The Eagles’ overtures for A.J. Brown had been rejected and pushed back on—and during the process of trying to wriggle the Titans’ receiver free from the team that drafted him in 2019, the Philly cognoscenti gathered in GM Howie Roseman’s office to take a closer look.
Less than an hour into what was supposed to be a deep dive, with the first game they’d studied still on the screen, Nick Sirianni stood up. He’d been in the AFC South with Brown, as a Colts assistant. He’d studied Brown since then, too, to try to find things Philly’s receivers could learn from, and he had something to say.
“I’m good,” the coach announced to the room. “I know this guy. I played against him twice a year. Everything I see here, I already know.”
Roseman responded, “Can we finish this? We got five more games to watch.”
In a way, both guys had made their point. On one hand, if anyone needed to hear conviction in a colleague’s voice to go all in on Brown, with draft picks and a contract, Sirianni gave the room that. On the other, Roseman was implicitly saying to the same crowd, without actually saying it, that he couldn’t get enough of the Pro Bowler. And soon, conviction combined with the desire to see more would manifest in the 2022 draft’s biggest trade.
But big as the trade might seem on the surface, and as fast as we all might match it up with the rest of what’s been a transaction-drunk NFL offseason, this one is another sign of how the Eagles’ reboot has gone the last two offseasons—with Roseman and Sirianni working to pull every lever to keep the team competitive as the roster goes through a pretty thorough retool.
And really, it’s an acknowledgment, too, that figuring out how to build in the NFL doesn’t have an endpoint, where you gradually come upon answers, and eventually get to the point where you have all of them. It’s a moving target that every GM and coach is shooting at.
We’re about to show you that how the Eagles got to, and through, this year’s draft proves it.
The draft’s finally done, and we’re here to wrap up the whole thing. So in this week’s MMQB column, the first one in May, we’re bringing you …
• A look at how the Jets landed four of the top 20 players on their board.
• A rundown of how the Panthers’ plan to address two critical spots mapped out.
• A tie that binds the two players the Lions took big swings on Friday night.
• A look at some draft trends and insight into the thinking of a bunch of teams.
But we’re starting with the Eagles and a unique draft-day haul.
As is the case with a lot of innovation, what’s happened in Philly was born of a mess.
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Fifteen months ago, the Eagles finished 4-11-1. They’d separated with the only coach in franchise history to win a Super Bowl, just three years after that Super Bowl was won. The roster was aging in key spots. The franchise quarterback wanted out. And the hire of Sirianni wasn’t exactly marked with a parade to the Rocky steps.
The result was that, coming out of it all, Roseman had two key assets with which to work.
One was the sixth pick in the draft, earned with that 2020 record. The other was Carson Wentz.
With those two assets, Roseman and the Eagles saw an opportunity to attack what they saw as a developing market inefficiency. Five or so years earlier, the Philly front office saw the NFL as a whole overvaluing draft picks. So the Eagles started dealing mid-rounders away for established veterans like Golden Tate, Jay Ajayi and Ronald Darby. And over time, with the success of the Rams, another team capitalizing with that strategy, the Eagles thought the whole thing might’ve actually flipped—prompting the question, Can we accumulate picks?
It makes sense, of course, that the answer to that would be yes, if teams were, indeed, regarding picks as disposable commodities, and the Eagles worked on taking advantage of it. They landed a 2021 third-rounder and what would become a ’22 first-rounder from the Colts for Wentz, saving $81 million in cap space over a three-year period to boot. Then they traded the sixth pick to the Dolphins, who gave them a ’22 first-rounder to move down six spots in the ’21 draft order.
The Eagles then packaged the 2021 third-rounder (from the Colts) with the 12th pick (from the Dolphins) to get the 10th pick in last year’s draft from the Cowboys, which they used to take Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. That left the haul, at that point, for Wentz and the sixth pick as Smith and two ’22 first-round picks.
Then Sirianni’s first season started, and the Eagles, supposedly in a rebuild, surprised everyone and ripped off seven wins in their final 10 games to rally from a 2–5 start to make the playoffs. And maybe, in the NFL’s 2022 environment, the temptation was there for the Eagles to go hog wild on the veteran market. If it was, they certainly didn’t act on it.
Again, it’s easy, on paper, to connect the Brown trade to deals for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill earlier in the offseason, particularly since there was a blockbuster contract attached to it, too. But really, the trade itself, as the Eagles saw it, was more tied to the flexibility they created for themselves by building the aforementioned draft haul in an environment where picks were coming cheaper than ever.
And that’s why the Eagles’ big move between free agency and the draft stands, even now, as the table-setter for the rest of them. That one, a trade of picks with the Saints three weeks before the draft, was the product of a number of conclusions from Philadelphia.
The first one was, again, their guiding principle from 2021—that picks had been artificially valued. The second was that while it sounded good that the team had three first-round picks, the draft class lacked the star power the ’21 class had, and moving a pick to ’23 allowed for the possibility that next year’s class would be better, while buying Philly another year of information on where it stood as a team before using the pick. The third was that because this class was weak, lots of teams would be looking to trade for ’23 picks closer to the draft. The fourth was that future firsts were normally traded for only quarterbacks.
That led to the conclusions that A) moving a 2022 first-rounder to ’23 was the right thing to do, and B) it was probably going to be difficult to pull off without some level of creativity, given how teams would value ’23 picks more than ’22 picks (proved by the fact that the highest ’23 pick dealt on draft weekend was a third-rounder).
So that creativity? It involved working the phones way ahead of time and finding a suitor, in New Orleans, that once made the rare trade the Eagles sought (the Saints moved a future first to land a nonquarterback, Marcus Davenport, in the 2018 draft). And what the Eagles offered the Saints to get the extra capital was unique, too—the opportunity to move a current-year pick up more than 80 slots, from the bottom of the third round to the middle of the first.
Doing that landed Philly a first-rounder in 2023 and a second-rounder in ’24. Which means, at that point, the haul for Wentz and the sixth pick in ’21 stood at: Smith; the 15th pick and a third-rounder in ’22; a first-rounder in ’23; and a second-rounder in 2024.
By now, because of all the moving of picks, which one connects to where can get clouded. What’s simple, though, is the position it left the Eagles heading into the draft with—they had flexibility all over the place. And that’s why they were able to come out of it looking the way they did.
On Wednesday, Roseman huddled with Titans GM Jon Robinson for what he believed would be a normal predraft call, the kind in which execs might swap information and talk through trade scenarios for the weekend ahead. And after telling Roseman repeatedly that he wouldn’t be looking to deal Brown, and that he loved Brown, Robinson informed his counterpart that contract negotiations with Brown’s camp had hit the point where it was clear the two sides were simply too far apart to expect a deal.
“If a deal gets done,” Robinson more or less told Roseman, “this is what it’s going to be.”
The Titans’ GM laid out his parameters for a trade, allowing for tweaking, and the Eagles’ GM said he was willing to pay Robinson’s price, but wouldn’t do it without a contract extension in place. That gave the Eagles less than 24 hours to find common ground with Brown’s camp, led by agent Tory Dandy, on a brand-new contract for the player. If they could get it done before the Eagles hit the clock with the 18th pick, a trade would likely happen.
Meanwhile, for the Eagles, there was the matter of what to do with the 15th pick, and Philly had made calls all the way into the middle of the top 10 to explore a trade up, looking at a number of different players, with one being mammoth Georgia nose tackle Jordan Davis.
