ARLINGTON, Texas — You knew that a draft hosted by Jerry Jones’ team would be the biggest yet. Fitting, isn’t it, that it’s also shaping up to be big on drama.
For an event once held in total obscurity in a hotel meeting room, there’s never been anything like the 20,000-seat draft theater constructed in the end zone of AT&T Stadium. The fact that, in the days leading up to the event, no one except Browns GM John Dorsey can say confidently whose name will be called on that grand stage first, has only added to the hype.
About 36 hours before the Browns will be on the clock, the top prospects in Dallas for the draft were leading drills at an NFL-sponsored football clinic for local middle school kids on a field right across from AT&T Stadium. All four quarterbacks in attendance—USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson—may be taken on night one. It’s also possible that none of the four go first overall.
Since ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Tuesday morning that Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who is not in Dallas for the draft, is in the conversation for the No. 1 pick, there’s been growing chatter that he may, in fact, be the top guy. Dorsey has kept that information guarded from even people inside the team’s Berea headquarters, so sifting fact from smokescreen is a risky proposition. But here’s something to consider: After the combine, NFL Network reported that running back Saquon Barkley may very well be the No. 1 overall pick. The Browns would only have considered that if there were three quarterbacks they liked to the same degree, or if they felt the guy they really liked would still be there at 4. Could it have been Mayfield? Since then, of course, the dynamic of the top of the draft has changed—the Jets traded up to No. 3—and so may have the expectation of who’d be left at 4.
Darnold is ranked by many NFL decision-makers in this year’s class as the top quarterback, but you’ll also find execs who think Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman winner, may end up being the most successful, or those who are enticed by the potential of the big-armed Allen. Darnold—amusingly announced as “Donald” at Wednesday’s football clinic—seemed to be taking all the speculation and swirling rumors in stride as tonight’s theatrics approached.
“Going in the green room, sitting with our families and waiting for my name to be called—it doesn’t really get much easier than that,” Darnold said.
Rosen, on the other hand, made no bones about letting the media know he had absolutely no time for the hypothesizing about who will be drafted when and where.
“You guys have gotta stop asking me about who’s going 1, 2, 3,” Rosen said, bristling. “I don’t care. I just want to play football, and belong to a team, and that’s all it is.”
At least for the rest of us, the curiosity around the No. 1 pick is compelling because if you’re picking No. 1, no one can take the guy you like best. But part of why there’s been more intrigue this year is that the Browns are also selecting No. 4, the pick acquired from the Texans’ trading up for Deshaun Watson last year. The Browns may be keeping other teams guessing to drum up trade interest, particularly from quarterback-needy teams like the Bills who are desperate to find a trade-up partner, or to suss out other teams’ preferences to get a sense of who will and won’t be there with the fourth pick.
The fact that there’s no consensus No. 1 player in this year’s draft has also contributed to the build-up to tonight. There are enough QB-needy teams, starting with the Browns, that many around the league expect an early run on QBs. A case could be made for close to half the teams in the league to consider drafting a quarterback in the first round. At the same time, each of the quarterbacks has a major question mark, leading to wildly different opinions of what order they will come off the board. Of the top four, some evaluators believe Rosen is the most likely QB to slide—but all it takes is for one team to be seduced by his talent as a pure passer, and ignore concerns about his durability, lack of a winning résumé at UCLA or his rubbing some decision-makers the wrong way.
Whom the Browns select at No. 1, and whether or not the Giants select a QB or a higher-ranked non-QB such as Barkley or DE Bradley Chubb at No. 2, will set off vastly different scenarios based on those varying opinions of the different QBs.
But for now, and perhaps until about 8:15 p.m. tonight, Dorsey has been keeping his No. 1 selection close to the vest. The fact that, as of yesterday, plenty of people inside the organization had no idea who the pick will be is a reminder of how little is actually known before the draft begins. But this much, we can say confidently: This is the most suspense for a first round of the NFL draft in recent memory.
• Lamar Jackson spent Wednesday morning gleefully recounting the time he saw Bill Belichick laugh. He didn’t think he’d done anything of note to elicit it. It just surprised him, seeing the stoic Patriots coach who indifferently handed off the AFC Championship Trophy, show a lighter side.
“He, like, giggled and started laughing,” Jackson recounted, “and I said, ‘Oh, snap!’ ”
The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner drew a media crowd on Wednesday both because of his engaging personality and for the fact that he’s kept a low profile in the media during the months leading up to the draft. He emphasized that his mom is not his agent, she’s his “manager” (a lawyer will handle his rookie contract); laughed off the talk in the media of him moving to receiver; and, to the interest of many, disclosed that not only had he visited Patriots headquarters in Foxborough, Mass., but that the team’s offensive coordinator/potential head coach-in-waiting, Josh McDaniels, had come to South Florida a few weeks earlier to privately work out Jackson.
Pre-draft smokescreens taken into account, investing that much time is a sign that the Patriots have real interest in Jackson. Jackson said much of his time on visits with teams was spent on the whiteboard, digesting the X’s and O’s of the offenses teams run, and it’s a fair bet those are the paces the Patriots put him through during their private meetings. The Patriots’ history and myriad roster needs make it unlikely they’d stretch for Jackson; they have picks No. 23 and 31 in the first round or, in the event he slides, could try to get him in the second. For what it’s worth, Jackson said he took “top 30” visits to the Patriots, Saints, Browns, Bengals and Ravens, and both the Patriots and Texans worked him out in South Florida.
Where Jackson is taken is one of the most intriguing questions for tonight. In the meantime, he said he was “touched” by the interest from the most successful franchise, head coach and QB in the NFL. Earlier this month, Tom Brady commented on an NFL Network Instagram post speculating about Jackson landing in New England, writing “he’s a beast!!!!”
“It’s very cool to me, Belichick and [Tom] Brady himself,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how to take that as a feeling, I’m just happy for my name to be on their mind, period. In a positive way, not a negative. It’s cool to me.”
• Darnold said the most common question he got from teams was about his proclivity for turning the ball over last season. He gave away the football 22 times in 14 games, including three in the Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State.
“The turnover thing, the fumbles, that was the biggest thing that teams brought up, because for me there’s not really a ton of personality issues or off-the-field stuff,” he said.
What did he tell teams? “I just said, ‘I’ve been working on it,’ ” Darnold said. “I’ve been getting better at it. I’ve been doing some drills here and there to get better at it. I understand the No. 1 priority as a QB is to protect the football. I know that. The biggest thing for me was taking my left hand off the ball; but with that, there were a lot of plays when I took my left hand off the ball and I made a huge first down or I threw a touchdown, so there’s kind of a risk and reward there.”
• Barkley was not in attendance at the football clinic Wednesday morning, because his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter, Jada Clare, on Tuesday night in eastern Pennsylvania. Barkley was scheduled to travel to the Dallas area on Wednesday to be in attendance for tonight’s first round.
• One last thought: Something nearly every evaluator I’ve talked to this spring has brought up is the fact that the gap between pro football and college football has never been wider. The NFL, in large part out of necessity, has become more willing to adapt and fold in some of the college-style principles on offense, but the point is that the projection from college to the pros has never been more of a riddle. That’s one factor in the differing opinions around this year’s QB crop, but it applies to every position. As the legendary Bill Parcells said a few months back, “college football is simply a different game than pro football.”
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