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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa may be the draft’s best player, but he didn’t come at a discount Thursday at No. 2 overall. That’s where he deserved, and was expected, to go.
But in some cases, a player fell because of injury or circumstances out of his control, allowing a team to get him at a discount relative to his talent. In addition, some great picks are not necessarily about finding a discount but more about how well the player fit what the team needed at a reasonable price.
With that, let’s dig into the best value selections and stellar team fits through the first three rounds.
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Heading into the 2018 college football season, Ed Oliver was the favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick. Such early projections can be flimsy, but Oliver had a rare, explosive skill set that warranted the hype. He had similarities to Aaron Donald, Grady Jarrett and Geno Atkins—some of the league’s best defensive tackles.
However, he was miscast during his final season at Houston. Rather than his natural 3-technique position, Oliver played a majority of his snaps as a 0-tech directly across from the center in a defense that mostly played with just three defensive linemen.
Oliver’s 6′2″, 287-pound frame was more than passable at 3-tech, but as a 0-tech, he drew relentless double-teams. He only picked up three sacks in 2018, bringing his career total to 13.5.
His stock took a hit for reasons out of his control. His only job was to do what his coaches asked of him, and he did that to the best of his abilities, still showing off many of the traits that initially earned him first-overall attention.
For Buffalo to get Oliver at No. 9 is a steal. Though he’s a different player than the recently retired Kyle Williams, it is brilliant of the Bills to replace one longtime star defensive tackle with a star prospect. Opposing AFC East quarterbacks should be scared of stepping up in the pocket for the next decade.
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One could argue Dwayne Haskins is the best quarterback in the class. Kyler Murray has a strong case too, but Haskins is a potential franchise signal-caller who came at a discount. The Washington Redskins should not have been able to net a prospect of his caliber at 15th overall, especially without having to trade up—and they should be elated.
Haskins only started one year in college, and the track record for one-year starters is not pretty, but he proved as much as he could in that time. He tossed 50 touchdowns while throwing at a 9.1-yards-per-attempt clip and maintaining a 70 percent completion rate.
He was both efficient and dynamic, but what’s more impressive is how smart he proved to be. With J.T. Barrett at the helm in previous seasons, Ohio State’s passing offense revolved around screens.
That was not the case with Haskins. Head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Ryan Day opened up the attack for their new quarterback, giving him more dropback opportunities and a breadth of options that were not available to Barrett. Haskins proved all year he could make multiple reads, stay conscious of blitzers and safeties, and find the balance between caution and aggression.
Washington head coach Jay Gruden, while not on the same pedestal as one of his former offensive coordinators Sean McVay, is quietly one of the league’s best offensive minds. Pairing him with a young, intelligent pocket passer could be what finally pushes the Redskins past mediocrity.
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San Francisco 49ers defensive end Joey Bosa is the best outside pass-rusher in this class.
The real debate about pass-rushers started after him. Clelin Ferrell, Josh Allen and Rashan Gary were the next three to come off the board, but it was not until 16th overall that the actual second-best pass-rusher was selected: Brian Burns.
He holds one of the best profiles in the class at his position. Per Football Outsiders’ SackSEER formula, which accounts for athleticism, production and projected draft slot, Burns was the best pass-rusher in the class, even ahead of Bosa.
Additionally, Bleacher Report’s Justis Mosqueda identified Burns as one of only four Force Players in this class. This designation is an athleticism filter that strongly correlates to higher average production and rate at which a team retains that player after their first contract. Montez Sweat was the only other first-rounder to pass the filter.
The film only strengthens the case for Burns. Just 20 during the 2018 season, he regularly showed off a wide array of pass-rushing moves and approaches that only Bosa could rival. Burns’ technique, versatility and ability to finish plays is phenomenal for a player his age.
That the Carolina Panthers could get someone with his polish and athletic potential in the middle of the first round is a miracle, considering how desperately they needed a defensive end. Bruce Irvin and Mario Addison were not going to cut it.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
It wasn’t a sexy move to trade up in the first round for an offensive tackle who won’t start as a rookie, but it was the right one for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Longtime standout left tackle Jason Peters, 37, will more than likely play his final season in 2019. General manager Howie Roseman got ahead of things by trading up three spots for Washington State offensive tackle Andre Dillard.
Many may question why a left tackle from an Air Raid system, which tend to use wider offensive line splits and techniques than traditional NFL systems, would be so coveted, but Dillard is an embodiment of where the sport is going with pass-oriented spread offenses. Pro Football Focus credited Dillard with 966 “true” pass-blocking snaps over his college career, dwarfing Jonah Williams’ 459 and Jawaan Taylor’s 404.
This is significant because pass protection is a game of muscle memory and adaptability on the fly, and the only way to get better at those things is with reps. That Dillard is so far ahead of his peers in this regard is a major benefit.
In addition, Dillard is a special athlete. He cleared at least the 89th percentile in the 40-yard dash (94th), broad jump (99th), three-cone drill (89th) and short shuttle (98th) at the NFL combine in February, per MockDraftable. Dillard is the definition of the modern athlete at the position.
While he may not play much in 2018, Dillard is set to protect franchise quarterback Carson Wentz for a long time. Dillard’s pass-blocking experience and prowess, as well as his phenomenal athleticism, make him the perfect bookend to succeed Peters in 2020.
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If not for a torn labrum that required March surgery, Jerry Tillery would have gone much higher. He sports a massive 6’6″, 295-pound frame and an explosive pass-rush-centric skill set that NFL teams would normally covet.
