NFL Draft: Biggest takeaways from around the league

I’ll admit it. I love sports radio. I love doing it. I love listening to it. I think the connection you get with the audience in that medium is stronger than the one built talking into camera for a few minutes, or writing stories like this one.

So I thought for this week’s GamePlan, we’d try to town-square the hell out of the NFL draft, asking the people who run scouting departments what their biggest takeaways were from the three days in Vegas. And then, like a good host would, I’d bounce back off of it with some context, and provide my own takes on what it might mean for the league going forward.

Cool? Let’s go …


AFC GM: “Biggest thing for me is the continued trend of the league being more transactional—vets and on draft day. Makes the league more fun and also brings more creative solutions to build teams and solve problems. It’s a great thing for the sport.”

My take: I would agree, and it was probably most obvious during the flurry of movement in the middle of the first round. There were no draft-day trades through 10 picks, then the 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 18th picks, and 21st, 25th, 26th, 27th, 29th and 32nd picks were dealt, some for each other, others for lower picks or players. I think that was reflective of a few things.

One is just what you said, AFC GM—teams and individual executives are moving a little more nimbly on draft day. Two, I think there’s a divide in how draft picks are valued from one team to the next right now, and that gives teams looking to move down an opportunity to work with teams trying to move up, and vice versa. Three, the prices on quarterbacks affect everything, and as was the case earlier in the offseason, it’s no mistake that a big-ticket receiver went from a team with a more expensive QB to a team with a cheaper one on draft night.

NFC executive: “The fact that Philly and Tennessee were able to keep the A.J. Brown stuff quiet, and Philly was able to work out an extension with A.J. within the days/hours leading up to the draft, is another reason to tip your cap to how creative Philly is. We are starting to see the price of receivers climb. With that being said, teams who don’t want to pay will be more inclined to trade them before their deals are up, to get value. Which bubble bursts first? The housing market or receiver market!?”

My take: On the first point, I’d add that the NFL remains a relationship business (I believe most businesses are relationship businesses), and I don’t think that deal happens without a strong relationship between Titans GM Jon Robinson and Eagles GM Howie Roseman, and between Roseman and CAA agents Tory Dandy and Jimmy Sexton. And yeah, the Eagles get a ton of points for continuing to work in a forward-thinking way (which we detailed Monday).

And to me, the second point was on display all over the first two rounds of the draft. The Saints, Lions, Commanders and Titans used picks acquired in trades to draft receivers, and maybe more to the point, cost-controlled receivers. Which …

NFC executive: “The receiver market is bananas, as reflected in free agency. The draft is the only way to get a starting-level WR cheap now. … People are crazy to get them—look what the Lions and Packers gave up. And 10 years ago, you were lucky if a rookie receiver could get to 500 yards, few got even close to 1,000. Now, they’re good and cheap on those rookie deals. Seven receivers in the second round, 13 of the first 54 picks were receivers, almost a quarter of the picks.”

My take: NFC exec, you’re on it—and there’s the zig to the zagging of the Dolphins and Raiders, who forked over premium draft capital and high-end contracts to get proven, bonafide No. 1 receivers. The argument against paying a receiver what a left tackle or edge rusher or even a corner might make is the relative impact even the great ones have on a per-play basis.

I’m not here to argue over it; we’ve got a few months to do that. But very clearly, teams are willing to do what it takes to get good receivers on rookie deals, and, NFC exec, you’re right to point out the improving output of young receivers, as evidenced by the last three years, in 1,000-yard, rookie-year campaigns from Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, Justin Jefferson and Brown. Bottom line, these guys are more ready for the pros because of the college—and even high school—offenses they played in, and NFL coaches are catering to them.

And obviously the hope for the Falcons is they can get Drake London up to speed quickly, for the Jets and Saints that they can get Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave going, and so on.

If they can, well, then they could soon wind up having a $25 million value on their roster for a fraction of the cost. Which is a big reason why it was worth the price for New Orleans, Detroit and Washington to make moves up the board to get these guys.

