Evaluating an NFL draft right after it ends is a virtually impossible task. Even if there’s a rush to identify shrewd moves and regrettable gaffes, it takes time to conclude whether the prospects selected will ultimately justify where they were taken. What we can discern the moment a given draft finishes, though, is what it says about teams’ plans and evaluations of the personnel already on their rosters.
A highly drafted stud at a somewhat surprising position can spell the end for an incumbent starter. (See: the 49ers snagging tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth overall and trading Trent Brown to the Patriots within hours.) When teams eschew supposed positions of need, that can mean they’re content to roll with the guys they have in-house. (Welcome to the Case Keenum era in Denver, and I hope Big Blue is ready for one more ride with Eli Manning.)
There are also plenty of decisions that go beyond a single player and point to a franchise’s overall mind-set moving forward. To that end, here are four teams whose 2018 draft hauls speak to their thinking for the upcoming season and beyond.
1. The Colts wanted a jolt of physicality on both sides of the ball.
Since the Andrew Luck era began six years ago (seriously, six years!), the Colts have been plagued by ineptitude up front. The offense has regularly toiled toward the bottom-of-the-league rushing yardage while also failing to keep Luck upright. And the defensive line has been equally deficient: The Indianapolis run defense was a major issue throughout the 2012 campaign (when it ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA), and those issues gave way to a toothless pass rush that’s caused the unit to crater.
In his second season as the team’s general manager, Chris Ballard made a series of deals to address both needs. Headlined by his trade with the Jets, he netted five picks in the first two rounds of this draft, including four in the second round alone. Ballard then used that arsenal of draft capital to exclusively retool the offensive line and defensive front seven with the hope that a single class can redefine the Colts’ identity.
That transformation begins with no. 6 overall pick, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. The best guard prospect to come along in years, he might also be the meanest. Nelson’s affinity for physically dominating opponents has a chance to shape the Colts’ entire attitude up front, and he’ll be joined by Auburn guard Braden Smith, who was snatched up with the 37th overall pick. In Nelson and Smith, the Colts have added two massive players with seriously impressive strength along the interior. Loading up on one position group is typically an indication that a front office is searching for a sea change at that spot, and that’s clearly what Ballard is after.
Indy’s moves on defense weren’t quite as drastic, but Ballard still added two edge defenders, Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, who ideally will breathe life into a pass rush that finished 31st in adjusted sack rate last season. Lewis and Tury should also aid the unit’s transition to a new scheme under first-year coordinator Matt Eberflus.
2. The Ravens sought to strike a balance between maximizing their current identity and creating their identity of the future.
Seeing Baltimore draft two tight ends (Hayden Hurst at no. 25 overall and Mark Andrews at no. 86) within the first three rounds shouldn’t surprise anyone. The position has long been a staple of the team’s passing game with Joe Flacco at quarterback. Baltimore threw a remarkable 32 percent of its passes out of 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers, one running back) last season, the highest mark in the league by far. Part of that came from a 2017 rash of injuries at wide receiver; part of it is built into the team’s DNA. In Hurst and Andrews, Baltimore gets two tights ends who have a history of production (they caught a combined 106 passes last season), are natural receivers, and provide this unit with flexibility to attack defenses through the air out of larger personnel groupings. The final draft of GM Ozzie Newsome’s tenure was a sign that tight-end-heavy looks will remain a focus of the Ravens offense, no matter the circumstance.
Continuity was not the theme under center, though, making the team’s decision to trade up into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson such a fascinating counterpoint. Flacco’s onerous contract includes cap hits of $24.8 million and $26.5 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and would cost the Ravens $16 million in dead money if they opted to cut him before next season. Save for a drastic turn of events, Flacco will be the franchise’s starting quarterback for the next two years, leaving Jackson on the bench as a longer-term project. In terms of timeline, that might be beneficial for Jackson’s development, but also means the Ravens used considerable resources on a player who won’t help them for a while.
The draft is often full of competing motivations, as front offices weigh desires to win now with concerns to preserve a roster’s long-term health. Baltimore’s class was this year’s most obvious—and intriguing—example.
