What a difference a year makes.
When Kenny Herzog and I did our 2015 WWE Draft, we complained that the lack of roster depth made picking 20 wrestlers each a challenge. Now, WWE’s ranks are so replete with talent that we could’ve gone into a second round. Thanks to a string of successful NXT callups and high-profile indie signings, it’s not a stretch to call WWE’s current lineup the most loaded in recent wrestling history. And you get the feeling they’re not done stocking up just yet.
What’s more, unlike last year, the reason for even doing a draft – rebuilding the rosters on Raw and SmackDown – doesn’t seem like a stretch. After all, with Shane and Stephanie McMahon jousting for TV time, a WWE brand split could be happening any day now. Quite possibly Monday. What a time to be alive.
So with the NFL draft set to kick off tomorrow in Chicago, we’re back to take another stab at shaking up the WWE ranks. The rules remained the same – we each serve as GM for one brand, everyone on the WWE roster is available, a tag team only counts as one pick and NXT is fair game, too – but everything else has changed. For the better.
Raw: #1, Kevin Owens
Montgomery: There are probably other guys I should take with the first overall pick, though most of them are either A) hurt, or B) Roman Reigns. So instead, I’m building my brand around the wrestler I’ve enjoyed watching the most, KO, who hasn’t even been on the main roster for a year but has already established himself as the best heel in the company, a durable worker, a dependable champ, a scintillating promo and a social media assassin. Also, anyone who hates Michael Cole this much is always welcome on my roster.
SmackDown: #1, Seth Rollins
Herzog: He’s the only guy guaranteed to shake up the main-event scene when he returns, and I have a feeling his initial entrance – and the pop he gets – will help dictate whether he returns as hero or villain. Either way, Rollins isn’t even 30 years old, yet he’s already established himself as one of the most valuable assets in WWE, as evidenced by how large his absence has felt. Does this recent injury worry me about his future health? Nah. That’s what CrossFit and Chipotle are for.
Raw: #2, A.J. Styles
Sure, his age (38) and injury history (whatever happened to his bad back?) scare me, but both are byproducts of an indie career that spans nearly two decades – and the cost of earning a reputation as one of the best wrestlers on the planet. No one ever doubted the Phenomenal One’s talents, but there were genuine concerns about how he’d be received by WWE fans unfamiliar with his work…to say nothing of Vince McMahon’s perceived bias against stars developed outside his singular system (how’d Sting’s WWE run turn out again?) But so far, so good – perplexing ‘Mania loss to Chris Jericho aside, Styles has a shot at Roman Reigns’ title this Sunday at Payback – and with his Bullet Club mates just making their presence felt, his future prospects appear bright.
SmackDown: #2, New Day
This is actually kind of risky, given that Enzo and Cass seem destined for a run with the Tag Team belts soon, but there’s still no more universally beloved, must-see troupe of shameless entertainers than New Day – even if they’ve put on roughly three memorable matches since their transformation into contemporary carnival barkers.
Raw: #3, Roman Reigns
I know I just badmouthed him, but Raw can’t just be Ring of Honor, so the Roman Empire shall be built on my brand. And even if I’m making this pick begrudgingly, I can’t deny that Reigns’ recent run as WWE World Heavyweight Champ has had glimmers of greatness – specifically, the gradual return to his unapologetic, asskicker roots. Couple that with his talents in the ring (he’s a much better worker than he’s given credit for), and there’s no denying Reigns may finally be putting all the pieces together. He’s not a bad guy, he’s not a good guy, he’s the guy, so hate him all you want…he’s not going anywhere.
SmackDown: #3, John Cena
He’s probably only got a couple full-time years left, but since these picks only need to justify themselves for the next 12 months, and Mr. Attitude Adjustment is on the mend and making his way back to the fray, I only have four words to say about my number-three selection: The Champ. Is. Here!
Raw: #4, Dean Ambrose
He’s spent the past year working very hard, but has very little to show for it – yet through it all, the Lunatic Fringe has given us glimpses of what could be. Whether it was winning the IC belt from Kevin Owns at TLC, or, most notably, in title losses to Seth Rollins at Money in the Bank and Triple H at Roadblock, Ambrose has taken fans on a wild ride – they want to believe in him, and on Raw, they’ll finally have a reason to.
