Russini: What I’m hearing about the NFL Draft, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and more


Don’t get cute.

If I had a dollar for every time an NFL team employee used that phrase in April over the phone or in text, I’d be buying my own NFL franchise. (I’d put the team in Miami, as Tom Brady just finished building his new house there. We’ll come to you, Tom.)

The “Don’t get cute” phrase is used in NFL meeting rooms this time of year for a reason. Stick with the draft plan, block out the temptations. Some teams pick the best player available, some teams go for need. When both of those scenarios collide, that’s a good pick. Right now decision-makers are all hearing opinions as to who they should pick from draft experts, scouts, agents and — as one head coach shared — even parishioners at church. People in his community are quick to give their evaluations during the custom exchanging of the peace greeting at Mass.

I imagine it went something like this:

“Peace be with you.”

“And also with you … but only if you pick Marvin Harrison Jr.”

GO DEEPER

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An accomplished NFL executive explained it best over the phone: “Teams do the work year-round, share all the information with the team officials, discuss and together we agree on players. It’s hard to resist major offers from desperate teams. I tell myself and my guys, don’t get cute.”

Which brings us to Chicago.

The Chicago Bears have made it known to teams since before the NFL Scouting Combine that they are not open to trading the No. 1 pick. Though quarterback-hungry franchises have beseeched teams up and down the top 10 to consider a trade, Chicago wasn’t even an option on the call sheet.

The Bears have their man in Caleb Williams, and they aren’t messing around.

Though this has always been very clear for Chicago, while collecting information around the league I was surprised to hear from a head coach who has evaluated all of the prospects that he had LSU’s Jayden Daniels ranked ahead of Williams. His opinion doesn’t matter, though. The opinion of Bears president Kevin Warren and company does.

Washington Topgolfers

The executives at Topgolf should be sending Washington general manager Adam Peters and head coach Dan Quinn free golf for life after advertising their company better than if Masters winner Scottie Scheffler were their spokesman. The Commanders recently took about 20 draft prospects, including quarterbacks Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye, Michael Penix Jr. and J.J. McCarthy, for an outing at a nearby Topgolf.

Peters gained an appreciation for the value of such outings during the draft process while working with John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers, but many league executives were shocked and confused by the move. So was Daniels’ agent. He wasn’t too happy about it on social media because most top QB prospects are getting a significant amount of one-on-one time with the important people in the organizations that are scouting them. While Daniels did in fact have a chance to do that, it wasn’t the same as other traditional visits.

Since the visit, league sources have said Daniels has told people in his “dream world” he could reunite with Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce, who was an assistant coach at Arizona State during Daniels’ time with the Sun Devils, or play under Kevin O’Connell in Minnesota. The belief around the league is the Commanders and Daniels will get past this bogey, and he’s expected to be the team’s QB of the future. But also watch for the Commanders to use one or some of their second-day picks to move back into the first round to get another starting-caliber player. Peters calls it “optionality.”

First-year Patriots coach Jerod Mayo has almost begged for patience this offseason while owner Robert Kraft has publicly and privately shared that he wants a QB in this draft. The Patriots are under a new regime and are about to make one of the most important picks in franchise history at No. 3. (If this was still Bill Belichick running the Patriots, I’m told he would probably trade down and get more picks — see the Texans — but this is not those Patriots anymore.)

Though team officials are open to listening to trade offers, league sources say no real offer has come New England’s way, with only “scenarios” being discussed. Teams like the Vikings, Broncos and Raiders were told it would take significant draft capital for New England to trade out of its spot. With no deal in place right now, the Patriots are expected to stick and pick at No. 3.

A longtime league executive says this is a more involved ownership, with a group of scouts presenting the information and a head coach and general manager charged with filling a depleted roster. The team has yet to award the title of general manager to Eliot Wolf, who is running point, and it has shifted to a more collaborative process overseen by Jonathan Kraft. Ownership is allowing the football decision-makers to make the calls while keeping open a constant line of communication. But make no mistake, the Krafts know everything that is going on, as they should.

Two more things to note:

If the Patriots land on a deal to trade out of No. 3, I fully expect them to move back up to grab a QB. Bottom line, I anticipate them coming out of this draft with a top QB.

It’s also worth noting the Patriots don’t mind starting this season with Jacoby Brissett before handing the keys to the new QB when he is ready.

Teams are expecting that if the Patriots make a trade, they won’t do the deal until they see who Washington is taking at QB.

