SI.com's lastest NFL Mock Draft has quarterback Jameis Winston going No. 1 to Tampa Bay and Marcus Mariota No. 2 to the Tennessee Titans.
This year has brought one of the wildest and most prolific free-agency periods in recent memory—according to NFLP records, teams gave out $589.8 million in new guaranteed contracts and $1.321 billion in total contract value in the first 72 hours of the process. Still, free agency has always been a lead up to the draft when it comes to team development, in a single-year sense and over time. The best teams augment their quality draft decisions with wise free-agency moves and trades, and the stragglers tend to overspend in March and try to play catch-up in April and May.
With over 40 days until the draft, here's one shot at estimating how the first round could go, based on the post-free-agency splurges.
The Buccaneers spent free agency jettisoning all the mistakes they made a year earlier. Among those missteps was the signing of journeyman Josh McCown, who turned one outlier half-season with the Bears into a starting gig and a $10 million deal. Now, the Bucs need to reload at the position through the draft, and Winston provides a compelling case as to why he should be the guy. He is not as quick-twitch as some may assume, and all that off-field stuff won't go away no matter how much the narrative shifts (nor should it). But Winston has the arm to make any throw, he's fearless in the pocket and he has all the physical skills that portend greatness at the NFL level. It will be up to his NFL coaching staff to refine what needs to be refined—multiple reads, occasional telegraphing and the ability to consistently adjust out of pressure.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt was non-committal when asked at the scouting combine about the future of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. "We’re going to compare where he ended the season with these young guys in the draft," Whisenhunt said. "Zach did a lot of good things for us last year. With the way the year went and where we are in the draft, you have to put the time in on the guys that are coming out."
Mettenberger is a good stopgap for a team that needs to redefine several parts of its roster, but what about the long-term? It's possible that the Titans see Mettenberger as the guy, but it's just as possible that Mariota is tremendously appealing to Whisenhunt, who has spent years developing young quarterbacks. There's a lot Mariota will have to learn at the next level—taking snaps under center and the complexities of an NFL playbook to name two. But he has the mentality to succeed, he's proven that he can handle pressure at the highest levels and he's highly coachable, by all accounts. Once he gets the hang of all that, his mobility combined with a greater feel for the pro game could make him a transcendent player.
The Jaguars have two receivers they like a lot in Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. And they dropped serious coin on former Broncos tight end Julius Thomas to round out a passing game in need of redefinition. Now, the real work begins with quarterback Blake Bortles, who the Jags didn't want to start in his rookie campaign. Injuries forced that issue, and Bortles wasn't ready, though he had his moments. For Bortles to ascend though, something will have to be done about an offensive line that allowed Bortles to be sacked on a league-leading 28.9 percent of his dropbacks. Some of those takedowns were Bortles's fault, but there's no question the Jags' line is in need of improvement as well. Scherff might be a bit of an overdraft with the third pick, but from a need and quality perspective, he's a major step up with his technique, consistency and toughness. He could play left or right tackle for the Jags, or kick inside to guard, and there are needs at all of those positions in Jacksonville.
This is a case of best player available—yes, the Raiders need better targets to take Derek Carr to the proverbial next level, but Williams provides a rare level of consistency and toughness, and Oakland's defense could use that. New head coach Jack Del Rio will think he's hit the jackpot with a player who's drawn comparisons to Richard Seymour. While I'm a little concerned about Williams's quickness off the snap, he's a true multi-gap disruptor who could grow into one of the best at more than one position.
Whatever it is that Jay Gruden is trying to accomplish with his quarterback situation—and at this point, we're not entirely sure—he's going to need a top-level receiver in Washington, D.C., as he had in Cincinnati with A.J. Green. The Redskins have the speed quotient covered with DeSean Jackson, and the possession aspect with a number of players. But White has the ability to take the top off any defense with his acceleration, he's a wizard at times with contested catches, and he's only going to get better in the right offense. The combination of 4.35 speed that transfers to the field and his 6'3", 215-pound frame makes White a tantalizing target for any team in the top 10.