The Eagles actually had a collective come-to-Jesus moment about Davis in a draft meeting earlier in the month, when college scouting director Alan Wolking presented a report on the All-American and gave context to the criticism of Davis, that he was only a part-time player at Georgia. Wolking’s information showed that was actually related more to a program-management thing. Davis would get pulled early in lopsided Bulldog wins—and there were a lot of those—so Kirby Smart could get younger blue-chip recruits into games.
Smart, Wolking said, had to do it to keep his future stars from transferring. And, Wolking continued, a closer look would show in the big games, against high-level competition, Davis was actually very much a full-time player. Which, in turn, made it easier for the Eagles to go forward with the vision of Davis pushing the pocket next to Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, taking space away from quarterbacks trying to step up to avoid the rush.
The product of all those calls was Philly’s setting up a deal with the Texans to move up two spots, from 15 to 13, for the 124th, 162nd and 166th picks. It was a deal less predicated on jumping past the Ravens, though Baltimore was linked to Davis plenty, and based more on a plain decision to prioritize getting the player they wanted over hoarding picks.
Meanwhile, as the trade up was getting done, and the card for Davis was being turned in, the Eagles were working through the final stages of a four-year, $100 million extension with Brown. It wasn’t done when Philly made the 13th pick; it was just after the Titans went on the clock at 18, putting the final piece in place for the trade to happen and for Sirianni to get the receiver he’d never coached, but knew so well.
One thing Eagles people will tell you about how they operate comes with two simple words: no absolutes.
Its implication is that in today’s NFL, just as you won’t win just by drafting, you also aren’t going to win just by shedding draft picks for stars—the Eff Them Picks Rams, in reality, have actually been really adept at finding role players in the middle rounds. And so the Eagles’ strategy has been to look for inefficiencies and always stay loose.
For now, the stockpiling of picks seems to be working. At last check, Wentz and the sixth pick from 2021 have been flipped into: Smith, Davis, a third-round pick used as a sweetener in the deal for Brown, a first-round pick next year and a second-rounder the year after that. It also gave Roseman flexibility in the last two drafts and should give him flexibility for at least two more drafts to come.
That flexibility, to be sure, is a big reason why trading for Brown was such a no-brainer. In the aftermath, they’d still have a first-round rookie this year, two first-round picks next year and three picks in the first two rounds in 2024. What’s more, if picks continue to be valued this way, then more opportunity could wind up landing at the Eagles’ feet.
If it does, they’ll pounce. If it doesn’t, they’ll pivot. And what they won’t ever do is act like they have it all figured out.
Mostly because they know no one ever does.
AGGRESSIVE JETS LAND QUITE A CLASS
By now, you may have caught the videos the Jets put out—of a celebrating war room after New York took first Sauce Gardner and then Garrett Wilson off the board in the top 10. But what you didn’t see was coach Robert Saleh, after passing off the phone with Wilson (and yelling “G-Dub!!!” to start that conversation), tap GM Joe Douglas on the shoulder.
“He’s like, ‘Hey look, if Jermaine [Johnson II] starts falling, let’s go get him,’” Douglas said Saturday afternoon. “And I looked at him and I’m like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
That’s how the Jets turned a draft they already really liked into one they loved.
This was always going to be a critical class for the future of the franchise. Thanks to deals parting with the team’s first-round picks from 2017 (Jamal Adams) and ’18 (Sam Darnold), Douglas and Saleh went into the weekend with four of the top 40 picks. So as much as the GM, in his third year, and coach, in his second year, are tied to last year’s first-rounder, QB Zach Wilson, how this year’s class pans out will also go a long way in how they’re judged.
And the Jets aren’t psychics. They don’t know what Gardner, Wilson and Johnson, or the 36th pick, Iowa State tailback Breece Hall, will collectively become. But they sure didn’t expect it’d play out this way—where the four top-40 picks they came into the weekend with, added to a third-rounder and two fifth-rounders used in trades up, would land them three of the top 10 players on their board and four of the top 20.
“We felt like we had a unique opportunity with these four picks at four and 10 and 35 and 38 to be aggressive if it felt right for us,” Douglas said. “The most important thing that we did was rank our top 150 as a group, together, with the scouts and the coaches. We were going over each guy versus each other, so going into the first night, we felt like we had a great group of top-50 players. And from then, we can only control the controllables, and we can’t control who comes up in front of us or who’s willing to trade back if we want to come up.”
Sometimes, things just fall into place.
It started with Gardner’s availability. The Jets had a good handle on the first two picks, figuring Georgia’s Travon Walker and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson were going one and two, in some order. The Texans were the wild card—Douglas and Saleh knew Houston had done its homework on the corners, and all the same the Jets also knew that if the Texans took one, that’d leave New York with a shot to put its top-ranked lineman in the class in front of Zach Wilson.
But just before the draft, they’d settled on a plan, and it was one that acknowledged how Saleh’s defense had evolved, in valuing corners differently than teams he coached in Seattle, Jacksonville or San Francisco might have, while still sticking to the scheme’s preference for taller, longer players at the position.
“We thought O-linemen could go at one, we thought O-linemen could go at three, so we were prepared for every scenario,” Douglas said. “But the one constant was if he was there, it was going to be Sauce. This was a guy that can be a dynamic guy for us at a premium position, cornerback. It’s been a position that we really haven’t been able to invest a lot of assets in, whether it’s free-agent money or draft picks.”
So once the Texans swung on another corner, LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., even with NC State’s Ickey Ekwonu and Alabama’s Evan Neal there, the call became academic.
And then, in Douglas’s words, “It’s nervousness again, because we felt good about our top 10, but you’re hoping for things to fall a certain way.” Which came back to one of Douglas’s goals for the draft, “to do whatever we could to help our young quarterback develop.” Getting him a guy with a shot to be a true No. 1 receiver, of course, qualifies.
The Jets saw Garrett Wilson as that guy, and, when he got past the Falcons, who took USC’s Drake London instead, and a tackle was there for Seattle, Douglas could breathe again.
“When you just watch the tape, just a great blend of route skill, ball skill, run-after-catch, and big-play ability; there was a multidimensional aspect to his game,” he said. “There was more than one way that he could help you. It just felt like he was a guy who could separate against anybody. He was going to go up and make tough, contested catches. He can run by people if he has to, and then after the catch, he’s elusive.”
Just as important was that Wilson, like last year’s second-round pick, Elijah Moore, could separate enough to create easy completions for the quarterback, while also bringing a rare ability to, like Douglas said, make combat catches in 50-50 situations, which should make Zach Wilson’s job easier in giving him layups, while also allowing for him to take more chances.
So Wilson went 10th, and then came the tap on the shoulder.
And the important thing to start with from there is that Johnson, in the Jets’ predraft meetings, was absolutely a consideration for the 10th pick. Obviously, things played out in a way that made Wilson the one. But Johnson wasn’t far off on the board. “If my board fell a certain way,” Douglas said, “he 100% would’ve been an option for us at 10.”
As it was, Douglas and Saleh started getting more serious about a move after the Eagles made their move, from 15 to 13, to get Davis. After the Ravens took Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton at 14, the calls started. First to the Texans at 15, then to the Commanders at 16 and the Chargers at 17, with one line drawn—Douglas didn’t want to give up both of his second-rounders to move. Then the Brown trade happened, and the Titans got on the clock at 18.
With a receiver need just created, and Arkansas’s Treylon Burks there, Robinson wasn’t going to deal 18. But the conversation was good with Douglas, enough so the two agreed to circle back at if things fell in a way where the Jets still wanted to move up.
