Despite some whining from media critics and NFL executives, Roger Goodell always insisted the show must go on as planned — meaning free agency and the draft. The commissioner got this call right.
While the rest of the sports world and most of the business world abruptly stopped, the NFL continued to roll full steam ahead. Last week’s virtual draft avoided controversy, and the creativity displayed by the league, the TV networks and everyone involved was remarkable.
The draft party in Las Vegas has been pushed back to 2022, another correct call by Goodell.
The sportsbooks also did an impressive job by posting more draft props than ever. The event had the feel of a Super Bowl in late April. Betting on the NFL draft is in its infancy and will grow as a result of what happened this spring.
“The handle was outstanding,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “There was a lot of money in the pot. The bettors were the winner, no doubt about it.”
The NFL set an example for how to operate successfully during difficult circumstances, so the draft provides hope that there will be a football season, there probably will be a shortened baseball season and we might see the NBA and NHL playoffs by July.
Goodell is a big winner — for now. Using index cards and a teleprompter, his delivery was as smooth as sandpaper. Goodell won’t win any public speaking awards for being charismatic, yet he earned praise for persistence and strong leadership on this occasion. We can get back to picking on his flaws when the season starts and the officiating stinks.
After the draft, media analysts traditionally assign grades to teams and their prospects. And NFL executives traditionally scoff at the practice as nonsense.
“These drafts are judged way too early,” said Michael Lombardi, a VSiN analyst and former NFL general manager.
Lombardi is right, of course. It takes three to five years to accurately grade a draft, but let’s not suck the fun out of it. Handicapping the draft before and after is mostly about entertainment. Analysts are paid to form opinions, not say, “Let’s all just wait and see how everything turns out.”
Instead of handing out letter grades for the draft, value lies in analyzing which teams improved the most for the 2020 season. So I’ll look at the best and worst and everything in between after 32 teams picked a total of 255 players in seven rounds.
ARIZONA: Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons is the most versatile defender in the class, and the Cardinals did well to get him at No. 8. Simmons helps on every level because he can rush from the edge, defend the run and cover tight ends and slot receivers. In the middle rounds, Arizona added three more players to improve last year’s awful defense. Offensive tackle was the other primary need, so Josh Jones from Houston was a steal in the third round. Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin was an excellent pick in the seventh round. The Cardinals had one of the best draft hauls in the league if you include wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was acquired from the Texans for a second-round pick.
ATLANTA: While the rest of the NFC South got a lot better this offseason, the Falcons got only a little better. Clemson corner A.J. Terrell and Auburn defensive tackle Marlon Davidson will not make major impacts immediately. Atlanta’s six-player class rates among the worst, so coach Dan Quinn’s hot seat is getting no cooler.
BALTIMORE: The Ravens seem to always ace the draft. LSU linebacker Patrick Queen and Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins were the top picks and will contribute as rookies. Two wide receivers, third-rounder Devin Duvernay from Texas and sixth-rounder James Proche from SMU, flew under the radar in a deep receiver class. Baltimore boosted its defense and found offensive line help in an impressive 10-player haul. I like each pick. John Harbaugh is right there with Bill Belichick as a coach and talent evaluator.
BUFFALO: With no first-round pick, which was traded to the Vikings for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the Bills still grabbed a first-round talent in Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa. If quarterback Josh Allen develops — and the Diggs addition helps — Buffalo is ready to break through and win the AFC East.
CAROLINA: It’s fair to question Matt Rhule’s credentials as a first-year NFL coach, but he proved to be a master rebuilder at Baylor and Temple. All seven of his draft picks were on the defensive side, beginning with Auburn tackle Derrick Brown. Rhule is rebuilding the Panthers with a smart plan of attack.
CHICAGO: General manager Ryan Pace seems to have no plan. He’ll never survive the mistake of trading up to No. 2 for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in a 2017 draft with Patrick Mahomes. I really like the Bears’ two second-round picks, Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet and Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson, but tight end was not a need position after Pace mysteriously signed free agent Jimmy Graham.
CINCINNATI: Owner Mike Brown is no wheeler-dealer. He resisted all trade offers and picked first in all seven rounds. For the first time in my life, I can say I loved the Bengals’ draft. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was a layup at No. 1, and Brown was lucky that Clemson wideout Tee Higgins was available in the second round. Cincinnati added four quality defensive players, including Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson and Notre Dame end Khalid Kareem. The Bengals’ draft ranks among the best along with Arizona, Baltimore and Dallas.
