2017 NFL Draft: First Impressions of First Round
Every team that picked in the first round Thursday will say they got their board’s top guy. And that they couldn’t believe he was still available. Some of this will be true, and some of it false. Most of it will be a bit of both.
What always skews the equation is how a player fits his new team’s scheme. It’s not as simple as a team having a need at a position and a man who plays that position. It’s about how that man plays the position.
The most fascinating illustration is the Panthers’ selection, eighth overall, of Stanford Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey. GM Dave Gettleman will surely say McCaffrey was their top running back choice. Most likely, the top choice was actually LSU bruiser Leonard Fournette (taken fourth overall by Jacksonville).
Disclaimer: If McCaffrey turns out to be a transcendent NFL talent, then these next few paragraphs will be rendered moot. But truly transcendent talents rarely come around. If McCaffrey winds up just being a versatile, dynamic weapon, as many scouts expect, then there’s a fascinating disconnect with him in Carolina.
Players such as McCaffrey, who can line up anywhere and are most dangerous in space, are built for spread offenses that are predicated on quick-timed passing games. Think Darren Sproles or Randall Cobb. The reason for this is that the mismatches the running back creates by flexing to receiver often reveal the coverage before the snap. That information is what helps the QB get the ball out quickly.
The Panthers can’t run a quick-strike passing game. That system demands precise ball-placement and timing. Cam Newton is not that type of quarterback. He’s a deep-dropback power thrower.
The Panthers know this. Not only have they built a passing game on deep dropbacks, but they’ve also acquired big, methodical receivers for Newton (Kelvin Benjamin, first round in 2014; Devin Funchess, second round in 2015; Greg Olsen via trade in 2011). They haven’t selected the Sproles or Cobb type players because those guys don’t fit Newton or the scheme.
McCaffrey is a greater talent than Sproles or Cobb, but the point is that stylistically, he’s cut from their cloth. To maximize McCaffrey’s value, the Panthers must tweak their scheme in ways it can’t be tweaked. You don’t just install a bunch of quick-strike throws and execute them on Sunday. Those plays must be your foundation. They must be practiced repeatedly. And they must be executed by a precise quarterback and quicker skill position players. McCaffrey is Carolina’s only quick skill player. Essentially he’s a sports car that’s about to go off-roading with a fleet of trucks.
The good news is McCaffrey’s shiftiness will work well behind the moving pieces of Carolina’s run-blocking. And as a checkdown receiver, he has the potential to conjure extra yards. But make no mistake: McCaffrey became a top-10 prospect because of his ability to line up anywhere and create in space. There won’t be natural opportunities for that in Carolina.
And now, for my quick analysis of every pick in round 1:
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Editor’s note: Click name for MMQB article about each player, where applicable.
1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Congratulations, Browns, you did the right thing. Instead of reaching for your 27th starting quarterback since 1999, you took the edge rusher you needed in the worst of ways. Even better, you got the highest regarded edge rusher to enter the league since Von Miller (2011). An explosive edge force is the fastest way to change the profile of your defense; Garrett forces the opposing offense to play on your schedule. This also makes the Browns’ 2016 picks better; Emmanuel Ogbah (drafted 32nd overall) can now play defensive tackle in nickel, where he’s better suited, and Carl Nassib (65th overall) will have the option to align inside or outside.
2. Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
(The Bears traded the third, 67th and 111th overall picks in 2017 and a third-round pick in 2018 to San Francisco.)
Talk about a roll of the dice. Not only did the Bears turn their backs on what we (and maybe they?) thought would be their quarterback beyond 2017, Mike Glennon, but they traded a boatload of picks to get a guy riddled with question marks. After sitting for most of his first two years at North Carolina, Trubisky might sit for his first season in the NFL. Whenever he does get on the field, he’ll be asked to run a quick-strike offense that uses a lot of three-receiver sets. That presents similarities to what he ran at UNC, but as with almost any NFL offense, he’ll have to make a greater number of decisive throws inside. Aiding his efforts: the Bears have a very strong zone running game.
