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The 2018 NFL Draft, Six Years Later

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Bryan Knowles

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Like so many drafts before it, the 2024 NFL draft revolves around the quarterback position. Mocks have as many as six quarterbacks slipping into the first round, with multiple Heisman winners in Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels, as well as riskier selections like Michael Penix. Sure, there’s a skill position player out there (Marvin Harrison) who might be better than the lot, but the quarterback position is so important, we might well see four of them off the board in the top 10 alone.

The last time that happened was in 2018, one of the most contentious quarterback classes in recent history. As deep as any in history outside of the famed 1983 class, five different quarterbacks found their way off the board in the first round, with multiple Heisman winners in Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson as well as riskier selections such as Josh Allen. Sure, there was a skill position player out there (Saquon Barkley) who might have been better than the lot, but quarterback is so important that we saw four of them off the board in the top 10 alone.

One of our favorite pieces to write each year is a review of the draft from six years ago. While everyone will rush to hand out grades in the immediate aftermath of next weekend’s draft, you can’t really evaluate a class until enough time has gone by to let the players develop and prove what they can do on the field. By looking back on a draft six years later, we can better evaluate just how strong the draft actually was, which teams did the best job of adding to their rosters, and which projections were laughably incorrect.

Yes, Buffalo fans, we’re going to talk about it.

2018 will go down as one of the stronger classes at the top in recent memory, with 15 of the first 20 picks making at least one Pro Bowl. But from there, the depth does trickle off – finding stars, or even starters, drafted on day three, turned out to be quite a challenge. In addition, most of the strength ended up at some of the non-premium positions; more guards and defensive linemen rather than receivers and pass rushers. That being said, it’s a very reputable group of players. And, to top it off, it may just have the best draft class by any team in the 21st century, as Ozzie Newsome went out with a bang.

For a reminder of who went where, Pro Football Reference is your source for all the picks in the draft and their basic statistics, while Pro Sports Transactions is a great way to trace draft pick trades.

Quarterbacks

Conventional Wisdom: This is going to be a long section, so settle in.

There was no universally beloved quarterback in the 2018 class. Instead, we had five prospects each with their own set of distinct rooting groups and detractors.

USC’s Sam Darnold was considered by many to be the best overall prospect as draft season began; with prototypical size, accuracy, mobility, poise and arm strength. Lance Zierlein declared his floor as solid starter, but with the ceiling of one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the game. But as draft season moved along, more and more concerns were raised about Darnold’s elongated throwing motion and slow decision making, taking sacks rather than throwing the ball away. Could he be mechanically tweaked into the star some suspected?

Maybe you’d be better off going with a more NFL-ready prospect like UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Mel Kiper called him the best pure passer in the draft, and Todd McShay pointed out that he was miles ahead of Darnold in terms of going through his progressions and identifying coverages. His footwork and mechanics were prototypical, his poise under pressure undeniable. But he was “hard to coach.” He “wasn’t the guy everyone rallied around.” His intangibles came under fire from grumpy old scouts – not a leader; too brash and outspoken; too many interests outside of football. One scout even compared him to a combination of Jeff George and Jay Cutler; a personality concoction too nightmarish to think about.

Instead, why not go with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, whose character concerns were more old-fashioned and traditional. The trash-talking, Heisman-winning, flag-planting, crotch-grabbing, publicly-intoxicated gunslinger may have been small and working out of a spread system in college, but no one could question his toughness or his competitiveness. He had, by a wide margin, the best statistical portfolio of any of the class, topping 12.0 APYA per season twice, completing more than 70% of his passes and leading the best offense in college. If you could get over his lack of traditional NFL measurables and his penchant for aggravating headlines, you may well have the best QB in the class.

The other Heisman winner in the class was Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. His speed and athleticism were undeniable; a home-run hitter who could win with his arm or his legs. The best in the class at making magic when plays break down; someone who could freeze linebackers and safeties with his eyes and legs, because coming up to stop him meant you left someone open for him to throw to. His accuracy, however, was considered sub-NFL level, and the general consensus was that you’d have to load your offense with RPOs and tons of play action if he was to succeed; you were drafting a system, not just a player. Some, led by Bill Polian, even went so far to suggest that Jackson wasn’t a quarterback at all, and should transfer to running back or wide receiver if he wanted to have any chance of succeeding at the NFL. This was as ridiculous at the time as it is today, by the by, even as the “not quarterbacky enough” narrative has continued to follow Jackson to this day.

And then there was Wyoming’s Josh Allen, the rawest of the raw, and a superstar in a singlet and shorts. No one doubted his size or arm strength, and everyone who watched his pro day or his combine performance were wowed. His highlight reel? Studded with special throws. It was all projection, but the projection was mouth-watering. Analytics, however, hated Allen. A quarterback who had never completed more than 56% of his passes in college; one who routinely made bad decisions with the ball, with zero anticipation and way too many low-percentage throws. “You’re not going to fix the inaccuracy,” PFF’s Sam Monson said. “It just doesn’t happen. You do not dramatically fix a quarterback’s basic ability to deliver the ball to a target he’s trying to hit.”

