Looking Back at Dak, Zeke, and the Cowboys’ 2016 Draft

NFL Draft – Malik Willis? Kenny Pickett? Matt Corral? Experts have spent the last year and change slicing and dicing 2022’s class of quarterback prospects and have found them mostly wanting. Benjamin Robinson’s latest mock draft has none of the top names hitting the top eight and just three going in the first round entirely. The general scouting consensus seems to be that there are no sure-fire success stories in this year’s draft. How scouts long for a class filled with guaranteed successes like, er, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.

Every April at Football Outsiders, we look back on the drafts of yesteryear in preparation for the draft that’s coming up. As we approach the 2022 draft, it’s time to close the books on 2016.

While the 2022 trade market is all about dealing first-round picks for experienced veterans, in 2016 it was all a race to see which teams could give up the most capital to jump to the top of the draft. With Goff and Wentz locked as first and second on most teams’ big boards, quarterback-needy teams lined up to try to outbid each other for the top spot. This put the Tennessee Titans in the driver’s seat, as they were already set at the position with Marcus Mariota. The 2016 draft was the first since 2001 to see the top pick traded away, and no one has traded away No. 1 since. In addition, the Cleveland Browns’ new analytically inclined Sashi Brown-led regime was eager to deal with the runners-up and dealt away the second overall pick as well, the first time since 1997 that the top two slots changed hands.

That’s unlikely to be matched in 2022, but there are some other parallels between this year’s draft and 2016’s. In both cases, there was a vague general consensus that the most talented player, regardless of position, was an edge rusher—Joey Bosa six years ago, Aidan Hutchinson today. Both drafts boasted fairly deep offensive line classes, with Ikem Ekwonu and Evan Neal being this year’s Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley. Both draft classes were considered comparatively weak at the top as well. With each holding a grade of 94, Hutchinson and Bosa tie for Scouts Inc’s lowest-rated top prospect in any class.

Things turned out alright for 2016, all things considered. What was billed as one of the best classes in recent memory for the offensive and defensive lines turned into a fairly successful one across the board. The class has already produced 31 Pro Bowlers, with every single one of the top eight picks ending up a Pro Bowler or All-Pro. It ended up being a fairly deep draft too, with arguably the best players in the class being taken on Day 3. All in all, it was a fairly difficult draft to screw up.

Yes, we hear you, Jason Licht fans, we’ll get to you.

For a reminder of who went where, Pro Football Reference is your source for all the picks in the draft and their basic statistics, while Pro Sports Transactions is a great way to trace draft pick trades.

Quarterbacks

Conventional Wisdom: Team Jared or Team Carson? It seemed inevitable that for the second year in a row, the top two picks would be quarterbacks—but which one would go first? California’s Jared Goff was on the classic trail to NFL superstardom: an elite high school recruit, a starter from Day 1 as a freshman at a top college program, and someone who really did look the part. Scouts called him one of the smartest quarterbacks to enter the NFL in years, an expert at reading defenses both pre- and post-snap in Cal’s Bear Raid offense. His release was top of the class, clean and snappy with enough zip on it to thread the ball into tight windows anywhere on the field. Yes, his accuracy and decision-making occasionally showed lapses, and his small, 9-inch hands were a cause for concern, but Goff started the draft process as the top quarterback on most team’s big boards. He was the next Matt Ryan, as close to NFL-ready as it was possible to be in the age of spread offenses.

North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, on the other hand, was a fast riser. Playing in FCS isn’t the same as being a full-time FBS starter, but Wentz led the Bison to FCS titles in each of his two seasons as a starter. He excelled at the Senior Bowl. He was in the top three at the combine in the 40-yard dash, broad jump, and 3-cone drill. He wowed at his pro day, with Gil Brandt calling it one of the best he had ever witnessed, reminding him of Joe Flacco. Even Wentz’s greatest backers admitted he was a bit of a project as he jumped to the NFL, but in some ways, he was more “pro ready” than Goff was; he had spent much of his career under center rather than in the shotgun. He checked every box in terms of arm strength, size, and athleticism. His intangibles were off the charts; he had a composed, confident personality that was ready for the bright lights of the NFL stage. A riskier pick, to be certain, but if his FCS-level play could translate to the NFL, he was going to be a star.

The Rams traded up to first overall on April 14; the Eagles traded to second overall on April 20. That locked Goff and Wentz in as No. 1 and No. 2 in some order a week before the draft began, leading other teams to scramble for the second-tier passers. Three stood out. Memphis’ Paxton Lynch was the top dual-threat quarterback in the mold of a Vince Young or Colin Kaepernick; a one-read passer but exceptional out of the pocket. Michigan State’s Connor Cook was a proven winner, willing to trust his arm and throw the ball into coverage to let his receivers make a play. And then there was the polarizing Christian Hackenberg out of Penn State. Hackenberg looked like a sure-fire first-round pick under Bill O’Brien, but regressed hard after being placed in a spread offense when O’Brien left for the NFL. He was either a potential starter or utterly undraftable, depending on whom you spoke to.

Here at Football Outsiders, QBASE saw a clear winner in the class—it was Jared Goff, clear as day. Goff came in with a projected 1,211 DYAR in Years 3 to 5, the ninth-best quarterback prospect of the previous 21 seasons and squeezed right between Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. He had the sort of final-year numbers you would expect successful NFL quarterbacks to have, and he did it without NFL-caliber talent around him. Wentz’s small-school experience was harder to quantify, but it did at least place him clearly above Lynch, Cook, and Hackenberg. But it didn’t get him to second place; that instead went to a sleeper. Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott was likely to be a late third-day pick, but our Andrew Healy suggested he should at least go on Day 2, as he put up Tim Tebow-like numbers with a much tougher schedule and a worse supporting cast.

Highest Pick: Jared Goff, first overall to the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams traded two firsts, two seconds, and two thirds to the Tennessee Titans for the top pick and two late-round picks. The Rams’ picks ended up turning into Goff, Nick Kwiatkowski, and Temarrick Hemingway. The Titans’ picks turned into Corey Coleman, Austin Johnson, Derrick Henry, Shon Coleman, Corey Davis, and Jonnu Smith.