Tillery was also productive for a defensive tackle. Over his final two years at Notre Dame, he racked up 11.5 sacks—more than Ed Oliver’s 8.5, Christian Wilkins’ 10.5 and Jeffery Simmons’ 7.0.
He also did fairly well at the NFL combine. Though he didn’t blow off the doors at Lucas Oil Stadium, Tillery put up a 4.33-second short shuttle and a 115-inch broad jump—impressive marks for a player his size. Even if he’s not an elite athlete, he passes the minimum threshold with ease.
Tillery is a particularly good fit for what the Los Angeles Chargers want to accomplish on defense. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram make for one of the league’s best edge duos, and Brandon Mebane is a stout run defender inside, but they were missing that pocket-pushing defensive tackle to disrupt the passing game.
Tillery can provide pressure from inside in a way the Chargers have not had in some time, which should go a long way toward giving Bosa and Ingram room to operate.
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Separating the “best” player at a scheme-dependent position like cornerback can be tricky. Instead, it makes more sense to pin prospects as the “best” at different styles or schemes rather than evaluate them in a vacuum. Cover 2, Cover 4, press-man and slot cornerbacks all have different responsibilities, for example.
Still, the league is trending toward man coverage. Top-end man coverage has always come at a premium, but with offenses getting better at blurring reads for zone and zone-match defenses, straight-up man-to-man is as valuable as ever. Former LSU Tiger Greedy Williams is this year’s best man-coverage cornerback.
Williams is physical yet gracious. He has the length and press savvy to get in a receiver’s face and bother them but possesses the speed and fluidity to match up with the NFL’s smoothest route-runners. The nuance in his game is often impressive, especially in the way he can lock on to a wide receiver’s hips while in phase down the field and locate the ball on the fly. He defended 19 passes, intercepting eight of them, over the past two seasons.
The best aspect of this pick is that, even as the top cornerback in the class, he does not even need to be the best corner on the Cleveland Browns. Denzel Ward was the fourth overall selection last year and balled as a rookie, racking up three interceptions, 11 passes defended and five tackles for loss in just 13 games.
A man-coverage duo of Ward and Williams spells disaster for the rest of the AFC.
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D.K. Metcalf has yet to finish his three-cone drill from February’s NFL combine (at least it seems that way), but in many respects, he was still the best wide receiver in the class.
Receivers with his size, speed and explosiveness do not come around often. His upfield burst and vertical prowess for a 6’3″, 228-pound receiver is reminiscent of Josh Gordon’s or Dez Bryant’s. Neither Gordon nor Bryant was the smoothest route-runner, but they both knew how to abuse defensive backs vertically and use their physicality to their advantage.
Gordon, in particular, ran a fairly limited route tree that mirrors Metcalf’s, but he was so good at those go routes, posts and curls that variety was not a necessity. A receiver doesn’t have to run every route if they are elite at a handful of them. That’s the hope for Metcalf.
Paired with a fantastic deep passer in the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, Metcalf could not have hoped for a better landing spot. Metcalf can replicate the downfield connection Wilson had with Sidney Rice as a rookie in 2012, with the potential to be even more effective and explosive. Metcalf averaged over 18 yards per reception in three years at Ole Miss and should be able to come close to that in the pros.
As the rest of the NFC West continues to revamp and improve their passing games, the Seahawks made the best move to keep up in that arms race.
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A running back isn’t usually one of the draft’s best picks. In most systems and situations, it’s not a position of value. The Los Angeles Rams are in a unique situation with Todd Gurley and his knee’s health, though. Gurley is arguably the league’s best back, and head coach Sean McVay’s system runs through how they can manipulate the ground game.
With that in mind, the Rams needed to land a reliable, explosive back who could mimic Gurley’s playing style to maintain the same dynamic while putting Gurley on a pitch count. Memphis running back Darrell Henderson gives them just that.
Henderson’s 8.9 yards-per-carry average was higher than all but nine college quarterbacks’ yards per passing attempt last season. While his above-average efficiency helps his case, his class-best explosive-play ability sets him apart. He ripped off a stunning 27 rushes of more than 20 yards in 2018 and tied for second in the country with 22 rushing touchdowns.
Furthermore, Henderson plays a one-cut style that fits the Rams’ zone running scheme. They love weak zone, wide zone and split zone, all of which ask the running back to press across the line of scrimmage and make one cut up the field, depending on how the defensive line is flowing with the play.
He has the vision, conviction and explosive running style to be plenty effective in place of Gurley.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Chase Winovich joins Brian Burns as one of the four Force Players in this class. Winovich is not the same caliber of prospect as Burns, but the Michigan product is in the upper echelon of NFL athletes.
More importantly, he fits the mold for what a New England Patriots defensive end should be. He isn’t a pure pass-rusher but instead offers a well-rounded skill set that provides value in the pass game, tenacity against the run and a nonstop motor in both phases. Though a third-round pick, Winovich has the tools to compete right away.
In New England, he needs to. The Patriots lost defensive ends Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn in free agency this offseason, and the roster was already shaky behind those two. The Patriots traded for Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett and hope to finally unleash 2017 third-round pick Derek Rivers after some injury issues (including a torn ACL), but Bill Belichick needs Winovich’s contributions immediately.
An early third-round pick is a more than fair price to pay for a defensive end who can contribute right away, especially one with Winovich’s athletic upside.