NFL Draft rumors: Sam Darnold might stay at USC; teams love Baker Mayfield

With the NFL regular season finished and just one college football game remaining, most of the football industry has pivoted to free agency and 2018 NFL Draft preparations.

This offseason, like most in recent history, will be dominated by quarterbacks, but with plenty of on- and off-field question marks surrounding the top college QBs, head coaching changes expected to affect the NFL landscape, and as many as six NFL starting quarterbacks potentially looking to change teams, this offseason won’t be short on story lines at the position.

MOCK DRAFT 2018:
Browns, Broncos ignore QB; Redskins don’t

Here are the latest NFL Draft-related rumors from Optimum Scouting:

The 2018 quarterback class

— Since October, I’ve stopped including Sam Darnold in mock drafts. The USC passer has spurned NFL discussion and the role agents play in the process since the first half of the season. As I’ve spoken with more people around the league, it’s clear that thinking about Darnold as a 2019 prospect, rather than a 2018 player, is more exciting. Whenever he declares for the draft, his mental makeup, toughness and other intangible factors, coupled with his arm talent and flashes, will make him a top-five overall draft pick. Expect that to be next year, however.

— With Darnold expected to stay in school, the attention atop the quarterback rankings turns to Josh Rosen. On the field, Rosen is unquestionably the best quarterback in the 2018 class, and he’s among the most talented and NFL-ready in recent history. His personality might not make him a fit for every NFL decision-maker, though.

It’s not about what Rosen has said about college athletes deserving to be paid, players sitting out bowl games or his statements about preferring to play for a top franchise; it’s the fact he’s always the person questioning the system. There’s a reason most quarterbacks speak in cheesy cliches and never let on too much. It’s a quarterback’s job to be as non-divisive and football-focused as possible.

According to sources who have spoken with people close to Rosen, he has been focused since high school on using football to make money and support the type of lifestyle he wants. He’s OK with challenging the system and being a mouthpiece for divisiveness because he appreciates the attention it draws.

His talent might overrule his non-football concerns, and he’ll likely still be highly valued, but NFL teams will certainly care about this. They don’t want another Robert Griffin III-type personality. Two teams to watch in a possible Rosen trade-up are the Bills and Chargers.

MORE: Top draft prospects in playoff

Baker Mayfield will dominate the 2018 NFL Draft process just like Deshaun Watson did a season ago, but how high can the Heisman Trophy winner go? It’s possible, but not likely, that the Browns will want to draft him in the top five, but Mayfield has plenty of fans around the NFL. He’s a lot more like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees than Johnny Manziel, and NFL teams firmly believe that. Nearly every team in the top 14 will be interested, led by the Broncos or Redskins (whichever doesn’t sign Kirk Cousins), the Bills (in a trade-up), the Jets and the Browns. It would be a surprise if he drops below the top 14.

— Is Lamar Jackson an NFL quarterback? The short answer is yes. Enough teams have liked and continue to like him at the position.

You’ll see lots of people begin to be more definitive about Jackson as a quarterback, but not every team likes Jackson at the position. Enough scouts have gone through the Louisville program, spoken with coaches and echoed similar concerns about offense complexity, whether he can be a vocal leader, and how confident he’ll be when responsibilities grow. Drafting a quarterback is about trust, and Jackson will enter the process needing to establish trust in his ability to handle an NFL offense.

— To no one’s surprise, Wyoming QB Josh Allen didn’t live up to the “best since Cam Newton” hype this season. Don’t buy into the supporting-cast issue, which is overblown. Historically, his college production doesn’t bode well for his NFL future.

According to sources, some NFL decision-makers met and interviewed Allen a year ago during the 2017 NFL Combine. (Allen was quietly there.) His body type, mental makeup, maturity and confidence impressed the decision-makers and allowed him to cement the trust some in the NFL have in him.

Even though NFL teams like Allen, it’s a big leap to take him within the top 10 picks because of his woeful production and inconsistency. Some teams that might have substantial interest in Allen: the Steelers, the Chargers (who are looking to mimic the Chiefs’ drafting of Patrick Mahomes a year ago) and, as a dark horse, the Packers.

— The Senior Bowl is next month, and all eyes will be on the quarterback class. Mayfield will be in attendance, and Allen might be there, as well; he’s eligible despite not being a true senior. The second-tier quarterback battle to watch will be Western Kentucky’s Mike White vs. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph.

Rudolph should meet expectations and impress; he has great touch and timing for 7-on-7 drills. But don’t be surprised if White, a former pitcher who had a remarkable 2016 season under coach Jeff Brohm and has been a favorite of mine for a long time, emerges as a potential top-100 pick after his play in Mobile. White has plenty of fans in the NFL, too.

