The first round of the NFL draft is in the books! There was plenty of wheeling and dealing and a lot of wide receivers selected. Here are the winners and losers from Day 1.
Winner: New York Football
It’s been a rough few years for NFL fans in America’s biggest city. The Giants used to win games regularly, and the Jets never have. Both have been execrable over the past half decade. Since 2017, the two teams have identical records of 22-59, tied for the worst in the NFL. They have racked up embarrassment after embarrassment—from strange press conferences to baffling losses to insulting fan giveaways. They are prototypical New York roommates, paying way too much money to live sad lives in an area that isn’t actually close to anything.
A large part of that futility has been due to horrendous drafting. Both teams have swung and missed on quarterbacks—most recently Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold; the jury is still out on Zach Wilson. Both teams have used first-round picks on players who could barely hang on with an NFL team, like Darron Lee, Calvin Pryor, Deandre Baker, and Ereck Flowers. The Giants are already reportedly looking to move on from last year’s first-round pick, Kadarius Toney. And because these teams have been so bad, they keep getting picks toward the top of the draft—since 2016, they’ve combined to have eight top-10 picks. Only one of those, Jamal Adams, went on to be a first-team All-Pro. I feel like part of the reason the NFL draft moved from its annual New York City location and turned into an annual traveling roadshow is because Jets and Giants fans angrily booing every pick went from funny to sad.
But Thursday night, that trend seems to have flipped. Both teams earned top-five picks through their struggles last year, and both added top-10 picks through trades. The Giants got the no. 7 pick by trading last year’s no. 11 pick to the Bears; the Jets got the no. 10 pick when they traded Adams to the Seahawks in 2020.
And both teams crushed it. Many expected the Giants to take offensive tackle Evan Neal with the fifth pick. Instead, they used that pick on defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was projected to be the no. 1 pick for most of the 2021 college football season but who fell due to potentially bogus character concerns. Thibodeaux’s entry to the draft stage was easily the most joyous part of the night, as he attempted to execute a complex handshake with Roger Goodell (who failed the instructions) and then went absolutely nuts celebrating with a teenaged Make-a-Wish recipient who’d received a heart transplant.
Already love Kayvon Thibodeaux pic.twitter.com/61pOu6BMR5— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) April 29, 2022
Based on those 32 seconds, I have absolutely zero concerns about Thibodeaux’s character. To be honest, he seems like he rules.
The Giants didn’t take Neal at no. 5—but he was still available at no. 7, so they got him anyway. They may have wound up with the most talented player in the draft and a player many thought would be a smart pick at no. 5.
But the Jets may have outdone them. They got cornerback Sauce Gardner at no. 4 and wide receiver Garrett Wilson at no. 10. Then they made an additional trade for the no. 26 pick and took defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who was considered the biggest faller of the night, a projected top-10 pick who wound up lasting until the late 20s. Jets general manager Joe Douglas said the team wound up with three of the top eight prospects on their big board:
GM Joe Douglas said all three players selected tonight were in the Top 8 of our draft board. pic.twitter.com/6OWyWAryij— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 29, 2022
That sounds like a GM spouting preposterous nonsense to make it sound like they did a good job—but it actually checks out with how those prospects were rated. The Athletic produced a consensus big board based on the forecasts and evaluations of 80 draft analysts, which allows us to see how completely the Giants and Jets dominated Thursday night. Neal and Thibodeaux rank second and third, giving the Giants two of the top three players in the draft. Gardner ranks sixth, while Wilson and Johnson rank 10th and 11th, giving the Jets three of the top 11 players in the draft. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly gave out draft grades for each first-round pick; the Giants’ two picks both got A-pluses, while the Jets three picks got an A-plus, an A, and an A-minus.
For two teams defined by butt-fumbles and quarterback stumbles, everything went right on Thursday night. Will they find some new way of ruining things? Or have these two perpetual screw-ups actually figured out how to crawl into the league’s top 30 franchises?
Winner: Wide Receivers
It all started with Trent Baalke. The Jaguars GM didn’t just have the first pick in Thursday night’s NFL draft—he also initiated a billion-dollar game of wide receiver dominoes that carried into the draft, defining the night even after the Jags were off the clock. When the Jaguars signed mid-tier wideout Christian Kirk to a contract that pays him $18 million per year, the league’s wide receivers who don’t make $18 million per year started to get fed up. Eventually, All-Pros Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams were traded to teams that would sign them to record-setting contract extensions; Deebo Samuel has since demanded a trade from the 49ers while seeking his own lucrative deal.
The exploding market for receivers continued on Thursday night, as wide receivers dominated the first round. Drake London was the first, going eighth to the Falcons. There was a run from no. 10 to no. 12 when Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jameson Williams—all former Ohio State teammates, although Williams ended up transferring to Alabama—went back-to-back-to-back. Then came Jahan Dotson at no. 16 and Treylon Burks at no. 18. It’s the first time six receivers had ever gone in the top 20 picks of the draft. In addition to those six picks, two teams gave up first-rounders to trade for receivers already in the league: The Cardinals acquired Ravens speedster Marquise Brown and the Eagles traded for Titans stud A.J. Brown.
