The NFL's draft industrial complex took a hit this weekend, and I mean that in the most optimistic way possible. The 2020 virtual NFL draft revealed a level of humanity, intimacy and spartan aesthetics that was not only pitch-perfect amid a national quarantine, but also suggestive of a new way of drafting.
We all hope the NFL never again has a reason to conduct a virtual draft. But some of the necessary inventions of this year's event -- both in structure and philosophy -- should carry on. The most significant revelation, of course, is that the NFL draft can function on something short of a war footing.
In any other year, teams would have operated out of "war rooms," modeled in some cases after military briefing centers to conceal discussions, data and any other information that could prove helpful to the "enemy" -- i.e., the other 31 teams. With decision-makers all working from home this year, the broadcast divulged scores of insights that demonstrated how over-the-top previous attempts at Cold War-level secrecy really were.
We saw the draft board of Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden not once or twice, but throughout the weekend. It wasn't easy to read the massive whiteboard, but it was out there. We saw Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta running through a printed list with a yellow highlighter Friday night, perhaps outlining his Day 3 wish list. Houston Texans general manager Bill O'Brien screamed, cursed and gestured at ... someone, a pretty good indication that he wanted to do something other than draft Florida linebacker Jonathan Greenard in the third round.
And guess what? They all survived. They got their players. No one lost any games. Their work was revealed as more haphazard and less bellicose than they themselves once imagined.
Part of that, of course, was their environment. As a reporter who always looks for the tiniest nuggets to humanize these "soldiers," I can't tell you how fruitful it was to see coaches and general managers in their homes, surrounded by their families, as they worked on tasks they once thought required complete professional isolation.
Who would have guessed that Ravens coach John Harbaugh would have a collection of birdhouses in his home office? Who couldn't be touched by seeing the proud face of Lions coach Matt Patricia's son, sitting inches from his dad as he made decisions that would impact thousands of lives? Who couldn't identify with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, surrounded by candy wrappers and soda cans, or even commissioner Roger Goodell, whose great big jar of M&M's emptied quickly over the course of each day?
I would have taken the "over" on three mounted animals in Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's living room, but to be fair, we didn't see the rest of "Zimmer Ridge Ranch." Patriots coach Bill Belichick's setup at what looked to be a dining room table was cute, as were his interactions with a dog named Nike that, like a good dog, kept his chair warm when he got up.
War Room 2.0 pic.twitter.com/aCh3GYPVCG— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) April 24, 2020
These weren't fun little nuggets, but genuine insights into people who usually wall them off. It's not fair to expect an annual invasion of their private lives, and it's possible this is just a one-time consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but the NFL would be well advised to continue exploring it when possible.
The league and teams could incorporate other parts of this draft moving forward. Perhaps decision-makers will prove better served by trusting their instincts, and making the obvious decisions, as they unquestionably did in 2020. The record number of 40 SEC players through three rounds, along with a healthy dose of 10 Ohio State players in the same span, suggested they were drafting players most familiar to them after the NFL closed the usual avenues for investigation of smaller-school players.
And there is every reason to continue the Draft-a-Thon, which raised more than $100 million in support of coronavirus relief efforts, but also delivered a hysterical second-screen experience. Active players such as Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, led expertly by host Rich Eisen, alternated between friendly barbs, with critiques of Deion Sanders' jacket. (At one point, Brady teased Wilson about connecting to the video conference from his car, after which Wilson zinged Brady for a gaudy zebra-style chair in his background.)
All of this is to say, I guess, that necessity can be the mother of invention. Let's hope the NFL doesn't mothball attributes of the 2020 experience in future, non-pandemic, years.
Here are a bunch of other takeaways from this draft, what might be the final event on the NFL's offseason schedule this year:
The draft wasn't virtual for everyone. IT specialists around the league were dispatched to the homes of coaches and general managers to install equipment. Goodell said that three people were stationed in his basement to assist with production. New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said that a member of the team's IT department sat with him during the first round, and Gettleman wasn't the only one with company. Players had been asked to limit home gatherings to six people, but in many cases, it was clear that additional attendees were standing -- and celebrating -- off camera. Agents could also be seen in the players' homes. This isn't to suggest that anyone was forced into an unsafe position. But it would be wrong to say that the NFL conducted a draft with everyone at home, or with strict physical distancing enforced at all times.
One coach who absolutely respected the rules was the Arizona Cardinals' Kliff Kingsbury, who sat alone on a white couch in the expansive open living room of his multimillion-dollar pad, his loafers perched on a contemporary coffee table. If you thought Kingsbury was pulling off the flexiest of NFL coach flexes, well, you were not alone. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, whose own home had a similar patio, told reporters: "Kliff had that thing set up like it was a movie for himself. I was killing him about that last night, like he was trying to film a movie about it. I said, 'You were trying pretty hard there, bro.'"
Another one— Raekwon McMillan (@Kwon_daTRUTH) April 24, 2020
The Packers' decision to draft a quarterback in the first round is getting more scrutiny than the quarterback who made this plunge worth it to them in the first place. A strong argument could be made to select Aaron Rodgers' heir now, rather than waiting for Rodgers' retirement. But is Jordan Love the right quarterback for that? He led the NCAA with 17 interceptions during his final year at Utah State and, at the very least, is a high risk-reward prospect. The chances of a worst-case scenario -- starting the public clock on Rodgers' endgame with a first-round pick who isn't up to replacing him -- are higher than they should be.
