It’s April 14, and I haven’t done a mock draft yet!
No, that’s not that unusual for me. Sometimes I do early ones; sometimes I don’t. And this year, the news on veteran players has kept coming, week after week, which left the window for me to really drill down on the draft much smaller.
But we’re here now, and ready to pass on some of the info floating around out there in NFL circles in this week’s GamePlan. So here’s what we’ll do: I’m going to take you through the top 12 picks (so a third of the first round), and I’ll treat this as a sort of working mock (with plans for another like this for all 32 teams on the week of the draft) to let you know what I’m hearing on what certain teams might be thinking.
And as a note, before we get started, one thing that’s obvious is that this year’s class is shaping up a little like 2013’s did. That year, you had decidedly unsexy positions populating the top of the draft board. You had a universally-panned (at least in these circles) class of quarterbacks. Yet, that year, again like this year, there was some depth, which allowed for good teams to dig good players out later.
So it’s on the scouts and coaches now to find the Kyle Long, DeAndre Hopkins, Travis Frederick, Zach Ertz, Darius Slay or Kawann Short (all of whom were taken between the 20th and 45th picks in 2013) of this year’s class. Or land the Travis Kelce, Terron Armstead, Tyann Mathieu, Keenan Allen or David Bakhtiari even later in the weekend.
In that way, if you want to bright-side the whole thing, this really is an evaluator’s draft. Everyone has holes, and teams have to decide which ones they can plug with players, or work around, to get the most out of them.
And with that, let’s dive in the top dozen …
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: This take from an AFC college scouting director sums up where Jags GM Trent Baalke is right now: “Everyone knows he wants to trade it, and that tells me he’s not in love with any of them.” Multiple rival executives raised to me that Baalke is also sensitive to a perception problem he and his team have right now, and that he, and the team, will get roasted if they do anything other than take Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or get a king’s ransom for the pick.
Also, other teams have raised the amount of work Jacksonville’s done on the top offensive linemen as evidence that the Jags may not be as set as some think they are up front, even after tagging Cam Robinson and signing Brandon Scherff. If they take a lineman? N.C. State’s Ickey Ekwonu has been connected to Baalke through the process.
If it’s an edge rusher, and it’s between Hutchinson and Georgia’s freakish draft riser, Travon Walker, that’s interesting too. “It’s the home run vs. the double,” said another exec. “No one’s missing on Hutch. With Walker, is he an outside linebacker? Is he a five-technique? His ceiling’s high, if you look at his movement, his get-off, his play speed. He’s not as polished as Hutch. There might be more there, but you haven’t seen it, so it’s hit or miss.”
Ultimately, my early bet is that Baalke will settle on the safer play, and get the sort of leader for his defense that Trevor Lawrence should become for the offense.
Best early guess: Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson
2. Detroit Lions: A lot of people are convinced they will go edge rusher here regardless. And I’d agree that if Hutchinson is there, this will become academic for them. If he’s not? Well, I can tell you that no one I’ve talked to at this point believes that Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux is in any way a culture fit for Detroit coach Dan Campbell. “His personality is a lot,” said one exec, “and you hear the head coach there isn’t a fan.”
Walker, on the other hand, would make sense, if the Lions are confident they can develop him into more than he was on his college tape. The biggest issue there, really, is most of his splash plays in college were made in open-field situations, where he’s simply chasing someone down, rather than doing what you’d hope he would as a pro, which is rushing the passer off the edge.
One position that was put on my radar for the Lions at No. 2 on Thursday is defensive back. That may seem a little early for Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. or, for that matter, Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (whom I’ve heard they like), given how Hamilton ran at the combine. It’d also be a head-turner, since the Lions took a corner with the third pick two years ago. But looking at the makeup of the class overall, this might just be the year where, if you’re picking this high, you just take the guy you like best. That said …
Best early guess: Georgia DE/OLB Travon Walker
3. Houston Texans: The Texans clearly are planning on a deliberate build, after dealing off Deshaun Watson, and the middle-of-the-fairway pick here for them would be Alabama’s Evan Neal—who may be a better right tackle than left, and could form a strong tandem with Laremy Tunsil and, eventually, replace him on the left side.