Best Player: While Goff and Wentz have both seen Pro Bowls and look to be starters in 2022, this one goes to Dak Prescott by a significant margin. He’s the only passer in the class still on his original team; he leads the class in every passing stat; he’s a two-time Pro Bowler and the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He has been in the top 10 in DVOA in four of his six seasons, only missing out on doing the same in DYAR due to his 2020 ankle injury. We can debate all we want about whether Prescott is a top-five passer in the league, but he’s certainly top-10. Not bad for the 135th pick in the draft.

It’s not like the Rams and Eagles had no positive experience with their passers, mind you. The Rams went to a Super Bowl with Goff, part of back-to-back Pro Bowl years for the passer once Sean McVay came to town. The Eagles outright won the Super Bowl in 2017, with Wentz being third in MVP voting despite getting hurt and letting Nick Foles take them the rest of the way. It would be unfair to call either passer a bust; they brought good times to their franchises and received large second contracts as a result. It is noteworthy, however, that both Los Angeles and Philadelphia quickly regretted handing out those large contracts, sending both passers out of town in the 2021 offseason.

Biggest Bust: This is a tough one. Paxton Lynch was the third quarterback off the board, going to Denver with the 26th overall pick. Lynch couldn’t clinch the starting job in Denver, backing up Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler for most of his two-year tenure in Denver. By 2018, he was behind both Case Keenum and Chad Kelly on the depth chart, then was released when Denver picked up Kevin Hogan. Lynch ended up on the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Saskatchewan Roughriders, never getting into a game for either team, and is currently the backup quarterback for the USFL’s Michigan Panthers. He went 1-3 as a starter, recording -270 passing DYAR.

Lynch is our pick, but a dishonorable mention needs to go to Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg went 51st overall to the Jets, but never actually saw the field. He joins only Gene Bradley and (at the moment) Kyle Trask as quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds of the draft to never get into an NFL game.

Best Value: It’s Dak Prescott, of course; any fourth-round pick who becomes a long-term starter is going to win here. There’s really not even a lot of competition for honorable mention. Perhaps Jacoby Brissett, drafted 91st overall by New England? He has been a starter and is at least a highly regarded backup at this point. But no, it’s obviously Prescott, the best value not only at the position but in the entire draft. He’s also arguably the best player in the draft, though there are a few people who could argue for that crown.

Running Backs

Conventional Wisdom: Don’t draft running backs? But if you don’t draft running backs, that means you would have to pass up on Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott was a do-it-all sort of back, a three-down player who could run, catch, and block with equal effectiveness. A 4.47s 40-yard dash at 225 pounds is an elite blend of size and speed, and it showed up plenty on film, as well; Elliott was no workout wonder. Legs like tree trunks made tackling him an iffy proposition; he was stout, compact, and nigh-impossible to bring down once he got a full head of steam behind him. He had the burst to elude chasers on the outside, the vision to set up behind his blockers, and the power to bludgeon defenders in space. He also caught 55 passes in a run-heavy offense—not exactly elite, but a useful part of his game. There were some concerns with him racking up over 600 touches in his final two seasons with the Buckeyes, and he had the tendency to take his fair share of shots rather than trying to avoid a guy, but these were minor. He had to be a top-10 pick, and the top five wasn’t out of the question.

Though Elliott was the clear headliner, there were some other players of note. Alabama’s Derrick Henry was the 2015 Heisman-winner, a workhorse on a national champion. His 4.54s 40 at 247 pounds was even better than Elliott’s numbers, though that power hid a lack of quickness and creativity. If it was possible to be too big and strong, Henry was it. Some scouts preferred Henry’s teammate, Kenyan Drake: a more well-rounded and do-it-all sort of prospect rather than Henry’s focus on smashing. Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon lacked top-end speed, but had great burst and acceleration, with the productivity to back it up. There were whispers about Utah’s Devontae Booker struggling with the playbook, but his film heralded him as a versatile player, arguably the best receiver in the class. Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise would argue with that, though; the former receiver was a chunk play waiting to happen in both the running and receiving games. And then there was Indiana’s Jordan Howard, who kept on producing despite a lengthy injury history and a lack of top-end athleticism.

Here at Football Outsiders, BackCAST made its debut in 2016. It differed from conventional wisdom, preferring Henry to Elliott, whom Nathan Forster called “a nice prospect who is probably overrated as a high first-round pick,” citing Ohio State’s success at running the ball whether Elliott was on the field or not. Booker, Prosise, Howard, and Dixon rounded out the top six, in what we called a fairly weak class; no Todd Gurley to be had here!

Highest Pick: Ezekiel Elliott, fourth overall to Dallas.

Best Player: Tougher than you might think. Elliott is the class leader in rushing yards, and his 1,523 combined DYAR leads this group as well. I would say that over the last six years as a whole, Elliott has been the best running back in the class. But if you were to line all the running backs in the league up and let me pick one, I would be hard-pressed not to take Derrick Henry, who went 45th overall to Tennessee. Henry spent his first two seasons in Tennessee platooning with DeMarco Murray, so Elliott was able to jump out to a significant lead in terms of stats. Since then, Henry led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns in both 2019 and 2020, and was well on his way to doing it again in 2021 before getting hurt. Henry’s workload going forward is something to monitor, but when he’s on the field, he’s the best running back in football.

Biggest Bust: There really aren’t any huge busts in the class. San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin went 119th overall to the Texans; he has managed just 92 rushing yards over the past six seasons. He has had some injury problems and hung around for a while as a return specialist, but the Texans were hoping for more than the 25th-most rushing yards in the class from the fifth running back taken. If you don’t like third-day picks as busts, you could take Prosise instead; he went 90th overall to the Seahawks and has managed just 283 rushing yards.

