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2023 NFL draft superlatives: Best pick, biggest gamble, most improved division and more

BALTIMORE — The NFL draft is always a whirlwind. For the Ravens, it was even wilder than usual.

On Thursday, news trickled out that quarterback Lamar Jackson agreed to a five-year deal, ending a contract standoff that lasted two seasons and threatened to overshadow a third. Hours later, they made their first pick, taking Boston College wide receiver Zay Flowers at No. 22 overall.

In total, 259 picks were made across three days in Kansas City. As always, some stood out more than others. Let’s make sense of it all and hand out some awards:

Best pick: Colts take Florida QB Anthony Richardson

Indianapolis landed the most athletic quarterback in NFL scouting combine history, and it didn’t even need to trade up to do it.

Sure, there are enough flaws in Richardson’s game that made him the third quarterback off the board, but there’s a chance the Florida product ends up with the best career of them all. At 6 feet 4 and 244 pounds with a rocket arm and the speed of a wide receiver (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds), he has the physical tools to be a superstar.

Of course, landing spots are just as important as talent when it comes to molding a successful quarterback. In first-year coach Shane Steichen, Richardson has a mentor who helped Jalen Hurts become a star dual-threat star in Philadelphia when he was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. He’ll have a talented running back in Jonathan Taylor lining up next to him in the backfield and promising wide receivers to throw to in Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce and third-round pick Josh Downs. The offensive line, led by perennial Pro Bowl guard Quenton Nelson, should be solid.

After years of running on the treadmill of mediocrity with veterans Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan, the Colts finally have a young franchise quarterback to build around. Getting one with such sky-high potential without having to give up future picks is worth celebrating.

Best fit: Texas RB Bijan Robinson lands with Falcons

History frowns upon taking a running back early, especially in the top 10. Even stars like Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey have not been good enough to lift their mediocre teams to success.

That being said, few teams are built to run the ball as well as the Falcons. Last season, Atlanta ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (159.9) and tied for fourth in yards per carry (4.9) with a combination of journeyman Cordarrelle Patterson, fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier and 2021 undrafted free agent Caleb Huntley. Imagine what Robinson, a consensus top-five overall player, could do in coach Arthur Smith’s offense.

The 5-11, 215-pound Robinson is coming off a monster season, rushing for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games. He caught 60 passes for 805 yards and eight touchdowns in his college career, showing the ability to be a dangerous receiving threat. He set the Pro Football Focus record with 104 broken tackles in 2022.

Drafting Robinson early wouldn’t make sense for a lot of teams, but it does for the Falcons.

Best trade up: Eagles jump one spot to pick Georgia DT Jalen Carter

General manager Howie Roseman knows what he likes, and he’s not afraid to be aggressive. That meant trading up for another Georgia defensive lineman to pair with Jordan Davis, who he jumped ahead of the Ravens to secure last year.

By moving up from No. 10 to No. 9 with the Chicago Bears at the cost of a 2024 fourth-round pick, Philadelphia added perhaps the best overall prospect in Carter, a 6-3, 314-pound interior force with Pro Bowl potential. Off-field concerns about Carter, including charges of reckless driving and racing, make this pick a risky one, but the Eagles clearly believe their coaching staff and locker room will hold him accountable.

Every rival coach, front office executive and player had to groan when they saw the Eagles make this pick. For a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, it could be a championship-defining move.

Best trade down: Cardinals add 2024 first-rounder from Texans

Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort inherited the worst roster in the league, so trading down from No. 3 was an obvious move. However, landing a high second-round pick (No. 33) and first- and third-round selections in 2024 from the Houston Texans, a team that could finish with one of the worst records in the league next season, is a home run.

Arizona immediately put some of that draft capital to good use, trading up from No. 12 to No. 6 with the Detroit Lions to pick Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr., the consensus top offensive lineman. It traded down again at Nos. 33, 66 and 96, restocking the cupboard with extra picks both in this draft and in 2024.

While Kyler Murray is still considered the franchise quarterback despite tearing his ACL last season, the Cardinals put themselves in position to potentially draft his successor next April. That could be Southern California’s Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who has drawn comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes. If they’re still happy with Murray, they could trade their top 2024 pick for another huge haul.

