Nobody thought Cleveland would actually do it. There were rumblings the Browns had their eye on Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield but conventional wisdom suggested they’d pivot to a more traditional quarterback. Someone like Sam Darnold, everyone’s safe choice, or Josh Allen, a toolsy project with big hands (good for gripping footballs in the snow) and a gargantuan throwing arm. Even as the Mayfield-to-Cleveland movement began to pick up steam, football Twitter still had its doubts.
I did say this. The point was, even with clear buzz between the #Browns and Mayfield, other GMs are kinda like: 1. Yeah, we’ll see or 2. No way Dorsey takes him.
3 hours to go. https://t.co/ka3RNzCcgS
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 26, 2018
It’s like the rest of the NFL was daring Cleveland to take Mayfield No. 1. You won’t do it. He’s too small. And what about the Kansas incident? Or the time he got arrested? That’s really who you want to be the face of your franchise? Mayfield is Manziel reincarnated. Darnold was a four-star recruit out of high school. Mayfield was a walk-on at Oklahoma. He’s not Brady-slow or anything, but you’d never confuse him for Michael Vick. Mayfield didn’t even bother to attend the draft—has John Dorsey lost his mind? The guy’s already 23!
But in the end, the Browns blocked out the haters and made the decision that was right for them. Call me crazy, but I think Cleveland got it right. Now I’m not talking about the Browns’ draft as a whole—we’ll get to my critiques in a minute—but I think Dorsey knocked it out of the park with Mayfield. Truthfully, I would have been fine with Cleveland taking any of the Big Four quarterbacks with the exception of Josh Allen. I had Rosen as my No. 1 quarterback but Mayfield was a close second. His stats were probably inflated to a degree by the Big 12’s high-scoring style of play, but the fact remains that Mayfield was one of the most accurate signal-callers in football during his three-year run in Norman.
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Mayfield was a fearless improviser throughout his tenure at OU, making countless plays with his feet despite average athleticism. Rosen may be the more complete prospect, but he didn’t win as many games as Mayfield and was much less durable. As Ray Summerlin noted on Thursday night’s podcast, how ironic is it that Cleveland fired GM and analytics pioneer Sashi Brown last fall only to draft the quarterback preferred by the analytics community? Life is funny, isn’t it? Mayfield was public enemy No. 1 in Ohio not too long ago after beating the Buckeyes and planting an Oklahoma flag on the center logo at Ohio Stadium. Now he’ll be playing two hours north of Columbus in downtown Cleveland.
There’s been a surprising sense of optimism surrounding Cleveland this offseason. Even before the draft kicked off in Dallas last week, the Browns improved by adding T.J. Carrie, Carlos Hyde, Jarvis Landry, Damarious Randall and Tyrod Taylor. The draft gave the Browns a chance to really push their rebuild into overdrive. Picking Mayfield was a good if unconventional start, but the rest of Cleveland’s draft wasn’t as well-received. Evan Silva gave Cleveland a C+ in his final draft grades while Westgate Sports Book in Las Vegas set the over/under for Browns wins at 5.5, tying them with Arizona for the league’s lowest projection.
The Browns made a surprising choice at No. 4, passing on NC State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb (they did grab Bradley’s cousin, Georgia running back Nick Chubb, in the second round) in favor of Ohio State corner Denzel Ward. Don’t get me wrong—I respect Ward’s ability and think he’ll carve out a fine career for himself. Ohio State has been a cornerback factory—Eli Apple, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are a few of their recent standouts—and Ward was hands down the top defensive back in this year’s draft class. But he doesn’t fill a position of need for the Browns, who already invested heavily at cornerback in free agency by signing Carrie, E.J. Gaines and Terrance Mitchell. Pairing Chubb with last year’s No. 1 pick Myles Garrett would have been an epic spectacle but John Dorsey had a masterplan and Chubb wasn’t part of it. Ward going to Cleveland at No. 4 set off a domino effect as the Broncos, who had originally agreed to trade their pick to Buffalo, immediately changed course and took Chubb at No. 5. The Bills later selected Josh Allen after acquiring the seventh pick in a trade with Tampa Bay. Allen became embroiled in a Twitter controversy hours before the draft, which probably made it easier for the Browns to pass on him at No. 1. The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, Keeping up with the Kardashians … none of them hold a candle to the greatest reality show on TV, the NFL Draft.
Say what you want about the Browns’ draft but at least they made it interesting. The drama continued with pick No. 105 when Cleveland selected Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway. There’s no denying Callaway’s talent but he comes with significant baggage including a lengthy history of substance abuse. Callaway was suspended for all of 2017 following a marijuana arrest and failed a drug test at the NFL Combine in March. Dorsey has a history of drafting players with off-field red flags including Tyreek Hill, who was arrested for domestic violence during his time at Oklahoma State. Hill has gone on to have a successful career with Kansas City but the Browns know it’s a slippery slope after seeing Josh Gordon’s downfall and long road to redemption. The Browns are hoping that talent will win out in the end but it’s up to Callaway to defeat his demons.
