This week marks the one year anniversary of WWE’s 2016 Draft and more importantly, the re-implementation of the brand split. As has been shown over the last twelve months, a lot can change in a year, especially with so much content and programming to fill weekly. This amount of drastic change can make your prior perspectives and opinions seem almost foolish at times but that isn’t just limited to us fans. ‘Plans change’ as they say and a quick glance at last year’s draft shows how quickly fortunes can alter.
For that reason, I’ve decided to put together a list, all in complete hindsight, as I rank the 10 most valuable picks from last year’s draft. In order to make things interesting though, I’m ranking the talent on their performance relative to where they were actually picked. As a result, last year’s top picks obviously have less chance to be featured high as an elite performance was simply expected of them. However, there are a couple of anomalies along the way and I’ll explain why when we get there. First though, let’s look at some of the performers that didn't quite make the cut.
DISCLAIMER: you all are almost certain to disagree with my list and most will likely find parts of it to be offensive but just know that I have a proven history of being wrong so don’t worry yourself too much.
Neville (26th Pick)
Until mid-December, Neville was basically a non-factor on the flagship show and considering his above average place in the draft, he’d have to be considered a disappointment at that point in time. Fortunately, Neville’s career changed dramatically before 2016’s close as he turned heel and joined the Cruiserweight ranks. It wasn't long before Neville found himself as the division champion and he’s held the belt admirably since, putting on great matches regularly even if not always to tremendous fanfare. Neville’s impact wasn't enough to make the top 10 but his work as the Cruiserweight centerpiece has certainly been impressive regardless.
Cesaro and Sheamus (28th and 30th Picks Respectively)
The current RAW Tag Team Champions fell in the middle of the pack during last year’s draft but a rivalry and then eventual alliance with each other would elevate both in importance and value to the flagship show. The two hard-hitting Europeans put on thrilling encounters as opposition and have become a strong team since, both as heels and as babyfaces. As a unit Cesaro and Sheamus had some memorable matches opposite The New Day and eventually dethroned them, ending their record-breaking tag title reign in the process. Unfortunately, they fall just short of the top 10 because they weren't picked too low to begin with but nonetheless, their consistency on RAW should be commended.
Naomi (39th Pick)
The current SmackDown Women’s Champion was very close to making the list but unfortunately came just outside in the end. Since last year’s draft, Naomi has grown quite a bit both as a performer and as an overall asset to the women’s division. Armed with a new gimmick that quickly caught fire, Naomi’s popularity surged and she eventually won the brand’s title on two occasions. I’ve enjoyed Naomi’s in-ring work in 2017 but rightly or wrongly, she’s rarely been the focus of her division, even as the champion. If she had have been more at the center of things regularly she’d easily make the list but as things stand, she’s not felt quite important enough to warrant a spot. Her progress has still been solid either way though.
10. Carmella (59th Pick)
The final pick in last year’s draft has recently hit an incredible stride, becoming the first ever Ms. Money in the Bank and gaining immense momentum within the last two months. After a rough first month as a babyface, a heel turn helped Carmella tremendously and she immediately entered a feud with Nikki Bella that really spotlighted her confidence on the microphone. The program quickly established Carmella as one of the top female talkers as she carried much of it with her personality and promo ability. At Backlash 2016, Carmella was runner up in the Six-Pack Challenge for the vacant SmackDown Women’s title and at times, seemed set to fill the top heel role.
As things worked out though, Alexa Bliss caught fire as Becky Lynch’s first title challenger and stole that position. This did seem to stall Carmella’s progress somewhat but now with Bliss on RAW, ‘The Princess of Staten Island’ has taken the opportunities given to her with both hands and is undeniably the top female heel on the blue brand. The future is bright for the NXT alumnus and with the Money in the Bank briefcase in her clutches, the SmackDown title isn’t too far away.
9. The Usos (32nd Pick)
I sense this one could be somewhat controversial but in my mind, this last year has been a pivotal one in Jimmy and Jey’s careers. At the time of the 2016 Draft, The Usos were a directionless babyface tag team. Fairly or unfairly, the audience has turned on the pair and their fall was reflected by their place in the draft. 32nd isn’t a terrible spot but considering that The Usos were once the company’s number one team, it did seem indicative of their struggles. Fortunately, a heel turn soon followed their arrival on SmackDown Live and now they are arguably in the midst of the best run of their careers.
The only reason the unit isn't higher is because they weren't always as prominently featured but since focusing on American Alpha in February of this year, the duo has really caught fire. For years now great matches have been the norm for Jimmy and Jey but it’s their promo work that has really impressed since turning heel. In a product filled with characters that seem stilted and contrived, The Usos come across as authentic, natural and believable. For the last five months Jimmy and Jey have been excellent and in my view, are currently the most well-rounded tag team in the whole industry.
