256 picks later, the 2018 NFL draft is a wrap.
The first round kicked off with a number of trades and some questionable picks, and that action only carried into the next two days. Which teams now boast impressive rookie classes? Our 2018 NFL draft grades, below.
Arizona’s defense is a No. 2 corner away from being among the league’s top six, but GM Steve Keim didn’t truly address that in the draft, only because the offense is several players away from being competitive—especially if you take the long view. However Keim landed potential long-term cogs at three of the most critical positions, including QB Josh Rosen—a player who Keim, who traded up from the No. 15 spot, thought would not be there at No. 10. Rosen—far-and-away the most polished, “ready now” QB in this draft—is a timing-and-rhythm passer, which usually translates well to the NFL.
WR Christian Kirk (a Scottsdale native) has an even greater chance to play right away, considering there were no proven everydown receivers behind Larry Fitzgerald. However replacing the soon-to-be 35-year-old Fitzgerald long-term may have been the main inspiration behind this pick, given that Kirk, stylistically, projects as a possession slot guy. Cole is here to supplant A.Q. Shipley, who is almost 32 and in the final year of his contract. The question is whether the rookie, who has position flexibility, can compete at guard, giving Arizona an option for replacing Mike Iupati in 2019, when he’s owed $9.7 million.
The Falcons came into the draft with just one capable contributor at defensive tackle (rising fourth-year star Grady Jarrett), but GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn didn’t address that position until the third round—one can assume that they felt the talent available at No. 26 and No. 58 was too great to ignore.
Atlanta didn’t need help at wide receiver, but every NFC South team gulped when it swiped Calvin Ridley, a player seen by some as Antonio Brown lite. Playing opposite Julio Jones and outside of Mohamad Sanu, he’ll face favorable coverage looks snap after snap. Isaiah Oliver is a long-armed, makeup speed type corner, which Quinn has always liked. He can be another version of Jalen Collins (out of the league due to repeated failed drug tests), but Atlanta already had a tremendous duo signed long-term in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and a sturdy slot presence in Brian Poole. Does Oliver’s arrival mean Alford will eventually play fulltime in the slot? However you shape it, this was a luxury pick. So was running back Ito Smith, who was taken one round behind defensive tackle Deadrin Senat. Quinn employs a litany of defensive line rotations, and the Falcons may regret not finding more forces inside.
The Ravens found their identity last season after becoming a run-first offense; the better a team’s tight-end situation, the easier it is to take that approach. With blocking tight ends Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams on the roster, Baltimore needed someone flexible who could offer receiving prowess, and it found arguably the best in the draft in Hayden Hurst, who can also contribute in the running game. For good measure, the team used a third-round pick on lanky pass-catcher Mark Andrews.
The biggest news of GM Ozzie Newsome’s final draft, however, came late Thursday night when he traded picks No. 52 and No. 125, plus next year’s second-rounder, to get Lamar Jackson at No. 32. The plan is for Jackson to sit and learn behind Joe Flacco, but Jackson and Flacco have antithetical styles—the offense built for Jackson will be nothing like the one Baltimore runs with Flacco. This torch could be passed earlier than expected given the abundance of Ravens coaches who are familiar with a Jackson-friendly type of offense. John Harbaugh was the head coach here when Tyrod Taylor used to give Baltimore’s defense fits in practice. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and new QB coach James Urban were in Philadelphia in 2010, when Michael Vick had his best season. And, most importantly, ground game constructor Greg Roman had Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers in 2012.
With six key contributors in contract years, the Ravens needed to replenish their defensive front seven—but they didn’t, save for taking linebacker Kenny Young in Round 4. Next year’s GM, Eric DeCosta, will have to play catchup. But if their offensive overhaul goes well, that’s a small price to pay.
The Bills traded up to get the quarterback they wanted and the linebacker they needed … in theory, anyway. We can debate Josh Allen’s merits and future prospects, but it’s easy to believe the Bills when they say that arm strength, size and mobility make him the best fit for playing in the sometimes-difficult Buffalo conditions. With head coach Sean McDermott, GM Brandon Beane and others, this team is becoming the Panthers North. Stylistically, Allen can provide the same base run-game dimensions as Cam Newton; he might not quite be as dynamic a Newton, but he has a chance to become a better on-the-move thrower.
The Edmunds pick was necessary, given how crucial linebackers are in McDermott’s foundational double-A-gap pressure looks and zone coverages. Edmunds may need time to develop, though, leaving the Bills thin at a critical spot when they’re trying to build on their surprising 9-7 season.
