Winner: Houston Texans
The Texans were the most aggressive team in the first round and they went home with a top quarterback prospect and the best defensive player in the draft as a result. Houston made a major splash early, snagging QB C.J. Stroud at No. 2 and then trading back up for edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the third overall pick.
Anderson, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, should become a cornerstone of coach DeMeco Ryans’ defense in Houston from Day 1. Meanwhile, Stroud joins a Texans team that’s been looking for a new starting quarterback since trading away Deshaun Watson. Stroud’s game has questions, but his arm talent can help him become a reliable starter for years. The verdict on this class will likely depend on how Stroud’s career turns out, but the Texans could be Round 1’s biggest winners.
Loser: Will Levis
The buzz in the lead-up to the draft was heavily centered around Levis potentially going off the board at No. 2 to the Texans or No. 4 to the Colts. Neither occurred Thursday.
The quarterback run came early in Kansas City, with Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson all going within the opening four picks. How strange is it that Levis didn’t join them on stage? According to ESPN Analytics, the 23-year-old had less than a 0.1% chance of not being selected in Round 1.
Levis’ strong arm, impressive size, and athleticism were said to have impressed scouts during the combine and his pro day, but it appears the concerns over his lack of production in his final collegiate season outweighed those attributes in the eyes of NFL front offices.
Winner: Geno Smith
Draft season began with Pete Carroll saying the Seahawks would strongly consider selecting a quarterback early. He said Seattle, which owned the No. 5 pick from the Russell Wilson trade last offseason, rarely gets a chance to pick so early. And with two top-20 selections, the Seahawks had the ammunition to move up for a top signal-caller.
Well, Seattle passed on the QBs and instead gave Smith an electric new weapon in Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the first receiver to come off the board at No. 20. The Seahawks looked deprived of weapons a couple of years ago but now boast a potential three-headed monster out wide in DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Smith-Njigba. The newcomer projects to take over the slot position while Metcalf and Lockett man the boundaries. The Seahawks also have a budding star in the backfield in Kenneth Walker and promising sophomore offensive tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas.
Seattle went with defense with its first pick, nabbing the consensus No. 1 cornerback in Devon Witherspoon. After emerging as surprise playoff entrants a year ago, the Seahawks appear poised to take another step and are giving their veteran quarterback every opportunity to lead them there.
Loser: NFC offensive linemen
The NFC had a tough time stopping the Eagles’ defense last year, and Philly became the first team in NFL history to roster four players with at least 10 sacks in a single season. But things are about to get a whole lot harder for the rest of the conference, as the Eagles landed defensive lineman Jalen Carter and edge rusher Nolan Smith in two Round 1 steals.
There aren’t many flaws in Carter’s game. The disruptive defensive tackle – arguably the top prospect in this year’s draft – was nearly unstoppable at Georgia, and he wouldn’t be available for Philadelphia in the top 10 if it weren’t for off-field issues. Meanwhile, Smith – one of the class’ best athletes who excels in getting after the quarterback and stopping the run – fell to the end of the first round despite being viewed as a potential top-10 selection. Philadelphia nailed its opening round of the draft once again.
Winner: Running backs
The value of the running back position had taken a big hit in recent years. The first RB didn’t come off the board until Round 2 in 2022, and the four first-round running backs taken from 2019-21 were all selected outside the top 20. But the position stole the headlines this year, with the Falcons landing Bijan Robinson at No. 8 and the Lions drafting Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th pick in perhaps the most stunning selection of the first round.
This is just the second time since 2010 that two top-12 picks were used on running backs. While no one saw the Gibbs pick coming for the Lions, Robinson joining the Falcons should come as less of a surprise. Robinson – the top RB of the class – will help an Atlanta team that lacks backfield depth and star power. He’ll also be crucial for quarterback Desmond Ridder’s development in the NFL.
Loser: Detroit Lions
The Lions entered the first night of the draft with a plan to take the next step in their bid for the NFC North crown. The only problem: it looks like their plan was written for the year 2003 instead of 2023. There’s no questioning Dan Campbell’s roster got a boost of talent with the selections of Gibbs and linebacker Jack Campbell, but it’s hard not to feel slightly confused and underwhelmed considering that’s all they walked away with after holding two picks in the top 18.
While many believed Gibbs warranted a first-round selection, the Alabama product himself said he was “shocked” he went 12th. Though he’s a dual-threat weapon, his usage as a rusher seems puzzling with D’Andre Swift and David Montgomery already on the roster. Meanwhile, Campbell’s selection at No. 18 was nearly as big a surprise considering his positional value.
Detroit had the ammunition to send warning shots to the rest of the NFC on Day 1, but its front office seems to have sent a different message.
Winner: Lamar Jackson
Jackson reportedly sought two things this offseason: A boatload of money and help at wide receiver. He now has both. The former MVP quarterback agreed to a blockbuster five-year contract with the Ravens on Thursday, weeks after hitting an impasse in negotiations and requesting a trade. His new pact guarantees him $185 million and pays him $260 million in total, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL based on average annual value.
The Ravens then used their first-round pick on Zay Flowers, capping off a revamp of their wide receiver room – the group now features him, Odell Beckham Jr., and another former first-round pick in Rashod Bateman. The Ravens have whiffed on their share of wideouts over the years, but these three, along with star tight end Mark Andrews, should give Jackson the best set of playmakers he’s had since he entered the NFL in 2018.
Loser: Non-Power 5 schools
Part of the fascination of the draft is seeing players from less heralded schools emerge as stars and earn their way into the first round. That wasn’t the case this year. In fact, Thursday marked the first time in the common era (since 1967) that every first-round pick came from a school in a major conference. Meanwhile, SEC powerhouse Georgia produced seven first-round picks on defense alone over the last two drafts.
Winner: Anthony Richardson
Richardson had his share of doubters during the pre-draft process. Evaluators blasted his accuracy and overall development, painting the picture of a risky project who could use at least a year to sit and learn. As a result, a number of mock drafts featured the Florida quarterback leaving the board in the second half of the first round.
The Colts, and presumably numerous other teams waiting behind them, saw past the unfair labels. Richardson’s tools speak for themselves – he’s got a rocket arm and the best athletic profile we’ve ever seen from a quarterback at the combine. But he’s also far more refined than any anonymous scouts were willing to admit – his feel in the pocket is uncommon for young passers with only 13 starts under their belts. Richardson deserved to be drafted early, and his fit with the Colts’ offense should allow him to hit the ground running in the NFL.
Loser: Tight ends
This year’s tight end class was billed as one of the deepest in recent memory, but you wouldn’t know it after the draft’s opening night. Utah’s Dalton Kincaid was the only tight end selected in the first round, while Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer – considered by many to be the best all around at the position – didn’t hear his name called.
Perhaps this tight end class wasn’t so much a loser as it was an unfortunate victim of its own hype. With so many talented options available, teams may figure there will be more opportunities to select a tight end later in the draft. We’ll find out over the next 48 hours.
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