Pick by pick analysis of the first round of the NFL Draft
The players, the schemes, the fits, the decisions
I guess we have Christian Kirk and Trent Baalke to thank for last night’s fun and games. 27 first-round picks were traded in the end. Two picks were traded three separate times. After a ho-hum, chalky start, teams spent the better part of three hours trying to slip and slide into just the right spot to squeeze maximum value out of their pick while still landing Their Guy TM.
That leads us to the ninth annual edition of Spending Too Many Words Breaking Down Each First Round Selection: the players, the scheme fit, the possibilities.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Travon Walker, Edge, Georgia
It became clear over the last fortnight that Walker would be the first overall pick. The Jags are in desperate need of some pass-rushing juice. Trent Baalke was always going to bet on the upside of a player with unusual traits over college production.
Walker fits the bill. He is a vintage tweener. At heart, he’s a big edge who can serve as a run-down enforcer before shuffling inside to offer some interior rush in obvious pass-rushing situations. Think of the Michael Bennett role (the question, I guess, is whether you would take a peak-of-his-powers Michael Bennett first overall? I think I would). Walker is an all-world run defender whose brief at Georgia was to play line-up in reduced fronts and knife to the path of the center. With long arm and burst, he was as good an interior, get-off-and-crash run defender in the SEC. He might not have always been the guy around the ball, but his penetration and tenacity forced runs to spill and kept the Georgia linebackers clean so that they can fly to the ball.
The question is what he can become as a pass-rusher. Georgia’s defense stuck Walker inside in a tight, 4i/heavy-5 alignment – in a squat stance.
It’s not a typical pass-rushing spot — and nor was that his role within the larger machine. He wasn’t unleashed as a traditional edge-rusher, lining up in a wider alignment or even consistently as a traditional 5-tech, giving him a chance to dip-and-rip around the edge. Georgia had other players for that; a designated pass-rusher spot that it would rotate. Walker was a chaos agent inside; someone whose job it was to occupy double-teams or use his get-off to disrupt the frontside of a play, forcing a back to pat his feet while Georgia’s linebackers zoomed to the backfield.
That he wound up going with the top pick is a testament to the pre-draft process. Walker is one of the strongest testers to ever enter the draft.
Walker tested unlike any pass-rusher to enter the league in the past five years, both in terms of his initial burst, power numbers, and natural length and how he was used in school. Baalke is betting that a beefy interior defender can take those tools and transform into an all-world edge-defender, too – or be such a dominant interior force that life is easier for the players on the edges. That’s an, umm, ask. Despite his measurables, there were few snaps, reps, games where Walker leaped off the screen as the obvious Best Athlete On The Field. Perhaps in a system where he’s stood up or planted in a sprinter stance in wide-nine alignment, he will be better able to showcase his hops.
Walker does at least have the raw skills to be the kind of malleable piece that can flex across the formation on an opponent-to-opponent or down-to-down basis.
Still: there are issues. On film, Walker didn’t show the dip or hinge ability to be a consistent threat turning the corner around the edge. It is still inside where he has the most value. It’s from that spot, when allowed to morph into get-up field mode, that he delivered splash plays. That’s not a bad (or non-valuable) thing. In the age of stunts and twists, he could be the league’s premier masher, looping inside to create havoc as more nimble rushers move and roam around him.
Oh, man. That is nasty. That is mean. And that is why the Jags are hoping his best football is ahead of him: The burst, the sink, and the contact balance. The three together are not outstanding by the standards of a pure edge, but they’re going to get a whole host of interior linemen in trouble.
Whereas some tweeners are sized out of certain roles, Walker has the flexibility to kick from the perimeter to anywhere inside to being a spot-dropper in coverage on a package-to-package basis – and to excel at all three. No one else in this class can offer that. And as the NFL moves increasingly into a zone-pressure/simulated pressure world, having someone who can be the dropper and a double-team demander is an invaluable skill, one that is worthy of consideration with the top pick. Who else can offer that in this class? *Tumble Weed*… And that’s why his value has skyrocketed as the draft approaches. Here’s hoping the Jags have a plan to maximize his strengths.
2. Detroit Lions: Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
Detroit ran this card up to the podium. And it makes sense. Hutchinson is the most polished all-around edge-rusher in the class. He has a bit of everything: Tenacity, bend, and a vicious bull-rush. He wins in every way imaginable, even when it’s a little ugly. Hutchinson doesn’t get a ton of ‘clean’ wins, swooping around the edge and beating a tackle clean out of his stance. Instead, he relies on hand fighting and converting speed to power, barging his way through the inside shoulder of tackles or crunching through guards with a shorter wingspan.
That’s fine! The goal is to get home – and often in the NFL, as I’ve written about a bunch, getting ‘home’ isn’t necessarily about dropping the quarterback. It’s about forcing him off his platform, to move and slide, to add extra beats to the passing progression, which could allow others to get home or force a wonky decision. In the world of the second-phase offense, having a pass-rusher who can crunch rush (slamming from wider and collapsing the pocket) who is willing to fight… and fight… and fight some more, is invaluable. It’s why Detroit viewed Hutchinson above Kayvon Thibodeaux, Jermaine Johnson, and some more tools-based prospects. Converting speed-to-power is as valuable in the league right now as it has ever been.