They did, of course. Johnson was there. And the interesting thing was he was there in large part because some of his predraft meetings hadn’t gone well, while a big piece of the Jets’ interest in him was because of his predraft meeting with them, during which he told Douglas that, before he transferred from Georgia to Florida State, he taught himself an array of pass-rush moves via … YouTube.
“I felt like him and Jameson Williams were two birds of the same feather in that they bet on themselves to go somewhere else and succeed, and they both hit,” Douglas said. “And I like the fact that he went to a different scheme, different defense, left the place that he would’ve been comfortable as a rotational player, but he took a chance, bet on himself, changed defenses and was ultraproductive as an edge player for them.
“The other thing was, it felt like there was five different ways that this guy could get to the quarterback. … We were talking about Georgia. And I just said, ‘Hey Jermaine, I heard you guys don’t practice one-on-one pass rush all that much.’ And he said, ‘No, we don’t do it as much as other places.’ I said, ‘I see that. I watched the tape this year. You got so many different ways you can get to the quarterback. How did you develop that if you never really practice it before?’ He said, ‘Honestly, I would YouTube different pass-rush moves, watch and just practice it by myself. I just taught myself how to do it.’”
So the Jets traded third- and fifth-round picks to get him at 26, securing a third player off that top 10 that Douglas, Saleh and their staffs had compiled.
On Douglas’s way home Thursday, he noticed his 14-year-old son had sent him a text, right around when the 13th or 14th pick was made: “Jermaine Johnson’s falling.” So Friday morning, Douglas’s son said to him, “You got Jermaine!” Douglas responded, “Yeah.”
“Yeah, you saw my text,” he said. “Obviously, you saw my text. That’s why you did it.”
Douglas laughed, knowing how clear it was how fortunate he’d been the night before, in how things fell into place as they did. And hours later, he’d cap that with a short trade up, from 38 to 36, sending a fifth-rounder to the crosstown Giants to land Hall, another piece to help Wilson be his best. Now, what’s left is to put all that good fortune to work.
“The last two drafts, some things bounced our way, and some guys fell to us that we didn’t really think had an opportunity to fall to us,” he said. “But through it all, I feel like the constant has been every person on staff, and their ability to connect with each other, communicate, get on the same page, hash out different opinions in a real productive, respectful environment and ultimately come to the best decisions for the team.”
Whether they’re the right decisions will play out over time.
For now, at least we know how the Jets, all of them, feel about those decisions. And, as a result, the spot they’re in going into 2022.
PATIENT PANTHERS EVENTUALLY GET THEIR QB
It was two days before the draft, and after a couple of weeks of meetings where Panthers coach Matt Rhule, GM Scott Fitterer, owner David Tepper, assistant GM Dan Morgan, VP of player personnel Pat Stewart and college scouting director Cole Spencer had agonized not over which player to home in on with the sixth pick—but which position to focus on.
For most of that time, Tepper had been in on these meetings over the phone. And with decision time coming, he’d come to Charlotte, huddled in a film room with the group to make final what they’d discussed. The owner peppered his football people with probing questions, challenging them to make the smart, most-well-thought-out decision possible, and, in the end, it kept coming back to who the best players were.
“It really came down to, What’s the right football decision? Let’s not push need. Let’s not be desperate. Let’s make the right football decision for our team,” Fitterer said Sunday morning. “And that was a conversation that was really guided by Mr. Tepper at the time, and Matt and I worked through it with him, and we had all these scenarios mapped out that said, Hey, let’s take the tackle. If the quarterbacks fall, we can always trade up.”
At the time, they didn’t know that four of the presumed top five quarterbacks would tumble all the way through the first and second rounds and the top of the third round.
But it sure helped that they did. And it put the Panthers in position to address both needs.
As that meeting wrapped Tuesday, three scenarios were set for the sixth pick.
1) Like many teams, the Panthers had Mississippi State’s Charles Cross, NC State’s Ekwonu and Alabama’s Neal as the draft’s top three tackles, with two sitting a notch above the other one. And the plan was that if one of those two fell to Carolina at No. 6, there’d be no messing around. They’d sit there and take him.
2) If the third tackle was there and the other two were gone, the Panthers were comfortable taking him. But in that scenario, they’d also have considered trading down.
3) If all three tackles were gone, they’d have weighed taking a quarterback or trading the pick. And if they didn’t take a quarterback there, they’d have looked to deal up for one Friday.
From there came the surprise—shock even—that all three tackles would be available for Carolina at six, and the Panthers would have their pick of them, choosing to keep the Charlotte area native Ekwonu home. That stroke of luck wound up making Step 1 of the plan the easiest part, with Ekwonu checking every box imaginable, with unimpeachable character, toughness and versatility to go with a rare athletic skill set for a lineman.
Then, it was time to get the quarterback, and, had the financial part of the equation set up a little differently, maybe the Panthers would’ve wound up with a veteran instead of a rookie.
But as it was, the Panthers were going to try to get back into Day 2, after trading their second- and third-round picks in deals for Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson, and they were going to do so within some guardrails they’d set up for themselves. The big one was this: They were not going to part with a future first-rounder and really didn’t want to deal off a future second-rounder either.
“You can’t keep borrowing from the future,” Fitterer said. “It was like, we need to be smart about this and be disciplined about it.”
Which was what guided them midway through the night, when they had a deal worked out to acquire a late-second-round pick, with every quarterback but Kenny Pickett still on the board. Inside the war room, Fitterer leaned over to Rhule, sitting to the GM’s left.
“I had the card in my hand, and he looks at me and says, What do you want to do?” Fitterer said. “And we both just kind of took a moment, and we looked at the board, and we decided the right thing to do was to be patient. Let’s not overpay. Let’s be smart about this. Let’s not dig ourselves in a hole for next year. Let’s inch back on trading with these quarterbacks.”
At that point, he, Rhule and the group resolved to wait a little longer and, since they had enough conviction on a couple of the guys left, take another look when another quarterback came off the board.
It didn’t happen for a while. But eventually, 10 picks into the third round, the Falcons pulled Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder off the board. Twelve picks after that, the Titans drafted Liberty’s Malik Willis. And, stunned again by how guys at a certain position fell, the Panthers got aggressive and started making calls—very comfortable with the idea of taking either Ole Miss’s Matt Corral or North Carolina’s Sam Howell.
In New England they found a willing partner who’d work within the parameters Carolina set for itself. Which meant the Panthers had to give a little, too, sending the Patriots their 2023 third-round pick to essentially move their fourth-round pick into the third round (from 137 to 94). From there, Fitterer sent in the card, choosing Corral over Howell, with Corral’s physical ability, plus a meeting he had in that same film room to address a host of off-field questions, giving him the slight edge over another local product.
The meeting, for what it’s worth, came after the team had already met with Corral at his pro day and the combine, and followed a group meeting with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and QB coach Sean Ryan, and a one-on-one with Rhule.
“We had one of the most honest, deep conversations; he opened up to us,” said Fitterer. “And he was very truthful, and you could feel the change in him and the realization of what he wants to accomplish in life and in football. And when he got up and walked out, Mr. Tepper and I looked at each other and we’re like, ‘This guy’s been through things, and he’s better off for what he’s gone through. He’s learned from it. He’s grown.’
“And at that point, I think that’s the moment we felt comfortable.”
So now Ekwonu’s a Panther, and Corral is, too, and the team’s first- and second-round picks for next year are intact. Carolina’s first pick will likely start at left tackle, and its second pick will compete with Darnold to be the team’s starting quarterback. The Panthers will still kick around the idea of adding a vet like Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield or Nick Foles to the mix. But they’re no longer in a desperate spot to do something.
