The NFL draft has always been the backbone of a Super Bowl contender.
Maybe now more than ever.
The 32 NFL teams made 254 picks in the 2019 draft and 203 of them made the opening-day rosters. Another 25 opened the season on injured reserve and 14 of the draft picks who didn’t make it to opening day were signed to practice squads.
So of the 254 draft picks last April, 242 are still under contract to the teams that drafted them. That means only a dozen players didn’t stick with their drafting teams and one of those – New England’s seventh rounder Ken Webster – was claimed on waivers by Miami and did open the season with the Dolphins.
So 79.9 percent of all 2019 draft picks made the opening-day roster, the second-highest percentage in NFL history – topped only by the 81 percent of the Class of 2016. In addition, 55 undrafted college free agents earned spots on NFL rosters.
Arizona, Minnesota and Oakland all shared the league-lead with 12 rookies on opening day. The Cardinals and Vikings shared the lead with 10 draft picks on the roster. Three teams kept all of their draft picks – Jacksonville with 10, the Los Angeles Chargers with nine and Kansas City with six.
A record 48 rookies started on opening day, 43 draft picks and five undrafted college free agents. Twenty of the 32 first-round draft picks started on opening day. There also were 10 second-rounders, seven thirds, a fourth, two fifths, a sixth and two sevenths in starting lineups.
The five undrafted free agents to start were wide receiver Deion Willis (Troy) at Cincinnati, fullback Alex Ingold (Wisconsin) at Oakland, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle (Tennessee) at New Orleans and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter (Georgia) and wide receiver Preston Williams (Colorado State) at Miami.
Kyler Murray, the first overall pick of the 2019 draft by Arizona, has debuted with back-to-back 300-yard passing games for the Cardinals. Tight end T.J. Hockenson, a first-round draft pick by Detroit, already has a 100-yard receiving day for the Lions. Three other rookie wide receiver have also turned in 100-yard receiving days: Marquise Brown for Baltimore, A.J. Brown for Tennessee and Terry McLaurin for Washington.
Miami and Washington both started four rookies on opening day but both now sit 0-2. Buffalo, Jacksonville, Miami and Oakland all started three rookies with the Bills the biggest beneficiary of their youth. Buffalo’s top three picks -- defensive tackle Ed Oliver, offensive tackle Cody Ford and halfback Devin Singletary – have all started and contributed in the Bills’ surprising 2-0 start.
The draft is essential in a salary-cap world because it becomes an annual pool of cheap labor that allows teams to give those multi-million dollar contracts to their superstars. Those rookies become part of a team’s annual roster churn, so there are now no longer any throwaway picks. Thirty of the 35 fifth-round picks made opening-day rosters as did 31 of the 41 sixth-rounders.
When a player is drafted, he is expected to make the team and to contribute. Regardless of the round. Washington’s seventh-round draft pick Jimmy Moreland started on opening day. Of the 55 undrafted wide receivers who made opening-day rosters, 10 were wide receivers and six more were outside linebackers. Two undrafted quarterbacks made rosters – Jake Dolegala (Central Connecticut State) with the Bengals and David Blough (Purdue) with the Lions.