Disclaimer: While it’s fun to evaluate selections in April, almost none of it matters until we see the players on the field in September. Each of the following picks could be viewed as a total bust two years from now. However, given the information available at the time of writing, here are a few of my favorite selections following the first round of the 2017 NFL draft.
In no particular order:
Philadelphia Eagles 14th Overall: Derek Barnett (DE)
You don’t get Mike Williams. No Corey Davis. Not even John Ross. All those young, talented wide receivers in the top half of the draft are gone by the 14th overall pick, despite three quarterbacks also being selected.
So, what do you do?
If you’re the Eagles, you take the second highest rated pass-rusher in the draft (with better statistics than the #1 overall pick Myles Garrett) and you continue to stack an already loaded defensive front. Coordinator Jim Schwartz is going to have a field day coaching up Barnett in a room that holds veteran leadership Chris Long and ProfootballFocus’s #2 pass rusher last season Brandon Graham. Combine that with monster interior linemen in Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan and Philly has compiled a defensive front that could rival any in the league. There were a lot of proponents who wanted the Eagles to take a corner at #14 given the talent available and lack of roster depth going into the draft. Barnett, on paper, was the better choice for several reasons:
- Realistically, the Eagles would have liked to take a star wide receiver at #14 and continue building the talent around their franchise quarterback. Considering Williams, Ross and Davis were all (surprisingly) off the board by their first pick, it was wise to go with the next best talent available in the draft—which Barnett was.
- This draft class was unusually deep at the cornerback position, meaning the Eagles could still pick up decent CBs on day two, and they did. Before his injury, Sidney Jones would have been the top pick for the Eagles if still available. Instead they get him in the second round, while also adding depth with Rasul Douglas.
- I don’t trust the Eagles, or the league in general, in scouting the talent of defensive backs. No position in football outside of left tackle and quarterback sees as many first round busts or failure-to-live-up as the cornerback. There is a mental component inherent to the position that does not come across in combine measureables or college production. Many of the league’s current top corners were either mid-to-late round selections or went undrafted. Obviously, there can be hits in the first round, like last year’s Jalen Ramsey. But he was a consensus favorite who many believed to be the most talented player in the entire draft. Richard Sherman and Josh Norman were both picked in the fifth round. A. J. Bouye, Chris Harris Jr. and Malcolm Butler all went undrafted. It’s possible being late-selects/going undrafted gave these the guys the fire and drive to be pro-bowl caliber corners. It’s also possible that the league is currently unable to efficiently scout the position. There is just too much risk taking a corner in the first round when multiple mid-level talents can be had for lower picks.
San Francisco 49ers 31st Overall Pick: Reuben Foster (LB)
John Lynch got a lot of flak at the beginning of free agency for over-paying players the rest of the league did not value. While time and record will be the better judge of Lynch’s legacy, his first two moves in this year’s draft were well-played. He was able to fleece Chicago for two-3rd round picks and a 4th just to swap the 2nd and 3rd overall pick, while still selecting consensus favorite Solomon Thomas. His best move of the night came from trading back into the first round to select former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster.
Despite off the field issues and a possibly needing a shoulder surgery, Foster was the highest rated player at his position going into the draft. The 49ers were able to get Foster by giving up a 4th round pick (the very same traded from Chicago earlier) to move up from 34th overall to Seattle’s 31st overall pick. It cost the 49ers nothing they didn’t have going into the draft to select two consensus top five defensive players, which again shows the value of the early trade with Chicago.
Another underrated aspect of moving back into the first round—assuming Foster lives up to expectations—is the fifth year option. Players selected in the first round of the draft are on four-year contracts with a fifth year option for teams to elect to pick up. It ends up being a cheaper option than signing the player to an extension, as well as giving teams an extra year to evaluate and pay players ahead of their first big contract. The fifth year option payment, in terms of quantity, also differs based upon selection spot in the draft, with top 10 contracts being more expensive than the bottom twenty. It was clear early in the draft that Foster would not go top 10 despite predictions of top 5 talent, but the 49ers were able to grab him at 31st overall, which reinforces the value of the pick. Pretty impressive stuff for a newly minted GM.