So what does this have to do with Kirk? Just look at what the Titans did. They dealt away Brown, and then used the pick they received in exchange on Burks, whose physicality has led to repeated comparisons to A.J. Brown. And while the Burks pick was being announced, news broke that the Eagles had given Brown a $100 million contract extension. The Titans need a player like Brown, but couldn’t justify paying him. So they traded him away and used their draft capital to replace him.
This draft had a lot of great receivers … but so did last year’s … and so did 2020’s … and so will next year’s. As The Ringer’s Ben Solak explained in this video, the pipeline for developing receivers is exceptional right now. The pass-heavy present and future of football has concentrated more elite talent at the position, a trend that shows no signs of abating. You’d think this increase in talented receivers entering the league each year would diminish the value of NFL receivers … but nope! There are more receivers than ever, and NFL teams are spending top dollar and top picks on hoarding receiving talent, even though there’s plenty to go around. It’s a great time to be a wide receiver—and that’s just going to convince more and more of the most talented football players that receiver is the right position to play.
We can joke about Kirk, but this is a passing league. It will be increasingly defined by receivers, and this draft—and this offseason—is just a glimpse of that.
Loser: Lamar Jackson
Every draft analyst agrees that the Baltimore Ravens crushed it. They got Kyle Hamilton—arguably the best prospect in the entire draft—at no. 14. Then they made an incredible trade: They got the no. 23 pick for receiver Marquise Brown, who was the no. 25 pick in 2019 and hasn’t been one of the league’s elite players at his position, ranking 35th in receiving yardage over the past three seasons. The Ravens then swapped that pick with Buffalo for the no. 25 pick, which they used on Tyler Linderbaum, far and away the best center prospect in the draft. Cynthia Frelund of the NFL Network tweeted that Hamilton and Linderbaum were two of the top-10 prospects in her model … and the Ravens got both without a top-10 pick. That should be impossible.
Unfortunately, one person seems disappointed with the Ravens’ evening: Quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has formed a close bond with Brown, a fellow Broward County, Florida, native. Jackson retweeted a fan’s tweet expressing anger about the Brown trade:
Lamar Jackson isn’t too happy about the Hollywood Brown trade pic.twitter.com/qcy1UE9bIe— PFF (@PFF) April 29, 2022
And kept tweeting through it:
Wtf— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) April 29, 2022
Jackson went on to specify that he’s not specifically mad about Hamilton or Linderbaum, just about the way the team got rid of his friend. But it seems as if Jackson may have been overestimating his friendship with Brown, too: Brown was in attendance at the Cardinals’ Thursday-night draft party, meaning he must have known about the upcoming trade with enough time to fly to Arizona—apparently without sending Jackson an in-flight breakup text. Furthermore, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta claimed at the Baltimore post-draft press conference that Brown had asked for a trade, and was unhappy in Baltimore. And Brown might have found Arizona attractive because he’s being reunited with another close friend of his—Kyler Murray, his QB at Oklahoma.
The Ravens may have had the best night of any team on Thursday—but it got their most important player in his feelings. He feels betrayed, not just by his front office, but also by his close friend. Maybe this is a terrible omen for the Ravens … or maybe this is just the way to motivate a top-tier quarterback to help him win multiple MVPs. Just ask the Packers!
Loser: Every Mock Draft (Besides Criss Angel’s)
Normally, we spend the days, weeks, and months ahead of the NFL draft pretty confident in who will be the no. 1 pick. This year, Travon Walker didn’t emerge as the surefire top pick until a few days before Round 1. Most mock drafters adjusted to project Walker going no. 1 to the Jaguars and Aidan Hutchinson no. 2 to the Lions. After that, chaos. Even the no. 3 pick—cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. to the Texans—was seen as a big surprise, as Stingley was not one of the top three most common choices for the Texans in mock drafts.
There were nine first-round trades, the most in NFL draft history. The first five picks were all defenders, for the first time since 1991. There were no quarterbacks in the top 19 picks for the first time since 1997. The NFL Mock Draft Database makes a consensus mock based on the most popular picks at each spot. Only one pick in that consensus mock—Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam at no. 23—turned out to be correct, and that happened only because the Bills traded up. I literally can’t find any mocks out there that stayed perfect past pick no. 5.
Basically, only one mock drafter did a good job: Criss Angel, Mindfreak, who locked a sheet of paper inside a box on ESPN’s draft set, then later came out to reveal it had the names of the top three picks on it:
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about this stunt by Mr. Angel. (Mr. Freak? Is Mindfreak a part of his name, or just a job description?) For one, the box wasn’t shown on TV the entire time, so someone could’ve slid in a correct piece of paper during a commercial. But more importantly, Criss spends an awful lot of time handling the piece of paper before opening it up to reveal his accurate prediction. I’m not a magic expert, but you have to imagine a famous illusionist would be capable of doing some sleight-of-hand stuff where he smoothly removed the piece of paper from the box and swapped in one with the correct draft order on it. But we can’t be too picky: This was the only correct mock draft in the world. Get Mr. Angel on a set with Todd McShay next year.
