The first round of the NFL is in the books! Which players will be superstars, and which will be busts? Hell, we don’t know. The draft happened hours ago, and we’re gonna need to see them play in the NFL first, to be honest. Anyway, here are some winners and losers.
Winner: Football’s Unexpected Future
The Arizona Cardinals did not surprise anybody with the top pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, as it had been widely rumored for months that they would select Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray.
No, the Murray pick was not a surprise, but I was still overwhelmed with joy and wonder Thursday night when I saw him stride across the stage in his pint-sized pink suit. It was the culmination of so many things I never thought would happen. I expected Murray to play professional baseball after receiving a multimillion-dollar contract from the Oakland A’s; he chose to pursue football. I expected Murray to be scoffed at by NFL scouts because he is 5-foot-10, 2 inches shorter than any first-round quarterback selected since World War II; instead he quickly rose to the top of every draft board. I expected the NFL to shun the Air Raid offense forever; instead the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury as head coach in spite of his losing record at Texas Tech and drafted Murray in spite of the fact that his gaudy college stats came in that system. I expected the Cardinals to stay away from the quarterback position with the first pick in the draft because they just chose Josh Rosen 10th overall last year; instead they opted to take the best player available.
Murray didn’t follow a conventional road to that draft stage, and the Cardinals didn’t follow a conventional road to drafting him. The Murray selection was a celebration of squiggly lines over straight paths. Just a few years ago, pro scouts would’ve scoffed at Murray’s pro dreams, telling him to go lead the Lilliputian league in RBIs. Thursday night, he was the biggest star on one of football’s biggest nights, the undisputed best prospect in his class.
The selection of Murray is a sign of a league where teams aggressively pursue unique paths to success, rather than follow the same plan but hope to follow it better than everybody else. Will the Cardinals’ strategy work? I think Murray will be a great quarterback, and I think Kingsbury will be a successful coach, but I have no clue. (And I certainly don’t know what they plan on doing with Rosen.) This is draft night. Even the surest things sometimes flop, and Arizona’s blatantly ignoring football wisdom at every step is not a sure thing.
All I know is that a league where teams act the way the Cardinals did in selecting Murray is much more interesting than the NFL I grew used to over the years. It’s the difference between watching a bunch of people bake with a cookie-cutter and watching the Great British Baking Show. The Cardinals were given the biggest decision of the year and chose to hire a college football wipeout to coach a former baseball player. It may have been unsurprising, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t extraordinary.
Loser: The New York Giants
While the Cardinals dreamed of a bold new future of football, the Giants desperately held onto the dumbest elements of its past. They drafted Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, whose statistics are brutal, whose game tape was unmemorable, but whose measurements absolutely confirm that he is 6-foot-5. That’s the height quarterbacks are supposed to be in the eyes of football traditionalists like Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.
It is hard to emphasize how bad of a pick this was. Virtually every talent evaluator agrees that Jones was not the second-best quarterback in the draft. Our expert Danny Kelly included Jones in his top 100 big board… at no. 100, making him a late-third-round or early-fourth-round prospect. The Draft Network had him at no. 99. Pro Football Focus had him at no. 70. SB Nation’s Dan Kadar had him at no. 73. Kinder analysts had him in the top 50, or even the top 32. I didn’t see any prospect rankings that considered him one of the best 20 players in the draft. If you want an explanation of how lowly Jones was rated in more entertaining form, here’s a video of ESPN’s Twitter stream reacting to the pick:
Daniel Jones comes off the board to the Giants and @minakimes and @MGolicJR57 couldn't keep it together— ESPN (@espn) April 26, 2019
More #NFLDraft reactions LIVE on #OnTheClock: https://t.co/4mkugQilrA pic.twitter.com/vj4uUdci65
Don’t just take experts’ words for it! Fans also agree that this is a horrible decision:
Of course, we could all be wrong. Draft analysis is pretending we know the future, when all analysis of the past reveals our future projections suck. Even though it sure looks like Daniel Jones is going to be a bad NFL quarterback, he could shock the world and turn out good.
