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Quarterbacks are already shaping the top of the NFL draft

Anthony Richardson of Florida and CJ Stroud of Ohio State both are expected to go high in the first round of the NFL draft. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
8 min

Bryce Young did not do much at the NFL’s annual scouting combine. Nor did he have to.

The Alabama quarterback remains poised to be the first player selected when the draft begins next month, in the eyes of many top executives and talent evaluators, and for all of the perceived warts of this quarterback class, the industry is expecting four college passers to go within the first 10 picks. The order in which they will be selected remains unclear, but Young, Florida’s Anthony Richardson — who benefited most from the combine after his displays of freakish athletic talent — Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis would all probably be top 10 picks if the draft were held today, and some would not be shocked if half of the first eight selections were quarterbacks.

“Young will go first,” said one NFL personnel executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted by his team to speak freely about prospects, but who has seen this quarterback class extensively. “He checked the boxes he had to check. Measured 5-10. Hands are big enough. The Bears are trading out of that [No. 1 overall] pick, and someone is taking Young there.”

An NFL general manager, under similar restrictions about discussing prospects, concurred, and both officials said that from what they have gleaned, the Houston Texans (second overall), Indianapolis Colts (fourth) and Seattle Seahawks (fifth) are among the teams exploring what it might take to land the first pick.

“I would be surprised if Young isn’t the [first] pick,” the GM said.

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After that, it gets murky.

Richardson’s athletic prowess — the speed at which he ran with his chiseled, 244-pound frame; the way he threw the deep ball; and the prowess with which he leaped and jumped — drew raves in Indianapolis and cemented him as a top 10-ish pick. Some would not flinch if he was drafted in the top three. “I think he’s the second [quarterback] to go,” the executive said. “He’s going to be a two-to-three year project, I think, and you shouldn’t draft off the combine, but with only 13 games [started in college], you can’t ignore it, either.”

The general manager said his team, which is not in the quarterback market, would still have Young and Stroud ranked above Richardson, but would understand if Richardson’s unique upside results in him being taken as high as second overall.

“He’s the kind of kid I could see Seattle looking to move up for,” the executive said. “He fits their mold. But [Seattle GM John Schneider] loves to move back. He doesn’t like giving up picks to move up.”

The Lions, who pick sixth, undoubtedly will do extensive scouting work on all of these quarterbacks, but the executive and GM noted how much Detroit trusts veteran Jared Goff and how the team is finally positioned to contend in a less-competitive NFC.

“They love Goff and how he fits their culture, and that’s the kind of thing Dan Campbell really cares about,” the executive said, referring to Detroit’s head coach. “And they kept their play-caller [offensive coordinator Ben Johnson] and they think they can win now. I see them being okay with moving back if someone needs to go to six to get their quarterback.”

The scouting community, for what it’s worth, continues to buzz about the Texans being particularly smitten with Young and the Colts being enamored with Levis. The Carolina Panthers, who pick ninth, are fixated on drafting one of those four quarterbacks, while the Atlanta Falcons (eighth), for all of their purported devotion to second-year signal caller Desmond Ridder, are viewed by other franchises as probable to select a quarterback as well. The Raiders (seventh), meantime, have to add to their quarterback room in a big way. If that doesn’t involve a veteran like Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Garoppolo or Lamar Jackson, then it most certainly will involve one taken in the first round of the draft.

A perfect scenario for the Bears

Perhaps no team gained more from the combine than the Bears.

They are all about trading down, and having those four quarterbacks viewed as top-10 picks will help. Some evaluators also believe this draft is shorter on premium blue chip players than usual, making the opportunity cost for other teams gambling on a quarterback that high less significant.

“Everything is falling into place for them,” the executive said. “They could trade down more than once. They are in a great position to get a lot of picks.”

The GM said: “It would be hard for even them to screw this up.”

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Consider: The Bears could hypothetically drop to the second or even fourth pick well before the draft. As quarterbacks come off the board, they could still be primed for another drop to eighth or ninth — and with four quarterbacks going before them, Chicago would still be positioned to land one of the three or four best non-quarterbacks in the draft. For a team needing an overhaul in the trenches, the Bears could have their pick of any offensive lineman and most defensive linemen, while accumulating massive draft capital in this and future drafts.

And if Justin Fields, himself a recent first-round pick, isn’t the answer at quarterback, he could be traded next year, when Chicago should be loaded to move up the 2024 draft board to get a different quarterback, if necessary. “It’s a great class next year,” the evaluator said. “They could move two [first-round picks] if they had to" to get one of Southern Cal’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or Florida State’s Jordan Travis in the 2024 draft.

The buzz on Lamar Jackson

The barrage of teams leaking that they don’t have interest in Lamar Jackson, now available to negotiate with any team on Baltimore’s nonexclusive franchise tag, has the league buzzing. Many executives aren’t buying it, and multiple high ranking team officials pointed to the New York Jets and Falcons as franchises that virtually must explore that option.

Jets owner Woody Johnson “would be willing to pay Rodgers $60 million for one year, but won’t go after Lamar Jackson?” the GM asked rhetorically. “That doesn’t make sense. The Jets should be all over this. How could they not be? … This is one that’s over all of our heads [as general managers]. This comes from the top. One morning the owner calls you and says, ‘I want Lamar Jackson,’ and your job becomes getting Lamar Jackson. Same thing with the Falcons. They have to meet with this kid and see what he wants. You have to explore it.”

If the Ravens declined to match an offer sheet, they would receive two first-round picks as compensation, or the sides could work out other parameters as part of a sign and trade.

One longtime NFL agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing franchises he works with, suggested that an unexpected team might serve as a “chaos agent” of sorts and put together an offer sheet for Jackson that, at the very least, would put the Ravens in a massive cap bind, with a “goofy contract structure” that would compromise their roster-building abilities if matched. He suggested the Pittsburgh Steelers would be the perfect foil, although the Rooney family doesn’t roll like that. But what about the New England Patriots? It’s not like Bill Belichick is afraid to ruffle feathers or is concerned about what other executives and owners think about him.

Notes from around the league

Once Rodgers has a new team, expect Garoppolo to follow fairly quickly. The Texans, Dolphins, Raiders, Jets and Panthers are all at least keeping tabs on his situation. …

Rival teams see the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans as being in purge mode, attempting to move salaries and streamline their operations. That means there is plenty of chatter about Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Titans running back Derrick Henry, but many believe those teams are also open to moving their quarterbacks as well …

I would bet on two running backs going in the first round. Bijan Robinson of Texas was already a lock, but Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs’s combine performance has executives I trust convinced he will be among the first 31 players to come off the board. (The Dolphins, remember, were stripped of their first-round pick for violating league rules.)