With April Fools’ Day just two days away, what better time to roll out my first mock draft of 2016, because there’s always the potential that the joke’s on the one who does the mocking. At the moment the focus is, as always, on the first-round quarterbacks. Despite Robert Griffin III’s arrival in Cleveland and Colin Kaepernick’s continued presence in San Francisco, I still have the Browns and 49ers spending their top-10 picks on a quarterback of the future.
There’s still four weeks and a day before the draft begins on the night of April 28 in Chicago, and that’s plenty of time for things to change and the stock of prospects to rise or fall. But in a draft that holds few certainties, here’s our best stab at how things will unfold in the first round. As always, your results may vary....
1. Laremy Tunsil
OT, Ole Miss
The Titans are making it clear they’re willing to deal out of the top spot, but I’m not expecting anyone to be motivated enough to swing that type of blockbuster. (It has been 15 years since the most recent pre-draft trade involved a No. 1 pick, with Atlanta dealing with San Diego and taking Michael Vick in 2001). So it’s Tunsil for all the obvious reasons, given that protecting quarterback Marcus Mariota and featuring a grinding run game are Tennessee’s top priorities. The Titans are in position to become the first team since the ’09–10 Rams to pick at No. 2 one year and follow it up with the first overall selection the ensuing year. St. Louis took offensive tackle Jason Smith at No. 2 in ’09, and then quarterback Sam Bradford at No. 1 in ’10. Neither choice panned out for the Rams, and the Titans have to be hoping their quarterback-tackle tandem fares considerably better.
2. Jared Goff
With the short-term services of Robert Griffin III secured, perhaps the Browns will be tempted to take a non-quarterback (Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey?) and hope that either Connor Cook or Paxton Lynch are quarterback options at No. 32. But I’m not ready to buy that scenario just yet, because Griffin is such an unknown at this point in his short but eventful career. The Goff versus Carson Wentz debate has weeks and weeks to rage, but for now, given the track record of how long Browns head coaches last, I’d be looking for the most pro-ready passer if I were Hue Jackson. And that’s thought to be Goff.
3. Jalen Ramsey
S, Florida State
Landing an elite prospect for the defensive line would be an easy call to make, with Oregon’s DeForest Buckner and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa still on the board. But Ramsey might wind up being the best player this draft has to offer, and with veteran safety Eric Weddle taking his talents to Baltimore, Ramsey would fill a need in the secondary no matter where he lines up.
4. DeForest Buckner
Can’t see the Cowboys, with all their defensive needs, going quarterback at No. 4, no matter how much Dallas knows it needs a succession plan for its post-Tony Romo era. With Randy Gregory suspended for the first four games of 2016, and Greg Hardy having earned his persona non grata status, the Cowboys are borderline desperate for some instant impact on the defensive line. Buckner is one of the draft’s more versatile and proven talents.• BURKE's BIG BOARD: NFL Draft’s Top 100 players
5. Myles Jack
Adding Jack, a sideline-to-sideline playmaker who can stay on the field no matter the situation, would render Jacksonville’s defense as the most improved unit in the NFL this off-season, combined with the Jaguars’ strong work in free agency. If Jacksonville hits with this pick, you’d have to think its days of owning a top-five selection should be over for the foreseeable future.
6. Joey Bosa
DE, Ohio State
Baltimore would love this scenario, given that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti just last week said his team needs to land some younger pass rushers to supplement the heat brought by the likes of veterans Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. But Baltimore also could be on the move downward in the round, with teams like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles perhaps angling to get to No. 6 to take the top-rated quarterback available, be it Carson Wentz or Jared Goff.
7. Carson Wentz
QB, North Dakota State
We should know Colin Kaepernick’s fate for 2016 by the end of the week, and whether his $11.9 million salary gets guaranteed on the 49ers’ books for this season. But with Blaine Gabbert around to hold down the fort for a year, San Francisco still should be thinking of the long term at quarterback. And that means heading in the direction of either Wentz or Goff, with the luxury of giving them some time to develop. Again, if the 49ers sense they’re going to miss out on both quarterbacks, they will have to be willing to move up to get their man.
8. Ezekiel Elliott
RB, Ohio State
With Jason Peters toward the end of his career, the Eagles certainly have need for an offensive tackle like Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley. But Elliott is a tantalizing option who can do everything you ask a running back to do, and do it well. He’d give the Eagles a home run threat in the backfield and help take the pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford. After Todd Gurley’s rookie success last season with the Rams, taking a running back in the top 10 is no longer heresy.• KING: The X-factors at the top of the draft
9. Vernon Hargreaves
In a division where the Bucs do battle six times a season with the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, taking the top-rated cornerback in the draft is almost always the right play. While the Bucs added veteran cover man Brent Grimes in free agency, you can never have enough corners in today’s pass-first NFL. The Bucs might be sitting ninth in a draft that goes about eight elite players deep, but they will have nothing to complain about if they come away with Hargreaves.
