The 2017 NFL season was defined by the rise of the backup quarterback. Nick Foles stepped in for Carson Wentz and led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl title. At this point last year, Case Keenum was looking for a backup job in the league; eight months later, he led the Vikings to the NFC championship game.
The 2018 draft, on the other hand, will be dominated by five potential franchise quarterbacks. Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson could all hear their names called on the first night, and if the majority of them are hits, this draft class has the potential of being remembered in the same vein as the 1983 class the produced John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly or the 2004 class that featured Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Will the Cleveland Browns finally find their quarterback in 2018? They passed on two potential stars in successive drafts. In 2016, they traded away the opportunity to draft Wentz, who was an NFL MVP candidate for the Eagles this past season before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in December. They did the same in 2017, trading away the No. 12 pick to the Houston Texans, who then drafted Clemson star Deshaun Watson. All he did was turn Houston’s offense into a point-scoring juggernaut for seven weeks before he tore his ACL in late October.
With five potential first-round quarterbacks staring them in the face, there’s a quarterback in the Browns’ future. Can they finally draft the right guy to change their fortunes?
1. Cleveland Browns (1-15 in 2017)
Needs: QB, RB, WR
Sam Darnold, QB, USC
The Browns aren’t quite starting over, but they must finally get it right at quarterback. DeShone Kizer isn’t that guy. Darnold is far from perfect, but I trust him with the ball in his hands. He has touch, toughness and the ability to come through in the clutch. Pinpoint ball placement and icy cool define his game and will be a welcome sight in Cleveland where there are some foundation pieces (Myles Garrett, Jamie Collins, Joel Bitonio). New general manager John Dorsey may have a few options via free agency or a trade, but bringing Darnold to Cleveland would be a win for the GM.
2. New York Giants (3-13)
Needs: RB, QB, OL
Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
A guard never gets anyone really excited — and a trade could be in the cards here if New York decides not to select a quarterback — but Nelson is one of the best players in any of the past five or six drafts. The Giants had no running game the past three years and have lost the bully identity that defined them in their four championship years. Drafting Nelson won’t answer the nagging questions surrounding Eli Manning’s future. But if they add Nelson, draft a dynamic three-down running back in the second round and then get a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., back, the Giants could be more ready to compete than if they turn to a rookie QB. An offensive tackle would make the most sense, but there isn’t one worth this selection.
3. Indianapolis Colts (4-12)
Needs: OL, Pass-rusher, RB
Bradley Chubb, Edge, N.C. State
In future mock drafts there will be trades, and this is a prime spot for GM Chris Ballard to trade down for additional picks. The Colts have the least talent of any team in the AFC South, and Ballard knows he needs volume. That said, Indianapolis was 31st in the league in sacks, and creating pressure is a must against quarterbacks. Chubb is the most gifted and versatile edge player in this draft class and fits … for now.
4. Cleveland Browns (from Houston Texans, 4-12)
Needs: QB, RB, WR
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
The Browns and their fans seemingly prefer an alternate reality in which they have Deshaun Watson on their roster rather than this pick, yet a Darnold-Barkley combination could be the tonic for the future. A rookie-rookie combination worked in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott in 2016. This may also be a potential trade spot, if the Browns do indeed select Darnold at No. 1. The Broncos and Jets both need quarterbacks and sit at spots five and six. If a team is in love with a quarterback and fears the Broncos or Jets will snatch the one it wants, it’s time to call Dorsey.
5. Denver Broncos (5-11)
Needs: QB, OG, OT
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
The Broncos’ coaching staff got an up-close look at both Mayfield and Josh Allen at the Senior Bowl. There are seemingly no secrets with Mayfield, but that five day stint may convince John Elway that Mayfield needs to be the new face of the franchise. A Kirk Cousins signing is also possible, which would move quarterback down the priority list. The quarterback that eventually goes under center is going to need protection. If Cousins signs in Denver and Nelson survives to pick No. 5, Nelson’s selection should be a fait accompli.
6. New York Jets (5-11)
Needs: QB, OT, WR
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen is a polarizing prospect, but he seems to be more suited for the bright lights in New York than Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson. In his tenure as GM, Mike Maccagnan already made one major reach when the Jets took Christian Hackenberg in the second round in 2016. The former Penn State quarterback was a project, remains a project and may always be a project. Allen isn’t quite the project Hackenberg is but there’s a lot of work that must be done to get him ready to be the face of the Jets franchise. Rosen is a bit more plug-and-play and a better option for Maccagnan, who must get the Jets back in contention soon.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
Needs: DE, CB
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/Nickel, Alabama
The Buccaneers spent a first-round pick on Vernon Hargreaves III a couple of years ago, but the NFC South demands a secondary worthy of stopping Julio Jones, the Saints passing game and the Panthers’ varied offensive options. The defensive line needs a jolt, but there are very few options at this spot. If Chubb does fall to here, the Buccaneers need to go in that direction.
