Had you been living under a rock the last month you’d still somehow know the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round was deep with quarterbacks. The fact five quarterbacks were taken in Thursday’s first round shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but, as always, there were surprises throughout the draft’s first round, starting with the very first pick.
The Best: The Cleveland Browns got their franchise quarterback, probably
Many “experts,” including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., predicted Cleveland would take quarterback Sam Darnold, but Baker Mayfield is the next potential savior of the Browns franchise. I don’t know if Mayfield is a franchise quarterback. I’m no expert, but even the experts can’t predict who will go where and how good they will be in the NFL. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the 25th best player on his big board in 2001 and promised in 2010 to retire if Jimmy Clausen wasn’t a successful NFL quarterback.
The Cleveland Browns struggling to draft the right quarterback since Vinny Testaverde went 16-15 over the 1994 and 1995 seasons shouldn’t be such a surprise. All teams miss more than they hit when it comes to drafting players at any position let alone the most important position. The Browns missed on quarterback Tim Couch with the first overall pick in 1999, but they did worse in the following draft, selecting pass rusher Courtney Brown with the first overall pick. He finished his career with 19 sacks.
The Browns managed to miss in this draft, too, albeit not as badly as they did 1999 or 2000. Baker Mayfield will be better than Tim Couch. I’m almost sure of that, but they might have passed on the best player on the board to fill an immediate need, which is almost always a mistake.
The Worst: The Cleveland Browns passed on the best player available
The Browns wasted little time in surprising everyone, as they seem to do annually, selecting Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick. Cornerback was an immediate need for Cleveland, but they could have traded down to draft Ward if they weren’t interested in the draft’s best pass rusher, Bradley Chubb. The next cornerback selected was Louisville’s Jaire Alexander at 18th overall by Green Bay, who moved up to get him.
The Browns probably had Ward atop their board and liked him enough to not risk losing him to the Broncos, who actually have a need at corner with Aqib Talib being traded to the Los Angeles Rams. But the Browns’ immediate needs, or any team’s immediate needs for that matter, shouldn’t influence how players are ranked, with quarterbacks being the obvious exception.
KFAN Radio’s Paul Allen made a valid point immediately after Cleveland’s selection of Ward had the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium gasping in shock during the annual Draft Party, Thursday night. Allen said Chubb could have addressed the Browns’ defensive secondary issues by forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the football faster, in turn, requiring less of defensive backs, who wouldn’t have to lock down receivers in coverage for as long. He’s right, but again, no franchise in all of sports is under more pressure to win than the Cleveland Browns, and new general manager John Dorsey has just four years (or less) to build the Browns into a winner. He’s plugged the two biggest holes thus far. The last quarterback to win a game for the Browns on a Sunday was Johnny Manziel, and Cleveland allowed a league-worst 68.6 completion percentage last season.
Ward will have an immediate impact for the Browns, but will forever be compared to Chubb. He can mitigate the frequency and relevance of those comparisons by helping the Browns win games. And with the additions of wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back Carlos Hyde, the Browns are going to win four or five games this season.
The Best: The Denver Broncos got an unexpected gift from the Browns
The Broncos didn’t have an immediate need for a pass rusher with the league’s second-best pass rusher according to Pro Football Focus in Vonn Miller. But John Elway did as every general manager should do when given a gift: accept it graciously and unwrap it hastily.
After the draft, Elway said “none” of their mock drafts had Chubb falling to fifth overall, so Elway ought to be elated. His team got a better player than expected, albeit at a position of depth, but Denver’s defense won’t require a cornerback of Ward’s caliber anymore. The average amount of time opposing quarterbacks will have to find an open receiver will be considerably less than it was against last year’s defense with Chubb and Miller rushing the passer, requiring less of the secondary in coverage downfield.
The Worst of the Worst: The Bills gave up way too much for a project quarterback
The Buffalo Bills give up way too much to move up and draft who “experts” saw as the least-prepared quarterback with the highest upside and biggest bust potential. And I’m not just talking about the twelfth overall pick and two second-round picks -- numbers 53 and 56 -- Buffalo sent to Tampa Bay to move up five spots and select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen eighth overall. The trade was lopsided in Tampa’s favor, but the Bills’ buffoonery leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round is even more disturbing.
Seth Walder with ESPN Analytics reports that according to ESPN's draft pick calculator, the picks Tampa Bay received from the Bills carry an expected Approximate Value (AV) of 12.2, while the picks the Bills received were only worth 7.3 AV. He does add that the calculation is made independent of players’ positions, and since quarterbacks have a higher upside than other positions, “it is probably more justifiable to trade up in this situation if the target is a QB.”
