Potential trades keep the draft storylines churning, and there are certainly a number of interesting options this year. Perhaps the most prominent trade rumor involves Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is said to be opposed to his team's potential move to Los Angeles. Right now, Rivers has one year left on his current deal, and he's reportedly refused to discuss an extension in any serious sense. Former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson told the NFL Network on Tuesday that he doesn't think Rivers will stay with the Chargers past the 2015 season.
"You never want to trade your franchise quarterback," Tomlinson said. “You know that's never the case. However, in this situation, they might have no choice but to do so. Because I don't know if Philip [Rivers] wants to be there anymore. I think he has lost confidence in the organization. He's seen a lot of changes going on and the L.A. thing is valid. Him not wanting to go to L.A. is very valid."
If that is the case, the smart play for the Chargers would be to get as much as possible for Rivers, who is a perennial MVP candidate, and move along with their next potential franchise quarterback. To that end, in this mock draft, we're projecting a trade between the Chargers and Titans that sends Rivers and San Diego's 17th overall pick in exchange for Tennessee's second overall selection. This move would reunite Rivers with Titans head coach and former San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, whom Rivers credits with resuscitating his career, and would allow the Chargers to move forward with perhaps the most intriguing quarterback prospect in this draft class.
Here's one way that trade-modified first round could turn out ...
1. Jameis Winston, QB
RS Sophomore, Florida State
Yes, there are legitimate concerns about how Winston will do in the NFL on and off the field. He's now facing a civil suit as a result of the alleged sexual assault for which he was ultimately not charged, and Bucs head coach Lovie Smith has said that he'd be comfortable making Winston the face of the franchise—which he will certainly be, for better or worse. On the field, Winston is regarded as a pro-ready quarterback, but there are things that bedeviled him in the NCAA that will mess him up even more in the NFL—he's not always mechanically sound and he often fails to read more complex defenses. That's common among new NFL quarterbacks, to be sure, but the Bucs had better know what they're getting with this pick. As an upside player, Winston has the potential to be a plus-athlete with toughness and the ability to make every conceivable throw. We'll soon discover whether the risk/rewards leads a team to Winston as the first overall pick.
2. MARCUS MARIOTA, QB
RS Junior, Oregon
** Projected trade with Titans ** Mariota's comfort level with multiple reads is often overblown—if you watch enough tape, you'll see him throwing accurately to his second and third receivers. He is not a generic option quarterback propped up by the system, invariably to fail in the NFL. Instead, Mariota should be seen as a player with a need for developmental time at the next level. He'll need to learn to call plays and embrace a far more complicated playbook than he had at Oregon."It starts with the snap count," ESPN's Jon Gruden told me this week, when I asked him about Mariota's inevitable adjustment. "A lot of these quarterbacks don't even have a snap count. They use silent counts in the shotgun, and 'Set, go!' on every single play. They've never used a hard count. They haven't been asked to recognize a problem in the defense and audible. There are a lot of things that are going to be new. That whole process of the snap count, calling plays, recognizing coverages—getting your offense in an optimal display—it will be a process. But some of these coaches are really good, and we have a little bit more time at the NFL level than we do at the college level."One coach that is very good at transitioning potentially overwhelmed young quarterbacks to the NFL is Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who came into national prominence when he created a first-read open offense for Tim Tebow in 2011, back when he was Denver's offensive coordinator. McCoy will make himself entirely familiar with what Mariota can and can't do at this point, and he'll adjust accordingly.
3. DANTE FOWLER, DE/OLB
When he was Seattle's defensive coordinator, Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley learned the value of the LEO hybrid end in Pete Carroll's defense. The Jags are remaking what used to be a barren roster, and they've done well at several positions over the last few seasons, but they're woefully thin at the pass-rusher position. Last season, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks led the team with 8.5 sacks, and when a defensive tackle leads your team in sacks, you definitely have an edge-rusher problem. Not only can Fowler rush from the edge with speed and power, but he's also proven that he can split gaps and provide pressure from just about anywhere on the defensive front. He'd be a major chip in Jacksonville's rebuilding plans.
4. Amari Cooper, WR
Given the Raiders' history of going for deep speed receivers, West Virginia's Kevin White would certainly seem to be an appealing option with the fourth overall pick. But in 2014, rookie quarterback Derek Carr completed just 15 of the 71 passes he attempted that went 20 or more yards in the air. That said, Carr was the most prolific and efficient first-year quarterback last season, and he did it predominantly with short passes. If that trend continues, Cooper is the better play, because he has a preternatural understanding of route concepts, timing up with passes and getting open in short spaces.
