Breaking down the ‘why’ of each of Thursday night’s first-round picks
1. Los Angeles: Jared Goff, QB, California
It’s still surprising the Rams preferred Goff over Carson Wentz—not because Goff isn’t worthy of being a No. 1 pick, but because Wentz would have been such an outstanding stylistic fit for this offense. The Rams are built to be a run-based team. Not only do they have what could be the league’s best running back come season’s end, Todd Gurley, they also have an offensive line packed with high-drafted young maulers. Left tackle Greg Robinson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 and weighs 332 pounds; right guard Jamon Brown (third round in ’15, 323 pounds), right tackle Rob Havenstein (second round in ’15, 321 pounds). And expensive veteran left guard Rodger Saffold was a second-rounder in 2010 and weighs 318.
Factor in a very limited receiving corps, plus the high likelihood of this team drafting a tight end to replace Jared Cook on Friday or early Saturday and it’s clear: The Rams are built to pound the rock. Now, let’s understand something: being a run-based offense does not mean you line up and hand the ball off 40 times a game. What it means is that your commitment to the run goes a little deeper than most teams’ and—this is where the quarterback comes in—that much of your passing game is predicated off your running game. That means more dropback play-action and downfield deep shots out of heavy max protection concepts. And because so much of running the ball depends on the defensive look—how many men in the box? How deep are the safeties? In what gaps are the defensive linemen?—it means more importance on pre-snap adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Carson Wentz did all of these things masterfully at North Dakota State. Goff was not asked to do much of them in Cal’s Air Raid offense, where the Bears would so often spread out and snap the ball quickly. This doesn’t mean Goff can’t do them, it just means he’ll have a sharper learning curve. With this in mind, the Rams must have liked Goff markedly more than they liked Wentz. (And that’s fine; to each his own. Goff has outstanding pocket mobility, a lively enough arm and strong physical measurables.) But if Goff and Wentz had really been that close in Los Angeles’s grade book, the pick would have been Wentz.
• INSIDE THE FILM ROOM WITH JARED GOFF: During Cal-Stanford, the quarterback showed the subtleties and savvy of a future franchise QB. Just weeks before the draft, he broke down the game film for The MMQB.
2. Philadelphia: Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
If you think Sam Bradford is peeved now, wait for when the end of training camp rolls around and new head coach Doug Pederson names Wentz his starter. If you talk to Wentz and study him closely, you’ll have a very difficult time envisioning him learning from the bench as a rookie. There’d be no point in sitting the 23-year-old. As Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock, Greg Cosell and countless others inside the NFL have said: This is the most pro-ready QB to enter the league since Andrew Luck. Keep in mind, Bradford has been a middling NFL quarterback and will be learning a mostly new system just like Wentz will. This will begin as an inherently equal QB competition. And all ties would go to the youngster.
3. San Diego: Joey Bosa, EDGE, Ohio State
Many expected the Chargers to draft an offensive tackle, but that’s not a necessary expense in head coach Mike McCoy’s scheme, where the passing game is primarily three-step timing and the ball is out before the protection becomes a factor. What is necessary in San Diego’s scheme is a defensive front seven player with versatility. Coordinator John Pagano loves disguises and diversity. With Bosa, he has someone who can push talented but underproductive edge-rushers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu for snaps on third down, plus a potential three-tech/four-tech/five-tech/seven-tech to play the run on first and second down.
4. Dallas: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
The Cowboys have—by far—the best offensive line in football, and it’s still very young. Drafting a guy fourth overall to run behind that line is a bit like hanging a piece of fine art right next to the window that has a view overlooking a scenic valley. If a slower-footed, occasionally indecisive DeMarco Murray can rush for 1,845 yards behind your line, then a mid-round running back could probably get 1,500. Of course, certain people (yours truly) thought it would go that way with Joseph Randle last year, and well… yuck. But last year was an aberration on many fronts, including two key ones for the ground game: Dallas’s O-line was adjusting to a new coach (Frank Pollack replaced Bill Callahan) and the quarterback duties were often handled by the likes of Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore (yuck again). Of course, there were many in the Cowboys organization who felt that Murray should have had well over 2,000 yards behind that front five in 2014. Maybe they believe Elliott can be that type of force.
