The 2022 NFL draft cycle finally has a bow on it. The last of the undrafted free agents are finding their homes, while teams plan their rookie minicamps and turn their eyes to the 2022 season. As with every draft cycle, it seemed to run its course three times over before finishing—I still see flashes of Criss Angel twisting his way out of a straitjacket every time I close my eyes—but it’s finally done.
With a night of sleep for final reflections, here are my thoughts on this year’s draft.
Everybody hated the quarterbacks so, so much
There was a lot of history set by this year’s quarterback class—all of it bad. The lone quarterback selected in the first two rounds was Kenny Pickett, who went 20th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s the longest we’ve waited to see the first quarterback go off the board since 1997. A second quarterback wasn’t selected until 74th overall, when the Atlanta Falcons picked Desmond Ridder. That’s the longest we’ve waited to see the second quarterback go off the board since 1996. We hadn’t gone the first two rounds with only one quarterback selected since 2000.
In the modern NFL, it seemed inconceivable—legit impossible—that a quarterback class could be so bad that a few teams wouldn’t go chasing smoke with top-50 picks. The position is just too important—and the competitive advantage earned by having a winning quarterback on a rookie deal so precious—to think teams could ignore it like they did this weekend. All of the 2022 QB class, save for Pickett, went later than Kyle Trask (64), Kellen Mond (66), and Davis Mills (67) from last year’s class, and after Christian Hackenberg, Mike Glennon, and Brock Osweiler from classes in the last decade.
Teams weren’t just apprehensive of, or unimpressed by this class. They hated it.
This was especially evident when viewed through the lens of Baker Mayfield trade rumors. The Browns have needed to trade Mayfield since they acquired Deshaun Watson over a month ago. But they haven’t been able to find a suitor with the quarterback market largely settled. There seemed to be some movement on that front after the first round on Thursday. The Panthers, who passed on selecting a quarterback with the no. 6 pick (they selected offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu instead), reportedly discussed a Mayfield trade with the Browns, but those talks disintegrated over the details of Mayfield’s compensation. Carolina ultimately snagged Ole Miss QB Matt Corral with the 94th pick.
The Texans will reportedly explore both the Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo trade markets in the upcoming days—a logical choice in that they are currently starting second-year quarterback Davis Mills. But that report came after the first round when only Pickett had left the board—a player to whom the Texans were tied to only hours before the first round began. The Texans, of course, had the opportunity to take Pickett twice in the draft, including at no. 15, five picks before the Steelers. They also had two second-round selections at nos. 37 and 44 when Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis, and Corral were available. But they declined to take a quarterback and will instead reportedly inquire about Mayfield and Garoppolo’s availability. It’s a telling sequence of events from two quarterback-needy teams. There seemed to be little movement on Mayfield trade talks prior to the draft. That changed after Pickett, often billed as the most “pro-ready” quarterback of the draft, was off the board. Outside of Pickett, the league didn’t want any part of this quarterback class. But if that was the case, why not lay the groundwork for a possible Mayfield deal sooner? I’m not sure. Truly a perplexing weekend in the world of quarterbacking.
The league is probably wrong about this quarterback class for no other reason than the league is usually wrong about quarterback classes. It drafted Mitchell Trubisky before Patrick Mahomes, Sam Darnold before Josh Allen, and Tua Tagovailoa before Justin Herbert. It drafted Brandon Weeden two rounds before Russell Wilson and Jared Goff three rounds before Dak Prescott. That’s good news for this quarterback class, because most of the league would rather have an outside swing at Baker Mayfield than anyone in the class not named Kenny. And if the league is indeed wrong about this class and one or two of these late-round QBs go on to be starters, then those players will be the biggest steals of the draft—and I’m not sure we’ll see a quarterback class treated with this level of disdain ever again.
Good Days In The Office
The Tennessee Titans
I am so very impressed with the Titans’ draft. Not just for the players they selected—though they got some good ones, as we’ll discuss. But for the honest assessment of their roster.
