In an NFL draft focused early on stoppers, it was the goers – wide receivers – who stole the spotlight Thursday night.
Not simply prospects, either.
Yes, the first five selections came on the defensive side of the ball, including edge rushers Travon Walker of national champion Georgia to Jacksonville and Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan to Detroit at Nos. 1 and 2. It was the first time in 31 years that no player on offence went in the opening five picks.
So, naturally, the next five choices were on offence. And those kept coming: right through No. 12.
And the theme throughout the first 20 picks was to get guys who could catch the ball – including Philadelphia acquiring standout A.J. Brown from the Titans, and Arizona getting veteran Marquise Brown from the Ravens.
“The more playmakers we can have, the better,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
In all, six of the opening 18 selections were wideouts, starting with Southern California’s Drake London at No. 8 to Atlanta. He’ll team with tight end Kyle Pitts, the Falcons’ first-rounder in 2021, on a rebuilding attack.
“I mean it’s just two big dudes out there on the perimeter,” London said. “... Obviously, I’ve got to earn my stripes to get out there on the field with him.”
No quarterbacks went until 20th, when Pitt’s Kenny Pickett found out he can simply switch to another side of the practice facility as he joins the Steelers and perhaps become Ben Roethlisberger’s successor.
But this is a draft rich with linemen and defensive backs as well as wideouts.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Walker, who has some raw elements to his game but an extremely high ceiling for his skills, joins former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as the second straight top overall selection by the Jaguars.
“I’m definitely prepared for it, being the No. 1 pick,” Walker said. “I have to say there’s a lot of expectations behind that, but it’s just the game of football to me.”
Walker was a one-year starter whose production (13 tackles for loss and 9 1/2 sacks) doesn’t jump out because he was part of a deep rotation at Georgia. His talent level certainly impressed the Jaguars, the NFL’s worst team the past two years.
“He’s an athletic freak,” Georgia defensive co-ordinator Will Muschamp told The Associated Press. “I swear to God he could line up at middle linebacker and go be fine. I would take him at No. 1 and not even blink.”
The Jaguars didn’t blink.
Commissioner Roger Goodell began the proceedings by estimating more than 100,000 fans were on hand at the theatre built specifically for the draft. Walker was not in Las Vegas.
Hutchinson, a sack-master whose consistency and relentlessness helped the Wolverines to their first College Football Playoff, is staying home as a pro. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder whose father Chris was a star player at Michigan in the 1990s, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season.
“I always wanted to be at Detroit. I’m grateful to be a Lion,” he said.
Cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner went next, to the Texans and Jets, respectively.
LSU’s Stingley is the grandson of former Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley, who was paralyzed in a 1978 pre-season game. Gardner, of Cincinnati, was a major reason the Bearcats broke through into the College Football Playoff last season. He wore a brash bejewelled necklace proclaiming his nickname, and even an accessorized chain with a bejewelled sauce bottle.
“I know I’m going to be a great teammate and I’m going to be a sponge, somebody that’s able to take information from everyone and not feeling like I’m too good for anyone,” Gardner said. “Just being a hard worker.”
The defensive run concluded with Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux to the New York Giants.
“I’m at this nirvana. I’m at peace,” he said, noting that Hall of Famer Michael Strahan has been a mentor. “It’s put up or shut up.”
When teams got around to the other side of the ball, they couldn’t stop. It began with North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu to Carolina and Alabama tackle Evan Neal to the Giants. Both teams are needy, to say the least, up front.
“It feels good legacy-wise,” Ekwonu said. “You know, kind of cemented myself in history of this draft class. I know this class is gonna be special.”
He loved the idea of staying in Carolina.
“My mom cried the second I picked the phone up,” Ekwonu said. “Honestly, it was just like surreal. Growing up being a Panthers fan and being able to play on a team that you grew up being a fan is really almost like a movie almost. It’s crazy.”
Seattle went for tackle Charles Cross of Mississippi State at No. 9. Then came three more receivers: Garrett Wilson of Ohio State to the Jets and college teammate Chris Olave to New Orleans, which traded up with Washington for the 11th slot; and Alabama’s Jameson Williams, coming off a serious knee injury, to Detroit, which moved up in a deal with division-rival Minnesota.
Another Georgia standout, defensive tackle Jordan Davis, was taken by Philadelphia at 13 after yet another deal, getting matters back to the defensive side. Later on, linebacker Quay Walker of the Bulldogs went to Green Bay, as did teammate Devante Wyatt. It’s the first time four players from the same defence went so early. And it became five when Minnesota concluded the dizzying first round by getting Georgia safety Lewis Cine.
The Jets got three players when they traded back into the first round to get the 26th spot from Tennessee once they saw Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson slipped. Johnson previously had been at Georgia.
Penn State’s Jahan Dotson joined the receiving parade, going to Washington at No. 16, then the Titans added Arkansas WR Treylon Burks with the pick acquired for A.J. Brown.
“I think it’s a really valuable position,” Wilson said. “And I think the league is starting to show that in drafts and in the off-season. Being a receiver, I love to see it. You see people like Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, I mean those people, they change offences. You know, Ja’Marr Chase, they change offences, and I’m happy that receivers are starting to get that love.”
While passers went in the initial three spots of 2021, there was some thought none would go in the first round this year. But Pickett fell to the Steelers, which sure seems like a comfortable fit for both player and team.
Pickett came back for a fifth season and that decision certainly paid off. He took Pitt to its first ACC title.
Just after Pickett was, uh, picked, two players who were projected by many as second-rounders were chosen: Quay Walker and tackle Tyler Smith to Tulsa. So the Packers did not get an offensive helper for league MVP Aaron Rodgers on Thursday, but the Cowboys addressed a fading offensive line.
AFC champion Cincinnati got Michigan safety Dax Hill before Minnesota kept the Georgia connection going by taking Cine.
No wonder the Bulldogs won the national championship.
Overall 12 SEC players were chosen, with seven from the Big Ten, four from the ACC and Pac-12 each, and two from the AAC. There were two FCS players – Northern Iowa tackle Trevor Penning to New Orleans, Chattanooga guard Cole Strange to New England – and one from Notre Dame, safety Kyle Hamilton to Baltimore.
Georgia had its five defenders, while Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State each had two first-rounders.