2023 NFL Draft: The best NFL player/scheme fits in the first round
Per Pro Football Reference’s Weighted Career Approximate Value metric, the three most valuable picks in the 2022 NFL draft were cornerbacks.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, selected by the Jets with the fourth overall pick, dominated in his rookie season in a Robert Saleh defense that demanded an alpha cornerback who was fine on an island. Marcus Jones, selected by the Patriots with the 85th overall pick, knew enough about how to play man coverage to make a different right away in a Bill Belichick defense in which man coverage is a non-negotiable. And Tariq Woolen, selected with the 153rd pick by the Seahawks, was a massive defender with that same kind of alpha mentality who fit perfectly in a Pete Carroll defense where “having that dog in him” is as important as any particular measurable, though Woolen’s alien-like measurables certainly helped — and showed up on the field.
And here’s the thing — if you took those three players and made flip teams in 2022, there’s no guarantee that any of them would have done well as they did. Putting a rookie in the most hospitable environment possible is an obvious path to success. At least, you think it’s obvious, until you watch some NFL teams completely fail to do it.
Here, we have five specific new marriages between NFL teams and draft picks in which the fit is the thing, and it looks really good — for all kinds of reasons.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts
(Syndication: The Clarion-Ledger)
Richardson’s best bet for a relatively seamless NFL transition was to land with a team that would use his incredible athletic ability as the fulcrum of its offense in ways that would also manage the coverages he would see as a passer. Fortunately for him, the Colts — and new head coach Shane Steichen — were uniquely set to do that when they took Richardson with the fourth overall pick. There’s a lot we can project from the Jalen Hurts-led offense Steichen ran last season as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, and Steichen said as much after the pick was made.
“That’s a good question – that definitely helps,” Steichen said when asked how Richardson’s running ability raises his floor. “When a guy can run and add that element to your offense it’s a big plus. It puts stress on defenses and obviously he has that capability. I just wouldn’t sleep on his throwing ability either. That ball comes out pretty now. He can spin it. He’s got a huge arm and he’s made some huge plays in the pass game. We’re excited to work with him.”
Steichen won’t have to change much in his playbook for Richardson as a runner; Florida ran a lot of the same stuff Steichen had in his bag for Hurts.
…and Anthony Richardson running QB Power.
Yeah, this is gonna be fun. pic.twitter.com/X0Nqb2xkv4
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) May 5, 2023
And as a passer, Richardson can be aided by the threat of the run, just as Hurts has been in his NFL development. Richardson’s opponents had to put at least one spy on him because of what he could do to a defense, leaving easier reads and openings and simplifying coverage. That’s not a slight against Richardson or Hurts — it’s good coaching to use a player’s primary attributes to ease his transition, and it’s clear that the Colts have this very much in mind.
Will McDonald IV, EDGE, New York Jets
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
McDonald fits Jets head coach Robert Saleh’s preference for lean, athletic speed ends who can rush the quarterback in all kinds of ways, but this particular positive transition is about how McDonald will be unleashed as soon as he’s freed from the weird schematic constraint he played under at Iowa State. The Cyclones ran a ton of three-man fronts, which frequently put the 6-foot-3, 239-pound McDonald inside the tackles. Hardly optimal. 209 of his 518 snaps last season were spent over the tackles or in the B-gaps, which doesn’t make a ton of sense. Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas made it clear that those days were over for the 15th overall pick.
“I think there’s a few times that he might have lined up a little bit more inside,” Douglas said. “Maybe a 4-technique or lined up a little bit closer to the blocker where I think he’s going to be – not to speak for Coach, but he’s going to be coming off the edge and he’s got all that God-given ability of length, the speed and athleticism. Again, he’s been productive his entire career in games.”
Coach was happy to speak for himself.
“You look at his Iowa State tape, he played a lot of 4i where he’s head up on an offensive tackle, so he’s got the power to stand in there. Just learning our technique, our stance, our alignment, the angles at which we play and the get off. Not overly concerned about him learning all that stuff, and again, just to add an elite pass rusher, because at the end of the day, getting the quarterback on the ground is a premium. When you’re sitting there at pick 15 and you feel like you have your best pass rusher staring at you in the face, I think it’s just an easy decision.”
Is it as simple as playing McDonald outside, where he should have been the whole time? Yup. His tape shows a player with speed-to-power, agility to flatten the edge, and a spin move that could be deadly at the next level. McDonald had six sacks and 25 total pressures in 260 pass-rushing snaps last season, and when you watch him outside, you can only wonder what might have been.
Saleh and his staff don’t have to wonder — they can start manifesting it right away.
Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore Ravens
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Flowers was my WR1 in this draft class not only because of what he did on the field, but also because he did it all with a quarterback situation that was… well, not great. Phil Jurkovec and Emmett Morehead left Flowers hanging out to dry as a receiver more often than not — especially on vertical routes — and it was up to Flowers to make up the difference. Even when Flowers would beat his defender(s) with estimable speed and agility, he’d either have to slow up to wait for the ball to get there, or watch as the ball flew helplessly by. Still, Flowers caught 12 passes of 20 or more air yards on 27 targets for 500 yards and four touchdowns.
Deonte Banks, CB, New York Giants
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
If there’s two things we know about Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, the first is that he loves to blitz (Big Blue led the NFL with a 39.7 blitz rate last season, 5.2% more than any other team, and Martindale’s Ravens defenses also would lead the NFL in blitz rate), and the second is that he wants a lot of man coverage behind that anarchy. The Giants led the NFL last season with 232 opponent attempts against man coverage with 232, allowing 118 completions for 1,412 yards, 13 touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 84.9.
About middle of the pack in the league, but Martindale isn’t going to change his spots. The idea here was to get a cornerback who perfectly fit Martindale’s vision for his defense, and the team did just that with the selection of Maryland’s Deonte Banks with the 24th overall pick.
You could say that Martindale was happy with the move.
Wink Martindale’s reaction to the #Giants drafting CB Deonte Banks: 👀 #NFLDraft #TogetherBlue pic.twitter.com/ZbmQrf9cg4
— JD SportsTalk (@JDSportsTalkNY) April 28, 2023
“You guys know Wink’s defense and what he likes, and Deonte fits that mold to a ‘T.’ He was ecstatic,” general manager Joe Schoen said of those bear hugs.
“He’s a prototype from a size standpoint,” Schoen said of Banks. “He’s athletic. He’s physical. He can run. He ran 4.32 at the Combine. He has arm length, big hands. He’s been a four-year starter. He was hurt a year ago but he has played a lot of ball there at Maryland and schematically, he’s a good fit. And we spent a lot of time with him. Met with him at the combine. He’s a guy that, you know, we went down to the pro day, and we spent a good amount of time with him, and we felt comfortable with him.”
Well, here’s why. In man coverage last season, Banks allowed 11 catches on 25 targets for 159 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 75.3. More importantly, in press-man coverage, Banks gave up nine catches on 23 press targets for 46 yards, and his press reps were hilarious to watch, as it was rep after rep of receivers getting enveloped. Banks has the aggressive mentality, transitional athleticism, and pure speed to shut opponents down in Martindale’s favorite stuff. No wonder the coach was so happy!
Mazi Smith, DL, Dallas Cowboys
(Syndication: Austin American-Statesman)
Last season, the Cowboys ranked second in Defensive DVOA behind only the 49ers — but they also ranked 23rd in power situations (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), 18th in stuff rate (percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage), and 15th in second-level yards (yards which this team’s running backs earn between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries).
The primary issue was obvious — Dallas’ interior defensive line was seriously lacking, and even more so when second-year man Osa Odighizuwa was off the field. When defensive coordinator Dan Quinn didn’t have the benefit of Odighizuwa on the field, he watched his squad drop from -0.14 to -0.02 in run defense EPA, which is better when it’s pointing in a negative direction.
Quinn and his staff did an estimable job of stunting their interior defenders around to try and create confusion for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks, but at some point, you just have to go out and get better guys. Dallas did this in the person of Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith with the 26th pick. There were serious discussions about this in the room, and logic won out.
Will McClay has the power and influence in Cowboys personnel decisions. The Jones family trusts him. They listen to him. McClay was the brains behind the pick of Mazi Smith. Trust Will McClay.
He is the calm to the Jones family circus pic.twitter.com/Qg2KtY4lwP
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 2, 2023
Why was the 6-foot-3, 323-pound Smith the answer? Let’s start with his ability to blast into the backfield from any gap, even when head-up over the center.
12 of Smith’s 25 quarterback pressures last season came on some kind of stunt or game, which will place him in good stead in his new defense, where linemen are trying to get that chaos going. Here, Smith looped around Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr., and then closed in to make C.J. Stroud’s rep more complicated that Stroud would have liked.
Imagine reps with Smith as the penetrator and Micah Parsons as the looper?
“This is a perfect storm for me,” Smith said after the Cowboys took him. “I’ve got guys that I can trust to lead, and that’s why you really wanna get around dawgs like that. They don’t have to tell you, because they’re gonna show you how to do it. And you’re gonna match their energy.
“That’s why you draft players like me.”
No argument here.