Every year, there’s at least one surprise pick in the first round.
Sure, teams like Dallas and New England can say Tyler Smith and Cole Strange had first-round grades in their own respective draft boards.
Forget the fact that Smith should make most rookie first teams – the general consensus at the time was that both teams reached when they drafted those players in the first round.
But what if teams took a collective approach to their big boards and didn’t reach in the first round?
Start with Chicago. It’s all been assumed that the Bears will take Will Anderson, an outside linebacker from Alabama, or Jalen Carter, a defensive tackle from Georgia.
That’s assuming the team doesn’t trade out of the first overall pick.
But why isn’t Texas running back Bijan Robinson in consideration for the No. 1 overall pick?
The 6-foot, 215-pound true junior rushed for 1,580 yards and 18 TDs this season. He also had 19 receptions for 314 yards and two more TDs. That gives him a three-year line of 3,410-33 rushing and 60-805-8 receiving. Robinson has also been ranked as the top prospect in the Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board for more than a month.
And yet, the top draft experts almost universally peg Robinson as a candidate to drop late into the first round.
The Draft Network and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler have Robinson going to Philadelphia with the final pick of the draft. As Brugler says, “There just aren’t too many clear landing spots (for Robinson) within the top 30 picks.”
The latest mock draft from Pro Football Network has Robinson falling to the third-to-last pick of the round, while Mel Kiper of ESPN has him lasting to pick No. 26.
The highest pick? That would be No. 18, where Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner has Robinson slotted. Of course, that mock was published Jan. 9 – Robinson could be lower in the next PFF mock draft.
And yet, all of the prominent draft analysts also agree on something else about Robinson: He’s one of, if not the top prospect in the draft.
The top QBs all come with warts; so does Anderson and Carter. Robinson, though, is widely regarded as the best RB prospect in several years.
Something else to consider: The AFC is shaping out to be a pass-heavy conference loaded with elite, under-28, still-ascending talent at quarterback.
On the other hand, the NFC has been trending toward the running game in recent years. Take this season as an example of the trend: Four of the top five, seven of the top 10 and 10 of the top 15 rushing teams hail from the NFC.
Now look at those two trends from the lens of this weekend’s conference championship games. The AFC game features two of the top QBs in the league: Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes vs. Cincinnati and Joe Burrow. Then there’s the NFC championship: Philadelphia finished fifth and San Francisco finished seventh in rushing yards. The AFC game features two first-round QBs; the NFC game features a QB taken in the second round and a rookie QB who was “Mr. Irrelevant” after being selected with the final pick of the draft.
Incidentally, the team that finished first in rushing yards was Chicago, by a wide margin. The Bears had 3,014 yards rushing and 18 TDs while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. But that was largely due to the play of second-year QB Justin Fields, who led all quarterbacks this season with 1,143 yards rushing and 8 TDs.
Running backs David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert, though, weren’t far behind Fields. Montgomery rushed for 801 yards and 5 TDs, although he also averaged just 4.0 YPC. Herbert rushed for 731 yards and 4 TDs.
Not bad, right?
Montgomery, though, is about to become an unrestricted free agent – and neither player is as dynamic of a playmaker as Robinson.
Two more stats to make Robinson’s case: 58 and 23. Fifty-eight is the number of sacks Chicago allowed, fourth-most in the league (and one away from tying for third-most), and 23 is where the team ranked among time of possession.
Therefore, it’s logical to assume that adding a dynamic RB can help with both of those issues.
Of course, that’s unlikely to happen. But if the Bears don’t snag Robinson in the first, then they won’t get a chance at the top of the second after the team traded the pick to Pittsburgh.
So, again, it begs the question: Why reach for a player when the best player in the draft is available?
Here’s what a draft like that would look like: no trades, just a bunch of teams letting the proverbial chips fall where they may.
So, aside from the Robinson pick, there’s no big surprises. In fact, although it wasn’t intentional, the top 31 ranked players in the Rigdon big board all went in the first round of this mock.
1. Chicago Bears: RB Bijan Robinson, Texas
Scouts were fawning all over Robinson in a Nov. 18 Walter Football Hot Press report, with some comparing him to Marshall Faulk.
2. Houston Texans: QB Bryce Young, Alabama
A no-brainer: Houston needs help almost everywhere, including quarterback. It’s also not a big reach. Besides, Houston still has a pick in the first round if it still wants to address its pass rush.
3. Arizona Cardinals: DL Jalen Carter, Georgia
You always take a pass rusher over a defensive tackle, right? Not in this case. Carter would fill in nicely for the retired J.J. Watt as a defensive end in Arizona’s 3-4 defense, plus the Cardinals have invested heavily in recent years at the outside linebacker position.
