It’s always difficult to plan out an NFL mock draft before the big free agency dominoes topple. After all, what if a team decides to address a major need with fiscal capital rather than draft capital?
We’ve now seen the big first wave of free agency deals, along with an eye-catching trade or two, and it’s now time to produce another mock. In theory this ought to be a bit more accurate, but in the NFL Draft, anything can happen and something odd probably will…
1. Cleveland Browns – Myles Garrett (EDGE, Texas A&M)
No realistic threat of a shock at this pick, though. Maybe someone will offer an RG3-esque package for by far the top player in this draft class, but surely this front office has enough high draft picks now to just take the best guy at 1. They currently have three second-round picks for the 2018 draft. It is March 2017, in case you’ve lost track.
2. San Francisco 49ers – Solomon Thomas (EDGE, Stanford)
I believe that the 49ers are biding their time waiting for Kirk Cousins to engineer a return to Shanahan, and it might come next spring for absolutely nothing; the Brian Hoyer acquisition fits that perfectly. The only problem is the huge question mark of whom to take at #2 if not a signal-caller.
The 49ers took defensive ends in the first in each of the last two years, but they’re abandoning their odd-front D under their new staff. Thomas – who has been storming up boards since bowl season – could be the weak-side end in a four-man front, with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner playing at tackle and strong-side end in either order to give the Niners an imposing front that would give them some kind of identity as they begin a full-on rebuild.
3. Chicago Bears – Marshon Lattimore (CB, Ohio State)
The brutal Pro Day injury to Sidney Jones has further entrenched the position of Lattimore as the top corner in a draft class that’s very strong at the position. The Bears can definitely justify taking Lattimore this high, especially as a quarter of their schedule consists of facing Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. The Mike Glennon acquisition stops them needing to reach for a QB; they can take a developmental prospect with a second-day selection instead.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars – Leonard Fournette (RB, LSU)
The Jaguars paid big bucks to try to fill their defensive gaps; Calais Campbell, Barry Church, and A.J. Bouye are all acquisitions that feel big enough to prevent them going after a DB or DE with this pick. They have resources tied up at RB, too, but Chris Ivory has been a predictable bust, and the upside of Fournette is immense. His 2015 tape might have been the best an RB has had this century.
TRADE: Tennessee Titans trade pick #5 to Buffalo Bills for pick #10 and pick #44
5. Buffalo Bills (from Los Angeles Rams via Tennessee Titans) – Patrick Mahomes (QB, Texas Tech)
The Titans picked up two defensive backs in free agency, but none of the offensive options available looks worthy of this pick, which the Titans acquired by robbing one QB-desperate team.
They could make it two here, as the Bills – in complete turmoil over what to do with Tyrod Taylor, eventually forcing a contract do-over that he’s likely taken with a view to gleefully getting paid by somebody who wants him next year – could well be looking to leapfrog their division rival Jets. Why Mahomes? He has a huge arm, which is a massive asset in Buffalo’s winters, and maybe the highest upside in this class. It’s the sort of dice roll that this unpredictable front office might well be prepared to take, and with Taylor under contract he won’t need to start right away.
6. New York Jets – Mitchell Trubisky (QB, North Carolina)
The Jets look the likeliest team in this draft to take a QB in the first, as they have no reason whatsoever to put faith in Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Trubisky actually looks something approaching NFL-ready despite his lack of starting experience, and could be a day one starter even if the Jets do pick up a veteran between now and the draft.
7. Los Angeles Chargers – Jamal Adams (S, LSU)
With Malik Hooker being injured, Adams is the best safety in a class where that takes some doing. While he projects more as a strong safety and the Chargers already have Jahleel Addae re-signed for that role, he’s definitely got the attributes needed to play deeper. The Bolts, who addressed left tackle in free agency, will surely value safety highly having been on the end of Eric Berry in divisional games one too many times.
