With free agency and pro days behind us, Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem destined to be together.
April Fools' Day seems altogether appropriate for another mock draft, because the entire NFL draft season doubles as a display in the art of deception and misdirection. From the vantage point of the first day of this month, certain things seem entirely clear. But you can bank on plenty of those perceptions changing by the time we reach the final day of April, when the picking is scheduled to start that evening in Chicago. As we all know by now, with the draft, the joke is almost always on us.
But now that free agency is largely in the books, and most of the college pro days have been completed, the top of the first round appears to be coming into focus. Tampa Bay and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston seem destined to be together, and Winston's pro day workout this week did nothing to dispel the momentum behind that potential marriage.
The intrigue at the center of this year’s projections seems to start with Marcus Mariota at No. 2, with the ex-Ducks quarterback looking more and more likely to land there, be it to Tennessee or some other suitor via trade. Franchise quarterbacks remain in precious short supply, and I left last week’s NFL annual meeting in Phoenix thinking the Titans weren’t merely smoke-screening in regards to their interest in the reigning Heisman winner. We shall see.
With a month to go, here’s our best stab at how things will unfold in the first round. As always, your results may vary...
Winston did nothing but support his case for going No. 1 with his strong pro day workout in Tallahassee on Tuesday afternoon, throwing a whopping 102 passes for the assembled NFL evaluators. He certainly sounds convinced that he and the Bucs are a match, calling himself “the best player in the draft,” and Tampa Bay’s decision-makers continue to give the impression that their comfort level with the FSU star is sky-high, both on the field and in the realm of the character-issue debate. If those trends hold steady for another couple weeks, it’s not hard to imagine the Bucs opening early contract negotiations and trying to strike a pre-draft deal.
I gave the Titans stud USC defensive end Leonard Williams in my first mock, but after listening to Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt for an hour at last week’s AFC head coaches/media breakfast at the league’s annual meeting, I came away believing a quarterback is very much in play at No. 2. And when you consider that only the largely untested Zach Mettenberger might be all that stands in the way of Whisenhunt perhaps losing his second and final NFL head coaching job with another poor season in Nashville, Mariota makes plenty of sense. It could have been a clever smokescreen to entice someone to trade up to the No. 2 spot, but either way I’m leaning heavily that Mariota goes in this slot to someone.
Many consider Williams the draft’s most elite prospect, regardless of his non-quarterback status, and Jacksonville’s dream would come true if both Winston and Mariota are the first two names off the board. The Jags could be in the position to field trade offers at No. 3, but Williams would be an impact cornerstone-type player to insert into the lead-the-way defense head coach Gus Bradley is trying to build.
The Raiders have their pick between the draft’s top two receivers, and they probably can’t go wrong choosing between White and Alabama’s Amari Cooper. White’s track record isn’t as proven, but his skill set fits today’s NFL perfectly, with his size-speed combination and his ability to come down with the contested catch in traffic. Raiders QB Derek Carr should be rooting for White’s selection, because that combination has big-play potential written all over it.
In need of a difference-maker off the edge with oft-injured pass-rusher Brian Orakpo moving on in free agency, Washington is in prime position to select either Florida’s Fowler or Nebraska outside linebacker/defensive end Randy Gregory. Washington has had its share of issues with players testing positive for marijuana in recent years—as Gregory did at last month’s scouting combine—so perhaps that will tilt the pick Fowler’s way.
You don’t pass on pass rushers who can be game-changers, and even with Alabama receiver Amari Cooper still on the board, I would expect new Jets coach Todd Bowles to scoop up another dynamic piece for his greatly improved defense.
Beasley’s dazzling combine showing helped generate top 10 momentum, and his pass-rushing potential is exactly the kind of disruptive force the Falcons lack on defense. New Atlanta coach Dan Quinn should be able to come away with one of the top three edge rush prospects—either Beasley, Fowler or Gregory.
If an elite pass-rusher slips to them, the Giants will probably pounce, because New York always seems to win when it brings the heat on the opposing quarterback. Top cornerback prospect Trae Waynes of Michigan State could also be tempting, as might a trade downward. But in the end, Scherff is the draft’s best offensive lineman, and the Giants’ issues there have been crippling in recent seasons. Scherff’s versatility is another plus, in that he projects at both tackle or guard.
