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Winners and Losers of the First Round of the 2023 NFL Draft

The Texans and Cardinals went trade crazy, the NFL is back in on running backs, the Eagles love Dawgs, and Will Levis took a big tumble. Here are the winners and losers from night one.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Winner: The Texans-Cardinals Tradesplosion

The Houston Texans entered Thursday night needing to make a big choice with the second pick: Should they pick a franchise QB? Or should they pick Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., widely regarded as the best overall prospect in the draft?

Somewhere along the line, they came up with a fun idea: ¿Por qué no los dos?

The Texans took quarterback C.J. Stroud at no. 2, and then promptly traded with the Cardinals for the third pick, where they selected Anderson. Houston took the top two players on The Ringer’s Big Board, and became the first team in 23 years to make two of the top three picks in the draft.

But the Cardinals weren’t done dealing once they moved back from no. 3. They still wanted one of those top picks they’d been scouting for the last few months. So they traded with the Lions, moving up to no. 6, where they took Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr.—the player QB Kyler Murray reportedly wanted them to pick.

Arizona walked away from the first round with an elite offensive lineman and a ton of future draft capital from their trade with Houston; they now own the Texans’ first-round pick in next year’s draft—and since the Texans’ rebuild needs a lot more than two players, that’s likely to be a good pick. The Texans made two top-three picks this year; the Cardinals might have two top-three picks next year without having to make any trades.

It was the type of fast-paced, high-stakes maneuvering only matched by the movie Draft Day—whose plot seemed unrealistic due to all the fast-paced, high-stakes maneuvering. And although the Cardinals had to pass on Anderson and the Texans had to pay a hefty price, I feel like they both walked away as winners. Which is good, because I don’t think either team is going to win a lot of games next year.

Loser: Will Levis

The top NFL prospects invited to attend the draft always look flashy in their custom draft outfits—unfortunately, Will Levis needs to find a second one. The former Kentucky quarterback was in the greenroom at Thursday night’s draft in Kansas City expecting to be one of the top picks in the draft—the top pick, according to one Reddit user. But Levis wasn’t the first pick, or the second pick. He wasn’t even the third QB off the board. He sat there all night, waiting. The draft season superstar fell entirely out of the first round, and now needs to decide whether he wants to come back Friday night. I guess he could repeat outfits, or watch the second round of the draft somewhere where he won’t be filmed—regardless, I think he needs to buy a new suit.

ESPN kept showing Levis and flashing a graphic that said ESPN’s Draft Simulator had given Levis less than a 0.1 percent chance of remaining on the board as long as he did. I don’t know how they could give anything a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening, considering there have not been 1,000 NFL drafts, but I’m not a math guy.

Levis was always the type of prospect who seemed ripe for a draft night fall. Although he has a massively strong arm, his Wildcats finished 112th in points scored in 2022. Comparisons were made to Josh Allen, who also has a massively strong arm and also played for a pitiful college offense (105th in points scored in 2017) … but it’s possible that Levis is not Josh Allen. It’s possible that nobody is Josh Allen. Levis also likes putting mayonnaise in his coffee and eating bananas with the peels on, which caused some people (me) to question his decision-making and leadership skills.

Quarterbacks Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud went 1-2, and once the Colts picked Anthony Richardson fourth overall, it was hard to find an obvious landing spot for Levis. I guess the next most likely teams were the Titans, Patriots, Buccaneers, and Commanders, but each of those teams passed him up too. By Pick 20, every team left on the board had a solid QB situation, and as the night wore on, the prospect that Levis would slide all the way out of the first round seemed less improbable and more inevitable. Levis was the fourth-best QB in a draft where only three teams desperately needed QBs. The mock drafts and anonymous reports and Reddit guys that argued otherwise were proved wrong within the first hour of the draft. It’s as simple as that, but Levis had to bear the brunt of everybody else’s speculation about him.

Winner: Running Backs

It has been a long decade of crapping on the running back. Analytics have revealed how much more valuable a strong passing game is than any kind of run game, and now, running backs make less than punters and kickers. If you write about football, you basically have to tweet that running backs deserve to live in small concrete boxes with no heat or running water or the football nerds online will yell at you. No NFL teams have used a top-20 pick on a running back since the Giants took Saquon Barkley second overall in 2018. (My colleague Danny Kelly gave that move a C- for value at the time.)

