Alas, the NFL Draft has come and gone, and I for one feel reborn, with ample news about my favorite game and the intrigue of hundreds of players who have found new homes on professional teams - at least until cuts start in training camp. Yes, I’ll be feeding off this for a while.
All in all, it was a great draft: Ohio State basically had the top-three picks, the Cleveland Browns got arguably the best offensive tackle and safety in the draft and we got to see Bill Belichck’s dog drafting for the New England Patriots apparently. However, when I posed to a coworker that the Pats’ coach might have a soul after all, he responded “Let’s not go that far.” Just like old times.
But there is, of course, a foil to all this good news.
Which leads us to the topic of this week’s column: What happens when your NFL team drafts a player from a school you don’t like? And even worse...what if that school is Michigan?
I was at the Air Force - Michigan game in 2017, and, unable to hide the fact I am from Ohio (it may have been the Rhinegeist I brought to the tailgate), I naturally got my fair share of heckling from fans of TTUN. Of course, it also may have been my bold and, in retrospect, justified overconfidence that Ohio State would ultimately top an over-hyped Michigan in the culminating game of the season.
One of the things that stood out to me in that early 2017 matchup was the particular hype surrounding a particular player: Donovan Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones was touted as a “do-it-all” receiver who could double as a running back (oh, Michigan and your obsession with multi-position players…). The then-true freshman wide out finished the Air Force game with two catches for 52 yards. He also added a punt return for a touchdown. It was a fine performance for a freshman against a Mountain West opponent, but it was hard to gauge his actual talent beyond his pure speed.
Peoples-Jones continued in that vein for his freshman season, ending the year with 16 catches for 219 yards and not a single receiving touchdown. His sophomore year was an improvement, with 39 catches for 541 yards and seven scores, but his final season in Ann Arbor in 2019 was something of a letdown, as Peoples-Jones finished the year with 33 catches for 404 yards and six touchdowns. He finished his career with a single score against the Buckeyes.
When Peoples-Jones walked off the field in his final outing against Ohio State in November, I thought it was the last time I’d have to think about him. Would he make it in the NFL and occasionally, have to play against Cleveland? Maybe. But it wasn’t a thought that worried me.
How very wrong I was.
There I was Saturday, minding my own business and building a jigsaw puzzle with one eye on the sixth round of the NFL Draft. My husband was on Twitter and as the pick came in from Cleveland, and with our TV on a slight delay from streaming, he announced that I wouldn’t be happy.
My head flipped to the TV just in time to see “Donovan Peoples-Jones” flash across the screen as the 187th pick in the NFL Draft to...the Cleveland Browns.
Not another multi-talented, multi-faceted, multi-position player from Michigan to my beloved Browns.
Well, at least he wasn’t a first-rounder. Not like the last time (cough, Jabrill Peppers).
The pick was widely considered a great value for the Browns, but it’s hard as a biased fan (both against Michigan and for Cleveland) to accept that point.
While there once was a time in my life that I would have abhorred Peoples-Jones purely because he went to Michigan, that time has thankfully passed - though the vestige remains when I think about Tom Brady. Now, however, I’ve realized that the reason I struggle particularly with picks like Peoples-Jones isn’t because they played for TTUN. Rather, it’s because they never beat Ohio State.
Weird? Yeah I know. But how likely is it for a player who can’t beat his rival in college to beat his rivals in a much tougher professional league? No, it would definitely be preferable for a player who crushed my soul in The Game to kill it for my pro team. At least then he would make up for some of the heartache. Just like when Michael Scott brings Danny Cordray to Dunder Mifflin. Perhaps Tee Higgins’ performance on the Bengals will help to cure some of the woes that dual Bengal/Buckeye fans might be feeling now.
We all get frustrated with poor draft picks, but when those picks come from a rival it makes it that much worse for two reasons: (1) you’ve seen him play against your team and (2) you probably still have some bitterness that they opted to go to the rival school in the first place. The former point is the only rational one, and it’s totally valid, because the problem is uncertainty. Here’s a player who we’ve seen mostly in games that he’s lost - at least in the case of Ohio State - Michigan. We have a belief that is based in some evidence (a biased sample, to be fair) that the pick won’t work out.
One key point I’ve neglected to mention up to this moment is the fact Peoples-Jones came to Michigan as a five-star recruit from the famed Cass Tech, also the alma mater of former Ohio State running back Mike Weber. Peoples-Jones was heavily recruited by Ohio State, but opted to stay in his native Michigan. As a result, instead of catching balls from JT Barrett, Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields, he was left with Shea Patterson, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters. One could argue that the fact Peoples-Jones stayed in Michigan, catching balls from these jokers in a system which didn’t allow for a strong passing attack (PS I’ll never fault someone for sticking with the hometown team) is why he ultimately fell to the sixth round.
That scenario is neither here nor there, but it supports my previous assertion that what causes frustration in this situation is the uncertainty: I’ve watched Peoples-Jones play probably more than others (have I mentioned that my darling husband is a Michigan fan? Talk about dissonance) and I can honestly say I don’t know if he’s good. He certainly hasn’t come up large as a playmaker in big games, and didn’t reach the potential expected of him as a former five-star.
I guess the bottom line is that the key to happiness is low expectations. Literally the best case scenario, and the one I hope to be true, is that Peoples-Jones proves me wrong and scores the winning touchdown for the Browns in a Super Bowl sometime in my lifetime.
At the end of the day, I’ll still cheer for him, because if he does well, the team - his new team and the team I’ve loved since I was a youth - does well. And we all win. Yes, even me, who doesn’t even play professional football.
More on the draft next week. Bye for now.