The arrival of April is a special moment for football fans. The draft is now less than a month away, and pre-draft speculation is beginning to heat up.
In the three-plus weeks leading up to the draft, rumors linking teams and players become more prevalent. As much as we’d like to believe some of them, it’s hard to find the line between truth and fallacy.
As frustrating as it is, NFL teams are in the business of deception where the draft is concerned. No general manager wants to tip his hand before the draft begins, meaning fans are as out of the loop as everyone else in the weeks leading up to the selection process.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a good understanding of where the value lies in the early rounds of the draft. At this point in the process, we at least have a good feel for the candidates worthy of an early-round selection and the teams in need at particular positions.
That said, let’s take a look at some projections for how the first round may shake out on April 25.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Until I see overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Luke Joeckel is my pick here. He’s the best player in this draft class at a position of critical importance at the NFL level, and he gives the Chiefs a chance to navigate the minefield of risky ventures with a safe selection.
Andy Reid loves developing quarterbacks, but I don’t think there’s a situation in which the Chiefs take a signal-caller in the first round. A few defensive prospects are certainly worthy of a top pick, but none at a position on which Kansas City can afford to use a No. 1 overall selection.
Joeckel is the most logical option, and that will remain the case unless something big happens in the next three weeks.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Jacksonville has one of the most unpredictable picks in this draft. With needs at so many positions, general manager David Caldwell has the option of selecting his best available player at any number of spots, and no one knows what his draft board will look like when the Jaguars are on the clock.
While Geno Smith’s name has been bandied about recently, there’s reason to believe the Jaguars will give former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert another chance this season. It’s simply too early to abandon his development in favor of a rookie quarterback with a moderately high ceiling.
Oregon’s Dion Jordan is the most logical selection here. He’s a versatile, polished defender with the ability to move around a 4-3 defensive front like Jacksonville’s. Gus Bradley would find the perfect fit for the hybrid pass-rusher in his LEO position.
3. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Add Oakland to the list of entirely unpredictable picks.
Like the Jaguars, the Raiders have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. They need to find a couple of good pass-rushers this offseason as well as a potential long-term option at quarterback; wide receiver and cornerback could also be options here.
That said, general manager Reggie McKenzie won’t repeat many of the mistakes Oakland’s old regimes have made. The Raiders need to focus on drafting the best talent available player at a position of need, and Sharrif Floyd certainly fits the bill.
The Florida defensive tackle has all the traits teams look for in an interior pass rusher. With size, quickness and tremendous explosiveness off the snap, he’ll be a good fit in Oakland’s multiple-front defense as an interior rusher and one-gap defender.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
This pick may never sit well with Philadelphia fans, but it makes a lot of sense. Chip Kelly needs a quarterback of his own, and choosing Smith has nothing to do with a “system.”
Simply put, Smith is the best quarterback in this draft class and he’s still available at No. 4 overall to a team in need of a new option at the position.
After the Eagles added several key defensive pieces in free agency, they can make a luxury pick here with the upside to be a potential franchise-changer in the near future.
5. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
The Lions have holes at both offensive tackle positions. Matthew Stafford has never had enough protection, and Jeff Backus’ retirement means left tackle becomes an even bigger need.
There’s a chance Eric Fisher won’t fall this far, but a team will likely have to trade up ahead of the Lions to acquire him. Should all things remain in some logical order in the top five picks, there’s little chance Martin Mayhew would pass on Fisher here. The need and value line up perfectly.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
The Browns took a chance on cornerback Joe Haden at No. 7 overall in 2010 and it worked out as well as they could have hoped. Haden is a terrific defender, but Cleveland doesn’t have a great option to play opposite him.
Buster Skrine was barely serviceable at the No. 2 corner position last season, and after a strong effort in free agency, Cleveland now has the luxury of addressing any number of positions at the top of the first round.
Dee Milliner isn’t as talented as some of the more recent No. 1 corners in the draft, but he has all the physical tools to develop into a shutdown corner at the NFL level.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
I’m not a proponent of any team taking a rookie quarterback without first having a serviceable offensive line in place, but Arizona could certainly use another option at the position. With the top two offensive tackles off the board, Matt Barkley has to be an option here.
As dangerous a pick as this would be, there’s almost no chance we don’t see quarterbacks rising up the draft board in the coming weeks.
8. Buffalo Bills: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Buffalo may be a player on the trade market on draft day, especially if Smith and Barkley fall outside the top three. Kevin Kolb will be a serviceable stop-gap signal-caller (giving the Bills the option of passing on a quarterback in the early rounds), but he’s not a long-term option.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will likely still be on the board when the Bills select in the second round, and with the obvious Orange connection between him and new head coach Doug Marrone, there’s reason to believe Buffalo will wait to address the position until at least Day 2.
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson is a tremendous talent at the wide receiver position and he would give Buffalo’s signal-caller a terrific option opposite Stevie Johnson. He has a mile-high ceiling with “No. 1” written all over him.
9. New York Jets: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Should Patterson fall past the Bills, he’ll be a serious contender for New York’s first-round selection. If he’s already off the board, look for the Jets to address other positional needs instead.
