NFL Draft: Teams' best pick in 2023 might be to move into 2024 first round, which is expected to be loaded

Back in March, when NFL coaches, general managers and personnel evaluators flocked to yet another Ohio State pro day bursting with talent, the afternoon was overwhelmed by a coming attraction. Marvin Harrison Jr., the Buckeyes' sophomore wideout who won’t be draft eligible until 2024, briefly stole the spotlight from multiple first-round talents, showcasing skills that will make him one of the most hotly anticipated prospects in next year’s draft.

“He might end up being the best overall wideout in the draft in the last 15-16 years,” one talent evaluator said, reaching all the way back to the Detroit Lions’ selection of first-ballot Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson in 2007. “It was like watching his dad, only bigger and better.”

That’s some steep praise, considering Harrison’s dad is also a Hall of Famer and best known as Peyton Manning’s most trusted and prolific target during a golden era in Indianapolis Colts football. Even now, despite his retirement in 2008 and having carved out his career on the doorstep of the league becoming an offensive pinball machine, Harrison still ranks fifth all-time in receiving touchdowns and receptions, and ninth all-time in receiving yards.

That Marvin Harrison Jr. is considered capable of stepping out of that shadow is a perfect backdrop to the 2023 NFL Draft — largely because Harrison isn't in it. Instead, he served as a reminder on Ohio State’s pro day that as much as teams are focused on this week’s draft and its intriguing possibilities, there is a lurking reality following this class of players. The bumper crop of potentially elite players in 2024 is already well onto the league’s radar, and it might even impact some of the first-round and early second-round picks on Thursday and Friday.

“It’s a good year if you have the chance to move back and try to get some capital [in the 2024 draft],” an NFC general manager said. “Next year’s draft, in terms of the best players, could be one of the better ones we’ve seen. If you look at the top 20 of [the 2021 draft] and the number of ‘dudes’ who are probably going to be good or great for a long time across a bunch of positions, and then look at the top end of the quarterbacks in 2020, next year’s draft could be a combination of both. That’s how good it might be.”

Added an AFC general manager: “There are two quarterbacks [in 2024] who would have gone 1-2 in this draft, in front of all these guys, and then maybe three or four other players who probably would have been at the top of their position groups in this draft if they had been eligible.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is one of the headline talents expected to enter in the 2024 NFL Draft. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
USC quarterback Caleb Williams is one of the headline talents expected to enter in the 2024 NFL Draft. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

The players they're talking about shaping up next year’s elite class: Harrison, quarterbacks Caleb Williams (Southern Cal) and Drake Maye (North Carolina), tight end Brock Bowers (Georgia), and offensive tackles Joe Alt (Notre Dame) and Olu Fashanu (Penn State). The 2024 class also features a depth of offensive and defensive players who project into translatable size/speed/skill combinations that have a track record of success at the next level.

As it stands, Williams and Drake are already being painted as the best universally talented 1-2 quarterback combination at the top of the draft since Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012. Meanwhile, Harrison is being eyed as a generational talent at wideout, Bowers hype could approach Kyle Pitts levels at tight end, and both Alt and Fashanu are being painted as massive Day 1 offensive tackle starters. Not to mention the swath of players likely to accompany them in 2024 that check an assembly line of NFL boxes.

That’s part of what makes gaining additional 2024 first-round picks so valuable. There’s a reason why the Green Bay Packers are so adamant about getting a 2024 first-rounder in the Aaron Rodgers trade, and multiple teams are already making calls about moving back in this draft while aiming to pick up a first-rounder next year. Because next year’s upper shelf of talent is trending toward being considerably more attractive than this year, once all of the juniors declare.

Compare that against the 2023 draft, which features a weaker overall group that has good depth but star players with a lot of holes. The secondary and tight ends appear to have some depth and top-shelf potential, but many of the best wide receivers are small and don’t carry exceptional speed, while some of the bigger wideouts don’t play up to their size. The first-round quarterbacks have talent, but are also a mix of concerning attributes from size to experience to inconsistency or offensive scheme. The running backs beyond consensus top prospect Bijan Robinson may be largely a class of rational players. Some of the offensive linemen are either odd size fits at tackle or coming from schemes where it’s hard to evaluate them against what they’ll be asked to at the NFL level. The best defensive prospect has off-field concerns, the linebacker class is below average and the edge class is shallow in terms of elite-level players.

Add all that up, and there is a reason why it’s feasible multiple teams will consider trading their first-round picks and rallying toward a more top-heavy class of elite talent in 2024. If coaches and general managers can afford it, the best first round-pick in 2023 for some teams might be not making a pick at all, then running it back in a year.