Best Value: This one’s definitely Derrick Henry; going a full round after Elliott and becoming an Offensive Player of the Year is just about the best possible case for a running back. If you prefer not taking running backs on the first two days, you can instead go with Jordan Howard, who ended up falling to Chicago with the 150th pick. He’s third behind Elliott and Henry with 4,361 rushing yards, though he’s having trouble finding a team at the moment.

Wide Receivers

Conventional Wisdom: While there was plenty of individual variation, a consensus slowly developed around four players being worthy of a first-round pick at receiver. Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell was the big, strong possession receiver of the class. At 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, he was going to be an extremely difficult size matchup in the slot, which made up for his 4.63s 40 time. Treadwell had the best release off the line Mike Tanier had seen in years and fantastic ball skills, dominating defenders in the air. He might not be able to run past defenders, but good luck stopping him from catching the ball anyway. TCU’s Josh Doctson was in a similar boat; lacking in speed but winning with ball skills and top-flight route running. Treadwell and Doctson were arguably the most complete receivers in the draft, well-rounded with high floors.

If they were just too slow for you, however, you could always go grab Baylor’s Corey Coleman, he of the 4.48s 40. Coleman was the home run-hitter of the class, a blur off the snap and able to separate from defenders on deep post routes which always seemed to find their way into the end zone. No, he didn’t run a complete route tree, and no, he didn’t have the best hands in the world, but you certainly weren’t going to find a more dynamic deep threat in this draft than Coleman. You could also try Notre Dame’s Will Fuller, another slight-framed speedster. Critics said Fuller was a workout warrior, with a 4.32s 40 earning him draft potential he hadn’t earned with play on the field. Supporters said that he coupled that speed with a quick release and oodles of effort, and could develop into a more rounded player with time.

Ohio State’s Michael Thomas was sometimes grouped with the top four, but a bad combine knocked him out of the tippy-top tier for most observers. He also sometimes got lost in Ohio State’s talented offense, but he flashed potential to do more as a focal point. His teammate Braxton Miller was also in the conversation; the ex-quarterback playing an odd H-back/gadgety role with a lot of room to develop. Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd may have had the best hands in the draft, dropping just 10 passes on 252 targets in his last two seasons. Cincinnati’s Chris Moore was your big-play prospect if you missed out on the Colemans and Fullers of the world; a little slower and not as explosive, but with a long track record of big plays. And even if you missed out on all of them, there were Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Rutgers’ Leonte Caroo, and South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper worth talking about.

Here at Football Outsiders, Playmaker Score gave Coleman a monster projection, a rating of 99.8%. There was a little bit of an asterisk around that, noting that Coleman played in Art Briles’ run-first offense at Baylor, and that it might be distorting his numbers much like it did for prior Playmaker flop Stephen Hill. But no, all in all, Coleman’s numbers suggested greatness. He scored a touchdown on 5.1% of Baylor’s pass attempts, numbers topped only by Randy Moss, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and Larry Fitzgerald. A risky prospect, for sure, but one with the highest ceiling we had seen in some time. He beat out Fuller, Cooper, Boyd and Treadwell to round out the top five. Both Thomas and Doctson made the top 10, though they fell behind Colorado State’s Rashad Higgins. Thomas’ smaller role in Ohio State’s offense and Doctson’s age were limiting factors.

Highest Pick: Corey Coleman, 15th overall to Cleveland.

Best Player: Oh, did we not mention that Tyreek Hill was in this class? Because he was, going 165th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs. Hill was off many draft boards after getting dismissed from Oklahoma State for a domestic violence arrest; he had to finish his college career at West Alabama and was not invited to the NFL combine. The Chiefs decided that his speed was worth the risk of a Day 3 pick, and it’s safe to say the gamble paid off. Hill is the only player in the class to make the Pro Bowl in every season since 2016. He’s a three-time All-Pro, a Super Bowl champion, a member of the league’s 2010s All-Decade Team, and his new $30 million-a-year deal is the largest ever given to a wide receiver, even after adjusting for salary cap inflation. Michael Thomas had an argument for several years, but he has been hurt and Hill has continued to fly.

Biggest Bust: It was not a good year for the top of the class, as three of the four first-round picks busted. Both Laquon Treadwell and Josh Doctson would be worthy selections in most years, but the crown has to go to Corey Coleman. In his two years in Cleveland, Coleman was frequently hurt, breaking his hand twice. When he was on the field, he was plagued with drops and an utter lack of explosiveness; 5.7 yards per target is a disaster for someone of his draft pedigree. He also developed an attitude, ending up getting traded away after demanding more first-team reps despite a lack of any production that would back that up. He hasn’t played at all since 2018, missing 2019 with a torn ACL and being suspended for six games in 2021 for violating the PED policy despite not being on a roster. He is, technically, still in the league; he has an outside chance of making the Chiefs’ roster this season. Perhaps working with Patrick Mahomes can turn his career around and produce literally anything of value. If not, he remains just ahead of Paxton Lynch as the biggest bust of the 2016 draft class.

Best Value: Tyreek Hill, of course. But Michael Thomas, who went 47th overall to New Orleans, has a decent argument in his own right. He finished in the top 10 in DYAR every year from 2016 to 2019; he just hasn’t had a chance to play much since then due to injuries. Had Thomas stayed healthy and played at his top level even after Drew Brees retired, he may well have taken best receiver, best value, and possibly even best player in the draft, so good were his best seasons. We’ll have to see if the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year can return healthy and get some good numbers with Jameis Winston.

Tight End

Conventional Wisdom: If you were looking for the next Jason Witten or Greg Olsen, your best shot was Arkansas’ Hunter Henry, by far the premier tight end in the draft. He was the only true three-down tight end in the class, balanced and complete in a way that none of the other prospects could really match. There was the feeling that Arkansas could have used him more, and that he still had some untapped potential as he entered the draft. The rest of the class was a clear tier below Henry. You had Ohio State’s Nick Vannett, a very good blocker who flashed hands he didn’t always get to show. Stanford continued its habit of churning out quality tight end prospects with Austin Hooper. South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams was your choice if you were looking for a field-stretcher. But Henry was No. 1 with a bullet.

