NFL Draft: Instant Analysis

Tammy Anthony Baker from Louisiana / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The draft has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been an NFL fan. The mix of team building analysis and personal drama strikes the perfect balance of entertainment and intellectual narrative. This year, more than any in recent memory, the draft couldn’t have come at a better time; as the world struggles to come to terms with the implications of the COVID-19 epidemic, three days of escapism into the world of NFL team building delivered everything that makes people love the game of football and a lot more besides.

In the last few years the draft has become an increasingly large extravaganza. First in Chicago, then in Philadelphia & Tennessee the draft took to the streets, attracting enormous crowds for what is effectively one man walking on stage and announcing picks. This year, the spectacle was eliminated by two words that will become synonymous with 2020. Social distancing. You can’t very well hug the commissioner when you have to stand 6 feet away from him and 100,000 people on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia is, right now, a distant memory.

Fortunately, necessity often is the indeed the mother of innovation and the NFL scrambled to put together a far more virtual affair. Despite concerns about communication issues what they delivered may well have been the best draft spectacle in years. Social distancing meant that for the first time the real players on draft weekend – General Managers and Head Coaches took centre stage, a move that made the event come alive. Hopefully when the league returns to the big event feel of Las Vegas next year they’ll have learned the value of connecting fans with the people who make the big decisions on this weekend.

Those decisions, as ever, turned all of the perceived pre-draft fantasy wisdom on it’s head. One of the great truisms of the draft is that it’s the one time of year that teams can’t really lie to you. Their actions speak volumes, and for dynasty players in particular this means triumph and devastation in equal measure across the weekend.

There are always big winners. Owners with shares of Miami’s Jordan Howard now have a potential feature back on a team with rookie quarterback. His value soared as round after round the ‘phins passed on ball carriers. A late draft trade for Matt Breida will eat into that value somewhat but stripped of Kyle Shanahan’s system I’m not convinced he’ll be sufficiently effective (or healthy) to take much from Howard’s functional RB2 potential.

The pre-draft excitement centred around a trio of rookie receivers, all potential NFL stars and fantasy darlings. All three came out the weekend with their fantasy stock diminished. Jerry Jeudy looks set to be part of much improved Denver offence, but it’s one that suddenly has a glut of mouths to feed. It could be a couple of years before Jeudy has a real fantasy impact and it’s anyone’s guess whether he or Courtland Sutton will emerge as the team’s true number 1 target.

Jeudy‘s Crimson Tide team mate Henry Ruggs landed in Oakland which has it’s upside (Jon Gruden) and it’s downsides (Derek Carr). Ruggs speed will make him potentially a big play monster but there’s a real danger that with Carr’s limited down field passing prowess he’ll be limited to slants and YAC plays. The counter is that Mayock and Gruden seem very clear in what they want to and somewhere in the not too distant future you suspect Carr won’t be under centre.

The third of the triumvirate was Cee Dee Lamb. Hopes were high for the Oklahoma receiver but few people expected he’d land as the third receiver in an offence that runs through running back Ezekiel Elliott. Lamb is a great pick up for Dallas but the landing spot raises huge questions about his fantasy standing.

After Lamb was selected another three receivers came off the board before Thursday night was over. The Philadelphia Eagles finally got the young, dynamic playmaker that the offence desperately needs in TCU wideout Jalen Reagor. 21 year old Reagor, the son of former Colts defensive end Montae Reagor, is an explosive talent who’s draft stock was hit badly by woeful Quarterback play last year. He looks likely to feature early and often in a rebuilt Eagles offence that is clearly emphasising the need for speed.

A plurality of mock drafts before the event had the Eagles taking receiver Justin Jefferson and despite being passed over by the Birds the LSU alum didn’t have long to wait before he came off the board. Jefferson will join the Minnesota Vikings, a team in desperate need of receiver help.

The pass catcher will join Adam Thielen and not much else in the Vikings receiver room so he projects to see the field early. The fly in the Jefferson ointment would seem to be questions over whether he can be effective on the outside. Thielen predominately lines up in the slot and is highly effective in that role, if the new guy can’t win outside his fantasy relevance will depend on either Thielen moving outside or Gary Kubiak’s creativity to use both at the same time.

The final receiver taken was Brandon Aiyuk who landed in the Bay Area with the San Francisco 49ers. Aiyuk’s speed, ability after the catch and general explosiveness makes him a great fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offence but his fantasy projection is somewhat murkier. The Niners need to be able to stretch the field more and only a full would underestimate Shanahan’s ability to get receivers open. On the flip side without a deep passing Quarterback, Aiyuk’s strengths appear to clash with last year’s second round pick, Deebo Samuel. Right now, the Arizona State receiver is a tough projection – I’d neither be surprised if his impact is limited to big plays and kick returns in year one or if he has 50 catches and 800 yards.

Outside the first rounds a number of receivers found intriguing landing spots. Tee Higgins figures to be Joe Burrow’s top target in Cincinnati for years to come. Michael Pittman gives the Colts the big bodied, powerful receiver that Philip Rivers loves. On the surface landing in Jacksonville isn’t ideal for Colorado’s Laviska Shenault but dig a little deeper and you’ll notice he joins a receiver room where, other than DJ Chark last year, no player has ever had more than 800 yards and you see a path to the number one role on a team that may well be adding one of the top Quarterbacks in next year’s draft.

Things look somewhat less promising for KJ Hamler in Denver where he joins a very crowded receiver group, Denzel Mimms who landed in the fantasy wasteland of an Adam Gase led Jets and Van Jefferson who looks a little too similar to Cooper Kupp in LA.