The lopsidedness of the Bills/Bucs trade pales in comparison to, say, the San Diego Chargers trading two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and two players, one of whom was Eric Metcalf, to move up one spot in the 1998 draft. Everyone remembers the storyline the sports media used to sell that year’s draft as dramatic television -- and it was indeed dramatic. Would it be Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf going first overall?
The “experts” said both quarterbacks would be successful in the NFL. President of the Indianapolis Colts at the time, Bill Polian, still sweats when asked about that draft. Had he picked Leaf, he wouldn’t likely have a job as an ESPN analyst and would be remembered for building teams that failed to win the big one. His Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls, and his Carolina Panthers -- in just their second season, however -- lost the 1996 NFC Championship Game. Manning is why Polian remains employed and relevant, and why I had no idea who Bobby Beathard was until just now.
Beathard was the Chargers’ general manager at the time. Unlike Polian, though, Beathard had already constructed a championship team in Washington, where he won two of his four Super Bowls. Despite giving the Arizona Cardinals so much to move up one spot in the draft, Beathard’s sterling reputation must have mitigated criticism from San Diego sports columnists and NFL analysts because I struggled to find any criticism of the trade after Beathard made it. There had to be someone out there who knew the Chargers had given the Cardinals too much even if the “experts” were right about both Manning and Leaf, but I couldn’t find them on the Internet. Nothing short of a Hall of Fame career and a San Diego Super Bowl win would justify trading five players who would all end up logging at least some time in the NFL to move up a single spot in the draft.
But the Chargers and their fans were desperate for a franchise quarterback they knew they wouldn’t get with their third overall pick. The experts were right about that. There weren’t any Tom Bradys hidden in the 1998 NFL Draft. Matt Hasselbeck was the third-best quarterback drafted and was the second-to-last quarterback selected, going to Green Bay as the 187th overall pick in the second-to-last round.
The one Sports Illustrated column I did find that was critical of Beathard was because prior to the 1998 season, he traded San Diego’s “only proven receiver, Tony Martin, to the Falcons for a second-round draft choice in 1999.” SI’s Michael Silver wasn’t concerned with the two first-round picks, second-round pick, and two players Beathard traded to draft Leaf, nor was he concerned with the Chargers being unable to surround Leaf with help because of all the draft picks Beathard traded away. He wasn’t concerned with Leaf’s athletic ability or even his mental state while transitioning from a small town life and a quaint college in Pullman, Wash. to the life of a millionaire, NFL star quarterback in sunny and seductive Southern California at the age of 22. Silver was concerned that the Chargers’ new franchise quarterback wouldn’t have any open receivers to whom he could throw the football. Silver, like everyone else, was assuming Manning and Leaf were equals because that’s what the “experts” kept saying. The Bills are guilty of applying this same groupthink to the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round.
The Bills believed the first round of this draft would be deep with franchise quarterbacks or they wouldn’t have traded the quarterback who led them to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Before the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft even started, the Bills had blown it like Beathard did. They subscribed to the “expert” opinion that the 2018 NFL Draft would be a quarterback draft. They adopted that doctrine, and proved their devotion to that dogma by trading the aforementioned Tyrod Taylor, who only threw for nearly 2,800 yards, ran for another 427 yards, including four rushing touchdowns, and finished with 14 passing touchdowns to just four interceptions. All the Bills managed to get for the leader of their playoff team was the 65th pick in this year’s draft -- which they also traded.
The Bills enter the 2018 season with former Cincinnati backup quarterback AJ McCarron expected to start. He’s signed for two years, which gives Allen the time he needs to hone his skills. But is a backup quarterback getting his first opportunity to be the regular starter the best mentor for a project quarterback like Allen? Who knows? Certainly not the “experts.”
All I know is if I were a Bills fan I’d be livid. Buffalo should be building on its 2017 success by using this draft to give Taylor the weapons he needs to make the Bills a contender. He finally got the pass protection that the Bills lacked during Taylor’s early years. The offensive line improved from 11th in 2016 to seventh in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
Taylor might have gotten out of Buffalo just in time, though. Four Bills’ offensive linemen will be free agents at the end of this season, according to Sportrac. So not only did Buffalo jettison a quarterback they painstakingly groomed into a capable, playoff-caliber quarterback for a third-round draft pick, but they drafted an even younger, more inexperienced quarterback who, like Taylor in his early years, won’t have the luxury of pass protection. But Allen doesn’t have Taylor’s running ability to avoid hits and extend plays, either.
The Bills were the absolute worst before and during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They’ve consciously decided to go from their first playoff berth in almost 20 years to grooming a quarterback prospect mentored by a man getting his first opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league. Sorry, Bills fans. It’s going to be a few more years of pain and suffering with nothing but hope to stave off disappointment.
