The first part of the 2018 NFL season has officially come to pass with the end of the 2018 NFL Draft. Every team has added young, talented players to their respective squads, but some teams fared better than others. This installment of the 2018 NFL Draft grades series takes an in-depth breakdown of the NFC North and NFC South drafts.
NFC North and NFC South 2018 NFL Draft Grades
Chicago Bears: B+
The Chicago Bears first two rounds rival the first two selections of anyone in the league. With the eighth overall pick, the Bears selected the best linebacker in the draft, Roquan Smith. Smith is a dynamic linebacker capable of doing just about everything that first-year head coach Vic Fangio could ask of him. He’s a physical freak, and can line up all over the defense, and has the football IQ to play multiple roles. Chicago’s defense was already a solid unit, but the Smith selection could make it a top-ten unit.
The second round was devoted to making quarterback Mitch Trubisky comfortable, and the Bears hit with both their picks. James Daniels was a great steal and was viewed by some as a mid-first talent. He should go a long way in helping to keep Trubisky upright.
Anthony Miller just adds to an already revamped receiving core. The second-round selection fits his projected talent, but he may struggle to find the field. After signing Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency, the Bears should have one of the deeper receiving corps in the league. Miller will probably face a lot of single coverage and should light up the stat sheet whenever he’s on the field. However, right now he’s third at best on the depth chart.
The biggest surprise for the Bears is that they didn’t select any edge defenders. After losing Pernell McPhee in free agency and former first-round pick Leonard Floyd disappointing, it seemed like the Bears would target pass rushing help. However, they never did. In an otherwise talented defense, the lack of edge defense is the biggest weakness for opposing offenses to attack.
Detroit Lions: B
The Detroit Lions focused more on offense than most expected in head coach Matt Patricia’s first draft. With their first pick, they selected center Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas. While the pick surprised most, Ragnow was the best center left on the board, and it’s never a bad idea to invest in the offensive line. Ragnow is a great run blocker and pass blocker and immediately upgrades the offensive line. He can play all three interior positions, which only increases his value.
The Lions run game has been historically bad, as they haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013. Detroit tried to rectify that by trading up in the second round for Kerryon Johnson. Johnson immediately becomes the most talented running back since Bush, and he has the chance to be a true difference maker as a rookie. He has a running style similar to Le’Veon Bell and should be an impact player out of the backfield. If defenses have to respect the run, then that will only continue to open the field for Matthew Stafford and the aerial attack.
It was curious to see how little the Lions invested in their defense. Stafford alone makes the offense a top-ten unit, but the defense has held the Lions back in recent seasons. With a defensive-minded coach in Matt Patricia, conventional wisdom said that this draft would be used for Patricia to make his dream defense. That didn’t happen, as Detroit will field basically the same defense as 2017. Perhaps better coaching will increase production, but the Lions defense could have used a few more new faces.
Green Bay Packers: B+
The Green Bay Packers learned the hard way that having quarterback Aaron Rodgers can mask a lot of team flaws. With Rodgers missing the majority of the 2017 season, the Packers struggled to a 7-9 record with a defense that couldn’t stop anybody. First-year general manager Brian Gutekunst knew this was a problem, and made the first step to fix the problem with the selection of Jaire Alexander.
After trading out of their initial 14th overall selection, Green Bay moved back in exchange for a king’s ransom while still getting a great player that fills a need. Alexander is a great cornerback prospect, capable of taking away an entire side of the field when he’s at his best. With how thin the Packers are at cornerback, Alexander could be the top cornerback on the roster entering the season.
Green Bay doubled down on corners, selecting Josh Jackson with their second pick in the draft. Typically, teams don’t double down on the same position this early, but the Packers secondary is easily bad enough to justify this. Jackson, while less polished than Alexander, arguably offers a higher upside. These two picks will go a long way in revamping a subpar defense.
While Green Bay did their job with the secondary, they didn’t invest much in fixing the pass rush. Outside of Clay Matthews, the Packers don’t have an edge player that can consistently rush the quarterback and play the run. That hasn’t changed after the draft. Granted, the Packers defense had too many holes to fix in one draft, but it was surprising to see so little invested in edge defenders.
Minnesota Vikings: C+
The Minnesota Vikings boast one of the deepest rosters in the league and didn’t have too many areas of need entering the draft. They were truly capable of drafting the best player available, which led to the Mike Hughes selection.
The Vikings don’t particularly need a cornerback, but there’s no denying Hughes’ talents. He’s a little smaller than the ideal cornerback, but he has all the talent in the world to play outside. In many way, Minnesota was the perfect landing spot for Hughes. He’s considered a raw prospect, and Minnesota’s stacked defense means he won’t be forced to play until he’s ready. He may not contribute much as a rookie, but he should be a major force in 2019 and beyond.
The one glaring weakness on the Vikings roster was the offensive line, Minnesota didn’t do much to fix that. They added an offensive tackle Brian O’Neill in the second round, but he’s more of a developmental prospect. Minnesota’s director of college scouting said O’Neill doesn’t have the strength to play right away, so he’s not a plug-and-play pick. Fortunately, with stopgap tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers ahead of him, he doesn’t need to be ready right away.
The Vikings still don’t have an answer along the interior offensive line. Minnesota’s interior line is one of the worst in football and has been the Achilles heel of this team for the past few seasons. Unless sixth-round selection Colby Gossett turns out to be a steal, that won’t be changing. With new quarterback Kirk Cousins under center, Minnesota should have focused more resources on making sure their quarterback took as little damage as possible.
Atlanta Falcons: A-
The Atlanta Falcons may have lost Taylor Gabriel in free agency, but they more than made up for it in the NFL draft. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who many had as the best receiver in the draft, somehow fell into Atlanta’s lap at the 26th overall pick.
Ridley’s a genuine force capable of serving as the number one receiver on most teams, but pairing him with Julio Jones is just unfair. This duo immediately becomes one of the best in the league, and that’s not even accounting for Mohamed Sanu as the third receiver. Factor in a top-ten quarterback slinging the ball in Matt Ryan, and this offense should be nearly impossible to stop.
The Falcons got another steal with the next selection, drafting highly talented cornerback Isiah Oliver with the 58th overall pick. Many analysts had Oliver as a late-first or early-second round selection, so grabbing him at the end of the second round was yet another great move. The Falcons didn’t desperately need a cornerback, but Oliver will certainly improve the unit. In today’s pass-happy NFL, there’s no such thing as too many defensive backs.
Quality offensive linemen are hard to find, and almost every team has a need. However, despite the high demand, it’s surprising to see the Falcons not even try to add a developmental prospect. The Falcons took running back Ito Smith in the fourth round, despite the fact he won’t have much of a chance to see the field. Devonta Freeman is one of the best backs in the league, and Tevin Coleman would be starting for most teams. There were still a few high-upside guards on the board at this time, yet the Falcons went a different direction.
Carolina Panthers: B+
After spending years ignoring the wide receiver position, the Carolina Panthers finally invested in a true number one option for Cam Newton. At pick 24, the Panthers made DJ Moore the first receiver off the board. Newton hasn’t had a true do-everything receiver since Steve Smith left in 2014, until now. Smith himself was an analyst at the NFL Draft, and he proclaimed Moore the heir to his throne. That alone says everything about how great a selection this was.
The Panthers secondary was good in 2017, but it fell victim to speedy receivers multiple times over the course of the season. The scouting department correctly identified this flaw and set to fix it with the selection of cornerback Donte Jackson. Jackson was one of the fastest players at the NFL Combine, recording a 4.32-second 40-yard dash. His tape backs up that speed, and his presence should be a welcome addition to the Panthers secondary.
Interestingly, the Panthers didn’t take a running back to fill the shoes of Jonathan Stewart. Stewart was a great back in his day, but his 2017 tape showed that his day has passed. He excelled as a between the tackles rusher, and Carolina currently doesn’t have a player like that on the roster.
Yes, the Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey last season, and he performed well as a rookie. However, most of his positives came in the passing game, while he struggled running the ball. He could be one of the best third-down backs in the league, but the Panthers need a thunder to McCaffrey’s lightning. Unless they believe McCaffrey can make a big second-year leap, they don’t have that thunder.
New Orleans Saints: C+
Players Added: Marcus Davenport, Tre’quan Smith, Rick Leonard, Natrell Jamerson, Kamrin Moore, Boston Scott, Will Clapp
The New Orleans Saints realize their championship window with Drew Brees is closing, so they went all in to build the best 2018 roster they could. That mentality was never more obvious than when the Saints sent a king’s ransom to the Packers to select Marcus Davenport. Davenport’s a great talent, there’s no denying that. However, was it worth giving up two first-round picks and the 147th overall selection? That’s debatable. Frankly, it was only a 13-spot jump and probably wasn’t worth giving up that type of capital. The move will hurt New Orleans in the long run but will serve its purpose in the short term.
The Saints may have found a diamond in the rough with Will Clap late in the seventh round. He’ll never become a Hall of Famer, but he has the potential to make a serious impact on the roster. While in college, Clapp played all three interior line positions and created gaps for Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice during his tenure. It would likely require injuries for him to start, he could be a solid backup for years to come.
While Clapp was a steal, the other offensive lineman selected was not. The Saints reached big time in the fourth round when they selected offensive tackle Rick Leonard. While Leonard does have the size of an NFL offensive lineman, he’s only an average athlete and is still a major project. Most analysts had him going undrafted, just because he’s so raw and his ceiling isn’t that high. Perhaps the Saints saw something nobody else did, but right now, the Coleman selection looks like a wasted pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: B
For the first time in NFL history, four quarterbacks were selected with the first ten picks. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the prime beneficiaries of this, as it allowed defensive tackle Vita Vea to fall into their lap at 12. Vea was arguably the best interior pass rusher in the draft and would have easily been a top-ten selection most years. Tampa Bay didn’t need another defensive lineman, but the value was too good to pass up. Send a prayer to the NFC South quarterbacks, because the defensive line of Vea, Jason Pierre-Paul, Gerald McCoy, and Vinny Curry should wreak havoc week in and week out.
After six years on the Doug Martin roller coaster, Tampa Bay is starting anew with Ronald Jones heading the backfield. Selecting a running back was obvious but was Jones the right guy for the job? He was taken 38th overall when there were still plenty of potential stars on the board. Additionally, running backs aren’t worth what they used to be, and Tampa probably could have found a similar caliber running back in the third or fourth round.
If linebacker Jack Cichy can stay healthy, he should be able to contribute immediately on the defense. His draft stock plummeted after missing 2017 with an injury, but he was one of the better linebackers in college football in 2016. Obviously, it’s difficult to come back from a serious injury under any circumstances, but that challenge increases tenfold along with learning the NFL game. Those factors mean he probably won’t contribute much in 2018, but he could play a role in 2019 and beyond.
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