The easy prediction for the 2018 NFL Draft is that quarterbacks will come flying off the board, starting with the No. 1 overall pick.
There are four potential franchise quarterbacks in the draft, and about a dozen teams that need one for the not-so-distant future.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, the No. 1 pick was shrouded in mystery. No one outside of Browns general manager John Dorsey and maybe owner Jimmy Haslam had any idea who the pick would be.
Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold? Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield? Wyoming’s Josh Allen? Or UCLA’s Josh Rosen?
Four tantalizing prospects, with no consensus. Dorsey is going to keep everyone guessing, perhaps right up until the draft begins Thursday night in Dallas.
“You can go around a room and probably get four or five different opinions on how they should be stacked,” Broncos executive vice president John Elway said.
Early reports had the Browns taking Darnold. This week the buzz centered around Mayfield and Allen. The only one who hasn’t been linked to the Browns is Rosen. Would it surprise anyone if he were the pick?
“There are a lot of smoke and mirrors and smokescreens that get thrown around this week,” Titans GM Jon Robinson said.
All four prospects have exceptional résumés. Darnold has the prototypical quarterback build and played in a pro-style offense. Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy and is an electric player. Allen has the strongest arm in the last 10 years. Rosen is tough, competitive, and smart as a whip.
They also each have glaring flaws. Darnold had 22 interceptions and 21 fumbles in two seasons. Mayfield is only a little over 6 feet tall. Allen has mechanical and accuracy issues. Rosen has questions about his durability and coachability.
After years of swinging and missing on quarterbacks, the Browns can’t afford to get this decision wrong.
“It’s going to be important for the Browns to identify what they want out of their quarterback more so than which quarterback is the best one here, because we can sit here and argue about which one is the best until we’re blue in the face,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said.
The uncertainty at No. 1 has huge repercussions for the rest of the draft. No one knows whether the Giants are going to draft their quarterback of the future at No. 2. The Jets made a big trade up to No. 3, but still don’t know which quarterback they’re going to get.
Will the Cardinals or Bills make a trade with the Browns to get the No. 4 pick? Will Denver pick a QB at No. 5, or trade down with a team that wants one? Will teams with older veteran quarterbacks — the Patriots, Saints, and Chargers — make a big play for one of the four young ones?
Some mock drafts have Rosen falling out of the top 10. Some have Allen going No. 1, and some have him going No. 30.
The permutations for this draft are mind-boggling.
“It’s hard these days to overhype an NFL draft, but I think people will be talking about this one for a long time,” said NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, the longtime Cowboys personnel executive.
Quarterbacks have never gone 1-2-3-4 in the draft, and only twice have they gone 1-2-3: Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini in 1971, and Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith in 1999.
The Giants might throw a wrench in things by taking running back Saquon Barkley or pass rusher Bradley Chubb with the second pick, but the top four quarterbacks could all be off the board by the fifth or sixth pick. The position is just too important, and the talent too scarce.
“When the Houston Texans had Deshaun Watson, they averaged 35 points a game; when they didn’t, they averaged 13,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “So the ‘franchise quarterback’ situation is riveting.”
And it’s not just the top four quarterbacks that will have teams jockeying for position.
Lamar Jackson is arguably the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in the draft, and should have several teams vying for him in the middle to late first round. Mason Rudolph might go in the first round, as well.
The success of Jimmy Garoppolo has created buzz around other small-school quarterbacks, such as Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, Western Kentucky’s Mike White, and Washington State’s Luke Falk.
“The guy I’m most excited about is Lamar Jackson,” Mayock said. “He’s the most exciting athlete in the draft. I think somebody in the first round is going to make a philosophical and schematic commitment to this kid and change what they do offensively.
“In my head, guys like [Bill] Belichick and [Sean] Payton, who think outside the box and are very smart men, whether or not they’d be looking at Lamar Jackson and committing to that young man down the road. I think New Orleans is a potential landing spot for him.”
While this draft is heavy on quarterbacks, it is light in four positions that are usually the most popular: wide receiver, left tackle, edge rusher, and cornerback.
The most interesting non-quarterback is Barkley, the Penn State running back whom many consider the best pure talent in the draft, and perhaps the best running back since Adrian Peterson in 2007.
The history of the position — both the high risk of injury, and the history of finding productive running backs later in the draft — combined with the economics of the league dictate that teams should never draft a running back in the top 10.
But Barkley is so highly regarded — both as a player and a person — that some GM won’t be able to help himself and will snag Barkley in the top 10. That GM might be the Giants’ Dave Gettleman with the No. 2 pick.
“There are a lot of good running backs. This guy is different, though,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said. “If the Giants want to be a run-first team, then Barkley makes all the sense in the world. I think he’s a franchise-changing type player.”