Despite our obsessions about what teams will do in the NFL draft, the “team” isn’t making a decision. It’s usually down to one person within the organization to decide whom a franchise will select, and if that one decision-maker guards what they truly think, then nobody—not even the people who work for them—knows what the “team” is planning.
Take the Cleveland Browns last year. General manager John Dorsey, who had been hired at the tail end of the 2017 season, kept the first major card he was dealt close to his chest. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported Dorsey had a strong sense he wanted to pick Baker Mayfield no. 1 overall after a private workout in March, but Dorsey didn’t share that information with the people who worked for him until the day of the first round on April 26. So outsiders spent four months wondering whether the Browns would draft Wyoming’s Josh Allen or USC’s Sam Darnold, and even people who work for the Browns found out the team was going to take Mayfield only hours before he was picked.
This year’s draft will be dominated by a handful of decision-makers who have the capital to give this year’s draft some sparks and the sleight of hand to make it difficult to see how things may play out. These are the four people who could wreak havoc on the 2019 NFL draft and what each may be thinking.
Steve Keim, General Manager, Arizona Cardinals: Top-Down Chaos
Picks: No. 1, No. 33, No. 65, No. 103
Keim is sitting in Dorsey’s chair this year. As the GM making the top pick in the draft, Keim will dictate what everyone else does. But whereas Cleveland was tight-lipped last year, there is plenty of information about the Cardinals’ draft plans this year.
Small brain—Draft Kyler, trade Rosen: The only widespread belief entering this draft is that the Cardinals are locked into drafting Oklahoma Heisman-winning quarterback/center fielder Kyler Murray. The move makes football sense. Murray has experience running the Air Raid–style offense new coach Kliff Kingsbury is expected to employ and he could become one of the best deep passers in football while also possessing the ability to run as well as nearly any quarterback. Arizona reportedly has been offered a second-round pick for Josh Rosen, but the Cardinals may be hoping they can turn him into a first-round pick in 2019, perhaps from Washington, Miami, or the New York Giants.
Bigger brain—Draft Kyler, keep Rosen: Trading Rosen may be the traditional logic, but, as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark noted earlier this month, the revolutionary idea is to keep both. The 2018 first-round QB’s value has bottomed out after a disastrous rookie campaign, but he never had a chance to succeed with an overwhelmed coaching staff and a poorly constructed roster. Rosen may increase his trade value simply by sitting on the bench to start the year, and he may be worth quite a bit more if another team suffers an injury at quarterback. Perhaps two young quarterbacks is better than one.
Bigger-er brain—Trade the pick, keep Rosen: There is a more intriguing and chaotic possibility that could explain the prevalence of the Kyler-to-Arizona rumors: The Cardinals may have fanned the Murray flames to increase the value of the no. 1 overall pick in trade talks. Even by draft rumor standards, the amount of certainty around the league that the Cardinals will take Murray is unusually high, and there’s a chance we could be in line for an even bigger rope-a-dope at no. 1 overall than the Browns taking Baker. This is how Keim described the top of the draft at the NFL combine:
“I think every year it’s different, but to me there are several players who really warrant the no. 1 pick,” Keim told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss. “Enough guys that I think there is a lot of value in this pick right now.”
And here is Keim last year discussing the possibility of trading up:
“To trade up you have to find a partner. No. 2, what player is on the board when that team is willing to trade? If it’s a dynamic player at that position that is a game-changer, they’re not going to take anything short of the mortgage for the house, the farm, and everything to come up.”
Perhaps the Cardinals are floating the possibility of choosing Murray over Rosen to reinforce that Murray is a game-changing player and they’ll only trade out of the no. 1 spot if they get a mortgage-for-the-house-and-farm-level offer.
Enlightened brain—Play both at the same time: Kingsbury, offensive guru, will take the Air Raid to a new level and run a two-quarterback offense.
Jon Gruden, Head Coach, Oakland Raiders: All of the Picks
Draft Picks: No. 4, No. 24, No. 27, No 35, No. 106
Don’t be fooled by his title. Jon Gruden has full control of the Raiders organization. The Raiders hired NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock as the team’s general manager on New Year’s Eve, but just more than a week later, Mayock explained that Gruden was the one in charge.
“In all honesty, Jon’s got final say, if it ever comes to that, and I’ve got zero problems with that,” Mayock told ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez.
With great power comes great responsibility. The Raiders have four of the first 35 picks in this year’s draft after trading defensive end Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper.
Small brain—Use the four picks on four players: Gruden can use the four picks in the top 35 to build the foundation he wants, since he has the rare opportunity to put two franchise cornerstones on each side of the ball.
Bigger brain—Trade down: The only surprise from Gruden would be sitting tight with all four of those selections. The Raiders made 10 trades that involved a player in 2018, the second most in the league to the Cleveland Browns. After sending their third-rounder to Pittsburgh in the Antonio Brown trade, Oakland’s only pick on Day 2 of the draft (rounds 2 and 3) is no. 35—the third pick that day—which means Jon Gruden and his itchy finger would have to stand pat for five hours. During last year’s draft, Oakland made two trades for more Day 2 picks and made two trades up for players it wanted on Day 2. Unless Gruden gets a fidget spinner, they’ll likely make a move.