3. San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas, DT, Stanford
Where will Thomas play? The Niners are installing a 4-3 zone defense and already have a pair of quality young interior pass rushers in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Thomas can rush off the edge, but he’s only worth a No. 3 pick because of his ability in confined areas. There’s time for head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to figure it out, and too much talent is a good problem to have. But as it stands, one quality young defensive lineman, be it Buckner, Thomas or, most likely, Armstead, will have to play slightly out of position in San Fran’s predominant nickel package.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
New football czar Tom Coughlin and head coach Doug Marrone (an O-line guy) want to help Blake Bortles by featuring an old-school, run-based offense. Fournette is more than proven in this category. If all works out, not only will the Jaguars balance their extremely talented defense with a ground game, but they’ll also be able to execute more of their aerial concepts out of run formations, which better clarifies the field for Bortles. And don’t forget: Incumbent running back T.J. Yeldon is more agile and light-footed than he appears—plus he can pass-block. The Jags have a potentially great one-two punch.
5. Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
Most likely the Titans wish they could have traded down and gotten Davis later. But to their credit, they still took their guy when the phones didn’t ring. Smart drafting. The idea is to acquire players that your team can use. And the Titans absolutely can use a wide receiver. The question is whether Davis is the right one. This receiving corps needs speed. Some see Davis more as a possession type.
6. New York Jets: Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Todd Bowles wanted ex-Cardinal Tony Jefferson in free agency. (Jefferson chose Baltimore.) Marcus Gilchrist, assuming he returns comfortably from last December’s patellar tendon rupture, is versatile in coverage, but the implication is that Bowles is not enamored with the 2014 first-round strong safety he inherited, Calvin Pryor. Or maybe Bowles wants to play more three-safety packages like he did as the defensive coordinator in Arizona. However it’s sliced, Adams fits. He’s an outstanding open-field tackler, he can blitz and, as he wants people to know, he can cover. This is especially critical because in Bowles’s scheme, safeties often must convert their zone coverage into man. Not many can, but Adams is capable.
7. Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
The Chargers must love Williams, because they didn’t need him. Keenan Allen and Dontrelle Inman are extraordinary route runners, particularly at the intermediate levels. Travis Benjamin injects speed into their three-receiver sets. Tyrell Williams, undrafted in 2015, is mistake-prone but very talented. With polish, he can easily top the 1,059 yards he posted in 2016. It may be tough for Tyrell Williams to get that polish now; many of his reps will go to Mike Williams, who is here because he makes contested catches.
8. Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR, Stanford
9. Cincinnati Bengals: John Ross, WR, Washington
You’ve probably heard that you can’t coach speed. You also can’t defend it when it’s employed opposite A.J. Green. Defenses very well may keep two safeties back at all times, which would help fix running back Jeremy Hill’s perplexing problems. The rest of Ross’s game may well be more refined than what meets the eye. If it’s not, at least he’s joining a team whose receivers are some of the best-coached in football.
10. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
(The Chiefs traded the 27th and 91st overall picks and a 2018 first rounder to the Bills.)
Mind-blowing. Andy Reid’s offense is highly structured. All it needs is a quarterback who runs the plays properly. (Hence the success they’ve had with Alex Smith.) Mahomes is not that. While uber-talented, Mahomes was a willy-nilly sandlot player at Texas Tech, despite operating in an Air Raid system, which demands quick decisions. He’ll have a lot to learn.
11. New Orleans Saints: Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
This is exactly what the Saints needed. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen likes to blitz and disguise coverages. You can only do that if your defensive backs are trustworthy on an island. The Saints only had one like that: Delvin Breaux. With Lattimore on the other side, their scheme opens up.
12. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
(The Texans traded the 25th overall pick and a 2018 first rounder to the Browns.)
Your college coach called you Michael Jordan, and your new team has Super Bowl aspirations. Oh, and they traded next year’s first-round pick to get you. No pressure. Watson’s first NFL offseason is about to be dogged by one question: Can he be the Week 1 starter? If we’re to examine Bill O’Brien’s full system, which features complex option routes, the answer is probably no. But O’Brien in recent years has reduced his scheme to accommodate his struggling quarterbacks. The guess here is he’ll do the same early for Watson.
13. Arizona Cardinals: Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
A simple case of a team filling a need. The Cardinals’ defense was rocked in free agency. Reddick, experienced at multiple positions, fits their diverse scheme, most notably in the all-important passing down sub-packages. And if nothing else, he fills the hole that’s looming at linebacker behind projected starter Karlos Dansby.
