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Examining the most interesting drafts in the AFC

This article is the second in a series I’m writing on the teams in each conference I thought had the most interesting drafts last weekend. The first article, to which I’ve linked below, was on the NFC. This one profiles the AFC.

Most Interesting NFC Drafts

Denver Broncos

Let’s start in Denver, where the Broncos finished the Round 1 quarterback frenzy by taking Oregon’s Bo Nix at #12 overall.

This was a polarizing pick since Nix was regarded by most pundits as a Day 2 selection. Head coach Sean Payton seemed to anticipate the blowback by going on the Pat McAfee Show almost immediately afterwards and raving about Nix. Payton gushed about his football IQ, his ability to handle everything the Denver coaching staff threw at him when they put him on a whiteboard during their pre-draft visit and how Nix’s Pro Day performance was better than any quarterback they’d seen.

The national perception is that Payton was blowing smoke in an attempt to justify a panic move on Denver’s part when five quarterbacks unexpectedly went off the board before they picked. Denver needed a quarterback, Nix was the only one remaining they could remotely justify taking at #12, and once they did they immediately went into spin mode because they knew it was a reach. I’m not here to say that’s what happened because frankly, I don’t know. Payton said Nix was the #3 quarterback on their board and they were thrilled to be in position to take him, and it’s not my place to call him a liar. The gushing over Nix was a bit much, though. It reminded me of a married couple who constantly posts on social media how amazing their relationship is to mask the fact the husband has been sleeping on the couch for a month. Overcompensation is often a telltale sign of disaster.

Todd McShay reported he’d talked to about a dozen league executives and none applauded the Nix pick. McShay called the pick “arrogant,” which was a pointed adjective given the fact Payton has occasionally been labeled as such. In the end, time will tell whether Denver acquired a true franchise quarterback in Nix or, as many suspect, a player who will scuffle as a starter before taking his place as the career backup they see him destined to become. If Payton can turn him into the former, he’ll look like a genius and will have earned the right to crow. If not, it could be a death blow to his tenure as head coach. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on Bo Nix’s fortunes in Denver.

Las Vegas Raiders

Another team whose top pick drew some criticism was the Raiders, who chose Georgia tight end Brock Bowers immediately after Nix at #13 overall.

The argument against Bowers was very different from the one against Nix. It’s not that people thought Bowers was undeserving of being selected that high. The run on quarterbacks actually pushed Bowers further down the board than some expected. Many mock drafts had him going #9 to the Bears or #10 to the Jets. My colleague Shawn Gurley at FFSN has called Bowers one of the most pro-ready players in the draft, and few pundits doubt he’ll succeed as a pro.

The pushback came from those who did not see tight end as a need for Las Vegas. The Raiders were the one team who seemed interested in drafting a quarterback in Round 1 who didn’t get one. There were seven teams thought to be in the 1st Round quarterback market and six of them picked in front of Vegas. Those six all took quarterbacks, leaving the Raiders on the outside looking in. That prompted general manager Tom Telesco to shift from a need philosophy to best-player-available (BPA), which in his mind was Bowers. Telesco said as much in post-draft interviews, remarking the team was looking to add more playmakers to the offense and that those playmakers “come in all shapes and sizes,” a comment that alludes to Vegas choosing a tight end to be that player rather than a back or a receiver.

While Bowers is an unmistakable talent, some thought it odd Vegas would opt for him considering they had bigger needs at cornerback and offensive tackle. Many of the draft’s best players at those positions were still available when Vegas selected. Plus, Vegas had used the 35th overall pick in last year’s draft on a tight end – Michael Mayer of Notre Dame – who caught just 27 passes as a rookie. Why select another tight end when you have bigger needs elsewhere and you didn’t optimize the tight end you drafted last year?

The answer to that question is simple if you adhere to the BPA philosophy. Bowers was the best player on the board, had the chance to make the biggest impact for the Raiders and provided better value than if they reached for someone else to fill a need. The “BPA versus need” argument is as old as the draft itself and will be an issue whenever a team contradicts the popular opinion or makes an edgy pick. In the case of the Raiders, the value they get from Bowers will depend on how much they prioritize him in new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system. Tight end Cole Kmet had 90 targets and 73 receptions in Chicago last season under Getsy, and if Bowers is involved similarly few will complain. With Davante Adams and Jokobi Meyers at receiver, and Mayer as a second tight end, it will be hard for defenses to zero in on Bowers. Now it’s up to Getsy to get him the ball.

Pittsburgh Steelers

One team whose draft did not draw criticism was the Steelers. Pittsburgh graded out as an A or A+ in just about every post-draft analysis. I think it’s silly to assign grades to draft classes before they’ve had a single practice with their new team, but they do provide a guide as to how a team’s draft is perceived. In Pittsburgh’s case, perception says they knocked it out of the park.

Why? Predominantly, because the Steelers are forging an identity for their team and then acquiring players who fit. Since general manager Omar Khan took the reins in 2022 and tabbed Andy Weidl to be his wing-man, Pittsburgh has rebuilt itself from the inside-out. After selecting just one offensive or defensive lineman in the first two rounds of the draft between 2013-2022, Pittsburgh has selected four of them the past two years. They took offensive tackle Broderick Jones in Round One last year and defensive tackle Keannu Benton in Round Two, then nabbed offensive linemen Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier in Rounds One and Two this year. These moves have complimented others, like signing guard Issac Seumalu in free agency last off-season, and drafting South Dakota State lineman Mason McCormick, a bare-knuckle brawler in football pads, in Round Four this year, as part of a concerted effort to make Pittsburgh tougher and more physical up front. The Steelers have traditionally been one of football’s best run teams but they slipped in that department in the waning years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. Now, under Khan and Weidl, the emphasis on winning in the trenches is back, and their draft picks reflect that.

Even the non-linemen they’ve selected fit that mindset. Take 3rd Rounder Roman Wilson, a 5’11-190 pound receiver from Michigan. Wilson is a pest who gets under people’s skin by blocking them thirty yards away from the play and staying after his block until the whistle. His mindset is similar to that of Steeler great Hines Ward, who was one of the best blocking receivers in NFL history. Wilson will be uncomfortable to play against because he’ll do the dirty work that some receivers are opposed to. In that regard, he should fit in perfectly with the team Pittsburgh is building.


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