Every April at Football Outsiders, we look back on the drafts of yesteryear in preparation for the draft that’s coming up. And as we approach the 2021 draft, it’s interesting to look back at the parallels to the 2015 draft, with top quarterback prospects sitting high atop the draft board.
Trevor Lawrence will be the first pick in this year’s draft, barring an act of absolute insanity from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Lawrence is considered a generational talent, far and away the best prospect in this year’s draft. That’s true both in analytical formulas such as like QBASE 2.0, which has Lawrence leaps and bounds ahead of everyone, and from scouting services such as Scouts Inc., which gives Lawrence a 97 on their 99-point scale. In 2015, however, things were a little less clear.
Lawrence is Scouts Inc.’s highest-rated quarterback prospect since 2015, when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston also hit a 97—Winston was called “one of the best prospects we have evaluated the last 10 years,” while Lawrence is referred to as “a once-in-a-decade type quarterback prospect.” Winston wasn’t the favorite of the analytical crowd, however, as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota topped the table of the inaugural QBASE rankings, much as Lawrence is the highest-rated player in QBASE 2.0. The two Heisman winners seemed destined to be picked one-two in the draft, but the order was in question.
The fact that neither Winston nor Mariota made it to a second contract with their respective teams is both a stark reminder of the difficulty in projecting college talent in the NFL and a bit of an indictment of the 2015 class as a whole. In fact, over one-third of the 32 first-round picks were gone before their rookie contracts expired, cut or traded away before completing their fourth season in the league. Only one of the top 10 picks—Washington lineman Brandon Scherff—is still with the team that drafted him. Teams with a high draft pick in 2021 are counting on their selection anchoring them for years to come. 2015 is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees with prospects.
That’s not to say 2015 was a particularly poor class, mind you. While the top of the first round left something to be desired, 2015 has still produced 26 Pro Bowlers, making it essentially a bang-on average collection of talent. Sixteen of those 26 came from outside the first round, compared to just 10 from 2014. What this draft lacked at the top it made up for in depth, including a comparative gold mine at the end of the fourth round and beginning of the fifth. There was still plenty of good talent available for those who knew what they were doing.
Look away now, Mike Brown fans.
For a reminder of who went where, Pro Football Reference is your source for all the picks in the draft and their basic statistics, while Pro Sports Transactions is a great way to trace draft pick trades.
Conventional Wisdom: As alluded to above, this was a two-man class at the top. Florida State’s Jameis Winston had won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in 2013, the youngest player ever to win the award. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota won the Heisman the next year, one of only four players to receive more than 90% of the points possible in a given season. We have seen multiple Heisman winners drafted in the same year before, but Winston and Mariota remain the only pair to go one-two in a draft.
Winston was the scouting favorite. He only lost one game in his college career, and his ability to scan the field and work through his progressions was considered second to none—a true “pro style” quarterback, as scouts praised his pocket presence and football IQ. He had a “natural feel for throwing windows” and a willingness to make throws and take chances that other passers would pass up. Yes, he occasionally tried to do too much—18 interceptions as a redshirt sophomore, often missing defenders lurking underneath—but he bounced back from his mistakes and was able to perform in the clutch. The biggest questions surrounding Winston were off-field incidents—allegations of sexual assault in 2012; multiple shoplifting incidents, a college suspension for obscene language. His maturity and focus were called into question, though he reportedly did a good job of assuring NFL personnel people that he was growing and learning.
Here at Football Outsiders, QBASE did not particularly like Winston, giving him a 61.3% chance of busting. He “simply [did] not look good like a first pick should,” with a low adjusted yards per attempt, relatively subpar stats in his final college season, and only two years of starting experience under his belt. QBASE significantly preferred Mariota, pointing out his significantly superior statistical production. Mariota’s higher completion percentage and nearly unparalleled adjusted yards per attempt had him standing head-and-shoulders above Winston. And that model didn’t account for Mariota’s mobility; this year’s QBASE 2.0 retroactively gives Mariota the best projection of any prospect from 2004 to 2021. Mariota’s athleticism was what separated him from the pack. He ran a 4.52s 40-yard dash, a time no quarterback has matched since.
Mariota won not only the Heisman, but also the Maxwell Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm, and the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award. He had a cannon for an arm with accuracy to hit all levels of the field, either in the pocket or on the move. He was mostly dinged for being a project and not ready to play in an NFL style right off the bat. A product of Chip Kelly’s high-tempo Oregon offense, Mariota didn’t have experience playing under center or taking three- and five-step drops; instead, Oregon’s system used speed and misdirection to get matchups in space, and Mariota would throw to the spot. Fears that Mariota was a one-read-and-run player without the ability to really break down a defense made him a potential bust candidate, but no one else in the class could match his physical tools. Given the right situation and a coach willing to tailor his offense to the quarterback’s skills, Mariota might well have had the best potential of the entire class.
After Winston and Mariota, the class was a wasteland. QBASE had UCLA’s Brett Hundley as the only other passer with a positive projection, with Baylor’s Bryce Petty catching some scouts’ eyes against notably subpar competition.
Highest Pick: Jameis Winston, first overall to Tampa Bay.
