- Sam Darnold (to the Cleveland Browns) is one of four passers who fit in the first round in our initial mock draft
So we’re going to do a mock draft here, and I’m looking to preface it with a few things before we dive in.
First, I love college football and have seen a lot of these guys play. But I’m not a scout, therefore this is not based on any sort evaluation from me, it’s based on weeks of talking to scouts and execs for this column, and running lists by them. Second, teams aren’t ranking prospects yet. They’re still on the road and evaluating them, so even they haven’t contextualized how players will stack up against each other in March and April. Third, we don’t know which prospects are staying in school or leaving. And fourth, we don’t know who will be running some of these teams in a few months.
That said, I know mock drafts are fun, and so I’m happy to give you all the fun you can handle right here, right now. Let’s go . . .
1. Cleveland Browns: Sam Darnold, QB, USC
On Saturday, Darnold showed why he’s still the safest pick. And after passing on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, it’d be pretty tough for Cleveland to say no to another potential franchise QB.
2. San Francisco 49ers: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Barkley’s had a rough go the last couple weeks, but he’s still the best pure prospect in the class. The question will be how the teams drafting high value running backs.
3. New York Giants: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Given the questions about entitlement and maturity that Rosen has faced, New York would be an interesting landing spot.
4. Indianapolis Colts: Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
The Colts need a war daddy on defense, and Chubb’s all of that. The question here would be if he fits GM Chris Ballard’s parameters on measureables.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
This would be a safe pick by the Bucs, taking a guy from the Nick Saban machine who can play anywhere in the secondary.
6. New York Jets: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
Will drafting a guard high go over well in New York? If the Jets find a quarterback before the draft, I wouldn’t worry about that. Nelson has a chance to be in the same class as Irish alum/Cowboys All-Pro Zack Martin.
7. Oakland Raiders: Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
McGlinchey is not spectacular. He’s a safe pick, and would make sense to start on the right side, then eventually replace Donald Penn on the left.
8. Los Angeles Chargers: Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Had Williams not suffered a knee injury in September, he’d probably be considered the draft’s top tackle. Even with the injury, he’s close, and the Chargers could use a successor for Russell Okung.
9. Chicago Bears: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
The latest in a run of Buckeye corners over the last few years, Ward lacks the size of the others but is every bit the athlete.
10. Arizona Cardinals: Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
Yes, Allen’s been uneven this year. And yes, there’s a decent chance Bruce Arians retires after this season. But for now, we’ll put Allen here, because he’s an Arians prototype.
11. Cincinnati Bengals: Derwin James, S, Florida State
James has had a massively disappointing year, but he’s just back from injury and should test well in Indy.
12. Denver Broncos: Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
It’s time for the Broncos to start getting younger on defense.
13. Cleveland Browns (from Houston): Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
So here’s a gift for Darnold, a big, fast, raw target that some scouts believe has superstar potential, and has been eye-popping for them to evaluate in person.
14. Detroit Lions: Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
Landry could, potentially, be the replacement for free-agent-to-be Ziggy Ansah.
15. Washington Redskins: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
Washington’s roster is pretty balanced, meaning that (Cousins permitting) they won’t have to force anything here. Smith has a chance to be a great NFL player.
16. Baltimore Ravens: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Baltimore’s still chasing some of its mistakes at receiver, so they take a guy who’s a pretty sure thing from a program they know well.
17. Cowboys: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
Wilkins can become the perfect 3-technique tackle for Rod Marinelli’s defense. This would be a great fit.
18. Miami Dolphins: Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State
Miami wants longer corners and has a need here, so McFadden clearly fits the bill to pair with 2017 rookie Cordrea Tankersley.
19. Atlanta Falcons: Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma
Jake Matthews will be entering a contract year in 2018, and the Falcons’ O-line needs some work in general.
20. Green Bay Packers: Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
Clay Matthews will be 32 in 2018, and Julius Peppers is long gone, so a pass rusher makes sense here.
