3 days. 7 Rounds. 254 Picks.
There’s far too many takeaways to unpack from the 2019 NFL Draft but these five teams bolstered their rosters best, found great value in their picks over the weekend, made superb scheme fits, and addressed some of their biggest needs for 2019 and beyond. Just like my Top AFC Draft Hauls article, I present my five most impressive NFC Draft classes (in no particular order).
The Cardinals got their QB (Again). Kliff Kingsbury’s crown jewel, Oklahoma quarterback and reigning Heisman winner Kyler Murray went first overall as expected. Murray height, running ability, baseball contract, and football resume make him one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in a long time. In High School, Murray was 43-0, won three state championships in Texas’ highest level, and earned numerous 2014 National Player of the Year Awards. After transferring from Texas A&M (where Kingsbury initially recruited him), and sitting a year behind Fellow Heisman winner Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, Murray took the college football universe by storm in 2018. Murray finished 2018 with a 12-2 record at the helm and put up Baker Mayfield-esque numbers, including a 69% completion percentage, 4,362 yards passing, a 42:7 TD to interception ratio, 1,001 yards rushing, and 12 rushing touchdowns before losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoffs. The Cardinals went outside the usual NFL norm with the hiring of Kingsbury, and if his Air Raid attack is going to be successful in the NFL, the best chance is with Kyler Murray orchestrating it.
Murray wasn’t the only Cardinals pick that had Kingsbury’s fingerprints all over it. The Cardinals added multiple scheme complementary wide receivers in Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella (2nd Round), Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler (4th), and Fresno State’s Keesean Johnson (6th). The smaller speedy Isabella posted a combined 229 catches, 3,519 receiving yards, 314 rushing yards, and 32 total touchdowns the last three seasons for the Minutemen, including 1,689 receiving yards to lead college football last year, he ran a 4.31 40 yard dash, and has been training with Hall of Famer Randy Moss to prepare for the NFL. Isabella’s awareness in zone and feel for defenders make him an ideal fit for this system. Hakeem Butler was a Draft Twitter darling over the last few months, with his production as a Cyclone and measurements in Indianapolis, and his fall to the 4th round was surprising to many. The 6′ 5 3/8″ Butler was the tallest and longest wide receiver with the largest hands at the combine (3rd largest for a WR since 2000). In 2018, Butler produced 60 catches, 1,318 receiving yards (22 y/r), and 9 touchdowns, with 25 of his 60 catches going for 20+ yards, and a 119 passer rating when targeted. Isabella and Butler’s abilities should bode well on the outside in 4-receiver sets, with Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk (Murray’s teammate at Texas A&M) in the slot. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the smooth and strong handed Keesean Johnson sees some targets in 2019, after starting at Fresno State for 4 years and recording 95 catches, 1,340 yards, and 8 touchdowns last year. Arizona also, finally, addressed their offensive line in the 6th round by selecting Georgia interior offensive lineman, Lamont Gaillard, a 3-year starter and Captain for the Bulldogs whose physicality, finishing ability, and great leverage should allow for him to compete for snaps on the inside of the Cardinals line.
The Cardinals addressed the defense starting with the first pick of the 2nd Round by drafting Washington’s Byron Murphy, a ball-hawking corner with a high football IQ and great instincts to play opposite star Patrick Peterson. Murphy may have fallen out of the 1st round due to a lack of size and speed desired for most outside corners but his ability in zone coverage is a fantastic fit for Vance Joseph’s defense. In the 3rd Round, the Cardinals added Boston College edge defender Zach Allen, a terror on the edge who tallied 40.5 tackles for loss in his college career, pursues until the whistle blows (an astounding 100 tackles as a defensive lineman his junior season), and whose only knock might be a lack of elite traits as a pass rusher off the edge. Adding to their secondary needs, the Cardinals drafted Alabama safety Deionte Thompson in the 5th Round, a player who didn’t test prior to the draft amid rumors of athletic deficiencies but was productive as a starter in 2018 and has potential to grow behind Budda Baker and D.J. Swearinger.
The Cardinals found a lot of talented contributors in this draft but are downgraded slightly for not addressing one of the worst offensive lines in the league earlier in the draft and for the Josh Rosen debacle. Hopefully, their Air Raid offense will mask some of the deficiencies along the Cardinals offensive line, one of the many downfalls for Josh Rosen last year, but it should be noted that Kyler Murray has been surrounded by future NFL offensive linemen from High School to Texas A&M to Oklahoma. Additionally, while Josh Rosen did net the Cardinals the 62nd pick in 2019, it did cost them the 10th, 15th, 79th, and 152nd picks in the 2018 Draft, as well as a 5th Rounder in 2020.