Which is really the key to all of this. They made a sound football call at No. 6. They have flexibility at quarterback. And that leaves them better positioned than they were Thursday morning.
LIONS BOLSTER BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL
Back at the Senior Bowl in January, Lions coach Dan Campbell took a night to watch tape of guys who might be in play for the No. 2 pick. That’s where he first dove into Michigan havoc-wreaker Aidan Hutchinson. In that sitting, Campbell studied three games. And while he and the Lions would, of course, keep doing their homework, you could almost say, at that point, he’d seen enough.
“I’ll tell you what stuck out. I was like, My gosh, this guy’s relentless,” Campbell said Saturday morning. “I wrote down relentless, wrecking ball, explosive, good hand use. There’s a number of words I can use to describe him. But if you’re asking for one that just really stood out, it was he was relentless. And it was in both areas, run and pass game.”
Which, as Campbell saw it that night, made him a hard guy to play against—and a perfect fit for a coach and GM (Brad Holmes) looking to build a team that’s hard to play against.
“He’s a major pain in the ass, ’cause, look, he’s not going to just catch his breath on a play,” Campbell continued. “He’s catching his breath between plays, and when it’s time to go and they snap the ball, until they blow the whistle, this guy is all out, all the time. And I would say there’s a lot of refinement to him, he’s really worked his craft. But man, he’s got room to improve now. I’ll tell you what excites me about him is where his ceiling is.”
That’s the Lions’ first round in a nutshell.
They just got harder to play against. And they just raised their ceiling with a couple of players who flashed physical dominance as collegians.
It started with Hutchinson landing in their laps, of course, and it sure didn’t take long for Holmes and Campbell to build on that by aggressively moving up 20 spots, from 32 to 12, to get Bama burner Jameson Williams. Add it up, and in one night, Detroit got something to keep offensive and defensive coordinators up on Saturdays nights in the fall.
Obviously, the first move was markedly easier than the second. The Lions really didn’t have to do anything but let that one to play out, as the once-unlikely idea that Hutchinson would slip past the Jaguars to the second pick became a more realistic possibility as April wore on.
“You come to the realization, like, All right, we’re not going to get Hutch,” Campbell said. “So you’re prepared to move the other way once they make their decision. And then you let yourself go the other way. You’re like, You know what? I think we’re going to get him. I think we’re going to get him. The reality is we were prepared for whatever Jacksonville did.”
And if you need to know how prepared the Lions were for what happened, the speed with which the card went in after the Jags took Walker showed it.
“I don’t think we overthought it. Brad said, ‘Turn it in, let’s go,’” Campbell said. “Because we knew we were good, ‘Let’s go, he’s our guy.’ We weren’t going to wait around, and we’re not going to do the whole dog-and-pony show. We got our guy and we turned the card in. … We said from Day 1, you ask A.G. [coordinator Aaron Glenn], What do we want our defense to be known as and built off of, what type of players? Relentless, rugged, smart, explosive and nasty, in the run game and pass game. This guy fits that bill. He’s everything we’re about.”
That brings us to the complicated part. Getting Williams was never going to be easy.
As was the case with Hutchinson, the tape made Campbell fall for the star receiver from Nick Saban’s powerhouse—Holmes gave the coach his top receivers to watch, and Campbell watched Williams last. “I’m like, Whoa, this is a little bit different now,” he said. “This player here, he puts the fear of God in a defense. And that’s what we want.”
The problem was the Lions weren’t picking until No. 32, and there were, to be sure, limits to how far Campbell and Holmes were willing to go to move up, not wanting to debilitate future drafts to accommodate current desires.
That realistically ruled out a move into the top 10. But the fact that, as a result of the Matthew Stafford trade, Detroit could offer the 32nd and 34th picks gave the Lions upward mobility. What Campbell didn’t see coming, though, was the second piece of the trade—which tucked the Vikings’ pick at 46 into the exchange with the 66th pick going the other way. So to move a first-rounder up 20 spots, they moved a second-rounder up 20 spots and gave up the 34th pick in the exchange.
Which, really, was a pretty easy price to pay, given what the Lions thought of Williams and the urgency created by three receivers going off the board in the four picks before No. 12.
“I would say walking away from capital, there’s no problem with that when [you have conviction]. And we had conviction,” Campbell said. “This is two years in a row, I feel like Brad is knocking it out of the park. He’s got a great vision, and he and I share the same vision. But just, man, how he sees this thing playing out, and the moves that he needed to make, and to be able to do what he did with Minnesota and come away with this player, and yet for us to still have 46 and to be able to get [Josh] Paschal out of it. Oh my gosh, yeah.”
And as for the big prize in the deal, Williams, Campbell saw what everyone else did before he tore his ACL in the national title game—an explosiveness that can’t be taught.
But he saw something else, too, on the tape, and just like with Hutchinson it showed up from the moment he pressed play—proving there was a fit there that went beyond talent and toward what the Lions are trying to build.
“The first play I ever saw of him, ever, was him running down on punt team as a gunner,” Campbell said. “And just crushing the returner—running and just crushing the returner. This guy is a high-level gunner on punt team. This guy is aggressive. He’s more than just a receiver. He’s a highly competitive football player, like he just wants to be out there and do something.
“Now, does that mean we’re going to line him up out there and that’s where he’s going to make a living? No. But I mean, that, to me, tells you a lot about how a guy is made and how he’s built and his competitiveness.”
And Campbell believes that, 15 months into the rebuild, the Lions will give Williams and Hutchinson a locker room to join that’s full of guys like them.
Now, this is where we remind you that Detroit was a three-win team a year ago, and all the excitement will go only so much further if things don’t start to turn in a meaningful way soon. That said? Those in the building think that turn is coming, and maybe sooner than you’d think.
“We’re getting guys in here who are about us, and they fit us,” Campbell said. “They’re everything that we’re about. We feel like we’re building this foundation around guys that love ball and they’re all out, all the time. And they endear themselves to their teammates, and they’re highly competitive. So yeah, we feel like we’re getting this thing where we want to get it.”
Soon enough, we’ll see where all that goes.
Everyone tried to tell all of you about the quarterbacks. Or, at least, the league did, in all that got out about the class the last few months. A common refrain held that all five of last year’s first-round quarterbacks would’ve gone in front of everyone this year, and the Texans’ Davis Mills might’ve, too. That really did hold in how teams resisted overdrafting the class—Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett was the first one to go, at No. 20, lower than any of the five first-rounders last year; and the second one to come off the board (Desmond Ridder, 74th) was drafted below where Mills was last year (67th). Here are a few more facts on the class …
• It’s been 25 years since the first quarterback to go had to wait as long as Pickett did. In 1997, Virginia Tech’s Jim Druckenmiller was the 26th pick to the Niners. Before that, you have to back to 1988.
• Pickett was the only quarterback taken in the first 70 picks. That last happened in 1996, when Michigan State’s Tony Banks went 42nd to St. Louis, and Ohio State’s Bobby Hoying was next, at 85 to Philly. And this was only the third time it’s happened since the merger (’88 was the other one, with Ohio State punter-kicker Tom Tupa going at 68).
• Just three quarterbacks went in the first 90 picks, for the first time since 2013 (EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon). The number was last lower than that in, yup, 1997, when Druckenmiller and Arizona State’s Jake Plummer were the only two to go in the top 90.