Loser: The Pats’ Strange Pick
For all the things the Patriots have done right as the most successful franchise in the 21st century, they haven’t really done a good job at the top of the NFL draft. Their last six first-round picks have been Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, N’Keal Harry, and Mac Jones. That group has combined for one Pro Bowl appearance—by Jones, last year. Part of that is because most of New England’s picks have been at the very end of the first round, due to the team winning consistently. And part of it is because Bill Belichick loves trading down.
But it’s easy to scratch your head at the Patriots’ selection this year. They used the 29th pick on guard Cole Strange out of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Strange ranked 73rd on The Ringer’s Big Board, while The Athletic’s consensus big board had him at 76th. The vast majority of mock drafts had him going in the third or fourth round. Out of the hundreds of mock drafts scanned by the NFL Mock Draft Database, only one—by Washington fan site Hogs Haven—had Strange going in the first round. It’s hard to imagine much upside with Strange, who will be 24 years old before taking his first NFL snap after spending six years in college. When the Patriots’ pick was announced, ESPN didn’t have a highlight package prepared to show on the broadcast.
But whatever: That’s analysis from fans and analysts who might not know what they’re talking about. What do other NFL teams think of Strange? We got a rare glimpse into that during the Rams’ post-draft press conference. Sean McVay and Les Snead talked to the media even though they didn’t have any picks and didn’t trade for any picks, and I kinda get the sense they spent the whole time slamming Bud Light Seltzers while hanging in the pool at the Rams’ swanky draft house. When they saw a TV screen displaying the Patriots’ pick, McVay started laughing—they’d been prepping for Strange as a potential third-round pick.
Rams reaction to Patriots selection of Cole Strange at #29.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) April 29, 2022
This is hysterical. pic.twitter.com/ADzqt4lizQ
Will Strange be a fine interior offensive lineman in the NFL? Possibly. But he also might have been available 25 picks later when the Patriots had their next selection. Let’s just say this Strange pick was … unusual.
Winner: Hometown Heroes
I’ve got a theory that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft scouts don’t like to travel. In 2017, they drafted James Conner, a former ACC Player of the Year at Pitt—a team which plays its home games at Heinz Field, the home field of the Steelers, and practices at the same facility as the Steelers. (There are multiple fields—the two teams don’t have to take shifts.) In 2018, they drafted Oklahoma State’s quarterback-receiver tandem Mason Rudolph and James Washington after a game in which Rudolph threw for five touchdowns at Heinz Field. (They probably scouted them in the same film session.) Last year, they took Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth. No, he didn’t play at Pitt, but Steelers scouts didn’t even have to cross the mid-Pennsylvania Sheetz-Wawa border to scout him.
But this year, they out-Pitted themselves. The most pressing need for the Steelers heading into the draft was replacing longtime franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and they didn’t even have to leave the building to find their guy. They used their first-round pick on Kenny Pickett, the tiny-handed folk hero who led the Panthers to an ACC championship as a fifth-year senior. In the video where Pickett got the call from the Steelers, you can hear one of his family members screaming, “We’re staying home!”
It’s an incredible situation for Pickett. Yeah, he’ll probably want a new place in Pittsburgh now that he’s a millionaire, but he gets to skip over a lot of the uncomfortable behind-the-scenes logistics that comes with being an NFL rookie. He doesn’t have to get familiar with a new city, or figure out how he’s going to stay in touch with friends and family. If he wants to talk to his old coaches, they’re right down the hallway. And he never has to live in a place where french fries are not considered an acceptable sandwich topping. And it feels like a pretty good situation for the Steelers, too: Pickett’s quarterback coach at Pitt was Mark Whipple—the same man who was the Steelers’ quarterback coach from 2004 to 2006, when Roethlisberger was turning into the player with which Pittsburgh fell in love.
Convenience was somewhat of a trend on draft night. The Lions used the second pick on defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who grew up in Michigan and followed in his father’s footsteps by playing in Ann Arbor for the Wolverines. The Panthers used the sixth pick on Ikem Ekwonu, a Charlotte native who played at NC State. The Texans took guard Kenyon Green, who is, in fact, a Texan, hailing from the Houston-area city of Humble and playing at Texas A&M. The Cowboys took a Metroplex native in Fort Worth’s Tyler Smith out of Tulsa.
Last year’s big trend was pairing wide receivers with their college QBs—Ja’Marr Chase with Joe Burrow, DeVonta Smith with Jalen Hurts, Jaylen Waddle with Tua Tagovailoa—and one of those connections was good enough to get the Bengals to the Super Bowl. This year’s trend is saving draftees money on moving expenses. Maybe letting these top players stay close to home will help these teams go far … in the postseason!