SmackDown: #4, Charlotte
There’s virtually no continuity to the women’s ranks from month to month, but Charlotte sure has the makings of a constant force, regardless of her pedigree (which is all the more reason to hope her antic father recedes back into the shadows sooner than later). It’s impossible to picture the next five years of female competition without Charlotte setting the pace.
Raw: #5, Sasha Banks
You can call Charlotte the future of the women’s division if you want, but I’m investing in Banks. And based on the constant “We want Sasha” chants you hear on TV, the WWE universe is doing the same. From her string of memorable matches in NXT to her current undefeated run on the main roster, it’s only a matter of time before she’s holding the Women’s Championship – and from there, the sky is the limit. She’s already got the chops, the attitude and the character, so you’d better get ready to bow down to the Boss.
SmackDown: #5, Finn Bálor
He’s keeping us on our toes about an inevitable main-roster callup, but Bálor is no Breeze (sorry, Tyler). His arrival will have an immediate impact on both brands’ moving parts, but moreover, his entrance theatrics and broad appeal (pun partially intended) will ensure him plenty of screen time to keep eyes glued to the tube and merch flying off the shelves.
Raw: #6, Becky Lynch
She’s been a revelation on the main roster, and her feud with Charlotte over the Women’s Championship has arguably been the most cohesive and compelling in all of WWE. Sure, she’s come up short so far, but that’s what good babyfaces do, because it only makes their inevitable triumph that much sweeter. Plus, the prospects of her working matches with Sasha Banks on Raw for the next year are enough to make any wrestling fan giddy.
SmackDown: #6, Brock Lesnar
I don’t care if he’s only contracted to appear on my show twice a year. Or if his stock has suddenly sagged after a lackluster WrestleMania. For that matter, I’m indifferent to how the recent personnel shakeup shifts Lesnar’s positioning in the main-event picture. He is the Beast, he’s the most compelling crossover athlete in company history and he comes with a sidekick who happens to be the best talker in the biz and one of wrestling’s most beloved rebel businessmen. I couldn’t live with myself watching him stalk his latest prey on a rival broadcast.
Raw: #7, Cesaro
The Swiss Superman has overcome bad booking and even worse luck – most recently, a shoulder injury that had him on the shelf from November until earlier this month – yet the past year has proven he’s a top commodity, the rare wrestler who relies less on a gimmick and more on his sterling in-ring work to get himself over with fans. Maybe he wins the Intercontinental Championship this Sunday at Payback, but even if he comes up short, every roster needs guys capable of working overtime, and Cesaro is certainly up to the task. He can keep the breakaway suits, too. Those are awesome.
SmackDown: #7, Paige
You just get the sense that, even when she’s not battling for a belt, Paige is always going to be on the precipice of her next shot. She’s still so young, and has so much room to grow creatively as a vixen or villain. Having her on your squad is akin to signing an elite sixth (wo)man who can effortlessly fit into the starting configuration when her number’s called.
Raw: #8, Sami Zayn
If there’s a theme to my draft so far, it’s workrate above all else. Zayn is one of the best in the world whenever he steps inside the ring, and while an injury kept him from doing that for months, he’s made a seamless transition from NXT to WWE proper, and has been putting out standout matches each week. As anyone who caught his match with Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver: Dallas earlier this month will attest, he’s capable of thrilling stuff, and with his simmering feud with Kevin Owens about to boil over yet again, mainstream audiences will soon second the Full Sail crowd’s testimonials.
SmackDown: #8, Big Cass
Prediction: Within two years, Enzo Amore is comedy jobbing in the midcard while Cass is slinging Heavyweight bling over his shoulder. After all, he’s seven feet tall…and you can’t teach that. Granted, this draft only takes us through this time next year, but I’m hedging my bets and simply can’t abide having Amore – the most irksome character I can remember – anywhere near my weekly show.
Raw: #9, The Wyatt Family
Four guys with one pick? Now that’s what I call value. Before a calf injury sidelined him, Bray Wyatt appeared poised to finally climb out of WWE purgatory (I know, we’ve heard that one before) and fellow wounded worker Luke Harper is as underutilized as they come. Sure, Erick Rowan has stalled out – remember when he was a genius vintner? – and Braun Strowman is still pretty green, but I need some monsters to dominate both the tag and singles divisions, and they don’t come more monstrous than the Wyatts.