First, there was backlash and uproar for not selecting Ed Oliver when he fell.. NOT ANOTHER TIGHT END (See – Ebron, Eric), then when the name “Jahlani Tavai” was announced by former Lions great Billy Simms, the Lions fans hit the panic button and were ready for the meltdown. 50 years of losing will cause friction, built-up anger, denial, and most importantly ignorant instant overreaction to grab your torch and pitchfork amongst the fan base in the Motor City.
National pundits gave low “grades” for a draft class that had yet to set foot in the Allen Park training facility. When I look at the last two Drafts and Free Agency periods under Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn I see a cohesive plan for how they want to build their roster which can’t be said for a number of teams in the league.
Selecting Iowa tight end TJ Hockenson in the 1st Round addresses a big need on offense. Hockenson’s game film includes numerous pancake blocks, unexpected hurdles, and a vengeful Hulk rage when the ball is in his hands. Hockenson, the first Sophomore to win the John Mackey Award, will provide Matthew Stafford with potentially the most potent large weapon over the middle and down the seams of his career, but his ability in the run department is what sets him apart and further exudes Bob Quinn’s roster plan. In addition to Hockenson, in the 2018 Draft Quinn selected guard Frank Ragnow (1st Round), running back Kerryon Johnson (2nd), tackle Tyrell Crosby (5th), and fullback Nick Bawden (6th), as well as recently signed tight end Jesse James, running back CJ Anderson, and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, all of these moves show a concentrated effort to upgrade and establish the run game in the D.
Defensively in the last year, Bob Quinn has added cornerstone players Trey Flowers, Damon Harrison, Devon Kennard, Tracy Walker (2018 – 3rd Round), and Da’Shawn Hand (2018 – 4th Round), all very productive players perfectly tailored to head coach Matt Patricia’s complex scheme. The team’s 2nd Round selection, Hawaii’s Jahlani Tavai, is built like an old school linebacker, lacks desired speed, and similarly to the Tracy Walker pick, who thrived in 268 snaps in 2018 and is primed to slide into Glover Quin’s role, was classified as a “reach” by most members of the media. Quinn stuck to his big board and in Tavai he gets a non-stop motor player with outstanding strength at the point of attack, a high football IQ, with years of production in college (390 tackles, 41 tackles for loss, and 16.5 sacks), who can play in the middle and on the edge, and most importantly will allow Jarrad “Junkyard” Davis to move around more, potentially think less, and just concentrate on his own playmaking assignment. The Lions other Day 2 pick, Boston College Safety Will Harris, again exemplifies the values of the Detroit defense, toughness, versatility, scheme flexibility, outstanding football IQ, and leadership abilities. Harris flew around the field for the Golden Eagles, can play deep safety, thump in the box, or lineup with tight ends in the slot, and will be put in favorable positions amongst the other Lions safeties. The Lions hit home runs early in Day 3, 4th Round Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant is a selfless player who will perfectly protect the outside lane in run support and can collapse the pocket in the passing game, while 5th Round Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye has incredible length, physicality at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point, and was widely considered to be a Top 50 talent. Expect Oruwariye to compete immediately for the starting cornerback spot opposite of Darius Slay.
Detroit added a number of offensive depth players with intriguing traits on Day 3. Old Dominion wide receiver Travis Fulgham, who drew some similarities to current Lion Kenny Golladay, had 18 receptions of 20+ yards in 2018 (2nd among draft-eligible WRs), recorded 51 receptions for a first down or touchdown last year (11th), and was noted by many scouts and analysts as being the best stalk blocker in the Draft. While Maryland running back Ty Johnson’s time in College Park saw the program go through four head coaches, four offensive coordinators, and four offensive systems, in 2018, while splitting time in the backfield, Johnson notched 7.7 yards per attempt (2nd among draft-eligible RBs), 5.08 yards after contact per attempt (2nd), and had a breakaway percentage (Runs of 15+ yards) of 53.5% (3rd). Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta, the former #1 TE recruit in 2015, performed poorly at the NFL Combine but played faster in Athens than tested, displayed great hands and could be a valuable 3rd tight end in the NFL.
