The path to the NFL Draft has almost come to an end as we look ahead to Thursday’s Round 1.
And what a long and winding path it’s been. It can certainly be argued that this year’s draft is among the most intriguing we’ve ever seen. Just look at the quarterbacks: We’ve got five (!) projected to go in Round 1 — Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have been propped up and picked apart over the past few months — and it’s still unclear if there’s really a consensus No. 1 guy out of the group.
That bodes well for teams that don’t need a QB, as they’ll be able to scoop up some franchise-changing position players later than usual. Prospects like defensive end Bradley Chubb, guard Quenton Nelson, and safeties Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick could end up falling into the outstretched arms of teams picking outside the top 5, simply because there are so many quarterback-hungry teams clamoring for signal callers.
As we’ve seen in drafts past, anything can happen when your team’s on the clock. With that in mind, here are five names we’re keeping an extra close eye on this Thursday as characters who could dramatically change the outcome of Round 1.
Obviously, we don’t know that the Cleveland Browns are taking a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, but it certainly seems like a safe bet, with many mock drafts assuming it will be Sam Darnold out of USC.
That means much of the intrigue at Thursday’s draft begins with the New York Giants and their No. 2 overall selection, with Giants general manager Dave Gettleman holding a ton of power in this draft. Every option has its own domino effect that will play out on live television.
Taking running back Saquon Barkley, the most complete offensive prospect of his (and many others’) class, makes sense if Gettleman’s goal is to win now with the current core that includes veteran quarterback Eli Manning and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. He proved he’s not afraid to draft a running back in the top 10 with the Panthers’ selection of Christian McCaffrey at No. 8 last year, but all he has to do is look around the league to see how unpredictable success at the position can be.
Should Gettleman opt to keep an eye on the future, he could choose to select Manning’s eventual successor with the thought that the team won’t have this high a pick again any time soon. If that happens, be prepared for a flurry of teams outside the top five calling up their fellow GMs to get in on a chance to pick one of the remaining three top QBs.
And then there’s a third — and maybe the safest — option of taking defensive end Bradley Chubb. D-line guys aren’t the most exciting picks for fans, but we’ve seen time and time again what a difference an elite pass-rusher can make.
Oh, and just to really throw a wrench in the predictions? You can never rule out a trade.
Speaking of trades … if there’s one team intent on buying their way into a top pick going into Thursday, it’s the Buffalo Bills. General manager Beane is on the hunt for a franchise quarterback, but with so many other QB-needy teams, it seems unlikely that Josh Allen, the name we’ve consistently seen in connection with Buffalo, will be around when the Bills are due to pick at No. 12. In fact, many insiders have had the Bills penciled in at or around No. 5 via the rare mock draft trade, just to make things interesting.
Beane could shake up the order of things with a draft-day deal, whether fans like it or not.
Perhaps no quarterback has been as picked apart since declaring for the draft as Mayfield, whose small stature and big confidence have made him particularly polarizing. The Heisman Trophy winner has done his best to shed the Johnny Manziel comparisons, going from a possible late first-rounder to an almost certain top-five pick — maybe even first overall to Cleveland.
A few more flattering comparisons include Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, and not just because of his height. Mayfield’s accuracy, mobility and unquestioned will to win, combined with a sizeable chip on his shoulder make him especially intriguing.
If you’re picking based solely on the “best player on the board,” you’re taking Barkley. The running back out of Penn State is ready for the pros in every way — talent, character, sponsors, you name it — but the debate rages on about whether you can put too much draft stock in a position that tends to have the smallest window for success in the NFL. It’s tough to make a case for using a high pick on a running back when we see later-round guys like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt excelling as hidden gems.
But lately, we’ve also seen players like Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) and Leonard Fournette (Jaguars) come in and make immediate impacts as rookies to propel their teams into contention. Think about how dramatically he could change things for the Giants, Browns or Colts.
Where Barkley is selected on Thursday will impact not just this year’s class — it’s a safe bet that fellow RBs Sony Michel and Derrius Guice would be snatched up sooner if Barkley goes in the No. 2 spot — it could mean a shift in the attitude towards future running back prospects over the next few years, too.
As an elite offensive lineman, Quenton Nelson is about as sure a thing as you can get in this draft.
After a year that saw zero guards or centres taken in the first round, Nelson is a lock to be selected in the top 10 and could even be taken at No. 2 (see how crucial that Gettleman pick is?).
The guard out of Notre Dame doesn’t come with the exciting highlights of a quarterback or running back, but he’s got the kind of rare talent that makes him an unmissable prospect.
Only, teams may very well miss on him in an effort to draft a QB. Either way, it will be interesting to see where Nelson goes. If he’s taken in the top five (as he should, based on his talent and potential to make an immediate impact), he could disrupt the quarterback game we thought we’d be seeing there. Anywhere after No. 5, however, and he could almost be considered a steal.