Welcome to the first edition of the NFL Mock Draft series, where I will try to predict the events of the most unpredictable day of the NFL calendar. If last year was any indication, I will be wrong (Or were the Rams wrong for drafting Jared Goff even though I had Carson Wentz graded as a much better prospect? I’d like to think the latter). Nonetheless, fireworks will ensue come April 27, and I will attempt to help you make sense of it all. Stay tuned for picks 17-32 coming out tomorrow:
- Cleveland Browns (1-15): Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
A quarterback will undoubtedly be in play here, as the Browns haven’t had a reliable starter seemingly since Bernie Kosar. However, this draft appears to be shaping up to be similar to the 2014 draft, where the weak quarterback class was eschewed at the top of the draft for a pass rusher regarded as a generational talent. With quarterback killers Myles Garrett and Derek Barnett playing the roles of Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack, the astronomically talented Garrett will likely be the first player to have his name called on draft day (Note: In continuation with the 2014 analogy: Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes in the role of Derek Carr?).
The Browns have a lot of needs, and could use a better foundation before sticking a guy like Mitch Trubisky (13 career starts at UNC) into the weakest starting lineup in the NFL. They have a wealth of draft picks, and have other holes to fill. Emmanuel Ogbah led the Browns in sacks in 2016 as a rookie with a measly six, and no other Brown had more than three. Garrett gives Cleveland an immediate impact player off the edge.
2. San Francisco 49ers (2-14): Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
Moderately overshadowed by how bad the Browns were in 2016, the 49ers require a massive overhaul. It is shocking that it was only a few years ago that this was one of the best teams in the NFL. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen is the best player available, but San Francisco has drafted defensive linemen in the first round in consecutive years, making his selection unlikely. It is hard to justify taking a safety with the 2nd overall pick, especially on a team with this many holes, so it would be a shocker to see Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker land here. A wide receiver is badly needed in the Bay Area as well, but Mike Williams isn’t the transcendental type of receiver that would warrant this high of a pick. With Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan taking over the reins from Chip Kelly, he will be likely looking for his next project at the most important position in football.
Therefore, the 49ers follow the precedent and draft a quarterback way too early. This will come down to Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Trubisky. As mentioned before, the knock on Trubisky is his limited experience. With a quick release and above average accuracy, Trubisky gets the nod here. However, as we saw last year with the meteoric rise of Carson Wentz, much can change before draft day.
3. Chicago Bears (3-13): Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
Yet another team desperate for a quarterback, the Bears don’t overreach and instead take the best player on the board. The Monsters of the Midway have a better core to build around and a more established coaching staff, making a play for a quarterback in free agency or trade the more likely scenario. A unanimous All-American in 2016, Allen was the most dominant player in college football last year, as the Alabama product combines tremendous athleticism with great technique.
However, this is a likely trade-back scenario. Allen would be a great addition to the D-Line, but the Bears spent a 3rd round pick on Jonathan Bullard last year and he could still use another year to prove himself. Chicago has bigger holes at corner, linebacker, offensive tackle, and if Alshon Jeffery departs, wide receiver. This draft class is deep at corner, granting them flexibility for a move if they want to upgrade over Tracy Porter and Bryce Callahan. Players like Reuben Foster and Cam Robinson should be around in the early teens as well, and the more picks the Bears can get the better.
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Jamal Adams, S, Louisiana State
Sadly for the Jaguars, the great crop of offensive linemen came a year too early. Jacksonville has major problems in the trenches, and this draft class doesn’t have much to offer on the offensive side of the line at this juncture. That makes a trade back in play, with Cam Robinson or Ryan Ramczyk as the likely targets. I think a dark horse for this spot is Dalvin Cook, as the Jaguars running game sputtered this year and some teams are rumored to have Cook graded higher than Leonard Fournette.
However, Adams is a top prospect and would combine with Jalen Ramsey to make Jacksonville’s secondary quite formidable. The playmaking safety coming from a long line of defensive backs from LSU has been compared to Sean Taylor, and will be an immediate contributor in the NFL.
- Tennessee Titans (9-7): Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Tennessee is in great position in this draft, owning multiple high draft picks as a result of their blockbuster trade with the Rams last year. Cornerback is the team’s most pressing need, but the way the draft board is shaping up, they will be able to snag one with the 18th overall pick. Edge rusher Derek Barnett may not be a scheme fit but could revitalize a timid pass rush, and safety Malik Hooker could be in play here as well. However, Williams would be a great addition for Tennessee.
It is time for the Titans to give Marcus Mariota an actual downfield weapon, and Williams can fill the No. 1 role. The Clemson receiver pipeline is running strong, and Williams’ play is reminiscent of former Tiger DeAndre Hopkins. Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe can’t be the top targets for the Titans if they wish to be a serious contender.
- New York Jets (5-11): DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
Giving Ryan Fitzpatrick his money has not paid off for a team that was on the verge of the playoffs a year ago, as the Jets were incompetent in the air. Gang Green did take Christian Hackenberg in the 2nd round of last year’s draft, but he didn’t take a regular season snap and doesn’t appear to be a solution. Bryce Petty and Geno Smith got chances but were unimpressive. The Jets have the pieces to contend, but need an answer at quarterback.
There is a lot of convolution at the top of the quarterback rankings in this year’s draft. The Jets know at least one or two quarterbacks will go ahead of their pick, and will likely take the best remaining prospect at the position. With Trubisky off the board, the Jets will take Kizer, who is a volatile prospect. He had up and downs during his time in South Bend, but NFL teams love his raw physical ability. A big, strong passer with the ability to still hurt defenses on the ground, Jameis Winston is a clear comparison even though Kizer isn’t coming into the league with the same championship pedigree.
- Los Angeles Chargers (5-11): Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
With Jahleel Addae set to enter free agency and the Chargers still suffering from the loss of Eric Weddle, addressing the hole at safety is critical. Even though they are in arguably the best division in football, the Bolts are only a couple of pieces away from contending. Adding a playmaker at safety to complement lockdown corners Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett would give quarterbacks fits, and would entice fans to come out for the Chargers inaugural season in LA.
Malik Hooker is regarded as the 1-b to Jamal Adams’ 1-a in positional prospect rankings, but has a different set of strengths. Regarded as one of the top prospects in the entire draft class, Hooker’s biggest strength is against the pass, where his playmaking ability has drawn comparisons to Ed Reed. If both safeties are gone, the Chargers could trade back for an offensive lineman or a pass rusher, especially if Melvin Ingram leaves in free agency.
- Carolina Panthers (6-10): Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
With Jonathan Stewart turning 30, the Panthers could look to revitalize their rushing attack in the first round come late April. There are other holes, especially in the secondary and at defensive end. The Panthers drafted three corners in last year’s draft, and could give them time to develop. Derek Barnett may be in play here as well, as the pass rush did the secondary no favors last season.
Even though Leonard Fournette has received much fanfare over the last few years, Cook is regarded on the same level as the LSU star by most teams. Cook isn’t the biggest back, but he is incredibly instinctive and quick. A threat out of the backfield as well, the FSU product could have a Jamaal Charles-type impact in the NFL.
- Cincinnati Bengals (6-9-1): Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
With Carlos Dunlap as the only mediocre pass rusher for the Bengals, taking a defensive end early would come as no surprise. Michael Johnson was only able to muster 3.5 sacks in 2016, and defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are on the decline. The Bengals are short on defensive playmakers, and Barnett would be an ideal addition.
One of the top prospects in this draft class, Barnett could easily be drafted in the top five. The all-time sack leader for the Volunteers, Barnett makes up for a relative lack of athleticism with a great motor and strong pass rushing moves.
- Buffalo Bills (7-9): DeShaun Watson, QB, Clemson
A new regime at head coach often means a new signal-caller. Tyrod Taylor is a free agent, and is unlikely to be resigned despite playing relatively well during his tenure in Buffalo. This may not be the best season to draft a quarterback, but for a Bills franchise struggling to find an identity, they could do much worse than DeShaun Watson.