8. Chicago Bears (5-11)
Needs: WR, CB
Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
Ward is the best cover cornerback in this draft and the Bears desperately need his cover ability. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears add veteran offensive free agent options for second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, especially given the lack of receiver possibilities at the top of the draft. Ward makes the most sense at this spot.
9. San Francisco 49ers* (6-10) (*Pending tie-breaking coin flip with Oakland)
Needs: WR, ILB, CB
Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
Jackson would be a perfect fit opposite 2017 rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. Long, athletic and aggressive, Jackson is the type of cornerback the NFL has made a priority the past decade.
10. Oakland Raiders* (6-10) (*Pending tie-breaking coin flip with San Francisco)
Needs: ILB, CB
Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
There’s been a void on the Oakland defense for a while now, and it exists at linebacker. Edmunds can play any linebacker position and is the type of athlete that Al Davis would have loved.
11. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
Needs: ILB, OG, OT (if Ja’Wuan James isn’t re-signed)
Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
The Dolphins also have a void at the linebacker position, minus Kiko Alonso. Smith is a sideline-to-sideline demon who can play on all three downs. Playing behind the Dolphins’ defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, Smith could register triple digit tackles annually.
12. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)
Needs: OG, ILB, DT
DaRon Payne, DT, Alabama
Smith and Edmunds are off the board, and there’s no offensive guard worthy of this pick. As such, the Bengals add the best interior defensive lineman to put next to Geno Atkins. Payne is a versatile, run-stopping monster that’ll be a perfect fit in the AFC North.
13. Washington Redskins (7-9)
Needs: ILB, DT, Interior OL
Vita Vea, NT, Washington
The Redskins were 32nd against the run last year, but that’ll change with Vea in the middle of the defense. The Redskins will have a difficult choice if Edmunds, Smith and Vea are on the board at this spot. The value for the remaining offensive guards doesn’t truly match this selection, but Will Hernandez (UTEP) shouldn’t be eliminated from consideration for this pick, either.
14. Green Bay Packers (7-9)
Needs: CB, RB, OLB
Arden Key, OLB, LSU
The Packers have a new GM (Brian Gutekunst) and he may not want to take a flier on the most severe boom-or-bust prospect in this draft. When he’s right, Key can be the dominant edge rusher in this draft class. Unfortunately, the other side of that equation is ugly. He’s had a multitude of issues off the field and that may be more than a new GM wants to handle in his first draft.
15. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Needs: QB, WR, OT
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
The Cardinals hired Steve Wilks, former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator, as their head coach. That’s important because no one understands how dangerous Jackson will be as an NFL quarterback more than a man accustomed to game planning for a gamebreaker of Jackson’s ilk. Jackson is going to be a work in progress in the passing game, but watch NFC West defensive coordinators panic when his name is called.
16. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
Needs: OT, WR
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
It seems fitting that in his final draft as the Baltimore Ravens’ GM, Ozzie Newsome, once an Alabama pass-catcher, selects an Alabama pass-catcher. The Breshad Perriman experiment hasn’t worked out, and Newsome must find a way to give Joe Flacco more weapons in the passing game. Ridley is the most polished receiver in this class and should contribute consistently as a rookie.
17. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
Needs: OT, LB, S
Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma
Protecting an aging Philip Rivers and opening holes for star running back Melvin Gordon is paramount for the Chargers in 2018 and beyond. As such, the Chargers’ offensive line needs replenishing, and Brown is the best of an average offensive tackle class this year. Adding Brown and Forrest Lamp (last year’s second-rounder who missed all of 2017 with an injury) could fortify this offensive line significantly.
18. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Needs: CB, OG, S
Derwin James, S, Florida State
Kam Chancellor’s future is in doubt, and there’s no guarantee Bradley McDougald will return, as he is an unrestricted free agent. The last time the Seahawks drafted a safety in the first round, they hit a grand slam in 2010 with Earl Thomas. Even if one of those two safeties returns, James will fit as an intriguing sub-package chess piece.
19. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Needs: DT, CB, WR
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
There is some question about whether Dez Bryant will be moved in the offseason, but even with Bryant back, the Cowboys can use more firepower at receiver. Terrance Williams has been inconsistent, and he produced no touchdowns in 2017. Sutton is a height/weight/speed animal with downfield ability to stretch the field to help every Dallas skill player, especially Prescott.
20. Detroit Lions (9-7)
Needs: RB, DE, LB
Marcus Davenport, DE/OLB, UTSA
Potential unrestricted free agent defensive end Ziggy Ansah will play a large role in what GM Bob Quinn and new Head Coach Matt Patricia want to do with this pick. First of all, will Patricia run more 3-4 concepts or stay with more 4-3/even fronts? If Patricia decides to run more 3-4/odd fronts, will Ansah fit at outside linebacker like Patricia may want? Is he worth significant free agent/franchise tag money to play out of position? Davenport, on the other hand, is a great fit at outside linebacker. He has a basketball background and can dominate a game when he wants.