10. Ronnie Stanley
OT, Notre Dame
It’s not the sexiest pick, and the Giants are probably hoping that Elliott falls to the 10 spot. But an old-school approach works for New York, especially after going on that huge defensive spending spree in free agency. Stanley is a top-10 talent and he’d help solidify one of the Giants’ weakest links in recent years. With Stanley and last year’s first-rounder Ereck Flowers on board, new head coach Ben McAdoo should have his tackle combination established for years to come, and that helps out Eli Manning’s game.
11. Jack Conklin
OT, Michigan State
The Bears could go in a few different directions, taking a cornerback or getting the run started at this draft’s deep defensive tackle position. But Conklin upgrades the entire line in a way that the Bobby Massie signing in free agency can’t match, and landing Conklin gives Chicago the ability to move Kyle Long back to guard, where he’s more of a natural fit.
12. Darron Lee
LB, Ohio State
The Saints signing ex-Ram Nick Fairley to a one-year low-budget deal doesn’t preclude them from addressing defensive tackle in the first round, but for now I’m giving them Lee, whose strong combine showing helped raise his grade into the top half of the first round. New Orleans added James Laurinaitis and Craig Robertson in free agency, but they’re inside linebackers, and Lee has the potential to be an elite three-down playmaker on the outside.
13. Shaq Lawson
As the Broncos again showed us in the AFC title game, the way you beat Tom Brady is with a relentless pass rush. Miami signed Mario Williams and re-secured Cameron Wake, but Lawson adds some youth and speed off the edge, and that’s a winning combination. Cornerback is still a need as well, because Byron Maxwell’s addition and Brent Grimes’s departure isn’t a game-changer for the Dolphins’ secondary.
14. Mackensie Alexander
There’s some variance of opinion on whether Alexander grades out in the top half of the round, and some draft analysts seem to consider him a second-round prospect with less than ideal size. But his press-man cover skills are top-notch, and even with the Sean Smith signing, the Raiders could use more cornerback options in an AFC West that still features some quality veteran quarterbacks, even without Peyton Manning being in Denver.• ALL-22: Mackenzie Alexander dissects his film
15. Paxton Lynch
Lynch to the Rams has become a popular mock pick, and if it came true, I know it would make his L.A.-based agent Leigh Steinberg a very, very happy man. In reality, this is more of a projection than some of my other picks, because I don’t think the Rams are to the point in their scouting where they know enough about Lynch to know if he’s their guy. But that research is ongoing, and he makes for an intriguing possibility. Lynch with the Rams could represent the future while he takes something of a redshirt season watching Case Keenum and Nick Foles play in 2016.
16. Laquon Treadwell
You can’t replace the retired Calvin Johnson with just free-agent signee Marvin Jones. But you might be able to offset the loss of Megatron with Jones and Treadwell, a tough, strong receiver who makes up for his lack of top-end speed with great hands and an aggressive style of pass-catching. So the Lions take a first-round receiver and for a change it makes perfect sense. Imagine that, Matt Millen.
17. Sheldon Rankins
Rankins adds quickness to a Falcons defensive front that got pushed around too much in 2015, surrendering an NFL-worst 20 rushing touchdowns. He’s a nice fit for the 4–3 formation that Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn uses, and he’s got the skill set to create backfield penetration and help out an anemic pass rush that registered a league-low 19 sacks last season. The Falcons will feel fortunate if he’s there for them at No. 17.
18. Taylor Decker
OT, Ohio State
Protect The Franchise. Protect The Franchise. Protect The Franchise. Those are the top three priorities for the Colts this off-season, as they endeavor to never again see quarterback Andrew Luck endure an injury-shortened season. Matt Hasselbeck’s heroics aside last year, when Luck is out of the lineup, the Colts are out of luck.
19. Noah Spence
DE, Eastern Kentucky
Some teams won’t consider a risk-reward prospect like Spence in the first round, with his character red flags—two drug-related suspensions at Ohio State—making him an iffy proposition. But the Bills and Rex Ryan have shown they’re willing to take chances if the talent is special enough, and Spence has first-round pass-rushing ability. Buffalo needs more burst off the edge if it’s ever going to chase down New England in the AFC East. For similar reasons, Mississippi defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is likely on the Bills’ radar screen as well.• DRAFT SEASON: Spence answers for his red flags
20. Leonard Floyd
Todd Bowles and the Jets’ talented defense could use another athletic edge rusher to plug into their impressive front seven. Notice the trend here, football fans? I’ve given the Dolphins, Bills and Jets first-round pass rushers because that’s how you attack Tom Brady and the Patriots’ consistently effective passing game. To beat New England, the quarterback must go down, and he must go down often. Which is why everyone is searching for the next Von Miller.