The Best: The Arizona Cardinals got the quarterback they need
The Cardinals have a good quarterback in Sam Bradford. He’s accurate, has a great arm and will pick defenses apart when given time in the pocket. But he might be the slowest starting quarterback in the game, which doesn’t bode well for him or the Cardinals given his injury history. Bradford will miss games, and Mike Glennon won’t inspire much of anything in his absence. Enter Josh Rosen.
Rosen is ready to start in the NFL and the “experts” say he’s the best pocket passer in the 2018 NFL Draft. He’ll have a great mentor in Bradford, who is almost strictly a pocket passer. Unless Bradford stays upright all season and plays to his potential, Rosen will start for the Cardinals at some point this season. He’s got the competitive mentality to thrive as an NFL starting quarterback, but some “experts” say his mouth will get him into trouble and might be why he wasn’t the first quarterback drafted. I wish all quarterbacks were as outspoken and confident as Rosen. He sounds like a human being instead of an NFL android. After the draft’s first round, he said, “There were nine mistakes made ahead of me, and I will make sure over the next decade or so that they know they made a mistake.” Randy Moss said something like that upon being drafted, and he followed through. I think Rosen will do the same.
Again, I’m no expert, but I only needed to see one highlight of Randy Moss against the University of Montana to know he was the best non-quarterback in the 1998 NFL Draft, which included the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy, Charles Woodson. Moss leaped over a Montana defender, which was against NCAA rules at the time but not called. I imagine the officials were too awestruck to remember the rule. The best part wasn’t how much clearance he had over the defender, but despite his momentum being slowed while floating through the air, he was at top speed in two steps, pulling away from everyone in pursuit. I’d never seen anything like him and knew he would be a star if he could stay out of trouble. I remember analysts predicting Moss would fall in the draft due to off-field concerns, of which I was aware. In fact, I hoped teams passed on him so he fell to my Vikings.
I was shocked 19 NFL teams passed on Moss. Cincinnati did so twice in favor of Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. General managers were afraid Moss wouldn’t be able to stay on the field let alone out of prison, which allowed the Minnesota Vikings to give me what remains to this day as my most joyous occasion associated with my Minnesota Vikings fandom. Stefon Diggs’s “Minnesota Miracle” catch to win the 2018 NFC Divisional Playoff Game over New Orleans didn’t even come close to matching the emotions that came over me the moment Randy Moss was drafted 21st overall on Apr. 18, 1998. I ran through my house screaming with joy as tears ran down my face. Sadly, it’s the happiest and proudest the Vikings have ever made me.
Moss didn’t wait long to make me and the Vikings look like geniuses. He just had the best rookie season ever by a wide receiver, catching deep bombs from 35-year-old Randall Cunningham, who set career highs in net yards per pass attempt, touchdown percentage and quarterback rating. In fact, it was the only season Cunningham recorded a quarterback rating over 100.
Moss is the best wide receiver of all time, according to the statistical gurus at FiveThirtyEight, because he made his quarterbacks better than any other receiver in history. Moss remains the sole Hall of Famer from the 1998 NFL Draft class. Manning will be eligible for induction in 2021. I didn’t see anyone in the 2018 NFL Draft who screamed Hall of Famer like Moss did in 1998, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there.
The Best of the Best: The Baltimore Ravens traded down for value, up for the best quarterback
Heisman Trophy winners were selected at the top and bottom of the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round, and if my franchise needed a quarterback, I would have selected the quarterback taken last in the first round over the first quarterback selected.
I would have traded down to draft Lamar Jackson after Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen came off the board. In fact, just before my franchise was on the clock with the 30th pick and Kirk Cousins entrenched at quarterback for the next three years, I publicly hoped Jackson would fall to the Vikings and they would select him. I think he’s a better version of Teddy Bridgewater, and I enjoy watching quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs.
NFL scouts and general managers don’t like their quarterbacks to be athletes, however. It’s too dangerous outside the pocket, which is probably why Jackson fell all the way to the bottom of the first round -- just like fellow Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did in 2014. Bridgewater entered his pro day considered by many as the top quarterback available in the draft, but his pro day was a disaster because he decided to do something he never had -- throw without wearing gloves.
While the decision cost Bridgewater in the draft, it worked out pretty well for the Vikings despite the career-threatening injury that resulted in the Vikings losing Bridgewater for almost two full seasons. Minnesota still got a competent starting quarterback who played at an All-Pro level and led his team to the playoffs in just his second NFL season. Despite the injury, Bridgewater ended up being a steal in more than one way.
With Bridgewater dropping on “experts” draft boards because of a hilariously small sample size of errant passes for which there was a reasonable explanation, the Vikings didn’t have to trade up for Bridgewater. They didn’t even have to use their first first-round pick. Instead, Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman waited for every other team to reach for a quarterback in another draft “experts” called deep with franchise quarterback potential.