The only gripe is Buffalo did not find a true edge rusher. (And the team is wrong if it thinks that free-agent pickup Trent Murphy is that guy.) Doing so would have buttressed the pass rush opposite Jerry Hughes and inside, since it’d allow 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson to be a passing down three-technique, where his skills are better suited. The third-round pick that could have addressed this was instead spent on run-stuffer Harrison Phillips, whom they hope can replace soon-to-be 35-year-old Kyle Williams after this season.
https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/04/27/lamar-jackson-ravens-2018-nfl-draft-bradley-chubb-martavis-bryant-leighton-vander-eschGenerally the Panthers think that having a talented defensive front seven can make mid- and late-round defensive backs play better. But this year, most of the front-seven players in Carolina are under contract through 2020 or beyond, while every defensive back—save for slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn—is due to hit free agency before then. So, restituted GM Marty Hurney went defensive back with his second and third picks, taking speedy, boom-or-bust corner Donte Jackson and multifaceted safety/slot man/corner Rashaan Gaulden.
Before that, however, Hurney addressed Carolina’s putrid wide receiver situation. With all wideouts still on the board, he took D.J. Moore, who some see as a potentially more polished DeAndre Hopkins. Moore’s success playing with Cam Newton could come down to his ball adjustment skills. Fourth-round tight end Ian Thomas is also an important selection. The Panthers, with their multi-actioned rushing attack and play-action game, are at their best in two-tight end packages, but they entered the draft without a quality contributor behind Greg Olsen.
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s two-deep zone scheme is predicated on nuanced disguises and blurry looks, and the safeties are crucial to that, but coaches will tell you that having quality stack linebackers makes all the difference. Remember, Fangio’s most successful season was 2012 in San Francisco, when he had Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
At No. 8, the Bears had their choice of any inside linebacker, and they took who many deemed the safest and most electrifying one in Roquan Smith. Smith doesn’t have the ideal size, which will be an issue from time to time, especially given how playing with two safeties back deep lightens the defensive box. But with D-line monsters like Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman (and maybe fifth-round rookie Bilal Nichols, who is known for his anchor strength), Smith should be clean from blockers much of the time. Pace also fortified the depth around Smith by taking Joel Iyiegbuniwe in Round 4.
In Round 2, Pace found his missing guard in James Daniels, who many projected to go first-round. Like incumbent interior lineman Cody Whitehair, Daniels can play anywhere between the offensive tackles. Twelve picks later, Pace rounded out Chicago’s revamped receiving corps with Anthony Miller, who joins newcomers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. Now the Bears have something they didn’t have for much of last season: decent wide receivers. Mitchell Trubisky’s success will come as a timing-and-rhythm player (think, a better version of Kirk Cousins). Putting talent around him is imperative.
For the Bengals, drafting an interior offensive lineman was like having terrible vision and then getting glasses—the need was so obvious, it was just a matter of what style they preferred. Billy Price will almost certainly start as a rookie, likely ahead of center T.J. Johnson. Cincinnati could still use a right guard … too bad there wasn’t another Billy Price available in Rounds 2 or 3. The O-line must start generating at least SOME movement in the running game, and QB Andy Dalton is dependent on having a clean platform from which to throw because of inconsistent pocket mobility.
The Bengals restocked defensive depth in the middle rounds, drafting safety Jessie Bates, end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Malik Jefferson. That replenished depth is extra critical this year because every noted front-seven contributor’s contract, save for Vontaze Burfict’s, Jordan Willis’s and Carl Lawson’s, expires after 2018. Bates will replace Shawn Williams, who is better suited as a movable safety in sub-packages, but that transition may take a year to unfold, given that new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s two-deep scheme places a lot of mental burden on safeties.
Baker Mayfield’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s give the Browns the benefit of the doubt since they surely researched this year’s QBs more than any of us (and perhaps all of us combined). But let’s also acknowledge that this a roll of the dice. A 6′ 0″ QB must play differently in the NFL. Mayfield dazzled with his sandlot plays at Oklahoma, but his best work actually came when he threw on schedule and within rhythm. If he’s to pan out, it’ll be via the Drew Brees path, not the Russell Wilson path.
A Drew Brees-type quarterback needs a firm pocket. The Browns already had an outstanding guard tandem in Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler, and they didn’t want to gamble with intriguing-but-still-inconsistent third-year man Shon Coleman in Joe Thomas’s old left tackle spot. So, they spent a second-rounder on guard Austin Corbett, who will slide outside. That pick makes sense. The one made two spots later does not. Why draft Nick Chubb after you signed a terrific base runner like Carlos Hyde and still have a versatile scatback like Duke Johnson?