SmackDown: #9, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson
Any way you slice it, their arrival matters. Tag champs, adversaries/allies of A.J. Styles, adversaries/allies of Finn Bálor – they’re a different animal than homegrown tandems like Enzo and Cass or the Vaudevillains (ugh), but are gonna cause a ruckus now that they’ve been unleashed.
Raw: #10, Shinsuke Nakamura
Who knows how much longer he’ll linger in NXT – recent developments with the promotion’s top title suggest it could be longer than most would prefer – but whenever the King of Strong Style makes his main roster debut, watch out. One of the most beloved Japanese stars in recent memory, he’s got talent and charisma to spare, and someday soon, he’ll shine on Raw. Expect him to do shit like this to the competition.
SmackDown: #10, Asuka
I blatantly made this choice to counter Nakamura, which seems reductive, since aside from both being in NXT and hailing from Japan, they basically exist in mutual exclusivity. But she’s also badass and like nothing and no one in the women’s division, and has a menacing, exotic aura that would serve my SmackDown well.
Raw: #11, Bayley
With Banks and Bex already in the fold, adding the Hugster to my women’s division almost seems unfair. When she beat the Boss for the NXT Women’s Championship at TakeOver: Brooklyn, some doubted that her happy-go-lucky gimmick could convincingly carry the belt, but then she bested the Boss in an epic Iron Man Match at TakeOver: Respect, carried the likes of Nia Jax, Eva Marie (!!!) and Carmella to solid showings and stood toe-to-toe with Asuka at TakeOver: Dallas. What’s more, she’s remained one of (if not the) biggest star in the brand, and her callup seems a mere formality at this point. Dismiss Bayley at your own peril – she’s on a mission.
Smackdown: #11, Randy Orton
At this point, it’s worth having the Apex Predator on retainer just for the buzz he creates upon is tri-annual returns from injury and/or suspension. And I apparently am also intent on gathering WWE’s most lusted-after male talent. Make of that what you will.
Raw: #12, Rusev
He’s spent the past year lilting from a limp feud to an even limper faction, but somehow, the Bulgarian Brute continues to spin gold out of pure shit. (Remember Dog Ziggler? Or the time he declared himself the new TV Champion? Or his all-too-brief Bodyslam Challenge?) That’s probably because he’s remained committed to his character – quiet as it’s kept, he’s remained one of the best heels on the roster – and continued to shine in the ring as a big man capable of amazing athletic feats. Now that he’s back with the Ravishing Russian, (I think?) perhaps his fortunes will improve. And, hey, who hasn’t dreamed of pulling a gun on Dolph Ziggler?
SmackDown: #12, Sheamus
He’s not quite in that lusted-after category, nor is it likely he’ll snag the championship again anytime soon. He is, however, thriving as a heel, and it’s always important to have big-name guys that everyone loves to hate nearly as much as they relish being loathed.
Raw: #13, Chris Jericho
So long as he stays away from the New Day (“Rooty Tooty Booty” shall forever besmirch Y2J’s name), I’ve admired Jericho’s current run in WWE, and he’s done fantastic work as a heel in feuds with A.J. Styles and Dean Ambrose. Whether he’s sparring with live crowds or teaming with Kevin Owens, bad-guy Chris is by far the most compelling version of the veteran, and he seems perfectly comfortable in the role. Now if only he’d ditch the scarf.
SmackDown: #13, Triple H
Not so much as Mr. Authority, but as part-time program headliner the Game. Even if hearing his assorted entrance themes just makes me sad and reflective about Lemmy’s death.
Raw: #14, Lucha Dragons
I don’t have a traditional tag team on my roster, and while I really wanted the Realest Guys (I don’t share Kenny’s distaste for Enzo Amore), I’ll settle for the high-flying Dragons, who can thrill and – when Sin Cara is in the ring – occasionally chill. They’re former NXT Tag champs, and the kids go crazy for ’em. Oh, and I get the reigning United States Champion, too. Remember when that title was a thing? On my Raw, I’d refashion it as a de facto Cruiserweight strap and let Kalisto defend it each week.
SmackDown: #14, Baron Corbin
It sure seems like they have plans for the big guy (no offense, Ryback), although you could argue that the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal trophy is ostensibly WWE’s Madden Curse. Corbin’s got a presence though, and while his hairline may be receding, his skills are only first coming to the fore.
