OVERVIEW: The draft is less than a month away and teams are formulating their final draft boards. With free agency three weeks in and slowing down, the focus is on the infusion of young talent. The biggest current domino to fall is when do quarterbacks come off the board? We still have the Jets taking Deshaun Watson with the sixth pick, but we’re cooling on that idea and, if New York goes elsewhere with its first pick, it could markedly shake up the first round. But, with that piece still currently in place, here is how we see the first round shaking out.
1. Cleveland – Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M. The early natural assumption was 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 “trade” for Brock Osweiler likely isn’t the answer. You don’t gamble on the first pick. The best pass rusher in the draft (32½ sacks in three years as a starter), Garrett is the biggest impact player of the draft and makes logical sense for the Browns to snap up.
2. San Francisco – Solomon Thomas, DT, Stanford. John Lynch has made a slew of midlevel signings and filled short-term needs at quarterback (Brian Hoyer), wide receiver (Pierre Garcon) and linebacker (Malcolm Smith). One area left untouched in free agency has been defensive line because, whether it is Thomas or Garrett, it’s hard to go wrong here. Thomas has drawn comparisons to Aaron Donald. If he comes close to that, he’s a perfect pick for a new regime looking to build the foundation of a franchise.
3. Chicago – Jamal Adams, S, LSU. John Fox has been overhauling the Bears defense from a 4-3 forever group to a 3-4, with mixed results to date. This pick should come down to two players – Adams or defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. The Bears have struggled at safety for years – the last true difference-maker was Mike Brown and he seems like a far-too-distant memory. Adams has a nice combination of power and speed and would provide an instant upgrade for a Chicago secondary that needs to deal with guys like Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford if they want to climb out of the cellar of the NFC North.
4. Jacksonville – Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama. The Jaguars have addressed a lot of needs in free agency, beefing up their secondary, offensive line and linebacker corps, but they’ve been replacing starters Jared Odrick and Roy Miller after cutting both. Allen didn’t test overly well at the NFL Scouting Combine – both in drills or the medical testing that showed some shoulder concerns. But he has a ton of natural talent and, along with recent major investments in Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell in free agency and Dante Fowler in the 2015 draft along the defensive front, the addition of Allen could make Jacksonville potentially dominant up front.
5. Tennessee (from L.A. Rams) – Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State. Wide receiver is an option, but with two picks in this round and no wideout worthy of being taken in this spot, the Titans take the best player available and fill their most glaring need. Tennessee had the 30th-ranked pass defense last season and much of the reason was due to having a combination of aging veterans and erratic young players, Lattimore could step in immediately and upgrade the position. He has a history of hamstring injuries, but, when healthy, he can be a shutdown corner and the Titans need one badly.
6. N.Y. Jets – Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. This is the most critical pick of the draft and one that a lot of people don’t believe will be made by the Jets. The Jets have a long history of drafting QBs and just as long a history of failure at developing them. The Jets signed career part-timer Josh McCown, which is an ideal scenario for Watson’s development. Watson is an unquestioned leader and has elite talent but will need time to refine his game. With the Jets seemingly in full-on makeover mode with players leaving left and right on offense, they need to once again start over and that process always needs to begin with a quarterback who can be the cornerstone to build around. Mitchell Trubisky may be more NFL-ready out of the gate, but Watson has the bigger upside and appears would come to a situation where he can take his time to get up to speed and take over in 2018.
7. L.A. Chargers – Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State. The Chargers answered their issue at left tackle by paying dearly for Russell Okung, but have some pretty glaring needs – from right tackle to guard to cornerback. But, in Gus Bradley’s defense, athletes are the top priority and, with Marshon Lattimore off the board, Hooker is the best available playmaker in the secondary. It’s too early to take an offensive lineman, so you go with the best athlete and Hooker shines on film consistently and can provide an immediate upgrade.
8. Carolina – Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. This pick hasn’t changed since our first mock and there doesn’t seem reason to start now, especially with Cam Newton having surgery and the need for a strong running game taking on even more importance. Jonathan Stewart is still there but is nearing his finish line. 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 early success of guys like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott could create a revival for the top 10.
9. Cincinnati – Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama. The Bengals lost Karlos Dansby in free agency and cut Rey Maualuga. The signing of Kevin Minter could change things here, but, despite a dust-up with medical personnel at the NFL Combine, Foster is a highly talented player who is impossible to miss on game tape. Whoever drafts him will find a way to get him on the field immediately. He makes plays, passes every eyeball test and can fit as a Will linebacker in the Bengals’ defensive scheme. That’s what everyone looks for in defensive talent, especially with a blue-chip pick in the top 10.
