The No. 1 pick in the NFL draft is always a valuable asset, but it goes to another level in the years in which there’s a quarterback prospect the league views as special. 2024 is going to be one of those years, as USC QB Caleb Williams has been earmarked for the pick since winning the Heisman Trophy in 2022 with a tremendous season.
It’s not just a one-person class either. North Carolina QB Drake Maye is a terrific prospect in his own right — and might be higher on some team’s boards than Williams by the time we get to April.
That makes the top two picks in this upcoming draft two of the most valuable assets in football. If you’re a team that’s even a little bit unsure about your long-term outlook at the quarterback position, getting a swing at one of those players could be a potential franchise-altering move. If you happen to really like your incumbent quarterback, you can trade the pick for a haul of assets that could help set your team up for years to come.
With these kinds of high stakes and the NFL’s willingness to embrace a more modern, analytical approach, we could see teams get competitive in the back half of the season over the chance to land one of the top two picks. Here is the current 2024 NFL Draft order for the top 10 picks:
I think the Raiders (No. 11) and Commanders (No. 12) are also interesting candidates to watch, for reasons I’ll outline a little later.
No team is going to outright throw games. Coaches and players have too much on the line and any bad tape will follow you for a long time. But there are other ways teams can put their finger on the scale as the season goes along. Maybe they shut injured players down earlier than they would otherwise, or go with younger players over more proven options in the name of “development.” Some circumstances will be more conducive to this kind of thing than others.
Team by team, here’s a look at the chances of each squad winning the pick lottery.
The owners of the No. 1 pick should the season end today, the biggest advantage the Cardinals have in this race is a roster that might be the worst in the league. This offseason, GM Monti Ossenfort and HC Jonathan Gannon hit the reset button hard. Gannon has the team playing hard but they’re clearly overmatched in terms of talent, leading to their current league-worst 1-8 record.
However, the wildcard for the Cardinals is the return of QB Kyler Murray, who not that long ago was viewed as a rising star at the position. Murray won’t erase the problems the Cardinals have in the secondary or on the offensive line. But he’s a definite upgrade over former QB Joshua Dobbs, enough to perhaps lift the Cardinals to a few wins they wouldn’t otherwise have earned.
This assumes Murray is healthy coming off of last year’s torn ACL, about 11 months ago at this point. For a quarterback as reliant on his speed as Murray, that’s an important question for him to answer. He’s also learning a new offense for the first time since his rookie year and hasn’t had the benefit of training camp and an offseason with his teammates. It would not be fair to expect peak Murray in these last few games.
Still, he’s talented enough and has plenty riding on his performance this season. Murray has the opportunity to play the Cardinals out of the sweepstakes for a potential top quarterback prospect, or to play well enough that they elect to trade the pick for a ransom and build around him as the reinvigorated franchise quarterback. For what it’s worth, Murray seems to have hit it off legitimately well with Gannon and company, and he’ll get a true chance to secure his standing with the franchise.
The Cardinals have been the heavy favorite for the No. 1 pick since the summer, but if I had to put my money on a team, it wouldn’t be them.
New York Giants
It feels like ages ago, but it was just last season that the Giants were a plucky playoff team with the good vibes rolling in HC Brian Daboll’s first season. 2023 has been nightmare fuel for New York. If everything that could go right went right in 2022 and the Giants hit their absolute ceiling outcome as a team, then everything that could go wrong in 2023 has gone wrong and the Giants are experiencing their absolute floor.
New York’s top two quarterbacks to begin the season are both on injured reserve. Daniel Jones is done for the year with a torn ACL, and Daboll didn’t sound particularly optimistic that veteran Tyrod Taylor would be able to shake off his rib injury and return. That leaves UDFA Tommy DeVito, who is playing like you’d expect from a rookie third-stringer.
The crosstown Jets are a great example of how even solid teams can struggle with bottom-of-the-barrel quarterback play. The Giants don’t have a defense nearly as good as the Jets, and there have been some schisms emerging on that side of the ball. The locker room was not happy that DL Leonard Williams was traded away, even if it was the right move from a big-picture team-building perspective. One of the team’s defensive leaders, S Xavier McKinney, called out DC Wink Martindale after the 30-6 loss to the Raiders this week, saying the coaches weren’t listening to feedback from the players. He walked that back and things were smoothed over, but it’s still a concerning sign.
The Giants’ problems on offense are bigger than quarterback, too. The offensive line has been decimated by injuries and has been a glaring weakness all season. New York traded for TE Darren Waller hoping to improve their skill position talent but he’s on injured reserve too with a balky hamstring, the same injury that’s given him problems for years at this point. Star RB Saquon Barkley is still dealing with the effects of a high ankle sprain and no one else on offense scares opponents.
