The bulk of the league’s free agents have been signed, which paints a clearer picture heading up to the NFL draft. Teams have been given an opportunity to upgrade their roster by signing the best talent in the free-agent market.
The draft will be the next chance for head coaches to get their rosters in order for training camp. The talent pool this year is seen to be weaker at the top but deeper in the middle. There’s no clear-cut first overall pick, and there’s a possibility only one quarterback goes in the first round.
What will be interesting is seeing which teams trade up to select their franchise signal-caller or a stud defensive end that pressured the opposing quarterback. In keeping with the general mock draft rules, I did not project any trades.
There’s no way the Kansas City Chiefs can pass on Luke Joeckel. Andy Reid knows the value of a quality left tackle, as Tra Thomas and Jason Peters have made a combined six Pro Bowls under his coaching tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. That made life much easier for Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.
Joeckel can lock up the blind side spot for the next decade. He’s a three-year starter at left tackle and has the ability to completely shut down the best pass-rushers. Joeckel would allow the Chiefs to move Branden Albert inside to left guard (or simply trade him, as Albert was a no-show at voluntary team workouts).
Reid has done a terrific job of setting up Alex Smith to succeed. He re-signed Dwayne Bowe to a five-year deal and he’s got a fantastic running back in Jamaal Charles. Adding Joeckel is the next step to maximize Smith’s abilities as a quarterback.
Previous Pick: Same
It’s doubtful the Jacksonville Jaguars will move on from Blaine Gabbert already. He’s shown little promise as a franchise quarterback but he lacks weapons on offense. He’s played just two seasons as a pro.
That being said, the best player on the board comes from the defensive side of the ball. It’s a toss-up between defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Dee Milliner, or defensive end Dion Jordan. Any of the group will make the Jaguars better.
Considering the Jaguars ranked last in the league with 20 sacks last year, Jordan is the guy. He lined up at a handful of positions at the University of Oregon, even covering slot receivers. Jordan is a player the Jaguars will need if they’re going to be facing Andrew Luck twice annually for the next decade.
He can line up at end, outside linebacker, and even tackle. The ideal scenario is that Jordan develops into a player similar to what Julian Peterson was for the San Francisco 49ers in his prime.
Previous Pick: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
The recent trade for Matt Flynn throws a curveball into the mix. Oakland seemed like heavy favorites to select Geno Smith given Carson Palmer’s base salary for 2013. But Flynn may be in for another rough season like he endured in Seattle last year.
He’s no guarantee to start, regardless of the quarterback he’s competing against during training camp. And considering it may be Smith, that doesn’t bode well for Flynn.
Smith has physical tools suggesting he can be a playmaker. He ran a better-than-expected 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. His stats as a senior (42 touchdowns, seven interceptions) were phenomenal, and he looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate for the first half of the season. Smith also has the speed to make plays with his feet, which will be essential for a team that lacks quality wide receivers.
If the Raiders want to turn back into a contender, they’re going to need a quarterback that can win games. If Smith is there at pick three, he should become the franchise’s new signal-caller.
Previous Pick: Same
Logic seems to suggest the Philadelphia Eagles would go with offensive tackle Eric Fisher or cornerback Dee Milliner at this point. Each would fill a position of need—Fisher would allow Todd Herremans to move inside to guard, replacing Danny Watkins. And Milliner would shore up a secondary that allowed a franchise-worst 33 touchdown passes in 2012.
But the switch to a 3-4 defense should prompt the Eagles to go with a lineman. Isaac Sopoaga was added as a stopgap nose tackle, although Chip Kelly could use some younger, athletic players.
Sharrif Floyd was a tremendous lineman at the University of Florida, lining up almost everywhere on the line. He lacks the ideal size to play as a nose tackle, but he and Fletcher Cox would be the NFL’s best set of 3-4 ends. Floyd is viewed as a very safe pick, and it’s highly doubtful Kelly will regret this selection.
Previous Pick: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
Eric Fisher to the Detroit Lions is a no-brainer. Longtime left tackle Jeff Backus retired and Gosder Cherilus signed with the Indianapolis Colts in free agency.
Riley Reiff will fill one of the tackle spots but there’s still a need. Fisher’s stock continues to rise, and he has an outside chance to supplant Luke Joeckel as the number one overall player taken. Fisher has played nearly every position on the offensive line at college. If Riley Reiff falters at left tackle, Fisher could take over. If Reiff excels, Fisher can play right tackle. Fisher can even play guard if necessary.