Best Player: The conventional wisdom was right on the identity of the top two quarterbacks, and we’ll take Jameis Winston as the winner of that particular horse race. Winston is currently sitting on 2,422 career DYAR to Mariota’s 1,229, and he’s the one who has a chance to be a starting quarterback in 2021, although Sean Payton’s continued infatuation with Taysom Hill is not to be overlooked.
The fact that the best quarterback of the class might end up backing up Hill kind of tells the story—both passers were disappointments, if not outright busts, for their teams. Winston never did fix his interception bug, and Mariota has never been able to really turn all his tools into consistent NFL success. Still, at worst, both are among the best backup quarterbacks in the league at the moment, placing them several rungs above other recent high-profile busts.
Biggest Bust: Garrett Grayson. Colorado State’s Grayson was the third quarterback off the board, taken by the Saints with the 75th pick in the draft. Grayson ended up active for just one game in his NFL career and had zero professional snaps. Some of that comes from being behind Drew Brees, certainly, but Grayson also ended up on the Falcons and Broncos practice squads, meaning he couldn’t beat out Matt Schaub or Chad Kelly for roster slots. You could make an argument for Sean Mannion here, but Mannion has at least started two games; Grayson can’t say that much.
Best Value: Trevor Siemian. Picked by Denver in the seventh round out of Northwestern, Siemian was a below average quarterback. But he was a below average starting quarterback for several years, beating out Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch to replace Peyton Manning under center. He was even named an alternate for the Pro Bowl in 2016. A poor 2017 put him into the negatives for his career DYAR, but again, Siemian was the 250th pick out of 256; getting anything out of a player drafted that late is a surprise. His 25 starts are tied for seventh all time among seventh-round passers, and he was still on multiple rosters last year. A lot of players picked before him can’t say that.
Conventional Wisdom: After a multi-year drought, first-round running backs were back on the menu! Both Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon were considered first-round-caliber selections. Gurley’s durability was under question, as he was coming off an ACL tear that cut his last season short, but that was about the only concern anyone had. With a fantastic combination of power and speed, solid receiving skills, and returner ability, experts struggled to find enough superlative players to compare him to. He’s Marshawn Lynch! No, he’s Shaun Alexander with Eddie George’s elusiveness! No, he’s Herschel Walker mixed with Bo Jackson! There were quiet whispers about his vision, and the pedants among us noted that Nick Chubb put up similar results to Gurley in his absence, but Gurley was going to run through people.
With Gurley sidelined during the pre-draft process, however, Gordon quickly rose through the ranks. Gordon had demolished Big Ten competition—a shifty, speedy back who also happened to be 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. An expert outside runner, Gordon was a little shakier when asked to run between the tackles. But with an NCAA record 7.79 yards per carry and over 2,500 yards as a senior, a little bit of shakiness could be ignored.
And unlike at quarterback, the quality didn’t stop after the first-rounders. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah was a matchup nightmare in the receiving game. Indiana’s Tevin Coleman was the fastest back on paper, running for over 2,000 yards on a broken foot. Duke Johnson broke Miami’s all-time rushing records as he transformed from scatback to three-down force. If you were looking for a rusher, the 2015 draft was a far, far more promising class than we had seen in years.
BackCAST didn’t exist until 2016, but retroactively had Gurley as the clear leader of the class. In terms of Speed Score, Gordon was fourth, behind Florida State’s Karlos Williams, Northern Iowa’s David Johnson, and Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford. Those top three were considered Day 3 prospects, however, so Gordon was the top of the intriguing crowd.
Highest Pick: Todd Gurley, 10th overall to St. Louis.
Best Player: None of the 22 drafted running backs and fullbacks remain with their original team, as all of them have had their struggles at one point or another. Still, for a couple of years there, Todd Gurley was the best running back in football. He led the league in both DYAR and DVOA in 2018 and wasn’t far behind in 2017 either, as Sean McVay’s system proved slightly more offensively advantageous than that of Rob Boras and Jeff Fisher. Gurley’s success in those years has been somewhat forgotten thanks to some injuries and an ill-advised massive extension, and he’s now an unsigned free agent. Even with that, he still leads the entire 2015 class with 8,336 yards from scrimmage, more than a thousand clear of Melvin Gordon in second place, and his 79 touchdowns lead the class as well. Gordon looks better positioned to improve his numbers going forward, so this book isn’t fully written yet. Until he does, however, Gurley’s our man.
Biggest Bust: Although every single drafted running back has moved on, there aren’t really a ton of massive draft busts to speak of here. Of players drafted on the first two days, the closest we get is Ameer Abdullah. The Lions’ second-round pick struggled to put up consistent numbers in Detroit. A Lisfranc injury in 2016 cost him valuable time, but even when he was on the field, he never really produced. He was miscast as an every-down back, but even his lauded receiving skills never came to much; he’s sitting on 146 career DYAR. He’s still in the league, but strictly as a special teams player in Minnesota; he had just 17 touches last season to go along with 31 kick returns. At least he’s still in the league, mind you. Some players picked after him had worse careers—Day 3 picks David Cobb and Josh Robinson spring to mind. But it’s hard to call a Day 3 pick an out-and-out bust, so Abdullah takes the crown.
