Sports

The Most Intriguing Picks From This Year’s Bizarre NFL Draft

No one can predict the unpredictable, but we can stare at some players and mutter, “Huh. Interesting.”

Pickett pulling back the football to throw, in sleeveless shirt reading "11, QB"
Newly drafted Steelers QB Kenny Pickett during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on March 3. Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Which players in the NFL draft will be good, which will be fine, and which will be bad? A popular course of action is to take a dose of humility and say “I don’t know,” and then to guess anyway.

Draft prognostication is the art of predicting an unpredictable enterprise, but that is beside the point. As long as the draft exists as a multimillion-dollar television event, there is no reason not to give the people what they want. That means grading every pick on an A-to-F scale, offering morning-after declarations of who just cratered their franchise and who just saved it, and all the works. None of this is a criticism. Sports exist to entertain us. Blogs must be blogged. Search engines must be optimized for. The show must go on, four months before the NFL’s actual show kicks off and two weeks before the schedule for that show comes out.

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It’s an exhausting exercise, though. The 2018 draft, from which mediocre college QB Josh Allen turned out to be a supernova and record-setting college QB Baker Mayfield turned out to be Baker Mayfield, was the one that forever disabused me of the notion that I know anything for sure. It’s much more relaxing to point at draft picks like a toddler looking at airplanes coming in for landing and mutter to myself, “Well, that pick sure is pretty fascinating!”

In that spirit: It takes a few years to know which players are good, but it only takes a few seconds to sort out which picks are interesting—for what they say about the player, the team, or how the league values a certain position. Teams made 32 picks in Thursday’s first round. You can see them all here. These are the ones that most intrigued me.

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The Jacksonville Jaguars took Georgia edge defender Travon Walker with the first pick. It was mostly understood by Thursday morning that Walker would be the man, but this was the rare draft in which the No. 1 pick was a question until a day or so beforehand. There were no quarterbacks worthy of that pick, and the Jaguars took Trevor Lawrence with that selection a year ago anyway. That they picked first again is a sign of work left to do.

The extra intrigue around Walker is that he wasn’t all that statistically productive in Athens. In three college seasons, he had 9.5 sacks and a single forced fumble. This wasn’t a problem; Georgia had an absurd number of stars on its world-historic 2021 defense, and the Bulldogs didn’t put Walker in a conventional pass-rushing role where he could pile up sacks in that group. Jacksonville will let Walker fly and hope to see the full range of his talents.

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The New Orleans Saints took Ohio State receiver Chris Olave at No. 11. That seems about right. The eyebrow-raiser was that they traded their own 16th pick and two mid-rounders (98th and 120th) to move up five spots for Olave, one of three former OSU wideouts who went in the top 12. This draft was notable for having globs of great receiving prospects, and six of them wound up going in the first 20 picks, including a couple more whom the Saints could’ve had by staying put. They invested a lot in a belief that Olave is special even within that group. He may well be! It’s an aggressive move in the Saints’ first draft under a new coach, Dennis Allen.

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Picking 13th, the Philadelphia Eagles also went to the “Georgia’s 2021 defense was amazing” well and took defensive tackle Jordan Davis. There are almost no football players like Davis, and probably very few humans like him. He is 6-foot-6 and 341 pounds and carried all of that in a 4.78-second 40-yard dash at the league’s scouting combine. Men of Davis’ size are just not supposed to move like that. He packs more punch than almost any prospect ever.

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The question of fit for Philly is a fair one, though. Davis, kind of like his teammate Walker, was not a prolific pass-rusher in college. He often came off the field on passing downs for Georgia, and any player of his size will get at least a few questions about conditioning and how well his body will hold up. The Eagles didn’t think those concerns were a big deal, evidently. I like their strategy of getting a giant, athletic force of nature and putting him in the middle of the line.

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The pick that seemed like the best conventional value play was the Baltimore Ravens taking Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the 14th selection. The short story about Hamilton is that he was outrageously good in South Bend and has a well-rounded skill set with no holes—at least none that show up when you watch him play a game. The Ringer’s Benjamin Solak argues that he is the best player in the draft, and that seems about right to me. At least, he’s close.

So, why’d he go 14th? Probably for two reasons. One, as Solak argues, is that some NFL decision-makers don’t treat safety like a premium position. Another is that Hamilton ran a 4.59-second 40 at the combine, and that’s pretty slow for the position; it put him in the 42nd percentile of safeties who have tested at the combine. Obviously, running fast matters. But the combine is not the whole story: There is ample game film that suggests Hamilton is extremely fast once the whistle blows. Look at this range, for instance:

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What matters more: a 40-yard dash in tights or an in-game track record? The Ravens may be this year’s primary beneficiary of a few teams ahead of them answering with the former.

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The Ravens also got Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum with the 25th pick. Linderbaum was the best center in college football over the past few years and, like Hamilton, looks primed for a long and productive career. Nobody questioned that he was the top center in the draft. But like Hamilton, he got knocked a bit because of pre-draft measurements. In Linderbaum’s case, it was his size—particularly his arms, which measured in at 31 and seven-eighths inches, smallest among centers at the combine. None of this is to say that size doesn’t matter, but Linderbaum’s multiyear track record of dominance should probably have mattered more. I admire the Ravens strategy of drafting great college football players to play football for them.

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In the very same spirit, the Ravens’ AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers, at No. 20, made what will go down as one of the headlining picks of the night. The Steelers took the first quarterback of the draft and didn’t go far to find him. Specifically, they walked to the other side of their practice facility on Pittsburgh’s South Side and took Kenny Pickett, the star from Pitt, which shares the building (and game day stadium Heinz Field) with the city’s NFL team.

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Pickett had a rip-roaring 2021 playing for the city’s college team. Draft analysts raised reasonable concerns about him, including his tendency to play without structure and his Trump-sized hands. (Pickett’s hands measured 8½ inches across, the smallest of any QB in the class and the smallest in the NFL this year, or close to it.) Measuring hand size is the kind of thing that gets the draft process made fun of a lot, and deservedly so, because it’s weird. But it’s not totally useless: Ideally, your QB’s hands are big enough to comfortably hold the ball on pump fakes and protect it from assailants.

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Handgate for Pickett has involved detailed counterarguments about how the curvature of his fingers allows him to hold the ball like a QB with much longer paws might hold it, and counterarguments to the counterarguments about how his hands are still tiny. Within a few days, Pittsburgh will start discussing whether Pickett’s hands are so small that he’ll need a specially fitted Super Bowl ring, which he will be expected to earn within three years. To be generous. If it becomes clear that the Steelers are not on this path, they’ll be back here trying another QB in four years, and the draft industrial complex will get yet another chance to quench its thirst.

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