5. Jacksonville: Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State
Typically, zone-based defensive teams do not invest high first round picks in cornerbacks. Those spots tend to be used on pass rushers. But hence, the selection of Dante Fowler No. 3 overall last year, and the mega-signing of ex-Bronco Malik Jackson this offseason. With the front seven restocked, the Jags had flexibility to improve the back end. Which brings us to the more important thing: Jacksonville’s style of zone defense. It is identical to Seattle’s, which means it’s really more of hybrid coverage foundation, with man-to-man on the perimeter and zone helpers inside. Aggressive, long-armed corners thrive in this sort of scheme, where the sideline and those zone helpers present a little more margin for error. Ramsey is a prototypical press corner, and that’s how he’ll be used. If his well-documented abilities to play safety become a factor, it means something went terribly off-plan.
6. Baltimore: Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
Where will he play in Years 1 and 2? Cutting incumbent left tackle Eugene Monroe now would cost $6.6 million in dead money. Cutting him next year is a little more feasible—$4.4 million in dead money, almost half of his $8.95 million cap hit. But salary aside, there is Monroe’s injury problems. The 29-year-old has missed 15 games over the past two seasons and, when he’s been on the field, his play has been up and down. Maybe Stanley plays right tackle initially, though there’s been a lot—or at least enough—to like about 2013 fifth-rounder Ricky Wagner. Most likely, Stanley is here to supplant Monroe. It’s only a matter of time.
7. San Francisco: DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
A bit of a head-scratcher given who the Niners already have along their three-man defensive line. Last year’s first-rounder, Arik Armstead (also from Oregon), underrated Quinton Dial and stable veterans Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie. All are good fits in the pure 3-4 scheme that Chip Kelly wants new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to run. The Niners finished 29th in overall run defense, but 10th in yards per attempt. This selection is hard to understand.
8. Tennessee: Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
They got the guy they wanted all along… or, rather, the non-red-flagged version of the guy they wanted all along. The drama behind Laremy Tunsil’s freefall will go down in draft lore—especially if Conklin becomes a perennial Pro Bowler. Of course, that’s a big if for any guy. In the short term, Conklin gives the Titans exactly what they need: more talent and options up front. If he plays left tackle, then 2014 first-rounder Taylor Lewan can move to right tackle. (Lewan was impressive as a rookie but had a difficult sophomore year. The jury is still out.) Jeremiah Poutasi could then move permanently to guard, where he has a better chance for success. That, in fact, will happen regardless, because the other option is to play Conklin at right tackle. Not many early first-rounders go there, but look at the NFL’s top pass rushers and sack-fumble creators: the overwhelming majority play left defensive end. The Titans could be one of the few teams who have the resources to counter that.
9. Chicago: Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia
This pick is more about a team loving a player than a team filling a need. The Bears are still rebuilding a defense that had to be completely overhauled. One area that was already relatively well addressed is edge defender. Pernell McPhee was signed in free agency last year, and Willie Young flashes an explosive first step that has generated 16.5 sacks in his two seasons with Chicago. Young, however, is somewhat of a niche player, so adding someone else who can push him and less dynamic veteran Lamarr Houston (who you could cut and save over $4 million in cap space) is not the worst idea. Keep in mind: highly respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s best years were in San Francisco, when he had Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.
10. New York Giants: Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State
The Giants signed Janoris Jenkins and already had Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They didn’t need another corner, right? Not necessarily. In today’s NFL, where offenses use three-receiver sets more than 60 percent of the time, you need a good nickel corner. Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie are both off-coverage man corners. Apple is expected to be more of a physical man defender. Which of the three plays the slot? That’s for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to decide. One more thing: New York’s safeties are very poor in coverage. Having three quality man-to-man corners can help mask that.