The one caveat here would be that teams did take note of what Lovie Smith said the other day, on needing better corners to play defense the way the Texans want to. I’m filing that one away, for that reason.
Best early guess: Alabama OT Evan Neal
4. New York Jets: Edge rusher is a need. Corner is too, and we saw GM Joe Douglas take a swing at getting Zach Wilson a weapon in the Jets’ bid for Tyreek Hill. But there’s still a feeling he’ll take an offensive lineman in the first round for the third time in as many years as GM with one of his two first-round picks. And Ekwonu, a real mauler, is the one I’ve heard the Jets connected to most.
The logic on Ekwonu, tied to his positional flexibility, makes sense. There’s real concern on 2020 first-rounder Mekhi Becton, and whether he’ll be the long-term answer at left tackle. Taking Ekwonu would give the Jets an insurance policy in case Becton washes out. And if Becton can grow up a little and start to fulfill his immense potential? Well, then the Jets could kick Ekwonu into guard, a position many teams feel is his most natural NFL spot, and a place where some feel like he has all-pro potential.
And sure, this is high for a guard. But sixth was, too, and we’ve seen what’s become of Quenton Nelson in Indianapolis.
Best early guess: N.C. State OL Ikem Ekwonu
5. New York Giants: One thing I feel comfortable saying is that new GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll aren’t going to press a need here. And when I tell you I’ve heard them connected to Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross, you might think that’d be a reach at No. 5. I’m here to tell you it wouldn’t be.
One executive told me this week that he believes Cross is the best player in the draft, regardless of position. Another wouldn’t go quite that far, but could see how one of his peers reached that conclusion: “You could argue he’s the best player, no doubt. He starts to bore you, it’s so easy for him. … The way he redirects, the way he plants his outside foot and explodes, no one beats him with speed, no one crosses his face and beats him, he just doesn’t lose much.”
Now, he is a bit of a projection, because he’s coming from a Mike Leach offense. But where there are positional questions with Neal and Ekwonu, there isn’t one with Cross. He’s a left tackle from Day 1 in the NFL.
Best early guess: Mississippi State OT Charles Cross
6. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers are having tackles in now, and in the coming days, after having six quarterbacks in over a three-day period (Monday to Wednesday). And I wouldn’t rule out the idea that they’d take a tackle, and maybe swing a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo after the draft, since the need for a tackle here is pretty significant.
But in the end, other teams are convinced they’ll swallow hard and take a quarterback. I personally believe that they’d probably most like to trade down, and maybe fill in the hole they have between this pick and the 137th (a product of the Sam Darnold and C.J. Henderson trades). It’s just hard, at this point, to see what another team would be coming up to get. (A tackle? A pass-rusher?)
The interesting thing is the one name they’ve been linked to most publicly, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, is one I haven’t heard quite as much for them of late. Yes, I understand there was the public show at his pro day, that Matt Rhule recruited him out of high school and that, with jobs on the line this year, it might make sense to get the most pro-ready guy.
Despite all that, I’ve heard Liberty’s Malik Willis and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral, and even Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, tied to the Panthers more in recent days. Now, it’d take some creativity scheme-wise on new OC Ben McAdoo’s part to have Willis and Corral ready to go as rookies; and Ridder would be a reach that high. Which, I think, illustrates again why a trade down would be ideal.
Best early guess: Liberty QB Malik Willis
7. New York Giants: We’re back to the Giants, and this is where I’ll tell you that I believe both New York teams will look to move one of their top-10 picks out to next year’s draft. The thing is, as I just said, I’m not sure what someone would be coming up for at this stage of the game. Maybe it’d be Thibodeaux. Maybe it’d be Sauce Gardner. Both have good potential. Both play premium positions. Or maybe someone will want a quarterback.
