Tuesday, June 18, 2024

NFL Draft Winners & Losers: Kirk Cousins ‘stunned’ by QB move; Chicago Bears pull off ‘grand slam’

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The first round of the 2024 NFL Draft has passed and while the start was fairly predictable, the Atlanta Falcons flipped the script with a stunning pick at eighth overall.

They are one of the big losers to emerge from the opening day at the draft but who else joins them and who are the teams or players that will be smiling the most?

Here are early winners and losers!

Mailata brings NFL Draft down under! | 00:41

WINNERS

Caleb Williams

Poor Justin Herbert. If only the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback could have one of the three star pass catchers the NFL’s latest No.1 pick has at his disposal.

The Bears have put Caleb Williams in a position to succeed from the jump, adding Washington’s Rome Odunze to an already impressive receiving corps that includes D.J. Moore and reliable veteran Keenan Allen.

The Athletic’s leading draft expert Dane Brugler is a big fan of Odunze, writing that he “projects as a true X receiver and has the skill level to elevate his quarterback’s play”.

Brugler wrote that Odzune was stylistically similar to Atlanta receiver Drake London and the numbers bear that comparison out, with Odunze converting 21 of 28 (75 per cent) contested targets into receptions last year at Washington, which was the highest mark by any Power Five receiver since 2014, according to Scott Barrett. It also surpassed London’s mark of 65.4 per cent in 2021.

Then you add in the significant steps Chicago’s defence took last season after trading for Montez Sweat and this is well and truly a brilliant position for a rookie quarterback to find himself in.

Spare a thought for Carolina quarterback Bryce Young, who found himself in the complete opposite situation after being taken by the Panthers first overall last year.

That trade continues to look even worse with time now that Chicago has essentially acquired Williams, Moore, offensive tackle Darnell Wright, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and a 2025 second-round pick by parting ways with that pick.

Kyler Murray

Given the calibre of quarterbacks at the top of this year’s draft, Kyler Murray was an already a winner the moment the Cardinals decided they would move forward into 2024 with the 26-year-old as their first-choice signal caller.

Of course, it is not like Arizona could have easily parted ways with Murray due to his contract.

But Murray showed enough in the latter stages of last season when returning from injury to prove he could still elevate Arizona’s offence, especially when he used his legs to escape pressure and make plays.

Now Murray has a true No.1 receiver to work with after the Cardinals drafted standout Ohio State prospect Marvin Harrison Jr. with the fourth overall pick on Friday.

It looked like Murray knew what the pick was going to be long before it was made too, tweeting earlier in the day: “Something about today just feels right, vibes are immaculate..”

Having lost Marquise Brown in free agency, Atlanta had a glaring need at wide receiver, although there was talk the Cardinals may trade back to add a pass catch later in the draft while also accumulating more draft capital to address team needs elsewhere.

It is clear though that Arizona didn’t get the kind of blockbuster offer to convince the front office to pass up the opportunity to draft a generational player like Harrison Jr., who easily ranked the top of the class in yards per route run both out wide and in the slot.

Minnesota Vikings and J.J. McCarthy

Well, that worked out well for both parties.

The Vikings were desperate to draft a top-tier quarterback after deciding not to pay up to keep Kirk Cousins in free agency.

McCarthy, meanwhile, entered the draft with plenty of question marks given he wasn’t required to do a whole lot during his time at Michigan.

For Minnesota, while North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye was understood to be its top choice at least it didn’t need to end up parting ways with its other first-round pick to land McCarthy.

In fact, the Vikings sent fourth and fifth-round picks (No. 129 and 157) to the Jets for a sixth-rounder (No. 203) to strike the deal.

While McCarthy didn’t have to do much at Michigan he was part of a winning culture, going 27-1 as a starter and when he was called on to produce he did, completing 67.1 per cent of his passes on third downs for six touchdowns and no picks.

J.J. McCarthy is off to Minnesota. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Meanwhile, McCarthy also completed an FBS-leading 68 per cent of his attempts under pressure last season and set a Michigan record with a 72.3 completion percentage overall.