But even then, the Giants probably screwed this up. Drafting isn’t just about taking the right players, it’s about using a team’s resources well. The Giants didn’t have to pick Jones sixth, because they also had the 17th pick. Thirty-eight percent of mock drafts of the 90-plus surveyed in SB Nation’s consensus mock draft had the Giants selecting Jones with pick no. 17. There was very little buzz about Jones going to teams besides the Giants; many mocks had Jones going to Washington at 15, but it was considered more likely that they’d pick Dwayne Haskins. (More on this later.)
The Giants had a lot of options! They could have used the no. 6 pick on one of the many other talented available players (Ed Oliver! Josh Allen!) and hoped Jones remained available at no. 17. They could have traded down from no. 6 to a slot ahead of Washington, picking up assets while still getting Jones. They could have traded up from no. 17 ahead of Washington. Instead they picked Jones at six and used 17 on Dexter Lawrence (56th on Kelly’s big board). They could have gotten somebody great with their premier pick and still gotten Jones. Instead they used their premier pick on Jones and got somebody decent with their other first-rounder.
Of course, the best-case scenario would’ve been for them to take an actual good quarterback, but, well, that’s probably asking too much.
Winner: Eli Manning
Normally, it’s bad news for an ancient quarterback when their team drafts a first-round passer. It’s a sign that their time is coming to an end, that their team is planning for their next era. The older player’s role shifts from being the face of their franchise to mentoring their successor.
Everybody has known for a while that this time was coming for 38-year-old Eli Manning, who has been solidly below average for years, hurling dying ducks in the direction of Odell Beckham Jr.—ones that usually ended up hitting the ground or gleeful defensive backs. The only acceptable explanation for his status in 2018 as an NFL starting quarterback was the Giants’ nostalgic desire to do right by the man who brought them a pair of Super Bowl victories.
But now that the Giants have made their move and seemingly selected their quarterback of the future in Daniel Jones, I’m not so sure Manning’s time is up. Last season Eli had a 66.0 percent completion rating and averaged 7.5 yards per pass with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. And last year, Jones had a 60.5 completion rating while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions … at Duke. In college. Against the 52nd-toughest strength of schedule in Division I. Manning had better stats in the pros than Jones did at Duke. Unless Jones improves his play while also playing against a significantly tougher level of competition, Manning is probably the better quarterback.
In his post-first-round press conference, Gettleman openly acknowledged that Manning could win the starting job this season and the season after that.
Dave Gettleman said this doesn't mean Eli Manning in 2020 is out of the question. In fact he said they could be the Green Bay model, meaning he may have taken a "franchise QB" at six to sit him for three years. Doesn't rule that out. #Giants— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) April 26, 2019
The “Green Bay model” referenced in that tweet describes when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005, sat him for a few years under Brett Favre, and then brought him out as a more fully formed player. Rodgers was in the running to be taken first overall when he stunningly fell all the way to no. 24 and the Packers decided to take a flyer on his talent. Jones, on the other hand, was a player whose talent probably didn’t merit a first- (or second-… or third-) round selection, but whom the Giants decided to snag at no. 6 even though they also had the no. 17 pick. And Favre was still playing well-enough to keep Rodgers off the field—he made the Pro Bowl in 2007 at 38 years old! Eli Manning … is not making the Pro Bowl this year.
Hypothetically, Thursday night heralded the changing of the guard for the Giants. But in reality, it cemented my belief that Eli Manning will be the team’s quarterback forever.
Loser: The Poor Guy Who Won The NFL’s Grand Prize
The draft began with a bold proclamation—that the NFL was going to give out its biggest prize ever: season tickets for 100 years. It’s part of the celebration of the 100th season of the league. But the modern NFL looks nothing like the NFL of its inaugural 1920 season, when it was called the American Professional Football Association, almost all the teams were based in mid-size towns in Ohio, and the sport basically consisted of running directly into your opponent while wearing a flimsy leather helmet—because if the Great War and flu epidemic didn’t kill you, neither would football. It feels bold of the NFL to presume that it will exist in 100 years in any form resembling its current one, and furthermore, that human civilization will still exist in 100 years. (Fans of teams in low-lying coastal areas need not apply.)
The winner? Sadly, it was a fan of the team who had the worst night.
Congrats for earning a prize that can be passed down to your children and your children’s children. Unfortunately, your children’s children will have to watch 137-year-old Eli Manning, wishing above everything that they could trade their generations-old season-ticket blessing for a damn quarterback replacement. Some gifts are actually curses.
