In his latest mock, SI's NFL Draft expert Chris Burke considers how free agency shook up the list of draft needs.
Free agency shook up the list of draft needs, both for teams who made a splash signing big-ticket players and those who lost starters in the past week.
The clock is ticking—just 43 days (and counting) remain until the Titans go on the clock in Chicago. How does Round 1 shape up as we hit the midpoint of March?
The Titans may find ample reasons to pass on Tunsil here, but a slight uptick in performance by Taylor Lewan is not one of them. A team needs two stalwart tackles, now more than ever, and Tunsil could be a generational talent. Plus, here is what Mike Mularkey said at the combine about Lewan when asked if the 2014 first-rounder could go to right tackle: “I think Taylor can play in a lot of places. He’s a very good football player. I could see that, if that was ever a scenario that came up.” Sounds like Tennessee might already be planning a move.
The Browns landing Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t necessarily rule them out of drafting a QB, but it would scream rather loudly that they do not plan to do so at pick No. 2. Not having a quarterback can shift a team’s draft board out of desperation, but the strength at the top of this class is on defense. Ramsey can be a legitimate game-changer.
DeForest Buckner had been the choice here of late, but I never really loved the idea. Why? Because it was going mostly off fit, as opposed to taking the best player (at least as I have them ranked). When a franchise is sitting in the top five, the goal should be to maximize talent and then scheme around it. Forget about a 3-4 or 4-3 front here—just get Bosa on the field and let him chase the quarterback.
With Bosa off the board, this pick boils down to three main options: Myles Jack, Ezekiel Elliott or trade down with a team that wants a quarterback. The Cowboys might be tempted by Elliott but letting DeMarco Murray walk and then getting 1,000 yards out of Darren McFadden helped back the theory that their O-line—not their starting RB—is the real star. Even with Rolando McClain returning, the Cowboys could find room to let Jack’s versatility shine.
With Tunsil, Ramsey, Bosa and Jack all off the board, this is a nightmare scenario for Jacksonville. The Jaguars are crossing their fingers a QB goes in the top four, so one of those top defenders is available here. (An interesting pitch from Twitter on this scenario: Jacksonville just takes a QB itself, then shops him later, sort of NBA draft style.) So, now what? Lawson? Buckner? Vernon Hargreaves? Pencil in the top outside pass rusher of the three.
Whereas the Jaguars would be mortified to see the top five fall like this, the Ravens would have to love finding Buckner at No. 6. They need an upgrade on their pass rush, but from the D-line as well as at OLB. Buckner produced 10.5 sacks last season at Oregon and is a natural fit as a 3-4 end.
Maybe all the recent drama ends with Colin Kaepernick deciding to give Chip Kelly’s offense a try. Put that on the “long shots” list for the moment, though. If Kelly can’t have Kaepernick, allowing him to handpick a new QB should be a priority. Goff’s game needs some refinement, but he is close to NFL-ready with the footwork to succeed in the 49ers’ new scheme.
It’s easy enough to drop Elliott at this spot—the Eagles likely had someone in mind when they moved up as part of their recent trade with Miami, and Elliott is a top-five talent in this class. But Stanley also won’t slip far behind this. Philadelphia has to make plans for Jason Peters’s eventual departure, whether it comes this year or in the near future.
Brent Grimes boosts an underwhelming cornerback core, but keep in mind that he’ll be 33 in July. Also don’t overlook how little else the Buccaneers have at the position, thanks to Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks’s collective struggles and the free agencies of Sterling Moore and Mike Jenkins. Hargreaves can become a No. 1 option outside; he's already a potential No. 2 with the footwork to slide down over the slot.
The Giants haven’t taken a Round 1 linebacker in more than three decades and they do not really prioritize running back as a premium need. Of course they usually don’t spend $200-plus million on their D-line so ... who knows. This could be the Elliott landing spot; it could be where Reggie Ragland or a pass-rushing LB like Noah Spence/Leonard Floyd land. This mock, it’s Treadwell, whose physical game would translate to the NFL and whose knack for blocking would help the rushing attack.
Plug holes through free agency, draft the best available player. That’s a ticket for success in the NFL when executed properly, as Chicago GM Ryan Pace appears to be doing. The Bears still have needs but they’re not in do-or-die territory anywhere. With Alexander, Spence and Elliott all there for the taking, they nab the potential lock-down corner.
Hau’oli Kikaha flashed noticeable upside last season and Cam Jordan was a 10-sack performer, but the Saints still need another pass rusher. Spence would leapfrog the likes of Obum Gwachum and Davis Tull on the depth chart, at once upgrading the New Orleans’ attack and giving it more chances to come in waves.
Part of this is that, for as much as the Dolphins like Jay Ajayi, the offense could use an impact back to replace Lamar Miller. Part of it is that Elliott would be an utter theft at 13. Adam Gase loves to involve his running backs in the passing game, and Elliott is a brilliant three-down talent.
While Oakland has made great strides upgrading its front seven, it remains shy of a MIKE thumper—Curtis Lofton didn’t cut it there. Ragland has produced up and down workouts from the Senior Bowl through Alabama’s pro day, but his game-day skill working inside is undeniable.
At some point during our flurry of mocks, we’ll pitch a few trade proposals, one of which no doubt will include Los Angeles moving into the top 10 for Wentz. With that in mind, Wentz continues to be the call at 15. He has impressed repeatedly in press conference and interviews, and his game is ready made for an NFL staff to develop it.