The Lions massively upgraded their rushing and passing attack, in the 1st Round alone, and found at least four defensive players (if not more) who have defined roles and should contribute this season on a Matt Patricia lead defense which in the last quarter of the 2018 season (Weeks 14-17), under the first-year coach, finished in the top 5 in the NFL in points allowed (2nd), total yards allowed (3rd), rushing yards allowed (5th), first downs allowed (5th), and opponent third down conversion percentage (5th). The Lions defense in Year 2 under Matt Patricia could surprise many in the league and become a dominant unit.
General Manager John Schneider built a Legion of Boom or Bust near-Dynasty in the Pacific Northwest and as he reloads the roster around Russell Wilson for another go-around, it’s Drafts like these that should give the Seahen faithful reason for hope. Despite starting the weekend with a league-low 5 draft picks and navigating through the whirlwind storm revolving around Doug Baldwin’s possible retirement, Schneider shined and ended up with 11 draft picks.
In the 1st Round, the Seahawks selected TCU edge defender L.J. Collier, a disruptive edge defender who can kick inside on passing downs and has drawn comparisons to former Seahawk great Michael Bennett. The Seahawks addressed the second level of the defense behind Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright by adding two undersized and athletic PAC-12 linebackers in Utah’s Cody Barton (3rd Round) and Washington’s Ben Burr-Kirven (5th Round). Barton only started one full season at Utah, has experience as a Rover and Mike, and is a big effort and instinctive player who can generate shock with his heavy hands. The local Burr-Kirven is similar to Barton with a lack of prototypical NFL size and is incredibly instinctive for the position, he tested off the charts at the Combine, contributed all four years as a Husky, and is a tackling machine who plays with reckless abandon. To rebuild the Legion of Boom on the last level of defense the Seahawks went with the aggressive and active safety Marquise Blair from Utah in the 2nd and the tough and versatile Ugochukwu Amadi from Oregon in the 4th. The rangy Blair has a free safety body with a Kam Chancellor mindset, which can sometimes be costly with targeting penalties, while Amadi, a Permanent Captain at Oregon, may not have a defined position but brings the character and leadership that every locker room needs.
Offensively, Schneider found playmakers to go along with Tyler Lockett and David Moore in Day 2 and Day 3, starting with a fortuitous fall for Ole Miss wide receiver and physical dynamo DK Metcalf. Metcalf is a tantalizing player, who blew up after his mind-numbing gym photo and NFL Combine performance, he showed flashes in Oxford, but never put it together for a full season. Metcalf is vertical threat who can make contested catches and he should thrive in Seattle as Russell Wilson is one of the best bucket throwers in the NFL. After selecting the athletic but inconsistent Metcalf, the Seahawks found two players who consistently produced the last few Falls in West Virginia’s Gary Jennings (4th Round) and Hawaii’s John Ursua (7th Round). Jennings is a reliable possession receiver whose impressive numbers at the Combine surprised some, his last two seasons in Morgantown have two stark differences in production. In 2017, Jennings had 97 catches (4th in NCAAF), 1096 yards (11.3 y/r), and only 1 TD, then as a senior, battling a high ankle sprain in the 2nd half of the season, he posted 54 catches, 917 yards (17 y/r), and 13 TDs. Ursua was a productive WR his first two seasons at Hawaii but splashed on to the scene in 2018 with 89 catches, 1343 yards, and lead the country with 16 receiving TDs. The additions of Wake Forrest guard Phil Haynes and Miami running back Travis Homer should upgrade the bench offensively immediately.
With the influx of talent added on defense and the playmakers added to the receiving corps, for the Seahawks new $140 million dollar man in Russell Wilson, the 12th Man’s team is in a good position to compete with the Rams for supremacy of the NFC West.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not since before Jon Gruden, with a clenched jawl, was swashbuckling and firing off cannonballs in Raymond James Stadium have the Buccaneers been able to pull off a draft of this caliber. The first five selections should contribute and further upgrade a defense being helmed by Todd Bowles.
Aaron “Safest Pick in the Draft” Curry was the last linebacker to be selected in the top 5, going to the Seahawks in 2009, LSU’s Devin White may not have the size, read-and-reaction skills, or as consistent tackling ability as Curry was thought to have coming out of college, but his athleticism and caged animal demeanor on the field are what had scouts raving. White brings a much needed win-at-all-costs mentality to the organization and will be a monster patrolling the middle of the field with Lavonte David (replacing Kwon Alexander), Kendell Beckwith, and an infusion of backers off the bench.
