By Matt Citak
With the College Football Playoff title game set to take place tonight, the end of the college football season is finally upon us. The championship game between SEC rivals Alabama and Georgia should be a nail-biter, with Nick Saban battling against one of his coaching disciples in Kirby Smart. But the true excitement lies in what tonight’s game represents, which is the start of NFL Draft season.
Numerous participants in tonight’s game will be shedding their collegiate jerseys for NFL ones in a few months. Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Calvin Ridley, along with Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and running back Nick Chubb, are all projected to have their names called early in the 2018 NFL Draft. But as we inch closer to April 26th, the question that will loom over the draft is a simple one- where will the top quarterbacks end up?
As we see with every draft, no one truly knows what will happen once Commissioner Roger Goodell walks up to the podium to announce the start of the NFL Draft. However, that isn’t going to stop us from trying to guess how the first round will play out.
Sam Darnold, USC – Cleveland Browns, No. 1
There has been (and will continue to be) a lot of debate over who the top quarterback is in the 2018 NFL Draft. Although there doesn’t seem to be a ton of agreement on the matter, many believe it comes down to Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. While this argument will likely continue throughout both of their careers, it is Darnold that will end up going to the Cleveland Browns with the number one overall pick. Rosen may be the better quarterback, but with recent reports stating the UCLA quarterback doesn’t want to play in Cleveland, along with his injury concerns, GM John Dorsey will end up pulling the trigger on the 6-foot-4 Darnold, who many are calling the next Big Ben.
Over the last few years, the Browns have passed on several opportunities to draft promising quarterbacks, such as Carson Wentz, Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, and others. Don’t think that’s going to happen again. Darnold is known for being hard to bring down and outstanding at extending plays, which have led to the Roethlisberger comparisons. Nothing would make Cleveland fans happier than to see “The next Ben Roethliserger” don a Browns jersey right as the actual Big Ben’s career is winding down. Dorsey has two selections in the top four picks, meaning he could come out of the first round with his quarterback of the future, along with another offensive weapon like Saquon Barkley or a top offensive lineman such as Orlando Brown or Connor Williams. Either way, there is no chance the Browns leave AT&T Stadium on Thursday without their quarterback of the future, and it’s looking like Darnold could be their guy.
Josh Rosen, UCLA – New York Jets, No. 2
Due to his talent and big personality, many experts believe Rosen would be a perfect fit for New York with the second overall pick. This will end up being true, but not in the way you’re thinking. After Darnold goes to the Browns with the first pick, new Giants GM Dave Gettleman’s phone will be blowing up with calls from teams trying to trade up to No. 2 for Rosen. While the Broncos at No. 5 will submit a competitive offer, Gettleman will end up going a different route. In a shocking draft day trade, the two New York franchises will pull off a blockbuster deal that will send the Jets the No. 2 selection and will have the Giants move down to No. 6 while receiving a plethora of picks. Don’t get me wrong, I know it sounds unlikely that the Giants would hand the Jets, their co-tenants of MetLife Stadium, a potential franchise quarterback. But the Giants have a lot of other holes to fill on their roster besides the quarterback position. Gettleman could be underselling his belief in Eli Manning and Davis Webb in order to drive up the price for Big Blue’s top pick.
In Rosen, the Jets will receive the best pure passer in the draft. He is an incredibly accurate quarterback that many believe is best prepared to plug in and play among all of the top college QBs. There are some injury concerns with the UCLA quarterback, as he suffered two concussions this past season and underwent surgery on his right shoulder in November of 2016, but those won’t stop Mike Maccagnan from moving up to get their guy. Rosen also has the reputation of a player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, evidenced by his statements making it pretty clear he doesn’t want to play for Cleveland. This could scare other, smaller market teams away, but shouldn’t be much of a concern for the Jets. Rosen has the type of personality that should thrive in New York, as long as his performance on the field backs up his words off the field. The selection of Rosen will also lead to the team re-signing Josh McCown to serve as the team’s starting quarterback in 2018. This will allow New York to compete for a playoff spot next season while grooming Rosen to eventually take over the starting job.
Josh Allen, Wyoming – Denver Broncos, No. 5
While it’s still too early to determine which one Denver favors the most, it is quite obvious that the Broncos plan on using their top 5 pick on a franchise quarterback. And as much as John Elway would love to take Darnold or Rosen, chances are neither one will last until the fifth pick. A trade with the Giants to move up to No. 2 is a possibility, but in this scenario, the Jets offer a better trade package to secure the rights to Rosen, leaving the Broncos to select from the rest of the quarterback crop. Lucky for Elway and the Broncos faithful, the 2018 draft class has several possible game-changing quarterbacks available in the first round. After failing to trade up for Rosen, the Broncos will be happy to settle for Josh Allen with the fifth overall pick.
