on draft day. Mock drafts have him going anywhere between Rounds 1 and 4, a wide range with the draft less than two months away.

“Wherever they want to take me is fine,” he said. “I’m happy to play this game and I’m looking forward to it being my job. I understand some teams have me high and some teams have me low, because some teams might not need help on the defensive line, so I understand why they have a four/five grade on me. I’m just trying to go as high as possible.”

The best thing Davis can do at this point is block out the noise as much as possible, including the noise coming from the teams themselves. Draft season is lying season, after all, so he knows the teams that show minimal interest at this juncture are just as likely to draft him as the Panthers or anyone else.

Case in point: Chris Kirksey, Davis’ former teammate at Iowa who went in the third round of last year’s draft. There was one team that showed so much interest in Kirksey that he was certain he was going there, but instead he was scooped up by the Cleveland Browns, who barely even talked to him during the pre-draft process.

Will Davis be drafted by a darkhorse, as well? Will a team that is currently hot on his trail opt to acquire a defensive tackle in free agency instead? It is too early to answer these questions, maddening as that might be. For now, all Davis can do it continue to track what happens in free agency and count down till draft day … just like the rest of us.

Want to talk more about Davis, free agency or the NFL Draft? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you do not have to wait until then … you can ask your question now! 


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.