Spielman let Jacksonville make the mistake of drafting Blake Bortles third overall. He let the Browns do their thing and trade up for Johnny Manziel at 22nd overall. But when Bridgewater was still on the board as Seattle was on the clock with the last pick in the first round, Spielman pounced, sending the Vikings’ 40th and 108th overall picks to the Seahawks to select Bridgewater, knowing that drafting Bridgewater in the first round instead of the second would allow the Vikings to retain Bridgewater on a rookie contract for five years instead of four.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome must have taken notes on Spielman’s moves in 2014, because he made almost the same exact draft day trade as Spielman for yet another Louisville quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round. Newsome was even more creative than Spielman was in the first round, though, culminating in Newsome’s best work in his final NFL Draft with Baltimore.
Instead of the Ravens using their first-round pick like the Vikings did selecting linebacker Anthony Barr ninth overall in 2014, Baltimore traded down twice. The Vikings had an immediate need at linebacker, however. The Ravens immediate needs entering the draft’s first round were wide receiver, quarterback and tight end. Four of the five quarterbacks “experts” considered to have franchise potential were already off the board, and the top wide receivers and tight ends weren’t expected to be drafted until around pick 20. So the Ravens didn’t necessarily need to make a selection with their 16th overall pick.
As if on cue, Buffalo came calling with another one of their generous trade proposals to move up and snag the 12th overall draft prospect according to “experts.” Baltimore got Buffalo’s 22nd and 65th overall picks for its 16th and 154th overall picks, turning its pick in the middle of the fifth round into a pick at the top of the third round, where an immediate contributor can still be drafted.
The Ravens weren’t done turning their willingness to wait into valuable draft picks. When they were on the clock at 22, there still hadn’t been a wide receiver drafted. So Newsome flipped that pick and their 215th overall pick in the sixth round for Tennessee’s 25th overall pick and the 125th pick in the fourth round. Newsome turned Baltimore’s late sixth-round pick into a selection in the heart of the fourth round -- just for the willingness to drop three spots in the draft.
Newsome and the Ravens were rewarded for their patience. By the time Baltimore finally made a selection, the top-ranked wide receiver, tight end and fifth-ranked quarterback were still available. D.J. Moore, the second-ranked wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, was selected by Carolina just before Baltimore’s pick at 25, so the Ravens took the top tight end in the draft, Hayden Hurst. Hurst can stretch the middle of the field for Flacco and the Ravens, whose current tight end is more of a blocking specialist than route runner or receiver. Hurst isn’t going to be a game changer, but he’ll have an immediate impact.
Hurst isn’t the Ravens’ pick that’s getting all the attention, but it should be. The value Newsome got in return for trading down to draft Hurst is shocking. For the willingness to wait and drop nine spots in the NFL Draft’s first round, the Ravens were rewarded a pick atop the third round and another in the fourth round, all while sacrificing draft picks that seldom provide value to NFL teams.
According to Kevin Meers of The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, the 65th overall pick the Ravens got from Buffalo is more than twice as valuable as the 154th overall pick they sent in return -- an increase in value of nearly 108 percent. The 125th pick Baltimore plucked from Tennessee is 1.8 times more valuable than the 215th pick they sent back to the Titans, or an 80-percent increase in value.
Newsome didn’t sacrifice much value by trading down, either. Baltimore’s 16th overall pick was only 1.17 times more valuable than the 25th overall pick -- a 15 percent sacrifice in value. So Newsome’s trades to move down the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round actually increased the overall value of the Ravens’ draft picks by 173 percent.
Newsome thought he was done flipping picks on Day 1 of the draft until the final selection of the first round put Philadelphia on the clock with Jackson still available. Like Spielman, Newsome knew drafting Jackson in the first round would allow the Ravens to retain Jackson on a rookie contract for five years instead of four. So he sent Baltimore’s 52nd and 125th overall picks to Philadelphia for the 32nd and 132nd overall picks.
Newsome might have gotten an even better deal trading up for Jackson than the Vikings got trading up for Bridgewater, and I think they got a better quarterback, too. But the real beauty in Newsome’s work during the 2018 NFL Draft’s first round is all the value he created for Baltimore in the draft’s middle rounds by trading down in the first round to where he expected the players he desired would start coming off the board.
The Vikings’ Spielman made similar moves in the middle rounds of last year’s draft, scoring a starting center in the third round, and another rookie contributor in the fourth round. That’s why I called him the funnest general manager to watch on draft day. So far, Newsome has the Ravens setup for similar success, with a pick in round two and two picks in both the third and fourth rounds. In his final NFL Draft, Newsome has employed his experience and patience to leave a lasting legacy and a competitive Ravens roster for his replacement.
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