It’s been clear for quite some time that there could be some trade movement toward the top of this April’s NFL Draft, and after the Jets paid a hefty price to move from number six to number three last weekend, it seems like an appropriate time to take a shot at a mock draft. Here goes.
1) Cleveland Browns – QB Sam Darnold (USC)
This year’s QB class is arguably the best rookie group the NFL has seen come into the league since 2004 when Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Phillip Rivers, all went within the first 11 selections. While it’s easy to find a lot to like about Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield, Darnold is the most polished of the bunch, and for a Browns team that’s been desperate for an answer at the game’s most important position for over a decade, they can’t get too cute here.
2) New York Giants – OG Quenton Nelson (Notre Dame)
This pick is undoubtedly going to surprise some people and I’ll admit, I actually had to talk myself into it, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. New York’s new GM Dave Gettleman’s calling card throughout his career has been mammoth bodies on both sides of the line of scrimmage. He preaches physical football, and it’s no secret the Giants’ O-line has been a mess for the better part of two years. A successor to QB Eli Manning would be the easy pick here, but Nelson is the best offensive line prospect to enter the draft since Cowboys’ guard Zack Martin, a fellow Notre Dame alum. Pairing him with free-agent addition Nate Solder would instantly make New York extremely formidable up front, and keeping Manning comfortable and upright may help him turn back the clock. The wild card here is that if the Giants do decide to pass on a quarterback, they could try to trade out of this pick with a QB desperate team, such as Buffalo, but the problem with that is that the Bills pick 12th, and it’s highly unlikely Nelson, whom many consider the best player in the draft regardless of position, would still be available.
3) New York Jets – QB Josh Allen (Wyoming)
While the Jets have gotten decent brief runs out of quarterbacks like Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez, like Cleveland, they’ve lacked someone they could truly identify as a franchise QB. Their offseason strategy has been a little interesting, to say the least, as after resigning veteran journeyman Josh McCown (who played well for them in 2017), they added former Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater, who’s missed the better part of two consecutive seasons recovering from a gruesome knee injury. Bridgewater is still only 25 years old, and if he could get back to where he was two years ago he’d be capable of becoming the signal caller the Jets have needed forever, but New York can’t count on that happening and miss out on a potential generational talent such as Allen. The Wyoming star has ridiculous arm strength and accuracy, and while playing in a lesser conference in college may have hurt him years ago, the success of the Eagles’ Carson Wentz out of North Dakota State may have diminished that myth. When the Jets traded three second-round picks to the Colts to move into this pick, their intention was clear; they want a QB, and the situation actually reminds me a lot of Philadelphia a couple years ago, when they traded up for Wentz despite having established quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel on the roster. Remind me how that worked out for them.
4) Cleveland Browns – RB Saquon Barkley (Penn State)
If the top of the draft plays out the way I’ve predicted, it would literally be a dream come true for the Browns. They acquired this pick from the Texans last year when Houston moved up to select QB Deshaun Watson, and while getting a first rounder represented a major haul in its own right, the Browns had to be counting their lucky stars when the Texans stumbled to the league’s 4th worst record. Cleveland can’t take their QB #1 overall, but after they do, they’ll be crossing their fingers that Barkley, one of the most talented collegiate players ever, will still be here at number four. The Penn State back does everything well, and most experts believe he’ll have a similar rookie impact to that of Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. Add him to a Cleveland offense that has Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon at receiver, a serviceable starting QB in Tyrod Taylor with Darnold waiting in the wings, all of the sudden these may not be the same old Browns.
5) Denver Broncos – DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama)
The Broncos pick at number five is one of the most interesting ones in the entire first round and a selection that will have a profound impact on the rest of the night. It’s easy to see them taking a quarterback here, as after missing with both Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, Denver has failed to draft and develop a young QB under president John Elway. The Broncos did, however, sign Vikings’ break-out star Case Keenum as a free-agent, and if the team believes last year was not a fluke, it diminishes their need for a young signal caller. And if that’s the case, after losing veteran Aqib Talib, Denver has a massive hole in their secondary, one that is begging to be filled by arguably the draft’s best defensive player, Minkah Fitzpatrick. Capable of playing both corner and safety, the Alabama product has literally been compared to a queen on a chessboard, and his playmaking ability would be a welcome addition to the Broncos’ last line of defense.
6) Indianapolis Colts – DE Bradley Chubb (N.C. State)
The Colts front office should receive a gold medal for their trade with the Jets over the weekend. Long linked to Chubb, an immensely talented edge rusher projected to become an instant star on the same level as the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Indianapolis accumulated two second round picks this year, and another second rounder next year, just to move down three spots and still get the player they would have taken at number three.