But in the 2022 NFL season, the pendulum started swinging back toward the run game. Teams ran for 121.6 yards per game, the highest average since 1987, as defenses built to stop the pass started allowing more and more yards on the ground. Running the ball is becoming efficient: The average carry last season went for 4.5 yards, the highest average in NFL history. The 49ers made the NFC championship game after a big midseason trade for running back Christian McCaffrey, and lost in that game to the Eagles, the team with the most expected points added via the running game.

And, now, running backs are back in fashion in the draft as well. The Falcons used the eighth pick on Texas’s Bijan Robinson on Thursday night, and then the Lions used the 12th pick on Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs. Robinson is essentially a perfect running back prospect—fast, strong, explosive, hell on two feet, a linebacker’s nightmare. He was the first running back to force 100 missed tackles in a college season since Pro Football Focus started tracking the stat. Gibbs isn’t quite as perfect, but he showed exceptional versatility as a receiver, which makes him a little bit more palatable to the anti-RB crowd. There are questions about both teams that took these backs—the Lions already have D’Andre Swift and David Montgomery, so you’d think running back would have been low on their list of needs; the Falcons are a funhouse of elite skill position players with plenty of holes on defense and a questionable QB.

So were these good picks? I’m skeptical. The issue with drafting running backs highly is not that the run game is not meaningful, but that it’s possible to have a successful run game without investing highly in backs. (Like the 2022 Falcons, who were fourth in yards per attempt and got a 1,000-yard rushing season from rookie fifth-round draft pick Tyler Allgeier.) Still, I’m just happy that running backs are getting some shine! I don’t think they deserve to live in tiny concrete boxes with no heat or water!

Winner: The Philadelphia Bulldogles

The Philadelphia Eagles have hit on a strategy so simple that 31 other teams should’ve figured it out: What if we just take all the players from the most dominant defense in college football history? In the 2022 NFL draft, Philly took two players from the 2022 College Football Playoff national champion Georgia Bulldogs: defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean. And so far in 2023, Philly has taken two players from the 2023 national champion Georgia Bulldogs: defensive tackle Jalen Carter and edge rusher Nolan Smith.

The Eagles were in the Super Bowl last year, but had the 10th pick in the draft as the result of a trade with the Saints last season. On Thursday, they decided to give up a fourth-rounder to trade with Chicago to move up from 10 to 9 … and I don’t think they’re going to miss the fourth-rounder, because they got Carter, who was regarded by some draft analysts as the best prospect in the draft (he was fifth on The Ringer’s Big Board). Carter’s stock fell over the course of a draft season in which he showed up to his pro day overweight, and pleaded no contest to reckless driving and racing charges for his actions on the night of a January car crash that killed his Georgia teammate Devin Willock and a Georgia football staffer. But anybody who has watched college football the last two years knows that Carter is a force of nature. I will never be able to get this play, where he picked up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels with one hand, out of my head. I’m told he was also good on all of his other plays, but I only ever think about the one where he picked up an opposing quarterback with one hand.

When the Eagles were on the clock again at no. 30, they picked Smith, 14th on The Ringer’s Big Board. Philadelphia now has four players from a Bulldogs defense that allowed just 10.2 points per game when Carter, Smith, Davis, and Dean were together in 2021. Maybe the Eagles can learn something from the Dawgs and win back-to-back (NFC) championships.

Loser: Smoke Screens

For all the chaos of the draft—the trades, the months-long silly season, the ever-ticking clock, the war rooms filled with important people making important decisions—everybody knew the best players in this class a full year ago. It was Bryce Young first, C.J. Stroud second, and Will Anderson third. Here are three mock drafts from 2022 that got it right (although they flip-flopped Young and Stroud); here’s one that was very close, with Young at 1, Anderson at 2, and Stroud fourth.

But in the last month, the draft discourse was full of desperate attempts to convince us that anything else would happen. There were reports that Stroud was going to fall because of his subpar S2 cognition score. Never mind that Stroud’s cognition seemed perfectly fine for multiple years of high-level quarterbacking at Ohio State—a test you’ve never heard of that’s been in use for only a few years supposedly said that he wasn’t cognitively equipped to identify a broom whacking him in the face.