You can include the fact he played at Michigan and blah, blah, blah. But Hutchinson could have played for the planet Mars and still have been the cleanest fit for a Lions team that is still trying to establish a foundation. They finished 31st in adjusted sack rate last year, despite showing sprinklings of talent and competency throughout Dan Campbell’s first year in charge. The Lions have talent. They play really, really hard. DC Aaron Glenn did a marvelous job of adjusting his setup throughout the seasons as injuries mounted and the roster’s lack of talent revealed itself; Glenn became a more scheme-oriented coach (as strange as that may sound) than his background would indicate – he hails from a Saints tree that adjusts week to week but runs fairly generic packages, betting on the overall plan and their players to play well.
Hutchinson is one of the players that fit that mold. He doesn’t need help from the scheme to be a productive player. He can bounce around if need be, but it’s not essential to his game. Let him line up, rev up, and get to work in the run-game before uncorking in pass-rushing situations.
That every-down tenacity is meaningful, too. The intangibles with Hutchinson are real – and that’s beyond the fact he won’t have to move apartments now that he’s staying in Detroit. Hutchinson’s every-down persistence is real. He’s a scrapper vs. the run; one who wins with burst, pad-level, and effort. That’s an intangible that is essential to a team still at the start of a rebuild.
3. Houston Texans: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Stingley, in this writer’s mind, was going to be the value pick of this first round, regardless of where he landed. He was the prize of this cornerback class. And while his game should have always him drafted in the top-five overall, a Lisfranc injury meant there was a chance he could slide as teams bet on players with better medical records.
For the Texans, this feels like a no-brainer. When you’re as stanktastic as Houston it’s tempting to start a rebuild by addressing the two lines of scrimmage. That logic makes sense – and it’s one I typically subscribe to. But the freedom of being so, so, so bad – of being soaked with an aura of incompetency -- is that you’re able to take some almighty swings. Stingley has the potential to be the best cornerback in the league. That’s not hyperbole. I’m not sure there is another player in this class – bar, maybe, Kyle Hamilton – who has that kind of upside relative to the players already in the league. Taking the swing here is more than worth it. Stingley won’t be the difference between the Texans being good or bad, but there isn’t a single player in this draft (or most drafts) who could have that kind of profound impact.
On the field, Stingley is as polished as they come. He has unnatural movement skills for someone of his size, and pairs that with a wingspan the envy of an NBA all-star. He is a dominant press corner, winning in all phases: In the bump, in the stem, at the catch-point.
The injury concerns are valid – and slight awareness issues in off-coverage – but he will be drafted to be a lockdown bump-and-run corner, and that’s what he is. This isn’t about marrying a scheme to a player: Stingley will do what he does (bump-and-run, press-and-trail, you name it, he’s got it). And now it’s about building a defensive ecosystem that can leverage the threat of Stingley to make life easier for everyone else.
There are further concerns: Why did his play decline so steeply in 2020 after being the top DB in the country during the 2019 season as a true freshman? Was it boredom? Was he #OverIt, waiting for the NFL and not wanting to put himself in harm’s way (and who could blame him)? For a team that values culture to a memeable level, the Texans must feel comfortable with the answers they go to those questions.
Still: The upside is preposterous. We’re talking about Jalen Ramsey levels of football nous, hops, length, and playmaking skills. How about dropping that into your secondary?
4. New York Jets: Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner’, Cincinnati
In terms of year one impact, the Jets might have just landed the top player in the class with the fourth pick. The college-to-NFL gulf can be a tough one for corners to navigate early in their career, but Gardner’s skills are so defined that he will either sink or swim from the get-go.
Gardner to New York has been one of the nailed-on selections throughout the process. The fit made too much sense for the Jets to punt on the selection. He will bring natural coverage diversity to a Jets defense that can often veer too close to the predictable for a group lacking talent on the back-end. There will be some work to do for him in off-coverage, but he has the playmaking chops – and the arm length -- to be a dangerous click-and-close zone-corner.
Robert Saleh has developed as a coach over the past three years. Traditionally, he bet on a straight-forward three-match system that would morph on the fly, with a fairly generic four-down front that worked in stunts and twists and a whole host of get-off-and-go pass-rushers. That’s long been the base, and where Saleh (like any coach) would like to live. But like the majority of the league, he has worked in a steady dose of two-deep coverages – sticking with two-deep safeties rather than rolling and morphing like the bulk of defenses last season.
Gardner’s ability to play press-and-trail on one side of the field will allow Saleh to get more creative with his coverages, working in more match principles, locked coverages, and giving the coach the freedom to roll his safeties, knowing that one side of the field (should) be locked down. Defensive football is about deploying resources. The most efficient defenses in the NFL can pinch an extra resource to slot into a talent-poor area because one of their star players can either lock onto a receiver one-on-one or command a double-team. Gardner has the potential to be one of those guys.
