Prior to arriving in Dallas earlier this week, my mind was anywhere but the NFL draft. Life often intervenes with football in whimsical fashion. But a random talk with a longtime sports scribe who covers the Dallas Cowboys recharged the proverbial pigskin battery in an instant.
Chatting it up with Rick Gosselin, one of the first newspapermen to introduce the mock draft into our collective consciousness, brought much perspective on the needs of the franchise in North Dallas, as well as those of the 31 other member clubs. Most importantly, our draft talk brought home the realization that the 2018 season is coming down the pike, as every GM is contemplating how to field a contender, no matter how much "BPA" blather you hear. Also familiar: posting instant reax off all three days of the great college trade fair, something I've been doing for the last seven drafts. (Which is a mere fraction of Gosselin's catalogue.)
Every one of these things reminds us of the first axiom of draft analysis: Nobody knows jack. All the trades -- and all the unpredictable quarterback drama -- Thursday night underlined that notion. Now, one of these QBs might morph into Dan Marino; another might morph into J.P. Losman. Yet, despite the months of forecasting and know-it-all prognostication leading up to this event, there is little in professional sports -- or the entertainment industry as a whole -- that can match the robust suspense of the first round of an NFL draft.
With that said, all three days of this deal carry weight. Thus, over the next 4,000 or so words, you'll get a nice rundown of the most notable happenings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Picks worth loving, picks that spawn confusion and spot evaluations of a few team hauls. Take a gander, then lend a take: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Best Pick, Day 1
Sam Darnold, QB, drafted third overall by the New York Jets: I agree with Mike Mayock's off-the-cuff sentiments Thursday night on NFL Network about this pick. The advantage of this move for the Jets is that, while Darnold's far from a project, the franchise does have the luxury of letting him marinate on the bench for a bit, due to the presence of Josh McCown (and, to some extent, Teddy Bridgewater). That being said, Darnold was considered by many to be the best quarterback in this draft, and for a reason: The guy can play. The incredible thing here is that the Giants passed on the kid at No. 2 overall -- and now the Jets' new QB1(?) will be under center at the Big Snoopy, home of Gang Green and Big Blue. New York knocked it out of that park (or any other) with first-round pick Jamal Adams last year. Todd Bowles' group competed last season before falling apart when McCown went down. So, what if Darnold grows up quick and shows promise in the coming campaign? No more making fun of the J-E-T-S Jets.
Best Pick, Day 2
Justin Reid, S, drafted 68th overall (Round 3) by the Houston Texans: Reid runs a 4.4 40. He has a brother (Eric Reid, recently of the 49ers) that knows a little something about playing safety. Some folks thought he could sneak into the back end of the first round. Instead, Houston found him near the top of the third. With no first- or second-round pick (due to the Deshaun Watson and Brock Osweiler trades), it was awfully important that the Texans got this pick right. Think about that defense down in Houston this year for a moment. Well, first think about the fact that Watson is back from the torn ACL that ruined half his season, meaning the D won't have to do as much as it did in Watson's absence. Then remember that J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus are also back from injury, with Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) added on the back end as a free agent. Insert Reid, who could start right away.
Best Pick, Day 3
Ian Thomas, TE, drafted 101st overall (Round 4) by the Carolina Panthers: If you're not familiar with Thomas' story, get on it. He grew up without parents, raised by his siblings as a youngster. Now he is a member of an NFL playoff team and the first pick of Day 3. There were a handful of folks (or 1,000) who thought GM Marty Hurney would take a sweetheart offer from another team to trade pick 101. Instead, the Panthers end up with a talented tight end who can help out Cam Newton immediately -- and learn from one of the better TEs in league history in Greg Olsen.
Other picks I liked
Derwin James, S, drafted 17th overall by the Los Angeles Chargers: If today's NFL is all about matchups, as Stanford head coach David Shaw said Thursday night on NFL Network's draft coverage, then you have to love the versatility of the Chargers' newly minted chess piece. James is a big safety who can cover tight ends man to man. That's what you want. And if he's close to the line, he's certainly no liability in run support. The guy can do it all, giving L.A. a Swiss Army Knife in the back seven. Combine this roaming weapon with the Bolts' potent edge-rushing duo (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram) and ... Have fun, opposing quarterbacks!
