Draft picks are capital and teams invest them on prospects with the expectation of return on investment. Depending on where a player is drafted, the expectations vary. The best teams in the NFL make wise draft picks which turn into important building blocks of the franchise.
As a draft guy, it pains me to say this, but the reality of the NFL Draft is that most draft picks don’t pan out. A team is lucky to get a starter or two and a few key role players within any given draft class. While there is the occasional franchise-altering draft class for a team, by and large draft picks are empty promises. Spend some time in the Bert Bell Historical NFL Draft Library and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
And that’s why the output and potential of the 2017 defensive back class is so special. Collectively, the group made an impact unheard of for rookies with several others primed to emerge as sophomores.
Let’s examine the 2017 defensive back class as a whole to highlight just how rare the return on investment has been.
Jamal Adams, New York Jets (R1, Pick 6) – Emerging as a young leader, Adams quickly became a tone-setter for the defense. More ball production is needed but Adams is already among the top safeties in the league.
Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints (R1, Pick 11) – The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Lattimore is a shutdown corner that will be part of the “Who’s the NFL’s best corner” debate for years to come.
Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills (R1, Pick 27) – By creating game-changing turnovers and providing lockdown coverage, White was a key factor in the Bills’ surprise playoff berth in 2017.
Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens (R1, Pick 16) – Humphrey took over a starting role midway through 2017 and found immediate success. He has the upside to become one of the NFL’s top press corners.
Adoree’ Jackson, Tennessee Titans (R1, Pick 18) – Starting every game as a rookie, Jackson illustrated steady growth as the season progressed while also serving as Tennessee’s punt and kick returner.
Jabrill Peppers, Cleveland Browns (R1, Pick 25) – The Browns are still figuring out the best way to utilize Peppers, but additions to the secondary should enable Cleveland to take advantage of his versatility and play him closer to the line of scrimmage.
Kevin King, Green Bay Packers (R2, Pick 33) – King battled shoulder injuries as a rookie but is expected to start on the boundary in a revamped Packers’ secondary in 2018.
Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals (R2, Pick 36) – Baker became a full-time starter in Week 11 and went on to compile 50 tackles, seven PBUs and a sack across the final seven games. He has the upside to elevate to the “star” tier very soon.
Marcus Maye, New York Jets (R2, Pick 39) -Maye pairs with Adams to provide the Jets arguably the best young safety tandem in the NFL.
Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints (R2, Pick 42) – Despite the costly missed tackle on the decisive touchdown in the playoffs, Williams had a strong rookie year. He and Lattimore provide a strong foundation in the secondary for years to come.
Justin Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (R2, Pick 50) – A rangy centerfielder, Evans led the Bucs in interceptions as a rookie. With an improved pass rush and more experience, Evans is primed to take another step forward as a sophomore.
Chidobe Awuzie, Dallas Cowboys (R2, Pick 60) – Awuzie dealt with some injuries as a rookie but made splash plays when on the field. He’ll be relied on as a starter moving forward.
Ahkello Witherspoon, San Francisco 49ers (R3, Pick 66) – Starting nine games as a rookie while showing incredible promise, Witherspoon looks to be a long-term fixture in the 49ers secondary. The opportunity to work with Richard Sherman should aide in his development.
Shaquill Griffin, Seattle Seahawks (R3, Pick 90) – Griffin shined in ten starts as a rookie and has the makings of a long-term starter at boundary corner in Seattle. With Richard Sherman no longer in the equation, Griffin is Seattle’s top cover man.
John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams (R3, Pick 91) – Johnson impressed in 11 starts as a rookie in both pass defense and playing forward against the run. Surrounded by Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Lamarcus Joyner in a revamped Rams secondary, Johnson and the unit has immense upside moving forward.
Cordrea Tankersley, Miami Dolphins (R3, Pick 97) – Tankersley started 11 games as a rookie and fits perfectly with the Dolphins’ prototype at corner. Miami’s secondary has the upside to become among the best in the NFL and Tankersley is a big reason why.
Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears (R3, Pick 112) – A 16-game starter as a rookie, Jackson was the steal of the third round. Overlooked due to a leg injury during his final season at Alabama, Jackson was one of the steals of the draft.
Montae Nicholson, S, Washington Redskins (R4, Pick 123) – Nicholson showed promise in the eight games he played last season and is expected to be the full-time starter at strong safety moving forward.
Xavier Woods, Dallas Cowboys (R6, Pick 191) – Woods was a playmaking force throughout his college career and he’s already flashed the ability to do the same in the NFL. He is among the early Day Three steals of the draft.
Adrien Colbert, San Francisco (R7, Pick 229) – A physical safety, Colbert took hold of the starting gig in Week 13 and has the makings of the long-term answer at the position. He and Witherspoon serve as a strong foundation of young talent for the 49ers’ secondary moving forward.
Already Prominent Contributors
Quincy Wilson, Indianapolis Colts (R2, Pick 46) – Wilson had his struggles as a rookie but came on late in the season as a starter in five games. The Colts moved on from Vontae Davis and Rashaan Melvin this offseason — the starters to begin 2017 — paving the way for Wilson to claim a starting role.
Teez Tabor, Detroit Lions (R2, Pick 53) – Tabor made notable progress in year one and will factor into Matt Patricia’s defense more heavily in year two. Just like in New England, Patricia’s defense figures to be matchup-specific so Tabor’s role could vary week-to-week.
Josh Jones, Green Bay Packers (R2, Pick 61) – Playing in all 16 games while starting seven, Jones was up and down as a rookie. With that said, he has the inside track to a starting role this in 2018 and offers exciting physical upside.
Jourdan Lewis, Dallas Cowboys (R3, Pick 92) – Lewis flashed as a rookie and even started seven games. He’s in a competition with Anthony Brown for the nickel job, but it’s only a matter of time before it’s his.
Rasul Douglas, Philadelphia Eagles (R3, Pick 99) – Injuries enabled Douglas to start five games as a rookie and he figures to be an important subpackage player against bigger receivers in 2018.
Damontae Kazee, Atlanta Falcons (R5, Pick 149) – Kazee saw action in all 16 games last season, with time spent at both corner and safety. He has already carved out a role as a valuable subpackage contributor in Atlanta.
Desmond King, Los Angeles Chargers (R5, Pick 151) – King starred in subpackages as a rookie, showcasing his versatility and playmaking upside in coverage, run defense and as a blitzer.
Nate Hairston, Indianapolis Colts (R5, Pick 158) – Appearing in all 16 games while starting four, Hairston should provide depth outside this season while in competition for the starting nickel role.
Jamal Agnew, Detroit Lions (R5, Pick 165) – Agnew’s impact wasn’t on the defensive side of the ball but he was an All-Pro return man. He averaged 15.4 yards per punt return with two touchdowns as a rookie.
Primed to Breakout as Starters
Malik Hooker, Indianapolis Colts (R1, Pick 11) – A pure centerfielder that is a ball magnet, Hooker secured three interceptions in his first seven games before a season-ending knee injury. He could quickly make a leap into the “star” tier.
Gareon Conley, Oakland Raiders (R1, Pick 24) – Conley missed practically his entire rookie season with a shin injury but is a do-everything corner that is capable of shutting down an entire side of the field. The “star” tier is also in his future.
Sidney Jones, Philadelphia Eagles (R2, Pick 43) – An unfortunate Achilles injury in the pre-Draft process pushed Jones out of the first round and forced him to miss most of his rookie season. Jones has immense upside in man coverage as a ball-hawking playmaker.
A whopping 56 defensive backs were selected last year and 32 of them are making or inevitably will make significant impacts for their respective teams in 2018.
One season doesn’t define the careers of the aforementioned players, but this group is pacing to redefine the defensive back landscape in the NFL. Virtually every Day One and Day Two pick is meeting expectations while numerous Day Three picks are far exceeding them.
The teams that opted to invest in a defensive back in last year’s draft spent their capital wisely.