Originally, I didn’t intend on writing about anything football-related this week, since there’ll be a ton of discourse coming out of Indianapolis over the next few days and I have a big recap of the scouting combined planned in video form next week. However, as team personnel and media members get together and information is exchanged, I thought we should take a sober look at the NFL landscape before smokescreens are about to be put out there and people are trying to create different narratives, specifically as it pertains to the draft. Of course, there’ll be legit storylines coming out of this as well, but you can’t allow this new information to change your view too much here.
So I decided to sort of create a blueprint for what I believe the first round may look like on April 27th, based on having watched all the players on tape – without testing numbers influencing our opinion – and understanding how different teams operate, what their needs currently are and how they may approach the offseason. I’ll be walking you all through picks one to 31 (or 32, if you count Miami’s forfeited selection) and break them up into certain segments, which could alter what happens next.
Let’s start with …
The first overall pick:
And there are three options here at the top for the Chicago Bears. Either take the best player on their board – depending on if that aligns with the latter or not – draft another quarterback themselves and likely trade Justin Fields, or trade down with another team, in order to collect additional assets.
To me, with the development Fields showed in year two as a processor of information and more consistent accuracy, along with some of the spectacular plays he made – seemingly on a weekly basis – as a runner, I don’t know if there’s somebody in this class worthy of moving on from what you have, other than a very slim argument for having two extra years of contractual control if you reset the rookie QB clock. I believe Georgia’s interior D-lineman Jalen Carter and Alabama edge defender Will Anderson Jr. are in a tier of their own, in terms of the truly elite non-quarterback prospects, but I don’t see how you turn down a haul from another team to swap spots, considering the tax that comes with making a move for a franchise signal-caller.
So the question really is – who wants to get their guy? The four teams I’d identify in the top-ten – which I don’t see another real contender outside that range – are the Texans at number two, Colts at four, Raiders at seven and Panthers at nine. Unless you’re counting a pretty good two-plus-year stint or so with Derek Carr, who the Raiders released a couple of weeks ago, all of those franchises have been in quarterback hell for like five seasons now. With a miraculous week 18 win over Indy, Houston would now have to pay a premium most likely just to switch spots to where they could’ve easily been picking, and they’ll probably want to pair new head coach DeMeco Ryans with a signal-caller of his choice. Indy of course made things easier on themselves by staying close to the range for a top QB with the way their season ended, to take a different route than cycling through a bunch of limited veterans. Las Vegas will at least be entering a “re-shaping” phase of their roster, but are in a pretty good position cap-wise (third-most cash available right now). And finally, the Panthers after trading away Christian McCaffrey and people calling for whole-sale changes mid-way through the 2022 season, came up a little short of beating the Bucs in week 17, to put them in the driver’s seat for a default NFC South title. It would certainly be interesting to see what things look like, if you drop a rookie quarterback contract into that situation, with an otherwise pretty impressive collection of talent.
Question number two of course is who will be QB1 for these teams? And I think we’re about to see a lot of discourse coming out of Indy, especially once people see Florida’s Anthony Richardson launch 70-yard bombs against air, but I’m still looking at Alabama’s Bryce Young being the pick, once it’s all said and done.
Picks two to four:
2nd – Houston Texas, 3rd – Arizona Cardinals & 4th – Indianapolis Colts
Now, we don’t know exactly what the general consensus about this quarterback class looks like, and based on the information team personnel is willing to share late in the evenings at the limited amount of venues around Lucas Oil stadium throughout this week, if anything there might be less clarity on that situation.
However, with two teams I mentioned in the market for trading up to number one overall – the Texans and Colts – I feel pretty certain that there’ll be at least one more QB drafted in the top-four, while Arizona at number three is the wildcard, in terms of their willingness to move down a few spots, in case they get a call from another QB-hungry front-office.
Most likely to me right now is that we see two go across the first four picks, plus who I believe are pretty clearly the top two overall prospects in this draft – Georgia’s Jalen Carter and Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. We could of course see somebody else emerge still, such as Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson in a similar mold to Travon Walker, ascending all the way to first overall, to some degree because of the freakish performance he put up at the combine last year, but Wilson is recovering from a fractured foot and is expected to wait until his pro day before doing any testing. Clemson’s Myles Murphy is a name that could make some noise this week, but I don’t believe GMs and scouts quite see him on that same level with Carter and Anderson either.
Other than that, I don’t see a pass-catcher or offensive linemen quite on the level of a top-four selection, and while I really like this corner class, I’m not sure if there’s a consensus on who CB1 is for teams – Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. all have their believers, I would think.
Seahawks weirdness at number five?