At No. 4, taking Denzel Ward over Bradley Chubb was GM John Dorsey’s way of saying a pass rush can be manufactured through scheme, as long as you have corners who can cover one-on-one. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has taken this approach for decades. The Browns still needed more pieces around last year’s No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, though, which is why the team spent their lone third-rounder on Chad Thomas.
Dallas’s biggest need was wide receiver—even before Dez Bryant’s release—but even with every WR still on the board, the team drafted Leighton Vander Esch with the No. 19 pick. He doesn’t fill an immediate need, as today’s nickel-package-driven NFL demands you have only two quality linebackers, so the Cowboys must really love him. Jaylon Smith wasn’t quite as dynamic last season as hoped, but if there’s still optimism for him in 2018 and beyond (and there should be), it reasons that Vander Esch is here to supplant Sean Lee. Though still elite, Lee is nearly 32 and has a long history of injuries.
The day after Vander Esch arrived, future Hall-of-Famer Jason Witten retired, leaving a hole at tight end. The Cowboys may have been geared up to draft Dallas Goedert at Round 2, pick 17, but they got leapfrogged by division rival Philadelphia. Ouch. The “consolation prize” was tackle Connor Williams, a late-first or early-second-round prospect who may have been their target anyway. Instead of fixing weaknesses, the Cowboys will augment a super strength into a super, SUPER strength, adding Williams to what was already by far the NFL’s best offensive line. This could eventually move La’el Collins back to left guard, where he has shown a lot more promise. That would make one pick upgrading two positions.
Third-rounder Michael Gallup has a chance to start right away, mostly due to the paucity of quality Cowboys receivers. Overall, this draft gave Dallas a lot of talent, but it did little to immediately improve a team that is ready to compete for an NFC East title right now.
• Skeet shooting and river rafting were all part of Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch’s upbringing. The NFL prospect introduces SI to the small Idaho mountain town where he was formed. You can now watch anytime, anywhere on SI TV.
John Elway understands what a perplexingly large number of fans and media do not: Denver’s Super Bowl window is still open. This defense is not much different than the one that brought home a Lombardy Trophy in 2015, especially now that Bradley Chubb is filling the void left by DeMarcus Ware. With Chubb joining Von Miller, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett, Denver has four dynamic, flexible pass rushers, whom you’ll see all on the field together in certain passing situations.
Offensively, receiving options were needed behind Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. Those should be found between Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Troy Fumagalli. Plus, getting a bruising runner like Royce Freeman amplifies what they have in starting running back Devontae Booker.
The only somewhat curious pick of the Broncos’ draft was cornerback Isaac Yiadom in the third round, given that Brendan Langley was drafted in this round a year ago.
Detroit’s ground game has ranked 26th or worst in yards per attempt each of the last four years—including ranking dead last in 2017—and GM Bob Quinn was determined to change that. Frank Ragnow, who boasts strength and aggression admired by many scouts, will start on Day 1, filling the hole created by Travis Swanson’s departure. Picking Ragnow and Kerryon Johnson reaffirms what e could surmise by the free-agent signing of LeGarrette Blount: the Lions want a bruising ground game. On the downside, the Lions didn’t find a pass-catching tight end to replace Eric Ebron—they simply didn’t have enough picks to address that need. The job now falls to ex-Seahawk Luke Willson, who is at least proficient going down the seams.
The rest of this draft served to start remaking Detroit’s defense in new head coach Matt Patricia’s image. Tracy Walker brings depth at safety, which is something Matt Patricia used smartly in New England. Da’Shawn Hand, whom the Lions traded up to get in Round 4, is a five-technique style defensive end, meaning he wins with strength and mechanics. Patricia’s Patriots always employed this type of D-lineman as opposed to the glitzier (and more expensive) edge-benders.
Green Bay Packers
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine always had an aggressive, disruptive pass rush when he was coordinating the Jets’ defense from 2009-12, even though that team had very mediocre edge rushers. Pettine generated pressure through scheme by putting extra defensive backs on the field and having them roam around, creating a blurry look. At the snap, some would rush and others would rotate into coverage. It was hard for blockers to identify which would come, and the beauty was those defensive backs always arrived quicker than a defensive lineman or linebacker would.
Head coach Mike McCarthy favors this unique brand of defense, which was also employed—to a lesser extent—by Pettine’s predecessor, Dom Capers. For this approach to work, you need corners who can win on an island. In Green Bay, Pettine inherited only one decent corner: last year’s second-rounder Kevin King, who has played just nine NFL games. So, the team drafted of twitchy Jaire Alexander in the first round and lanky Josh Jackson in the second. The Packers now have youthful talent at all three starting corner spots.
