The NFL Draft is always one of my favorite events of the year, but with COVID-19 taking all sports away from us, the 2020 draft became much more than another fun event. It was everything. Despite much speculation about the possible technical snafus and total chaos caused by a virtual draft and cancelled pro days, the draft mostly went off without hitch. Roger Goodell actually got so relaxed by the end of it that I thought he might doze off on screen. As well as things seemed to go for the league, results were mixed for the teams and their draft performances. Let’s take a look at who I think did the best and worst jobs last weekend.
DISCLAIMER: I am aware that draft grades are mostly silly, because the draft is somewhat of a crapshoot and it’s hard to instantly judge something that takes years to play out. What we can judge however, is the decision making process. Valuing premier positions over replaceable ones. Getting good value on trades. Picking players with profiles that are likelier to hit. Fitting players into win windows. I’m not necessarily judging the total hauls, because some teams had more draft capital than others, but focusing more on the decision making processes.
The Best Drafts
1. Dallas Cowboys
Yes, I am a Cowboys homer, but I try to be objective about the draft. I said their 2019 class sucked, and it did. I hate the Green Bay Packers, but I gave them my top draft grade in 2018 for obtaining a future 1st to trade down with New Orleans and still getting Jaire Alexander. I try to call it like I see it.
With that said, the Cowboys nailed every aspect of this draft. They faced down the ultimate test of draft decision making with their very first pick at #17: Having a blue chip player fall to you when he doesn’t play at your biggest position of need. The correct decision is to either take the blue-chipper, or trade down for a haul. Dallas took him, and now CeeDee Lamb will slot alongside Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper to form one of the most dynamic WR groups in the NFL. WR wasn’t the BIGGEST position of need, but it was still a need. Dallas had no WR3 to speak of, and a third receiver is basically a starter in today’s NFL. They were going to have to take one on Day 2 if they didn’t on Day 1. Lamb, Cooper and Gallup will be on the field pretty much all game, and the pick turned a strong position group into an elite one.
The Lamb pick looked even better as the Cowboys proceeded to hammer positions of need at great value on Day 2 and 3. CB Trevon Diggs (a possible option at #17), fell to them in the second round. Had the Cowboys reached on CB in the first round, they’d probably be reaching for a different position here. Instead they get the steal in Diggs. DT Neville Gallamore, CB Reggie Robinson, C Tyler Biadasz, and DE Bradlee Anae were all high upside picks at positions of need that were ranked higher than they were picked. The Cowboys are a much better team now than they were last week.
It seems almost incomprehensible to me that the same team that can nail a draft like this (and other drafts in the past) can also take a RB in the top 5 and pay him $90 million after he has proven that he can’t be trusted. New HC Mike McCarthy emphasized a new focus on analytics in decision making when he was hired, and I’m hoping that maybe that emphasis has been pushed to the front office as well.
2. Cleveland Browns
This excellent draft signaled the start of new Browns GM Andrew Berry journey to bring the Championship culture he was apart of in Philadelphia to hapless Cleveland. QB Baker Mayfield took a big step back in 2019 due to a combination of poor offensive line play, coaching, and personal play. The #1 goal has to be getting his career back on track, and Cleveland was already on track in doing that by hiring Ex-Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski to be their new coach and signing Jack Conklin to play RT. That left one gaping hole to fill: left tackle. There was talk that the Browns were looking to move down in the first and take more of a project tackle, but instead they smartly stayed put and took one of the draft’s blue chippers in Alabama’s Jedrick Wills. Normally I would be for a trade-down, but in this case the Browns need to shore up protection is so dire that I love standing pat and taking the pro-ready tackle. This combination of moves should improve Mayfield’s prospects greatly in 2020.
