Top NFL Execs Reveal Bold Predictions for 1st-Round Draft Surprises

Hendon Hooker

Getty Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker.

The 2023 NFL draft is set to begin on Thursday, April 27, with the Carolina Panthers’ selection of their franchise quarterback of the future, but this year’s class remains as uncertain and unknown as any in recent memory.

Mock draft projections have been all over the map this spring, and that seems to jibe with how this class is viewed by some decision-makers inside the league.

“I doubt there will be as many head-scratching picks,” an NFC executive told Heavy, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Because honestly, this isn’t a great draft. It’s going to be a ‘draft for needs’ draft.”

Multiple executives have shared the viewpoint that this is a weaker first round than in recent years.

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane lamented the lack of talent at the top of this year’s class.

“It’s not great,” Beane told reporters on April 18, when asked how many prospects Buffalo has a first-round grade on.

Given a seeming lack of star power in this year’s first round, there could be some big surprises during the draft’s opening night. Here’s a look at some prospects who could potentially get chosen higher than many expect, and possible team fits for each.

Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee

Potential fits: Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

“Hooker is a ready-made starter the moment his knee is ready. He’s a bottom-15 starter in this league, but definitely a starter. He’s accurate, mature, and a good deep-ball thrower.” – AFC scouting director

Hendon Hooker is one of the more intriguing quarterback prospects in this class, especially after suffering a torn ACL in November 2022.

Hooker, 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, was well on his way to playing his way into the top of this year’s draft prior to getting injured.

Nevertheless, after completing a career-high 69.6% of his passes as a fifth-year senior, for 3,135 yards with 27 touchdowns to 2 interceptions and adding 5 more rushing scores, Hooker has many of the traits teams look for in a franchise quarterback.

Jonathan Mingo, WR, Ole Miss

Potential fits: Los Angeles Chargers, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills

“Mingo has what you look for at the position; good hands, reliable hands, and all kinds of toughness.” – NFC personnel executive

It’s fair to say that this year’s wide receiver class will struggle to live up to the talent produced at the position in recent years.

In 2022, there were five wide receivers chosen in Round 1, on the heels of five going off the board in the first round in 2021. There might not be a Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Drake London, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson or Jahan Dotson in this year’s class, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t game-altering talent at the position.

Mingo might be the most physically imposing receiver in this year’s class, weighing in at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, with all kinds of athleticism in terms of speed and agility to emerge as a well-rounded target in this league.

If Mingo’s production can translate to the next level, after catching a career-high 51 passes for 861 yards with 5 touchdowns, some team is going to wind up adding a reliable target to their receiving corps.

Tyler Steen, OL, Alabama

Potential fits: Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams

“Tyler would definitely be a total first-round surprise. He has guard and tackle versatility, scored high on all the psych tests. Since there are almost no quality offensive linemen in this draft, he and a bunch of them will be over-drafted.” – AFC personnel executive

A four-year starter at the University of Alabama, Steen only surrendered 2.0 sacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Primarily a left tackle during his time at Vanderbilt and in Tuscaloosa, Steen checks in at 6-foot-6 and 321 pounds, which could give him the ability to stay at tackle or slide to the interior.

NFL Mock Draft: Matt Lombardo’s Top-10 Picks

Next week, this column will lead with a full first-round mock draft, with the latest sourced insight from executives, coaches, scouts and agents across the NFL. But, until then, here’s a peek at how the first 10 picks could shape up (as of time of writing, nine days out).

1. Carolina Panthers: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

2. Houston Texans: C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State

3. Arizona Cardinals: Will Anderson, EDGE, Alabama

4. Indianapolis Colts: Will Levis, QB, Kentucky

5. Seattle Seahawks: Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida

6. Detroit Lions: Nolan Smith: EDGE, Georgia

7. Las Vegas Raiders: Peter Skoronski, OT, Northwestern

8. Atlanta Falcons: Tyree Wilson, EDGE, Texas Tech

9. Chicago Bears: Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia

10. Philadelphia Eagles: Bijan Robinson, RB, Texas

Final Thought: Jalen Hurts Contract a Win for Player & (Super Bowl) Team

Howie Roseman and the Philadelphia Eagles struck gold in the structuring of quarterback Jalen Hurts’ record-setting contract extension.

Since last fall, the Eagles eagerly awaited the opportunity to commit top dollar long-term to Hurts. After agreeing to terms on a five-year contract extension worth $255 million that includes $179.3 million fully guaranteed, Roseman and Philadelphia underscored their belief and commitment in their 24-year-old quarterback who just led the franchise to its fourth Super Bowl appearance.

Roseman took home NFL Executive of the Year honors in 2022, and Hurts played his way into the MVP conversation, but, after the details of this deal were released, perhaps Roseman should be crowned again.

Philadelphia threaded the needle perfectly in rewarding Hurts for his impressive second season, and showing that the organization backs him, while avoiding many of the salary cap pitfalls most teams careen against when signing a quarterback to his second contract.

While Hurts’ reign as the highest-paid player will likely soon be cut short whenever the Cincinnati Bengals extend Joe Burrow or the Los Angeles Chargers come to terms on a new deal with Justin Herbert, his extension won’t preclude Roseman’s ability to build around him. At all.

Here are Hurts’ cap numbers over the first four years of the deal:

  • 2023: $6.15 million
  • 2024: $13.56 million
  • 2025: $21.77 million
  • 2026: $31.77 million

The Eagles’ roster is built to compete for multiple Super Bowls, in a wide-open NFC, over the next three seasons. If Hurts continues to ascend, this contract is going to look like a bargain, written by one of the league’s premier managers of the cap.

“Those first few years are really good cap-wise for the Eagles,” former NFL Executive of the Year Jeff Diamond told Heavy.

Over the next several seasons, the expectation is that the salary cap will rise. In 2024, the Eagles are currently projected to have just over $33 million in cap space, with over $124 million in cap space in 2025, approximately $248.7 million in spending flexibility in 2026, and $472 million in 2027, according to Spotrac.

There is no reason whatsoever that Hurts’ contract should be viewed any sort of albatross or hindrance for a general manager of Roseman’s stature and track record. Rather, Hurts the player has the potential to be a drawing card for veterans wanting to have a real chance at making a real run at sustained Super Bowl success.

“The deal is at the going rate for a Super Bowl or Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback,” Diamond points out. “Even if he’s only had one really big year so far.”

Hurts’ contract sets Roseman and the Eagles up to set him up for even bigger years in years to come.

Comment Here
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments