• Seb Kennedy

Draft Pick Pay-Offs #8

The eighth overall pick has been a mixed bag of results across the last decade; from franchise talents to flat-out busts, some of these names have achieved All-Pro status while others were already out of the league barely halfway through their rookie contracts. This article will look at exactly what these 10 players were able to bring to their respective organizations and how well they could match the NFL performances of fellow eighth overall picks and all-time greats Ronnie Lott and Willie Roaf. Could these men also make it into Canton? Let’s find out.



2010 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Rolando McClain, Linebacker, Alabama (Selected By Oakland Raiders)


Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIRE


A player who won pretty much all there was to win at the college level, Rolando McClain’s time at Alabama was successful to say the least. The linebacker enjoyed an incredibly prosperous tenure at Bryant-Denny Stadium, compiling 274 tackles (31.5 for loss), eight sacks, five interceptions and a touchdown across three seasons under Nick Saban, in a Crimson Tide career that saw McClain leave the school as one of the most decorated athletes in its entire history. Back-to-back first-team All-SEC inclusions, Conference Champion and Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, Butkus and Lambert Award winner also in his junior season and both Team Defensive MVP and BCS National Champion in his final year in Crimson and White too. After making the decision to forego his senior season, McClain declared for the 2010 NFL Draft as one of the consensus top linebackers in his class. Seemingly a clear asset to any defense in the league, the only question remaining was, Where would the college phenom next be calling home? On April 22nd, Commissioner Roger Goodell provided the answer loud and clear when announcing that with the eighth pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, McClain would be heading west to Oakland as the latest addition to the Raiders’ roster. Tasked with suring-up a sorry defense under coordinator John Marshall, things didn’t exactly go to plan for the man in silver and black. Despite the former Bama baller’s consecutive seasons as one of the team's most prolific tacklers, in 2012 Oakland’s defense was the very worst in football and McClain was replaced by fourth-round rookie Miles Burris after the bye week. Various off-field incidents eventually led to the eighth overall pick being waived by the team on April 5th, 2013. Seen as having plenty of potential and production left in him — being just 23 at the time of his Raiders release — both Baltimore and Dallas took flyers on the linebacker with McClain spending two seasons as a Cowboy in 2014 and 2015. But that opportunity was ultimately proven fruitless given the expectations associated with top-10 overall picks. Countless run-ins with the law throughout the player’s pro tenure and not achieving a single accolade at the NFL level — a stark contrast to his college career — have left the Crimson Tide phenom a free agent forevermore since receiving an indefinite suspension on December 30th, 2019, last seeing the field in 2015. For the eighth overall pick in the draft, you should be receiving All-Pro play on a consistent basis; McClain failed to register a single Pro Bowl season during his NFL career and seemingly spent more time tackling his own legal issues than he did players on opposing offenses. This one is a categorical bust and another draft pick in the history of the Raiders that the franchise wishes it could have back.



2011 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Jake Locker, Quarterback, Washington (Selected By Tennessee Titans)


Don McPeak/USA TODAY Sports


One of the bigger draft busts in NFL history, Jake Locker’s time in Tennessee didn’t quite go how Titans fans would’ve liked it to. The Washington quarterback threw for 2,062 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2007 as a redshirt freshman, earning Freshman All-American honours as well as being named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. And, following an injury-laden sophomore year, he compiled a further 5,065 yards and 38 scores across his final two seasons of eligibility for the Huskies, in an effort that was good enough for Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt to take a chance on the signal-caller very early on in the 2011 NFL Draft. With the eighth overall pick, Tennessee took the Pac-10 passer and installed him into an offense featuring red-hot running back Chris Johnson and talented tight end Jared Cook — a move that would soon prove incredibly improvident. Initially playing backup to veteran Matt Hasselbeck, the rookie first got his taste of NFL football in Week 11 against the Atlanta Falcons where he threw for 140 yards and two touchdowns, subsequently cementing the starting spot ahead of the following season. However, injuries would soon come back to bite the young quarterback again — this time at the pro level. A torn non-throwing shoulder in 2012, right hip and Lisfranc injuries the following season and further injuries to his right wrist, thumb and shoulder in his fourth year meant that any chance Locker had of becoming a top talent in the NFL was essentially little to none. Having not managed to surpass 5,000 career passing yards by the conclusion of his rookie contract — with the Titans unsurprisingly declining the passer’s fifth-year option the year prior due to Locker’s lack of durability — the former Husky announced his retirement from the league on March 10th, 2015 citing his loss of passion for the sport. The Titans’ supposed saviour would not see another NFL snap as Tennessee was already fixated on the shiny new toy that was Marcus Mariota, who they selected in the 2015 draft with the second overall pick some 51 days after their former #10 had decided to hang up his cleats for good. The tale of Jake Locker is an altogether depressing one; an exciting prospect who never got a fair shake in the NFL due to his perennial issues with injury, who ultimately fell out of love with football as a result. And while the next quarterback behind center at Nissan Stadium wouldn’t exactly take the league by storm either, due to Locker’s trouble staying on the field and all-round lack of reliability at the game’s most important position, this eighth overall selection once again does not represent a draft pick pay-off.