• The total number of quarterbacks drafted, nine, was the lowest in seven years, and three of those nine went in the seventh round, after the 240th pick.
Now, of course that doesn’t mean the league is going to be right. Teams punted on the 2017 class because ’18 was supposed to be great and missed on Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. Some looked at ’20 the same way in anticipation of ’21, and Justin Herbert was sitting there at No. 5 that year. So, sure, the NFL could be wrong. The difference, though, is that this time there’s a leaguewide belief that goes beyond differing opinions—and a lot of teams felt like there wasn’t a franchise-quarterback talent in the group at all.
The fun part will be getting to see whether everyone was right. Or wrong.
“We all hear it,” new Commanders quarterback Sam Howell said to me, of the criticism, a few weeks back. “I don’t really take it personally. People are going to say what they believe, and that’s what they get paid to do. Whether they’re right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter. I can speak for myself; I truly could care less what anyone says about me. They try to judge all these draft guys before the draft every single year, and then they go in the league and they’re either going to play well or they’re not. And they’re going to guess, and 50% of the time they’re going to be right and 50% they’re probably going to be wrong.”
The one trend you should pay attention to at quarterback has been sitting there for a while. And honestly it should start to affect how we project these guys more than it already does. Quarterbacks, for one reason or another, simply aren’t drafted in the second round. Check out these numbers, over a 12-draft period, since the rookie salary system changed in 2011 …
First-round quarterbacks: 38
Second-round quarterbacks: 11
Third-round quarterbacks: 17
It’s become even more stark of late, too. Over the last eight years, 26 quarterbacks have gone in the first round and five have gone in the second, with an uptick of third-round quarterbacks over that period (there have been 13 of them).
So, what gives? As I see it, this is a symptom of how the position is valued, and that you can play only one at a time (unless, of course, you’re Sean Payton). Bottom line, if you believe a guy is a long-term starter at the position, you take him in the first round. If not, you probably won’t pass on a guy you think is a long-term starter at another position to get him—you’ll wait until those guys run out, then take the QB. Which, to me, could explain why three came off the board so quickly deep into the third round Friday—and why, last year, there was a 49-pick drought before Kyle Trask, Kellen Mond and Mills went in a four-pick stretch.
Another trend we should learn from has emerged at the end of the first round. I’m as guilty of saying it as anyone: Team X may trade into the first round to get the fifth-year option on Player Y (usually a quarterback). But for one thing, quarterbacks generally don’t go at the end of the first round (just three of the 26 first-round QBs since 2015 went after the 20th pick). And second, and more poignantly, the fifth-year option isn’t what it used to be for players at any position. The proof can be revealed in two sentences.
1) In eight of nine drafts from 2012 to ’20, at least one team traded from the top of the second round into the bottom of the first round.
2) Just one such trade has happened the last two years, the Jags going up for Devin Lloyd (a move, I’ve heard, was more about leaping over linebacker-needy New England than getting the fifth-year option).
Why? Well, the 2020 CBA made it so the fifth-year option on a rookie deal is now fully guaranteed. So whereas the Giants, under the old system, could’ve picked up QB Daniel Jones’s option this year, knowing that, so long as he stayed healthy, they’d be able to cut him next March if he doesn’t perform, now, picking up the option would mean locking Jones in for ’23, as well as this year. And we’ve already seen how difficult that sort of thing has made it for the Panthers with Sam Darnold and the Browns with Baker Mayfield. In a lot of these cases now, teams are better off letting the option go, knowing they’ve got the franchise tag if they need it for a few extra million bucks. Which is why teams are looking at having the option differently. In fact, in some cases, if they’re unsure on a player, they might be better off not having it, because it means they avoid the circumstance where saying no makes things awkward. Anyway, as I see it, the above trend is an economic one, and again highlights how important an element guaranteed money is for both players and teams.
And to wrap up on the quarterbacks, I don’t think Pickett is the only one with a realistic path to starting in Week 1, despite the collective draft position of the group. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was pretty clear after the draft that the Pitt product—who’ll park in the same lot he did to go to practice in college—will be given the chance to unseat Mitch Trubisky as starter, while explaining that Pickett’s pro-readiness (especially with his accuracy and anticipation) was a big reason the Steelers took him. I’d also agree that the other guys aren’t as ready to roll as Pickett is. But could they win jobs? They could …
• Darnold is the starter in Carolina, but a big part of the reason is the failed pursuits of other veteran quarterbacks. So if Corral shows well in the spring, it’s not hard to see where this could be a real competition in the summer.
• Ditto for Ridder in Atlanta. Marcus Mariota’s there. He’s got a strong relationship with Arthur Smith. But the Cincinnati product was a four-year starter in college and is as mature as a kid can be coming out of college, and his football IQ won’t be a problem.
• And then there’s Howell in Washington, who landed with the Commanders in the fifth round simply because he was, at that point, too good to pass up—the team had a grade that would have justified his selection much higher. If Carson Wentz gets banged up or struggles early, it’s not hard to see a window opening. Probably not for Week 1, though.
The others worth mentioning (Malik Willis in Tennessee and Bailey Zappe in New England) are in situations where, barring injury, it’s less likely they’ll get on the field in 2022. But the spots those guys are in are interesting, too, in that Willis could eventually give Tennessee the flexibility to move on from Ryan Tannehill and Zappe was drafted a year after Mac Jones. So maybe you can say what this group lacked in sizzle the last few months, it can make up in intrigue over the next few months.
The Ravens followed their well-established M.O. … again. I remember saying to their GM, Eric DeCosta, on a podcast we did a couple years back, that the beauty of how his team is built is that you can explain it to a 6-year-old. That absolutely carries over to the way they draft, and it showed again this weekend. Outside of the rare Breshad Perriman curveball, Baltimore generally takes a guy in the first round who you can point to and say, Wow, they did well to get that guy there. Which, of course, speaks to the common sense, easy-to-break-down nature of the way Ozzie Newsome did it, and the way DeCosta’s continues to do it, and illustrates how they’ve wound up with so many guys like Ronnie Stanley, C.J. Mosley and Marlon Humphrey. With that in mind, check out this three-round haul …
Round 1, Pick 14: Notre Dame CB Kyle Hamilton
Round 1, Pick 25: Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum
Round 2, Pick 45: Michigan DE David Ojabo
Round 3, Pick 76: UConn DT Travis Jones
Hamilton was seen by many as a top-five-to-10 prospect in the class, if one that was hard for some to place positionally as a pro. (New coordinator Mike Macdonald, I’d say, can be trusted to be creative with that.) Linderbaum likely would’ve gone in the top 15 or so had it not been for shorter arms than teams like. Ojabo would’ve landed in the top 20 if he hadn’t blown his Achilles at his pro day. And Jones was projected by some as a high-end second-round prospect who dropped because of how some teams now value bigger defensive tackles. Now, was it perfect? No, and it’s definitely possible there were some fists clanging tables after Philly dealt past them to land Davis. But if you want to know why Baltimore is so consistently stocked with up-and-coming in-house talent, this year’s class is a good illustration of it.
The Bills’ decision to get aggressive in the first round, trading up for Florida corner Kaiir Elam, was more about how they saw the board fall than about being in win-now mode. I know, I know. It looks like this was a the-time-is-now maneuver by Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. I initially felt like it was, based on how few needs they have. But as I understand it, based on how they handled the trade, it’s something they would’ve done four or five years ago, too. Here’s why …
• Elam was the final corner left on the Bills’ board with a first-round grade. Could they have gotten a good one later? Sure. But they wanted someone they’d be fired up about at No. 25, and at a need spot, and without Elam there … it would have been tough.