The Rams might be just out of the money at No. 10 in terms of the draft’s elite prospects, but selecting the draft’s top-rated cornerback is a logical move with both Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson slated for free agency in March 2016. There’s still some buzz that St. Louis could be looking to trade up in a quest for Marcus Mariota, but I’m of the mindset the Rams are content with the newly arrived Nick Foles under center.
The Mike Wallace trade makes a first-round receiver much less likely, and unless Minnesota has a strong conviction about an offensive tackle who probably doesn’t deserve a No. 11 draft slot, I’d think head coach Mike Zimmer would lean in favor of more pass rush. Ray has that first-step burst everyone is looking for, and one team that could potentially jump ahead of Minnesota to get him would be the No. 13 Saints.
Upon further review, the Browns should be able to get the quality receiver they need with their second first-rounder, at No. 19. That should make their need at nose tackle the priority, and Shelton is a space-eater who can fight off double-team blocks and still manage to find his way into the backfield consistently. The Browns outside pass rush will get better with Shelton in the trenches, holding the point of attack.
Now owning a second pick in the first round, at No. 31, thanks to the stunning Jimmy Graham trade with Seattle, the Saints have a little more latitude to be on the move come draft night. If they stay at No. 13, Dupree offers some of the pass rush juice they sorely lacked last season, and his blend of size, speed and athleticism should present opportunities for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to move him around and find his best role. This might be a tad high for Dupree in the eyes of some teams, but pass rushers never linger long on the board.
With Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay leaving for Minnesota, Cleveland and Buffalo, respectively, the Dolphins are in need of another passing-game weapon at quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s disposal, even with Kenny Stills and Jordan Cameron being added. Parker has first-year impact potential and should not stay on the board too far behind top-rated receivers Amari Cooper and Kevin White.
The 49ers cornerback depth chart took some hits during free agency, even though there were bigger-name defections on defense in San Francisco. Peters has some well-chronicled baggage he’ll bring to the NFL, but the 49ers organization hasn’t shied away from taken chances on red-flagged players who have talent. And make no mistake, Peters is considered the draft’s best pure cover man, with a skill set that should serve him well in the cornerback-rich NFC West. Torrey Smith’s signing in free agency should allow the 49ers to target some their defensive replenishment in the first round.
The Texans traditionally play it pretty safe in the first round, but Green-Beckham might be worth bucking that trend. With Andre Johnson gone to Indianapolis and only possession-receiver Cecil Shorts added to the attack, Houston could use another big target opposite DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans would have to be comfortable that Green-Beckham could show an increased sense of maturity and get with head coach Bill O’Brien’s no-nonsense program, but his rare blend of size and speed, and superb play-making skills will entice someone to invest in him in the top 20.
Gurley’s 2014 ACL surgery makes him a calculated gamble of sorts, but one that might promise a huge potential payoff in time. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon might be San Diego’s safer option in the short-term, if starting impact from day one is the goal. But for now, with the Chargers losing Ryan Mathews to Philadelphia in free agency, Gurley’s upside gives him the nod to be the first rusher off the board.
The Jeremy Maclin signing in free agency likely shifts the first-round focus from receiver to the offensive line, although a size-speed pass-catcher like Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong could still be tempting to Kansas City. Collins has the swing-man skills to plug in at either guard or tackle and upgrade an offensive front that has not been a Chiefs strength in recent years.
(Pick via Buffalo) Having landed a needed big man for the interior defensive line in Washington’s Danny Shelton at No. 12, the Browns are expected to address offense with their second first-round pick, taking either the best of the remaining first-round receiver prospects or an offensive tackle who can start on the right side, opposite left tackle Joe Thomas. Added to the likes of newcomers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline, Strong would give the Cleveland receiving depth chart an almost entirely new look in 2015.
The Eagles have done major renovation work on offense this offseason, but continuing to upgrade the defense now becomes the focus of the draft. They’d be very fortunate to find the well-regarded Collins still available this late in the proceedings. He’s an athletic and rangy free safety whose skill set is an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly seeks from his last line of defense.
I had the Bengals selecting UCLA pass-rusher Owamagbe Odighizuma in my first mock, but the return of defensive end Michael Johnson to the fold in free agency means Cincinnati can beef up its interior defensive line, where Geno Atkins hasn’t looked like the same dominant player after his 2013 ACL injury. Going for an offensive tackle to eventually replace the aging Andrew Whitworth is the another solid option for the Bengals, but there’s better value in a prospect of Brown’s pedigree.