8. Roman Reigns (6th Pick)
At the time of last year’s draft, Roman Reigns was in the middle of his Wellness Policy suspension and that likely lowered his spot slightly. However, I feel he has to be on this list as most of the time, Reigns has very much felt like a number one pick regardless of his program at the time. ‘The Big Dog’s first real feud after the brand split was a solid affair with Rusev (Machka) that delivered good matches even if it lacked real intrigue at times. After that Reigns entered the title picture and battled with Kevin Owens for a couple of months before then becoming Braun Strowman’s full-time test dummy, fighting regularly with the ‘Monster Among Men’ and helping him have the matches of his career thus far. Oh yeah and he retired The Undertaker in there somewhere too.
I understand that some will read that recap and feel that it’s lacking something truly memorable (as far as quality) but to me, Reigns belongs on this list due to his incredible consistency and reliability. Reigns’ has a knack of giving people their best matches and on countless occasions over the last year has had the best match on individual RAW episodes. Whether you love him or hate him, Reigns is essential to the flagship show and that’s more than you can say for his ex-Shield brothers that came before him in the draft. Rollins and Ambrose are great but they’ve not been as consistent and neither has felt as regularly important as ‘The Big Dog’.
I actually think that you’ll get even better results from Reigns as he continues to get new opponents but for now his spot here seems reasonable in my mind as even though he hasn't held the Universal title even once, he’s very much come across as the franchise player.
7. AJ Styles (4th Pick)
Okay, hang on let me explain myself. AJ Styles being so low on this list isn’t a criticism of him but instead a credit to him. AJ was picked fourth overall and 2nd for SmackDown Live so elite performances were expected of him but he’s been so exceptional that he belongs on this list regardless. From August to WrestleMania, AJ Styles was the blue brand’s centerpiece and performed at an unparalleled level in the ring. AJ’s rise to the WWE title and his subsequent reign truly established him in history as one of the all-time greats as he had memorable matches with Dean Ambrose and especially John Cena.
Styles greatest accomplishment following the draft was likely his WrestleMania match with Shane McMahon though. After criticism from the ‘hardcore’ fanbase, Styles led McMahon to a match of the night contender in a showing that highlighted how special of a performer he really is. Since WrestleMania, Styles did seem to have lost some steam before capturing the US title at MSG but he simply had to be recognized on this list in some way because he played such a vital part in SmackDown’s initial success after the draft. He was the blue brand’s 2nd pick but still somehow exceeded expectations and quickly became one of the most popular talents in the whole company.
6. Sasha Banks (13th Pick)
‘The Boss’ was the 2nd highest picked female performer but overall came in 13th and for my money, her work from July through to December greatly exceeds that spot. The Charlotte Flair-Sasha Banks feud wasn't without flaws but it still can’t be understated how important much of it really did feel. On two occasions the pair main-evented RAW in great matches and also absolutely stole the show on the first episode following the brand split. Those three matches were some of the best on television throughout all of 2016 and whilst their PPV encounters weren't quite as spectacular, they did main event a PPV together inside Hell in a Cell and that achievement is indicative of their performances.
Charlotte can’t be on this list for me as she simply did what was expected considering her position as the overall 3rd pick but in my view, Banks did enough in that run to earn a spot on the list. The only reason she isn’t higher is that since the end of that feud she’s felt much less important but things do seem to be changing as of late which is a good sign for all involved in my opinion. Banks is one of the company’s most popular superstars regardless of gender and if Great Balls of Fire was anything to go by, has a long time left at the top.
5. The Miz (17th Pick)
In kayfabe, Miz’s status as Intercontinental Champion elevated his spot in the draft but even still I think it’s fair to say that he massively exceeded expectations. Just one month after the draft Miz cut a memorable promo on Talking Smack and the next week began a superb feud with Dolph Ziggler. Those seven days changed Miz’s career dramatically as he and Dolph went on to go back and forth for months in memorable matches on SmackDown. After that Miz, along with Maryse, did some brilliant work in building to a mix-tag WrestleMania match against John Cena and Nikki Bella. Miz’s time on the blue brand was hugely successful and he’s been solid since moving to RAW too, even if not quite as enthralling.
Miz would probably be higher on this list but he was picked relatively early in the original draft anyway and more than that, he was never quite the top guy on his brand. It’s undeniable that Miz felt like a valuable anchor for SmackDown but he was never consistently the show’s centerpiece and that limits his place on this list slightly. Nonetheless, Miz’s run in the last year has made for some great television and overall is an absolute testament to him as a constantly improving performer. The perception surrounding Miz has dramatically changed and that’s a credit to his hard work.
4. Braun Strowman (48th pick)
You could definitely make the argument that Braun Strowman belongs at number one on this list. The idea of a Strowman singles push wasn't universally well received but after a few months of fun squash matches, “The Monster Among Men” really hit his stride, especially when matched with Roman Reigns early this year. Strowman was also helped by a short program with Sami Zayn at the end of 2016 but it has been Reigns that’s really brought the best out of the Wyatt Family alumnus. For months now Roman and Strowman have gone back and forth with the beloved Braun dramatically improving every week.
