Biggest NFL Draft-Day Surprises That Actually Worked Out

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJune 25, 2022

Biggest NFL Draft-Day Surprises That Actually Worked Out

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    Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    This week, the NBA conducted its annual draft. It differs from the NFL draft in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that it's only two rounds long. But the two drafts share many things in common, including surprises.

    Leading into Thursday's first round, the conventional wisdom held that Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. was headed to the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick. But Smith wound up going third, with Duke forward Paolo Banchero heading to Orlando at No. 1.

    Of course, that's not the only kind of surprise we see. Every year, teams turn heads by reaching for players (looking at you, Cole Strange). Others fall further than expected because of injuries or character concerns. And every season there are trades that throw what pundits expect to happen into a blender.

    Often, the reaches don't pan out. The players who fall do so for good reason. And the trades wind up looking more like larceny than bartering.

    But sometimes, when we look back on an eyebrow-raising pick, there isn't much to do but applaud.

    Because in hindsight, those selections were surprisingly good...as these picks since 2016 show.

2021: Bengals Pass on OT to Draft Ja'Marr Chase

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    Heading into the 2021 draft, there was little question what the biggest need was for the Cincinnati Bengals. Joe Burrow had taken a beating behind a woeful offensive line in 2020, going down 32 times in 10 games before his rookie season was ended by a torn ACL. Given that glaring need, more than a few mock drafts predicted that the Bengals would take an offensive tackle fifth overall.

    That isn't what happened.

    Rather than take Oregon's Penei Sewell or Northwestern's Rashawn Slater, the Bengals instead settled on wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, who had played with Burrow at LSU. The decision left some pundits shaking their heads in disbelief.

    One year later, all anyone is doing is nodding. Maybe cheering a little.

    To be fair, the offensive line was again a major issue last season. But Chase peeled off the greatest first season by a wideout in NFL history. He hauled in 81 of 128 targets for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns on the way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Chase also played a huge role in the Bengals advancing all the way to Super Bowl LVI.

2019: Cardinals Draft Kyler Murray One Year After Taking Josh Rosen 10th Overall

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    The 2018 season was a disaster for the Arizona Cardinals. The team managed just three wins in Steve Wilks' first (and last) season as head coach. That face-plant earned the Redbirds the top pick in 2019. The question was what the team would do with it.

    As Bob McManaman reported for the Arizona Republic, many pundits considered Ohio State edge-rusher Nick Bosa the top overall prospect. At least one Cardinals player had other ideas for the selection.

    "I think we need to trade down and get extra picks for it," the player said. "We've got too many holes to fill."

    Then there was Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who was generally regarded as the No. 1 quarterback in the class. However, the Cardinals had just spent the 10th overall pick in 2018 on UCLA signal-caller Josh Rosen.

    Rosen admittedly didn't play well as a rookie, but it was hard to hold that completely against him given the putrid team around him.

    By the time the first round rolled around, predictions had shifted almost totally in Murray's direction, so "surprise" may not be the best way to describe the pick. But it's not every year that a team spends a top-10 pick in back-to-back drafts on a quarterback.

    With that said, it wound up being a wise move. After 13 starts as a rookie, Rosen made three winless starts for the Miami Dolphins in 2019 and hasn't started a game since. Murray, on the other hand, was the Offensive Rookie of the Year, has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons and just led the Cardinals to the playoffs.

2018: Bills Maneuver Up to No. 7 Overall, Draft QB Josh Allen

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    Plenty of draftniks expected four signal-callers to come off the board in the front half of Round 1 in 2018: Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, USC's Sam Darnold, Wyoming's Josh Allen and UCLA's Josh Rosen.

    But there wasn't a consensus on which quarterback was the top dog.

    For the record, I was a Rosen guy, because oops.

    There was also no shortage of QB-needy teams. The Cleveland Browns were just about certain to take one first overall. The Jets were expected to take one at No. 3. The Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills were all mentioned as teams that could trade up in Round 1 to grab a signal-caller.

    The Bills had two first-rounders in 2018, but both sat outside of the top 20. Getting into position to grab one of the top quarterbacks wouldn't be easy.

