2024 NFL mock draft: Embracing the chaos of potential smokescreens

With the 2024 NFL draft still more than two weeks from initiating in Detroit, what better time to kick back, open a cold one … and inhale the smoke(screens)?

Mid-April is when conjecture takes root, rumors buzz about and there’s ample misdirection and misinformation to sift through. But, hey, the NFL draft is typically chock full of surprise picks and/or the stunning trades that so often precipitate them. This mock draft will embrace some of the purported chaos – within reason – while exploring a few of the wilder scenarios that could materialize in the first round … once that smoke dissipates, of course.

1. Chicago Bears (from Carolina Panthers): QB Caleb Williams, USC

No (more) subterfuge required here. Previous QB1 Justin Fields was in Pittsburgh by the time Bears brass descended on Southern California’s campus for Williams’ pro day last month. The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner will inherit something far closer to a turnkey operation than Fields ever had in the Windy City (or Williams himself enjoyed in SoCal last year). But make no mistake, his athleticism and creativity as a passer should elevate this franchise sooner rather than later.

2. Las Vegas Raiders [PROJECTED TRADE with Washington Commanders]: QB Jayden Daniels, LSU

Sep 3, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) gives a thumbs up during the first half against the Florida State Seminoles at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) gives a thumbs up during the first half against the Florida State Seminoles at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

New Silver and Black HC Antonio Pierce, who was an associate head coach at Arizona State when Daniels played there and badly desires a multi-threat quarterback, is trying to manifest this into existence. Raiders WR Davante Adams is trying to manifest it into existence. ESPN’s Adam Schefter keeps reporting how desperately Las Vegas wants to get into position for the 2023 Heisman winner. Daniels himself has entertained the notion of playing in Sin City, saying at his pro day, "That would be crazy if that happened." The Raiders would be a plus situation for a rookie passer given the presence of Adams, a decent offensive line, good enough defense and veteran QB Gardner Minshew II, whose arrival via free agency would mean Daniels wouldn’t have to play right away. One slight issue: GM Tom Telesco would likely have to surrender at least three first-round picks, including No. 13 overall this year, to make this happen – and such a package might only be a conversation starter with a Washington team that also covets a franchise QB.

3. Minnesota Vikings [PROJECTED TRADE with New England Patriots]: QB Drake Maye, North Carolina

This operates from the assumption that the Vikes, who have already acquired a second Round 1 pick from the Texans, will make another trade in a bid to backfill the loss of QB Kirk Cousins beyond the short-term signing of Sam Darnold. And while such a move this far closely approximates what the 49ers did three years ago to jump into position for QB Trey Lance – and we know how that worked out – Minnesota probably wouldn’t have to pony up three first-rounders since it can now offer two this year (something San Francisco couldn’t at the time). Currently, the Vikings’ next pick after Round 1 is in the fourth – meaning multiple mid-round picks in 2025 should be enough to consummate such a deal, and that would seem to be quite sensible for new Pats director of scouting Eliot Wolf given the numerous holes on his roster. New England currently doesn’t seem much better positioned to support a young quarterback than it did when Mac Jones was there, so why not kick the QB can down the road a bit and roll with veteran Jacoby Brissett for now?

As for Minnesota, this is partially an exercise in connecting dots, a draft tradition like no other. (For what it’s worth, it’s also an exercise in addressing a position key to the future of All-Pro WR Justin Jefferson, who’s headed into the final season of his rookie deal.) Newly hired quarterbacks coach Josh McCown – he played in the league for nearly two decades – was not only a teammate of Darnold’s with the Jets, he coached Maye at Myers Park High School in Charlotte. From there, Maye went on to stardom at UNC, where was the ACC Player of the Year in 2022. His huge arm and ability to be a bruising runner outside the pocket on his best days already evoke mentions of Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. OK, fine – he did have a nearly four-to-one TD-to-INT ratio in college and ran for 16 scores over the past two years. But, like Allen, Maye's college tape leaves something to be desired at times, particularly last season – when, admittedly, his supporting cast in Chapel Hill wasn’t as good. Still, Maye is sharp with a serious array of tools and certainly compelling enough to be in the conversation as the No. 2 overall pick, too.

