OVERVIEW: In our first mock draft leading up to the 2016 draft, the focus is primarily on team needs and trying to match up players with schemes and talent with landing spots. As the draft nears and the combination of free agency, the Combine and pro-day workouts cause player stocks to rise and fall, there will be a juggling of players, especially at quarterback, where there could be three quarterbacks going in the top seven (which we don’t have at this point). The power teams are well-represented here with five players from Ohio State and nine players from the SEC taking up almost half the selections we’re currently projecting.
1. Tennessee – Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. The Titans allowed a league-worst 54 sacks and the only player worth his salt was left tackle Taylor Lewan, who ideally should be a right tackle. Tunsil may begin at right tackle, but, depending on how quickly he adjusts in protecting Marcus Mariota, we could see a flip-flop of players sooner than later.
2. Cleveland – Jared Goff, QB, Cal. Another draft. Another Browns team needing a quarterback. Brandon Weeden didn’t work. Johnny Manziel has been an embarrassment. Goff isn’t a lock in the mold of Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, but he gives the Browns the best natural QB coming into the draft as they’ve had since returning to the NFL in 1999. With only three winning seasons in 17 years, they need to invest in a QB that the organization can build around and, while some may view Carson Wentz or Paxton Miller as better long-term prospects, our money is on Goff. This pick may not change between now and the end of April.
3. San Diego – Joey Bosa, DE/OLB, Ohio State. One of the reasons a recent playoff team has fallen on such hard times is the lack of a pass rush and having the league’s worst run defense. That’s a 1-2 punch that is hard to take. In our view, Bosa is the best defensive player in the draft. If Tunsil is still on the board, they could snap him up for the long-term benefit of having a bookend tackle, but, with him gone, they snap up Bosa in a hurry.
4. Dallas – DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon. Greg Hardy isn’t coming back and Jeremy Mincey may be following him in free agency. The Cowboys have big needs at cornerback, but they may be able to hold off if they’re convinced Orlando Scandrick can return from a torn ACL. Jerry Jones may look to trade down or could throw in a wild card and select North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz, but his scouting people will likely push for him to take a player at this spot capable of making an immediate impact and Buckner has that quality.
5. Jacksonville – Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State. The Jaguars had one of the worst pass defenses in the league and are lacking a true shutdown corner. The offense made great strides in 2015, due in part to a defense that couldn’t keep opposing teams off the scoreboard. Offensive line is a potential here, but, if the Jaguars are going to become a legitimate playoff contender, there is going to need to be big improvements on the defensive side of the ball or they will continue to pick early.
6. Baltimore – Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame. Offensive tackles are always at a premium and the Ravens are an organization that drafts for need and maintains continuity. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has been breaking down over the last couple of seasons and his replacement last year, Keleche Osemele, is a free agent. The Ravens don’t dip heavily into free agency, they build through the draft. Stanley has the potential to be a starter for a decade and those are the types of players that GM Ozzie Newsome is attracted to.
7. San Francisco – Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. He’s going to be a player who could slide in the draft because he suffered a pretty significant knee injury last season, but it happened early in the season and he should be 100 percent by the start of the 2016 season. There may be a pull for Chip Kelly to draft a quarterback that he can mold, especially if the Niners move on from Colin Kaepernick, but Jack is too good an athlete to pass on and he could help in the rebuilding process much more than a skill-position player for Kelly’s offense.
8. Miami – Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida. The Dolphins secondary is a mess at both corner and safety and their top CB, Brent Grimes, is coming off a dismal season and turns 33 this year. The Dolphins could look for a defensive end if they don’t spend big to keep Oliver Vernon alongside Ndamukong Suh, but when you’ve been burned as often over the top as Miami was las season, fixing the most pressing weakness is the main priority.
9. Tampa Bay – Shaquille Lawson, DE, Clemson. No player had more tackles for loss (25.5) than Lawson last season. The Bucs invested heavily in recent years on offense and with new defensive coordinator Mike Smith looking to change things up, he needs a player who can shed tacklers and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If a cornerback falls, that could be a serious consideration, but a lot of problems in the secondary can be attributed to a defensive front not getting the job done and the Bucs need a lot of help up front.
10. New York Giants – Jaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame. This may be the biggest question mark of the draft and he may well drop for two reasons. First, he tore up his knee in the Fiesta Bowl. Second, the Giants have a history of not taking linebackers in the first round. But, that lack of investment has come back to haunt a franchise that has been known for its strong defense. Smith has the potential to be an elite Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFL, but he won’t be working out at the Combine and will likely not be ready by the start of training camp. If healthy, he would be a top-five contender. As things stand, his drop could be precipitous if he hasn’t made enough progress in his recovery from surgery.
11. Chicago – Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama. When John Fox took over the Bears, he was putting a round peg in a square hole trying to transform a 4-3 scheme that had been run forever into a 3-4. Almost all of the top needs are on defense in free agency and the draft this year. One of the first improvements that needs to be made is the ability to stop the run and Ragland operated out of a very similar defense at Alabama, which should let him hit the ground running and bring some pride back to a linebacker corps that hit bottom last season.
12. New Orleans – A'Shawn Robinson, DT/DE, Alabama. The Saints have needs throughout the defense and need players that can make plays and stop drives. Robinson is big and strong and can provide an immediate upgrade in the run game, and has the strength and functional speed to break down the pocket in the passing game. The Saints have struggled on defense for years and have burned through coaches and schemes. When Kevin Williams is the most consistent inside lineman at his age, that can’t be good.
13. Philadelphia – Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State. The Eagles only have one quarterback currently under contract and that’s Mark Sanchez, who is overpaid at $4.5 million. Wentz has a ton of upside, but he will have a learning curve. When Andy Reid took over as head coach, one of his first moves was to draft Donovan McNabb. New coach Doug Pederson, who is bringing Reid’s West Coast Offense back to Philly, may want to take the same track and start his regime by making a QB his first pick as well.
14. Oakland – Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson. The Raiders need a lot of defensive back help. Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson is retiring and former first-round CB D.J. Hayden is nothing short of a bust. Oakland has drafted successfully the last two seasons and has improved in a lot of areas. Adding a cornerback that can provide an immediate upgrade should continue the progress Oakland is making to become a contender.
15. Los Angeles Rams – Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss. Figuring out their quarterback situation is a pressing need, but that could be solved in free agency. No rookie QB would thrive with a receiver corps that consists of Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Steadman Bailey and Bradley Marquez leading the way. Treadwell is a big-play receiver and will finally give the Rams a legitimate No. 1 receiver that has been missing since Torry Holt got old.
16. Detroit – Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor. The Lions did an adequate job of replacing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley last year, but starters Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker are both unrestricted free agents. Ziggy Ansah is the rock of the new-look D-line, but there aren’t enough big bodies in the middle and Billings may be the best pure defensive tackle in the draft. They may look O-line if they re-sign Ngata and Walker, but, if they don’t, this becomes an emergency priority.
17. Atlanta – Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky. If not for some serious character flaws and off-field incidents, Spence would be a lock to come off the board in the top 10. Word out of Mobile was that Spence turned off some teams during his interviews and isn’t doing himself any favors. But the Falcons produced only 19 sacks and three of their top five defensive ends are free agents. He may not be a choirboy, but his skills are something the Falcons desperately need because they have the talent on offense to be a playoff team.
18. Indianapolis – Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State. The Colts have attempted to fix their O-line problems in free agency and the draft and, more times than not, GM Ryan Grigson has failed. Conklin is a strong player in a conference that produces maulers with an old-school work ethic in the power game. Conklin could allow the Colts to eventually flip-flop him and Anthony Castonzo from left tackle to right. At this point of the draft, Conklin would be one of the safer picks.
19. Buffalo – Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State. The Bills desperately need to keep left tackle Cordy Glenn. If they do, Decker could make an ideal bookend right tackle. If they can’t, they will need to replace him immediately. With the Ryan brothers looking to take the organization out of its postseason drought since the Marv Levy days, they may want to add to their defense, but Decker makes the most sense if the Bills want to get over the hump and get to the playoff promised land.
20. New York Jets – Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia. When Todd Bowles took over the Jets, he knew he had one of best defensive lines in the game and Pro Bowl veterans in the secondary. What was missing were playmakers at the linebacker position. Last year, the group managed just nine sacks. With explosive speed and tremendous balance, Floyd can make plays from anywhere and will get Bowles the immediate upgrade he needs as the Jets look to become a playoff team. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a possibility since their top three backs in 2015 are all free agents.
21. Washington – Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss. Terrance Knighton is a free agent and Nkemdiche has the ability to play on the nose or at run-stuffing DE. His biggest issue is that he has numerous off-field incidents that will negatively impact his draft stock. But, outside the top 20, his talent wins out and the Redskins add a player who can make an immediate impact. If he can keep his head straight, he could be one of the steals of the first round.