3. Despite winning a combined eight games over the past two seasons, the Bears want to make a playoff push now.
Few fans who watched the 5-11 Bears last fall likely came into 2018 thinking, “This team is a single offseason away from relevance.” Based on the franchise’s decisions over the past two months, though, this group wants to make a surge sooner rather than later. Chicago was among the most aggressive players in free agency, loading up on pass catchers to pair with second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. It handed out big deals to no. 1 receiver Allen Robinson (three years for $42 million with $25.2 million guaranteed), speedster Taylor Gabriel (four years for $26 million with $14 million guaranteed), and tight end Trey Burton (four years for $32 million with $22 million guaranteed). As it turns out, that was only the beginning.
To go along with this freewheeling strategy in free agency, GM Ryan Pace approached the draft seeking to find prospects who can help the Bears immediately. Eighth-overall pick Roquan Smith should step into a starting linebacker role next to Danny Trevathan from the get-go, filling the most glaring hole on an otherwise solid defense. And the Bears’ decisions to cut Josh Sitton and allow restricted free agent Cam Meredith to depart for New Orleans left guard and no. 2 receiver as the two most significant remaining needs on Chicago’s offense. Enter Iowa interior lineman James Daniels and Memphis wideout Anthony Miller, the former of whom played center for the Hawkeyes (though he’ll be expected to play guard in Chicago), and the latter of whom was amazingly productive during his final two years with the Tigers. In 2016 and 2017, Miller hauled in 191 passes for nearly 2,900 yards with 32 touchdowns. Read that again. It explains why the Bears eagerly traded a 2018 fourth-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder to New England in exchange for the right to snag him.
Whether the Bears’ ambitions are justified remains to be seen, but with three new starters coming in through the draft and at least three offensive playmakers arriving via free agency, the Bears are clearly going for it this fall. Combine this influx of talent with a drastically new schematic approach from head coach Matt Nagy and staff, and Chicago has a recipe for possibly morphing from punch line to wild-card hopeful overnight.
4. The Titans think a scheme change will be enough to bring the offensive improvements they need.
No one who watched Tennessee last season was blown away by its offense. The Titans finished the year ranked 18th in offensive DVOA, with a middling passing game and an above-average running game. Despite bringing in a wealth of receiving talent the previous offseason (headlined by rookies Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor), quarterback Marcus Mariota badly regressed in his third year. One season after throwing 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions, Mariota cut his touchdown total in half and tossed 15 picks.
Despite sneaking into the playoffs in a watered-down AFC wild-card race, the Titans chose to part ways with head coach Mike Mularkey in January. That reflects how the front office believes the offense performed relative to expectations. And based on the Titans’ decisions this offseason, it appears they’ll rely heavily on new coordinator Matt LaFleur to right the ship on that side of the ball.
Aside from giving a four-year deal to former Patriots running back Dion Lewis, Tennessee stood pat with its 2017 offensive personnel. The entire line will return intact, and Mariota’s receiving options will come back with no notable additions. There will be some slight differences in the group, as Davis was banged up for much of his rookie season, and Lewis will provide a versatile element in the receiving game and serve as a better complement to Derrick Henry. But those are incremental changes. Rather than overhaul any part of his offensive personnel, GM Jon Robinson was content to add to his defense in this draft, picking up Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry and Alabama move linebacker Rashaan Evans (who also brings pass-rushing expertise).
That tandem will join a defense that already features Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. There’s nothing wrong with an organization building on its established strengths—and Orakpo and Morgan are entering the final year of their deals. Yet now the bulk of the Titans’ offensive development will be placed at the feet of LaFleur, who has never called plays in the NFL. The former Rams coordinator spent last season teaming with Sean McVay to reinvigorate a Los Angeles unit that seemed beyond saving at this time last year, and before that LaFleur spent four seasons learning from Kyle Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta. Tennessee’s draft haul made clear that the franchise is betting big on LaFleur to lift its stagnant offense.