There were even reports that the Texans weren’t interested in a quarterback at all! (They were.) And of course, there was The Reddit Guy who said Will Levis was going to be the top pick, a post that shook up the betting markets two days before the draft began. (He wasn’t.) But in the end, the obvious best players went at the top of the draft, refuting every story line of the past month—just like everybody predicted 360 days ago.

Winner: Lamar Jackson

Draft night 2018 was a humiliating experience for the future NFL MVP out of Louisville. Lamar Jackson sat and waited in the greenroom as he dropped and dropped and dropped, as 31 NFL teams incorrectly concluded that he wouldn’t be a successful NFL quarterback. His reactions were captured for a national audience by TV cameras that wouldn’t leave him alone. For a second, it looked like he would have to come back for a second night, as he nearly fell out of the first round. But the Ravens traded back into the first round and snagged him with the 32nd and final pick of the night, behind four other quarterbacks.

Draft night 2023, though, was a triumph for Jackson. After a year-long standoff, the one-of-a-kind QB finally reached a long-term deal with the Ravens, allowing Baltimore to head into the draft with their biggest need taken care of. It’s the largest contract in NFL history: His new five-year deal is worth $260 million, with $185 million guaranteed. He’s worth the price: The Ravens are 45-16 with Jackson, and 4-5 with various backups when he’s been out because of injuries.

Many speculated that Jackson was doing himself a disservice by not working with an agent. Jackson and the Ravens wanted to reach a deal before the 2022 season but couldn’t, and things looked bleak when Baltimore gave Jackson a rare nonexclusive franchise tag in March, essentially allowing Jackson to go and test his market. His leverage seemed to be dropping as team after team announced they weren’t interested in him. But in the end? He got the deal done. The title of “largest NFL contract ever” basically goes to the most recent QB to sign a deal—it was Jalen Hurts a few weeks ago, Derek Carr a few years ago—but it’s impossible to argue that Jackson doesn’t deserve it. And he’ll get to keep all the cash instead of just 90 percent of it, which he would have had to do if he’d had an agent.

And then, the Ravens made the night even better for Lamar: They actually got him a receiver! They picked Zay Flowers out of Boston College, adding to a critical position of need. The Ravens’ receiving corps was bottom-tier last season, but they’ve now signed Odell Beckham Jr. and drafted a first-rounder for Jackson to throw to. Nice icing on a $260 million cake.

Loser: The Miami Dolphins

Shortly before Roger Goodell took the stage for his annual soak in a wave pool of boos prior to the first round—insiders report that these draft-night boos nourish him, that he feeds off the hatred, and that he appears younger than ever—a minor bit of humiliating news broke. The Cardinals were forced to make a trade with the Eagles to make up for a tampering incident. Part of their courtship of new head coach Jonathan Gannon had taken place during a time when coach negotiations weren’t allowed, shortly after the NFC championship game, when Gannon was preparing to coach the Eagles defense in the Super Bowl in February. The teams reached a settlement that gave a clear benefit to the Eagles—per trade value charts, the swap was roughly the equivalent of a third-round pick.

It’s rough, because it could’ve so clearly been avoided: At the time the Cardinals improperly contacted Gannon, 30 other NFL teams had head coaches. Arizona and the Indianapolis Colts, who would eventually hire Shane Steichen, Gannon’s then-coworker in Philadelphia, were the only stragglers left on the NFL’s coaching carousel. Nobody else was going to hire Gannon (who wasn’t a particularly hot coaching candidate in the first place), and they easily could’ve waited to contact him until it was legal. Instead, they cost themselves a pick.

But it wasn’t the biggest tampering-related punishment of the 2023 NFL draft. The league stripped Miami of its first-round pick as a result of owner Stephen Ross’s failed attempts to woo Tom Brady and Sean Payton to the franchise. This isn’t news—the punishment was handed down in August—but it came to fruition Thursday night, as the Dolphins sat on the sideline for a first round with 31 picks instead of 32. Let me be clear: Forfeiting a first-rounder like this is one of the most embarrassing punishments in recent NFL memory. Many NFL teams drafted players who will eventually become busts Thursday night—if I could tell you which, I’d be an NFL GM. But the Dolphins lost the chance to even make a bad gamble as a result of their own illegal courtship of two guys who chose to go elsewhere. The only thing worse than making a bad draft pick is being so inept that you don’t get to make a draft pick at all.