Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Correctly predicting the first 32 picks of any NFL draft is effectively impossible at this point in the season, given that a handful of clubs haven’t yet found their head coach and free agency will shake up team needs.

What is already apparent, however, is the talent — or lack thereof — available. The NFL announced last week that 54 underclassmen were added to this year’s player pool, roughly half that of previous years.

The relatively shallow pool will effectively push up the stock of the most gifted players in this class, all but guaranteeing runs of quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen in the first round.

Quarterbacks are always a wildcard, but the number and order in which the top defensive linemen are picked among the top 32 will be fascinating, as well. These two groups are bursting with potential — but have enough red flags to keep their stock volatile.

One more thing we know is the selection order — at least through the first 28 selections. The final four spots will be determined by this weekend’s conference title games and the Super Bowl.

1. Chicago Bears (from Carolina Panthers): Caleb Williams, QB, USC

The Bears face a fascinating decision at No. 1. Justin Fields is gifted, gutty and young (24) but is also entering the final year of his rookie deal at just over a $6 million cap hit, a fraction of what he’ll command after next season. Fields has certainly flashed, but his inconsistency as a passer was the primary reason he was the fourth QB drafted in 2021. 

GM Ryan Poles, head coach Matt Eberflus and new OC Shane Waldron will have their pick of the 2024 class and an opportunity to reset the rookie contract at the position, perhaps trading away Fields, but not necessarily so. The Bears specifically cited their disappointment in the passing game January 10, when Eberflus fired five of his coaches. 

Williams, while far from a perfect prospect, is simply a more gifted passer than Fields, especially on the move. I think the Bears will ultimately gamble on Williams’ upside over trading out or the tantalizing thought of Marvin Harrison, Jr. in this offense.

[Vitali: Bears haven’t made a QB decision, but new OC Shane Waldron should help regardless]

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2. Washington Commanders: Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina

New GM Adam Peters and a yet-to-be-hired head coach are facing a similar dilemma as their counterparts in Chicago, with second-year pro Sam Howell starting all 17 games and throwing 21 interceptions. Howell certainly had an audition — topping the NFL in passing attempts — and he proved his toughness by absorbing a league-leading 65 sacks, but how many were his fault? 

I like the idea of reuniting the prototypically built Maye with Howell, his predecessor at quarterback for the Tar Heels. Like Chicago ahead of them, Washington is in prime position for a trade down, perhaps in the hopes of addressing a secondary that surrendered a league-worst 39 passing touchdowns in 2023.

3. New England Patriots: Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State

The expedient promotion of Jerod Mayo as Bill Belichick’s replacement as head coach suggests that the Patriot Way is alive and well. With the top two quarterbacks off the board, the Pats should nab Harrison here, providing an immediate boost to one of the league’s most anemic passing games.

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4. Arizona Cardinals: Nate Wiggins, CB, Clemson

The Cardinals closed out 2023 playing good football, showing improved and passionate play under first-year head coach Jonathan Gannon. The defensive-minded Gannon will likely push for additions to his pass rush and secondary in this draft. Generally speaking, teams prefer to draft in the trenches this early, but the top corners in this class are better than the top edge rushers, with the 6-foot-2 Wiggins ticketed for the top 10.

5. Los Angeles Chargers: Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia

For nearly two years, I’ve been referring to Bowers as the best tight end I’ve ever evaluated in college football. Pair his athleticism, savvy and soft hands with Justin Herbert and — poof — all that ails the Chargers might be magically fixed. 

OK, that might be a slight exaggeration. But it is easy to imagine Bowers sparking the Chargers in 2024, similar to the way rookie tight end Sam LaPorta helped propel Detroit’s offense this season.

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6. New York Giants: Malik Nabers, WR, LSU

Regardless of whether Saquon Barkley returns, the Giants need more playmakers. Nabers is a lightning-in-a-bottle type who can take over games, offering Daniel Jones a caliber of weapon he’s never yet had in the NFL.

7. Tennessee Titans: Rome Odunze, WR, Washington

With the Titans possibly pivoting from the run-heavy approach featuring Derrick Henry to more of a passing attack with Will Levis, reinforcements are going to be needed at receiver. The 6-foot-3 Odunze wins with timing, body control and strong hands at the catch point — and he has the speed to win deep.

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

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels would make a lot of sense here, but with the Falcons’ search including ball-control enthusiasts like Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh and a slew of defensive coordinators, perhaps Atlanta is looking for upgrades to pending free agents Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, who tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks. Quick, technically refined and powerful, Verse could join last year’s second-round pick, Arnold Ebiketie, as the two wings of the Falcons’ pass rush.

9. Chicago Bears: Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame

Whether it’s Fields or a rookie, the Bears’ QB would benefit from offensive-line reinforcements. The son of a Pro Bowler with great size, balance and experience in Notre Dame’s pro-like scheme, Alt has the look of a long-time NFL pillar.

10. New York Jets: Olu Fashanu, OT, Penn State

Contrary to what some might think, many veteran quarterbacks dislike their teams using top picks on offensive linemen, not trusting them to learn on the fly. Protecting the investment made in Aaron Rodgers only works, however, if he stays healthy and the 6-foot-6, 319-pound Fashanu, remarkably, did not surrender a single sack in his 22 games at left tackle for the Nittany Lions.

11. Minnesota Vikings: Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU

The Vikings have a big decision coming on Kirk Cousins, who will be a free agent and is recovering from a torn Achilles, putting his availability for the start of next year in question. The Vikings don’t have to take a quarterback, but if the Heisman Trophy-winning Daniels is still on the board, it would be hard to pass up the opportunity to pair him with fellow Tiger Justin Jefferson.

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12. Denver Broncos: Terrion Arnold, CB, Alabama

Rookie wage scales aren’t just for quarterbacks. The Broncos will surely seek to re-sign Patrick Surtain II, one of the NFL’s best young cornerbacks, but even with him last season, Denver ranked 28th in the NFL in passing touchdowns allowed (29). Arnold is a smaller, sleeker version of Surtain (who also starred for the Crimson Tide), excelling in man-to-man coverage.

13. Las Vegas Raiders: Troy Fautanu, OL, Washington

Running back Josh Jacobs, who led the NFL in rushing yards in 2022, is the pending free agent getting most of the attention, but starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor is another important player the Raiders aren’t guaranteed to bring back. Voted the PAC-12’s top blocker by the conference’s defensive linemen, Fautanu has the feet and balance to remain outside but the Nevada native also possesses the strength and toughness to play inside, offering his future NFL club great versatility.

14. New Orleans Saints: Dallas Turner, Edge, Alabama

The Saints finished 29th in the NFL in sacks in 2023 and that was with divisional foes struggling to protect their young quarterbacks. GM Mickey Loomis and defensive-minded head coach Dennis Allen would probably love to see a twitchy pass rusher like Turner, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2023, still on the board.

15. Indianapolis Colts: Keon Coleman, WR, Florida State

In terms of size and style, Coleman is a similar pass-catcher to Michael Pittman, Jr., who has led the Colts in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns each of the past three seasons. Rather than extending Pittman, a free agent likely to be looking for a big deal, the Colts may see Coleman as a younger, cheaper alternative.

16. Seattle Seahawks: Jer’Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois

Only the two-win Carolina Panthers allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Seahawks’ 24 last season, making the front seven a draft-day priority even if the club retains veteran starters Leonard Williams and Mario Edwards Jr. Newton is a pocket-collapsing penetrator, a three-year standout and teammate at Illinois with Seattle’s flashy rookie Devon Witherspoon.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ruke Orhorhoro, DT, Clemson

General manager Trent Baalke is well known for his willingness to gamble on upside and few prospects in this class boast a higher one that Orhorhoro, a Nigerian native who didn’t begin playing football until his junior season of high school but possesses an exciting combination of size, quickness and power.

18. Cincinnati Bengals: Brian Thomas Jr., WR, LSU

Given that the Bengals are already going to be replacing offensive coordinator Brian Callahan (who was hired to be the Tennessee Titans’ next head coach), perhaps a club once known for its general disdain for spending big will open up the checkbook for pending free agent wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. If not, the 6-foot-4 Thomas offers a similar skill set as Higgins with the production (FBS-leading 17 TDs) and college pedigree at LSU that incumbent stars Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase (also former LSU Tigers) might appreciate.

19. Los Angeles Rams: Cooper DeJean, CB, Iowa

The Rams intercepted just 10 total passes in 2023, with their cornerbacks snagging four of them. Tthat’s a problem. DeJean may lack the measurables of some of his peers, but he’s a proven playmaker, returning three of his seven career interceptions for touchdowns.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Taliese Fuaga, OL, Oregon State

Given Pittsburgh’s struggles at quarterback in 2023, one could make a strong argument for an upgrade at that position via the draft, but the more likely scenario in Pittsburgh is reinforcement along the offensive line. The powerful and remarkably athletic Fuaga could be a plug-and-play option at tackle or guard.

21. Miami Dolphins: Graham Barton, OL, Duke

Keeping Tua Tagovailoa upright should be the Dolphins’ top priority. With multiple blockers in Miami set for free agency this season or next, it’s time to start planning for the future. The 6-foot-5, 314-pound Barton offers experience inside and out and possesses the balance, awareness and grit to play immediately, wherever his NFL team might need him most.

22. Philadelphia Eagles: Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia

Even with the expected retirement of future Hall of Fame center Jason Kelce, the Eagles boast one of the most formidable offensive lines in the NFL. Reinforcements are always a priority, however, especially with a player as young, gifted and connected to so many other former UGA stars on the Eagles’ roster as Mims.

23. Houston Texans (from Cleveland Browns): Patrick Paul, OT, Houston

The Texans have an emerging superstar in CJ Stroud. They need to protect him. Given that Paul, the local product, surrendered a total of four sacks in 45 career starts at the college level, the agile 6-foot-7, 315-pounder would seemingly be a natural fit.

24. Dallas Cowboys: JC Latham, OL, Alabama

The run on big men continues in Dallas, where the 2023 Cowboys proved a stark contrast to previous seasons with Tony Pollard (a pending free agent) leading the team with just six rushing touchdowns. With no consensus first-round-caliber backs in this class, bulking up on the right side of the offensive line with the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Latham could be the Cowboys’ next “big” move.

25. Green Bay Packers: Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama

The Packers boast a talented secondary but their most gifted cornerback (Jaire Alexander) has missed some action in four of his six NFL seasons. With a talented press cornerback in McKinstry falling into their lap in this exercise, general manager Brian Gutekunst likely wouldn’t hesitate to add to a secondary that finished 31st in the NFL with just seven interceptions.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  J.J. McCarthy, QB, Michigan

Baker Mayfield was one of the NFL’s top bargains in 2023, setting career-highs in completion percentage (64.3%), passing yards (4,044) and touchdowns (28) while leading the Bucs to the playoffs and earning less than seven million dollars, including bonuses. He won’t re-sign for that price, which is why the Bucs may look to add a young signal-caller to continue pushing Mayfield (if the free agent is brought back) or to potentially replace him. Like Mayfield, McCarthy lacks some of the elite traits scouts would prefer, but his intangibles could help him earn a first-round selection.

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27. Arizona Cardinals (from Houston Texans): Laiatu Latu, Edge, UCLA

This feels far too low for an edge rusher who led the PAC-12 in sacks, tackles for loss and sacks. But with a prior neck injury complicating his draft grade, Latu could slip further than expected on draft day. The Cardinals certainly could use him given that defensive-minded head coach Jonathan Gannon’s squad finished 30th in sacks a year ago.

28. Buffalo Bills: Troy Franklin, WR, Oregon

Boasting a similar blend of stop-start quickness and natural playmaking ability as the Bills’ current leading receiver, Stefon Diggs, Franklin could be a hand-in-glove fit in Buffalo, especially given that Gabe Davis is a free agent.

29. Kansas City Chiefs: Brandon Dorlus, DT, Oregon

Every year, there is a player selected in the first round of the NFL draft who leaves casual fans scratching their heads. Don’t be surprised if that player is Dorlus, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound three-time All-PAC-12 pick who impacts opposing quarterbacks with his ability to rush (12 career sacks) as well as knock down passes (14). Dorlus is certainly not a true replacement for star Chris Jones, but he’d be a solid addition.

30. Detroit Lions: Quinyon Mitchell, CB, Toledo

The Lions are playing for a Super Bowl berth despite surrendering 4,205 passing yards and 28 touchdowns through the air, both 26th in the NFL. Mitchell may not have the national name recognition of his peers, but he didn’t allow a single touchdown reception this season and is a reliable open-field tackler — attributes a club with four free agents at cornerback should value.

31. San Francisco 49ers: Byron Murphy II, DT, Texas

With six defensive linemen set for free agency, it isn’t a question of if the 49ers reinvest in their front, but when. The 6-foot-1, 308-pound Murphy is a natural pocket-pusher with terrific quickness, agility and underrated strength.

32. Baltimore Ravens: Bralen Trice, Edge, Washington

The Ravens boasted a three-headed monster of pass-rushers in 2023 with pending free agents Justin Madabuike (13.5 sacks) and JaDaveon Clowney (9.5) joining soon-to-be-33-year-old Kyle Van Noy (9.0) as their stars on defense. Trice won’t individually replace their production, but he plays with the instincts, toughness and technique head coach John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta have always prioritized.

Teams with no first-round picks:

33. Carolina Panthers: Demeioun “Chop” Robinson, Edge, Penn State

Brian Burns, arguably the Panthers’ best player, is hitting free agency. Even if the club retains Burns, adding more juice off the edge is an obvious offseason priority and Robinson — the most explosive and agile rusher in this draft class — certainly would provide that.

54. Cleveland Browns: Jackson Powers-Johnson, OL, Oregon

The Browns have long enjoyed one of the better run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL but stellar guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller are each due for massive raises in 2024. Adding a burly and versatile blocker like the appropriately named Powers-Johnson would give Cleveland much-needed flexibility moving forward.

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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