Winner: The Rest of the NFC East
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, there are 32 picks in the first round! How come this post starts with four entries in a row about one pick?” That’s fair, and I’m sorry. The thing is, one of the most popular teams in the sport just took the 100th-best player in the draft with the sixth pick despite no other teams being particularly interested in him. It’s the most ridiculous thing that could’ve happened in the draft, and I may not stop talking about it today or ever.
It’s the type of decision that has ramifications well outside of the one pick. For example: Washington had an obvious need at quarterback, having led the NFC East last year before their top two quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Colt McCoy, each broke their legs in gruesome manners that may keep them sidelined through 2019. Perhaps more than any team in the league, Washington was situated to improve based off a single quarterback selection. However, it’s generally hard to get a top signal-caller with the 15th pick.
But thanks to the Giants, it was a possibility. Washington selected Dwayne Haskins, pretty clearly the second-best quarterback in the draft and probably the most ready to step in and win games in 2019.
The Giants didn’t just miss with their pick. They opened the door for a divisional rival to get a better player. Haskins will spend the rest of his career dreaming of beating the Giants, and he’ll get that opportunity twice a year.
Loser: Roger Goodell
I envy Goodell. His job is to lead the NFL and make the league money. And it’s basically impossible to tell whether he’s doing a good job, because the NFL grows in popularity and profitability year after year regardless of whether anybody does anything. So he gets $40 million a year for doing this job he may or may not be good at.
The catch is that two times a year, he has to speak in public in front of actual football fans, who universally hate him. One of these events is the Super Bowl, when he presents the trophy to the winning team. The boos die down quickly, because the mood turns to cheering the team that just won a championship. The event other is the draft, which is a bit tougher for him, since he has to appear 32 times in front of neutral fans. The league tries to dull the anti-Goodell cacophony by routinely sending him on stage with unbooable people—local stars, high school football players, Hall of Famers, and Make-A-Wish recipients—but nothing can stop the people from booing Goodell. The one downside to collecting a $40 million paycheck to do a bad job is that people might not like you.
Thursday night provided Goodell with an opportunity to win us back. While most players approach the stage and give Goodell the traditional handshake, newly drafted Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins could not contain his glee and launched himself towards Goodell.
This was Goodell’s moment. The best part of the draft is the sheer emotion the players show, and this was an opportunity to share in that emotion, to engage in a player’s unbridled happiness. I don’t like Goodell, but if he launched into a midair body bump with a 315-pound defensive lineman, dammit, I’d respect him.
He did not:
Of course, he cowered like a coward. See that smile on his face? I’d recognize it anywhere. It’s the classic smile of an old man pretending to be entertained by a younger person’s antics, but secretly fearing for his life. Goodell could have shared in Wilkins’s joy, but he doesn’t really do joy. He spent Wilkins’s celebration the same way he spends all his public appearances: eagerly awaiting the moment it was over, so he could go back to being rich and unseen.
Loser: ESPN’s College Bar Whiparound
There was probably too much coverage this year of the NFL draft, which could be done entirely in a closed room with the results reported later on Wikipedia. But the draft was broadcast on ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network simultaneously, with each network producing its own five-hour show wherein no football was played. I spent most of the night watching the NFL Network one. I’m told I missed an interview with Taylor Swift and Trey Wingo’s extended thoughts on domestic violence. I don’t feel obligated to go back to watch either.
ESPN apparently thought to enhance its coverage by showing live shots from bars in towns with colleges of some of the players selected. Unfortunately, the network didn’t account for the fact that college fans do not gather at local bars to watch their alma mater’s players selected.
Absolute SCENES on ESPNs college bar cameras for the NFL draft pic.twitter.com/iupzxFfHHf— Mike Persak (@MikeDPersak) April 25, 2019
See, you ruined a perfectly good Thirsty Thursday by putting cameras in establishments where the best patrons don’t want to be on national TV because they’re not legally old enough to be there. A true bummer for all parties involved.