The Cardinals needed to take baby steps toward being competitive again in 2024 and beyond, and that’s exactly what they did.

Biggest gamble: Lions ignore positional value in first round

With four picks in the top 55 to help improve one of the most promising young rosters, there was a lot of excitement about what Detroit would do early in the draft. The answer was controversial, in more ways than one.

Not only did the Lions pick a running back No. 12 overall, but they added an inside linebacker at No. 18, positions teams have mostly ignored early in the first round considering their replacement value. For those players to provide positive return on investment, they’d need to quickly become among the best at their positions.

Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs and Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell entered the draft ranked 25th and 44th on the industry consensus big board, respectively. Good players, but not expected stars. Gibbs, while an impressive receiver, is largely considered a third-down back. Campbell, an intimidating run-stopper, might be a liability in pass coverage. You can see the problem here.

This is not to say the Lions picked two players destined for failure. On the contrary, they should help immediately. The issue is opportunity cost, with Detroit passing on highly ranked cornerbacks, edge rushers and wide receivers — positions that routinely earn the biggest free agent contracts — in favor of spots more easily filled later in the draft. The Lions are saying Gibbs and Campbell are so much better than the other rookie running backs and linebackers that they needed to take them early. That’s the gamble, and one history says they’re likely to lose.

Most improved team: Seahawks land two first-round stars

Last season, the Jets swept the Associated Press Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards with Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson and Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner. The Seahawks could be the next to do it.

After picking Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon at No. 5 overall, Seattle landed Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba at No. 20, filling two immediate needs with potential stars. Witherspoon, a spiritual “Legion of Boom” successor because of his aggressive play style, forms an impressive pairing with 2022 breakout rookie Tariq Woolen. Smith-Njigba, who finished with more receiving yards than Wilson in his last healthy season in 2021 at Ohio State, is the kind of slot target who can thrive next to wideouts DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

With the Cardinals rebuilding, the Los Angeles Rams in limbo and the San Francisco 49ers facing uncertainty at quarterback, the NFC West is there for the taking. By bringing back veteran quarterback Geno Smith and adding two stellar first-round picks — not to mention a solid haul on Days 2 and 3 — Seattle put itself into position to not only win the division but also make a deep postseason run.

Most improved division: AFC North

The Ravens earned high praise for their draft class, despite making just six picks. Nothing about that is surprising.

The rest of the AFC North did pretty well, too.

The Bengals didn’t get the offensive lineman or tight end many were expecting, but they restocked the defense with Clemson edge rusher Myles Murphy, Michigan cornerback DJ Turner II and Alabama safety Jordan Battle while adding some promising playmakers in Purdue wide receiver Charlie Jones, Illinois running back Chase Brown and Princeton wide receiver Andrei Iosivas.

The Steelers bolstered their offensive line with Georgia tackle Broderick Jones, brought in a perfect culture fit in cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and scooped up massive Georgia tight end Darnell Washington, a first-round talent who reportedly fell to the third because of injury concerns. Wisconsin defensive tackle Keeanu Benton could be the heir apparent to Cameron Heyward, and Wisconsin outside linebacker Nick Herbig and Purdue cornerback Cory Trice Jr. offer promise as Day 3 picks.

The Browns didn’t make their first pick until No. 74 overall but came away with a true outside wide receiver in Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman, an interior defensive lineman with pass-rushing upside in Baylor’s Siaki Ika and a potential long-term starter at tackle in Ohio State’s Dawand Jones. Missouri edge rusher Isaiah McGuire, Northwestern cornerback Cameron Mitchell and Ohio State center Luke Wypler all had big fans among draft evaluators, and UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is an intriguing developmental prospect.

The Ravens ended the draft as big winners after completing their deal with Jackson, but they’re going to face six tough games on their quest for a Super Bowl title.

Quarterback Anthony Richardson of Florida participates in a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 4, 2023, in Indianapolis. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images/TNS)

Quarterback Anthony Richardson of Florida participates in a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 4, 2023, in Indianapolis. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images/TNS)

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