He’s just 305 pounds, which means he could afford to add 15-20 pounds. But if he becomes a Lion, the team has a solid pair of bookend tackles for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Previous Pick: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
If Dee Milliner falls to the sixth spot, the Cleveland Browns have to be thrilled. Milliner is the most complete cornerback in the draft, and he played a key role in the last two Alabama national championships.
Milliner has the skill set to shut down some of the game’s elite receivers. He led the nation with 22 passes defensed in 2012 and posted a phenomenal 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine. He even matched up well against Notre Dame’s top tight end, Tyler Eifert, in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Browns have an up-and-coming defense that would benefit greatly from the addition of Milliner. Milliner lined up opposite Joe Haden would cause trouble for a lot of AFC teams.
Previous Pick: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Quarterback seems to be a dire position of need for the Arizona Cardinals, but new head coach Bruce Arians just traded for Carson Palmer. He also had high praise for left tackle Levi Brown and right tackles Bobby Massie and Nate Potter, which means the Arizona Cardinals will likely opt to improve the defense.
There’s no better player left on the board than BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah is what the Cardinals will need to stop Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and the new spread offense revolutionizing the NFL.
Ansah had limited production in college but he’s got tremendous size (6’5”, 274 pounds), and he projects to be a force as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper. By choosing Ansah, Arizona may be getting themselves a Jason Pierre-Paul type of player. Any hope of supplanting the Niners and the Seahawks in the NFC West begins with Ansah.
Previous Pick: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
The eighth overall pick may be a bit of a reach but wide receiver is a dire need for the Buffalo Bills. Stevie Johnson has been heavily campaigning for the team to add another receiver, notably Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey recently reached an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts and he wouldn’t be near the upgrade that Tavon Austin would be. The Bills elected not to re-sign Donald Jones and allowed David Nelson to walk in free agency. That means last year’s third-round pick T.J. Graham is currently the No. 2 receiver on the roster.
Austin has averaged 107 receptions, 1,237 yards, and 10 touchdowns the last two seasons. He’s a downfield threat a la DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace, and that earned Austin a First-Team All-American selection in 2011. Austin doesn’t have ideal size but his speed will make him a threat in the NFL for Kevin Kolb or whichever player is the Bills’ quarterback in 2013.
Previous Pick: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Ryan has added three consecutive first-round picks on defense (Kyle Wilson, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Quinton Coples), and Star Lotulelei would make four. Factoring in that the New York Jets are likely to trade away Darrelle Revis, they could use all the defensive playmakers they can get.
Lotulelei projects to be a star 3-4 nose tackle, which is fitting considering the Jets just released Sione Pouha. Lotulelei is a terrific pass-rusher and he’s a strong run-stopper as well. Assuming his heart condition checks out, Ryan can’t pass on Lotulelei. Lotulelei, Wilkerson, and Coples would be a phenomenal 3-4 defensive line to pressure Tom Brady.
Previous Pick: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
There are several areas of need for the Tennessee Titans. Another wide receiver would be a huge addition. Guard, defensive tackle, and safety could also afford to be upgraded.
At this point, Sheldon Richardson is too good to ignore. Mock drafts across the nation have the Missouri product rising up boards, and the Titans would have to be thrilled if he’s still available with the 10th pick.
Richardson is impossibly quick off the snap, and he’s an elite pass rusher from the 4-3 defensive tackle spot. He should bring out the best in defensive ends Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, while allowing the Titans to utilize a rotation of Mike Martin and Karl Klug at the interior line positions.
Previous Pick: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
If Lane Johnson is still around at pick 11, there’s no way the San Diego Chargers can possibly turn him down. This is a franchise that desperately needs offensive line help to extend Philip Rivers’ career.
Free-agent signings like King Dunlap and Chad Rinehart aren’t an upgrade at all. Jared Gaither is a fine left tackle but he can’t stay healthy. Johnson is an extremely athletic player who would be a day one starter as Rivers’ blindside protector.
Johnson has played everywhere on the football field, from quarterback to tight end to defensive end. He’s a rock-solid player in pass protection with the quickness to handle the division’s finest speed-rushers like Von Miller and Tamba Hali. He’s got some obvious bust potential considering he’s extremely raw at left tackle. Then again, his natural athleticism could turn him into one of the game’s best blockers.
Previous Pick: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
If Dee Milliner falls past the Detroit Lions at pick five, the Miami Dolphins are logical suitors to trade up and acquire him. The Dolphins allowed Sean Smith to walk in free agency a year after trading away Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts. There’s no way the team really wants to start Nolan Carroll all year.
