Nothing drives the draft debate and discussion quite like a pair of quarterbacks at or near the top of the pecking order. For drama and intrigue, Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota beats 2013's Eric Fisher versus Luke Joeckel derby handily. (And who can ever forget that riveting Jake Long versus Chris Long showdown in 2008?) And to think, we’ve got two more weeks to devote to the quarterback over-analysis that now annually follows an almost predictable path.
The draft, of course, is all about making your best possible choice, with no do-overs. But, hey, this is a mock. It’s not the real thing. So for this, our fourth version of how things will shake out on the night of April 30 in Chicago, we’re going to give you our up-to-the-minute first-round thinking, and then we’re going to throw in the next best available option for every team’s pick. It’s called hedging my bets. Mercifully, the end is in sight ...
1. Jameis Winston, QB
RS Sophomore, Florida State
With some high-profile NFL talking heads peeling off in recent weeks, it does seem like some of the “late money’’ is headed Marcus Mariota’s way and Winston might no longer hold a vise-like grip on the Bucs’ attention span as mid-April arrives. But that’s the way I’ve always seen this matchup, as a tough, close call to make. I don’t think we’re going to look back three years down the road and realize we were dealing with another Andrew Luck-Robert Griffin III mismatch.Next Best Available Option: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB
RS Junior, Oregon
I still think that when the smoke clears this will be Mariota’s slot, whether it’s the Titans taking him or someone trading up for the Oregon product. For now we’re leaving Philip Rivers in San Diego, but that trade continues to make plenty of sense on several levels. Pay some heed to those rumblings out of Cleveland, because the Browns trading up can never be discounted when a new quarterback savior is the topic. Can you imagine that QB room, with the accounting firm of McCown, Mariota and Manziel at work? The latter two are pretty polar opposites if you can believe what you read in the papers.Next Best Available Option: Leonard Williams, DT, USC.
3. LEONARD WILLIAMS, DT
I’m giving the Jags the former Trojans star rather than Florida’s Dante Fowler or Clemson’s Vic Beasley, even while acknowledging that Jacksonville needs edge pass rush more than it needs to add to a defensive line that was addressed earlier this off-season. But if Williams is as elite as advertised—and no one really knows, even though they like to pretend they do—Gus Bradley will find great use for him.Next Best Available Option: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson.
4. Kevin White, WR
Senior, West Virginia
White has the size, speed and skill set to be scary good in the NFL. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper may be more highly rated now, but White’s upside seems higher, and his fit with the Raiders young quarterback, Derek Carr, projects well.Next Best Available Option: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama.
5. VIC BEASLEY, DE/OLB
RS Senior, Clemson
It’s almost a toss-up, but I’m going Beasley over Florida’s Fowler, with Jay Gruden’s team in perfect position to take the first pass-rusher off the board. The other scenario I could see is a team, like the receiver-needy Rams, trading up for Cooper. We know St. Louis and Washington love working together come draft time. Well, at least on the Rams side of things.Next Best Available Option: Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida.
6. Amari Cooper, WR
Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and the smooth and polished Cooper on the receiving depth chart? Maybe the Jets can win with Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.Next Best Available Option: Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida.
7. DANTE FOWLER, DE/OLB
The Bears miss out on both of the draft’s top two receivers, but they don’t lose out. Jacking up the Chicago pass rush with a disruptive play-maker like Fowler makes new head coach John Fox happy right down to his old defensive coordinator roots. Fowler could be the second coming of fellow ex-Gators linebacker Wilber Marshall, a Bears star in the mid-80s.Next Best Available Option: Bud Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky.
8. BUD DUPREE, DE/OLB
Be it Dupree, Missouri’s Shane Ray or Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, the Falcons crave a difference-making pass-rusher. Dupree seems to be gaining momentum the closer we get to April 30, and if he does his thing well enough as a rookie, the Falcons won’t need any more artificial crowd noise.Next Best Available Option: Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska.
9. Trae Waynes, CB
Junior, Michigan State
New York has a bunch of good options here, but I think the choice will boil down to either Waynes or Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, who I’ve had locked in with the Giants in my previous mocks. I’m going with Waynes because it’s harder to find top-level talent at cornerback than offensive tackle, and as you might have heard, it’s a passing league.Next Best Available Option: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa.
