While some choose to reserve judgment on a draft’s implications until there is hard data to pull from, the dramatic swings of the NFL’s three-day off-season centerpiece make it impossible to avoid the storylines that have just been laid down for the coming months.
We already handed out grades for every team’s draft class here, and below, we examine the 2017 draft’s winners and losers, with a look at those individuals outside of the 253 players selected whose situations were changed significantly by this weekend’s events.
Winner: 49ers GM John Lynch
Maybe don’t mess with the new guy? With the second pick in a wide-open draft, Lynch knew he had the league in the palm of his hand, and the moment wasn’t too big for him. San Francisco’s first-year GM got the Bears to pull the trigger on a costly trade up for Mitchell Trubisky, then landed a player the 49ers needed at pick No. 3 anyway in Stanford star Solomon Thomas, and then jumped back into Round 1 to get another top-five talent in Reuben Foster. Not bad for a greenhorn—we’ll just look past that QB depth chart for a year.
Loser: Bears coach John Fox
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Friday that the head coach only learned of the Bears’ plan to draft Trubisky a few hours before Round 1. No matter how much advance warning Fox got, Chicago is already on edge about how he’ll handle this summer’s impending competition between free-agent prize Mike Glennon and a quarterback with 13 college starts. With just nine wins in two years, Fox is in danger of being the fall guy for another season of treading water in the bottom half of the NFC North.
Winner: Bucs QB Jameis Winston
The days of Adam Humphries finishing second among Buccaneers receivers in targets are over. With the selection of first-round TE O.J. Howard and field-stretching WR Chris Godwin (in addition to the DeSean Jackson signing in March), Winston has no shortage of big-play threats to take some of the attention off Mike Evans. Tampa Bay has sent its franchise QB a message that it’s ready to put the ball in his hands and go.
Loser: Steelers WRs Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates
Bryant and Coates traded (ostensibly) playful Twitter jabs over whose job second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster had been drafted to take, but both Steelers receivers should be fully on notice. Bryant is coming off a year-long suspension that itself followed a feast-or-famine 2015 campaign, and Coates hasn’t carved out a significant role in the offense in two years as a pro. Smith-Schuster will battle for every ball Ben Roethlisberger sends his way and could slot in higher than expected on the depth chart by the end of the summer.
Winner: Bills coach Sean McDermott
A little more than 12 hours after the draft wrapped, the Bills fired GM Doug Whaley and their entire scouting department, a house-cleaning that had been rumored for weeks. Owner Terry Pegula acknowledged Sunday that McDermott will be consulted during the search for Whaley’s replacement, but the optics of the moves indicate that McDermott had a big hand in what appears to have been a solid draft. The first-year head coach ends up with feisty corner Tre’Davious White, record-breaking East Carolina wideout Zay Jones, a QB project in Nathan Peterman and a second first-round pick for 2018.
Loser: Vikings RB Latavius Murray
Murray might have thought he was walking into a starting gig when the Vikings showed him the love Oakland would not in free agency and turned the page on Adrian Peterson, but then Minnesota traded up in the second round to take Dalvin Cook, who could be the draft’s best running back if he stays in line as a pro. Despite Mike Zimmer’s preference for bringing rookies along slowly when possible, Cook could get the lion’s share of the backfield work sooner rather than later.
Winner: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
Leonard Fournette’s selection by the Jaguars at No. 4 continued the trend of elite running backs getting the love they deserve in Round 1. Barkley will be a Heisman front-runner this fall, and if he keeps Penn State near the top of the Big Ten and gets to the combine in one piece, some NFL team with a top-five pick will reward him properly.
Loser: USC QB Sam Darnold
The public sandbagging of the 2017 quarterback class will die down now that each prospect has an NFL team’s PR machine to prop him up, and so the conversation’s lasting legacy may be the ridiculous expectations placed this fall on Darnold, the breakout USC star expected to be 2018’s No. 1 QB prospect. In case the hype will need any boost, an early, early look at the teams who might be in the quarterback market next April indicates Darnold may be in danger of getting saddled with the savior role for one of L.A.’s two franchises ... or for the Jets.
Winner: The Indianapolis Zoo
In any other year, that headline would be the lazy lead-in for some fun at the expense of the dysfunctional marriage between former Colts GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano, but Rocky the orangutan’s star turn on the NFL Network’s Saturday coverage was the best moment of Day 3 and a saving grace for the league’s tedious commitment to announcing late-round picks from exotic, Bureau of Tourism–friendly locales around the country. I certainly want to go to the Indianapolis Zoo more than I want to go to the International Space Station.
With Grigson out the door and Chris Ballard now calling the shots for Indianapolis, the picks Rocky handled weren’t too shabby, either. USF’s Marlon Mack was an overlooked stud within this year’s loaded running back class, and while fellow fourth-rounder Zach Banner needs to keep his weight under control, he could add some run-blocking muscle to the O-line and help balance out the Colts’ attack. Indy made a handful of shrewd defensive upgrades over the first two days before Rocky took the stage, too.
Loser: The 2017 Browns … and the 2018 Browns
Myles Garrett will be expected to excel from Day One, but Cleveland’s next three picks (safety Jabrill Peppers, TE David Njoku, QB DeShone Kizer) were seen by many outside the organization as long-term science projects: Peppers needs a position; Njoku is super-athletic but super-raw; Kizer would benefit from a redshirt year to find some consistency. You’d think a 1–15 team that entered the draft with 11 selections might spend a handful of those picks on high-floor prospects more likely to nudge the team toward respectability right away, but there will be no rushing Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown’s rebuild. Cleveland fans may clamor for some type of reward for their patience with these players by this time next year, when the Browns again will be working with a war chest of early selections—and again should be picking high.