In other words, he seems like the kind of quarterback who has a solid enough floor to keep the Vikings offence afloat in the short-term, especially with a wide receiver like Justin Jefferson to work with.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, meanwhile, is the kind of football mastermind that can get the most out of McCarthy and that is what makes this such a perfect landing spot for him too.

Sean Payton

OK, it sounds like Sean Payton really wanted Bo Nix and if this report from The Athletic’s Dianna Russini is true, the Broncos coach has high expectations of his new quarterback.

Russini wrote on Friday that Payton has “long reflected” on the 2017 draft when the then-Saints coach missed out on Patrick Mahomes by just one pick and this time around he didn’t want to make the same mistake.

Yep, that’s right. According to Russini, Payton “sees skills and accuracy in Nix that are similar to Mahomes and feels as strongly about Nix as he did Mahomes”.

She added in the report that Denver is “thrilled” about the pick.

The Broncos drafted Bo Nix. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

That is quite astonishing stuff to come out on a prospect like Nix who wasn’t even widely expected to go in the first round, with The Athletic’s leading draft expert Dane Brugler having a second-to-third-round grade on the Oregon quarterback.

In fact, Brugler wrote in his comprehensive draft guide that while it “feels unlikely” that Nix will “ever rank among the 15 best quarterbacks in the NFL, he has the tools to become a middle-of-the-road starter”.

That certainly isn’t close to Mahomes, although maybe Payton sees similarities between Nix and Drew Brees?

ESPN’s draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. flagged that possibility back in March.

Speaking on ‘The Pat McAfee Show’, Payton explained some of the thinking behind the call to draft Nix, who will now compete with former No.2 overall pick Zach Wilson for the starting job.

“Number one, he’s extremely smart and he handles the protections and he’s a tough sack,” Payton said.

“I mean, the ball comes out and, at times, he can hang in there longer maybe with a progression, but aside from the mental, that day and even his pro day, his arm strength was extremely impressive.”

The Broncos probably should be in the losers column themselves given this seems quite rich for Nix but Payton certainly appears to be happy with the move.

Daniel Jones

Heading into Friday, there was every chance four quarterbacks could be off the board with the first four picks for the first time in the draft’s history.

Instead, the draft board fell perfectly for the Giants if they wanted to draft their long-term quarterback given the question marks over Daniel Jones’ play, contract and health.

Really, there were enough reasons for New York to consider taking J.J. McCarthy at sixth overall given Jones’ struggles last season.

But after signing him to a four-year, $160 million contract with $81 million guaranteed last year, it seems like the Giants front office didn’t want to admit that was a mistake by drafting Jones’ replacement so early and so soon.

Instead, they took Malik Nabers — the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards at LSU and a genuine No.1 receiver who could finally give Jones his best chance yet to prove he is a starting-calibre quarterback in the NFL.

Of course, unless the Giants are able to improve their offensive line play too, Nabers alone may not be able to save Jones.

But at least the Giants have put Jones in a position to succeed by drafting an electric playmaker like Nabers, who can become a high-volume target over all three levels of the field.

Daniel Jones has a new weapon to play with (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

LOSERS

Kirk Cousins

Well, this came out of nowhere and seemed to leave everyone surprised — including new franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins.

That is, at least, according to multiple reports out of Friday’s draft which claim Cousins had no idea that the Falcons were going to draft Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth overall pick.

The Athletic’s Dianna Russini clarified that Atlanta called Cousins when they were on the clock to let them know they were taking the Washington quarterback, although it seems like that was the first time he had been informed of those plans.

“When he signed with the team this offseason, the Falcons told Cousins that they would be drafting a quarterback in the later rounds of the 2024 draft,” Russini reported.

“He was stunned when they took one in the first round… and Cousins’ biggest concern is that they don’t believe this helps the team for the upcoming season.”

It is not as if the Falcons would have been under the impression Penix Jr. may not have been on the board by that point anyway and you’d think keeping your new veteran quarterback in the loop would be a priority.

Cousins signed with the Falcons in March on a deal reportedly worth $180 million, which includes a $50 million signing bonus and $100 million guaranteed.