CLEVELAND: After Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills filled a need in the first round, LSU safety Grant Delpit solidified the back end of the defense in the second. The Browns did nothing sensational, but they made solid picks from top to bottom.
DALLAS: Jerry Jones called all the right shots from his yacht. The Cowboys were fortunate that Oklahoma wideout CeeDee Lamb slipped to them at No. 17 and Alabama corner Trevon Diggs was on the board in the second round. Dallas emerged with one of its three best drafts since Jimmy Johnson stopped calling the shots more than 25 years ago. The Cowboys have the talent to contend for the NFC championship.
DENVER: Too many people bash John Elway as a general manager. Yes, Elway has whiffed on a few quarterbacks, but his recent drafts have been exceptional. Drew Lock, a second-round pick last year, is the franchise quarterback now. Elway found big-time wide receiver help for Lock by getting Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy in the first round and Penn State’s KJ Hamler in the second. Denver drafted 10 players, most of whom can play key roles this year. This team is set to rise in the AFC West if Lock is ready and if Vic Fangio improves as a head coach.
DETROIT: General manager Bob Quinn was in good position to trade the No. 3 pick and get more out of the draft. Instead, he sat still and took Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah, who’s an outstanding talent yet went too high. There’s a good reason no corner had been picked in the top three since 1997. The Lions’ draft results were decent. Georgia running back D’Andre Swift (second round), Notre Dame linebacker Julian Okwara (third) and Wisconsin wideout Quintez Cephus (fifth) helped Quinn make up some ground after the first round.
GREEN BAY: This class will be judged in the distant future after quarterback Jordan Love of Utah State proves a boom or a bust. I don’t dislike the Love pick, but the rest of the Packers’ draft was one head-scratcher after another, so for now it rates among the league’s worst in terms of additions for 2020. A better draft might have made Green Bay a legit Super Bowl contender.
HOUSTON: With coach Bill O’Brien making the personnel decisions, the Texans are in trouble. Houston had no first-round pick and took TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock in the second. Blacklock will contribute this year, but he’s the highlight of a five-player class that I rank as the league’s worst.
INDIANAPOLIS: The Colts traded their first-rounder to San Francisco for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who will boost the run defense and pass rush up the middle. It’s easy to approve of the two second-round picks, USC wideout Michael Pittman and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. Washington quarterback Jacob Eason was well worth a pick in the fourth. Indianapolis has the talent to win 10 games if quarterback Philip Rivers can run an efficient offense and rebound from a dismal 2019 season with the Chargers.
JACKSONVILLE: It’s rare to like what the Jaguars do in any draft, but they did well on the first day by getting Florida cornerback CJ Henderson with the ninth pick and LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson in the 20th spot. Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault could be a second-round steal. Jacksonville definitely made steps in the right direction, though it actually would be wise to tank this year and grab Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence No. 1 next year. In the meantime, we’ll find out if Gardner Minshew can play well enough to prevent that from happening.
KANSAS CITY: With only six picks, the Chiefs did little to upgrade their talent level. Not that the Super Bowl champions had many shortcomings. LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the last pick of the first round, will improve the running attack and prove valuable as a receiver. It’s one more weapon for Mahomes.
L.A. CHARGERS: Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, the sixth overall pick, is 6-6 and 240 pounds with mobility and a rocket-launching arm. He’s the future, but when? It’s Tyrod Taylor’s team unless he proves otherwise. The Chargers maximized the value of their six picks, also getting Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray in the first round, UCLA running back Joshua Kelley in the fourth and Ohio State wideout K.J. Hill in the seventh.
L.A. RAMS: It’s popular to rip Rams general manager Les Snead for handing out bundles of money on bad contracts. This draft class, with help from coach Sean McVay, was better than average. Florida State running back Cam Akers and Florida wideout Van Jefferson will play right away as second-round picks. The other seven players in the class have the potential to help. It might still rank as the worst class in the competitive NFC West.