Highest Pick: Hunter Henry, 35th overall to San Diego.

Best Player: It’s still Hunter Henry. Henry has been in the top 10 in both receiving DYAR and DVOA in four of his six seasons, and that’s even after missing 2018 with an ACL tear. It’s not as big of a gap as it was coming into the draft, mind you—there is a Pro Bowl tight end in this class, and it isn’t Henry. Austin Hooper is the class leader in receiving yards with 3,024; he went to the Pro Bowl in back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019 and earned a huge payday with the Cleveland Browns as a result. That contract has been a disaster—Hooper has been outside the top 30 in both DYAR and DVOA since moving to Cleveland—but his time in Atlanta was good enough to at least be mentioned here.

Biggest Bust: Of the tight ends that went in the first three rounds, Nick Vannett has been the least impressive. Drafted 94th overall by the Seahawks, Vannett was buried on the Seattle depth chart behind Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson, and Brandon Williams. He occasionally flashed in very limited action, but in 2018, the one season Seattle actually tried using him as a starter, he finished with a -6.5% receiving DVOA and promptly fell back down the depth chart. He’s still hanging around as a useful depth player, and his blocking has remained solid, so it’s hard to call him an out-and-out bust; he just never realized some of the potential scouts saw in him. Still, with no better options to choose from, he’s our guy, unless you want to slam South Carolina State’s Temarrick Hemingway for managing one career reception as the 177th overall pick or something.

Best Value: It’s a choice between Austin Hooper and Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee, who went 110th overall to the Rams. Hooper has had the better career numbers to this point, with 350 career DYAR to Higbee’s 185. He also has two Pro Bowls to Higbee’s zero. But ever since Sean McVay took over the Rams, Higbee has been the better player of the two, a key part of the offense in both of Los Angeles’ recent Super Bowl runs. Hooper’s Pro Bowl years were the best individual seasons between the two, but Higbee has been the more consistent player with the higher floor for the past five years.

Offensive Line

Conventional Wisdom: In the days leading up to the draft, the consensus had more or less settled in. Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil was the best non-quarterback in the draft. Mike Tanier called Tunsil the best offensive line prospect since Joe Thomas entered the NFL in 2007, just one notch below the Jonathan Ogden/Orlando Pace level. Matt Miller concurred, saying that Tunsil was among the most prepared tackle prospects in the last five seasons, and if he didn’t become a top-tier tackle, it would be because of injuries or work ethic. A sure-fire, no-miss prospect.

And then, as the draft began, a Twitter post popped up on Tunsil’s feed, showing the tackle in a gas mask smoking something out of a bong. Red lights flipped on around the league as teams panicked over the post while actively on the clock. Teams either moved Tunsil way down their draft boards or removed him entirely. There were existing concerns about Tunsil’s off-field issues—he had been suspended in 2015 for receiving improper benefits, stemming from an investigation from a domestic violence arrest after an altercation with his stepfather, a situation which can best be described as “complicated.” Add in the fact that Tunsil may have seen a marijuana at some point, and a number of teams were right out on Tunsil.

It helped, of course, that 2016 was a very, very deep class at tackle. Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, Michigan State’s Jack Conklin, Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, and Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi were all bandied about as potential first-round picks; it’s a lot easier to pass on Tunsil when you have plenty of other options to choose from. And even if you missed on them, there was a deep bench led by Indiana’s Jason Spriggs and Nebraska’s Alex Lewis. If you needed a tackle, 2016 was the perfect draft for you.

If you were looking for interior linemen, however, the pickings were a little slimmer. Alabama center Ryan Kelly was a potential first-round pick if he could bulk up a little, but he was about it for top-flight interior linemen. Notre Dame’s Nick Martin was another option at center, while a somewhat disappointing guard class was led by Stanford’s Joshua Garnett and Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair. Honestly, if you needed a guard, you might be better off drafting someone like Ifedi and moving him inside.

Highest Pick: Ronnie Stanley, sixth overall to Baltimore. Ryan Kelly was the top center picked, going 18th to Indianapolis, while San Francisco traded up to 28th to grab Joshua Garnett as the first guard.

Best Player: I mean, take your pick. Ronnie Stanley, Laremy Tunsil, and Jack Conklin are three of the 10 best tackles in the league. If you prefer pass-protection, Stanley or Tunsil is your man. If you prefer run-blocking tackles, you’d side with Conklin. I’d go with two-time All-Pro Conklin, but there’s no loser in this competition. The best center has, indeed, been Ryan Kelly. The best guard? Probably Joe Thuney, whom we’ll get to in a minute.

Biggest Bust: The 49ers traded up to 28th overall to grab Joshua Garnett, giving up three picks in order to make sure they had Garnett’s fifth-year option and to make sure the rival Seahawks couldn’t get him. They shouldn’t have bothered. Garnett started 11 fairly poor games as a rookie, and that was it—injuries limited him to just 60 offensive snaps the rest of his career. The 49ers ended up passing on that fifth-year option anyway, making the trade up a massive bust from their perspective.

Best Value: There are multiple ways to define “value.” In terms of just impact compared to draft position, the answer here is North Carolina State’s Joe Thuney. Thuney went 78th overall to New England and is the only player in the class to have started all 97 regular-season games, not to mention 13 postseason starts and three trips to the Super Bowl. Thuney has been a top-tier guard from the second he stepped onto the field, not only helping the Patriots to multiple Super Bowl wins but also being a key cog in the Chiefs’ total offensive line rebuild to protect Patrick Mahomes last season. He’s the best guard of the class regardless of draft position. Illinois’ Ted Karras (221st overall to New England) and Iowa’s Austin Blythe (248th overall to Indianapolis) also deserve mention.