• The Bills weren’t concerned about the Cardinals’ or Cowboys’, the two teams in front of them, taking a corner. But the Chiefs had just moved up from 29 to 21 to get one, and it was no secret that, with Tre’Davious White coming back from an ACL tear and Levi Wallace gone, corner was a big need, maybe Buffalo’s only need. So the chance the Bills would get leapfrogged was there.
• While Elam’s stock had risen for some the last two months, he was steady on the Bills’ board throughout—static from before the combine to draft day—and a guy the scouts liked all the way back in the fall.
And Elam only solidified his standing with Buffalo over the last couple of months. They liked what he did at the combine. They also brought him to Orchard Park for a 30 visit and were impressed with how he carried himself, with an inquisitive personality that was like White’s coming out five years ago. In fact, while he was there, he asked the Bills’ brass what makes them succeed, what makes rookies succeed and, specifically, about how White became the pro he is now. Now, Buffalo’s just got to hope the path he takes is similar to its Pro Bowler at the position. Which is better than having to wonder what might’ve been if they didn’t spend a low-fourth-rounder to move up two spots and get him.
The Patriots’ draft raised eyebrows around the league. And it’s not that scouts and coaches with other teams, some of whom have experience in New England, think that Cole Strange or Tyquan Thornton are going to fall flat on their faces as pros—to the contrary, those guys both have a shot to fill real roles, and do so quickly, in New England. More so, it’s about where the Patriots took guys over the weekend that raised eyebrows, and which positions were and were not filled.
• Strange was the 29th pick and fills an immediate need at guard for the team. Maybe he’ll wind up being like Logan Mankins. The issue, again, isn’t the player. It’s where he was picked. Most teams (and teams seem to really like him across the board) figured Strange, a guard-center, would go in the third round, with a chance to sneak into the bottom of the second. The Bucs, for example, were one team the Patriots were concerned about. But it turns out Strange would’ve been a consideration at 60, not 33, for them.
• Thornton, an absolute burner who’s built like a lamp post, could provide a downfield element to the Patriots’ offense, maybe to eventually replace Nelson Agholor (who’s in a contract year). But one area scout assigned to Baylor told me he had a fifth-round grade on Thornton. Few had more than a fourth-round grade on him. He went in the second round.
• The Patriots took two players—fourth-rounder Pierre Strong Jr. and sixth-rounder Kevin Harris—at running back, one of the deepest spots on their roster. You could argue this is simply a sign they’re not planning on keeping lead back Damien Harris past this year, the final one of his rookie deal, but they also have Rhamondre Stevenson, James White and J.J. Taylor behind him.
And they also took a quarterback in the fourth round, in a year in which they needed to get faster on defense, but didn’t spend a single pick on a linebacker (which is where the speed issue reared its head most at the end of last year). Now, of course, we’re talking about Bill Belichick, and there’s a decent chance he could make all the criticism look dumb in short order. And I really like Houston corner Marcus Jones, and Arizona State’s Jack Jones was a worthy fourth-round dice roll. I just think it’s worth paying attention to this now, given the team’s recent history in the draft, outside of last year’s slump-buster of a class, and the attrition the franchise has endured in scouting, which can lead teams to lose a bit of understanding in how the rest of the league views players.
The Jaguars’ decision to take Travon Walker No. 1 is understandable. I’m not a scout, but I’d have taken Aidan Hutchinson. That’s just based on what I know about the players, and the landscape the Jaguars have around them—needing to get the culture where Doug Pederson wants it. That said … I have a better understanding of this one now after asking around more. I also think it’s worthwhile to look at what Pederson and GM Trent Baalke said right after the pick.
Baalke: “He played all the way up and down the line of scrimmage, anywhere from a zero-technique all the way to a seven-technique. Played in the two-point [stance] off the edge, which he’s going to be used a lot in our scheme. That versatility, ability to stop the run, rush the passer—there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s a lot of talent to work with.”
Pederson: “Just his athleticism, his length, his ability to bend the corner, the thing that you see with this guy is his versatility. He played all up and down the defensive line at Georgia. Just a tremendous kid. He’s going to be a great for the locker room. Really, I think, for us, too, just getting him in here, getting him going as soon as we can, and I think getting him in one position and letting him really get good at one position, that’s where we feel he’s really going to make the most impact for us.”
This ties into something we hit on last week—and that’s how Walker did with what he was asked to do at Georgia, and how flat-out rare some of it is. This is one example of that …
There are few edge players who operate with this sort of power. What you see there is, in essence, a Khalil Mack play. Add that to the fact that a lot of scouts felt like the Georgia scheme wasn’t a great fit for Walker—and didn’t showcase his ability to attack and play upfield—and you get a better understanding of why a lot of folks thought there’s a couple of levels of untapped potential in the junior. It’s a projection, and ideally you don’t want to project with the first pick. But if Walker can develop pass-rush moves, which would presumably change the dynamic in what he could be off the edge, then it’s fair to say this pick has home run potential. And that the Jaguars have confidence he’ll really work to get there is not a small thing, either.
The Saints’ move up for Chris Olave is a pretty good indicator of how each team viewed the top group of receivers a little differently from the next. New Orleans saw the Ohio State dynamo as exactly what it needed at the position, with a focus in this year’s draft on coming away with one. His speed gives him a dimension, and creates a threat, that should complement returning star Michael Thomas in an ideal way and also unlock the best part of Jameis Winston’s game—getting the ball downfield. And his route running and football intelligence fit a complex offense like a glove, which is why, once Drake London and Garrett Wilson came off the board, the Saints got aggressive. They never thought the top four guys were going to tumble to them in the first place, and seeing the line of teams in front of them (Commanders, Vikings, Texans, Ravens, Eagles) was enough to get them going. And when the dust settled, you could see how each guy fit the team he went to.
• The Falcons took London, a classic, big, tough, hard-blocking Arthur Smith type of receiver (à la A.J. Brown and Corey Davis in Tennessee).
• The Jets needed a guy with the ceiling to be a No. 1, given their complementary pieces, and Wilson’s got the capacity to become a DeAndre Hopkins/CeeDee Lamb type in the pros.
• The Lions, as Campbell said, wanted a guy who’d affect the way a defense could attack their offense, and Williams is 100% that.
And, again, the Saints got the one who lined up with what they needed and ask of their receivers. Which preceded landing Trevor Penning, who’ll at least start working at the left tackle spot that Terron Armstead just vacated. So it was a good night for the receivers and a good night for the Saints, even if it left New Orleans with just one more pick in the top 150.
We’ve got quick-hitters for you, too, coming out of draft weekend. Let’s jump into those …
• A big piece of the Texans’ taking the plunge on LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. at No. 3 was the background work the they did on the corner, who was outstanding as a freshman on a title team in 2020, but is coming out of a weird couple of years. And the work of the team’s area scout assigned to LSU, Bailee Brown, and assistant director of player personnel James Liipfert went a long way toward getting GM Nick Caserio to a comfort level with taking the uber-talent so high.
• The Seahawks were in play to take Stingley, had he slid, and that would’ve been a groundbreaking pick for Pete Carroll and John Schneider, based on Stingley’s position. As it was? Seattle did get a corner, but it wasn’t until the 109th pick (where they grabbed Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant). So Shaquill Griffin, the 90th pick in 2017, remains the most highly drafted corner of the Carroll-Schneider era. Through 13 drafts, Bryant’s second on the list.