11. Tampa Bay: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Well, at least we know we won’t see as many predictable, vanilla zone coverages from the Bucs as we saw from Lovie Smith the last few years. Because if they were planning on playing straight Cover 2, they’d spend a first-round pick on a pass rusher (one of their needs) rather than a corner. In new defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s later years with the Falcons, he and that front office adopted a philosophy centered around this belief: pressure can be manufactured through scheme (i.e. blitzing and disguising); coverage, on the other hand, is hard to hide. If you have corners who can play one-on-one, you have more schematic flexibility. Is that the belief Smith will take to Tampa Bay?
12. New Orleans: Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
Just about any defensive lineman in this draft would have done for the Saints, given what the team had on the roster. Last season, six different rookie defensive linemen played meaningful snaps for New Orleans. Only one of them—the energetic but limited Hau’oli Kikaha—was drafted earlier than the fifth round. Three of them weren’t even drafted at all.
13. Miami: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
Interesting the Dolphins would take such a risk at a position they don’t really need. Yes, Miami’s O-line play was poor in 2015. But they had much greater needs on defense. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James was a first-rounder in 2014 and has been solid enough, which means Tunsil’s selection will impact left tackle Branden Albert. Albert turns 32 in November and has battled injuries over the past two years (including an ACL in ’14). He will cost over $10 million each of the next three years. He can be cut after this season with only a $3.4 million cap hit. Jermon Bushrod and his athletic feet were signed in the offseason, but Bushrod was unable to stay on the field at left tackle for Adam Gase last year in Chicago. Most likely, Gase believes he’s better suited for guard—a position that has been very problematic. Speaking of Gase, his ballyhooed system features a lot of quick-timing throws. That’s what instilled discipline on Jay Cutler last year and it’s what they’re hoping will salvage Ryan Tannehill. The thing about quick-striking passing games: You don’t necessarily need elite offensive tackles to run them.
14. Oakland: Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia
A hard-hitting safety joins a fast-rising defense that badly needed help at his position. Simple as that. Expect Joseph to play right away, too. He can learn from 10-year veteran (and first-year Raider) Reggie Nelson. Plus, when head coach Jack Del Rio has raw talent in his lineup, especially up front, he prefers simpler schemes that allow guys to think less and react quicker. That’s what he’ll do here.
15. Cleveland: Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Coleman played in a wide-open Baylor offense that doesn’t translate well to the NFL. Will that be a concern? The Browns needed help at wide receiver—in large part because a certain other former Baylor receiver can’t get his act together—so you can’t fault the team for addressing this position. Most likely, the Browns knew they needed a receiver more than anything, they knew no wideouts in this class were worth a top-10 pick (hence the comfort with trading down) and they took the receiver who ranked highest on their board. Now, we can debate that board. (Should Josh Doctson or Laquon Treadwell have been higher on it?) But nevertheless, this is how the draft is supposed to work.
16. Detroit: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State
Matthew Stafford has endured 89 sacks over the last two years. And, as bad as Detroit’s pass-blocking has been, the run-blocking has been uglier. The only lineman who has not been a major liability is left tackle Riley Reiff. Playing Decker at right tackle might be a sound idea. Many believe he’s a better fit at this position anyway.
17: Atlanta: Keanu Neal, S, Florida
Dan Quinn needs a Kam Chancellor to run his Seahawks style Cover 3 hybrid scheme. In that system, the strong safety is a “high hole” defender. He plays in the area that’s too deep for linebacker but too shallow for safety. From here, route recognition can be difficult, especially when you factor in run defending responsibilities. The Falcons badly needed help at this position. William Moore was a hard hitter but too limited in coverage. He was cut after the season. Kemal Ishmael, Charles Godfrey and Therezie Robenson are all backups.
