OVERVIEW: The landscape of the draft is going to change significantly as hundreds of prospects see their fortunes rise and fall in Indianapolis at the annual NFL Scouting Combine. While much of the focus will be on the individual drills, which can elevate or plummet draft stock and virtually erase two, three or four years of game tape, just as important will be the medical reviews and team interviews. After the Combine, draft stocks will fluctuate, but, for now, here’s who we have as the blue-chip prospects coming off the board.
NOTE: Picks 14 and 15, owned by Indianapolis and the pick obtained by Philadelphia from the Vikings in the Sam Bradford trade, have yet to be finalized. A coin flip at the Combine will determine the draft order.
1. Cleveland – Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M. The automatic assumption is that the Browns are going to take a quarterback here, but with two picks in the first round and five picks in the first 65, they have options. The Browns clearly need a quarterback, but the prevailing sentiment is that they will bring in Tyrod Taylor when his giant contract is voided by Buffalo. That being understood, the goal for Cleveland is to land the best athlete available here. The best pass rusher in the draft (32½ sacks in three years as a starter), Garrett is the biggest impact player at the top of the draft and makes logical sense for the Browns to snap up.
2. San Francisco – Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina. With a new regime in San Fran (G.M. John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan), they likely are going to want to start the new program with their own quarterback. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is the sexy choice to go here because of his big-game experience and collegiate success, but Trubisky looks like a better fit in Shanahan’s system. He reads progressions extremely well and had a 68.2 percent completion percentage last season. His 13 career starts may be an issue, but if the Niners want him, they will work him out and know what they’re getting. If they opt to bring back Colin Kaepernick, they likely trade this pick.
3. Chicago – Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama. John Fox has spent two years dismantling the defense that he inherited and Allen has the quickness to play end in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme. Quarterback is going to be awfully tempting here because it looks like the Bears are moving on from Jay Cutler, but Allen may be too difficult to pass on given the immediate impact he could bring to Chicago’s morphing defensive front.
4. Jacksonville – Jamal Adams, S, LSU. Although the 2016 numbers didn’t show it, the Jaguars are virtually set on offense with the personnel they already have (a better guard wouldn’t hurt). If free-agent safety Johnathan Cyprien leaves, this is a no-brainer. If he doesn’t, the Jags could have a devastating safety tandem that could be a force for years to come and something to build a young defense around.
5. Tennessee (from L.A. Rams) – Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford. Wide receiver is a clear option here, but when you’re drafting this high, taking the most explosive talent is critical and there isn’t an immediate-star-quality wide receiver worthy of being taken with this pick. Thomas was an edge-rush demon in the Pac 12 and could immediately step in to replace Karl Klug, who tore his Achilles last season and is a free agent. Marcus Mariota needs weapons, but Thomas would make a much more immediate impact.
6. N.Y. Jets – Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State. This is the spot many see Deshaun Watson landing, but the problems the Jets had last season were front and center in the secondary. Darrelle Revis is no longer an elite corner and depth was also an issue. The Jets allowed 4,000 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and just eight interceptions to opposing quarterbacks and much of the reason for that was allowing big plays over the top. Lattimore is viewed by most scouts as the top cornerback in the draft and the Jets need to shore up the secondary more than trying to develop a QB with this pick.
7. L.A. Chargers – Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State. The Chargers have glaring needs at offensive tackle, but there isn’t a tackle in this year’s draft class worth taking with this pick. Of all the players the Chargers missed last year, safety Eric Weddle was at the top of that list. Throw in that Jahleel Addae is a pending free agent, an impact centerfielder in the Chargers defense can cure a big ill. He was a dominant player last year, including three Pick-6’s, and would give the Chargers a much-needed upgrade in the secondary.
8. Carolina – Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. Every year there is a player who is selected in a spot in the first round that never changes, despite numerous incarnations of our mock draft and numerous players who rise and fall in the rankings. Fournette may well be that player this year. Jonathan Stewart has run his course in Carolina and anyone who saw Fournette as a freshman knew he was ready for the NFL. Despite injuries last season, his dominance against top competition in the SEC proved his worthiness for the NFL. Running backs have been devalued in recent years on draft day, but the success of Ezekiel Elliott could create a revival for the top 10.
9. Cincinnati – Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan. The Bengals had just 33 sacks last year and the once-feared Mike Zimmer defense is a shell of its former self. Michael Johnson was a disappointing re-signing and Charlton has the size (6-6, 272) to set the edge like few others in this year’s draft class. His size and strength are his primary assets and the Bengals could use that kind of help because, by the time they draft again, there could several more top defensive linemen off the board, making Charlton hard to pass up at this point. Get in early or miss out.
10. Buffalo – Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. The Bills owe Tyrod Taylor $27.5 million guaranteed if he’s on the roster in early March. That isn’t going to happen. The animosity that was created when Taylor was benched by the front office at the end of the season to prevent a potential injury that would leave them on the hook for his contract spoke volumes. I love Watson’s potential and, simply stated, he’s a winner. Most teams don’t need to draft to appease a fan base, but Buffalo is one of them and Watson will become the immediate face of the franchise and infuse excitement in a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in this century.