Let’s get to the really fun part of this early portion! Seattle just put together an amazing rookie class this past season, with another top-ten pick in offensive tackle Charles Cross headlining the group, along with key contributors throughout all three days. What was somewhat surprising however last April was the fact they did stay in line with the consensus board – which isn’t something we’re accustomed to seeing from them. Other than 2021, when they only made three totals selections, with wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge was their top pick on day two, their first-round picks the prior three years were linebacker Jordyn Brooks, defensive end L.J. Collier and running back Rashaad Penny, who were all well outside the top-50 and not even the top prospects available at their respective positions at that point, based on consensus boards.
So in the spirit of “expect the unexpected”, this could really be a turning point for how the first round shakes out. Could the Seahawks be in the quarterback market? We don’t know exactly if and how they can get on the same page with Geno Smith, coming off by far the best season of his career. He made many people believers in 2022 and if he can keep up the level he just showcased, I think he’s worth committing to, but this was a complete outlier year for him in his tenth season. So how long are they willing to bind themselves to him will be very interesting to watch. And if they can find more of a short-term agreement, do they love the idea of a high-ceiling QB like Florida’s Anthony Richardson or Kentucky’s Will Levis?
Most likely to me, based on what this roster looks like, is taking the top defensive lineman left on their board, whether that’s Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson – who is a popular pick for them, based on the type of big, freakish builds John Schneider and Pete Carroll typically covet – Clemson’s Myles Murphy or if they get lucky, or either one of those top two prospects I referenced a couple of times already falling to them, that’s the most logical path to me. But would I be shocked if they went with their favorite corner, traded down or maybe even up? Not in the slightest.
The second half of the top ten:
6th – Detroit Lions (via LAR), 7th – Las Vegas Raiders, 8th – Atlanta Falcons, 9th – Carolina Panthers & 10th – Philadelphia Eagles (via NO)
In terms of the players I expect to come off the board between picks six and ten, it may be pretty much as straight-forward as we get over any five-team stretch. Just like two quarterbacks at least being selected through the first five picks, I don’t see much of a path how either of the other two from this “big four” make it out of the top-ten. I also believe with the NFL’s hunger for high-end edge rushers, the third name from this group will be taken in this range (either Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson or Clemson’s Myles Murphy) and then most likely to me would be two cornerbacks from that trio of Witherspoon, Gonzalez and Porter, since all but one of the teams listed here have a legitimate need at the position. The question will be in which order all of this happens.
The Lions are in an interesting position, because they had some great success on offense this past season (fifth in DVOA as a unit) and could target all three levels of their defense in this spot, but considering they only have this pick due to the Matt Stafford-Jared Goff trade and might be picking in the 20s by this time next year, they may look at this as sort of a golden ticket selection and see if they can make a long-term upgrade at the quarterback position, since they can sit somebody behind Goff for a year. At the same time, if they feel like this model can be carried out longer and they want to amass more resources, potentially with the idea of makubg a move a year from now, they’re in a great spot, because the Raiders, Falcons and Panthers could all be looking to jump each other for QB3. And that’s going to create a fascinating conundrum, if whoever ends up being the final guy left from that four-pack of signal-callers is who those other teams expected or wanted to be here.
Most likely, I think it may be Carolina making that move, so they get their picking ahead of Las Vegas, because their owner is desperate to address that position finally and while I don’t know a ton about Raiders GM Dave Ziegler, it doesn’t seem in line with the “Patriot way” he and Josh McDaniels brought over, to just swap picks with the team one spot ahead of them, in order to not get jumped. Detroit and Philly meanwhile would be prime landing spots for those corners I referenced.
Offensive tackles and wide receivers come off the board:
11th – Tennessee Titans, 12th – Houston Texans (via CLE), 13th – New York Jets, 14th – New England Patriots & 15th – Green Bay Packers
Would I be surprised if an offensive tackle sneaked into the top-ten? No. A wide receiver? Certainly more so. But I think picks ten to 15 is really the sweet spot for both those position. The three highest-ranked OTs I believe will all be picked here. Those names are Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr., Georgia’s Broderick Jones and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski – who some project to move inside to guard, depending on what his arms measure in terms of length.
To me USC’s Jordan Addison in the best wide receiver on tape, with pristine route-running and excellent skills for the position, and TCU’s Quentin Johnston is the type of profile that typically gets taken in the early teens, thanks to his combination of size and explosiveness. I feel pretty good about at least one of those coming off the board in this range, before we get a proper WR run in the 20s.
The Titans, Jets & Packers are all very much in the market for offensive tackles, while the Texans & Patriots really need wide receiver help. Once again, I feel better about a tackle run happening, because the Patriots may lose Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon, while Trent Brown only just played a full season for the first time since 2018 – his first year in New England. Depending on Houston’s long-term plans for their book-ends, they could be in the market, but receiver seems more logical, having the first picking at that position most likely. Tennessee and New York could go that route theoretically, but they used first-rounders on it last year, looking back at eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson and a player that certainly had his flashes when healthy, in Treylon Burks.