But in terms of continued impact on the league, it’s hard to beat the domino effect of Laremy Tunsil. He ended up falling to 13th to the Miami Dolphins, for whom he played well for three seasons. And then, in 2019, he was traded to the Houston Texans for a package of picks, including a first-rounder in 2020 and a first and second in 2021. From there, the Dolphins went nuts. In 2020, they traded the Texans’ pick to the Packers as part of the Jordan Love deal, and instead drafted Noah Igbinoghene. They then took a pick they got from the Packers and traded with the Texans again to take Solomon Kindley. In 2021, they traded the Texans’ third-overall pick to the 49ers as part of the Trey Lance deal, receiving three firsts and a third in exchange. They then used the 49ers’ first-round pick to jump back up and take Jaylen Waddle (using the pick they got back from Philly to grab a Steelers’ fourth-round pick in 2022) and the Texans’ second-round pick to take Jevon Holland. And then they took the 49ers’ 2022 first-round pick and used it as the headline of their trade with the Chiefs for Tyreek Hill.

So, in exchange for Laremy Tunsil and some periphery picks and players, the Dolphins ended up with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Jevon Holland, Solomon Kindley, and Noah Igbinoghene. They also got a few years out of Julién Davenport and Johnson Bademosi. They still have the 49ers’ 2022 third-round pick and 2023 first-round pick. They still have the Steelers’ 2022 fourth-round pick. That’s a Herschel Walker-esque return. And the trade triggered quarterback drama in Green Bay and San Francisco, not to mention helping finance the Micah Parsons trade-up in Dallas. And none of it would have happened if Tunsil’s Reefer Madness hadn’t gone viral.

Defensive Line

Conventional Wisdom: The best defensive tackle draft in years, with as many as five possible first-round picks. Between defensive and offensive tackles, 2016 really was the year of the Big Uglies.

Oregon’s DeForest Buckner had been drawing attention throughout his college career for his raw traits—powerful and quicker than you’d think at 6-foot-7, 291 pounds—but his last season in college saw the light go on for production as well, earning first-team All-American status and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. There were some worries that Oregon’s system might have inflated his draft stock, considering the recent failure of Dion Jordan and the underwhelming start to Arik Armstead’s career, but Buckner seemed more than capable of breaking the Ducks curse. Bu, if you weren’t happy with that, you could instead look towards Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins. He was smaller than Buckner, for sure, but with tremendous explosion; he basically destroyed all comers at the Senior Bowl and was drawing Aaron Donald comparisons from some.

Miss out on them, and you’re still in luck. If you weren’t interested in pass rush, Alabama’s Jarran Reed was the guy for you—a two-gap machine who simply did not allow broken tackles and never missed. Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler was raw, but his athleticism made him a very tempting developmental prospect for a team willing to give him time to learn. And then you had Mississippi State’s Chris Jones, a late bloomer and under-performer in college with undeniable power, strength, and quickness. Scouts questioned his dedication to football and wondered why he didn’t produce more in college, but the man literally ran out of his shorts at the combine and was loaded with potential.

And those were just the Day 1 potential guys. Draft boards around the Internet had as many as 10 more guys who could be off the board by the end of Round 2—Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche, Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson, UCLA’s Kenny Clark, Baylor’s Andrew Billings, Penn State’s Austin Johnson, Illinois’ Jihad Ward, Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day, Texas’ Hassan Ridgeway, Georgia Tech’s Adam Gotsis and Michigan’s Willie Henry. It would almost be malpractice not to take a lineman at some point, considering the depth of this class.

Highest Pick: DeForest Buckner, seventh overall to San Francisco.

Best Player: I’ll side with DeForest Buckner just over Chris Jones, but you could make a strong case for either player. Buckner’s got the All-Pro nod to his name; Jones has one more Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl ring. Jones has 49.5 sacks; Buckner 45. Buckner is the better run defender, and thus stays on the field a little more than Jones does. Both are in the conversation for the best interior lineman in the league not named Aaron Donald.

Biggest Bust: Robert Nkemdiche, who went 29th overall to the Cardinals. Nkemdiche fell off a few teams’ draft boards entirely due to some odd off-field behavior; he famously fell from a fourth-story hotel window while drunk and was found in possession of marijuana he swore was actually Laremy Tunsil’s. But he was supposed to be a surefire thing on the field, with rare size and athleticism that spoke to limitless potential. Well, the potential was limited. Nkemdiche had trouble staying in shape and never had any real production on the field, with coaches and reporters alike criticizing a lack of effort to actually build on his raw traits. He’s still in the league, playing about 200 snaps for the Seahawks last season, but any hope of him delivering on that first-round pedigree is long gone.

Best Value: Whether or not you consider him the best player at the position, Chris Jones is the best value. He went 30 picks later than Buckner, with the Chiefs taking him 37th overall, and he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet (if you exclude the brief edge rusher experiment from September). Javon Hargrave is worthy of an honorable mention; the Steelers took the South Carolina State tackle 89th overall and he has been an impact nose tackle ever since.

Edge Rushers

Conventional Wisdom: Ohio State’s Joey Bosa may not have the speed you’d want out of a truly elite pass-rusher, but he checked every other on-field box—burst off the snap, booming power, and active hands. There’s a reason he ended up atop most media big boards. That being said, not everyone was sold. Scuttlebutt in the days before the draft had Bosa as a “media creation”; a top-10 pick, yes, but with good upside, not great. Some saw a traits-based player who was still developing instincts and ended up on his butt more often than you would expect from someone of his pedigree. Plus, he was a hard partier in school, and some anonymous scouts questioned if he was mature enough to play in the NFL.

If Bosa was too risky for you, you had other options. We’re grouping Georgia’s Leonard Floyd here with the edge rushers, but there was some confusion as to where he would actually play in the NFL—he was undersized for a traditional pass-rusher but had surprisingly good cover chops, making him a sort of safety/edge rusher hybrid. That’s not really a thing, per se, so most scouts ended up pegging him as a gangly, thin, pass-rusher with athleticism to spare. That made him a good choice for a coordinator willing to experiment with using Floyd in atypical ways; stick him with his hand in the dirt for 25 snaps, and you’re losing what made him special. Or you could just take Clemson’s Shaq Lawson; much less of an athlete but a much more traditional tank-like power guy, with the ability to play anywhere on the line apart from nose tackle.

