Like a rite of spring, it happens every April, maybe a week to 10 days out from the draft. It's uncertainty time. That pre-draft period when even the things I thought I knew about this year's NFL pick-fest start to look a whole lot less solid than they did just a few short days ago.
Talking to league sources this week has made me re-examine assumptions that have been weeks in the making. Maybe the draft won't be led off by a lineman named Long after all. Maybe top-rated quarterback Matt Ryan really will linger until No. 8 Baltimore. Maybe New England has at least two natural trade partners that will be coming after its No. 7 pick. Maybe Chris Long and No. 4 Oakland aren't the match that many presume.In my penultimate attempt to mock out the draft's first round, here's what I think I "know" now. (Send comments to email@example.com.)
Virtually the entire mock draft world has moved to the Dolphins taking Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long in recent days, and Miami clearly is giving him priority in terms of its pre-draft contract negotiations. But when it's all said and done, we're forseeing Long and his agents leaving the Dolphins' take-it-or-leave-it below-market offer, and rolling the dice that the No. 2 Rams will ante up. It's obviously a very fluid situation, but our sense is Bill Parcells' focus will shift from Long to Gholston in the near future. As for Chris Long, who has topped our mocks for a while now, it would seem that the Dolphins love his maximum-effort playing style, but also believe he may already be as good as he's going to get.
The Rams have three good options at positions of value in Jake Long, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and defensive end Chris Long. But Jake Long is in the driver's seat, and once the No. 1 Dolphins move past him, the Rams will be in position to select the safest prospect in the draft. If Miami would happen to get things done with Jake Long, the Rams would have to choose between Gholston and Dorsey. Give the Ohio State standout the nod in that scenario, based on the premium put on pass rushers in the NFL.
It's tempting to move back to Boston College's Matt Ryan in this slot, but I'm standing firm that new Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff will go with defense, believing you have to have a foundation in place first before all else. I still think it's likely the Falcons take Dorsey, then use some of their bevy of picks to trade back into the bottom of the first round and select Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm or one of the other first-tier quarterbacks (Delaware's Joe Flacco or Michigan's Chad Henne).
The Raiders need a pass-rushing defensive end, not a running back. But with Gholston gone, their choice at end boils down to Chris Long or fast-rising Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey, who some teams have rated as a top-five pick. I've been told by a couple league sources that there's no love lost between Raiders owner Al Davis and ex-Raider Howie Long, and that Davis isn't sold on Chris Long's NFL upside. On my board, the Raiders are either going to shop this pick to someone in the middle of the round who wants McFadden, or take him themselves.
Albert's rise up everyone's first-round boards this spring hasn't been completely overnight. Almost two months ago a veteran scout told me the Cavaliers guard would wind up being highly coveted before the picking started, and that he would likely project to left tackle in the NFL. (I at least had him going No. 12 to Denver in my most recent mock.) It just makes sense for the Chiefs to go this way, because if they gave in and took quarterback Matt Ryan, they couldn't protect him anyway. The thinking is give Brodie Croyle better protection and maybe it'll work as well as it did for Joe Thomas and Derek Anderson in Cleveland last year. Albert's stock has surpassed that of Boise State tackle Ryan Clady and Pitt tackle Jeff Otah.
I really wanted to give the Jets Matt Ryan in this slot, on the basis that there's no indication that New York knows whether or not Kellen Clemens is the answer. But I've talked to people who have convinced me that the Jets won't go the franchise-quarterback route. That points me in the direction of Long, my former No. 1 overall pick who has fallen out of serious contention in Miami, and doesn't have a home in the top five any more. If the Jets don't love Long and are in a mood to shop the pick, they might have teams interested in trading up for either Sedrick Ellis or Ryan.
*PROJECTED TRADE WITH PATRIOTS*Everybody knows both the No. 9 Bengals and the No. 10 Saints covet Ellis, the draft's second-highest rated defensive tackle. What I'm hearing is that the Patriots are sending out plenty of smoke signals about drafting Ellis at No. 7, in order to get both the Bengals and Saints nervous enough to pick up the phone and make a deal. Cincy will be the most motivated trade partner since its entire draft seems to hinge on getting Ellis. The Patriots would love to move to No. 9, select USC linebacker Keith Rivers, and glean an extra pick in the process. New England would only be able to play Ellis situationally behind nose tackle Vince Wilfork in its 3-4 defense, and at 6-0, Ellis is shorter than Bill Belichick likes his defensive tackles. The Pats are in a great spot, because they're in the position to shop either Ellis or Ryan.
There will be dancing -- and I mean the shaking of their groove things -- in the Ravens' war room if their Matt Ryan dreams come true. There were times this spring when I was convinced that Ryan would never last past the No. 3 Falcons or the No. 5 Chiefs; but that was then, and this is now. Ryan will lose some money falling to No. 8, but he'll be better off in the long run having gone to Baltimore rather than Atlanta, Kansas City or the Jets. As badly as the wheels came off for the Ravens last year, they're one season removed from a 13-3 record. Should Ryan be gone and McFadden still on the board, the Ravens would snap up the draft's best rusher in an instant and team him in their backfield with Willis McGahee.
*PROJECTED TRADE WITH BENGALS*As outlined at No. 7, I've got the Patriots trading down with the Bengals, who couldn't afford to take the chance that New Orleans would make a deal with New England and land Ellis. The Patriots love Rivers and feel the ex-Trojan can play both inside and outside, just the kind of versatility that New England's defense requires. The Patriots would likely have Rivers line up inside, which would allow them to shift Adalius Thomas back outside, which is where his play-making impact has been the greatest.
On my board the Saints are going to dejectedly close out the top 10, because the two players they covet the most -- Ellis and Rivers -- will have gone to Cincinnati and New England over the course of the preceding three picks. That likely leaves the Saints to take their top-rated cornerback, and from all accounts, McKelvin is as close to a consensus choice as there is among the first round's cover men. Again, don't rule out New Orleans moving up to No. 6 or 7 in order to secure Ellis ahead of the Bengals. Another realistic option is Florida's Harvey, who could crack the top 10.