Biggest Value: David Johnson. Honestly, even with the massive extension, you could make an argument for Gurley here, as two-time All-Pros don’t grow on trees. But Johnson, who went 86th overall to Arizona, was a first-team All-Pro himself. His first two seasons, before he injured his wrist, still have the two best rushing DYAR totals in Cardinals history. Johnson finished in the top 10 in both rushing and receiving DYAR in 2015 and 2016. While he was never the same player after that point, those two seasons at least place him in the conversation. And then the Cardinals traded him for DeAndre Hopkins, and it’s hard to get more value out of a player than that. Another possibility was Raheem Mostert, who has become the Kyle Shanahan running back du jour after going undrafted out of Purdue, but we’ll stick with actual drafted players for the purposes of this award.
Conventional Wisdom: While the 2014 class of wide receivers was praised as the best the league had seen in years, the 2015 class wasn’t that far behind them. You could make an argument for eight or 10 different wideouts as first-round picks, were you so inclined, and an octet went off the board in the first 40 picks.
The big question atop the draft was whether you were behind Alabama’s Amari Cooper or West Virginia’s Kevin White. Cooper was the more polished of the two and your best bet if you were looking for an instant impact player. He wasn’t on the Sammy Watkins/Mike Evans/Odell Beckham tier from the year before, but his route-running skills lapped the field, and he could play on the boundaries or in the slot with equal panache. White, though, was the player with the potential to become a superduperstar, if teams were patient with him. Players of White’s athletic caliber—6-foot-3 and 216 pounds with 4.35s speed—just don’t come around all that often. He was the better prospect, though as a one-year star without a lot of polish, he had a higher risk than Cooper did.
My personal draft crush was Louisville’s DeVante Parker, a polished red zone threat. If Parker didn’t have the best hands in the class, it was USC’s Nelson Agholor; the two gobbled up everything thrown their way. Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong may not have known how to run a route other than “go deep,” but you couldn’t jam or outjump him on those deep shots. He joined Ohio State’s Devin Smith and Miami’s Phillip Dorsett as the premier deep threats in the class, though Dorsett’s 4.33s 40 left the others in the dust. Michigan’s David Funchess was a receiver/tight end hybrid with fantastic size and questionable hands. No matter what your ideal receiver type was, there was something for everyone.
And then there was Dorial Green-Beckham, the most polarizing receiver in the draft, and arguably the most polarizing prospect in general. Green-Beckham starred at Missouri, freakishly big and fast, with sure hands and great vision with the ball in his hands. He was rawer than raw could be, mind you—he literally ran three routes in college, and only two of them well—but on talent alone, many scouts considered him a top-of-the-first-round pick, possibly up in the single digits. But talent alone was never the full story with Green-Beckham. He was twice arrested on marijuana charges, resulting in suspensions, and then he was dismissed from the team after allegedly breaking into an apartment and pushing a woman down a flight of stairs. Green-Beckham sat out the entire 2014 season after transferring to Oklahoma and entered the draft with a massive satchel full of question marks.
Here at Football Outsiders, Playmaker Score was down on the class as a whole. It considered the polished Cooper to be the top player available by a wide margin, but there was a massive drop-off from there. White was going to be drafted too high thanks to his 40-yard time, Parker never topped 1,000 yards in college, Green-Beckham didn’t have the track record to match his stock, and so on and so forth. It quite liked Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett as a Day 2 prospect and highlighted Maryland’s Stefon Diggs as a sleeper, but in general, it thought 2015’s class was likely to be overdrafted.
Highest Pick: Amari Cooper, fourth overall to Oakland.
Best Player: All those names up top, and only Cooper has come close to living up to his pre-draft billing. He’s in a three-way fight with Tyler Lockett (69th to Seattle) and Stefon Diggs (146th to Minnesota) for best of his class, and all three have valid arguments. Lockett is the DYAR leader with 1,519. Cooper is the yardage leader at 6,211. But if I could have just one of the three for my team, I’d take Stefon Diggs. Diggs’ connection with Josh Allen last season in Buffalo was a significant part of Allen’s sudden third-year jump, and there may not be a crisper route-runner in the league. You can’t complain about any of the three, but Diggs is my guy.
Biggest Bust: Kevin White went seventh overall to Chicago, making him the biggest bust of the entire 2015 draft class. You can blame most of that on injuries. White suffered a stress fracture in his shin a few months after the draft, requiring the insertion of a steel rod and causing him to miss his entire rookie season. He managed four games in 2016 before fracturing the fibula in the same leg, missing the rest of that year. And then in 2017, he fractured his shoulder blade in the season opener and missed the rest of that season. Even with all the talent in the world, that’s a nightmare of a situation to try to overcome, and White is sitting on just 25 career receptions. He is still in the NFL, on a futures contract with the 49ers, but he is beyond an afterthought at this point. Even when San Francisco had to basically drag people off the street this year when their receiver corps was decimated by COVID against the Packers, White managed just seven offensive snaps, sitting behind guys such as River Cracraft.
Biggest Value: Stefon Diggs. If you’re a fifth-round pick and the best at your position, you’re the best value as well. Diggs may well be the best value of the entire draft.
Conventional Wisdom: No tight end really was really in the running for a first-round pick, unless you counted Michigan’s Devin Funchess as a tight end instead of a receiver. Sparing him, the top prospect was Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, your typical all-athleticism, no-blocking move tight end candidate. A great athlete, Williams had a big catch radius that had him projected as a red zone threat, though he was also criticized for his route-running, softness, and lack of blocking chops. Still, he was clearly the top guy available, with Miami’s Clive Walford and Rutgers’ Tyler Kroft being a clear two or three tiers behind.