If Taylor can’t make it back, it’s quite possible the Giants don’t win another game this season. There’s just so much going wrong with this team right now. There are chances to get in the win column against the Commanders (who New York beat once this season with Taylor at the helm), the Patriots, the Packers and the Rams. There’s a reason Giants GM Joe Schoen has been scouting prominent college quarterbacks this fall. It’s looking more and more like the Giants will be in position to draft one of them.
What’s working in the Bears’ favor in terms of snagging a top pick is that they have not just one but two compelling lottery tickets since they own the Panthers’ first-round pick as a part of the trade for the No. 1 overall pick last year. Both teams have struggled mightily in 2023. Carolina’s pick is currently slotted at No. 2 and Chicago is at No. 3. If the status quo holds, the Bears will be adding a ton of juice to their roster in 2024 regardless of if they use both picks or trade one.
What’s less in Chicago’s favor is that neither team is in a position where it will be motivated to try and stack the odds further in their favor. The Panthers need wins, and the lower they push their pick the better for HC Frank Reich, GM Scott Fitterer and crew in Carolina. Getting wins has obviously been a challenge, and this is a deeply, deeply flawed roster that has seen its weak spots exacerbated by injuries. So it might not matter. But in a scenario where just one win could make a major impact between the No. 2 pick or the No. 4, it’s worth noting.
The Bears are also in a spot where GM Ryan Poles and HC Matt Eberflus need wins to show signs of progress and validate that they are the right people to continue leading the team’s rebuild. Starting QB Justin Fields is playing for his long-term future once he returns to the lineup, and the easiest way to do that is to win a few games and push the Bears out of the running for a pick high enough to replace him at quarterback.
Both teams are fighting against significant headwinds of ineptitude, so it’s fair to question how much wanting or needing to win will ultimately factor in the end result. It’s worth parsing, though, as there are a lot of bad teams this year.
New England Patriots
Currently on pace for their highest draft pick since finishing 5-11 in 2000 and taking DL Richard Seymour No. 6 overall, the Patriots belong in the discussion of the worst teams in the NFL. It’s still a little hard to fathom them picking in the top two or three picks, but their 2-7 record so far has done a lot to remove the mystique surrounding HC Bill Belichick. Losses to the Colts and Giants in the next three weeks with their bye in between would make that scenario feel much more realistic.
The biggest issue with the Patriots so far seems to be a talent gap, which has only been worsened by the inevitable attrition of an NFL season. On offense, the Patriots entered the season with questions at wide receiver and offensive tackle and hopes that new OC Bill O’Brien would bring the best out of QB Mac Jones. Instead, the offense has been toothless and injuries up front have prevented them from establishing the type of physical identity they thrived with during Jones’ rookie year. There’s still plenty left unwritten for Jones as an NFL player, but the book so far says he’s a guy who needs a strong supporting cast to elevate him, not the other way around.
On the other side of the ball, injuries to a secondary that was already going to be in a transition year have prevented the Patriots’ defense from being a strength for the team to rely on. Losing top pass rusher Matt Judon hasn’t helped either. New England isn’t the worst defense in football but they’re currently 26th in scoring, 16th in yards allowed and 29th in takeaways. The last time the Patriots weren’t a top-ten defense in either scoring or yards was 2011.
As bad as things are, they’d have to deteriorate even further for the Patriots to fall into a top-two pick. An injury to Jones might accomplish that, as the Patriots’ depth at quarterback has been shaky this year. If owner Robert Kraft does the unthinkable and fires Belichick mid-season, that could also lower the floor for the team.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams began the season as a lot of people’s darkhorse pick for a top draft selection. Six weeks into the season, the Rams were 3-3 and were making those predictions look silly. Since then, they’ve lost three straight.
Los Angeles’ lack of depth has been exposed in their losing streak. The Rams’ were a house of cards this season that would come tumbling down with injuries to any of their Big Three — QB Matthew Stafford, WR Cooper Kupp and DT Aaron Donald. The emergence of star fifth-round WR Puka Nacua helped overcome the absence of Kupp to start the season but when Stafford missed this past week against the Packers, you saw the floor for this Rams team in an inept, 20-3 loss.
Before that, injuries to the offensive line, TE Tyler Higbee and RB Kyren Williams had reduced the team’s thin margin for error and contributed to the three-game skid. The Rams are on a bye this week and should get Stafford back in Week 11. Williams will return in Week 12. So there’s reason for some optimism going forward. The playoffs aren’t even completely out of the question because the No. 7 seed in the NFC is so wide open.
But if Stafford is lost for an extended period, all bets are off. The Rams are the kind of team that will shut down players with minor injuries to enhance their draft position, too. That makes Los Angeles a fascinating team to monitor down the stretch as darkhorse contenders for both a top-two pick and a playoff berth.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers are bad this year. But when you’re talking about the top pick in the draft, there’s just a different standard of bad that Green Bay does not measure down to. For as ugly as they played this past week, they still thumped the Rams 20-3. They’re a young team with an unproven and inexperienced quarterback in Jordan Love and it shows with the number of mental errors they commit on a weekly basis. But stuff like that is far easier to clean up than teams who have deep, fundamental talent gaps.
