Once the NFL scouting combine concludes, it always feels like it’s time to get serious about the upcoming draft. The silly season still has about nine unpredictable weeks to run, but both teams and prospects exit Indianapolis with a better idea of how the pieces are going to fit together come the night of April 30 in Chicago.
Still two weeks shy of the start of the league's free agency period, here’s my first effort at mocking out the first round. As always, your results may vary:
1. Jameis Winston, QB
RS Sophomore, Florida State
I’m not remotely convinced that Winston is locked in as Tampa Bay’s choice at this early juncture, but I do believe the Bucs see taking him as the quickest path to an overnight turnaround. Marcus Mariota is the safer bet, but Winston’s higher ceiling will carry the day if Tampa Bay judges his off-field issues to be maturity related rather than a true portrayal of his character.
2. Leonard Williams, DE
I get the sense Tennessee thinks highly enough of second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger that it will explore his full potential rather than opting to anoint Marcus Mariota as the franchise’s latest savior. That pushes the pick toward defense, and an impact player who might give the Titans their own version of J.J. Watt in the AFC South.
3. Dante Fowler, DE/OLB
Jacksonville’s defense is in search of a disruptive playmaking pass-rusher, and Fowler is one of this draft’s most pro-ready prospects. He ran an impressive 4.61 at 261 pounds at the combine, and has drawn favorable comparisons to Oakland outside linebacker Khalil Mack, one of the league’s best defensive rookies in 2014. If the No. 2 Titans opt for a quarterback, the Jaguars will be in line to pick off USC’s Williams.
4. Kevin White, WR
Senior, West Virginia
White had himself an eye-opening combine workout, running 4.35 with a 36 1/2-inch vertical jump, and that should put him squarely on the radar of the receiver-needy Raiders. His size-speed combination and ability to come down with the ball is everything Oakland could hope for to help quarterback Derek Carr take a second-year step.
5. Randy Gregory, OLB/DE
RS Junior, Nebraska
With Brian Orakpo heading into free agency after his injury-shortened 2014 season, Washington goes out and lands a substantial upgrade for the pass rush in the draft’s top five.
6. Marcus Mariota, QB
RS Junior, Oregon
As desperate for an answer at quarterback as the Jets have been since 2011 or so, they somehow find waiting for them the reigning Heisman winner with the gaudy collegiate statistics and squeaky clean image. The Geno Smith era is officially in countdown mode if this scenario unfolds in New York.
7. Danny Shelton, DT
The Bears’ depth chart doesn’t seem suited to run the 3-4 defense that John Fox intends to implement with new coordinator Vic Fangio, but building that unit around the run-stuffing, point-of-attack-holding Shelton would make for an impressive first step in the transition.
8. Vic Beasley, OLB
RS Senior, Clemson
Beasley injected himself into the top-10 conversation with a strong combine showing, where he weighed in at 245, ripped off 37 reps in the bench press and ran a crisp 4.53 in the 40. Atlanta is looking for a sizable defensive improvement under new head coach Dan Quinn.
9. Brandon Scherff, OT
RS Senior, Iowa
More pass rush is always an option for New York early in the draft, but if the Giants are willing to use the franchise tag on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, addressing the offensive line deficiencies remains the most logical approach at No. 9.
10. Amari Cooper, WR
I could see the Rams being tempted by the rare blend of size and speed that is Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham. But Cooper is smooth, polished and very gifted in his own right, plus he carries none of the red flags that DGB brings to the NFL.
11. Andrus Peat, OT
Passing up Teddy Bridgewater’s former Louisville teammate, receiver DeVante Parker, probably won’t be a popular move in many places. But solidifying the offensive line and protecting the young quarterback is paramount, and Peat addresses one of the team’s weakest links.
12. Devante Parker, WR
With Josh Gordon suspended and Jordan Cameron a potential free agent, getting more options in Cleveland’s passing game is an obvious priority. With four receivers likely to go in this year’s top 20, the Browns can’t run the risk of waiting until their No. 19 selection to find a receiver.
13. Shane Ray, DE/OLB
RS Junior, Missouri
Ray didn’t work out at the combine due to a foot injury, but he’s a proven playmaker off the edge and should help restore to Rob Ryan’s defense some of the swagger it so painfully lost last season.
14. Trae Waynes, CB
Junior, Michigan State
The task of chasing down the defending champion Patriots in the AFC East means the Dolphins must match up better with that Tom Brady-led New England passing game. Waynes cemented his standing as the likely first cornerback off the board by running a dazzlingly 4.31 at 6’0’’, 186 pounds on Monday.
15. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR
With Michael Crabtree headed for free agency, and Stevie Johnson perhaps in line for a pay cut, the 49ers could use another receiving weapon at Colin Kaepernick’s disposal. The defensive line could get the first-round attention under new coach Jim Tomsula, the team’s former defensive line coach, but Green-Beckham has an intriguing blend of size and speed that could provide instant impact.
