2024 NFL Draft: ESPN names the 16 prospects with first-round grades

On3 imageby:Andrew Graham02/23/24

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It’s officially 2024 NFL Draft season, with the Super Bowl in the rearview and the combine on the horizon. And that means it’s also time to parse out which players will get picked, and where.

With big boards being assembled and mock drafts aplenty, ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller broke down the top prospects in a different way, sharing the 16 players that he’s actually handed first round grades to. That’s after landing on 20 last year.

And it’s a good exercise to remember a key facet of the draft: Just because there are 32 first round picks doesn’t mean there’s 32 first round players.

Players are listed as follows: Name, school (overall prospect ranking)

Quarterback

Caleb Williams, USC (No. 1): Miller’s top player in the 2024 NFL Draft — and he’s not alone in that assessment — easily earns a first round grade. Williams has been projected as the top, or one of the top quarterbacks in this draft for years, and he’s done little to dissuade that notion. Now he’s on the precipice of parlaying his star-turned college career into a lucrative NFL future. However another quarterback could unseat him from being the No. 1 overall pick.

Jayden Daniels, LSU (No. 5): Daniels did not start the year as a first-round pick in the eyes of most draft evaluators, but a Heisman Trophy-winning campaign boosts ones draft stock. And in Daniels’ case, significantly so. He was aided by some top-shelf receiving talent (more on that in a bit) but showed a playmaking knack and excellent downfield touchdown. His slight build will surely be a concern for teams, but Daniels stood up to the punishment in the SEC in 2023, burning down defenses along the way.

Drake Maye, North Carolina (No. 6): Despite being Miller’s third quarterback and No. 6 overall player, Maye could still be the second quarterback selected, or even the first, however unlikely that is beginning to look. Maye needs a dash of refinement to his game in the pocket, but his physical profile and ability to make off-platform plays both in and out of the pocket will have certain teams excited to add him, perhaps within the Top 3 picks.

Running back

The 2024 draft class will surely result in more than a few good running backs landing in the NFL, but none have first round possibilities in Miller’s estimation. His top running backs have Day 2 draft grades and with the general trend of teams valuing running backs less, 2024 won’t be like 2023 with a pair of first round running backs drafted.

Wide receiver

Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State (No. 2): Miller has Williams a spot above Harrison, but plenty of evaluators have Harrison as their top player. The Ohio State product and son of an NFL legend brings a blend of polished receiver acumen, physical ability and size that few have at wide receiver. His body control and ball tracking while standing at 6-foot-4 pop, as does his strength at the catch point.

Malik Nabers, LSU (No. 3): If there’s one thing Harrison maybe doesn’t have, it’s game-breaking speed and explosion with the ball in his hands. Nabers has that and then some. The holder of LSU’s career receiving yards mark is a walking, talking big play waiting to happen. Pairing his raw, explosive athleticism with a decent frame — he 6-foot, 200 pounds — makes Nabers an enticing prospect.

Rome Odunze, Washington (No. 4): Odunze starred for the Huskies in 2023 and showed an impressive skillset on contested catches and work after the catch. The 6-foot-3, 215 pound wideout was deployed in all aspects of the Huskies passing game, and stood out among a supremely talented receiving corps. Miller particularly praised his ability on back-shoulder fades.

Brian Thomas Jr., LSU (No. 16): If Thomas had the polish of Odunze or Harrison, he could be a Top 10 prospect. But the 6-foot-4 wideout still makes it as a first round-caliber prospect due to his rare vertical ability. He led college football with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2023 and did a lot of his best work on vertical routes, walling off defensive backs with his body and using his speed and body control to win at the catch point.

Tight end

Brock Bowers, Georgia (No. 10): Bowers will simply be disadvantaged in certain blocking situations in the NFL due to his size — 6-foot-4, 240 pounds — but a team drafting him won’t be asking him to do that, primarily. And even still, the game-changing pass catching tight end is more than passable as a blocker, bringing intensity and strength that belie his size. And as Miller noted, Bowers can be a centerpiece of an NFL passing offense from Day 1.