AFC scouting director: “The overall media view and assessment of the QBs was way off; the QBs this year were not impressive. New England confused the hell out of me and everyone across the NFL. The UGA team was obviously loaded, even with a couple more guys on defense who would’ve went high this year if they were draft-eligible. Looks like the Jets did great, but will they get it done? Been a long time since they were a competitive team.”

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My take: A shot at the media! Now this is really like sports radio. And, AFC director, you’re right, to a degree. I do think most of us knew, and were willing to concede, that this was a really shaky quarterback class. That said, a lot of people still had four or five guys coming off the board in the first round. I wasn’t one of those, but I’ll fall on the sword here—I did have Kenny Pickett and Malik Willis drafted 19 and 20, respectively, in my mock, and thought the top five guys would be gone earlier than they were.

Instead, Pickett went 20th, and we were into the 70s before another quarterback came off the board. Did that surprise teams? Maybe, but I think there is a reason why it should have been more predictable. Over the last eight draft cycles, 25 quarterbacks have gone in the first round, five in the second round, and 13 in the third round. Why? Well, if you view one as a long-term starter, you take him in Round 1. If you don’t, you wouldn’t waste a 2 on him.

And you aren’t alone, AFC director, on that Patriots take, and your caution on the Jets optimism is probably smart too. We’ll get to Georgia in a bit.

NFC exec: “The traditional process of picking players and building through draft has shifted—it’s more of a win-now feel amongst teams with limited regard for future wage increases. New market of WR money and QB money has teams trading more future assets to try to take advantage of the now.”

My take: This is more of a big-picture offseason storyline than it is a draft-day one, no question—and it can be proven out in that eight teams came into the weekend without a first rounder, with seven such picks dealt for veteran players.

• The Broncos gave up the ninth pick in the Russell Wilson trade.
• The Seahawks gave up the 10th pick in the Jamal Adams trade.
• The Browns gave up the 13th pick in the Deshaun Watson trade.
• The Colts gave up the 16th pick in the Carson Wentz trade.
• The Raiders gave up the 23rd pick in the Davante Adams trade.
• The Dolphins gave up the 29th pick in the Tyreek Hill trade.
• The Rams gave up the 32nd pick in the Matthew Stafford trade.

Add to that the Eagles sending the Titans the 18th pick for Brown, and you’ve got seven players going for first rounders in this draft. For context, that’s the same number of first rounders that were dealt for veteran players over a seven-year period, from the start of 2011 through March of 2018.

So yup, lots of teams rolling the dice on vets, and this draft showed it, and if you’re gambling that way on an individual player, chances are you’re doing the same from a more global standpoint in how you’re building your team.

NFC exec: “I found it cool and interesting how Baltimore kept all six of their fourth-round picks, and the sheer volume of good players that were available when they picked. Now the trick is whether all six can make their team this year. … Also, with Georgia having 15 players drafted, including five in the first round, I wonder how fans would compare the 2001 University of Miami roster to the 2019 roster of Georgia.”

My take: Hadn’t looked at this, but sure enough, after Kyle Hamilton, Tyler Linderbaum, David Ojabo and Travis Jones (and I love Baltimore getting those guys where they did), there were six—yes, six!—fourth-rounders: Minnesota OT Daniel Faalele, Alabama CB Jalyn Armour-Davis, Iowa State TE Charlie Kolar, Penn State P Jordan Stout, Coastal Carolina TE Isaiah Likely and Houston CB Damarion Williams. And therein, lies the benefit of numbers.

There are a couple gambles/projections in there (Faalele, Likely, Armour-Davis). There’s a punter (Stout). There are safer plays (Kolar, Williams). There’s little bit of everything here, and having the volume in this spot facilitates that. So I like the composite of it.

Now, for the part of your take I really liked. Here’s a sampling of a couple position groups from that 2001 Miami Hurricane freight trade.

Tailback: Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore.

Tight end: Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow II.

Wide receiver: Andre Johnson, Roscoe Parrish.

Defensive line: Vince Wilson, William Joseph, Jerome McDougle.

Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams.

Corner: Phillip Buchanon, Mike Rumph, Antrel Rolle.

Safety: Ed Reed, Sean Taylor.

