It’s tempting to think about the NFL draft as an objective exercise in judging talent—that every player is evaluated the same way, with no biases or preferences cooked into the process. But that simply isn’t the case. Every front office has its own predictable set of patterns and traits that it seeks out, year after year. So ahead of the 2019 draft, we looked back on some of these tendencies to predict whom teams might go after next week.
Trait they covet: Speed on defense
Since hiring Dan Quinn as their head coach in 2015, the Falcons have spent most of their high-end draft capital on fast, twitchy defenders. That type of player is a noted preference of Quinn’s, and from the start of their partnership, general manager Thomas Dimitroff has worked to add guys with that skill set to the roster. The first pick of Quinn’s tenure was Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley, who tore up nearly every test at the combine. Beasley finished in at least the 90th percentile in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and bench press. It’s hard to make a better impression than Beasley did that year, and Atlanta pounced on him with the eighth overall pick.
Size is the only area where Beasley was lacking, and in the years since, the Falcons have consistently shown that they prioritize movement skills over bulk on defense. Former second-round pick Deion Jones weighed just 222 pounds at the combine (second percentile among linebackers), but he ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash (81st percentile). Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett—taken four rounds after Beasley in 2015—may only be 6-foot-1 (ninth percentile at the position), but his broad jump and 10-yard split numbers were both elite. The same goes for undersized pass rusher Takkarist McKinley, whom the Falcons took in the first round two years ago. He ran a ridiculous 4.59 in the 40 at 250 pounds.
The one position exempt from this rule is cornerback. A disciple of the Pete Carroll defense in Seattle, Quinn favors the condor-esque corners that the Seahawks have long chased. Last year’s second-round pick Isaiah Oliver has an 80.5-inch wingspan, which puts him in the 97th percentile at the position.
Possible targets: Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver would be the ultimate Quinn-Dimitroff prospect, and he’d fill a position of need for the team. There are concerns about Oliver’s lack of bulk and ability to hold up against double teams, but his athletic traits are rare. After crushing the testing at both the combine and his pro day, he’ll probably be gone by Atlanta’s no. 14 pick. But one player who fits the Falcons’ model and may be available in the second round is Oliver’s college teammate, Isaiah Johnson. At 6-foot-2 and change with a 79-inch wingspan, he fits the physical profile of what the cornerback-needy Falcons want at the position.
Trait they covet: Production in the middle rounds
During Ryan Pace’s tenure as the Bears’ GM, the team has used the back half of the draft to land players who put up big numbers in college. Running back Jordan Howard ran a 4.59 in his pro day at Indiana, but he was an efficiency machine during his three seasons at IU and UAB. Howard averaged 5.7 yards per carry and more than 1,200 yards per year on the ground, and after the Bears selected him in the fifth round in 2016, he quickly became their top back. Howard’s backfield mate, Tarik Cohen, also put up staggering numbers in college. The 2017 fourth-round pick rushed for an incredible 5,619 yards during his four years at North Carolina A&T; during his first two seasons in Chicago, he’s arguably been the Bears’ most consistent offensive presence. Outside of running back, safety Eddie Jackson (six interceptions and two touchdowns at Alabama in 2015) and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (86 tackles, 10 TFL as a senior) are also midround picks who were prolific in college.
Possible targets: Trades for Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller have left the Bears without a pick in the first and second rounds, and after sending Howard to the Eagles this spring, Chicago will likely look for his replacement in the third or fourth round. In this class, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to backs who put up big numbers at the collegiate level. Stanford’s Bryce Love rushed for more than 2,100 yards in 2017. Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary averaged 1,429 yards per season on 6.0 yards per carry while scoring a bonkers 32 rushing touchdowns in 2017. And Memphis speedster Darrell Henderson finished his college career averaging 8.2 yards per carry. If Pace wants another back who is a proven yardage producer, he’ll likely be able to snag one in the middle rounds.