Dallas Goedert, TE, drafted 49th overall (Round 2) by the Philadelphia Eagles: Interesting that Goedert's comp from NFL.com draftnik Lance Zierlein was Eagles stalwart Zach Ertz. Goedert is going to be eased in with the best team in the league. He has the ability to contribute in the passing game immediately. Could've made a case for him being taken in the last few picks of the first round.
Ronnie Harrison, S, drafted 93rd overall (Round 3) by the Jacksonville Jaguars: Harrison went about a round and a half late, according to Daniel Jeremiah and Mike Mayock's boards. It's odd: We always hear how important safety is in today's NFL, and yet, the solid college players consistently fall.
Alex Cappa, G, drafted 94th overall (Round 3) by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Watching the B-roll of this Humboldt State product on NFL Network was awesome. Who doesn't root for these power linemen from small schools? Hey, Larry Allen went to Sonoma State.
Harrison Phillips, DT, drafted 96th overall (Round 3) by the Buffalo Bills: Heckuva pick for the Bills at 96th overall. Phillips had 103 tackles in 2017 as an interior lineman. That's unbelievable. The only thing better? Bills alumni Andre Reed and Fred Jackson honoring super fan Pancho Billa. What a fantastic idea, and a touching moment that Buffalo's biggest supporter will appreciate forever.
Armani Watts, S, drafted 124th overall (Round 4) by the Kansas City Chiefs: Watts could qualify as a steal from this draft. Watts should compete for a starting job in training camp, and with Eric Berry returning from injury, he could be part of a transformation on coordinator Bob Sutton's defense. Solid coaching should help him capitalize on immense athletic ability. Always respect four-year starters like Watts.
Maurice Hurst, DT, drafted 140th overall (Round 5) by the Oakland Raiders: Hurst's selection was certainly one of the headliners of Day 3. The last day of the draft has historically been essentially a reverse undercard, with nearly all the main attractions long gone, save for the occasional top-of-the-fourth-round prospect who inexplicably fell. But getting a talent who could turn into an All-Pro at 140th overall? Hurst was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL Scouting Combine, but presuming he's able to continue his career unabated, he'll be a 4-3 DT in Oakland, which is appropriate for his size (6-foot-1, 292 pounds) and style of play.
Braxton Berrios, WR, drafted 210th overall (Round 6) by the New England Patriots: Berrios was made for the Patriots. My colleague Reggie Wayne compares him to Danny Amendola, based on his dimensions (5-9, 184 pounds) and what he can do on the field. His ability on special teams is a huge asset, given where he was taken, and should enhance his ability to contribute right away as a low-round player. His toughness trying to fight through a rib injury during the Senior Bowl is also notable.
Jordan Mailata, OT, drafted 233rd overall (Round 7) by the Philadelphia Eagles: Yes ... he's from Australia. No, that's not a teacher's college in upstate New York. As in, Australia the country. How about a former Australian rugby player making the transition to pro football, at tackle, no less? (We think.) No one knows for sure where the 20-year-old will play, but OT is the thought for now. It probably has a little to do with him being 6-8 and 346 pounds. Good grief.
Trey Quinn, WR, drafted 256th overall (Round 7) by the Washington Redskins: Mr. Irrelevant could stick. Surprised the SMU product's hands didn't fall off: He led the nation with 114 receptions in 2017 and set a Louisiana high school record for career catches.
Drafts I liked
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs set out to right some wrongs in this draft. Head coach Dirk Koetter's discipline might be the offensive side of the ball, yet -- much like Sean Payton in New Orleans last year -- he and GM Jason Licht are setting out to change the philosophical approach. Namely, don't make QB Jameis Winston win games by himself. So Tampa drafted the best run-stuffer in the class in Vita Vea out of Washington in Round 1. Then, in Round 2, the Bucs went after a running back (again, much like the Saints did last year with RB Alvin Kamara, a third-round pick who became Offensive Rookie of the Year), picking up Ronald Jones out of USC with the 38th overall pick. Talk about filling a need now. Then came a pair of corners, with M.J. Stewart (Round 2, No. 53) and Carlton Davis (Round 2, No. 63), from UNC and Auburn, respectively. Guessing these second-rounders will work out better than Roberto Aguayo.