Now, some of those guys weren’t starters yet. But all told, that team had 17 first-round picks on the roster, with 15 that went over the three-year period to follow that season. So yes, Georgia’s stacked. And yes, they had five first-rounders this year, and have guys like DT Jalen Carter and CB Kelee Ringo likely to go that high in 2023. But that Miami bar is an awfully high one. I’m not sure any one college team ever had as much talent on its roster.

NFC exec: “Nobody reached for the QBs! And the Texans took a lot of good football players. Good haul for them.”

My take: So here’s another take on the quarterbacks, and I have my own when it comes to the lack of reaching. I think we’ve arrived at a tipping point when it comes to that in the league. There’s a simple question I think I’d ask myself if I was a general manager looking at quarterbacks: Will this guy ever be able to run off wins in a playoff setting against Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, etc.

The reality is, for the next 10 years, that’s what teams are up against. And I think the moves off good-not-great quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo and Baker Mayfield the last few years illustrates how that has raised the bar for everyone. So to me, if you’re drafting one, that’s the context under which you have to do it. And if you don’t think the guys available are capable of doing that? You might be better off stop-gapping with a vet until you can find one, because at least then you’re not tied down at the position.

As for the Texans, I’d agree, they got good players, and they got guys like Derek Stingley, Kenyon Green, Jalen Pitre and John Metchie in the range where each was a good value. Nick Caserio, in his first draft with a full complement of picks, had to really take a ground-up approach, taking guys that you’d think will make it long-term, regardless of position. I think he did that.

AFC exec: “Trends of QBs sliding, not many off-the-ball LBs drafted, runs on speed WR in 1st & 2nd rounds, Baltimore drafting well every year.”

We’ve covered the QBs and Raven storylines, AFC exec, so let’s dive into the two other trends you brought up.

The off-ball linebacker trend was one that I hadn’t looked at. I have now, and you had it—by their listed positions with their new teams, eight went in the first two rounds last week, but a deeper look shows that just three of those guys (Green Bay’s Quay Walker, Jacksonville’s Devin Lloyd and Atlanta’s Troy Andersen) were true linebackers (and not edge-playing hybrids). And Walker and Lloyd bring versatility to play on the edge.

Why? Two reasons. One, in today’s NFL, you generally are only playing two of these guys at a time, because of the proliferation of odd fronts on early downs, and nickel looks in passing situations. Two, when you get in those situations, more and more, teams are using bigger safeties at the linebacker spots, reducing the number of snaps off-ball ’backers play.

As for the premium on speed in the draft, that tracks, too. Three of five receivers taken in the first half of the first round ran 40s at the combine, and their times were 4.38 (Garrett Wilson), 4.39 (Chris Olave) and 4.43 (Jahan Dotson). Second rounders Tyquan Thornton (4.28), Christian Watson (4.36) and Skyy Moore (4.41) tore it up too. Jameson Williams, whose torn ACL kept him from running, is probably faster than all of them.

So is this more important than it used to be? I think so. I think Tyreek Hill’s impact on the Chiefs sent everyone looking for speed, and it’s a big reason why now, every year, we see a guy like Hollywood Brown or Jaylen Waddle near the top of the receiver class.

And to wrap up things up, an NFC exec was nice enough to give us his 11 notes coming out of last weekend (and for the whole offseason) …

1) WRs rapidly becoming a premium position in a passing league that thrives off of the 7-on-7 skills and NCAA training, leads to high-paid WRs vs. NFL draft replacements every three to four years—MIA/KC, LV/GB.

2) Emerging player empowerment escalating from recent movements: Deebo Samuel sees others move like Hill, Wilson, Stafford.

3) Coronavirus pandemic yielded older rookies in the 24-year-old range from the “extra” years awarded.

4) Huge trend of increased P5 (base salary) guarantees for college free agents, leads some players wanting to be undrafted because they choose their destination and create a higher total investment from the team than sixth- and seventh-round players.

5) QB scarcity in the NCAA this year.

6) Lowering the value of RBs in the NFL to Day 2 and 3.

7) Premium placed on line-of-scrimmage players (OL + DL + Rushers/Blitzers).

8) Big picture of trading selections for proven veterans vs. unproven draft selections in an environment where so many players do not receive the fifth-year option or same-team contract extensions.

