I’m writing this primarily on March 26, exactly one month until the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Here are five quick thoughts on the draft…

$.01—Sam Darnold will be the No. 1 pick. This was the buzz leaving the Scouting Combine in February and everything since has pointed to the Cleveland Browns making the USC quarterback their choice.

The Browns have done an admirable job keeping everyone guessing and performing due diligence with all the perceived top QB prospects. Just last week, owner Jimmy Haslam, GM John Dorsey and most of the offensive coaching staff met with Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen at their various pro days around the country. Haslam met with their parents, too. While all four have compelling cases to some degree, nothing has dissuaded me, nor folks who purport to have better connections than me, from believing Darnold will be the pick.

Nothing against Darnold, who I think can become a very good NFL starter, but if I’m Dorsey and the Browns I’m picking Rosen. He is the most complete quarterback with the highest floor and the most NFL-ready to win.

$.02—Josh Allen continues to garner all kinds of positive buzz, and the Wyoming QB seems a lock to be drafted in the first five or so picks. His pro day brought reps from all 32 teams and several bigwigs who are responsible for making picks in the top 10 for QB-needy franchises.

My thoughts on Allen are well-documented. No quarterback with his abysmal completion percentage, poor decisions and unapologetic lack of touch and ball placement has ever succeeded. The likes of Jake Locker, Christian Hackenberg, Kyle Boller and Akili Smith are his closest comparables among the last 20 years, and none of them had the shoulder injury history Allen does. Many make the comparison to JaMarcus Russell, but the legendary Raiders bust was far more accurate and took better care of the ball during his LSU days.

None of that seems to dissuade many NFL execs and coaches from believing in Allen. And to be fair to Allen, he’s done a great job improving his lower-body mechanics to try and improve. I have not met Allen personally, but people I trust who do know him rave about his character. It’s easy to root for him and his big arm and hope he can overcome the lengthy history of littered failure for quarterbacks of his ilk.

I still will not bite the apple. I’m not going to throw it away, because if he can continue to improve his technical aspects and keep his oft-wounded shoulder healthy, Josh Allen could be the guy who breaks the rotten mold. But I’m also not risking more than a third round pick on that apple not rotting on the vine. Even so, he needs to be in the top-5 of any mock draft aiming for any modicum of accuracy. 

$.03—Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst finally got medical clearance to continue his football career. It’s fantastic news for the Wolverine standout, a likely first-round pick.

Hurst was yanked from the Combine for an undisclosed heart issue which included an irregular heartbeat. He had a similar issue earlier in his Michigan career, too. It took almost a month in nervous limbo before doctors from both the NFL and Michigan approved him to resume activities. He participated in Michigan’s pro day on Friday and performed acceptably considering the circumstances.

Hurst is a top-20 overall player for me based on his quickness, disruptiveness and ability to play multiple spots in multiple schemes. Not everyone sees it that way, and that includes some NFL teams I’ve spoken with. At 6-1, 291 pounds and with average results in explosive athletic testing, he’s a tough sell for some teams. Interior linemen that size needs to have the lightning quickness of Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald, and Hurst isn’t on that level. When I asked a team that runs a base 3-man front if Hurst can play end for them I got a blunt, “Not with his (short) arms at his length”.

Back to the heart. As someone who has dealt with heart issues, one of the constant refrains from every cardiologist I’ve seen, including the surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who performed my open heart operation, is that the days of adding muscle are done. The heart is a muscle, and it grows when athletes bulk up too. That’s incredibly dangerous for someone with any sort of heart malady, even what seems like an innocuous irregular heartbeat. In short, Hurst shouldn’t get bigger or stronger. He can certainly do lighter weight reps and work on other aspects of his body and conditioning.

I polled three people who were at Michigan’s pro day about where they project Hurst to land. Two are employed by NFL teams and one is in the media. One of the NFL personnel people and the media pundit both think he’s going in the 10-20 range, while the other NFL personnel person responded, “the first half of the second round”.

$.04—My final player and position rankings are still not finished, but the No. 1 overall player in terms of evaluation score will be Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson. Yet I would not take Nelson with a top 5 pick. Positional value matters.

That’s not a diss of the guard position but rather the cold reality of life in today’s NFL. The most important positions are the quarterback, those who can prevent the quarterback from succeeding, and then those who make plays with the ball from the quarterback. Guard doesn’t fall into any of those, unfortunately for Nelson.

I’m fascinated by just how highly the NFL will value Nelson. Guards don’t typically go in the first round, and the recent outcomes of the highly-drafted (Jonathan Cooper, Chance Warmack) has not exactly been savory. His demand is complicated by the fact this is a ridiculously strong interior offensive line class—at least in my judgment. Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn and Nevada’s Austin Corbett are both top 25 overall talents for me, and Will Hernandez from UTEP isn’t far behind either. My somewhat educated guess is Nelson sneaks into the top 10 and will be the first offensive lineman drafted, thanks in part to an underwhelming tackle class.


--Players I like more than most:

USC RB Ronald Jones

Auburn CB Carlton Davis, though his underwhelming pro day athletic testing concerns me

Fort Hays State DT Nathan Shepherd, a first-rounder in my book

Sam Houston State DT P.J. Hall

Pittsburgh CB Avonte Maddox, who reminds me a great deal of Briean Boddy-Calhoun…a similar plucky slot CB I liked more than everyone else who is now one of the best inside CBs in the league

Arizona DB Dane Cruikshank

Stanford TE Dalton Schultz

--One player I still see listed in a lot of first-round mock drafts that shouldn’t be there: LSU edge rusher Arden Key. He’s not exactly Malik McDowell from a year ago, but he’s a different branch of the same tree.

--I’m still watching some of the lesser-known prospects, primarily players who are making official team visits or stood out at pro days. One I found I really like: Virginia State RB Trenton Cannon, a transfer from Shepherd who lit it up at Richmond’s pro day. I might have a bias towards him as someone who attended VSU briefly for grad school.

--One player I’m repeatedly told the NFL likes a lot more than the draft media is LSU wideout D.J. Chark. He picked the right time to thrive, lighting up the three Senior Bowl practices in January and showing off his blazing wheels in workouts. Based on what I’ve heard, he could be drafted before the far more celebrated Calvin Ridley of Alabama.

--My one-month out pick for Mr. Irrelevant: Hawaii OL Dejon Allen