Gardner is tailor-made to play press-and-trail corner in the modern game. In his final year in college, 78 percent (!) of his snaps came in press-man coverage, a shockingly high figure for a cornerback in college. To establish that level of trust --- and man-to-man dominance – at the college level is beyond rare. But Gardner earned it. With arms so long he can tie his shoes stood up, he loves to jam receivers up at the line of scrimmage and then has the speed, mirroring skills, and length to shadow and attack at the catch point.
His length gives him the ability to reach spots that few others in this class can. Gardner isn’t an overly explosive leaper but he doesn’t really need to be given his natural size advantage. The scary thing is that there is so much more to come: Garnder is a touch to handsy, something he got away with in college but that will be called more often (and taken advantage of by receivers) in the NFL. He’s also super-duper thin in his lower half. In the NFL, he will add size, which will help both vs. the run (a necessity in the NFL) and for him to match up vs. bigger-bodied perimeter receivers.
Saleh has too regularly been typecast as a defensive mind because of the tools he had at his disposal in San Francisco. They were impressive tools! And he maximized them with a system that bet (for the most part) on players not plays. In New York, without a domineering pass-rush, he needs to find a way to make things trickier for quarterbacks to break down coverages on the back-end, be that through an excellent man-to-man group or having a wider array of coverage concepts. Gardner offers the ability a bit of both.
5. New York Giants: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon
A slight surprise, but a savvy pick from the Giants. They found themselves in the perfect spot to land one of the top three tackle prospects. Instead, they bet on the upside of the twitchiest, most agile edge-rusher in the class. Grabbing Thibodeaux before they picked again at the seventh pick was a smart approach. One of the three remaining top OT prospects was still going to be there at seven regardless of who the Giants selected at five. Picking Thibodeaux and waiting on whoever slipped to five was the wise choice over tacking the lineman first and banking on Thibodeaux to still be there at seven — the Panthers, for one, would have auctioned the sixth pick for a team to leap up to grab Thibodeaux out of the hands of New York.
The conventional wisdom throughout the college football season was that Thibodeaux would be the sure-fire first overall pick in the class – regardless of what team landed in the top spot. As the process has wriggled along, that’s flipped. Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson is now expected to be the top pick… or Georgia’s Travon Walker, with Thibodeaux slipping down draft boards for… reasons?
Media speculation has cited off-the-field concerns related to that most overstated of intangibles: Heart. And it’s somewhat true. There are times when you want to shout at the screen. Come on, man. Give me MORE! FIGHT!
You’re looking for Von Miller, but sometimes you have to step back and realize Von Miller comes around once in a franchise. Thibodeaux is something different; he’s just as athletically gifted, and can play a touch bigger (at times), yet he’s only interested in rushing the passer. He might not be as clean a prospect as Miller or Myles Garrett or the league’s elite, every down edge-defenders. But that doesn’t mean he cannot be a valuable, double-digit sack guy. And in the modern game, that’s more than enough to be one of the five best players in any given draft class.
Thibodeaux is the smoothest, most agile edge-rusher in the class. He has All-Pro everything: size, get off and lateral quickness. There is no other pass rusher in this class who can hang with Thibodeaux’s combination of first-step quickness, dip, and in-out agility. It should be illegal for a man so large to be able to move in such sudden directional jolts.
You see flashes with Walker. He profiles as an edge-swooper. Hutchinson is more of a nuanced pass-rusher than the cliches about his game often indicate. But Hutchinson isn't a classic dip-and-rip guy; nor was Walker in college. He might be in the pros, but Georgia’s scheme and his role within it limited what he was able to do as a prototypical edge-rusher.
In terms of the classic traits teams look for, Thibodeaux is the one who stuck the most on tape — MP4, really.
Thibodeaux is not the perfect prospect. He isn’t an overly sophisticated rusher; he makes up his mind and then goes for it; there’s little set-up for pay-off plays or real fight once he is engaged. Yet even at the end of his time at Oregon, he was only scratching the surface of his potential – the Oregon staff routinely dropped him into coverage, something that will be a no-no at the next level. The sky’s the limit with Thibodeaux’s tools. If you want twitch on the edge, and someone who can out-athlete just about everyone, Thibodeaux is the one.
Thibodeaux was the second overall prospect on my board. Grabbing him with the fifth represents great value – and he is a player who should make an instant impact, with a whole bunch of room to grow in the future.
6. Carolina Panthers: Ikem Ekwonu, OT, North Carolina State
Every offensive player was available on the board to the Panthers at six. Grabbing one of the quarterbacks would have been the bold (read: silly) choice. Instead, they grabbed the top tackle on their board – and the reported top player overall on their board.
It makes sense. The Panthers coughed up 237 (!) total pressures last season. Ekwonu has all the hallmarks of a franchise tackle, and Carolina can always swoop back into the second round if it’s willing to offer up some future picks to grab a quarterback.
Ekwonu was College football’s most explosive blocker. A true menace. Ekwonu mauls fools… and then laughs in their face. He is out to humiliate people in the run-game, and more often than not delivers. In pass protection, his footwork is an issue; he gets by despite technical flaws, relying on his length and tenacity to fight off rushers. For someone so explosive, there’s a concern that he is too often beaten out of his stance and to the punch. Transferring his weight is an issue, but that is something that’s eminently correctable. It’s just going to take a quality staff to help fine-tune his footwork – something that’s typically more about working with a private coach in the offseason than with an NFL staff. Figure that out, and life will be much easier for Ekwonu.