It was wise of Green Bay to use its third-round pick on an athletic linebacker like Oren Burks. He can replace the departed Joe Thomas in dime packages (something Pettine, with his fondness for DB blitzes, employs often). Having addressed the defense thoroughly for Pettine’s scheme, first-year GM Brian Gutekunst used picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds on wide receivers, hoping to bump into a quality No. 3 in the wake of Jordy Nelson’s release.
Coming into the draft, the Texans’ purest talent on the offensive line was third-year center Nick Martin, who is coming off a December ankle injury. Ex-Chiefs Jeff Allen and Zach Fulton, along with ex-Saints utility backup Senio Kelemete provide a more stable guard situation than past years, but none will ever be mistaken for Alan Faneca. But concerns about the interior O-line were nothing compared to at tackle. 2017 fourth-rounder Julien Davenport is a project at best, and ex-Bill Seantrel Henderson is what you fear your projects becoming.
With such an obvious need, it’d be easy to rip the Texans for not finding a blocker for Deshaun Watson until Martinas Rankin in Roud 3. But you can’t draft players when you don’t have picks, which was Houston’s consequence for trading up to get Watson last year.
With their first pick, which came 12 spots before Rankin, the Texans buttressed their defensive depth in a smart way by getting safety Justin Reid (Eric’s brother). There were already two quality safeties aboard with Tyrann Mathieu and Andre Hal, but more teams are playing with three safeties these days. Reid’s presence could lend more flexibility for how Mathieu is deployed. And if Mathieu, who signed a one-year deal, is not retained in 2019, the Texans will have an early jump on replenishing this position.
It’s hard to fault a team for drafting offensive linemen when its superstar quarterback is trying to get healthy. And yes, some will argue that guard Quenton Nelson is a generational type talent worth taking regardless of need. But instead of tapping Nelson at No. 6 and Braden Smith in the second round, the Colts could have aided their existing O-line (which is not great, but not the dumpster fire people think) by installing a quicker-strike passing game—something Andrew Luck will ultimately need to stay healthy. Luck’s ability to extend plays within the pocket is special, but that can no longer be his foundation.
We only say this because the defense entered the draft three or four players away from even being in dire straits. Its only true three-down players were safety Malik Hooker and corner Quincy Wilson—and both have played just half a rookie season in the NFL. Every other player, save for maybe edge men Jabaal Sheard and John Simon if we’re being generous, was a situational piece. And with most of the lineup built for Chuck Pagano’s scheme, not new coordinator Matt Eberflus’s, it’s hard to envision many situations where those guys would work.
Ultimately, Colts GM Chris Ballard found three defenders in the first two rounds, but let’s be honest—it needed to be four, at the very least. As it stands, the Colts must score over 30 points each week to even have a chance. But maybe this is all part of what would have been an ugly rebuilding process anyway. Ballard’s argument is this: nothing we do matters if we can’t protect Luck. By drafting new guards, we also move Jack Mewhort, which potentially upgrades three positions up front.
The Jags’ turn didn’t come until near the end of the first round this year, and like many teams that pick there, they entered the draft with few immediate needs. Congratulations to front office leaders Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell, because this is where every team aspires to be. Tight end and right side of the offensive line were soft needs, but nothing so pressing that Jacksonville had to pass on luxury picks. Taven Bryan is a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Todd Wash’s one-gap Cover 3 scheme, and with Marcell Dareus, Calais Campbell and (now, for probably just one more year) Malik Jackson ahead of him, he can learn the ropes from a comfortable ancillary role. D.J. Chark brings some potential playmaking to a receiving corps that overachieved with unheralded 2017 rookies Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Ronnie Harrison is here for special teams and depth, nothing more, as starting safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church are recently signed veterans in their primes.
Kansas City Chiefs
Think head coach Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach wanted defensive help? The plan appears to be for Breeland Speaks to play on the edge. Given that Tanoh Kpassagnon was drafted in the second round a year ago, you wonder how optimistic the Chiefs are about Justin Houston’s and especially Dee Ford’s long-term health. Derrick Nnadi is a big athletic interior lineman, which this team badly needed—Kansas City’s front seven has been befuddlingly poor against the run in recent years. One reason is because defensive coordinator Bob Sutton prefers to play a light 4-2 dime package with a safety (often Daniel Sorensen) as one of its two linebackers. Teams have overpowered that by running the ball out of three-receiver sets. O’Daniel, they hope, can bring back the swiftness that this front seven has been missing since Derrick Johnson got hurt and finally washed up.