22. Houston – Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. For years, taking a running back in the first round seemed almost against the law for NFL teams. But with Todd Gurley breaking the cycle last year, teams in need may be more willing to take the plunge. With the revolving door the Texans had at quarterback last year, change is coming, but, for now, we’re more convinced it will come in free agency with a veteran, not the 22nd pick of the draft. Elliott could step in immediately because the numerous injuries to Arian Foster have put the Texans offense behind the 8-ball too often. If Wentz could fall this far, however, they wouldn’t hesitate to jump on him.
23. Minnesota – Josh Doctson, WR, TCU. Doctson is a downfield threat who could help Teddy Bridgewater stretch the field as the Vikings offense looks to improve. There is plenty of debate as to what direction the Vikings will go in with their first pick of the draft – some point to the offensive line, a safety to line up opposite Harrison Smith or a playmaking linebacker to replace Chad Greenway in the starting lineup and give the Vikings arguably the most athletic linebacker corps of any 4-3 defense in the NFL (it would be too much to ask that UCLA’s Myles Jack would fall and give the Vikings a Bruin trifecta). But, realistically, wide receiver is the position of greatest need. There’s no way Mike Wallace comes back at his price tag. Stefon Diggs made a splash but isn’t a No. 1 receiver. Jarius Wright is primarily a slot guy and Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson disappear for long stretches. If Bridgewater is to succeed, he needs a deep threat that the Vikings hoped they would have in Wallace.
24. Cincinnati – Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State. The Bengals have had a strong defense for the last several seasons, but things fell a bit last year with former Packers has-been A.J. Hawk on the outside and low-ceiling Rey Maualuga in the middle. Lee is a strong player who can push for a starting job immediately and keep the Bengals from falling any farther than they already have. Defensive back will be a consideration with four of their key players all unrestricted free agents.
25. Pittsburgh – Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State. The Steelers have a roster capable of going to the Super Bowl, but the cornerback position was a hot mess much of 2015. They were awful much of the season and three of their top five guys – William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin – are free agents. The Steelers rarely break the bank on outside free agents, so, if they’re going to improve this dismal unit, in all likelihood it’s coming through the draft.
26. Seattle – Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama. The Seahawks have started paying off their young studs to keep them in the fold. They have reached a point of critical mass where they can’t hand out contracts to everyone. That has become important at the defensive tackle position since both starters – Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin – are free agents. They may be able to sign one of them, but likely not both. It’s the byproduct of success and it’s coming back to bite them now.
27. Green Bay – Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State. The Packers re-signed Letroy Guion, but he isn’t a long-term answer and can easily be replaced. Like the Steelers and Ravens, the Packers don’t spend a lot of money on outside free agents. Ogbah is a physical specimen who makes plays on a regular basis and can start off as a change-of-pace guy and quickly transform into high-end playmaker. Once he hits the Combine, this slotting could get shattered because he is going to put on a show in Indy.
28. Kansas City – Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville. Dontari Poe has done a nice job playing the middle of the Chiefs defensive front, but he is entering the final year of his contract. Rankins isn’t a pure nose tackle type, but his athleticism is impressive and he brings full effort on every play. Offensive line and the secondary are options, but Rankins is an athlete that Andy Reid may find it hard to pass on here.
29. Arizona – Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson. Aside from Calais Campbell, the Cardinals don’t have an overpowering edge rusher up front. Throw in that Campbell turns 30 this year and the time to start eyeballing replacements or augmenting the depth chart is needed. Dodd has been a bit overshadowed by Clemson teammate Shaq Lawson, but he had almost as many behind-the-line big plays. For a defense that is strong, but could use a youth infusion, Dodd would be a nice addition.
30. Carolina – Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia. The Panthers have a solid safety in Kurt Coleman, but Roman Harper was a liability in New Orleans, much less a strong defense like the Panthers have. Defensive end or a complementary corner to Josh Norman (who isn’t going anywhere as a free agent – they’ll franchise him if they can’t sign him long-term) are possibilities, but, with the QBs in the NFC South, Harper is more of a hindrance than a positive and needs to be replaced ASAP.
31. Denver – Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis. This one is a pick, not necessarily a marriage of player and team. Much like Minnesota did when it cut a deal with Seattle for the last pick of the 2014 draft to buy an extra year with Teddy Bridgewater, teams looking for a quarterback will likely make a pretty sweet offer to Denver to get into this spot. While Brock Osweiler is expected to be re-signed for the post-Manning era, the Broncos will keep their options open and may find themselves looking at an offer they can’t refuse.
NOTE: The Patriots forfeited their pick in the first round due to sanctions levied by the NFL for the Deflategate scandal, leading to 31 picks in the first round.