In the second round, the Browns snagged uber-talented LSU S Grant Delpit. His tackling woes in 2019 scared teams off, but there is some thought that that was mostly injury related, and his coverage is elite. They then selected productive interior defender Jordan Elliott in the third round, who was given a first round grade by PFF. By the end of day 2, Cleveland had drafted three players in the top 25 on PFF’s big board. They also added the athletic freak of a WR Donavan Peoples-Jones in the sixth. DPJ wasn’t productive at Michigan, but the sixth round is a perfect place to take shots on athletic upside. Count me in as a believer in the Browns turnaround.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Similar to the Browns, the Bucs came into the draft with a glaring hole at pass protecting tackle. Unlike the Browns, however, the Bucs weren’t trying to turn the career around of their young QB, they are trying to win a championship by protecting their new 43 year old signal caller. The Bucs were working the phones throughout the first round trying to move up for a tackle. They didn’t get any takers until San Francisco was on the clock one pick away, with only one elite tackle prospect on the board: Tristan Wirfs. They had inside info that SF LT Joe Staley may be retiring, so they were understandably worried that the Niners would be considering Wirfs, and gave up a 4th to move up one spot to take him. I know it may seem like they got swindled by a team that never wanted Wirfs, but it’s possible SF was deciding between Wirfs and DT Javon Kinlaw and the extra pick swayed them in the right direction for Tampa Bay. Day 3 picks are largely low-probability lottery tickets, and using just one of them to ensure you get an elite prospect at your greatest need is the right decision, in my opinion.
In the second round, the Bucs smartly avoided the RB run that other teams fell for, and took ballhawking Minnesota S Antoine Winfield instead. The Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year has major upside that wouldn’t have been there in later rounds. They were still able to address their RB need in round 3 with Vanderbilt’s KeShawn Vaughn, a productive SEC back that should slot in right away as a pass receiver out of the backfield. The middle rounds are a much better spot to address a position of little value like RB than the first two rounds are. In round 5, they got an absolute steal in Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson, whose college production profile looks more like a first rounder than a fifth. He could step in right away into 3 WR sets alongside Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. The Bucs look to be real playoff contenders after this offseason.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Like the Browns and Bucs, I was certain the Cardinals needed to be in the market to take one of the draft’s elite tackles. Kyler Murray was sacked a whopping 48 times last year, and at times it seemed like his potential was being capped by Arizona’s putrid pass protection. But, when Carolina passed on freakish LB/S Isaiah Simmons at #7, a top 5 player on most boards became an option for the Cards. Fantasy players know that Arizona has been especially terrible at guarding tight ends, and with George Kittle in that division for a long time, a unique coverage player like Simmons also filled a great need. They pulled the trigger. I was ok with the pick as long as they could address offensive line later.
The Cards round two pick was hilariously traded for All Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins. Other than Joe Burrow, Hopkins will probably have more of an impact on their team this year than any pick made last weekend. It’s just an absurd steal of a trade (thanks Bill O’Brien) that will improve the offense significantly.
Houston’s OT Josh Jones, the #14 overall player on PFF’s big board, was strangely still available when Arizona got on the clock in the third round. They gobbled him up and addressed that tackle position that I was so concerned about. Unless there is something behind the scenes with Jones that we are missing (very possible), this looks to be the steal of the draft.
Arizona also added prolific pass catching back Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) in the 7th round. Ironically, if he makes the team, he should fit Kliff Kingsbury’s offense better than Green Bay Packers 2nd round pick AJ Dillon will fit theirs. I believe the Cardinals will continue to build on the improvement they saw in 2019 and should be a fringe playoff contender.
5. Denver Broncos
One of my most firmly held NFL philosophies is that one of the deadliest mistakes a team can make is taking too long to evaluate your young QB. Both making the wrong decision on if he’s a franchise guy, and taking too long to make it can be death knells for everyone involved. And if you keep giving him excuses for poor performances by not surrounding him with talent to succeed, you may never have the information you need to make that decision. With this draft, John Elway decided he’s not going to make that mistake with Drew Lock.
It was well known that the Broncos coveted Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy. Whether by sheer luck or inside knowledge of other team’s strategies, they were able to stay put and get one of the draft’s elite players at pick 15. Jeudy should complement Courtland Sutton in the Denver offense perfectly. This alone would get them a positive draft review from me, but they weren’t done.
Elway added more firepower to Lock’s arsenal in the second round with the selection of Penn State WR KJ Hamler. I’m not really a fan of players that are Hamler’s type: small, speedy guys that have questionable hands, but Elway clearly wanted to add a deep speed element to his offense that already includes elite route running (Jeudy) and contested catch ability (Sutton). Hamler brings an element that will stretch the defense, even if he struggles with drops early. In the 4th round, Denver drafted Lock’s old teammate, Missouri TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Albert O has elite athleticism, and looks to be another possible field stretcher in this offense.
