CHICAGO - Finally, some answers.
After months of speculation about where the nation's top NFL prospects are headed, the process begins to unfold when commissioner Roger Goodell begins calling out the names and teams in the first round of the draft Thursday night. The event is being held in Chicago for the first time after a 50-year run in New York.
The top two quarterbacks in the draft, former Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, are expected to go as soon as the first two picks. But even that's not assured; the Buccaneers have been linked to Winston for months, but Newsday reported last week that Tampa general manager Jason Licht was ready to listen to trade offers for the No. 1 pick. If Winston does go to the Bucs, the Titans, who own the second pick, might take Mariota . . . or they might trade the pick to another team that covets him . . . or they might select another player altogether.
Welcome to more of the uncertainty that has hovered over this year's draft.
"It's not a great year for quarterbacks," said draft expert Mike Mayock of the NFL Network.
Mayock prefers Mariota over Winston, but understands if the Bucs see Winston as a better fit. Part of Mayock's hesitation about Winston involves some highly publicized off-field incidents. Winston was accused of, but not charged with, rape as a freshman. He also allegedly stole crab legs at a grocery store last year and was suspended for a game last season after he engaged in a profane and sexually explicit outburst in the Florida State student union.
"Jameis Winston makes sense from a scheme perspective in Tampa Bay," Mayock said. "They have two big outside receivers . They got a big, strong-armed guy like Winston that can do that. So I understand the pick. However, my pick -- and I'm just talking about the No. 1 quarterback in the draft generically -- would be Marcus Mariota, because I trust him, both on and off the field."
Though most prospects at the very top of the draft are on hand to get a bear-hug greeting on stage from Goodell, both Winston and Mariota have elected to remain at home for the draft. Winston will be with his family in Alabama, while Mariota will celebrate the draft with his family in Hawaii.
"From time to time, players elect to stay home and be with their families, and we respect that," Goodell said.
But 25 other prospects are here and excited about the event.
"It's great to be a part of this," Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Even if I'm taken with the 32nd pick, at least I can say I was at the NFL Draft and I was in the green room and heard my name called. It's a very exciting time for all of us."
Fowler is one of several highly valued pass rushers available, along with USC defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Vic Beasley of Clemson, Kentucky linebacker Bud Dupree, Nebraska linebacker Randy Gregory and Missouri defensive end Shane Ray. It remains to be seen whether recent off-field issues with Gregory and Ray affect their draft status. Gregory recently admitted he tested positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine, and Ray was cited on Monday in Missouri for possession of marijuana.
The deepest position in this year's draft is wide receiver, with as many as seven wideouts considered potential first-round picks. The group is highlighted by Amari Cooper of Alabama, Kevin White of West Virginia and Louisville's DeVante Parker, and also includes Nelson Agholor of USC, Breshad Perriman of Central Florida, Phillip Dorsett of Miami and Ohio State's Devin Smith.
At least one running back could be drafted in the first round after a two-year absence. There could be two: Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, who said Wednesday he is well on the way to recovering from a torn knee ligament he suffered last November, and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who finished with more career rushing yards in college than all but Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
The talent pool at offensive line isn't quite as deep as the previous two drafts, but there are quality prospects available near the top, and both New York teams could have interest. The Giants and Jets met with Stanford offensive tackle Andrus Peat, and the Giants have also shown strong interest in Iowa tackle/guard Brandon Scherff.