In case you haven't heard enough of this the last three months, to say nothing of this past weekend, I had a little reminder for you regarding the NFL Draft: Everyone takes the best player available almost all the time, the guy they coveted tends to just fall to them, and you can't truly judge winners and losers of any draft until years after.
That's just how it works. Or so they would have you believe.
The reality is, especially among the better teams in the league, and the dregs of the league (i.e. those without a capable quarterback), there is very much need involved with many of the top picks and calculated trades before and during the draft. And there seemed to be an obvious theme among better AFC teams in how they doubled down on certain areas, and approached this draft. An unspoken arms race of sorts in ongoing, in large part a reaction to how the Kansas City Chiefs season ended last year.
The Chiefs were going to do everything in their power – via trades, free agency and the draft – to reinforce their offensive line like never before. And the rest of the conference, particularly those franchise that might fancy themselves closest to unseating the Chiefs (the Bills, Ravens and Browns, who comprised the final four in the conference in January) are trying to load up to stop them. Not exactly rocket science, I know. But the fact that Baltimore and K.C. completed a major trade involving a Pro Bowl offensive lineman (at a time when they both needed major help there), and then the Bills doubled down on pass rushers with their top two picks, served further notice of how these Super Bowl contenders are trying to maximize their last great chance to harness talent en masse before the 2021 season begins.
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If the Ravens can get past the Chiefs, it will require making Patrick Mahomes sweat, and the edge players atop their depth chart prior to the draft (Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson and Pernell McPhee) have combined for 52 career sacks, with 37 of them coming from McPhee, 32, a rotational player at this point. So it came as absolutely no surprise they took who they deemed to be the best pass rusher possible (Odafe Oweh) with the 31st pick they received as part of the Orlando Brown trade with the Chiefs. They were always going to use at least one of their top two picks on an edge rusher, no matter how the board fell; they don't have the luxury to grab any player at any position with the way that roster is composed after sitting out any big money free agent signings yet again. The inherent bias of position need is baked into the board.
And the Chiefs, despite already signing guard Joe Thuney to a record-setting contract and giving up draft capital for Brown, with just two picks in the first 143 selections, still took an offensive lineman with one of those selections, center Creed Humphrey with the 63rd pick. They are clearly as serious as can be about protecting their franchise QB as he recovers from offseason surgery. Lack of draft picks made no difference, while Baltimore took offensive line with the 94th pick they got from K.C. (need-based to the core), and then traded down from the 136th overall pick from K.C. to eventually take defensive back Shaune Wade (you need all the corners and safeties to try to stop the Chiefs).
All the Bills did meantime, was load up on pass rush, knowing that veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are only going to bring so much at this stage, and everyone seeing how much Tampa's ability to harass Mahomes with just four rushers impacted the Super Bowl outcome. They grabbed Gregory Rousseau with the penultimate selection of the first round, someone who may be able to get push inside and out, and grabbed Carlos Basham at the end of the second round, a player some evaluators I trust believe will provide first-round value at the next level.
Baltimore preferred Oweh to Rousseau – something to watch over the coming years – and it will be fascinating to see how the picks Baltimore got for Brown progress, and how well Brown performs as a left tackle in a far less run-oriented offense in Kansas City.
As for the Browns, having assembled a potent offense, they attacked improving their defense even after making bolstering the secondary and pass rush a major theme of their free-agent process. Corner Gregory Newsome wasn't that high on some other team's boards I spoke to, but it's a fairly safe pick, while landing Notre Dame linebacker/safety/whatever Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, was seen as a steal among those I talked to. They added speedy receivers on day two and three – Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham aren't going to be there forever – and may have had one of the best drafts overall.
"I didn't want to believe the Browns were for real, but I really like their draft," one top AFC executive told me. "The corner wasn't that high for us, but it's hard to argue with what they've done and the kid from Notre Dame could be a star if you use him the right way. They have really smart people running things there now. They've had an impressive offseason."
I tend to agree. At this stage, with some veteran free agents like Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram and Alejandro Villanueva still out there, I see the Browns and Bills as the best constructed to truly test the Chiefs for AFC supremacy. I love what they have done and how they have gone about going it … But if Brown is as good as I believe he will be, next to Thuney and with Kyle Long at guard, I still don't think it will be enough to knock them off their perch barring major injuries.
The Chiefs have vastly upgraded both the quality and quantity of options along their offensive line, clearly had a limited amount of first-round grades on tackles (as did most of the league as there was no wave on them in the final eight of the opening round, and believed Brown to be far superior to whatever was available to them there. And now they have seven legit options to sort through the three starting linemen to the right of Brown and Thuney, which is bad news for the rest of the AFC.
Disregard any draft grades that rip them for lack of selections. They went all-in to repair their one glaring need, and ownership showed a willingness to dig far deeper in its pockets than many rivals (you know who you are) including almost landing Trent Williams, the highest-paid left tackle in the game. Those draft grades don't include the 24-year old tackle they just landed who has already gone to the Pro Bowl at two different positions already, and if you aren't giving Andy Reid an 'A' for the totality of his offseason transactions, you aren't paying very close attention.
But trust me, the GMs in the AFC are. None of this escapes them. And best of luck keeping chase.