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N.F.L. Executives Are Predicting a Surprise Near the Top of This Year’s Draft

SportN.F.L. Executives Are Predicting a Surprise Near the Top of This Year’s Draft

One year ago, NFL executives emerged from the scouting combine thinking the Chicago Bears were open to trading the first pick in the draft. They were right. This year, sentiment from NFL front offices holds that the Bears will use the top pick, acquired from the Carolina Panthers one year ago next week, on USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

Checking in with decision-makers this time of year provides a snapshot of their expectations coming out of the combine. What they think might happen in early March evolves as the draft nears, partly because coaches become more involved in the process. But I find value in taking a snapshot to establish a baseline.

I’ve put together a rough top 10 based on conversations with six executives during and after the combine. Clear themes emerged for quarterbacks, offensive linemen and receivers, with some intrigue surrounding a QB prospect whom teams haven’t assessed as fully.

Last year, execs correctly projected seven of the top 10 players selected. Bijan Robinson, Jalen Carter and Darnell Wright were the three players landing in the actual top 10 without appearing in the March 2023 projection.

Execs narrowly missed on offensive lineman Peter Skoronski (Tennessee picked him 11th). They missed on cornerback Christian Gonzalez, who went 17th to New England. And they whiffed on quarterback Will Levis, who was not selected until the 33rd slot — a reminder that when QBs fall, they can plummet, because only a subset of teams will consider one early in a given year.

This year, the general theme was for quarterbacks to go first, then offensive linemen, then wide receivers, with some overlap between those two final positions. Only a couple of defensive players made the projected top 10.

We are not projecting potential trades below because there are too many possibilities. Finding logical homes for the highest-ranked players based on the order as it stands today captures the general feel at the moment.

Four players appeared in the top 10 on all six ballots: Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and Joe Alt.

Five players appeared on five of six ballots: Dallas Turner, Marvin Harrison Jr., Rome Odunze, Olu Fashanu and Malik Nabers.

JC Latham appeared on four ballots. Jared Verse appeared on three. Brock Bowers appeared on two. Chop Robinson and Byron Murphy II each appeared on one.

The top 10 picks below have been formed from a consensus of the six ballots. Nabers and Latham were not selected in the top 10 because there was no consensus on where either would land, but they would be part of any consensus top 10 overall.

Most also thought J.J. McCarthy would be selected among the top 10, probably to a team that traded up, such as the Denver Broncos. But none of the six execs penciled him in for one of the teams already picking in the top 10, at least not yet.

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1. Chicago Bears: Caleb Williams, QB, USC

Vote distribution: Williams 6

All six execs had the Bears selecting Williams and trading incumbent starter Justin Fields. All endorsed Chicago heading down this path.

“I would be evaluating the other quarterbacks like crazy right now and saying, ‘What if I moved down to two or three and got a historic return?’” one of the execs said. “Would I still be getting a franchise quarterback?”

The strongest concern voiced regarding Williams was his tendency to hold onto the ball longer than is ideal for a timing-based offense. In a worst-case scenario, that could lead to more third-and-long situations, robbing an offense of consistency. But the feeling among execs was that Chicago should not hesitate in making Williams the first selection.

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2. Washington Commanders: Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU

Vote distribution: Daniels 5, Maye 1

Five of six execs had Daniels heading to Washington in this slot. One of the five initially had Maye, then changed to Daniels a few days later.

“I think people struggle with Maye’s mechanics,” this exec said.

The one holdout for Maye in this slot said he heard Commanders general manager Adam Peters was “really into” Maye. The fit could be appealing. Maye and incumbent Commanders starter Sam Howell were teammates at North Carolina. Howell could open the 2024 season as the starter if the Commanders wanted to give Maye time to assimilate.

Another exec left open the possibility that Michigan’s McCarthy could compete with Daniels and Maye for this slot.

“If he throws well,” this exec said of McCarthy, “he is competing for the No. 2 spot. I don’t see him overtaking them, though.”

The Athletic’s Randy Mueller predicted months ago that McCarthy could rise into the top five as teams and specifically coaches learned more about him, before it was known whether McCarthy would enter the draft. Mueller, a three-time GM and one-time NFL Executive of the Year, also thinks analysts are overrating Maye based on prototypical size, and that some teams will not have Maye rated as highly.

