NFL Draft nuggets: Let’s start with the Drake Maye and J.J. McCarthy intersection and go from there

For months, the NFL Draft has been beginning after the Chicago Bears select USC quarterback Caleb Williams No. 1 overall. And with the selection process set to kick off Thursday, nothing has changed. If anything, it has come full circle, defying a a relentless mill of speculation that has produced little more than a marathon of aspirin, temple-rubbing and enough mock drafts to challenge the infinite blank space of the internet.

With only a few ticks of the clock left this week, the draft still starts behind Williams. And nobody in the league is quite sure what is going to happen.

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Certainly, there is informed speculation that runs deeper than an army of “insiders.” Personnel departments and coaching staffs have been on the road, linking up at the crossroads of the NFL scouting combine, league meetings and a multitude of pro days. Dinner or drinks at common hotel locations or restaurants have been shared. Old friends have settled into booths to say hello and gossip about players. And inside it all, team personnel have tried to work out some of the hidden math of March and April, picking and pecking in conversations while they try to shape up opposing needs and infatuations.

With that in mind, we took one last pass in recent days with a swath of front offices and coaching staffs, as well as some ancillary league personnel who could provide final insight they might have on what is coming later this week.

Here are some of the the most interesting nuggets ...

First things first: Williams is going to the Bears. So let’s move past that to LSU’s Daniels and the Washington Commanders.

Without a doubt, the Commanders have done a masterful job muddying up the picture at No. 2 overall. At various points over the past two months, we’ve heard they were measuring between Daniels or North Carolina's Maye. Then came late March and early April, when it began swirling that Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was in the mix, too. So much so that after I wrote a piece nearly a month ago urging everyone to relax with the McCarthy and Washington connection, a personnel source I trust implicitly reached out to say “it’s real.”

As time has dragged on, Daniels surfaced as the most toolsy and refined player among the “next three,” with a far more consistent end to his college career than Maye, and a far larger bank of film showing what he has done versus the projection of what McCarthy might be able to do.

That’s not to say there aren’t McCarthy or Maye fans inside Washington. There are. But right now Daniels presents a solidly high ceiling with special traits, plus a higher floor than Maye and McCarthy — who are younger, but also have their futures leveraged against guesstimating what they might be. And even that projection reveals both are solid hikes away from where Daniels is right now as an athlete and passer. Barring some final input of Commanders owner Josh Harris that could change things (and he has been very involved along the way), there is a solid belief across the league that Daniels has come into hard focus at No. 2 overall.

That brings us to where things could get hairy.

The NFL Draft truly begins when we learn where Drake Maye and J.J. McCarthy end up, not Caleb Williams. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)
The NFL Draft truly begins when we learn where Drake Maye and J.J. McCarthy end up, not Caleb Williams. (Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports)

Contrary to a vast amount of projection since March 15 — when the Minnesota Vikings dealt for the Houston Texans’ No. 23 overall pick — there is a growing consensus among NFL teams that McCarthy is not the primary target in a potential trade-up for the Vikings. Instead, it’s believed Minnesota’s top target is Maye. He has a connection with quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, who coached Maye in high school. The potential complication for the Vikings is how the quarterback stack falls at the top of the draft.

Assuming Daniels is the Commanders' pick at No. 2, all eyes will fall on the New England Patriots at No. 3 and what they choose to do in the slot. While trading out is certainly an option, it’s telling that team owner Robert Kraft said publicly in one breath that he was going to let the team “make the decision,” but then in the next breath said, “One way or another, I’d like to see us get a top-rate young quarterback.” Achieving that goal points to the Patriots sticking at the No. 3 pick and selecting that player. If that’s Maye, the selection could turn the draft on its ear for two franchises.

The first would be the Vikings, who would have their top quarterback target taken off the board. The second would be the New York Giants, who have been carefully working league connections to figure out how the quarterback stack will shake out Thursday. Without a doubt, there are other front offices that believe a quarterback is squarely in play for the Giants. The unknown is whether or not McCarthy — who made a private visit to the franchise in March — is the player they’re aiming for with the No. 6 pick.

This is where the Giants and Vikings potentially intersect at the Arizona Cardinals’ No. 4 overall pick. If the Giants believe the Vikings view McCarthy as their top option after Maye … and if Maye goes off the board at No. 3 to New England … it creates a potential sprint for the Cardinals' pick at No. 4. And New York will have an edge over the Vikings in one significant respect: Arizona sliding down only two slots in the draft is a simpler move that leaves the Cardinals squarely in play to land one of the elite wide receivers at No. 6 (likely a choice between LSU’s Malik Nabers and Washington’s Rome Odunze). That doesn’t mean the Cardinals wouldn’t entertain moving all the way down to the Vikings’ pick at 11 — a trade that would be expected to net the No. 23 overall pick plus additional compensation. But that move would have more moving parts, as the Cardinals would then have to try to again replicate last year’s “down, up” maneuver, which saw them trade from their No. 3 slot to the Houston Texans’ No. 12 pick, then saw the Cardinals trade back up again to the Detroit Lions' spot at No. 6, where they selected offensive tackle Paris Johnson.