21. Tennessee Titans: Austin Bryant, EDGE, Clemson
A run on pass-rushers is well underway here, with another team seeking help out on the edge. And the Tigers’ talented front gets three drafted in a five-pick span.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Perhaps this is a little high for Kirk, but my feeling is he’ll test off the charts, pushing him up the board.
23. Carolina Panthers: Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio State
Carolina needs a replacement for Julius Peppers, whenever he decides to hang ’em up, and Hubbard is a solid, unspectacular, and safe pick here.
24. Seattle Seahawks: Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
Key is this draft’s enigma. He has the talent to go Top 5. Off-field questions will likely dictate how far past that he falls. It could be that he drops well out of the first round.
25. Los Angeles Rams: Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan
Andrew Whitworth has been awesome for the Rams. But they’ll need to find an heir for the 35-year-old at some point.
26. Buffalo Bills: Dre’mont Jones, DT, Ohio State
Marcell Dareus is gone, and Kyle Williams is 34, and both Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane come from Carolina, where contenders were built around big defensive lines.
27. New Orleans Saints: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield has generated heat with scouts over the last month. I think he could go Top 15. Or he could go in the third round, which is to say he’s polarizing. But how much fun would he be in Sean Payton’s system?
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
We’ll see whether they can get Le’Veon Bell signed after this season. If it doesn’t happen, Guice would be a nice, versatile replacement.
29. Minnesota Vikings: Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado
A revelation in his first year as a starter—the Buffs’ 2016 starting CBs both went in the first 66 picks in April—Oliver is long and fits the profile for what Minnesota wants at the position.
30. New England Patriots: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Linebacker is a problem in New England, and Evans seems like an ideal eventual replacement for Dont’a Hightower.
31. Buffalo Bills (from Kansas City): Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
Shady McCoy has been invaluable but turns 30 in July. Buffalo could stand to take some of the burden off him, and the hard-running Harris—a rising name—would be a great complement.
32. Philadelphia Eagles: James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Alshon Jeffery is a free agent, and the team will have to make a decision on Nelson Agholor’s fifth-year option this offseason, so Philly could use help here.
One last note here: In order to have enough time to properly vet the projections, this was based on last week’s draft order. Since then, a couple of teams have shuffled based on Sunday’s results. Of course, all of this is fluid, as are the assessments teams have on the 32 players listed above, and the more than 200 others who’ll be drafted in April.
FIVE FROM SATURDAY
1. The NFL ship has probably sailed on Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz—he seems pretty content in Iowa City and he’s now 62 years old—but it’s interesting to wonder what he might’ve been in the pros in the aftermath of the Hawkeyes’ huge win over Ohio State. A skilled developer of talent and people, and a fantastic fundamentals coach, he has led a rock solid program in a place that’s not easy to win in. And he had chances to make the leap. Twice, he was atop the wish list of then-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli—the two have known each other for 30 years, and worked together in Cleveland and Baltimore—but Ferentz’s commitment to his family (he coached all three of his sons at Iowa) kept him from joining his close friend. So instead, he’s now in his 19th year at Iowa, and next year will match the 20-year tenure of his legendary predecessor Hayden Fry.
2. Speaking of Iowa, tailback Akrum Wadley is a good example of why some teams will never consider taking a Saquon Barkley or Leonard Fournette or Ezekiel Elliott in the upper reaches of the draft. The belief is that you can find one later. That’s why it’s important to note that while this year’s RB group is strong at the top, it also has depth. Wadley looks every bit of an NFL back, and can be had later in the process (not unlike Kareem Hunt last year).
3. We’ve written a bunch about the Notre Dame linemen, and Saturday’s 48-37 win over a game Wake Forest bunch should give you ample evidence as to why. The Irish lost lead back Josh Adams early and still ran right through the Demon Deacons. When it was over, with OT Mike McGlinchey and G Quenton Nelson paving the way, seven different Notre Dame players had logged a total of 44 carries for 383 yards and four touchdowns.