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“I think that whole quarterback thing between McCarthy and Maye is yet to play out,” a former GM said. “The other two I think are more set.”

For now, all six execs projected Maye being selected second or third.

“Could you say McCarthy could go in the top five? Yes,” the former GM said, “because everybody had him on the back burner this fall. And then Michigan was not centered around the quarterback like Oregon or Washington was, so he was not going to put up monster numbers. But then when you start looking at the talent and the makeup, he looks pretty good to people.”

Vote distribution: Maye 5, Daniels 1

Every exec had the Patriots selecting a quarterback in the first round. Maye was the choice more by default than because anyone thought New England was particularly high on him.

“I think they would probably rather have Jayden Daniels, but I’ll put Maye in there,” one exec said.

One GM whose team already has a franchise quarterback thought McCarthy would be “a huge reach” in this spot, but he conceded New England could make a bold selection with Eliot Wolf running the draft room.

“I think they go quarterback,” this GM said. “Do they take a shot at J.J.? Eliot won’t be afraid to if he believes in the player. Just look at what his dad has done.”

Ron Wolf famously acquired Brett Favre from the Atlanta Falcons three decades ago.

“Ron Wolf’s son is going to go for the biggest, fastest, most talented athlete in most cases,” a different exec said.

Vote distribution: Joe Alt 2, Dallas Turner 2, Marvin Harrison Jr. 2

There was zero consensus on Arizona in this slot. I gave Turner to the Cardinals because their defense badly needs reinforcements.

“Turner is squarely in the top 10 now,” one exec said, citing the Alabama product’s 4.46 in the 40-yard dash.

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We could have sent Harrison or Alt to the Cardinals just the same.

“I think they have to go pass rush if they stay there,” one of the execs said. “It could be Dallas Turner. Verse might be a safer pick. I would think they will be looking to move down. There is enough rush, even a Chop Robinson, to get him lower. Seven (Titans) and six (Giants) could trade up for a tackle.”

Trading down from this spot makes perfect sense, perhaps regardless of how the top three picks play out.

“I would expect them to trade the pick,” one of the execs said. “Look at how they moved back last year, and then the fact that this is going to be an attractive spot because it allows someone to come up from a distance to get the player they want.”

This exec was picturing one of the quarterback-needy teams vaulting into this spot for McCarthy or Maye. The Cardinals have already committed to Kyler Murray as their quarterback. Moving back to, say, the 12th slot in a trade with Denver could still deliver the eighth-best non-quarterback in the draft for a team already set at the position.

“That is a perfect distance maybe for Arizona to go back, load up on picks, including a first next year, and there are still players there that are going to have equal opportunity to have a significant impact,” the exec said. “They could get the No. 1 corner, the No. 2 edge guy, still a good tackle, still a good receiver.”

Arizona has been a popular destination for Harrison in mock drafts. While four of the six execs projected Harrison to be the first receiver selected, Nabers and Odunze also got votes, and Harrison wasn’t necessarily seen as the best by a wide margin.

“I think they’ll take Marvin Harrison because I think he is the most talented, solid, all-the-way-around guy,” another exec said. “Let me put it to you this way: I see him being the best available player at that time. If you don’t look at him as better than Odunze or Nabers, then yeah, maybe you go with Alt or Dallas Turner. But they gotta keep giving their quarterback some players, too, and I think Marvin Harrison is going to check every box, and is more talented.”


Dallas Turner turned heads in Indianapolis with outstanding testing numbers. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Vote distribution: Alt 2, Fashanu 2, Turner 1, Nabers 1

The first four execs polled sent an offensive lineman to the Chargers, figuring the pick would make sense symbolically for the team’s old-school coach, Jim Harbaugh. But there was some strong pushback against this idea as well, which we’ll get to in a moment.

“Joe Alt might be the safest and most complete of the tackles,” one exec said. “They have a left tackle. They could play him at right tackle. You are going to want to give the quarterback a run game, and then you are going to want to protect him for the first time in his career.”

Solid thinking, but is it solid value?

“That is one thing I just don’t get,” another exec said. “Taking a guy to play right tackle, I just don’t understand that. Alt is clean, and I love Alt, but with pass rushers, there is a big difference in the value of the position to me. We can find a right tackle.”

