The Defender: 2023 NFL Draft Round 1

A lot of things happen each week in the NFL, which leads to a lot of different opinions. But each week there are a few events that lead to almost universal outrage from football fans all over. Whether it is a bad call made by a ref, a coaching blunder, a perplexing play on the field, or anything in between, there is always something. That’s where I come in. As ‘The Defender” (an entirely self-appointed position) I’m here to defend those bad calls, confusing decisions, or mistakes on the field. I may not always agree with what I’m saying, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a way to defend some of the week’s most indefensible occurrences. You might be wondering what I’m doing popping back up considering there was no NFL football played this week, but I don’t only defend on the field. The draft is one of the biggest days of the year for NFL fans, especially because it’s one of the only days when the bad teams have hope. But with the draft comes a lot of head-scratching decisions, which is where I come in. I’m here to defend some of the picks that made you think for a second if the team accidentally picked the wrong guy (we’ve all been there in our fantasy drafts) and any other confusing moment from the first round.

Seattle Shocks Us Early

The first surprise of the draft came courtesy of Seattle at number five overall, which really isn’t a surprise given their recent history of surprising us. The Seahawks opted to draft Illinois’s Devon Witherspoon at cornerback, which was not considered as big of a need as some other positions, especially on the defense. But the draft isn’t only about filling needs, it’s about adding the best players. And if Seattle believed that Witherspoon was the best player on the board, then it makes sense that it would take him. But the question isn’t whether we should believe that the Seahawks like Witherspoon, that much is already clear, the question is whether should we trust them. Why shouldn’t this pick be lumped in with some of the other shockers from later in the draft?

The reason we should trust the Seahawks’ judgment on this pick is that they’ve earned it. Under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, the Seahawks have drafted 22 defensive backs across 12 drafts. Nearly half of those picks turned into at least solid players, the best of which include Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman. But the thing is, Seattle only selected a defensive back in the third round or earlier three times, and just once in the first round (Thomas in 2010, Carroll and Schneider’s first draft together). The only other corner they’ve selected before round four is Shaquil Griffin, who was a lead corner in Seattle before signing with Jacksonville in free agency.

With that being said, it’s clear that the Seahawks know what they’re doing when it comes to the secondary, especially at corner. So if Carroll and Schneider elected to use their highest pick ever on a corner (by a whopping 85 picks), it must mean they see something special in the kid. And they have reason to believe Witherspoon is special. He was already widely expected to go in the top 10, so it’s not like the Seahawks made a massive reach, they just targeted a position that they weren’t expected to. But at the end of the day, all that matters is that you added a good player to your team, and it appears that is exactly what Seattle did.

Atlanta Adds a Little Bijan

It didn’t take too long after Seattle’s pick for us to get another surprise in the draft. That came at pick number eight when the Falcons selected Texas running back Bijan Robinson. As a player, Robinson is one of the most talented guys in the draft class and has as much upside as almost anyone. His talent is certainly worthy of being the eighth pick but running backs don’t tend to go that high, and everyone was a bit shocked when the Falcons selected him. The main reason for the confusion is that Atlanta still needs help at other positions. The Falcons have had a lackluster pass rush for several years and are also lacking significant talent at linebacker and in the secondary. So, for a team to eschew those areas of need to go with a running back was quite the swerve.

But now it’s time to defend that pick. The defense of the pick is pretty simple. The Falcons believed that at the time, Robinson was the best player on the board. There could also be the belief that other positions, such as pass rusher, cornerback, and wide receiver, are a lot deeper, meaning Atlanta could still add a good player at those positions later in the draft. You also have to take a look at the people making the pick, primarily Arthur Smith. The head coach got the job after his work as offensive coordinator in Tennessee, where he built one of the best running attacks in recent memory with Derrick Henry. The Falcons demonstrated last year that they were committed to the run game despite having Cordarrelle Patterson and Tyler Allgeier in the backfield, who are two very solid players. Now, the Falcons have significantly upgraded the position with a prospect that was considered to be on the same level as Saquon Barkley coming out of college. Robinson could be a top 10 or better running back in the league right away, and if that’s the case, then this pick won’t look nearly as bad in hindsight.

Detroit’s Pair of Perplexing Picks

You remember in school when you would do something embarrassing so then your friend would do something even more embarrassing to help take the heat off you? That’s what the Lions did when they selected Jahmyr Gibbs, the running back from Alabama, with the 12th pick. But they didn’t stop there. Six picks later they selected Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell. To call Detroit’s first-round confusing would be an understatement. Not only did they seemingly reach for both players (although it can be assumed that Gibbs was not going to make it to pick 18), but they did so at positions that are generally not considered valuable in the draft. To put it into perspective, the Falcons were the only other team that selected a running back in the first round, while the Lions were the only team to spend a first-rounder on an off-ball linebacker, despite there still being talented players left at the position.