10. Buffalo – Mike Williams, WR, Clemson. The Bills re-signed Tyrod Taylor and added a pair of power fullbacks to assert themselves as a run-first offense. But, after losing Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in free agency and talented Sammy Watkins suffering multiple foot injuries, the Bills need to give the passing game a weapon. They’ve added backup band members Andre Holmes, Philly Brown and Jeremy Butler, but need a big-play guy opposite Watkins, so why not a fellow Tiger? Williams is a playmaker, who, like Mike Evans a couple years earlier, built a reputation on making plays on poor throws. He and Watkins could give Buffalo’s offense the big-play dimension it needs to succeed
11. New Orleans – Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee. The Saints will surely look to defense here because they have needs on all three levels, so it may come down to making the pick that can provide the most long-term depth. Paul Kruger is 31 and, while there is gas still in the tank, the foursome of Barnett, Cameron Jordan, Nick Fairley and Sheldon Rankins could give the Saints the best front four they’ve had in a decade. Having added linebacker depth, re-signing Sterling Moore and being in hot pursuit of Patriots CB Malcolm Butler, cornerback may not be as screaming a need as perceived.
12. Cleveland (from Philadelphia) – Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina. As things currently stand, the Browns don’t have a starting quarterback. They traded for Brock Osweiler, but the press release from the organization talked up the second-round pick Houston threw into the mix more than Osweiler, lending itself to speculation that he simply will be dumped. But, considering his contract is guaranteed, why not let him compete for the starting job and, in a best-case scenario, he holds it down in 2017 and Trubisky can expect to be the starter in 2018. The Browns have enough picks to trade up for a QB if there is a slide later in the first round to add defensive line or wide receiver help, but they need a QB to rally the fan base and Trubisky is a pro-ready QB who could push to start quickly.
13. Arizona – Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU. Few teams have been hit harder by free agency than the Cardinals, especially in the secondary, where Marcus Cooper, Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger all left for more money elsewhere. Defensive end is an option here, because Calais Campbell will be hard to replace, but the immediate need at both corner and safety to go along with Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu is the best fit at this pick. If a top safety drops, that will get consideration, but getting someone to team up with Peterson would be a big help to the changing Arizona defense.
14. Philadelphia (from Minnesota) – Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama. The Eagles have been very aggressive in free agency, addressing the offensive side of the ball, but have ignored defense to date, cutting DE Connor Barwin and CB Leodis McKelvin and losing DT Bennie Logan and CB Nolan Carroll to free agency. The biggest question here at the moment is whether the biggest need for top-end talent is at defensive end or cornerback. Nobody gave up more pass plays of 30 yards or more and lost both starters, making this more of a pressing need early in the draft.
15. Indianapolis – O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. The Colts have spent most of free agency adding pieces to help cover up a suspect defense and have appeared to go all-in on trying to take back the top spot in the AFC South. But the Colts need to get more weapons for Andrew Luck and this pick should come down to a running back (Dalvin Cook or Christian McCaffrey because Frank Gore isn’t getting younger) or a playmaker in the pass game. The Colts have parted with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the last 12 months and Howard is a difference-making tight end capable of becoming a big-play weapon down the seam. It isn’t a screaming need, but, if the Colts are going to take the best athlete available at this pick, Howard should be the guy.
16. Baltimore – Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan. If not for an ankle injury that required offseason surgery, he would likely be gone by this time. While the Ravens don’t tend to spend a lot of money on outside free agents, they are very good evaluators of talent. An offensive tackle is a distinct possibility here, but Ozzie Newsome has always been a G.M. that has been known for making value picks. Davis has the potential to be a star in the NFL, but won’t be working out for teams as he rehabs his injury and could be the guy who replaces the retired Steve Smith or free-agent loss Kamar Aiken.
17. Washington – Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. Defensive end is clearly a possibility here because 2016 starters Chris Baker and Ricky Jean Francois are gone. But Cook is a talented running back who could immediately step in and give the Redskins a balanced offensive attack that likely will be needed with the turnover at wide receiver that has taken place in free agency. With the 21st-ranked run game last season and a turnover that saw Matt Jones replaced by Fat Rob Kelley, neither of whom were dominant, Cook could become an explosive double-threat that could rejuvenate Washington’s offense.
18. Tennessee – John Ross, WR, Washington. The Titans make their second pick of the first round and take a jump at the guy who wowed people at the Combine by breaking former Titan Chris Johnson’s record in the 40-yard dash. He has elite speed and looks a like Brandin Cooks, who electrified fans in New Orleans and is taking his show to New England. Ross’ stock is on the rise and his showing at the Combine just solidified his position as a first-round draft pick. Marcus Mariota needs more weapons and the Titans added nobody in free agency while losing Kendall Wright.