Bigger-er brain—Trade up, get two pass rushers: The Raiders could take the pass rusher of their choice at no. 4, but whoever they might take is unlikely to be as good as Khalil Mack. But if they take two of those picks at the end of the first round and trade back into the top 10 for another defensive lineman (i.e., Ed Oliver), they could give themselves two players who could do more together than Mack can do alone and would combine for less than half of Mack’s cap hit. Not to mention Oakland could still hang on to no. 35 overall in the process.
Enlightened brain—Draft Kyler Murray: Most of the deals Gruden made last season seemed like attempts to purge the roster composed by former Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie. But there is still one glaring piece left: quarterback Derek Carr. Gruden made a point of saying Carr is the team’s franchise quarterback at the combine, and Mayock reiterated it too.
“I think Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback, I truly believe that,” Mayock told reporters at the combine. “Now, do I also believe it’s a general manager and head coach’s job to keep their eyes open to improve any position on a football team? Sure. But I think it’s really difficult to try to improve over a franchise quarterback like the one we have in our building right now.”
Finding a better quarterback than Carr would be difficult, but you know what else is difficult? Trading up to the no. 1 overall pick. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Gruden believes that trading no. 4, no. 27, and another Day 2 pick to Arizona for the right to draft Murray while retaining no. 24 and no. 35 is better than holding on to his picks. If you give any credence to the possibility the Cardinals want to trade out of the top pick, or to the idea that it makes sense for the Raiders to upgrade at quarterback if they have the chance, it also makes sense for the Raiders to overpay for Kyler as the icing on the cake of the Mack and Cooper trades.
Dave Gettleman, General Manager, New York Giants: Wild Card!
Draft Capital: No. 6, No. 17, No. 37, No. 95
Gettleman earned himself the “wild card” title by trading Odell Beckham Jr. Even the way the Beckham trade went down was bananas: Gettleman wanted two first-round picks in exchange for Beckham, and the Browns countered with a first-rounder, a third-rounder, and safety Jabrill Peppers. Instead of shopping the offer around the league to try to get the two first-round picks, Gettleman accepted the deal, according to ESPN.
Small brain—Draft a quarterback at no. 6: Eli Manning is old, and Giants ownership has said they’d love to come away from this draft with a quarterback. This isn’t complicated.
Bigger brain—Draft a quarterback at no. 17: One thing seems certain about the Giants on draft day: New York won’t trade back. Gettleman was the GM of the Panthers for five drafts and has been the GM of the Giants for one, and in those six drafts, he has never traded down. That doesn’t seem to be an option, and Giants beat writers believe the team is looking at a defensive player but would be open to taking a quarterback with the no. 17 overall pick. (This is also what The Ringer’s Danny Kelly projects in his latest mock draft.) This strategy is bonkers. Passing on a quarterback at no. 6 and drafting one later means the team believes one of the following things to be true:
- Their preferred franchise quarterback is not worth the no. 6 overall pick.
- Their preferred franchise quarterback is so disliked by the rest of the league that he will fall to no. 17.
- Their preferred franchise quarterback will be available after no. 6 but will go before no. 17, requiring them to trade up.
- Their evaluations of the quarterbacks likely to be available at no. 6 are similar, suggesting the best course of action is to take whoever is left at no. 17.
All of these feel logically warped. If the Giants believe there is a quarterback worth taking at no. 17 but not at no. 6, they may as well not take a quarterback. And if the player is definitely worth the no. 17 pick, he is probably worth taking at no. 6. When it comes to quarterbacks, it doesn’t make much sense to mess around and hope a player falls like it’s a fantasy football draft.
Bigger-er brain—Draft a QB in 2020: The 2020 quarterback class is expected to be much better than this year’s. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa may be the best prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012, and Georgia’s Jake Fromm would have a chance to go no. 1 this year if he were available. Giants co-owner John Mara has said New York won’t take a quarterback if he’s a reach on the team’s board.
Enlightened brain—Extend Eli Manning: Forget new quarterbacks—the team is reportedly willing to extend Manning, whose contract will be up after this year.
Bill Belichick, Sith Lord, New England Patriots
Draft Capital: No. 32, No. 56, No. 64, No. 73, No. 97, No. 101
With 12 picks, the Patriots have the most selections in the draft, though four of those will come in the seventh round. But the Patriots have six picks in the top 101, setting them up for the type of wheeling and dealing that they’ve become famous for in Belichick’s tenure.
Belichick made an elaborate defense this week of the traditional trade value chart, created by Jimmy Johnson to properly value draft picks across rounds and years and since adopted by many teams, though it is considered outdated.
“So, for you to have a chart that’s different than the other 31 charts isn’t really that productive because now we’re just arguing about which chart—‘My chart says this. Your chart says that.’ ... I would say everybody probably uses about the same value chart. I’d say in our draft trade negotiations through the years, especially the last two or three years, there hasn’t been a lot of, ‘My chart says this. Your chart says that.’”
Enlightened brain: Perhaps Belichick uses the same chart as everybody else, but the odds that he is grading his own trades based on ol’ Jimmy’s chart seem low.