5. KEVIN WHITE, WR
Senior, West Virginia
Redskins head coach Jay Gruden benefited from one player above all when he was Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, and it wasn't quarterback Andy Dalton. No, it was receiver A.J. Green, who combined demon speed, great separation and a freakish catch radius to catch the ball downfield and mitigate Dalton's serial inaccuracies. White isn't quite as developed as Green just yet, but he has the same basic tools. He's a big receiver who will win vertical battles, can beat up cornerbacks in the end zone, and has a serious second gear when he bounds away from defenders. It's not yet clear just what Gruden wants from his quarterback, but White would help, no matter who ends up under center.
6. VIC BEASLEY, OLB
RS Senior, Clemson
Remember what we said in the Jaguars pick explanation about what it means when you have a defensive tackle leading your team in sacks? Well, the Jets have the same problem. Yes, Sheldon Richardson is an amazing player, but you can bet that new coach Todd Bowles will want improvements along the edge. There's already been an enormous upgrade at the cornerback position with Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis coming back into the fold, and the only thing that will make those two guys even better is consistent quarterback pressure along the edge. Beasley is a little light, needs to play with more consistent power and could use a few more hand moves, but he totaled 45.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks total in the last two seasons, and he did it for the NCAA's best defense.
7. LEONARD WILLIAMS, DT
Some will tell you that Williams is the best player in this draft class, while others don't see it. What the tape shows is a great two-gap end who can play all over the formation, and he'd be a great fit in the system run by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fangio prefers linemen who can move all around and disrupt—that's why the Bears signed former Ravens Swiss Army knife Pernell McPhee to a five-year, $39 million contract this offseason—and Williams fits that bill perfectly. He's not quite as big as Justin Smith, who alternated between tackle and end in San Francisco's base and situational fronts, but he's already played everywhere from one-tech to end with impressive consistency.
8. RANDY GREGORY, DE/OLB
RS Junior, Nebraska
This mock presents an unusual run on pass-rushers, but the amount of need for that position in the top 10 could make it a reality. Only the Bengals had fewer sacks in 2014 (20) than Atlanta's 22, which is one of the reasons the Falcons tabbed former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to be their new coach. In Seattle, Quinn was responsible for creating and planning the team's most creative pass-rush fronts, but his new personnel in Atlanta puts him at a disadvantage. The Falcons acquired Adrian Clayborn and O'Brien Schofield and re-signed Kroy Biermann in the off-season, but none of those moves projects to true pass-rush greatness. Gregory, on the other hand, has the raw speed to be a special edge rusher, and at 6’6” and 235 pounds, he's got the explosiveness and reach to be a real problem for opposing blockers. He'll need to add bulk without losing speed, but Quinn will know just how to use a guy who put up 17.5 sacks in his two major college seasons.
9. SHANE RAY, DE/OLB
RS Junior, Missouri
Most mocks have the Giants taking offensive line help, and there's no doubt that it's needed. But there are some very intriguing blockers available later in the draft, and New York has an equally compelling need for a defensive lineman who can stop the run and rush the passer equally. The G-Men had those players when they bagged two Lombardi Trophies in the last decade, and Ray would be the perfect addition. He may have the best first step of any player in this class, and when he bends the edge, he's almost impossible to stop. Ray led the SEC in sacks (14.5) and tackles for loss (22.5) in 2014, and he projects very well to the next level.
10. BRANDON SCHERFF, OT
RS Senior, Iowa
Jeff Fisher insists that Greg Robinson will be his starting left tackle in 2015, though the rookie struggled on the outside and was less of a liability at guard. And in the end, that may be where Robinson best projects. One thing is for sure—when the Rams traded San Bradford for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, they inherited a passer who is pretty good when he's not facing pressure, and regresses mightily when things get complicated in the pocket. Scherff would be a great pick for a team with a highly undecided offensive line, because, like Robinson, he has the potential to be a great left tackle, but could also move to guard.
11. TRAE WAYNES, CB
Junior, Michigan State
Do the Vikings need a receiver for Teddy Bridgewater? You bet they do, but this is such a deep receiver class, and head coach Mike Zimmer needs a top-flight cornerback to pair with Xavier Rhodes even more. Josh Robinson and Captain Munnerlyn were liabilities in coverage last season, and veteran Terence Newman is a stopgap on a one-year deal. Waynes isn't a perfect cornerback, but he's aggressive, plays well against top opponents, and he can establish leverage on deep passes. If he can develop more toughness against the run, Minnesota could have one of the better young cornerback duos in the NFL.
12. DEVANTE PARKER, WR
So ... how's that quarterback situation going, Cleveland? So well that the franchise signed veteran journeyman Josh McCown to a three-year, $14 million deal in the off-season, and they're just hoping that Johnny Manziel can someday resemble a functional player at the NFL level. And with Josh Gordon out of the picture in perpetuity (he can't apply for NFL reinstatement until after the 2015 season) more targets are needed for this particular mess. The 6’3”, 209-pound Parker is ranked by many as the third receiver in this class behind Amari Cooper and Kevin White, based on his prolific production (156 catches for 2,775 yards and 33 touchdowns during his time with the Cardinals, with 43 catches for 855 yards and five touchdowns in just seven games last season) and total skill set, and he projects very well as a No. 1 receiver. He'd have to wait a while for a No. 1 quarterback if the Browns take him, but this passing offense has to start somewhere.
13. ARIK ARMSTEAD, DE
RS Junior, Oregon
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis amassed an extra first-round pick later in this draft when he traded tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks for the 31st overall pick and center Max Unger, a move that seemed to signal a changing of the guards in New Orleans. Loomis has said that in 2015 the formerly high-flying Saints will rely more on a balanced offensive attack and a better defense, and the latter is much-needed. Armstead would be a very compelling fit in Rob Ryan's defense, because he's a huge lineman (6’7”, 292 pounds) who can play multiple positions with great athleticism. He's young and raw, but as the Saints may not be competing for a division title anytime soon, it's as good a time as any to develop some seriously talented players. Armstead would certainly qualify.
14. BUD DUPREE, OLB/DE
The Dolphins obviously made a major splash when they signed Ndamukong Suh, but things are a bit murkier at linebacker. Dannell Ellerbe was traded to New Orleans, and Philip Wheeler was released. Koa Misi is still on board, but what the Dolphins really need to improve the second wave of their defense is a player who can not only rush the passer, but also cover screens and curl/flat stuff. Dupree hit the national map when he ran a 4.56 40 with a 1.60 10-yard split at the scouting combine—not half-bad for a 6’4”, 269-pound individual—but it's his versatility that will make him stick and stay in the NFL. Dupree has the capability to blitz off the edge on one play, and cover a slot receiver on the very next.
15. DANNY SHELTON, DT
The 49ers are obviously going through the biggest off-season turnover of 2015. And though the team's linebacker depth has been completely scuttled by injuries and retirements, it's up-front where great defenses are built—and re-built. Justin Smith may very well be done with a career that should put him in the Hall of Fame, and though the 49ers took a flyer on Darnell Dockett, it's time to replenish that line with youth, intensity and power. Shelton brings all three—he played as high as 360 pounds for the Huskies as a two-gap nose tackle, but he's got some pass-rush ability, and he can roam to either sideline with surprising speed. And when he's on, he's just about impossible to block up the middle, even when he's double-teamed.
16. TODD GURLEY, RB
The Texans won't be in a position to grab one of the two potentially great quarterbacks in this class unless they trade up, which leaves them with the uninspiring duo of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Bill O'Brien's team probably won't win the AFC South with a couple of former Patriots’ backups as the main men, so the idea may be to lead with the defense and run game. Arian Foster ran for 1,246 yards last season, but he'll be 29 in August, and O'Brien has talked about managing Foster's workload. Add in the fact that Foster is due $12.5 million in base salary over the next two seasons, and it might be time for a different tack. Gurley's 2014 season was waylaid by an NCAA suspension and a serious knee injury, but he's worth the risk on that latter concern—when healthy, he may be the best overall player in this draft class. He's a truly transcendent runner with power, speed and balance.
17. T.J. CLEMMINGS, OT
RS Senior, Pittsburgh
** Projected trade with Chargers ** If Tennessee trades down to 17, they'll still have their pick of some very talented offensive linemen, which would appear to be the team's primary need right now. Last year, rookie Taylor Lewan looked better and better until a high-ankle sprain ended his season five games early. So, the left side is covered, but the release of Michael Oher leaves a hole on the right edge. Clemmings would be an interesting fit here—he played defensive end his first three years at Pitt, but switched to the offensive line in 2013, and though he still needs technique work, he's got everything it takes to dominate at the next level.