Chicago Bears: Spoke to one of my editors, college buff Gennaro Filice, about drafts he liked. I played coy, not letting him know which hauls I thought were special. First team class out of his mouth: the Chicago Bears. Can't agree more. In Round 1, they got a stud in Roquan Smith out of Georgia (No. 8 overall). Over half the teams in the league could really use that LB. On Day 2, GM Ryan Pace grabbed a couple of players who could contribute sooner rather than later: offensive lineman James Daniels out of Iowa (No. 39) and wideout Anthony Miller from Memphis (No. 51). The latter's competitive nature and willingness to work (including coming back to the ball with those out-of-the-pocket scramblers) should make him a valuable wide receiver, even if it is as a third option. Fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols (No. 145) represents the organizational philosophy to run the football and play defense, supporting Mitch Trubisky in every way. Nichols should be a rotational player on the interior defensive line.
Arizona Cardinals: Really interesting draft for the Cardinals. The headliner was Josh Rosen (No. 10 overall), who has driven enough differing opinions with his off-field comments to match Carson Palmer's entire career. However, his attitude that nine teams made mistakes ahead of him (or three) isn't the worst thing. I thought Arizona was smart to get the quarterback, with the recently signed Sam Bradford coming off an injury-plagued season, and given the uncertainty of whether he's a franchise quarterback at this point. Not to mention, the Cardinals could move Bradford to a QB-needy team if necessary. Bradford or Rosen will have a pro-ready receiver in second-rounder Christian Kirk (No. 47), considered to be one of the more polished route runners in the draft. Mike Mayock gushed about his work ethic -- think that'll mesh well with Larry Fitzgerald? Third-rounder Mason Cole (No. 97) was a need pick at center that might have come a hair earlier than experts expected. What's impressive about Cole is that he started Michigan's season-opener in 2014 as a true freshman, making him the first offensive lineman in school history to accomplish that feat. He also started three years at tackle, so versatility could be an asset.
Two more I was fond of
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons were hanging around toward the back end of the first round, wondering who was going to come their way unexpectedly. It was thought receiver Calvin Ridley would be gone by the time GM Thomas Dimitroff had to make his choice. What a boon that Ridley was there at No. 26 overall, for team brass and Matt Ryan. With Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu already on the payroll, Ridley doesn't have to be a stud right away. If and when he develops, however, his presence will take much of the coverage burden off Jones. Isaiah Oliver (Round 2, No. 58 overall) joins a secondary that dominated the Rams in the Wild Card Round and held the fort against the Eagles in Philadelphia. Ivy leaguer Foye Oluokun (Round 6, No. 200) figures to be a special teams resource with his athletic ability -- often what teams are searching for late in the sixth round and into the seventh.
Philadelphia Eagles: The reigning Super Bowl champs continued winning in the draft. GM Howie Roseman pulled a Jimmy Johnson in the very city Johnson used to coach in, turning the 32nd overall pick into a pair of second-rounders from the Ravens (one this year and another the next). Then, knowing the Cowboys needed a tight end like Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State, Roseman leapfrogged them at No. 50 -- by dealing the 2018 second-rounder he received from Baltimore the night before as part of a trade with the Colts -- and stole the versatile playmaker at No. 49. Play him in two-tight end sets, with no strong side, and give QB Carson Wentz yet another option. Here's the deal: He doesn't have to be great right away. This isn't exactly a desperate team. Oh, yeah, and they also walk away with an additional second-round draft pick to use next year. Philly didn't need QB Lamar Jackson (whom Baltimore took in the Eagles' original first-round draft slot). But they'll take weakening a division opponent.
