For most NFL fans, December means trying to game out possible playoff scenarios for their favorite teams. Yet for a select and unfortunate few, this time of year has them already fast-forwarding to the offseason.
With only five weeks left in the regular season, some teams will soon see their postseason hopes be officially shut down, with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday becoming the first team to be officially eliminated. Still, for the devotees of the league's most moribund franchises, the best way to endure this final stretch is to envision what could be different next year.
With that in mind, here's USA TODAY Sports' latest 2024 NFL mock draft:
1. Chicago Bears (from Carolina Panthers) – Caleb Williams, QB, USC
Between Carolina's widespread dysfunction and a schedule that looks unlikely to afford the Panthers another two wins in the final weeks, Chicago looks to be the overwhelming favorite to land the No. 1 pick via its trade with the Panthers this past offseason. Resisting either Williams or Drake Maye will prove exceedingly difficult for general manager Ryan Poles, who can cut his losses with Justin Fields and start over with the kind of transformational talent this franchise has lacked behind center throughout the Super Bowl era. Despite any issues that surfaced during a disappointing follow-up campaign to his Heisman Trophy-winning season, Williams still boasts a singular combination of elite arm strength, creativity and accuracy to every level of the field.
2. New England Patriots – Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina
How bad are things with New England's offense? With the 6-0 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, the Patriots became the first team in 85 years to lose three consecutive games in which they surrendered 10 or fewer points. That incompetence, however, has put the franchise in prime position to nab one of the draft's top quarterbacks. The 6-4, 230-pound Maye is essentially everything that Mac Jones isn't: a rifle-armed passer with the mobility to extend plays and pick up first downs as a runner. And while it's unclear whether Bill Belichick will still be the one at the controls in 2024, if New England can use its abundant cap space (an estimated $90 million currently available, according to OverTheCap.com) to overhaul the receiving corps and offensive line, this rebuild could get fast-tracked.
3. Arizona Cardinals – Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
Best-case scenario here for Kyler Murray, as Arizona ends up unable to grab a top quarterback and instead pivots to the best non-passer in the draft. Harrison has been nearly uncoverable at the college level, displaying a unique flair for hauling in acrobatic catches. With second-year tight end Trey McBride emerging as one of the top young talents at his position and third-round Michael Wilson flashing some promise before getting hurt, the Cardinals have the makings of a promising receiving corps – though it still needs a premier talent like Harrison to take it over the top.
4. Washington Commanders – Olu Fashanu, OT, Penn State
Bringing Caleb Williams back home was always going to be a stretch for a Washington team that seemed just good enough to earn a few wins, putting the top pick out of reach. Still, not a bad consolation prize if the Commanders can reel in Fashanu, Williams' former high school teammate and the most promising pass protector in this class. While there will be an undeniable learning curve for a blindside protector who will only be 21 as a rookie, the 6-6, 317-pound blocker should help Washington better safeguard – and evaluate – Sam Howell, who ranks second in passing yards (3,466) but leads the NFL with 14 interceptions and 58 sacks.
5. Bears – Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame
This seems like a classic Poles pick. After landing his franchise signal-caller at the top of the draft, the Bears general manager and former NFL offensive lineman can get back to building in the trenches. The 6-8, 322-pound Alt is exceedingly difficult to throw off his game, as he keeps his composure by rarely straying from his refined approach. With bookend tackles in Alt and Darnell Wright, the No. 10 overall pick this year holding down the right side, Chicago would have an impressive protection plan for whoever is behind center in 2024 and beyond.
6. New York Jets – J.C. Latham, OT, Alabama
Gang Green will remain all in for Aaron Rodgers' return in 2024, but the offense's multifaceted failure leaves Joe Douglas with plenty to address in a crucial offseason. Improving Rodgers' protection will be an essential task, and the 6-6, 360-pound Latham routinely manhandles anyone in his orbit.
7. New York Giants – Keon Coleman, WR, Florida State
General manager Joe Schoen recently backed Daniel Jones as New York's expected starting quarterback for 2024. If the Giants are going to stick to that plan, they'll need to figure out another avenue for jolting an offense that is ahead of only the Panthers with a paltry 4.1 yards per play. The 6-4, 215-pound Coleman could help unlock the downfield passing game that has been absent for the last two seasons, though he can also make life easier for the maligned signal-caller with his run-after-catch prowess and steady hands.
