Conventional wisdom in the NFL says that you need at least three years to properly judge a draft class. Sure, giving out grades right after the fact is always fun. But there’s a lot to be said for waiting to see the players actually take the field before we can truly see if they pan out or not.
The three-year rule is especially pertinent under the current CBA. With rookies locked into four-year contracts, teams have the 2017 season to decide whether their 2014 draft picks are worth keeping around. They also need to make a decision on their first-round picks, who are eligible for a fifth-year option in 2018 but could also see a massive extension if they’re good enough.
The 2013 draft was largely a dud, but thankfully there were a lot more interesting players in the 2014 draft. Just a quick scan of the first round reveals star players who walked in and immediately made their teams better. There are also a handful of infamous busts, some of whom involve the same team (look away, Cleveland Browns fans!). Nevertheless, this was a vast improvement on 2013 and could end up being one of the best drafts of the modern era when all is said and done.
Grading the first round
1. Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Clowney became the first name off the board after a dominant college career. A rare physical specimen, he weighed in at 6’5, 266 pounds at the combine and still ran a 4.53 40 time. Unfortunately, Clowney’s first two years in the pros were plagued by injuries. He missed most of 2014 with a torn meniscus and later underwent microfracture surgery. Clowney managed to play 13 games in 2015 and showed glimpses of his massive potential, but he still had trouble staying healthy.
Things finally came together for Clowney last year. Stepping up in the absence of J.J. Watt, Clowney was a disruptive force on the line of scrimmage, commanding constant double teams that freed up Whitney Mercilus to make game-changing plays. Clowney set a career high with six sacks and earned his first-ever Pro Bowl appearance. Hopefully we’ll finally get to see the Clowney/Watt/Mercilus trio at full force next year. Grade: B+
2. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
This is one of many picks the Rams got from Washington in the Robert Griffin III trade. Should be a can’t-miss spot, right? Well, about that. Robinson played left guard his rookie year, where he was kinda decent. But he’s been one of the worst left tackles in football the past couple years.
The Rams admitted their mistake this offseason, signing Andrew Whitworth to play left tackle. Robinson will have one last chance to save his career at guard or right tackle next year. Grade: D-
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
The Jaguars made a bold gamble making Bortles, an intriguing but flawed prospect, the first QB off the board in 2014. Results have been mixed, at best. After a predictably rough rookie year, Bortles looked to make big strides in 2015, throwing for 35 touchdowns and 4,428 yards. However, his 2016 was a disaster. Bortles’ mechanics went to hell, as he developed a Tebow-esque throwing motion and horrific footwork. He committed to hand out turnovers like candy, the Jaguars bottomed out (again), and Gus Bradley got canned.
Now Doug Marrone is in charge, and one of his biggest challenges will be trying to salvage something from the Jags’ investment at QB. Grade: C-
4. Buffalo Bills (from Cleveland Browns): Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins is a dynamic, field-stretching threat who can change games on one play ... when he’s healthy, which has rarely been the case in three years. He played all 16 games in 2014 but was constantly limited by nagging injuries. Watkins played in just 13 and eight games the following two years, as complications from foot surgery kept popping up.
Watkins is a great player, but the Bills paid a steep price to get him, trading away their 2015 first-rounder to Cleveland to move up four spots. They would surely like to get more out of him. Grade: B
5. Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
Mack was billed as one of the best defenders in this year’s draft, lived up to that hype in spades, and won Defensive Player of the Year in just his third season. Sometimes it’s nice when the analysis is this simple and straightforward. Grade: A+
6. Atlanta Falcons: Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Although he struggled in his rookie year, Matthews has been a fixture on the Falcons’ left side, missing just one game in three seasons. He’s mostly been a fine lineman but is prone to badly timed mistakes. Matthews’ most infamous performance came in Super Bowl 51, where he committed a critical holding penalty in the fourth quarter that knocked Atlanta out of field-goal range, contributing to the team’s stunning late collapse. At 25 years old, you could argue Matthews still has untapped potential. Grade: B+
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
In case you couldn’t already tell, the WR class was stacked in 2014. Evans exploded out of the gate with 12 touchdowns his rookie year, despite having Josh McCown and Mike Glennon throwing him the ball. He had a slightly down year in 2015 but still cleared 1,200 receiving yards. Evans and Jameis Winston developed a strong chemistry, though, and last year he set new highs with 96 catches, 1,321, and 12 touchdowns.