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-foot-6, 290, McDowell is 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. Until they settle the Doug Martin question, running back is also an option.
20. Denver – Haason Reddick, OLB, Temple. The retirement of DeMarcus Ware has created an opening for an edge-rushing linebacker who can also play in coverage. He is a bit undersized, but has the speed and athleticism to make plays and will find his way on the field early and will make it difficult for the Broncos to keep him off the field. The Broncos upgraded the offensive line in free agency, but that could still be a consideration given they currently are going with young QBs to run the offense.
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 that could add speed and big-play ability to a defense in more need of those types of players. With DeAndre Levy no longer in the picture, this need becomes even more pronounced, especially considering how many other positions have been addressed in free agency.
22. Miami – Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin. It’s hard to imagine the first offensive tackle coming off the board this late, but there isn’t a dominant left tackle in this year’s draft and those teams that had a need prior to this addressed it in free agency. Miami released Branden Albert, creating a vacuum that needs to be filled, especially given the investments the Dolphins have made at other positions. Ramczyk can step right in and be an immediate starter, making him a great value pick at this spot.
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. He may be a dominant guard, but the current need is at tackle, so that’s likely where the put him.
24. Oakland – Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan. One of our favorite players in this year’s draft, he has the ability to be a dominating force and seems like the type of guy who would fit the Raiders model of athletic, versatile players. He is viewed as the ideal case for the current trend of big safeties that can also play hybrid speed linebacker. This incarnation of our draft had needs and talent at other positions forcing Peppers to fall on our board. He would be a great value at this spot and would give Oakland fans someone to cheer for before the Raiders tear their hearts out by moving to Vegas.
25. Houston – DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame. This will be a wild card pick of this year’s draft. Not everyone views Kizer as a first-round prospect and the belief is that the trade of Brock Osweiler basically for nothing was to set in motion bringing in Tony Romo. Even if that happens, it’s only a matter of time before Romo hits the end of the line – that’s why Dallas drafted Dak Prescott last year and it’s why Romo is heading out the door – one way or another. Giving Kizer a year or two to mature and learn from a guy like Romo would be ideal given his experience and skill set. He’ll need time to make the transition and Houston can give him that.
26. Seattle – Garrett Bolles, OT, Utah. The Seahawks had 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. They addressed guard by signing Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi, but still have big needs at tackle. Bolles has good athleticism and technique, which has got him rising draft boards 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 – Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State. The Cowboys could go in different directions here, but, after losing Morris Claiborne in free agency, getting an athletic corner to deal with the deep threats in the division is a priority. Conley ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and posted a 37½-inch vertical jump at the Combine, which is sure to get Jerry Jones’ attention. DE Taco Charlton from Michigan also would seem to be in the mix here, but Conley has some positive steam in his favor and landing with the Cowboys would be a good place for him to launch his NFL career.
29. Green Bay – Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR, Stanford. The Packers were using a wide receiver at RB 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 refused to overspend on doughy Eddie Lacy and give him a long-term deal. That’s not the Packer way and it led Lacy to sign a short-term deal with Seattle. 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 – David Njoku, TE, Miami. The Steelers have a history of taking the best athlete available even if it isn’t a front-burner need. The most obvious need would appear to be linebacker, where James Harrison is older than dust and Pittsburgh lost Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones in free agency. But Njoku is a rare athlete at tight end that has been missing from the Steelers offense forever. Ladarius Green missed all of last season with ankle and concussion issues. If the Steelers are convinced he will be back at 100 percent, they may pass on Njoku and address needs, but he is a talent that shouldn’t be available here and the Steelers rarely pass on those players.
31. Atlanta – Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan. The Falcons got to the Super Bowl, but they struggled defensively most of the season. Dwight Freeney was little more than a 10- to 15-snap guy and Dan Quinn needs an upside guy to line up opposite Vic Beasley to create edge pressure. Guard Forrest Lamp could be an option, 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 and nose tackle Dontari Poe is a big step in that direction. Charlton would be a run/pass rush threat that can find a role immediately.
32. New Orleans (from New England) – Kevin King, CB, Washington. This pick is predicated on the Saints not making the much-anticipated Malcolm Butler-for-this pick trade. If they do and this pick goes back to New England, it likely wouldn’t be a cornerback here – the Patriots likely wouldn’t hesitate to add tight end David Njoku is he is still available. But, if the trade doesn’t go down, the Saints will still need upgrading at cornerback to go with Delvin Breaux and Sterling Moore.