Finding a quality pass rusher should be at the top of John Idzik’s to-do list this offseason. The Jets didn’t field much of a pass rush last season, and they didn’t do much to address the need in free agency.
Jarvis Jones’ medical issues may scare off some teams in the top 10, but he has the talent to justify this pick. A true 3-4 outside linebacker with tremendous speed-rushing abilities, New York could easily find an immediate fit for him.
10. Tennessee Titans: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
If the first nine picks play out in this fashion, Tennessee will have some very favorable options at No. 10. Chance Warmack could certainly be in play, as well as Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
That said, the value in taking Star Lotulelei here is extremely high. He’s arguably the best defensive tackle in this draft class, and while he’s probably better suited for a two-gap system, he has the size, strength and first-step quickness to be a quality run-stuffer in a one-gap front.
11. San Diego Chargers: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
This would be an ideal pick for the San Diego Chargers. Left tackle is easily their biggest need, especially with the release of failed two-year experiment Jared Gaither as Marcus McNeill’s replacement.
There’s a chance Lane Johnson isn’t available here, but the top 10 is marred with unpredictability and positional needs. If things play out as they have so far, Johnson is an automatic pick here.
12. Miami Dolphins: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
My projection for Miami has changed almost every other day since free agency began. The Dolphins loaded up on the free-agent market, adding key players at several positions of need. It’s hard to find a position that wasn’t affected by an offseason acquisition.
Miami could look to move ahead of San Diego for Johnson, but the value in selecting Warmack with this pick is almost as good. He’s a mauler in the run game with the surprising quickness and flexibility to also be a quality A-gap pass-protector.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
The Buccaneers fielded the league’s worst pass defense in 2012, and addressing needs at the cornerback position will be a serious consideration in the first round.
Tampa Bay already inked safety Dashon Goldson to a five-year deal in free agency, meaning safety likely won’t be much of an option here. Instead, the Bucs can take the best available corner in Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Addressing the interior defensive line will have to be a consideration for Carolina this offseason. The Panthers don’t have a ton of holes, but getting stronger against the run will be a necessity.
Wide receiver could also be a possibility with Steve Smith on the wrong side of 30 and few other quality receiving options, but Patterson is already off the board and no other pass-catcher warrants a selection here.
Need and value line up with this pick. Sheldon Richardson has an extremely high ceiling with the versatility to play either the 1- or 3-technique in Carolina’s 4-3 front.
15. New Orleans Saints: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
It’s hard to get a good read on Barkevious Mingo’s draft stock. With athleticism and pass-rushing ability that is unmatched by anyone in this class, there’s the possibility he goes much higher in the first round.
Still, Mingo will have to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker to play in New Orleans’ 3-4 front, and he’s still a raw football player with a lot of room for growth. Mingo can play in space, but there will be some growing pains along the way.
16. St. Louis Rams: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The Rams have vacancies at both safety positions and while wide receiver is also a big need, Kenny Vaccaro presents the best value here. With another pick at No. 22, finding a weapon for Sam Bradford can wait a little longer.
Vaccaro is the most pro-ready safety in this draft class. With the ability to line up at either safety position or in the slot in nickel packages, St. Louis can get a player here who fills a big hole on the defensive side of the ball.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ezekiel Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU
The Steelers are undergoing some major changes this offseason and getting younger on defense seems to be one of Kevin Colbert’s main focuses.
The top safety and defensive tackles are already off the board, and with James Harrison’s release, outside linebacker is still a big positional need.
BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah is an extremely athletic pass rusher with a tremendously high ceiling in the NFL. He’s still very raw as a football player, but Dick LeBeau loves to develop his defensive players in their formative years with the team.
18. Dallas Cowboys: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 will require some additional pieces (weak-side linebacker, defensive tackle, safety), but those needs can be addressed in later rounds. After giving Tony Romo a massive contract extension, adding pieces to protect him have to be the No. 1 priority in the first round.
North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper is an extremely versatile interior lineman. He can step in immediately at left guard or center (or potentially right guard with a little more bulk) and shore up a unit that hasn’t been able to keep Romo on his feet in recent years.
19. New York Giants: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Rare circumstances in the draft sometimes cause a top-10 player to slide down the board in the first round. Bjoern Werner certainly has the talent to be a much higher selection, but value, need and fit just don’t line up enough to find a home for him before this pick.
New York needs a replacement for Osi Umenyiora who can play opposite Jason Pierre-Paul and create a pass-rushing element from both sides of the line.
Werner is a pure 4-3 defensive end with terrific pass-rushing abilities and enough versatility to also hold up on the strong-side in an edge-setting capacity.
20. Chicago Bears: Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia
Brian Urlacher’s departure leaves a big hole at the inside linebacker position. Chicago will likely make the position a priority in the early rounds, especially with the talent at inside linebacker this year.
Alec Ogletree came to college as a safety and his athleticism and versatility showed at Georgia. He would be a great fit in a Cover-2 scheme at the middle linebacker position.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Right tackle Andre Smith is a free agent and there’s no indication Cincinnati is anywhere close to re-signing him (per Pro Football Talk). If the Bengals can’t work out a new deal with Smith, expect offensive tackle to be on their draft-day wish list.