It is not just that Atlanta reportedly left Cousins in the dark on its plans to draft Penix Jr.

There were also plenty of other genuine holes on the roster that the Falcons could have addressed at eighth overall that would have both helped Cousins and put the team in a better position to compete immediately.

Kirk Cousins is Atlanta’s first-choice quarterback. David Berding/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

Drake London obviously has the talent to be a true alpha receiver in the league but Atlanta could have done with a No.2 option and it wouldn’t have been a reach either with Rome Odunze still on the board.

Defence was the glaring team need though, particularly the pass rush, after the Falcons finished last in pass rush win rate (30.9 per cent) last season.

No defensive players had gone off the board at the time Atlanta took Penix Jr. so the Falcons had their pick of the bunch but instead opted for an insurance policy.

And sure, it is defensible to go that route given Cousins is 35 years old and coming off a serious Achilles injury. But with the eighth overall pick and on a quarterback who is 24 and with his own long list of season-ending injuries?

Michael Penix Jr. was a surprise pick. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Even if the Falcons were worried the Las Vegas Raiders would have beat them to Penix Jr. if they traded down, it really seems like an expensive cost to pay for a back-up.

“You look at the Kirk Cousins contract, he better be your starter for the next two years or you’ve got a financial anvil around your ankle,” Robert Mays said on The Athletic’s live reaction show to Friday’s draft.

“This is just confusing to me in terms of where they’re at in the team-building process. It felt like there was a level of urgency in the Cousins signing.”

To cap it all off, you have this quote from Falcons GM Terry Fontenot: “If you believe in a quarterback, you have to take him. And if he sits for four or five years, that’s a great problem to have because we’re doing so well at that position. So, it’s as simple as, if you see a guy you believe in at that position, you have to take him.”

Right… well he better pray that it works out.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Broncos, Vikings and Raiders were the three likeliest teams to trade up for a quarterback heading into the first round.

By the time all three teams had made their first three picks, Las Vegas was the only one without a signal-caller after Denver took Nix and Minnesota moved up to draft McCarthy.

It was a tough pill to swallow for the Raiders, who surely would have anticipated at No.13 overall they would have at least been in a position to draft one of Nix or Penix Jr. at minimum.

Instead, the historic quarterback rush at the start of Friday’s draft left the Raiders to settle for Gardner Minshew and Aidan O’Connell in 2024 and potentially beyond then.

It is certainly not the kind of quarterback picture that will give Vegas any confidence in competing with the Chiefs in the AFC West.

Then you add in the state of the current roster, with Davante Adams headlining a solid receiving corps that now has a new weapon in tight end Brock Bowers while the Raiders also added Christian Wilkins to an already impressive defence led by Maxx Crosby.

The Raiders took Brock Bowers. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)Source: Getty Images

Really, the Raiders aren’t losers because they made a poor pick. The opposite actually.

Bowers was the best available player and now Las Vegas can operate more out of 12 personnel to both run the ball effectively and keep the defence guessing with two big-bodied pass catchers in Bowers and Michael Mayer.

But missing out on a long-term answer at quarterback while having such a solid roster elsewhere across the board leaves a giant question mark at one of the most important positions moving forward.

Drake Maye

And just quickly, as much as Maye may have said after he was drafted that he was grateful to be taken by the New England Patriots at third overall, it is a pretty rough landing spot for the North Carolina quarterback.

Really, whoever landed at New England was going to be a loser given the state of its roster.

Rookie Demario Douglas flashed his potential with 49 receptions for a team-leading 561 yards but the rest of the receiving corps is uninspiring, especially given the productive Kendrick Bourne is coming off a season-ending injury.

Drake Maye poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected third overall by the New England Patriots. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

The offensive line was a mess too. Thankfully the Patriots have another seven picks in this year’s draft, which should go some way to addressing the other glaring needs across the board.

Plus, veteran Jacoby Brissett may get the start anyway to ease the pressure on Maye to perform right away and lose his confidence in the process playing in such a terrible situation.

But we all know how this plays out. A few bad games from Brissett and suddenly the calls for New England to give Maye a shot grow louder. The Patriots just need to be patient.

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