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The 2020 NFL Draft Awards

Honoring the best and worst from the weekend in cyberspace, from the Dolphins’ franchise overhaul to the Packers’ shocking focus on the future

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Things looked and felt a little bit different this year, but the three most fun days of the NFL offseason calendar are in the books: After 255 picks, a bevy of trades, and a whole lot of Zoom parties, the 2020 NFL draft is a wrap. To take stock of all that went down and to make sense of the weekend that was, I’ve come up with a few awards to highlight the biggest developments of this draft.

The How to Support Your Aging Quarterback Award: Colts and Buccaneers

Like the Saints, the Colts and Bucs both focused on early-impact playmakers who should help their respective veteran signal-callers in 2020. After sending the 13th pick to the 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner back in March―you might call that their de facto first-round pick―Indy doubled down on day-one contributors and grabbed USC receiver Michael Pittman (34th overall) and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (41st). Both should be a boon for Philip Rivers right away. Pittman’s a big, strong outside receiver who should give the veteran quarterback a reliable option both down the field and in the red zone. And Taylor’s going to absolutely eat playing behind the dominant Indianapolis line. After rushing for 6,174 yards in his Badgers career (the most for any player in a three-year span in college football history) and scoring 50 touchdowns, the explosive back should have no issue hitting the ground running this year.

The Buccaneers have revamped their offense around Tom Brady as well. A few days after sending a fourth-rounder to New England for recently un-retired tight end Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay turned around and used their first pick to grab a right tackle who can protect their new quarterback. After trading up one spot with the Niners, the Buccaneers took my top-ranked tackle in this class with the 13th overall pick, Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs is a mountain of a man with elite athleticism and should not only provide a nice protection boost for Brady, but help open up run lanes for the team’s third-round pick, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Just for good measure, the Buccaneers also grabbed one of my favorite sleepers at the receiver position, Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, with their fifth-round pick. That’s a great value; they nabbed my 72nd-ranked player at 161st overall. Tompa Bay looks locked and loaded for a real run at the playoffs in 2020.

The How to Alienate Your Quarterback Award: Packers

Imagine how Aaron Rodgers felt during the Packers’ draft as he watched the Bucs and Colts surround their veteran quarterbacks with win-now talent. Green Bay went about things a different way, trading up in the first round for a long-term developmental quarterback in Jordan Love before using their next two picks on players who are likely to play reserve roles in 2020. In the second round, the Packers ignored their obvious need at receiver and grabbed running back A.J. Dillon, ostensibly to pair the two-down bruiser with superstar runner Aaron Jones to form a committee (which might be a net negative). In the third round, Green Bay added tight end Josiah Deguara, a projected late-rounder who should compete with Marcedes Lewis, Jace Sternberger, Robert Tonyan, and maybe even fullback Elijah Wellman for snaps this season.

Those picks may end up paying off down the road, but it wasn’t exactly the type of draft that puts the Packers over the hump for a run at the Lombardi Trophy in 2020.

The Remember When Nick Foles Won a Super Bowl? Award: Eagles

Less than a year after handing quarterback Carson Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension that keeps the 27-year-old in Philly through the 2024 season, the Eagles turned around and sunk a second-round pick into their backup—nay, “second quarterback”—grabbing Jalen Hurts with the 53rd overall pick. It was, without a doubt, the most confusing pick of the first two days.

I’m a big fan of Hurts (he came in at no. 59 on my Big Board) and think he has the traits to develop into a starter in the NFL, but the Eagles, who describe themselves as “quarterback developers,” had other needs to address. Now, the Philly front office is right in pointing to the fact that the team won Super Bowl LII on the back of an incredible performance by backup quarterback Nick Foles, but with guys like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston both free agents and Andy Dalton likely soon to be on the open market, this felt like a massive misallocation of assets.

The On the Rebound Award: 49ers, Vikings, and Rams

Breaking up can be hard to do, but a handful of franchises made tough decisions in trading away highly productive star players over the past few months. Most of those squads have acted quickly to address their new roster needs (the Lions grabbed their Darius Slay replacement in Jeff Okudah while the Jags got their A.J. Bouye replacement in C.J. Henderson), but a trio of them went one step further in this draft and used the exact picks they received in those trades to find the departed player’s immediate replacement.