14. Philadelphia Eagles: Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Many felt the Eagles’ biggest need was cornerback, but in a zone scheme like Jim Schwartz’s, pass rushers are more important. The only way you can play zone in the NFL is by forcing the quarterback to release the ball sooner than he wants. Barnett was a prolific sacker in college and will operate across from Brandon Graham, one of the league’s most underrated edge-attackers. And as a bonus, the rookie’s workload can be managed this season, since ex-Ram/Patriot Chris Long, a solid first- and second-down player, was signed in free agency.
15. Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
Just about any position on defense could have been upgraded here. The Colts chose the furthest position back, selecting this draft’s purest free safety. Hooker’s presence clarifies roles for two other defensive backs: T.J. Green, last year’s second-rounder, who will be a pure strong safety, and Darius Butler, the veteran slot corner who will remain in that position rather than sliding to centerfield. Indy’s secondary has struggled to generate turnovers. The rangy Hooker had seven interceptions last year at Ohio State.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
Ravens fans might wonder how this could be the Alabama defender GM Ozzie Newsome took, given that defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster were still on the board. Humphrey comes with fewer questions than those guys. Most first-round corners are touted for their man coverage skills, which makes sense: man-to-man requires more athleticism than any other chore in football, and great athletes are the ones who go in the first round. But with Humphrey, scouts are high on his ability in zone coverage. Fluid hips give him the transitional movement skills to squat and break on balls. The Ravens play a lot of zone. Humphrey could have time to learn, too. With Cowboys free agent Brandon Carr aboard, and last year’s fourth-rounder, Tavon Young, coming off a nice rookie season, there is outstanding depth at corner.
17. Washington: Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Washington filled an area of need with a three-down player whom many projected to go top 10. With a strong presence now accompanying Ryan Kerrigan, new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on third downs can emphasize fundamentally sound coverage rather than blitzing. That seems to be how head coach Jay Gruden prefers to play.
18. Tennessee Titans: Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Most fans and media didn’t notice, but last season Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, regarded as a founding father of the zone blitz, played mostly man-to-man in November and December. LeBeau believed that man coverage better accommodated his disguised pressure tactics. Even before the April 13 release of Jason McCourty, the Titans had a dire need at corner. Don’t be surprised if Jackson starts opposite newly acquired Patriots free agent Logan Ryan in Week 1.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Look out: Not only have the Bucs added maybe the NFL’s fastest wide receiver in DeSean Jackson, they’ve also brought in the best rookie tight end prospect. And last year’s starting tight end, Cameron Brate, was the most improved player in the league at his position. Long and flexible, Brate can line up anywhere and produce. With Brate and Howard on the field together, and the Bucs still being a classic run-oriented offense, Jameis Winston is going to be working against more base defenses. In a base defense, the pass defenders are slower and the coverage looks are simpler.
20. Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles, OT, Utah
This wasn’t a hard one to see coming. The Broncos had gigantic question marks at their starting tackle spots—Donald Stephenson and Menelik Watson, plus the long-struggling Ty Sambrailo—and their pick of all the linemen in this draft. Scouts like Bolles’s athleticism, which will serve him well in zone-blocking and pass protection.
21. Detroit Lions: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
With the unfortunate derailing of DeAndre Levy’s career (knee problems), the Lions needed a stack ’backer. Tahir Whitehead is an active, dynamic player, but not always the most trustworthy. A stabilizing force could work wonders. More importantly, though, Davis is believed to be a quality contributor in pass defense. Some have even compared him to Carolina’s uber-athletic Shaq Thompson. In today’s NFL, coverage ability at linebacker is critical.
22. Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Cross-apply the earlier analysis of the Eagles here. First-time defensive coordinator Matt Burke hails from the Jim Schwartz school. He believes in straightforward zone coverage. Which means it’s impossible for the Dolphins to have too many pass rushers. (Zone coverage can’t work without a quality four-man rush.) Harris will learn behind Cameron Wake, who at 35 might need to assume an even more reduced role but can still bend around a corner. With Andre Branch re-signed and ex-Ram William Hayes now aboard, Harris doesn’t have to contribute heavily right away.