One concern is that the Chiefs were unable to address their cornerback situation until the sixth round. Those who didn’t like Washington’s side of the Alex Smith trade couldn’t help but overrate third-year corner Kendall Fuller, who was shipped to Kansas City in that deal. Fuller was a No. 3 corner in a so-so secondary last year. He played behind the up-and-down Bashaud Breeland, who remains unsigned in free agency after failing a physical in Carolina. Yes, Fuller has upside, and he provides a solid answer in the slot, which surprisingly few NFL teams have. But he’s nowhere near the caliber of Marcus Peters, arguably the NFL’s best playmaking defensive back, who was traded to the Rams. And Kansas City’s cornerbacking depth overall remains in question.
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles had a hole at free safety with Tre Boston not re-signed, and Derwin James, whom some have compared to Sean Taylor, is a great way to fill it. The question is whether James will be strictly a centerfielder in Gus Bradley’s defense, or if he’ll take over some of the box-safety responsibilities that hard-hitting Jahleel Addae has quietly handled with ease. That answer may ultimately come down to what is best for the Chargers’ run defense, which needed repair. Last season their nickel run D struggled to the point that edge stars Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram had to take a more conservative pass-rushing approach, diminishing the defense’s greatest strength. GM Tom Telesco aimed to correct this with the second-round selection of linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and third-round pick of defensive tackle Justin Jones, who is here to replace an aging Brandon Mebane after this season. The only surprise in this draft came in the fourth round, when the Chargers went safety again, picking Kyzir White. With Addae and a lanky, overachieving backup like Adrian Phillips, that was not a position of need.
Los Angeles Rams
They entered the draft with major needs at defensive end and, because of Alec Ogletree’s trade to the Giants, linebacker. But short on picks after trading for Brandin Cooks and Marcus Peters this year, the Rams didn’t address those areas until they drafted defensive end John Franklin (who may not be a pure edge rusher anyway) late in the fourth round and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo in the fifth round. Normally, that’d be grounds for a reprimanding, but drafting offensive line with their first two picks makes sense for this reason: Three O-linemen—Rob Havenstein, Jamon Brown and Rodger Saffold—are in contract years, and the other two—Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan—are feeling their age. Personnel changes up front are looming in 2019, and all those fancy L.A. skill position players mean little without an O-line that allows the offense to function.
Is a defensive philosophical shift on the horizon? Coordinator Matt Burke is a Jim Schwartz protégé who believes in a four-man rush and simplified zone coverages that allow defenders to play fast. But you wouldn’t take venerated blitzers like safety/slot man Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first round and outside linebacker Jerome Baker in the third if you didn’t plan on deploying significant pressure packages. Burke has enjoyed coaching dynamic roving safety Reshad Jones, who is one of the league’s best backside blitzers. And Miami did very well with select pressure concepts late last year, including in the Monday night upset over New England. An expanded, more aggressive defensive approach appears imminent.
The Dolphins’ other top three picks in this draft made sense. Adam Gase’s scheme, which is built around unbalanced 3×1 formations, needs a prominent receiving tight end who can split wide by himself on the backside and make catches—and second-rounder Mike Gesicki is built for that. Eight picks after drafting Durham Smythe, a more traditional blocking tight end, the Dolphins used the pick they got in the Jay Ajayi trade on Kalen Ballage. Maybe he’ll be better than Ajayi, but nevertheless, he brings the long-term backfield depth that was needed.
Minnesota only had one immediate need entering this draft, and it wasn’t glaring: right guard, where Joe Berger’s retirement left a hole. Because right tackle Mike Remmers can slide inside permanently, the Vikings had the option of going tackle to fill this spot. Brian O’Neill played tackle in college, though many believe his athleticism and technique (which needs polishing), will apply better inside. O’Neill doesn’t have to play right away, and neither does first-round corner Mike Hughes—Mike Zimmer, a former secondary coach, has a history of developing talented corners from the bench. With Hughes here, the Vikings don’t have to sign Trae Waynes to an expensive long-term contract after he plays out the fifth year of his rookie deal in 2019. If the Vikings like what they see from Jalyn Holmes, they may hesitate on giving Danielle Hunter the deal he’s due to receive after this season. More likely, though, Holmes is here to replace Brian Robison, who is 35 and in the final year of his contract.
