The NFL draft offers not only an opportunity for teams to replenish their rosters, but also an annual snapshot of what the NFL believes about how to build a team. We learned this year that wide receivers are more valuable than ever, teams think very little about the 2022 quarterback class and Bill Belichick still doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Here is what to know.
The wide receiver position is changing before our eyes. The past three drafts have seen high-caliber wide receiver talent flood the league, a culmination of several long-standing trends. The influx of wideouts and ever-growing primacy of the passing game have rattled how teams value wide receivers and created competing models for how franchises seek to acquire them.
In Thursday’s first round, six teams selected wide receivers in the first 18 picks, including two — the Saints and Lions — who traded up to get their man. In the first three rounds, teams took 17 wide receivers. Meanwhile, the Cardinals acquired Marquise Brown and the Eagles dealt for A.J. Brown, each trading a first-round pick for a veteran wideout on the verge of a new contract.
The wide receiver movement fit the trend of the offseason. The Packers dealt Davante Adams to the Raiders for first- and second-round picks, and Las Vegas immediately signed him to a contract that pays him $28 million per year. The Chiefs shipped Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a similar haul, and Hill signed an extension that averages $30 million per season. On Thursday, A.J. Brown immediately signed a deal with Philadelphia that could pay him $100 million over four years. The non-quarterback glamour position is no longer pass rusher or left tackle. It’s wideout.
The emerging cost for top wide receivers explains why teams are eager to spend first-round picks on them. It allows them to fill one of the most expensive positions with a player on a cheap rookie contract. Within minutes of dealing A.J. Brown, the Titans used the pick they acquired, No. 18 overall, on Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks.
The proliferation of spread offenses and the rise of seven-on-seven passing leagues, plus rules that prohibit injurious hits on receivers, have created a legion of NFL-ready wide receivers. The best athletes — the kids who 15 years ago would have been running backs — are selected to play wideout at an early age. They train with greater frequency and specificity than ever before. The pool is thinned less by concussions and fear of going over the middle. If you want to pick the best players, you will be picking wide receivers.
“Right now in college football, all the best athletes are playing wide receiver and defensive back,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said last summer.
Which teams are smarter: the ones signing veterans for big money or the ones letting them go and finding cheap replacements? It surely will be case-by-case. Not every veteran wideout will age well and stay healthy, and not every draftee will hit.
It’s possible that both outlooks will win. Three years ago, the Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills for a first-round pick, which they used to take Justin Jefferson. Although Jefferson is on a much cheaper contract, neither side would take back that deal. That’s also just one trade, though, and it would be unwise to think Jefferson’s success is more lesson than outlier.
The movement may not be over. Deebo Samuel has agitated for a trade from San Francisco, although the 49ers insist they will not deal him. The Seahawks may decide moving DK Metcalf could supercharge the rebuild they began when they shipped out Russell Wilson. The world is shifting at wide receiver, and NFL teams have to keep up.
Georgia defensive players are taking over the NFL. The national championship-winning defense produced five first-round picks, including No. 1 choice Travon Walker. That total didn’t include Nakobe Dean, who often played liked the Bulldogs’ best player but slipped to the Eagles in the third round, reportedly because of health concerns, which Dean called untrue.
The Packers have taken a particular interest in the Bulldogs’ defense. They took cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round last year. This year, they selected linebacker Quay Walker 22nd overall and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt at No. 28.
Why Georgia? It may not just be all the talent the Bulldogs recruited. Georgia’s defense relies on a seven-man front to stop the run and apply disciplined pressure on the quarterback, allowing speedy linebackers to focus on either blitzing or stopping quick, spread-out passing games. The players who do that are exactly who the NFL is looking for.
The NFL isn’t desperate for quarterbacks. The excellent young quarterbacks who have entered the league and the durable old quarterbacks who have stayed in it have combined to create a glut at a position that has long been understaffed. There are still only a handful of passers capable of winning the Super Bowl, and teams would crawl over broken glass to get them. But more than ever, teams can find competence at quarterback with relative ease. Rule changes have made the position easier and less dangerous to play.
