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The Evidence is Evident: Teams don't immediately improve from 1st round picks
Unless you're the Cincinnati Bengals
At the conclusion of the 2018 season, the Bengals finally fired Marvin Lewis, ending a 16-year relationship that ultimately resulted in an 0-7 playoff record. Though Lewis consistently made Cincinnati decent, the Bengals had to find a way to be terrible before they could ever hope to become great.
That’s when Zac Taylor stepped in.
Though the Bengals went 2-14 during Taylor’s first year as head coach in 2019, their worst campaign since going 2-14 in 2002, they’re now advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 1990. The 2003 NFL Draft gave Cincy the rights to Carson Palmer and similarly rock bottom was necessary for the Bengals to be able to make contact with Joe Burrow.
The worst record in the NFL also gave the Bengals first rights on receiver Tee Higgins on day two, and linebacker Logan Wilson as the first pick in round three. Cincinnati went 4-11-1 in 2020 but Burrow proved to be well more “franchise” than Andy Dalton and Higgins proved a steal by totaling over 900 yards as a rookie.
Some faulted owner Mike Brown for again having too much loyalty to a head coach, but Zac Taylor stayed on after a 6-25-1 record through two seasons and the team ignored calls for Penei Sewell to instead select Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick in 2021. Despite opting out of his final college season and battling through premature preseason criticisms that he had “bust” written all over him, Chase caught 81 passes for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns, shattering what rookie receiver expectations could be in this brave new era of football.
Without Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins, the 1st, 5th, and 33rd overall picks of their respective drafts, there’s no chance that the Bengals would be playing in the divisional round next weekend. Cincinnati is the best possible anecdotal evidence that “building through the draft works, it’s the tried and true method towards success in the NFL.”
It is no less anecdotal and a great example of how narratives are built through the art of cherry picking, twisted to fit the frames of “common sense” that nearly every NFL fan grows up believing. And while there are certainly cases to be made that first round picks are extremely important—cream does rise to the top and superstars are often exclusive to day one—you could probably build an even better argument that they are overrated.
The Seattle Seahawks are one of several teams that do not have a first round pick in 2022, and the Seahawks are one that hopes to improve in spite of that. I’m here to tell you: Seattle’s fortunes for next season would have barely anything to do with the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, even if they still owned it.
(And in which case, they would not have Jamal Adams, for whatever that information is worth to you.)
Let’s now remove the Cincinnati Bengals from the equation. Over the last two years, Cincinnati has gone from 2-14 to 10-7 and in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs because of their two top-five picks, or in large thanks to them. Which other teams are still alive in the playoffs because of first round picks they made in 2020 and 2021?
Better yet: How many of the eight teams still vying for the Super Bowl even play a first round pick that they made in the last two years?
Green Bay Packers, 13-4
2020: #26 QB Jordan Love (does not play)
2021: #29 DB Eric Stokes (starting corner)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-4
2020: #13 OL Tristan Wirfs (was injured in wild card round)
2021: #32 DE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (heavy rotation, DL)
Tennessee Titans, 12-5
2020: #29 OT Isaiah Wilson (cut last year)
2021: #22 CB Caleb Farley (missed most of year with injury)
Kansas City Chiefs, 12-5
2020: #32 RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (has missed 11 games in career, out now)
2021: Traded first round pick for LT Orlando Brown
LA Rams, 12-5
2020: Traded first round pick for Jalen Ramsey
2021: Traded first round pick for Jalen Ramsey
Buffalo Bills, 11-6
2020: Traded first round pick for Stefon Diggs
2021: #30 DE Gregory Rousseau (4 sacks, part-time DL rotation)
San Francisco 49ers, 10-7
2020: #14 DT Javon Kinlaw (traded up with TB, Kinlaw missed all but 4 games in 2021)
2021: #3 QB Trey Lance (traded up, Lance does not play)
Cincinnati Bengals, 10-7
2020: #1 QB Joe Burrow
2021: #5 WR Ja’Marr Chase
So which teams exactly are still alive in the postseason today because of literal first round draft picks that they made in the last two years? The Bengals—and nobody else. The Rams trading for Ramsey, the Bills trading for Diggs, and the Chiefs trading for Brown were all moves that were more beneficial to their successes than staying the course and making picks in the draft.
This MAY NOT WORK FOR THEM IN THE LONG RUN. But what’s the obsession that fans have with “the long run” over “the right now”?
The Seahawks do not have their first round pick in 2022, instead that number 10 pick goes to the New York Jets. The Jets have picked in the first round 13 times since their last playoff appearance in 2010. They have picked in the top-10 six times in that span:
Which of those names makes you feel exponentially jealous of a franchise that gets to write home all day long about what they’ll do on the first day of the draft, but not one that knows what it feels like to reach the Super Bowl within the last five decades?
The Jaguars picked in the top-10 in NINE STRAIGHT YEARS from 2009-2017 and not a single one of those players was still with Jacksonville by 2020.
Since 2018, the Jaguars have drafted Taven Bryan, Josh Allen, CJ Henderson, K’Lavon Chaisson, Trevor Lawrence, and Travis Etienne in the first round. Henderson is already gone, Bryan will soon join him with free agency on the horizon.
Jacksonville will pick first again in 2022. Jealous, are you?
The Seahawks and Bears traded 2022 picks that have turned out to be in the top-10, and both franchises believe they can get back to the playoffs in 2022. The Dolphins, Colts, 49ers, and Rams also dealt away first round picks for players they expected could help them right away or eventually.
Miami landed Jaylen Waddle because of it and that looks smart.
Indianapolis got Carson Wentz and that doesn’t look so smart.
San Francisco hasn’t needed Trey Lance yet, so they must feel content, at least.
Los Angeles moved those picks for Matthew Stafford and they’re likely happy about it.
If Justin Fields improves for a new coach in Chicago next season, then clearly the Bears did the right thing. If the Seahawks get back to their stout defensive ways and Adams is a part of that improvement, then perhaps Seattle finally made another first round trade that isn’t regrettable. Two, including Duane Brown.
But expecting Tyler Linderbaum or Ahmad Gardner to be drafted by the Seahawks and help them reach the Super Bowl in 2022—or even 2023—seems unlikely. Not that they couldn’t have done that, but there’s nothing inherently “smart” about expecting a team to regret not having a first round pick due to the fact that first round picks “help teams get better.”
The majority of them do not and top-ten picks also fail to produce at a rate much higher than what we normally allow ourselves to discuss.
There were 32 first round picks made in 2020 and the only ones currently still helping their team in the postseason are Burrow, Wirfs (if he returns to the field), and Aiyuk (an inconsistent weapon for Kyle Shanahan).
There were 32 first round picks made in 2021 and the only ones currently still helping their team in the postseason are Chase, Stokes, Rosseau, and Tryon-Shoyinka; the latter three going so late in the first round that you can’t help but credit the fact that they went to teams that were good already.
That’s 64 first round picks in the last two years, seven of whom are still active out of eight teams left in the playoffs, and only five of whom don’t play for the Bengals.
First round picks are exciting. One day per year.
Winning playoff games is more exciting and has little to do with that one day for day one.