Our QBASE quarterback ratings (salvageable with the Internet Archive) were definitely opinionated. Mayfield had, at the time, the fourth-best projection in our database, going back to 1997. Significantly behind him in second place was Jackson, though we noted that was not counting the rushing value he would add. (The current QBASE formula now accounts for this.) Rosen was right on his heels in third. Darnold fell to fourth, thanks to a lack of college experience and a good-but-not-great statistical profile. Then, uh, there was Mason Rudolph and Kyle Lauletta and Luke Falk before you finally got to Allen. I think it’s best if we just reprint Allen’s report in its entirety here. You know. For posterity’s sake.

Like Darnold, Josh Allen was only a two-year starter in college. But Allen’s statistics are horrifying compared to Darnold’s.

Allen has an obscenely powerful arm, but it’s a howitzer without a targeting system. He completed just 56.3 percent of his passes last year. Here is the list of quarterbacks chosen in the top 100 picks since 2005 despite having a completion rate below 58 percent in their final college season: Andrew Walter (2005), Jake Locker (2011), Christian Hackenberg (2016), Connor Cook (2016), and C. J. Beathard (2017). That’s it.

Last year, Wyoming finished 119th in passing S&P+ out of 130 teams in FBS. That will be the lowest rank ever for a quarterback chosen in the top 100 picks of the NFL draft. Yes, I know, Allen wasn’t playing with a bunch of NFL-bound talent around him. He also wasn’t facing a lot of NFL-bound talent on defense. The average opponent faced by Wyoming ranked just 83.5 in pass defense S&P+. Allen’s performance against top opponents was brutal. He threw two picks with no touchdowns against Iowa, with just 4.35 yards per attempt. He completed just 9-of-24 passes with 64 yards and a pick against Oregon. He completed 44 percent of passes with two picks and only 131 yards against Boise State.

Since 1997, there have been 27 different quarterbacks chosen in the top 100 with QBASE ratings below zero. The best of these quarterbacks was either Josh McCown or Brian Griese. It’s a terrible group of quarterback busts. Negative-QBASE passers chosen in the first round include Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, and Patrick Ramsey.

Allen supporters talk about how his 2016 season was much better than his 2017 season, and it was. In 2016, Wyoming finished 52nd in passing S&P+. Allen still couldn’t complete more than 56.0 percent of his passes. If we pretend Allen’s 2017 season never happened, then Allen has a QBASE of 161, still the worst of this year’s top prospects.

Highest Pick: Baker Mayfield, first overall to the Cleveland Browns.

Best Player: Take your pick between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. Both have an argument to be the second-best quarterback in football, and neither the Ravens nor Bills would trade one for the other. The two MVPs are a great argument in Jackson’s case. The one vote against Jackson for MVP this year went to Allen, and was from Aaron Schatz, the founder of DVOA and the writer of that QBASE projection. They’re both great; there’s not a wrong choice here. We’ll talk more about Jackson in a moment, but we have to finish up on Allen, first.

Projections are hard, and always have the chance to look foolish – you are, after all, attempting to predict the future. It’s the nature of the business; everyone has something that makes them look stupid somewhere in their archives. But the Allen miss is, by far, the biggest miss in the history of any of our prospect projection systems. And it kind of snowballed from the initial writeup– the “howitzer without a targeting system” became the infamous “parody of an NFL prospect”; a pick we called in our liveblog as the Bills “out-stupid[ing] everyone” as we were there to “point and laugh at whoever picks Josh Allen”. All this for a player who is third in passing DYAR since 2020 with 4,496, before even considering his rushing value. So yeah. That’s a slight miss.

The projection was obviously wrong in the sense that hey, Allen’s pretty good. But I don’t think the real problem was making the projection in the first place. Look at that list of comparable quarterbacks QBASE popped out – a bunch of never-weres and utter disasters. To get to the point where Allen became even an acceptable passer, he needed one of the 20-biggest jumps in DYAR and DVOA ever between his first and second seasons, and the biggest ever increase in DYAR between Years 2 and 3. That’s simply not reasonable to project – he was as bad as advertised as a passer in a rookie, and then had an unprecedented glow-up. It’s a tremendous credit to Allen, and to Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll, for becoming basically the first prospect in modern times to radically improve his accuracy alongside improved touch and decision-making. For every one Allen, there’s a dozen Kyle Bollers and Ryan Leafs and JaMarcus Russells. Allen is a phenomenal exception and should be celebrated as such.

No, the real problem that I and some of the other writers had was taking a small chance to be equal to no chance. Our own numbers were telling us differently. QBASE gave Allen a 5.2% chance to become an elite starting quarterback, better odds than Darnold (4.1%). Yes, the odds of Allen fixing the many problems with his game were long, but they weren’t zero. We should have talked more about what would be required to get Allen to the point where his cannon and his legs could be used to run an offense, not just assumed that it was impossible. It’s entirely fair to say that a pick is bad or that the historical comparisons are unkind; it’s not so fair to write the obituaries before a snap has been played. That’s the lesson to take from the pre-draft scouting of Allen – the importance of perspective and the dangers of certainty. That’s why we took our much-deserved lumps as Allen grew and developed into the player he is today. 5% does not equal 0%, no matter how much math you use; as nerds, we should have been aware that sometimes you roll a natural 20.

So, is it likely that Michael Penix suddenly finds the accuracy in the NFL that he lacked at Washington? No, and we’ll say so for whoever ends up drafting him. Is it likely that Caleb Williams’ ability to avoid pressure translates to the NFL level? Yes, and our projections will back that up. But that doesn’t mean either is guaranteed; “can’t-miss” and “impossible” are words that should be out of every draft writer’s lexicon. And hopefully, in six years, we won’t have to spend another 1,000 words explaining a projection.

Biggest Bust: Josh Rosen, who went 10th to Arizona. Rosen lasted just one year in Arizona before they cut bait and went with Kyler Murray. That’s insanely fast to give up on a top-10 pick, but Rosen had -1,145 DYAR in his one year as the Cardinals’ starter, the worst single season in DVOA history. His -53.7% passing DVOA is “only” the sixth worst ever, but he caught the others on volume. Rosen bounced from team to team for a while, with six different teams at least kicking his tires before deciding he wasn’t worth a roster spot. Sam Darnold may be a bust, but at least he’s in the league and may start some of the year for the Vikings. Rosen hasn’t sniffed a roster since 2022.

Best Value: Lamar Jackson. 31 teams passed on Jackson, with the Ravens trading back in to the first round at the last minute to take him and get that fifth-year option. Trading up is always risky, but when you can do it for a two-time MVP, that’s generally going to work out in your favor. DVOA and other advanced stats have rarely loved Jackson as much as conventional wisdom does, but Jackson’s best years have seen him comfortably in the top 10 just throwing the ball, and that’s before you consider all the value he brings with his legs. That Jackson was ever considered anything but a quarterback prospect is ridiculous and insulting, and he’s only getting better. Here’s hoping 2023’s version, as the high-volume thrower who doesn’t get hurt, is one we see for years to come.

Running Backs

Conventional Wisdom: In a world where positional value did not matter, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley would have been the top pick. If any running back was worthy of a first-round pick, it’d be him – his combination of elusiveness, speed, vision and feel for space made him the best running back prospect in years; legs like springs and explosion for days. His Speed Score of 124.3 is still the fourth-best ever recorded at the combine; human beings do not run 4.4 40s at 233 pounds. Finding any flaws in Barkley was just picking nits. If you didn’t have a top-five pick, maybe you could settle for LSU’s Derrius Guice; a steam train who simply did not go down on first contact. Otherwise, you were probably fishing for a prospect in a day two pool which included Ronald Jones, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Rashaad Penny and Kerryon Johnson.

Like everyone else, our BackCAST projections loved Barkley; giving him at the time the second-best ever projection behind only Ricky Williams. It wasn’t quite as high on Guice, giving a slight edge to Oregon’s Royce Freeman, but Barkley was so far ahead of the rest of the field that it was barely worth even mentioning anyone else.

Highest Pick: Saquon Barkley, second overall to the Giants.

Best Player: I don’t think the Giants ended up unhappy with Barkley, by any means, but I’ll instead give the nod to Nick Chubb. Chubb’s gruesome 2015 knee injury knocked him down to the 35th pick, where Cleveland grabbed him. He’s one of only three rushers to have at least 1,000 rushing DYAR since 2018, alongside Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones; Barkley only has 184 behind some bad lines in New York. Now, we have to wait and see if Chubb can continue to produce after his gruesome 2023 knee injury.

Biggest Bust: Rashaad Penny went to Seattle 27th overall in an absolute head-scratcher pick. Penny had no first-round buzz to speak of, the Seahawks already had Chris Carson on the roster, had gaping holes along the line with names like Will Hernandez and Braden Smith still there, and contemporary reports had someone (who turned out to be Baltimore) trying to trade back in. Penny has only qualified for our leaderboards once; scraping his way to 119 carries in 2021. Injuries have sidelined him far too often – ironic, since Seattle gave him the highest medical grade they had ever given a prospect while scouting him before the draft. When healthy, Penny flashed for Seattle, but that was a very rare occurrence.

Best Value: Nick Chubb again. It’s worth noting a few Day 3 picks like Nyheim Hines and Chase Edmonds, but Chubb is leagues above either of those players. There have been points where Chubb has been the only thing making Cleveland’s offense watchable.

Wide Receivers

Conventional Wisdom: The 2018 receiver class wasn’t loaded with top-end talent, but there were a number of solid complementary pieces to be had throughout. The closest thing to a true stud appeared to be Alabama’s Calvin Ridley – smooth, fast, and with great route-running skills, even if he was too skinny at just 189 pounds. If he could beef up and develop some skills to fight off physical corners, he might end up one of the league’s best players. Outside or Ridley, you could take Maryland’s DJ Moore; the 2017 Big Ten Receiver of the Year managed to produce despite a terrible quarterback situation. He was projected to move inside to the slot in the pros thanks to his size, but he was a YAC threat with the ball in his hands. Or take SMU’s Courtland Sutton, a possession receiver who was the draft’s best at making contested catches and working his way through traffic.

