Don’t expect this year’s NFL draft to be anything like those of recent years. Don’t expect it to be much different, either.
Expectations go out the window when the selection process begins. As much as we would like to know what will happen in late April, there’s really no template to follow, and there’s certainly no such thing as a sure thing.
So many aspects of the draft get blown out of proportion in the weeks leading up to the first round, but one thing will always hold true: predicting first-round selections is as speculative as anything in sports.
Draft analysts are always looking for a formula or set of constants to project picks, but there’s a reason no one has found one. NFL teams make their picks based on an immeasurable amount of variables, including need, value, fit and pure instincts. Not knowing what those general managers and coaches know, we’re essentially in the dark.
But mock drafts still fill a very important purpose. In projecting picks, we can better understand team needs and player value prior to draft day.
Let’s take a look at some projections for the first round this year, highlighting some players who could be selected surprisingly high on Day 1 of the draft.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
With so much uncertainty in this year’s draft, it’s comforting to know there’s at least one pick that is a virtual lock at this point in the process.
Kansas City could certainly go in another direction with the first overall pick, but the options are limited. There aren’t a ton of players with enough value to warrant the selection.
Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel is the best player in this draft class. His skill set projects extremely well to the NFL game, and his ceiling is sky high. Unless something unforeseen happens in the next couple weeks, Joeckel will remain the clear-cut favorite to be the first player chosen.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon
In most years, the top five picks in the draft are pretty obvious. While there’s never a guarantee, analysts typically have a pretty good idea which players will be top selections.
This year is much different.
Without the presence of an elite quarterback in this draft class, teams picking in the first five selections don’t have an obvious choice to make.
Jacksonville might consider West Virginia’s Geno Smith here, but Blaine Gabbert deserves another year to prove what he can do, especially with a new coaching staff in place. Given the Jaguars’ ineptitude at pass-rushing positions, Dion Jordan would be a safe pick with a ton of upside.
3. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Like Jacksonville, Oakland has several positional needs. Need doesn’t always factor into draft picks, but it’s almost essential in the top three picks.
Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is an elite interior pass-rusher with the size, explosiveness and strength to be a tremendous one-gap defensive tackle in the NFL. He’ll instantly upgrade Oakland’s pass rush and give the Raiders a true playmaker on their defensive line.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Philadelphia will be transitioning to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Billy Davis, and adding a top defensive lineman like Star Lotulelei would be a good idea to make the transition as smooth one.
The Utah product has the frame to hold up in a 2-gap system, and it actually might be a better fit for him. Lotulelei doesn’t have incredible quickness or explosiveness off the snap, but he has the anchor to hold up against double-teams and play anywhere from 1-technique to 5-technique in a three-man front.
5. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
Jeff Backus’ retirement and the departure of Gosder Cherilus in free agency makes offensive tackle a necessity for Detroit with this pick. The Lions need a quality pass-protector to keep Matthew Stafford on his feet.
Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is easily one of the most talented left tackles in this draft class. He isn’t quite as polished in pass protection as Joeckel, but he has an equally high ceiling. The more athletic of the two, Fisher has the potential to be a top-tier blindside protector in the NFL.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
This would be a prime spot for a team like Miami to move up to get its left tackle. Cleveland may not end up with this pick when it’s all said and done.
But because trades are extremely hard to predict at this point in the process, we have to go with what we know. The Browns shored up their pass-rushing unit in free agency, but they still need a quality cornerback to pair with Joe Haden. Milliner is the best in this draft class and would be an instant upgrade over Buster Skrine opposite Haden.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
In adding Carson Palmer this offseason, Arizona shored up one of its biggest position needs. The Cardinals still need a left tackle, though.
After passing on offensive linemen until the fourth round last year, the Cardinals put themselves in a hole out of which they are still trying to climb. Offensive line needs to be a priority early in this draft.
Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson is an extremely athletic, mobile left tackle with quick feet and tremendous potential at the position. If Joeckel and Fisher are off the board after the top five picks, expect several teams to try to trade up to select Johnson.
8. Buffalo Bills: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Smith is the most polarizing player in this draft class. No two analysts seem to have the same opinion on his skills, talent level or pro potential.
While he doesn’t have the same elite talent of Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III of a year ago, Smith is still a terrific quarterback prospect with the athleticism and strong arm teams covet.
Love him or hate him, Smith is going to be a top 10 pick in this draft. Buffalo certainly need a new signal-caller, and Kevin Kolb isn’t the long-term answer.
9. New York Jets: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Jarvis Jones isn’t an explosive athlete, but that doesn’t mean teams will be afraid to select him in the top half of the first round.
Jones isn’t especially fast or deceptively quick, but his football skills project well to the NFL level, particularly at the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 front.
Jones has the speed-rushing ability to be a factor on third down, as well as the instincts and toughness to produce against both the pass and the run. The Jets need a three-down linebacker to shore up a unit that struggled to get after opposing quarterbacks in 2012.
10. Tennessee Titans: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Tennessee already added Andy Levitre in free agency, but it lost Steve Hutchinson to retirement and still needs to solidify an interior offensive line that has been far too ineffective the last couple years.
If Chris Johnson is to continue to produce at a high level, the Titans need to keep adding to their offensive line. Chance Warmack is arguably the best run-blocking offensive guard since Mike Iupati in 2010, and Tennessee will be wise to pull the trigger at No. 10.
11. San Diego Chargers: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
San Diego probably won’t stand pat if Johnson and Warmack are available outside the top five picks. The Chargers need offensive linemen in the worst way, and securing one of the best in the draft is a strong possibility.
Again, trades are hard to project, and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper is still on the board. If the Chargers don’t trade up, expect Cooper to be at the top of their draft board at No. 11.
12. Miami Dolphins: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
With so many positional needs already address through free agency, the Dolphins have the freedom to play the value game here. Cornerback is still a considerable need, though.
If Warmack or Cooper are still available, expect Miami to rush to the podium for him, but that doesn’t seem like a serious possibility at this point.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Should things go differently in the top 12, Rhodes may end up falling past Miami and into Tampa Bay’s lap. With the draft’s second-best corner off the board, the Buccaneers may turn their attention elsewhere.
Defensive tackle isn’t a huge need, but the prospect of pairing Gerald McCoy with another tremendous tackle in 2013 may be too good to pass up. Richardson is probably better suited for a 2-gap system in the NFL, but he has the frame and lower-body strength to hold up in a 1-gap 4-3 front.
14. Carolina Panthers: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Carolina holds the first pick in this round with a true value-heavy upside. The Panthers could go a number of directions with this pick, including defensive tackle, wide receiver and cornerback.
With the top three tackles already off the board, the Panthers may choose to address a secondary that lost cornerback Chris Gamble to retirement this offseason. Washington’s Desmond Trufant would be a terrific fit to replace him.
15. New Orleans Saints: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
Barkevious Mingo is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He has the upside to warrant a top 10 selection, but he’s still incredibly raw with a lot of room for development.
Given New Orleans’ needs at the outside linebacker position, it may choose to gamble here, though. Mingo’s athleticism and edge-rushing ability are among the best in this draft class.
16. St. Louis Rams: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Patterson could easily be selected in the top 10 this year, but the market at the receiver position has been filling up this offseason. With no terrific fit before this selection, St. Louis may luck into the player it desperately needs.
Sam Bradford needs a true No. 1 receiving option. Patterson, though still very raw in many areas, has the athleticism and speed to be an elite X-receiver in the NFL.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
The Steelers didn’t lose many defensive starters this offseason, but they still need a lot of depth, especially at the safety position.
Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro could play either safety position in the NFL, but he would benefit from development behind two of the best safeties in the league.
18. Dallas Cowboys: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
This is a home run pick for the Cowboys. They are in desperate need of offensive line help, especially at right tackle and guard. Fluker can play either.
Defensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety are all possibilities here as well, but those needs could be addressed in later rounds.
19. New York Giants: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah may not fall this far in the first round, but three years of football experience will worry teams looking for an immediate starter. Ansah has a lot of room for development.
An extremely athletic pass-rusher with great size and speed, Ansah would be a great fit opposite Jason Pierre-Paul. If he falls outside the top 15, don’t expect him to make it past New York here.
20. Chicago Bears: Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia
The Bears need to find a replacement for Brian Urlacher, and Alec Ogletree would be tremendous fit to fill the void. His athleticism and background as a safety would make him a good fit to play zone coverage in Chicago’s Cover 2 schemes.
Off-field concerns may push Ogletree down a bit in the first round, but his talent and potential won’t facilitate too steep a drop on Day 1.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
Right tackle Andre Smith is still on the free-agent market and there’s been no indication Cincinnati will choose to re-sign him, especially with a much cheaper option potentially available at No. 21 in the draft.
If Fluker is still available, he’ll be a more likely selection, but Menelik Watson is a nice consolation prize. He player predominantly right tackle at Florida State, and while he could certainly transition to left tackle in the NFL, the Bengals won’t need him to do so early in his career.
22. St. Louis Rams (from Washington): Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
With a quality wide receiver already locked up, the Rams can turn their attention to the defensive side of the ball and a position without a whole lot of talent.
Vacancies at both safety positions will force St. Louis to address the positions early in the draft. With Jonathan Cyprien still on the board, it has an easy decision to make.
With the speed, range and aggressiveness to play either free or strong safety in the NFL, Cyprien can be an immediate starter at the back end of St. Louis’ defense.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Sometimes projecting need-based picks causes value to be pushed down the board.
West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is the most electric playmaker in this draft class, and his speed, quickness and big-play ability will be coveted by several teams in the first round—Minnesota included.
Given the depth at the receiver position in this class, one of the top receivers may end up being a huge steal in the bottom half of the first round.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
General manager Ryan Grigson loves to base his picks off a best-player-available approach. If the first round plays out as it has so far, Grigson won’t hesitate to select Bjoern Werner.
The Florida State product has the athleticism to play in space in a 3-4, but he didn’t do much of that in college. A true 4-3 defensive end, Werner will have to transition to outside linebacker to play in Indianapolis’ 3-4 front.
25. Minnesota Vikings (from Seattle): Arthur Brown, ILB, Kansas State
After selecting a receiver to pair with Greg Jennings, the Vikings can look to add another quality defender to strengthen a linebacking corps in need of some youth.
Middle linebacker needs to be addressed this offseason, and Kansas State’s Arthur Jones would be a great option. His size, speed and versatility could make Brown a candidate to play any of the three linebacker positions in Minnesota’s 4-3 front.
26. Green Bay Packers: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
Cyprien would be a tremendous pick here, but he’s already off the board. Without another safety worth a selection here, Green Bay can address another need on the defensive side of the ball.
UCLA’s Datone Jones is an ideal 3-4 weak-side defensive end. His combination of size, strength and first-step quickness would be a great fit for Green Bay’s nontraditional 2-gap front.
27. Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
While Houston could certainly use some help at a few key defensive positions, wide receiver is a much more glaring concern. Andre Johnson needs a running mate if he is to remain productive going forward.
If DeAndre Hopkins is still available here, Houston can’t afford to pass on him. An ideal Z-receiver in the NFL, he’ll complement Johnson well.
28. Denver Broncos: Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State
An ACL tear last season has limited Tank Carradine’s draft stock. When healthy, he’s one of the most dominant pass-rushers in this draft class.
The loss of Elvis Dumervil to free agency will necessitate a replacement, potentially in the first round of the draft. Carradine would fit well in Denver’s 4-3 front and has the potential to replace Dumervil’s pass-rushing production at the position.
29. New England Patriots: Keenan Allen, WR, California
New England still needs to beef up its secondary this offseason, but Keenan Allen is too good to pass on here, especially for a team seemingly interested in rebuilding its receiving corps.
The California product doesn’t have great straight-line speed, but terrific route-running ability and strong hands will make him a top-four receiver in this draft.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
Atlanta has rejuvenated its defense this offseason with some fresh faces, but a lot of work still needs to be done. With a big need to fill at defensive end (opposite Osi Umenyiora), Damontre Moore makes a ton of sense here.
A productive pass-rusher at Texas A&M, Moore has the innate ability to get after opposing quarterbacks. He isn’t particularly athletic, but he’ll find a home somewhere in the first round.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
Depth is an essential part of any roster, and San Francisco lacks it on the defensive line. With plenty of picks in this draft class, look for the 49ers to add quite a bit of it.
Jesse Williams played in one of college football’s true 3-4 fronts at Alabama, moving around the line in all three positions. Depth in three-man fronts is often contingent on size and versatility, and Williams offers plenty.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Matt Elam, S, Florida
This pick will be fairly easy for Ozzie Newsome. If trading back doesn’t seem to be a possibility at No. 32, the Newsome will choose the best player available at a position of need, as he has done so often in recent years.
Linebacker, wide receiver and safety will all be possibilities here, and Florida safety Matt Elam is among the most talented still available at any of those positions. A heavy hitter and prototypical in-the-box safety, Elam can fill the void left by Bernard Pollard.