After sending All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts in March in exchange for Indianapolis’s 13th overall pick, San Francisco turned right around and picked a Buckner clone in South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. Kinlaw brings many of the same traits that made Buckner a star―length, power, and explosive athleticism―and gives the 49ers a chance to re-create the dominant defensive front they leaned on so hard in 2019.

A little later in the opening round, the Vikings used the pick they got from the Bills in return for Pro Bowl pass catcher Stefon Diggs to select LSU receiver Justin Jefferson. Like Diggs, Jefferson is a high-level route runner who excels in traffic and can get behind a defense. The former Tigers star caught 111 passes and scored 18 touchdowns in 2019, and while he may need some time to acclimate to the NFL and gain chemistry with quarterback Kirk Cousins, his upside is through the roof.

Finally, after trading receiver Brandin Cooks to the Texans on April 9, the Rams used the second-round pick they got in that deal to select Florida receiver Van Jefferson. Jefferson, the son of former NFL receiver and current Jets receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, brings top-shelf route running to L.A. and gives quarterback Jared Goff another weapon downfield.

The Arms Race Award: The AFC West

This division is looking primed to produce some fireworks. In an obvious push to build offensive units with a better chance of going punch-for-punch with the Chiefs, the Raiders and Chargers both went HAM on offensive skill position players over the three-day event.

Oakland got the fun started on Thursday night by grabbing Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs (14th on my Big Board), but they weren’t done there. GM Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden selected one of my favorite players in this draft, running back/receiver hybrid Lynn Bowden (68th) with the 80th overall pick, then took South Carolina receiver Bryan Edwards (58th) with the very next pick. With that trio joining a skill group that already features tight end Darren Waller and running back Josh Jacobs (plus Tyrell Williams, Nelson Agholor, and Hunter Renfrow), Derek Carr’s job just got a little bit easier. Oakland also added Clemson guard John Simpson (92nd).

Not to be outdone, the Broncos went all out in adding weaponry around second-year quarterback Drew Lock. The team selected Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy with their first-round pick (he ranks seventh on my Big Board) and Penn State speedster K.J. Hamer (63rd) with their second-rounder. And as if that weren’t a strong enough infusion of speed to the offense, GM John Elway took Lock’s former teammate at Missouri, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam―a seam-threatening playmaker who ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. That group will join an already intriguing unit that features receiver Courtland Sutton, tight end Noah Fant, and running backs Melvin Gordon and Philip Lindsay. I cannot wait to see what this team will do in 2020.

Of course, the Chiefs didn’t exactly sit idle and let all their rivals make up ground. Coming into the draft with what was already the most explosive offense in the NFL under Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City decided to up the ante, taking the first running back of the draft in LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire at no. 32 overall. The diminutive runner is as elusive as they come and makes an already stacked offense even more dangerous.

I’m not forgetting about the Chargers; the team’s selection of quarterback Justin Herbert could pay dividends down the road, but L.A.’s draft didn’t come with the same day-one umph as the other teams in the division.

The Understanding Positional Value Award: Dolphins

The Dolphins made it clear this weekend that they’re a team with a specific plan for building out a strong, playoff-caliber roster—and that they’re operating with a multiyear timeline in place. Miami loaded up on foundational players at the league’s premium positions, grabbing their future franchise quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, a pair of offensive tackles in Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt (the latter of whom brings guard/tackle versatility), and a cornerback in Noah Igbinoghene with their first five picks. They avoided the temptation of grabbing a less-valuable running back early on (they traded a mid-rounder to San Francisco for Matt Breida later) or two-down run-stuffing defenders with those first few picks (they waited to grab a hulking interior defensive linemen in Raekwon Davis in the late second).

In other words, Miami’s strategy and process for maximizing their high-end draft capital appears sound, and comes in stark contrast to recent early-round shopping sprees by the Raiders (who took a running back and box safety with a pair of first-rounders last year) and the Giants (who took a running back with the second pick in 2018 and then used a first-rounder last year on an interior defensive lineman). The Dolphins may have to wait a year for dividends on this class to start paying off—Tua may need a redshirt season and Jackson may need some time to develop in the NFL—but this team seems to have laid the foundation for a competitive roster with their savvy choices early on in the draft.