Last season, the Titans were the no. 1 seed in the AFC, winners of the lone first-round bye in an extremely competitive conference. In 2020, they won the AFC South. In 2019, they were a wild-card team that made it to the conference championship game. Mike Vrabel’s tenure as head coach is four years long, and the Titans have three consecutive playoff appearances—only the Chiefs have a longer active postseason streak.
But the Titans didn’t behave like a perennial contender on draft day. During Round 1, they traded star receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles for the 18th overall pick. The Eagles promptly gave Brown a 4-year, $100 million extension; the Titans promptly drafted Arkansas WR Treylon Burks—a player comped by many to Brown for his thick build and dangerous YAC ability.
The message was clear: the Titans have to get younger and cheaper. GM Jon Robinson made those motivations clear in his presser following Round 1, saying, “We had discussions back and forth and we realized we got to the point where it was going to be hard to get a deal done.” Brown told ESPN’s Turron Davenport that the Titans’ best offer topped out at $16M per year, with incentives that could lift the deal to $20 million. “I would have stayed if they offered me $22 million,” he said.
The Titans could have offered that amount with some clever accounting—they only have $5 million in cap space this season and $2.2 million in cap space next year, as numbers currently stand. It would have been doable only by committing to the current corps of Titans players. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has the biggest cap hit in the league this year at $38.6 million, could have restructured his contract and pushed more of the money owed to him into future years, but that would have locked the Titans into Tannehill’s contract beyond 2023, which is when the deal currently expires. The same could have been done to running back Derrick Henry’s deal—which has a $15 million cap hit this year on a deal that runs into 2023—or left tackle Taylor Lewan’s deal, which has a $14.7 million cap hit this year, with two years remaining.
Instead, they drafted a developmental left tackle in Round 2 in Nicholas Petit-Frere, a developmental quarterback in Round 3 in Malik Willis, and a rotational running back in Round 4 in Hassan Haskins.
In no way are the Titans punting on the 2022 season and admitting defeat in a loaded AFC. They still have a strong nucleus and drafted rookies like Burks, who has huge shoes to fill replacing Brown, and Petit-Frere, who can compete for the starting right tackle job, who can make an impact in year one. This Titans team has proved over and over, in many close games, that they should not be counted out.
But with every AFC contender taking a short-term view in this mad dash to the top of the conference, the Titans very quietly took a step back and invested in the long-term health of their franchise. After going all-in last season with Bud Dupree and Julio Jones, the Titans are going to let their big-money contracts play out while developing young insurance at key positions.
That’s mature, responsible team building. It isn’t fun or sexy. It’s much more exciting to delude yourself into thinking you’re a contender (what I call Mickey Loomising). But Tennessee understands how to build a perennial contender and keep that postseason streak going.
The Baltimore Ravens
It’s old hat at this point but it still deserves mentioning: the Baltimore Ravens draft well. Former GM Ozzie Newsome did it for two decades and his successor, Eric DeCosta, hasn’t missed a step. Baltimore’s classes are always at least solid and sometimes are home runs (like in 2018 when they took Lamar Jackson, Orlando Brown Jr., Mark Andrews, and Bradley Bozeman).
This year, the Ravens did the same thing they always do: stay patient and capitalize on other teams’ mistakes. Even when the Eagles leapfrogged to no. 13 ahead of Baltimore to snag Georgia DT Jordan Davis, whom many had determined was the Ravens’ ideal pick (Davis himself thought he was going to be a Raven), Baltimore calmly grabbed the other elite athletic defensive prospect in Kyle Hamilton, the 6-foot-4 safety from Notre Dame, to pair with their star free agent safety Marcus Williams. Several teams were worried about Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum’s size and strength—not the Ravens, who traded receiver Marquise Brown to get back into the first round and snag Linderbaum to replace Bozeman and become their new pivot on the offensive interior.
In Round 2, the Ravens took a potential top-20 pick in Michigan edge rusher David Ojabo, who had fallen to the mid-40s only because of an Achilles tear suffered during his pro day workout in March. In the third round, they took UConn DT Travis Jones, who was a first-round long shot given his impressive athleticism (4.92-second 40-yard dash, 7.33-second 3-cone, 9-foot, 2-inch broad jump) at his enormous size (6-foot-4, 325 pounds). The Ravens missed out on Davis in the first round and got the discount version in Jones two rounds later.
