The N.F.L. draft, the league’s biggest spectacle besides the Super Bowl, is a famously unpredictable affair that can humble even the most accurate forecasters.
A team’s draft selections are usually the culmination of countless hours spent scouting on the road, the strategies of coaches and the calculations of team executives — a mix that produces surprises every year and draws millions of viewers. That coordination has been thrown out of whack this year, as coronavirus guidelines have forced team personnel to scout prospects without being able to travel or conduct in-person interviews.
Mock drafts are always speculative, and their vast popularity suggests fans consume them the way they’re intended: as jumping-off points for debates, rather than predictions you can take to the bank. According to The Huddle Report, which scores mock drafts after the real one takes place, last year’s best forecasts nailed just 11 of the 32 first-round picks. It’s largely guesswork meant for entertainment.
But analyzing a slew of the mock drafts ahead of this year’s event, scheduled to begin on Thursday, a few conclusions have emerged as conventional wisdom among professional and armchair analysts. Here’s what the so-called experts largely agree on, and where they’re split.
Joe Burrow will be the first pick.
There isn’t much doubt about this. Burrow, the quarterback who led Louisiana State University to a national title, is widely believed to be the top choice of the Cincinnati Bengals, drafting first over all.
Forecasters are less certain about the next few quarterback prospects. Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa are considered likely to be chosen in the top 10, with San Diego, Miami and Jacksonville as potential destinations.
Others aren’t so sure. Jonathan Jones, a reporter at CBS Sports, has Tagovailoa, who had hip surgery in November, falling to the 17th pick, where the New England Patriots would trade up to make him Tom Brady’s replacement.
“With his medicals, Tagovailoa sees his value drop to the middle of the first round,” he wrote.
A top tier has emerged.
Aside from the quarterbacks, there’s little variation in the other players expected to be picked in the top five. Most expect the top of the draft to include Chase Young, a defensive end from Ohio State; Jeff Okudah, a cornerback from Ohio State; and Tristan Wirfs, an offensive tackle from Iowa.
“Assuming the Redskins do not get a can’t-refuse offer to trade back, they should jump at the chance to get this cornerstone talent for the team’s defensive rebuild under defensive-minded Ron Rivera,” Vinnie Iyer wrote of Young at The Sporting News.
Other names often seen in the top 10 of mock drafts include Isaiah Simmons, a linebacker from Clemson; and Derrick Brown, a defensive tackle from Auburn.
Wide receivers will fall out of the top 10.
Many analysts consider the wide receiver crop to be among the deepest in years, led by Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. But the teams at the top of the draft are believed to have more pressing needs.
The mock drafts largely have a rapid run on receivers beginning as early as the 11th pick by the New York Jets. Some receiver-needy teams with picks in the 20s, like the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings, could move up to pass other teams that may select receivers, including the Las Vegas Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.
But the sense that teams could find first-round talent at the receiving position in the second round has some forecasters suspecting teams could look to other positions early on.
“Sometimes the draft falls weird, and the incredible excess at receiver in this draft makes so many teams with wideout needs say they’ll wait till the second and third rounds,” Peter King wrote at NBC Sports.
There won’t be a running back taken early.
There’s no Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley in this draft. NFL.com’s four mock drafters don’t have a running back going before the Miami Dolphins’ 26th pick; Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins are considered the top candidates.
“It is tough to find landing spots for running backs in this year’s first round, but the Dolphins could be one of the destinations,” Dane Brugler wrote at The Athletic.
It would be the second straight year without a running back taken early. Last year, Oakland made Josh Jacobs the first running back selected at the 24th pick.