Forecasting the draft: What our model says about QB picks, and surprise first-rounders

NFL

Let’s predict the 2024 NFL draft, probabilistically. That’s the job of ESPN’s Draft Day Predictor, our publicly available tool that uses expert mock drafts, Scouts Inc. grades and team needs to forecast pick probabilities for prospects in the upcoming draft. In other words, we can get a look at the range of selection outcomes for the best players and the chance they will be available at specific slots.

With two days remaining before the Bears presumably select USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the first overall pick, let’s break down some key questions about the draft using the Draft Day Predictor. We’ll look at who will go No. 2 overall, which wide receivers could be available for the Bills, whether Oregon QB Bo Nix or Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. could fall deep into the second round and more. Plus, we’ll look at who users are selecting using our NFL mock draft simulator in the form of a fan mock draft.

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Which QB is the most likely pick at No. 2?

Jayden Daniels, though there’s still a fair bit of uncertainty. The model gives the LSU quarterback a 49% chance to be the selection at No. 2, with North Carolina’s Drake Maye at 21% and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy at 15%, respectively. The remaining possibilities consist of Williams and Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. — probabilities that are almost certainly inflated. Any model like this requires uncertainty, though there is little actual doubt that Williams will go No. 1 and the Commanders will take a QB at No. 2.

The model believes Daniels has the edge — and he is probably an odds-on favorite if we mentally redistribute the Williams and Harrison Jr. probabilities — but it’s no slam dunk.


How far back could the Cardinals or Chargers trade and still land one of the top three WRs?

The top three receivers — Harrison, LSU’s Malik Nabers and Washington’s Rome Odunze — all have bullish forecasts. Odunze is expected to be the last selected of the three, and there’s only a 25% chance he lasts until the 10th pick. He’s 50/50 to be there at No. 9 and 78% to be around at pick No. 8. The chance any of the three is there at those picks will be slightly higher.

If a wideout is the target, the Cardinals or Chargers will have to assess how much risk they will tolerate. If they decide to trade with one of the quarterback-hungry teams in the 11-13 range — the Vikings, Broncos and Raiders — they’d likely have to move back up to take one of the top receivers. If they’re willing to drop a tier, LSU’s Brian Thomas Jr. is extremely likely to be available at Nos. 11, 12 or 13.


What is McCarthy’s most likely draft range — and landing spot?

Of the QBs expected to go early in the first round, McCarthy has the widest range. He could be selected as early as No. 2 overall (though less likely than Daniels or Maye) and has at least a 4% chance to be selected at every spot after that up until pick No. 9. The reason, of course, is trades. Yes, there are QB-needy teams at Nos. 2, 3 and 6 (maybe even No. 7?), and those are his most likely landing spots — but everyone else is a potential trade-down team.

McCarthy’s most likely landing spot is No. 6, where he has a 31% chance to be selected. While there’s plenty of speculation about trades at Nos. 4 and 5, McCarthy could fall right into the Giants’ lap if one doesn’t happen.

There’s a 92% chance that McCarthy is gone within the top 10. That leaves an 8% chance at a potential Vikings coup at No. 11, in which Minnesota would land McCarthy without having to trade up and likely having to part with its other first-round pick (No. 23).

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Could Penix or Nix fall to the Raiders or Rams in Round 2?

These teams pick at Nos. 44 and 51 in the second round, respectively, so Penix and Nix would have to fall into the middle or later portions of the second round for there to be a chance. These Pac-12 quarterbacks have a wide range of outcomes — they could each be selected as high as the 11-12-13 stretch of QB-needy teams or fall into Round 2 — though the Draft Day Predictor believes both these teams would be fortunate to land one of them without trading up, especially Los Angeles.

The Predictor thinks Nix is the more likely QB to fall. He has a 33% chance to be available at No. 44 and a 12% chance to still be on the board at No. 51. Penix has only a 10% chance to be on the board at the Raiders’ second-round selection at 44 and a 2% chance to last until the Rams at 51.


Which fringe players could sneak into Round 1?

Let’s look at players with a 5% to 20% chance of going in Round 1 — long shots but not impossible. Two wideouts lead this group in South Carolina’s Xavier Legette (19%) and Florida State’s Keon Coleman (13%). Other names include Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (12%), Western Michigan edge rusher Marshawn Kneeland (11%), Washington offensive tackle Roger Rosengarten (9%), Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (9%) and Michigan running back Blake Corum (6%).


Which wide receivers will be on the board for the Bills at No. 28 and/or No. 60?

Let’s start with No. 28. It’s not impossible the Bills get incredibly lucky and have Thomas fall their way, but it’s highly unlikely — just a 12% shot. Realistically, they’re looking at the third tier of this strong receiver class at their first-round pick, but there should be options. Texas’ Xavier Worthy (61% chance to be available) and Adonai Mitchell (72%), Georgia’s Ladd McConkey (82%), Legette (94%) and Coleman (95%) are each favored individually to be there at No. 28. While there has been plenty of speculation about the Bills moving up for a receiver, they could probably move down a few slots and still nab a wideout in this tier.

Given the severity of its need, it’s not out of the question for Buffalo to select a wide receiver with each of its top two picks. And there should be options at No. 60, too. Someone like Legette (11%) or Coleman (24%) could fall there, and there’s a strong chance that one or more of Florida’s Ricky Pearsall (44%), Oregon’s Troy Franklin (44%), Michigan’s Roman Wilson (53%), Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk (58%) and Jalen McMillan (68%) or North Carolina’s Devontez Walker (79%) are on the board toward the end of the second round.