18. Jaelen Strong, WR
RS Junior, Arizona State
The Chiefs paid former Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin a whole lot of money ($55 million with $22.5 million over five years) to be their speed receiver, something the franchise needs very badly after enjoying exactly zero touchdowns from their receivers in 2014. And with Dwayne Bowe off to Cleveland, there's a need for a reliable possession receiver—something that head coach Andy Reid requires in his West Coast offense. Strong would be a great match for this system—he's big (6’2”, 217 pounds), he understands route concepts, and his catch radius was successfully tested by Arizona State's sub-par quarterback situation last season. Strong caught 157 passes for 2,287 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two seasons; in an efficient offense, he could be even more productive.
19. MALCOLM BROWN, DT
(Pick via Buffalo) The Browns have had two first-round picks in two different drafts since 2012—safe to say, things haven't gone so well between Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert. The aforementioned DeVante Parker pick could start to turn that around, and Brown might be a great addition to a defensive line that's already pretty strong with Phil Taylor and Randy Starks on the inside. But Starks is 31 and Taylor is in the last year of his contract. Brown would fit in Mike Pettine's defense because he can penetrate and stop the run from one- and two-gap positions, giving the Browns some serious versatility.
20. MARCUS PETERS, CB
RS Junior, Washington
Byron Maxwell certainly was paid like a No. 1 cornerback—the former Seahawk got $63 million with $25 million guaranteed to bolster Philly's anemic secondary. Even if Maxwell lives up to that deal, he'll need a bookend, and the Eagles are trying to find the right fit. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are gone, Brandon Boykin is a slot corner, and guys like E.J. Biggers and Walter Thurmond probably aren't going to get the job done. Peters may very well be the best cornerback in this draft class, and he'd most likely be a top-15 pick were it not for the issues with Washington's coaching staff that got him kicked off the team in 2014. Peters then went back to Oakland, thought it all through, apologized to his former coaches and was invited to participate in Washington's pro day. That put a lot of concerns to rest and pushed the focus back to Peters's game tape—which, for any team looking to add an aggressive press cornerback to its roster, should be sufficiently impressive.
21. LA'EL COLLINS, OT
Though the Bengals definitely need help on their defensive line, there are two contracts coming up soon on the other side of the ball that will need addressing. Both left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith are in the last years of their current contracts. Whitworth will be 34 in December, and Smith gave up four sacks in nine games before a torn triceps ended his season. Collins would be an excellent addition to the Bengals' frontline—he's just the kind of powerful and consistent blocker this franchise likes, and if the team is able to re-up both Whitworth and Smith in the next year, Collins could also be an outstanding guard.
22. KEVIN JOHNSON, CB
RS Senior, Wake Forest
So much has changed in Pittsburgh's defense this off-season—both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu announced their retirements after a season in which neither player was at his best. Now, the need is for a top-line cornerback to put the Steelers' defensive efforts forward. Brice McCain signed with the Dolphins, making that need even more prominent. Johnson isn't the most well-known of the cornerbacks in this draft class, but he started 41 games for the Demon Deacons and splits his time very effectively between coverage and run-stopping.
23. MELVIN GORDON, RB
RS Junior, Wisconsin
Running back may not be the most prominent need on the Lions' docket—there are issues on both lines and at cornerback—but if Jim Caldwell's team could add Gordon to that offense, it could turn a lot of things around. Detroit has been a heavy passing team for years, and Joique Bell led the Lions with just 860 yards on the ground in 2014. Gordon led the nation with 2,587 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns last season, also lapping the field in yards from scrimmage. Power is part of Gordon's game, but it's his versatility and consistency that would make him a perfect fit in this offense.
24. SHAQ THOMPSON, LB
In 2014, Arizona lost their two inside linebackers to free agency (Karlos Dansby) and suspension (Daryl Washington), and it really affected that defense. Dansby and Washington had the ability to roam the entire field, freeing up other defenders to get things done. With that missing last season, Arizona's defense suffered. Thompson would bring a lot of that back, because he's enough of a thumper to hold the action at linebacker depth, but agile enough that some experts see him as a super-sized safety at the NFL level.