Winner: Lee Corso
The media is often at a crossroads on how to cover the draft. Do we focus on NFL analysts who understand the needs of each team, or college analysts who understand the skills of each prospect? The actual answer is that the best people to analyze the draft are extreme weirdos who spend 365 days of the year alternating between tape-grinding and roster-construction analysis. But that’s a highly specific skill set that comes in handy only a few days a year, while most media entities covering football are built to cover only the actual games.
And so we get Corso, the 83-year-old former head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, pretending to give an Old Brass Spittoon about the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line as part of ABC’s broadcast of the draft. Corso has spent the past 32 years as one of the stars of College GameDay, ESPN’s weekly celebration of all things college football live from the sites of the biggest games of the week. Corso famously picks who will win each game by donning the head of the winning team’s mascot. He attempted to adapt this skill to the draft by putting on a massive papier-mâché Dwayne Haskins head before the Cardinals picked.
After that, he didn’t really have much to say. Corso’s job is to show up every week and say nice things about various college coaches and quarterbacks, not to analyze the most physically gifted edge rushers. So 11 picks into the draft, Corso left, never explaining where he was going or why he needed to leave.
If you didn’t think Lee Corso was a boss before, he zipped his belongings up and left the broadcast pic.twitter.com/Z88fnib5Dg— Collin Wilson (@_Collin1) April 26, 2019
He barely made it a third of the way through the first round, not even long enough to see where his projected top pick wound up. Maybe Corso’s departure was planned all along; maybe he just got tired. (He is, after all, used to broadcasting from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings.) Either way, I’m not really sure what analysis he was ever supposed to provide. The important thing is he got home at a reasonable hour.
Loser: Fantasy Football
It is strange to me that the NFL draft is so popular. It’s not that the draft isn’t important—it’s vastly important, the biggest event of the year in terms of what helps teams win games. But it’s based on highly technical roster-building minutiae. Most fans don’t know most of the players involved, or the intricacies of scouting the positions they play. (Hint: Neither do many analysts.)
Thursday night was perhaps the most anonymous draft ever. Sure, three of the top 20 picks were quarterbacks, the most prominent position with the most famous players. But of the other 17 picks, 12 were defenders, three were offensive linemen (including a guard and a center) and two were tight ends. No running backs or wide receivers went off the board until the 24th pick, the longest the draft has gone without a player at either position being selected since 1963.
That reflects two trends in the league. The first is the widespread understanding that running backs are simply not worth big salaries or top picks, since the passing game is what determines whether a team succeeds. The second is the way that virtually every wide receiver taken in the first round of recent drafts has struggled early in their careers (John Ross! Corey Coleman! Mike Williams! Josh Doctson! Laquon Treadwell! Kevin White! Breshad Perriman! Phillip Dorsett! I’m being told that the list is long enough now.)
Which is odd, because one of the primary ways fans interact with the game is fantasy football, and fantasy football is almost entirely dependent on running backs and wide receivers. (There are only a few quarterbacks or tight ends who move the needle, and every other position doesn’t exist.) Fantasy football is based on determining which individual wide receivers and running backs stand above the rest, and yet the actual league seems increasingly convinced that there are very few wide receivers and running backs important enough to consider draft priorities. Weird sport, guys.
Loser: Bachelorette Parties
The population of Nashville is nearly 700,000, but it can swell up to 1.25 million depending on how many bachelorette parties are happening in the city at any given moment. This weekend was probably already destined for a Nashville population surge—as wedding season approaches and the temperatures rise into the 70s, the custom-shirt-wearing hordes descend on the city to take pictures in front of downtown murals. Unfortunately, some of those bachelorette parties were surprised to find an even bigger party, roughly 100,000 people crammed onto Broadway to watch football transactions announced on a faraway stage. Suffice it to say, they were unhappy.
It’s impossible to look at this image without the sheer disappointment oozing off your screen. I, too, would be pretty bummed if a once-in-a-lifetime weekend with friends was interrupted by tens of thousands of people gathered to witness football transactions announced on a faraway stage. But hopefully the disappointed bachelorette parties of Nashville realize this is actually a blessing in disguise and make the most of the predicament they’re in. Like a bachelorette party, a draft is a celebration of an upcoming union. The one difference is that half of marriages end in divorce, but every player drafted in all seven rounds will turn out to be a great selection and help their team win the Super Bowl.