Mel Kiper Jr. is perhaps the most respected NFL draft analyst in the business, which is why the release of his first 2016 mock draft Thursday on ESPN.com feels very much like the official start of draft season.
While the latter portion of the draft order has yet to be determined because of the ongoing NFL playoffs, much of the order is already set in stone, which means most organizations are starting to focus on preparations ahead of April's draft.
A lot will change between now and draft night as players improve or hurt their stock at the NFL Scouting Combine, but the tape generally doesn't lie when it comes to top prospects.
With several months of evaluation still in the offing, here is a rundown of Kiper's first 2016 first-round mock draft, along with a closer look at some of the most intriguing picks.
|1||Tennessee Titans||Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State|
|2||Cleveland Browns||Jared Goff, QB, California|
|3||San Diego Chargers||Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss|
|4||Dallas Cowboys||DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon|
|5||Jacksonville Jaguars||Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State|
|6||Baltimore Ravens||Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame|
|7||San Francisco 49ers||Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss|
|8||Miami Dolphins||Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson|
|9||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida|
|10||New York Giants||Myles Jack, LB, UCLA|
|11||Chicago Bears||Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama|
|12||New Orleans Saints||A'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama|
|13||Philadelphia Eagles||Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss|
|14||Oakland Raiders||Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State|
|15||Los Angeles Rams||Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis|
|16||Detroit Lions||Jarran Reed, DL, Alabama|
|17||Atlanta Falcons||Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson|
|18||Indianapolis Colts||Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State|
|19||Buffalo Bills||Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama|
|20||New York Jets||Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame|
|21||Washington Redskins||Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson|
|22||Houston Texans||Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State|
|23||Minnesota Vikings||Josh Doctson, WR, TCU|
|24||Cincinnati Bengals||Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame|
|25||Pittsburgh Steelers||Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech|
|26||Seattle Seahawks||Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State|
|27||Green Bay Packers||Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State|
|28||Kansas City Chiefs||Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA|
|29||Denver Broncos||Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State|
|30||Arizona Cardinals||Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia|
|31||Carolina Panthers||Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State|
Joey Bosa No. 1 Overall to Titans
In terms of pure talent, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa may be the top prospect in the 2016 draft class, which likely played a substantial role in Kiper mocking him No. 1 overall to the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans can afford to go with the best available player since they already found their franchise quarterback last year in the form of Marcus Mariota. If they decide to go that route, then it is difficult to argue against taking Bosa.
Bosa racked up 26 sacks and 51 tackles for loss in three seasons with the Buckeyes, including a remarkable 13.5 quarterback takedowns in 2014.
His production dipped a bit in 2015 since he missed some games and was double-teamed on almost every play, but his ability is undeniable.
In addition, Bosa admitted that his commitment in the weight room and in terms of preparation has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, thus making him an even better player, according to ESPN.com's Austin Ward:
When you're a freshman here, your body feels good, you feel like you don't need to be in treatment and you're doing these silly workouts. You're like, 'Why does this help?'
Then once you do it and do it and do it, you realize the impact it has on helping you feel better, play better. Once I bought into that -- it wasn't just this year, it's been slowly progressing since I've been here, but now I just think it's doing more for me than ever.
The only real question surrounding Bosa with regard to the Titans is whether he would be a strong fit in their defense.
At 275 pounds, he may be too big to be an effective rush linebacker, but he also may not be big enough to excel as a 3-4 defensive end.
Bosa is an elite athlete, though, and he may be able to answer those questions with a lights-out performance at the combine or at his pro day.
Provided Bosa shows an ability to be versatile and play in any scheme, it is tough to envision much preventing the Titans from selecting him.
Three QBs Off the Board
This year's crop of quarterbacks may not compare to 2015, which produced Mariota and Jameis Winston, but that didn't stop Kiper from mocking three of them in the first round.
Chief among them is California signal-caller Jared Goff, who Kiper believes will be the Cleveland Browns' target with the No. 2 overall pick.
Goff put up 4,714 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes in 2015, including over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air in the final two games of his collegiate career.