Tighten up some of his sloppiness and he will be an instant difference-maker at one of the league’s premier positions. Choosing between the top three tackles is splitting hairs. You can toss them up in the air, watch them fall in any order, and be comfortable with the result. The Panthers didn’t panic and reach on Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett or Quarterback X. It might not help the staff keep their jobs in the short or long-term, but it was the right move.
7. New York Giants: Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
The Giants get exactly what they wanted: One of the top tackles plus Thibodeaux. Brian Daboll must have been rubbing his hands in glee like Monty Burns when he saw Neal was still on the board.
By selecting Neal, the Giants wound up with the top two players on my board
As all-around talents go – in terms of both a player’s raw skills and the volume of positions he can play – Neal ranked as my top overall prospect in this class. He is explosive in everything he does: Explosive out of his set, explosive with his hands; he shocks people at the point of attack. Neal is light on his feet, too, making him a weapon as a puller and mover in space.
At Alabama, Neal toggled between all five positions along the line, with some teams likely to view him as a long-term guard, something that could ding his stock. When playing inside, he had some issues picking up exchanges, preferring to play a proactive, get-up-in-their-face style rather than sinking and then resetting. Still: his size, frame, and get-off are elite – and all of his issues, so much as any exist, are correctable. Neal is one of the few A-Plus-Plus prospects in this class.
Just thinking about sliding Neal into a Brian Daboll offense is enough to get even the most fleeting football nerd all sorts of tingly.
There is no such thing as Daboll-ism. Daboll has been a chameleon, proving to be one of the few coaches who truly puts his personnel above philosophy. In fact, the whole point of Daboll as a coach is that he’s able to shapeshift to the talent at his disposal. He’s run a rhythm and timing-based system; he’s run a super-spread (in the NFL) with little formational diversity; he’s run a shift and motion-heavy set-up; he introduced some fancy second-level RPOs to Alabama when Nick Saban was still unsure whether that was the Devil’s work. But there has been one piece of connective tissue: Movement in the run-game.
Daboll’s run scheme isn’t overly creative (for whatever that means) but relies on having all five linemen able to pull and move in space – be it a single-man power concept or more intricate designs. In Neal, Daboll grabs himself a player that he can center his run system around. He can anchor and climb while others orbit around him. He can skip on short wraps, jetting around the corner in double-time. And he’s at best when granted the freedom to move into space – something the Bill O’Brien led Alabama offense limited in 2021 for *shrug* reasons.
Save some for the rest of us, Evan.
Most importantly: He can do special things in short areas. Are you ready to see one of my five favorite plays from last season? Track Neal, #73.
Do I need to douse you in ice? It’s not perfect from Neal the footwork is messy. He isn’t stable enough on contact? didn’t get his hat across the face of the descending linebacker? His pad level is too high. Does he care? Does he bleep. Watch the strength, the torque in his hips, the positioning of his backside hand where he’s able to sink into the breastplate of the linebacker and manipulate his shoulder and foot position with one hand while using his feet to drive and twist. Oh, and then he’s able to slip off to get a piece of a safety too. What should have been a dud play had a shot because of Neal’s hands and innate power. Once Neal learns to better time up his footwork with his hands, good luck to everyone.
In pass protection, there are some issues. Neal can get a little antsy, and he isn’t as flexible as you would like, which is why some teams spoke about kicking him inside and why he bounced around the positions throughout his college career. But there’s enough there there to think he has a shot at being a premier tackle. He can add mass. He can improve his patience (while still initiating contact). This is a gem of a player; the Giants come away with one of the true blue A-plus prospects with the seventh pick.
8. Atlanta Falcons: Drake London, WR, USC
The Falcons went into the draft with a receiving corps that had a whiff of the 2025 Fan Controlled League All-Stars about it. It’s a team – and an offense – crying out for something to stick alongside Kyle Pitts.
In adding London, it’s clear the intent was to Mariota-proof their offense while having a second big-bodied, down-the-field target to partner with Kyle Pitts for whoever the quarterback of the future winds up being.
That makes sense. I get it. But… still… really? Is the best use of a top-eight pick, given how barren the roster is, a wide receiver, particularly when one of the three elite tackles (Charles Cross) was still on the board? If adding juice to the offense was the principal reason they settled on London, dropping down and gathering further picks would have made more sense.
We’ll get to London as a player in a second. But with how stacked the receiver class is – and how poor the Falcons quarterback situation is – grabbing a receiver at eight feels… unnecessary. The Falcons were crying out for some pass-rushing zest, someone who could be scheme independent, or a lineman that would typically not be available to a team picking eight – there was oodles of receiver talent selected after the Falcons pick, and still to come over days two and three.
On London: It’s not surprising that he was the first receiver off the board. He has long been the consensus number one receiver in a class. He’s a big-bodied, basketball-style receiver who has all the receiver tools: high-pointing the ball, making tough, contested catches. Roll through a quick cut-up and you’ll see him beating coverage in every way imaginable: Creating from the line of scrimmage; winning short; winning at the intermediate level; getting open deep down the field.