A two-time Heisman finalist, Watson had a remarkable career at Clemson. Coming off his first national title, Watson brings many intangibles along with a big arm and great running ability. Inconsistency with accuracy has been the biggest knock on Watson, as he has shown the ability to fit the ball into tight windows but has missed open receivers too many times.
- New Orleans Saints (7-9): Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
The Saints have much bigger holes on their roster, especially on defense. All the Saints have had to hang their hat on recently has been the play of Drew Brees, but he can’t play forever. With the talented teams in the NFC South, making a play for the future would be a better scenario.
Another good comparison for this draft class has been the 2011 group, where four quarterbacks went in the top 12 to much surprise. Mahomes is currently viewed as a high 2nd round prospect, but the former Red Raider could see a significant rise in his draft stock before April 27. Overlooked in a conference no longer taken very seriously, Mahomes showed flashes of Derek Carr in 2016.
- Cleveland Browns (1-15): Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama
With their second pick of the draft in the top 12, the Browns address their defensive flaws again. Interior linebackers are often overlooked in the draft, but Foster can be a significant contributor in the NFL in the mold of Patrick Willis. Christian Kirksey had a great year for the Browns, but DeMario Davis can be replaced. A cornerback would also be a likely selection here, as Joe Haden is no longer reliable. Foster can be a thumper in the middle for the Browns, and serve as a leader for a defense that desperately needs one. With great lateral range and a big hitter, Foster can be one of the top tacklers in the league early in his career.
- Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1): Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
With Larry Fitzgerald aging, a decline from John Brown, and the departure of Michael Floyd, Corey Davis is definitely an option here for Arizona. Protecting Carson Palmer has also been problematic for the Birds, so Cam Robinson could be taken here as well. But the Cardinals, who were a game away from the Super Bowl two years ago, have problems across from Patrick Peterson.
There are a number of cornerbacks worthy of a top 15 selection, and a distinct hierarchy has yet to form among them. Lattimore is the first one drafted for now, as he fits the mold of the Cardinals cornerbacks. Though he is not very tall, Lattimore is agile, aware, and a sure tackler in the open field.
- Indianapolis Colts (7-9): Leonard Fournette, RB, Louisiana State
The Colts need to give Andrew Luck some help. They finally started to address their offensive line problems last year by drafting three players at the position, but could benefit from adding Frank Gore’s replacement. At 34 and with a lot of tread on his tires, Gore needs to be replaced if the Colts want to take advantage of a weak division and make the playoffs.
Once regarded as the greatest running back prospect in recent memory, Fournette’s inconsistent senior year hampered his draft stock. If he can reclaim his past glory, Fournette can immediately enter the top tier of running backs in the NFL. A punishing runner with the speed and agility of a scat-back, Fournette’s ceiling is incredibly high.
- Philadelphia Eagles (7-9): Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
The Eagles’ receivers may be the worst in the entire league. Jordan Matthews has been adequate at times, but has no business being a No. 1 wideout in the NFL. On the other side, former 1st-rounder Nelson Agholor has been an absolute abomination. Carson Wentz has all the tools to be a top-tier quarterback, but needs an upgrade in the receiver corps.
Davis finished his Western Michigan career as the all-time leader in receiving yards in FBS history, and was consistently uncoverable throughout Western Michigan’s sterling season. With great size and trusty hands but average speed, Anquan Boldin is a natural comparison.
- Baltimore Ravens (8-8): Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
For a team that was in the playoff hunt nearly all season, the Ravens have many holes. Cam Robinson would be a great fit even if right tackle Ricky Wagner does choose to stay, the retirement of Steve Smith could spell the drafting of Washington speedster John Ross, and the backfield has no obvious starter entering 2017. On defense, the surprise retirement of lead tackler Zach Orr creates a hole at linebacker, and Shareece Wright is a liability at cornerback.
However, GM Ozzie Newsome has a tendency to take the best player available, and drafting a defensive lineman fills a need as well. Thomas is one of the top prospects in the draft and is a steal here. Strong against both the run and the pass, Thomas will be a solid player at the next level.