    But general manager Brandon Beane did it.

    First, the Bills sent veteran tackle Cordy Glenn and the 21st overall pick to Cincinnati for the right to move up to No. 12. Then, after the Browns took Mayfield and the Jets took Darnold, the Bills traded that 12th pick and two second-rounders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get to No. 7 overall. There, the team took Allen, who was viewed by most as a talented but raw prospect.

    It was a pick that some pundits viewed as an absolute disaster.

    "The Bills gave up two second-round picks for the right draft a quarterback who is nothing more than a strong arm," Steven Ruiz of USA Today wrote at the time. "Allen is inaccurate, struggles to read defenses and is uncomfortable from the pocket. Other than that, he's a pretty good quarterback."

    However, to say Beane's machinations have worked out is an understatement. Darnold is now in Carolina. Mayfield should be out of Cleveland before Week 1. Rosen was a colossal bust. But Allen is 39-21 as a starter, with two seasons of at least 4,400 passing yards and 36 scores.

    It wasn't especially surprising that the Bills moved up. Or that Allen was drafted inside of the top 10 given the importance of his position. But because of the lack of consensus regarding that year's top quarterback and Allen's accuracy issues in college (56.2 percent career completion rate), it's more than a little surprising that Allen has outplayed Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen by such a staggering margin.

    If the Browns had a do-over in the 2018 draft, it's a safe bet they'd pick differently.

2018: Ravens Slide into Back of Round 1 to Nab Lamar Jackson

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Josh Allen's ascension to stardom after being the third quarterback drafted in 2018 wasn't the only surprise at the position that year.

    In fact, there was another player taken later in the round who has enjoyed even greater success, at least from an individual perspective.

    Lamar Jackson had enjoyed a standout career at the University of Louisville that included the 2016 Heisman Trophy, and he became the first signal-caller in college football history to post 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons.

    However, there were those who doubted that Jackson's athleticism would translate to the NFL. Per John Breech of CBS Sports, Jackson said the Los Angeles Chargers asked him to work out at wide receiver at that year's combine. While appearing on Golic and Wingo, former NFL executive Bill Polian stated that it was a good idea.

    "[He's] short and a little bit slight, and clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are," Polian said. "The accuracy isn't there. So I would say don't wait to make that change [to receiver]."

    The 6'2", 212-pound Jackson didn't switch positions, but despite his impressive resume, he lacked a team as Round 1 wound down. Then, as the Philadelphia Eagles were set to make the final pick of the day, the Baltimore Ravens sent three picks to Philly for the right to move up and snag Jackson.

    As was so often the case during Ozzie Newsome's tenure as general manager, the Ravens knew what they were doing. After taking over from Joe Flacco in the second half of his rookie season, Jackson led the Ravens to the postseason—a feat he would repeat in 2019 and 2020. He's also the only quarterback in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive years.

    Jackson's 2019 campaign was one for the record books. He led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes, completed over 66 percent of his throws, set an NFL record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,206 and won the league's Most Valuable Player award.

2017: Chiefs Trade Up to No. 10, Draft Patrick Mahomes...and Then Sit Him

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    In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off a 12-win season and an AFC West title. Veteran quarterback Alex Smith had resurrected his career in K.C., throwing for over 3,500 yards in 2016 and winning 11 of his 15 starts.

    The Chiefs weren't perceived as a team that needed help under center. So when they dealt their firsts in 2017 and 2018 (and a third-rounder in 2017) to the Bills for the right to move up 17 spots and take Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, jaws hit the floor.

    Mahomes had enjoyed an up-and-down career with the Red Raiders. For every "Oh!" throw, there was an "Oh, no!" decision. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus ranked Mahomes as the 29th-best prospect in the class.

    "Mahomes has an incredible feel for making plays outside of the flow of the offense, and when combined with his special arm talent, that allows him to make any throw from any platform—a best-case scenario for Mahomes is tantalizing. The problem is the same feel for making plays also leads to a number of poor decisions with the football, and a prospective team has to find the balance of keeping Mahomes’ aggressiveness and natural playmaking ability while harnessing him to make good decisions within the flow of the offense."

