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The 2023 NFL draft is already promising first-round fireworks

The Texans need a quarterback, but many of their fellow teams at the top of the 2023 draft might not. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Most years, a glance at the NFL’s draft order provides a portal into the teams that most need a quarterback. There often tends to be a correlation between franchises hungry for a legit passer and those getting first dibs at the incoming college talent.

This spring, perhaps, not so much.

A bevy of blockbuster trades in recent years — with teams swapping superstars and franchises moving up the draft board for quarterbacks — could render the 2023 draft somewhat unusual: Fewer teams than normal that probably will be picking in the top 10 are truly quarterback bereft. That, in turn, already has some creative general managers thinking about the possibility of executing future trades (and landing additional capital) by allowing other teams to move up to select the quarterbacks of their choosing. Sure, it may be a little early to consider this scenario — though who doesn’t love trade rumblings any time of year? — and certainly the draft order could shift between now and season’s end, but it’s worth pondering.

“Look at the teams picking in the top 10 [if the draft were held now] and tell me how many are definitely taking a quarterback,” said one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his team could be involved in such a trade. “I was looking at the standings, and it just kind of hit me. I see three, maybe four [quarterback-needy teams] in the top 10 and only one in the top three. Nick [Caserio, GM of the Texans,] is taking one, but it could get pretty wild after that.”

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The Texans (1-9-1) are the favorites to land the top pick; every other team in the NFL has at least three wins. Houston has been in an elongated tank and has abstained from investing any real assets at quarterback since it selected Deshaun Watson in the first round in 2017. There is no doubt the Texans are taking a quarterback with a top pick — but must it be the first overall pick, with Houston also possessing the Browns’ first-round pick, which probably will land in the top half of the draft?

The Chicago Bears have the league’s second-worst mark, but Justin Fields is emerging and is in just his second season. The Seattle Seahawks, via the Russell Wilson trade, have Denver’s pick — currently third — and plenty of executives and agents around the league expect them to re-sign Geno Smith after his remarkable rise.

The Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts — who each have four wins entering Sunday — are seen as no-brainers to draft signal-callers after churning through bridge quarterbacks in recent years, but the Detroit Lions, who are poised to pick in the top five with a selection acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, are another interesting case. Detroit also holds its own first-round pick, giving the front office leverage and flexibility to take a blue chip player at another position and still possibly get a top quarterback with that second pick. And current starter Jared Goff has been plenty functional under buzzy rookie offensive coordinator Ben Johnson as well. That could create even more real estate for another quarterback-desperate team to leap into the top 10: perhaps the Atlanta Falcons, the Tampa Buccaneers, the New York Giants or the Washington Commanders?

The team that would select sixth if the season ended before Sunday’s games is one that might win the Super Bowl: Philadelphia. The Eagles hold the Saints’ pick, and that alone opens up delicious possibilities given General Manager Howie Roseman’s proclivity to trade and the ascent of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. “What are the chances that Howie keeps that pick if someone is willing to pay a hefty price to move up for a quarterback? Five percent?” the general manager asked. I would take the under on that — and set the very early over/under at 2½ trades within the first 10 picks.

Doubts about the QB Class of 2023

The closer we get to bowl season, the more evaluators I trust are expressing reservations about this quarterback draft class.

An agent who has been involved with recruiting and getting to know several of the projected top quarterbacks and an executive who has seen them play live both thought that the hype surrounding Alabama’s Bryce Young has gotten a little out of control, although they agreed he would be the first quarterback taken.

“He will be good, but will he be great?” asked the agent, who is unable to speak publicly about college players. “He’s not going to come in and be a top six-to-15 quarterback, and I’m not sure his ceiling is higher than that.”

CJ Stroud of Ohio State lost steam — both in the Heisman Trophy race and in his productivity — as the season played out, and recent Buckeyes quarterbacks haven’t had much success in the NFL. (Fields may be the exception; Joe Burrow transferred to LSU before his stock skyrocketed.) Another quarterback often discussed at the top of the class is Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, a late bloomer who has blemishes as well. “He’s already [24], he took a long time to get here, and now he has an ACL” injury, an executive in the league said of Hooker, who tore the knee ligament in a loss to South Carolina late last month. “Show me a comp for that [in the NFL].”

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Kentucky’s Will Levis gets dinged for inaccuracy, and while Florida’s Anthony Richardson has the highest athletic ceiling of the class in the estimation of both the agent and the talent evaluator, he is also very raw. “It’s easy for me to say, but I’d tell him to enter the portal and stay in school another year,” the evaluator said. “Just not at Florida.”

Regardless, this is probably not going to be the plug-and-play group some were projecting back when there was a notion of passers potentially going 1-2-3. But demand, of course, will drive many of these quarterbacks higher than their pure evaluation might warrant.

Interim report

Interim coaches are usually mere place holders, but the job Steve Wilks is doing in Carolina continues to draw strong buzz both within that franchise and around the league, and I wouldn’t discount his chances to stay on board should his team keep showing the passion that has led to a 3-3 stretch. The defense has gotten better under his guidance; the Panthers are staying competitive despite an untenable quarterback situation; and some very important people in that organization have championed him. Strong work. In Indianapolis, meanwhile, Jeff Saturday’s inexperience is showing and there are some obvious issues with the Colts’ offense, but never discount owner Jim Irsay’s proclivity to do whatever he wants, regardless of what others might think (see: hiring Saturday in the first place). If he feels like hiring Saturday long term, he will.

Don’t ignore Jacksonville

Some smart people around the league who have watched tape of the Jaguars over the past two weeks believe Trevor Lawrence is going to be an impact player in the final third of the season. He shed his fourth-quarter woes in an improbable comeback win over the Ravens last Sunday, leading the Jaguars to 18 points in the final six minutes. One longtime evaluator was gushing over him (“Josh Allen vibes,” he told me). For what it’s worth, the Jaguars (4-7) and Titans (7-4) have an identical net touchdown margin (plus-one), and the Jaguars have a better scoring differential than the AFC South leaders. Jacksonville’s strength of victory metric (.478) is also second only to the Bengals’ (.488) in the AFC. And Jacksonville has a solid 4-4 record within the AFC. With two games still looming against the Titans, it just might make things interesting down the stretch.

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