21. Reggie Ragland
One way or another, Jay Gruden’s team has to get better on run defense. Washington finished 31st in the league with 4.8 yards per carry allowed, then got gouged by the Packers on the ground in the playoffs. Ragland is a physical, aggressive presence at inside linebacker, and he’d add a stout tackler to Washington’s second line of defense. A defensive tackle like Baylor’s Andrew Billings or Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson makes plenty of sense in upgrading the run defense as well.
22. Josh Doctson
The Texans upgraded at quarterback (Brock Osweiler) and running back (Lamar Miller) in free agency and now it’s time to find some receiving help to draw a little bit of coverage away from the superb DeAndre Hopkins. This is where the run on first-round receivers begins, and I’m thinking Doctson’s ability to go up and get the ball, making the contested catch with a big set of hands, makes him the most logical option to pair with Hopkins’s game.
23. Will Fuller
WR, Notre Dame
Will, meet Teddy. Teddy, meet Will. Now get to know each other and grow together, helping give the Vikings’ offense the deep-ball passing tandem it has lacked so far in Minnesota’s Bridgewater era. The Vikings have a need for speed at outside receiver, and Fuller can supply it. It’s just a matter of Bridgewater’s arm being able to take full advantage of that vertical threat.• MMQB: Jihad Ward’s grueling journey to the draft
24. Corey Coleman
With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu both leaving via free agency, the Bengals’ receiving corps could use a dangerous playmaker who can impact a defense every time he touches the ball, from anywhere on the field. Coleman’s speed and ability to stretch the field could give A.J. Green even more room to work his magic.
25. Eli Apple
CB, Ohio State
The Steelers have a glaring need for talent at cornerback, and in Apple they get a prospect with NFL size and the added bonus of coming out of a proven and winning program like Ohio State. Houston cornerback William Jackson III is another potential fit for Pittsburgh if, as expected, both Hargreaves and Alexander come off the board in the top half of the round.
26. Cody Whitehair
OL, Kansas State
The Seahawks realize they can’t keep scotch-taping up their issues on the offensive line forever, even if Tom Cable is one of the league’s premier O-line coaches. Whitehair is a versatile talent with experience at both guard and tackle, and he plays with the tenacity and toughness that Cable looks for. If you want to maximize your Russell Wilson Super Bowl window of opportunity, Seattle, it’s time to spring for some improved pass protection.
27. A’Shawn Robinson
The Packers were caught a bit off guard by B.J. Raji stepping away from the game for a hiatus in 2016, but at least the draft is rich in defensive tackles this year and the board should fall right for them to find Raji’s replacement at No. 27. We’re giving them Robinson because his upside seems vast, and his 6' 4", 307-pound size and experience in a two-gap system makes him a suitable fit. But Green Bay has options galore, with both Alabama’s Jarran Reed and Baylor’s Andrew Billings still available in the defensive tackle aisle.
28. William Jackson
The Sean Smith departure for Oakland in free agency created an obvious void at cornerback, and the hope is that Jackson can provide the same kind of first-year impact as last year’s first-round pick, Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters. That’s a lot to hope for, but Jackson has enough size and coverage skills to make an early starting impact.
29. Robert Nkemdiche
DT, Ole Miss
I know the Cardinals feel like they solved their dearth of pass rushing potential when they traded for New England defensive end Chandler Jones, but Nkemdiche’s talent level would elevate the play of Arizona’s entire defensive line, and I could see Bruce Arians being just the coach willing to gamble on Nkemdiche’s off-field issues. It paid off handsomely for Arians in the case of Tyrann Mathieu, another former SEC star who hurt his draft stock with character concerns.• BURKE: The case for drafting Okla. State’s Kevin Peterson
30. Germain Ifedi
OT, Texas A&M
I know Jared Allen retired and Charles Johnson returned on just a one-year, prove-it-all-over-again deal, but anyone watching the Super Bowl meltdown against Denver could see the Panthers need an upgrade at offensive tackle. Ifedi has the versatility to play tackle or guard, and getting better protection for the league’s reigning MVP, quarterback Cam Newton, should be job one in Charlotte.
31. Connor Cook
QB, Michigan State
What I heard Broncos football czar John Elway say was Denver was in the market for finding the next Brock Osweiler, meaning a quarterback to be drafted and developed, rather than just traded for. Maybe Mark Sanchez or even Josh McCown is the present, but Cook could be the future in Denver, and he’s played in a pro-style offense that won’t require a lengthy transition to the NFL game. If Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch should fall this far, he’d be another prime option for the Broncos, and he is even almost identical to Osweiler in size and athleticism.