If the Giants stick, again, I don’t think they’ll overdo it to fill a need. And I’d guess the idea of getting a potential cornerstone at a premium position would appeal to them.
Best early guess: Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
8. Atlanta Falcons: There’s conflicting info here. Some are convinced they are taking a quarterback. Others are convinced they aren’t. They’ve certainly done their homework on the class. And the one quarterback I’ve heard them connected to, Corral, is one I’m not completely sure would be a fit for coach Arthur Smith.
And here’s the thing on Smith and GM Terry Fontenot: Both are logical and methodical, and I do not think they’re going to reach if they don’t believe the quarterback available is worthy of the draft slot (and most teams don’t believe there’s one this year truly worthy of going this high). So, at this point, I’m going to give them a player who is worthy of the pick, and is another solid building block for Smith and Fontenot’s brick-by-brick plan.
Best early guess: Florida State DE Jermaine Johnson
9. Seattle Seahawks: The first pick form the Russell Wilson haul should be a pivotal one for the Seahawks. Sitting there, as we have it, would be an ideal fit at corner, in Gardner. But Seattle’s history under John Schneider and Pete Carroll has always been to find and/or manufacture corners in nontraditional ways. And with Duane Brown still unsigned, there’s a real need at left tackle here.
Remember, Schneider’s never been afraid to do something that’s a little different, or value certain players he deems as Seattle types differently, and that’s where I’ll introduce you to Northern Iowa’s tough, mean tackle, Trevor Penning, who might need work to play left tackle in the pros, but brings a boatload of edge to the field.
And I’m telling you, because of all that, I really did want to put Penning here. I just couldn’t leave Gardner out there any longer, especially with the fit screaming at me.
Best early guess: Cincinnati CB Sauce Gardner
10. New York Jets: You can cut and paste what I said about the Giants. I think Douglas will try to make a trade with one of his two picks, to pick up capital and maybe position himself for 2023 as well.
If they stick here, I could see the Jets catching a falling Gardner or Thibodeaux, or maybe even Stingley. Absent that, I think this a spot where help could come for Zach Wilson, if all the receivers are sitting there for the Jets. In this scenario, they are, and this is the range where both USC’s Drake London and Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson are pegged to be in play (and maybe Alabama’s Jameson Williams, too, based on teams’ comfort level with his ACL).
I’ll take the guy, then, who I believe best complements their current foundation of Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios at the position, and get Mike LaFleur his prototype “X.”
Best early guess: USC WR Drake London
11. Washington Commanders: Martin Mayhew, Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera have turned over a lot of rocks on this year’s receiver group, and taking one would fulfill the promise that they were going to create an optimal situation for whoever would play quarterback for them in 2022 (in this case, Carson Wentz).
Could they go in a different direction? They absolutely could. There are needs in the secondary, and as we’ve set things up here, the idea of Stingley or Hamilton would be in play. I don’t think they’ll go quarterback—they haven’t had any of the draft’s top passers to Virginia, and my sense is that’s more reflective of where they stand on the class than any kind of smokescreen—but I’ve seen stranger things.
So let’s stick with getting Wentz a weapon, and one who’s a really strong program fit.
Best early guess: Ohio State WR Chris Olave
12. Minnesota Vikings: This is another one where there are new guys, in GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell, in charge, and a lot of tea leaf reading on where they’ll go with their first pick. So it’s worth looking at the actions of the two teams that they’re coming from in trying to figure where the Vikings will go next.