The Jets have the interior of their defensive line sewn up with the Sons of Anarchy (we assume the Jets retained custody of that nickname when Rex Ryan moved on to Buffalo), but new head coach Todd Bowles will need a pure edge-rusher who can disrupt inside in certain packages. Fowler registered 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2014, but it's my belief that he'll be even more effective with an NFL team that doesn't ask him to fill inside gaps quite as much. Fowler is a powerful guy at 6'3" and 261 pounds, but he gets washed out at times against bigger men because he needs a more versatile array of moves. As a pure outside factor in a two- or three-point stance, Fowler has the potential to be the best in this draft class.
The Bears grabbed a major piece with Pernell McPhee, the former Raven who can wreak havoc all over the line, and Lamarr Houston has a lot of potential in the same way. Chicago also has a couple of interesting young defensive tackles, but in Vic Fangio's defense, a true interior force will be needed—and that's where Shelton comes in. You'd expect him to excel at the nose at 6'2" and 339 pounds, and he does, but he's also a load to deal with as a 3-4 end and a five-tech tackle. Fangio might use Shelton as he did Justin Smith for years in San Francisco, and possibly with the same level of success over time.
The Falcons' need for a true pass-rusher is as well-documented as the franchise's number of strikeouts when trying to hit on that position. But if there's one thing new head coach Dan Quinn learned during his time as Seattle's defensive coordinator, it's how to take raw defensive linemen and linebackers and turn them into pass-rushing missiles. Gregory is a particularly interesting player with a silly-quick first step, an underrated level of technique and more functional strength than you might imagine at 6'5" and 235 pounds. Ideally, Gregory will fill out a bit more and marry even more pass-rush moves to his physical gifts, and Quinn is just the guy to get him there.
The Giants have several needs to address in the draft—the downturn in winning percentage over the last three seasons is not a coincidence. And while there are obvious weaknesses along the offensive line, Big Blue has always been defined through the Tom Coughlin era by its pass rush. The Giants gave the franchise tag designation to Jason Pierre-Paul, but a reliable bookend is needed, and Beasley has all the tools to make a major impact along that front seven. He's very quick off the snap, has great pursuit against the run and can drop into coverage at times.
The decision to trade Sam Bradford for Nick Foles? The wisdom of that can be debated over time. What's not debatable is that whoever the Rams' quarterback is in 2015, he'll need better targets than Bradford ever had if the Rams are to ascend to the top of the NFC West. Cooper isn't as flashy as Kevin White, but he's faster than he looks on tape because he does so many things smoothly and well. From route-running to toughness over the middle to blocking, Cooper would provide a huge boost to this passing game.
Left tackle Matt Kalil's serious downslide may have been caused by injuries, but it's real, it's obvious, and if it doesn't reverse itself, Teddy Bridgewater will be spending a lot of time rolling right. Even if Kalil does figure it out, the combination of Phil Loadholt and Michael Harris gave up 10 sacks at the right tackle position last season. Collins would set that right, as he's a pure mauler.
Do the Browns still need a quarterback after a couple of ill-conceived first-round picks and a veteran flier on Josh McCown? Sure they do, but with Winston and Mariota gone, the smart play here is to get as many targets for McCown (or Johnny Manziel, should he ever figure things out) and hope for the best in the short term. Parker could use a little more muscle on his frame and in his play, but he's a top-level target with good speed and route development. His stats fell off a bit after Teddy Bridgewater moved to the NFL, but Parker actually increased his yards per reception in 2014, and the sky's the limit in the right system. Cleveland may not be the right system just yet, but Parker would be a welcome addition.
With two first-round picks after the Jimmy Graham trade and a host of needs in the midst of an obvious rebuild, the Saints could go all sorts of directions here. But a pass-rush enhancement would be a big help for a defense that drastically underperformed in 2014, and Ray is the kind of player who can help transform a front seven pretty quickly. He led the SEC in sacks (14.5) and tackles for loss (22.5) in 2014, and though he's raw at this point, he has a great deal of potential—and potential is what the Saints seem to be backing at this point.