The Steelers have a need for more pass rush help, but getting a talent infusion for the secondary has to be the top priority. Collins underwent recent surgery on his right foot after a small fracture was discovered at the combine, but it’s not thought to be an injury that will require a long rehab and impact his rookie season. Somewhat light on starting experience at LSU, Collins has ideal size and speed, and he displays strong press coverage skills.
The Lions at defensive tackle this offseason have lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and added Haloti Ngata, but the well-decorated ex-Raven is in the final year of his contract and may turn out to be just a short-term fix in Detroit. Goldman is a run-stuffer who can throw his 300-pound-plus frame into the void that exists up front for the Lions, contributing from day one. Finding an offensive right tackle is also on the to-do list, which could mean Stanford’s Andrus Peat or Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings are on Detroit’s first-round radar.
This feels like the right neighborhood in the first round for the ex-Badger, because Arizona’s backfield need for a legit No. 1 rushing threat is so glaring. Gordon can do serious damage once he gets past the line of scrimmage, and if the Cardinals’ trade interest in Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson comes to nothing between now and April 30, Arizona would be wise to keep Gordon wearing a familiar red and white color scheme.
Carolina’s offensive line issues correspond nicely with where the strength of the bottom fourth of the first round lies. The Panthers need a plug-and-play tackle, and should have Peat, Pitt’s T.J. Clemmings, Miami’s Ereck Flowers and Florida’s D.J. Humphries to choose from. Choosing the right guy to have Cam Newton’s back is job one in Charlotte.
There’s not thought to be much mystery to Baltimore’s top needs. The Ravens are doing their homework on cornerbacks and receivers, and might wind up taking a couple shots in both of those markets before the draft concludes. Johnson plays a very solid game in all respects and could likely handle a nickel role immediately in Baltimore. The receiving option who might get the longest look from the Ravens at No. 26 is Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman, a speedster who would fill the deep threat vacancy created by Torrey Smith’s departure for San Francisco in free agency.
With the top two running backs (Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon) already off the board, and Greg Hardy signed to help boost the pass rush, defensive tackle could be in line for first-round attention. Phillips doesn’t carry a consensus first-round grade, but with Danny Shelton, Eddie Goldman and Malcolm Brown no longer available, Phillips might get pushed up into the bottom of the round. Cornerback is another option for Dallas (Connecticut’s Byron Jones?), but again, the market there is starting to look pretty well picked over at this point.
Finding an offensive right tackle to replace the departed Orlando Franklin is the obvious first-round objective. But Denver also could use either a starter at nose tackle (Iowa’s Carl Davis?) or a young tight end prospect (Minnesota’s Maxx Williams?). Clemmings is a solid value this far down in the round, and other tackle options still available include Florida’s D.J. Humphries and Miami’s Ereck Flowers.
Two reasons to link the Colts to Irving: His versatility is very attractive, with the ability to play either guard or center, and thus give Indianapolis more depth and interchangeability. Secondly, he’s thought to be very much on New England’s wish list, and keeping him away from the defending champion Patriots arguably helps narrow the gap between the Colts and the AFC superpower they’re chasing.
This week’s re-signing of both B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion points the Packers in another direction besides defensive tackle in the first round. Cornerback makes sense with both Tramon Williams and Devon House lost in free agency, but I’m not sure there’s great first-round value left at that position. Kendricks would help shore up Green Bay’s sieve-like run defense and he’s a chase-the-ball talent who would represent a significant upgrade over the recently released A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
The Saints could easily keep their first-round focus on defense, after taking Kentucky pass rusher Bud Dupree at No. 13. But with the pick they received from Seattle in trade for Jimmy Graham, finding another starting tight end seems logical. Williams isn’t the one-on-one mismatch that Graham was—who is?—but he’d make a nice target for Drew Brees and can even add an element of blocking ability that Graham never exhibited.
It’s always a decent bet to forecast New England trading out of a low first-round draft slot, but the champs do have needs to address at cornerback, defensive tackle and the interior offensive line. For now we’ll give them Davis as the potential replacement for departed veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork, with better options and value available at cornerback and offensive line in the coming rounds.