8. Carolina Panthers – Dalvin Cook (RB, Florida State)
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman has been on the record saying he can’t rely as much on Cam Newton’s running. Cook had a stinker of a Combine, but the tape doesn’t fit the athletic testing – perhaps he’ll improve on those numbers at the FSU Pro Day on the 28th? – and the Panthers’ need at the position is obvious with Jonathan Stewart being about 50 in RB years.
9. Cincinnati Bengals – Cam Robinson (OT, Alabama)
This would probably qualify as a reach, but the Bengals carelessly let two starting offensive linemen walk in free agency, where even bad blockers made out like bandits as teams overpaid for any possible upgrade having seen huge OL-led turnarounds in Dallas and Oakland last season. In a weak class at the position, Robinson is destined to get overdrafted, and his off-the-field issues are unlikely to bother the Bengals front office.
10. Tennessee Titans (from Buffalo Bills) – O.J. Howard (TE, Alabama)
Possibly the most underused player in the history of college football, Howard excels as both a blocker and a receiver, suggesting he can make an instant impact at a position where rookies generally don’t. Delanie Walker remains a quality option at the position, but is declining with age, making Howard a great succession plan. In the interim, the Titans could utilise “22 personnel” – with two running backs, two tight ends, and just one wide receiver – and continue to enforce themselves as a run-first team with a power formation, yet still pass out of it effectively with the receiving skills of Howard and DeMarco Murray.
11. New Orleans Saints – Jonathan Allen (DE/DT, Alabama)
There are huge medical concerns over Allen, but his talent level looks too high to deny at this point in the draft for a team that badly, badly needs defensive studs anywhere and everywhere.
12. Cleveland Browns – Deshaun Watson (QB, Clemson)
This is a tough one. The Browns could plausibly pass on Watson completely because of a very poor 49mph clocking on the radar gun at the Combine (Mahomes managed 60mph and most prospects wind up in the mid-50s). However, the 2016 class suggests this front office places a particular premium on college production, high-end athleticism, and being clean off the field. Tick, tick, and tick for Watson there. His tape is probably being very closely reassessed in the Browns building right now.
13. Arizona Cardinals – Mike Williams (WR, Clemson)
The Cardinals don’t look as good as they did at wide receiver. Michael Floyd is gone, John Brown’s medical issues are a huge concern, and Larry Fitzgerald can’t go on forever. What was perhaps the team’s biggest strength is suddenly one of their biggest needs.
Fortunately, Williams is a likely faller thanks to his poor Combine. His lack of speed isn’t a huge deal considering he wins with size and skill, especially as J.J. Nelson (and, if he’s ever 100% again, Brown) can win with speed instead. A big possession receiver is also a young QB’s best friend, and the Cardinals will almost certainly have one of those playing for them in the next couple of years.
TRADE: Philadelphia Eagles trade pick #14 to Houston Texans for pick #25 and pick #57
14. Houston Texans (from Minnesota Vikings via Philadelphia Eagles) – Garett Bolles (OT, Utah)
This pick is based on the assumption that the Texans will secure the services of Tony Romo – having cleared space for his salary with the NBA-style dump-off trade of Brock Osweiler – and are going to be 100% in win-now mode. Moving up like this makes a lot of sense with that mentality – and with J.J. Watt’s own career longevity in question thanks to back issues, it’s probably the right approach for the Texans. The Eagles will also welcome extra draft capital after their own splurge of picks for Carson Wentz, even though they did get a similarly high pick back after the Sam Bradford trade.
Bolles is a highly athletic tackle who must have surged up draft boards after the Combine, and the Texans badly need him; Duane Brown is a stud at left tackle, but they have a void opposite him, as Derek Newton may never play again following a horrific injury last season. Goodness only knows Romo needs protection at this point in his career.
The Texans have also already shown a willingness to use a high pick on a lineman who’s taken two years out of football for Mormon missionary work (Xavier Su’a-Filo at #33 overall in 2014).
15. Indianapolis Colts – Malik Hooker (S, Ohio State)
Hooker could plausibly fall because of injury, but he should be ready for the start of the 2017 season, so the Colts would be delighted if he fell to them. They need defensive help all over the field, and Hooker can certainly provide some over the deep middle.
