This football-less time of the year gave me the opportunity go back and really evaluate the 2018 rookie class. There were 5 players in particular who exceeded my first year expectations that I wanted to write about.
I decided to take a look at how I valued each of those rookies before the draft and figure out where I went wrong in their evaluation. Reflecting is arguably the most helpful activity I do to improve as an analyst, so I wanted to give people the chance to observe my process.
5. Jaire Alexander, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers
Let me start off by saying that the 2018 corner class was one of the better classes we have seen in recent years. 5 corners carried a 1st round grade for me, including Louisville’s Jaire Alexander. That said I obviously liked Alexander but he was my least favorite out of the 5.
I wasn’t as big on Alexander because he had regressed some in his junior season. Many said it was because he was injured in 2017 and the injury was definitely evident. Yet, I didn’t feel like he played with same confidence, which troubled me enough to put him as my CB5.
Well, shame on me, because he translated to the pro level much faster than 3 of the corners that I liked more. For example, Alexander immediately became the best corner on the Packers roster and was tasked with the responsibility of covering the opposing team’s best receiver.
He looked like an ascending star in his rookie season and I can’t say the same for the majority of guys I had over him. We can’t make a definitive conclusion after 1 year but having Alexander as my 5th highest rated corner looks like a mistake.
4. Braden Smith, Offensive Tackle, Indianapolis Colts
I was shocked when the Colts selected Braden Smith with the 37th overall pick. It’s not like I hated Smith but Indy reached based on my evaluation. Also, the Colts desperately needed a right tackle at time, so taking another guard didn’t make much sense.
The Colts saw Smith differently considering that they drafted him to play tackle. Again, I didn’t love this move because tackle is the harder position to play. So, if I didn’t love Smith at guard, logic would tell you I wasn’t going to love him at tackle either.
To my surprise, Smith thrived at his new position. Everyone knows how good the Colts offensive line was this season and Smith was a major reason why. He looked like a natural in pass protection and was better suited taking on defensive ends in the run game. He still has some ways to go but I liked much of what I saw from him so far.
I thought of Smith as a guard and I was clearly wrong. Obviously, it takes some hindsight to know what we know now, but the more that I think about it, Smith flashed the traits to play tackle in college. I learned a lot from his transition to the pros and hope to take these lessons with me for future evaluations.
3. Nick Chubb, Running Back, Cleveland Browns
Let me start off by saying I was a fan of Nick Chubb’s. However, I didn’t think he was on the same level as Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones (yikes), Kerryon Johnson, and his teammate Sony Michel
Chubb’s lack of receiving skills was why I didn’t view him in the same light at the other backs I had above him. I thought that he more of a ground and pound, in between the tackles type of back and that skill set doesn’t really translate to the passing game .
Surprise! I was wrong. Chubb exceeded all of my expectations. He looked more elusive and explosive than he did in his Senior season at Georgia. Also, he showed off more receiving skills that I didn’t know he had. Chubb was clearly a more faceted back than I gave him credit for and I expect him to build upon his excellent rookie season.
2. Fred Warner, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
Fred Warner was one of the harder evaluations in the 2018 class. He played this Sam Linebacker/Edge Defender type of position that doesn’t really translate to NFL. I didn’t know whether to evaluate him as an edge defender or as an off the ball linebacker.
That said, I couldn’t get a good grasp of his skill set and he fell in my rankings because of that. I knew he was going to have to play off the ball in the pros. There was a lot projection that came with the transition.
However, Warner picked things up quickly and had some excellent performances in the preseason that earned him a starting job. He finished the season with 124 tackles, which was 12th in the league. I thought it would take at least for him to become a starter but he has thrived from the get go.
1. Baker Mayfield, Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
I have a confession… I overthought Baker Mayfield. Yes, lock me up, throw away the key, and strip away all of my credibility. I did the unthinkable and must live with this sin for the rest of my time as a draft analyst.
Mayfield’s college tape was exceptional. He displayed accuracy, arm strength, quick mental processing, etc. Because I couldn’t find any glaring issues on film, I let myself believe some of the narratives like “Mayfield is too small,” “he operated a simple offense that doesn’t translate,” “he played in the no defense conference.”
Looking back at it now, all of those concerns were just a product of my insecurities as an analyst. I always thought that I had to find something wrong with prospects and that way of thinking is clearly crazy.
I still really liked Mayfield and thought he was well worth a top 10 pick. However, I didn’t give him all of the credit he deserved or rank him correctly. We saw that he was on a different level than any of the other rookie quarterbacks and I had two graded above him.
It’s still too early to tell who will be the best QB from this class, but Mayfield is clearly in the lead at the moment. I for one, did not think that was going to happen.