25. Andrus Peat, OT
Ron Rivera's team has taken the NFC South two years in a row, though last year's 7-8-1 mark was nothing to write home about. If the Panthers are to get past the divisional frame of the playoffs, though, they're going to need to step it up on the offensive line. Last year, Byron Bell gave up nine sacks and 52 total pressures as the team's left tackle, third-worst in the league. In the off-season, Carolina took flyers on Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin, two tackles who are more prominent for off-field storylines than anything else. Peat took Martin's spot as Stanford's left tackle, and he's a more impressive player—tremendous in pass blocking, and with the kind of skill set this franchise desperately needs to move forward.
26. LANDON COLLINS, S
When Ozzie Newsome took Matt Elam in the first round of the 2013 draft, the idea was that Elam would be Baltimore's long-term answer at strong safety. So far, that hasn't happened—Elam was benched for a time last year, and ended up playing as much slot corner as anything else. Collins would provide a far more definitive answer at the position—not only does he understand the run-chasing responsibilities of the strong safety position, but he can also cover well enough to be an interchangeable safety when the need arises.
27. OWAMAGBE ODIGHIZUWA, DE/OLB
RS Senior, UCLA
After years of misguided draft strategies and flashpot free agents, the Cowboys have turned things around with a new paradigm of positional understanding and discipline. The rewards have shown on the field, but there's still a need for a top-flight pass-rusher for Rod Marinelli's defense. Unlike a lot of edge rushers in this class, Odighizuwa brings a bit more weight to the position along with estimable speed. He hits blockers with heavy hands, and appears to be the ideal fit for any team needing pressure out of a four-man base front.
28. JORDAN PHILLIPS, DT
RS Junior, Oklahoma
The Broncos made one of the best free-agent moves this off-season, and it wasn't a player acquistion—it happened when they hired Wade Phillips to replace Jack Del Rio as their defensive coordinator. Phillips likes to run a 3–4 base defense just like his dad Bum did back in the day, though he'll put his outside linebackers up a lot in what looks to be more of a one-gap 5–2 front. To that end, Phillips requires a nose tackle who can penetrate as much as he sops up blocks. At 6’5” and 321 pounds, Jordan Phillips is a bit heavier than the ideal Wade Phillips nose tackle, but with his agility, that's not a problem. He'd be an ideal epicenter for a defense that is on the way up.
29. Preston Smith, DE
Senior, Mississippi State
Some may see Smith as a bit of a reach here—he's projected as a second-round guy in a lot of mocks and big boards—but he fits what the Colts want to do in a lot of ways. Indianapolis's defensive line has failed to consistently impress over the last couple seasons despite the best efforts of all involved, and coach Chuck Pagano appreciates versatile linemen who can move all along the front. Smith put up nine sacks last season, but he isn't an edge rusher per se—he's a bit slow off the snap at times. But he's great against the run, and he can also kick inside to three- and one-tech depending on the situation. He's a player whose best days are still to come.
30. ERIC ROWE, CB
Green Bay's secondary has been a relative bastion of stability in recent years, but that changed drastically when the team lost Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency. Rowe would be a nice fit for the Packers because he's played corner and safety at a high level, and Dom Capers likes defensive backs who can switch positions, going back to the Charles Woodson days.
31. Devin Funchess, WR/TE
(Pick via Seattle) Jimmy Graham: Gone. Kenny Stills: Gone. Marques Colston: Nearing the end of his career. Rookie Brandin Cooks: Coming back from an injury and limited to 10 games in a productive rookie season. If you're Drew Brees, you may be wondering what the heck happened to all your targets. And because the Saints learned the value of a big target in the seam through the Graham era, they'd do well to replace that model as early in the draft as possible. Funchess fits the bill—at 6’4” and 232 pounds, he's big, fast and aggressive enough to keep that advantage going in New Orleans. Some teams project him as a hybrid tight end, and he'd most likely play that role in New Orleans—especially in the red zone.
32. BYRON JONES, CB
RS Senior, Connecticut
So ... after winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots lost Darrelle Revis (opposing quarterback rating allowed: 72.6), essentially replacing him with former Eagles burn victim Bradley Fletcher (opposing quarterback rating allowed: 107.6, with nine touchdowns allowed). Losing Brandon Browner as well puts Bill Belichick in a bit of a pinch. Jones aced all the tests at the combine, but his real value lies in his press ability and his work against the run. Those are required attributes for Belichick, who calls as much man defense as any coach in the league.