10. DeVante Parker, WR
If the Rams want this Nick Foles move to work, they’ve got to give him a home-run threat who can take the top off a defense. This is a need pick, but one in which the prospect’s value lines up almost perfectly with where he comes off the board.Next Best Available Option: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa.
11. BRANDON SCHERFF, OT
RS Senior, Iowa
With the top three receivers gone, and the No. 1-rated cornerback taken two spots ahead of them, the Vikings should/would happily turn in the card for Scherff, who upgrades a somewhat shaky offensive line, adds versatility, and gets to stay in Big Ten country.Next Best Available Option: Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska.
12. Danny Shelton, DT
While we’re all fixated on whether the Browns will pursue either a quarterback or receiver in the first round, it’s pretty plausible to see them sticking at No. 12 and No. 19 and taking a pair big bodies to address big needs on their defensive and offensive lines. Shelton has the necessary size and skill to fill a gap.Next Best Available Option: Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon.
13. RANDY GREGORY, DE/OLB
RS Junior, Nebraska
Gregory’s stock has slipped a bit since his positive test for marijuana at the scouting combine in February, but I’m positive he won’t get past the Saints, a team fairly desperate for more pass rush. Remember, you can’t spell Saints without s-i-n. (I just thought of that. Anybody beat me to it?)Next Best Available Option: Shane Ray, DE/OLB, Missouri.
14. Breshad Perriman, WR
The perception of “movement’’ in the pre-draft months is personified this year by Perriman, who didn’t rate consideration as a first-round prospect until he ran a pair of sub-4.3 40s at his pro day. Some still don’t see him as first-round worthy, but he’s going to go in the first round because of that speed, and the Dolphins make as much sense as anyone with Mike Wallace now in Minnesota.Next Best Available Option: Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon.
15. ARIK ARMSTEAD, DE
No trade up for Leonard Williams this time, 49ers fans. Just sitting tight in the middle of the round and taking Armstead, the intriguing 3-4 end prospect who could take over for Justin Smith—whenever he’s finally ready to leave the game.Next Best Available Option: Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest.
16. SHANE RAY, DE/OLB
RS Junior, Missouri
The Texans would feel fortunate to find one of the draft’s top-five edge-rush prospects waiting for them at No. 16. Cornerback or receiver are other needs that make some sense to address here, but Ray’s draft grade merits first-half of the round selection.Next Best Available Option: Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest.
17. Melvin Gordon, RB
RS Junior, Wisconsin
My way of thinking, with Ryan Mathews in Philly, the Chargers need a starting running back who’s ready to add impact from Day 1 in 2015 (nope, not Danny Woodhead or Donald Brown). That spells Gordon edging out Georgia’s still-rehabbing Todd Gurley in the battle of the draft’s two best rushers. Did I ever mention that I was in the house at Camp Randall last November when Gordon ripped off a then-record-setting 408-yard rushing day against Nebraska? I was sold on his NFL prospects even before that.Next Best Available Option:Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia.
18. La’el Collins, OT
Let’s not overthink this one. The Chiefs could obviously use a talent infusion on the offensive line, and Collins is too highly rated to linger any longer on our board. And no, I don’t really have a board that I stash in the closet and drag out to help me with my mocks. It’s all in my head. But I once had a veteran club executive ask me where I kept “my board.’’ It was a good shot, well delivered.Next Best Available Option: Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami.
19. Ereck Flowers, OT
Junior, Miami (Fla.)
(Pick via Buffalo) Back to the beef go the Browns. Coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer decide to double down on the big guys up front, adding the well-regarded ex-Hurricane to the Danny Shelton pick at No. 12. The Browns. Boring for once.Next Best Available Option: D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida.
20. Landon Collins, S
Sure, I can see how much Philly needs someone to fill the No. 1 receiver role vacated by the departed Jeremy Maclin. I just can’t see any real candidates at No. 20, the way this scenario breaks down. That makes it easy to opt for Collins, given the thin state of the Eagles’ safety depth chart. It’ll be easier to find a quality receiver than a quality safety in rounds 2 and beyond.Next Best Available Option: Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest.
