No. 1 Pick Up in Air

Nate Levinson, Sports Editor

The NFL Draft is less than two weeks away, and my favorite time of the sports year has officially begun. The MLB season started last week, but until the draft is over, baseball — though I love it so — won’t have my undivided attention.

After months of rumors that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the lock to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pick at No. 1 overall, Ron Jaworski reported on Monday that his sources told him Oregon QB Marcus Mariota would actually be the first pick in the draft. Of course, on Tuesday, NFL insider Adam Schefter reported that Winston would be the team’s top choice if the draft were today.

All that these conflicting reports mean is that it’s pretty likely that the Bucs haven’t made up their mind on who the pick will be, or at least they’re not telling anyone if they have.

As far as I’m concerned, they can’t go wrong either way. With backup-caliber QB Mike Glennon currently on top of their depth chart, the Bucs are in a prime spot to add a new franchise signal caller into the fold. Winston is a Ben Roethlisberger-lite and a proven winner at the college level, and Mariota is an incredibly athletic and mobile passer in the mold of Colin Kaepernick. Winston carries some off-field baggage and Mariota hasn’t played in a pro-style system, but my money is on both guys fulfilling their potential and becoming above-average quarterbacks for winning teams.

Now it’s just up to the current Bucs’ regime to decide who better fits their current roster. In any case, whichever one doesn’t go first will almost definitely go second, though not necessarily to the Tennessee Titans. The Titans may be sold on Zach Mettenberger as their starting QB, and here’s guessing that some team offers them a pretty sizable haul of at least a couple first-round picks in exchange for the chance to draft Mariota or Winston. The Titans have more holes than a young, inexperienced QB can fix, so their best move is definitely trying for a haul similar to what the Rams got when they traded the No. 2 pick to Washington’s football team in 2012. At the very least, the Jets, Bears, Browns, Eagles and Chargers should all have interest in moving up if the price is right.

Beyond Mariota and Winston, USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams is, by consensus, the best non-QB in the draft. He’s the kind of big, athletic lineman that should anchor a team’s defense for the next 10 years or so, and I’d be surprised if he slipped past the Jaguars, who hold the third pick. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper and West Virginia wideout Kevin White also seem like locks to go in the top 10. They’re both studs, and plenty of teams at the top could use a big play threat on the outside. Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are also top talents and safe bets to buck the trend of running backs not going in the first round. Both might even go in the top half of the opening round, especially Gurley, if his surgically repaired left knee checks out medically.

This draft isn’t only interesting at the top. The top 20 to 25 players eligible are consensus first-round-level talents, but the next tier of players doesn’t necessarily warrant first-round selections. In short, that means two things: A lot of teams may try to trade up into the top half of the draft for a chance at grabbing one of those top-tier talents, and a lot of teams picking in the back half of the first-round may look to move back and acquire more picks to take advantage of the draft’s depth.

The NFL Draft has become more and more of a spectacle in recent years, especially as eager fantasy football players look for any edge they can get come regular season. The NFL has hyped it a ton too, and this year it moves to Chicago after many years at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. All told, the next several weeks and the three days of the draft will feature more media coverage than any other non-competitive sporting event; ESPN, NFL Network and others will try to take advantage of that intense interest in droves.

As ridiculous as it may sound, I’ll love every second of it. Forget January and February — this is the time of year when champions are made.