8. Tennessee Titans – Malik Nabers, WR, LSU
If Tennessee is intent on finding out whether Will Levis can be a viable long-term starting quarterback, it needs to equip him with some weapons beyond DeAndre Hopkins. Nabers, who leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,546 receiving yards, could form a deadly downfield connection with the strong-armed signal-caller.
9. New Orleans Saints – Laiatu Latu, DE, UCLA
Yes, New Orleans has made significant investments in defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Carl Granderson. But with the Saints defense sitting ahead of only the Bears with just 19 sacks, the pass rush needs some juice. Latu makes up for his lack of top-tier physical traits with a hard-charging and polished approach that allow him to generate consistent pressure.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia
Even amid middling results, the Buccaneers don't look inclined to blow things up as they cling to the remnants of a roster still shaped by the Tom Brady era. Nabbing Bowers, who has shown he can shoulder a substantial load as both a receiver and blocker, would be a boon to Baker Mayfield – assuming Tampa Bay brings him back. Bowers' addition would be even more important if Mike Evans opts to move on after not receiving a contract extension this offseason.
11. Las Vegas Raiders – Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB, Alabama
Hard to tell what direction a new regime will go in, but unless there's a top-tier offensive tackle here, a defense due for more building blocks is a good starting point. Picking up McKinstry, a 6-1, 195-pound cornerback with rare fluidity for his size, would aid a secondary that will have to keep up with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for years to come.
12. Los Angeles Chargers – Nate Wiggins, CB, Clemson
No matter how much Brandon Staley protests, the Bolts' last-ranked pass defense is in an obvious state of disrepair. At 6-2 with the speed to stick to receivers downfield, Wiggins could be a valuable piece in coverage, though he'll need to fill out his wiry frame to match up with more physical pass catchers.
13. Buffalo Bills – Jer'Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois
Losing DaQuan Jones to a season-ending torn pectoral exposed how perilously thin the Bills' defensive front was on the interior. With Jones turning 32 in December and set to be a free agent, Buffalo should take a long look at Newton, an undersized (6-2, 295 pounds) but massively disruptive force who could help get Sean McDermott's unit back on track.
14. Denver Broncos – Dallas Turner, OLB, Alabama
While Denver's league-best 22 takeaways have played an integral part in saving the team's season, there's no consistent pass rush to fall back on. At 6-4 and 242 pounds, Turner won't be a fit for every scheme, but the Broncos are well-positioned to unleash his explosiveness off the edge.
15. Seattle Seahawks – Jared Verse, DE, Florida State
Probably time to hit the panic button on Seattle's defense, which gave up 41 points to the Cowboys and has consistently underperformed this season despite having several standout starters. While Verse has flown a bit under the radar this season, he highlighted his game-breaking ability by recording 4½ sacks over his last two games.
16. Los Angeles Rams – Cooper DeJean, CB/S, Iowa
Nice job by Raheem Morris in bringing along a crew largely compiled of young middle-to-late-round draft picks. Still, strong case to be made that the scrappy secondary requires an upgrade. DeJean, a Thorpe Award finalist who could thrive at either cornerback or safety, would infuse the group with a missing playmaking element.
17. Cincinnati Bengals – Rome Odunze, WR, Washington
This could be the last go-around for the Bengals' receiving triumvirate of Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, with the latter two on the final year of their contracts. As far as replacement options go, though, there's plenty to like about Odunze, whose knack for winning at the catch point and overpowering defensive backs should help him make a fast transition to this offense.
18. Cardinals (from Houston Texans) – Chop Robinson, DE, Penn State
Taking Robinson in the top 20 picks would represent a bet on potential over production, as the Maryland transfer has yet to string together the kind of season one might expect from a player with his outstanding first step and pliability. That's a gamble, however, that might suit the Cardinals, who have taken a long-term view of reconstructing a roster that lacks defenders with Robinson's immense upside.
19. Atlanta Falcons – J.T. Tuimoloau, DE, Ohio State
The revamped defense has handled a seriously underwhelming slate of offenses, but Atlanta doesn't size up as much more than the front-runners for the league's worst division right now. Though he's still in search of consistency and a more complete pass-rush arsenal, the 6-4, 270-pound Tuimoloau delivers the kind of splash plays that few others on this unit are capable of.
20. Green Bay Packers – Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia
The offensive youth movement led by Jordan Love and his band of green pass catchers is coming together, so let's keep it going. Selecting a raw blocker might seem like an uncharacteristic move for an organization that hasn't drafted a first-round offensive lineman since 2011 (well before general manager Brian Gutekunst took over in 2018), but the potential payoff in a hyperathletic successor to David Bakhtiari at left tackle might be worth the risk.
21. Minnesota Vikings – Jayden Daniels, QB, LSU
Is this the year that Minnesota finally snags a young quarterback to bring along? Being this far back in the first round might seem as though it would preclude such a move, especially in a class that lacks much certainty among the passing prospects beyond Williams and Maye. In this scenario, however, everything comes together for the Vikings. A wildly efficient pocket passer who can stress defenses with his running ability, the ascendant Daniels would make a lot of sense for general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who has openly pontificated about what a signal-caller with a diverse skill set could do for this offense.
22. Indianapolis Colts – Brian Thomas Jr., WR, LSU
If Alec Pierce continues to show progress as a deep-threat complement to top target Michael Pittman Jr. – who looks due for a massive extension this offseason – then perhaps Indianapolis will stand pat at receiver. Still, the thought of what Anthony Richardson could do with Thomas – who has averaged 18 yards per catch and recorded 15 touchdowns this season – should prove tantalizing.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers – Terrion Arnold, CB, Alabama
For all the consternation about the offensive shortcomings in Pittsburgh, cornerback play remains a sore spot that warrants addressing. Man coverage seems to come naturally to the 6-0, 196-pound Arnold, who should continue to grow at the position after moving over from safety.
24. Texans (from Cleveland Browns) – Kalen King, CB, Penn State
With C.J. Stroud and his receiving corps continuing to exceed expectations, this is a prime opportunity for Houston to continue building up DeMeco Ryans' defense. The 5-10, 191-pound King exhibits impressive feistiness both in coverage matchups and as a tackler. He would make for a fine running mate for Derek Stingley Jr. if the team doesn't bring back Steven Nelson, who turns 31 in January and will be a free agent.
25. Kansas City Chiefs – Emeka Egbuka, WR, Ohio State
Think Patrick Mahomes might be interested in a wide receiver with sure hands and a knack for creating separation? As Kansas City's floundering attack continues to provide little support for Mahomes, the ever-reliable Egbuka could step in and immediately ease the burden on the reigning MVP.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars – Landon Jackson, DE, Arkansas
Between Josh Allen's impending payday after a career season and 2022 No. 1 pick Travon Walker's lagging development, there's much left to be settled with a front seven that should be giving Jacksonville more. Though he's hardly a finished product, Jackson's appeal is readily evident in his 6-7, 281-pound frame, which affords him a number of ways to overwhelm blockers.
27. Dallas Cowboys – Troy Fautanu, G, Washington
With much still up in the air regarding Tyron Smith and the future of the Cowboys' offensive line, versatility could be the key for this group in the near future. That shouldn't be a problem for Fautanu, a well-rounded left tackle who looks poised to move inside as a pro.
28. Detroit Lions – Bralen Trice, DE, Washington
No need to sell Dan Campbell on this pick. The 6-4, 274-pound Trice is a wrecking ball off the edge, consistently blasting blockers back with sheer force. With the Lions' defense unraveling in several key spots this season, he could help serve an important role as someone capable of punishing opponents who overcommit against Aidan Hutchinson.
29. San Francisco 49ers – Jordan Morgan, OT, Arizona
San Francisco's offense looks nearly unstoppable when all of its key parts are healthy, but an offensive line short on stability outside of Trent Williams could use reinforcements. Even-keeled play is what you get from Morgan, who displays smooth movements and ample power.
30. Baltimore Ravens – Leonard Taylor III, DT, Miami (Fla.)
Justin Madubuike's breakout season might have priced him out of the cost-conscious Ravens' spending range this offseason. Taylor has shown flashes of dominance during his time with the Hurricanes, and Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald might be the right person to help him properly tap into his top-tier talent.
31. Miami Dolphins – Tyler Nubin, S, Minnesota
Both DeShon Elliott and Brandon Jones are set to become free agents this offseason. Physical and hypercompetitive, Nubin would pair nicely with Jevon Holland on the back end of the Dolphins' defense.
32. Philadelphia Eagles – Kamari Lassiter, CB, Georgia
Howie Roseman must be irate with a 29th-ranked pass defense that was lit up by the 49ers. The Georgia-to-Philadelphia pipeline could remain in place with Lassiter, a savvy coverage piece who could be an early contributor before eventually taking over for Darius Slay or James Bradberry.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL mock draft 2024: Jayden Daniels rises into first round