The Buccaneers should have the ammunition in coverage to make the transition from a Mike Smith defense to Todd Bowles defense. Since the 2016 NFL Draft, their Front Office has allotted the following picks to the defensive backfield: 1st (1), 2nd (4), 3rd (3), and 4th (2). Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, now being able to press more, and safety Justin Evans have established themselves as starters but everything else is up for grabs this offseason. After spending two 2018 2nd Round picks on corners Carlton Davis, another monster press player, and MJ Stewart (may see time at safety), with many ups-and-downs, the Bucs doubled down on the perimeter by bringing in Central Michigan’s Sean Bunting in the 2nd and Auburn’s Jamel Dean in the 3rd. Bunting is a lanky press corner with decent ball skills (9 interceptions in 3 seasons at CMU) and Dean is a size-speed corner with one year of starting experience with several medical red flags (knee) and raw technique. Their other 3rd round pick, Kentucky safety Mike Edwards, is one of the most technically sound safety prospects in the draft. Edwards was a 3.5-year starter in Lexington, and has the ability, technique, and balance to play two-high safety, single-high safety, and be a big nickel who will cover, blitz, and isn’t hesitant to stick his nose in the fan in run support. Edwards will compete for reps alongside Justin Evans with Jordan Whitehead and Kentrell Brice. Iowa edge defender Anthony Nelson in the 4th Round finished up the Bucs defensive renaissance in this Draft. A.J. Epenesa may be the Iowa defensive end who hears his name called in the 1st Round next April, but Nelson’s frame, impressive Combine performance, and assembly line piston churning motor will make him a household name in the NFL for years.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, the 10th longest tenured GM in football, has faced much scrutiny as he’s failed to turn the franchise into a playoff contender while hitching his wagon to Jameis Winston and going through three Head Coaches. Licht has had questionable draft classes and free agent signings, and despite not addressing the offensive line or running back positions in this draft, has equipped his new and most promising coaching staff of Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich, and Todd Bowles with a roster that should compete in Year 1 in the challenging NFC South.
Daniel Snyder redemption tour…? With rumors of Snyder strong-arming, shocking, the Redskins War Room this year the Redskins were able to add talent to every level of the offense and defense.
With Alex Smith’s career in jeopardy, and spot starter Case Keenum recently acquired, the Redskins were rumored to be interested in paying a king’s ransom to move up for a Top 10 quarterback. Snyder was able be patient, first time for everything, and select Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins as the potential franchise savior. Haskins was the first quarterback to go outside of the Top 10 and not be acquired via a team trading up since 2013. Although Haskins has a small sample size, one year as a starter at OSU, he has the enticing size, arm strength, and confidence (aka risk-taker) that fellow Buckeye quarterbacks didn’t have to make it in the next level.
The Redskins didn’t stop with Dwayne Haskins in the 1st Round, with Mississippi State’s physical specimen Montez Sweat falling down the board, possibly due to health and background concerns, Washington traded back up into the 1st to snag Sweat. Sweat is able to replace fellow former pass-rushing Bulldog Preston Smith (signed by Green Bay in Free Agency) to cause havoc off the edge opposite Ryan Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson on a defensive front that’s loaded on the interior with Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Matt Ionidis, and Tim Settle.
Offensively, Washington used a number of assets to continue building a supporting cast around Dwayne Haskins. With their lone pick on Day 2, Washington drafted Haskins’ OSU teammate, wide receiver Terry McLaurin, a 2-time Captain, special teams ace, and Senior Bowl standout, who averaged 20 yards per catch and scored 11 touchdowns in 2018. Additionally, at wide receiver, they got a steal in the 6th round with North Carolina State’s Kelvin Harmon, who isn’t the quickest receiver but is physical, can get open, and posted back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons for the Wolfpack. Washington also added Stanford’s running back and home run threat (when healthy) Bryce Love and interior offensive linemen Wes Martin from Indiana and Ross Pierschbacher from Alabama. Martin, with his NFL ready upper-body strength, and Pierschbacher, a 4-year starter at Alabama, are both very technically advanced and may be in the competition with Eric Flowers for the vacant left guard position, and will at least add much needed depth on a Washington line that’s been decimated by injuries the last few seasons.
Washington found another gem on Day 3 with James Madison’s undersized and tenacious cornerback Jimmy Moreland, who the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah compared to the Falcon’s Damontae Kazee (tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, 7, in his first year starting). Moreland shined this offseason, performing well in the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl (late invite), and at JMU’s pro day, he also broke school records by recording 18 interceptions and 6 pick-sixes in his career.
Given the current talented core in Washington’s trenches (offensive and defensive) and the talent added this draft it wouldn’t be surprising for the team to shake up the top-heavy pecking order of the NFC East.
Honorable Mention: Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles