I tend to applaud those who zig while everyone else zags. The draft is a lesson in supply vs. demand, with inevitable runs on certain positions and trends. And this one was no different.
After speaking to several evaluators this weekend, I kept coming back to four teams' drafts as among the most interesting, and, potentially, most impactful. I was fairly captivated by what the Panthers, Ravens, Patriots and Dolphins accomplished. Of course, we won't know which teams were truly most successful until years from now. I'm not here to hand out a bunch of grades. But there were some compelling things going on with four clubs, among others.
At a time when most of the NFL was consumed with a run on skill players on the offensive side of the ball, or on cornerbacks in certain stretches, these teams seemed to sense certain phenomenon and focus on the trenches – which is generally where games are won or lost and great teams are built. These teams sat out most of those runs, knowing it inevitably pushed quality players at other positions down the board. And they feasted.
Of course, some of this has to do with the needs of these four franchises – there is certainly luck involved – and what they most required addressing tended to be available at segments of the draft when they were picking.
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New England traded out of the back half of the first round – the blue chip players were gone, and the Pats didn't need to gamble on corners, a hot commodity in those parts – and though they have massive need at receiver, Bill Belichick knows he isn't rebuilding post-Tom Brady all in one year. As one executive put it to me,"Check out next year's draft, it's going to be very deep with receiving talent, too" – so Belichick took his highest rated players elsewhere.
When he finally did pick, he chose a Division II safety, who several teams had among the top handful of players available at that position, and while I don't know what Kyle Dugger is going to become, Belichick did start a run on safeties after that, which helped push down the second wave of edge players – with RBs and WRs also going in droves – prompting Belichick to move back up in the second round to take Michigan's Josh Uche. In all, Belichick took no receivers, while taking five linemen, two edge players and two tight ends in a draft that did not really feature those position groups.
The Ravens knew one of the top linebackers would still be there for them at 28, with that not being a coveted position, and although they have needs on the offensive side of the ball, they ended up using four of their first six picks on linemen/front seven players. Receiver and guard were significant needs, but Baltimore read the board perfectly, stayed out of the initial wave of 16 receivers among the first two rounds, traded back and still got a speedy pass catcher they targeted – Devin Duvernay of Texas.
They were willing to take a defensive lineman ahead of Duvernay in the second round – Justin Madubuike – whom sources said the Vikings were trying to trade back into the second round to get, and correctly read that Duvernay would be there for them 21 picks later. Well done.
The Panthers, with the glitzy offensive positions all the rage, devoted all seven of their selections to bolstering a defense that has fallen apart in recent years. They had the conviction to go that tact – not that it was their master plan, but it certainly made sense to do so. They started in the trenches, too, with Derrick Brown, and also picked up perhaps the best safety in the draft, jumping up on Friday for Jeremy Chinn, and in a pass-first league they reconfigured their secondary on the fly.
The Dolphins were always going to be a key storyline to this draft, after a year of Tanking for Tua or whatever you want to term their rebuild. They got the QB lower than many expected him to be available prior to his hip surgery, kept their draft capital, used six of their 10 picks on linemen/front seven pieces, and nabbed two players that evaluators I know very well and trust not to BS me had as among players they really liked in this draft – guard Robert Hunt and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis. I also had people reach out to me about another lineman they signed as an undrafted free agent – Benito Jones – "he is a potential starter," one told me – and they appear to have seriously bolstered their roster.
If you are going to use all 10 of your picks, I guess I don't even mind if one of them is a long snapper.
Could Pats wind up with ... Trevor Lawrence?
There are plenty of people who believe Belichick is willing to take his lumps in 2020, and if he ends up being atop the list of teams with a QB need as Trevor Lawrence enters the NFL, well, that wouldn't be too bad now, would it? Think of all of the teams who have made significant QB moves in the past 12-15 months, and how many are virtually locked in at that position now? Who knows what the future holds? Indianapolis and Pittsburgh stand out as possibly being ready to draft a QB as high as possible next season, but not that many others. Supply vs. demand. Belichick was an econ major, remember. In the meantime, sources said the Pats viewed Jarrett Stidham as no worse than the fourth best QB in the 2020 draft if he was eligible, and they were very impressed with his progress last year. I still do wonder about them signing Cam Newton on the cheap – even if it ends up being a rental and secures them a nice 2022 comp pick.
Jerry Jones listens to analytics team
Lot of chatter in the scouting community about the Cowboys' draft as well, for good reason. They may have landed the best receiver in the draft all the way down at 17, and while everyone has been going crazy about Amari Cooper's deal, the dirty little secret is that he could be tossed aside in 2021 pretty easily. The guarantees are far from iron clad, and the fact is his replacement was already picked less than two months after he re-signed in Dallas. The Cowboys have botched this thing with Dak Prescott, but their draft haul had to impress the QB, and it seems like Jerry Jones is listening to his strong analytics team, which the great Cynthia Frelund of NFL Network tells me is second only the Baltimore's in its resources and prowess (of which I had no idea). Love where Dallas was able to get Neville Gallimore as well.
Niners make impressive moves
It will be fascinating to watch the production of Brown, Javon Kinlaw and DeForest Buckner along defensive lines the next few years. The 49ers may end up being the big winners here, as some evaluators I am close with are adamant that Kinlaw will be the best of the bunch (his medicals were a concern for some). I didn't like the 49ers dealing away Buckner and then being so willing to deal the 13th overall selection they got for him – but landing Kinlaw at 14 and picking up a fourth-round pick in the process might be genius. Buckner at $20M a year wasn't going to fit in their expensive DL, but now Kinlaw can play that role and Kyle Shanahan – master of receiver evaluations – got the player he deemed to be the best pass catcher in the draft: Brandon Aiyuk. And they stole a top 10 left tackle from Washington (although kudos to the Skins for finally ending that fiasco with Trent Williams). Beastly stuff.
Steelers' lack of Winston interest baffling
The Steelers had zero interest in Jameis Winston, I'm told. Which baffles me. I know their cap situation ain't great, but they didn't even explore it, although Winston was more than open to going there. In the end, New Orleans is a great spot for him.