But this is a safe space where we don’t judge people, we defend them. Although it’s hard to defend what I believe to be two of the worst picks of day one, here we go. To start with Gibbs, the Lions very well might be getting a blue-chipper at the position. He’s incredibly dynamic and has the potential to be a dominant three-down back in the NFL. The main sticking point with the pick is the fact that he will be joining a relatively crowded running back room. D’Andre Swift, a second-round pick in 2020, is the presumed starter, but he is a free agent after this season. And it was clear from the way that the Lions used Jamaal Williams last year that they aren’t totally convinced that Swift is their guy. Detroit also brought in David Montgomery in free agency but can move off his contract in two years and isn’t paying him too much, making his contract reasonable if he does operate as the second back. In some respect, this was a smart move by Detroit by playing for the future. This also gives them the opportunity to trade Swift if Gibbs usurps him, which would give them more compensation than just letting him walk in free agency.

The Campbell pick is a little tougher to swallow. It made sense for Detroit to address the defense, which does need some work, but linebacker was not the place it was expected to address. The Lions aren’t necessarily set at the position but they do have Hard Knocks standout Malcolm Rodriguez, who had a really good season as a rookie, and Alex Anzalone, who’s a solid player. So the Campbell selection does make sense in some regard because he does provide a player at the position with higher upside than anyone already there. The Linebacker position also is not nearly as deep in this draft as the other positions that Detroit needs. The Lions hold the third pick of day two along with two other second-round picks, and with several good defenders still on the board, and tight end Michael Mayer, they can still add some value at other positions. There was no guarantee that Campbell, who the Lions clearly believe is the best linebacker in the group, would be there when they selected again. The Lions made sure they got their guy, which makes sense, now they just have to make sure they address some more important positions with their next picks.

Commanders Reach a Little Outside

Sometimes a team has the right idea but just ends up with the wrong execution, or so it seems. That is kind of the case with the Commanders taking Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes with the 16th pick. Washington reacted to how the draft was playing out, identified corner as a position with some value on the board, but then reached for Forbes. Christian Gonzalez, who was viewed by some as the best corner in the draft and by many as a top-10 pick, was still on the board. So were Joey Porter Jr. and Deonte Banks, who were also considered better prospects than Forbes in some circles. The reason that Forbes was a risky prospect is because he is very slim (166 pounds), to the point where it calls into question his ability to hang in there with physical receivers and his durability at the next level.

But Forbes does have tremendous upside because he is an absolute stud at making plays on the ball. He was a pick-six machine in college, taking six of his 14 career interceptions to the house. If he can continue to make those kinds of plays in the NFL, then it won’t matter how skinny he is. The league has also gotten better at adapting schemes around elite players with physical limitations. And with the increased importance of the slot corner position, Forbes doesn’t necessarily have to play primarily outside to be considered a valuable player. To put it bluntly, if a player can make plays, then he plays. Cornerback especially is a position all about extremes. Even the best corners in the league get beat every once in a while, but if a player is able to make huge, momentum-altering players like pick-sixes, then that creates value. The greatest upsides don’t come without great risk, and that’s the case with Forbes, but you can’t fault the Commanders for taking a big swing.

Will Levis Slip ‘n’ Slide

Social media can be a very tough place, especially when it comes to athletes and other celebrities, but at least one thing we can all agree on is that it sucks when a draft process has to go through what Kentucky quarterback Will Levis went through during round one. Once thought to be a top 10, or even five, pick, Levis spent his Thursday sitting in the green room for all 31 picks. It was an incredibly unfortunate experience that must have been really tough for the young player. But, there’s a way to look at this draft-day slide in a more optimistic manner that could suggest that this is actually better for him in the long run.

Levis was perhaps the most polarizing prospect in the lead-up to the draft. It seemed like almost a consensus belief that he would be a top pick, but also that he didn’t deserve it. He was touted as the most likely of the top four quarterbacks to be a bust and if any team opted for him over any of the other three, their fanbase probably would have let them hear it. But now Levis is in a much different situation. Not only will he come into the league with a massive chip on his shoulder, but he will also have a lot of sympathy from the fans (not that he necessarily needs it). But what I mean is that he will be viewed differently now that he isn’t a top-10 pick. He won’t come into the league and join whatever team he ends up on with the same expectations as he would have if drafted earlier. He isn’t a ‘franchise-saver’ or any of the other titles that get placed on top picks. But the thing is, he’s still the same player. He’s still the same guy that had a lot of people convinced that he would hear his name called very early. So now he gets to come into the league with much less pressure and expectations placed on him, while still possessing the same ability to be a franchise quarterback. It may not look so great at the moment, but falling out of the first round could end up being the best thing that could have happened to Levis.