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Examining the most interesting drafts in the NFC

The pro football draft and the process of turning college players into successful professionals is a lot like cooking a big meal. The build-up and preparation is a labor of love. You have to plan the meal, shop for the groceries then bring it all home and cook it up. If the product is worth the preparation you come away feeling satisfied. If not, it’s a terrible letdown, as well as a setback, because you either have to live with a crappy product or prepare another meal.

Unfortunately, it will be months before we know which teams performed in the draft like 5-star Michelin chefs and which were more like college kids overcooking their Ramen noodles. Teams retreat into the privacy of OTAs now and we won’t see their draft classes again until the pads start popping in August. That shouldn’t stop us from commenting on what just transpired, though. The wait between now and then will feel eternal, but there’s always speculation to keep us entertained.

Here, then, we look at three NFC teams whose drafts I found interesting. In the one to follow, we’ll examine the AFC.

Chicago Bears

There’s no question the Bears have improved immensely on paper this off-season. Adding D’Andre Swift, Keenan Allen and Gerald Everett during the free agency period to an offensive skill position group that already included D.J. Moore and Cole Kmet was a big leap forward. But drafting Caleb Williams and Rome Odunze really put this off-season over the top. You can now make a credible argument that Chicago has the best offense in the NFC North. If the Bears can match their execution to their talent, they’ll be in the mix for the division title.

That’s a big “if.” Execution is a tricky word in Chicago, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks. To quote the legendary John McVay when asked about the execution of his woeful Bucs team in 1976, he answered, “I’m in favor of it.” That’s how Bears fans have felt about their QBs for the past thirty years. Since Jim McMahon’s tenure ended in the late-1980s,  it’s mostly been a succession of flops. The team’s best signal-caller over that time was Jay Cutler, who put up good stats but finished with one career playoff win. The others include Steve Fuller, Mike Tomczak, Jim Harbaugh, Peter Tom Willis, Steve Walsh, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Rick Mirer, Shane Matthews, Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, Jim Miller, Chris Chandler, Kordell Stewart, Chad Hutchinson, Kyle Orton, Jimmy Clausen, Matt Barkley, Mitch Trubisky, Mike Glennon, Chase Daniel, Nick Foles, Brian Hoyer, Andy Dalton, Justin Fields, Nathan Peterman, Trevor Simien and Tyson Bagent.

No wonder there’s concern that Caleb Williams could be a flop.

In fairness, the Bears haven’t had a quarterback as talented as Williams in maybe… ever. And, given the wealth of weapons at his disposal, and a solid if not spectacular offensive line, the structure for success exists. It’s now up to head coach Matt Eberflus and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to make it work. Waldron had success in Seattle resurrecting the career of Geno Smith, so optimism abounds. But the quarterback track record in Chicago is grisly, and Williams, for all of his ability, makes some people nervous with his demeanor. Honestly, I have no idea how things will turn out in Chicago. But I do know this: the Bears will be interesting on offense, and that’s not been true in years.

Philadelphia Eagles

As a resident of southern New Jersey, I’m surrounded by Eagles fans. The consensus among the Birds’ faithful heading into the draft was the team desperately needed help at corner, and the debate was over which one they preferred.

Some argued for Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell, whose length, athleticism and physicality seemed to make him a prototype for the position. Mitchell reminds me of a more athletic version of Joey Porter Jr, who excelled as a rookie with the Steelers last season. Others liked Iowa’s Cooper DeJean because of his versatility and scheme fit. DeJean, who has great eyes and instincts, is an excellent zone corner and was thought to be a perfect match for the Cover-2, 4 and 6 looks new coordinator Vic Fangio is expected to play. The talk radio airwaves lit up over the debate, as Joe from Fishtown screamed for Mitchell while Anthony from South Philly called him a moron and lobbied for DeJean.

Turns out the Eagles got both.

Just how that happened is interesting. Many thought DeJean would go late in Round 1, but the run on quarterbacks, receivers and offensive tackles – 21 of the 32 1st Round picks were from those position groups – pushed corners down the board. DeJean’s fall was also a product of questions about whether he’d fit best in the league as a corner or a safety. Regardless, when he was still on the board at pick #40, the Eagles traded up with the Bears to nab him, and walked away with Mitchell, their Round 1 selection, and DeJean as well.

The trade for DeJean was one of eight Philadelphia made during the draft. Those trades also netted versatile running back Will Shipley from Clemson and Shipley’s college teammate, legacy linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr, as well as picks in rounds three, four and five next season. All in all, the Eagles got two of the best corners in the class, selected a potential fan favorite in Trotter, addressed needs elsewhere and stocked the cupboard for next year’s draft.

As the great Larry David would say, pretty, pretty, pretty good…

Atlanta Falcons

You can’t talk about interesting drafts from the NFC without bringing up the Falcons. Here’s my take on the Michael Penix Jr. controversy, for what it’s worth.

I have no problem with the Falcons identifying Penix as their quarterback of the future. It’s easy to understand why they would do this. Atlanta, drafting at #8 overall, figures to be pretty good next season, which means it’s unlikely they’ll find themselves picking in the Top 10 again. Recent studies have shown that the probability of landing a franchise quarterback diminishes significantly when you select outside of the Top 10. So, given the fact Kirk Cousins is 36 years old and was signed to a four-year deal he likely won’t complete, Atlanta saw Penix as an opportunity to land a Top 10 quarterback as his successor. They felt emboldened to do so because they didn’t believe they’d have this opportunity next season, or presumably the season after that, and they didn’t want to find themselves in a situation where they cut Cousins loose without a succession plan.

No matter your evaluation of Penix, or whether you feel he can be that post-Cousins solution, their logic was sound.

Here’s where things get murky. Atlanta knew they’d be drafting at #8 when they signed Cousins in free agency and gave him $100 million guaranteed. They had to understand that if they selected a quarterback in that spot it would be a disaster from both a public relations and locker room standpoint. How would they square the impression that they’re going for it now by signing Cousins to a massive deal with the selection of someone at #8 who isn’t likely to help them on the field this season? Or even next? How would they assure Cousins he’s the leader of the team when they just spent a high-value draft pick on his successor? It’s impossible they didn’t see the fallout coming.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot explained it by stating he wanted Atlanta to be like the Green Bay Packers, who had succession plans in place for both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. That’s fine. But Rodgers, who succeeded Favre, and Jordan Love, who succeeded Rodgers, were both taken at the back of the Round 1, which softened the blow a bit. And, by drafting both players, the Packers really pissed off their veteran QBs. Favre and Rodgers had been firmly entrenched as the starters in Green Bay for years, so weathering the controversy there was simpler. Cousins hasn’t even taken an OTA snap with his new teammates in Atlanta and he already has to answer questions about his longevity. And God forbid he throws a couple of early picks or looks shaky out of the gate next season. Those are going to be awkward press conferences.

By the way, the Falcons informed Cousins they were drafting Penix as they were on the clock drafting Penix. You couldn’t make this up.

In the end, things may work out fine. Cousins might give Atlanta a couple years of solid quarterback play while helping to groom Penix before he’s ushered out the door with a boatload of money in the bank. Or, it could all blow up. Either way, the Falcons could not have been more clumsy about this, which is a terrible way for Raheen Morris to enter his tenure as the team’s new head coach.


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