Highest Pick: Maxx Williams, 55th overall to Baltimore. The Ravens traded second- and fifth-round picks to jump over the Steelers, who were rumored to be coveting Williams themselves to replace the aging Heath Miller; those picks ultimately became Markus Golden and Shaquille Riddick.
Best Player: Do you count Darren Waller? Baltimore tripled down on tight ends in the 2015 draft, adding Williams, Nick Boyle, and Waller. The question with Waller is what position he should count as. Waller was a wide receiver at Georgia Tech, and when the Ravens picked him in the sixth round, they listed him as a receiver; they didn’t move him to tight end until 2016. He’s easily the best player from the 2015 class who is currently a tight end, finishing third in DYAR in 2020. The best player drafted as a tight end is Penn State’s Jesse James, whom the Steelers drafted in the fifth round after losing out on Williams.
Biggest Bust: Maxx Williams. Four tight ends went on Day 2, and none of them have exactly covered themselves with glory. As Williams went first, however, he gets the crown over the Jeff Heuermans and Clive Walfords of the world. Williams did manage to qualify for the tight end tables as a rookie, though he finished just 39th in both DYAR and DVOA. For the rest of his Baltimore career, he never got past third on the depth chart, and knee and ankle injuries put a serious crimp in his development. He was given another chance at a starting job with Arizona in 2019, but tight ends in a Kliff Kingsbury offense are more theoretical than anything else.
Best Value: Again, it’s Darren Waller if you count his post-draft position change. If not, then it might well be Texas’ Geoff Swaim, whom the Cowboys took at the end of the seventh round. Swaim has turned into a reliable, if not stellar, inline blocker and a replacement-level pass catcher. Getting anything out of the 246th pick in the draft is value in my book.
Conventional Wisdom: For the offensive line, there was the drama before the draft, and the drama during the draft.
Before the draft, the big question was which of the top-tier tackles would be tackles, and which would have to kick inside to guard. Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and LSU’s La’el Collins both starred at tackle in college, but questions about their athleticism and quickness had some draftniks suggest that they move inside, where their run-blocking and power would feel more at home. By draft day, the closest we had to a consensus was keeping Collins at tackle and moving Scherff to guard, but both were first-round-caliber picks, wherever you left them.
Then, on draft day itself, it was announced that Collins was scheduled to talk to Louisiana State police about the shooting death of a woman who he had been previously involved with. He was not a suspect and wasn’t involved at all in the case, but with all the uncertainty on draft day itself, Collins eventually went entirely undrafted—probably the best prospect to go undrafted in the 21st century.
Outside the Collins drama, the 2015 class was considered strong at offensive tackle, and somewhat weaker inside. Florida’s D.J. Humphries was considered the best option for a Day 1 starter on the blind side, but perhaps not as good a prospect as the raw Andrus Peat out of Stanford. Humphries had the athleticism, Peat the strength, and there was plenty of debate about which should go first. After them, you had prospects such as Oregon’s Jake Fishe (versatile and safe, Fisher could slot anywhere on the line apart from center) and Miami’s Ereck Flowers (a developmental prospect with ideal size and speed, but not the technique). Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings had their supporters as well.
The pickings were slimmer inside, assuming you viewed Scherff and Collins as tackles. Duke’s Laken Tomlinson and South Carolina’s A.J. Cann looked to be the best guards available, but neither were considered first-day-caliber picks. Center Cameron Erving of Florida State, on the other hand, was an intriguing prospect. Having switched from defensive line to offensive tackle to center, Erving didn’t have much experience at the position, but what little teams saw of him at center raised significant interest. If he could fully learn the position, his athleticism would be a massive asset.
Highest Pick: Brandon Scherff, fifth overall to Washington. And yes, they moved him inside to guard. The Giants surprised some by taking Ereck Flowers as the top tackle, ninth overall, while Cameron Erving lasted to Cleveland with the 19th pick.
Best Player: Brandon Scherff earned his first All-Pro nod this year, and a well-deserved one. You could make an argument for Andrus Peat (13th overall to New Orleans), a three-time Pro Bowler at a more valuable position, and a number of other players have become reliable starters—Penn State’s Donovan Smith (34th to Tampa Bay), Wisconsin’s Rob Havenstein (57th to St. Louis), Hobart’s Ali Marpet (61st to Tampa Bay), and Georgia Tech’s Shaq Mason (131st to New England) among them. But none have reached the heights of Scherff.
Biggest Bust: Giants fans want to say Ereck Flowers here, and he struggled mightily in his time in New York. He somewhat rehabilitated his career in Washington, and Miami has him on a $10-million-a-year contract—playing guard, mind you, not tackle, and overpaid at that. Still, Flowers is in the league and playing, which is more than can be said for Jake Fisher, who slipped to Cincinnati with the 53rd pick. Fisher’s career is perhaps most notable for his semi-regular use as a sixth lineman and blocking tight end; the Bengals actually had him change numbers as a rookie so he wouldn’t have to keep checking in as an eligible receiver. Struggles with his weight and injuries kept him from doing much, and he eventually washed out of the league after trying to convert to tight end full time. And if Giants fans still have a problem, just know that Cincinnati signed Bobby Hart to ensure Fisher did not have to start.