9) Head coach hirings from the offensive side, and GM hirings with very few experienced second-opportunity guys.

10) The amount of remaining years on this CBA will make position players paid like baseball and basketball players in the year 2030.

11) High appreciation for corners, nickels (they’re now starters) and safeties with nickel flexibility.

Thanks to that NFC exec, and we’ll be back after this …


MORE FROM THIS WEEK

1) Rookie minicamps start this weekend, and you always hear that they can be a time of dread for scouts who work the whole year toward the draft—because they’ll hold their breath that the guy they stumped for isn’t the one who looks smaller or slower on an NFL field than anyone expected (sometimes, these guys can tell right away that someone won’t make it). And I can say it’s a dangerous time for reporters too, with the temptation there to take something you saw too far. I saw both sides of that when I was covering teams on beats. I remember seeing Patriots receiver Chad Jackson light the world on fire at his rookie minicamp, and he wound up being a massive bust. And I remember watching Danny Amendola make waves at Cowboys rookie minicamp as an undrafted free agent, and the guy’s still playing 15 years later.

2) Along those lines, an exec and I were talking a few weeks ago about the spot the Panthers were in at No. 6, with their quarterback need and a really shaky class at the position in front of them. And he said to me, “My fear would be you draft a guy at 6, and then put him out there in OTAs, and it’s obvious that [Sam] Darnold’s the more talented guy.” Which is why I think it’s worth mentioning that every quarterback drafted this year is going to a team that has a quarterback drafted higher than he was. Eight of nine will have a former first-round pick in the quarterback room with him, and the four that went in Rounds 1 to 3 are going to teams with ex-top 10 picks at the position. So, yes, there’s a good chance Pickett, Willis, Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral get to OTAs and find there’s a more gifted quarterback in front of them.

3) Re: A.J. Brown … Part of what the Eagles liked in him was his positional versatility, and that he reminded them of what they had in Alshon Jeffery on their Super Bowl team. In fact, as the Philly brass saw it, Brown looked like Jeffery when he was playing on the outside and Anquan Boldin when he lined up in the slot.

4) The Raiders didn’t pick until 90th overall, thanks to the Davante Adams trade, and as such their class is a fantastic illustration of how teams use selections further down the line—it’s hard at that point to expect a guy to step in from Day 1, so oftentimes players taken in that range are to address needs a year or two ahead of time. Vegas, as it stands now, has 37 free agents in 2023. Both the Raiders’ projected starters at guard are in that group, so it makes sense that Memphis G Dylan Parham was the pick at 90. Fourth-round RB Zamir White could help, similarly, if this is Josh Jacobs’s last year in Vegas. And the next two picks after that were defensive tackles, which also makes sense given Johnathan Hankins, Vernon Butler and Andrew Billings are up after 2022.

5) The Browns are still working on landing Eagles VP of football operations Catherine Raîche in an assistant GM type of role. And it makes all the sense in the world, for a lot of reasons, that she’d be the pick. She has a close relationship with Cleveland GM Andrew Berry, and her role in Philly was a lot like the one Kwesi Adofo-Mensah filled for the Browns before landing the Vikings GM job. This, for all intents and purposes, puts Raîche one step away from becoming the NFL’s first female GM.

6) One more note I have for you this week: Had the Jaguars taken Aidan Hutchinson with the first overall pick, I’m told that the Lions’ pick at 2 would have been Georgia edge Travon Walker. No word on whether or not the card would’ve gone in as quick as it did on Hutchinson, though.


ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH

NFL owners finalized plans, in the works for months, to bring rising coaches and scouts to their May meeting in Atlanta. The idea is to give those people a shot to get to know the owners in a non-interview, social type of setting, and I think it’s a massive step forward in the league’s diversity efforts.

The most common frustration I’ve heard from Black coaches in recent years has been the refrain that an owner was just “more comfortable” with another candidate. To many of them, there was never a great way to solve that—like there might be with other reasons why they missed on a job. And so I’ve talked with those guys about this very idea over the last few years, as a way that they could get owners more familiar with them.

It’ll happen a little over two weeks from now and, frankly, it’s about time. Good on the NFL for following through with it.

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