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The Five Most Revealing NFL Draft Strategies

Teams like the Cardinals, Rams, and Dolphins showed their hands over the course of draft weekend, and their selections (or trade downs) can give us some hints about the directions they’ll take this season

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Deciding which teams “won” or “lost” the NFL draft in its immediate aftermath can be difficult, but no matter how each individual pick pans out, it’s still possible to glean information about teams’ respective plans based on their selections. With the 2019 draft in the books, we picked five teams whose decisions this weekend reveal some interesting long-term strategies.

Arizona Cardinals

The team that picks no. 1 overall in the draft often becomes a fascinating case study, but the intrigue around the Cardinals this year goes beyond their draft slot. Kyler Murray aside, the logic behind many of Arizona’s picks offers clues into the type of team general manager Steve Keim is trying to build under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

In 2018, then-Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen was pressured on 40.4 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth highest total among QBs who took at least 20 percent of their teams’ dropbacks last season. Despite those struggles up front, the Cardinals didn’t draft an offensive lineman until the sixth round, which indicates that the staff is willing to lean on offseason acquisitions like guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Marcus Gilbert to solve its issues. The plan does have some merit; injuries up front were the Cardinals’ worst problem last season, and if presumptive starting left tackle D.J. Humphries and high-priced free-agent guard addition Justin Pugh can stay healthy, Murray could have adequate protection in his rookie season.

In lieu of adding any potential starters along the OL, the Cardinals decided to stockpile playmakers throughout their roster. Arizona had arguably the least-talented pass-catching group of any team in the NFL last season. (This is where I’d like to mention that blaming Josh Rosen for the team’s 2018 struggles is laughable.) To offset that lack of ability, Arizona drafted UMass speedster Andy Isabella (with the pick they got from Miami in exchange for Rosen), polarizing 6-foot-5 receiver Hakeem Butler in the fourth round, and productive Fresno State receiver KeeSean Johnson in the sixth round. In the early stages of Kingsbury’s tenure, Arizona is prioritizing the players catching passes over the ones tasked with protecting its new franchise quarterback. That may work out fine, but the direction indicates what sort of approach Kingsbury favors: an offense that leans on quick throws and the talent of its skill players while marginalizing the importance of the offensive line.

It’s also worth mentioning the value Arizona snagged on defense. The Cardinals took cornerback Byron Murphy, long considered a first-round talent, 33rd overall and brought him into a position room that includes Patrick Peterson. Alabama safety Deionte Thompson was a star in college and fell to Arizona in the fifth round. At first glance, both of those selections—and the Cardinals’ draft as a whole—appear to be home runs, though the value of those picks will take years to ascertain. Still, the immediate takeaway from its approach is that Arizona seems ready to lean on Murray, Kingsbury, and some new weapons to revamp its offense.

Baltimore Ravens

During the first year of the Lamar Jackson era in Baltimore, the Ravens tried to build a middle-of-the-field passing attack. Former GM Ozzie Newsome took tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the first few rounds of the 2018 draft as part of the organization’s plan to build an offense around the running game and play-action. And it seemed as though Baltimore’s success with that approach—a 10-6 record, an AFC North title, and the team’s first playoff appearance since the 2014 season—might inform its choices in 2019. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the early rounds of the Ravens’ draft focused heavily on adding explosive offensive playmakers at every level of the field. Baltimore spent its first-round pick on dynamic, undersized receiver Hollywood Brown. By the time the fourth round had ended, first-year GM Eric DeCosta had also added athletic marvel Miles Boykin at wide receiver and combine standout Justice Hill at running back.

Baltimore’s skill position additions indicate that the simplistic approach the team took during Jackson’s first season won’t continue this year. Brown is a gifted underneath receiver who should provide Jackson with some quick, easy receptions, and Hill certainly plays into the high-efficiency approach that the Ravens employed through the air in 2018. But the amount of athleticism that DeCosta added to his offense has given Baltimore the ability to attack defenses at every level of the field, in every imaginable way. Now, it’s just a matter of whether Jackson can effectively jump-start that system.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins were never supposed to steal headlines in this draft. For years, Miami has been one of the most uninteresting teams in the NFL. In an attempt to stay relevant, it regularly handed out terrible contracts that ignored both value and the tenants of smart roster building. But that approach kept the Dolphins mired in mediocrity for years, with no clear path out of their middling fate.