New England Patriots
Instead of using their considerable early-round draft capital to find the next Tom Brady (which, by the way, may never exist, and couldn’t be found in this imperfect class of rookie QBs), the Patriots decided to replenish the talent around the actual Tom Brady, who is coming off an MVP season, which many seemed to forget this offseason. Brady’s departure—whenever it comes—will force a drastic resetting of this franchise one way or another. Instead of investing valuable draft picks on guesses for how to minimize that discomfort, New England spend those picks on players who can help collect more Super Bowls right now.
With Isaiah Wynn, the situation at offensive tackle becomes less direr. And this selection was amplified by the Day 2 trade for gigantic 49ers right tackle Trent Brown, which could allow Wynn to slide to left guard, where his body type is better suited. That would give the Patriots an alternative to re-upping inconsistent pass protector Joe Thuney in 2020. Sony Michel, Wynn’s teammate at Georgia, offers dimension to the stable ground game that free-agent signee Jeremy Hill couldn’t be trusted to provide.
Cornerback Duke Dawson is a more traditional slot cover guy, ending the experiments of guys like Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe playing slightly out of position inside. Bill Belichick traded away the rest of New England’s second, third-and fourth-round picks—usually he gets overzealously lauded for this, but not here. The grade below has nothing to do with the trades and everything to do with a once-again Super Bowl ready franchise having the wisdom to build around its legendary MVP QB rather than taking guesses at how to one day replace him.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans’s grade gets boosted a notch for the same reason New England’s did: instead of drafting a replacement for a still-dominant legendary QB, the franchise drafted players who can immediately help their Super Bowl-ready team. If Marcus Davenport, who provides a much-needed edge-rushing threat opposite All-Pro Cameron Jordan, pans out, New Orleans’s long-awaited defensive surge from 2017 will stick for years to come. The only downside is Davenport cost this year’s AND next year’s first-round pick, which is a huge haul.
The rest of this draft provided depth, with third-round wideout Tre’Quan Smith presenting the option of letting wideout Brandon Coleman soon leave in free agency after this season. Smith, like Coleman (and like recently signed ex-Bear Cameron Meredith), is built for the seam balls and dig routes that define the Saints’ passing game.
New York Giants
Let’s make it three in a row and praise yet another team for eschewing the temptation of gambling on tomorrow’s quarterback and instead building a contender around the smart veteran it has today. GM Dave Gettleman told reporters during the draft that Eli Manning has shown no sign of physical decline—Manning is far from flawless, but he’s certainly still a franchise QB.
Saquon Barkley is the most intriguing running back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson in 2007, if not long before that. He and large, mobile guard Will Hernandez will give New York the ground game it has long been missing. Hernandez’s movement ability can make it a more diverse ground game than the simplistic inside zone one we saw under Ben McAdoo, too. And with Manning’s presnap IQ, the Giants can check in and out of the right run plays. Or, they can check into passes and different formations, since Barkley is dangerous as a receiver.
With his next two picks, Gettleman restocked the front seven. Lorenzo Carter and B.J. Hill will both rush the passer in new defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive, multifaceted scheme. The only downside to this draft is no slot corner was found. Using a fourth-round pick instead on Kyle Lauletta, particularly with last year’s third-rounder Davis Webb on the roster, was a little bizarre.
New York Jets
When the Jets traded up, it was obvious the team was aiming for a quarterback. Whether Sam Darnold was the guy the franchise wanted, we’ll never know. But we do know that New York landed the player who was widely regarded as the best QB in the draft. Now what type of offense does new coordinator Jeremy Bates build for Sam Darnold? Bates has West-Coast roots, so one might figure a zone running game, which means an emphasis on moving pockets and play-action—and that would fit Darnold’s strength as an on-the-move passer. We don’t know when Darnold will take over for his soon-to-be mentor Josh McCown. Darnold is only 20, and New York’s trade up to No. 3 cost several second-round picks, making it impossible to address their deprived skill positions. (It’s important that fourth-round tight end Christopher Herndon contribute SOMETHING as a rookie.) Issues remain, but the biggest has been resolved. You have to respect a team that makes a daring move and winds up with a desired quarterback.
It seems that after 10 years away from coaching, head coach Jon Gruden forgot that his football team has a defense. Well, at least Gruden remembered that other teams have defenses. It was the fear of those—and specifically those in the AFC West, where dominant pass rushers seem to grow on trees—that prompted Gruden to use his first-and third-round picks on offensive tackles. If you take one, you might as well take two, because in today’s NFL, the right tackle is just as important as your left. Case in point: the men that projected long-term right tackle Brandon Parker will be blocking twice a year are Von Miller, Joey Bosa and Justin Houston. And in training camp, Parker will see Khalil Mack. Parker might initially sit while Miller, who was position-flexible at UCLA, plays the right side, with Donald Penn working one more year on the left.