The team that could go off the board to some degree here is the Packers. With the way they value versatile defensive backs and Adrian Amos most likely moving on in free agency, Alabama’s Brian Branch will be popular match, and losing a couple of tight-ends in free agency, a guy with the complete skill-set of Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer could definitely make sense too.
The odd 16-to-19 range:
16th – Washington Commanders, 17th – Pittsburgh Steelers, 18th – Detroit Lions & 19th – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
And I don’t want to call the franchises in this area odd, but a couple of teams here have very uncertain quarterback situations. The Commanders are supposedly rolling with Sam Howell, after only starting the final game of his rookie season, while the Bucs’ only guy on the roster currently is a late second-rounder from a couple of years ago in Kyle Trask, who they haven’t really shown an eagerness to get on the field at all. They currently have the least effective cap space available, but I wouldn’t be shocked if GM Jason Licht decided to go all-in for a Tom Brady replacement with one of these veterans, in order to squeeze out what they have remaining on that roster.
Meanwhile, the Steelers haven’t shied away from targeting lesser-valued positions by the modern standard early in drafts of recent years, such as running back, linebacker and maybe to a lesser degree, safety. For the Lions, I have been a big fan of what GM Brad Holmes and company have put together in recent draft classes, heavily investing into the trenches along with a big trade up for a guy they specifically went after in speedster wide receiver Jameson Williams last year. For them of course, a lot of what they do with their own first-round pick will depend on what they do sixth overall – will they have taken a chance on a quarterback, gotten a potential blue-chip defensive player or did they maybe trade down?
Washington and Pittsburgh could very much be targeting the same player here, if one of the top three offensive tackles or corners falls to this range, or if there’s another name from those positions that is high on their respective boards. The Lions at 18 are an interesting spot, because of what I already mentioned, and they could continue to boost the interior line on offense, with an ass-kicker like Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence, or defensively with Clemson’s Bryan Bresee, whose mindset I think would be something head coach Dan Campbell would very much buy into. However, if they did address the defense early on and don’t find a way to bring back Jamaal Williams, they may look at this as a luxury pick with Texas all-world running back Bijan Robinson. That’s a name that may at least on the radar for Tampa Bay, if they do push their chips into the middle with a QB, but otherwise I’d think a freakish version of Anthony Nelson (set to hit free agency) in another former Iowa edge defender like Lukas Van Ness, or a long, physical corner like South Carolina’s Cam Smith or Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, would be in the mold of what they’re usually looking for.
Playoff teams add much-needed pieces:
20th – Seattle Seahawks, 21st – Los Angeles Chargers, 22nd – Baltimore Ravens, 23rd – Minnesota Vikings, 24th – Jacksonville Jaguars, 25th – New York Giants & 26th – Dallas Cowboys
Not taking the Bucs winning the NFC South by default into account here, these are the seven (and it would be eight, if they Dolphins’ pick wasn’t forfeited) teams that did make the playoffs last year, but still really need one big piece to be able to break through. This includes some NFC contenders, that may have overachieved this past season to some degree, but I do see prospects in this range that could be integral pieces right away for these groups.
I believe we could see a substantial wide receiver run start here, as arguably all but the Jags – considering the financial resources they’ve already allocated to that position – are in the market for those guys. Some of my favorite fits include Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt finally giving the Chargers the much-needed speed to take advantage of Justin Herbert’s underutilized ability to push the ball down the field, before they just made the switch at offensive coordinator, Boston College’s Zay Flowers being a legit number one for the Ravens, with the complete skill-set to move all over the formation, and Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba being the consistent chain-mover through the air that the Giants simply don’t have yet.
And it’s not just wideouts, but also two or three tight-ends worthy of being considered in this stretch. I already referenced Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer as more of your traditional Y, but I think Dalton Kincaid’s natural route-running and ball-skills will make him a very intriguing name coming out of Utah and depending on what he’ll run at the combine, Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave’s name has reportedly been shooting up boards. The Jags and Cowboys very well could be looking to replace leaving starters, and the Chargers may want to upgrade as well.
Jacksonville’s biggest need if they let Jawaan Taylor walk in free agency would be right tackle, where they may have a couple of intriguing options, such as Tennessee’s Darnell Wright and Ohio State’s Dawand Jones. For the other three teams, if they don’t go wide receiver, the Seahawks may be a great landing spot for the best center available in my book in John Michael Schmitz (Minnesota), due to the sudden retirement of Austin Blythe just a couple of days ago. The Vikings still need to add more youth to their secondary and could cash in on Alabama’s Brian Branch potentially falling, if teams don’t buy in on a designated nickel defender, or grab a corner. And finally, the Cowboys at this stage of the first round typically like to go for hyper-athletes on the edge, if Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness somehow makes it down here – which I don’t expect – or maybe this is where Georgia Tech’s Keion White comes off the board. They could also go the linebacker route once again though.
