If those running the Football Outsiders website had any say in the matter, observers, journalists, and fans wouldn’t attempt to evaluate an NFL Draft class until six years after it first entered the league. Instead, we live in a world where the NFL has no offseason thanks to the playoffs, scouting combine, individual workouts, the actual draft and then training camp sessions that provide discussion points for sports talk radio hosts, writers and customers 12 months out of the year. Thus, those of us in the football community happily scrutinize decisions made during a player selection process such as the 2018 NFL Draft after only one season. Hey, nobody ever said the NFL was fair.
It should be pointed out that none of the supposed biggest mistakes from the 2018 NFL Draft spotlighted in this piece will necessarily sink a franchise for any real period of time. Miscues can be remedied during a subsequent draft or via free agency, and first-year pros who struggled to find their feet in the league as rookies sometimes just need a little time to reach their ceilings and silence critics and doubters. Every team in the NFL has some sort of buyer’s remorse during the winter months. It’s an inevitable part of roster building. Will any one of these apparent mistakes from the 2018 NFL Draft be seen as a genius move come 2024?
20 Mistake: Cleveland Browns draft Denzel Ward
As well as cornerback Denzel Ward performed for the Cleveland Browns during the opening half of his rookie campaign, there remain fears that the franchise reached by taking him with the fourth overall pick, despite the fact he made the Pro Bowl. He suffered multiple concussions his first season in the league, and others taken after him may prove to be better value selections. Drafting any cornerback with a top-five pick in the modern NFL is a risk. If the Browns were truly this high on him, the franchise could have traded down. The Browns also could have remained at pick No.4, and taken a Rookie of the Year candidate.
19 Should have done: Take Derwin James
Three days into January 2019, Pro Football Focus named Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James as their Defensive Rookie of the Year. James showed during his first campaign that he can feature at multiple positions in the secondary when asked. He appeared in all 16 regular season contests for the Chargers. He led his team in total tackles, and he tallied three interceptions. Taken 17th overall by Los Angeles, James has to be considered the top steal of the first round. The Browns could have used him in the secondary, and Cleveland also could have gotten him after trading the fourth pick for additional assets.
18 Mistake: Baltimore Ravens draft Hayden Hurst
A tight end who is taken in the first round of any draft needs to produce special stats to have been worth the value placed on him. That wasn’t the case for Baltimore Ravens rookie Hayden Hurst, who became somewhat lost in the shuffle in an offense that changed quarterbacks after Joe Flacco suffered an injury. Hurst is a first-round pick in name only as of the winter months after he split snaps with multiple teammates, including fellow rookie Mark Andrews. Andrews had the better season among the two, and he, not Hurst, deserves to be atop the depth chart when training camp sessions open.
17 Should have done instead: Draft Calvin Ridley
Obviously, nobody can say what wide receiver Calvin Ridley, drafted by the Atlanta Falcons one pick after the Baltimore Ravens grabbed Hayden Hurst, would have accomplished had he not played alongside Julio Jones his first season in the NFL. Ridley nevertheless met expectations had for him as a rookie, notching ten touchdown grabs, 64 catches, and 821 receiving yards. Six of those scores occurred during the first month of the campaign. Ridley would have filled a hole on the Baltimore depth chart that could use a real No. 1 option at the position. Lamar Jackson would probably prefer to have Ridley instead of Hurst as an option in the passing attack.
16 Mistake: Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft Ronald Jones III
It’s still early days into Ronald Jones’ NFL tenure, but the second-round pick looks more like a bust than a future star for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as of January 2019. The running back was barely a member of his team’s rushing attack by the final month of the season, and he received only 23 carries as a rookie while being relegated to special teams duties. However, a new coaching staff is headed to Tampa Bay. Maybe those individuals will determine that Jones was wasted and can still contribute in a big way on offense. Unless that happens, the Bucs taking him will be viewed as one of the biggest mistakes of the 2018 NFL Draft.
