Draft season has come early for at least a handful of underachieving franchises—there's just no easy way back from a 1–4 or 0–5 start.
Our latest mock draft takes a survey of the landscape, the aim being to start establishing a general idea of what teams may need come April combined with where prospects may currently stand in the NFL's eyes. It will be easier to narrow down both of those elements the closer we get to the draft, so consider this a starting point.
The draft order used for this mock is a rough approximation based on current records and teams’ strength of schedules, as laid out by PlayoffStatus.com. Things obviously will change, often, before the end of the year.
Also, a quick reminder that the Patriots no longer hold a 2016 first-round selection, due to the punishment handed down by the league in the deflated-footballs situation.
Got all that? Good. Here we go.
1. Robert Nkemdiche, DT
Junior, Ole Miss
Close call here between Nkemdiche and Joey Bosa, but the presence of rising star Ziggy Ansah tips the scale toward Nkemdiche's interior presence. The Lions lost Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley last off-season; it's possible they could see Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker depart this coming year in free agency. As was the case with Suh several years ago, Detroit could craft its defense around Nkemdiche moving forward.
2. Joey Bosa, DE
Junior, Ohio State
Bosa (6'6", 275 pounds) can dominate off the edge or by sliding inside, which would open up a world of possibilities for Gus Bradley (assuming he's still there next season). Now, just imagine Bosa and 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler both joining the Jaguars' ranks up front next season.
3. Jalen Ramsey, DB
Junior, Florida State
Other than the obvious reason—his top-shelf talent—Ramsey's potential to play either cornerback or safety at the next level will be instrumental in pushing him up the board. Baltimore has Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis in at safety, but its secondary continues to be ineffective and injury-plagued. Ramsey could start just about anywhere he is needed.
4. Jared Goff, QB
The Texans passed on Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Derek Carr in the 2014 draft, and they didn’t get a shot at either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston this past April. No more waiting. Goff just had what he called “the worst game of my life,” a five-INT nightmare at Utah, but he remains the top QB prospect. Even in that 30–24 loss, he flashed plenty of ability. How he responds to adversity will be telling.
5. Laquon Treadwell, WR
Junior, Ole Miss
Brandin Cooks continues to develop, and the Saints may have struck gold in Willie Snead. They still need a big body to complement that duo, and Marques Colston, who turns 33 next June, no longer qualifies. Treadwell (6'2", 229) is all the way back from his gruesome 2014 leg injury. He absolutely bullies opposing cornerbacks, with a physical game ready-made for the NFL.
6. Ronnie Stanley, OT
Senior, Notre Dame
Teams have two options when a high draft pick flops, as Eric Fisher has done: wait for him to come around, often to the team's detriment, or accept the loss and move on. (In fairness, Fisher actually has been better as a right tackle this season, but Donald Stephenson is reeling on the left.) Stanley is an impressive, quick-footed tackle who could help erase the Fisher misstep.
7. Jaylon Smith, LB
Junior, Notre Dame
The NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah compared Smith to Patrick Willis, which would be music to 49ers’ fans ears. Even if that is setting the bar extremely high, there is no question that Smith could be an impact NFL defender. He can be a touch slow off the snap, but he erases any deficit with his closing speed.
8. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB
With their franchise quarterback in place, the Titans should be wholly focused on a best-player-available approach. Hargreaves is a potential top-five pick (some have him ahead of Ramsey), so he fits the bill. Tennessee has a couple nice pieces at CB, notably Jason McCourty when he's healthy, but Hargreaves instantly would ascend to the top of the depth chart.
9. Laremy Tunsil, OT
Junior, Ole Miss
We have yet to see Tunsil this season because of his possible involvement with an agent, but the NFL still views him as a potential top-10 talent. He is a nasty presence at tackle. Miami could use one—Branden Albert has struggled to stay healthy this season, and Ja'Wuan James moving inside to guard would help solve issues there.
10. DeForest Buckner, DE
The Bears almost have no choice but to load up on defenders in the '16 draft. The 6'7", 290-pound Buckner is about as good as they come in college football right now at setting an edge against the run. While his performance has not been on par with Nkemdiche, Buckner is not far off in terms of a size-athleticism combo. And that's saying a lot.
11. Tyler Boyd, WR
Tavon Austin's long-awaited emergence as a playmaker aside, the Rams are still lacking any receivers who really scare defenses outside. Boyd (6'2", 190) can win in the air or catch and run. Better yet, he will enter the NFL as a relatively polished route-runner, which would put him in line to contribute early.
12. Su'a Cravens, S/LB
Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and Chris Conte make up the current rotation at safety. There must be a talent infusion there if the Bucs are to improve dramatically on defense. Cravens is a safety/linebacker hybrid who can provide three-down help lined up just about anywhere in the back seven.
13. Taylor Decker, OT
Senior, Ohio State
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch's productivity (not to mention Thomas Rawls in Week 5) is even more impressive when one considers that the O-line is a sieve. And the best member of that line, the oft-injured Russell Okung, has an expiring contract. Decker would help the rebuild.
14. Shawn Oakman, DT
RS Senior, Baylor
The Browns still cannot stop the run with any degree of consistency. If those problems still lingered with the 335-pound Danny Shelton and Oakman's imposing 280 pounds paired together along the line, there might not be any answers. Oakman seems destined for a 3–4 five-tech spot.
15. Leonard Floyd, OLB
Khalil Mack has had no trouble shifting from outside linebacker to a DE role this season, and Aldon Smith has added needed support in the rush. Add in Floyd as a permanent strong-side defender, and the Raiders would be vicious against both the run and pass.
