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What we do — and don’t — care about ahead of the NFL Draft

In Sports
April 25, 2024

It sure feels like no team’s quarterback plan has been discussed at length more than the Minnesota Vikings. Ever since they swung a trade to land a second first-round pick, Minnesota has been at the center of the discussions for trading up into the top five to land their future franchise quarterback. My read on the situation is that the Vikings made that move with the view that they liked all four of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the draft and would be comfortable with any, depending on which range of the top picks they’re able to land.

Last-minute reporting by our own Charles Robinson has me second-guessing that assumption, particularly in regards to the Vikings’ view on Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy

Robinson reports, “A very well-connected league source told Yahoo Sports they firmly believe that if the Patriots take [Drake] Maye, the Vikings are comfortable standing down in trade talks and using one of their two first-round picks — either No. 11 or No. 23 — to select Oregon quarterback Bo Nix.”

I absolutely buy that Drake Maye is and always was the primary target for the Vikings. He has all the tools you want to develop and with a great play-calling head coach and excellent supporting cast in place, Minnesota has the right incubator to bring him along. However, to me, McCarthy is an ideal layup to hit as a schematic fit for Kevin O’Connell’s offense and, with a bit more seasoning, could grow into a viable starter with a chance to hit the Kirk Cousins tier. Perhaps Minnesota wants more than that if it’s trading up in the top five. Perhaps this is all just a last-minute smoke-screen to not appear too desperate in trade talks at the 11th hour.

As always, keep your head on a swivel here when it comes to draft rumors this late in the game. Most of these trade-up or down decisions aren’t written in pen until these teams are actually on the clock.

How Minnesota navigates the next 24 to 48 hours at the quarterback position remains one of the most fascinating and consequential storylines in this year’s draft. Each specific quarterback prospect at the top has his own set of pros and cons for the immediate and long-term outlook of the offense. Adding either Maye or McCarthy may specifically present a very different projection for 2024 alone.

The real nightmare scenario is that Minnesota is not able to come away with either and then is presented with the option to reach for Nix, per Robinson’s reporting, in Round 1 or, perhaps worse yet, kicking the quarterback can down the road. One has to wonder what that does to the negotiation process with Justin Jefferson and his pending monster contract. There are several wideouts and their agents around the league waiting to see what those numbers look like before inking their own deals. Internally, while O’Connell showed he can get production and scrape by with a quarterback carousel, there will not be one comfortable person in that building if the plan is to see what Sam Darnold can do in 2024 while looking to next year’s draft.

Minnesota’s move to acquire an additional first-round pick sounded the alarm of confidence in its own ability to come away with a top-10 pick at quarterback and begin its next phase as a franchise at the end of this month. As the draft nears, its tone around the situation reeks of far less assured vibes. All of this could prove to be a giant “nothing-burger” by this time Friday but for now, it remains one of the pivotal storylines in this year’s NFL Draft.

We could be looking at history this year. The most offensive linemen ever taken in the first round of an NFL Draft was 10, all the way back in 1968. Several decades later, we may well beat that number in 2024. Multiple sports books have the over/under set at 9.5. So there are plenty of folks willing to bet on history and with this class, it makes sense.

For all the excitement at the wide receiver position — and the top three at that spot are elite prospects and worth all the hype — the true strength will be felt on Day 2, in my opinion. The high-end of the offensive line crop outlasts the wideouts.

While fantasy “relevant” positions will dominate headlines and their landing spots obviously matter, so do the linemen. Adding a line-changing blocker can and will change the entire ecosystem for existing offensive players. Players who have that upside will be available to NFL teams at all levels of Round 1. The question is how quickly that well dries up if teams start to aggressively target Day 2 talents at the end of the first round.

Everything feels too clean at the wide receiver position right now.

So many teams in the top 10 have a striking need at the position and this class is flush with options in that range. Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze are Tier 1 prospects who could change an entire receiving corps from the moment they hit the NFL field or, at the very least, early in their careers. Even further down the draft board, where consensus WR4 Brian Thomas Jr. should land, lie so many teams in the middle-first round that need a vertical outside receiver of his skill set.

Again, it all maps out perfectly. But when has the NFL Draft ever gone to plan?

I can’t shake the feeling that some team we aren’t expecting will leap from the bottom of the first round to secure one of these rare talents at the position. Maybe it isn’t the dream scenario where the Bills strike the Julio Jones trade to land one of the big three, but something is coming.

When and if that move takes place, dynasty ADP and pre-draft assumptions will shift. Imagine a world where Odunze does indeed fall into the hands of a contender with a light receiver room. He’ll be ideally suited to outproduce Harrison and Nabers even if they’re drafted a few picks earlier. If a team that values premium positions like the Eagles, who already have good receivers but just can’t help themselves, come up for a Thomas Jr. or even a specialized wideout we aren’t expecting, that will cause a big shift.

The NFL continues to confirm the wide receiver’s status as a premium position and this class is stocked with talent. Expert fireworks.

Brock Bowers is an exciting talent who can be deployed in so many different ways. He can be a threat from multiple alignments and has the strengths to exploit mismatches from sideline to sideline.

In the hands of the right coach, I can see him making an immediate impact and providing a quarterback with a layup target.

Paired with an overmatched play-caller, however, I can see a bit of “galaxy brain” syndrome ruining his rookie season.

Tight end is already a position where first-year players are often overloaded. And with how versatile Bowers can be, there’s a chance too much is put on his plate too early. Sometimes at this position, guys don’t recover from that until much later in their careers.

That’s why the coach pairing may be more critical to Bowers’ evaluation than anything else. For example, a better quarterback is waiting for Bowers if he’s drafted by the Jets at the 10th pick than the Broncos a few selections later. However, which play-caller do you trust to oversee his deployment more between Nathaniel Hackett and Sean Payton? It’s an easy answer for me in Payton’s favor.

Perhaps I’m the one over-thinking it but he’s such a unique talent that it bears considering.

Xavier Legette and Keon Coleman are the top two names I’d suggest if asked which wide receiver prospect are you most concerned will be misused in the pros.

Some evaluators see big receivers who win in tight coverage but struggle to separate and will think to immediately make him a downfield, jump-ball X-receiver. Sometimes you get Alshon Jeffery. Even if that player is going to work, you need the right quarterback who is dripping with arm talent, aggressive and confident in testing tight windows. That’s rare. Too often for my tastes, you end up with a low-percentage target and an overall inefficient player whom you can’t funnel targets to because of the lack of separation.

My research on wide receivers would show that there is a path forward for these college receivers who struggle to separate outside. It involves a role change; at least a partial, if not full, move to the slot.

Coleman projects better as a big-slot than Legette but the latter is still someone I want to cater his usage. Some of the off-the-line deployment and heavy crossing route portfolio of a Deebo Samuel (this is not a player comparison) makes sense for Legette.

I’ll have a better sense of how those guys project out once I know which coach they’ll be playing for in the pros and more importantly, where the other receivers on the roster line up. I’ll be concerned if they’re going to walk into a Day 1 X-receiver role, even if the team they get drafted by has a ton of targets up for grabs. We’ve seen players of this archetype, like Treylon Burks and Jonathan Mingo, not work out early because they were tossed outside from Day 1 and just couldn’t win in that spot.

There are plenty of sharp evaluators who study quarterback film intently and have some questions about Jayden Daniels’ long-term ceiling as a starting quarterback. I share some, but not all, of those worries. As the draft gets closer and my brain begins to flip into fantasy football mode, I find myself not caring.

Daniels has tools in his bag to make him an immediate success as a fantasy QB1. The rushing skills are obvious. That alone will make him starting-worthy. While I have my reservations about his willingness (not effectiveness) to work the middle in college, there are schemes in the league to get immediate production with that type of quarterback. You may end up running into some of the issues the Eagles did with Jalen Hurts last year but we know that same example has provided high moments.

If Daniels does indeed go second to Washington, there’s a clear pathway to that immediate ceiling.

Kliff Kingsbury’s offense has flaws but likes to attack the same areas using similar receivers with positional archetypes like Daniels had in college. That LSU offense can map well to the Commanders’ personnel in Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson. Kingsbury schemed up a strong rushing attack in Arizona and Daniels would be a huge boost there. Washington also has the resources to fortify the line on Day 2 or be one of those teams that wants to trade back up in Round 1 for a tackle.

I can see ourselves needing to temperature-check Daniels’ development and ultimate ceiling in a few seasons. It’s just as easy to imagine no one caring about that in the middle of his rookie year when he’s successfully operating Washington’s offense as a rushing and passing threat alongside some quality receivers.

The running back class isn’t strong. It’s not a great year for the position — so they say. And by all accounts, it’s a real assessment, at least in terms of the first round. It would be an outright stunner to see a back come off the board in Round 1; Round 3 may be more realistic for the run to occur.

That said, some high-level producers will come from this class. Guys like Jonathan Brooks, Trey Benson and others don’t have the first-round pedigree but there is talent in this crop. Even better, there are teams like the Cowboys and Chargers with strong ecosystems in place for a running back to come in and produce right away.

The 2024 running back class may well end up looking better in hindsight than it has in the preview of April’s event. The last class that was viewed similarly to this one was 2014, where Bishop Sankey was the first back off the board at 54 overall. He didn’t work out, but Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde were drafted shortly after and had some good moments in the league.

Chargers fans and lovers of great football should want to see Marvin Harrison Jr. paired with Justin Herbert. He’s the perfect WR1 to rebuild this room around Herbert.

That being said, if the Chargers trade down and/or take a tackle, no one should fault them. As established, this is a great offensive line draft but it’s top-heavy. It’s an awesome receiver crop but the depth is there on Day 2.

The Chargers wideout corps is perhaps the lightest in the league. It’s every bit as sensible to try and “double-tap” this position after the first round to beef up the room. Coming away from the first round with Harrison would be pristine. But leaving the weekend with a pairing of a Javon Baker and Malik Washington type could be just as sensible a solution in trying to rebuild this room.

After A.J. Brown was traded on Day 1 of the 2022 NFL Draft, I’ve learned to never rule anything out at this position. If the Titans could trade an obvious top-10 talent in the prime of his career because of a salary squeeze, anyone can get moved.

After 2021 draft pick Amon-Ra St. Brown launched himself near the top of the wide receiver market, soaring past DeVonta Smith’s deal from a few weeks ago, the pressure has been ratcheted up on teams trying to ink wideouts to a long-term extension. Brandon Aiyuk can, will and should ask for that same deal, and perhaps a little more. CeeDee Lamb and certainly Justin Jefferson will want to beat it with room to spare. Tee Higgins in Cincinnati absolutely has to have his eyes on that contract.

Of all those guys, I think Higgins has the murkiest future with his team simply because they have another wideout to pay in Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow’s extension has kicked in. If I were the 49ers there is no way I’d part with Aiyuk, but he’d be next on my “most likely” list because he’ll have immense value around the league and the 49ers’ salary books are tight. Maybe the 49ers look to offload Deebo Samuel to make room for that Aiyuk extension. Many possibilities are on the table.

I’ll be surprised if we leave the first two days of the draft and we haven’t seen at least one major veteran wideout traded.

As the draft nears, almost every insider, many of whom I trust, is reporting with fervor that Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. could go in Round 1 and leave the board quite high.

I’ve seen this story before. There was reporting toward the end of last year’s draft cycle that Will Levis was pushing to be the second overall pick. He ultimately “fell” out of Round 1. For my money, Levis was a more enticing prospect than these two players but was a flawed player who was “older” coming into the draft. Teams don’t love to sink Round 1 investments into this bucket of quarterbacks.

My overall view on the players doesn’t even really matter here but I can see the appeal to both Nix and Penix for different reasons. Nix has a high floor and should be able to operate a timing-based offense. Penix can push the ball vertically and may have some untapped athletic upside given how he performed at his pro day. The full picture of their profiles paints fine Day 2 bets at this position, not guys you bank on long-term — especially when both may be maxed out as older college quarterbacks with a ton of experience.

Maybe this take ages like milk. I don’t see either going in the top 15 and would be a little shocked if both are first-round picks by the end of Thursday night.

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