So yeah. Even the smartest NFL pundits were convinced that the 2017 NFL draft would open with a boring run of defensive players. Instead, it started with fireworks and was completely drunk by 12 picks in.
Three lopsided trades for quarterbacks, two rule-breaking selections of running backs and an unexpected run of receivers dominated what was a thrilling 90-minute scramble. Let’s unpack the action and run through the rest of the top takeaways from Day 1.
1. Felony — but necessary — robbery for QBs
The San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns all pulled massive heists on quarterback-desperate teams. Five years from now, someone will write a great book on who, what, how, when and, most importantly, WHY.
The 49ers stole two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder from the Chicago Bears, who wanted to move up one spot for North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The Bills pilfered extra first- and third-round picks from the Kansas City Chiefs, who just had to have Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. And the Browns looted the Houston Texans for a 2018 first-round pick to ensure they could grab Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
It’s easy to criticize the Bears, Chiefs and Texans for giving up so many extra assets, especially in a year when the quarterback class seemed particularly questionable. As ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke noted, each of the trades weighed heavily against them in terms of fair-market value.
But if any position is worth overpaying, selling out, or getting robbed for, it’s quarterback. This year, the market was so furious that three teams traded up in the first round for a quarterback for the first time in history. In the long run, it will matter not how many assets were required to make the deal. The leverage point is not the trade itself, but two other factors: evaluation of the player and the franchise’s capacity to develop him.
In other words, if you like a quarterback, do whatever you can to get him. If you want to get cute — if you only want one at the exact price you establish and consider yourself disciplined when you shy away from aggressive bids — you become …
2. The Cleveland Browns: America’s most disciplined losers
The Browns have the first part right: Draft success is largely about the quantity of picks. So it’s great that they will have seven more picks in this draft and then five selections (and counting) in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft.
But failing to use any of them on a high(er)-end quarterback will doom them in the short- and mid-term. Unless you think the Browns can grow with 2016 third-rounder Cody Kessler or — gasp — recent acquisition Brock Osweiler, it’s difficult to see how they can move forward while continuing to slow-play the position.
The Browns have outsmarted themselves. It’s fine to be selective, but the Browns have been waiting for their pitch for two years. Barring a trade for a veteran more promising than Osweiler, they won’t address the position in a substantive way until 2018 at the earliest — the third year in the tenure of their current brain trust. They did acquire three talented players Friday night — defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Jabrill Peppers and tight end David Njoku — but without a quarterback, their impact will be contained.
3. Why Conley at No. 24?
Cleveland police are investigating a rape accusation made against Conley earlier this month. Conley has denied the allegation, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any team to have known the full truth of the incident by Friday night.
Using a first-round pick on a player who could face rape charges, and perhaps be subject to the NFL’s personal conduct policy, seems unnecessarily risky from a draft strategy perspective. Independent of a presumption of innocence, the allegation alone devalued Conley in the eyes of most teams.
That meant there was a good chance Conley would have been available in the second round, and perhaps later, if the Raiders really wanted him. It’s possible they got impatient after seeing three cornerbacks get selected between picks No. 11-18. But the Raiders could have drafted another cornerback in this spot, perhaps LSU’s Tre’Davious White. Or, they could have taken another talented player and maneuvered to grab Conley later in the draft.
4. Weak offensive line group confirmed
For the first time in the common draft era, dating to 1967, not a single offensive lineman was drafted among the top 15. Only two were selected in the first round in total, and the first was not until No. 20 (Utah’s Garett Bolles by the Denver Broncos). Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk was taken No. 32 by the New Orleans Saints.
Now we know why teams paid so dearly for the handful of quality veterans available on the free-agent market this year: They already had decided they weren’t going to get much in the way of immediate help in the draft. That’s why seven tackles got multi-year deals that totaled $304.8 million in the opening days of free agency, while three guards signed multi-year deals that added up to $129 million.
5. Two running backs get paid
LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — selected at No. 4 and No. 8, respectively — will be two of the four highest-paid running backs in the NFL this season in terms of guaranteed money. That’s the high cost of drafting a running back, a position the NFL otherwise refuses to pay, in the top 10 of the draft.
Fournette can expect about $26 million guaranteed in his contract from the Jacksonville Jaguars, while McCaffrey will get about $17 million from the Carolina Panthers. The only running backs with more guaranteed money in their deals are LeSean McCoy ($26.6 million) and Ezekiel Elliott ($24.9 million).
This draft is exceptionally deep with talented running backs, and there is no more disposable position in the game. As noted in this deep data dive, the production discrepancy of backs selected in the first and second rounds over the past five years has been negligible. Fournette and McCaffrey will have to produce exponentially better than the rest of this class to make the investment worthwhile.
6. Jets, Saints benefit from early run
The idea that the 2017 first round would skew toward defense was based largely on the fact that there were a ton of really good defensive players in the draft. That didn’t change as teams scrambled for quarterbacks, receivers and running backs early on, and it left the New York Jets and the Saints getting great value from their original spots.
With the No. 6 overall pick, the Jets drafted LSU safety Jamal Adams, who might have been the second-best player in this draft and can change the personality of a defense on his own. The Saints, meanwhile, had their pick of cornerbacks and chose Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore at No. 11.
Ultimately, the league focused on defense in this round, drafting 19 such players against 13 who play offense. But the early run pushed a bunch of really talented players down the board.