Already a top-10 receiver, Evans doesn’t even turn 24 until August. He’s the linchpin of a Bucs offense that keeps getting better by the year. Grade: A+
8. Cleveland Browns (from Minnesota Vikings): Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Cleveland started at the No. 4 position but traded down five places, before moving up one more spot to draft Gilbert. Safe to say this one didn’t work out. Gilbert was atrocious on the field and faced questions about his commitment to football. After just two seasons, the Browns saw enough and shipped him to Pittsburgh for a sixth-rounder. The Steelers waived him this February, and Roger Goodell has suspended Gilbert for the entire 2017 season. Grade: F
9. Minnesota Vikings (from Bills via Browns): Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Barr looked like a rising star in his rookie year and a genuine star in 2015. Things weren’t quite as rosy in 2016 — Barr managed just two sacks and one forced fumble while becoming a liability in coverage. Head coach Mike Zimmer, never one to mince words, said Barr could be better at “all” areas of his game. Barr was once thought to be a sure thing, and he could easily return to that level. But 2017 is shaping up as a make-or-break year for his Vikings future. Grade: B+
10. Detroit Lions: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
This one is particularly rough in hindsight with all the stars that came right after the No. 10 pick. An injury-prone drop machine, Ebron has done little to live up to his draft status. That said, he’s still holding down a starting job and the Lions don’t have much depth in the passing offense. So Ebron will get another chance to put it all together next year. Grade: C-
11. Tennessee Titans: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
After missing six games to injury his rookie year, Lewan has stayed mostly healthy and developed into one of the league’s better left tackles, making his first Pro Bowl last year. He’s also a notorious hothead who’s prone to cheap penalties (including an ejection for shoving a referee), but the Titans will put up with that as long as he keeps locking down Marcus Mariota’s blind side. Grade: A
12. New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of this guy. Despite some concerns over his on-field demeanor (and that whole stupid boat thing), there’s no doubt that Beckham is one of the best receivers in the game. Still only 24 years old, the sky is the limit for Beckham, who’s the focal point for the Giants entire offense. Eli Manning finally has the big-play threat he lacked for several years prior to this draft. Grade: A+
13. St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Donald shot up draft boards after dominant performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. Despite being a bit undersized for an interior rusher (6’1, 285 pounds), Donald has quickly developed into one of the best all-around linemen in the league. In three seasons, he already has 28 sacks and is a disruptive force on nearly every play. Opposing offenses have their hands full trying to account for Donald’s presence. Now we’ll get to see him work in Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme, which should be a joy. Grade: A+
14. Chicago Bears: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
A quality starter his first two years, Fuller’s 2016 ended before it began when he got knee surgery in training camp and ended up missing the entire season. Fuller should be healthy in time for the 2017 season, but the Bears are clearly hedging their bets, signing Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper in free agency. Now playing for a coaching staff and GM who didn’t draft him, it’s not a sure thing that Fuller gets his fifth-year option picked up. Grade: B
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Injuries have dogged Shazier over the years — he has yet to play a full 16-game season — but when on the field, he’s one of the Steelers’ best defensive playmakers. 2016 was Shazier’s best year yet when he set career highs with three interceptions and nine passes defended to go along with 3.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance. Grade: A
16. Dallas Cowboys: Zack Martin, OG, Notre Dame
Rarely does a player step into the NFL and instantly become one of, if not the best player at his position. Martin has possibly been the league’s best right guard since day one of his rookie year. He hasn’t missed a game, made the Pro Bowl all three seasons, and is a key component of the Cowboys elite offensive line. Dallas already picked up his fifth-year option, and a big-time extension should be in the works over the next year or so. Grade: A+
17. Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Another slam dunk in a first round full of them. Mosley stepped right into a starting job and has since become one of the Ravens’ best defensive players. He recorded at least 110 tackles his first two years, and he could’ve reached that again had he not missed two games last season. The Ravens will almost certainly pick up his fifth-year option, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets a long-term extension in the near future. Grade: A+
18. New York Jets: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Two interceptions in three seasons wouldn’t be so bad for a safety if he had plus coverage skills to make up for the lack of takeaways. But Pryor doesn’t have those skills, consistently getting burned deep and contributing to the Jets’ defensive collapse last season. Seeing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix go just three picks later surely must sting for Jets fans these days. Grade: D+
19. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Wuan James, OT, Tennessee
Playing at right tackle, James had a promising rookie year, but a toe injury limited him to just seven games in 2015. He played all 16 games last year, mostly being a league-average player. That’s probably not good enough for Miami to give him the fifth-year option, which would cost around $8.1 million. James’ spot on the right side is entrenched with Laremy Tunsil moving to left tackle next year. Grade: B-
For three years, this was an ace draft pick. Cooks fit right into the Saints high-flying offense, emerging as a big-play threat for Drew Brees. However, Cooks began expressing frustration at his role in 2016, as rookie Michael Thomas supplanted him as the new No. 1 receiver. Evidently this was enough for the Saints to cash in on Cooks’ value, sending him to the New England Patriots for a first- and third-round pick.