Honorable mention goes to Utah’s Jeremiah Poutasi, who went in the third round to Tennessee. Poutasi has since been cut by the Titans, Jaguars, Rams, Broncos, the AAF’s Salt Lake Stallions, the Cardinals and the Spring League’s Jousters.
Best Value: Trent Brown. The Brobdingnagian Florida tackle went to the 49ers in the seventh round, mostly under the theory that you can teach someone to play tackle, but you can’t teach them to be 6-foot-8 and 370 pounds with 11-inch hands. Brown has been basically trending upwards throughout his career. He won a starting job in San Francisco by Year 2, was traded to New England and won a Super Bowl, and briefly became the highest-paid offensive lineman with Oakland, finally making the Pro Bowl in 2019. Not too shabby for the 244th overall pick; if Stefon Diggs isn’t the best value of the draft, Brown is. Georgia Tech’s Shaq Mason (131st overall to New England) is worth an honorable mention as well.
Conventional Wisdom: USC’s Leonard Williams was the best defensive prospect in the draft, and a few went ahead and called him the best player in the draft, period. No one seriously suggested the Buccaneers should pass on Jameis Winston to take Williams, but there were some calls for the Titans to stick with Zach Mettenberger and take Williams at No. 2 (2015 seems like so long ago, doesn’t it?). At the very least, Williams was seen as a safe pick; the best run-stopping player in the draft, ideal for either a 3-4 end or a 4-3 3-technique slot.
While Williams was the gem of the position, there was almost an embarrassment of riches to be had in the interior line. Washington’s Danny Shelton was the best nose tackle available, the kind of two-gapping defender you can build a defense around. Oregon’s Arik Armstead was a riskier pick, but his raw size and athleticism made him an intriguing 5-technique prospect. Texas’ Malcom Brown and Florida State’s Eddie Goldman rounded out your top five interior linemen, while Iowa’s Carl Davis, Ohio State’s Michael Bennett, Clemson’s Grady Jarrett, Florida State’s Mario Edwards, and Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips all had supporters of their own. It was a great year to need help inside.
Highest Pick: Leonard Williams, sixth overall to the New York Jets.
Best Player: Leonard Williams. While maybe not the all-encompassing force some draftniks had him pegged as, he just had 11.5 sacks and earned a major new contract from the Giants. They got the rankings right, at the very least. Honorable mentions go to Malcolm Brown (32nd to New England) and Grady Jarrett (137th to Atlanta); we’ll get back to them.
Biggest Bust: Xavier Cooper. Really, the position was nearly as safe as the experts made it out to be. Eight of the 10 linemen picked in the first three rounds have double-digit approximate value, and while Mario Edwards and Angelo Blackson have bounced around, they’re still decent enough rotational players. That leaves us with Carl Davis (90th overall to Baltimore) or Washington State’s Cooper (96th overall to Cleveland), and I’m siding with Cooper. Cooper basically ran his way into a Day 2 selection after putting up a 4.86s 40-yard dash at the combine, but it turns out that defensive linemen are rarely asked to run 40 yards downfield in one go. Cooper was regularly a healthy inactive for the Browns and hasn’t seen the field since 2017.
Best Value: Grady Jarrett. The Falcons took the Clemson product in the fifth round, and while it took a few years for him to ramp up to speed, he has become one of the best interior linemen in the game. He has now made back-to-back Pro Bowls and was in the top 10 in both ESPN’s run stop and pass rush win rate.
Conventional Wisdom: If 2014 was the year of the receiver, then 2015 was going to be the year of the edge rusher; the class was absolutely loaded, said pundits. Five different players—Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray, Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud” Dupree, and Clemson’s Vic Beasley—all could have conceivably been the first off the draft board. Gregory essentially took himself out of contention by failing a drug test at the combine, but the other four were hotly contested up until draft day itself.
Fowler may have been coasting on burst and athleticism, but what burst and athleticism! Florida moved him all around the defense, so his potential as a nightmare matchup, able to line up anywhere and wreak havoc, was tempting. Ray (slightly undersized with a killer first step) and Dupree (ultra-fast but with a general stiffness about him) were all athletic potential, but not quite finished products. Beasley had the production on his side, with 12 sacks as a redshirt senior and the all-time Clemson leader in sacks. Any of them could have gone first to a team with the right mindset. Behind them, the class was deep, with Virginia’s Eli Harold, UCLA’s Owa Odighizuwa, and Mississippi State’s Preston Smith all considered solid Day 2 picks.
Here at Football Outsiders, SackSEER didn’t see the top four or five as quite as interchangeable. Instead, it had Beasley, Gregory, and Dupree (in that order) high atop it’s rankings. It panned Fowler for having just 14.5 career sacks and poor combine numbers in the vertical jump, broad jump, and three-cone drills, and really hated Ray, giving him just an 18.5% rating.
Highest Pick: Dante Fowler, third overall to Jacksonville.
Best Player: There was tons of depth here. I’m going to take the easy way out and pick LSU’s Danielle Hunter (88th overall to Minnesota), as he’s the class leader with 54.5 sacks. That yelling you hear are fans of Vic Beasley (eighth overall to Atlanta), Michigan’s Frank Clark (63rd overall to Seattle), and Kentucky’s Za’Darius Smith (122nd overall to Baltimore). You can tell from those draft positions that the edge rushers got all mixed up, but the talent certainly was there.