Desmond Trufant was a good cover corner at the University of Washington, frequently covering the opposing team’s best receiver. He has the skills to succeed in the NFL, and he ran an impressive 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He’s the second-best corner in the draft, and picking him at 12 is a slight reach but a necessary move for Miami to compete with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Previous Pick: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are finally getting strong results out of 2010 first-round pick Gerald McCoy. Pairing him with another stud defensive lineman would really improve the pass rush, especially with the loss of Michael Bennett in free agency.
Werner had 13 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss in 2012, and he’s talented enough to be a 4-3 end at the NFL level. He could certainly afford to put on some more weight to his 255-pound frame, but the Buccaneers need a defensive end badly enough that they will have to overlook his smaller stature.
Werner’s job would be to minimize the effectiveness of quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, whom the Buccaneers face four times annually.
Previous Pick: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Kenny Vaccaro is a talented defensive player who should go in the top half of the first round. The Carolina Panthers need a serious upgrade over last year’s starting safeties, Haruki Nakamura and Charles Godfrey.
Vaccaro was a terrific player in pass coverage at Texas, and that’s what makes him the best safety in the draft. Vaccaro can cover slot receivers, receivers out wide, and he can assist in the running game. That’s a significant upgrade to a defense that ranked 18th in scoring last year and 23rd in interceptions, and one that should make an impact for many years.
Previous Pick: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The New Orleans Saints desperately need improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The 2012 squad surrendered an all-time record 7,042 yards, allowing an average of nearly 30 points per game.
With Jarvis Jones and Barkevious Mingo both on the board, the Saints have to choose one of them. Mingo is a safer pick, considering Jones’ injury history. Mingo is undersized but he can still thrive in a 3-4. He is extremely explosive off the line and he has the ability to post double-digit sacks in year one.
Mingo racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss in 2012 playing 4-3 end. Assuming he can successfully transition to Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense, he could be a perennial Pro Bowler. Mingo will also make life easier for former first-round pick Cameron Jordan, who is still waiting for his breakout campaign.
Previous Pick: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
There seems to be a common rule on draft days that guards don’t go in the top 15. Because of this, the St. Louis Rams may find themselves in prime position to snatch up Alabama guard Chance Warmack, a phenomenal prospect with the ability to be a future All-Pro.
Adding Warmack to a line that already just upgraded with Jake Long would help save the career of Sam Bradford. There’s no way the Rams can pass on a prospect of Warmack’s caliber. Even if Warmack is gone, the Rams need to strongly consider taking North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, the second-best guard in the draft.
Warmack would take over a left guard spot that saw a rotation of journeymen manning the spot in 2012. He’s NFL-ready and dominated tough Notre Dame competition in the BCS National Championship Game. He’s the kind of player that the Rams can pencil in at guard and not look back.
Previous Pick: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
Jarvis Jones to the Pittsburgh Steelers seems to be a logical fit. The Steelers’ aging defense has moved on from veterans Aaron Smith, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, and James Farrior in the last 12 months.
Jones is a pass-rushing phenomenon like Von Miller. He put up 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for a loss in 2012. And he’s been medically cleared to play by doctors, which should bode well for his NFL future. If he lives up to his potential, the Steelers are getting themselves a steal.
The Steelers are also built to win now. If Jones’ career ends up being short, they should be able to get prime production while Ben Roethlisberger is still under center.
Previous Pick: Jarvis Jones, DE/OLB, Georgia
The Dallas Cowboys desperately need an upgrade on the offensive line. Adding Jonathan Cooper would allow the Cowboys to move on from free-agent signing Mackenzy Bernadeau, who vastly disappointed in 2012.
Cooper is every bit the prospect Chance Warmack is. He turned in an outstanding performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, putting up 35 reps on the bench press and running a 5.07 40-yard dash. Cooper is an outstanding pass blocker and equally as effective as a run blocker. Some people even believe Cooper is better than Warmack, which means the Cowboys don’t have to trade up at all.
He was a First-Team All-American selection as a senior, and there’s reason to believe that will translate to elite status in the National Football League. The Cowboys are set with Tyron Smith as their blindside protector, and adding Cooper softens the blow of having Doug Free on the right side.
Previous Pick: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
There’s several ways the New York Giants could go with this pick. They need a defensive end, especially now that Osi Umenyiora left in free agency. The offensive line could use an upgrade and the defense was 31st in total yards allowed in 2012, which means there’s some work to be done there.
Alec Ogletree is the best player left, and he fills a serious need. Ogletree is far and above the most talented inside linebacker in the draft. The Giants got just adequate play from Chase Blackburn in 2012, and he’s departed for the Carolina Panthers. Mark Herzlich and Jacquian Williams are best suited as rotational linebackers.
