Drake Maye, Payton Wilson, Graham Barton moving up NFL Draft boards

An early look at local prospects as NFL Draft season shifts into high gear

Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton is projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. (Mike Caudill / AP Photo)

Now that the 2023 NFL season is over, it’s time to look ahead to 2024.

The end of the Super Bowl leads seamlessly into draft season, and NFL Draft prep has already started in earnest. The Senior Bowl preceded the Super Bowl by a week, and teams hoping to make the latter, eventually, need to pay close attention to the former.

The Carolina Panthers were at the top of the NFL Draft narratives last season after trading what turned out to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft in order to move up to the top spot last year and select quarterback Bryce Young. While the Panthers aren’t currently slated to pick in Round 1 this year, they’ll be busy using their later picks to stock up on offense for Young. With their quarterback need addressed last year, receivers and offensive linemen are expected to be at the top of Carolina’s draft board.

If the Panthers were still picking in the first round, they might be able to cut down on travel costs and focus on some of the in-state talent in this year’s draft pool. Unfortunately for Carolina’s NFL team, however, some of the top players from N.C. schools might be gone by the time the Panthers get around to picking.

Here are some of the storylines from the start of draft season that have an intersection with the Old North State.

Quarterbacks at the top

Things could change as teams identify their targets and top needs, but at the moment, it appears the top two picks in the draft will once again be quarterbacks, with a chance of the top three choices all being from that spot.

USC’s Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman winner, is expected to go first overall with the Bears expected to either trade the pick or current quarterback Josh Fields. The consensus No. 2 pick would then be UNC passer Drake Maye, who not only filled the shoes of the Tar Heels’ best quarterback in team history — Sam Howell — but took things to an even higher level.

If trades don’t shake up the order, Maye would be going to Washington, where Howell is currently the starter. That means, either the Commanders will trade the pick and send Maye elsewhere, or once again allow Maye to replace Howell by dealing Maye’s UNC predecessor.

However, at least one major mock draft has Maye slipping past another quarterback — LSU’s 2023 Heisman winner, Jayden Daniels — with Maye going No. 3 overall, to New England. In addition to Daniels, Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. may also crash the top three and bump Maye down a spot.

Senior Bowl shakeup

Sam Hartman was the best quarterback in Wake Forest history and went on to finish his college career at Notre Dame. His age raises red flags among NFL personnel people — he’ll be 25 before the season opens. He also struggled at Senior Bowl practices and was just 7 of 25 in the game with an interception. Hartman is now as low as a sixth- or seventh-rounder on many mocks.

Also harming his stock during Senior Bowl week was UNC receiver Tez Walker. He entered the week as a consensus first-round pick, but scouts criticized his route running and he had a large number of drops, both during the week and at the game itself. Mock drafts now have him as low as Round 3, although some still have him teetering at the end of Round 1.

NC State linebacker Payton Wilson was the top defensive player in the ACC this year, but NFL teams had been concerned about his injury history. His performance at the Senior Bowl should give teams more reason to take a chance on him staying healthy. He showed athletic ability and turned in a number of big plays. He went from a likely fourth-rounder to possibly as high as Round 2.

Duke football could find itself back in the first round of the NFL Draft thanks to left tackle Graham Barton. He didn’t get to participate in Senior Bowl practices due to injury, but he has emerged as a very likely first-round prospect, with most mocks having him in the tail end of Round 1. However, some mocks have him in the early 20s and two have him as high as No. 16 and No. 17. He is projected to move inside to guard at the next level, but he seems to be the chic pick as a potential star on the line.