4. Indianapolis Colts: Edge Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
Indianapolis needs to be careful with this pick: In the AFC South, Houston is rebuilding and Tennessee is trending down. Jacksonville, though, appears on its way up behind future star QB Trevor Lawrence. Swing and miss on a QB here, and the Colts will fall even further behind the Jaguars. So why not take a premiere pass rusher instead? Ben Banogu and Yannick Ngakoue are unrestricted free agents. However, don’t be surprised if the pick is Wilson over Alabama’s Will Anderson, as the latter is a bit undersized as a 4-3 defensive end. Besides, if the Colts finish with a top-5 pick in 2024, then they stand a chance at drafting either Caleb Williams of USC or Drake Maye of North Carolina – and many draft experts consider those two better prospects than any from the 2023 class. Finally, Wilson has been rising up draft boards – Walter Football reports that some scouts prefer him over Anderson.
5. Seattle Seahawks (from DEN): Edge Will Anderson, Alabama
Expect Seattle to re-sign QB Geno Smith rather than taking a chance on a signal caller in this draft.
6. Detroit Lions (from LAR): QB C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Indianapolis and Seattle might say “pass” to Stroud or Kentucky’s Will Levis, but Detroit likely wouldn’t. That’s because, if all goes to plan, the Lions won’t have another shot at a top-10 QB in the draft for many years. Plus, this is the best of both worlds: Jared Goff is signed through 2024, allowing the team to take it slow with Stroud (or Levis).
7. Las Vegas Raiders: QB Will Levis, Kentucky
You don’t get rid of a QB like Derek Carr and not come away from the draft with a QB in the first round. Don’t be surprised if Las Vegas attempts to trade up – even if it signs a free agent like Tom Brady.
8. Atlanta Falcons: OT Paris Johnson, Ohio State
If this pick comes down to Clemson pass rusher Myles Murphy vs. Ohio State’s Johnson, then give the nod to the Buckeye offensive lineman. Even if the team re-signs left tackle Kaleb McGary, who is an UFA, the left guard spot was a black hole this past season for the Falcons, and Johnson can play both positions.
9. Carolina Panthers: TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
Carolina bypassed Justin Fields in 2021 because the team wasn’t 100 percent sure the QB would turn into an elite signal-caller. Wise move? Maybe, maybe not, but the Fields-led Bears have gone 9-25 the past two season, compared to the Panthers, who have gone 12-22 with a carousel of QBs. The QB-friendly Mayer is one of the safest picks in the draft.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (from NO): S Brian Branch, Alabama
The NFL’s top-rated defense will have a hard time re-signing all its UFAs in the offseason, including safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, one of eight defensive starters set to hit free agency.
11. Tennessee Titans: OT Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
There are plenty of reasons for Tennessee to bypass tackle in the first round. For starters, the team needs more out of its receivers after a rough rookie season from first-rounder Treylon Burks. Meanwhile, left tackle Taylor Lewan is still under contract and is expected to return from a knee injury that caused him to miss most of the season. And the Titans have invested heavily at the tackle position in recent years, drafting three in the first round since 2014 and six overall during the same period. But Lewan is a camp cut candidate, and backup Dennis Daley is unrestricted.
12. Houston Texans (from CLE): Edge Myles Murphy, Clemson
Sure, Houston could use another offensive lineman to pair with its new QB, but remember: no reaching. Besides, Murphy is a freak of an athlete and plays a premium position.
13. NY Jets: DL Bryan Bresee, Clemson
While the Jets could use more pieces along its offensive line, taking the next-best tackle here would be a bit of a reach. Bresee makes too much sense, especially with Sheldon Rankins about to become an UFA. Now imagine a Bresee-Quinnen Williams DT pairing, and it’s easy to see why this could be the pick.
14. New England Patriots: CB Cam Smith, South Carolina
Who do you have ranked higher, the top CB or the top WR? Because New England needs to upgrade both positions – and has the chance to draft the best players at two positions of need.
15. Green Bay Packers: WR Quentin Johnston, TCU
16. Washington Commanders: QB Anthony Richardson, Florida
A quick glance at Washington’s first-round QBs over the past 30 years is depressing: Heath Shuler (1994), Patrick Ramsey (2002), Jason Campbell (2005), Robert Griffin III (2012) and Dwayne Haskins (2019). But, as good as fifth-round rookie Sam Howell looked in his one and only game this season, the regular season finale against Dallas, Richardson is the far superior athlete.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
While the Steelers desperately need to upgrade their offensive line – Georgia’s Broderick Jones could be the pick here — passing on the younger Porter might cause fans to riot.
18. Detroit Lions: CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon
It wouldn’t take much to upgrade the Lions’ secondary.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OT Broderick Jones, Georgia
Regardless of whether Tom Brady returns or if the Kyle Trask era is about to start, the team needs to upgrade its offensive line.