Our Playmaker Score liked Moore the best, followed by Ridley, and then slipped Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk ahead of Sutton. It also picked out some sleepers – Tre’Quan Smith and Equanimeous St. Brown were intriguing Day 2 picks, while Korey Robertson, Richie James and Byron Pringle all had ratings of 75% or higher and were worth taking swings at on Day 3.

Highest Pick: DJ Moore, 24th overall to Carolina.

Best Player: DJ Moore. None of the running backs in this class have exactly become superstars, but Moore has four 1,000-yard seasons under his belt being thrown to by Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Justin Fields. Ridley is the only other receiver in the class to have more than one 1,000-yard season in their career, and none have had to deal with as terrible of quarterback situations as Moore. He looks to be a foundation piece for the Bears next attempt to find their first good quarterback since Sid Luckman.

Biggest Bust: Dante Pettis. The 49ers traded up to 44th overall to take the Washington receiver, whose rookie season was … fine. Good, even, with 27 receptions for 467 yards. He would only catch 12 more passes in a 49ers uniform, however, as even a San Francisco team desperate for receiver help couldn’t find room for him. Kyle Shanahan blamed a lack of “urgency” and lackluster effort in practice. Pettis spent the 2023 season out of football, but has re-signed with the Bears, where he will struggle to make the back end of the roster.

Best Value: Frankly, it’s Moore again, as he’s the only receiver in the class to be consistently productive throughout his career. But Christian Kirk (47th overall to Arizona), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (174th to Green Bay) and Russel Gage (194th to Atlanta) are all worth mentioning, too. It’s just, without any of the Day 2 players putting up more than one 1,000-yard season, it’s hard to pick any of them over Moore.

Tight Ends

Conventional Wisdom: This was not the year to stretch to the first round for a tight end. South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert, Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst all were projected to be early second-round players, and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews could slip into the second round as well. But unlike 2017, with the duo of O.J. Howard and David Njoku, there wasn’t anyone expected to fly off the board this year.

All the top prospects had at least something against them. Goedert played in FCS; Gesicki couldn’t block; Hurst was going to be a 25-year-old rookie; Andrews was just a slot receiver in tight end’s clothing. What they had going for them was mismatch potential; tight ends who could hold their own against cornerbacks and run linebackers down all day. Intriguing prospects, but no one to break the bank for.

Highest Pick: Hayden Hurst, 25th overall to Baltimore.

Best Player: Mark Andrews, who went 86th overall to Baltimore. Yes, the Ravens doubled up on their tight ends, looking to create a two-tight end offense. They even passed up on Calvin Ridley to do so, raising some eyebrows at the time. But taking Andrews was absolutely the right call; he’s been in the top 10 in tight end DYAR in five of his six seasons in the league and routinely ranks alongside Travis Kelce and George Kittle when talking about the league’s best at the position. Which is a good thing, because…

Biggest Bust: Hurst. Taking the soon-to-be 25-year-old Hurst over Calvin Ridley raised eyebrows at the time. Hurst only had three touchdowns at Oklahoma, so it’s not like he had this huge track record of success behind him, either. And indeed, he hasn’t done much of note in his pro career. His best season came in 2019, where he had 89 DYAR and a 28.1% DVOA for Baltimore … who immediately traded him away to Atlanta to give Andrews more play time. Since then, Hurst has failed to put up positive DVOA in three different cities. Perhaps rejoining Greg Roman in Los Angeles will kickstart his career, but we’re not holding our breaths.

Best Value: Andrews – we promise the best player and best value awards will eventually diverge. Full credit to fourth-round Dalton Schultz and fifth-round Tyler Conklin, but you don’t beat taking an All-Pro in the third round.

Offensive Line

Conventional Wisdom: The 2018 offensive line class was built from the inside out, with about twice as many quality guards as there were tackles.

Notre Dame gave us one of each, with both Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson entering the draft as arguably the best at their positions. McGlinchey played both left and right tackles for the Fighting Irish, though most people had him pegged as a right tackle in the pros. He needed to add more functional strength, but his technique was top notch. As for Nelson, his size, strength and pure nastiness had him pegged to be the first top-10 guard selected since Jonathan Cooper in 2013.

It turns out that schools outside of South Bend also had prospects, funnily enough. Georgia gave us Isaiah Wynn, moving inside due to his short build but with the versatility to play anywhere on the line. UTEP’s Will Hernandez was a four-year starter who threw up 37 bench press reps at the combine, demonstrating strength to go with his smooth footwork on tape. If you needed a center, you wanted Iowa’s James Daniels, a plus-run blocker who looked ideal for a zone-blocking scheme. And, if you missed out on McGlinchey, maybe you could console yourself with Texas’ Connor Williams, who was hoping teams would look at his stellar 2016 tape rather than his lackluster 2017 season.

Highest Pick: Quenton Nelson, sixth overall to Indianapolis. Mike McGlinchey was the first tackle taken, going ninth to San Francisco, while Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow surprised some by being the first center off the board, 20th to Detroit.