    Vinnie Iyer of the Sporting News blasted the pick, writing that "trading up for Mahomes, a big-armed gunslinger who really doesn't mesh with the true mentality as Alex Smith's successor, set up a bad tone in this draft."

    As if the pick itself wasn't surprising enough, Mahomes then spent his rookie year watching as Smith led the Chiefs to another AFC West title.

    But despite that success, the team handed the reins to Mahomes in 2018. That year, he became just the second quarterback in league history to post 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns and claimed MVP honors. The next year, Mahomes was named the MVP of Super Bowl LIV after guiding the Chiefs to their first championship in half a century. The year after that, he was back in the Super Bowl.

    The quarterback the Chiefs "didn't need" is now the gold standard at the position.

2017: DL Jonathan Allen Drops to Washington at No. 17 Overall

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    Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

    The Washington Commanders nabbing defensive lineman Jonathan Allen at No. 17 was something of a shock for the opposite reason than the Mahomes pick.

    Quite a few people expected him to be off the board by then.

    After wreaking havoc at Alabama, Allen was widely regarded as one of the best players in his class regardless of position. The same PFF big board that slotted Mahomes at No. 29 had Allen at No. 2, trailing only Myles Garrett, with John Breitenbach writing:

    "Allen's game film separates him even amongst this strong defensive tackle crop,. Equally as comfortable battling double-teams as he is running the arc off the edge, Allen is the kind of defensive lineman coaches dream of. He displays classic stack-and-shed technique on the interior, using his length and range to eliminate runs into either of his two gaps. Coupled with explosion off the ball and athleticism to work in space, Allen displays a complete skill set on a consistent basis. Only news of arthritis in both shoulders is likely to facilitate a wait on draft day."

    Despite Allen's health concerns and underwhelming showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, there were still mock drafts that projected he wouldn't make it out of the top five. Instead, Allen slid out of the front half of Round 1 altogether.

    That may have hurt Allen's wallet a bit, but last summer, he received a four-year, $72 million extension. The 27-year-old earned that extension by becoming an excellent edge-setter and a disruptive force on the interior who has amassed at least eight sacks twice and made his first Pro Bowl in 2021.

2016: OT Laremy Tunsil Free-Falls to Dolphins at No. 13 Overall

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    There isn't a more bizarre surprise in recent NFL draft memory than what happened with Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.

    After dominating most of his competition at the collegiate level, you would be hard-pressed to find a pundit who didn't have Tunsil ranked as a top-five prospect. Per Arif Hasan of Zone Coverage, Tunsil was the consensus No. 1 player. Bleacher Report's scouting report raved about the 6'5", 313-pounder:

    "If everything looks easy for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, that's because playing football is what he was born to do. A smooth, powerful, athletic player on the edge of the line, Tunsil is among the most prepared tackle prospects to enter the draft in the past five seasons.

    "Words like 'elite' and 'blue chip' get thrown around a lot in scouting, but Tunsil is truly an elite pass protector with blue-chip potential. He didn't allow a sack in 2015 despite going against top-notch SEC competition and was rarely ever beaten for a pressure on the quarterback."

    Then, just as the draft was about to get underway, a video appeared on (and was quickly deleted from) Tunsil's Twitter account that appeared to show him smoking marijuana from a gas mask.

    As social media exploded, the draft began. The first pick was made. And then the second. And then the fifth. Then the 10th. Still no Tunsil. Finally, at pick No. 13, the Miami Dolphins drafted him.

    At the time, it looked like a disaster. But it wound being a win for Tunsil, the Dolphins and the Houston Texans.

    After three years with the Dolphins, Tunsil was traded to the Houston Texans for a package of picks that included two firsts and a second. In Houston, Tunsil blossomed into one of the league's better left tackles, earning Pro Bowl nods in 2019 and 2020.

    Miami got a haul of picks. Houston got an excellent blindside protector. And in 2020, Tunsil got a three-year, $66 million extension.

    Sounds like a win-win-win.

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