• By now, you’re aware of the questions that swirled around the Giants’ No. 5 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux over the last three months—on how hard he plays, on being self-absorbed and on how all of it will translate to the NFL, once he starts cashing NFL checks. But as for who he is as a player? There are people in New York who see his skill set as analogous to Von Miller’s. And I’d expect he’ll be used as such in DC Wink Martindale’s complex scheme.
• While we’re there, the idea of Wan’Dale Robinson and Kadarius Toney working together as hybrid weapons, under the very creative Brian Daboll, is a fun one. And if things don’t work out with Toney, having Robinson would give the Giants added flexibility to move him.
• The Commanders did love Olave, but the concern if they’d taken him would’ve been that his skill set is redundant with Terry McLaurin’s. So Washington traded down and got at No. 16 Jahan Dotson, who, as a projected slot, should be able to give the team something different.
• I love what Chiefs GM Brett Veach did over the draft’s first two days—landing two ready-made pros at positions of need, Washington CB Trent McDuffie and Purdue rusher George Karlaftis on Thursday, then doubling back with a receiver (Skyy Moore), safety (Bryan Cook) and linebacker (Leo Chanel) on Day 2. Like the Ravens, they got really good value for the haul they had, and it should bolster a nice base of young talent (Nick Bolton, L’Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay Jr., Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, etc.) that’s growing under the Chiefs’ core.
• And the other thing the Chiefs did was the resist the urge to press to replace a star receiver, after the top tier of the class was picked clean (six went from between Nos. 8 and 18 on Thursday) before they picked. The Packers did the same. Along those lines, I’d argue what’s most important on draft day for Aaron Rodgers is getting guys who can step right in and play, and Georgia defenders Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt can do that. And their second-round receiver, Christian Watson, sounds a little like Vincent Jackson did coming out in 2005.
• Zion Johnson’s another one of those logical picks we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Chargers GM Tom Telesco. It’s pretty easy to see him becoming a Pro Bowler down the line, and an important one next to Rashawn Slater and Corey Linsley in keeping the franchise QB’s jersey clean.
• USC rusher Drake Jackson is a good example of how the predraft process can affect the stock of a player. Jackson weighed in at 254 pounds at combine, then weighed 273 at his pro day less than a month later. That fluctuation raised a host of questions, and Jackson slipped to the 61st pick. The good news? Jackson will now get to work with pass-rush guru Kris Kocurek in San Francisco.
• For all everyone said about this draft being wild and unpredictable, there really weren’t that many curveballs over the three-day event. Unless you expected the quarterbacks to be overdrafted (which would’ve been a relatively fair expectation, based on what history tells us).
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Ja Morant is incredible. I’d love to know more about how an athlete like that wound up at Murray State before he got to the NBA. (Editor’s note: Our own Jeremy Woo has a story from 2019 on that very topic. Read up, Albert.)
2) I have a hard time blaming Doc Rivers for what happened to Joel Embiid. But man, is that one tough. If he’s out for the entirety of the Eastern Conference semis, it’s almost impossible to see the Sixers getting past the Heat.
3) I’m not insinuating that Kirby Smart should bolt from Georgia—lest I be accused of subterfuge—but there’s a part of me that wonders why more NFL teams haven’t made hard runs after the Bulldogs’ coach, who’s now 40–9 in SEC play through six years in charge in Athens. His defensive system is NFL-ready, the offenses he’s had there have been pro-style, too, and he’s very clearly built a player development monster. Again, I’m not saying he should leave. It’s his alma mater, and he’s built a freight train of a program there. In the aftermath of Georgia’s breaking the record for players drafted in a single year during the seven-round era (15), it’s just weird he’s not asked about more.
4) Pitt star Jordan Addison’s decision to bolt—following the departures from the program of Pickett and coordinator Mark Whipple—presumably for USC, is worth watching for NFL fans. Addison won the Biletnikoff Award in 2021 and is right there with Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba among the receivers vying for top billing in the ’23 draft.
5) It’s weird the NHL playoffs haven’t started yet.
6) Just finished WeCrashed (on Apple TV+), and it’s bananas that Adam Neumann walked away from the WeWork mess with a separation agreement of nearly a half billion dollars. That said, the series was great. You should watch it.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joked that his son Stephen, the Cowboys’ COO, was responsible for the Taco Charlton pick in 2017. Charlton made it just two years in Dallas, registering four sacks in 27 games (after going before T.J. Watt in the draft). Which was pretty funny for everyone, except Charlton. So … this was a pretty awesome response.
This is art.
Good on Field for reminding us all of John this weekend, a weekend he loved (like so many of us do) on the NFL calendar.
Love Douglas showing appreciation for his boots-on-the-ground staff, giving area scout Chris Nolan the phone to call a draftee from his region, Louisiana lineman Max Mitchell.
My guy Cassel’s an underrated tweeter.
The Kwity Paye story continues to be amazing.
I might’ve gone with a wise guy from Dick Tracy. But this works, too—and good for Chris for sticking up for his pops.
That’s Rams Midwest area scout Brian Hill, a man of his word.
Not Al’s Too 1, Rob Gronkowski 0.
Ol’ Lenny Dawson smiling somewhere.
An amazing feat.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Usually, this is a quick sign-off spot for the column—but you’ll have to excuse me here, because I’m going to let this one breathe a bit and finish up our postdraft piece by honoring Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who just finished up his 23rd and final draft in Pittsburgh.
Colbert’s record speaks for itself. Since returning to his hometown as director of football operations in 2000, to replace Tom Donahoe, Pittsburgh has gone 226-143-3. The Steelers have won the consistently tough AFC North in 10 of Colbert’s 22 years, with six trips to the conference title game, three AFC championships and two Super Bowl titles. And taking over a team coming off consecutive losing seasons, he’s had just one sub-.500 season since (way back in ’03).
Now, here’s where you’d usually get the stock line … As good a football executive as he is, he’s an even better dude. In this case, it’s not lip service. I can tell you from my own dealings with Colbert that it’s true, and that fact can be backed up with what just about anyone in the NFL will tell you about him.
Wanna see? Well, on Saturday, I shot texts out to peers across the NFL to ask for their own tributes, mostly because I thought he’d enjoy reading them. Happy retirement, Kevin.
Colts GM Chris Ballard: “Kevin is one of the real special men in this league. His contributions to the Steelers’ organization and to the game of football have been truly special. I have such great respect for him not only as one of the best general managers in NFL history but also as a man. Anytime I needed advice or guidance, he was there to help, and I feel very fortunate to consider Kevin a friend. If you look at the entirety of his career, I don’t think there is any question that he should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Kevin is so humble he won’t agree with this, but he has done the job as good as anyone who has ever sat in the GM chair.”
Bills GM Brandon Beane: “Kevin is the most humble, hardworking GM that you could ask for. All the success and the steadiness of that organization, Kevin is the foundation of it. Sometimes when guys have success, you see maybe they don’t grind as hard, maybe they didn’t go in the weeds as much—like, I’ve got it figured out. Kevin, all the way through the end, was still grinding his way through the fall. And he doesn’t just go to the big schools; he’s out on Tuesday night at MAC games. First of all, he loves it. Second of all, there are people who enjoy parts of this process, but there are hard parts, and Kevin, whenever I saw him, his work level never slowed down. … I’ve gotten to know Kevin well because we’re one of the teams in BLESTO, as well, so we have meetings together—in May, we go, and we’re hanging out, and you get to know people even better. And he led that group, he’s been a senior statesman, and BLESTO at times looked like it was gonna fold just because some teams were going independent or to NFS, and if Kevin wasn’t leading that, I’m not sure BLESTO wouldn’t have folded.”