Miami made moves to improve an offense that saw an upswing in 2014, and the addition of Ndamukong Suh should reframe a run defense that collapsed down the stretch and probably cost the 'Fins a playoff berth.The next step is to solidify the secondary—Brent Grimes is great on one side, but the rest of the rotation is a bit of a question mark. Waynes should erase a lot of those question marks with his length, speed and ball skills.
Well. The 49ers off-season from hell took an unexpected turn when linebacker Chris Borland retired after just one NFL season, joining veteran Patrick Willis in the calling-it-quits department. NaVorro Bowman missed the entire 2014 season with a knee injury, leaving a formerly stout group in complete turmoil. Thompson wouldn't solve all of San Francisco's problems, but I like his versatility in any defense—he can play outside linebacker and kick back to safety in passing situations, and he's a pretty good running back, for what it's worth.
Eventually, the Texans will have to stop relying on historic seasons from J.J. Watt as their primary winning currency. The quarterback position has been a problem to a greater or lesser degree since this franchise came into being in 2002, and the addition of Brian Hoyer to a decidedly mediocre group doesn't do much. Add in that the Texans lost franchise-defining receiver Andre Johnson this off-season, and you have a team with a real need to add targets to help DeAndre Hopkins. Strong has just about everything needed to be great in the NFL—he's big, strong, route-savvy, and he's used to going out of his way to grab passes from some pretty average quarterbacks.
Ryan Mathews took a trip from San Diego to Philly, and while undrafted rookie Branden Oliver is a great story and a nice complementary piece, the Chargers need to double down and find the back who can define them at that position. Of all the rushers in this draft class, Gordon has the best balance of speed, acceleration, toughness and durability.
Green-Beckham is a highly risky proposition given all the issue in his past, but the Chiefs just gave Jeremy Maclin—a receiver with one 1,000-yard season on his résumé—a five-year, $55 million deal with $22.5 million guaranteed. That's what happens when your receivers can't score any touchdowns ... literally in 2014. The reason Green-Beckham is so interesting despite all the drama is that he has an insane combination of size and speed, and at his full potential, he's nearly impossible to cover one-on-one. He could be one of the best receivers of the decade, or he could be a cautionary tale—and someone in the first round is going to take the risk on how that story is told. Given their desperation to turn the passing game around, the Chiefs are a likely suitor.
(Pick via Buffalo) The Browns got their new receiver earlier in the mock, and now it's time to give head coach Mike Pettine a serious run-stopper for his defense. New acquistion Randy Starks provides rotational pass rush, but Brown would give the Browns something else—he's a big man with speed and agility, he can tie things up for opposing backs in one- or two-gap roles, and he's disruptive in the backfield, as well.
The Eagles put some water on their dumpster-fire situation at cornerback when they signed former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell to a big deal, but odds are that the addition of Walter Thurmond won't have the same impact given Thurmond's injury history. Peters, who would probably be a top-15 pick if not for the issues that got him booted off the Washington squad in the middle of the 2014 season, is the best cornerback in this class, and he made enough amends with Huskies head coach Chris Peterson to be invited to work out at Washington's pro day in April. The Eagles would do well to take a flier on Peters if he's still there at this spot.
With Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith coming into the last years of their current contracts—and Smith coming off a year in which he suffered through injury and regression—it may be time for Cincy to invest more in the line. Peat is a giant man who can envelop enemy pass-rushers when he's technique-solid, and with a few tweaks, he could develop into the kind of road-grader in the run game that the Bengals prefer.
It seems inconceivable that the Steelers' defense will take the field in 2015 without Dick LeBeau coaching it, but change is afoot in Pittsburgh. And though the secondary is the obvious need in the Steel City, Dupree could help in another key aspect—a pass-rush that has not been what it once was. The combine star needs a few technique fixes, but he has a rare combination of size, speed and quickness. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who knows a thing or two about linebackers, would have a field day with him.
Gurley might be a top-15 pick were it not for the knee injury that ended his season last November. There are injury concerns beyond that torn ACL—he suffered an ankle injury in 2013—but when healthy, Gurley is a slightly faster version of Marshawn Lynch, with the kind of size, speed and powerful agility that turns college backs into NFL rushing champs. He would add so much to a Detroit offense that has been unbalanced to the passing side for years.
