Thursday, May 23, 2024

The 2024 NFL Draft: Surprises, Steals and Rising Stars

HomeSports NewsThe 2024 NFL Draft: Surprises, Steals and Rising Stars

DETROIT – And just like that, another NFL draft is in the books. Over three electrifying days at the Detroit Lions’ home turf, 259 players achieved their dreams of being selected by a professional football team. The future stars were ushered into the league amid cheers, tears of joy, and optimism for what lies ahead.

This year’s draft broke records and defied expectations at every turn. Six quarterbacks came off the board in a frenzied first round, more than any draft in over two decades. Receivers flew off the shelves early as teams scrambled to add elite playmakers. And the trenches were solidified as clubs invested heavily in protecting their QBs and fortifying their defensive fronts.

As the dust settles on this remarkable draft, let’s take a closer look at some of the biggest surprises, best value picks, and rising stars fans should keep an eye on.

Jaw-Dropping Surprises

The Cardinals Grab a Generational Talent at #4 When the Arizona Cardinals were on the clock with the fourth overall pick, all signs pointed to them taking an elite defensive prospect like Will Anderson Jr. or Jalen Carter. But in a stunning move, they selected Marvin Harrison Jr., the uber-talented wide receiver from Ohio State.

Harrison, the son of the legendary Marvin Harrison, was projected by many to be a top-10 pick. But going at #4 – ahead of Jalen Carter who was selected #5 by the Seahawks – caught everyone off guard. The Cardinals clearly prioritized giving their young QB Caleb Williams an unstoppable offensive weapon to grow with.

At 6’4″ and 205 pounds with elite speed and hands, Harrison has all the tools to become one of the NFL’s next great receivers. And with a cannon-armed passer like Williams getting him the ball, this duo could torment defenses for years to come in the Valley of the Sun.

The Eagles Double Up on Elite Cornerbacks The rich just got richer in Philadelphia as the Eagles pulled off a stunning coup, landing two of the draft’s top cornerbacks in Quinyon Mitchell (Toledo) at #22 and Cooper DeJean (Iowa) at #40. Both players were widely projected to go in the latter half of the first round.

By snagging Mitchell and DeJean at incredible value, the Eagles bolstered arguably the best secondary in football. With veterans Darius Slay and James Bradberry still locking down the outside, Philadelphia’s defensive backfield is stocked with game-changing talent.

Mitchell was a lockdown man-to-man corner at Toledo, totaling 39 pass breakups over the past two seasons. DeJean is a do-it-all defensive back who played extensive snaps at safety, linebacker, and corner for Iowa with elite ball skills (7 INTs in 2022).

By investing so heavily in the secondary through the draft, the Eagles signaled their intent on maintaining defensive dominance even as their star veterans age out of their primes.

Bryce Young’s Circle of Support Grows Stronger When quarterback Bryce Young slid to #9 in last year’s draft, few expected him to land in an ideal situation for immediate success with the Panthers. But Carolina has made it their mission to construct a dream scenario for their diminutive but talented signal caller.

After trading for the 32nd overall pick, the Panthers nabbed explosive playmaker Xavier Legette out of South Carolina to bookend DJ Moore and provide Young with another field-stretching target. At 6’1″ and 221 pounds, Legette ran a blistering 4.39 40-yard dash at the Combine with elite leaping ability (40″ vertical).

Legette’s elite size/speed combo combined with his ability to separate and run after the catch should give Young’s passing attack another jolt of dynamism. It continues an offseason overhaul in which Carolina aggressively upgraded its offensive line and receiving corps in hopes of propelling Young to superstardom.

While his slender frame sparked durability doubts in the pre-draft process last year, Young should have no shortage of protection and big-play threats around him going forward.

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Potential Steals and Best Value Picks

The Steelers’ Double-Dip into Elite Linebacker Talent Pittsburgh’s linebacking corps received a massive injection of talent and upside on Day 2. At #98 overall in the third round, the Steelers scooped up former NC State standout Payton Wilson, who many evaluated as a late first-round prospect before injury concerns caused his slide.

When healthy, Wilson was one of the most impactful defensive players in the country during his time in Raleigh. At 6’2″ 237 lbs, the rangy linebacker showcased elite sideline-to-sideline range against the run along with the athleticism and technique to make plays in coverage. Concerns over his durability and recovery from shoulder and hamstring issues pushed him down draft boards.

But if Wilson can stay on the field, he has all the traits to be a true difference-maker for the Steelers at a bargain price in the third round. Pittsburgh also made a wise investment in free agency to provide veteran leadership, signing former Raven Patrick Queen to pair with Wilson.