21. D.J. Humphries, OT
Either offensive line or defensive line seems a solid first-round bet in Cincy, and head coach Marvin Lewis in on record saying he doesn’t want a first-round pick who has to play right away. With offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth eligible for free agency in 2016, finding his replacement now is the kind of move that smart, forward-thinking teams execute.Next Best Available Option: Malcom Brown, DT, Texas.
22. Kevin Johnson, CB
RS Senior, Wake Forest
Cornerback is the top need in Pittsburgh, and there’s plenty of value at the position in the bottom half of the first round. Johnson is a very clean prospect who has helped his stock this draft season, but the Steelers should be able to take their pick between him, LSU’s Jalen Collins and Washington’s Marcus Peters.Next Best Available Option: Marcus Peters, CB, Washington.
23. Malcom Brown, DT
Even with some quality offensive line prospects still on the board, I can’t see the Lions passing on Brown, who can help veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata ease the Lions’ transition from Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the defensive interior. Brown in Motown. Makes sense.Next Best Available Option: Cameron Erving, C, Florida State.
24. Todd Gurley, RB
The Cardinals can’t go into the season with just Andre Ellington and hope his health holds out longer than it did in 2014. Gurley is the perfect big-back complement, and if he recovers fully from ACL surgery, he could some day look like a heist-in-plain-sight at No. 24.Next Best Available Option: Marcus Peters, CB, Washington.
25. Andrus Peat, OT
“Keeping Cam Clean” is the motto of the 2015 draft in Charlotte. Peat does protection pretty well. And we have a match.Next Best Available Option: T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh.
26. Marcus Peters, CB
Even in the post-Ray Rice era, Baltimore proves it isn’t afraid to draft a prospect with character-issue concerns. Especially when he’s a top-half-of-the-round talent who plays at one of the Ravens’ greatest positions of need.Next Best Available Option: Jalen Collins, CB, LSU.
27. Jalen Collins, CB
The Cowboys are back to being their disciplined selves in the draft—it’s a fairly new phenomena—and avoid reaching for a running back. There are defensive tackle prospects still on the board who would make defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli almost giddy, but he’ll be well satisfied to add another cover man to a secondary that still needs help.Next Best Available Option: Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State.
28. T.J. Clemmings, OT
RS Senior, Pittsburgh
Denver is yet another team that needs an offensive line upgrade, and finds one waiting when its turn rolls around. Welcome to now-or-never town, T.J. Like Emmanuel Sanders said, it’s Super Bowl win or bust for the Broncos.Next Best Available Option: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M.
29. Cameron Erving, C
Senior, Florida State
Starting at the No. 18 Chiefs, there’s a real theme going in the second half of the round: Clubs such as K.C., Cincinnati, Carolina, Denver and Indy are all looking for better bodyguards for their quarterback. Nobody has endured more pounding the past three years than Andrew Luck, and the versatile Irving is hopefully part of the answer to that problem.Next Best Available Option: Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State.
30. Byron Jones, CB
RS Senior, Connecticut
The Packers two biggest needs are at inside linebacker and cornerback, and I’ve been giving them UCLA inside linebacker Eric Kendricks in previous mocks. Packers general manager Ted Thompson took a couple ex-Bruins in his 2013 draft, Datone Jones and Johnathan Franklin, and could go in that direction again this year. But the value at cornerback is probably greater at No. 30, and an inside linebacker can be found in the second round.Next Best Available Option: Eric Kendricks, ILB, UCLA.
31. Eddie Goldman, DT
Junior, Florida State
(Pick via Seattle) Though a play-maker like Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, USC receiver Nelson Agholor, or Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams wouldn’t surprise me, it feels like New Orleans will invest largely into defense, and Goldman adds some much needed space-eating, run-stuffing skills. Next Best Available Option: Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma.
32. Eric Rowe, CB
The Patriots trading out of the round is never a long-shot prediction, but taking the best-available cornerback—in the wake of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner leaving town—is the most logical plan of attack from this vantage point. If there’s a Vince Wilfork replacement still to be had, it’s probably Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips or Iowa’s Carl Davis.Next Best Available Option: Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma.