NFL Analysis


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2024 NFL Draft: Predicting This Year's Surprise First-Round Picks

North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson
North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Payton Wilson (11) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on an interception during the second half against the Clemson Tigers at Carter-Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone thinks they know what will happen in the 2024 NFL Draft until months of speculation fail to bear out. Our expectations are quickly proven incorrect as each team has carefully curated its big board and is privy to information we'll never know. Sometimes, teams like fast players who lack impressive advanced stats or guys who are good on film but lack great combine scores.

We're throwing what we think we know out the window and predicting this year's surprise first-rounders. Some of these players are expected to go in the first round but haven't been linked to particular teams, while others are closer to the top 32 than where they're often mocked. 

Which 2024 NFL draft risers will leave us shocked?

Surprise 2024 First-Round Picks

Jets Select LSU WR Brian Thomas Jr.

Consensus mock draft trackers have Brian Thomas Jr. going anywhere from Indianapolis at No. 15 to Jacksonville at No. 17 or Buffalo at No. 28. As we get closer to draft night, Thomas is the best candidate to go much higher than anyone thinks. The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder offers more vertical explosiveness and raw athleticism for his size than anyone in the class.

It all depends on how quickly the trio of Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze come off the board. If they're gone by No. 10, the New York Jets will likely decide between a backup offensive lineman or Thomas. Taking someone who won't play right away instead of a starter in Thomas seems short-sighted, as Thomas also projects as a good fit with Aaron Rodgers.

Patriots Draft Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy

Many experts predict Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels as a lock to be the New England Patriots' preference with the No. 3 overall pick. Former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has not been shy about how he feels J.J. McCarthy projects as an NFL player, claiming he's the top quarterback in the class. That could just be Harbaugh willing the four teams ahead of him in the draft to select passers before his team is on the clock at fifth overall. But what if the league does value McCarthy as highly as Maye or Daniels?

The Patriots could trade down but might favor McCarthy's strong arm and experience in a pro-style system over other options. Seeing Maye or Daniels fall to No. 4 would cause a frenzy because most fans have focused on McCarthy's role in college over his traits.

Cardinals Choose Alabama EDGE Dallas Turner

The collective football world expects the Arizona Cardinals to sit tight at No. 4 with a mouth-watering glare at the best receivers in the nation. The idea of passing on Harrison or Nabers is inconceivable. But is it really after looking at Arizona's roster and considering how many picks they have to fill their need for playmaking later?

The top front-seven defensive prospect in the class is Dallas Turner. Turner, who was in Will Anderson Jr.'s shadow until 2023, put up a legendary combine performance and projects perfectly in Jonathan Gannon's defense. Plus, it's as weak of a pass-rusher class as we've seen in years, so Arizona might feel it's Turner or bust at the position.

They might be able to make a small trade down without losing Turner, but Atlanta at No. 8 overall looms as another fit.

Texas WR Xavier Worthy Goes Top 15

As soon as the top 10 picks are made, we're going to be on Xavier Worthy watch. His ascent doesn't just have to do with his blazing 4.21-second 40-yard dash. He's arguably the best playmaker in the class with the ball in his hands, proving to be a game-changer as a return man and receiver. 

Teams wanting someone who can win after coming off motion and earning easy yards after the catch will prioritize Worthy over the bigger, less flexible targets. That could be Las Vegas, New Orleans, Jacksonville or Cincinnati. 

Interestingly, Worthy's most popular landing spot in mock drafts is Cincinnati, but it's not an overwhelming margin. Many mockers believe he could fall into the second round. Thus, a top-15 investment would be quite the draft day moment. 

N.C. State LB Payton Wilson Drafted in Round 1

Opinions on who the top inside linebacker in this class are split between N.C. State's Payton Wilson and Texas A&M's Edgerrin Cooper. Cooper is more fluid and impactful in coverage, whereas Wilson is dominant between the tackles and has eye-popping athletic traits. Wilson's injury history is concerning, but his production mitigates those concerns.

The late first round is in play for Wilson. The Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fits. Even if he falls into Day 2, he shouldn't last long. The Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans are also weak at the position.

West Virginia C Zach Frazier is Day 1 Pick

The rise of Oregon's Jackson Powers-Johnson is justified, but we can't forget Zach Frazier as a candidate to be the first center off the board. Frazier has earned the mantle of being the best player at the position for several teams, and his experience as a two-time All-American and three-time captain weighs heavily over the hot name. He's the epitome of well-rounded and reliable.

Several teams with huge holes at center or guard will be on the clock in the 20s. Pittsburgh, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Baltimore could easily justify taking Frazier.

Illinois DT Jer'Zhan Newton Goes Top-15

There's been remarkably little buzz around the defensive tackle class this offseason. There's no Jalen Carter in the bunch, but the depth is great, and there are two worthy first-rounders. Jer'Zhan Newton had the best tape in 2023, and it seems odd he'd fall into the 20s, given the desire for disruptive interior defenders.

Newton dominated his competition throughout the year and anchored an otherwise undermanned defense. He should be in the mix as early as Chicago and Denver. Seattle is a significant dark horse to add to its rotation of athletic options for new coach Mike Macdonald.

Bills Choose South Carolina WR Xavier Legette

Everyone expects the Buffalo Bills to grab a receiver at No. 28 after losing Gabe Davis in free agency and seeing Stefon Diggs age in real time last year. The signings of Curtis Samuel and Mack Hollins were nice values, but someone who can earn playing time right now would be a great addition. South Carolina senior Xavier Legette is often ranked in the mid-40s but has to be in the mix for Buffalo.

Legette was a late bloomer for many reasons, but his 2023 season was undeniably great. A terrific athlete at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, relying on 4.47-second 40-yard dash speed and top-tier vertical leaping ability, he'll give Josh Allen a presence equally capable of winning before and after the catch. He's a better option than some of the more physically-limited playmakers who are in his range.