This exec penciled in Turner for the Chargers. Another leaned toward the offensive line initially but thought Nabers would make the greater impact.

“To get Herbert a guy like Nabers would give them some L.A. fireworks,” he said.

6. New York Giants: Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State

Vote distribution: Harrison 2, Nabers 1, Odunze 1, Latham 1, Alt 1

Four of the six execs had the Giants selecting a receiver, but there wasn’t strong conviction regarding which receiver would be the choice, partly because the top three wideouts could go in just about any order.

An exec who sent Harrison to the Cardinals at No. 4 settled on Odunze for the Giants.

“Nabers is more speed, while Odunze is more possession, big, strong, physical,” this exec said. “They might go with Odunze just because they took the speed guy out of Tennessee (Jalin Hyatt) last year, and this would be a good complement.”

The Giants need help on their offensive line, but they’ve invested recent high draft choices in the position. The exec sending Latham to the Giants noted that the team seems to like SEC players. What about a quarterback?

“If you are the Giants and J.J. McCarthy is there, I think you have to take him,” one exec said. “That doesn’t mean they will do it. They desperately need offensive line. Let’s just give them Alt. I could see them saying, ‘If Jones doesn’t work this year, we will have another top 10 pick next year and worry about it then.’”

Vote distribution: Fashanu 2, Latham 1, Alt 1, Nabers 1, Verse 1

Four of the six execs sent an offensive lineman to the Titans.

“They have not replaced Taylor Lewan, and they need to do that,” one of the execs said. “The guy they took last year (Skoronski) was really a guard. They need a left tackle.”

The lone exec sending a defensive player to the Titans did so based on what he knows about Tennessee’s GM, Ran Carthon.

“I think they go with the best pass rusher,” this exec said. “Ran would probably rely on his 49er days, probably take Verse. I have not personally studied Verse and Turner enough to have a strong opinion, but that is my gut based on what I have seen.”

8. Atlanta Falcons: Jared Verse, Edge, Florida State

Vote distribution: Verse 2, Turner 2, Robinson 1, Latham 1

The execs generally thought the Falcons would address their quarterback situation in free agency or by trade, although one GM offered up another possibility.

“They are the most likely to trade to 1 and get Caleb Williams, or trade for Fields,” this GM said.

Adding young pass rush help for a veteran defense wouldn’t be as exciting. It could be the best option.

“You can’t take another offensive skill player, can you?” one of the execs said. “I don’t see a quarterback necessarily because I think they are going to sign Russell Wilson. They could go corner, too, but I’ll give them a pass rusher.”

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Another exec cautioned against ruling out a receiver, noting that the Falcons could still use help at the position. But he thought defense was more likely.

9. Chicago Bears: Rome Odunze, WR, Washington

Vote distribution: Odunze 3, Nabers 1, Harrison 1, Byron Murphy II 1

Odunze was the highest-rated receiver available in this scenario and a straightforward pick for a team that targeted its franchise quarterback at the top of the draft. The Bears also could find a defensive player for their defensive-minded coach, Matt Eberflus, under the thinking that Williams would unlock more from their receivers, led by DJ Moore.

“To pair Caleb with a top-tier receiver, both of them young, both with a lot of time, yeah, it would be really hard not to do that,” one exec said.

10. New York Jets: Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia

Vote distribution: Bowers 2, Nabers 1, Odunze 1, Fashanu 1, Latham 1

None of the execs thought selecting a tight end in this slot would be a sound move.

“When you are picking in the top 10 and you need offensive line help and you take a tight end, that is malpractice,” the exec sending Fashanu to the Jets said. “You can’t do that. That is just ridiculous.”

Another exec said the Jets needed to select a tackle in this slot, or trade back and select one. But he didn’t necessarily think the Jets would do that.

“It is hard in the top 10 to not take a building-block position, but the Jets are in a unique spot because they have to win this year or they don’t have jobs,” this exec said. “You are getting weapons for Aaron Rodgers and he is going to scheme it for you. They have swung and missed on so many offensive linemen. I would think they go offensive line in free agency.”

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(Top photos of, Drake Maye, left, and Jayden Daniels: Grant Halverson, Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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