Key NFL draft storylines to watch as first round begins
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The Rams and Eagles lit off a bunch of the NFL’s draft fireworks early, trading up to picks No. 1 and 2, respectively, and eliminating much of the drama surrounding this year’s top two quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
Still, there are ample storylines to track throughout the weekend, starting tonight when the first round of the 2016 draft gets underway. Here are a few.
Who will be the first non-QB off the board?
The answer almost certainly will come at pick No. 3, although there remains at least a 0.1% chance that another QB-hungry team makes a trade leap to ensure it gets Paxton Lynch.
Barring that stunner, one of Jalen Ramsey, Laremy Tunsil, DeForest Buckner, Ronnie Stanley, Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott should take the honors with the third pick. Will the Chargers be the team making that selection? San Diego GM Tom Telesco said following the Eagles’ move up to No. 2 that his own trade talks had “really slowed down.” The situation could change in a hurry come Thursday night, should one of the teams just below San Diego fall in love with a prospect.
More on Elliott in a moment, but in case he seems like an outlier among the listed group of potential No. 3 picks: The Cowboys are seen as a very realistic landing spot for the Ohio State RB, so if a team like New York or Chicago wants him, leapfrogging Jerry Jones’s club may have to be the play.
Ramsey, Buckner or an offensive tackle is the more realistic outcome in the three spot.
Where does Myles Jack land?
Are the lingering issues with the UCLA linebacker’s injured knee worrisome enough to send him spiraling into the middle of the first round, or are they mere inconveniences? That depends on whom you ask.
Despite all the negative chatter swirling around Jack’s status, he still has a shot to land in the top 10. Every team picking there after the Los Angeles-Philadelphia QB pact could justify Jack’s presence in one way or another—even if there is not obvious space on the depth chart, he is the type of prospect coaching staffs find a spot for.
(Shameless plug alert: There is more discussion of the Jack situation in this week’s On the Clock podcast.)
What is Ezekiel Elliott’s floor?
If we are talking about teams, set it at Oakland, who will start the night with the No. 14 pick. In terms of the actual draft slot where Elliott comes off the board, No. 12 (New Orleans), with the most likely outcome being that he lands in the top 10.
Setting the floor at that 12th spot makes sense because sitting with the 13th pick is Miami, a team still in need of a RB to pair with Jay Ajayi in its post-Lamar Miller world. Elliott’s value by that point would be high enough, too, that any team drafting in the back half of the first round could consider jumping up to grab him—including the teams seemingly set at RB. Elliott is that good.
The Raiders themselves have a 1,000-yard back in Latavius Murray, but his contract is up after 2016. Their second-leading rusher in 2015 was quarterback Derek Carr. They could use another dynamic option out of the backfield, and Elliott would provide it. He won’t get past them, but he’s probably gone well before.
Will another team orchestrate a major trade up?
Last year’s first round was relatively quiet from a trade perspective, with just two deals going down on draft night: San Francisco and San Diego swapped picks 15 and 17, and Denver traded up from No. 28 to Detroit’s spot at No. 23. (Two other first-rounders changed hands earlier, via a Browns-Bills deal and Seattle's Jimmy Graham trade with New Orleans.)
So, the 2016 draft already is a wild one. How much more havoc is to come hinges, in part, on the Chargers’ motivation to move down and on Elliott’s appeal. It also could boil down to a pair of AFC East rivals—the Bills and Jets—and how motivated they are to land their potential franchise QB.
Both teams have been mentioned as possible landing spots for Memphis QB Paxton Lynch, but there's a lengthy gap between Jared Goff and Carson Wentz at 1-2 and when the Bills (No. 19) and Jets (20) go on the clock. Either could pull the trigger to make sure they don’t lose their shot.
Are Robert Nkemdiche and Noah Spence worth the risks?
Two red-flagged first-round talents. It long has been assumed that Spence would wind up a first-day pick, despite his banishment from the Big Ten for failed drug tests. Nkemdiche’s stock has been in flux since he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl following a drug-related arrest (after a tumble from a hotel ledge), but his momentum is trending toward the first round now, as well.
As is the case with the players battling injury, these will be team-by-team scenarios. On talent alone, Nkemdiche is arguably a top-five prospect in the 2016 class, and Spence is not far behind. They could see a big payoff on Thursday night, provided there are teams out there comfortable with their maturation.
How many QBs will go in Round 1?
Two, for sure. Three, probably. Four? Five? Not impossible.
Goff and Wentz are iron-clad locks, and Lynch is but a short step down (an aluminum-clad lock?). The two names to keep in mind beyond the big three are Michigan State’s Connor Cook and, yes, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg. The last Big Ten QB drafted in Round 1 was Kerry Collins, way back in 1995, so even one of Cook or Hackenberg getting there would go against the recent run of play.
The Bills, Jets and Broncos all could look at the quarterback position early, as could more obvious candidates like the 49ers or Browns. And then there are the Bears, Cardinals, Cowboys and Saints, four franchises that, despite having a starter for the present, need to soon start plotting what their future at QB will look like.
For what it’s worth, Bovada issued the following odds on 2.5 QBs going in Round 1:
Over 2.5 (1/15)
Under 2.5 (7/1)
In what order will the OTs and WRs go?
These positions will be driving forces in shaping the first round (and maybe even the second).
Few players have seen their projected draft spots fluctuate as much in the past two weeks as Laremy Tunsil. Los Angeles trading up knocked him off his perch as the likely No. 1 pick, then Philadelphia’s jump to No. 2 sent him at least a spot lower. All that would put San Diego next up, but reports this week from multiple outlets had the Chargers thinking about Ronnie Stanley there (or the aforementioned trade down).
Dallas, at No. 4, does not need an offensive tackle. Jacksonville might at No. 5 but absolutely has to be leaning toward upgrading its defense. So Tunsil could be on the board for Baltimore or San Francisco, which was unthinkable mere days ago. There’s also debate over who is next up after Tunsil and Stanley. Will it be Jack Conklin or Taylor Decker?
Tunsil’s teammate at Ole Miss, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, is in a similar spot. All signs through much of the draft process pointed to him being the first receiver taken. But a slow 40-yard dash time coupled with increased hype around TCU’s Josh Doctson, Baylor’s Corey Coleman, Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and even Notre Dame’s Will Fuller, has sent Treadwell falling a bit down boards.
Will the Patriots stay put?
The NFL booted New England from the first round, meaning that Bill Belichick’s squad will not go on the clock until picks Nos. 60 and 61 Friday. Or, at least, that’s the current schedule.
The Patriots may not have a current selection from 1 to 59, but they do still hold four top-100 choices, including a compensatory pick at No. 96. The two second-rounders, without question, would give them the ammo to move up toward the top of Round 2 and maybe the bottom of Round 1, if they feel like rolling the dice.
Maybe we shouldn’t rule out a Patriots pick Thursday night after all. Quick reminder, though: They cannot climb higher than 29th, per the terms of their league-mandated punishment.
Does Jaylon Smith hear his name called on Day 2?
The Notre Dame linebacker would require a minor miracle to play in 2016, mere months removed from the horrific knee injury he suffered during the Irish’s bowl game. The uncertainty surrounding his recovery all but eliminates him from first-round consideration.
How far does he then fall? Maybe not all that far, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Even with the catastrophic knee injury, Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith is expected to gone by end of round 3, maybe earlier, per league sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 27, 2016
Smith does have an insurance policy worth up to $5 million—the exact amount is tied to how long he is on the board beyond Round 1. But keep in mind that before his injury he was seen as a prospect perhaps on par with Jack, almost universally a top-10 choice. The risk/reward equation on Smith will be one many teams have to wrestle with in the second and third rounds.
How do the defending champs restock?
For the moment, this is mainly a QB-specific question, as the Broncos have Mark Sanchez penciled in as their starter. Maybe Colin Kaepernick still shows up via trade or John Elway lands a free agent (Ryan Fitzpatrick? Brian Hoyer?). Otherwise, drafting another quarterback has to be on the to-do list.
Several spots on the Broncos’ brilliant defense also could use reinforcements. Inside linebacker looks particularly strapped now that Danny Trevathan has moved on, though a defensive lineman to help newcomer Jared Crick replace Malik Jackson also might be in the cards.
What is the Browns’ plan?
If you are reading this and know the answer, well, then, thanks for reading, Sashi Brown! Cleveland’s exact draft strategy remains TBD, from the outside looking in. Shouting “Analytics! analytics!” doesn’t really count as deciphering the code.
The Browns traded down once, from No. 2 to 8, and may do so again in an attempt to continue stockpiling picks. On the surface, it's a smart approach if they weren't too high on either Goff or Wentz—the new front office seems committed to a patient rebuild, equaling a massive infusion of talent that only the draft can provide.
Even so, the Browns still have to turn those picks into meaningful prospects, likely at least one at quarterback. Right now, they hold 12 draft choices for 2016, including the first pick in Round 2, the second pick in Round 3 and the top two spots in Round 4. Adding a dozen rookies would come with its own set of challenges, like fitting everyone on the roster.
The general assumption has been that the Browns are playing NFL “Moneyball.” The reality could see them package a handful of picks to move back up somewhere along the line.
Which GM is under the most pressure this weekend?
Ostensibly, Jerry Reese. The Giants just nudged Tom Coughlin out the door, are approaching the end of their Eli Manning window and just spent $200 million-plus in free agency. The last three seasons have all been of the losing variety (7–9, 7–9, 6–10) and Reese simply has not had much draft success of late. The Giants have to find an impact player at No. 10 (or higher, with a trade up).
The heat being felt by Los Angeles coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead is tough to gauge—Fisher seems to be immune from job security questions. But the Rams have been middling around .500 for four years and haven’t hit nine wins since 2003. When you add that misery to a relocation and a huge gamble in trading up for the No. 1 pick, then Goff (assuming he is that pick) better turn out to be a superstar.
Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman also tied his fate to a QB, likely Wentz. If that plan bombs, the draft pick-strapped Eagles may not be able to dig out for several seasons.
Indianapolis’s Ryan Grigson, Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff and New Orleans’s Mickey Loomis all find themselves needing to snap underachieving teams out of their malaise. Grigson had a built-in excuse last season due to Andrew Luck's injury, but it was a shock that both he and Chuck Pagano returned. Grigson’s legacy right now is more “traded for Trent Richardson” than it is “drafted Andrew Luck.”
Who will be the surprise picks?
Every first round features a prospect or two who unexpectedly leapfrogs the line. Last year, it was Philip Dorsett. In 2014, it was an injured Dominique Easley and safety Jimmie Ward. This year ... ?
Well, Hackenberg would qualify, as would Clemson safety T.J. Green. A little more off the beaten path are LSU CB/S Jalen Mills, Illinois DL Jihad Ward, Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon, Arkansas TE Hunter Henry and any number of offensive tackles.