Raw: #15, Samoa Joe
All hail the reigning NXT Champion, who defeated Finn Bálor at a house show last week to finally make it to the top of the promotion. Up next? A dominant run on the main roster, a fitting cap to an indie career that stretches back some 15 years, and a testament to Joe’s willingness to adapt to WWE’s style. His matches only keep getting better, and unlike Bray Wyatt or the Undertaker, he doesn’t have to rely on smoke and mirrors to be truly terrifying.
SmackDown: #15, Nikki Bella
It’s unclear how long a run the lone remaining active Bella has in her when she comes back, but there’s no way she’s not going to be front and center upon picking up where she left off. And she’ll probably get a babyface heroine’s welcome to boot, possibly coming full circle in a renewed rivalry against Charlotte. Personally, I’d classify this pick as a steal.
Raw: #16, The Usos
Hey, at this point, it was either them or the Dudley Boyz. When in doubt, go with the guys who are probably on a group text with Roman Reigns and the Rock right now. They’re capable of much more than WWE is currently giving them – it seems all they’re waiting for is the right team to go to war with.
SmackDown: #16, The Miz
I love the guy. And apparently I’m not alone, since he’s still winning titles, has remained a fixture on our screens via MizTV and stands to benefit from myriad storyline angles now that he’s been paired with wife Maryse. I would suggest that Mr. Mizanin is, in fact, awesome, and certainly worthy of a latter-quarter selection in the draft.
Raw: #17, Alberto Del Rio
WWE has mishandled this guy ever since he returned at Hell in a Cell with Zeb Colter in tow, to the point where his dominant win over John Cena to take the U.S. title meant next to nothing. From there, he was summarily stuck in the League of Nations, though with that stable apparently on its last legs, maybe ADR will finally find his footing. I’m probably in the minority of people who find his in-ring work compelling, if not occasionally frightening, and wrestling can always use a wild card or two.
SmackDown: #17, Neville
I’m sure Neville wouldn’t agree, but time off to rehab might have been a blessing in disguise. The Man Gravity Forgot was coming down to earth quick after an electric first few months in the big time. The crowd still loves watching him go, so if WWE lets him ditch the superhero silliness and reemerge sporting an edge and an ax to grind, he could serve as an essential bridge between the old guard and new blood. Plus, I sorely need him to revitalize my “Move of the Night” feature on our weekly Raw recaps.
Raw: #18, Dolph Ziggler
Fine, I’ll take Dolph.
SmackDown: #18, Primo and Epico
I don’t exactly know where these tourism PSAs are headed, but I like Primo and Epico being permitted to have some more fun and be true to their heritage, and there’s a lot of compelling ways that this gimmick could riff on our government’s reluctance to help resuscitate debt-ravaged Puerto Rico. Hey, if New Day could get over…
Raw: #19, Natalya
She takes on Charlotte for the Women’s Championship this Sunday at Payback, so perhaps Nattie will actually be given some time to shine outside of Total Divas (where, let’s be honest, she’s been great). She’s respected backstage and gets a good response from the crowds despite limited appearances, so I’d turn her loose with Banks, Bex and Bayley and see what happens.
SmackDown: #19, Emma
Far as makeovers with moxy go, Neville could take a cue from fellow NXT alum Emma. After some legal snafus and a demotion back down to developmental, Emma transformed into a woman scorned by her descent into self-parody and reborn with a future so bright it did, indeed, necessitate shades. I don’t know where she realistically fits it among the crowded women’s field, but ever since she’s been granted a second chance, she’s done nothing but stand out.
Raw, #20: American Alpha
The best tag team in WWE isn’t even in WWE just yet, but there’s no denying that Jason Jordan and Chad Gable have captured lightning in a bottle since being thrown together last summer, and their recent Tag Team title win over the Revival (who are also great) at TakeOver: Dallas suggests WWE proper has taken notice. On their own, both men could be superstars, but as a team, they’re an unstoppable mix of talent and charisma – it’s only a matter of time until they’re challenging for the belts on Raw.
SmackDown, #20: The Undertaker
You can have the Rock (whomever “you” might be, since neither of us actually picked Mr. Johnson). If ‘Taker competes in several PPVs like he did this past calendar year, then he’ll prove more than worthy of my 20th and final slot, even if – a la Lesnar – he lost a bit of luster after that disastrous past road to (and through) ‘Mania. After all, there’s only so deep you can bury a dead man.