Now that the 2021 NFL draft is behind us, we can begin our ever-astute analysis of our teams’ fortunes for the coming season, outlandish as it may be. We can also assess team drafts in the context of their respective drafting histories. Some AFC North teams have notorious, overly-documented drafting issues, while others require a look at their draft histories, which I’ll link, to determine where their drafting prowess may fall short.
For simplicity, we’ll limit this to the previous decade (2011-2020) and the first three rounds of each draft, and will not include this year’s draft crop except to mention their existence at points, as they have yet to play a single NFL down or record any professional statistics.
We’ll start with the obvious…
If you’re a Ravens fan, sportswriter, commentator, blogger, or just a fan of the NFL in general, you’ve typed “the Ravens have a notoriously bad history of drafting wide receivers” at least once. This particular issue has become almost laughingly predictable, and it’s not limited to the last decade – the Ravens’ run of futility at drafting wideouts spans their entire existence as the Ravens. This year’s addition of first-round WR Rashod Bateman notwithstanding, the best the Ravens have drafted at the position begins and pretty much ends with the 2011 second-round selection of WR Torrey Smith, who retains the dubious distinction of being the only drafted WR in team history to record a 1,000-yard season (2013). Other proverbial swings and misses include such luminaries as 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman and current roster holdovers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, selected in the first and third rounds, respectively, of the 2019 draft, and whose chances to produce may become limited if neither breaks through and posts better numbers in 2021. Given the history, I say the odds are pretty long both make it to 2022 as Ravens.
The Browns are tough to analyze from this perspective, as they’ve shored up a number of weaknesses through the draft in recent years, but also had several notable draft failures at several positions through the last decade. For instance, prior to their 2018 selection of RB Nick Chubb, who has become one of the NFL’s best at the position currently, their success drafting RBs was minimal. Although the solution may be in their midst already, safety appears to be the team’s biggest draft problem. It might partially be due to the fact they haven’t really tried; dating back to 2011, the Browns drafted a safety in the first three rounds exactly twice, and one of those (2020 first-rounder Grant Delpit) was injured for his entire rookie season. Their history at the position hasn’t exactly been awful overall; one of the reasons for not drafting a safety until 2014 was the presence of oft-injured 2010 second-rounder T.J. Ward, who the team chose not to retain after his rookie deal expired, and whose injury history, despite solid play, was just too prohibitive for a long-term deal. The team hopes Delpit can provide the defensive backfield answers they sorely need in 2021, lest this run of mediocre safety play continue.
An argument can be made that the last cornerback drafted by the Steelers to have any NFL success was 2003 fourth-rounder Ike Taylor. Certainly, the last decade has produced its share of draft clunkers at the position, including 2011 third-rounder Curtis Brown, 2015 second-rounder Senquez Golson, 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns and 2019 third-rounder Justin Layne, who’s still on the roster but has yet to produce. The lone bright spot has been the emergence of 2018 third-rounder Cameron Sutton, who’s penciled in for a starting job in 2021. More often than not, the Steelers have had to rely on free agency (CB Joe Haden) and trades (S Minkah Fitzpatrick) to fill out their secondary, and have been moderately successful overall, which mitigates some of the failures to land more secondary talent in the draft. For a team that’s justifiably prided itself on drafting and retaining defensive stars like CBs Mel Blount and Rod Woodson, this particular weakness must be a bit galling. The Steelers aren’t known as a franchise that likes to spend in free agency, so we can probably expect them to continue to spend draft capital to try to fix this obvious problem.
Like the Browns, the Bengals have had notable personnel drafting issues over the last decade, but no particular area seemed to be a systemic problem until all factors were considered, such as eventual playing time; to be cliché, “a player’s best ability is availability”. To that end, the Bengals’ biggest drafting problem has been at tight end. The team figured they had a long-term solution in 2011 with the previous year’s selection of Jermaine Gresham, who was good until he wasn’t, with injuries, shoddy routes and a marked decline in the quality of his play all contributing to his exit. The team drafted the widely-acknowledged best TE in the draft in 2013, Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, whose availability seemed to be a constant question mark. Eifert has finished a season without injury exactly once, and has since moved on to Jacksonville in free agency, most likely due to his literal lack of on-field presence. More recent additions include 2015 third-rounder Tyler Kroft (now a Jet) and 2019 second-rounder Drew Sample, who’s expected to assume starter minutes and production in 2021.
There’s no real conclusion to be made here, except to point out that your team is pretty bad at something. I tend to justify draft failures as scouting failures, but it’s just as often simply bad luck. Long runs of futility may indicate a deeper issue, such as a lack of expertise in evaluating a particular area. Or they may not.