4. Commanders [PROJECTED TRADE with Arizona Cardinals]: QB J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

A three-way trade at draft time isn’t especially viable, but the framework can be in place if you know where you want to go. New Washington GM Adam Peters needs a quarterback (and purportedly loves the former Wolverines star) but could also use more draft freight to build up the remainder of the Commanders’ roster. If you can get a bounty from the Raiders while gambling you can get back up to No. 4 – and Cards GM Monti Ossenfort, who is set behind center with Kyler Murray, has clearly signaled this spot is for sale – you might be able to accomplish some things. And it’s reasonable to think Peters could do this by sending Arizona the first-rounder obtained from Las Vegas, his second-rounder (36th overall) and maybe a third or fourth to seal the deal.

Peters comes from San Francisco and has watched QB Brock Purdy elevate the Niners. McCarthy has some similarities but with far more impressive physical skills than what you’d expect from a "Mr. Irrelevant." Given what’s in place in Washington from a receiver standpoint and what Peters could add to the O-line and elsewhere by making such a move could put McCarthy back in a familiar position – managing a talented team while growing into a player who can carry one.

5. New York Jets [PROJECTED TRADE with Los Angeles Chargers]: WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State

New Bolts HC Jim Harbaugh has (seemingly) telegraphed his primary positional interest for a team with several issues, saying at the recent league meeting: "The offensive line to me is important." That would also be on brand with his historical philosophy of team building, even if the value doesn’t necessarily align with a pick this early. Meanwhile, the Jets are in win-now mode as they continue to seek talent that can help QB Aaron Rodgers and Co. immediately. With this draft’s top quarterbacks off the board, this could be a trade that would still land the Chargers extra draft capital while allowing the Jets to perhaps move up at a bit of a discount for a player they could leverage now and still build around later.

The 2023 Biletnikoff winner and two-time All-American with Hall of Fame bloodlines, Harrison averaged better than 1,200 receiving yards and 14 TDs over the past two seasons and might be the best product issuing from what seems like a Buckeyes receiving assembly line. The 6-3, 209-pounder combines size and speed with silky route running and the ability to separate and catch contested balls. He could form quite a triumvirate with veteran WRs Mike Williams, who’s on a one-year deal, and former Buckeyes teammate Garrett Wilson. Harrison projects as the kind of cornerstone who could help the NYJ find immediate success … yet would still be a valued linchpin if they reset and move on from Williams and maybe even Wilson.

6. New York Giants: WR Rome Odunze, Washington

Spectacular as Harrison is, plenty of proponents for Odunze, an All-American last year and All-Pac-12 member the past two. The 6-3, 212-pounder has a sterling off-field reputation plus the ball skills and production (92 catches, for 1,640 yards, 13 TDs in 2023) to bring juice to an offense that lacks weaponry, particularly in the red zone given its pass-catching corps of Smurfs. A team captain for the Huskies, Odunze’s leadership and demeanor also seem like superb fits for the Big Apple market.

7. Tennessee Titans: OT Joe Alt, Notre Dame

A team seemingly in the midst of a quick-turn rebuild probably won’t get too cute. Alt, the massive (6-9, 321), unanimous 2023 All-American – and son of legendary Chiefs lineman John Alt – is widely regarded as the best blocker in this draft and a plug-and-play blind side tackle. And given the Titans addressed the offensive skill positions in free agency (WR Calvin Ridley, RB Tony Pollard), may as well continue leveling up the line after they made LG Peter Skoronski their first-round pick in 2023. So let’s drop Alt in next to him in a bid to continue improving the protection around second-year QB Will Levis. And don’t forget, new HC Brian Callahan hired his father, legendary O-line coach Bill Callahan, to remediate a front five that surrendered 64 sacks in 2023, tied for most in the AFC.

8. Atlanta Falcons: OLB Dallas Turner, Alabama

The offense appears ready to go with Cousins now aboard. But the pass defense looks like a glaring issue, whether in terms of pressure or coverage. The unit returns just one player, OLB Arnold Ebiketie, who had more than four sacks in 2023 – and he had all of six in his second season. Turner, Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC last season while racking up 10 sacks, may well be this draft’s premier defensive prospect – one who can bend around blockers and maybe change this D’s complexion.