The I Can’t Believe I Love Their Draft Award: Jets and Giants

I mentioned the Giants above as less-than-optimal operators of the draft, but feel the need to point out that I actually really liked what they did this year. New York added a day-one starter at tackle in Georgia’s Andrew Thomas with the fourth overall pick, then got great value when they took Alabama safety Xavier McKinney with the 36th pick and Connecticut tackle Matt Peart in the third round. GM Dave Gettleman rounded out his haul nicely with some nice Day 3 additions, including UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes in the fourth round and Oregon guard Shane Lemieux in the fifth.

I thought that new Jets general manager Joe Douglas hit a home run in his first draft with the team, too. New York added the highest-upside tackle in the class at no. 11 in Louisville’s Mekhi Becton and got a steal in the late second by grabbing Baylor receiver Denzel Mims. Add in Cal safety Ashtyn Davis, Florida edge rusher Jabari Zuniga and running back La’Michael Perine, plus one of my favorite late-round steals in cornerback Bryce Hall, and Jets fans have got to be feeling pretty optimistic about the Douglas era.

The Bargain Shoppers Award: Cowboys

If I had to choose one team that had the best overall draft, I’d probably go with the Cowboys. Jerry Jones and Co. scooped up value with just about every one of their picks: They grabbed my sixth-ranked player, receiver CeeDee Lamb, at no. 17; my 33rd-ranked player, cornerback Trevon Diggs, at no. 51; and my 49th-ranked player, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, at no. 82.

I liked their third- and fourth-round picks in cornerback Reggie Robinson and center Tyler Biadasz as well, and just to put some icing on the cake, Dallas got another one of my top-100 players in the fifth round, grabbing Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae―who checked in at no. 75 on my list―with the 179th pick of the draft. Not shabby.

The How’d the NFL Let This Happen? Award: Ravens and 49ers

The rich got richer this weekend, and two of my favorite drafts came from two of the league’s best teams. The 49ers put together a series of savvy moves despite starting the weekend with just two selections in the top 150 picks. They kicked things off with the aforementioned Kinlaw pick at no. 13, then traded up in the first to grab one of my favorite receivers in this class, Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk at no. 25. Kinlaw’s a beast, and Aiyuk gives play-caller Kyle Shanahan yet another electric yards-after-the-catch creator who should give opposing defenses headaches for years.

Lacking second-, third-, or fourth-round picks thanks to a flurry of previous trades, though, San Francisco turned back to the trade market, sending a fifth-rounder this year and a third-rounder in 2021 to the Redskins for tackle Trent Williams. With Joe Staley announcing his retirement on Saturday due to health concerns, Williams is as good of a replacement as the team could hope for—and with experience in Shanahan’s offense from their time together in Washington, the former Redskin should hit the ground running with his new team. The Niners also dealt running back Matt Breida to the Dolphins and receiver Marquise Goodwin to the Eagles, clearing out some cap space for the impending Williams extension. All in all, while San Francisco’s draft was less than flashy, they made a series of savvy moves that should give the team a chance to rebound from last year’s Super Bowl loss.

Finally, let’s talk about the Ravens, who added what might’ve been the most exciting group of picks from any team in this draft. Baltimore addressed some needs on defense, grabbing my top-ranked linebacker in Patrick Queen with their first-round pick, plus a pair of day-one contributors in defensive tackle Justin Maduibiuke (no. 80 on my Big Board) and linebacker Malik Harrison (no. 88) in the third round. They looked to soup up an already explosive offense, too, grabbing running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round, receiver Devin Duverney in the third, guards Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredesen in the third and fourth, respectively, then receiver James Proche in the sixth. That’s speed, speed, speed at the skill positions and plenty of girth on the offensive line.

Have fun with that, defenses.

An earlier version of this piece contained an item misstating that the Saints had completed their draft activities in Round 3 on Friday. The team traded back into the seventh round Saturday to pick Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens.