When talking about team-building, the conversation, forever and always, starts with quarterbacks. That's no different for this draft cycle – expect healthy doses of Caleb Williams and Drake Maye over the next eight months.
But let's assume that Williams, for whatever reason, decides to return to USC for the 2024 season (it seems unlikely, but indulge us for a moment). For the first time in 28 years, a wide receiver could end as the first-overall pick. Back in 1996, when the Jets took Keyshawn Johnson, was the last time it happened.
Johnson had a solid 11-year career that included three Pro Bowls, but in another reminder that the entire process can feel like a throwing darts at names on a wall, the '96 draft class included six Hall of Famers – three first-rounders (Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison, Jonathan Ogden), a second-rounder (Brian Dawkins), a third-rounder (Terrell Owens) and a fifth-rounder (Zach Thomas).
Put another way: Harrison's son, Marvin Harrison Jr., could be the No. 1 overall pick and it would surprise exactly no one should the top QB decide to stay in college for another year. He was one of the best players in college football a season ago and the expectation is that he will continue to get better. And unlike nearly three decades ago when Johnson was drafted, the wide receiver position has become incredibly important as offenses continue to evolve, maximizing Harrison Jr.'s value even more.
Back on Earth, quarterbacks are still the most important position on the field, and without one your favorite NFL team is missing the playoffs. Which means that Williams and Maye will be under a microscope, and that a handful of other QBs will have a chance to work their way into the first-round conversation. Joe Burrow, Mac Jones and Kenny Pickett were Day 3 prospects heading into their final college seasons and all went in the first round. Who could be the next quarterback to make the leap from middle-of-the-road prospect to potential franchise quarterback?
In case you missed it, Rick Spielman and I had our Summer Scouting School series on the With the First Pick Podcast; we looked at some of the best draft-eligible players at each position ahead of the 2023 college football season. You can find all the episodes here: Quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends, offensive line, edge rushers, defensive linemen and linebackers, defensive backs.
1. Caleb Williams, QB, Southern California
It sounds silly when you say it out loud, but fully expect the "Caleb Williams is the next Patrick Mahomes" comparisons. The draft, in general, is full of hyperbole … but, man, this ain't too far off. Williams is special, and while he's not 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he's always the best player on the field.
2. Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
3. Olumuyiwa Fashanu, OT, Penn State
4. Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina
5. Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame
The 2023 offensive line class was a deep one but the '24 version could be even deeper, especially in the early rounds. Olu Fashanu might have been the first-overall pick had he not returned to Penn State, and Joe Alt and JC Latham look like plug-and-play starters based on their '23 tape.
6. Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia
7. Jared Verse, ED, Florida State
8. JC Latham, OT, Alabama
9. Dallas Turner, ED, Alabama
10. Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama
Jared Verse transferred from Albany and promptly destroyed LSU last September – he was unblockable for much of that game. He was then slowed by a knee injury and decided to return to school. He enters 2023 as my EDGE1. Dallas Turner, who played opposite Will Anderson a year ago, will get the "Will Anderson treatment" from SEC offenses this season and how he responds will go a long way in determining his draft stock. I'm guessing picks up where he left off.
11. Nate Wiggins, CB, Clemson
12. Patrick Paul, OT, Houston
13. JT Tuimoloau, ED, Ohio State
14. Emeka Egbuka, WR, Ohio State
15. Jer'Zhan Newton, DL, Illinois
The Illini defense was loaded a year ago; Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin and Sydney Brown were all Day 1 or Day 2 selections, and Newton, an explosive defensive lineman has a chance to be the next first-rounder to come out of Champaign.
16. Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia
17. Barrett Carter, LB, Clemson
18. Chop Robinson, ED, Penn State
19. Leonard Taylor, DL, Miami
20. Riley Leonard, QB, Duke
Six quarterbacks make an appearance on our preseason Top 50 Big Board; Williams and Maye are obvious choices, but Duke's Riley Leonard shows up at No. 20. That might be a little rich for some folks, and I know some teams have a Day 3 grade on him right now. But he's a good athlete (he might be more athletic than Maye), has a good arm, and can make throws out of structure. He'll need to play with more consistency, and I'd like to see him improve at getting through his reads and throwing with anticipation, but there's a lot to like.
21. Kalen King, CB, Penn State
22. Kamren Kinchens, S, Miami
23. Smael Mondon, LB, Georgia
24. Calen Bullock, S, Southern California
25. Ja'Tavion Sanders, TE, Texas
26. Javon Bullard, S, Georgia
27. Malik Nabers, WR, Louisiana State
28. Bralen Trice, ED, Washington
29. Cooper Beebe, OG, Kansas State
30. Cooper DeJean, CB, Iowa
31. Josh Newton, CB, TCU
32. Quinn Ewers, QB, Texas
Rick Spielman and I talked about Quinn Ewers on the most recent episode of the With the First Pick podcast previewing some of our favorite college players ahead of the 2023 season.
Ewers balled out against Alabama a year ago before going down with a shoulder injury. Had he been healthy, the Longhorns probably win that game; instead, Ewers missed time and when he returned he wasn't the same player. In '23, he'll also be playing knowing that Arch Manning is looking over his shoulder. How Ewers responds will be one of the things NFL teams want to see.
33. Laiatu Latu, ED, UCLA
34. Michael Hall Jr., DL, Ohio State
35. Xavier Worthy, WR, Texas
36. Maason Smith, DL, LSU
37. Bo Nix, QB, Oregon
38. Blake Corum, RB, Michigan
39. JJ McCarthy, QB, Michigan
Bo Nix lands five spots below Ewers. Two years ago, Nix looked like a completely different player. And when you talk to folks around the league, that had more to do with Auburn, not Nix. And when he transferred to Oregon for the 2022 season, he looked like a completely different player. There was some buzz that he would've been a top 100 player had he come out in the 2023 NFL Draft. Instead, he's back in Eugene for another year, and if he continues to improve, he'll solidify himself as a legit Day 2 prospect.
At 39, Michigan's JJ McCarthy is the final quarterback to crack the top 50. He's an incredible athlete with a live arm, and this season I'd like to see more consistency from one play to the next. He also needs to work on trusting his protection and layering the ball on intermediate throws; at times last season McCarthy was too reliant on his athleticism, left clean pockets early, and it affected his accuracy when he was forced into off-platform throws.
40. Keon Coleman, WR, Florida State
41. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., LB, Clemson
42. Kingsley Suamataia, OT, BYU
43. TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State
44. Jalin Conyers, TE, Arizona State
45. Rome Odunze, WR, Washington
46. DJ James, CB, Auburn
47. Curtis Jacobs, LB, Penn State
48. Javontez Spraggins, OG, Tennessee
49. Denzel Burke, CB, Ohio State
50. Jaheim Bell, TE, Florida State
The final 10 names include freakish athletes and high-upside players who need to take the next step in their development, and two of our favorite players in this group are both tight ends; Jalin Conyers was underutilized early in the Sun Devils' '23 season before getting hot. And Jaheim Bell, who lines up just about everywhere, struggled to get on the field at South Carolina and has transferred to Florida State in the hopes of seeing more targets. He reminds me of Chig Okonkwo, the Titans 2022 fourth-round pick out of Maryland.