16. Baltimore Ravens – Derek Barnett (EDGE, Tennessee)
The Ravens released aging edge rusher Elvis Dumervil, and Terrell Suggs is even older. Fresh blood must be coming, and this is a good class to find some. Barnett’s body type makes him a like-for-like replacement for Dumervil, and his 13-sack 2016 included sacks in every game the Volunteers played against an FBS team from late September onwards.
17. Washington Redskins – John Ross (WR, Washington)
Josh Doctson has big injury concerns and was probably drafted with more than one eye on a DeSean Jackson/Pierre Garcon double departure that did indeed come to pass, so it’s not out of the question that Washington double down on first-round wideouts and take a very obvious Jackson replacement.
Then again, not a lot is out of the question with the front office turmoil once again sweeping through FedEx Field.
TRADE: Tennessee Titans trade pick #18 to New York Giants for pick #23 and pick #87
18. New York Giants (from Tennessee Titans) – Reuben Foster (LB, Alabama)
The Giants know the clock is ticking on Eli Manning’s career and clearly believe they have a championship window. They’ve seen the Broncos carry Eli’s elder brother to a ring entirely on the back of defensive brilliance. Their free agency approach last season was consistent with trying to duplicate the feat. But they still don’t have a quality middle linebacker. With Foster falling hard in this mock – off-field issues the obvious reason, but the devaluation of and depth at the middle linebacker position is why it could go this far – the Giants have the opportunity to get a top-10 talent at a position of need for the low price of a third-round pick, and if you’re a win-now team, why wouldn’t you pay that?
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Christian McCaffrey (RB, Stanford)
The Buccaneers must be furious that they let themselves be conned by Doug Martin suddenly stepping up in his contract year, only to promptly slack off after getting paid. McCaffrey has received plenty of praise for his work ethic and intangibles, and while he’ll never have the power of the Muscle Hamster, at least you can trust he’ll keep the wheel spinning. His agility, instincts, and passing-game skills are what carried him to immense collegiate production, and the two best RBs in the league – Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson – also rely on those attributes.
20. Denver Broncos – Taco Charlton (EDGE, Michigan)
DeMarcus Ware has retired, and that leaves the Broncos a little undermanned at the edge rusher position behind Von Miller and Shane Ray. That’s significant, because this team is built around their defensive strength, and edge rushers can fatigue easily.
Charlton’s size makes him very useful for Denver in two ways. Firstly, in a 3-4, he can be a true strong-side edge-setter who can defend the run. Secondly, he could be kicked inside in a 4-2 nickel front to allow him, Miller, and Ray to be on the field at the same time. He has great potential, and while he’s not put it together yet, he wouldn’t be expected to be a full-time contributor before he’s ready if he landed here.
21. Detroit Lions – Quincy Wilson (CB, Florida)
This is a loaded class of corners, and the Lions could use some depth at the position – especially as a team in the same division as Green Bay – because contract-year Nevin Lawson is about the only decent corner on the roster who isn’t Darius Slay. Obviously Slay can shut down #1 receivers better than most, but that’s only half the battle when it comes to stopping the aerial attack. In an era where the nickel is the new base, you could say it’s not even half of it.
22. Miami Dolphins – Haason Reddick (LB, Temple)
The Dolphins have a lack of obvious defensive playmakers – the fact they were even halfway competent was enough for Vance Joseph to rocket straight into a head-coaching role – and Reddick certainly looks like a playmaker. After his athleticism was showcased at the Combine and Senior Bowl, this Temple Owls standout certainly sent heads spinning and eyes wide open amongst teams who might not have given a hoot about him before.
23. Tennessee Titans (from New York Giants) – Corey Davis (WR, Western Michigan)
After a record-breaking 5,285 receiving yards in his four-year NCAA career – admittedly against comparatively modest teams, but still – Davis is definitely NFL-ready, helped by having a head coach who came to Western Michigan from the WR coach position at Tampa Bay. At 6’3″, he has the height to be a red zone threat, and his addition combined with that of Thomas in this mock would be potentially transformative for the Titans’ aerial attack.
