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The Five Biggest Questions Ahead of the NFL Draft

What will the Cardinals do with the no. 1 overall pick? Will the Raiders make good on their overwhelming draft capital? There are plenty of tea leaves to read before Thursday night.

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The NFL draft remains one of the most unpredictable events in sports. Sifting through rumors and reports often only adds to the confusion, and the months-long run-up to Thursday night’s big event hasn’t provided many concrete answers—only more questions. With that in mind, here are the five most pressing questions at the front of my mind as we head into draft week.

1. What will the Cardinals do with the top pick?

The 2019 NFL draft will be defined by who is selected with the first pick. The prevailing belief coming out of the combine was that the Cardinals would eschew all trade offers or the opportunity to take Ohio State pass rusher Nick Bosa or Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and go with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. In early April, Murray and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, strengthened that belief when they met with Arizona brass, fueling speculation that early contract negotiations were underway. Then, when Murray and his camp canceled a planned meeting with the Redskins last week, it seemed to confirm that the former Sooners signal-caller had received word that Arizona was committed to taking him with the first pick. Multiple reports over the past few weeks indicate the same: “I’ve heard since the combine, resolutely, staunchly, that they are all in on Kyler Murray,” wrote CBS Sports’s Jason La Canfora last week about the Cards. Former Browns general manager and Athletic columnist Mike Lombardi echoed that, noting on his podcast that “everybody that I talk to in the league thinks it’s happening.”

But Arizona general manager Steve Keim denied last week that he and Burkhardt met and continues to insist that the team is weighing its options. “We are not done with this process,” he said. “We have not made a decision on the first overall pick.” And media confidence in whether Arizona will take Murray has waned significantly lately. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah got the skepticism ball rolling …

And a handful of other reporters and writers have joined that chorus: NBC’s Peter King reported last week that after a round of calls, he’s not sure the team is committed to taking Murray. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco was more definitive in a recent video, reporting that Murray isn’t the Cardinals’ guy: “Initially, the ownership pushed for Kyler Murray,” said Prisco. “That much I know. I was told that. The reason they did it, they were having a hard time selling tickets. They put it out there, Arizona was lukewarm to it, so now all of a sudden, they’re pulling back, from what I’ve been told—they’re going to go in a different direction. They’re not going to draft Kyler Murray.”

So what should we believe? For most of the run-up to the draft last year, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen were the heavy favorites to be the first overall pick for Cleveland—until Baker Mayfield rumors cropped up at the 11th hour and proved correct. The lesson there is, of course, that only a small group of people—perhaps just Keim, Kliff Kingsbury, and team president Michael Bidwell—truly know what Arizona will do. Whatever decision the Cardinals make, it will set off a ripple effect that will shape the first round.

2. How will the quarterback dominoes fall?

If Arizona declines to take Murray (and doesn’t trade out of the top pick), it could create a scramble among quarterback-needy teams to trade up to the no. 2 spot to nab Murray (and it’d also take the team’s incumbent starter, Josh Rosen, out of the running as a trade target for other teams). If Arizona wants to sit tight and take either Bosa or Williams, San Francisco would suddenly find itself in the catbird seat for a big draft haul via a trade. If Murray does go no. 1, those potential quarterback-needy clubs—like the Raiders, Giants, Broncos, Bengals, Dolphins, and Redskins—would all be left vying for the likes of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Duke’s Daniel Jones, and West Virginia’s Will Grier (or, potentially, Rosen).

So let’s go down the list of the most obvious potential quarterback landing spots. First up, Oakland at no. 4: Despite Derek Carr’s presence on the roster, the Raiders front office has done their due diligence on the top passers in this class, and reportedly worked out both Murray and Haskins. Scuttlebutt has it that the team is highest on Murray—King told Lombardi that he heard from two separate sources that head coach Jon Gruden “really wants” the former Oklahoma signal-caller. But if Arizona takes Murray, would Oakland be interested in Haskins instead? For what it’s worth, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Michael Gehlken reported last week that “behind the scenes, the option [of taking a QB] has appeared remote at best.” Per Gehlken, it’d be “a shocking pivot” if they change course.

The Giants are next up at no. 6, and have been heavily linked to this year’s quarterback class as the team looks to find its eventual heir to Eli Manning. Per NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, “several smart people around the NFL are convinced” that New York will take one of the consensus top quarterbacks—whether that’s Murray, Haskins, Jones, or Missouri’s Drew Lock—and, barring trade-ups, the Giants could have multiple options when it’s time to turn in the card with the sixth pick.

So who will it be? For months, Haskins has been considered the favorite there, but the former Buckeyes star’s stock has appeared to fall in recent weeks; King recently speculated that Haskins could end up being the fourth quarterback picked, while NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein tweeted that Haskins’ draft stock was “more media created than team driven.” Zierlein added: “I see Haskins falling on draft day and I think the chances are increasing that he is not the second QB off the board.” Instead, New York has been strongly linked to Jones over the past week or two, and if that interest is legit, the team may have no choice but to take the former Duke quarterback with the first of its two first-round picks. Per both longtime former NFL personnel man Greg Gabriel and former scout and Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy, there’s no way Jones will make it to no. 17.