Best Player: We’ll stick with Nelson for the overall prize here, though it’s very close. Nelson is one of four players in the class with three first-team All-Pro nods through six seasons, and the only one to be a Pro Bowler in each and every season. That’s enough to edge out Orlando Brown, who went 83rd overall to Baltimore and is the best tackle taken in the class. As for centers, Ragnow might have been a surprise as the first off the board, but the Lions were right – he stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Biggest Bust: Ohio State’s Billy Price went 18th overall to Cincinnati, but his career got off on the wrong foot after tearing his pec at the combine. Then, two games into his rookie season, he suffered a foot injury which kept him out half the year on top of that. In 2019, he battled plantar fasciitis and a back injury, and ended up being kicked first to guard and then to the bench entirely. The combination of injuries and inconsistent play derailed his career before it ever got started, and while he did get one last attempt at redemption with the Giants in 2021, it ultimately went nowhere. He remains unsigned at the moment.

Best Value: Orlando Brown. Brown dropped in the draft because he flubbed the combine; finishing last in the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump and 40-yard dash among all linemen. That killed any momentum he had to be a first-round pick, but Baltimore took the chance on him on day two as the ninth tackle off the board. Brown earned the starting right tackle spot before his rookie season was over, and was named to the Pro Bowl in both 2018 and 2019 for the Ravens. Then, Baltimore traded him to Kansas City, where he made two more Pro Bowls and earned a Super Bowl ring before getting paid in Cincinnati last year. We should also credit the Ravens for sixth-round pick Bradley Bozeman, who has started 77 games for Baltimore and Carolina, while giving the Bills credit for finding Wyatt Teller in the fifth round, just before trading him to Cleveland where he’s developed into a Pro Bowl guard.

Edge Rushers

Conventional Wisdom: This was not the year to need a pass rusher.

The were only a couple pass rushers with anything approaching a consensus first-round grade. One was North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, the easiest pass rusher to project to the NFL level. His size, explosiveness and hand usage looked pro-ready right from the start, but he didn’t put up the sorts of numbers you’d expect from the tippy-top edge prospects. He maxed out at 10 sacks as 23 TFLs, but he looked the part, even if the production wasn’t there. There was also Boston College’s Harold Landry, but he was coming off a 2017 season hampered by an ankle injury that had some worrying about his health going forward. Still, 16.5 sacks in 2016 spoke for itself. Critics called him a pure speed rusher who would need to add a move or two to produce at the NFL level, but you can teach moves; you can’t teach his burst. Add in UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, a work in progress with athleticism for days but not a lot of polish yet, and you got your top three.

Most big boards had one or two other pass rushers with first round grades, but there was no real consensus on who the others should be. The loaded Ohio State line produced Sam Hubbard – but was he just a product of the talent around him? LSU’s Arden Key dominated the SEC as a sophomore but left the team for four months in 2017 for “personal reasons” and ballooned up to 270 pounds. Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter was more of a tweener type; tremendously long and rangy but never quite living up to the hype from when he was first recruited. Oklahoma’s Obo Okoronkwo was undersized and oft injured, but disruptive when healthy. Odds are you loved one or two of those guys and hated the rest.

SackSEER thought the entire class was underwhelming. Chubb, Landry and Davenport were basically tied. It liked Florida State’s Josh Sweat as a sleeper and thought Arden Key was the most likely of the big names to bust out.

Highest Pick: Bradley Chubb, fifth overall to Denver.

Best Player: Harold Landry (41st to Tennessee) has the most sacks with 41.5, but Chubb is right behind him with 39.5, and has done it while playing fewer games thanks to injuries in 2019 and 2021. The best ability remains availability, but it’s not like Landry has been the picture of health, missing all of 2022 with a torn ACL. Take whichever you like, but Chubb has been slightly more productive when healthy so we’re going to slightly side with him.

Biggest Bust: Marcus Davenport went 14th overall to New Orleans, and it cost the Saints to do it – they had to give up their first-round pick in 2019 and a fifth in 2018 to jump up for the TCU project. And ‘project’ was the operative word – he had just 21.5 sacks in college against Conference USA opposition but was pushed to the moon by scouts and draft analysts because of raw athletic ability, physical size and sheer potential. It was an odd pick for a Saints team in the dying days of Drew Brees’ run – a lot of us thought the trade up would be to take Lamar Jackson, or at least a player more obviously NFL ready. Instead, Davenport has been on and off the field with injuries throughout his career and managing to start double-digit games just once. If we’re honest, he’s been serviceable when healthy, but using two first-round picks on a player has to get you more than just ‘serviceable’.

Best Value: Sam Hubbard ended up falling to Cincinnati in the third round, and they’re not complaining. While far from a superstar, Hubbard has had at least six sacks in five of his six seasons, and has proven to be a reliable run stopper as well. And because he hasn’t missed much time, he’s third in the class with 36.5 sacks. We’d also accept Josh Sweat as an answer; the fourth-round pick for Philly took a little longer to catch on than Hubbard did, but he’s got the Pro Bowl nod that Hubbard doesn’t.