4. Timing can be everything in coaching. Before Bret Bielema’s final season at Wisconsin, he quietly interviewed for the Dolphins job that eventually went to Green Bay assistant Joe Philbin. Bielema wound up coaching the Badgers that fall before abruptly bolting for Arkansas. Since, he’s gone 29-31 in Fayetteville, and just narrowly avoided a massive upset loss to Coastal Carolina on Saturday. His seat couldn’t be toastier, and now, despite a strong track record of developing NFL players, he could be a longer shot for any job in the pro ranks. And the guy who replaced him at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen, quietly interviewed for the Browns job after his first year in Madison, then bolted a year later for Oregon State. That’s the same Andersen who mysteriously resigned from OSU in October. Both these guys are examples of how quickly coaches can run hot and cold on the market.
5. College football Saturdays are interesting in the Vikings organization. GM Rick Spielman’s son JD Spielman, a dynamic slash weapon on offense and dangerous return man, has emerged as Nebraska’s top playmaker. The redshirt freshman has 593 yards and two touchdowns on 40 catches through nine games, as well as 65 yards on nine carries and 496 yards on 19 kick returns. Not to be outdone, Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s son Kyle Shurmur is the starting quarterback at Vanderbilt, and has thrown for 1,883 yards and 20 touchdown passes, against just 3 picks for the 4-5 Commodores.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (20-26, 311 yards, 2 TDs, INT vs. Arizona): As we said earlier, it feels like Darnold stabilized his season on Saturday night against a game Arizona team. I do want to address what I’ve said and heard about Darnold’s pending decision on whether to declare for the 2018 draft: Scouts who have been through there have told me that Darnold is a smart, conscientious kid with good family around him and will take everything—including his play, his situation at USC and, yes, potential NFL landing spots—into account in the decision. That said, as I’ve heard it from those close to him, Darnold has shut down any talk about the draft for now, insisting that the focus remain on the Trojans’ season, which is very uncommon for a kid in his position. He’s told them playing well is the priority, and the rest will take care of itself.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (injured): There are still plenty of folks who believe his ceiling is higher than Darnold’s, but this is the second straight year injuries have cost him games. We’ll see if he’s out there Saturday night against Arizona State.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (10-20, 0 TDs, 0 INTs vs. Colorado State): The numbers look average, and Allen had a bad fumble late. But the redshirt junior led a 69-yard drive in sloppy, snowy conditions to win this one, led the Cowboys with 60 rushing yards, and now has his rebuilding team bowl-eligible at 6-3.
Helped Himself: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma. Mayfield was awesome in throwing for 598 yards and five touchdowns to pilot the Sooners’ 62-52 win over rival Oklahoma State. Like I said in the mock, scouts seem to like him a lot. Yes, he’s short. Yes, he plays a schoolyard style. And yes, he’s answering a lot of questions NFL teams had on him on the way to the Heisman ceremony.
Hurt Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. For all the progress Barrett made in building to his virtuoso performance against Penn State two Saturday ago, he took that big a step back at Iowa, throwing four interceptions. A costly pick-six to start the game put the Buckeyes behind right off the bat, and an interception tossed up into traffic at the end of the first half may have been even worse. Again, whether or not Barrett gets drafted is up in the air.
1. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
2. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
5. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Derwin James, S, Florida State
8. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
9. Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
10. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
I shook things up a little: Saquon Barkley has hit a rough patch, and I’m starting to believe that Quenton Nelson is a better prospect at his position than anyone else is at theirs. I know it’s crazy to have a guard first, but if you’re gonna do it, the time is after a game like the one Nelson just played against Wake Forest . . . The QBs keep sliding, and I’m finding opinion a little more split on Sam Darnold than I did earlier in the year . . . Roquan Smith is a newcomer to the Top 10, with the same preamble I just gave you on Nelson: If we’re making it just about how good the player is, and not valuing his position, then the Georgia ’backer belongs.
Oklahoma State at Iowa State (ABC/ESPN2, Saturday, noon ET): I might be preoccupied by Ohio State/Michigan State at noon, but it’s worth it for you to take a gander at Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph playing at Iowa State, against a tough defense in a difficult environment. Rudolph is another quarterback in this year’s class who is polarizing among scouts, and he did miss some throws at the end of last week’s Bedlam loss to Oklahoma. This is a big response week for him.
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