As we approach the 2023 NFL draft, hordes of fans, and an unenviable subset of NFL general managers will forget (or ignore) many of the lessons of their forebears and - stubbornly convinced they know better than the pantheon of front office executives and coaches either in the Hall of Fame, or headed there - fail to learn from the past.
This piece is the fifth in an intentionally adamant treatise on a basic series of “dos” and “don’ts” in the NFL draft, finely honed by both past experience and the insights of NFL management staff willing to share their chestnuts of wisdom about the NFL draft based on decades of experience.
9. If the best special teamer in the draft is still on the board in the third round or later, take him.
Many Washington fans will recall that when Terry McLaurin was taken in the third round of the 2019 draft, the first thing that was often mentioned about him was that he likely the best special teamer in the draft.
Terry McLaurin = Special teams ace pic.twitter.com/7pJfwLwzF8— Cold Taek Chris (@mistochristopho) January 24, 2019
Amusingly, it began apparent fairly early in training camp that McLaurin was, in fact, way too good a wide receiver to risk playing him on special teams. His rookie year he took all of three special teams’ snaps. He’s taken two since.
No player at the Senior Bowl impressed me more than Terry McLaurin. From special teams effort to route running, I’ll be shocked if he’s not a successful pro. https://t.co/FqonmYREON— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) July 25, 2019
But special teams play involves more than just the athleticism to do the job well, and to put your body on the line. It’s also indicative of a mindset: a certain level of dogged determination and willingness to do what it takes, even if though you’re unlikely to get much recognition for it.
Terry McLaurin said he joins special-teams meetings on Fridays & guys look at him, like, "Dude, you're the No. 1 WR. What're you doing here?"— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) October 13, 2021
"I'm a special-teams player at heart....I tell Nate [Kaczor] all the time, if you ever need me, I have no problem going back out there!"
Washington has actually gone to that particular well a couple of additional times since taking McLaurin in 2019. In 2021, they took safety Darrick Forrest, who was a top special teamer in college as well. While Forrest didn’t materialize quite as quickly as McLaurin did, he earned a starting safety role in his second year on the squad, and looks like he could be on a trajectory to be one of the more disruptive players in the league in the coming years.
We don't talk about #Cincinnati DS Darrick Forrest Jr. enough. Fluid, speedy athlete with excellent man coverage skills, runs the alley well from depth, ball hawk. 5 of 6 career interceptions came over last 2 years.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) April 10, 2021
All over special teams too, valuable day 3 option in the draft. pic.twitter.com/zVmkPcUOJv
In 2022, in the fourth round, Washington grabbed safety Percy Butler, who fit the same mold as McLaurin and Forrest before him, an intriguing position player whose ability to compete immediately as an impact special teamer was clear.
Look at Louisiana S Percy Butler run the alley— Daniel Flick (@DFlickDraft) February 26, 2022
Butler is a special teams stud who will be a day-one impact player on special teams coverage as a gunner, and also offers some man cover ability on the back end.
Not hard to see why with reps like this: pic.twitter.com/D5WwWvvB4V
Washington is pretty well equipped with safeties at this point, but might there be a top special teamer at another position of need in this year’s draft?
10. Don’t draft a safety in the first round
For most of the past decade, safety has been the lowest valued position on the defensive side of the ball. Only fairly recently did it give up that mantle to interior linebacker. As such, one needs to be careful about sacrificing top draft capital for a positional that can often be had at reasonable price in the free agency market. This offseason, virtually all of the free agent safeties were signed to contracts of $7M/yr or less. Only one, Jessie Bates III, topped that amount.
Going back to the 2016 draft, only twice has the top performing safety in the draft come from the first round. Below is information on each draft, and the rank - by “approximate value” (in parentheses) - of the top five safeties in that draft.
- Kevin Byard - R3 - (51)
- Justin Simmons - R3 - (50)
- Vonn Bell - R2 - (32)
- Jalen Mills - R7 - (26)
- Keanu Neal - R1 - (23)
- Budda Baker - R2 - (47)
- Eddie Jackson - R4 - (42)
- Jamal Adams - R1 - (42)
- Xavier Woods - R6 - (27)
- Marcus Williams - R2 - (27)
- Minkah Fitzpatrick - R1 - (48)
- Jessie Bates III - R2 - (32)
- Foyesade Oluokun - R6 - (26)
- Terrell Edmunds - R1 - (25)
- Jordan Whitehead - R4 - (25)
- Darnell Savage - R1 - (19)
- Taylor Rapp - R2 - (18)
- Juan Thornhill - R2 - (17)
- CJ Gardner-Johnson - R4 - (16)
- Quincy Williams - R3 - (14)
2020: (no first round safeties taken)
- Jeremy Chinn - R2 - (30)
- Antoine Winfield - R2 - (18)
- Kyle Dugger - R2 - (14)
- Kam Curl - R7 - (14)
- L’Jarius Snead - R4 - (13)
2021: (no first round safeties taken)
- Talanoa Hufanga - R5 - (15)
- Jevon Holland - R2 - (12)
- Trevon Moehrig - R2 - (9)
- Michael Carter - R5 - (6)
- Darrick Forrest - R5 - (5)
- Jalen Pitre - R2 - (7)
- Jaquan Brisker - R2 - (4)
- Kyle Hamilton - R1 - (2)
- Several players at 1
With the relative dearth of safeties even taken in the first round over the past several years, it seems as though the league has probably already gotten wise to this directive. Washington has found great safety value on Day 3 of the draft in successive years. At least for the foreseeable future, teams would be advised against spending big in the draft or free agency on this increasingly de-valued position, where high end talent can be found after Day 1.
NFL is leaning into positional value heavily. RBs are becoming the equivalent to vet mins in the NBA. Safety is on its way too unless your a superstar.— Sir'Paul (@PaulTweetz2Much) March 24, 2023
Which of these commandments would you like to see Ron and the Martii follow more closely?
This poll is closed
9. Take the best special teamer in the draft, if he’s around in the third or later.
10. Don’t take a safety in the first round.