And then, they had six picks in the fourth round. Six. Why? Because they’re the Baltimore Ravens. They know that the NFL draft is a series of gambles, and it’s better to take a lot of swings at the plate instead of convincing yourself you’re a good batter—even if you are.
The Ravens have had plenty of misses with their early picks in recent years, with Hayden Hurst, Patrick Queen, Jaylon Ferguson, and Miles Boykin as examples. But they’re a well-run team, and that makes them so successful in the draft.
Take Ojabo, the second-round pass rusher who will need time to recover before he can see the field and get up to NFL speed. A lot of teams might have scratched Ojabo because they felt they needed an immediate contributor. The Ravens, who have Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser at outside linebacker, can afford to wait. They also didn’t need Kyle Hamilton with Chuck Clark, a strong box safety who paired nicely with Williams, already on the roster. But Hamilton fell into their lap, giving them insurance and contract flexibility at the very least, and a fearsome big nickel package at the very best.
Fourth-round pick Daniel Faalele is a great developmental tackle who protects them from further injury uncertainty surrounding Ronnie Stanley and Ja’Wuan James (they still have Morgan Moses, too). They took two cornerbacks in the fourth as well in Alabama’s Jalyn Armour-Davis and Houston’s Damarion Williams. They likely won’t break into the starting rotation ahead of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, but they provide young, cheap replacements in future seasons.
The Ravens haven’t drafted for need in what seems like four years. It sounds ridiculous to say, but it’s fairly true. They consistently double-dip in the draft when they do have a need, they try to stay ahead on contract situations (Rashod Bateman, their 2021 first-round wide receiver, was the insurance they needed to move on from Marquise Brown), and they focus their draft assets on premium positions even if they don’t have an immediate pressing need. Most other teams play catch-up by trading up to snag the players they’ve ranked high on their boards. The Ravens patiently play the board and trust that a lot of draft picks spent at a lot of important positions without unnecessary reaches will eventually turn up winnings.
Everybody else is gambling; the Ravens are the house.
Bad Days In The Office
The Arizona Cardinals
Take everything I just said about the Baltimore Ravens, put a giant Borat “…NOT!” at the end, and you have my analysis of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals are always chasing something. They needed a new receiver after being unable to pay Christian Kirk the money he demanded on the open market. Instead of grabbing a cost-controlled rookie receiver, they traded the no. 23 pick to the Ravens for Hollywood Brown, who has one more cheap season left before his fifth-year option hits ($13.4 million), after which he’ll likely demand a deal exceeding what the Jaguars just paid Kirk.
Yes, Brown is a scheme fit for the Cardinals. He’s a vertical speedster on an offense that has prioritized team speed. He was also college teammates with QB Kyler Murray and maybe that familiarity will assuage some of the concerns Murray has had recently. But trading for Brown is an example of the Cardinals chasing new solutions for past mistakes. Andy Isabella is a bust and Kirk is gone? Gotta trade for a proven receiver. Murray is upset? Bring in his old Sooners teammate.
Receivers are treated as an uber-premium position in Kliff Kingsbury’s four-wide Air Raid approach. The Cardinals are currently holding their position unit together with duct tape via expensive veteran trades. The team’s plan at pass rusher is even more difficult to decipher. In 2020, versatile SAM linebacker Haason Reddick finally had the breakout season general manager Steve Keim envisioned when the Cardinals selected him in the first round of the 2017 draft. In 2021, he left in free agency as the Cardinals elected to acquire J.J. Watt. Reddick took a one-year, $6 million prove-it deal with the Panthers, emphatically proved he was a great pass-rusher, and recently signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Eagles. This offseason, the Cardinals let Chandler Jones leave in free agency. Jones, one of the league’s most dominant sack-getters of the last five seasons, had clearly expressed his frustrations over not getting a desirable contract offer from the team. He signed a three-year, $51-million deal with the Raiders in March.