21. Buffalo Bills (9-7)
Needs: QB, C, LB
Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
I don’t imagine Allen will make it to number 21, but if he does, the Bills can hang on to their next pick and still get the quarterback they desire. Allen is as gifted as any draft prospect over the past decade. He has a cannon arm, movement skills, but wild, scattershot accuracy and ball placement.
22. Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City Chiefs 10-6)
Needs: QB, C, LB
Billy Price, C/G, Ohio State
The sudden retirement of Pro Bowl center Eric Wood leaves a gaping hole in the middle for the Bills. If there’s a player in this draft that would fit Buffalo hand in glove, though, it’s Price. He played one year at center, but was an outstanding interior offensive lineman for the Buckeyes. The Bills conclude their first round picks with the quarterback-center battery they’ll have for the next decade plus.
23. Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Needs: CB, OG
Mike Hughes, CB, Central Florida
The Rams franchised cornerback Trumaine Johnson the past two seasons, and a third tag would cost them $24 million in 2018. That won’t happen … or shouldn’t happen. The Rams may still get a long-term deal done with Johnson, though it’s highly unlikely. Even if they re-sign him, they could still utilize a speed merchant with kick return skills such as Hughes. He can press receivers and run with anyone, which will allow defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to call more of his aggressive man-coverage game plan.
24. Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Needs: WR, OL, DE
James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
After losing Ted Ginn Jr. to the Saints in free agency and trading Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills, the Panthers lacked firepower at receiver. In the playoff loss to the Saints, quarterback Cam Newton’s receiving corps consisted of Devin Funchess and a bunch of no-names. Washington can be a major deep threat immediately.
25. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Needs: Pass-rusher, OG, OT
Isaiah Wynn, OG/OT, Georgia
The ACL injury to Jack Conklin in the AFC divisional playoff round will be problematic for this offensive line. The good news is he’ll eventually return to his right tackle spot. The bad news is the Titans’ guard situation is less than optimal. Wynn is the perfect selection here because he can play both tackle and guard. He could step into Conklin’s spot until Conklin is fully healthy and then slide inside for either guard Josh Kline or Quinton Spain.
26. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Needs: OG, DT, WR
Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP
Hernandez is a straight-up masher at the line of scrimmage. He’s 340 pounds of pure power and nastiness, and he’ll be a major key to a resurgent running game in 2018 and beyond.
27. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Needs: TE, DE, QB
Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for 139 receptions while tight end Coby Fleener had only 22 in 2017. It’s obvious the Saints have a huge need for a matchup nightmare tight end such as Goedert. Quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t had a threat at tight end since he lost Jimmy Graham in 2015.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
Needs: LB, TE, RB
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Evans is nowhere near the player that Ryan Shazier was before his spinal injury, but Evans has a ton of potential as a valuable asset for this Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers missed Shazier significantly down the stretch, and Evans can help mitigate that loss moving forward.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Needs: TE, OG, WR
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Quarterback Blake Bortles’s 2017 playoff performances appeared to earn him a return ticket for 2018, which means it’s time to get him a weapon in the passing game. Kirk might be a perfect fit for the Jaguars. Keelan Cole is a downfield threat, as is Dede Westbrook. Allen Hurns is an intermediate possession receiver. Allen Robinson is the number one option, but he tore his ACL in last season’s opener and he’s a potential unrestricted free agent. If Bortles has a dependable slot receiver who can make plays after the catch, look out. Kirk is as dynamic in that area as any receiver in this class.
30. Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Needs: OG, QB, Offensive weapon
Ronald Jones, RB, USC
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook will return, but he missed most of the season with an ACL tear. How much of his burst and explosiveness will he lose after a full year of rehab? Latavius Murray averaged fewer than four yards a carry after signing a three-year free agent deal. Jones gives the Vikings’ offense a bona fide home-run hitter with the potential of an Alvin Kamara-like impact. This reeks of best player available, but it makes sense with the current Vikings running back situation.
31. New England Patriots (13-3)
Needs: Pass rusher, TE, LB
Harold Landry, Edge, Boston College
After losing Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones over the past two years, the Patriots haven’t had an individual threat off the edge. They registered 42 sacks on the season, but there was no true edge threat until James Harrison signed late in the year. Landry would provide the new defensive coordinator with an athletic, pass-rushing disrupter that was lacking in 2017.
32. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
Needs: CB, LB, OT
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
He can play any of the linebacker positions in Jim Schwartz’s defense. Mychal Kendricks played the entire season while Jordan Hicks was injured and only played six games in 2017. Even with those two in tow, the Eagles add a wildly athletic, 6-foot-4, 240-pound play-making defender to a unit that was already one of the best in the league.
John Harris contributes to The Washington Post’s NFL draft coverage. He is the sideline reporter and football analyst for the Houston Texans and owner of footballtakeover.com.