In what was trailed as a historically deep receiver class it’s no surprise that the later rounds produced some intriguing fantasy landing spots. The Ravens adding speeding Texas slot receiver Devin Duvernay looks to be a perfect fit in the high power, high speed Baltimore attack. Former Kentucky Quarterback Lynn Bowden could be used in a number of ways in Las Vegas and UCF’s Gabe Davis found a path to the field in Buffalo and could offer dynasty value in the later rounds of rookie drafts.

Adjusting to the “new normal” of running back usage is going to be the biggest story in fantasy football in years to come. Tail backs across the league are facing an existential crisis as their production and self-perceived value is increasingly at odds with the league’s decision makes.

This movement away from single feature backs to committees that favour pass catching runners continued at pace in this draft – only undersized, Clyde Edwards-Helaire sneaked into the 1st round. Edwards-Helaire couldn’t have dreamed of a better landing spot, joining Andy Reid, Pat Mahomes and the Superbowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. By Saturday morning the LSU runner was emerging as a genuine 1.01 candidate – that seems over the top but the offensive genius of Reid and his success with similar backs (see Brian Westbrook) makes it tough to see Edwards-Helaire not becoming a relevant fantasy asset.

The 2nd round saw a run on backs. D’Andre Swift was first to go, but he couldn’t really have landed in a worse spot to have an immediate impact. The Lions already have fantasy darling Kerryon Johnson and Head Coach Matt Patricia has continually reiterated his belief in a committee approach. Long term I still think Swift’s talent will win through so if you don’t have immediate need at running back he remains someone to target, ultimately I think either Swift is successful in Detroit or Patricia and General Manager Bob Quinn will be gone anyway.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor came out of the draft as my 1.01. Landing in Indianapolis feels about as good as it could get for Taylor. A Quarterback who loves to throw to his running backs, a creative, offensive minded Head Coach and underwhelming competition means that Taylor’s talent is likely to shine through very quickly. With Marlon Mack still around he can also ease into league potentially softening the risk of his heavy college workload.

Second on my board now is JK Dobbins who went at pick 55 to the Baltimore Ravens. The league’s most dynamic running attack is a near perfect spot for the former Ohio State Buckeye and while he’ll split carries with Mark Ingram this year, the Ravens can easily move on from Ingram next offseason when they are likely to be looking towards extending Quarterback Lamar Jackson. By this time next year I’d expect Dobbins to be firmly in the RB1 range.

Two other backs went in the 2nd round. Cam Akers landed in LA with the Rams, and while it’s been suggested that my lingering Darrell Henderson love may cloud my view I strongly suspect that Rams are going to look at lot like the 49ers next year. Multiple backs, all productive but that are a nightmare select week by week.

The slight surprise of the group was AJ Dillon landing in Green Bay. A big power back who seems likely to eat significantly into the workload of Aaron Jones especially around the goal line didn’t look like an obvious need for the Packers, by Head Coach Matt LeFleur has history with Derrick Henry in Tennessee so perhaps we’re about to see a significant shift in the balance of the Green Bay running game.

Ke’Shawn Vaughan always felt like the most underrated back in the class in the lead up to the draft, and the selection process couldn’t have gone much better. Landing with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians in Tampa has sent Vaughan’s stock soaring and not without justification. The team are clearly unconvinced by incumbent Ronald Jones and the Vanderbilt back looks like he’ll represent great draft value.

With pick 86 Buffalo select Zach Moss. Utah runner, Moss looks a much better fit for a heavy workload than Devin Singletary as the Bills look to find a grinder who can keep the chains moving for Josh Allen. Singletary isn’t going anywhere but I’d expect this to become a timeshare very early in the season.

With Derrick Henry on the franchise tag in Tennessee the selection of dynamic Appalachian State back Darrynton Evans looks interesting for the Titans. Evans though would represent a significant shift in the Titans running style so don’t read to much into the Henry obituaries you’ve seen over the weekend.

Anthony McFarland could be an interesting option in Pittsburgh where his speed looks to be a nice compliment to James Connor. Connor himself emerged from the weekend as a big winner, remaining firmly established as the Steelers number one back.

Along with Connor, Seattle’s Chris Carson looks like a big winner. The team did spend a 4th round compensatory pick on Miami’s DeeJay Dallas but speculation that the team could move on from Carson turned out to unfounded.

For the Superflex fans amongst us the Quarterback draft threw up few surprises. Joe Burrow is the top option by some distance, you can never consider any Bengal to be sure thing but the Heisman Trophy winner looks set for a long run as the starter in Cincinnati.

Despite all the ups and downs of the past nine months Tua Tagovailoa landed in Miami. He’s a tough projection, undersized, often injured and now the face of one of the league’s most underperforming franchises. He’ll likely come off the rookie board as the 2nd Quarterback but he represents a significant risk.

Chargers selected Justin Herbert immediately afterwards with the 6th pick. The unassuming Herbert will benefit from playing for the perennially under the radar Chargers but with a strong running game and a good collection of receivers he’s landed in a spot that gives him every chance of success.

Beyond that Jordan Love looks unlikely to play in Green Bay until 2022 and Jalen Hurts impact depends almost entirely on how healthy Carson Wentz is. Longer term Jacob Eason couldn’t have landed in a better spot but he’ll need Philip Rivers to hold down the fort for a couple of years to let him develop. If there was big winner out of the Quarterback class is looks to be Jarrett Stidham in New England. Everything the Patriots have done this offseason suggests they really go intend to run with the former Baylor and Auburn passer despite continued scepticism amongst observers.

Finally, if you are hoping for help at Tight End this isn’t the year for you. The class always looked weak but with the strongest player, Cole Kmet landing in Chicago, a notorious tight end wasteland and no other player going before pick 91 you’ll need impressive projection skills to get value out of this class. For what it’s worth if you can grab Dalton Keene, who went to the Patriots at 101, you might get the steal of the group.

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