Where is Brock Bowers‘ most likely landing spot?

No. 10, easily. This isn’t a major surprise: Bowers to the Jets at 10 (technically the model predicts only that the Georgia tight end goes to someone at 10) has a 33% shot of happening, a greater chance than at any other spot. The No. 10 spot marries Bowers’ rough skill ranking (No. 13 overall at Scouts Inc.) with a team need — and plenty of mocks have made that connection and put him at No. 10.

If he doesn’t go to the Jets at 10, the Draft Day Predictor thinks he’ll be picked in that ballpark, with the No. 11 pick (currently Vikings) and No. 9 pick (Bears) the next most likely spots at 17% and 16%, respectively. Again, remember that the model is predicting where the player is selected, not which team will end up making the pick.


If the Jets decide to pursue an offensive lineman for depth behind veteran tackles Tyron Smith and Morgan Moses, they might be able to move back, recoup the second-round pick they lost in last year’s Aaron Rodgers trade and still land a high-end player.

Latham (Alabama), Fuaga (Oregon State) and Fashanu (Penn State) individually are all slight underdogs to still be available at pick No. 15 — though the chance one of them is still on the board should be fairly high as a result. But Fautanu’s range is a little lower, as the Washington lineman has a 55% chance to last to pick No. 18. In other words: Between the four, the Jets could probably move down to the late teens and still get someone, but it’s not guaranteed.


When will the first running back be selected?

While we mentioned that Corum had a very long shot to make the first round, his range of outcomes is massive — the Draft Day Predictor doesn’t give him a 50% chance to be off the board until pick No. 88 late in the third round. Instead, the running back with the best median outcome is Texas’ Jonathon Brooks, who has a 51% chance to be gone by pick No. 59. Florida State’s Trey Benson is next, with a 50% chance to be gone by pick No. 79. Put it all together and late in Round 2 is a reasonable place to expect the first back to go.


What is the most likely slot for the first defensive player?

We can’t perfectly answer this question without simulations that aren’t yet available, but we can get close by looking at the range of outcomes for Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner. I think the chalk answer is No. 8 — the Falcons could use a pass-rusher and seem like a logical landing spot for Turner — but the Draft Day Predictor would lean slightly toward No. 9 over No. 8.

Turner has a 25% chance to be selected at No. 8 and a 28% chance at No. 9. From the Predictor’s standpoint, this has to do with the fact that the top three wide receivers are so highly regarded, and Atlanta could also use a receiver. If the Falcons took, say, Odunze at No. 8, that would push Turner down to No. 9 for the Bears or someone trading into the spot.

Fan mock draft: Most common simulator results

One cool side output of ESPN’s mock draft simulator is that we can create what we call the fan mock draft. In this exercise, we award each team with the player most selected by users controlling that team in the simulator, provided he is still available.

So for the Bears at No. 1, most users select Williams. At No. 2, we award the Commanders the most selected player besides Williams — Daniels. For the Patriots at No. 3, Maye was most selected outside of the two QBs already off the board. Here’s the full first round:

Let’s dive into the most notable selections from this exercise, starting with the second pick.


Commanders select Daniels at No. 2

This isn’t a huge surprise, but what was interesting was just how strongly Commanders users preferred Daniels. Among simulations where drafters selected one of Daniels, Maye or McCarthy, Commanders users selected Daniels 82% of the time. That’s quite an endorsement.


Giants select Odunze at No. 6

This is interesting because of whom Giants users didn’t select: McCarthy. With the Michigan QB on the board and rumors swirling that the Giants might be in the quarterback market, their fans instead opted to go wide receiver and presumably roll with Daniel Jones for another season.

One flaw in this mock setup is that it doesn’t allow trades, so once Giants fans passed on McCarthy at No. 6, he was destined to fall to the Vikings at No. 11, even though it appears unlikely he would make it that far when trades are factored in.


Broncos select Nix at No. 12

With the top four quarterbacks all gone, Broncos users faced a choice. Take Nix at 12 — potentially a reach — or roll the dice that he or Penix would make it to the second round. Turns out that Broncos users weren’t in the gambling mood and grabbed Nix right then and there.


Did fans reach with picks Nos. 17-20?

The Jaguars, Bengals, Rams and Steelers took Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins, Georgia tackle Amarius Mims, Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton and Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton, respectively. None of these picks is shocking. But all four are at the very beginning of the range where each player could be drafted, according to the Draft Day Predictor.

A couple of factors are at play here. For someone like Newton, his Scouts Inc. grade displayed on the simulator is more optimistic on him than where the Predictor believes he’ll be selected. That could be an influence. The second is that while some players like Latham and Texas defensive lineman Byron Murphy II are still on the board, they have not been available at this stage in most sims, and that reduces their selection count. Latham and Murphy were popular first-round picks, but neither was the top pick in any slot.

Still, fans are clearly showing some preference toward the four players who were selected, even if it appears to be a shade early to pick them.


Dolphins select Thomas at No. 21

One reason I was surprised about the 17-20 range is that none of those teams opted for Thomas, allowing him to fall to Miami at No. 21. Wide receiver isn’t a screaming need for the Dolphins — they have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, after all — but it could be a need in the future and it feels realistic that the team might opt for Thomas if he made it this far.

Fautanu and UCLA’s Laiatu Latu are the most selected players by Dolphins users overall, but neither was available in this draft.

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