Ogletree is the real deal at middle linebacker. If he didn’t have character concerns, he would go in the top 10-12 picks. Ogletree would be a key piece in containing the Washington Redskins’ new spread option and the speedy weapons in Philadelphia.
Previous Pick: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
It’s likely that the Chicago Bears have lost defensive end Israel Idonije in free agency. Julius Peppers is still a terrific player, but like Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, this defense is full of players over 30 years old.
Damontre Moore helps the Bears get younger. He is a talented pass rusher who was set to go in the top five to 10 overall picks before a disappointing Scouting Combine performance. Moore’s production was there last year though, as he picked up 12.5 sacks in just 13 games.
The problem seems to be his work ethic. He wore down as 2012 went on, playing three consecutive sackless games to close out the campaign. And his numbers (4.95 40, 12 reps on the bench press) were awful. His sack total was still impressive enough that he’s a first-round prospect.
Previous Pick: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
It seems highly unlikely that right tackle Andre Smith will return to the Cincinnati Bengals, although low interest in free agency may send him back.
But not if the Bengals take D.J. Fluker, as projected here. Fluker is a natural right tackle, which allows stud tackle Andrew Whitworth to remain the blindside protector. Fluker has terrific size at 6’6” and close to 340 pounds. He’s a better run blocker than pass blocker, grading out extremely well as in run protection.
His struggles against speed-rushers will have to be fixed, but he still allows the Bengals to replace Smith at a much cheaper price. Fluker’s presence, coupled with Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, give the Bengals a terrific offensive line.
Previous Pick: Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia
The St. Louis Rams need to surround Sam Bradford with weapons soon, or they’ll watch the number one overall pick continue to struggle.
Jared Cook was a good start, as the athletic tight end has the speed of a wide receiver. But the Rams lost slot receiver Danny Amendola, and counting on Brian Quick or Chris Givens to be a number one threat is risky. Drafting Justin Hunter allows the Rams a trio of talented receivers that are all young and developing.
Hunter is a big target, at 6’4”, and he runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. Hunter saw his numbers drop in 2012, but that’s because he was asked to block more than ever before. What that does is make Hunter more versatile for the NFL.
Previous Pick: Keenan Allen, WR, California
Despite the acquisition of Greg Jennings, the Minnesota Vikings could still use another wide receiver. Or two.
Keenan Allen is every bit as good a prospect as Justin Hunter, which makes the Vikings fortunate to be in a position to draft him 23rd. Allen is an electrifying playmaker who can score from anywhere on the field. He was even an explosive return man in college, and could replace Percy Harvin in that aspect.
Christian Ponder has struggled thus far, and Allen will be good for Ponder’s development. Expecting Jairus Wright or Greg Childs to start opposite Jennings would be a recipe for disaster.
Previous Pick: Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
The Indianapolis Colts would probably love if one of the big three receivers fell to them at pick 24, especially considering Reggie Wayne’s age. After all, Darrius Heyward-Bey won’t push them over the top.
But the Colts need to improve many positions on their roster. They were 11-5 last year, but allowed 30 more points than they scored. Fixing their 26th-rated total defense is a must, and losing Dwight Freeney won’t help.
Alex Okafor is a good replacement though. He’s a pass-rusher who will line up at 3-4 outside linebacker and he has the talent to post double-digit sacks as a rookie. Okafor was phenomenal in his last-ever collegiate game, picking up 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss against quality competition. That’s production that will vault Okafor into the first round.
Previous Pick: Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB, LSU
For years, the Minnesota Vikings thrived with a pair of Williams manning the interior defensive line spots. Pat has since retired, and Kevin is 33 years old, entering his 11th NFL season in 2013.
Johnathan Hankins is a quality player that can start next to Kevin Williams. He is versatile enough that he is an asset to any team. Hankins is 6’4”, 322 pounds, giving him the size to even play zero-technique nose tackle should the Vikings ever switch to a 3-4.
And in a 4-3, Hankins will thrive. He’s a tremendous run-stopper. He’s not the finest pass-rusher but the Vikings won’t struggle to get sacks as long as Jared Allen is on the roster. Hankins is a best player available addition for the Vikings, but he also fills a huge position of need.
Previous Pick: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (pick belonged to Seattle)
Tyler Eifert may be just a tight end but he’s probably the best player available at this point, and he’s a tremendous talent.