7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Denzel Ward (Ohio State)
The Bucs’ have needs all over the defensive side of the ball, but especially in the secondary. Playing in a division with opposing quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, Tampa has to improve their ability to defend the pass, and adding Ward, the latest stud Ohio State defensive back to come down the line would do just that. To me there is no way this pick can be anything other than secondary, the Buccaneers simply have to come away with Ward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, or Derwin James.
8) Chicago Bears – LB Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech)
The run on defense continues with the Bears, and while a case could be made for them to take the third highest ranked defensive back, Derwin James, I have them selecting Edmunds, a big athletic linebacker who drew comparisons to former Bear Brian Urlacher throughout his collegiate career. If the draft does unfold the way I have it laid out thus far, however, with quarterbacks Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield still available, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Chicago trade down with a QB needy team in an effort to acquire more draft capital.
9) San Francisco 49ers – S Derwin James ( Florida State)
No team looks poised to make a more drastic two-year turnaround than San Francisco, as the midseason trade that brought QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the Bay Area completely changed the fortune of this entire organization. Armed with their QB of the present and future, the 49ers could look to add an offensive weapon here, but I think the prospect of adding the ball-hawking James to a new look secondary that already includes former Seahawks star Richard Sherman will be too tantalizing for GM John Lynch ( A former safety himself) to resist.
10) Oakland Raiders- LB Roquan Smith (Georgia)
Despite all the attention quarterbacks have gotten leading up to the draft, these things don’t often play out the way we anticipate, and Smith will represent the 6th consecutive defensive player taken in the top 10. A defensive field general is a tackling machine and just the kind of player Jon Gruden craves. This fit is a match made in heaven and I’m sure Chucky is already envisioning the forming Georgia Bulldog becoming a modern version of Derrick Brooks.
11) Miami Dolphins – QB Josh Rosen (UCLA)
Miami is probably not counting on one of the stud signal callers still being available at eleven, but if the situation presents itself, you better believe they’ll pounce. Veteran Ryan Tannehill has shown flashes during his career but he’s struggled to stay healthy of late, and this was a team that had the likes of Jay Cutler and David Fales taking snaps last year. Drafting Rosen would be an ideal scenario, as it would add an immensely talented player to the quarterback room, while the presence of Tannehill would allow the youngster to watch and learn before being thrown to the fire.
12) Buffalo Bills – QB Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma)
After spending the first couple hours of the draft sweating and trying to move up, Buffalo stays at number 12 and still gets their young quarterback. Mayfield has a high energy personality and if the draft plays out the way I’ve predicted this would be one of the most exciting storylines entering 2018. The Heisman Trophy winner would be joining a team that plays the Jets and Dolphins twice a year, two organizations that drafted QB’s ahead of him in the first round. For a kid that already plays with a chip on his shoulder, that would amount to a career-long grudge. Game on.
13) Washington Redskins- CB Josh Jackson (Iowa)
The Redskins could go a couple of different ways here. They are in dire need of shoring up a leaky run defense, but with Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland no longer here, their secondary depth is basically nonexistent. If Derwin James or Denzel Ward slide it would make this an easier decision, but Jackson is a good cover corner in his own right, and this may be a pick for position rather than the highest player on the board.
14) Green Bay Packers – DE Marcus Davenport (UTSA)
The Packers have already added to their defensive line with the addition of free-agent former Jet Muhammad Wilkerson, but adding Davenport to rush the passer opposite all-pro Clay Matthews almost makes too much sense. At 6’7 and 265 lbs, the University of Texas-San Antonio product is a load for opposing lineman, and he knows how to use his long arms to gain separation and win angles. His collegiate competition was obviously not the same as if he had gone to a D1 school, but he raised eyebrows with his performance at the combine, posting basically identical measurable to those of Texans’ all-pro lineman Jadeveon Clowney.
15) Arizona Cardinals – OT Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame)
The Cardinals are in a very similar situation to that of Buffalo entering this draft. They’re dying to select their quarterback of the future as the free-agent combo of Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon doesn’t exactly get you excited, and while they desperately would like to bring in one of Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, or Baker Mayfield, it is extremely unlikely any of them will be available at #15. GM Steve Keim will undoubtedly attempt to move up, with the Bears a logical potential trade partner at #8, but if they’re unsuccessful, adding the draft’s best tackle will benefit whoever is taking snaps under center.
16) Baltimore Ravens – WR Calvin Ridley (Alabama)
The Ravens had arguably the worst wide receiver group in the NFL last season, as veteran Mike Wallace led the receivers with 52 catches for 748 yards, while behind him on the depth chart Michael Campanaro and Jeremy Maclin weren’t scaring anyone. Baltimore has already signed free-agent Michael Crabtree which will help, but selecting Ridley, unanimously considered the top pass catcher in the draft and a potential future star, should be a no-brainer.