But while London has the hops to out-leap defenders, he lacks the pace to consistently turn small windows into big gains. Nearly 70% of London’s catches in 2021 were contested, per ProFootballFocus, meaning that London was rarely wide open and had to battle for the ball.
How you paint that depends on how you view receiver’s writ large (or your bias): It’s either evidence that he’s another Laquon Treadwell-N’Keal Harry type, both of whom flamed out in the league; or evidence that London dominates at the catch-point and will continue to do so, AJ Green style, in the pros.
Where London slotted in your receiver rankings was as much a philosophical question as anything else: Are you happy with a receiver who gets open enough because the quarterbacks are better at the NFL level and they can hit those tight-window throws; or do you value getting OPEN-open, over and above any other considerations? Some teams will look at USC’s usage of London and pin the blame on the team’s coaching staff rather than the receiver himself.
In 2021, London was consistently used as the prototypical backside receiver in 3x1 formations where he was asked to beat one-on-one coverage or find a soft spot between two-deep defenders. Back in 2019 and 2020, London was used more as a Big Slot, allowing him to box out smaller defensive backs inside. In the pros, London would be best used in a Packers-style offense that likes to invert its receivers: the big bodies shuffling inside and the smaller, shifty receivers moving outside.
It's tough to envision where exactly London fits in long-term given the Falcons’ quarterbacks situation. Regardless of the quarterback or scheme, his ideal spot is lining up in tighter, condensed splits rather than as the backside, ISO guy that his body type (and his usage in his final year at USC) suggests. Get him in tight towards the formation, use man-beaters to help unlock man-coverage, and let him press down the field to climb on safeties or shorter slot corners. Arthur Smith has previous for inverting the alignments of his receivers based on body type, sliding the shorter, agile receivers outside and bringing the thicker, taller bodies into the slot.
That’s where London will offer most of his value (and he’s good enough and willing enough as a blocker to be a threat from such looks on outside-zone runs). In fact, the Falcons offense makes a little more sense when you flip-flop London and tight end Kyle Pitts: Pitts shifting to the perimeter as the backside 3x1 killer – matched up with a corner, safety, whoever – and London inside. Okay, that sounds fun; I may have just talked myself into this making some sense. If the Falcons are going to be bad, the least they can do is be fun.
9. Seattle Seahawks: Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
Okay, the Seahawks selecting a foundational tackle a month after sending Russell Wilson to Denver is, admittedly, laugh-out-loud funny.
Cross is a departure from the kind of run-first/run-centric/maulers that the Seahawks have traditionally looked for. But where Cross’ style aligns with Seattle is in being a one-skill-proficient player with some technical flaws; the Seahawks have always felt they can teach, tweak or overhaul any mechanical issues, betting on a player’s frame and innate athleticism – and banking they can figure out the rest.
And Cross is indeed an honest-to-goodness freak, in the most delightful interpretation of the word. With power, light feet, and length Cross has all the prototypical tools to become an All-Pro tackle. His biggest issue: The consistency of his footwork. Cross plays out of a funky stance and has a strange, elongated kick-step, something that was all the more pronounced thanks to Mississippi State’s Air-Raid offense (Cross played extremely upright, with tight feet and his weight leaning forwards, leading to tons of unnecessary movements as he tried to get back into his set).
Cross was proficient in every other aspect of the position – and the issues he does have are correctable with coaching and (most importantly) time. Once Cross is comfortable with a new stance and he can clean up his slide, good luck to anyone trying to get by (or through) him.
(Sidebar: I’m not typically a fan of changing a player’s stance. A stance isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal. If a player is comfortable and good from that stance, who cares? But Cross’ stance is a genuine demerit to his play. Only minor tweaks are needed — and there will be a knock-on effect: shifting his outside foot naturally lowering his pad level, for instance)
There are some concerns that, due to Mississippi State’s offense, Cross faced too many three-man rushes. And that’s fair; teams consistently rush only three against the Air Raid. But because MSU was throwing the ball so often, there is still plenty of reps of Cross, one-on-one, vs. traditional edge techniques to make a clear evaluation.
Cross understands his physical advantages and leverages them in both the run and pass games. He is built for the modern era of offense: An outstanding backside blocker on perimeter runs and blessed with unique physical skills that make him a natural in vertical passing sets. Watch how effortlessly he stuns Texas A&M’s top pass-rusher below. Cross is almost in snooze mode. Ho hum, that’s just me latching and resetting vs. a premier pass-rusher knifing back inside. I almost don’t even need to move my feet. Next play, please.
And can he climb and snap in an effortless motion, stunning then twisting a defender to pave open room in the run game? Easy work.
Look at the snap speed! Look at the strength! Look at how he marries his feet to his hands! One-step punch; second-step twist. I need a lie-down.
There is so much potential for the right staff to harness.
Any notion that there are flaws for him run-game flaws is overblown – there’s no chance Pete Carroll is signing off on a lineman in the top ten who he doesn’t believe can get after it in the run-game. Cross’ main issues in generating oomph in the run game have been his pad level and his foot placement – too often he needs to slow down, show patience, to get his feet set, rather than initiate contact while his feet are crossing. All of those issues are fixable, and they’ll likely flow from the Seahawks’ staff correcting his stance.
