In an early stopper-focused NFL Draft, it was the onlookers — the wide receivers — who stole the show Thursday night.
Not just prospects either.
Yes, the first five selections came on the defensive side of the ball, including rushers Travon Walker from national champion Georgia to Jacksonville and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson to Detroit at Nos 1 and 2. It was the first time in 31 years that no offensive player went to the top five picks.
So naturally the next five picks were on offense. And those kept coming: all the way to #12.
And the theme of the top 20 picks was having guys who can catch the ball — including Philadelphia acquiring standout AJ Brown from the Titans, and Arizona getting veteran Marquise Brown from the Ravens.
In all, six of the 18 opening selections were wide, starting with Southern California’s Drake London at No. 8 in Atlanta. He will team up with tight end Kyle Pitts, the Falcons’ 2021 first-rounder, on a rebuilding offense.
“I mean there’s only two big guys out there on the perimeter,” London said. “…Obviously I have to earn my stripes to go out on the pitch with him.”
No quarterback went until the 20th, when Pitt’s Kenny Pickett discovered he could just move to another side of the practice facility as he joined the Steelers and possibly become Ben Roethlisberger’s successor.
But it’s a draft rich in linemen and defensive backs as well as wide.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Walker, who has raw elements in his game but an extremely high ceiling for his skill, joins former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as the Jaguars’ second straight selection.
“I’m definitely prepared for this, being the No. 1 pick,” Walker said. “I have to say there are a lot of expectations behind it, but for me it’s just football.”
Walker was a one-year starter whose production (13 tackles for loss and nine-and-a-half sacks) didn’t jump because he was part of a deep rotation at Georgia. His talent level has certainly impressed the Jaguars, the NFL’s worst team for the past two years.
“He’s an athletic freak,” Georgia defensive coordinator Will Muschamp told The Associated Press. “I swear to God he could line up at linebacker and it will be fine. I’d take it at #1 and wouldn’t even blink.
The Jaguars did not blink.
Commissioner Roger Goodell began proceedings by estimating that more than 100,000 fans were in attendance at the theater built specifically for the draft. Walker was not in Las Vegas.
Hutchinson, a sack-master whose consistency and relentlessness helped the Wolverines to their first college football playoff, stays home as a pro. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder whose father Chris was a star Michigan player in the 1990s, was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season.
“I’ve always wanted to be in Detroit. I’m grateful to be a Leo,” he said.
Cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner went next, to the Texans and Jets, respectively.
LSU’s Stingley is the grandson of former Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, who was crippled in a preseason game in 1978. Gardner, of Cincinnati, was one of the main reasons the Bearcats broke into the college football playoffs last season. He wore a brashly jeweled necklace proclaiming his nickname, and even a chain accessorized with a jeweled sauce bottle.
“I know I’m going to be a great teammate and I’m going to be a sponge, someone who is able to take information from everyone and not feel like I’m too good for anyone.” , Gardner said. “Just be a hard worker.”
The defensive run ended with Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux at the New York Giants.
“I am at this nirvana. I am at peace,” he said, noting that Hall of Famer Michael Strahan has been a mentor. “It’s set up or shut down.”
When the teams went to the other side of the ball, they couldn’t stop. It started with North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu at Carolina and Alabama tackled Evan Neal to the Giants. Both teams are needy, to say the least, up front.
“It feels good in terms of legacy,” Ekwonu said. “You know, I kind of cemented myself in the history of this draft class. I know this course is going to be special.
He loved the idea of staying in Carolina.
“My mother cried the second I picked up the phone,” Ekwonu said. “Honestly, it was like surreal. Growing up as a Panthers fan and being able to play on a team that you grew up with as a fan is almost like a movie. It’s crazy.”
Seattle went for Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross at No. 9. Then came three more receivers: Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson at the Jets and college teammate Chris Olave at New Orleans, who traded with Washington for 11th place; and Alabama’s Jameson Williams, who is coming off a serious knee injury, at Detroit, which moved on a deal with division rival Minnesota.
Another Georgia standout, defensive tackle Jordan Davis, was taken by Philadelphia at age 13 after another deal, bringing things back to the defensive end. Later, Bulldogs linebacker Quay Walker went to Green Bay, as did teammate Devante Wyatt. This is the first time that four players from the same defense have left so early. And it became five when Minnesota wrapped up the dizzying first round by getting Georgia safety Lewis Cine.
The Jets got three players when they came back in the first round to secure 26th place Tennessee once they saw Florida State rusher Jermaine Johnson slip. Johnson had been to Georgia before.
Penn State’s Jahan Dotson joined the receiving parade, heading to Washington at No. 16, then the Titans added Arkansas WR Treylon Burks with the acquired pick for AJ Brown.
“I think it’s a really valuable position,” Wilson said. “And I think the league is starting to show that in drafts and in the offseason. Being a receiver, I like to see it. You see people like Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, I mean those people, they switch offenses. You know, Ja’Marr Chase, they’re switching offenses, and I’m glad the receivers are starting to get that love.
While passers went to the top three spots of 2021, some thought none would make it to the first round this year. But Pickett fell to the Steelers, which seems like a comfortable choice for the player and the team.
Pickett returned for a fifth season and that move certainly paid off. He took Pitt to his first ACC title.
Right after Pickett was, uh, picked, two players who were projected by many as second-rounders were picked: Quay Walker and Tulsa tackle Tyler Smith. So the Packers didn’t get an offensive assist for league MVP Aaron Rodgers on Thursday, but the Cowboys tackled a declining offensive line.
AFC champion Cincinnati secured Michigan safety Dax Hill before Minnesota maintained the Georgia connection by taking Cine.
No wonder the Bulldogs won the national championship.