As for that defense that got ignored early on, its hole at cornerback was addressed in the fourth round (Nick Nelson), but the hole at stack linebacker wasn’t addressed until the sixth round (Azeem Victor). On the bright side, new coordinator Paul Guenther plays a lot of two-deep zone, which eases the coverage burden on corners and linebackers. And so does a quality pass rush, which the Raiders hope third-rounder Arden Key can provide. Playing with two deep safeties usually leaves your 3-technique DT aligned on the tight end side, where he becomes easier to double-team. You need a defensive tackle with burst and strength to combat this. In Cincinnati, Guenther had Geno Atkins. Here, he’ll have P.J. Hall.
With their first pick, the defending Super Bowl champions leapfrogged their division rival Cowboys to draft a tight end (Dallas Goedert) who can play alongside Zach Ertz. Head coach Doug Pederson understands that defenses hate an offense that can throw the ball out of two tight end sets, and that’s especially true when that offense has a running game as expansive and effective as Philly’s. With Ertz and Goedert on the field together, No. 3 linebackers will now be forced into coverage. Carson Wentz is licking his chops.
After that, it was just about building depth and taking the best players available—a perfect scenario for any team, and an unthinkably perfect one for a defending champion. The Eagles didn’t address their inside linebacker situation after their predraft behavior suggested they would. But even if the injury-prone Jordan Hicks doesn’t bounce back from last year’s torn Achilles, riding one more year with Mychal Kendricks alongside the recently re-signed Nigel Bradham isn’t the worst thing.
No team’s top need was more obvious than Pittsburgh’s at inside linebacker. Ryan Shazier, who provided the most goosebump-inducing moment of this draft by walking out on stage to announce the No. 28 pick, was their most dynamic defensive player. Plus, this team’s storied 3-4 scheme puts a lot of stress on his position. Teams feasted on Pittsburgh’s backup linebackers down the stretch last year, particularly the Jaguars as they put up 45 points in the divisional round of the playoffs. The problem is, the Steelers don’t believe in trading up (though maybe they should; the last time they did in the first round was for Troy Polamalu). When it was their turn to pick, the top four stack ‘backers were off the board.
So, the Steelers did the next best thing by drafting a hybrid safety. Some teams reportedly had a fifth-round grade on Terrell Edmunds. But “some teams” does not mean ALL teams (the Steelers, for example, obviously had a much higher grade on Edmunds), and saying a team could have drafted a player lower than they did is an assumptive statement based on a butterfly effect. Fruitless.
So let’s examine Edmunds as a concept: he gives you three safeties, which more teams are playing with these days (including the Steelers a few years ago, when they were thin at linebacker). Three safeties gives you coverage flexibility, disguise and more speed. And, in some respects, Shazier, known for being fast, not stout, was like a hybrid box safety anyway.
Pittsburgh’s next few picks aimed at providing offensive depth. James Washington made sense, as this offense has always sought vertical speed from its backup receivers. Chukwuma Okorafor also made sense, as the Steelers over the last two years have learned the value of offensive tackle depth in employing six O-line sets and playing without Marcus Gilbert. Picking Mason Rudolph in between those men was a head-scratcher. Landry Jones was on the roster for one more year, with last year’s fourth-rounder, Josh Dobbs, behind him. If GM Kevin Colbert really thought Rudolph can one day follow Ben Roethlisberger, he would have picked him much earlier.
San Francisco 49ers
The Mike McGlinchey selection made more sense after Trent Brown was traded. McGlinchey will play right tackle for probably the next two years while Joe Staley, who is still going strong, plays out his recently extended contract on the left side. Some may have been surprised by the selection of Dante Pettis, but entering this draft, San Francisco’s biggest need was simply “skill position.” Yes, if you had to break that down into parts, tight end was probably neediest, followed by running back and THEN wide receiver. But the differences in these needs were small, and a receiving corps of just Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, while well-balanced stylistically, is pretty average overall.
Fred Warner might be a hedging against the uncertain Reuben Foster situation. Warner, because of his value in coverage (where many of a linebacker’s responsibilities lie these days), could be seen as a possible upgrade over ex-Seahawk Malcolm Smith. But Smith was signed just last year; cutting him in 2019 would bring more than $4 million of dead money against the cap. The five picks after Warner all aim at fortifying the depth of this quietly ascending defense.
