“Way Too Early” first-round NFL mock drafts are out for 2018. Almost all of them have a similar theme: a lot of quarterbacks coming off the board early.
There have been crazy quarterback years before. Six quarterbacks were chosen in the 1983 first round. Three of them were future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino. 1999 saw five quarterbacks – Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper, and Cade McNown – picked in the top 12. The top 12 is also where teams scrambled to draft future stars Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder after Cam Newton had been chosen in 2011.
The 2018 first round could top all three of those years. There’s a tremendous incentive to draft a quarterback now, and there will be many to choose from.
First, you need a quarterback. You need a quarterback to win a Super Bowl, unless you’ve erected one of the NFL’s all-time great defenses. You need a quarterback to keep your job, if you’re a head coach or general manager.
Second, the present salary cap rules all but beg teams to draft quarterbacks. Quarterback salaries have skyrocketed. Fifteen starting quarterbacks, virtually every stable veteran one, will earn north of $20 million next season. Having a viable starting quarterback locked into a five-year rookie deal offers an enormous competitive advantage, $15 million to $20 million of salary to invest elsewhere. It worked out quite well for Seattle in the early Russell Wilson era.
Third, there’s little downside, unless you gut future draft boards to move up. The rookie cap means you’re not mortgaging your future on a $50 million rookie quarterback. If you whiff, just draft another.
This year had one of the weaker quarterback classes in recent years. None of the 2017 prospects looked “can’t miss.” None even looked like a “consensus Top 15-caliber pick.” Nonetheless, the strong incentive meant three quarterbacks – Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and DeShaun Watson – were off the board by pick 12. What happens with a much deeper 2018 pool?
Sam Darnold is the media No. 1. We’ve been here before entering the season with a USC starting quarterback. Matt Barkley fell to the fourth round. Matt Leinart fell to No. 10 overall and never quite panned out. But Darnold has prototype size. He’s a great athlete. He has a strong arm. To the layman, he appears to have instinctual football acumen.
NFL scouting people love Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Adam Schefter reported a prediction that Allen would be the No. 1 overall pick. He ranked outside the Top 20 in passer rating last season and threw 15 interceptions. But the cardinal rule of NFL draft-dom is never to let stats get in the way of tools.
One guy who could pass them both is UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Rosen was knocked off presumptive No. 1 status, which was unfair. His offensive coordinator last season was a one-and-done first-time play-caller. He played behind Football Outsiders’ 124th-ranked offensive line. Despite that, he was averaging 9-plus yards/attempt and threw six touchdowns to one interception in his final three games. The major knocks on him are being smart and confident.
Last year’s Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson could also get in that mix. He threw for 8.7 yards/attempt and 30 touchdowns for Louisville last season. His production on the ground (1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns) made him one of the de facto top running backs in the nation. Jackson may not be the top prospect, but he may be the most exciting.
Those are not the only players appearing in first round mocks. The NFL is a passing league. No one is passing more than Washington State’s Luke Falk. He led FBS in passing attempts the past two seasons (1,277 total) and completed 70 percent of his passes last year. There’s also Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph who averaged 9.1 yards/attempt in 2016 and threw just four interceptions in more than 400 attempts.
Baker Mayfield is perhaps worth noting. He does not have NFL size. But he’s coming off college football’s best passer rating season (196.38) in a long while. The only other player since 2008 to crack 190? Russell Wilson in 2011. Also quite efficient? Washington’s Jake Browning. He threw for 43 touchdowns, averaged 8.8 yards/attempt while completing 62 percent of his passes, and led his team to the playoff as a sophomore.
There are other quarterbacks who could play their way into this discussion. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald turned heads in the Egg Bowl. The athleticism is there – Fitzgerald had eight 100-plus yard games on the ground – and he has room to develop passing after playing in a Wing-T in high school. The last Dan Mullen protege, Dak Prescott, fared rather well when he got to the NFL.
Jarrett Stidham is now eligible to play after transferring from Baylor to Auburn. He’s a former Top 50 overall recruit. He looked like the real deal with the Bears as a freshman before getting hurt. He’s talented, efficient, and mobile. Gus Malzahn may even reclaim his offensive guru tag.
It would also be remiss to sleep on Florida State’s Deondre Francois. He put up strong numbers as a redshirt freshman despite injuries and getting hit — a lot. Could he be a hot commodity after a FSU playoff run in 2017? Jimbo Fisher has had three quarterbacks drafted in the first round.
Some of these players won’t pan out. Some who we haven’t mentioned will make a strong push. Some with eligibility may opt for a less crowded 2019 Draft, though that may not be so prudent. Giving NFL teams an extra year of film study seldom works out well. Getting drafted in the second round is far from the worst outcome. You don’t lose that much money up front over being drafted in the late first round. Getting out of your rookie deal one year earlier can pay huge dividends. Ask Derek Carr.
The 2017 first round went all in for quarterbacks. The 2018 first round could see teams get a lot nuttier. Mad rush in the top 10? Mad rush at the end of the first round to not have to pay out a potential Derek Carr contract? Months of teams and agents flinging metaphorical feces around? It will be great fun, even if your favored team already has a starting quarterback.