At no. 10 we have the Broncos, who, despite trading for Joe Flacco during the offseason, have been strongly linked to each of Haskins, Lock, and Jones. The team picking right behind them, the Cincinnati Bengals, could be interested in finding the successor to Andy Dalton, who has no dead money remaining on his contract. And the Miami Dolphins, who pick at no. 13, are in the market for a new franchise passer after ending the Ryan Tannehill project last month. Miami’s brass have met with each of Murray, Haskins, Lock, and Jones. Finally, we’ve got the Washington Redskins at no. 15, who have also hosted every top quarterback, except Murray (though the team did meet with him at the combine).

There are a few dark-horse teams that we shouldn’t look past as potential quarterback landing spots in the first round, too. New Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has consistently sung quarterback Jameis Winston’s praises, but with Winston playing on his fifth-year option and not under contract past 2019, Tampa Bay could be in the running at no. 5. Past that, the Patriots, Chargers, and Steelers all must start thinking about replacing their aging quarterbacks.

3. Which teams are most likely to trade?

Trades are a big part of the first round almost every year, and this year should be no different. I’ve already laid out how the Cardinals (or 49ers, if Arizona passes on Murray) could look to land a haul for the rights to Murray, but there are a few other teams who appear to be likely trade-back candidates: The Jets (at no. 3), Lions (no. 8), and Dolphins (at no. 13) are all reportedly looking to move back from their respective spots to add draft capital and continue to rebuild. The Jets, as The Athletic’s Jay Glazer reports, “are actively looking to trade down … [and] hope a team on draft day is going to fall in love with someone like the Bears did with Mitchell Trubisky a few years ago.” Detroit GM Bob Quinn, meanwhile, has not even tried to hide his desire to move back:

The Buccaneers could look to move back from the no. 5 spot, and the Seahawks (no. 21) are all but certain to seek a trade-back. Seattle owns just four picks, by far the fewest the team has taken into a draft during the Pete Carroll–John Schneider era, and fewest in the league. The Ravens (no. 22) are another candidate. Likely to miss out on the early run at edge rusher, Baltimore could look to trade back and add to its war chest of eight selections—only one of which comes in the first 84 picks. “Our only problem right now is we don’t have enough draft picks,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh recently lamented. New GM Eric DeCosta echoed Harbaugh’s sentiments. “If there’s a great player there at 22, we’ll make the pick, and we’ll be very, very excited,” he said. “But one thing we’ve shown over the past years is we know how to manufacture picks. So if the opportunity is there, we’ll have a chance to trade back and accumulate picks.”

As for teams that are looking to trade up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the Broncos or Redskins make a move up the board to secure their franchise quarterback. Houston is another team that comes to mind. Set to pick at no. 23, the Texans could look to move up in the draft for one of the top tackles in the class. Past that, the Raiders, with two picks in the late part of the first round—plus the third pick of the second—certainly have the chips to make a move up to grab a player they love. The Patriots do, too, currently holding six picks in the top 101.

4. How will this historic defensive line shape the first round?

This draft’s defensive line group might be the best the NFL has seen in the past 20 years. Seven of the top 10 players on my Big Board are defensive linemen, and that list doesn’t include Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat (no. 12), who’s got a good shot to be selected in the single digits come Thursday. By the time the first round is done, Bosa, Williams, Sweat, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Florida State’s Brian Burns, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, and Clemson’s dominant trio of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence could all come off the board. Despite his rough postseason effort, Florida’s Jachai Polite has a chance to sneak into the first round, as does Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson. That’s 13 first-round-caliber defensive linemen, nine of whom (Bosa, Williams, Sweat, Allen, Burns, Oliver, Gary, Ferrell, and Wilkins) have a very good chance of being picked in the top 15.

With the potential for an early run on both the defensive line and quarterback groups, there’s a strong chance that we’ll see top-tier players at a few other positions fall back into the back half of the first round. Cornerbacks like LSU’s Greedy Williams, Washington’s Byron Murphy, and Georgia’s Deandre Baker could be there for the taking late in the first. The same could be said for some of this class’s top receivers (Ole Miss’s D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler) and offensive linemen (Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Florida’s Jawaan Taylor, and WSU’s Andre Dillard). And, despite being taken in the top 12 in a large number of mock drafts over the past two months, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson could be a surprise faller, still available in the late teens or early 20s.

Will teams picking in the top half of the first round make a dash to land a blue-chip defensive lineman? If they do, it could push some very good players at other spots down the board.

5. Can the Raiders take advantage of their draft ammunition?

Past this controversial quarterback class and past the epic defensive line group, the story of the first round, for me, is the Raiders. Along with new GM Mike Mayock, Gruden holds the future of the franchise in his hands this week via three crucial first-round picks (nos. 4, 24, and 27). Those selections represent roster-building blocks; the latter two, of course, were acquired through the Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades, adding further pressure on Gruden and Mayock to hit a pair of home runs at those spots (especially after the duo sent their scouting team home ahead of the draft).

In a perfect world, Oakland will land one of the draft’s top pass rushers with the fourth pick—like Allen, for instance—plus another pair of early impact starters with nos. 24 and 27. Combining a big first-round haul with the team’s offseason acquisitions of Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Trent Brown, and Lamarcus Joyner could give the Raiders a chance to transform into AFC contenders almost overnight.