And that is a slight concern: Seattle has traditionally allowed linemen to keep whatever stance they damn well please, even when they verge on the bizarre and act as true impediments to unlocking a player’s potential. This is a franchise that has had serious issues developing line talent despite its belief it can correct mechanical flaws. Committing Cross’ issue will unlock his All-Pro potential.
10. New York Jets: Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
The Jets crossed off any concerns with their o-line in free agency and then grabbed Sauce Gardner with their first pick. That left them in a fun spot: To add a weapon to the receiving room or to hand Robert Saleh some extra pass-rushing juice.
They opted for the former. It makes sense. Wilson is the antithesis of everything the Jets’ passing game was last year: He’s smooth. He has elite body control, allowing him to contort in the air to secure off-target throws and to make defenders miss in space once he has the ball in his hand.
The downsides stand out, too: Wilson had a high contested catch rate; there’s tons of wasted movement in his route running; he lacks top-end speed; he often needed scheme help to get open vs. man-coverage. And while that sounds like a whole heaping of negatives, Wilson was still OSU’s go-to target on third downs, where he seemed to always find a way to move the chains – and then make an impact play after the catch.
There are some words you just attach to prospects, and that alone can be more meaningful than a full, 360 evaluation (which is probably the wrong way to do things). With Wilson, that word is ‘crisp’. And who doesn’t want a crisp receiver to be the second or third go-to target in their line-up?
Expecting Wilson to be a dominant one-on-one player who shifts the landscape of the defense and creates matchup advantage for everyone would be wrong. But not every receiver needs to be Julio Jones. The Jets just landed a receiver a who wins early in the rep, who plays on time (something their group struggled with last season), and who should, by way of winning early, help speed up Zach Wilson’s internal clock – which should be the entire point of the Jets’ offseason enterprise
11. TRADE: New Orleans: Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
The Saints jumped up to grab Olave. And while I like the player and the fit, it’s a strange allocation of resources: New Orleans moved out of next year’s draft and then gave up more picks to go and get a receiver when it could have sat in its initial spot and selected an assortment of pass-catchers who would have still been on the board? Odd.
Olave profiles as the prototypical number two receiver. Think of Tee Higgins in Cincinnati. Stick that next to Michael Thomas (providing he plays) and you really have something.
Olave isn’t as dynamic a receiver as you’d expect with the ball in his hands – he finished his college career with only 10 forced missed tackles -- but he gets open early in the route and has enough explosiveness to win down the field if he gets off the line of scrimmage clean. Ohio State's system marries up well with present league-wide trends, meaning Olave will be ready to help a contender from day one. There is a steady dose of deep option routes, and the staples that OSU has put into its intermediate passing concepts are a carbon copy of Sean McVay’s go-to designs.
The only other concern: The Saints’ offense lacks speed. Olave is more of a second-level, out-to-in creator. He isn’t a true burner on the field. I expected the Saints would target someone with a little more pop. But Olave was the second receiver on my board, and it’s hard to think of a better one-two tandem than Thomas and Olave in terms of players who can shimmy-shake their way into quick-breaking routes and who can then pepper the intermediate level with subtle moves.
12. TRADE: Detroit: Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
I admire the aggressiveness of Detroit. There was no shot that Williams would still be on the board at 32. Moving up to go land a top-five talent at 12 was a gutsy move.
Plenty will question the selection of a big-play receiver – and offering up some precious draft picks to go get him – with Jared Goff still at quarterback. But that feels short-sighted. This is a long-term rebuild, and Williams offers something no other receiver at the top of this class does: defense tilting speed. Were it not for an ACL injury he sustained in the national championship, he would have comfortably have been off the board before now.
On talent alone, Williams is the standout receiver in this class. He. Just. Gets. Open. Williams is blessed with defense-tilting speed – rip through his longest receptions per game totals and you wind up with this: 94, 18, 29, 81, 26, 32, 75, 65, 58, 50, 79, 34, 67, 20, 40. You read that right. That’s eight games with a reception over 50 yards; six games with a reception over 70 yards. I mean, good GAWD.
Williams averaged a hair shy of 20-yards per reception on seventy-nine receptions. And those are the ones he caught. He was wide-open on a whole bunch more:
Add to that: Of all this year’s receiver prospects, he has the lowest contested catch rate, a measure of how much separation he was able to create on a down-to-down basis, per ProFootballFocus. As noted earlier this draft season, I’ve shifted my philosophy somewhat on evaluating wide receivers. Get me the guys who get open. We can figure out the rest.
Williams gets open at an unprecedented rate — and does so with the kind of turbo-chargers in his cleats that stack up with the best of the best in the NFL. With uncatchable top-end speed, he’s both a vertical threat and an after-the-catch threat, who’s liable at any point to take a bubble-screen 70-yards down the field. That’s the thing: it’s not just that Williams can gather speed while traveling downfield, accelerating at the second level in a way few can. He is just as lethal after the catch:
I know this is obvious, but that really matters, particularly as defenses look to shift to morphing two-deep shells or to play with an in-out box defender who can sit as an RPO buster. Re-watch the clip above. Look how much of a cushion Mississippi State is gifting to Williams. The corner is terrified of one of Williams’ vintage double-moves. So he backs up and backs up, and he backs up just enough to hand Williams an angle that he can use to take the ball from his own half of the field to the house.