Lawson’s teammate, Kevin Dodd, was also talked about as a first-rounder if the cards fell right, but he probably would still be available on Day 2, along with Florida’s Jonathan Bullard, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah, and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, so there were lots of chances to get your developmental sackmeister.

SackSEER had Floyd first among the pass-rushers thanks to fantastic explosion numbers; he was one of the 20 most explosive edge-rusher prospects of all time. We acknowledged that he was a boom-or-bust prospect thanks to his lack of college production, but there were plenty of examples of players like Floyd actually succeeding despite the “workout warrior” tag. Bosa was projected to have a strong career, but was somewhat overrated as a possible No. 1 overall selection due to that lack of explosiveness. Ogbah actually jumped Lawson for the third slot and would have been SackSEER’s highest-rated player if it didn’t have a projected draft position component; Lawson was fourth, followed by Spence and Calhoun.

Highest Pick: Joey Bosa, third overall to San Diego.

Best Player: Joey Bosa. He’s one of only two people in the class with over 50 sacks, alongside Yannick Ngakoue, and he has managed double-digit totals every year that he was able to start more than 10 games. Hamstring and foot injuries have kept him from lapping the field or coming close to being the most valuable player in the draft class as a whole, but when he’s on the field, he’s one of the best pass-rushers in the game. Ngakoue, Leonard Floyd, and Matt Judon have all developed into very good players as well, but this is Bosa’s crown.

Biggest Bust: Kevin Dodd, who ended up just missing the first round; he went 33rd overall to Tennessee. Dodd’s rookie season ended up being a wash as he injured his foot in the offseason and eventually ending up on injured reserve because of it. But even when healthy, he just couldn’t get on the field and produce. The Titans tried moving him from end to linebacker to see if he couldn be more effective in space, but Dodd spent most of his time riding the pine, managing just 271 defensive snaps and one sack in his first two seasons. In 2018, he skipped OTAs and didn’t show up for training camp, then ended up being cut by new head coach Mike Vrabel, a failed remnant of an earlier regime. You can put Noah Spence (39th overall to Tampa Bay) and BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi (70th overall to Baltimore) on this list as well, but Dodd went first, and so he takes the crown.

Best Value: Grand Valley State’s Matt Judon went 146th overall to Baltimore—the third edge rusher the Ravens drafted after the aforementioned Kaufusi and Kamalei Correa. As a Division II prospect with a history of injuries, there were questions to just how much of Judon’s obvious athletic traits would actually translate to the NFL game. The answer is “most of them.” Judon has made three consecutive Pro Bowls and just had his first double-digit-sack season. He’s at 47 sacks for his career, fourth-most in his class; the next highest Day 3 pick on the leaderboards is Matthew Ioannidis with 24.5. And that’s after spending most of his rookie season Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith; Judon earned a starting job about as early as you could reasonably do so considering Baltimore’s depth at linebacker in the mid-2010s.

Linebackers

Conventional Wisdom: “A healthy Myles Jack,” Sports Illustrated proclaimed, “is up there with Jalen Ramsey as the draft’s most dynamic defender.” Tackling, defending the run, covering the slot; the UCLA star was one of the most versatile players in all of college football. He also played safety and even running back for the Bruins, though most NFL scouts agreed that you just stick him at the WILL and let him run down ballcarriers all over the field. But Jack tore his meniscus in September, and there were concerns that he would need even more surgery in the future. A healthy Jack was a top-10 pick, but what about injured Jack?

If your medical staff red-flagged Jack, you could always go grab Ohio State’s Darron Lee, a super-athletic phenom who ran a 4.47s 40 at the combine. But he was small, more the body size of a big safety than a traditional in-the-box linebacker. He’d have to excel in coverage at the next level to last, but he was very comfortable in space and looked like he could make the transition. If you leaned more traditional, you could go for Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, a solid run-stuffer with “throwback size and tonesetting mentality,” an “old-school, take-on middle linebacker,” a player who might have fit better in the 1976 draft than the 2016 one. Not a special athlete, he was better on the field and impressed scouts everywhere but the combine’s standard drills. LSU’s Deion Jones and Ohio State’s Joshua Perry also had their share of supporters.

Highest Pick: Darron Lee, 20th overall to the Jets. Jack’s knee injury ended up taking him out of the first round entirely.

Best Player: Jack ended up being a very solid player, as did Deion Jones and fourth-round pick Joe Schobert out of Wisconsin. But I think the right answer here is the 2021 All-Pro at the position, De’Vondre Campbell. The Minnesota linebacker went 115th overall to the Falcons and was a solid player for his first five years in the league, before breaking out in a big way in 2021, becoming one of the best coverage linebackers in football. In a class where no one has really stood out head-and-shoulders over the rest, Campbell’s breakout year puts him on top.

Biggest Bust: Su’a Cravens’ story is a hard one to talk about. As a player, the USC safety/linebacker hybrid looked like a versatile chess piece when Washington took a chance on him with the 53rd pick. But Cravens had a long track record of concussions and ended up briefly retiring before the 2017 season suffering from post-concussion syndrome, overwhelmed by anxiety and paranoia and the feeling that the Washington franchise didn’t have his best interests in mind. Cravens has accused Washington of mishandling a knee injury he suffered as a rookie, pressuring him to play through it, and claiming he was making things up, claims that look more and more accurate the more we learn about how Dan Snyder has run the team. Cravens ended up being traded to Denver and doing very little there, suffering from more injuries and mental health issues (and, reportedly, conflicts with Vic Fangio) before leaving the league. Cravens seems to be in a better mental space since then, which is more important than the fact that he only played 16 games in the NFL.

Best Value: De’Vondre Campbell gets this nod as well, but there have been a few Day 3 linebackers who have made impacts in the league. Stanford’s Blake Martinez was drafted 131st by Green Bay and has started 73 games for the Packers and Giants; he led the league in tackles once and had four straight years of 140-plus tackles before a torn ACL ended his 2021 season prematurely. Houston’s Elandon Roberts went 214th overall to the Patriots; he has been a consistent starter at linebacker (and occasionally fullback) when healthy for both New England and Miami.