24. Oakland Raiders – David Njoku (TE, Miami)
The Raiders don’t seem to be getting much out of Clive Walford, so it’s worth them adding a tight end in this loaded class at the position. Njoku would look awesome in silver and black – and he might play that way too, as he’s a devastating mismatch weapon at 6’4″ with a 37.5″ vertical jump and ridiculously long arms. He’s not nearly the finished article yet, especially as a blocker, but because the Raiders have a young franchise quarterback and a great O-line that’s not a big deal. The Raiders’ offense would be almost unstoppable if Njoku was added and lived up to his potential.
25. Philadelphia Eagles (from Houston Texans) – Cordrea Tankersley (CB, Clemson)
The Eagles definitely need help at corner. Trading down puts a bunch of new names into play, and Tankersley – whose two years as a starter were both years where Clemson made the national championship game – has size (6’1″ with room to add to his 199-pound weight as a pro), speed (4.40 40), and ball skills (nine interceptions and 20 passes deflected in two years). Those are attributes that get players drafted early even if there are other question marks on tape.
26. Seattle Seahawks – Forrest Lamp (OL, Western Kentucky)
The Seahawks don’t tend to invest heavily on the offensive line – but perhaps a year where Russell Wilson took some significant blows will make them rethink that. Lamp is athletic enough to fit the profile they look for, and if he had longer arms would be able to play all five positions on the line. He profiles similarly to Zack Martin, and that pick obviously worked out well for the Cowboys.
27. Kansas City Chiefs – Zach Cunningham (LB, Vanderbilt)
This is great value for the Chiefs, who need linebacker help in the worst way with Derrick Johnson being an aging player who happens to be coming off a major injury. Cunningham deserves to go higher than this, and his instinctive desire to look for the big play every play could be a great fit for the Chiefs’ defensive aggression.
28. Dallas Cowboys – Caleb Brantley (DT, Florida)
The Cowboys need help on the defensive line in the worst way. Brantley is an interior pocket-pusher who could give Eli Manning nightmares, and his physical attributes look to be a fit in the Cowboys’ even front.
29. Green Bay Packers – Gareon Conley (CB, Ohio State)
While the Packers could consider an edge rusher here, their secondary was a huge liability last year, so a first-rounder on a corner in this class makes plenty of sense. Conley offers good value at this point, and has the size to match up with big receivers.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers – Takkarist McKinley (EDGE, UCLA)
The Steelers need some help at multiple defensive positions, but edge rusher is most certainly a pressing one, because James Harrison is positively ancient by NFL standards and not a full-time player. McKinley can learn behind him and thrive.
31. Atlanta Falcons – Obi Melifonwu (S, Connecticut)
At 6’4″, 224lbs with a 4.40 40 – not to mention the small matter of leading all positions in both broad and vertical jumps at the Combine this year – Melifonwu is absurdly athletic, and a great counter to “matchup nightmare” receivers and tight ends as a result. Being able to rotate and/or combine him with Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal would help ensure there were quality players with fresh legs in the Falcons’ secondary – which is a huge deal against a team that will be tested downfield early and often by teams straining to keep up with that offense.
32. New Orleans Saints (from New England Patriots) – DeShone Kizer (QB, Notre Dame)
Kizer has some significant question marks and is definitely not ready to play now, but he has plentiful upside and tantalising traits that could be developed in the right situation. Needless to say, sitting behind Drew Brees is the right situation, and while the obvious logic behind the Brandin Cooks trade was to cash him in for defensive help – a straight swap for Malcolm Butler was mooted at one point – why not use the #11 pick on D and then use this pick to take a developmental quarterback on a cheap deal complete with a fifth-year option that is more valuable at that position than any other? Brees’ contract is voidable after this season, though there is an $18m cap hit for doing so; more likely, Brees plays two more years and then retires after the 2018 season. Kizer would then have two super-cheap years and an option year in 2021 that would constitute a legitimate championship opportunity if he lived up to his potential and the Saints used the cap room wisely.