Worth remembering: Philadelphia's original second-round pick went to the Browns as part of the Carson Wentz deal two years ago. I'd say that panned out. Doug Pederson was provided a prospect with a sterling reputation in fourth-round choice Avonte Maddox (No. 125), a cornerback. An NFC executive mentioned to NFL.com draft savant Lance Zierlein that Maddox is the type of the player who will improve with work on his technique. That's now a job for DC Jim Schwartz and DB coach Cory Undlin. This move also helps to cover for the loss of Patrick Robinson in free agency.
Drafts that have me worried
Oakland Raiders: GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Jon Gruden demonstrated their M.O. early in this draft: win the line of scrimmage. So what's wrong with that? Nothing. Here's the worry part: Nearly everyone who evaluates college talent felt like tackle Kolton Miller out of UCLA was a reach at No. 15 overall. Second-round pick P.J. Hall (No. 57) should be a run-stopper if it all pans out, but the strength advantage he enjoyed over the competition while at Sam Houston State won't necessarily be there in the NFL. As Mike Mayock pointed out, Hall doesn't have the arm length or dimensions to lean on outside of that strength. Small school was the theme for the Raiders' first third-round pick, tackle Brandon Parker out of North Carolina A&T (No. 65). Much risk there with three picks in the first 65 ... As if that wasn't enough uncertainty, Oakland spent its second third-round pick on Arden Key (No. 87), who carried apparent character concerns. If he pans out with the tutelage of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, then look out.
But who doesn't love the Maurice Hurst swing for the fences? (See above.) Bottom line: There is the old adage that says the higher the risk, the higher the return. Another thing I learned in Finance 3770 at the University of North Texas was about opportunity cost. What was the opportunity cost -- i.e., what did the Raiders lose out on -- by not taking safer players with those Day 2 selections?
Buffalo Bills: The Bills just made the playoffs for the first season this millennium. Fans are excited. The club went out this spring and acquired a passer with upside -- one who's already shown a few flashes -- in AJ McCarron. So, with veteran RB LeSean McCoy nearing the end, and with DT Kyle Williams also staring at it, why not stay put at No. 12 and get immediate help? Or at least hang tight at 12 and see if the quarterback is still available there. In moving up from No. 12 to No. 7 to snag Josh Allen, Buffalo gave up a pair of second-round picks this year. That's valuable draft capital. Later in the night, the Bills also gave up the first pick of the third round in order to jump up from No. 22 and select Tremaine Edmunds 16th overall. A bad player? No -- still just 19, he has plenty of upside and an intriguing skill set. But as I saw quality prospects like Derwin James, Calvin Ridley and Mike Hughes go in the second half of the first round, I couldn't help but think ... Why give up so much firepower to move up multiple times in this draft? Hey, admittedly, it's too early to evaluate. Like three years too early. (Shhh -- don't tell my editors I said that.) Taking the counter argument: If McCarron pans out, Allen could be wonderful trade bait. Or vice versa. Having multiple starter-quality quarterbacks is a great problem to have. That said, given how much GM Brandon Beane gave up to draft Allen, the Bills need him to play, not sit on the bench as a trade piece. Love the Harrison Phillips choice, as detailed above. This is more about Day 1.
On the fence ...
Cleveland Browns: Word on the street was that a few teams didn't even have a first-round grade on first overall pick Baker Mayfield. Needless to say, that is a rarity. In that sense, Mayfield might be the most controversial leadoff since the Chiefs took Eric Fisher at the top in 2013. Cornerback Denzel Ward (picked fourth overall) is a reader, identifying routes and closing ... fast. He'll instantly upgrade the secondary. Man oh man, though, Cleveland could've gone after Bradley Chubb to form a helluva 1-2 punch with Myles Garrett. Austin Corbett (Round 2, No. 33) was a solid pick in a stout draft for interior linemen. Fellow second-round pick Nick Chubb (No. 35) fills a need for a between-the-tackles running back, especially with Duke Johnson present for third downs, at least for this year. But given all the Browns' needs, was this falling in line with a BPA philosophy at 35th overall? Chad Thomas was an interesting decision at 67th overall. The main concern on him seems to be whether football will be his first love. He plays nine instruments. Freaking awesome in real life; not as cool in football life. At least not to GMs, apparently.