Arizona’s plan to replace these quality starters at a premium position apparently boiled down to 2022 third-round selections of outside linebackers Cameron Thomas (San Diego State) and Myjai Sanders (Cincinnati), who will join Markus Golden, Devon Kennard, and Dennis Gardeck in a pass-rushing group that has sorely lost its luster.
Even more puzzling is the Cardinals’ second-round pick of tight end Trey McBride, having recently given Zach Ertz a three-year, $31.65 million deal. The positional backlog is one thing, but tight end is just not an important position in the Cardinals’ offense. In 2021, Arizona played 13 percent of its snaps in 10 personnel—a grouping that consists of one running back and zero tight ends. That number led the league comfortably (the Jets and Bills were next-closest at eight and seven percent, respectively; no other team was above four percent). Kingsbury has increased his tight end usage during his NFL tenure, but unless the Ertz contract and McBride selection foretells a dramatic shift to more two-tight end sets, it’s a rather perplexing decision.
It is a perennial challenge to figure out the Cardinals’ priorities and this year’s draft was no different. Sometimes that works for them; usually it doesn’t.
The Washington Commanders
I believe it’s fair to say that head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew were drafting for their jobs and will be coaching/managing for their jobs throughout the season. Rivera will have a different starting quarterback for the third straight season, with a record of 14-19 over the last two seasons. The general turmoil in the Washington organization does not inspire hope for a stable work environment.
Rivera’s first mistake was when he said at the NFL combine that the Commanders needed “a veteran quarterback.” A week later, they got their guy in Carson Wentz. All evaluations of Wentz’s recent play aside, a veteran quarterback is more likely to win games than a rookie, but a young quarterback can inspire hope and instill a positive attitude within an organization. By acquiring Wentz, Rivera and Mayhew are placing the responsibility to win on their own shoulders. I don’t know if Wentz—or this roster—can deliver, and the Commanders’ selections in the draft didn’t change my outlook. While Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson is a fine player, he did not seem like a top-16 guy given his small frame and limited usage in college. On day two, the Washington Commanders did what the Washington Football Teams before them have done: they drafted Alabama players. Defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis and running back Brian Robinson Jr. both left the board markedly earlier than most prognosticators anticipated, and neither were impact players across multiple seasons in Tuscaloosa. Neither even fill major positions of need on the roster.
Then the Commanders took North Carolina QB Sam Howell in the fifth round. It’s a good pick! Howell is better than most fifth-round quarterbacks, has an existing relationship with second-year receiver Dyami Brown, and a strong competitive fire. But if Howell’s taking reps this season, the things that couldn’t go wrong already went wrong: Wentz is either hurt or playing poorly.
If the Commanders are willing to take a young quarterback to challenge Taylor Heinicke for the backup role and present a developmental option for the future, why not strike earlier? The Commanders were attacking depth positions by the time they selected at pick no. 47, which is the behavior of a playoff team, not a middling franchise stuck in neutral at quarterback. A swing on Malik Willis would have a galvanizing effect on the roster; Howell is a much less inspired choice.
I Wonder What Happens Next
The Wide Receiver Market
The current state of the wide receiver market in the NFL is untenable. It’s actually kind of awesome: The Jaguars paid Christian Kirk nearly $20 million annually, and no less than 10 other receivers immediately said, “Well, OK, I’d like $20 million annually. ” It’s produced a lot of hilarious and justified drama, which is great for all the players getting paid and my general enjoyment. But there’s no way the market settles at its current position.
Six receivers went in the first 18 picks. It was a good receiver class, certainly, but it wasn’t that good, at least compared to recent drafts. Chris Olave was the 11th overall pick as a smooth, undersized receiver; two years ago, Henry Ruggs III, a similar player, went no. 12 overall. CeeDee Lamb fell to 17th overall in 2020; in 2022, the fifth and sixth receivers came off the board at nos. 16 and 18.
This mad dash for rookie receivers was the result of the bubble formed in the veteran wide receiver market. Both Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams reset the market for top-tier veterans with their deals of $30 million and $28 million annually; Mike Williams, Brandin Cooks, and Kirk reset it for second-tier receivers with their smaller but still substantial deals. Every team that isn’t paying a stud veteran receiver wanted to draft a star rookie receiver to protect themselves from having to participate in the ever-rising, higher end of the market.