New England Patriots
Trait they covet: Great three-cone times in the secondary and first-round DTs
Man, does Bill Belichick love a great three-cone time. New England consistently grabs corners and safeties in the second round of the draft, and many of those players have dominated that particular drill at the combine. Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, and Logan Ryan are all former Patriots draft picks whose three-cone times finished in at least the 85th percentile, and veteran acquisitions like Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe also finished in the same range. Change-of-direction ability is paramount for Belichick in those spots.
Given New England’s roster makeup, though, Belichick may decide to focus on his front seven in the early rounds this year. Since 2011, Belichick has only spent more than one first-round pick at one position: defensive tackle (Dominique Easley in 2014 and Malcom Brown in 2015).
Possible targets: Brown left for the Saints in free agency this spring, which thinned out the defensive line’s interior. Belichick isn’t opposed to bringing aboard big bodies in the middle of his defense—along with drafting Easley and Brown, he also swung a trade for Browns run stuffer Danny Shelton ahead of last season—which is why a player like Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence (6-foot-4, 342 pounds) could make sense at pick no. 32.
Trait they covet: Change-of-direction pass rushers
Over the past decade, it’s hard to find a draft in which the Ravens didn’t take at least one edge player in the first four rounds. Baltimore built its defense through the front four during the Ozzie Newsome era, and that’s probably not going to change now that Eric DeCosta, Newsome’s longtime no. 2, is running the team’s front office.
The unifying trait among many of the Ravens’ edge rushers has been their ability to change direction. In 2016, Baltimore took Boise State’s Kamalei Correa with the 42nd pick after he finished in the 99th percentile in the three-cone drill and 93rd in the 20-yard shuttle at the combine. The Ravens drafted BYU defensive linemen Bronson Kaufusi one round later. Despite weighing 40 more pounds than Correa, Kaufusi still finished in the 89th percentile among defensive linemen in both drills. Tyus Bowser and Chris Wormley—who were both picked in 2017—fit a similar bill. Naturally, because of the sheer number of front-four players that the Ravens have drafted in the past several years, there have been some exceptions (like Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon, who scored poorly in both tests). But it’s clear that the team has a preference for rushers who can stop on a dime.
Possible targets: With Smith leaving for Green Bay in free agency and franchise stalwart Terrell Suggs signing a one-year deal in Arizona, it’s time for Baltimore to replenish its rotation of edge players. The guy that keeps jumping out to me is Michigan’s Chase Winovich. His college production matches up with just about any other edge player in the country, and his change-of-direction numbers are collectively the best in this class (95th percentile in the 20-yard shuttle and 90th in the three-cone drill). It’s easy to picture him in a Ravens uniform.
New York Giants
Trait they covet: HOG MOLLIES
It takes a confident man to feel comfortable saying “hog mollies” every time he steps in front of a microphone, and Dave Gettleman is that man. Throughout his tenure with both the Panthers and the Giants, Gettleman has made no secret of the fact that he likes to build through his defensive line. In his first draft in Carolina, in 2013, he took two defensive tackles in the first two rounds (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short). Three years later, with both players still on the roster, Gettleman drafted defensive tackle Vernon Butler with the 30th overall pick. Gettleman has overseen six drafts as a GM. His team has taken a defensive lineman in the first three rounds in five of those drafts.
Possible targets: All of them. The 2019 draft is Gettleman’s dream. Armed with the sixth overall pick, many of the best front-four players should still be available when the Giants are on the clock. Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams would be the ultimate Gettleman selection, but if he’s already gone, any one of the pass rushers at the top of the draft (Josh Allen, Montez Sweat, Brian Burns, and others) could be in play. No one enjoys ignoring a QB in the top 10 more than Gettleman.