New York Giants: I liked the Saquon Barkley pick (No. 2 overall) from an old-school football POV. Reminded me of the Rams taking Eric Dickerson second overall in the famed 1983 Draft (the greatest draft class of all time), finding a premier running back in a sea of franchise quarterbacks. Unfortunately, that was a different time. No, not just because today's NFL is an air raid. The economics of the game nearly mandate that a quarterback-needy team take a quarterback second overall, provided there is more than one franchise QB available. The advantage of having a quarterback play early -- for cheap -- is that it allows you to fill out the rest of your roster under the salary cap, as effectively laid out by Bill Barnwell this week. Now, if Manning can play for three more years at a high level, never mind. He sure didn't in 2017, though. The Giants did nab a potential steal in fourth-round QB Kyle Lauletta (No. 108), which would negate my whole point up there, but the financial aspect of taking Barkley second overall still stands. (Unless Lauletta plays out of his mind.)
That said, I thought Big Blue obtained strong value in drafting guard Will Hernandez in the second round (No. 34). Third-round pick Lorenzo Carter (No. 66) is long on upside if a little short on college productivity. The word on the former Georgia Bulldog is that the productivity wasn't where the evaluators thought it would be. With the right coaching and football maturity, he could pay off without being overly costly in terms of draft investment.
Dallas Cowboys: Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was the Cowboys' top selection at No. 19 overall, and he has the ability to start Week 1. Perhaps the most important question: Should the Cowboys have taken a wide receiver in Round 1? The other question: Is he, at any level, an injury risk? Even if that concern looks to be overblown, here's the deal: Jaylon Smith came off a major nerve-related knee injury, which was inspirational but ultimately resulted in a mediocre 2017 campaign. Sean Lee is a great -- exceptional -- player -- whose performance has only been equaled by his propensity for missing time. Taking another chance, albeit minor, at this position group was surprising. Don't forget that Anthony Hitchens, who had developed into a viable linebacker while in Dallas, now plays for Kansas City.
Connor Williams (Round 2, No. 50) will start at left guard right away. Michael Gallup (Round 3, No. 81) might sneak his way into a role as the Cowboys 'X' receiver by midseason. Trading forTavon Austin? If he is Cole Beasley's replacement, so be it, but his career is marked with a few peaks and lots of nondescript games. All told, not a bad draft. But sans taking a top receiver Day 1, Vander Esch must be a significant performer early.
A) Last year, 28 of the first 100 picks were defensive backs. This year: only 19, which is small-ish, considering how much we've all heard that every team needs cover guys.
B) So many comparisons made between this year's draft and the legendary haul of 1983. Those compare-rer's are out of line, if only for the fact they are missing the talented "remainder" -- i.e., the non-quarterbacks -- in that group from 35 years ago. Click here for an NFL history short about the Class of '83.
C) Fun to have the draft in Dallas. Different vibe.
D) Speaking of, no presenter was going to match Drew Pearson's dressing down of the Philly hecklers last year. Also worth noting: Pearson is the only skill-position player from the All-Decade Teams of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s or '90s not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. OK. Cool.
I) Speaking of those guys ... First-round pick Mike Williams was hurt all last summer, setting him precipitously back for the season. And second-round pick Forrest Lamp missed the entire year. They'll be back in 2018. So, yeah ... Bolts fans will have an embarrassment of young riches to really get to know.
J) With the Cowboys getting their man, Leighton Vander Esch, at No. 19 overall, the linebacker corps will be chock-full of talent, as detailed above. That said, former second-round pick Jaylon Smith will likely be the SAM. That means he'll be off the field on passing downs. Which means < 25 plays per game.
L) The Ravens trading with the Eagles to jump back into the caboose of the first round and steal Lamar Jackson reminds me of the Vikings doing the same with the Seahawks back in 2014 for Teddy Bridgewater. Gulp.
S) Who knew center would be the sexiest position in the draft?
T) Look at the name of second to last pick Austin Proehl. You know he'll run precise routes and catch the ball. His dad, Ricky, made one of the most clutch catches in postseason history.
V) I don't have a problem with Seattle taking a boomer at punter in Round 5.