The Cards lost Antonio Cromartie to the Jets in free agency, and with Patrick Peterson looking more vulnerable to the pass than his reputation might indicate, head coach Bruce Arians will need a talent infusion in his secondary. Collins would fit the bill perfectly, with a combination of size and pure athleticism coveted by every NFL team at the position. The exciting thing about Collins is that he's only going to get better, as he had to fight for reps through most of his time in the Tigers' talented secondary.
Sometimes in mock drafts, you go with the players you'd take as a hypothetical general manager, and sometimes, you go with the guys the real GMs might select. Flowers is a player I'd struggle to keep in the first round were it my choice—his quickness into a backpedal off the snap worries me, and he's a bit sluggish in pass protection for my taste. But the Panthers have always preferred big, physical run-blockers in their offense, and Flowers checks all those boxes. Factor in Carolina's huge need along the offensive line, and this is an easy pick to project.
The Ravens lost Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, their two most versatile defensive players, in free agency, and the addition of Smith could do a lot to fill those holes over the next few years. Smith can line up and provide decent production as a rotational edge-rushing and run-stopping end, and he can also slip inside and play tackle in certain packages. With mammoth tackle Brandon Williams taking Ngata's spot as the pointman along the interior line, Smith and his gap versatility could show up in many ways.
Yes, the 'Boys need a new marquee running back, but Dallas has been rewarded for its fundamental discipline in the draft with the kind of offensive line that will make any back better, so there's little urgency there. Where they need help is on a defense that was held together by great coaching and the limited time on the field that such a run game creates. It's time to fill in that defense, and though J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church played well last year, Collins would bring a different level of talent to that secondary. Collins can crash down on the play like every Nick Saban-coached defensive back is taught to do, but he's also learning the nuances of pass coverage—and it shows on the field.
You can expect an uptick in Denver's defense with Wade Phillips in charge, but the Broncos need another edge-rusher in Phillips's 5-2 base and four-front nickel packages. Yes, they have Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but Ware will be 33 in July, so it's a good time to fill the future need with Harold, who goes 100 miles per hour at all times and has a developing palette of pass-rushing moves. He already has experience alternating between linebacker and end, and he could be the next great pass-rusher under Phillips's tutelage.
Similar to the Broncos, the Colts might want to upgrade their pass rush with some youth and promise. The move to sign former Eagles end Trent Cole was a great one, but Cole's age (33 in October) and contract (two years, $16 million with $8 million guaranteed) indicate that this isn't a long-term thing. Odighizuwa has a great combination of attributes for Indy's hybrid defense—he played in multiple roles in Jim Mora's versatile fronts, and he has impressive speed for his 6'3", 267-pound frame. He can get to quarterbacks with his hand on or off the ground, and he's developing a complete technique package.
The Packers have been trying to figure out their run defense ever since B.J. Raji fell off the map a couple of years ago, and things are still a bit undefined. Goldman could help set that right—at 6'4", 336 pounds, he's not a stat-collector, but he can play end and tackle in a defense that requires versatility, and he has a great deal of power at the snap.
(Pick via Seattle) The Saints are hoping that Brandin Cooks has another great season—and this time, a full season—but with Jimmy Graham off to Seattle, Kenny Stills traded to the Dolphins and Marques Colston getting up there in age, it's time to get Drew Brees some new targets. While Coates will need time to develop into a true marquee NFL receiver (especially in his understanding of route concepts), we've seen more than one untested receiver come into Sean Payton's offense and blow up defenses when Brees is throwing those deep seam passes. Coates's freakish combination of size, speed and nascent playmaking ability makes me think that he could work his way into that role as the upside develops.
Bill Belichick lost Vince Wilfork, who he called the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, to the Texans, and rookie Dominique Easley wasn't able to escape his collegiate injury history in the NFL. So, assistance is needed, and I really like Phillips as a fit in a defense that requires gap versatility. He's not fully-formed as a player yet, but Belichick has proven over time that he'll take raw guys on either side of the line and work them in eventually, and Phillips already has the incredible power and surprising speed to make a serious dent in that rotation.