Drafting a running back is an odd way to kick off your massive rebuilding project on defense, but let’s remember: the better the ground game, the more effective an offense will be with a QB like Russell Wilson. Wilson’s best years may have come recently, but this offense’s best years came when the system went through Marshawn Lynch. Since so many of Seattle’s recent early round selections have been offensive linemen, finding a ballcarrier was the surest way to buttress the rushing attack. The people who like Rashaad Penny really like him.
The Seahawks stayed on offense with their fourth-round pick, as well, filling their enormous tight end void (or, more likely, just part of it) with Will Dissly. Every other notable selection, save for Tre Flowers (the punter, not the Patriots D-lineman) was on defense, though now we’re talking about a bunch of mid-round picks. What’s shocking is that not one of those mid-round picks was a cornerback, the team’s greatest need entering this draft, even though the Seahawks have had success with those selections in past years.
And Shaquem Griffin: What a tremendous feel-good story. But feel-good stories don’t impact winning or losing in the NFL, and Griffin is too respectable of a player for his selection to not be analyzed by the same standards as everyone else. This in mind, the Seahawks are not drafting a fifth-rounder with the intent of him replacing a star like K.J. Wright (who is in a contract year), or even with the intent of playing him on a majority of downs. So the Griffin choice appears to be about finding long-term depth. Though given that three-fourths of Seattle’s defensive contributors are nearing the ends of their contracts, a long-term depth guy might have to be a short-term starter come 2019.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s a little odd to sign career backup Beau Allen to a three-year, $15 million free-agent contract if the team didn’t think he’d become a starter. Vita Vea’s arrival relegates Allen to a second-string role. And the Bucs can’t play the “we didn’t think Vea would still be on the board when we picked” card because they entered this draft with the No. 7 pick. Which means they knew when they signed Allen that they could get Vea if they wanted.
If Vea had been gone at No. 12, Tampa Bay almost certainly would have drafted a defensive back—safety was their biggest need, with corner not far behind. The second-round selections of M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis can be interpreted as a subtle message to up-and-down 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves, especially when you consider the Bucs also drafted a defensive back in the fourth round who has slot coverage potential (Jordan Whitehead). But nickel is the main defense in today’s NFL, and Tampa Bay realizes it can’t have too much depth here, especially with soon-to-be 35-year-old Brent Grimes entering perhaps his final year. If Hargreaves plays in 2018 like he did in the second half of his rookie season, he’ll be viewed unequivocally as a long-term starter.
Dropped in between these defensive picks were Ronald Jones, who fills Doug Martin’s multi-year void at running back, and Alex Cappa, an interior O-lineman. With Cappa now on the roster, it’s likely that the J.R. Sweezy experiment won’t last much longer—though some see the rookie as a tackle. If Tampa Bay does, this pick becomes that much more interesting given that 2015 second-round left tackle Donovan Smith is in a contract year.
It wasn’t a heavy draft for Tennessee, but the first two picks were, in the simplest form, what a draft is all about: finding players to fill holes. Rashaan Evans, an attacker who played in a multi-faceted scheme at Alabama, fills the one left by departed free agent Avery Williamson (Jets). A lot will be asked of him in Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees’s system—at least he’ll be operating alongside a steady veteran like Wesley Woodyard.
In the second round, Tennessee traded up to get late first-round projected edge rusher Harold Landry, who they don’t badly need right now but will after this season, given that Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are both in the final years of their contracts. 2016 second-rounder Kevin Dodd has not developed because he fits a classic 4-3, not a flexible 3-4 like Tennessee ran under Dick LeBeau and will run in a slightly different way under first-time head coach Mike Vrabel. Tennessee’s grade is bumped down one notch to account for having to trade for the needed edge rusher, but overall, this is a very good move.
Here’s an argument for why Washington’s front office will be telling the truth when it says Da’Ron Payne, and not Vita Vea (taken one spot earlier by the Buccaneers), was their top target all along: Payne can rush the passer. He has light feet and some oomph in his movement. A pass rush is critical when you play as much zone as Washington, and let’s also remember that Payne should help a run defense that ranked 29th in yards per attempt last year. Interestingly, Washington also drafted an Alabama interior pass rusher in the first round a year ago: Jonathan Allen.
In Round 2, Derrius Guice is an apparent risk. If it works out, he gives this backfield more talent than it’s had since Clinton Portis. Third-round pick Geron Christian is here to either become a guard (Washington’s most conspicuous area of need offensively) or to provide flexible depth off the bench like Tye Nsekhe has done so well. Nsekhe will have a chance to compete at guard this season and then likely get be paid big in free agency; consider Christian a down-payment on filling his void.