Defensive Line

Conventional Wisdom: This class wasn’t overly stuffed with quality defensive linemen, but somewhere between two and four of them stood out as the best of the bunch, depending on just how optimistic you were.

The big two were Washington’s Vita Vea and Michigan’s Maurice Hurst. Vea was the freakish athlete – a 5.1 40-yard dash at 347 pounds is just ridiculous; the Huskies even used him occasionally as an edge rusher because of that speed. He was raw, sure, but that just meant there were more opportunities to unlock that athleticism with good coaching. While Vea was a nose, Hurst was more of the prototypical 3-tech tackle, and likely would have been the clear number one … if it wasn’t for the heart condition he was diagnosed with at the combine. His health was a major talking point entering the draft.

Behind those two were Alabama’s DaRon Payne and Florida’s Taven Bryan. Payne stock shot up during the National Championship where he had seven pressures and six run stops; he didn’t have that level of performance from game to game but when it flashed, it flashed. Bryan was considered the best developmental 5-tech option available – very athletically gifted but lacking the instincts and feel needed to regularly turn that into production.

Highest Pick: Vita Vea, 12th overall to Tampa Bay.

Best Player: The Buccaneers are certainly happy with Vea, but I’ll give the slight edge to DaRon Payne, who went 13th to Washington. Payne has developed into a great run stopper who also is fifth in the class with 30 sacks – and he’s appeared in 98 of 99 possible games since being drafted, so he’s been reliable, too.

Biggest Bust: It’s very easy to say Taven Bryan here, and he by no means has lived up to his first-round pedigree, but Bryan is still getting regular playing time. He’s a terrible run defender but has some value in pass rush sets – if he had been a third-round pick, no one would think much of him. Instead, we’re going to slide down a little and go with P.J. Hall out of Sam Houston State, who the Raiders reached for at 57th overall. Hall dominated FCS competition, but simply could not get into shape to play in the NFL, constantly clocking in overweight and providing less-than-stellar effort. Oakland tried to trade him to Minnesota before the 2020 season, but he failed his physical and was instead simply cut. Hall has bounced around in the minor leagues since then, currently serving as depth for the Memphis Showboats in the UFL.

Best Value: Delaware’s Bilal Nichols went to Chicago in the fifth round; Rutgers’ Sebastian Joseph-Day went to the Rams in the sixth. Both have developed into consistent starters on the interior; not necessarily players who wow you, but week-in, week-out starters who both signed new deals this offseason.

Linebackers

Conventional Wisdom: The NFL admitted that 2018 was not loaded with great interior or cover linebackers, but that there could be strong depth to be found, especially on Day 3. Feel the excitement!

Even at the time, that seemed a little harsh. Georgia’s Roquan Smith was a little undersized but had tremendous range as a sideline-to-sideline coverage guy; a potential matchup weapon who fit the direction defenses were going in at the time. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds was an athletic marvel; 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds while running a 4.54s 40-yard dash. Alabama had their then-obligatory prospect in Rashaan Evans, a run stopper and blitzer who needed some more polish to get the most out of his athleticism. Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch was the one-year wonder, coming back from a neck injury to be named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in his only year starting for the Broncos.

Highest Pick: Roquan Smith, eighth overall to Chicago.

Best Player: Smith has been a first-team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons; Baltimore was thrilled to pick him up in a trade in 2022. In almost any other year, Smith would run away with this … but this was also the year Fred Warner came out, with San Francisco taking the three-time All-Pro in the third round. The two are likely to monopolize the All-Pro team for years to come so there’s not a real loser here, but Warner’s coverage abilities give him the nod here.

Biggest Bust: All of the early picks turned out to be at least useful players. So we’ll instead focus on Texas’ Malik Jefferson, who went to the Bengals in the third round. Jefferson has played a total of 21 defensive snaps in the NFL, with the Bengals cutting him before 2019 even started. Part of this is getting lost in the shuffle of a coaching change, as Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo cleared house from the end of the Marvin Lewis tenure, but it’s not like Jefferson could find the field for Lewis, either. Or, for that matter, for the Browns, Chargers, Colts or Cowboys. He played a bit on special teams but is currently out of the league.

Best Value: There was some question about whether Fred Warner really was a linebacker, or just a big safety. The argument was that he was a hybrid who needed specific sub packages to really succeed and would need to add significant play strength if someone tried to use him as an every-down linebacker. Since then, Warner has become the centerpiece of the 49ers defense; a playmaker anywhere on the field, and the prototype at the position. Not a bad pickup at the end of day two.

Defensive Backs

Conventional Wisdom: There was no ideal cornerback in the 2018 class, with prototypical size and speed. If you were OK with your cornerbacks being under six feet tall, however, you had some solid options. Ohio State’s Denzel Ward (5-foot-11) seemed to be the cream of the crop; a smooth, gifted athlete with both stellar man coverage skills on film and an impressive set of combine highlights. Or maybe you preferred Louisville’s Jaire Alexander (5-foot-10) who was coming off of an injury-marred season but the best instincts in the class; a ballhawk. It was thought that you’d have to move either player to nickel for them to really produce in the NFL, but avoid the rigors of run defense, and you had options. You could also take a gamble on Iowa’s Josh Jackson, who had only moved from receiver to corner in 2015 but led the nation with eight interceptions and 26 passes defended – talented, but inexperienced.