Browns GM Andrew Berry: “He’s one of the most adept team builders that our sport has ever seen, and yet you would never know it because of his humility. He has excellent people skills, a kind demeanor and true empathy. Our sport has been better with him at the helm of one of the most iconic franchises.”
Texans GM Nick Caserio: “It’s a view from afar of respect, appreciation and admiration for his consistency and the way he did his job. He was as immersed as any executive in the process. I can’t tell you how many times I ran into him, Thursday-night games, Saturdays; I mean, he was always there. He’s a true-blue football evaluator that puts a premium on scouting players. He had a very soft-spoken, humble approach, but the way they built their teams over the number of years he was there speaks not only to him as a person, it speaks to his relationship and rapport with Mike [Tomlin]. We were fortunate to compete against them on a fairly regular basis, and we always knew the type of people and types of players they built that program on. The one thing that they’ve been able to do over the years is maintain their level of success and performance, regardless of the level of player they lose. It speaks to how well they scout players, how well they evaluate players, what they look for in players. And really that starts at the top with Kevin and Mike, and just the mutual respect they had for each other was apparent, in the spring especially. They were together so often at pro days, so they were working in tandem, in unison. And I think that’s why they’ve had as much success as they’ve had, because they view things through a similar lens. … At pro days, he would record everything, he would time everything. He would time 10s, he would time 20s, he’d be right in the mix gathering information when the scouts get together in the middle. He was always willing to listen and help.”
Ravens GM Eric DeCosta: “Kevin’s one of the all-timers. An elite scout who was able to seamlessly navigate all the different nuances of the GM position with an unmatched consistency. I hate that he’s made our job in Baltimore so difficult over the years, but I have great admiration for his career.”
Jets GM Joe Douglas: “Everyone respects and loves Kevin; it doesn’t matter what team you’re with. The coolest thing about the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is that it’s twice, and sometimes three times a year, where you want to just destroy each other. But after that, there’s just so much respect. I know just sitting in those draft rooms in Baltimore and we’re talking about, Who are the guys that are gonna rise to the challenge in Heinz Field when Renegade is blaring in the fourth quarter and all those fricking yellow towels are waving in the stands? Who’s going to rise to the occasion and who’s going to melt? Those conversations ultimately made Baltimore better. That’s the culture that the Steelers have built and Kevin’s put together. … He’s a special guy, salt of the earth, consistent. He’s just a good person, and he’d give you a shirt off his back. You always respect him because he puts the work in. He’s at the school sitting next to you. He’s got time for you, whether you’re a director of college scouting or you’re a personnel assistant. … He’s just an awesome, awesome person.”
Panthers GM Scott Fitterer: “He’s just a gentleman. He’s humble. He’s hard-working. He’s a scout at heart. He’s what I would think most GMs would aspire to be. He’s got just such a good presence about him. He’s so approachable. He’s a lot like Ted Thompson. Everybody respects him. You can’t find anyone to say a bad word about him. Just an unbelievable person. … The first time I met him, I think it was the Whistle Stop at the combine, like 20 years ago. I think he was with the Lions at the time. And I can say he’s the same guy now as he was 20 years ago, the first time I met with him. … He hasn’t changed a bit. Just an unbelievable person.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim: “As a young scout from Pennsylvania, I always admired Kevin for a number of reasons. He’s obviously a great talent evaluator but he may be an even better person. When I would see him on school visits or at all-star games, he would always take time to talk to the younger guys who looked up to him. That’s what I’ll probably remember most. For all of the success he’s had, there is no ego and he treats everyone the right way!”
Saints GM Mickey Loomis: “I’ve known Kevin for a long time. I’ve served on a number of committees with him, and he’s one of the great general managers that this league’s had. And yet, he’s one of these guys that’s never sought the spotlight, he’s always behind the scenes, obviously he likes it that way. He’s just one of these unsung guys in our league that doesn’t get the accolades he probably deserves. He’s had, what, 15, 16 straight years of winning records, and obviously that’s a tribute to the entire organization, and he leads that football operation and has done a fantastic job. I always appreciate his intelligence, his point of view. He’s one of the guys that people seek out for his opinions, they listen when he speaks, and he’s got a great perspective and an unselfish perspective. … My guess is, I don’t know this, he probably sees himself as a spoke in the wheel and just wants to do the best job he can to help the entire building. … And he’s really been instrumental in a lot of things we do at the combine, the way pro days are run. He’s got a lot of influence on things behind the scenes. He’s never sought credit for any of it. But he deserves credit.”
49ers GM John Lynch: “Kevin Colbert is class personified. Great at his job and is equally great as a guy. He operates with integrity, works his tail off and is excellent in his job. I found it so cool that he worked in league committee meetings at Indy as a co-chair of the GMAC [General Manager Advisory Committee] as if he wasn’t retiring.”
Titans GM Jon Robinson: “Kevin is such a great example for every person in the NFL personnel profession. Hard-working, genuine, competitive, intelligent—all while being accepting of young scouts, helping us along the way. Congrats on an outstanding career and thank you for the lessons in the personnel business. Even when you didn’t know we were watching, we were, just trying to learn how to do it the right way from one of the best!”
Eagles GM Howie Roseman: “When Kevin’s number pops up on your phone or you call Kevin, it’s like, What’s he doing? Always got a story, always got such great perspective, such a great dude, and he’s obviously had tremendous success, winning two world championships. He’s a Hall of Fame GM. No one with more integrity. … The COVID year, during the draft, everyone’s at their house, and we all were on this GM email, because we do this charity thing. I wore a suit and tie the first night of the draft, and nobody else did—like no one else did. And so they were all busting my balls on it. And Kevin calls me, and he’s like, ‘Hey Howie, I was wearing a suit, too, I just didn’t have a first-round pick, so no one saw me!’ He’d traded it for Minkah [Fitzpatrick]. That’s who he was. Great guy. Hall of Fame executive.”
Seahawks GM John Schneider: “I first met Kevin in 1993, as we were both working in pro scouting for rivals—the Packers and the Lions. Kevin was always so, so kind to me, and I considered him, and still do, an older brother. In a highly competitive business, he treated me and everyone so kindly. A man of faith, awesome family man and obviously a great evaluator team builder/evaluator, we all have looked up to Kevin for such a long time. I wish him the best in retirement and can’t wait to continue to pick his brain for information. Kevin, I can’t believe how fast the past 29 years have gone. God bless you and your family. We’ll all miss you dearly.”
Rams GM Les Snead: “When you hear people say, ‘football man,’ Kevin is the gold standard. When you hear people say, ‘good man,’ Kevin is the gold standard. We were watching pro days in our draft meetings this year and Kevin was front and center where he always is on the pro day circuit. I don’t shed a tear often. But seeing Kevin and realizing this is the end of his impactful run, I definitely shed a silent tear.”
Chargers GM Tom Telesco: “Kevin’s track record of success speaks for itself. But just as impressive has been his impact on young scouts, GMs and league initiatives to better our game. His influence in the NFL will be felt long after he retires.”
Read more of SI’s Daily Cover stories here:
• Aidan Hutchinson’s Rise to Top Prospect
• Kayvon Thibodeaux Hears His Critics and Has a Plan
• Behind the Spectacle of Kaepernick’s Comeback Tour
• Sportswashing Is Everywhere, But It’s Not New