Cleveland did its best to hog the spotlight on draft weekend but if I’ve learned anything about covering football, it’s that New England is always lurking nearby, ready to steal the spotlight right back. And that’s exactly what they did by sniping Georgia running back Sony Michel with the No. 31 pick. The Patriots tend to get infatuated with particular schools (usually Rutgers) and this year they honed in on Georgia, first taking offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn at 23 (the pick they acquired in last month’s Brandin Cooks trade) before poaching Michel at 31.
Many expected New England to pursue a quarterback early in the draft with Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who the Patriots brought in for multiple workouts, as their prime target. Tom Brady is coming off a stellar year that saw him earn his third MVP award, but he’s entering his age-41 season and the Patriots need to find a new succession plan now that Jimmy Garoppolo has moved on to San Francisco. Rather than tapping Jackson as the heir apparent to Brady, Bill Belichick instead pounced for Michel, adding to what was already a crowded New England backfield.
Michel turned in a dominant senior season, averaging a robust 7.2 yards per carry while sharing the rushing load with Nick Chubb. The 23-year-old should fill a similar committee role in New England, mixing in alongside Rex Burkhead and pass-catcher James White. Concerns of a chronic knee condition surfaced before the draft, which could explain why he fell to New England (some have wondered if the Patriots leaked the news on purpose so Michel would still be available at 31). Even if Michel’s knee injury does end up shortening his career as many suspect, I doubt Belichick is losing much sleep over it. It’s a long shot that the cost-conscious Patriots would sign him to a second contract anyway, so the plan for New England will be to use him and lose him. That may seem ruthless (because it is), but that’s how the Patriots’ machine has been operating for the better part of two decades.
As for Jackson, he went to Baltimore with the final pick of the first round. It’s a good landing spot for the former Heisman Trophy winner, though it will take commitment from John Harbaugh’s coaching staff to install an offense that suits Jackson’s mobile skill set. If Joe Flacco has another year like the one he just had, Jackson could be the starter as soon as 2019. Gifting the Ravens their quarterback of the future was a great send-off for long-time exec Ozzie Newsome, who will be stepping down from his GM post at the end of the year.
Quarterbacks flew off the board in the first round with Mayfield, Darnold, Allen and Rosen all going within the first 10 picks. That trend didn’t continue, however. Only one quarterback, Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State, was taken on Day 2, while just a handful of signal-callers went on Day 3 including Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, who fell all the way to the Giants at pick No. 108. GM Dave Gettleman got good value for Lauletta, who many projected as a late second-rounder, though it doesn’t undo his mistake of passing on Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen with the No. 2 pick. New England didn’t address quarterback until the seventh round, finally pulling the trigger on LSU’s Danny Etling at 219. Etling profiles as a career backup, making it likely that New England will test the quarterback waters again in next year’s draft. Luckily, the Patriots will be armed with plenty of draft capital after acquiring a second-rounder from the Bears and a third-rounder from Detroit over the weekend.
It’s no secret that this was an unusually weak class for wide receivers and most teams acted accordingly. Maryland’s D.J. Moore was the first receiver drafted, going 24th to Carolina. The only other first-round wideout was Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who landed with the Falcons at pick No. 26. In Atlanta, he’ll be paired with fellow ‘Bama alum Julio Jones, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of his last four seasons.
Teams were noticeably cautious at wide receiver this year after getting burned by the position in 2017. The first-round trio of Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness—Ross barely saw the field for the Bengals and didn’t even catch a pass—while second-rounders Zay Jones and Curtis Samuel endured similarly disappointing rookie campaigns. Last year’s debacle scared most of the league straight, but it didn’t deter the Packers from drafting three wideouts including Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, who somehow dropped all the way to the sixth round. The choice to go all-in at receiver was one of necessity for Green Bay after parting ways with Jordy Nelson but it may have also been a peace offering to Aaron Rodgers, who has been publicly critical of many of the team’s decisions this offseason.
The Cowboys were known to be targeting SMU’s Courtland Sutton in the second round, but instead he went to Denver, where he’ll be joined by another former Mustang in Emmanuel Sanders. Dallas eventually circled back to receiver by scooping up Michael Gallup in the third round but it wasn’t the splash Cowboys fans were hoping for after cutting Dez Bryant last month. Dallas did acquire former first-round pick Tavon Austin on Day 3 of the draft, though it sounds like the Cowboys are converting him to running back. With Bryant gone and long-time tight end Jason Witten perhaps headed to the broadcast booth, the Cowboys’ pass-catching corps should look drastically different in 2018.
The three days of mayhem in Dallas amounted to a lot of moving parts with wide-ranging fantasy implications but let’s not forget what the draft symbolizes for so many young men who overcame near-impossible odds to make their NFL dreams come true. Of the 256 names called over the weekend, no player faced a more arduous path to Dallas than Shaquem Griffin, who had his left hand amputated at age four after being born with a debilitating condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome. In one of the more surreal moments in draft history, Griffin achieved his NFL dream Saturday when the Seahawks selected him in the fifth round. In Seattle, he’ll be reunited with his twin brother and former college teammate Shaquill, who turned down multiple scholarships to top-flight programs so he could play alongside his brother at Central Florida. Who knows what Griffin will amount to in the NFL, but even if he isn’t one of the greats, I promise you this—his triumph won’t soon be forgotten.
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