2024 NFL Mock Draft season has begun: Prospects from North Carolina

With the 2023 college football season all but over and the NFL standings starting to take definitive shape, mock draft season is officially upon us.

A year ago today — or even two to three months ago — USC quarterback Caleb Williams seemed like a shoe-in for the first overall pick, but the plot has thickened considerably over the course of the college football season after the Trojans had a disappointing year and a couple of other prospects solidified their place among the top rankings.

Among those top prospects are a number of quarterbacks from right here in the Tar Heel State, including a player with strong odds of going first overall.

While we don’t know exactly where each team will pick yet this year, here’s a look at some of the best prospects from North Carolina schools, and what they could bring to the table in the pros.

Drake Maye, Future First Overall Pick?

The UNC Tar Heels have produced a number of top signal callers in the past decade. Mitch Trubisky went second overall in 2017, and Sam Howell received plenty of first round buzz in the 2022 draft before slipping down to the fifth round in what ended up being a miserable year for quarterback picks.

Maye is the next quarterback in that line of talented collegiate passers, and there’s a good chance he’ll end up being the best of the bunch. He’s everything one looks for in a prototypical pro style quarterback, standing 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds with a cannon of an arm and polished mechanics. Maye’s combination of size and sneaky athleticism — he rushed for more than 1,200 yards in his college career — are reminiscent of a young Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s no surprise that he’s catapulting to the top of draft boards, with North Carolina Betting Apps listing him as a potential first overall pick.

Despite his incredible talent, I’d advise caution before penciling Maye in as a future Hall of Famer. Top quarterbacks often get selected by the worst teams, meaning they have their work cut out for them with a pitiful supporting cast: take a look at how Trubisky struggled with the Chicago Bears.

Elsewhere in the Tar Heel State

Maye is far from the only North Carolina quarterback with an excellent shot of getting drafted at a premium position. Riley Leonard of the Duke Blue Devils burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2022, throwing for 2,967 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full year as the starter. Injuries marred his 2023 campaign, though, and Leonard announced his plans to stay in school for another year last week, when he entered his name into the transfer portal.

While NFL teams might pump the brakes on Leonard after his ugly junior season, if he puts up strong numbers at a school like Notre Dame — which is where he’s set to go on an official visit this week — a bounceback campaign in his last year of eligibility could mean Day 1 or Day 2 status in the 2025 draft. Much like Maye, Leonard is a prototypical NFL passer with an excellent arm and command of the pocket. He isn’t as polished as Maye is, but few quarterbacks are: that’s what makes the North Carolina prospect great.

Honorable Mentions

While they no longer call the Tar Heel State home, I’d be remiss without mentioning a couple of other quarterbacks who made a name for themselves while playing here in North Carolina.

One is former Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, who led the Demon Deacons to an ACC Championship appearance in 2021 before transferring to Notre Dame this past offseason. As Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson pointed out after the Fighting Irish honored Hartman on their senior day, the Demon Deacons did the majority of the work in turning the sixth-year quarterback into the player he is today. Even if he has “Notre Dame” next to his name on the night of the draft, the fact remains that Wake Forest played the primary role in recruiting and developing him.

Similarly, current Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Devin Leary seems like a solid Day 3 pick in the upcoming draft. Leary spent the first five years of his collegiate career with the NC State Wolfpack, yet another quarterback to make a name for himself while playing in North Carolina.

While the Tar Heel State has long been known for its success in collegiate basketball, the high volume of quarterbacks that state schools are sending to the pros marks a paradigm shift: hoops powerhouses like UNC, Duke and Wake Forest can succeed in football too.

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