The 2022 quarterback class was regarded as weak, with even the best passers possessing glaring flaws. That has never stopped teams from reaching to draft passers before. This year, though, after the Steelers took Kenny Pickett at 20th overall, 53 picks passed before another quarterback, Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati, was selected. Only four went before the fourth round.
A lot of factors beyond the quarterbacks’ ability led to the fall. Next year’s class, which includes Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, is considered especially strong and deep. With Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo still available via trade, teams had fallback options apart from using a high pick. And even the neediest teams had ways to address the position. The Lions will ride with Jared Goff again and know he will play well enough to allow the rest of the team to function.
Ridder (Falcons), Malik Willis (Titans), Matt Corral (Panthers), Bailey Zappe (Patriots) and Sam Howell (Commanders) may make a lot of teams regret not acting with the usual urgency at quarterback. But the NFL showed far more patience at the position because it could.
The New York Giants aren’t doing weird stuff anymore. Under former general manager Dave Gettleman, the Giants took a running back second overall, picked Daniel Jones sixth overall, took a first-round cornerback with character issues that ended his tenure after one season and, until Gettleman’s final draft, took a dogmatic approach to never trading down.
New general manager Joe Schoen, who arrived from Buffalo, showed immediately that the Giants are in good hands again. Armed with the fifth and seventh picks, they took Kayvon Thibodeaux, a defensive end who might be the most accomplished player in the draft, and Alabama’s Evan Neal, a massive offensive tackle who started for the entirety of his career at the preeminent program. They chose two high-upside, safe players at premium positions.
Schoen’s best moves came early in the second round. The Giants started with the 36th pick and traded down twice, picking up two extra picks Saturday in a draft when fourth- and fifth-round picks were deemed extra valuable because of the deeper class. New York still came away with Wan’Dale Robinson, a small but reliable receiver who was immensely productive at Kentucky. Time will tell if the Giants’ picks work out, but Schoen attacked the draft in sound fashion that should excite Giants fans.
Looking for a late-round sleeper? Start with UTSA cornerback Tariq Woolen, whom the Seattle Seahawks took in the fifth round. A decade ago, the Seahawks drafted Richard Sherman, a lanky cornerback who started his college career as a wide receiver, and they took him in the fifth round. Woolen is a lanky cornerback who started his college career as a wide receiver. Sherman was the 154th pick in 2011, and Woolen went 153rd on Saturday.
If anything, Woolen may have more raw talent. He stands 6-foot-4, ideal for Pete Carroll’s preferred style, and ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash. He may take a year to develop because of a lack of experience at the position, but of any player taken on Day 3, he profiles as a reasonable bet to become not just a contributor but a star.
It’s hard to figure out the Patriots. The Patriots came into the draft with the clear need to add speed, and they accomplished that. But the way they went about it left plenty of questions.
The Patriots traded back in the first round, then used the 29th pick to take Chattanooga guard Cole Strange, a prospect experts love for his quick first step but at a position teams tend to value lowly and target later in the draft. “How about that!” Rams Coach Sean McVay shouted when he saw the pick while at a news conference, having seemingly filled his pick-free night with liquid refreshment: “And we wasted our time watching him thinking he’d be at 104 maybe!”
New England traded up to take Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton with its second pick, and without question he can expand the field — he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any wideout at the combine. But most projections pegged Thornton as a third- or fourth-round pick. With three straight picks right after Thornton went, teams selected highly regarded George Pickens, Alec Pierce and Skyy Moore. If Thornton meets the same dismal fate as so many Patriots draftees at wideout, those names could haunt New England.
The Patriots chose two defensive players in their first seven picks, and both play cornerback. They certainly need more depth and speed at secondary in a division that now includes Tyreek Hill and Garrett Wilson. But they waited to address the rest of their defense and instead took two running backs, even though they already have recent (and excellent) draft picks Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson.
Their fourth-round pick may have been most puzzling. They took Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe, a surprise for two reasons. First, the Patriots took Mac Jones 15th overall last year and watched him lead them to the playoffs as a rookie. Second, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, widely considered the fifth-best quarterback of the class, was still on the board.
As ever, there is the way Belichick views the game — and the way the rest of the NFL does. And no matter what anybody thinks, he’s usually right.