Then in the fifth round at #150 overall, the Saints’ stunning slide of quarterback Spencer Rattler presented too much value for the Steelers to pass up. Despite undeniable tools like a cannon arm and great mobility, questions about Rattler’s mental makeup and consistency caused the former five-star recruit to tumble out of the early rounds entirely.

But for a Day 3 pick, Rattler has immense upside as a potential high-end backup or starter down the road if he can get his mind right. At the very least, the Oklahoma transfer gives Pittsburgh an elite insurance policy should anything happen to Caleb Williams under center.

Cole Bishop Addresses Major Need for Bills After losing both starting safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde in the offseason, the Bills urgently needed to replenish the backend of their secondary with rangy playmakers. They emphatically did so by grabbing Missouri’s Cole Bishop at #60 overall.

Bishop was my top-rated safety in this draft class thanks to his elite athletic traits and coverage ability. At 6’2″ 209 lbs, he has the size, speed (4.36 40-yard dash), and ball skills to handle deep middle responsibilities as a true free safety. But he’s also physical enough to match up in man coverage and blitz effectively off the edge.

Despite being an early second-round value, Buffalo wisely pounced on Bishop at the top of the third round. He should provide an immediate impact for the Bills while learning from new addition Taylor Rapp, forming a suddenly formidable safety tandem with Rapp and Damar Hamlin down the road.

Given the premium placed on safeties who can truly do it all in today’s pass-happy NFL, Bishop’s versatility and playmaking ability made him one of the best pure value picks in the entire draft.

The Lions Get Defensive Reinforcements on Day 2 The Lions achieved incredible draft value by continuing to build up their defense in Rounds 2 and 4. At #61, they landed Missouri CB Ennis Rakestraw Jr., my 32nd-ranked prospect.

Rakestraw is an ultra-physical, aggressive corner who defines the word “tone-setter” in the defensive backfield. He’s a menace against the run and makes a living blowing up plays behind the line thanks to fanatical effort and great instincts. At 5’11” 182 lbs, he has the size and mentality to match up effectively on the outside.

Then in Round 4, Detroit snagged underrated UCLA DT Mekhi Wingo at #189 – a borderline top-100 prospect on my board. Wingo is lightning-quick off the ball with an elite first step and heavy hands. While undersized at 6’0″ 284 lbs, his penetrating style perfectly complements Detroit’s beefy 330-pound run-stuffer Levi Onwuzurike on the interior D-line.

By adding Rakestraw’s physical presence on the boundaries and Wingo’s interior pass rush prowess, the Lions solidified two key areas of need on their transitioning defense. Both picks represented outstanding value relative to their pre-draft evaluations.

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Rising Stars to Watch

Caleb Williams’ College Connection Heads to Chicago The Bears didn’t waste any time providing their new franchise quarterback Caleb Williams with a familiar, trusted target when they selected Washington receiver Rome Odunze at #9 overall.

Odunze was Williams’ go-to guy during their prolific 2022 season together with the Huskies, hauling in 70 receptions for 1,148 yards and 7 touchdowns. At 6’3″ 200 lbs with elite athleticism, the former basketball standout has a terrific blend of size, body control and contested-catch ability.

More importantly, Odunze and Williams have seamless chemistry and rapport after linking up for two seasons in Seattle. That built-in connection could allow the rookie pass-catcher to hit the ground running much faster than normal for a first-year wideout.

With Odunze joining established vets like Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool in the Windy City, Williams will have no shortage of proven playmakers as he tries to elevate the Bears’ stagnant passing attack. Their pre-existing rapport gives Odunze a leg up on becoming Williams’ go-to guy early on.

Laiatu Latu Brings Terrifying Presence to Indy The Colts sacrificed some long-term roster flexibility by spending the 15th overall pick on UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu. But there’s no denying the jolt of pure disruption he’ll provide their defensive front.

Latu was my top-rated defensive prospect in this class on film. As a 6’4″ 290-pounder with surprising agility, he racked up 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons while playing all over the defensive line for the Bruins. His combination of power, handwork and relentless motor made him virtually unblockable when he got rolling.

Some medical red flags surrounding a previous neck injury caused Latu to slide a bit on draft day. But if he can stay healthy, the Colts are getting a bonafide game-wrecker up front to wreak havoc on opposing backfields.

Alongside stout run defender DeForest Buckner and 2022 sack leader Kwity Paye on the edge, Latu gives Indianapolis one of the most formidable defensive line rotations in the NFL. Quarterbacks beware when this trio is bearing down.