Denver also added reinforcements to the interior of the offensive line, grabbing LSU’s C Lloyd Cushenberry in the third and Fresno State’s Netane Muti in the sixth. Muti was PFF’s #1 rated interior offensive lineman, but injuries knocked him down boards. The 6th round is a great place to take a shot on a guy like that. 2020 was all about offense for Elway and the Broncos, and we will see soon if Lock has it or not. Personally, I would inquire about Cam Newton and bring him in for competition. This downfield attack suits his skills perfectly, and Lock has not proven much of anything yet. If he can beat Newton out in an open competition, you can have major confidence in him moving forward.
Honorable Mention: Minnesota Vikings
The consensus highest graded draft class did not quite make my top 5. I really wanted to fit it in here, but a couple quibbles i had knocked it down a peg. First, I think folks are a little overly high on the class because the Vikings had so much capital to begin with (due to the Stefon Diggs trade), and trade downs gave them even more, which is why I expected a little more in terms of talent. I loved their moves in the first round. Justin Jefferson was incredibly productive in college and tested super athletic at the combine, so he is a good bet to hit. Being able to trade down and still get TCU CB Jeff Gladney is also a huge win. On Day 2, the Vikings took Boise State OT Ezra Cleveland (because they are obsessed with athleticism on the offensive line) when Josh Jones was probably the better player, and Mississippi State CB Cam Dantzler. Dantzler ran the dreaded 4.6+ 40 at the corner position, which makes his odds to survive in the NFL pretty long, but the tape grinders loved him. While I don’t think either were bad picks, there were others I would have taken.
The Vikings then made an insane 11 selections on day 3. Most of these players won’t even make their roster. With COVID-19 likely shortening training camp and preseason, I don’t know when the Vikings think they’re going to get the chance to evaluate all these players. I would have much rather seen them package some of these late round picks and grab a couple extra day 2 picks, where there was still starter-quality talent on the board. It was still a very good draft, just not how I would’ve played it.
The Worst Drafts
1. Green Bay Packers
Like I said, I am a known Packers hater, but I think it’s pretty clear by now that it is not a rare opinion to have that the Packers had a terrible draft. Things started to go sideways when they traded up in the first round for divisive Utah State QB Jordan Love. The trade-up itself is fine, as we discussed earlier with using Day 3 picks to secure your guy, but it sure does shoot down GM’s Brian Gutekunst’s explanation of the pick. He told the media that “that’s just how the board fell,” but obviously it isn’t. The trade-up shows that Green Bay likely had Love in its crosshairs since the beginning.
Obviously this pick immediately drew comparisons to the Packers surprising selection of Rodgers back in 2005, but this different from that situation for several reasons.
- Brett Favre was constantly threatening retirement. Rodgers has not been, and his play has still been quite good.
- Rodgers was a great prospect and considered by many to be worthy of the #1 overall pick. He fell due to a combination of poor combine interviews and coaching concerns. Love, on the other hand, threw 17 interceptions against poor competition last season and was viewed by many as a Day 2 player.
- Rodgers fell into the Packers lap and they took him after never expecting him to be there. Love was traded for.
What happened with Rodgers was a truly unique circumstance that provided the team three decades of success by transitioning from one Hall of Fame QB to another. Instead of treating that as the rare occurrence that it is, the Packers seem confident that they can repeat it, only this time with a ridiculously low probability type of prospect in Love. That is not a good bet. Toolsy QBs that regress in college and struggle against poor competition have a very low rate of success. I’ve seen some ridiculous comparisons to Patrick Mahomes due to Love’s strong arm and athleticism, but the similarities mostly stop there. Mahomes was a raw prospect, but he was still really good in college. Love is more similar to ex-Packers project DeShone Kizer than Mahomes.