Do the Bills end the Bijan Robinson fall at 27th overall?
Let me make this clear right away – Texas running back Bijan Robinson to me is one of the very few elite prospects at his position and he may very well be the third name on my big board, behind only Georgia’s Jalen Carter and Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., if you don’t take positional value into account. With all the analytics saying you should never draft a running back in the first round, people have kind of gone nuts in this discussion, because while there aren’t many situations where I would advocate paying an RB top-of-the-market money, I look at investing an early pick on the position as more of a valuable short-term investment. If you draft Bijan on day one, you have contractual control of a potential All-Pro player for five years, and then you can still franchise-tag him a couple of times, if it makes sense. And looking back at the two names who went in this range two years ago (Najee Harris and Travis Etienne), they’re currently 19th and 20th respectively in AAV (average annual value).
So why the hell would the Texas superstar ever fall this far? Well, with how analytics-driven many of these organizations have become, I do tend to knock running backs down a notch or two in my projections, and more importantly – I simply can’t find a great landing spot for Robinson, when I put together mock drafts. Unless the Panthers make a move for Derek Carr or Aaron Rodgers and think Bijan could be that one last piece all the way at number nine overall, or Howie Roseman shockingly uses that extra first-rounder, because he dreams about what this kid could look like in that offense, there aren’t many spots from that point on that really stand out.
Other than maybe the Lions at 18th overall, I don’t believe any team in the teens has the luxury of picking a back, in part because Detroit has the sixth pick and could be adding even more draft capital. And as fun as a Lamar Jackson-Bijan backfield might be, they would much rather add receiver help and still very much believe in J.K. Dobbins. So really the only the other team I can see the stop the slide in this range are the Cowboys, considering Tony Pollard’s rookie contract just ran out and I can easily see Jerry Jones want that kid from nearby.
For the Bills, while their Divisional Round loss to the Bengals was a harsh reality check, that there are still areas they need to upgrade, before quite breaking all the way through, getting a complete back like Bijan, who can create offense without Josh Allen having to be superman, would be more valuable for them than some other teams. It’s not the way they typically operate, but this may be the one move they feel like could really take them over the top.
Closing out the first round with high-ceiling prospects:
28th – Cincinnati Bengals, 29th – New Orleans Saints (via DEN from SF), 30th – Philadelphia Eagles & 31st – Kansas City Chiefs
In this final four-team stretch, I expect to see multiple names of players that may not be full-time starters in their rookie seasons, but have the potential for big pay-offs down the road. Obviously, the odd side here are the Saints, who received this pick in the Sean Payton trade, after the 49ers originally sent it to Miami, when they moved up for Trey Lance a couple of years ago, who then exchanged it for Bradley Chubb coming over from Denver.
With the Bengals, Eagles and Chiefs, they’re obviously set up to for a Super Bowl hunt, looking at what they have on their respective rosters, but they do lose some pieces that played key roles in getting these teams here. Cincy could be doubling down on the secondary after picking Dax Hill late last year, if they end up letting two(-and-a-half) starters walk, or they may be in the market for one of these talented tight-ends, such as Georgia’s Darnell Washington, who would also basically function as a swing tackle. Philly could be losing up to six or seven starters on defense and while they haven’t traditionally prioritized linebacker, going back to the well with an edge rusher or grabbing a high-traits corner, if they went elsewhere with pick number ten, could make sense. And Kansas City depending on who they bring back on their receiving corp and if they can get on page with left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., could be targeting those areas, but this is sort of a sweet spot for edge rusher, where they may want to add one more guy to help them close out games.
The Saints are in a bit of a weird spot, because they’re already trying to restructure deals again and refuse to accept they should be in somewhat of a rebuild. Realistically, they should simply take the BPA (best player available) approach. If there’s a receiver they like still hanging around, that would definitely be an option, but they’ll most likely let Marcus Davenport walk and love to grab toolsy defensive ends in the first. The three names on the edge for them and the two Super Bowl participants are probably LSU’s B.J. Ojulari, Georgia’s Nolan Smith and Iowa State’s Will McDonald.
This is typically the area for a potential trade back up, if somebody wants to take a gamble on a quarterback, but I just don’t see anybody with the natural talent to command that, due to the massive drop-off from the “big four”. I’d also be interested if we maybe see LB1 come off the board around here.