Green Bay might still have a top-ten pick to work with in April. Barring an injury to Love, however, it’s hard to see them dipping much further down the standings than this.
Denver actually entered its bye this past week on a two-game winning streak after beating the Packers and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks. The defense has stopped the bleeding after the infamous 70-point game against the Dolphins, and is going on three straight sub-20 points allowed games. Things don’t feel quite so disastrous around the Broncos any more. Some of the players were even talking about how the playoffs weren’t out of reach.
That can change very, very quickly, and a primetime game against the Bills is the exact type of spotlight matchup that could rip the scab back off all the problems the Broncos have been dealing with. A blowout loss would reignite all the furor over the defense struggling and the future of QB Russell Wilson.
Perhaps HC Sean Payton has really figured out the right buttons to push and Denver will be a competitive outfit over the back half of the season. If not, there is a clear path to pushing the team’s pick as high as possible. If the defense goes back to being a sieve and Payton benches Wilson for backup QB Jarrett Stidham in the name of “evaluation,” that could signal the coach has embraced the tank. Payton hates losing but he has enough job security to prioritize the draft slot to a degree. And the team is in a weird enough financial position with Wilson’s contract to where the only realistic way out is hitting on a cheap quarterback, whether it’s a rookie or maybe even Stidham.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tennessee Titans
Since these two teams play each other this week, I’m lumping them together because this is a de facto “elimination” game in terms of a top-two pick, even if both teams are probably already long shots.
After a hot 3-1 start to the season, the Buccaneers are on a four-game losing streak. The offense has remained far better than anyone would have expected with QB Baker Mayfield at the helm but it’s been a leaky defense in recent weeks that’s been hurting Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the Titans have officially turned the keys over to second-round QB Will Levis and will evaluate him over the remainder of the season. The early results have been promising, with Levis rocketing four touchdowns in his debut before coming back to earth a bit against the Steelers.
Whoever wins this week is a tossup as both teams are pretty evenly matched. But I’d also be surprised if the loser ends up with a top-two pick. The Buccaneers have shown they have enough talent to avoid sinking to the bottom of the NFL standings, even if they’re not a good team per se. Winning the NFC South is still in play, as Tampa Bay topped the division-leading Saints 26-9 when they played earlier this season. And although the Titans are going with a rookie quarterback and are less talented than the Buccaneers overall, the floor for HC Mike Vrabel is a lot higher than it would be for other coaches and teams.
Despite trading away both DEs Montez Sweat and Chase Young at the deadline in an apparent shift to a more long-term approach, the Commanders beat the Patriots in Week 9 to move to 4-5 on the season, which leaves them very much alive for a playoff berth in the NFC. Four wins is probably too many for a top pick. The last time the top pick went to a team with that many wins was in 2004.
Still, Washington bears mentioning because they have all the attributes of a team that could push the boundaries of tanking in the NFL. New owner Josh Harris signed off on the most infamous case of tanking in major American sports with the Philadelphia 76ers. Current HC Ron Rivera still has an opportunity to save his job but the bar is high and the odds are high Harris will make deep changes this offseason. If Washington goes on a losing streak and some of the other teams below them start winning games, we could see Harris jump into action.
Las Vegas Raiders
It’s not necessarily uncommon for interim head coaches like Antonio Pierce to win their first game at the helm. Last year Colts interim HC Jeff Saturday led the team to a win against the Raiders in his first game and a near-upset of the Eagles in his second. But more often than not, things start to spiral for the interim coach the longer they hold the post.
That makes the Raiders a team to not discount from the sweepstakes for a top two pick. As discussed with Washington, Las Vegas already has four wins which might be disqualifying for the top pick. I don’t think owner Mark Davis fired former HC Josh McDaniels with the goal of tanking the rest of the season, I think he legitimately thought the former regime was leaving meat on the bone and was capable of winning more games than they had been.
But the Raiders’ outlook for the rest of the season isn’t good. They have personnel deficiencies on offense along the offensive line and will be starting fourth-round QB Aidan O’Connell the rest of the way. The defense has been punching above its weight class a little but the talent deficit on that side of the ball is clear and will take an offseason or two to fix. If the team doesn’t beat the Jets and loses the next two against the Dolphins and Chiefs to go into the bye at 4-8, it’s easy to see the season starting to spiral.
From that point, it just depends on what the other teams on this list do. The Raiders need some help to get a top-two pick but they’re a team that I think would be willing to give a teetering season one final push over the edge if one of those picks appears within reach.
If I had to guess at how the top five of the draft will shake out…
- New York Giants
- Chicago Bears
- Arizona Cardinals
- Las Vegas Raiders
- Chicago Bears (CAR)