Defensive Backs

Conventional Wisdom: There was Jalen Ramsey, and then there was everyone else. The Florida State cornerback was the complete package, with breathtaking athleticism backed with unusual size and awareness. Mike Tanier said that Ramsey might be the best player in the draft, a rare commodity as the perfect modern nickelback. He likely would have gone first overall if the Titans had kept their pick rather than trading down. There were questions about his speed and athleticism and ability to handle the league’s fastest receivers; some had him pegged for a move to safety where he would still be special, just less valuable. He needed more “bravado’ and “attitude.” But most teams were over the moon with his potential, calling him the next Richard Sherman.

There were good corners after him—Houston’s William Jackson, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, Ohio State’s Eli Apple, and Miami’s Artie Burns had people singing their praises as potential first-round selections, just not top-10 selections like Ramsey. There was a solid third tier of Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, and Alabama’s Cyrus Jones too. Corner was deep!

The same couldn’t be said about safety, however. West Virginia’s Karl Joseph and Ohio State’s Vonn Bell led a disappointing class, with Florida’s Keanu Neal and Boise State’s Darian Thompson a little bit of desperation Day 2 possibilities based on scarcity of top prospects. Maybe Ramsey was the best safety in the draft after all.

Highest Pick: Jalen Ramsey, fifth overall to Jacksonville.

Best Player: Jalen Ramsey. With all respect to Bosa, Buckner, and Jones, Ramsey is the best defensive player from the 2016 draft, the best player picked in the top 10, and arguably the best cornerback in the entire league, period. If you were to re-draft the class, he’d go after Dak Prescott and Tyreek Hill, but he wouldn’t drop further than that. He’s not the class leader in interceptions—that goes to Xavien Howard—but that’s because teams know better than to throw the ball his way. As for the top safety, take your pick between Middle Tennessee State’s Kevin Byard (64th overall to Tennessee) or Boston College’s Justin Simmons (98th overall to Denver).

Biggest Bust: Vernon Hargreaves ended up going 11th overall to Tampa Bay, and Tanier said that he would develop into the kind of corner who would make opposing teams adjust their game plans. He was right—they adjusted them to throw directly at Hargreaves. In his four qualified seasons, Hargreaves has ranked 69th, 76th, 80th, and 76th in coverage success rate, and usually near the bottom in pass yards allowed. He did at least make a play in this year’s Super Bowl—by running onto the field while inactive, costing Cincinnati 15 yards. There were a lot of Day 2 guys in this draft who ended up becoming nothing—Cyrus Jones, Will Redmond, KeiVarae Russell, T.J. Green—but Hargreaves is probably the highest-drafted disappointment in the class, regardless of position.

Best Value: It’s one of the two third-round safeties. We’re siding with Justin Simmons over Kevin Byard because there were 34 picks between them, but Byard’s a multiple-time first-team All-Pro, so it’s not an easy call. As for cornerbacks, frankly, it might still be Ramsey, despite going fifth overall; this was not a good year for late-round corners. Baylor’s Xavien Howard deserves a shout as the class leader in interceptions, but even he only went 38th overall; not exactly a late-round gem himself.

Special Teams

Don’t draft specialists…

… unless they’re the most accurate kicker in college football history! Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo, a three-time All-American, was declaring early for the draft. He never missed an extra point in nearly 200 college attempts, which was important as the NFL had just moved their extra point distance back. He was 69-for-78 on field goals, too, converting 96% in his best season. Yes, he only attempted six kicks of 50-plus yards at Florida State, but you can’t buy accuracy like that. He was one of the rare specialists who was worth actually drafting, possibly even as early as the fifth round if you wanted to get crazy about things.

Highest Pick: Roberto Aguayo, who went 59th overall to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers traded third- and fourth-round picks to move up to draft Aguayo; those selections eventually became KeiVarae Russell and Eric Murray.

Best Player: Undrafted Wil Lutz and Aldrick Rosas have been Pro Bowl kickers; undrafted Luke Rhodes was the 2021 All-Pro long snapper. Don’t draft specialists.

Biggest Bust: It was not crazy to draft Roberto Aguayo. It was crazy to draft him in the second round. It was even crazier to trade multiple selections to move up and get him. He was already trending downward in 2015, and never showed any sort of deep accuracy in college. In his one and only NFL season, Aguayo was 22-for-33 on field goals, including 4-for-11 from 40 yards or more. He even missed a couple extra points. Aguayo is the biggest special teams bust of the last 35 years; you have to go back to the era when the Russell Erxlebens and John Lees of the world were going in the first 32 picks to find bigger busts than Aguayo.

Best Value: Nobody. I suppose you could make a case for Syracuse’s Riley Dixon, who went 228th overall to Denver. He’s one of four players in the class to have played in all 97 games since the draft, which is something. Consistent availability is a virtue, even if Dixon has never made a Pro Bowl or been particularly noteworthy. If you get an eight- or nine-year career out of a seventh-round pick, even a specialist, that has to be better than par.

Team Performance

Per our annual Draft Report Card Report, the Jacksonville Jaguars had done it again, having the top consensus draft for the second straight year. Pundits loved the fact that Jacksonville used six of their seven picks to bump up the defense. They were the ones who finally stopped Myles Jack’s slide, and that’s after taking Jalen Ramsey at the top of the draft. Add in mid-round players such as Sheldon Day and Tyrone Holmes and there was tons to love here, with none of our seven graders giving the Jaguars lower than a B+. Six years later, the draft doesn’t quite stand up to best-of-the-best scrutiny, but a top three of Ramsey, Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue is a nice haul. It’s just too bad for them that Ramsey and Ngakoue have gone elsewhere, but David Caldwell’s draft provided a lot of the basis for the 2017 #Sacksonville team, which was fun while it lasted.

