Tuesday, May 2, 2017
2017 NFL Draft Winners and Losers
Over the next several paragraphs, I'll explain why I rated teams where I did. If you don't care about the methodology, by all means skip ahead.
I'm an NFL writer, and I don't follow college football closely enough to make insightful judgments about which players are and are not likely to succeed at the pro level. Instead, for each team, I'm looking at two fundamental goals:  Did the team get good value for its picks, and  Did those picks fill needs?
I'm looking for teams that addressed their needs without reaching for lesser talent, made profitable trades, and selected highly-rated players long after we thought they'd be off the board. Conversely, even if you got good players, taking someone who probably would have been available a round later — I don't see that as a good pick. Most drafts are close to average, so not every team is listed.
2017 Draft Winners
* New England Patriots — The rich get richer. I don't see any weaknesses on this team. They traded their first-round pick (32nd overall) for Brandin Cooks, with a little extra that I don't want to get into because it involves Deflategate. Cooks is just 23, and he's had back-to-back 1,100-yard receiving seasons, on a team that really spreads the ball around. If Cooks stays healthy in 2017, 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns wouldn't surprise me.
The Patriots used their second-round pick to trade for Panthers DE Kony Ealy, who has shown flashes of greatnesses and fills a need. They spent a pair of third-round selections on DE/LB Derek Rivers and OL Antonio Garcia, and traded one of their fourth-round picks for Colts TE Dwayne Allen. He's not Martellus Bennett, but he's easily worth a fourth-rounder.
Essentially, the Pats' draft added a star WR, a proven DE and tight end, plus rookie linemen who address needs. I would have liked to see a running back, but if I'm a Pats fan, I'm happy.
* Cleveland Browns — They drafted Myles Garrett first overall, and he seems like a can't-miss pick. Two more first-round picks netted defensive back Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku.
Smart trades also mean that in the 2018 draft next year, Cleveland owns all its own picks, plus an extra pick in the first round, two extra in the second round, plus additional picks in the fourth and sixth rounds (h/t Chase Stuart). If the Browns don't do any additional trading, that means from 2017-18 they'll make five first-round picks and four second-rounders, which is quite a haul.
Caleb Brantley is a huge question mark because of his off-field issues, but in the 6th round, he was a relatively low-risk selection with enormous upside.
* Defensive linemen — Beginning with Myles Garrett first overall, d-linemen represented six first-round selections, and 19 in the first two days.
* Defensive backs — Half the league — 16 of the 32 teams — drafted at least one cornerback in the first three rounds. The Cowboys and Eagles chose two CBs in the first three rounds. Including safeties, eight of the 32 first-round selections (25%), were defensive backs. Through the second round, it's 19 of 64 (30%). Even in nickel formations, DBs make up under 23% of the players on the field.
* Los Angeles Chargers — Still have a lot of needs, but they have significantly upgraded their offensive line this offseason, and Clemson WR Mike Williams (7th overall) provides a much-needed weapon. This draft doesn't turn the Chargers into contenders, but it should make Philip Rivers a lot happier. This puts the Chargers in position to draft their QB of the future next year, with some pieces already in place to help him succeed. Desmond King could be a great value in the fifth round.
* Alabama Crimson Tide — Four players selected in the first round, and seven in the first two, both the most of any team. LSU also had an impressive draft, with two picks in the top 10.
* San Francisco 49ers — Their picks were fine, I guess. Solomon Thomas looks like a difference-maker, and trading up for Reuben Foster made a ton of sense. C.J. Beathard, the Iowa quarterback they selected 104th overall, might have been a reach, but obviously the scouting department liked him; there were more highly-rated QBs still on the board.
I see the Niners' draft as a success mostly due to their first trade: they just robbed the Bears at the top of the draft. Dropping from the 2nd overall pick to 3rd, and still getting Thomas — the player they wanted anyway — eventually netted the 49ers: a seventh-round selection, the Saints' 2018 second-round pick, Chicago's 2018 third-round pick, and the move up for Foster. San Francisco traded up twice (for Foster and Beathard) and paid very reasonably to do so.
* Quarterbacks — Basically every QB got drafted higher than expected. The position is more essential than ever, but teams overpaid for quarterbacks in this draft.
* Indianapolis Colts — Solid draft, not flashy but sensible. Safety Malik Hooker could be a great value in the middle of the first round, and they followed him up with two more defenders in the second and third rounds: defensive back Quincy Wilson and pass rusher Tarell Basham. In the fourth round, they addressed their most glaring offensive need, with 353-lb USC tackle Zach Banner. There's still more work to do, and I'm not sure Basham was as pressing a need after some of their free agency acquisitions, but this should be a step in the right direction.