20. Seattle Seahawks: WR Jordan Addison, USC
Think former USC coach Pete Carroll won’t pound the table for Addison? A DK Metcalf–Tyler Lockett-Jordan Addison receiver trio might seem like a luxury, especially when you factor in rookie RB Kenneth Walker III. Plus, it’s a bit shocking to see Clemson edge Myles Murphy still available, although some prominent draft analysts now list Texas Tech’s Wilson as the second-best pass rusher. But as exciting as a Will Anderson-Myles Murphy duo sounds, neither one of them are likely to have as big of an impact their rookie year as Addison, simply because it typically takes pass rushers a few years before they start hitting double-digit sacks. But it would be fun to think about …
21. LA Chargers: WR Jaxson Smith-Nijgba, Ohio State
The playoff loss to Jacksonville shows that the Chargers need more playmakers on offense outside of QB Justin Herbert. However, this is a slight reach, as JSN is ranked as the No. 26 overall prospect in this draft.
22. Baltimore Ravens: CB Devon Witherspoon, Illinois
Baltimore fans will collectively murmur “Newman!” if JSN goes one pick ahead of them. But, like the Steelers, Baltimore isn’t known as a team that reaches in the draft, hence why Witherspoon is the pick here. He’s the highest-rated cornerback still available at a position that will become a big need if the Ravens lets Marcus Peters walk in free agency.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Edge Lukas Van Ness
“Newman!” Expect the same response out of Vikings fans if the top-remaining receivers and cornerbacks are off the board – which is the case in this scenario. Van Ness is quite the consolation prize, especially with the uncertain futures of the team’s starting defensive ends.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars: Edge Zach Harrison, Ohio State
Could Jacksonville use another pass catcher? Sure, but taking one here would be a small reach. Same goes for cornerback and an interior offensive lineman. The next-highest rated safety, also a position of need in Jacksonville, is ranked in the early- to mid-second round range. However, Harrison is not only the second-highest rated prospect still available, he’s big enough that he might be able to play defensive end in the Jaguars’ 3-4 defense at 6-foot-6, 272-pounds.
25. NY Giants: LB Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Like Jacksonville, instead of reaching for a receiver here, Simpson would be a more logical choice as the highest-remaining prospect. He’s not as big as Dallas’ Micah Parsons, but he’s got some Parson-like abilities in that you can use Simpson all over the field. Plus, it’s not a bad idea to add a rookie who may lead your team in tackles when you play in a division that includes run-heavy teams Philadelphia and Dallas twice a year.
26. Dallas Cowboys: RB Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama
The curse of the 2016 draft continues, as it’s possible the team moves on from either Ezekiel Elliott or Dak Prescott – or both — in the offseason. But the top four QBs are long gone by this point, and trading or releasing Prescott would be cost-prohibitive. Elliott, on the other hand, has already said that he’d be willing to take a pay cut to remain with the team. Meanwhile, UFA Tony Pollard is out for four months following surgery to repair ligaments from a high ankle sprain suffered in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Still, taking a running back in the first round probably makes fans uneasy – especially with needs at receiver, cornerback, defensive tackle and guard. But the formula Dallas used and had so much success with during Prescott’s rookie year was to combine an elite ground game with an elite offensive line. Another reason why the Cowboys might take a RB in the first? The team’s young linemen are further ahead in their run blocking than they are in pass protection. So this pick would not only fill a potential huge need for Dallas with an elite talent, it would also play to the strength of the team’s young offensive linemen. Besides, it’s hard to imagine Prescott throwing as many INTs with a more explosive ground game.
27. Buffalo Bills: WR Zay Flowers, Boston College
Uh-oh, are the Bills in the market for a new receiver? The Rigdon big board is higher on Flowers than other evaluators, as Brugler has the Bills drafting Flowers in the second round. Flowers is ranked No. 32 in the latest Rigdon big board, so this wouldn’t be much of a reach.
28. Cincinnati Bengals: CB Deonte Banks, Maryland
Apparently, Cincinnati not only is in better shape at offensive tackle than many thought, the playoff win over Buffalo shows the Bengals might have some depth there, too. Look for the Bengals to upgrade the secondary instead.
29. Denver Broncos (from SF): OT Darnell Wright, Tennessee
Need, meet best player available. Until (and unless) the Broncos address the offensive line in free agency, it’s going to be difficult to mock a different position.
30. Kansas City Chiefs: CB Kelee Ringo, Georgia
Ringo is a bit of a polarizing prospect – there will be some who think this is way too low for the former Bulldog, while others feel he’s more of a second-round prospect. This gives the team three solid, young cornerbacks.
31. Philadelphia Eagles: Edge B.J. Ojulari, LSU
Again, Philadelphia could lose several starters in free agency. The Ojulari pick gives them insurance should one or more leave and with Derek Barnett still recovering from a torn ACL.
Los Angeles Rams, second round: OT Dawand Jones, Ohio State
New Orleans Saints, second round: S Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
Cleveland Browns, second round: DL Mazi Smith, Michigan
Miami Dolphins, second round: G O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida
San Francisco, third round: CB Eli Ricks, Alabama
* Draft order courtesy of Tankathon.
** Miami lost its first-round pick due to tampering charges.
Jake Rigdon (@jrigdon73) covers the NFL draft for Fanspeak.com. He also covers the NFL draft from a Dallas Cowboys perspective in this subReddit. And his big board is updated at least once per week during the season and leading up to the draft.