If you love him, go get him

The Denver Broncos, who pick at No. 12, did not trade with the New York Jets for Zach Wilson on Monday for him to be the starter. And though moving up for a QB is still in play for the team, there is a limit to what the Broncos are willing to pay. But Sean Payton wants a QB. His philosophy going back to his days in New Orleans is, “If you love a player, go get him.” Most teams picking in the top five believe the Broncos could make a big swing with a package that could even include star cornerback and fifth-year option pickup Pat Surtain II and more players on expiring deals if Payton’s true love is there.

The Vikings appear to have their sights set on Drake Maye and will be aggressive to move up. They have the ammunition in this year’s draft and next, but will it be enough? If Maye is gone and McCarthy is on the board, could they fall into a bidding war with Denver to move up? That could be on the table.

The Raiders have made calls to teams that appear open for business, including the Commanders, but keep in mind new GM Tom Telesco doesn’t have a history of trading up in drafts. Las Vegas needs a quarterback, and many teams have been mocking the Raiders landing Penix with their pick at No. 13.

Penix stock rising

It’s been assumed the top four QBs are Williams, Daniels, Maye and McCarthy, but don’t be surprised if Penix enters the discussion come Thursday. Recently, Penix has benefited as many offensive assistant coaches have spent time studying University of Washington players, including the Huskies’ starting offensive tackles and top three wide receivers. Though analysts and reporters have not mentioned his name at high volume over the last month, one GM told me, “He’s the best-kept secret in this draft.”

Read more of The Athletic’s NFL Draft coverage

If for some reason Maye falls in the QB lottery, don’t put it past the Giants to stick at No. 6 and pick a QB they think can be the future. The Giants are watching how Jones recovers from his ACL surgery. Most teams believe if Maye is off the board, the Giants’ most likely scenario is to go wide receiver to land a player who can help an offense that was last in the league in yards after the catch in 2023.

Cardinals might move, but not far

The person taking calls is in Arizona at No. 4 and sitting pretty with all options in the Cardinals’ control. General manager Monti Ossenfort is no stranger to trading back from the top of the draft, having moved out of No. 3 in 2023, and it looks like he will have another great opportunity for a similar move.

A league source said if the Cardinals do in fact trade down, they don’t want to move too far, so you can almost guarantee they will be coming back up (as they also did last year). If they don’t get the deal they want, the team is comfortable with picking the best wide receiver on the board.

Chargers could be unpredictable

The Chargers have needs all over. Yes, they have the franchise quarterback with a new GM and new head coach, but that’s about it. They are clearly in transition, and because of their tight salary cap situation, this is their chance to accumulate players.

The Broncos, Raiders, and Vikings have all called to inquire about a possible trade. My understanding is the Chargers are listening, but their price is much bigger than what it costs to rent a parking space for Jim Harbaugh’s new RV.

The University of Michigan’s success under Harbaugh was tied to its ability to recruit and find good offensive linemen. He knows how important the line of protection is for the QB and the team’s overall success. The Chargers will have options at No. 5, but teams are mocking them to go offensive line.

The ‘It Depends’ Titans

After spending heavily in free agency and addressing many needs, the one position not addressed by the Titans this offseason was offensive tackle. Look for them to not get cute and take their tackle at No. 7. If the player they want isn’t there, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Titans go wide receiver, understanding that new coach Brian Callahan wants to score points.

The Titans fell in love with Harrison during the combine interview, but the chances he’s there at 7 are slim. Keep in mind, president of football operations Chad Brinker, who has seen his involvement increase this offseason, comes from the Packers’ front office, and that franchise hasn’t gone wide receiver in the first round since 2002.

Final whistle

Atlanta at No. 8 and Chicago at No. 9 are two landing spots for the top defensive players.

Be ready for “Houdini Howie.” A league source said the Eagles have called to move up from No. 22. Howie Roseman is on the hunt for a cornerback.

Though there has been ample chatter about the Rams going QB as Matthew Stafford is getting older and the team has a growing need at the position, I don’t expect Los Angeles to use its first first-round pick since 2016 on a quarterback.

The Texans aren’t on the clock until the second round, but I wouldn’t put it past Nick Caserio to trade into the first round Thursday night. I’m expecting Houston to at least try, just based on Caserio’s history. He traded eight times last year and seven times in 2022. We’ll see if he starts calling Thursday.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic;
photos: Joe Robbins, Alika Jenner and Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)





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