* Tight ends — Within the last decade, this was considered a marginal position. This year, three tight ends went in the first round, and another two in the second. Dynamic TEs are impact players, and their draft status shows that more teams are recognizing that.
* Buffalo Bills — Fired general manager Doug Whaley the day after the draft. That was almost certainly planned in advance, and it's not clear how much say Whaley had in the draft itself, but it's odd timing, especially following a weekend that could set the team up for success in the future.
The Bills traded down from 10th overall to 27th, in the process acquiring Kansas City's 2018 first-round pick, moving up from 44th to 37th in this year's draft, and adding the Rams' fifth-round pick, which they used to trade up from the third round to the second.
After all that, Buffalo has an extra first-rounder next year, and made three choices in the first two rounds last weekend. The Bills drafted LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, who will replace Stephon Gilmore, plus a wide receiver and offensive lineman. I wish they had drafted a linebacker earlier (they took a couple late, in the fifth and sixth rounds), but they made a smart trade to get extra picks, and traded up for players they wanted without overpaying. They're listed as a question mark because of the weirdness with Whaley, but I liked their draft.
* Washington — There were four positions they needed to address: offensive line, wide receiver, defensive line, and defensive backfield. They hit the jackpot with Alabama DE Jonathan Allen in Round 1, getting a top-10 talent 17th. Ryan Anderson was a surprise in the second round; this was the third time in the last four years that they've drafted a pass rusher in the top 50. Cornerback in the third round made sense, but Kirk Cousins' supporting cast took some hits this offseason, and I think he'll regress in 2018.
* Seattle Seahawks — Malik McDowell was a highly-rated prospect, and probably a good pick in the early second round, but they didn't address their most urgent need, offensive line, until 58th overall, and then not again until the 6th round. I would have liked to see the 'Hawks bolster their offense more aggressively: in the first five rounds, they drafted two offensive players and five defensive. In particular, I wish they had targeted an offensive tackle in the first three rounds. Luke Joeckel and Ethan Pocic aren't enough to upgrade their line to where it needs to be.
* Baltimore Ravens — They had four draft picks in the first two days (Rounds 1-3), and used all four on defense. I get that this team has a defensive legacy, but there were holes at RB and WR that cried out to be addressed. Defense is only half the game, and I'm not sure how the Ravens are going to score points. Fumble return TDs? They drafted a cornerback in Round 1, then addressed the front seven with their next three picks, adding two pass rushers and an interior lineman from Michigan. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh presumably has pretty good information about players from Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh is head coach, so the team has to feel pretty good about that pick. This draft sets the Ravens up for a lot of 13-10 type games.
* Cincinnati Bengals — Risky draft. First-round WR John Ross is an injury concern, and second-rounder Joe Mixon is a character concern. They didn't address the offseason departure of Andrew Whitworth, and I wish they had done more to rebuild the defensive line. They drafted a kicker, Jake Elliott, in the 5th round.
* Tampa Bay Buccaneers — In the first draft of this article, I listed them as Losers. Their defensive backfield got hit hard in free agency, and they got Justin Evans in the second round, but I would have liked to see more. I like that they picked up more weapons for Jameis Winston, but they didn't address their offensive or defensive lines, which I thought were greater needs. Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols was a nice value in the middle of the fifth round.
* Carolina Panthers — Four picks in the top three rounds, and all of them addressed a need. But they didn't do nearly enough to upgrade their secondary, and I have real reservations about Christian McCaffrey, which you can find in the Jaguars section below.
2017 Draft Losers
* Jacksonville Jaguars — I hate their first-round selection, 4th overall, of running back Leonard Fournette. This is a kid who refused to play in his team's bowl game because it didn't mean enough. The Jags haven't played a meaningful game after Week 6 since, like, 2010. Is Fournette going to play all season, even though he might get hurt? Now that he's been paid, is he going to play hard, fighting for yardage, or is he going to play it safe and think about his next contract? Is he going to block hard on blitz pickups, or look out for number one? I wouldn't want him on my team.
Fournette worries me even more than Christian McCaffrey. He's listed at 6-feet, 240 pounds, which is awfully big for a featured ball-carrier, and in the NFL he's not going to run away from defenders the way he could in college. He also might come out of the game in passing situations, and the fourth pick overall is a really high price for a two-down back. The Jaguars are going to finish last in the AFC South.