11. New Orleans – Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama. We’ve projected the Saints to take a defensive player in the first round every year since about 2010 because, since that point, their defense has stunk to the extent that defense is always an area of prime need. You could make a case for a defensive end, defensive tackle or cornerback here, but Rube Foster may be the exception to the malaise the Saints have on defense. It wouldn’t be shocking to see someone try to trade in front of the Saints to take Foster because he was as dominant an inside linebacker as college football had in 2016. Watch his tape and shake your head in awe.
12. Cleveland (from Philadelphia) – Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. If one of the top two QBs is still available and the Browns haven’t signed a free agent QB, this will likely be the pick. But, if they’re open to matching up need with talent, Cook is an ideal player to add to the offense, where a strong running game can mask the lack of maturity of a young quarterback or a QB new to the offense – see Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. In three years, Cook averaged 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns. Anything remotely close to that at the next level makes this a value pick.
13. Arizona – Mike Williams, WR, Clemson. There are some that might push for Western Michigan’s Corey Davis here, but he had ankle surgery that will prevent him from working out at the Combine, which will only elevate the stock of Williams, who was just as dynamic as his college QB (Watson) and helped make the Tigers offense explosive. With Arizona cutting Michael Floyd, and Larry Fitzgerald and QB Carson Palmer almost surely entering their final seasons as Cardinals, having a stud receiver to carry the mantle will help set the foundation of an offense that will center on David Johnson and will need new playmakers to join him.
*14. Indianapolis – Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee. This pick could go several different directions. Offensive line help is needed to protect their investment in Andrew Luck. Linebacker is also going to get a long look, as will running back, where Frank Gore is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. But Barnett excelled at pass rushing against some of the top offensive tackles in the college game in his SEC career and was consistently productive. Luck can put points on the board, but until the Colts strengthen their defense, they won’t make a serious Super Bowl run. Barnett can give them a foundation piece to build around in the future.
*15. Philadelphia (from Minnesota) – Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan. The Eagles invested heavily to land Carson Wentz with the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. Now they need to add weapons around him. Davis is going to be a question mark. He was viewed as the top wide receiver in the draft class by a lot of scouts, but an ankle injury that required surgery will prevent him from working out at the Combine, which will scare off some teams this early in the draft. If he checks out medically, he could be the next big thing in Philly and could give Wentz a running mate he needs to succeed.
16. Baltimore – Teez Tabor, CB, Florida. The Ravens need help at all three levels of the defense and it boils down to the best value pick at this spot, because, by the time the draft is done, they will likely add a defensive lineman, a linebacker and a cornerback. Tabor needs some technical refinement, but he has the athleticism to be an elite corner in the right system and the Ravens are known for developing their young players quickly.
17. Washington – Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan. Scouts differ on their views on Peppers, but we really like his ability to excel in the right system. He could be the next in a growing list of hybrid safety/linebacker types that are becoming specialists. He didn’t show a lot of playmaking skills in terms of interceptions, but you can’t miss him when he’s on the field because he makes plays from sideline to sideline and delivers heavy hits. He could learn from aging DeAngelo Hall and become a force sooner than later.
18. Tennessee – Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU. The Titans aren’t far away from being a legitimate contender in the AFC. They already addressed defensive end with the pick obtained from the Rams. Now they address their biggest pure need at cornerback. Devin McCourty is a solid corner, but isn’t a shutdown type and needs to have someone on the other side to take the heat off. If one of the top wide receivers – Mike Williams or Corey Davis – drops here, it may be difficult to pass up giving Marcus Mariota a downfield weapon.
19. Tampa Bay – Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State. The Bucs have the ability to be dominant up front. They have a dominant tackle in Gerald McCoy, but have never been able to line someone up next to him that can be a force as well. At 6-6, 290, McDowell is still a raw talent but has all the intangibles to become an elite player. He produced 11 sacks last year and he has the ability in the right system to approach those numbers in the NFL if used properly. This isn’t a deep defensive tackle draft, so getting one here is critical.
20. Denver – Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin. The primary reason for Denver’s drop from Super Bowl champ to missing the playoffs was due in large part to the offensive tackle struggles of imports Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson. Okung was due $11.7 million this season and the Broncos weren’t willing to pay that kind of money for the lack of production they got last year and released him. Wisconsin consistently produces strong offensive linemen and Ramczyk is just the latest in that legacy and fills a clear need.
21. Detroit – Takkarist McKinley, OLB/DE, UCLA. The Lions made the playoffs last year, but it wasn’t due to their defense. McKinley played defensive end with UCLA, but, at 6-2, 240, he is undersized for a defensive end at the next level. However, he has explosion off the line that can’t be taught and could be a disruptive playmaker, adding speed and big-play ability to a defense in need of those types of players.