I am not against the idea of drafting a young QB to replace an aging or declining veteran down the road, but I am against it in this specific situation. Adding on to the fact that Love is a low probability player, the team-building perspective of this move doesn’t make sense either. OverTheCap.com wrote a good summary on what options the Packers might have with Rodgers, and the short answer is they can’t move him within the next two years without taking a significant dead cap hit. So we are looking at least two years out. By then you have lost 50% of the value of having a franchise QB on a rookie deal. You’re also choosing to spend these resources on a player that won’t play for two years when the rest of your roster just made it to the NFC Championship game. You don’t have to go all-in every year like the Saints, but a complete and total punt to the future like this is bizarre for a team with this type of talent. I would have much rather seen the Packers do what the Eagles did: draft a falling QB in the second round (Jalen Hurts) who has the tools to contribute in other ways even if he’s not starting, and capable of being a spot starter if Carson Wentz gets hurt. I am totally fine with that move.
In the second round, the Packers made what I believe to be the worst pick in the entire draft by selecting bruising Boston College RB AJ Dillon. Let’s count the way this pick is terrible:
- Running back is a highly replaceable position. Their success is mostly based on their offensive line and the quality of their scheme
- Straight-line runners that don’t catch passes are especially worthless in today’s NFL. A back’s biggest value is in the passing game, and Dillon does not profile as a big contributor there.
- The Packers have one of the best and most dynamic backs in the league in Aaron Jones and a capable backup in Jamaal Williams.
- Dillon was considered by most to be a mid to late round prospect. PFF didn’t even have him on their board. They could have got him in the third easily.
- Green Bay has still not addressed any of their major needs.
There has been some speculation that Dillon was picked because Jones and Williams are on the last years of their deals, but that is just not how the RB position is supposed to work. RB’s produce right out of the gate, and they wear down quickly, so if you’re drafting one, you want to use him right away. You do not draft RBs for the future, especially as high as the second round.
In the third round, Green Bay drafted TE/H-Back Josiah Deguara. The word is that HC Matt LaFleur wants his version of the 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk. The problem with that line of thinking is Juszczyk is an extremely unique player, and the third round is a steep price to pay for an H-Back. The rest of the draft was filled with uninspiring picks of players that were mostly rated lower by consensus than where they were drafted. Green Bay didn’t pick a single WR.
There has been some speculation that LaFleur is aiming to build a similar offense to the San Francisco unit that ran Green Bay out of the playoffs, but that doesn’t jive with picking a toolsy, mistake prone QB in the first and a RB in the second, when San Francisco has been getting elite production out of backs that weren’t even drafted. This draft is full of contradictions. It looks like it is designed for a Packers team in the future and not this one, and even the future investments (except for the Love pick) were at positions of rapidly declining value. I just don’t get it.
2. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have spent the last few years trading premium picks for players and signing them to monster contracts. This has left their roster extremely top-heavy and forced them to shed talent this offseason. Jared Goff is a fantastic QB when everything is humming and protection holds up, but turns into a pumpkin under pressure, which is what we saw when the Rams offensive line fell apart down the stretch in 2020. The Rams came into the draft without a first round pick yet again (this time due to the Jalen Ramsey trade), but armed with two second round picks (thanks to the Brandin Cooks trade). You would think that investments to the offensive line would come fast and furious for LA on Day 2. But they did not.
With their first pick in the second round, the Rams selected FSU RB Cam Akers. Akers is a decent prospect, projected to go somewhere in the early third, but the Rams literally just took a RB in the early third last year. RBs this high are luxury picks, not picks you make when half of your position groups have major holes. With their second second-rounder they selected Florida WR Van Jefferson. Jefferson may turn out to be a good player, but will be 24 when the season starts, had relatively no college production, and didn’t test at the combine. This is not the profile of a player that goes in the second round, and Jefferson isn’t the type of receiver that’s going to fill Cooks departed role of pushing defenses deep. LA could have had BOTH Josh Jones and Ezra Cleveland with these picks, which would have shored up one spot on the offensive line and provided a succession plan for 37 year old LT Andrew Whitworth.