Ryan Pace’s Bears also got a lot of praise in his second year as general manager. Chicago added five defensive additions as they continued finding personnel to fit Vic Fangio’s 3-4 hybrid scheme. Trading up for Leonard Floyd might have been a bit pricy, but Floyd and Jonathan Bullard were foundational front seven players. Day 3 picks such as Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston were going to push for starting jobs too. From top to bottom, it was a haul of talented defensive players that was going to set Chicago up nicely for the next five years. In truth, the evaluators were focusing on the wrong side of the ball. Floyd was overpriced as the ninth overall pick, but he has developed into a nice player. But it’s offensive players such as Cody Whitehair and Jordan Howard which save this class; Bullard was a bust and most of the other defenders came and went without making a huge impact. And, like the Jaguars, most of the players who did contribute have since left the team. As has Ryan Pace, for that matter.

The Ravens got a lot of praise for Ozzie Newsome’s wheeling and dealing, as they earned six extra selections from trade-downs and compensatory picks. Their draft seemed tailor-made for drawing praise from the Internet, with beloved sleepers such as Tavon Young, Chris Moore, and Kenneth Dixon all ending up in black and purple. ESPN’s Todd McShay called the Ravens’ five fourth-round players—Dixon, Moore, Young, Willie Henry, and Alex Lewis—the best fourth-round class he had ever seen from a single team, which is an odd superlative. In reality, the Ravens had more misses than hits, but they had enough bites of the apple to make up for it; Ronnie Stanley and Matt Judon alone make for a successful draft. But none of the sleepers really awoke, and early cracks at Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi ended up going nowhere fast. Good strategy, less than ideal results.

On the other side of the ledger, the Carolina Panthers were universally panned for spending three picks on subpar cornerbacks as Dave Gettleman tried to replace Josh Norman in any way he could. James Bradberry was a reach in the second round, Daryl Worley was shaky … heck, fifth-round pick Zack Sanchez might have been better than both. And what was with taking Vernon Butler in the first round; the Panthers had no need at defensive tackle! Well, Bradberry has turned out OK, and Gettleman ended up bringing him with him to New York, where he made the Pro Bowl. That alone keeps the Panthers out of the bottom slot retrospectively, but the draftniks were right—there’s nothing else here worth writing home about.

Our old friend Doug Farrar absolutely hated what the Atlanta Falcons did. He blasted them for not addressing their defensive line holes early in the most talented D-line class in recent memory, and argued that they spent draft capital on players they could have traded down to get. Keanu Neal and Deion Jones were both singled out as reaches, as Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff produced a “head-scratcher” of a draft. In reality, Atlanta actually did a very good job of finding midround talent, with both Jones and De’Vondre Campbell developing into players far beyond their draft slots. Both Austin Hooper and Wes Schweitzer have overperformed as well. Farrar was right that Neal hasn’t really been worth a first-round pick, but considering Atlanta only had six picks, their class looks very solid.

The New England Patriots, too, showed some of the critics wrong. New England didn’t have a first-round pick in 2016 thanks to the Deflategate scandal, and as such, the graders proclaimed that their class had a lack of immediate impact contributors. Why draft Jacoby Brissett when you already had Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo? Where was the pass rush to replace Chandler Jones? What was Bill Belichick doing? Well, between Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, and Elandon Roberts, Belichick was finding starters on the third day of the draft. It feels like the Patriots were getting slammed too much for having to forfeit a first-round pick, getting punished for not getting a first-round player when they didn’t have the tools to do so. Belichick, as usual for this time period, got the last laugh.

So if the Falcons and Patriots turned out OK, who did have the worst draft?

Honorable mentions have to go to the 49ers and Vikings. Trent Baalke’s trade-up for Joshua Garnett was a disaster from Day 1, and DeForest Buckner alone can’t make up for whiffing on Garnett and Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson and so on and so forth. Rick Spielman didn’t even have a Buckner, with Laquon Treadwell, Mackensie Alexander, and Willie Beavers all failing to produce anything of value. But neither class is the worst.

Steve Keim and the Cardinals get the title of worst overall value. Evan Boehm might be the best player in their class, outshining the likes of Robert Nkemdiche and Brandon Williams. That’s a disaster. But Sashi Brown and the Browns get the title of worst value when adjusted for draft capital. Their 14 selections were the most in the draft, and they found just two regular starters: Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert. Corey Coleman might be the biggest bust of the class, and the Browns whiffed on Shon Coleman and Cody Kessler as well. Quantity did not equal quality in this case.

But no, the worst draft of them all has to belong to the Jason Licht and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Trading up for a second-round kicker is the sort of punchline that never really goes away; we’d be baffled even if Roberto Aguayo was still in the league. First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves has been a starter, yes, but a very bad one—and he might well be the best player the Buccaneers took, unless you really love Caleb Benenoch or something. By the end of Bruce Arians’ first season in 2019, all seven picks were gone, and for good reason. It’s astounding that Licht managed to build a Super Bowl roster despite a zero from such a recent draft, though I suppose it helps when you sign the best quarterback in football and get him to bring all of his friends.

As for the best draft, we have already praised the Falcons and Patriots. Mickey Loomis and the Saints deserve praise for finding Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, and David Onyemata in a draft where they only had five picks, even if first-rounder Sheldon Rankins has been a disappointment. Jon Robinson had a great draft for the Titans—Jack Conklin, Derrick Henry, and Kevin Byard are enough to make you forget about Kevin Dodd entirely, even if there wasn’t much value to be had in the later rounds.

But no, when you draft Dak Prescott in the fourth round, you win the draft. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys found a franchise passer buried around the Cardale Joneses and Willie Henry’s of the world, and they have been contenders ever since because of it. But even apart from Prescott, the draft would stand out. We don’t recommend using fourth-overall picks on running backs as a general rule, but Ezekiel Elliott leads the class in rushing yards. They gambled on Jaylon Smith returning from a torn ACL; he was a key defender until Micah Parsons surpassed him last season. Maliek Collins was another contributor throughout his rookie contract, as well. You could make an argument for Dallas having the best class even if they hadn’t landed Prescott. With him, there’s just no contest.

By Harriet