One of the weakest draft classes of all-time, and it wasn’t much of a secret at the time, was the 2013 edition. There were no elite quarterback prospects (E.J. Manuel was the only first rounder and he didn’t go top-10) and the class started off with the underwhelming choices of tackles Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel going first and second. Another sign that teams knew the draft class was a rare edition that had few exciting prospects: The Dolphins traded up from 12 to 3 for Dion Jordan but only had to sacrifice the 42nd overall pick to move up nine spots.
Compare that to the 49ers trading up from 12 to 3 in 2021 when they wanted to pick a quarterback: The cost was two future first rounders and a third rounder.
Another dud was the 2009 draft, a class in which there was a clear number one (Matthew Stafford) but then little else to be excited about after him. Especially unfortunate news for the St. Louis Rams, who had the second overall pick and selected Jason Smith over a crop that included Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Mark Sanchez.
The Rams lost the draft well before it started.
It’s still early in the 2023 draft process but NFL teams have been evaluating these prospects and this class for years. Their work doesn’t start in January with the Senior Bowl or February with the combine, it’s been a process dating back to when most of these players were in high school. And I think there’s a valid argument to be made that NFL teams are underwhelmed by the 2023 class, signs of which would include the fact that there is not a home run choice at quarterback, let alone two or three, and outside of the top two prospects at other positions (Jalen Carter, Will Anderson, a duo that has their own set of question marks), I think the NFL is at best whelmed by these prospects.
Personally, I would put Alabama quarterback Bryce Young in that Stafford class of his own. But I concede that questions of his frame are valid and Young will need to fall into the right situation in the NFL so that he’s not poorly coached or poorly protected at the next level or he could end up being the next Sam Bradford instead of the next Stafford.
However, if I’m right and the 2023 draft class is a bad one that should actually benefit a team like the L.A. Rams, who lack a first round pick and will be selecting 36th overall if Les Snead doesn’t make another trade.
Take for example the 2013 draft class:
Though it was weak at the top, some great players fell in the draft: DeAndre Hopkins at 27, Travis Frederick at 31, Zach Ertz at 35, Darius Slay at 36, Le’Veon Bell at 48, Travis Kelce at 63, Terron Armstead at 75, and Keenan Allen at 76. Perhaps the best player overall, tackle David Bakhtiari, went in the fourth round.
Apart from Lane Johnson and to a much lesser degree Fisher and Ezekiel Ansah, the top-15 to 20 picks were a disaster and the order was a mess.
The 2009 draft has seen Stafford reign supreme, as expected. But then Clay Matthews (26th), Brian Cushing (15th), LeSean McVay (53rd), Percy Harvin (22nd), Patrick Chung (34th), Alex Mack (21st), Julian Edelman (232nd), TJ Lang (109th), Sebastian Vollmer (58th), and James Laurinaitis (35th) emerged for good to pretty good careers.
I also felt that last year’s draft class could be weak. Apart from Sauce Gardner being dominant out of the top-10 picks and certainly several more doing their part, the best rookies came much later such as Tariq Woolen, Marcus Jones, Abe Lucas, Tyler Smith, Tyler Allgeier, James Houston, Jalen Pitre, DaRon Bland, George Pickens, Christian Watson, Dameon Pierce, and yes, Brock Purdy.
I’ve always found it funny that the more the NFL seems to prepare for the draft, the less accurate they seem to be with their analysis of who the best players will be in the long run. Despite adding the combine and pro days and so many more activities and all the access that teams have to tools for analysis, what’s really the difference between picking players in say 1975 (when Hall of Famers Randy White, Walter Payton, and Robert Brazile all went in the top-six) and picking players in 2023?
The cream always rises. Until some years when it doesn’t.
Though the Rams did trade their 2023 first round pick in a package for Stafford, and though L.A. would love to still have that sixth overall pick, there’s no guarantee that whoever the Lions choose will be better than who the Rams choose with their first pick at 36. The probabilities favor Detroit, but a weak draft class could actually help L.A. increase their odds of landing a gem in the second round.
Or potentially to get back into the first. Here are three reasons why I could see why.
1 - Teams take more risks early
If you do not pay attention to the draft until after the season, here’s what you will hear a lot of: “These quarterbacks do not deserve to go this high!” “Yes, they do!”
It’s common and expected for mock drafters to overrate quarterbacks because those names drive more clicks. It’s just a fact, this is a sport that gets a lot more attention in the media when a quarterback is involved. Last year, this led a lot of people to falsely proclaim that quarterbacks like Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, and Matt Corral would be going in the top-10, but none of those players ended up going in the first two rounds. Mel Kiper’s first mock draft last year not only had Kenny Pickett, Willis, and Corral in the first round, but also Sam Howell, who fell to the fifth!
Pickett was the only quarterback I had with a grade in the first round and he was the only quarterback I would have taken in the first two rounds. I got lucky and that’s what happened.
In Kiper’s first mock draft this year, he’s at it again and that’s what will drive controversy around prognostication once again: Kiper has C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson going in the top-nine picks. This despite the fact that Stroud didn’t have an excellent game until his college career finale, Levis has had five years to play well in the college level and he never did it, Richardson played in 13 games over three years and he wasn’t good in most of those, and yes, Young is 195 lbs or so.
But here’s the thing: If the draft class is as weak as it looks, Kiper may not be that far off base. We have not yet heard the teams are in love with edge players like Tyree Wilson or Myles Murphy; there isn’t an offensive tackle in this class like Andrew Thomas or Penei Sewell; there is no wide receiver in this class like Ja’Marr Chase or Jaylen Waddle; there is no cornerback in this class yet like Sauce Gardner; and the devaluation of positions like running back and tight end make it harder to project Bijan Robinson or Michael Mayer in the top-10.
