This is not a mock draft. But, if you need to know, I did do all the work to put one together last week—our editors asked me to, and it’s actually a valuable exercise in that, by making calls, you learn where the league stands on prospects.
Long story short, we decided not to chase the clicks before the draft order is set and Black Monday comes and goes. Instead, I’m going to keep the full list to myself. For now. But I’m going to share with you what stuck out to me while vetting it with scouts from around the league, with some hints of where I had certain players landing . . .
Browns have a chance to clean up. Cleveland has five picks in the first two rounds, and $100 million in cap space (Sashi Brown’s parting gift to John Dorsey), but going through this helped me conceptualize it. They wound up landing both a franchise quarterback (Sam Darnold) and arguably the draft’s best overall player (Saquon Barkley) to support him, in the way Dak Prescott has Zeke Elliott. With the Texans’ pick in tow (acquired when Houston came up to get Deshaun Watson last spring, and likely to be No. 4), this can be a franchise-changing offseason in Northeast Ohio.
After four months of calling around, I feel good about the first four picks. And those are USC quarterback Sam Darnold, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb. My sense is that, provided they all come out (Darnold is a redshirt sophomore, Rosen and Barkley are juniors, Chubb is a senior), the quarterbacks are safe bets to go inside the Top 5, but it’s the other two who are among the three best players in this class.
And the third of the top-three overall prospects is a guard. That’s right, a guard. Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is probably the most agreed upon prospect that I’ve discussed with scouts. When I told an exec last week that I’d probably write that Nelson was “maybe a better guard prospect than ex-teammate Zack Martin,” he told me to take the “maybe” out of there. In 2014, Martin, you may remember, became the first rookie linemen to make first-team All-Pro in 57 years. I had Nelson going fifth in my mock.
The offensive linemen, in general, are pretty good. And they’re a lot better than they were last year, when none went in the first 15 picks for the first time in draft history. In addition to Nelson, I had his teammate, Mike McGlinchey and Conor Williams of Texas as left tackle prospects going inside the first eight picks, and five O-linemen in the first round.
You might have never heard of the guy I had to keep moving up. I mentioned UTSA edge rusher Marcus Davenport—a 6' 7" freak of a receiver-turned-pass rusher—a few weeks back. I didn’t have him in my early November mock. I put him at the end of the first round in the initial list I put together this time around, and then multiple execs told me he’s not getting out of the Top 15. I wound up putting him at 14, behind only Chubb among rushers, and Davenport clearly has a chance to rise higher.
You probably have heard of the guy I keep moving down. Florida State safety Derwin James arrived in Tallahassee in 2015, and his freakish play as a true freshman conjured images of super-sized safeties of the past, like Sean Taylor and Kam Chancellor. Then, he blew his knee out last year, and clearly didn’t look like the same player, according to scouts, when he came back in September. The redshirt sophomore has already declared for the draft, and made the call to skip the Independence Bowl. A lot of people were talking about him as a Top-5 pick earlier in the year. I had him going 11th in early November, and he fell to 18th (to Seattle) on my latest list.
Certain pipelines have stayed in working order. Over the last few years, Clemson has grown a rep for pumping out pass rushers, and I had three Tigers defensive linemen between the 21st and 27th picks—DT Christian Wilkins, and edge rushers Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Alabama has pumped out field-general linebackers under Nick Saban, and Rashaan Evans, who went 28th, is the next one. Ohio State is set to send its fifth first-round corner in five draft classes, Denzel Ward, to the league. And you could say the same for Notre Dame and the aforementioned O-linemen.
Two big-conference defenders helped themselves a lot this year. Remember the names Josh Jackson and Tremaine Edmunds. Jackson, a redshirt junior, is an Iowa corner. Edmunds is a junior linebacker at Virginia Tech. Based on the feedback I got, both are firmly in play to be the first players to go at their positions, in part because of how they played this fall, and in part because both are expected to have the edge in size over the consensus top players at their spot (Ward at cornerback; Georgia’s Roquan Smith at linebacker).
The players I’m most looking forward to watching in the playoffs are Baker Mayfield and Roquan Smith. I think Roquan Smith will be a huge part of the Bulldogs’ plans to pin Baker Mayfield in the pocket and prevent his normal theatrics. Do yourself a favor and watch Smith. He’s got the “I know where the play’s going before it goes there” thing that so many great ’backers have, and he could be an instant impact guy for a team that needs one (like Oakland) next year. I had him going 12th.
And as for Mayfield . . . I resisted the urge to move him up, and I stuck him 24th to the Saints again, because I really like the fit there. But I’m not going to rule out the idea that he’ll go higher. One evaluator I trust hated him earlier in the year, then went back and looked at the tape over the last couple weeks, and told me he was wrong. I think that might happen a bunch over the next few weeks. And I think Mayfield would be great for a team that might be looking for an heir, which the Saints would be, and teams like the Packers or Ravens could be. Either way, this guy is going to be the story of this year’s draft cycle—the dissecting of his résumé will be fascinating.
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