— Quarterback/team pairing predictions based on what I’ve heard: Rosen-Giants, Mayfield-Redskins/Broncos, Allen-Steelers, Jackson-Jets, Rudolph-Chargers, White-Bills, Luke Falk-Patriots, Kyle Lauletta-Packers.

NFL free agency and coaching carousel

Kirk Cousins was the talk of last year’s free-agent market, but the Redskins opted to put the franchise tag on him again. That won’t be the case this year. The Redskins will either have to sign him to a long-term deal or let him leave.

At this point, it looks to be a two-team race for Cousins: the Redskins or the Broncos. The Redskins haven’t done themselves any favors with how they’ve handled Cousins since the 2012 draft, but the fact he has grown comfortable in Washington with coach Jay Gruden and stayed relatively upright thanks to offensive line coach Bill Callahan should make Washington the clear favorite.

The Broncos have made it clear to those close to Cousins that they’re ready to make a big offer. Over the last two seasons, since moving on from Peyton Manning and letting Brock Osweiler walk (before bringing him back), the Broncos have spent the least of any NFL team on quarterback (less than $7 million combined over 2016 and ’17). Denver vice president John Elway needs to spend at quarterback to win.

Last note on Denver: If Dowell Loggains isn’t retained on the Bears’ coaching staff, look for him to be in the mix in Denver. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, someone Cousins respects, speaks highly of him.

Alex Smith will have plenty of teams bidding for him. I expect Cleveland and Washington (if it loses Cousins) to be the favorites. Case Keenum is expected to get a multiyear offer from the Vikings, but the Bills and Chiefs (if Smith leaves) are expected to have interest.

— CFL note: The British Columbia Lions have the rights to Johnny Manziel, but if they don’t get a call from the Montreal Alouettes, who just hired former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman (who recruited Manziel to the Aggies), about a trade, it might be in their best interest to pass on the quarterback.

— Could Sean Payton leave the Saints? The Bears might be an enticing option if he wants a fresh start. He’s familiar with Bears GM Ryan Pace from their time together in New Orleans. He was a big fan of Mitchell Trubisky in last year’s draft. And if the Bears cut Mike Glennon, they have the cap space to potentially bring Drew Brees to Chicago. A move is unlikely with Payton in the playoffs, but sources have said all season that Payton will at least explore other opportunities.

— As I reported in November, the Texans’ coaching staff and front office have not agreed over the last two offseasons. From Brock Osweiler to DeShaun Watson to Duane Brown, it seems the relationship is beyond repair. If the Texans choose to move on from GM Rick Smith, look for them to target Scott Pioli or Brian Gaine as GM.

— If Payton doesn’t leave for Chicago, look for Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippio to be a favorite for the job. And if the Titans move on from Mike Mularkey, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should be the favorite.

— Offensive lineman salaries will continue to rise this offseason. With a shortage of quality linemen around the league, good ones are earning more, and per analytical people in the league, offensive line is the best investment in free agency.

Free-agent offensive linemen who are coveted generally produce the highest return on investment compared to receivers, running backs and defenders. That also means teams are more likely to invest early in top offensive linemen in the draft. With controlled rookie wages, a guard or tackle drafted in the top 10 who might become a top-15 player at his position by Year 2 of his contract is a tremendous value.

NFL Draft quick hits

— We’re going to see lots of offensive linemen go in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Connor Williams of Texas, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma and Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame are all set to be top-10 picks. Williams might emerge as the first overall draft pick. Another name to know: Chukwuma Okorafor of Western Michigan. He might be a top-10 pick, too.

— We’ve seen running backs drafted in the top 10 in each of the last three years. This year will be no different, but Saquon Barkley won’t just be coveted by teams in the top 10 because of his outstanding college film, freakish athleticism and versatility out of the backfield. He’s a high-character, culture-changing player NFL teams covet in their high picks. Browns leadership might not value running backs that high, but if Cleveland passes on Barkley at No. 4, he won’t last long after that.

MORE: Why Barkley deserved the Heisman

Minkah Fitzpatrick was arguably the country’s most impactful defender this season, but after learning NFL teams’ grades, I’ll be surprised if he is drafted inside the top 10. N.C. State lineman Bradley Chubb will be the first defender taken.

— Multiple NFL teams have Oklahoma State receiver Marcell Ateman graded higher than teammate James Washington. If Washington runs slower than expected at the Combine, don’t be surprised if Ateman leapfrogs Washington in Round 1.

— Some underappreciated draft prospects who could rise to the first round: N.C. State running back Jaylen Samuels, Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore, UTEP guard Will Hernandez, Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay, North Carolina cornerback M.J. Stewart and San Diego State cornerback Kameron Kelly.

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