And the rising tide lifts all boats. After that top tier of receivers flew off the board by pick 18, Christian Watson went to the Packers at 34, and the next run on the position began at 43 when six receivers left the board in the next 11 picks: Wan’Dale Robinson, John Metchie III, Tyquan Thornton, George Pickens, Alec Pierce, and Skyy Moore.
These runs highlight the league’s desperation. If you could snag a talented rookie receiver in 2022, you had to try or else you’d be paying like crazy for a veteran sometime soon.
After Moore went at no. 54 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs, only four receivers were taken in the next 50 picks. Even a position loaded with as much diverse and productive talent as receiver didn’t have enough bodies to fulfill the league’s demand. The well dried up. If you wanted a receiver with a third-round grade and waited until the third round to select him, you were too late.
Eventually, so many veteran receivers will get paid—even if they have to get traded to do so— and enough rookie receivers will produce, that all the wideout movement will settle down. But that’s probably still an offseason or two away. Right now, if you have a great rookie-contract receiver, you have a bomb sitting in your lap. Either find a way to pay that guy, or find a replacement for him immediately.
The Chicago Bears
Look at the New York Jets’ draft class: Star receiver in the first round in Garrett Wilson, who joins last year’s wide receiver acquisitions in Corey Davis and Elijah Moore; starting running back in Breece Hall, and potential starting tight end in the third round in Jeremy Ruckert; offensive linemen Max Mitchell, selected in the fourth round, joins Alijah Vera-Tucker, Connor McGovern, Laken Tomlinson, George Fant, and Mekhi Becton—all linemen acquired in the last two years.
The Jets are building the house for their 2021 first-round quarterback Zach Wilson. So are the Jaguars for their 2021 first-rounder Trevor Lawrence— they more so in free agency than in the draft. The 49ers already have a great offensive framework in place for Trey Lance. The Patriots drafted a first round offensive lineman and a second round wide receiver, after all of their 2021 free-agency spending, for Mac Jones.
And then there are the Bears.
I don’t want to fault new general manager Ryan Poles, who inherited the worst roster in the league. He was dealt a bad hand and has responded by stripping down the dilapidated house by moving on from players like Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks to rebuild from a new foundation. I understand that approach, and Poles has made some good picks. The Bears’ secondary was probably one of their stronger positional groups, but Poles’ first two selections—Washington corner Kyler Gordon and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker—prove he is in talent acquisition mode, no matter the position. The Bears just need to get good players—any good players.
This is a tough reality for Poles, for new head coach Matt Eberflus, for everyone in Chicago—but it’s especially tough on Justin Fields. Fields entered the league with all of the talent you could ever want in a rookie quarterback, and his flashes of brilliance in 2021 were as exciting and encouraging as any from another rookie passer. But while the other quarterbacks from his draft class are playing on teams with enough resources and enough established talent to build around them right now, the Bears have to take the long road. In doing so, they leave Fields exposed.
Fields brought some bad habits into the NFL from his time at Ohio State. He takes a lot of sacks and gets banged up too often as a runner. The Bears offensive line of his rookie season constantly left him out to dry, hammering into him the habits of dropping his eyes early in his drop back and forcing him to take unnecessary shots. He wasn’t a polished quick-game quarterback, and with the poor receivers fielded by the Bears, Fields regularly endured miscommunications, incorrect routes, and drops. The offensive line and wide receiver room that the Bears forced upon Fields last year are different in name but eerily similar in quality to the ones that he will endure this year. The infrastructure around Fields, which is critical to his development, remains a detriment to his health and his growth.
There is still plenty of hope for Fields—gosh, he’s such a good passer and athlete, it’s tough not to have hope. I’m excited to see what he looks like this year. But I won’t trick myself into believing it will be pretty. Poles and the Bears took the first of many steps in pulling themselves out of the ruins of Ryan Pace’s roster in this draft, and there’s a lot more trash to sift through if they’re ever going to emerge into a healthy, stable place. The only hope is that by then, it isn’t too late for Fields.
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