Truth be told, it takes a good three years to properly evaluate an NFL Draft. What looks good in theory today might be proven wrong in future years, and unheralded moves, especially in lower rounds and those involving undrafted college free agents, turn out to be unexpectedly impactful.
Just look at the 2017 draft, which has now gone through three full seasons. The Bears thought they were getting a franchise quarterback by trading up to No. 2 to take Mitchell Trubisky, and they’ve been sorely disappointed. Meanwhile, the Chiefs moved up to No. 10 to get Patrick Mahomes, and he already has one Super Bowl win and someday could wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Third-round running back Alvin Kamara of the Saints is a star, and George Kittle, who went in the fifth round to the 49ers, is now among the best tight ends in football.
Bottom line: Despite teams spending endless amounts of time scouting and projecting, the draft remains an inexact science.
That said, we make our best attempt at sorting through the winners and losers from the first virtual draft in NFL history. Three years from now, we’ll know who the real winners and losers turned out to be.
Bengals: No, you don’t have to be a genius to understand that Joe Burrow is a Hall of Fame-caliber talent coming off the most impressive season by a quarterback in college football history. But the Bengals could have gotten fancy and traded down to secure a bevy of picks while still coming away with a quarterback such as Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. They wisely stayed put and came away with a player who can finally lift this franchise out of the depths and turn them into Super Bowl contenders one day. Cincy also did well by taking Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins in the second round to give Burrow a target he can rely on for years to come. And third-round linebacker Logan Wilson fills a big need on defense.
Dolphins: For the Dolphins, last year was all about this year. They shed assets in 2019 with an eye toward rebuilding in 2020 and beyond, and they’re now seeing dividends from those moves. The biggest win of all: selecting Alabama’s Tagovailoa at No. 5 overall. Yes, there are some concerns about Tua’s hip injury. But doctors believe he is 100 percent recovered, in which case he is free to perform the kind of magic that makes him such an extraordinary talent. The Dolphins also got blocking help for Tagovailoa in the form of first-rounder Austin Jackson of USC and second-rounder Robert Hunt of Louisiana-Lafayette. Also like the addition of Auburn corner Noah Igbinoghene to an already well-stocked secondary.
Jets: Joe Douglas wasn’t messing around when he said his primary focus this offseason was upgrading the Jets’ offensive line. He put together a sensible and affordable plan in free agency to acquire George Fant, Connor McGovern and Greg Van Roten, in addition to re-signing guard Alex Lewis. But that didn’t stop him from getting the biggest prize of all up front: Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick. Becton will allow Fant to move to the right side, and the Jets have their franchise left tackle for the next dozen years. Douglas also needed a receiver, and for a while, it looked as if he’d lose the chance to dive into a deep class, especially after he traded back in the second round. Not to worry. Douglas still landed Baylor speedster Denzel Mims while adding additional draft capital. Now we’re seeing why Douglas was so well-respected during his time in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Browns: The overhyped Browns were a mess last year, as overmatched coach Freddie Kitchens flamed out after just one season and another rebuilding process commenced. Baker Mayfield took a giant step backward last year in his first full season as the starter, but it wasn’t all his fault. He was under constant duress because of a woeful offensive line, so the Browns have wisely addressed that concern by signing Titans free agent Jack Conklin to man the right side and drafting Alabama’s Jedrick Wills — considered by many to be the top tackle prospect this year — in the first round. Solid move by drafting LSU’s hyper-aggressive safety, Grant Delpit, in the second round. Still a long way to go for this team, but they’ve taken sensible steps to turn things around.
Eagles: Plenty of Eagles fans were left scratching their heads — or screaming their disapproval — after the team selected Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round. But we ask: You think the Eagles would have been better off having a better backup plan in last year’s playoffs, when Carson Wentz was hurt against the Seahawks? They were down to 40-year-old Josh McCown, who was no match for Seattle’s defense in a first-round loss. Hurts can be used in multiple packages the way the Saints use multipurpose quarterback Taysom Hill, and in the event Wentz goes down again, they’ll have a much better chance. Philly did make another smart move by taking TCU receiver Jalen Reagor in the first round to address a pressing need.
Ravens: The Ravens earned the No. 1 overall seed in last year’s AFC playoffs before suffering a shocking loss to the Titans in the divisional round. They don’t need all that much to get back into the Super Bowl conversation, and MVP Lamar Jackson will surely benefit from the experience by knowing what more he needs to do. Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta helped his defense with first-round linebacker Patrick Queen of LSU, and he gave the offense another option at running back with J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State in the second round. Mark Ingram was dinged in the playoff loss to Tennessee, so adding a capable running back is huge. As was adding third-round receiver Malik Harrison, another Ohio State product.
Raiders: Derek Carr has got to be happy about getting a lot more help at receiver, as the Raiders went with Alabama burner Henry Ruggs III at No. 12 overall to begin the long-anticipated run on wideouts. It will help take some of the sting out of last year’s botched trade for Steelers disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is out of football. The Raiders also got receivers Lynn Bowden of Kentucky and South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards, and the addition of Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette will also help.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers is 36 and has plenty of gas left in the tank. So why on Earth would the Packers trade up to take Jordan Love of Utah State in the first round? True, a different Packers’ regime drafted Rodgers when Brett Favre was 35, and that worked out OK in the end. But Rodgers was a much better prospect than Love, and he patiently waited his turn until the Packers were ready to move on from Favre. Life moves much more quickly in the NFL these days, and Rodgers certainly doesn’t need the competition to get him motivated. This was a strange move and one that could turn the Packers into the NFL’s most drama-filled team in the coming years. And not in a good way.
Texans: Bill O’Brien traded away this year’s first-round pick in the deal to get Miami’s offensive tackle, Laremy Tunsil. So, no first-rounder this year AND O’Brien had to negotiate a new three-year extension for Tunsil knowing that the player had all the leverage. The net result was a $22 million-a-year deal that was $4 million per season more than the next highest-paid tackle. Add that to the ill-conceived DeAndre Hopkins-for-David Johnson trade last month.
Falcons: Dan Quinn is very much on the hot seat heading into this season, having nearly been fired last year. GM Thomas Dimitroff went cornerback in the first round over edge rusher, and though he got a solid prospect in Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, he wound up with Auburn’s Marlon Davidson as his pass rusher. That’s a sizable step down from the best ones available.
Rams: After going all-in the last two years, including a trade for Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey that cost them a first-round pick this year, the Rams’ draft-day cupboard was thin. Florida State’s Cam Akers, taken in the second round, will be counted on to replace recently departed running back Todd Gurley. They also got Florida receiver Van Jefferson in the second round, but he was on the back end of a terrific group that went ahead of him.
Bears: The Bears are still paying for the Khalil Mack trade, surrendering this year’s first-round pick — 19th overall — as part of the deal. They could have used an impact player in that spot, but instead had no first-round pick, two second-rounders and none in the third and fourth. Their first pick in Round 2 was Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet, a curious move since they already had nine tight ends on the roster. Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson was the other second-round pick.