18. Indianapolis: Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama
Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. The Colts needed this. Bad. Kelly can play center and both guard positions, but unfortunately not all at once. The Colts still need two more interior offensive linemen. But they’ve taken an outstanding first step. Kelly is smart and his fundamentals were revered by Alabama defensive players who faced him everyday in practice. What killed Andrew Luck last season were long stunts from defenses. Teams would have their blitzers or, more often, their defensive ends loop across the line and up the middle, exploiting the lack of awareness and lateral agility from Indy’s interior blockers. Finding a center can potentially fix that. Only potentially, though. Help is still needed at guard.
19. Buffalo: Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
This is the best for both parties. The Bills need an outside rusher to replace Mario Williams, and Lawson will need help from the scheme. Though a prolific pass rusher at Clemson, he’s not a natural edge-bender. His NFL success will come from his ability to disengage from blocks and win with his hands—two things that he still needs to work on, by the way. In Ryan’s system, fortunately, Lawson will rarely have to burn around the corner. He’ll benefit from the threat of overload blitzes and zone exchanges that give him inside paths to the quarterback. The question is, what can he contribute in coverage? He zone-dropped a few times each game at Clemson. As Mario Williams learned (much to his chagrin), you have to do that if you play outside linebacker for Rex Ryan.
• INSIDE THE FILM ROOM WITH SHAQ LAWSON AND KEVIN DODD: The bookend pass-rushers at Clemson should each come off the board on the first night of the draft. They spent an afternoon in the film room to break down their final collegiate game: the national championship.
20. New York Jets: Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State
A fascinating pick. Todd Bowles likely sees Lee as a potential Deone Bucannon, the 220-pound safety who moved to linebacker. Lee would be a 235-pound hybrid ’backer moving to, well, linebacker. But it will be a different style of linebacking. Bowles is diverse with his pressure packages, believing strongly in the value of attacking up the middle (the shortest path to the quarterback and also the best one for disrupting a QB’s downfield vision). In these pressure concepts, players must also drop back and cover. Lee will have a lot on his plate. Some have voiced concerns about his lack of physicality. That’s fair and worth considering. But also consider that playing behind defensive linemen like Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams will really aid him.
21. Houston: Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
Sometimes it’s as simple as it looks. The Texans needed speed in their offense. DeAndre Hopkins is a playmaker but not a burner (not even close, in fact). Complementing Hopkins with speed not only expands the offense, it can also punish defenses for the convoluted, overloaded coverages they play on Hopkins.
22. Washington: Josh Doctson, WR, TCU
DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are both in contract years, so decisions will have to be made in 2017. But in 2016, watch out. Many believed Doctson was the most polished receiver in this draft. He joins a receiving corps that has speed (Jackson), possession and power (Garcon) and one of the most difficult tight ends to cover in all the land (Jordan Reed). This is one of the best-designed passing games in football. It just got both stronger and more secure for the long haul.
23. Minnesota: Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
On the surface, this appears to fill a need. But will Treadwell’s lack of speed be a concern? Speed can be overrated in the NFL because ultimately, corners have to respond to receivers, no matter how fast the receiver is running. That’s why well-honed route timing and mechanics can be enough. That said, Norv Turner’s offense is very vertical. It’s not a deep-bomb system, per se. But a route that might typically go 15 yards in one scheme could go about 18 or 19 in Turner’s. Everything is just a little stretched. Treadwell averaged 14.1 yards a catch last season and just 10.3 over the two years before that. He’s more of a possession guy. The Vikings originally acquired Mike Wallace because they needed more of a downfield element. Wallace is gone, and rightfully so. You’d think the Vikings would want someone with wheels in his stead, especially when you consider that Teddy Bridgewater is not comfortable zipping balls into tight windows. A possession guy won’t help remove blur from Bridgewater’s reads.
24. Cincinnati: William Jackson III, CB, Houston
Par for the course in Cincy. They love drafting corners early, and they’re willing to wait on their development. Dre Kirkpatrick was their first-round pick in 2012. He cracked the starting lineup in 2015. They drafted Darqueze Dennard in the first round in 2014. He figures to be the nickel this year. Now, Jackson is here to wait in the wings and eventually replace 32-year-old Adam Jones, whom the team can save $6.3 million in cap space by cutting next year.
25. Pittsburgh: Artie Burns, CB, Miami (Fla.)
This is the first time GM Kevin Colbert has drafted a corner in the first round. Typically, the Steelers wait and get those guys in the middle rounds because, in their highly complex matchup-zone scheme, spatial awareness and route recognition are more important than raw athleticism. That’s why so many middle-tier but experienced veterans (William Gay, for example) play here. But this year, things were a little different. The need at corner was just a little more pronounced (though keep in mind, we’ve yet to see last year’s rookies, second-rounder Senquez Golson and fourth-rounder Doran Grant) and, more than that, there weren’t a lot of holes to fill elsewhere. Even with Martavis Bryant suspended, this is the most explosive offense in football. Defensively, all four starting linebackers are former first-rounders, and defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have blossomed into upper-tier starters. The Steelers broke their unwritten rule and took a corner in Round 1 because they could afford to. Next, they’ll have to address safety.
26. Denver: Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis
Presumably, the is the first time in NFL history that a team has lost a 6-7 starting quarterback and replaced him with another 6-7 starting quarterback. The belief in the building at Memphis was that Lynch can be a good pro, but it’s vital that he sit and learn for at least a year. Gary Kubiak runs a very traditional zone offense. Lynch’s system at Memphis was nothing like it. No need to worry, Mark Sanchez: You’ll still have every opportunity to prove yourself this season.
27. Green Bay: Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA
Ted Thompson was the only GM who could truthfully say that his team would take the best player on their board. The Packers had no major needs. Typically, when afforded this type of freedom—and sound drafting has afforded it to him before—Thompson likes to restock the defensive line. (Examples: Datone Jones in Round 1, 2013; Jerel Worthy in Round 2, 2012; Mike Neal in Round 2 in 2010; Justin Harrell Round 1 in 2007.) Clark fits Dom Capers’ style of play, and his presence takes some of the sting off B.J. Raji’s absence.
28. San Francisco: Joshua Garnett, G, Stanford
Who? Doesn’t matter. Garnett has a pulse and so he’s better than the guards San Francisco had going into the night. In Chip Kelly’s system, mobility and athleticism are crucial along the inside O-line. Garnett is known as more of a brute blocker, however. Can he fit the scheme?
29. Arizona: Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
Cardinals GM Steve Keim told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber that a lot of Nkemdiche’s issues have to do with him being a “people pleaser.” (One of those people is his older brother Denzel.) Interestingly, people in the Cardinals organization have privately said that Tyrann Mathieu’s issues in college were also “people pleasing.” The guy didn’t know how to say no. The Mathieu risk has turned out marvelously (credit to the player and the team). But remember, Mathieu was reuniting with his college teammate and role model, Patrick Peterson. Plus, the Cardinals risked a third-rounder on him, not a first-rounder. If Nkemdiche fulfills his talent, then a defense that was already dominant through scheme, and had already added Pro Bowler Chandler Jones, just got a lot stronger.
30. Carolina: Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech
You figured the Panthers would restock their defensive line, but at D-end, not D-tackle. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have both lived up to their early-round billings from 2013. Maybe one of them—almost certainly Lotulelei—won’t be signed to an expensive long-term deal after his rookie contract expires?
31. Seattle: Germain Ifedi, OT, Texas A&M
Ifedi is exactly what Seattle needed: an athlete who can play offensive tackle or guard. They’re hurting at both positions. Don’t be surprised if the Seahawks look to O-line in the next few rounds, as well. It used to be that with Russell Wilson’s random style, O-line play wasn’t hugely important. (Not in the way we think of it with other teams, anyway.) But that changed last season when Wilson became a proficient pocket passer down the stretch. Many believe his epiphany was a result of greater trust in his front five. It’s a front five that has since been torn down and is now being rebuilt.