9. Cardinals [PROJECTED TRADE with Bears]: WR Malik Nabers, LSU

History tends to repeat itself – even if, perhaps, Ossenfort won’t necessarily volley around Round 1 the same way he did in 2023. In this hypothetical, the Cards have dropped from fourth to 13th before moving back up to get an elite receiver for QB Kyler Murray … while adding picks to the quiver. Daniels’ primary target the past two seasons in Baton Rouge, Nabers really blossomed during a 2023 All-American campaign, when he caught 89 balls for 1,569 yards and 14 TDs. He ran in the 4.3 range at the Tigers’ pro day – Nabers swore it was in the 4.2 range – and could give the Cards their first bona fide No. 1 receiver since DeAndre Hopkins, maybe Larry Fitzgerald … and neither of them had comparable afterburners.

10. Chargers [PROJECTED TRADE with Jets]: OL Taliese Fuaga, Oregon State

A right tackle for the Beavers, Fuaga is excellent in pass protection and especially nasty as a run blocker. He’ll be the first Round 1 O-lineman in Oregon State’s history and can probably play anywhere up front aside from center – but his college spot seems perfect for the Bolts, who have Rashawn Slater entrenched on Herbert’s blind side. And Fuaga’s grit and attitude could be ideal for a franchise in the midst of a philosophical reset under Harbaugh. Especially helpful if you can draft him 10th rather than fifth.

11. Patriots [PROJECTED TRADE with Vikings]: OL Troy Fautanu, Washington

Better not to force a quarterback here, which is also the presumption for their potential willingness to vacate the No. 3 spot. And given his Green Bay DNA, it would hardly be a surprise if Wolf doesn’t kick off the New England rebuild in the trenches. Fautanu, an All-Pac-12 performer with sweet feet, could erase the Patriots’ problem at left tackle – or, at worst, be an All-Pro guard – as they begin to amass a supporting cast worthy of a young passer.

12. Denver Broncos: QB Bo Nix, Oregon

They were only too willing to eat Russell Wilson’s high-calorie contract, but Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci seem like a crash diet. Nix has the mobility, accuracy – yes, some of his record 77.5% completion rate in 2023 was juiced by the Ducks’ offense – and quick decision-making coach Sean Payton values, plus a nose for the goal line (38 rushing TDs in five college seasons). And with an FBS-record 61 starts under his belt, rookie passers don’t come much more ready-made than Nix would.

13. Bears [PROJECTED TRADE with Raiders via Commanders and Cardinals]: DE Jared Verse, Florida State

Why would Chicago punt on a second top-10 pick? Well, selections that lofty – even on rookie contracts – get expensive. And as good a situation as it appears, GM Ryan Poles has a league-low four picks this year – and moving down just this far would still enable him to fill a need with a stud while adding a choice likely to be in the third- or second-round range depending on what year it lands. And though he acquired DE Montez Sweat at the trade deadline last year, Poles still needs a pass rusher on the other side. Verse, who will also bow up against the run, was a first-team All-American during both of his seasons with the Seminoles and registered nine sacks in each.

14. New Orleans Saints: OT Olumuyiwa Fashanu, Penn State

Given the performance, or lack thereof, thus far by former first-round LT Trevor Penning plus the knee issues and cost associated with RT Ryan Ramczyk, the Nittany Lions’ 2023 All-American makes too much sense – particularly given the amount of abuse (physical and otherwise) taken by QB Derek Carr in 2023.

15. Indianapolis Colts: TE Brock Bowers, Georgia

The value in this scenario might just be too tantalizing for GM Chris Ballard. Indy’s both light at tight end and in terms of downfield weapons for second-year QB Anthony Richardson. Despite being limited by an ankle injury for a good chunk of the 2023 season, Bowers, the only two-time Mackey Award winner ever, had 26 TD catches during his three-year college career and averaged nearly 60 grabs for 850 yards as the rare player at his position who could dominate a game offensively – sometimes as a ball carrier. He’d be a nice fit for a team that favors formations with multiple tight ends while becoming a nice option for Richardson and alternative to WR Michael Pittman Jr.