16. T.J. Clemmings, OT
RS Senior, Pittsburgh
Offensive right tackle isn’t the highest priority for the Texans, but Clemmings represents solid value in the middle of the round, and if veteran Derek Newton should leave via free agency, the Pitt standout would represent a plug-and-play starting replacement.
17. Bud Dupree, DE/OLB
San Diego had only 26 sacks last season and could use the edge-rush prowess that Dupree provides. The Chargers have been searching for someone to put consistent pressure on the quarterback for a while now, and Dupree at the combine showed off a blend of size (6’4’’, 269 pounds) and athleticism (4.56 speed, 42-inch vertical, 11’6’’ broad jump) that should ensure him a top-20 draft slot.
18. Jaelen Strong, WR
Junior, Arizona State
Kansas City leads the league in its need for receiving help, and that deficit might result in Strong getting pushed slightly higher up the board than originally anticipated. At 6’2’’, 217, he’s another size-speed receiver with the potential to develop into a No. 1 target in the NFL.
19. Malcom Brown, DT
(Pick via Buffalo) Having secured their much-needed pass-catcher at No. 12 in Louisville’s DeVante Parker, the Browns turn their attention to their woeful 32nd-ranked run defense and select one of the draft’s safest bets to upgrade the interior of their line.
20. Marcus Peters, CB
Peters has much about his lost season of 2014 to explain to teams, but his coverage skills are the draft’s finest, and he would instantly upgrade Philly’s struggling pass defense. If Philly opts to not make a move up in pursuit of Marcus Mariota, staying put and landing one of the draft’s two best cornerbacks is a solid fallback. Coach Chip Kelly would rely on his Pac-12 ties to know exactly what he’s getting in Peters.
21. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE
The Bengals’ pass rush disappeared last season and needs some fresh blood. Odighizuwa opened some eyes in Indy with his 4.64 run at 6’3’’, 267 pounds, and he’s going to get pushed up into the lower third of the first round in this pass rush-rich draft.
22. Landon Collins, S
The Steelers land the draft’s top-rated safety and find their replacement for the aging Troy Polamalu. The strengths of Collins’ game are his run support and versatility, and while not superb in coverage as a centerfielder-style safety, he’s an experienced and polished prospect who could quickly handle a starting assignment.
23. Eddie Goldman, DT
Junior, Florida State
For obvious reasons, the Lions might be in the market for reinforcements at defensive tackle this off-season. The Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley contract situations will likely dictate in which direction Detroit’s first-round attention goes.
24. Arik Armstead, DE
RS Junior, Oregon
The Cardinals have to be thinking about defense and finding a front seven player who can add big-play impact. Armstead has a 6’7’’, 292-pound frame that has superb NFL potential, and his athleticism makes him yet another defensive line prospect who carries a first-round grade in this year’s draft.
25. Ereck Flowers, OT
Junior, Miami (Fla.)
Job 1 in Carolina is to make sure Cam Newton absorbs less punishment next season, and that means the Panthers’ offensive line needs fortifying. Carolina should have Flowers and LSU’s La'el Collins to choose between at tackle.
26. Jalen Collins, CB
RS Junior, LSU
I wouldn’t rule out a receiver or a running back in the first round, but the way the Ravens went through cornerbacks at a near-record rate last season, giving the secondary the first-round love seems the most logical move two months-plus out from the draft.
27. Melvin Gordon, RB
RS Junior, Wisconsin
Who said you can’t draft a running back in the first round any more? With the Cowboys poised to see DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher, depart in free agency, Gordon would give Dallas a headline-name replacement who led the NCAA in rushing with 2,587 yards.
28. Jordan Phillips, DT
RS Sophomore, Oklahoma
With Terrance Knighton looking very likely to relocate in free agency, the Broncos select a highly-regarded space-eating cog for the middle of their defensive line.
29. La'el Collins, OT
The Colts have to shore up their offensive line issues and keep Andrew Luck cleaner than they’ve been able to in the quarterback’s first three difference-making NFL seasons. Collins has the versatility and the pedigree to handle an early starting role.
30. Maxx Williams, TE
RS Sophomore, Minnesota
The Packers have never really found a consistent playmaking replacement for Jermichael Finley, but Williams has first-round talent and would give Aaron Rodgers another weapon to exploit in the middle of the field and the red zone.
31. Todd Gurley, RB
I’m with Pete Carroll on the Marshawn Lynch retirement speculation. The veteran running back is for sure playing in 2015, but after that, who knows? Seattle is that rare team in position to take Gurley in the first round and give him all the time he needs to rehabilitate from his November 2014 knee injury.
32. Cameron Erving, C/G
RS Senior, Florida State
New England will probably wind up trading out of this slot with some club eager to get a bead on a player just before Round 2 opens, but giving the Patriots an interior line prospect who can provide them with a long-term upgrade at guard makes as much sense as any selection could in late February.