23. New York Giants: Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
It had become painful watching Giants tight ends Will Tye and Larry Donnell play. Neither could run-block well and, worse, both were reliable when it came to failed catches. (Tye due to limited athletic flexibility, Donnell to shaky hands.) At worst, Engram can rectify the catching problem. At best, he can revolutionize an already scary passing game. For all the Giants’ talent at wide receiver, the lack of threat over the middle of the field made their simplistic, execution-based passing game too easy to defend tactically.
24. Oakland Raiders: Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
This is an interesting selection for more reasons than just the obvious off-field one. Conley is regarded as a long, stiffer-hipped corner. Which means, stylistically, he’s a lot like current Raiders starter Sean Smith. Perhaps that’s whom Conley is here to replace. But Smith, while not always consistent, was decent enough in 2016. What the Raiders really needed was someone to play the slot. They haven’t found that yet, but perhaps there are mid-round corner prospects they like.
25. Cleveland Browns: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
They got it right on their second pick, too. While some question Peppers’ ball skills, he’s a great athlete in space. He won’t miss tackles the way last year’s starting strong safety, Ibraheim Campbell, so often did. Peppers can move all over; new coordinator Gregg Williams, one of football’s most innovative schemers, will capitalize on it. Bottom line: Defensive end may have been the Browns’ biggest need, but safety was their biggest problem last year. Both have now been addressed.
26. Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, OLB/DE, UCLA
(The Falcons traded the 31st, 95th and 249th overall picks to the Seahawks.)
Atlanta’s young, rapidly improving defense had only one need: an edge rusher opposite Vic Beasley. If McKinley shows half the determined energy on the field that he did onstage Thursday night, well, he’ll get 15 sacks and about that many personal fouls flags a year.
27. Buffalo Bills: Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
Sean McDermott must love him because in McDermott’s zone scheme, corner is not a premium position. (Recall McDermott’s old team, the Panthers, letting Josh Norman walk in free agency.) It’s believed White can play outside and in the slot, which is rarer than you’d guess and very valuable in pro football. He’s a quality press artist but some doubt his ability in off-coverage. That will have to be cleaned up if he’s to prosper in McDermott’s system.
28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
Theme of the night: zone-based defenses taking edge rushers. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta all did it. And now Dallas, the team that needed that help more than any outside of Cleveland.
29. Cleveland Browns: David Njoku, TE, Miami
(The Browns traded the 33rd overall pick and a fourth-rounder to Green Bay.)
It’s a huge testament to the state of Cleveland’s football operations that this pick wasn’t spent on a quarterback. No pure first-round prospects existed in this draft and so the Browns didn’t take any. (Their analytics must say not to reach for players.) Njoku, who is very young and built to win in the red zone, is likely an eventual replacement for the clunky but effective Gary Barnidge. But if the rookie can develop rapidly, he could join Barnidge to give the Browns a sturdy two-tight end base offense, which would accompany their ground game well.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers: T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
(Insert unfair reference to brother here.) There’s nowhere to build on Pittsburgh’s offense. Every position is loaded. The defense is young and rising but needed another edge presence. Watt’s arrival allows soon-to-be 39-year-old James Harrison to play an ancillary role and makes Arthur Moats, demoted last year, a rotational guy rather than starter. Pittsburgh’s scheme is complex, so it might not be realistic to expect a rookie to start on Day 1. But whenever Watt cracks the lineup, he’ll be opposite Bud Dupree, creating one of the more dynamic young edge defender tandems in football.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Nobody doubts the ability. Foster is a true three-down linebacker with multidirectional speed. But there are three questions: 1) His reported shoulder problem; 2) the off-field issues, including a diluted sample at the combine; and most interesting, 3) his struggles with drawing up plays on the board. The good news is you can work around classroom difficulties; football IQ on the field is what matters most. And San Francisco’s scheme, which will be Seahawks style under new coordinator Robert Saleh, is not overly complex. It allows for guys to pin back their ears and play. If Foster’s shoulder and maturity are sound, he has a chance to stabilize a linebacking corps that was rocked by injuries last season.
32. New Orleans Saints: Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
Pundits will paint this as protection for Drew Brees, but more immediately, it’s an insurance policy at right tackle. Longtime starter Zach Strief turns 34 in September. Strief, however, has overcome slow feet and could be mechanically equipped to survive NFL old age. If he does for another year or two, Brees might turn 40 before Ramczyk even enters the lineup.
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