17) Los Angeles Chargers – OT Orlando Brown (Oklahoma)
The Chargers have gotten lackluster play from Russell Okung and Joe Barksdale at tackle in recent years, and they’re in dire need of adding some fresh young talent to the offensive line group. Brown has spent the past few seasons protecting Baker Mayfield’s blind side, a job he did successfully as his buddy was in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy two years in a row and took the award home in 2017. Los Angeles has other needs, but plugging a dependable tackle into their offense will help both Phillip Rivers now, and the club’s next QB down the road.
18) Seattle Seahawks – OG Isaiah Wynn (Georgia)
After disassembling their renowned defensive group the Seahawks basically admitted they’re entering a rebuilding period, and while their intentions are acceptable and understandable based on the salary cap, it is undoubtedly disappointing for fans in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle obviously now has immense holes on defense, but to me, there’s only one way they can go with their first-round selection. Prior to their midseason trade for tackle Duane Brown last season, this team had done little to nothing to improve what has long been a dreadful group up front. The only way they survive this rebuild is if star quarterback Russell Wilson makes it out the other side in one piece.
19) Dallas Cowboys – WR Christian Kirk (Texas A&M)
Like the Ravens, Dallas had a disappointing output from wide receiver a year ago, and America’s Team should look to improve their pass-catching corps with this first round selection. Number one option Dez Bryant obviously had a down year by his standards in 2017, but he wasn’t alone, as super slot man Cole Beasley disappeared at times, and Terrance Williams failed to live up to expectations. Drafting Kirk should help everyone around him, as he would give the Cowboys something they’ve sorely lacked; a home run threat. Opposing coordinators would have to respect the Texas A&M product’s ability to take the lid off defenses, which would open up lanes for Bryant and Beasley, as well as future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten.
20) Detroit Lions – DT Vita Vea (Washington)
Former Patriots’ defense coordinator Matt Patricia is now running the show in Detroit, and with that, coupled with the fact the Lions already have a dynamic group of skill position players on offense, this pick screams defense to me. Vea is probably the top interior defensive lineman in this draft, a disruptive playmaker in both the run and passing games, and while it’s no guarantee he’s even still here at #20, if he is, this fit makes too much sense.
21) Cincinnati Bengals – OG Will Hernandez (UTEP)
The Bengals had the 12th pick and traded back with Buffalo, and while they acquired OT Cordy Glenn in that trade, it doesn’t necessarily diminish their need for help up front. Hernandez is a grinder who plays with an aggressive demeanor and goes hard until the whistle every snap, and while he’s smaller than a lot of NFL guards, he makes up for it with his quick feet and agility. If Cincinnati does pass on offensive line here their next biggest need would be a linebacker, and someone like Leighton Vander Esch could be in play.
22) Buffalo Bills- LB Rashaan Evans (Alabama)
This is a difficult pick to forecast because it is entirely possible the Bills will not, in fact, be the ones on the clock at #22. Armed with the 12th and 22nd picks entering the draft, and in desperate need of a quarterback, Buffalo will assuredly look to trade up. If they’re unsuccessful though, drafting a tackling machine like Evans seems like a no-brainer after the organization watched defensive leader Preston Brown take his talents to Cincinnati in free-agency.
23) Los Angeles Rams LB Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State)
The Rams had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL a year ago, and despite the free-agent departure of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, this team should again score a lot of points. To me, the more important veteran to leave LA was middle linebacker Alec Ogletree, a longtime starter who was the undisputed quarterback of the team’s defensive unit. In fact, Mark Barron is the only projected returning starting linebacker in the Rams’ 3-4 scheme, making the 2nd level of defense a high priority in this draft. To that end, selecting someone like Vander Esch who has tremendous upside, makes all the sense in the world.
24) Carolina Panthers – CB Mike Hughes (Central Florida)
The Panthers thought they had addressed their need at corner in free-agency when they agreed to terms with veteran Bashaud Breeland, but they were thrown for a loop when the former Redskin failed his physical, terminating the contract. As we discussed earlier in regards to Tampa Bay, with the talented quarterbacks in the NFC South it is absolutely critical to assembling as many talented cover men as possible, and Hughes would certainly fit the bill.
25) Tennessee Titans – DE Harold Landry (Boston College)
This is a spot where Tennessee figures to have their pick of dynamic defensive line prospects, with potentially Harold Landry, Arden Key, Sam Hubbard, and Da’Ron Payne all still on the board. New head coach Mike Vrabel played a lot of outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme while with the Patriots, and he understands how important having a disruptive edge rusher can be in assembling a shutdown defense. That’s why to me, Landry is the pick here, as despite a down season in his final year at BC, his natural physical ability and willingness to be coached make him more attractive than Key who has rumors of character issues floating around.
26) Atlanta Falcons – DT Da’Ron Payne (Alabama)
The second veteran defensive tackle Dontari Poe finalized his free-agent agreement with division rival Carolina, I believe the Falcons began eyeing big Da’Ron Payne to replace him. The former standout member of the Crimson Tide defense is an absolute mammoth of a man at 6’2 and 311 lbs, with ridiculous upper body strength, as his ability to bench over 400 lbs in high school was well documented throughout the combine. Payne is everything you’d want in a nose tackle, he often requires double teams, is never knocked off balance, and keeps his linebackers untouched to make tackles in the run game. There are a lot of teams in the market for defensive line help in the mid-late first round, so it’s not a guarantee he’ll be available at #26, but the fit here is beyond perfect, and don’t be surprised if Atlanta tries to trade up to make sure they get their man.
27) New Orleans Saints – TE Mark Andrews (Oklahoma)
No team in the NFL has a more glaring hole at tight end than the New Orleans Saints, as Coby Fleener has failed to stand out as the team’s starter over the past two seasons, and the Saints’ pursuit of a free-agent reunion with Jimmy Graham fell short. With so few teams outwardly targeting that position in the first round, head coach Sean Payton and company will likely have their pick of what is actually a pretty deep tight end class. You could make the argument that any of Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, Dallas Goedert, or Mike Gesicki is the best option at the tight end position, but I’m going to guess New Orleans will like the 6’5 Andrews the best, as he has the potential to become a slam dunk red zone option, similar to what the team had with Graham early in his career.
28) Pittsburgh Steelers – QB Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
Unfortunately, due to the devastating spinal injury pro-bowler Ryan Shazier suffered last December, the Steelers biggest weakness is at middle linebacker, even after signing Jon Bostic as a free-agent. Pittsburgh is in an interesting draft slot here late in the first round, as they know they will have no chance to select either Tremaine Edmunds or Roquan Smith, but they are hopeful one of Leighton Vander Esch or Rashaan Evans will still be on the board at #28. As the Rolling Stones taught us, however, you can’t always get what you want, as in this mock draft both of those players have already been taken, and the gap between the 4th and 5th best linebacker in this draft is too large to justify taking Uchenna Nwosu here. That’s why I could see the Steelers pivoting to the interesting Lamar Jackson as a potential heir to Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Jackson is a bit of a polarizing player, as some teams already gauged his interest in a position change at the combine, but the Louisville product is adamant he’s a QB, and he may not find a better landing spot than Pittsburgh to prove it. Mike Tomlin is a player’s coach, the Steelers have a serviceable back-up in Landry Jones already, and a future Hall of Famer still under center in Roethlisberger. They would be able to essentially redshirt him and give him time to develop, an intriguing idea for an organization that has seen a quarterback similar to Jackson, Kordell Stewart, enjoys significant success.
29) Jacksonville Jaguars – WR Courtland Sutton (SMU)
Fresh off a surprising run to the AFC title game, where they very nearly knocked off New England, the Jags watched their top wide receiver, Allen Robinson, bolt to Chicago on the first day of free-agency. That immediately pushed receiver to the top of the Jacksonville draft board as quarterback Blake Bortles will need all the weapons he can get. Sutton is a big strong kid with tremendous wingspan who can be a match-up nightmare for smaller DB’s, and his absurd leaping ability makes him an ideal red zone target.
30) Minnesota Vikings – OT Connor Williams (Texas)
The Vikings are emphatically in win now mode after finishing just one win short of a Super Bowl appearance, and then committing $84 million in guaranteed money to lure free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to the Twin Cities. The biggest issue with the Vikings is that their offensive line was a mess a year ago, and if you’re going to invest so much money in your QB, you have to be willing to use premium draft picks to protect him. That’s why Williams, as well as an inside lineman such as James Daniels or Billy Price, would all be worthy selections at #30.
31) New England Patriots – DE/OLB Arden Key (LSU)
Pass rush is an obvious need for the Patriots, but so is left tackle, so if Connor Williams, whom we have going to the Vikings just one pick before New England is slated to go on the clock is still here, you’d have to believe he’ll be headed to Foxborough. If he isn’t though, look for Bill Belichick and company to target Key, a playmaking edge rusher who would have been higher on the draft board if not for personal issues that caused him to leave LSU for a period during football season last fall. As it stands, in typical Patriots’ fashion, if he falls into their lap at #31 don’t be surprised if New England gets the most out of the youngster and he becomes a thorn in the side of AFC East offensive tackles.
32) Philadelphia Eagles – TE Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State)
The defending champions will return most of their talented roster in 2018, but the position group that took the biggest hit this offseason was a tight end, where Trey Burton inked a lucrative free-agent contract with the Bears, and longtime Eagle Brent Celek become a cap casualty. With that in mind, I feel the talented Goedert could become the ideal complement to incumbent starter Zach Ertz, a player the South Dakota State product was often compared to in college.