Offensive tackle

Joe Alt, Notre Dame (No. 8): A smooth operator at tackle and son of an NFL tackle, Alt combines a massive frame and top-level technique to win consistently, and overcome a lack of top-end athleticism. At 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, he can lean on length to recover against speed rushers and has the power to beat back stronger rushers. He’s been a riser throughout the draft process, and giving up two sacks in his last 25 games is probably proof enough as to why.

Olu Fashanu, Penn State (No. 11): Fashanu probably would’ve made some form of this list a year ago, as he was eligible to enter the NFL draft as an underclassman last season. But Fashanu, 19 at the time, opted to come back for another year that did little but reassure he’s a top-flight tackle prospect. He’s a good mover at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds and brings a rare combination of power and agility. He’s an ascending player with lots of the physical tools a team wants in a tackle.

Taliese Fuaga, Oregon State (No. 12): While Fuaga might’ve flown under the radars of average fans, Miller was ready to pounce to name him a first round prospect. Fauga is massive, at 6-foot-6, 332 pounds, and brings more to the table than just road-grading ability. Miller also thinks Fuaga, a college right tackle, could move to the left side in the pros.

Interior offensive line

This is likely where the rubber meets the road on the difference between a player being a true first round talent and player being a first round selection. None of the interior lineman that Miller has graded are better than a Day 2 pick, but there’s likely to be at least one — if not more — who get taken in the back half of the first round.

Edge rusher

Dallas Turner, Alabama (No. 9): One of the top-rated defenders for Miller in the draft, Turner made a strong argument in his final college season to be the top pass rusher selected. The twitchy, 6-foot-4, 242-pound edge rusher finished with 10 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. He might not have the ideal bulk of a top-level edge run defender, but showed plenty of willingness and ability at the task in college. And NFL teams are always willing to take swings on players with the ability to get to the quarterback and change a game.

Jared Verse, Florida State (No. 14): While Verse followed up a stellar 2022 season — after which many thought he might leave for the draft — with a strong 2023 campaign, it didn’t blow a lot of casual observers away. Draft evaluators are still plenty high on the versatile, veteran Verse. His size also gives him a real chance to be a 4-3 defensive end, which could boost his draft value.

Defensive tackle

Byron Murphy II, Texas (No. 13): NFL teams have started to seek out interior defensive line disruption more in recent years, and Murphy could fill that need for a team right away. The 6-foot-1, 308-pound defensive lineman was playing in a slightly out-of-position role last season, Miller noted, but still demonstrated the power and quickness to shoot gaps and hold up at the point of attack at the next level.

Linebacker

There are some good linebackers in this class, and Miller has a pair among his Top 50 prospects. But given draft trends and the general dearth of high-level linebacking talent in the 2024 draft class, none land in the realm of being a first round talent.

Cornerback

Terrion Arnold, Alabama (No. 7): Entering the season, it was probably Arnold’s running mate at corner — Kool-Aid McKinstry — who was projected as the first round talent. But Arnold showed top-level coverage ability mixed with a hard-nosed style against the run and taking on ball carriers. He also had five interceptions in 2023. He doesn’t have one dominant trait or ability, but has just been an excellent all-around corner at 6 foot, 195 pounds.

Ennis Rakestraw Jr., Missouri (No. 15): Rakestraw recently had surgery on a core muscle, so the first time evaluators will likely see him workout in the postseason is at the NFL Combine. But his tape is a clear indication of what he can provide: Physicality and athleticism. He can jam at the line or turn and run down field with a receiver just as easily, and the production has backed it up the last two seasons: 71 tackles, 13 passes broken up and an interception.

Safety

Miller sees value, if not high-end talent, among the safety group in the 2024 draft class. A pair of players have earned Top 50 rankings from him, but he seemed down on their chances as first round picks and suspects teams will have the most success shopping for safeties on Day 2 and 3 of the draft.