2012 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Ryan Tannehill, Quarterback, Texas A&M (Selected By Miami Dolphins)


Michael Reaves/Getty Images


The man who would eventually succeed Jake Locker’s replacement as Tennessee’s next true franchise quarterback, Ryan Tannehill’s college career actually saw the slinger take more snaps as a wide receiver than he did behind center. Facing stiff competition at signal-caller from Stephen McGee and Jerrod Johnson, the Aggie compiled 1,453 yards and nine touchdowns at wideout in his first two playing years at Texas A&M. However, with McGee long-graduated and Johnson possessing no further years of collegiate eligibility — the latter losing the starting job to Tannehill in 2010 anyway — it was the future eighth overall draft pick’s time to shine in maroon and white. In his first full season as quarterback at Kyle Field, Tannehill tallied 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns passing in a redshirt senior year effort that saw the signal-caller break multiple single-season records at the school. Finishing his Aggies tenure with the eighth most passing yards and seventh most passing touchdowns in Texas A&M history — despite starting just 20 games behind center — Tannehill entered the 2012 NFL Draft as the consensus third quarterback prospect behind just Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. And with both men already taken by pick number two, it was Miami general manager Jeff Ireland’s Dolphins who selected the slinger at eighth overall to invigorate an offense featuring running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Brian Hartline. As for the passer himself, his first three seasons in Florida saw him average 3,750 yards through the air in 48 consecutive starts that would earn him a six-year, $96 million contract extension ahead of the 2015 season, where he would have a career year in aqua and white. Tannehill totalled 4,208 yards and 24 touchdowns in his fourth campaign at Sun Life Stadium, seemingly proving himself as the franchise quarterback Miami had been searching for ever since Dan Marino retired in 1999. However, the previously ever-durable signal-caller — after missing three games in 2016 due to injury — was ruled out for the entirety of the following year after tearing his ACL ahead of the regular season, subsequently failing to impress in 2018 in what would prove to be another injury-laden effort. But brighter times were ahead as the former-Aggie — in a veteran quarterback trade for the ages — was sent to Tennessee in the 2019 offseason along with a sixth-round selection in exchange for fourth and seventh-round picks — a stroke of genius from Titans general manager Jon Robinson. Replacing the milquetoast Marcus Mariota, Tannehill ended his first campaign at Nissan Stadium as the league’s passer rating leader, earning his first ever Pro Bowl appearance and winning the coveted NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, taking the Titans to the doorstep of Super Bowl LIV by winning two playoff games in the process and facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Following another incredibly impressive effort in 2020, finishing the season as a bona fide top-five signal-caller and throwing for a career-high 33 touchdowns, Tannehill’s Tennessee tenure and the Titans’ trade that brought him to Nashville is appearing more magnificent by the day. While Miami received four straight years of more than adequate quarterback play from their eighth overall pick, Dolphins fans everywhere were hoping he’d be the answer to the franchise’s decade of dismay in the naughties after Marino hung up his cleats for good — a wish that was ultimately never granted given the front office’s decision to trade him away. The Titans are now reaping the benefits, all thanks to the great work of Pat O’Hara, Mike Vrabel and new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith — as well as the aforementioned Jon Robinson for both surrounding Tannehill with weapons and signing him to a four-year extension some 11 months ago. I don’t see this as a draft pick pay-off for Miami unfortunately, but you can absolutely mark this down as a win for Tennessee.


2013 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Tavon Austin, Wide Receiver, West Virginia (Selected By St. Louis Rams)


Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

One of, if not, the greatest West Virginia wide receiver of all time, Tavon Austin’s tenure as a Mountaineer progressively improved throughout his pre-pro career. After recording just 151 and 787 yards receiving in his freshman and sophomore seasons respectively — though also contributing to the run game too — the dual-threat speedster really turned it on in his final two years of collegiate eligibility. Junior and senior years spent compiling no fewer than 3,300 yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage including back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons saw Austin earn not only first-team All-Big East and All-American honours in 2011, but also in 2012 where he added further accolades including an inclusion in the All-Big-12 first-team, the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year, Paul Hornung and Jet Awards. And after displaying his incredible versatility and athleticism at the 2013 NFL Combine where he recorded a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, the West Virginia wideout entered the draft as one of the top overall prospects in his class — later confirmed by his high first-round selection spot. With the eighth overall pick, Les Snead’s Rams made Austin the first receiver off the board (the second of which — DeAndre Hopkins — wouldn’t be taken until pick 27) and added him to an offense featuring Jared Cook and fellow Mountaineer pass-catcher Stedman Bailey. In his debut season in St. Louis, the five-foot-eight speedster impressed with 1,247 all-purpose yards and six total touchdowns which earned him an inclusion in the PFWA All-Rookie Team on the special teams unit — an achievement that would unfortunately prove to be his most prestigious across the entirety of his NFL career to date. Following five years of altogether uninspiring play given the wideout’s eighth overall draft pick status, Austin was traded to the state where his surname is also the capital city as Jerry Jones sent a sixth-rounder in return to make the receiver a Dallas Cowboy for the 2018 season — re-signing the Mountaineer the very next year. Subsequent un-stimulating stops in San Francisco and Green Bay — the latter of which Austin currently resides as a Packer — have seen the dual-threat player not only fail to live up to the NFL expectations he’d set for himself from his prestigious college career, but also celebrate his 30th birthday this past March without registering a single Pro Bowl season to date— a terrible return for such a premium draft pick. Tavon Austin’s ultimately-fruitless pro career definitely does not deem this eighth-overall selection a draft pick pay-off, and — given the fact that DeAndre Hopkins went unselected for a further 19 picks in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft — only further elucidates the poor scouting department of the Rams’ organization. Sorry, Les Snead — this one was a big miss.


2014 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Justin Gilbert, Cornerback, Oklahoma State (Selected By Cleveland Browns)

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports


Justin Gilbert’s NFL career is one of the very shortest of any eighth overall pick in recent memory. Enjoying a track and field career at high school as one of the top sprinters in the state of Texas, the four-star recruit played football for Oklahoma State where he contributed significantly both in the secondary and on special teams. Across his four years of collegiate eligibility, the Cowboy recorded 182 total tackles (3.5 for loss), 18 defended passes, 12 interceptions, two touchdowns, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery as a defensive back and returned kicks for 2,681 total yards and six touchdowns on special teams. Gilbert’s versatility as a key asset in two out of the three phases of the game saw him earn second-team All-Big 12 honours in 2011 as a cornerback, the same again the following season as a kick returner/punt returner and be included in both the All-Big 12 first-team and unanimous All-American team as a senior in 2013 — ending the year as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award too. Having exhibited his ability at various positions on the field and after an impressive performance at the NFL Combine running a 4.35-second 40-yard dash, it was only a matter of time before Gilbert’s name would be called on May 8th at Radio City Music Hall. The recipients of the red-hot returner? The Cleveland Browns. With the eighth overall pick, general manager Ray Farmer selected the speedster and brought the ball hawk to FirstEnergy Stadium to add depth to a secondary featuring 2014 Pro Bowlers Teshaun Gipson, Donte Whitner and Joe Haden. However, Gilbert’s time in brown, orange and white was short-lived to say the least. After a heel injury and an illness saw the rookie miss two games of invaluable experience, the corner featured in the remaining 14 matchups of his debut season, recording just one interception in the process. And his 339 yards on kick returns the following year — where Gilbert failed to make an impact on defense in the slightest — wasn’t enough to keep him around as new Cleveland general manager Sashi Brown and Kevin Colbert struck a deal. Despite their AFC North rivalry, the two franchises agreed for the defensive back to be traded to the Steelers in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. However, the speedster’s Pittsburgh tenure went very much the same as his time in Cleveland. After a third season of uninspiring play, Gilbert once again found himself off the team as he was released by the Steelers the day after Super Bowl LI’s conclusion. A subsequent one-year suspension from Commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league’s substance abuse policy has left the cornerback resigned to free agency for the past three years, with essentially no chance of making a return. Last seeing the field in 2016, the now-29-year-old has been out of work for the best part of half a decade — five years that you’d expect any eighth overall pick to be thriving during, reaching their peak with multiple Pro Bowl appearances under their belt. But given that Gilbert proved to be nothing more than a college phenom unable to cut the mustard in the NFL, this selection goes down as one of the bigger busts of this entire series. A ruff pick for the Dawg Pound.



2015 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Vic Beasley, Defensive End, Clemson (Selected By Atlanta Falcons)


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the most notable one-season wonders in the modern NFL era, Vic Beasley’s extraordinary 2016 campaign in Atlanta was what Dan Quinn and Co. were hoping they’d receive on a much more regular basis from the pass rusher. Playing his college football at Clemson, the dominant defensive end balled out in orange and regalia for three straight years. From his redshirt sophomore season onwards, Beasley averaged 16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks per season in an effort that not only saw him end his Tigers tenure as the all-time sack leader in school history but also achieve numerous accolades in the process. As a redshirt junior in 2013, the pass rusher picked up both first-team All-ACC and consensus All-American honours, receiving the very same inclusions as a redshirt senior the following year where he was also named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Though his play style and attributes as a pure pass rusher divided scouts heading into the draft, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff did not share the same concerns and selected Beasley with the eighth overall pick in a move that saw him become the highest selected Clemson defender since the late Gaines Adams was drafted number four by the Buccaneers in 2007. However, the aforementioned critics of the defensive end initially seemed to have been vindicated as the first-year Falcon struggled significantly in his rookie season — registering just five quarterback hits, four sacks and two tackles for loss in a debut campaign where the college phenom failed to make the PFWA All-Rookie Team, losing out to jump-start Jet, Leonard Williams and vigorous Viking Danielle Hunter — both of whom manned the edge in Beasley’s absence. However, after moving from defensive end to the strong linebacker spot the following season, the eighth overall pick had a career year stuffing box scores at the Georgia Dome. In just 12 starts the pass rusher piled up 15.5 sacks, ending the season as the NFL sacks leader in an effort that earned him both first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honours — serving as a key member to an NFC-Champion Falcons side that would lose out on their first ever Lombardi Trophy in the most unbelievable of circumstances – the greatest Super Bowl comeback in league history. Despite failing to earn himself a ring, Beasley entered the 2017 season ranked 40th by his peers on the NFL Top 100 list following a year that would soon prove to appear almost as though it was a mirage. The defensive end wouldn’t top eight sacks in either of his next three campaigns — averaging just six per year despite missing only two of 48 games — in an effort that would see Beasley not even make it beyond his rookie contract in Atlanta. After the Falcons’ front office announced they would not be re-signing him, the unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal in Tennessee ahead of the 2020 season — a year the pass rusher would finish as a Las Vegas Raider with zero sacks after the Titans waived him on November 4th, remaining primarily on both franchises’ practice squads. From dominant defensive end to jinxed journeyman, the career trajectory of Vic Beasley certainly hasn’t gone the way he nor his agent — as well as all spectators of the 2016 NFL season — would’ve thought. Still only 28 years old, all may not be lost just yet as the eighth overall pick may still be able to muster a career for himself at the highest level of professional football but in my opinion, this pass-rushing product represents nothing more than damaged goods. Another reason to feel for Falcons fans after the absolute heartbreak of Super Bowl LI; this draft pick unfortunately did not pay off for Atlanta.



2016 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Jack Conklin, Offensive Tackle, Michigan State (Selected By Tennessee Titans)


Tennessee Titans

Arguably the greatest right tackle currently playing in the league, Jack Conklin’s prowess at the pro level is not only admirable but also something every single NFL franchise looks for. A Michigan State walk-on, the lineman’s 38 starts as a Spartan and elite-level play as a Big Ten talent saw him widely regarded as not only the third best tackle prospect, but a consensus top-15 overall pick. Come April 28th, 2016, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Conklin as the second offensive lineman to be selected in his class with the Tennessee Titans taking the tackle at number bookending a front five tasked with protecting second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota. And the ever-reliable road grader played absolutely lights out in his debut season at Nissan Stadium — making 16 starts in an effort that saw him graded fifth highest among all offensive linemen and the top rookie per PFF, earning not only PFWA All-Rookie Team honours but also a first-team All-Pro nod too. Conklin had reached the pinnacle of his position in his very first year in the NFL, much to the envy of the three other AFC South franchises who all possessed below-average offensive lines while the Titans’ front five in 2016 ranked first in the league per PFF. And, after another impressive 2017 campaign that preceded a 2018 season Conklin spent recovering from a torn ACL, the Spartan graded the road for running back Derrick Henry who got his hands on the NFL rushing yards title for the 2019 regular season. The eighth overall pick started all 16 games at tackle and proved to be a key piece to the Titan’s incredible playoff run, making it to the AFC Championship Game against the eventual Super Bowl-winning Chiefs. However, having interestingly declined Conklin’s fifth-year option the year prior, Tennessee let go of the lineman who entered free agency ahead of the 2020 season where he would find a more than adequate suitor in the Cleveland Browns. In one of his first moves as general manager, Andrew Berry signed the former-Spartan to a three-year, $42 million contract on 20th March in what would prove to be one of the moves of the entire offseason. Making 15 regular season starts in the front five, Conklin played a pivotal role to the franchise’s first playoff berth in 18 years in an effort that would see him, defensive end Myles Garrett and guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller all earn All-Pro honours. In both of his first campaigns on NFL teams, the offensive lineman was named as a first-team All-Pro — quite a journey from being a walk-on player at Michigan State. Still just 26 years of age, Conklin will continue to instil confidence in whichever quarterback he is protecting for the remainder of his professional career – a scary thought for all opposing defensive coordinators and pass rushers. This goes down as another draft pick pay-off where a different franchise is now reaping the benefits. Excellent work by both Jon Robinson and Andrew Berry, but no prizes for guessing which man will be the happier of the two after Conklin’s league-leading 2020 season.


2017 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Christian McCaffrey, Running Back, Stanford (Selected By Carolina Panthers)


Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

Already one of the very best players in the short history of the Carolina Panthers franchise, Christian McCaffrey’s exceptional ability as a running back was evident from his second year of college football. Following a 300-yard rushing effort as a true freshman in 2014 where the back was still finding his feet in the NCAA, the Stanford star’s sophomore season would end up being one of the all-time great dual-threat campaigns from the position. 2,019 yards for eight touchdowns on the ground and 645 yards for a further five scores through the air not only broke almost every record in school history but earned McCaffrey an incredible haul of accolades. First-team All-Pac-12 and consensus All-American honours, both the Paul Hornung and Jet Awards and the titles of Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year as well as AP College Football Player of the Year — finishing second in the 2015 Heisman Trophy voting to Derrick Henry. And after an almost equally impressive junior year where the running back was just 87 yards shy of recording back-to-back 2,000-yards-from-scrimmage seasons — once again being named to the All-Pac-12 first-team despite seeing reduced playing time due to injury — the Cardinal’s confidence and draft stock were as high as ever, leading McCaffrey to make the all-too-easy decision to forego his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Following a fantastic showing at the NFL Combine including a 4.48-second 40-yard dash, the reliable rusher was the second running back off the board after LSU’s Leonard Fournette as then-Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman brought McCaffrey to North Carolina, where he would enjoy a rookie campaign in a backfield situated behind a top-10 offensive line per PFF. And again — much like his college career — after a debut season spent getting to grips with the increased level of competition, the back balled out in his second year to the tune of 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns rushing complemented by 867 yards and six touchdowns receiving, once again leaving the player just shy of 2,000 yards from scrimmage. However, it did earn him second-team All-Pro honours, as the pounding Panther announced himself on the world stage as one of the top ball carriers in the entire league. And what’s more is that he only improved with another year of invaluable pro-level experience under his belt after seeing a significant increase in touches the very next season. Almost 2,400 total yards in 2019 in a 1,000-yard-rushing, 1,000-yard-receiving effort saw McCaffrey named first-team All-Pro and make his first appearance at the Pro Bowl, simultaneously staking his claim as the NFL’s consensus number one running back — a sentiment very difficult to dispute given the player’s prowess over the previous two years behind Carolina’s now below-average offensive line per PFF. The Stanford star unfortunately saw his subsequent campaign cut incredibly short due to injury — featuring in just three games — but not before general manager Marty Hurney signed his franchise talent to a well-deserved four-year, $64 million contract extension to make him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Still just 24 years of age and — quite astonishingly — yet to peak in the pros, the sky really is the limit for Mr. McCaffrey, and we should expect to see him once again set the league on fire this coming September when fully healthy. Great job, Carolina - having the player on your real-life roster that’s most likely going number one overall in all fantasy league drafts this offseason is a very good sign. The only difference is, you’re reaping the actual on-field benefits and get to watch this phenom every other Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. A draft pick pay-off? You better believe it.