Most recently, Strowman survived almost guaranteed death following his Ambulance match at Great Balls of Fire and the future certainly looks bright with a Universal title run seemingly inevitable. As the 48th pick, Braun was obviously an absolute steal and that’s a sign of his immense improvement over the last year. However, I can’t put Strowman any higher on this list simply because it took him a while to get going and he spent quite some time winning squash matches which whilst fun, weren't always exactly riveting television.
3. Chris Jericho (15th pick)
At the time of last year’s draft, Chris Jericho had seemingly just begun to really re-find his groove as an entertaining heel character. Feuds with AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose had made for some solid matches and segments but it was in the month leading up to the draft that Jericho’s latest incarnation really started finding its shape. ‘Y2J’ was certainly a solid addition to RAW as the 15th pick but I’m not sure anyone knew what was to come for the future Hall of Famer, well other than the man himself I assume.
An alliance with Kevin Owens started off as a promising pairing but was soon elevated in importance as KO captured the Universal Title in August 2016. Jericho would spend the next six months protecting his new best friend at every turn and shared rivals with the champion too. It’s not hyperbole to say that Jericho was the most entertaining aspect of RAW for quite some time, especially during the rough few months RAW suffered through following the split. Jericho’s ability to reinvent himself emerged once again as he made the ‘List of Jericho’ more popular than most of the actual performers wrestling every week.
Jericho’s friendship with Owens culminated at the memorable “Festival of Friendship” as the dastardly ‘Prizefighter’ betrayed Jericho and left him lying in violent fashion. This led to a trilogy of enjoyable matches with KO before Jericho left for a break at the end of April. Jericho’s run following the draft is one of his best and though he was picked relatively high, that alone earns him a spot near the top of this list.
2. Alexa Bliss (47th pick)
I think the collective response to Alexa Bliss being called up to SmackDown was “oh, well that’s pretty cool.” Since turning heel a year prior, Bliss had impressed people with her dynamic character work and seemed to be taking steps forward in the ring with every showing. Some likely even felt that Bliss had potential to be a major player down the line. However, I don’t think anyone expected Alexa to ascend the division in such dramatic fashion and after just one year on the main roster, “The Goddess” may now be the number one female on the whole main roster.
Alexa’s ability on the microphone allowed her to immediately stand out on SmackDown and after being eliminated first in the Backlash Six-Pack Challenge, the diminutive Bliss would massively maximize her opportunities in a feud with division champion Becky Lynch. After really shining as a character Bliss was undeniable and she won the title twice before moving to RAW a week after WrestleMania. Any doubts about how Alexa would translate have since vanished with Bliss taking the RAW title and becoming the absolute centerpiece on the flagship brand, even if there have been some bumps along the way.
In a single year Alexa has become the first female to hold both brand’s titles and considering her spot as the 47th pick, that really is an incredibly impressive feat. Bliss very well could’ve been 1st on this list but my one knock on her is that unlike the person occupying that spot, she’s never really felt consistently pivotal to the show as a whole. Though she’s been in every title match possible since arriving, Alexa has rarely opened or closed broadcasts and whilst there’s no shame in that, it’s just cost her the top spot on this occasion. Regardless of that minor critique though, Alexa has had an incredible year and is an absolute credit to the Performance Centre.
1. Kevin Owens (18th pick)
When I began this process I really didn't expect Kevin Owens to come in high at all, let alone in the number one spot. The truth is though, Owens spent most of his time on RAW as the top heel on the show, regularly cut opening promos and having main event matches. Jericho rightly gets credit for his entertaining shenanigans in the Jeri-KO double act but Owens was great too and showed the capability to both play the straight man as well as the ability to be comedic himself. You could argue that much of the last year hasn't actually been Owens best work but whether it be overly long promos or feuds with struggling babyfaces, KO has regularly made the most out of what he was given.
For quite some time Owens was central to almost everything on RAW and would regularly feature in multiple segments weekly, most of which were very entertaining. After his almost seven-month Universal title reign come to an end, Owens then completed his story with Jericho by coming out the victor in a fun trilogy of matches over the United States title. Though it was for the secondary title, Owens’ program with Jericho was still very much an integral part of the brand’s weekly television, especially leading up to WrestleMania. Interestingly, since moving to SmackDown Owens has changed his character slightly by becoming ‘The New Face of America’.
Though I’d argue that Owens is capable of a character much more interesting than an Anti-American heel, it has garnered the Canadian some actual heat and that’s been an issue in the past. Though he recently dropped the US title to AJ Styles on a Madison Square Garden live event, Owens has been a major player on the blue brand and is featured in a big way every single week. If you ask me that’s pretty damn impressive for a man that was picked 18th in the draft. It’s for those reasons that for my money, Kevin Owens was the most valuable pick of the 2016 draft.
Please comment any thoughts below or even share your own personal top 10 lists! Or just tweet me abuse on Twitter like many others already do. @JoeHulbert5 on Twitter in case you were wondering by the way, guys.