Los Angeles Chargers 7th Overall Pick: Mike Williams (WR)
I have been high on Mike Williams since watching him in the National Championship game. While he lacks the game-breaking speed of John Ross or the route-running ability of Corey Davis, Mike Williams is a solid, all-around wide-receiver with great hands that can win contested balls. Pair him with a gun-slinging quarterback like Phillip Rivers in a pass heavy offense and you have the perfect setup to utilize his skills. I wanted Williams to go to Philadelphia to provide a long-time target for Carson Wentz to rely upon. Instead, Phillip Rivers gains another receiving threat to provide depth to a unit that has been decimated with injuries for two seasons in a row. A strong, talented young skill-player could give some life to the Chargers’ offense and help them make one last push for the Super Bowl ahead of Phillip Rivers retiring.
Buffalo Bills 27th Overall: Tre’Davious White (CB)
While White was a solid college player at his position, much of the hype behind this selection was the trade involved. Buffalo was able to trade the 10th overall pick to Kansas City for a 2017 third round and 2018 first round pick. The Bills are in a rebuild. They just hired a new coach (the third in three years), then fired their general manager following the NFL draft. They need draft picks. They need to start padding out selections to build a better team. What they didn’t need was to reach for a quarterback in an underwhelming class.
Many thought the Bills would take a chance on Deshaun Watson or Deshone Kizer with the 10th overall pick. But they already have a quality starter in place. Tyrod Taylor may not be a Matt Ryan or Tom Brady, but he’s good enough for now. The Bills have a bedrock roster in place to build upon and a serviceable quarterback that can win games. I don’t think Taylor is the long-term answer, and he probably won’t be leading them to a Super Bowl this season. But the Bills are in a position of flexibility. They can see how the market pans out next season, and with their added draft capital they should be in position to maneuver for the guy they want. A team like Cleveland has to do something at the QB position, even if that means going with Deshone Kizer for a year. They have no back-up and no other option in place if they hope to compete on any level this season beyond 1-15. The Bills are fine with Tyrod and were able to pick up a talented, starting level corner to replace Stephon Gilmore while adding a 2018 first round pick.
Indianapolis Colts 15th Overall: Malik Hooker (S)
It’s hard to be high on such a pick that fell perfectly into the Colts lap, but their organization showed restraint. After years of poor drafting under former GM Ryan Grigson, the Colts have gone all-in on revamping their defense this offseason. They brought in Jabaal Sheard and John Simon to fortify the linebacker and pass-rush position. Then they signed Johnathan Hankins, a league-leading defensive lineman against the run. With the 15th pick they could have given in to the urge to continue building their Andrew Luck led offense. O. J. Howard, the consensus #1 tight end was still on the board. Both offensive tackles, Garrett Bolles and Ryan Ramczyk were still picks away from being drafted. Instead, they went with an obvious, but beneficial choice: Ohio State’s Malik Hooker.
In nearly every mock draft of the last two months, Hooker was a lock-in for Gus Bradley’s newly minted Chargers defense. Most analysts had him just a hair behind Jamaal Adams as the draft’s highest rated safety and he was largely considered a top-five to ten talent. Instead, the Colts get him at #15. The league has seen a resurgence at the safety position. Like quarterback, safety has become a linchpin to elite level defenses and the league is becoming divided between the haves and have-nots. Seattle has Earl Thomas (and was nowhere near the same team in his absence). The Giant’s re-routed their defense with Landon Collins. New England has Devin McCourty. Atlanta and Keanu Neal. The safety position is essential to building a high-caliber defense. Two years removed from an AFC Championship game, it’s hard to say the Colts are in a re-build this year. But the defense is definitely going through growing pains. Hooker is a leap in the right direction.