While we're on the subject of the Packers, it's worth noting that they are operating with the kind of long-term vision that many of us criticize other teams for ignoring. But is that approach compatible with maximizing the final years of Rodgers' career? It could be, but only if the right answer is to surround Rodgers with a strong running game rather than an enhanced set of pass-catchers. Despite one of the deepest wide receiver classes in memory, the Packers failed to add a single one. After Love, they took a power runner in Boston College's AJ Dillon and a tight end in Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara. No objective observer could say that the Packers helped Rodgers in the passing game during this draft. We'll see if it matters.
Compare the Packers' approach to that of the New Orleans Saints, who have been treating each of the past few years as if it could be the last for quarterback Drew Brees. They identify specific players they believe can help them right away and aren't shy about moving around to get them. On Saturday, the Saints traded all of their Day 3 picks -- a total of four in all -- to move back into the third round to draft Dayton tight end Adam Trautman. (They eventually traded back into the seventh round to select Mississippi State quarterback Tommy Stevens.) The Saints' approach has translated into 37 regular-season wins since 2017 with three consecutive trips to the playoffs. I don't know if it will put them any closer to a Super Bowl championship than the Packers, but the Saints offer an instructive alternative approach.
The New England Patriots' decision to pass on the 2020 quarterback class was slightly less surprising than the Packers' failure to draft a receiver. But to be fair, there has never been any indication that Belichick planned to substantively add to a group that currently includes Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. Anything could happen at any time, and there are some notable free agents remaining on the market, including Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. But at some point, we might just have to accept that Belichick really does plan to replace Tom Brady with Stidham -- with Hoyer available to fill in if Stidham can't handle it. It is a relatively rare reaction to moving on from an MVP quarterback -- since 2000, 11 of the 15 teams that have bid farewell to one have drafted a possible replacement in the next draft -- but it is very much on brand for Belichick.
The NFL tried too hard to co-opt the annual draft booing of Goodell, who encouraged screens of fans to let loose on him throughout the draft. An adjacent screen displayed a suspiciously consistent "Boo Meter." It was a clever but ineffective bit. At the risk of sounding like a "Seinfeld" script, I'll posit that neither Goodell nor anyone else gets to change the terms of the boo. We must fight to preserve booing as an unironic expression of dissatisfaction, not tongue-in-cheek affection. It is the American way.
New Eagles draftee Jalen Hurts talks about his journey to the NFL and how he feels blessed to be an NFL player.
We'll have to twist ourselves into a knot to excuse Chiefs coach Andy Reid (one of the league's best forward thinkers) for drafting a running back in the first round (a vestige of previous eras). But here goes: LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire might be the best receiving back in the draft, and the Chiefs are highly productive when they target their backs. Edwards-Helaire is tremendous in the open field, having forced the second-most missed tackles (97) in college football last season. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has thrown 16 touchdown passes to running backs in two seasons and averages an NFL-best 7.7 yards per attempt when targeting running backs in his career. For a comp, consider how Reid used Brian Westbrook in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2009. Over that period, Westbrook caught twice as many touchdown passes (29) as the next-best running back. Reid gets the benefit of the doubt here.
Somewhere around 1,458 people have been named "Raekwon" since 1880, according to the website BabysNameHub.com. The Dolphins have two of them: second-round defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and third-year linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a second-round pick in 2017. According to the Pro Football Reference database, they are the only two Raekwons in NFL history. McMillan welcomed his new teammate to Miami:
Given the importance of the position, and the frequently crushing implications of an injured starter, it's a mystery why teams don't draft a quarterback every year and assign his development to an assistant coach. Even if he never helps win a game, the quarterback could perhaps become a trade asset. That's what Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was referring to Saturday after drafting Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round. "We want to be a quarterback factory," Roseman said. But generally speaking, NFL teams expect significant contributions from second-round picks within a season or two. Hurts isn't playing quarterback in the coming years unless starter Carson Wentz is injured. So we'll give Roseman the benefit of the doubt and assume the Eagles also have a 2020 offensive role in mind, at some position, for Hurts as well.
The great receiver class of 2020 lived up to its billing. Eight receivers flew off the board in the first 35 overall picks, the highest total in the common draft era; 26 were drafted through five rounds; and a total of 36 were drafted overall, tying the record set in 2003 for the most in a seven-round draft, all according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This was a perfect synthesis of talent and an annual screaming need from a pass-happy league.
No team was more receiver-focused than the Las Vegas Raiders, who became the first team in 38 years to draft three receivers in the first three rounds of a single draft. (It had happened only twice before, with the 1982 Saints and the 1967 Vikings.) In Alabama's Henry Ruggs III, the Raiders got the fastest receiver in the draft. Kentucky's Lynn Bowden is an all-around playmaker and South Carolina's Bryan Edwards can be a strong outside presence. If Derek Carr ultimately falters under coach Jon Gruden, it won't be because of a lack of weapons.
The same is true of Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock, who in some ways might be the top winner of the draft. To go along with veteran receiver Courtland Sutton, Lock now has Alabama's Jerry Jeudy (Round 1) and Penn State's KJ Hamler (Round 2). The Broncos also got his former tight end at Missouri, Albert Okwuegbunam, in the fourth round. What remains to be seen about the Broncos' offense, however, is whether they can find a way to elevate their offensive line. The Broncos ranked No. 27 in ESPN's pass rush win-rate metric and didn't add a lineman until drafting center Lloyd Cushenberry III in Round 3.
The Miami Dolphins took the opposite approach for building around new quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, drafting offensive linemen in the first, second and fourth rounds. Of that group, you can expect USC's Austin Jackson (Round 1) to start right away at left tackle, with Louisiana-Lafayette's Robert Hunt (Round 2) at right guard or right tackle.