22. Miami – O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. The Dolphins spent heavily on Jordan Cameron to give Ryan Tannehill a downfield receiving option and he was an unqualified bust. Both Cameron and Dion Sims are hitting free agency and the combination of draft slotting and need can merge nicely here. Howard is a difference-maker from the tight end spot and could finally make the Dolphins offense three-dimensional. Miami has a recent history of using free agency to improve its defense and that shouldn’t change this year. If Tannehill is ever going to take the next step, a player like Howard is key to that process.
23. N.Y. Giants – Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama. Offensive tackle is a clear need. Ereck Flowers has been abused at left tackle and Bobby Hart needs to be replaced on the right side. This isn’t an overpowering draft class, so if the Giants don’t address this need in the first round, they may be lost in the shuffle. While Robinson isn’t a reach at this point, he is a risk/reward pick. Ideally, they plug him in at left tackle and move Flowers to the right side, where he doesn’t face as much in the way of speed rushers. Protecting an aging Eli Manning is the top priority and Robinson can serve the dual purpose of also helping to open holes for the run game.
24. Oakland – Sidney Jones, CB, Washington. A playmaker for the Huskies who could add some bulk strength, he is a blanket in coverage. The Raiders proved last year that they have a good thing going – they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC before Derek Carr went down – but one of their biggest issues was getting beat over the top and Jones could help take away receivers from specific pass routes because of his deep coverage speed. The Raiders aren’t far away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If they tighten up a couple spots on defense, they’re another step closer.
25. Houston – Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida. If the Texans can’t re-sign A.J. Bouye, they may have to franchise him in order to keep him. That is never a positive scenario. Even if Bouye is re-signed, the Texans could use Wilson to compete immediately with Kareem Jackson, who is solid but not outstanding. Wilson is big (6-1, 213), experienced and has excellent ball skills, which will be needed in a division that has young quarterbacks and front offices looking to add big receivers to give them more weapons moving forward.
26. Seattle – Garrett Bolles, OT, Utah. The Seahawks have a horrible offensive line due in large part to filling most of the spots with mid- to late-round draft picks they’ve tried to develop. Bolles hasn’t consistently faced elite competition, but he has good athleticism and technique, which will likely allow him to shine at the Combine in a relatively weak offensive line class. Even if Seattle makes a move or two in free agency to address O-line deficiencies, they need to infuse young talent for the long-term.
27. Kansas City – Charles Harris, OLB/DE, Missouri. Harris is a classic ’tweener type who played defensive end at Mizzou, but projects as an outside linebacker in the pros. He would be landing in an ideal spot with the Chiefs, where he can learn from Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, both of whom are immensely talented but have troubling injury histories. If given a little time to learn from the vets, when and if one of them goes down or becomes a salary-cap casualty, the Chiefs won’t skip a beat.
28. Dallas – Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama. The Cowboys have consistently swung and missed on defensive ends, so hopefully Jerry Jones won’t go after another troubled “war daddy” in the first round here. Humphrey is a legacy (his dad Bobby Humphrey was an NFL running back) and he has ideal size and strength. With oft-injured Morris Claiborne set to hit the free-agent market, this could create a bigger need than already exists. Dallas is picking here for a reason as the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last year. They’re not far away. Humphrey could help them get over the hump.
29. Green Bay – Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR, Stanford. The Packers were using a wide receiver at running back last year and, while McCaffrey played some wide receiver at Stanford, he is a three-down back that could give Aaron Rodgers an explosive weapon in the backfield. Green Bay has tolerated weight issues with Eddie Lacy, but he’s a free agent and there seems little likelihood they will overspend to give him a long-term deal. That’s not the Packer way. McCaffrey could add an element that has been missing in the Packers offense since the heyday of Ahman Green as a rushing/receiving dual threat.
30. Pittsburgh – Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama. James Harrison is older than dust and can’t be relied upon as he has in recent years. He’s at the end of the line and the Steelers need a young stud to line up opposite Bud Dupree to bring the heat. The Steelers have enough talent on offense to focus on the defensive side of the ball in the draft. He has some character issues (handgun possession is a big red flag for many organizations), but he had 19½ sacks over the last two seasons and brings explosiveness to a defense predicated on firing off the ball.
31. Atlanta – Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn. The Falcons got to the Super Bowl, but struggled defensively most of the season. Dwight Freeney was little more than a 10- to 15-snap-a-game guy and Dan Quinn needs an upside guy to line up opposite Vic Beasley to create edge pressure. Defensive tackle and linebacker are also options, but it seems clear that the focus of the draft and free agency will be to build a defense that can keep up with Atlanta’s high-powered offense. If they add two or three difference-makers along the way, the Falcons could be dominant.
32. New England – David Njoku, TE, Miami. He was a huge playmaker at The U, averaging more than 16 yards per reception. The Patriots have always tried to incorporate two playmaking tight ends that create mismatches. Martellus Bennett is a free agent who has made it clear he wants to be paid top dollar and Rob Gronkowski is dominant, but has trouble staying healthy for 16 games. Njoku could create big mismatches with his athleticism and could continue the trend of giving Brady strong tight end weapons.