16. San Francisco 49ers [PROJECTED TRADE with Seattle Seahawks]: DE Laiatu Latu, UCLA

First, though they’re NFC West rivals, these front offices have swung deals on the first night the draft before. Second, the Niners, who will be obligated to pay Purdy next year, unquestionably remain all in while they can reap the benefits of loading the roster around the quarterback as he remains stuck on his seventh-round contract. San Francisco also has 10 picks but hardly needs 10 more players, whereas Seattle has a hole in Round 2 ... and holes throughout its roster.

Latu, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year in 2023 – when he also earned the Lombardi Award and Ted Hendricks Award for being the country’s best collegiate defensive end while posting an FBS-best 1.8 tackles for loss per game – racked up 35 TFLs, 23½ sacks, five forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions in two seasons with the Bruins. A neck injury suffered while he attended the University of Washington temporarily relegated him to medical retirement, but Latu said at the scouting combine that his current medical reports suggest he's no longer at high risk. He would not only replenish a pass rush where San Francisco likes to roll deep, Latu might immediately supplant veteran addition Leonard Floyd as the starter opposite 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo

He’s got size (6-0, 195), blazing speed (4.33 40 time) and ball skills, two of his six interceptions over the past two seasons turned into pick-sixes. And the Jags now live in a world where they better be ready to defend the AFC South champion Texans and a suite of playmakers that now includes WR Stefon Diggs.

18. Cincinnati Bengals: WR Brian Thomas Jr., LSU

The 6-3, 209-pounder put down a 4.33 40 at the combine in the wake of a season when he had 1,177 yards on 68 catches – a quarter of those receptions resulting in TDs. With Tyler Boyd unsigned and franchise-tagged Tee Higgins seeking a trade, good time to find a new Robin for Cincinnati's Batman, Ja’Marr Chase, a Bayou Bengal himself.

19. Buffalo Bills [PROJECTED TRADE with Los Angeles Rams]: WR Adonai Mitchell, Texas

After divorcing themselves from Diggs, the Bills may have to get a bit aggressive in Round 1 in order to find a potential replacement at WR1 – and that could be a move for Mitchell, who has Velcro hands and postseason bona fides. He’s plenty big (6-2, 205) and exceptionally fast (4.34 40 time), a combo that should dovetail with Allen, who likes to go deep but can benefit from a larger catch radius on intermediate throws. A Georgia transfer, Mitchell found the end zone 11 times during his only season with the Longhorns.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers: OT JC Latham, Alabama

They could use another wideout, too, but miss out with Buffalo jumping them for Mitchell. Yet Latham, the All-SEC right tackle who has experience at guard, would bolster a weak offensive line while allowing the Steelers to execute their plan to flip 2023 first-round OT Broderick Jones back to the left side. And given the run-oriented approach of new OC Arthur Smith, taking a road grader like Latham is perfectly defensible.

21. Miami Dolphins: OL Graham Barton, Duke

A left tackle for the Blue Devils, the two-time All-ACC selection is likely headed inside in the NFL due to his relatively short arms. And the Fins could use help there after losing Connor Williams, apparently, and Robert Hunt during free agency.

22. Philadelphia Eagles: CB Terrion Arnold, Alabama

If Arnold is still available here, Philly EVP/GM Howie Roseman isn’t doing one of his patented draft trades. The first-team All-American features confidence, production and toughness – which means he’ll tackle, unlike some Eagles DBs in 2023 – even if he doesn’t quite possess Mitchell’s elite speed. But with starting CBs Darius Slay and James Bradberry both north of 30, this is a near-optimal intersection of need and value.

23. Patriots [PROJECTED TRADE with Cleveland Browns via Houston Texans and Vikings]: DT Byron Murphy II, Texas

With one side of the trenches addressed, Wolf goes to work on the other by taking the All-Big 12 D-lineman. Murphy could quickly develop into a disruptive NFL force playing alongside someone like DT Christian Barmore. No quicker path to the likes of Rodgers, Allen and Tua Tagovailoa than right up the gut.

