Oakland Raiders fans, when faced with defending their team over the Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades, always said the trades couldn’t be judged until we saw what the Raiders got in return.
We won’t fully know what the Raiders got from those trades until after next year’s draft, when the rest of the Mack trade haul is used. But we got a good look on Thursday night.
How you grade the Raiders’ first round of the draft probably depends on how closely you follow predraft rankings, and your thoughts on the positional value of running backs and in-the-box safeties. But without much question, coach Jon Gruden still doesn’t care about doing things in a conventional way. The guy who said he was going to “take the game back to 1998” was on brand Thursday.
The Raiders started the night with a haymaker, taking Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 overall. You won’t find many mock drafts that had Ferrell anywhere near No. 4. He was usually projected to go near the middle of the first round. Ferrell is a good player, a productive two-way end from a great Clemson team. But it seemed like a reach, and a pick looking at a safe, high floor rather than a large upside. Maybe the Raiders couldn’t find a partner to trade down, and had to take the player they liked best. Ferrell will certainly be compared going forward to other defenders like Ed Oliver and Josh Allen, who Oakland passed.
Then came the running back.
Drafting a running back in the first round is an old-school strategy, and Gruden has never shied away from being old school. Alabama running back Josh Jacobs was the first (and only) back taken in the first round, at No. 24. That’s a pick obtained in the Mack trade. The Raiders needed a back, with Marshawn Lynch reportedly retiring. Jacobs was clearly the best running back prospect in this class. He should be productive. But for a 4-12 team with a lot of needs, it seemed smarter to invest elsewhere.
The Raiders’ next pick, which came from the Cowboys for Cooper, was hard-hitting Mississippi safety Johnathan Abram. Most teams aren’t as high anymore on safeties like Abram, whose best work comes near the line of scrimmage. Another old-school pick. Abram is more than just a thumping safety; he can cover and has great athleticism. He seems like the type of football-first player Gruden and GM Mike Mayock would like. He should also be productive. But it’s a pick that probably would have seemed like more of a fit during Gruden’s first time as a head coach in the NFL years ago.
“I don’t care where people ranked him. Clelin Ferrell for us is a foundation player,” Mayock said on NFL Network after the first round. “He’s a building block. As is Jacobs. As is Abram. And their football character’s off the chart. And we also think that their football-playing ability’s off the charts.
“We’re trying to tell our locker room what Jon Gruden and I believe in. And it’s physicality and it’s toughness and it’s a passion for the game. It’s high football IQ. That’s what we want to be all about. Those three picks were really important to both Jon and I. I think we sent a message, and I think we’re really excited about the players we’re getting.”
This is what Gruden got from what will be an enormously important first round in his second Raiders tenure: a defensive end who he probably reached on; a running back in a league that rarely drafts running backs in the first round anymore; and a strong safety.
Does that draft haul make the Mack and Cooper trades worth it? Probably not. Though we’ll see what the Raiders do with the Bears’ first-round pick next year (Oakland also has a sixth-round pick from Chicago this year and the Bears’ 2020 third-round pick, too). But if Gruden is going to turn things around in Oakland, that trio he drafted Thursday night has to be a big part of the rebuild. And we were reminded on Thursday that Gruden is going to do things his way. That means his old-school methods will be put to the test.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from the first round of the NFL draft:
Andy Dalton: When the Cincinnati Bengals went on the clock with the 11th pick, they had two quarterbacks they could have realistically picked. Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock were considered first-round prospects. Haskins might have had a slight bump too, for the Ohio State connection.
Instead, the Bengals not only showed some faith in Dalton, they helped him out.
The Bengals made an unexciting but prudent move, taking Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williiams with the 11th pick. Williams, a safe and solid prospect, will help fix an offensive line that has been a problem for a couple seasons.
The Bengals could draft a quarterback in the final six rounds of the draft (maybe even Lock, who fell out of the first round), but it’s less likely they get one who will threaten Dalton right away. A quarterback at No. 11 would have effectively started the countdown clock on Dalton’s time as Bengals quarterback. Now he has some more time, and a new tackle to help him out.
New York Jets: The Jets just sat tight at No. 3 and got a player many consider to be the best in the draft.
They were in a good spot. The Cardinals picked quarterback Kyler Murray, a position the Jets don’t need. The 49ers picked Nick Bosa, a perfectly fine pick. But Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams might be the best player in the draft, and the Jets could just sit tight and take him.
