Throughout my life, one thing has remained constant: my love for the NFL draft. Ever since I was 10 years old, I have spent the weeks and months leading up to the Draft learning about the prospects and which players were good fits for which teams. I would count down the days until the draft and sit glued to the couch when the day finally came.
It is only fitting that my final article as Sports Editor is about the NFL draft. For many people, it is a long and boring event, but for me, it is an exciting sporting event. It is no hyperbole to say that franchises can be built and broken based on the decisions made on draft day.
Watching the draft unfold is a real-time display of strategy, drama and emotion. The draft and undrafted free agent process marks the unofficial end of the offseason, and at this point, teams for the most part know what their roster will look like at the start of training camp in July.
While there will certainly be more movement once the players hit the field, now is a good time to take an early look at which teams positioned themselves best for on-field success based on their performance in the draft last weekend in Philadelphia.
Some of the worst teams in the NFL last year did favorably in the draft this year: for instance, the San Francisco 49ers, the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 49ers walked away from the first round of the draft with two players who were considered top-10 talent: defensive end Solomon Thomas from Stanford University and linebacker Reuben Foster from the University of Alabama.
San Francisco desperately needed help on both sides of the ball, and Thomas and Foster could certainly help revitalize the defense. In Thomas, the 49ers pick up arguably the second best pass rusher in the draft, behind first overall pick Myles Garrett. Pass rush was one of the biggest needs for this team, and Thomas should be able to make an early impact. They were even able to add extra selections in a trade with the Chicago Bears.
Likewise, Foster is a top-10 talent but fell in the draft due to injury and character issues. He is a hard-hitting linebacker who can also drop back in coverage. Foster shined in the toughest conference in all of NCAA Football, the Southeastern Conference, and he should continue to do the same in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Cleveland was able to accumulate draft capital and make three solid first-round picks. With the first overall pick, the Browns wisely selected Myles Garrett instead of reaching for a quarterback. Countless teams have been burned in the draft by passing on top-talent in the early first round in order to pick a QB, but instead, the Browns chose to bolster their defense by selecting Garrett.
Later in the first round, Cleveland took one of the best athletes in all of college football from the University of Michigan: Jabrill Peppers. While Peppers does pose some concerns as he lacks a clear position to play at the next level, his athleticism and versatility should add a lot to the Browns’ defense.
The Browns’ third first-round pick, tight end David Njoku out of the University of Miami, is an athletic prospect with a lot of potential, and many scouts believe he has Pro Bowl potential. Miami has produced a number of productive tight ends in the past, and Njoku could develop into a lethal weapon for Cleveland in the next couple years.
The Browns were also able to address their need for a quarterback, selecting DeShone Kizer from the University of Notre Dame, who is still raw as a prospect but has flashed a lot of potential.
Jacksonville continued their strong offseason, adding Louisiana State University running back Leonard Fournette, who should be a dynamic piece in the Jaguars offense. To open running lanes for their new running back, the Jaguars selected Cam Robinson, an offensive tackle from Alabama, at the top of the second round. Robinson was also considered an early first-round talent, but still represents good value in the early second round.
On the other hand, some of the NFL’s greatest teams last year also did well in the draft, namely the New England Patriots and Houston Texans.
New England, the defending champions, used many of their draft picks to trade for established veteran talent such as Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy, Dwayne Allen and Mike Gillislee, all of whom are upgrades for a team that already won the Super Bowl and is returning most of their key players.
In the draft, they most notably picked up pass rusher Derek Rivers from Youngstown State in the third round, addressing one of the only remaining holes on their roster with a small-school prospect who was projected to go higher.
The Texans were bold in their strategy, using a future first-round pick to trade up with Cleveland to add quarterback Deshaun Watson from Clemson University. They were finally able to add clarity to their murky picture at QB by acquiring one of college football’s top talents.
They were also able to add a pair of quality prospects in Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham and University of Texas running back D’Onta Foreman in the second and third rounds, respectively.
After being forced to surrender a second-round pick in order to offload Brock Osweiler earlier in the offseason and missing out on signing former Cowboys QB Tony Romo, Houston will be relieved about how the draft turned out.
Ultimately, it will take time for us to figure out which teams actually did the best in the draft. As the great Tom Brady reminded all prospects this weekend, it matters not how you enter the League but what you do with the opportunity.
It is a League where late-round picks and undrafted free agents have gone on to shine, while top picks have failed. It will be exciting to see all these rookies hit the field in the fall.