* Trading up for a quarterback — The Bears traded their first-round pick, 3rd overall, plus early third- and fourth-round picks, plus their third-round pick next year, to move up one spot and take Mitchell Trubisky. But giving away two third-round picks and a fourth-round pick to move up one spot wasn't the worst QB-related trade of the first round.
That dishonor belongs to the Chiefs, who inexplicably gave up first- and third-round selections to move up from 27th to 10th and take Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes. The Texans, meanwhile, gave up this year's 25th pick and next year's first-round choice to grab Deshaun Watson 12th overall.
I'm not saying all those QBs will flop — it would be surprising if at least one of them doesn't become a good player — but the price tags didn't make sense: those weren't smart trades. If those passers don't become stars, their teams have mortgaged the future and set back the franchise.
* Chicago Bears — Traded away a fortune to move up one spot, and they're paying Mike Glennon pretty well to be a backup. This team has so many needs, it's impossible to justify that trade. You sit tight at three and possibly get Trubisky anyway; otherwise you play Glennon and draft someone like Solomon Thomas or Corey Davis. I would have loved to see them trade down a couple spots and take a cornerback like Marshon Lattimore or Marlon Humphrey. Maybe they got good players, but from a strategic standpoint, I think they had a terrible draft.
* Kansas City Chiefs — Coming off a 12-4 season, they drafted for the future rather than the present. Mahomes isn't going to start in 2017; he's a little bit of a project and the Chiefs still have Alex Smith. Second-round DL Tanoh Kpassagnon has natural gifts but might not immediately be ready to play regularly in the NFL. I don't understand using the draft to build a team for 2019 when you could be a Super Bowl contender in 2017.
Coming into the draft, Kansas City's plodding offense had a clear need for explosive playmakers. Coming out of the draft, it still does.
* Houston Texans — I know they needed a quarterback. Was Deshaun Watson worth this year's first-round pick and next year's? The Texans are contenders in 2017, and it normally takes even the best QBs a couple years to adjust to the pros. I would have rather seen the Texans address their offensive line, or some of their free agency departures on defense, and they didn't get to either one until the fourth round, where you seldom find impact players.
* Offensive linemen — Last year, seven offensive linemen were drafted in the first round, including two in the top 10. In 2015, six in the first round and two in the top 10. In 2013, three of the first four players selected were offensive linemen, and that trend continued to include five of the top 10 and eight of the top 20.
This year, the first lineman drafted was Garett Bolles, 20th overall. The last time no offensive linemen went in the top 10 was 2005; the last time none went before 20th was 1952. Vince Lombardi was still coaching college — as an assistant — Bill Belichick hadn't been born yet, and the New York Yanks used the 2nd overall pick on Cal guard Les Richter, an eventual eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker and kicker.
* Arizona Cardinals — In case you skipped the explanation at the top, I'm not trying to guess which players will or won't make a successful transition from college to the NFL. Instead, I'm evaluating whether teams used their picks effectively from the standpoint of  addressing needs and  getting good value: making smart trades and avoiding reaches.
From that perspective, I don't like Arizona's draft. The Cardinals needed offensive linemen, and they didn't choose any until the 4th round. I would've liked to see a defensive lineman, to replace Calais Campbell, but they didn't take one. They needed to add receiving talent, and took Grambling WR Chad Williams in the 3rd round. But Williams was projected to go later, and doesn't look like an impact player, or at least not in 2017. If the Cardinals are hoping to compete for a Super Bowl before Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald retire, it's hard to see that this draft puts them in position to do that.
I also didn't like the overpay in their 2nd-round trade to select defensive back Budda Baker. To move up nine spots, from 45th to 36th, the Cardinals gave up this year's 4th-round pick, next year's 4th-round pick, and a 6th-rounder this year. Two fours and a six? The Bills made basically the same trade one pick later, but with a lower price tag. The Vikings moved up from 48th to 41st and only gave up one 4th-rounder. Any way you slice it, Arizona overpaid.
* Minnesota Vikings — Not kidding: they could have used all of their draft choices on offensive linemen, and I would have been okay with it. I don't know if any team had such a glaring need in one area, with the rest of the team mostly pretty solid. They took Ohio State center Pat Elflein 70th overall, and a guard in the fifth round, but that's simply not a big enough upgrade where they need the most help. They're still paying for the Sam Bradford trade.
Bucky Hodges is a terrific athlete who is still learning to play tight end, but he could be a great bargain 201st overall.