Safety was mostly a two-way battle atop the class between Florida State’s Derwin James and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was transitioning from corner; most that he didn’t have the pure cover talent needed for the position at the NFL level, but his intensity and tackling made him an intriguing project as a do-everything blitzer-slash-run stuffer-slash-tight end slot guy. James had more experience at safety, but less experience overall, with just 26 games played and a torn ACL under his belt. Still, what we saw had him able to be deployed anywhere.

Highest Pick: Denzel Ward, fourth overall to Cleveland. The first safety off the board was Minkah Fitzpatrick, 11th to Miami.

Best Player: Most of the top prospects did, in fact, pan out. Fitzpatrick and James may well be the two most talented safeties in football. We’ll give Fitzpatrick the edge there with three All-Pros to James’ one and because James is coming off of something of a down season, but that’s as much due to James’ health as anything else. At corner, picking between Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander is tough; there’s a reason they are the two highest-paid cornerbacks in football. I’d give Ward the slight edge over the past six seasons, but Alexander has been better in the last couple years. I don’t think either team is unhappy there.

Biggest Bust: Josh Jackson did not pan out, but he’s saved from being the year’s biggest bust because NFL teams at least somewhat sniffed that out before the draft. He fell to Green Bay at 46th overall. Instead, we’ll look to Mike Hughes out of Central Florida. Minnesota took him 30th overall, a slight reach but a reasonable once for an overaggressive physical corner. Hughes just wasn’t able to stay healthy, however, with a torn ACL and multiple neck injuries costing him 24 games in his first three seasons. He’s still around, picking up some work with Atlanta over the last month of 2023 as Arthur Smith started shuffling deck chairs, but he’s no first-round pick.

Best Value: Can we count Yale safety Foyesade Oluokun? He went to Atlanta in the sixth round, in large part because of a great pro day showing (4.48s 40, 4.12s short shuttle, 37-inch vertical) despite not getting a combine invite. His coverage skills were in question, however, so Atlanta quickly converted him to linebacker. That proved to be a savvy move, as Oluokun has developed into a 100-tackle player, first for Atlanta and now for Jacksonville. The Jaguars just rewarded him with a hefty contract extension, too, so he’ll be the heart of that defense for years to come. Oluokun was announced as a linebacker at the draft, though, so if you really want a defensive back here, you could go second-round safety Jessie Bates or fourth-round cornerback Taron Johnson.

Special Teams

Conventional Wisdom: Don’t draft specialists.

If you must draft a specialist, Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson was the all-time scoring leader in SEC history with a powerful leg, making 13 kicks of 50+ yards. Texas punter Michael Dickson was the Ray Guy award winner and the MVP of the 2017 Texas Bowl after downing 10 of 11 punts inside the 20.

Highest Pick: Michael Dickson went in the fifth round to Seattle. The highest drafted kicker was Daniel Carlson, who went to the Vikings in the fifth round. And the highest drafted long snapper was Hunter Bradley, who went to the Packers in the seventh round.

Best Player: You could easily go with Carlson and Dickson, though it’s far from unanimous. The seventh round saw Jason Sanders go to Miami and Logan Cooke go to Jacksonville. All four are still going strong, though Carlson ended up going to Oakland just a month and a half into his rookie season. The Vikings cut him after missing three field goals against the Packers, resulting in a 29-29 tie. Since then, Carlson has become the fifth-most accurate kicker in the NFL, set the record for most 50+ yard field goals in a single season, and been named an All-Pro with the Raiders. Oops.

Biggest Bust: Florida’s Johnny Townsend went to Oakland in the fifth round, but he didn’t stay there long. He lasted just one season in the silver and black, and since then has been briefly on the rosters of the Giants, Ravens, Chiefs, Titans, Texans and the XFL’s Orlando Guardians. Townsend has played five NFL games since his rookie season as an emergency replacement during the height of the pandemic, but he remains only on the very fringes of the league.

Best Value: This is normally where we point out all the great UDFAs available, but 2018 has relatively slim pickings – the likes of Corey Bojorquez or Joey Slye showing that you can find specialists without using draft capital, but they’re not exactly exciting. We’ll go with the seventh-rounders Sanders and Cooke instead.

Team Performance

The immediate post-draft report cards mostly sang the praises of the Broncos, Packers and Bears.

Denver, whose Super Bowl window was surely still open, took Bradley Chubb to replace DeMarcus Ware and keep the No Fly Zone humming. They also picked up a flotilla of weapons in Courtland Sutton, DeSean Hamilton, Troy Fumagalli and Royce Freeman, so Vance Joseph’s team was surely ready to compete not only for the AFC West, but the Super Bowl itself. Green Bay went out and added two top-tier cornerbacks in Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, helping to fix a secondary which had allowed 21 touchdown receptions to receivers the year before. And while doing so, they managed to pick up future capital by trading back from 14, picking up the Saints’ 2019 first-round pick in the process. Chicago was praised for taking Roquan Smith to fit Vic Fangio’s need for a quality inside linebacker, and for finally finding protection (James Daniels) and weapons (Anthony Miller) to let Mitchell Trubisky develop and succeed.