LAS VEGAS: If first-round wide receiver Henry Ruggs III from Alabama turns out to be a Tyreek Hill clone, the Raiders’ class will be a hit. But the 19th overall pick, Ohio State corner Damon Arnette, was a reach and could be a costly miss. Las Vegas grabbed two more wideouts, Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden and South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards, in the third round. The last two drafts by general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden are drawing mixed reviews, and I’m not blown away by the Mayock-Gruden tandem at this point. Watch the quarterback situation closely because free-agent signee Marcus Mariota will get a chance to beat out Derek Carr in the preseason.
MIAMI: As he recovers from multiple injuries, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa might sit for most of this season, and that’s not necessarily a negative. The team can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The Dolphins duped a lot of bettors who bought into media reports that they would pass on Tagovailoa and draft an offensive tackle with the fifth overall pick. Miami made 11 selections, including USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson in the first round, and arguably improved more than any team in the league.
MINNESOTA: The Vikings should appear in the league’s top 10 in everyone’s draft rankings. LSU wideout Justin Jefferson was picked in the first round to replace Diggs. It was a 15-player class packed with immediate impact players.
NEW ENGLAND: The camera shot of Belichick’s dog sitting in front of his laptop was a draft highlight. Belichick hopes his draft class has more bite than bark. It was a nuts-and-bolts rebuilding job, starting with safety Kyle Dugger in the second round. Belichick picking a player from Lenoir-Rhyne is his way of showing off his brain for scouting. It could prove to be a solid foundational group, and I have no problem with him passing on a quarterback. “I thought New England had one of the poorer drafts,” Bogdanovich said.
NEW ORLEANS: Michigan center Cesar Ruiz was the first-round pick, followed by Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun and Dayton tight end Adam Trautman in the third. The Saints picked only four players yet managed to find quality and value. The free-agent deal with quarterback Jameis Winston after the draft might be an unneeded insurance policy heading into what figures to be Drew Brees’ final year.
N.Y. GIANTS: General manager Dave Gettleman took Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas at No. 4 to help his previous two first-round picks, quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. It was a good draft class, probably ranking in the middle of the pack but not enough for the Giants to catch up with Dallas and Philadelphia in the NFC East.
N.Y. JETS: Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton went 11th overall. Becton is a 6-7, 365-pound dancing bear due to his great athletic ability. He could prove to be the top tackle in the class. Baylor wideout Denzel Mims was projected to go in the first round but slid to the Jets in the second. It was a strong draft for general manager Joe Douglas, who needed to help quarterback Sam Darnold and did.
PHILADELPHIA: The Eagles made a polarizing pick in the second round by taking former Oklahoma and Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. I see both sides of the argument but side with the pro-Hurts crowd. TCU wideout Jalen Reagor was a questionable pick at 21st overall because bigger, more talented receivers were on the board. I rate Philadelphia’s class as mediocre, unless Hurts turns into something special down the road, and who knows?
PITTSBURGH: Some organizations, such as Baltimore, consistently nail the draft board. The Steelers just know how to pick the right receivers at the right time, and they got a second-round steal with Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool, who’s 6-4 with 4.42 speed. The rest of class might not make much of an immediate impact.
SEATTLE: Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks was a smart pick late in the first round, a perfect fit for the Seahawks as a physical linebacker. Stanford tight end Colby Parkinson and Miami running back DeeJay Dallas were solid fourth-rounders.
SAN FRANCISCO: Facing the hangover that drags down so many Super Bowl losers, the 49ers have had a positive offseason. San Francisco traded Buckner to the Colts to create salary-cap space and replaced him with South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. The 49ers lost free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints and replaced him later in the first round with Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk. After offensive tackle Joe Staley retired, general manager John Lynch pulled off a trade with Washington for Trent Williams. Well done.
TAMPA BAY: The Buccaneers will be a hot ticket with the betting public, mostly due to the arrivals of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay pulled the trigger on an impressive draft, too, by getting Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the first three rounds. The sharps will be looking to fade the Bucs, but count me out. This team should be legit.
TENNESSEE: While the Titans’ first two picks, Georgia offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson and LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton, look pretty good, the draft class rates as below average. But it’s not a team that had many needs.
WASHINGTON: The Redskins do have a respectable defense, which is stronger with the addition of Ohio State end Chase Young as the No. 2 pick. I expect Young to struggle as a rookie against the NFL’s talented offensive tackles. The draft class, which includes Memphis wideout Antonio Gibson in the third round, is not one of the league’s best. Most power ranking lists will show Jacksonville and Washington as the league’s worst teams.