Could the Cardinals make a similar move again? Yes. But it’s still filled with risk, as they could get locked out and miss all of the draft’s top receivers, or face a bidding war with another team targeting their own receiver need. The likely outcome of any Arizona trade, should one unfold with either the Giants or Vikings, is where the compensation lands. And Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort will be asking for a lot — particularly from the Vikings, who have created a significant need at quarterback after letting Kirk Cousins go and signing Sam Darnold to a one-year bridge deal. Ossenfort also knows Minnesota wants to extend wideout Justin Jefferson to a lucrative long-term deal. And that’s much more palatable building a rookie quarterback contract into the future plans. Not a great tell for the Vikings, but certainly good for trade partners who want to push them at the trade table.

There’s also a twist in all of this. A very well-connected league source told Yahoo Sports they firmly believe that if the Patriots take Maye, the Vikings are comfortable standing down in trade talks and using one of their two first-round picks — either No. 11 or No. 23 — to select Oregon quarterback Bo Nix. It’s worth noting here that Nix had a private workout for the Vikings earlier this month.

However it breaks down, be in your seat for the draft no later than the second pick going on the clock. After that, it’s going to get wild.

  • Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is going to be extremely interesting. There continues to be some insistence that he’s a focus of the Las Vegas Raiders and is squarely in the mix for the first round. Despite an impressive pro day and a generally positive draft process, a very solid number of teams still have a high second-round grade on him or lower. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a first-round pick, as teams often assign only 14 to 18 first-round grades on their board (which is suggestive that players with a second-round grade get chosen in the first). Some of the reticence remains Penix's medical history, but some of it is his struggles with touch and accuracy in the short to intermediate passing game. As well as how he struggled significantly against pressure in the national title game against Michigan. But Penix is the classic “it only takes one team” to love him. He might go in the first and might even go high in the first, but there are quite a few teams that have a lower grade on him than people might think.

  • The closer we get to the draft and the more I hear the assessments on the running back class, the more I think there’s a shot that the bulk of the class comes off the board in the third round. I wrote a more expansive piece about the running backs last week, but I have some new data after my last dive into calls. While there has been some consideration about a surprise “first” running back off the board, I’m more confident now that it will either be Texas’ Jonathon Brooks or Florida State’s Trey Benson. That’s not exactly a revelation with both being in play at the top of the running back stack, but it now feels like they're more of a tier unto themselves, with the next tier being a mixture of Michigan’s Blake Corum, Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen and Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright.

  • Unless Georgia’s Ladd McConkey or South Carolina’s Xavier Legette crashes the party, I think the first-round wide receiver group will be capped at five minimum and six maximum. That consists of Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU’s Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., Washington’s Rome Odunze and Texas’ Xavier Worthy. A player teetering is Texas’ Adonai Mitchell, who has some more deeply split opinions than the other five.

  • With Texas’ Ja’Tavion Sanders having a tough go in the draft process, it feels clear he has been supplanted as the No. 2 tight end behind Georgia’s Brock Bowers. The No. 2 tight end for a number of teams now appears to be Penn State’s Theo Johnson.

  • The offensive tackle run in the first round is going to be wild. There’s a chance that seven tackles go in the first 32 picks: Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, Penn State’s Olu Fashanu, Alabama’s JC Latham, Oregon State’s Taliese Fuaga, Washington’s Troy Fautanu, Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton and Georgia’s Amarius Mims. Some teams also see BYU’s Kingsley Suamataia as a potential late first-round pick as well. The three interesting players from this group to keep an eye on are Fashanu, Latham and Mims. There are split opinions on all three. I wouldn’t be stunned if Fashanu and Latham weren’t the second and third tackles off the board behind Alt (which is the slot they’re often mocked to), or if Mims potentially slips out of the first and into the top of the second round. Bottom line: Tackle order is going to be a little more chaotic than people might think.

  • The interior defensive line might only see Texas’ Byron Murphy II drafted in the first round, but there is some interest inside the top 10 picks. And while there is talk about Murphy potentially being in play as the first defensive player drafted, the consensus I got from teams was that Alabama’s Dallas Turner was far and away the best and cleanest defensive evaluation of the draft.