The New York Jets have already seen the impact of their 2018 draft class. So have the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts.
Sam Darnold, the third overall selection of the draft by the Jets, completed 76 percent of his passes with two touchdowns in his NFL starting debut on opening day in a 48-17 romp over the Detroit Lions. Then he threw for 334 yards in his second start, albeit a loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The Broncos have started two rookie running backs – third-rounder Royce Freeman in the opener and undrafted Philip Lindsay in the second game – and are off to a 2-0 start. Freeman rushed for 71 yards in the opener against Seattle and Lindsay rushed for 107 yards in Week 2 against Oakland.
The Colts opened the season with four draft picks in the starting lineup, including second-round linebacker Darius Leonard. He collected 18 tackles, a sack and a forced a fumble in Indy’s 21-9 victory over the Washington Redskins last weekend, helping the Colts even their record at 1-1.
Cincinnati is one of seven NFL unbeatens through two weeks and the Bengals have two rookies in the starting lineup, one on offense (center Billy Price) and one on defense (safety Jessie Bates). First-round draft pick Saquon Barkley already has a 100-yard rushing game for the New York Giants and fourth-round tight end Will Dissly has a 100-yard receiving game for the Seattle Seahawks.
The salary cap has made the NFL a young man’s game and the draft provides an annual and accurate barometer of that youth.
There were 258 draft picks in 2018 – 256 in April and two supplemental selections in July. Of those 258 selections, 205 made the opening-day rosters of their drafting teams and 25 more were placed on reserve lists. Of the 28 draft picks who were cut, three were claimed on waivers and made opening-day rosters. Fourteen more were signed to NFL practice squads. So only 11 of the 258 draft picks last April are not drawing an NFL paycheck in the month of September.
The NFL has conducted a seven-round draft for the last 25 years. The 79.5 percent of the 2018 picks who made opening-day rosters of their drafting teams represents the second-highest percentage in the era of that seven-round draft. That’s up from the 77.1 percent in the 2017 draft. The 208 draft picks of last April were joined on opening-day rosters by 63 undrafted college free agents. That’s 268 total rookies in the NFL in 2018.
Baltimore, Green Bay and Houston all kept a league-high 12 rookies on their rosters. The Ravens kept a league-high nine of their draft picks and the Texans kept a league-high five undrafted free agents. Those four rookie starters in the Indianapolis lineup were the league high.
There were 38 rookie starters on opening day in all, including three undrafted college free agents: wide receiver Vyncint Smith of the Texans, offensive tackle Desmond Harrison of the Browns and linebacker Skai Moore of the Colts. Of the 63 undrafteds to make NFL rosters, 10 were wide receivers and 10 more were cornerbacks. There were no undrafted tight ends or defensive ends that made NFL teams this summer.
Of the 35 drafts picks in the starting lineups on opening day, 13 were first-rounders, nine second-rounders, seven thirds, three fourths and three fifths. The lowest drafted player to start was Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins, who was selected with the final pick of the fifth round – the 169th overall choice – by the Colts.
The highest draft choice cut was Florida State offensive tackle Rick Leonard, a fourth-round selection (127th overall) by the Saints. He was one of three draft picks released by New Orleans. That was half their draft class. No other team cut more than two of their choices. The Saints did sign two of those picks to the practice squad, including Leonard.