Jermichael Finley is a free agent after 2013, and he probably won’t return. Eifert and Finley will give the Green Bay Packers a devastating tight end duo for one season before Eifert becomes the go-to guy for Aaron Rodgers.
That’s in addition to wide receivers Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones, all of whom will keep the Packers as one of the more prolific in the business. Eifert is an athletic red-zone target at 6’6”, and he is an every-down player that can make plays.
Eifert is the classic tight end that is too big for safeties and too fast for linebackers. Pairing him with the game’s best quarterback will reap positive results.
Previous Pick: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
The Houston Texans have a loaded roster, although they could still use a serious upgrade at wide receiver next to Andre Johnson. The problem is it may be too much of a reach to draft DeAndre Hopkins or Terrance Williams in the first round, which puts the Texans looking to upgrade their defense.
Glover Quin left in free agency, and the Texans need a player that can cause trouble for Andrew Luck. Matt Elam was a playmaker at the University of Florida, doing everything from covering wide receivers to stopping the run to pressuring the quarterback to making big hits.
The knock on Elam is that he’s overly aggressive and can be flagged for costly penalties. That’s not that bad of a thing factoring in the potential he has to make plays. He will be vital as the Texans try to defeat rosters headed by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Luck.
Previous Pick: Same
It’s been just four years since the Denver Broncos spent a first-round pick on Knowshon Moreno, but he hasn’t produced. Eddie Lacy is too good at this point to pass up.
The team gave Peyton Manning another playmaker in the offseason, signing for All-Pro slot receiver Wes Welker. A roster of Manning, Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Eddie Lacy would be one of the league’s finest. That’s an offense that can average 30 points per game for an entire year.
Eddie Lacy is a bruising runner that would be Manning’s finest running back since Edgerrin James. He won’t see too many eight or nine-man fronts with Manning under center.
Previous Pick: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
The New England Patriots have made steady moves to improve their defense over the last several seasons. Jerod Mayo is a stud at linebacker. Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork are terrific defensive linemen. And players like Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson are future stars at their respective positions.
Adding another defensive tackle next to Wilfork would make the defense even better. Kawann Short of Purdue is a borderline first-round prospect who would fit well in a 4-3. He’s a clear upgrade over Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, each of whom is best suited as a backup.
Short is a natural pass-rusher, even from the inside tackle position. He led Purdue with six sacks in 2012, also picking up 12 tackles for a loss.
Previous Pick: Same
Even with the signing of Osi Umenyiora, the Atlanta Falcons still need more defensive ends. John Abraham was released during the offseason and Ray Edwards was a colossal flop. That means the Falcons will have to go with Kroy Biermann or Cliff Matthews opposite Umenyiora if they don’t upgrade.
The best pass rushers in the draft have been selected by this point but Datone Jones is still a good option. He’s not a complete pass rusher like some of the other players but he’s a solid all-around end that can also line up at tackle on some plays.
Jones is 280 pounds and has NFL strength, which should make him an asset to the Falcons. He only picked up 5.5 sacks in 2012 but he’s a talented run-stopper and projects to be a good NFL player.
Previous Pick: Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
The San Francisco 49ers were heavily linked to Darrelle Revis in trade talks but that seems to have passed. The asking price for Revis would be extremely high, which is risky for a player coming off Revis’s knee injury.
Drafting Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes would give the Niners a young cornerback that can make an impact on the defense. Rhodes would likely play the nickel role as a rookie behind Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, although he has the size that he’s best suited on the outside. Rhodes is big enough that he could even move to safety should the 49ers have interest in moving him.
Rhodes ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and posted an impressive vertical leap, which would instantly make him one of the NFL’s more athletic corners. He is a terrific playmaker of his own. He’s no Revis but the price to obtain Rhodes would be significantly less.
Previous Pick: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
The Baltimore Ravens could definitely use an upgrade at center now that Matt Birk retired. However, top prospect Barrett Jones suffered a lisfranc injury near the end of the season that could sideline him for the start of his NFL career. That drops Jones’ stock to the second or third round.
Controversial linebacker Manti Te’o may be the finest fit for John Harbaugh’s defense. Te’o would join a linebacking corps that took a major hit this offseason, losing Ray Lewis (retirement), Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns), and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins). Te’o has his well-documented off-the-field issues and he was brutal in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
But that shouldn’t negate his entire collegiate career at Notre Dame. Te’o was a Heisman Trophy candidate for the Fighting Irish, leading his team with 113 tackles. He’s a bit undersized for the NFL and didn’t run well in the 40-yard dash. A 3-4 defense may be a good fit for Te’o, who could still be a good fit for a coach willing to take a chance on him.