Braden Fiske Stabilizes Rams’ Interior Front With Aaron Donald’s eventual retirement looming and the losses of key veterans up front, the Rams placed a premium on replenishing their defensive interior this draft. They did so in resounding fashion by selecting Braden Fiske out of Florida State at #39 overall.

Fiske is a bowling ball of chaos and disruption packed into a 6’1″ 297-lb frame. Despite his lack of elite size and length, the explosive tackle plays with a ferocious combination of power and first-step quickness that consistently gave larger offensive linemen fits.

Down the stretch in 2022, Fiske went on an absolute tear with 6 sacks in his final 5 games as he penetrated backfields at will. His ability to play the 3-tech and slide outside should perfectly complement the Rams’ other premium pick Jared Verse (edge, Florida State), giving them an ultra-athletic pairing to eventually fill the Donald/Greg Gaines void.

With the defending Super Bowl champs needing to reload along the trenches, Fiske gives them an interior wrecking ball adept at collapsing pockets from Day 1. Paired with Verse coming off the edge, LA’s defensive front could quickly regain its menacing edge.

Giovanni Manu Brings Freak Traits to Detroit Of all the late-round gems uncovered in this draft, none was quite as intriguing as OT Giovanni Manu, whom the Lions snagged in the 4th round at #126 overall.

Manu is a supreme athletic specimen, measuring in at a whopping 6’7″ and 352 lbs at his pro day. But he also flashed elite explosiveness with a 33.5″ vertical and 5.0 flat 40-yard dash at that gargantuan size. For reference, those numbers would’ve ranked near the top among ALL offensive linemen at the Combine.

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Even more amazingly, Manu’s background lies in basketball – not football – as he was a hooper growing up. He only started playing organized football in college at the University of British Columbia.

Yet despite his relative inexperience, Manu’s rare blend of size, power and agility translated clearly on film. He routinely demolished overmatched defenders and exhibited shockingly nimble footwork for a man of his stature.

Now in the NFL, Manu offers the Lions a tantalizing developmental prospect to mold at either tackle or guard. His natural physical talents are virtually unparalleled in this draft class. If the Lions’ staff can harness that raw ability, they may have unearthed a multiple-time Pro Bowler in the 4th round.

It’s an Embarrassment of Riches for KC The rich only got richer for the Chiefs over draft weekend. Not only did Kansas City add talented prospects at positions of need, but many of those players offered borderline first-round value at their respective draft slots.

Their haul began with uber-versatile defensive back Jaden Hicks at #133 in the 4th round. I had a second-round grade on Hicks after he logged snaps at six different defensive positions over the past two years for Michigan, showing his ability to line up virtually anywhere in the secondary or at linebacker.

Then one round later at #155, the Chiefs grabbed talented TE Jared Wiley out of Iowa. A 6’7″ 265-lb move weapon, Wiley has the rare blend of size and agility to create constant mismatches in the passing game. His value this late underscores the relative depth at TE in this class and why teams could find starters on Day 3.

To top things off, Kansas City landed my #67 overall prospect guard Kris Hansen at #248 in Round 7. The Holy Cross product has positional flexibility and a relentless demeanor, having started 50 consecutive games over his prolific college career.

Put it all together, and the Chiefs grabbed three immediate contributors with high-upside developmental traits peppered across their roster. As if they needed any more depth of talent to stay atop the AFC juggernaut.

For years, GM Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid have operated with a simple but highly effective mantra: Amass as much quality talent as possible at every position and let the elite coaching staff maximize it. This draft was just the latest demonstration of that philosophy in action for the reigning Super Bowl champs.

By addressing needs at DB, TE, and OL with high-value prospects, Kansas City ensured their embarrassment of riches will only continue growing for the foreseeable future.

More Seasoned Writers Wanted

As is custom, news outlets across the globe once again staffed up with seasoned writers to provide comprehensive analysis of this massively hyped event. The draft’s magnitude and popularity continually reach new heights each year.

Looking ahead, the next wave of action shifts to Organized Team Activities and mini-camps as these newly-minted pros start making their marks. Every team now has an influx of youthful talent infused into its roster with sky-high aspirations.

For the 259 players drafted and hundreds more signed as undrafted free agents, the journey is only just beginning. Their dreams have materialized into reality, but now the real work starts towards becoming an established pro and elevating their respective franchises.

All eyes will be monitoring which hyped prospects quickly emerge as building blocks and which Day 3 picks blossom into hidden gems. The makeup of the 2024 season and postseason race could very well be determined by how quickly these rookies can acclimate and produce at the highest level.

So as fans, coaches, executives and reporters alike bask in the afterglow of this scintillating draft, they all know one thing: The next chapter is about to be written, and the start of a new journey has only just begun.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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