Trait they covet: Early-round cornerbacks
Writing this might mean that I’m no longer welcome in the Twin Cities, but it’s impossible to ignore how Minnesota’s draft history might affect this upcoming class. Head coach Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014; since then, the Vikings have drafted two cornerbacks in the first round and three in the first two rounds. That doesn’t even include Xavier Rhodes, whom long-time GM Rick Spielman took 25th overall the year before Zimmer’s arrival. Minnesota has more pressing needs than cornerback at this point. The interior of the offensive line still needs work even after signing former Titans guard Josh Kline earlier this offseason, and it may be time to replenish the depth at safety with 2018 surprise standout Anthony Harris set to hit free agency next spring. But it’s not inconceivable that the Vikings could look for another cornerback early in this year’s draft. Trae Waynes is in the final year of his rookie deal; the same goes for Mackensie Alexander. Earlier this spring, Zimmer publicly called out the well-compensated Rhodes for not playing up to his contract. Minnesota can move on from Rhodes after this season for just $4.8 million in dead money. It may cause an uprising among the fan base, but don’t be surprised if the Vikings still take another cornerback early.
Possible targets: There isn’t one factor that’s linked Rhodes, Waynes, and 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes. Their heights span from just over 5-foot-10 (Hughes) to 6-foot-1 (Rhodes). Both Rhodes and Hughes tested well in the broad jump, but Waynes’s best showing was in the 40-yard dash (4.31). Two corners in this draft do compare favorably to Rhodes in terms of physical profile, though. Both Isaiah Johnson from Houston and Lonnie Johnson from Kentucky match up well to the Vikings’ top cover man, and they could both be in play for Minnesota in the second round.
Trait they covet: Big quarterbacks
John Elway’s penchant for tall passers has become something of a punch line by now, but at this point, it’s more than just a bit. Denver has systematically drafted or signed QBs that stand at least 6-foot-5, and usually they’re even taller than that: Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, and now Joe Flacco are all among the trees that have made up Denver’s quarterback room. On multiple occasions Elway has said that he wants a passer who can flourish under center, schematic trends be damned. And in his mind, that apparently means a passer who can easily peer over the line of scrimmage.
Possible targets: Many analysts expect the Broncos to find their QB of the future in this draft, and most of the passers who might be available with the 10th overall pick meet Elway’s “You must be this tall to pass” threshold. Missouri’s Drew Lock is about 6-foot-4, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins is 6-foot-3⅜, and Duke’s Daniel Jones—much to Elway’s liking, I’m sure—stands just over 6-foot-5. The dark horse candidate here, if the Broncos choose to wait for later rounds, is Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson, a 6-foot-7 QB with a massive arm. If Denver does forego a quarterback in the first round in favor of Jackson, it’ll confirm what might be the most definitive draft preference one GM has ever had.
Trait they covet: A mix of uber-productive and uber-explosive receivers
Over the past decade, no team in the league has been more consistent at hitting on a specific position than the Steelers have at wide receiver. It feels like Pittsburgh has seen a nonstop parade of excellent pass catchers, including Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant.
There’s no single quality that GM Kevin Colbert seems to look for in his receivers. Instead, the players he selects usually fall into one of two categories. The first is a prolific college receiver with a knack for understanding how to exploit space, even if they’re relatively lacking in speed or explosiveness. Brown (110 catches for 1,198 yards during his final year at Central Michigan) and Smith-Schuster (89 catches for 1,454 yards in 2015 at USC) both fall into this category. Analysts noted before the draft that Brown was sudden out of his cuts in college, which is an aspect of his game that’s translated to the NFL. Smith-Schuster may have lacked that burst during his college days, but his feel for settling in zone-coverage voids was a strength and a sign that he understood how to navigate space.
Wallace and Bryant weren’t as productive in college, but they had a stunning ability to attack defenses on the outside. Bryant averaged 19.7 yards per reception during his final year in college; Wallace was even better, with a 20.1 yard per catch average in his final year at Ole Miss. The best receiving corps are built with players whose skill sets complement each other, and somehow, the Steelers have been arguably the best organization in football at finding both types of pass catchers.
Possible targets: Now that they’ve lost Brown (and still have 2018 second-round pick James Washington as a possible downfield threat), there are a couple different highly productive inside receivers who could step in. Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry caught 155 passes for more than 2,200 yards during his final two seasons, and his strength in college—much like Smith-Schuster—was his ability to shield defensive backs and dominate at the catch point. North Carolina State receiver Kelvin Harmon (81 catches for 1,186 yards last season) could be another player who fits that bill.