That all changed this offseason, when the Dolphins decided to sit out free agency, sent high-priced defensive end Robert Quinn to Dallas, and shipped Ryan Tannehill—and his $26.6 million cap hit—to Tennessee in exchange for a fourth-round pick. For the first time in years, Miami seemed to have a plan, one that was predicated on patience and a willingness to wait until 2020 to find its quarterback of the future.

Trading the 62nd overall selection to the Cardinals for Josh Rosen may seem to contradict that approach, but in reality, it’s perfectly aligned with the Dolphins’ strategy. The triumvirate of owner Stephen Ross, GM Chris Grier, and head coach Brian Flores are trying to build a roster from scratch by using value-centric practices. The most important aspect of a winning roster is a quality QB, and the Dolphins just traded a low second-round pick for a guy who was drafted 10th overall a year ago and will cost the franchise less over the next three seasons than nearly every backup in the NFL. The Dolphins didn’t need to get a QB of the future at this point in their trajectory, but in trading for Rosen, they’re taking a low-cost shot at getting the most important asset in all of sports—a quality franchise quarterback—for the same price that most teams would spend on a second edge rusher or divisive receiver prospect.

For the second straight season, Rosen will be forced to brave life as an NFL starter for a team that’s not equipped to help him succeed. The difference is that in Miami, he won’t face the same expectations that come with being a top-10, franchise-altering pick. If the Dolphins lose 12 or more games this year—which seems likely, given the time frame of their rebuild—and the decision-makers conclude that Rosen isn’t the person to shepherd the franchise, Grier will have another chance at drafting his franchise QB next spring while employing a talented backup that cost the Dolphins next to nothing. If Rosen proves worthy of the job, Miami will have found a starter that counts for pennies against the cap, and whose contract gives the franchise absurd flexibility over the next two seasons. Either way, the trade is worth making for a team with a blank slate, and the Dolphins deserve credit for realizing that.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams’ collection of picks doesn’t necessarily indicate a new plan, but the team used its draft capital—more than it’s had in recent years, thanks to trades for Jared Goff in 2016, as well as Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, Dante Fowler Jr., and Aqib Talib—to shore up a few key spots.

General manager Les Snead traded the no. 31 overall pick to Atlanta for the nos. 45 and 79 overall picks, and then traded down a few more times. Snead eventually made his first pick at spot no. 61, selecting Washington safety Taylor Rapp. Snagging a potential first-round talent in Rapp late in the second round was deemed a steal by many analysts, and Snead followed that up by grabbing Michigan cornerback David Long with the 79th pick, significantly later than most pundits thought he would come off the board.

The Rams addressed two areas of need with players who slipped down the board, but both of those moves were overshadowed by the pick that Snead made at no. 70 overall. The question of Todd Gurley’s long-term health and its impact on his playoff usage last season has been one of the biggest stories in the NFL this spring. In selecting Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, the Rams did nothing to quell those rumblings. Henderson gained 1,909 rushing yards on just 214 carries in 2018, and his rushing style makes him a perfect fit for the Rams’ outside-zone scheme. No matter what the Rams expect from Gurley, Henderson’s draft slot indicates that he’ll have a significant role in Sean McVay’s offense this fall.

Denver Broncos

John Elway’s recent track record of evaluating quarterbacks has been abysmal. After convincing Peyton Manning to sign with the Broncos in 2012, Elway’s QBs of choice have been Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco. One common trait among that group is that they’re tall (well, except Keenum); the other is that none of them are very good at playing quarterback.

For reasons that are still unclear, Elway traded a fourth-round pick to Baltimore in February for Flacco, who will carry a cap hit of $18.5 million in 2019. Denver is tied to Flacco this season, but entering the draft, there was no future plan at the position. Enter Drew Lock. The former Mizzou quarterback was considered a potential top-10 pick, but a lack of demand caused him to fall to no. 42 overall. Denver already owned the no. 41 pick, which it used to draft bad-ass Kansas State offensive lineman Dalton Risner, who profiles as a guard in the Broncos offense. To land Lock at no. 42, Denver traded the no. 52 pick, which it acquired in a trade with the Steelers on Thursday night. In all, the Broncos got a supremely talented yet flawed passer for little more than the pick they acquired to trade down 10 spots in the first round.

If Lock pans out—after Denver inevitably discovers that Flacco wasn’t worth the investment—then Elway’s trades this weekend amounted to a franchise-saving set of moves. If not, then the Broncos used a found asset to take a risk on the most important position in the NFL. Either way, it’s a prudent choice by a franchise that’s struggled to find much draft value in recent years.