2018 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - Roquan Smith, Linebacker, Georgia (Selected By Chicago Bears)

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images


A player with the potential to be one of the latest additions to the list of all-time great Bears linebackers, Roquan Smith made an instant impact in the NFL after being drafted by Chicago. Spending his college days at Georgia, the defender’s on-field ability progressively improved throughout his pre-pro tenure with his junior season by far the most productive and decorated. Following a 95-tackle sophomore year effort, Smith’s 2017 campaign saw the linebacker record 137 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two defended passes, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble, with the Bulldog earning both first-team All-SEC and unanimous All-American honours, as well as the Butkus and Conference Defensive Player of the Year awards as an SEC Champion — a game in which he was named MVP. Possessing no need to further prove himself in the college ranks, the inside linebacker declared for the 2018 NFL Draft where he would find the perfect home for his skillset, playmaking ability and character – Soldier Field. Not wishing to miss out on the chance to add Smith to a potential league-leading defense with the rookie in the mix, Bears general manager Ryan Pace selected the Georgia phenom with the eighth overall pick and made him the latest addition to what would indeed prove to be a very special Chicago side with Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Danny Trevathan all making significant contributions. In his debut season in the pros, Smith piled up 121 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hits, five defended passes and one interception in an effort that saw him not only receive a well-deserved inclusion in the PFWA All-Rookie Team, but also play a key role in the Bears’ number one ranked defense in the NFL for the 2018 season. The Monsters of the Midway also achieved their best regular season record for 12 years as the 12-4 outfit instilled hope in Chicago fans everywhere. And their new star linebacker’s rookie-season showing was no mirage. Smith followed his 2018 campaign with a further two consecutive 100-tackle seasons, solidifying his prowess as one of the greatest inside linebackers in the entire league by earning first-team All-Pro honours this past year. From being a complement to an already-stacked defense in 2018 to one of the standout leaders of the unit just two seasons later, the former Bulldog’s rise to stardom has not gone unnoticed and it seems as though both head coach Matt Nagy and new defensive coordinator Sean Desai have a true franchise player in Smith for the remainder of the 2020s. This one looks like a home run from Chicago’s scouting department, and at just 23 years of age, the scary reality of the situation is that the eighth overall pick is still nowhere near his peak. An A+ for Ryan Pace here — 100% representative of a draft pick pay-off.

2019 NFL Draft’s Eighth Overall Pick - T. J. Hockenson, Tight End, Iowa (Selected By Detroit Lions)


Quinn Harris/Getty Images

One of two Iowa tight ends selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, T. J. Hockenson’s professional career to date has almost perfectly resembled that of his college tenure with regards to the box score. The redshirt freshman recorded just 320 yards and three touchdowns in 2017 as he played second fiddle to sophomore Noah Fant, but it was Hockenson who proved the more proficient pass-catcher of the two the following season. Seven-hundred-sixty yards through the air from 49 receptions — outgaining his fellow tight end by 10 catches and 241 yards in the process — not only earned the Hawkeye first-team All-Big Ten honours and the John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome and Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year awards, but also rose his draft stock to a point where he couldn’t afford to not declare for the NFL draft early. And that’s exactly what Hockenson did; after announcing his decision to forego his remaining two years of collegiate eligibility, the Iowa player entered the 2019 draft as the consensus top tight end with his Hawkeye teammate Fant the next best choice at the position in the entire class. Looking to add another weapon to an offense desperately hoping to revitalise Matthew Stafford’s career, Lions general manager Bob Quinn duly selected Hockenson with the eighth overall pick in a move that would fail to be justified based on the rookie’s debut season showing. In his first year at Ford Field, the pass-catcher’s extreme lack of consistency saw him compile just 367 yards and two touchdowns as Detroit mustered a lowly three wins to represent the least competitive outfit in the NFC North. However, in his second Lions campaign, the eighth overall pick more than doubled his 2019 output when racking up some 723 yards and six touchdowns in an effort that earned Hockenson a nod to the 2020 Pro Bowl — a huge confidence booster for not only the sophomore tight end but also Detroit’s front office. At just 23 years of age and still wet behind the ears, the jury is still very much out on whether the Hawkeye can hack it in the NFL, but the jump he made from year one to year two is certainly encouraging for the Lions faithful. You really want an eighth overall pick to hit the ground running in the pros, so for now, this doesn’t represent a draft pick pay-off. But having started just 23 games in his NFL career so far and still half a decade or so away from reaching his prime, Hockenson still has plenty of time to prove the doubters wrong. Best of luck to you, T. J. — let’s hope the hire of Dan Campbell at head coach (a former tight end himself) and the trade for Jared Goff as Detroit’s new quarterback can turn you into a world-beater.

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