The NFL draft, anticipated as one of the most unpredictable in years, began with a spasm of predictability Thursday night as the Cleveland Browns used the first overall pick to select defensive end Myles Garrett, a physical marvel from Texas A&M who long ago emerged as the runaway consensus best prospect available.
And then it delivered on its promise of the unexpected, again and again. The surprises came in the form of three blockbuster trades among the first 12 selections, all between teams wishing to stockpile picks and teams willing to sacrifice them for a potential franchise quarterback.
In perhaps the strangest twist, those Browns – a team overloaded with draft picks, a franchise that has cycled through 26 starting quarterbacks since it returned to the NFL in 1999 – chose to acquire more picks rather than use the 12th overall selection to nab Deshaun Watson, the poised, multi-talented signal caller who led Clemson to the national title this past season.
Watson, who went to the Houston Texans following a trade for that No. 12 pick, became the third quarterback selected by a team rushing up the draft order.
The Chicago Bears made the first seismic deal when they moved up one spot from third overall to select North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick.
Kansas City followed eight picks later, moving from 27th to 10th to take Patrick Mahomes II, a raw and cannon-armed quarterback from Texas Tech.
The Bears gave the San Francisco 49ers their first-round pick (which they used to take Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas third overall), third- and fourth-round picks this year and a third-rounder in 2018.
The Bears’ move surprised on several levels.
Many expected the Browns to maneuver, using their haul of picks, into position to take Trubisky, an Ohio native who became the most coveted quarterback in the draft despite starting only 13 games at UNC. Trubisky completed 68 percent of his passes last season for 3,748 yards with 30 touchdowns against six interceptions.
During free agency, the Bears signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract. Trubisky, given his lack of experience, likely will apprentice under Glennon to begin his career. But few envisioned the Bears plucking the first quarterback.
“It’s crazy,” Trubisky said in an ESPN interview. “I didn’t think I was going to get picked until the commissioner called my name.”
Along with reasserting the extreme value of quarterbacks, the first round continued a mini-resurgence for running backs. The Jacksonville Jaguars took Leonard Fournette, a bruiser from LSU, with the fourth pick. Choosing eighth, the Carolina Panthers snagged Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, whose remarkable quickness will allow him to line up as a slot receiver for quarterback Cam Newton and also return punts.
In 2013 and 2014, no running backs went in the first round. But now at least one running back has been taken in the top 10 picks in three straight drafts. The Dallas Cowboys drew criticism for taking Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall last year, the highest choice used on a running back since 2012. But Elliott led the league in rushing, and the Cowboys reached the playoffs.
The glut of offensive players also included the surprisingly early selections of wide receivers Corey Davis (fifth to Tennessee), Mike Williams (seventh to the Chargers) and John Ross (ninth to Cincinnati). It caused many highly regarded defensive to drop. Safety Malik Hooker went to the Indianapolis Colts at 15th, and Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen lasted until the Washington Redskins at No. 17. Both had been projected as possible top-10 picks.
The very beginning, at least, had gone as expected. Some analysts questioned Garrett’s work ethic, stamina and ability to dominate top competition.
In Garrett’s three years at Texas A&M, 17 of his 31 sacks came against teams outside Power Five conferences, with 16 coming in five games against Texas San Antonio, Louisiana Monroe, Nevada, Rice and Lamar. Only twice did Garrett multiple sacks against a Power Five opponent.
But those are nitpicks given Garrett’s obvious pass-rushing potential. (And, anyway, didn’t anybody see the seven tackles – 3 1/2 of them for loss – Garrett recorded against Alabama last year?) Garrett stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 272 pounds, and yet he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds at the NFL Combine. The player Garrett most resembles is Denver Broncos pass-rushing demon Von Miller, another former Aggie who won the Super Bowl MVP two years ago.
“This kid has the same explosion off the ball, the same bend, the ability to pressure a quarterback,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said earlier this week. “And he’s 20 pounds heavier.”
Garrett’s selection provided the Browns’ first act in an eventful night. The Browns entered the draft with 11 picks, including two of the top 12 and five of the first 65. They had accumulated the arsenal, in part, by passing on quarterback Carson Wentz last year and acquiring picks from the Philadelphia Eagles. The bounty gave Cleveland, long known for draft misadventures, a chance to challenge its tortured history and turn around its 1-15 abomination in 2015.
If any team needed a quarterback, it was Cleveland. But when the draft broke perfectly for them to take Watson, they instead opted for more picks. The Browns acquired the 25th pick, which they used to select Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, and Houston’s first-rounder next year.
“Big things are coming,” Garrett said in an ESPN interview. “I can’t let them down, and I won’t let them down. We’re going to have something change right away.”
The Oakland Raiders made the most complex pick of the first round, taking Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley with the 23rd pick. Conley stands accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Cleveland hotel room in early April. Conley released a strong proclamation of his innocence this week. No charges or arrests have been made, and two witnesses – both friends of Conley – told police nothing happened.
The spectacle of the NFL draft continued its annual, unnerving ascension. More than 70,000 people – more than could have fit into the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field – packed an expanse surrounding the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Commissioner Roger Goodell kicked off the draft by walking behind the podium and receiving the fusillade of boos that comes with almost any public appearance he makes.
“Bring it, Philly,” Goodell said, waving his hands. “Come on.”