In reality, Chicago’s draft was solid, although both Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols have since moved on; the 2024 Bears won’t get any value out of this class. The Broncos and Packers drafts both are merely adequate more than anything else. Denver enjoyed Bradley Chubb for a while and Jaire Alexander has worked out for Green Bay, but there’s not much in the way of depth there.

Instead, it’s the Ravens who come out of 2018 with the best draft class, and it’s not particularly close. Trading up for Lamar Jackson was a franchise-altering move, finally ending years of Joe Flacco mediocrity. Mark Andrews has been a top-tier weapon; imagining Baltimore’s offense weapons without him these past six seasons is a terrifying prospect. Orlando Brown gave them Pro Bowls before they traded him for another first-round selection. Late round picks like Bradley Bozeman, DeShon Elliott and Zach Sieler all have turned into solid players, though the latter two found success outside of Baltimore. Add it all up, and the Ravens’ class has produced 215 points of weighted Approximate Value, 25% more than any other team. In addition, they traded down multiple times in the first round, adding a third and fourth to their arsenal. This was Ozzie Newsome’s last draft as general manager, and it may be his best work – the Ravens today are major contenders in large parts thanks to this class.

The Bills also deserve plaudits – it’s mostly a Josh Allen draft, but Tremaine Edmunds, Harrison Phillips, Taron Johnson and Wyatt Teller are great supplements. The Colts, too, hit early and often – Quenton Nelson, Shaq Leonard, Braden Smith, Nyheim Hines and Zaire Franklin. But no one could hold a candle to Baltimore.

The Seahawks, Saints and Raiders received the worst grades in the immediate aftermath of the draft – Buffalo was pilloried by the analytics community, but the mainstream graders were a little kinder because getting a potential franchise quarterback, regardless of the risk, is a good way to get a solid grade. New Orleans was pilloried for trading up for a developmental edge rusher in Marcus Davenport while the clock was clearly ticking on Drew Brees. They were already down a second-round pick because of trading up the year before, so this was really putting all their eggs in one basket. The little analytics laughter not pointed Buffalo’s way went to Seattle, for not just taking a first-round running back in Rashaad Penny, but for doing so without addressing their sieve-like offensive line or talent-needy secondary at all until very late on day three. As for the Raiders, Jon Gruden’s first draft back got knocked for being exceptionally boom-or-bust, arguably over-drafting both Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker while taking character risk Arden Key and medical risk Maurice Hurst.

And yup, all three drafts were bad. Seattle’s best pick was probably Michael Dickson, and a fifth-round punter being your saving grace isn’t precisely thrilling. If you’re going to draft a first-round running back like Rashaad Penny, you’d hope he’d at least become a starter at some point. Instead, 79 players have had more than Penny’s 348 carries since 2018, including two who have been retired since 2020 (Todd Gurley and Frank Gore) and seven who only entered the league two years ago. The Raiders’ draft is below average but not a disaster on a pure talent level, but with nine selections, you’d hope to have more than just Miller panning out. Seven of their nine picks failed to finish their rookie contracts with Vegas, with four of them being cut after two years or fewer. Not great.

But we’re going to give the crown for worst overall draft to the Saints. Coming off the back of a stellar 2017 class, Mickey Loomis made a massive trade-up for Marcus Davenport which was questionable at the time and hasn’t looked better in retrospect. Davenport is the best player the Saints picked, and he did have that one nine-sack season in 2021, but you have to expect more than 23.5 career sacks for a player you’re spending that much capital on. Trading a first-round pick for a non-quarterback is a bad starting point for any deal. Doing it for an insanely raw prospect when you’re in win-now mode makes it worse. Doing it when you already have Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor at the position makes it worse still. The Saints had real needs they could have addressed – a second pass-catching threat alongside Michael Thomas, or someone in the secondary to replace the departed Kenny Vaccaro. Or they could have realized Drew Brees was turning 39, stayed put, and drafted Lamar Jackson – probably a year too early for a replacement, but better a year early than…well, they’re still looking, so call it four years too late and counting. What, you don’t think that Sean Payton couldn’t find something Taysom Hill-esque for Lamar to do for a year before taking over? Instead, the Saints gave up future capital they needed for a player who peaked at OK. It would have been bad process even if Davenport had turned out to be good; the bad results was just the icing on the cake.

And there is very little else here to offset it. Their only Day 2 pick was Tre’Quan Smith, who has never topped 500 receiving yards in a season. Day 3’s best picks were Boston Scott, who never played a down for New Orleans, and Will Clapp, who started seven games for New Orleans and was one of the worst centers in the league last season for the Chargers. Nothing else here worked. It’s not the worst draft we’ve ever seen, and it’s not a clear runaway win over, say, Seattle, but the fact that New Orleans whiffed while also hampering their 2019 draft makes their draft the worst of the year.

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