15 Should have done instead: Draft Kerryon Johnson
Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson didn’t quite match Rookie of the Year predictions some made ahead of the season, but we’ll never know all that he could have accomplished his first season in the league had an MCL sprain not cost him the final six games of the campaign. In ten appearances, Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and he ended the year with 641 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, and a receiving score. The 21-year-old selected five picks after the Bucs grabbed Ronald Jones will enter 2019 as Detroit’s No. 1 back as long as he is fully recovered from what isn’t supposed to be a long-term setback.
14 Mistake: Pittsburgh Steelers draft Terrell Edmunds
The good news as it pertains to Pittsburgh Steelers rookie safety Terrell Edmunds is that he appeared in all 16 regular season games. Edmunds, drafted 28th overall, wasn’t what the Steelers needed in value or on the field for much of his first season, however, and some Pittsburgh fans probably can’t help but wonder if things would have gone differently for the team that barely missed the playoffs had the Steelers spent this draft selection more wisely. Edmunds may, in time, become a cornerstone for a Pittsburgh defense that helps Ben Roethlisberger make one final Super Bowl run. For now, though, the Steelers probably have some draft regrets.
13 Should have done instead: Draft Darius Leonard
As the risk of trolling passionate Pittsburgh fans: How good would linebacker Darius Leonard look in black and gold? Taken by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round, Leonard is the top-rated defensive rookie according to ESPN’s Jeff Legwold and some others. The 23-year-old tallied seven sacks, led his team in total tackles with 163 (no, that’s not a typo) and produced one of the best defensive debut seasons of the decade. Even worse for the Steelers, Leonard would fill a glaring gap at the position. One can’t blame only Pittsburgh for missing out, though, as just about every team made a mistake in not acquiring Leonard in the first round.
12 Mistake: Miami Dolphins draft Mike Gesicki
When the Miami Dolphins used a second-round pick on Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, there was hope that he would develop into a starter and key contributor in the passing game right out of the gates. Gesicki’s struggles in training camp and summer practices were glimpses into the future, though, as he tallied 22 catches and zero touchdowns his first year in the league. Not all tight ends figure things out right away, and the Dolphins remain high on the 23-year-old as a new coaching staff prepares to take over. We’ll have to wait and see how much patience that staff has regarding Gesicki.
11 Should have done: Draft Chris Herndon
Nobody will confuse New York Jets tight end Chris Herndon for the next Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce after his first season in the NFL. The fourth-round pick produced much better stats than the previously mentioned Mike Gesicki, though, and Herndon did so while playing with a first-year signal-caller who went through his own ups and downs. According to NFL.com, Herndon’s 39 receptions led the league among rookie tight ends. He also added four touchdowns to his short resume. Mark Andrews, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round, was also available for the Miami Dolphins when that franchise drafted Gesicki.
10 Mistake: Cincinnati Bengals draft Billy Price
The most important ability for any professional athlete is availability, so goes the familiar phrase, and that’s why the Cincinnati Bengals drafting center Billy Price is a mistake as of January 2019. Price suffered a foot injury in Week 2 that cost him nearly half his rookie year, and he struggled to find momentum and consistency when on the field. Like other teams mentioned in this piece, the Bengals will have a new head coach in the spring and summer of 2019. That coach, along with his staff, must find the best way to get the most out of Price, a first-round pick who probably wouldn’t be taken in the first 32 selections if a redraft occurred during the winter.
9 Should have done: Draft Will Hernandez
Like many first-year offensive linemen, second-round pick Will Hernandez struggled during the first few weeks of the regular season as part of an awful New York Giants front unit. Hernandez became an iron man who didn’t miss a snap and who helped Eli Manning remain on his feet during the second half of the campaign, though, and he appears to be part of the team’s much-needed solution for what was one of the worst o-lines in recent memory. The Bengals could use bodies and depth up front, and Hernandez looks far more the part than Price less than a year after the 2018 NFL Draft.
8 Mistake: Oakland Raiders draft Kolton Miller
The Oakland Raiders, specifically Jon Gruden, purportedly tanked the 2018 campaign to build for a future that may or may not include the team starting Derek Carr at quarterback during the 2020s, so pretty much everybody associated with the season’s edition of the club deserves a pass. This doesn’t erase that offensive tackle Kolton Miller, drafted 15th overall by the Raiders, had a rough go of it his rookie year. Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area called Miller’s first season “painful,” but injuries did affect the 23-year-old who checks in at 6-foot-8 and over 300 pounds. He deserves a clean slate for 2019.