The Lions re-signed Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, added Stefan Charles and tried to scoop up Akiem Hicks, too. They should still be in the market for a draftable DT, but have made far less progress solving their O-line dilemmas. Decker may not move Riley Reiff from left tackle. He would offer a permanent solution on the right side.
Fallout from the early free-agency window has shifted some focus on the Giants’ No. 10 selection to Lee, a rangy playmaker who could thrive behind New York’s remade line. The Falcons have even more need for him. They are painfully shy of athleticism in the second level.
The Colts ranked 25th against the run last season, with blame to go around. David Parry and Henry Anderson, both 2015 draft picks, did provide some hope up front. Add in Robinson, a run-stuffer capable of lining up anywhere from nose to five-tech, and the Colts might be in business.
Rex Ryan covets interchangeable parts up front, players he can move around so as to vary the looks he’s giving an offense. Hence Rankins’s consistent presence in the 19 hole. The “undersized” 299-pound tackle butchered college linemen, from centers to guards to tackles.
Because he runs so light (244 pounds), the 6-foot-6 Floyd could slide if teams decide he is not capable of providing help outside of on third downs. Those with a little better vision will see a unique talent at an important position. Bank on the Jets, with creative defensive mind Todd Bowles patrolling the sidelines, to fall in the latter category.
As is becoming the norm with draft prospects, it’s difficult to pin one specific role on Billings. Calling him a “nose tackle” brings to mind visions of a hulking, space-eating presence with limited mobility. Billings hardly fits that description. He can stand up to blockers, but his main selling points are in his penetrating quickness and his effective efforts going side to side.
Quarterback was the obvious fit here, until the Texans signed Brock Osweiler. The offensive line also has been cleaned up with guard Jeff Allen arriving and swing tackle Chris Clark re-signing. So that leaves running back and wide receiver as potential trouble spots. The value here is at WR, and with Doctson in particular. He would make some huge plays with defenses worried about DeAndre Hopkins.
A more exciting selection would be the Vikings taking Doctson (as in previous mocks, though off the board here) or another standout receiver like Corey Coleman or Michael Thomas. Conklin could help more. Can the Vikings count on Matt Kalil or Phil Loadholt long-term? Do they believe in T.J. Clemmings? If the answer is no on either of those questions, they need a tackle.
I’m as much at fault as anyone, but there has been a surprising lack of Round 1 love for Shepard thus far. It is probably because he profiles more as a slot guy (5’ 10”, 194 pounds) than a true No. 1. But he deserves to be in this range because of how dominant he can be there, as a polished weapon with dazzling open-field abilities. The Bengals just lost Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They recoup a lot of versatility in this selection.
Repeating a point here: Teams picking toward the end of Round 1 have more leeway to chase a need than those at the top, as the rosters in the 20s tend to be competitive already. When a roster hole aligns with a best-player-available approach, magic can happen. That’s the case at 25, as the Steelers nab Butler—legitimately, a top-15 caliber player—to anchor their defensive line.
His physicality may make Garnett more of a man-blocking fit. His consistent work pulling and getting to the second level provided evidence that Garnett can move well enough to excel as a zone blocker, too. Either way, Garnett has emerged as arguably the top guard in this class and the Seahawks must improve in the trenches.
Even with B.J. Raji opting for retirement, the Packers still have enough bodies up front to survive. That does not mean, however, that they would (or should) pass on Reed, an early-down wrecking ball. There may not be as many questions about the Packers’ inside linebackers if the defensive line can put up more resistance.
When he has an opportunity to play a physical game, right up in a receiver’s face, Jackson is as good as any cornerback this draft. He has areas to work on elsewhere—footwork when he doesn’t get that initial jam, for one—but nothing that should stop Kansas City from making him Sean Smith’s replacement. Ohio State’s Eli Apple would fit the bill, too.
This selection was set to be Oklahoma State DE/OLB Emmanuel Ogbah until the Cardinals pulled off a trade for Chandler Jones. As part of that deal, they reportedly will ship out 2013 draft bust Jonathan Cooper, who was ticketed for a move to center this coming season. Kelly is a far superior option and without question worthy of Round 1 consideration. Bruce Arians would love his smarts and his attitude.
You may have noticed Dodd jumping all over the board in our mocks. The reason: Unlike several other possible Round 1 options, Dodd strikes me as a 4-3 DE only. His new team, should it run a 3-4, may disagree and see what he can do as an OLB. In Carolina, his role would be clear—a promising edge presence and immediate help on passing downs, with room to develop.
Will the Broncos have Colin Kaepernick on their roster by late April? Ryan Fitzpatrick? Another QB? If not, they should be looking to add at the position. The variable in the mix then would become how they view Mark Sanchez. If they see him as someone who can handle the starting job for a year, Lynch—a high-ceiling prospect who needs time to develop—would be the favorite. If not, Connor Cook—a more NFL-ready option—should jump to the front of the line.
A reminder before we wrap up: Taking a player in Round 1 guarantees a team (if it wants it) five years of contract control, via the fifth-year option. Ideally, a pick will outperform his contract before that, necessitating an extension. But if we’re talking about taking a quarterback and letting him sit for a year or two, that option year can become huge. So, if Lynch and Cook are on the board late, expect trade action.