The Eagles might not have seen Super Bowl cornerstones when they drafted TCU tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai and LSU cornerback Jalen Mills in the fifth and seventh rounds, respectively, in 2016. But they did see something.
As one Philly staffer says, “These draft picks, they’re like your kids.”
You always see something you love. In “Big V” it was a gigantic frame with athleticism to boot. With Mills, it was competitiveness, instinctiveness, versatility, plus the fact that he’d practiced against stars like Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham as a collegian, on top of playing in the SEC.
The year the Eagles took that pair, they were depleted of picks by the Carson Wentz deal, and so Philly’s 2016 class was seen, effectively, as Wentz or bust. And yet so much more came of it. Vaitai wound up becoming the stabilizing force at left tackle when All-Pro Jason Peters got hurt last year. And Mills grew into a starter at a need spot, and even a leader as a second-year pro after fighting character questions before the draft.
It’s no stretch to say the Eagles wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl last year without them.
And it’s also no embellishment to say no one was talking about those guys in the days after the 2016 draft, mostly because when we’re all handing out grades, these sorts of picks are an afterthought for everyone on the outside. For those on the inside, though, there’s something with each of them to latch on to, and hitch your hopes to.
Given that dynamic, I can’t really tell you who has the best draft haul of 2018, because there’ll be guys like Vaitai and Mills who help win titles, and big-ticket players who will bust out and kill the promise that some of this year’s classes seem to have today. Much of what you’ll hear on Sunday and Monday and the coming weeks and is based on names we all know, and also the lack of knowledge on the ones who don’t.
So rather than sit here and tell you who ended up with the best class of 2018, I figured I’d give you what I believe to be the five most interesting classes as we close the book on this year’s draft. And we can check back on all this in a couple years. If we’d had the benefit of that kind of hindsight two years ago, we’d probably have look at Philly’s spring of 2016 a little differently.
South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst (25)
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (32)
Oklahoma OT Orlando Brown (83)
Oklahoma TE Mark Andrews (86)
Alabama CB Antony Averett (118)
UCLA LB Kenny Young (122)
New Mexico State WR Jaleel Scott (132)
UCLA WR Jordan Lasley (162)
Texas S Deshon Elliott (190)
Wagner OT Greg Senat (212)
Alabama C Bradley Bozeman (215)
Ferris State DE Zach Seiler (238)
Why it’s interesting: Jackson alone makes this class intriguing: The Ravens can easily cut Joe Flacco after the 2018 season as there’ll be no guaranteed money left on his deal, and so this clearly puts him on the clock. But beyond just that, Baltimore doubled down on tight ends, with a more traditional one in Hurst in the first round and then a move-type TE in Andrews in the third. The hope, of course, is that the two could become powerful chess pieces. Also feels like Averett was a Day 3 bargain, Brown was seen by some teams as a potential first-rounder before he bombed his combine workout, and Seiler gets to be the answer to a trivia question, as GM Ozzie Newsome’s final draft pick. (What a cool scene in the Ravens draft room, by the way.)
Florida DT Taven Bryan (29)
LSU WR DJ Chark (61)
Alabama S Ronnie Harrison (93)
NC State OT Will Richardson (129)
Nebraska QB Tanner Lee (203)
Wisconsin DE Leon Jacobs (230)
Mississippi State P Logan Cooke (247)
Why it’s interesting: Going into the draft, more than one team brought up the great spot the Jaguars were in—having such a balanced roster that there wasn’t a need they’d have to push. And it absolutely showed right off the bat, when Jacksonville tabbed Bryan to join the strongest and deepest position group on the team, one he’ll have time, as a somewhat raw prospect, to earn his keep with. The idea of adding another burner, in Chark, is that the receiving corps should help open things up further for Leonard Fournette. Harrison is a big thumper of a safety who should fit into a Kam Chancellor-type of role in the Jags’ defense, and is probably more valuable to them than he’d be elsewhere. And if Richardson’s off-field issues are cleaned up, he could grow into a long-term bookend for left tackle Cam Robinson.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley (2)
UTEP OG Will Hernandez (34)
Georgia OLB/DE Lorenzo Carter (66)
NC State DT BJ Hill (69)
Richmond QB Kyle Lauletta (108)
Miami DT RJ McIntosh (139)
Why it’s interesting: The Barkley pick is fascinating in that it represents the Giants doubling down on Eli Manning, and creating a short window of opportunity for the team to return to a championship level, putting pressure on everyone in the building in the process. Adding Hernandez to a line that will be almost completely made over around new left tackle Nate Solder is intriguing too. And Carter and Hill are potential value picks at positions that, if you look at the new GM’s history, Dave Gettleman has always invested heavily in. And the competition between Lauletta and 2017 third-rounder Davis Webb to back up Manning should be fun.
UCLA OT Kolton Miller (15)
Sam Houston State NT PJ Hall (57)
North Carolina A&T OT Brandon Parker (65)
LSU DE Arden Key (87)
Wisconsin CB Nick Nelson (110)
Michigan DT Maurice Hurst (140)
Florida P Johnny Townsend (173)
Washington ILB Azeem Victor (216)
Oklahoma State WR Marcell Ateman (228)
Why it’s interesting: Miller’s fantastic athletically, but his tape wasn’t great, so it’ll be up to new OL coach Tom Cable to get the most out of him—because there are some teams that didn’t think he was tough enough. But the bust factor with him isn’t near where it is for some of Oakland’s other picks. Key’s off-field issues had him off the board for some teams all together. Nelson tore his meniscus during a private workout with the Lions before the draft. And Hurst’s heart condition was concerning enough that a whole bunch of teams took him out of consideration completely. The good news? If Nelson’s health holds up, he’s a Day 2 value; and Key and Hurst both have first-round talent. So maybe we’ll look back in a few years and see how Jon Gruden’s first draft class set the franchise up for a decade. Or maybe not. Oh, and throwing a punter in the mix here is a fitting tribute to Gruden’s old boss, Al Davis.
Alabama LB Rashaan Evans (22)
Boston College OLB Harold Landry (41)
Arizona S Dane Cruikshank (152)
Washington State QB Luke Falk (199)
Why it’s interesting: GM Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel twice leapfrogged their old boss in Foxboro via trade, and wound up with Evans and Landry as a result. A lot of times, new coaches will use their first draft pick after getting a job as an example of what they’re looking for in players, and Evans is all of that for Vrabel—versatile, athletic, tough and a leader. He also continuously got better during the 2017 season, which shows that he was taking coaching and improving on the fly. Landry, meanwhile, brings a pass rush element that the Titans needed. And Falk is intriguing in that he gives the Titans a prospective long-term backup at a position where their 24-year-old starter has already had some injury issues as a pro.
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