This year’s NFL Draft is top-heavy with quarterbacks, with four passers likely to be taken early in the first round.
The fifth quarterback on the board, however, is also a possible impact player for a team that has an opening.
“I can make any throw,” Hendon Hooker said. “The way we run our offense, the wide splits, those are all grown-men throws. I’m not throwing any 5-yard outs. Those are all big-boy balls.”
As draft day looms on Thursday, mock drafts are split between Hooker as a first-rounder or second-rounder. According to the NFL Mock Draft Database, Hooker is a consensus No. 23 pick, and just over one out of every five mocks has him going in the first round, some as high as No. 11.
That would make the Greensboro native and Dudley High alumnus the first player from North Carolina selected. Hooker left the state for Virginia Tech before transferring to Tennessee, where he became one of the top players in this year’s draft.
If Hooker isn’t the first player taken with North Carolina connections this year, then it will likely be UNC receiver Josh Downs, who left for the NFL after making 195 catches for 2,364 yards and 19 scores over the last two years. Downs is actually mocked in the first round more often than Hooker — he made it in 30% of all mocks — but his ceiling isn’t as high with most of the first-round mocks putting him in the late 20s.
Downs will likely be the first Tar Heel selected, but at least three other teammates will be awaiting a call in the later rounds. Offensive tackle Asim Richards is projected as high as the fifth round by some scouting services and as low as the seventh by others. Receiver Antoine Green and linebacker Noah Taylor are likely to be undrafted free agents, according to most projections.
Right behind Hooker and Downs on most draft boards is Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson. The Charlotte native and Mallard Creek alumnus left Clemson after his junior year, and many outlets have crowned him the best pure linebacker (as opposed to edge rusher) prospect in the draft. About half of all mocks have him going in the first round, but the consensus is the second round.
One of Simpson’s teammates, K.J. Henry, an edge rusher formerly of Winston-Salem/West Forsyth High, gives the Tigers a pair of N.C. high school products likely to be drafted. Henry has a wider variance on his selection, with one mock putting him in the top 10 picks. Most have him in the fourth through sixth rounds, with a good number pushing him up to the third.
After Simpson, the next most likely local player to hear his name called is Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry. Most scouting services have him among the top-10 pass-catching prospects in the draft, and many have him in the top 75 overall players, although CBS Sports puts him at No. 120. A handful of mocks have Perry going in the first round, as high as the 18th pick. The consensus is that he’ll be a third-rounder. Teammate Kobie Turner, a defensive tackle, is expected to go in the fourth round, although a good number of mocks slide him to the sixth or seventh round. Tight end Blake Whiteheart is the next Deac on most boards, although most mocks have him going undrafted.
NC State is the next school likely to have a player selected in offensive lineman Chandler Zavala. Ranked right around No. 100 among this year’s draft prospects, Zavala also has a wide range of mocks, from the second round to undrafted. The consensus seems to be the fourth round, with a handful of mocks having him going to the Carolina Panthers in that round, where he’d be reunited with his Wolfpack offensive line teammate Ikem Ekwonu, who was taken in the first round last year.
With a half dozen other Wolfpack players hoping to land with a team, State has the largest number of prospects in this year’s draft. Linebackers Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas, corner Tyler Baker-Williams, defensive tackle Cory Durden and center Grant Gibson are all on various draft boards.
Moore has a handful of fourth through seventh round mocks, and Thomas has a few sixth and seventh round predictions. But for the most part, the rest of the Wolfpack contingent after Zavala is expected to be available as free agents after the draft, along with teammates Thayer Thomas and Tanner Ingle.
East Carolina’s running back Keaton Mitchell (fifth round projection), App State edge rusher Nick Hampton (sixth), Charlotte receiver Grant DuBose (sixth) and West Virginia receiver and Holly Springs alumnus Bryce Ford-Wheaton (sixth) are also projected to get selected.