Something probably is going to happen Thursday night that no one saw coming. And really, that is the idea of the NFL draft.
Four years ago this month, Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell was driving home from work and swapping draft info with a buddy over the phone. A few minutes into the conversation, the topic of UCF quarterback Blake Bortles came up. “Hey, uh, I gotta take this,” Caldwell said. “I’ll call you back.”
There was no incoming call. Rather than lie, Caldwell did everything he could over those few weeks in April 2014 to skirt the topic of the guy he really wanted. And there were functional reasons for it.
First, he heard rumblings the Texans—with then-first-year coach Bill O’Brien, a protégé of UCF coach George O’Leary—were considering trading out of the No. 1 spot with an eye on taking Bortles later. Caldwell didn’t want to prevent that from happening. Second, he knew Rams GM Les Snead, who Caldwell worked with in Atlanta, thought highly of Bortles. Caldwell wanted Snead to look at Bortles with the 13th pick rather than at 2.
So again, Caldwell and the handful of others who knew (owner Shad Khan, analytics chief Tony Khan, coach Gus Bradley among them) weren’t being dishonest. They just weren’t telling the whole truth. It worked out as the Jags got their man at No. 3 after the Texans took Jadeveon Clowney and the Rams tabbed Greg Robinson.
Two years later, the Chargers were able to run the same kind of interference around their affection—buzz was they’d take an offensive tackle—for Ohio State pass rusher Joey Bosa. Similarly, last year, few believed the Bears would take a quarterback, before they traded up a spot to land the guy that GM Ryan Pace quietly wanted all along—North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky.
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The point is that it doesn’t matter how many phone calls reporters make ahead of Thursday night. There probably will be a couple of those coming that no one is forecasting.
Could UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen slide through the Top 10? Will Louisville’s Lamar Jackson go 16 or 46? Will Denver be faced with a decision on taking Baker Mayfield or listening to Chris Harris to try and give an aging core another piece right now? Will the Giants play it safe and take Saquon Barkley, roll the dice on a quarterback, or trade out?
There’s a ton of storylines to watch going into tonight’s festivities. But what I can’t wait for is to see if someone pulls the kind of rabbit out of his hat that Caldwell did in 2014, Chargers GM Tom Telesco did in 2016 or Pace did in 2017.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take another good look at the quarterbacks, with help from a mental conditioning coach who’s worked with each of the Big 4 and a Pac-12 defensive coordinator who’s coached against three of them; we’ll also check on two of this offseason’s more polarizing figures, Rob Gronkowski and Odell Beckham; and we’ll get an assessment on a deep running back class.
But we’re starting with what I think you want, and that’s an idea of where your team is looking in Round 1. (Houston, Kansas City and the Rams don’t have picks, so we’re skipping them. I’ll take you through what I’ve gathered and also share what a pro scouting exec told me about each team’s needs; those will be in parentheses to start each paragraph. Let’s go...
1. Cleveland Browns (and 4)
(QB, OT, CB) The strongest link I have to any quarterback here? Word is that owner Jimmy Haslam has been asking his peers about Josh Allen, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley is said to like the Wyoming quarterback. Other than that? I can say definitively that Mayfield has been part of the conversation, as we hinted he would be on April 12. And other teams can’t believe it’s not USC’s Sam Darnold.
As for the fourth pick, there’s increasing buzz that the Browns really like N.C. State rusher Bradley Chubb to pair with Myles Garrett. And if you want a dark horse, Cleveland loves Ohio State CB Denzel Ward too. Or they could deal out, with a pick that could explode in value if the Giants pivot and take a quarterback after all. If Cleveland does deal down, keep an eye on Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey.
2. New York Giants
(QB, RB, OT) The draft will turn here. GM Dave Gettleman has kept a small, tight circle over the last month. Those who know him have pointed out a few things to me. One, he has zero history of trading down. Two, the “gold jacket” comment he made should be heeded. And three, this is a fork in the road: Double down on Eli Manning and create a short window, or put him on the clock by taking a QB.
Most people I’ve talked to believe we’ll get the former, with Saquon Barkley as the safe bet as a player who could help give the 37-year-old franchise QB new life.
3. New York Jets
(QB, OT, OLB) The affection for Mayfield didn’t just pop up. The Jets see a star, but Rosen’s got advocates in the building and there’s a belief the staff can handle his personality. Darnold dropping into New York’s lap would add another layer to the discussion. I’ll just say that Allen going 1 and Barkley 2 would create the best kind of problem for the team that sold out early to come and get its quarterback.
5. Denver Broncos
(QB, OG, RB) Word is, Denver has one quarterback it’d consider here. I believe Mayfield is that quarterback, with Gary Kubiak and personnel chief Matt Russell as his believers. That said, this is John Elway’s call, and he’s very open to dealing down, with Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and Ward also in play if he sticks.
6. Indianapolis Colts
(LB, DE, OL) Chubb isn’t getting here, in my opinion. So my educated guess is that it’ll be one of the linebackers, either Georgia’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds. And how about this for GM Chris Ballard: I’ve heard Smith compared to Ray Lewis. And who was the most common comp for last year’s first-rounder, Malik Hooker? Ed Reed. Middle of the defense = Set for a long time.
7. Tampa Bay Bucs
(S, CB, RB) There’s a loud drumbeat that Tampa GM Jason Licht likes Florida State S Derwin James, despite what the scene at FSU’s pro day might’ve led some to believe. The safe play, if it’s not James, would be Alabama S Minkah Fitzpatrick.
8. Chicago Bears
(OL, OLB, CB) I can’t find anyone who doesn’t think the Bears are taking Nelson if he gets here, a product of the hire of his position coach from college. But I also know that guys going back to last year’s staff were aware that Pace likes Ward a lot. And Smith and Edmunds would be dark horses here.
9. San Francisco 49ers
(LB, S, WR) As often as you hear Nelson-to-the-Bears, you’ll hear Edmunds-to-the-Niners, where the 19-year-old would fit into a K.J. Wright-like role. They’re also looking for corners, but Ward may be a shaky fit. One interesting thought that was passed along to me: Fitzpatrick as a corner for the Niners.
10. Oakland Raiders
(LB, CB, WR) Smith isn’t getting here, I don’t think. So this is another team that’s looking at defensive backs, and I think they’d be pleased to see Ward available. Also, they’ve been linked in scouting circles to Texas-San Antonio DE Marcus Davenport.
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11. Miami Dolphins
(QB, DT, LB) The perceived floor for Rosen, with fleeting hope of getting Mayfield. I don’t think they’d deal up for a QB, and I believe Washington DT Vita Vea is one player that they’d look at closely.
12. Buffalo Bills (and 22)
(QB, LB, OL) There’s pressure on the Bills brass to get a quarterback, and there’s been buzz on Buffalo moving way up for Allen (maybe dealing up twice to do it) or more conservatively for Rosen. But I don’t think GM Brandon Beane is going to allow another team to hold him at gunpoint. If they strike out on the big four, a linebacker like Alabama’s Rashaan Evans could be in the mix. And at 22, if they hang on to that pick, the center/guards (Iowa’s James Daniels, Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow) make sense.
13. Washington Redskins
(DL, OG, RB) Both Vea and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne have consistently been linked to Washington by teams I’ve talked to. But the Redskins could use help on all three levels of their defense.