After some big misses early in the draft in recent years, the Jets hit a home run with safety Jamal Adams in 2017, quarterback Sam Darnold flashed some big-time skills in 2018 and the Jets might have picked the most talented player in the class on Thursday. That’s how you start to turn a franchise around.
Joe Flacco: The Broncos had chances to take a quarterback. They could have taken Dwayne Haskins at No. 10. They traded down. They could have taken Drew Lock at No. 20. They took tight end Noah Fant instead.
The Broncos should have been in the mix for a quarterback, considering Flacco seems like a stopgap veteran. Flacco is 34 and his play has been lackluster for a while. But he won’t face a real challenge, at least this season.
The Broncos still don’t have that clear answer for their quarterback of the future. But for now, they seem content putting all their faith in Flacco. Even if the Broncos draft a quarterback on day two or three, he shouldn’t be an immediate threat to Flacco. After Flacco saw the Ravens draft Lamar Jackson in the first round, and lost his job to Jackson in midseason, he had to be pleased on Thursday night.
N’Keal Harry: Harry not only snuck into the first round, he couldn’t have landed in a much better spot.
Harry gets to start his career catching passes from Tom Brady as the newest member of the Patriots. He also has a chance to play right away. The Patriots tried to acquire receivers all offseason but mostly came up short, and have a hole in the offense, especially with tight end and focal point Rob Gronkowski retired. The Patriots clearly liked Harry; he’s the first receiver the team has drafted in the first round since since Bill Belichick was hired as head coach.
Harry seems a good fit. He’s versatile, lining up outside or in a “big slot” role inside. The Patriots like using all their players in multiple roles to keep defenses off balance, and Harry should fit in. It’ll be a challenging transition, because the Patriots ask a lot of their players, but it’s not bad for a receiver to be in New England’s offense. It’s a good pick for the Patriots too.
Alex Smith: The Washington Redskins forced some optimism about Smith’s future, coming off a horrendous leg injury suffered last season. But actions speak louder.
Since last season ended, the Redskins traded for Case Keenum and then drafted Dwayne Haskins with the 15th overall pick. Even if Smith was healthy, picking a quarterback No. 15 overall would signal his time as Washington’s quarterback was coming to an end. First-round quarterbacks almost always play as rookies. Washington taking Haskins says what you need to know about their confidence in Smith’s return.
Smith will turn 35 on May 7. He could still make a great comeback, and the NFL will find a place for him if he does. But at the moment it looks like Washington is viewing his four-year, $94 million contract as a sunk cost. It’s a sad story, but hopefully Smith can write a happier ending.
The passive Colts: As was the case in free agency, the Colts don’t appear in a big hurry this offseason.
General manager Chris Ballard is coming off a great 2018 offseason, and has obviously earned some benefit of the doubt. But if you thought the Colts would invest heavily this offseason after last year’s playoff berth, especially with a ton of cap room, it hasn’t happened.
The Colts were fairly quiet in free agency, given that they had the most cap space in the NFL, and they won’t have a first-round rookie this season, either. They traded out of the first round, sending the 26th overall pick to the Washington Redskins for No. 46 and a 2020 second-round pick. That’s a fine trade as far as value goes, but a player like Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat (who the Redskins took at No. 26) is a better bet to have an impact right now than whoever the Colts take 46th overall.
The Colts are doing things their way, at their pace. They won’t rush the process, even if they found themselves way ahead of schedule last season. That might ultimately be the right approach. But not if you’re impatient for the Colts to be a contender this season.
Those wanting drama in the NFL draft: Didn’t that first round feel kind of ... sedate?
Perhaps it was due to the buildup over the first pick that ended up exactly how we thought it would following the NFL scouting combine about two months ago. The Cardinals didn’t trade their No. 1 overall pick, or make some weird surprise pick. They just drafted Kyler Murray. As expected.
A few picks were surprises — Daniel Jones at No. 6, hello! — but nothing too outlandish. There were no outlandish trades up. No team that could have shocked the world by taking a quarterback did so (the Cardinals, Giants and Redskins were all prime candidates to take a quarterback, and none of them needed to trade to get their guy).
The past few drafts have been high on drama (after all, the NFL draft is where many discovered what a gas-mask bong was) and this year wasn’t quite as dramatic. Maybe that’s just setting up a crazy second and third day.
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