Handicapping the race for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft

Due respect to what the Eagles, Patriots and Vikings are doing at the top of the NFL standings, but let’s take a look at the bottom, where a race for the ages may well be brewing.

It’s too soon to say for sure which of the well-regarded college quarterbacks will go No. 1 in the draft next April, or whether it’ll be a quarterback at all. But it’s not too early to size up certain teams’ chances of being able to make that pick. The Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, who bumbled their way through this very same race until Christmas last season, appear set for a repeat. Whoever wins first could seriously damage their chances of landing the draft’s top pick. At this point, it’s hard to see how either of them is close.

Entering Sunday’s action, the 0-7 Browns had the edge on the 0-7 49ers for the top pick. According to the projections done by ESPN’s Football Power Index, Cleveland entered its early London game with a 57.4 percent chance to land the top pick and a stunning 99.4 percent chance of picking in the top five. A loss to the Vikings dropped the Browns to 0-8, which obviously couldn’t have hurt their chances. But San Francisco, which carried a 36.3 percent chance at the top pick and a 98.4 percent chance of a top-five selection into Sunday, kept the pressure on by getting blown out in Philadelphia.

Closest behind the two winless teams in this race were the Indianapolis Colts (5.1 percent chance at top pick, 92.1 percent chance of picking top five) and the New York Jets (0.1, 49.3). Both of those teams lost close ones, which means that while their chances pale in comparison to those of the Browns and Niners, they sit in the wings in case both of those teams start up totally unexpected winning streaks. Hey, you never know.

So here’s a quick look at each of those four early-Sunday losers and their chances of landing in the No. 1 spot when the commissioner starts the draft next spring in Arlington, Texas:

Clearly, this is the team best built for this pursuit. The only teams that have scored fewer points are the Dolphins, Giants and Broncos, who have played just seven, seven and six games, respectively. The Browns lost their best player and the heart of their franchise, left tackle Joe Thomas, for the season to injury last week. Every other week, they lose a close game. (Seriously, they lost by exactly three points in Weeks 1, 3, 5 and 7.) But their other four games have been 18-point losses on average.

The only teams they’ve played that currently have winning records are the Steelers, Titans and Vikings (though the Texans could join that list with a win Sunday in Seattle), and that’s important to remember because the tiebreaker for draft order is strength of schedule. Look at the remainder of Cleveland’s games and tell me which one you like them to win. At the Chargers? Well, that was their only win last season. Home to Brett Hundley‘s Packers? Home to the offensively challenged Ravens or at the offensively challenged Bears? All maybes, but they’ve already lost to the Ravens once (24-10!) and the Bears are 2-0 so far against the AFC North. Last season proved the odds are that the Browns win one at some point, but there are no guarantees and they don’t seem to be close.

As of a couple of weeks ago, the Niners did seem close. From Week 2 to 6, the Niners lost all five of their games by a combined total of 13 points. But they’ve been outscored 73-20 in their past two and seem committed to letting rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard take his lumps (a little bit like the Browns have decided to do with DeShone Kizer). But the Niners’ next two games are at home against the 3-4 Cardinals, who beat them by just three points in Week 4 with Carson Palmer and are now rolling with Drew Stanton, and the 1-6 Giants, who are missing half of their offense. It’s not insane to imagine the 49ers getting it together enough to pick up at least one win there, though they’re having their own issues with tackle injuries and, again, the results from the past couple of weeks indicate they might be going the wrong way.

Their only two wins are against the Browns and the Niners, but remember: That’s not the tiebreaker. If the Colts keep losing and each of those other teams manages to pick up a couple of wins, they still could come up with the No. 1 pick based on schedule strength. Indy plays in the watered-down AFC South, which means in theory they have a better chance to pick up a win than teams that play in the AFC North or NFC West. But they haven’t seen Deshaun Watson yet, their out-of-division schedule still features the Steelers at home and the Bills in Buffalo and, again — I can’t stress this enough — their only two wins are against Cleveland and San Francisco, who as we have discussed have not won any games at all. Their six losses have been by an average of 18 points. In any other season, they’d be a favorite for the top spot.

The Jets are only on this list now because they were the preseason favorite for that top pick. Given the bleak outlook of the teams ahead of them on this list, it’s probably not realistic for the Jets to hope for the pick. Their 3-2 start likely took care of that. They have lost three in a row since, each by a touchdown or less, and are clearly a tougher team than we thought they’d be. But they’re also obviously not a very good one, and their remaining schedule is a monster. Their home games are against the Bills, Panthers, Chiefs and Chargers, and their road games are at Tampa Bay, Denver, New Orleans and New England. Not saying they’ll lose out, but is it crazy to imagine?

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