That’s Tyreek Hill-type stuff. Seriously. Part of the danger of the Chiefs’ offense in the past is that Hill was coverage immune. The style defenses wanted to play to slow down the shift-motion-motion style that was complimented with RPOs was rendered irrelevant because the in-out box defender had to back up so far through fear of Hill jetting in behind. Look at the resources committed to trying to get some body presence on Hill on any potential in-breaking route while also getting enough depth in the defense in case he takes off the other way.
That transforms the geography of an offense (and the opposing defense). Williams can have a similar impact on the Lions’ offense.
If a team is going to commit to a modern offense with all of the motion and shifting and RPOs that we’ve seen in Kansas City, adding true track speed is the best way to make it all sing.
Williams will bring that to Detroit. A young team just got younger; a fast team just got faster. The only lingering question is whether his ACL injury has sapped any of his speed. If you’re a neutral, you’re rooting for the Chiefs to trade up to grab Williams mid-way through the first round.
13. TRADE: Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia
Where do you begin? I’m a big Davis believer. I’m not a big believer of Jordan Davis in Philly.
I’m not saying that Jonathan Gannon’s defense is bland. But he seems like the kind of person who considers switching his office walls from cornflower white to duck egg to be a positively frisky move.
Few things were as dispiriting in the NFL last season as watching another tight end or receiver stroll through another generic coverage shell, with no match principles or creative rotations or disguises: Just line up and play. It was the same way upfront. A blah Philly pass-rush was built atop the league’s tried-and-true staples, an assortment of stunts and twists and betting on good players to make good plays.
Does adding Jordan Davis signal a transition, a move to a forward-thinking approach with the Eagles embracing five and six-man walls on first down with zone-pressures sprinkled throughout?
It’s been a funny year for Jordan Davis. He was the most dominant single force in college football, marshaling a Georgia defense that guided its team to the National Championship. But questions about his usage (only 25 snaps a game) led to NFL teams viewing Davis as a limited, two-gapping nose tackle heading into draft season. And then, the combine. And then, Davis put on a show. More Thanos-like than football-like, Davis stunned evaluators with his combination of get-off, strength, and his ability to twist and contort his body at 6-6, 341 lbs.
I understand concerns about his lack of natural pass-rush oomph. He’s not Aaron Donald (who is?!?). He isn’t overly explosive; he doesn’t win off the snap; he doesn’t rock people (something that can be improved as he learns to play with better pad level). But I think such concerns undersell where the league’s defenses are heading. In the zone-pressure world, it helps to have an interior force that demands a double-team. With his size, strength, and quicks, Davis does. He is not a pocket collapser himself, but slide him into the middle of a zone-pressure-centric system and he will create life all sorts of easier for this around him. And that’s where things might get squirrely in Philadelphia.
Do the Eagles view Davis as a one-gap-and-go, up-field rusher in a four-man front? Or are they intent on shifting to a more malleable system with Davis as a key piece in pressure packages built around roaming linebackers and overloaded looks?
High-level talent typically finds a path around structural concerns. And Davis is as talented as they come. He gobbles up blockers. He’s a dominant run defender. Look at Davis swamp the double-team below:
C’mon now! Are you kidding me?
He doesn’t allow the Arkansas line to double and climb. Instead, he pushes it horizontally – on the same play! – and keeps his linebackers clean, allowing them to flow over the top to the ball untouched. Easy work for everyone else, created by the big man inside. And if you track that play, you can see Davis’ teammate Devonte Wyatt, the consensus top interior lineman in the class being stood up and rocked off the ball.
That’s typically a plus in the run-game. But as the league has shifted to using more simulated pressures, it’s invaluable in the passing game too.
That is a scheme win for Georgia. Jordan Davis does not, alone, impact the play. But where is he? HE’S ON THE FIELD! Huzzah! And it’s a passing down!!! Double Huzzahs!
That’s the modern game. That’s where the NFL is going. Davis can offer more on the money down than he’s given credit for. It just might not involve him making the play himself – it’s a team sport, folks! A pass-rushing group should be just that: A group. Group-ness is not about having the best-qualified people to discharge a certain role. It resides in how well those people make up that group. Davis should be one cog of a broader pass-rushing package.
The Eagles could view Davis as a like-for-like Fletcher Cox replacement, one guesses. I’d class myself in the camp of people who believe Davis can become an effective one-gap-and-go rusher if he’s able to be more consistent with his pad level (that’s a big if). But it just feels like a dynamic player being plugged into an iffy fit. Ideally, the Eagles embrace what Davis can unlock for them in the zone-pressure game.
And if not, that’s okay, too. Because he profiles as a singular first down force.
Getting off the field on third downs is a staple of shouty-man-on-TV analysis, but success on first downs is more predictive of long-term success. Stopping a team on third down matters, but what difference does it make if they already strung together a succession of first downs on early downs?
Winning the first down – forcing a negative play or creating a second-and-ten – is how defenses can keep up in the era of the pace-and-space, chunk play offense. While third down is when teams have traditionally looked to sub in specific packages, getting fancy with their blitz looks and running unusual personnel onto the field, first down is steadily becoming the lets-get-frisky down.
Attack early. Force a loss. That’s the mantra ringing out across football at all levels. Do that, and a team ups its odds of cutting off a drive before it begins. The key to a good third-down defense, as coaches like to point out, is winning on first down. Track the most effective teams on first down in the league, and you’ll notice they just so happen to be the most effective defenses in totality. Teams worried about Davis’ role on third down should instead be focused on how he can tip the scales in their favor on the most important down of all.
Davis has the chance to be a balletic battleship, one who can share the field with the best players in the world and still be the best player on it. So the fit is iffy (unless the Eagles plan to – and are willing – to adapt and evolve). I’d rather bet on that upside than snag a ‘safe’ selection.
14. Baltimore Ravens: Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton in the same defensive backfield? Really!?! I need a cold shower.
Wait, they’ve got Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, too? I need to jump into a cryogenic chamber.
Williams has some of the finest middle-of-the-field instincts of any safety in the league (Williams played 88 percent of his snaps last season as a true deep safety); he routinely baits quarterbacks into rough throws, breaking the confines of the system in order to use the principles of an offensive system against itself.
It is rare to find that talent. We’re talking about Earl Thomas, Devin McCourty, and the best to ever do it. Williams slots right into that category: A force multiplier at safety who freaks out opposing QBs and makes life easier for everyone around him. He’s the foundational piece for any secondary. Sliding him into Mike Macdonald’s new-look Ravens group, one that will be heavy on man-coverage, is a true game-changer.
And now Macdonald gets to roll out Kyle Hamilton, too? Seriously? Are we sure the competition committee will allow it?
Is Hamilton the best single player in the draft? Maybe? Possibly? Probably? If not, he’s as near as makes no difference. Hamilton is a gigantic, traditional free safety – an unusual combination. He stands at 6-4, but has the top-end speed and range to cover ground like a traditional six-foot, Earl Thomas type; his pre-draft tests (which have been poor) belie his obvious play speed and range, similar to Harrison Smith.
‘Range’ has been the keyword in his evaluation. Some evaluators have made note that his time limits what he can do on the back-end of a defense. His tape shows this:
How about triggering on the run early, from deep?
Please. Let’s not overthink this.
I don’t care what the testing times say. Hamilton knows only one speed and one direction — to the ball. It’s as if he wakes up every morning to find a tape of that day’s game on his doorstep, "early edition"-style.
Hamilton isn’t one to shuffle down into the slot to match up with receivers (Notre Dame would move him into the slot to get a bigger body up towards the line of scrimmage in zone coverages, but didn’t rely on Hamilton turning and running in space), but he’s happy to slide into the box to thump vs. the run — and he could develop into someone who, with his unusual body type, could slide over to take a backside receiver in 3x1 formations, making easier for defenses to defend vs. pre-snap motion and unbalanced formations.
Hamilton will bring tremendous versatility and playmaking instincts to any scheme — he can move and roam to any position on the fly, something that is increasingly valuable as the league moves to more two-deep-then-rotate structures.
We are moving to a rolling, rotating league. The NFL is now about moving: Moving upfront (zone-pressures, mugging linebackers, and dropping out) and rotating on the back-end, starting in a two-deep shell before moving into any number of coverages – and then building disguises off those packages. It’s hard to design a better one-two rotation tandem than Hamilton and Williams. This is going to be fun.
Pairing Hamilton with Williams is borderline unfair. Macdonald, while Michigan DC, was not a rotation heavy coach. But the NFL is shifting that way; you need to show the quarterback one picture pre-snap and another post-snap. Adding Williams and Hamilton in one offseason suggests that the Ravens brain-trust will continue to head down the path spearheaded by Wink Martindale even as they punted him to the sideline in favor of Macdonald (who worked on the Ravens staff before going to join John Harbaugh at Michigan for a year).
A group featuring Williams, Hamilton, and Humphrey screams Rotations! Rotations! Rotations! Maybe not Steve Spagnuolo-levels of movement in the secondary, but, well, maybe. Macdonald certainly has the pieces to get as creative on the back-end as any DC in the league.
But the wonder of the Williams-Hamilton one-two punch is that disguising the coverage shell will be a bonus; a way of Macdonald dictating the terms to the opposing quarterback. He will not need to rotate, as some defenses with dodgy secondaries will.
The Ravens have handed Macdonald a secondary that is so good that it can just line up and play. They’ve built a defensive backfield to make them immune to motions or shifts. Last year, their defense had nightmares trying to communicate on the fly vs. pre-snap movement. There was a constant miscommunication, blown coverages felt like an every drive occurrence.
How do you offset that? Simplify your coverages? Establish slicker communication? No! You go and grab a malleable quartet that can slide to the deep middle of the field, out to the boundary, or walk into the slot. Now, the Ravens can line-up and keep players in the same spots without having to panic, no matter how the offense changes the picture pre-snap.