The jury is still out on just how good of an NFL quarterback Allen will be, with the Wyoming QB being considered a much bigger risk than Darnold or Rosen. But as a 6-foot-5 quarterback from a small, middle-of-nowhere school with the ability to extend plays, you can’t help but compare the 21-year-old quarterback to Eagles QB Carson Wentz. I’m not saying Allen is the next Wentz- Wentz was a better all-around prospect than Allen is. But the two do have some similarities, ones that Elway would love to take advantage of. The NFL legend can work with the rookie throughout the offseason to improve his decision making, one of the quarterback’s biggest weaknesses heading into the draft. The Broncos defense should help lighten the load for the rookie quarterback, who would likely find himself under center sooner rather than later in Denver.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma – Cincinnati Bengals – No. 12
The Bengals find themselves in an interesting position heading into the offseason. Despite recent reports stating otherwise, head coach Marvin Lewis will be back at the helm in 2018, still looking for his first postseason victory. However it remains to be seen if Lewis will want Andy Dalton back as his starting quarterback. Dalton threw for just 3,320 yards on a 59.9 completion percentage this season, with both marks representing the second-lowest of his seven-year NFL career. In fact, if you take away the 2015 season when he put up MVP-like numbers, Dalton has been an average quarterback at best throughout his professional career. In addition, backup quarterback AJ McCarron is heading towards free agency, and will almost certainly be leaving the Bengals. Time is running out for both Lewis and Dalton in Cincinnati, which should lead to the former selecting the latter’s eventual replacement with the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft. With the way the first round is taking shape, this might lead to Heisman winner Baker Mayfield landing with the Bengals.
Mayfield is one of the most polarizing players in the entire draft. There are some people out there that feel like Mayfield deserves to be a top-5 pick, while others believe he has no business being selected before the second or third round. Heading into last year’s draft, there was a QB that found himself in a very similar situation as Mayfield. He was an incredibly talented quarterback, but one that came with some risks. He was a Heisman finalist from one of the nation’s top programs, and was projected as a possible second or third round pick, but wound up going 12th overall. That was Deshaun Watson, who might have been the league’s MVP as a rookie this year had he not torn his ACL. Just like Watson did a year ago, Mayfield could win teams over with his upside, confidence, talent, and leadership ability. He certainly has his flaws, but Lewis and Bengals owner Mike Brown won’t be able to pass on Mayfield’s potential, which should also pave the way for Dalton to return to the team for one final season. Mayfield is a proven winner, and the Bengals will be crossing their fingers that the young quarterback can bring his winning ways to Cincinnati.
Lamar Jackson, Louisville – Arizona Cardinals – No. 15
The season had barely finished for the Arizona Cardinals, yet it took just 48 hours for the team to know that this would be possibly the most important offseason in the franchise’s history. Within days of the Cardinals’ season coming to an end, head coach Bruce Arians and starting quarterback Carson Palmer both decided to retire from professional football. And while his decision hasn’t been announced yet, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald might soon be following them into the post-NFL sunset. This leaves the Cardinals with several gaping holes to fill, and none more important than the quarterback position. With Palmer retired, the Cardinals currently have zero quarterbacks under contract for next season, as backups Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert, and Matt Barkley are all free agents. Palmer’s retirement frees up $14 million in cap space, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Cardinals fill their quarterback vacancy through free agency with someone like Case Keenum (especially if they hire Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as head coach). Given what we know at this point, it seems as if the Cardinals will look for their quarterback of the future in the draft. If that holds true, than Arizona might be the lucky ones to have Lamar Jackson fall into their laps at No. 15.
Jackson is another quarterback prospect receiving mixed reviews. There is no denying the accomplishments he achieved during his time at Louisville. Jackson became the first player in college football history with at least 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in consecutive seasons. He finished his career with a remarkable 20 straight games with at least one rushing and one passing touchdown. He holds countless Louisville records, has amazing speed, a huge arm, and above-average playmaking abilities, not to mention he was awarded the 2016 Heisman Trophy. But just by watching his film, it becomes abundantly clear that Jackson is not your prototypical quarterback prospect. He’s a better runner than passer, and definitely needs to improve on his accuracy and mechanics at the next level. Jackson completed just 59.1 percent of his passes this season, which had him ranked 59th in the country. Under the right tutelage, Jackson has the chance to become a truly special player straight out of the gate. If Arizona plays their cards right, Jackson could have Cardinals fans forgetting about the departures of Palmer and Arians rather quickly.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.