My advice to all of those professional and fan forecasters of the 2018 NFL draft in the hours leading up to the first round on Thursday: Be careful with the absolute statements. Three of the first four picks are controlled by two men (Cleveland GM John Dorsey at one and four, GM Dave Gettleman of the Giants at two) who could work for the CIA. There’s an inordinate number of teams very high that I believe will want to trade down, and perhaps for only moderate value because of the strength of the second and third rounds and the thinness of the first round.
“This year it seems like there’s no normal,” San Francisco GM John Lynch said on Saturday. The Niners pick ninth in the first round. “I’m having our analytics guys go over every scenario we could face at nine, and there could be 50 of ’em.”
And so this year’s mock first round is a dart-throw if there ever was one. Wish me luck. Trades (and wild guesses) included.
1. Cleveland—Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Though half the free world has Josh Allen to the Browns, it’d still be a risk because he didn’t dominate mid-level competition. Dorsey is a measurables guy, and Allen is THE measurable quarterback here (6'5", 237 pounds, 4.79 in the 40). But a couple of factors influenced my call here. One is Mike Mayock. The NFL Network conscience has a way of cutting through the gorgonzola and stating reality. He said the Browns have made too many mistakes on quarterbacks, and they can’t go risky here. It made a lot of sense—and Mayock is a guy who loves the long-term Josh Allen. And we’re all prisoners of the people we know in this league. And someone I trust, who is very often right and is very well-connected, told me Sunday it’s not Allen. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Science of the Mock. Darnold is safe, with strong potential, and most NFL folks think he can turn around the turnover bug (37 career turnovers in 26 USC games). Darnold’s a jock who wants to be a great football player. And at 8:46 p.m. Sunday, that’s where I am. All I can say is, good luck to anyone who bets on the first pick in the draft based on my waffling logic.
2. New York Giants—Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Just seems logical. No inside dope here—though I did hear Sunday that Darnold is the Giants’ guy if they choose a quarterback. Gettleman did draft Christian McCaffrey eighth overall last year for the runner-needy Panthers. The Giants haven’t had a great back in 12 years, since Tiki Barber retired. The consistency of Barkley—three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons at a high level of competition, rushing averages of 5.9, 5.5 and 5.9 yards per rush—has to attract the Giants, as would the thought of Barkley, Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and left tackle Nate Solder to take the pressure off 37-year-old Eli Manning.
3. New York Jets—Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Could be Baker Mayfield, easily. And there have been times in this process when I was sure it would be Mayfield. But I give the Jets the surest QB thing in this draft, as long as you can live with the specter of his two documented concussions and all the noise (which I consider total bullcrap) about Rosen’s life of other interests. The Jets need a player who can be suave, sophisticated and ready for Broadway, and this quarterback is as ready as any since Namath.
4. Cleveland—Bradley Chubb, Edge, N.C. State
I spent most of Saturday trying to figure a way to give the Browns the heir to Joe Thomas in tackle Mike McGlinchey, and just couldn’t make it work with a trade-down. Nice consolation prize here. Chubb’s had two straight years of 10 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss, and is easily the best front-seven disrupter in a weak class of them. But Dorsey will have multiple options here if he wants to move.
5. Arizona (from Denver)—Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Call this hunch the Won’t Get Fooled Again Pick. I’ve always thought a segment of the Cardinals had regrets over the 2017 draft when, with a 37-year-old quarterback (Carson Palmer) possibly in his last year, they were leap-frogged by teams that took Pat Mahomes and Deshaun Watson one and three picks ahead of them. Plus, the Cardinals don’t like Baker Mayfield. They love him. That’s a good thing, because John Elway likes him a lot too. Interesting strange-bedfellows scene at the Broncos’ cafeteria during Mayfield’s on-campus visit. Elway sat alone at one table with Mayfield, conversing. Walking through the salad bar at the time: Case Keenum.
6. Buffalo (from Indianapolis)—Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
While we’re hung up on finding a landing spot for all the quarterbacks, I’d remind you of four things at this pick: A) I don’t know if Buffalo loves Allen; B) but I hear they love his ability to throw it through the lake effect winds and snow; C) Allen is a garrulous, genial version of Jim Kelly, a rifle-armed work in progress the fans in western New York will love; and D) I think this trade fits both teams because I’m not sure the Colts would demand both Bills’ first-round picks in return. In fact, because of the strength of the second round, I could see Colts GM Chris Ballard valuing the 53rd and 56th picks collectively higher than the 22nd pick in this draft. So, 12, 53, 56 and, say, 96 for six? Could be equitable. It would leave the Bills with their second of two first-rounders.
7. Tampa Bay—Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
No end to the love for the versatile Fitzpatrick, who can play either safety, either corner, the slot, or, in a pinch, as an in-the-box linebacker. And he’s done it for three full seasons at the highest level of college football, which NFL people love. Denzel Ward could go here too, but my bet’s on the valued Fitzpatrick. Late note: One or two teams who are sniffing around this area of the draft love Fitzpatrick.
8. Chicago—Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
If this doesn’t happen, every mock drafter in America will be proven to be the frauds we all are. I mean, usually there’s some universal agreement on something at the top of the draft. This year, it’s universal agreement on the man Notre Dame line-coach-turned-new-Bears line coach Harry Hiestand coached in his college career, Nelson. And it fits what new coach Matt Nagy wants—a mauler who will help Nagy build the run game and protective front wall to give Mitchell Trubisky the space and time he needs in up-the-middle protection. Smart pick.
9. San Francisco—Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
As a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in this draft, Smith has no peer. I gave McGlinchey and cornerback Denzel Ward serious consideration here too—as are the Niners. But I passed on McGlinchey because of the Niners’ belief that Joe Staley, who will be 34 in August, can play two more seasons at a good level. And the need for Smith, particularly with the uncertain future of linebacker Reuben Foster, could be great in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, where athletic playmakers are a must at linebacker.
10. Oakland—Mike McGlinchey, T, Notre Dame
The Raiders have multiple needs, and Denzel Ward and Derwin James fit perfectly here too, with a scotch-taped secondary (only Gareon Conley is solid at corner; free safety Reggie Nelson turns 35 in September) in place for new coordinator Paul Guenther. But left tackle Donald Penn (35 on Friday) has maybe a year or two left, and a franchise quarterback stays a franchise quarterback in part because of how he’s protected. Derek Carr would vote for this pick.
11. Miami—Vita Vea, DT, Washington
The New Suh. This pick is notable more for what the Dolphins aren’t doing. Like everyone else, I was pretty sure Miami would be among the cadre of teams looking to trade up for a quarterback. The splash move has been an MO of club architect Mike Tannenbaum over his career. And maybe it happens. But more recently I’ve started to think, through what I’ve heard in the pre-draft process, that Miami is more likely to stick with Ryan Tannehill (who has missed the last 19 games with injury) and continue the progress he was making with Adam Gase in the 2016 season. We’ll see. One word of caution with Vea: He’s got to manage his weight if he wants to be more than a two-down player.