16. Myles Jack, LB
The Vikings are 2-for-2 drafting UCLA linebackers of late in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. May as well shoot for the hat trick. Jack should be back from his knee injury in time for the 2016 season, and he would round out Minnesota's LB corps well as a weak-side option. There would not be a more athletic grouping in the league.
17. Connor Cook, QB
RS Senior, Michigan State
Sam Bradford is starting to show signs of clicking with the Chip Kelly offense. He’s also still a pending free agent. Extending his contract beyond 2015, however, should not preclude the Eagles from taking a QB to mold as their future starter. Cook boasts size and NFL-caliber arm strength—watch some of the throws he makes outside the hashes—with enough mobility to roll the pocket for Kelly.
18. A'Shawn Robinson, DT
Washington is rolling rather deep with veterans up front: Jason Hatcher, Terrance Knighton, Kedric Gholston and Stephen Paea among them. The outstanding, 312-pound Robinson would give them a future anchor who can line up on the nose or at DE in a 3–4 set.
19. Darron Lee, OLB
Sophomore, Ohio State
Back-to-back Buckeyes. This is one where you almost don't worry about the exact fit or how the depth chart presently shapes up, because the talent level is so high. San Diego has drafted Manti Te'o and Denzel Perryman in recent years. Lee is a superior athlete to both. He closes in a hurry off the edge, but his instincts could make him an inside 3–4 fit.
20. Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Junior, Ohio State
Almost too obvious a fit at this point. The Cowboys still have a dominant offensive line, yet they're lacking a running back who can churn out yards behind it. Elliott is the best the 2016 class has to offer. He can play on three downs, too, as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
21. Vadal Alexander, G/T
For all the hand-wringing when the Colts passed on D-line help in favor of Phillip Dorsett, GM Ryan Grigson did score value selections in David Parry and Henry Anderson. His next task: Beef up the offensive line in front of Andrew Luck. Alexander is a punishing blocker with experience at both guard and tackle, though he projects as more of an impact player at the former.
22. Tre'Davious White, CB
It was commonplace last mock draft season to pair the Steelers up with a cornerback. They eventually took one (Senquez Golson in round 2), and then he quickly landed on injured reserve. The position still stands out as a trouble spot. White is a dynamic cover man, something this defense badly needs.
23. Jack Conklin, OT
RS Junior, Michigan State
Cook's blindside protector, Conklin eventually could be in for a move to right tackle or even guard. Both spots need a boost in Buffalo. As is to be expected coming out of Michigan State's scheme, Conklin is a menacing run blocker and has done an exceptional job keeping Cook clean.
24. Kenny Clark, DT
The Giants have done a decent job piecing together their Jason Pierre-Paul-less front early this season. They will be looking to restock it in the off-season, and Clark should be a rookie starter. He has taken charge of the Bruins' front this year, often overpowering opponents.
25. Jordan Jenkins, OLB
Jenkins and Floyd together can be a nightmare for the opposition. On his own, Jenkins has a bright NFL future. The 6'3", 252-pounder has 18.0 career sacks and 37.5 tackles for loss, spending time both as a stand-up linebacker and with his hand in the dirt. He'd fit in nicely on a Todd Bowles defense.
26. Adolphus Washington, DT
Senior, Ohio State
Washington (6'4", 288) has bounced around on the Buckeyes’ line, thriving pretty much wherever the coaching staff wants him. As an NFL prospect, he absolutely will appeal to 3–4 teams as a versatile end. Calais Campbell's contract is up after 2016; even if he stays in Arizona, it never hurts to have depth.
27. Kendall Fuller, CB
Junior, Virginia Tech
As is the case with Jack, Fuller's 2015 season ended with a knee injury. Unlike Jack, who already has left school to train for the draft, it's unclear if Fuller will turn pro. Don't expect him to fall far if he does (and is healthy). The Panthers would be awfully tough to pass against with Fuller and Josh Norman together.
28. Sheldon Day, DT
Senior, Notre Dame
Day's game might be slightly redundant in Cincinnati since Geno Atkins is so dominant from the three-tech spot. That said, part of Day's appeal comes from his comfort level attacking a variety of gaps. Another playmaker inside, lined up next to Atkins, would only bolster the Bengals' D further.
29. Michael Thomas, WR
RS Junior, Ohio State
Granted, the Falcons are more likely to keep adding pieces on defense. Thomas, at No. 30, would be tough to pass up. Roddy White (eight receptions this season) reportedly is unhappy with his role in the passing attack, and Leonard Hankerson is best suited as a No. 3 receiver. So that leaves space for another downfield threat. Thomas is deadly.
30. Cody Whitehair, G/T
RS Junior, Kansas State
Whitehair fits the Packers' mold in that he's a player who could help right out of the gate if need be and has the look of a long-term starter down the road. He used to play guard for the Wildcats before kicking out and handling left tackle duties.
31. Cardale Jones, QB
RS Junior, Ohio State
May as well push all the chips to the center. Jones has been inconsistent, at best, after deciding to stick at Ohio State. His upside is unavoidable nonetheless, and there will be a long list of teams kicking the tires should he turn pro after 2015. Why Denver? Well, Brock Osweiler stands as the potential heir apparent to Peyton Manning, but are the Broncos sold? Jones’s skill set would look quite intriguing within a Gary Kubiak offense that desires a QB who can roll out and stretch the field vertically.