Biggest Bust: Well, that’s a tough one. Randy Gregory essentially took himself out of contention, tumbling down to the 60th pick after his drug failures. He has been effective when he has played, but he has missed multiple seasons due to suspensions. Gregory is the choice, but not the only possible one. Dante Fowler hasn’t really lived up to the billing of the third overall pick; he never saw more than 53.0% of the snaps in Jacksonville and flopped in Atlanta in 2020. Overdrafted, for sure, but a bust might be harsh. Shane Ray (23rd overall to Denver) is out of the league, trying to catch on with the Toronto Argonauts. And then you have the never-wases such as Hau’oli Kikaha (44th overall to New Orleans, eight career sacks) or Owa Odighizuwa (74th overall to the Giants, zero career sacks). Any would make a fine pick here.
Best Value: I’m going with Za’Darius Smith over a very strong field; he fell to 122nd and has been a force ever since. You could easily take Hunter, Clark, Preston Smith (38th overall to Washington), or Arkansas’ Trey Flowers (101st overall to New England); all should have been drafted significantly higher, but Smith went the lowest and gets the nod. Teams may have been better just picking defensive prospects’ names out of hats in 2015.
Conventional Wisdom: Undersized tweener, or versatile hybrid? That was the question facing Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. In college, Thompson lined up at safety, linebacker, and even running back and produced at all three positions. To some, that meant that Thompson was a jack-of-all trades; a player who could move up on running downs and still participate on passing downs. Others were concerned he’d end up an undersized linebacker—he clocked in at 219 pounds in college, though he bulked up a bit for the combine—or a safety without satisfactory cover ability. The questions were enough for some scouts to drop him to Day 2 on the boards, focusing instead on UCLA’s Eric Kendricks. Kendricks wasn’t as agile as Thompson and had a poor combine. Instead, he made his plays with quality technique and a sharp football mind, allowing him to find himself around the play more often than not.
Both Kendricks and Thompson were somewhat undersized, so people looking for a wrecking ball gravitated towards Miami’s Denzel Perryman and Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney. Both were considered below-average to borderline unplayable in coverage, but if you were looking for a two-down linebacker to blow plays up, they looked to be the better options.
Highest Pick: Shaq Thompson, 25th overall to Carolina.
Best Player: Eric Kendricks. Kendricks fell to Minnesota in the second round, two picks after the Texans drafted Benardrick McKinney. They’re the two linebackers from this draft with Pro Bowl nods to their name, so they’re your top two picks from the class. McKinney is more solid than spectacular, however, while Kendricks has an All-Pro nod to his name and is on the shortlist of best coverage linebacker in football. He gets the nod.
Biggest Bust: Take your pick between TCU’s Paul Dawson (99th overall to Cincinnati) and Clemson’s Stephone Anthony (31st overall to New Orleans). Anthony was, at least, named to the PFWA All-Rookie team, starting all 16 games … and then just four since then, including failing to make a roster last season. At least Anthony looked like he’d be a thing ever so briefly; Dawson played bits and pieces of three seasons and ended with 16 career tackles and 34 defensive snaps. That’s bad, even for a third-round pick.
Best Value: Eric Kendricks, because getting the best player at a position in the second round is a pretty good day at the office. McKinney also warrants a mention, as do Texas’ Jordan Hicks (84th overall to Philadelphia) and LSU’s Kwon Alexander (124th overall to Tampa Bay).
Conventional Wisdom: If you needed a starter-caliber cornerback, you were in luck! If you needed a coverage safety, well, better luck next year.
Experts predicted five or six corners would go off the board in the first round—big ones, too, as a fleet of six-footers was about to enter the league. Most experts had, in some order, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, Connecticut’s Byron Jones, Washington’s Marcus Peters, and Michigan State’s Trae Waynes atop their draft boards. Peters may have been the most talented, but he also brought with him the most baggage—he was dismissed from his team as a junior for arguing with assistant coaches and a “sideline tantrum.” With that in mind, a press-coverage maven such as Waynes, an explosive athlete such as Jones, or a smooth technician such as Johnson might be the better choice.
But even if you missed out on the big four, there were as many as a dozen cornerbacks out there who were considered potential future starters, meaning Day 2 was going to be filled with them. There were plenty of players with limited starting experience but tons of potential—Florida State’s Ronald Darby, LSU’s Jalen Collins, and Miami (OH)’s Quinten Rollins led that category. Then there were smaller corners who went against the Legion of Boom type that was all the rage at the time—players like Florida State’s P.J. Williams and Texas’ Quandre Diggs looked to be potential hidden gems for teams willing to zig while others zagged.
The pickings were slimmer at safety, though not nonexistent. Alabama’s Landon Collins and Arizona State’s Damarious Randall were your top available options, with Collins looking better as your in-box bully and Randall the playmaking deep man with surprising cover skills. Give Collins a few more tenths in the 40 or Randall a few more inches at weigh-in and they might have been talked about as first-round picks; instead, they were considered on the bubble between the first and second rounds. If all you cared about was clobbering people and didn’t mind so much a lack of coverage skills, then Samford’s Jaquiski Tartt and Louisville’s James Sample might intrigue you as well. Virginia’s Anthony Harris was listed on enough “overlooked prospect” lists to perhaps make his underratedness overrated, if that makes any sense.
Highest Pick: Trae Waynes, 11th overall to Minnesota. Damarious Randall was the first safety off the board, going to the Packers with the 30th pick.
Best Player: Marcus Peters, and it’s not particularly close. Peters slipped to the Chiefs with the 18th pick, as his “emotional issues” (to quote one unnamed personnel director) scared teams away from him. Peters has occasionally let his emotions get the better of him as a pro, and it’s part of the reason he’s already on his third team. He has also been one of the top 10 cornerbacks in the league since his arrival—the 2015 defensive rookie of the year, a two-time All Pro and three-time Pro Bowler. He has 31 interceptions, more than the next two players in the draft class combined. 2015’s corner class has been fine, but not enough have developed into top starters to justify the pre-draft hype. Peters is an exception; he may well be the best player from this draft class.
Among safeties, Landon Collins (33rd to the Giants) gets the nod here, though Penn State’s Adrian Amos has made more than his fair share of noise as well.
Biggest Bust: Kevin Johnson. The Texans took Johnson 16th overall, the other corner taken before Peters. Injuries have cost Johnson a pair of seasons since then, but even when healthy, he has wobbled somewhere between useful rotational piece and overmatched starter. While Johnson has occasionally flashed some of the speed and footwork that made him a desired prospect, he has never been able to put it all together for an extended stretch of time. At least Johnson still has a career, however; plenty of those Day 2 flyers are long gone. A list of the lowlights includes Jalen Collins (42nd overall to Atlanta), Mississippi’s Senquez Golson (56th to Pittsburgh, never played a game), Florida Atlantic’s D’Joun Smith (65th to Indianapolis), and Stanford’s Alex Carter (80th to Detroit).
Best Value: Marcus Peters. If you prefer someone a little later in the draft, or just want a safety rather than a corner, Adrian Amos went 142nd overall to Chicago and has been a consistently solid player ever since.
Conventional Wisdom: Do not draft specialists.
If you must draft a specialist, Portland State’s Kyle Loomis and Concordia-St. Paul’s Tom Obarski showed off at the Senior Bowl, showing that you don’t need to play at a big-time school to be an NFL special teams prospect. Perhaps more excitingly, with no one really thrilling the assembled masses, there was a real chance we’d see a draft with zero special teams players picked, which hadn’t happened since 1998. This possibility pleased analytics nerds around the world!
Do not draft specialists.
Highest Pick: Bradley Pinion. The Clemson punter went 165th overall to San Francisco. Pinion was immediately followed up by the Patriots taking Navy long snapper Joe Cardona, and that ended the special teams portion of the 2015 draft.
Best Player: Both specialists picked have Super Bowl rings, Cardona earning a pair with the Patriots and Pinion picking one up with the Buccaneers this last year. Of the two, Cardona is the one who earned an extension from his original team, so I suppose he wins?
Biggest Bust: If Cardona is the better player, than Pinion has to be the bust by default. Plus, Pinion went one pick higher, and thus wasted one higher of a draft slot.
Best Value: Old Dominion’s Rick Levato went undrafted; he made the 2019 Pro Bowl with the Eagles. Texas A&M’s Josh Lambo also went undrafted; he has been one of the most accurate kickers in the league since he escaped the cursed Chargers franchise. Don’t draft specialists.
Per our annual Report Card Report, four teams stood head-and-shoulders above the rest in the immediate aftermath of draft day.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were the only teams in the survey to earn A+ draft grades, with both SB Nation’s Dan Kadar and Rotoworld’s Evan Silva giving David Caldwell and Gus Bradley the full monty. The quartet of Dante Fowler, T.J. Yeldon, A.J. Cann, and James Sample atop the draft were all going to be immediate-impact opening-day starters. They were going to be a tough out in 2015, per Silva, with a “nasty defense, playmakers in the passing game and a formidable rushing attack.” Jacksonville was not, in fact, a tough out in 2015, though they did see their DVOA jump from -31.3% to -16.7%. Sample washed out of the league in short order, but five of the eight Jaguars picks were on the roster during the #Sacksonville run in 2017. Cann was the only starter, but Fowler had eight sacks, so it wasn’t like Jacksonville got nothing out of the class. But now, six years later, Cann is the only player from this draft still on the roster, and the Jags are still trying to rebuild. It’s not a terrible class or anything, with all three of their first three picks at least making some noise in the league, but it’s below average.
The Baltimore Ravens were near-universally praised for the midpart of their draft, as Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh worked their usual magic to find value wherever they looked. Evan Silva said the Ravens drafted first-round-caliber players in each of the first three rounds, going Breshad Perriman-Maxx Williams-Carl Davis early, and Za’Darius Smith in the fourth round was hailed as the steal of the draft by some. In actual fact, Williams and Davis ended up not working out, and the biggest success stories—Za’Darius Smith and sixth-round pick Darren Waller—ended up breaking out elsewhere; even Breshad Perriman has had more success away from Baltimore than with them. The best Baltimore draft pick for the Ravens was fourth-rounder Buck Allen. This was still an above average draft, for sure, but the Ravens did not exactly get the full fruits of their efforts.
The Atlanta Falcons opened up with SackSEER’s best pass rusher, Vic Beasley—a surefire steal at the eighth pick, and one that filled their biggest need to boot. That’s the kind of pick that will get draft graders salivating. Paring him with fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett gave Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff the ammo they needed to start rebuilding that defense, while mid-round picks Tevin Coleman and Justin Hardy were intriguing pieces for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Well, Hardy not so much, but Beasley, Jarrett, and Coleman were all hits, even if Jarrett’s the only one remaining in a Falcons uniform. All three played a significant role in Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl run, and even if none of the other picks ended up working out, three quality starters in one draft is pretty good. It falls just short of the best drafts of the year because only Jarrett remains with the team, but if they could have drafted like this every year, Quinn and Dimitroff would still be in Atlanta.
The Minnesota Vikings were the fourth of the praised four, as Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer did an excellent job finding first-round-quality talent at positions of need—Trae Waynes would start opposite Xavier Rhodes, Eric Kendricks would replace Chad Greenway, and T.J. Clemmings could eventually take over from Matt Khalil if his medical concerns checked out. Football Outsiders alum Doug Farrar also made time to praise third-rounder Danielle Hunter (“freakishly athletic and raw like sushi”), and fifth-rounders MyCole Pruitt (“my favorite small-school guy”) and Stefon Diggs (“can line up all over the place”). Well, Pruitt went bust, but Diggs, Kendricks, and Hunter have all been phenomenal finds, and Waynes and Clemmings have at least found their way onto the field. This is the only one of the big four to really live up to the hype; the Vikings still have two All-Pro-caliber players from the draft, and turned the third into another great rookie receiver. Was it the best draft of the year? Hold that thought for one moment.
On the other side of the ledger, the analysts hated the Buffalo Bills’ draft class. They didn’t have a first-round pick, having sent that to Cleveland the previous year to draft Sammy Watkins, and the graders hit Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan hard for it. They also didn’t like that Buffalo used their first pick on cornerback Ronald Darby. Surely, they had more pressing needs—quarterback Bryce Petty was mentioned multiple times as a replacement for EJ Manuel, for instance, and a tackle such as Jake Fisher or T.J. Clemmings to replace Seantrel Henderson would have made more logical sense. In retrospect, a six-pick class was never going to produce tons of raw value, but the Bills opened with Darby and John Miller, both of whom are still starting players today. The graders hit the Bills too hard for just not having a first-round pick; Sammy Watkins was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2015. Considering the value of the picks they actually had to work with, the Bills did alright.
The other team the draftniks dunked on was the San Francisco 49ers—this was just after Trent Baalke had won the power struggle with Jim Harbaugh, so going after Baalke and Jim Tomsula was in fashion at the time. The top two picks, Arik Armstead and Jaquiski Tartt, simply weren’t going to see playtime—Tartt and Mike Davis, especially, were blocked by the previous year’s picks of Jimmie Ward and Carlos Hyde. It was a draft with “more potential than polish”—no receiver to replace Michael Crabtree, no linebacker to replace Patrick Willis or Chris Borland. In actuality, the draft was … fine. Both Armstead and Tartt are still starting for the 49ers; seventh-round pick Trent Brown was a starter for several years and ended up one of the highest-paid players in the game. Mike Davis and Eli Harold had their moments, too. It’s not a draft to write home about or anything, but Baalke had done significantly worse before.
So, if the 49ers and Bills ended up OK, who did have the worst draft?
We have to give runner-up awards to the Browns and Titans. Cleveland had an extra first-round pick due to the Watkins trade the year before, so they had 12 picks to work with in total. As they were in their “shuffle front office personnel around every year” phase, however, almost none of them ended up working out in Cleveland—Duke Johnson’s the only exception. Their first-round picks, Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving, did very little in Cleveland and had better luck once they left—not the worst job of talent identification by Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine, but the Browns had nothing to show from it. As for the Titans, everyone not named Marcus Mariota washed out immediately, and Mariota’s gone now, too—as are, for that matter, Ruston Webster and Ken Whisenhunt.
But no, the worst draft has to go to Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis, and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals were going to secure their future by going with Cedric Ogbuehei and Jake Fisher with their first two picks in the draft. They were going to replace first Andre Smith and later Andrew Whitworth, giving Andy Dalton a pair of bookend tackles for years to come. It became apparent fairly quickly, however, that this was not going to become a thing; while the two did combine for 37 starts, they were both healthy scratches by 2018. And there’s nothing else in the class to offset missing on picks one and two, with tight ends Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah coming the closest to being anything of value.
When it comes to successful drafts, even with Jameis Winston not fully working out, the Buccaneers deserve some note. It’s rare we get to praise Jason Licht, but the 2015 draft provided two starting offensive linemen for this year’s Super Bowl-winning team in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Both Winston and fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander made Pro Bowls with Tampa as well. That’s what the Titans needed to do—even with their top quarterback not living fully up to expectations, the Buccaneers found valuable players.
But no, there’s only one team that can rival the Vikings’ haul for best of the 2015 class, and that’s John Dorsey, Andy Reid, and the Kansas City Chiefs. Marcus Peters has arguably been the most valuable player in the draft, and the Chiefs got several good seasons out of him before they he wore out his welcome. And after Peters came multi-year starters in Mitch Morse, Chris Conley, and Steven Nelson. Even third-day picks such as Ramik Wilson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches have found solid roles around the league. Push comes to shove, I’d say the Vikings did a little better job finding talent, while the Chiefs did a little better job finding value. Take your pick; either class is one that teams in 2021 should be trying to emulate.