The Rams made some solid picks in the third round in Utah S Terrell Burgess and Alabama EDGE Terrell Lewis, but they weren’t enough to make up for that horrid second round. This roster is fading fast.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
It pains me to put the Chargers here, because I almost always love what GM Tom Telesco and crew do in the draft, but not this year. By staying put and picking Oregon QB Justin Herbert with the 6th overall pick, the Chargers either valued Herbert higher than Tua Tagovailoa, or bit hard onto the rumors that Miami was not interested in Tua. Neither possibility reflects well on their strategy here. Telesco admitted that Tua would have been the pick at 6 had Miami taken Herbert, so it’s clear that the Chargers were fine with Tua’s medicals. I know Herbert has his admirers around the league, but Tua is the most efficient QB in college football history. Most scouts still don’t know if Herbert will ever have the accuracy or mental processing ability to be a good QB. These QBs were picked one pick apart but that one pick does not reflect how wide the gap really was between them in terms of probability of success. It is enormous.
There were reports that Detroit and New York were open to trading down but got no takers. I have to believe that Detroit would have gladly traded down to 6, as LA, Miami, and New York would be the only teams ahead of them and none of those three were likely to take Jeff Okudah. It seems that LA didn’t even try to get to 3. Based on their next move, LA was clearly not afraid to package picks to get the player they wanted.
The Chargers packaged their second and third round picks to move back up in the first round and select Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray. It may look pretty to have those two first round picks in your haul, but with the talent that we saw teams like the Vikings, Browns, and Cowboys pull out of day two, you may have just traded two starters for one. It makes it especially bad when the trade-up is for an off-ball linebacker that struggles in coverage: a devalued asset in today’s NFL. The rest of the draft was fairly uninspiring, although I do like the 7th round pick of Ohio State WR K.J. Hill. He has the chance to contribute out of the slot right away.
4. Atlanta Falcons
In order for the Cowboys to get a blue-chipper at 17, a couple teams ahead of them had to make a mistake. The Falcons were one of those teams. GM Thomas Dmitroff made it very clear that he was trying to move up, and most insiders believed it was for a cornerback: either Jeff Okudah or CJ Henderson. With no takers and both corners off the board, the Falcons faced the ancient draft dilemma: reach for a need, take a blue-chipper that we don’t have a big need for, or trade back? They reached for the need with Clemson CB AJ Terrell. Now, it’s possible Atlanta did have a high grade on Terrell, but if they did, I don’t know why they would be trying so hard to move up. He was always going to be there at 16. Atlanta should have taken Lamb or traded down with a team that was desperate to get him. Julio Jones is getting older, and a starting offense with Jones, Lamb, and Calvin Ridley at WR would be absolutely deadly.
The first round reach compounded itself in the second round when cornerbacks Trevon Diggs, Jaylon Johnson, and Kristian Fulton were sitting there, but Atlanta could not afford to double dip on corner. They went with Auburn DT Marlon Davidson, who is a fine prospect, but will be slotting in as an undersized interior defender on a team that is already way too small on the defensive line. They’re going to have a tough time defending the run yet again. The rest of the picks were mostly uninspiring.
5. Washington Redskins
It’s hard to put any team that drafted Chase Young on this list, and Young will keep this class from ever truly being a bust. He’s special, and I get why they picked him. I just feel like this team has not done a good job of team building in general. I don’t know what the offers were for #2, but to stay at 2 and pick a position player with two elite QBs in the class usually means you passed up a bounty to stay there. The Redskins are not one or two players away from competing, they are many. If they fail to give QB Dwayne Haskins any type of support system, they will be back to square one at that position and have even more holes to fill next year. It’s hard to say that Young was a bad pick without knowing what the trade options were, but I’m willing to bet that there was an offer out there that I would have taken.
Last season I foolishly liked the Redskins trade-up for Montez Sweat, not thinking about how high of a pick the second rounder they gave up could be in 2020. That pick turned into pick 34, which Indianapolis used on USC WR Michael Pittman. Pittman, or a WR like him, would have been an excellent addition to Washington’s arsenal. But, with no second rounder and no trade-down, the best Washington could do is get Haskins some help with their third round pick. They chose Memphis gadget player Antonio Gibson, who will play RB in the NFL. I like Gibson, but he is extremely raw (only 77 touches in college) and will join a crowded backfield. OT Josh Jones or WR Bryan Edwards would have been better picks, in my opinion.
This class is not helped by the Redskins misplaying the Trent Williams situation for a full year and only getting a third and fifth round pick for an elite left tackle. They could have probably gotten a first if they were willing to deal last season. Now they will be trotting out a young QB that is ultra-sensitive to pressure with no plan at the left tackle position. Not great.