For that reason, we might see teams decide that they’d rather take a risk on quarterback with Stroud, Levis, or Richardson in the top-15 picks rather than to take a risk on a position with a much lower value ceiling. And so every time you get a team like the Panthers, Titans, Commanders, Bucs, Vikings, etc. that decides “Let’s just take Richardson, we’ll sit him for two years behind Kirk Cousins”, it drops a better prospect at a non-QB position down one more slot in the draft order.
Jaren Hall with the best throw of Senior Bowl week pic.twitter.com/NMaWOLt2IO— Aaron Bagley (@aaronbag1ey) February 1, 2023
As long as the Rams have no interest in drafting a quarterback, and I imagine they don’t, then this is only good news. If the Rams get super lucky, then someone like Jaren Hall, Tanner McKee, or Hendon Hooker convinces a team to take them way higher than expected, sort of like Christian Ponder going to the Vikings in 2011 when yeah... that made no sense.
Similarly, if teams are feeling like they’re playing with house money a little bit then they could take risks at other positions that they normally wouldn’t take, like say a player who missed a lot of time with injury (Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba) or maybe there are three or four top-35 picks at running back (Jamhyr Gibbs, Devone Achane) and suddenly the draft board left at pick 36 looks a lot better than anyone expected it to be.
2 - Pick trade value goes down
If ever a GM needed to hear “Sorry, draft picks aren’t worth that much right now” it’s Les Snead and it’s right now.
As noted with the 2013 draft trade for Dion Jordan between the Dolphins and Raiders, a weak draft class means weak trade returns on picks. That’s another reason that I think last year’s class was not special: No draft day trades happened until the Saints moved up from 16 to 11 for Chris Olave, which set off two more trades immediately (Lions up for Jameson Williams, Eagles up for Jordan Davis) but it was a quiet day for the most part. And the costs were not prohibitive to move up.
New Orleans moved up five spots with Washington by giving up picks 98 and 120. Detroit moved up with 20 spots with Minnesota—32 to 12—but gave up picks 34, 66 and still got back pick 46! That’s nothing when you feel that Jameson Williams is maybe the only blue chip prospect left and you’re sitting with the last pick of the draft (from the Rams).
Teams did not have to give up future first round picks to trade up in the draft and this is something that could help Snead out in multiple ways.
First of all, it makes it less likely that Snead will trade his 36th overall pick for a veteran player (although the Eagles did trade pick 18 to the Titans for A.J. Brown, something to keep your eye on) because teams won’t see much value in the 36th player of a weak class until they know how the board falls.
Second of all, what if Snead is in the same position as Detroit’s Brad Holmes: He sees that a great player has fallen out of the top-15 picks or so and he wants him now. The Rams might not need to trade their 2024 first round pick to move up. Without a lot of action on the phone, teams will take the best offer given to them if they don’t feel the player is a fit for their roster, and it makes the cost to move up very meager.
Either the Rams could sit back because of reason 1 and let a good player fall to them in a weak class. Or they could see a player falling and move up without necessarily having to pay a high price. A weaker class is better for the Rams.
3 - Confusion
I just don’t think teams know yet how to react to everything that’s happening in college football lately. The transfer portal (which allows players for the first time ever to transfer to new division-I programs without sitting out a year like in the past) and the NIL (name-image-likeness deals that let college athletes get paid for the first time ever, sometimes millions of dollars) has turned the NCAA into something much closer to the NFL. It’s similar to trades and free agency and following the money.
It could also be very distracting for prospects and change their work ethic, their habits, their drive, their passion, their reasons for playing football, their intensity, their chemistry with teammates, their commitment to programs, their...(and I go on and on and on trailing off into oblivion).
This is setting aside the fact that college offenses and defenses remain very different than NFL teams and that GMs/coaches know they have a lot of coaching to do for these prospects, especially offensive linemen, it creates more guesswork. More risk. More chances. Fewer guarantees.
I’ll give you an example from my own life: I never once tried to do well in school up to my high school graduation. Grades were meaningless to me and trust me, it showed. I had no drive or motivation to do well in school. But then I got to college and I found out that now I had to start paying someone for education. “I’m paying for this?!??” My grades improved immensely and immediately.
The evaluation process is not as simple as watching tape, reading analytics/stats, and conducting interviews. A big chunk of it is guesswork and a cost-risk analysis similar to insurance rates in which teams must decide for themselves, “Who is the best risk/reward at this particular draft slot?”
I don’t think it is EVER meant to be: “This prospect is This good and he will do This for us in the NFL level.”
There’s a lot of “Well, I think he could do This, if we can get him to do That.”
The recruitment, transferring, and NIL process has really transformed each draft class and the evaluation process. Last year’s number one pick, Travon Walker, was widely considered to be one of the worst performers on Georgia’s defense in 2021. The Jaguars had to project that because of his unmatched athleticism that he would perform much better in their defense, executing the role that they wanted him to play, which would be different than the role he had at Georgia.
For a rookie, Walker’s season wasn’t bad and he seemed to be a better player in the NFL than he was at any point in college.
On the flip side, Georgia’s highest regard defender, Jordan Davis, has yet to show a significant impact in the league even though the team that picked him, the Eagles, is going to the Super Bowl. That’s a long-term grade that I can’t give yet, but what’s not disputable is that the NFL is doing a lot more projecting than they are valuing production and assuming that a player will have the same role moving forward.
This leads to confusion. And confusion in the first round could only help teams in the second round. Teams like the Rams.
Now can Les Snead avoid the confusion and just make the best pick of a bad bunch? That’s an article for 2025.