Alabama’s D.J. Fluker is a prototypical NFL right tackle with a huge frame and surprising quickness to be an asset in both the run and passing games. He’ll also be a much cheaper option than Smith.
22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
With the safety position already addressed, St. Louis can finally turn its attention to the offensive side of the ball. Bradford hasn’t had much to work with since the Rams drafted him in 2010, meaning the time has come to finally get him a big-time receiving threat.
Tavon Austin doesn’t have the size to be a traditional No. 1 target, but he’s an ideal fit at the slot in the NFL. He’s electric with the ball in his hands and there’s no denying the Rams’ need for a home-run hitter in the passing game.
23. Minnesota Vikings: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Minnesota would probably love for Austin to slip past St. Louis, but he may not even make it to the 20s. The Vikings will have to plan for another option, and Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins would be a good one.
Hopkins doesn’t have tremendous size or blazing speed, but he has the route-running ability and solid hands to be a good Z-receiver in the NFL. Paired with Greg Jennings, Minnesota can field a much more balanced offensive attack in 2013.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
General manager Ryan Grigson prefers the best-available-player approach to drafting. He had an easy choice at No. 1 overall last year, but picking at No. 24 this year won’t offer the same safety net.
Fortunately for Grigson, Indianapolis still has some big positional needs on both sides of the ball. Offensive tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker could all be possibilities here, but Washington’s Marcus Trufant offers the best value at a position of need.
25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle): Arthur Brown, ILB, Kansas State
With Hopkins locked up two picks earlier, the Vikings can use this selection on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle, inside linebacker and cornerback will all be in play here.
Fortunately for Minnesota, there are plenty of quality options at all three positions—the best of which is Kansas State’s Arthur Brown.
Brown has flown under the radar for much of the pre-draft process, but he has the talent to be a top-20 selection on Day 1 of the draft. With a quality mix of size, speed, instincts and pass-coverage ability, he’ll be a solid fit at middle linebacker in Minnesota’s 4-3 front.
26. Green Bay Packers: Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
Green Bay is one of the best teams in the NFL, but it has a lot of positions that still need to be shored up this offseason. Several defensive needs will make this pick a valuable asset.
With Vaccaro off the board, Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien would be a terrific second option. Apart from the Texas product, Cyprien is the most pro-ready safety in this class with the speed, range and aggressiveness to play either safety position.
Charles Woodson is gone, and Cyprien would make the loss sting a lot less.
27. Houston Texans: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Andre Johnson has been without a running mate for too long. He still has some good seasons yet to be played, but he’ll need another quality receiver to take the pressure off.
California’s Keenan Allen doesn’t possess the straight-line speed some NFL scouts would probably like to see, but he’s an all-around talent with good route-running ability and solid hands. Lined up opposite Johnson, the Texans can field a much better passing attack in 2013.
28. Denver Broncos: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Elvis Dumervil’s departure this offseason was both unfortunate and unexpected, but Denver has to move on and address the vacancy he left at defensive end.
This class is loaded with quality 4-3 defensive ends, and Damontre Moore would be a terrific fit to fill the position. He didn’t perform well at the combine, but he’s never been an athletic freak.
Moore’s value is in his high motor and innate ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, which is exactly what the Broncos need at the position.
29. New England Patriots: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
The Patriots lost Wes Welker in free agency and immediately signed Danny Amendola to a long-term contract. New England was looking to get younger at the slot receiver position, but the switch may also signal plans to rebuild its receiver corps from the ground up.
Tom Brady hasn’t had a true outside receiving threat since Randy Moss’ departure and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter would fit the bill.
He’s an electric playmaker with an extremely high ceiling, and as long as his surgically repaired knee holds up, Hunter can be a star in his first couple of seasons in New England.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
Atlanta was one of the few teams in the league that lost a lot of key pieces to free agency and managed to immediately recoup its losses. Defensive end and running back probably won’t be options here, but cornerback and defensive tackle will certainly be in play.
With the top three corners already off the board, defensive tackle seems like a good possibility. The Falcons struggled to stop the run last year, and beefing up its interior defensive line will go a long way toward doing so this season.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
San Francisco picked up an extra second-round pick in the Alex Smith trade, meaning this selection will be all about value. With plenty of needs on the defensive side of the ball, the 49ers can use it to select the best player on their draft board.
At Alabama, Jesse Williams played in one of the few true 3-4 fronts in college football under Nick Saban.
Saban moved him around the line at both nose tackle and defensive end, and he could play a similar role with the 49ers, giving them both depth and a potential long-term starter at any position on the defensive line.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Matt Elam, S, Florida
With Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard leaving in free agency, Ozzie Newsome will have to consider safety a top priority in the draft. Linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver could also be options if the value is consistent.
As it stands, Florida’s Matt Elam would be a great fit in a secondary now lacking a heavy hitter at the strong safety position. He needs some work in coverage, but Elam has a lot of potential to develop into a terrific all-around safety.