While Cal quarterbacks have had mixed results at the NFL level aside from the dominance of Aaron Rodgers, Nathan Zegura of ESPN Cleveland believes Goff has a chance to be a quality player as a professional:
Great read on Jared Goff, who I think is definitely the top QB in this class. Think love child of Theo/ Matt Ryan: https://t.co/lmZzNiuA52— Nathan Zegura (@NathanZegura) January 7, 2016
Memphis' Paxton Lynch is Kiper's next quarterback off the board at No. 15 to the newly christened Los Angeles Rams.
The 6'7" star enjoyed a true breakout campaign in 2015 with 3,778 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 239 yards and two scores one year after rushing for a ridiculous 13 touchdowns.
Additionally, the massive Lynch has an interesting advantage over the rest of the 2016 quarterback class, per agent Leigh Steinberg:
The Rams already have a strong defense and elite running back Todd Gurley in place, so the one thing holding them back is a franchise quarterback.
It seems unlikely that Nick Foles will take them to the promised land, and while Lynch may not turn out to be "the guy" either, the Rams need to make a big splash and show a commitment to winning upon their return to L.A.
If the Rams front office believes Lynch has a chance to become a top quarterback in the NFL, then it can't afford to pass on him if he's available.
The third and final quarterback Kiper expects to go in the first round will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate. At No. 22, Kiper has the Houston Texans taking Carson Wentz out of North Dakota State.
The fact that NDSU is an FCS school means most casual fans know very little about Wentz. He missed several games in 2015 because of a wrist injury, but he still managed to put up 23 total touchdowns and just four interceptions in seven contests.
In 2014, Wentz threw for 25 touchdowns, ran for six more and rushed for 642 yards, which is eye-opening coming from a 6'6" signal-caller.
Despite Wentz being somewhat of an unknown and having gone up against a lower level of competition than his peers, he said on The Dan Patrick Show that he believes he deserves first-round consideration, according to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News:
NDSU QB Carson Wentz on @dpshow: "I definitely believe I belong in that group [Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, Connor Cook]. No doubt about it."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 11, 2016
There would undoubtedly be risk involved with taking Wentz that early, but the Baltimore Ravens proved that an FCS quarterback can become a star after they selected Joe Flacco in the opening round out of Delaware.
Perhaps no team is more desperate for an answer at quarterback than the Texans, who made the playoffs this season but were destroyed by the Kansas City Chiefs due largely to the fact that Brian Hoyer threw four interceptions.
Houston has a chance to contend for a title with strong quarterback play, and it may very well bank on the notion that Wentz can provide it.
Jaylon Smith Stands Out as Top Steal
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is arguably a top-five talent in the 2016 NFL draft, but after tearing his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, his stock is likely to fall.
While Smith may not be able to play until late in the 2016 season, if at all, Kiper still believes the New York Jets will nab him at No. 20.
New York already has a strong defense, but adding a player of Smith's caliber to the mix could give head coach Todd Bowles the best defense in football provided Smith is able to return to form.
Pete Sampson of Scout is among those who would have no reservations about taking Smith because of the likelihood that he will succeed at the next level:
Said it when he committed: Jaylon Smith was the surest thing I've seen in 16 years covering Notre Dame.— Irish Illustrated (@PeteSampson_) January 11, 2016
Also, Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller believes Smith is comparable to one of the most dominant linebackers to grace the NFL in the past 10 years:
Jaylon Smith is the closest thing I've seen to Patrick Willis. https://t.co/vZGvgJ8pJL— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 13, 2016
A team like the Jets could use some instant help since they missed out on the playoffs, but the reward of taking Smith rather than a healthy player at No. 20 may turn out to be far bigger in the long run.
Gurley is already one of the NFL's top running backs after tearing his ACL in his final college season, so the precedent is there for Smith to become a dominant force as soon as he is healthy.
The NFL draft is all about weighing risk versus reward, and if Smith lasts beyond the first half of the opening round, it will be difficult for any number of teams to resist pouncing on him.
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