When all is said and done, this looks like a win-win for everyone involved. New Orleans turned a good receiver into high picks at the peak of his value, while Cooks gets to play with Tom Brady and contend for Super Bowls. Grade: A for production, A for selling high
21. Green Bay Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The best name in the first round is also a pretty good safety. Clinton-Dix has been a fixture in Green Bay’s secondary, never missing a single game in three years and recording a career-high five interceptions last season. He’s the bright spot in a Packers defense that’s otherwise struggled with consistency. Grade: A
22. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles): Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
I, uh ... yeah. You all know the story here. Grade: F
23. Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
It’s hard to know what to make of Ford at this point. He played just a bit role his first two years, before Justin Houston’s knee injury opened up a chance for more playing time. For half of the 2016 season, Ford looked like a breakout star, racking up 10 sacks in the first nine games. However, a hamstring injury slowed him down, and he never got another sack the rest of the season. Maybe he’ll be more productive when healthy next year, but Ford has yet to put together a complete season. Grade: B-
24. Cincinnati Bengals: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Is this still the biggest question mark of the first round? With Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick entrenched as the starting CBs, Dennard hasn’t really had a chance to see the field in meaningful snaps. It’s possible he simply plays out his rookie contract and tests the free agent market next spring. Dennard isn’t a complete bust yet, but the Bengals might’ve been better off using this pick on a higher-need position. Grade: C
25. San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Verrett is kind of in the same boat as Watkins: good-to-great player who simply can’t stay healthy for a long stretch. He missed 10 games in 2014 and two in 2015 with injuries, before a torn ACL ended his 2016 season after just four games. When he’s on the field, Verrett is easily the Chargers’ best cornerback, and he should form a strong duo with Casey Hayward if his recovery from knee surgery goes well. He does have a 2015 Pro Bowl appearance to his name. Grade: B+
26. Philadelphia Eagles (from Indianapolis Colts via Browns): Marcus Smith, LB, Louisville
Probably the most under-the-radar bust of the first round. Smith played a grand total of 53 defensive snaps in his rookie year and 127 in 2015. He managed 23 tackles in three years before the Eagles cut him before the 2017 season. This is one of the bigger blunders of the Chip Kelly era in Philly. Grade: F
27. Arizona Cardinals (from Saints): Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
Known for his versatility, Bucannon plays a hybrid linebacker/safety role for the Cardinals and he’s been a quality playmaker for most of his NFL tenure. He wasn’t quite as prolific in 2016 and missed time with an ankle injury, but Bucannon still has lots of potential at age 24. Grade: A-
28. Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
Benjamin had a strong rookie season despite his drop problems following him from college to the pros. He missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL and didn’t totally look like his old self last year. At 26 years old, it’s possible Benjamin has already hit his ceiling. Still, another year removed from knee surgery should help, and the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option in a clear vote of confidence. Cam Newton’s top receiver is a prime bounce-back candidate in 2017. Grade: B+
29. New England Patriots: Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
Well, they can’t all be winners. Bill Belichick took the plunge on a guy who tore both his ACLs in college, and it simply never worked out. Easley lasted just two injury-riddled years in New England before the Patriots waived him last offseason. The Los Angeles Rams picked him up and he was pretty decent, playing all 16 games and putting up 3.5 sacks.
Perhaps the Rams found a late bloomer on the cheap, but New England got nothing out of its first-round pick, so I have to grade it as I see it. The one year Belichick doesn’t trade down ... Grade: D-
30. San Francisco 49ers: Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Ward played safety in college, but the 49ers moved him to nickel cornerback at the pro level. Despite injury problems, Ward has been a fairly solid corner when healthy. The Niners plan on moving him back to his college position next season as they transition to a 4-3 defense. Grade: B
31. Denver Broncos: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Roby mostly plays in the slot behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., but he’s had a knack for making huge plays in important situations. Roby was a hero during the Broncos’ playoff run during the 2015 season, forcing a fumble that helped win the divisional round and picking off Tom Brady in the AFC Championship, sending the Broncos to Super Bowl 50. He followed that up with two pick-sixes last season. Roby doesn’t turn 25 until May, and it’s entirely possible his best days are still ahead of him. Grade: A-
32. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle Seahawks): Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
After grabbing Barr with the ninth overall pick, the Vikings moved back into the first round to get their franchise quarterback. Bridgewater mostly lived up to his billing as an efficient, if limited, passer, leading the Vikings to a division title in 2015. Hopes were high entering his third season.
Then tragedy struck. During last year’s training camp, Bridgewater suffered a devastating knee injury that wiped out his entire 2016 season. There are doubts that he’ll even be ready to return this year, a fact the Vikings tacitly admitted by trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford last September. Who knows what kind of player Bridgewater will be when (or if) he comes back. Grade: Incomplete
Notable mid-rounders and UDFAs
QB Derek Carr (second round): The fourth pick of the second round started Week 1 and became the franchise QB the Raiders have spent over a decade looking for.
WR Allen Robinson (second round): Despite a disappointing 2016, Robinson remains an imposing matchup for opposing defenses, having scored 14 touchdowns in 2015.
WR Jarvis Landry (second round): Quickly became Ryan Tannehill’s favorite target, racking up 289 catches in three years. Should get a contract extension sometime soon.
WR John Brown (third round): There were a lot of good WRs in this draft, huh? Despite being slowed down by hamstring injuries, Brown is a big-play threat for Carson Palmer in Arizona.
LB Chris Borland (third round): He had a brilliant rookie season for the 49ers, looking like the natural successor to Patrick Willis. And then ... he immediately retired, because the post-Harbaugh 49ers can’t have nice things.
RB Devonta Freeman (fourth round): A quiet rookie year was quickly forgotten as Freeman exploded for 2,135 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns the next two years. He’s a key cog in Atlanta’s explosive offense.
RB James White (fourth round): You might remember him for scoring the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 51.
DE IK Enemkpali (sixth round): You might remember him as the guy who broke Geno Smith’s jaw.
There were a handful of productive UDFAs to come out of this year. Isaiah Crowell was one of the Browns’ few bright spots last year, while Willie Snead and Allen Hurns became quality starters for the Saints and Jaguars, respectively. And of course, there’s cornerback Malcolm Butler, who did a thing in Super Bowl 49 and instantly became a household name.
Raiders: Oakland got its franchise quarterback and the draft’s best defensive player in the first two rounds. Not too shabby. The Raiders also picked up guard Gabe Jackson in the third round, and he’s been a solid presence on one of the league’s best offensive lines. This Raiders draft was a home run, landing the critical pieces that got them back to the playoffs in 2016.
Packers: Clinton-Dix is a stable force in the secondary, while second-round WR Davante Adams developed into a solid receiver, and third-round TE Richard Rodgers came up with some big plays over the years. Meanwhile, fifth-rounder Corey Linsley has been a decent starter at center, giving Green Bay a hidden gem in the later rounds. With quality talent and no obvious busts, this draft is a big win for Ted Thompson and Co.
Giants: If you get Odell Beckham Jr., you’re a winner no matter who else you draft. It helps that New York got a starting center, Weston Richburg, in the second round.
Browns: Boy was this a debacle, even by Browns standards. They managed to get two first-round picks, neither of whom are in the league right now. Manziel was a disaster on multiple levels, while Gilbert was a more mundane bust but a bust nonetheless. The only saving grace is second-round guard Joel Bitonio, who earned a hefty extension this offseason despite recovering from Lisfranc surgery. There’s also UDFA running back Crowell, who developed into a decent-if-unspectacular runner.
In the big picture, the Browns ended up with six draft picks, two of those being first-rounders. Whiffing on both is one of the many reasons why Cleveland is still drafting in the top five three years later.
Jets: There couldn’t be just one “biggest loser” in this draft, because the Jets really gave the Browns a run for their money. Of the 12 draft picks, only two of them are still on the roster — Pryor and sixth-rounder Quincy Enunwa. Second-round TE Jace Amaro did nothing, and neither of the other WR picks (Jalen Saunders, Shaq Evans) amounted to anything. With a complete waste of resources up and down the board, this draft was a fitting end to the Rex Ryan/John Idzik regime.
Colts: They traded their 2014 first-rounder the previous year for Trent Richardson. Whoops.