24. Dallas Cowboys: OL Jackson Powers-Johnson, Oregon

The 2023 Rimington Trophy winner as the country’s best college center, "JPJ" – who excels as a run and pass blocker – could replace departed C Tyler Biadasz or slide one spot to the left and allow LG Tyler Smith to kick out to the longtime post vacated by LT Tyron Smith. Also worth noting, RG Zack Martin is out of contract in 2025.

25. Green Bay Packers: OT Tyler Guyton, Oklahoma

The former tight end would bring high-end potential and flexibility to a line that’s lost LT David Bakhtiari and G Jon Runyan Jr. Guyton played some left tackle for the Sooners but was mostly on the right side. That could provide options in Green Bay, where incumbent OT Zach Tom has also lined up on both sides.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Chop Robinson, Penn State

His eye-popping athleticism – the 6-3, 254-pounder ran a sub-4.5 40 at the combine – doesn't necessarily align with his production, which included 9½ sacks and 17½ TFLs in two seasons with the Nittany Lions. But he could be a real asset to a defense that was reliant on the blitz in 2023 and just lost OLB Shaq Barrett.

27. Cardinals (from Texans): DB Cooper DeJean, Iowa

A souped-up athlete and 2023 All-American who was named the Big Ten's top defensive back last season, DeJean can play pretty much anywhere in the secondary – convenient for a defense that needs help throughout the back end and, perhaps, a successor for S Budda Baker fairly soon. DeJean can also help as a punt returner. He ran a 4.43 40 at his personal workout Monday, apparently nicely recovered from last November's broken leg.

28. Rams [PROJECTED TRADE with Bills]: DL Darius Robinson, Missouri

So maybe they delay that first Round 1 pick since 2016 just a little longer, and such a deal with Buffalo would likely net GM Les Snead something in the neighborhood of a second- or third-rounder. Now, let’s say it again: No one walking through that door is going to replace retired DL Aaron Donald. Yet there’s ample room (and need) here for Robinson, who’s had a nice pre-draft process, to carve out quite a role for himself. The 6-5, 285-pound All-SEC selection has the size and athleticism to play inside or out while thriving against the run or pass – which sure seem like traits LA could use right about now.

29. Detroit Lions: CB Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama

A two-time All-SEC selection who goes through his pro day paces on a broken foot – running a sub-4.5 40 in the process – seems like HC Dan Campbell’s kind of guy. There’s also a need here after Detroit abruptly cut Cam Sutton in the aftermath of a domestic violence incident.

30. Baltimore Ravens: OT Amarius Mims, Georgia

A right tackle who already knows OC Todd Monken’s playbook, Mims’ 87-inch wingspan and 6-8, 340-pound frame help him block out the sun (perhaps better than the moon). He could start straight away following the trade of previous RT Morgan Moses to the Jets.

31. Seahawks [PROJECTED TRADE with 49ers]: QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington

A strong pro day certainly didn’t damage his stock. Admittedly, this could be a bit rich given Penix's history of knee and shoulder problems – even if recent medical reports are encouraging. Yet getting him here still allows Seattle to add draft assets – maybe Illinois DT Johnny Newton in Round 2? – while securing the invaluable fifth-year option for a rookie quarterback. Penix's past two seasons with the Huskies were sublime (67 TD passes, 19 INTs). The Heisman runner-up to Daniels last season, his performance against Texas in the College Football Playoff (430 yards, 2 TDs passing) was an all-timer, the southpaw lasering the ball over the field. His maturity and experiences are also plusses. Seattle recently hired OC Ryan Grubb, who coached Penix in the same role at UW. And GM John Schneider, who recently restructured Geno Smith’s contract, hardly indicated the team is committed to the journeyman beyond next season.

32. Kansas City Chiefs: OT Jordan Morgan, Arizona

It would be fun to give the champs a toy like Texas WR Xavier Worthy, who set the combine record with a 4.21 40-yard dash, or Georgia's Ladd McConkey. But there's currently a gaping hole on QB Patrick Mahomes' blind side. Too big a need to ignore unless LT Donovan Smith re-signs or HC Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach come up with an even better answer in the interim. Barring that, Morgan could be a good one – particularly in pass pro.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 NFL mock draft: Trades create chaos throughout first round