One thing that was pointed out to me: Both the Browns (Adofo-Mensah) and Rams (O’Connell) have a history of using their highest-end capital (cash, cap and draft picks) on premium positions. You see it in Cleveland with Watson, Myles Garrett, Jedrick Wills Jr. and Denzel Ward; and, of course, in L.A. with Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Cooper Kupp. So …
Best early guess: LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
And, of course, these are still just off of my early calls—there are a lot more to come. As such, we’ll have a lot more to come over the next two weeks as well.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1) The Derek Carr contract, to me, is reflective of what Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler are trying to build in Las Vegas. They asked Carr to consider a Tom Brady–style contract, that would offer the team flexibility, and then proved to him how they’d use it in trading for Davante Adams (which, indeed, was a turning point for the Carr negotiation). And the new brass also understood how this sort of contract situation could play in the locker room, because Carr is so well-respected, and that things getting sideways might set a bad tone early on. So the Raiders avoided that, conducted a smooth negotiation (one source said the key was “we all wanted the same thing”) and in doing so made a statement about the types of players, and guys, that McDaniels and Ziegler plan to reward in Vegas.
2) It is, on the other hand, fair to ask where the contract leaves the impact of Deshaun Watson’s groundbreaking deal in Cleveland. Whether Watson’s deal was going to lead to a sea change in the way quarterback deals are done was always going to come down to whether the next few guys got similarly structured deals, the same way it was after Kirk Cousins signed his Vikings deal in 2018. That the first big post–Watson quarterback contract isn’t fully guaranteed isn’t great news for quarterbacks. And it definitely puts the spotlight on Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, who are either already in or likely will be in contract negotiations over the next 12 months.
3) Do I think it was the right move for Baker Mayfield to let loose on a podcast like he did this week? Probably not—it’s not like it’s surprising to anyone that he did it, but I don’t know what the upside was in carrying all of this out. That said, I do think there’s a way he can peacefully force the issue, and that’s, as I’ve said, to show up to the Browns’ offseason program on Monday. It’d simultaneously show that he’s serious about moving his football career forward and make things awkward on Cleveland, maybe motivating the Browns to move him. And I agree with him that the Seahawks makes the most sense. It’s just that I think it’d take the Browns eating a good chunk of his salary for that to happen.
4) It’ll be interesting to see how the league/teams ramp up the pressure on Commanders owner Daniel Snyder next. It sure feels like, and to people other than me, there are powerful people in the NFL’s ranks who want him out. And if they can make it happen in a way other than having to vote him out, and setting that kind of precedent, even better.
5) The 49ers’ signing of Kemoko Turay caught my eye on Thursday for a specific reason—it’s a good example of having realistic expectations for any draft class. Now, the 2018 Colts class Turay was a part of was, without qualifiers, a home run for GM Chris Ballard. Both Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard have been first-team All-Pro three times in four years, and second team in the other year. Both right tackle Braden Smith and third-down back Nyheim Hines have signed lucrative extensions. And any time you get four players out of a single class of that caliber, you’re cooking with gas. However, those are just four of 11 picks the Colts had that year. There are two other picks from that draft, Tyquan Lewis and Zaire Franklin, left on the team. Lewis just signed a one-year, $3 million deal to stay; Franklin did a three-year deal to stick around on special teams. Meanwhile, four others are on the fringes of the league, and then there’s Turay, who did a one-year deal with the Niners hoping they can boost his stock like they did Arden Key’s last year. Turay, you’ll remember, was one of guys the Colts had been really excited about, and yet he exits with a make-good deal done in April. Which left the aforementioned six in Indy, four of whom have significant roles. And, again, that class was a grand slam. So the lesson? Don’t look at the list of guys your team drafted in a few weeks and carve out starting roles in your head for all of them.
AND ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
You’ve seen a bunch of reporting from me and others the last few weeks on “30” visits, in-house visits where prospects are flown in which are called that because each team is allowed 30 of them. They’re significant, as I see it, because they’re limited in number. Sometimes they’re smokescreens, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re to address an off-field or injury concern, other times it’s just genuine interest in a player.
Either way, per league rules, the deadline for doing them is this Wednesday. And sometimes, teams will bring in guys they really like last, so there’s at least something for you to chew on in digesting the coverage of the draft over the next few days.
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