7 Should have done: Draft one of a handful of other players
No one player is fixing the Oakland Raiders this offseason, so you could have your pick of guys the team should have drafted instead of Kolton Miller. Linebackers Darius Leonard, Tremaine Edmunds, and Leighton Vander Esch were all available and would be good fits in Oakland. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley was on the board. Nick Chubb would be the best running back on the depth chart of the Raiders today had the team taken him with a first-round pick or traded down and then drafted him. Fans of the club have to hope the team will use future first-round selections better moving forward. Otherwise, Gruden’s popularity may further fade.
6 Mistake: Seattle Seahawks draft Rashaad Penny
The Seattle Seahawks used a first-round draft pick on a running back who never earned the top spot on the depth chart on a full-time basis, and who was third on the team in rushing yards. That’s nothing short of a waste considering the value teams place on backs who aren’t elite players such as Saquon Barkley. In total, Penny received only 85 carries his first season in the league, which says plenty about what the Seahawks thought of him by Week 17. Truth be told, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Seattle attempted to shop him to a team willing to rebuild his reputation ahead of this year’s draft.
5 Should have done: Draft Nick Chubb
The Seattle Seahawks finished the 2018 regular season with more rushing yards than any other franchise. Imagine what the Seahawks could have accomplished had the team drafted Nick Chubb late in the first round instead of Rashaad Penny. Chubb ended December as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, along with Cleveland Browns teammate Baker Mayfield, and the 23-year-old probably would have had an even better campaign with a Seahawks team that would have given more carries than he received in Cleveland over his first six games. This is a mistake that could cost the Seahawks for years since the team could have had Chubb’s rights secured through at least 2021.
4 Mistake: Tampa Bay Buccaneers trade down
The Buffalo Bills made a big move when the team traded with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go up in the first round and draft quarterback Josh Allen. If only those running the Bucs at that time would have known that quarterback Jameis Winston would miss the first four games of the 2018 season following an off-field incident and continue his downward (or stationary, at best) career trajectory. Bruce Arians is about to be Winston’s next coach in Tampa Bay if the Bucs keep the signal-caller, but the franchise may have been able to avoid another reset had the team not traded with the Bills and, instead, taken one of the signal-callers available.
3 Should have done: Draft a Quarterback
You can pick your favorite of the QBs who were drafted after Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold went off the big board. Josh Allen made plays with his arm and his legs, and he gave some hope to fans of the Buffalo Bills that the team may have a franchise quarterback. Josh Rosen experienced highs and lows as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals. Lamar Jackson was far from perfect after he became the starter with the Baltimore Ravens, and there are some who question whether or not he can consistently throw the football at the highest level. The Bucs drafting any one of them would have allowed the franchise to move on from Winston.
2 Mistake: New York Giants staying put
So much has and will continue to be made about the New York Giants drafting running back Saquon Barkley instead of a quarterback. To steal the line from the popular commercial/meme: Why not both? The Baltimore Ravens moved back into the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft to get Lamar Jackson after the team selected Hayden Hurst, because the franchise knew it had to plan for life after Joe Flacco. The jury remains out on if Jackson has the talent and skills to guide the Ravens back to the Super Bowl, but the Ravens deserve credit for being bold and doing what the Giants could, and should, have done.
1 Should have done: Trade back into the first round for a QB
It’s easy, months after the fact, to claim that the Giants should have moved up to the 32nd overall pick to grab Lamar Jackson as did the Baltimore Ravens. That wasn’t New York’s only option after landing Saquon Barkley. Maybe the Giants could have packaged enough assets to climb high enough to grab either Josh Allen or Josh Rosen. Even if Big Blue had to “settle” for Lamar Jackson in a fictional scenario, he would have been an upgrade to the QB room over Kyle Lauletta. Maybe Jackson would have sat and learned behind Eli Manning for an entire season before being given the keys to the team’s offense in 2019.