2015 NFL Mock Draft: Matt Miller's First-Round Projections Heading into Playoffs
The 2014 NFL regular season is over, which means it's draft season for 20 teams.
Scouting departments are already preparing big boards for each team, but how the draft plays out will depend largely on hirings, firings and free-agent signings. That doesn't mean we can't take a look at how the 2015 NFL draft would look if it happened today, however.
Using declared and expected underclassmen and the current draft order (which is set for the first 20 picks), here's a look at Round 1 of the upcoming draft.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Pick: QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht enter year two of their run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and all eyes will be on the quarterback position. Smith brought Josh McCown with him from Chicago and that move backfired as the offense sputtered all season. It's time for new talent to take over.
With the first pick in the draft, the Buccaneers need to address the position. They'll likely have a choice between Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston, but the off-field issues surrounding Winston make him a less-likely choice for the mild-mannered Smith. Mariota, a boy scout off the field and general on it, is an ideal fit for the Tampa staff.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Pick: Edge-Rusher Randy Gregory, Nebraska
The Tennessee Titans may look at a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't have a good track record of working with rookies—especially at quarterback.
Going back through his days in Arizona and then recently in Tennessee, Whisenhunt has almost always preferred to let rookies sit and learn instead of thrusting them into a franchise-saving role. That, plus the potential of Zach Mettenberger, makes me think the Titans will pass on Jameis Winston.
Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton need more talent to effectively run their hybrid pass-rushing scheme, and Nebraska's Randy Gregory is an ideal fit on the edge. He's massively long-armed, quick and instinctive off the ball and has disruptive skills as a defender. He's an ideal fit and a worthy value at No. 2 overall.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Pick: DT Leonard Williams, USC
With the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars grabbed a player they hope can be their franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles. Now, with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, they need to find his counterpart on defense.
Leonard Williams isn't Ndamukong Suh, but he's built in that same vein as an impactful gap-splitting pass-rusher. He's awesome coming off the ball and is both athletic enough and strong enough to be a force as a pass-rusher. And while he may not be Suh, he projects in that Sheldon Richardson or Muhammad Wilkerson level of play, which is pretty dang good nonetheless.
4. Oakland Raiders
The Pick: WR Amari Cooper, Alabama
Stop any talk that the Oakland Raiders will draft a quarterback in the first round—they have their man in Derek Carr. The goal of the 2015 draft will be building a team around Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack. In Round 1, that starts by finding Carr a legit weapon at wide receiver.
Amari Cooper's Alabama career ends with an amazing year, one in which his draft stock soared thanks to a fully healthy season and an offensive system designed to accentuate his talents. Cooper is a balanced threat—capable of attacking the ball in the air or making plays on the ground after the catch. He may not grade out higher than Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans did pre-draft, but he's on par with where Odell Beckham Jr. graded out.
The Pick: SS Landon Collins, Alabama
It is incredibly rare in the NFL draft to see a safety—especially a strong safety—drafted in the top five. But when you get down to it, Washington doesn't have many needs that can be filled by this spot.
Quarterback may seem the biggest need, but it's highly doubtful ownership would spend another early pick on the position after trading so much to get Robert Griffin III. The other top players available here—Shane Ray, Bud Dupree, Brandon Scherff—are all playing positions filled by last year's selections of Morgan Moses and Trent Murphy.
Strong safety—and, frankly, the entire secondary—is a huge need for Washington. While Landon Collins isn't Sean Taylor, he'll be the best safety the team has had since No. 21 was roaming the secondary.
6. New York Jets
The Pick: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
The New York Jets have no general manager and no head coach, and you could add in that they really don't have an answer at quarterback either. That makes the pick of Jameis Winston an easy one on December 30.
Winston will be heavily scrutinized both on and off the field if he does enter the 2015 NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore, but I'm willing to bet that at least one NFL team is willing to look at his talent on the field and overlook the off-field questions.
Winston is uniquely talented. He's big, athletic, smart and throws a pretty ball with touch and anticipation. And on the field, he's arguably a safer pick than Marcus Mariota due to his experience in the FSU passing game that is a smoother transition to NFL offenses.
The Jets need a franchise quarterback, and Winston has the tools on the field to be just that.
7. Chicago Bears
The Pick: DE Shane Ray, Missouri
An offseason of unknowns begins in Chicago with the firing of general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman. Bears' fans enter January with no GM, no head coach and a big question mark at quarterback after Jay Cutler struggled through the 2014 season.
The NFL draft can help with some of the team's issues, but there isn't a quarterback worth taking in Round 1, and the Bears can't afford to draft one so early as long as Cutler is on the roster anyway. What they can do is start fixing a defense that coordinator Mel Tucker horribly managed.
Adding pass-rushers is tough because we don't know yet what scheme the Bears will run, but Missouri's Shane Ray is versatile enough to stand up in a 3-4 defense or attack from the ground in a 4-3 set. And if the Bears decide to run a 3-4 scheme, they'll need edge-rushers capable of attacking the backfield. Ray can do that from Day 1.
8. Atlanta Falcons
The Pick: Edge-Rusher Bud Dupree, Kentucky
The Atlanta Falcons fired head coach Mike Smith on Monday, meaning they'll be headed in a new direction in 2015. What's most interesting here is that a planned move to a 3-4 defense in 2014 faltered due to the wrong personnel to execute the pass-rush portion of the defense. Now, the new coach will inherit a defense that's flexible enough to run a 4-3 or 3-4.
That defense, though, desperately needs help on the edge.
If the Falcons do run a 3-4 scheme, they need outside linebackers. If they go back to a 4-3, they need defensive ends. Kentucky's Bud Dupree can do both. He's long, aggressive, athletic and has the skills off the edge to be an attacking pass-rusher—which is what the Falcons sorely lacked this past year.
9. New York Giants
The Pick: LB Shaq Thompson, Washington
The New York Giants wisely decided to keep Tom Coughlin around as head coach for 2015, but they could still undergo staff changes this week, per Dan Graziano of ESPN.com. That could change what style of defense they're running next year, but the need for a linebacker won't change with a new defensive coordinator.
The Giants have historically stayed away from drafting linebackers in the first round, but it's time to break that rule and go after a versatile, athletic linebacker with the tools to take over games. Shaq Thompson can be that player.
At Washington, Thompson has played running back, safety and linebacker, but he projects best to the pros as a 4-3 outside linebacker. There he can use his pass-rushing, run-stuffing and coverage skills to become the next Lavonte David.
10. St. Louis Rams
The Pick: LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
The No. 10 pick overall may seem early for Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney—he's ranked in the 20s for me—but the St. Louis Rams are a team with few needs here. Without predicting a trade back, something that would make sense here, McKinney is the best fit for a team in need of an athletic linebacker next to Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis (or his replacement).
McKinney is fast—like 4.4 fast—and instinctive. He's not a great gap-filling linebacker, but he is a chase-and-tackle specialist with the tools to play any of the three linebacker spots without sacrificing ability.
The Rams may have a bigger need at quarterback, but they aren't going to—or shouldn't—draft one here. That opens them up to drafting a valuable player who can fill a need.
11. Minnesota Vikings
The Pick: OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
The Minnesota Vikings drafted USC tackle Matt Kalil at No. 4 overall in the 2012 draft and thought they had a bookend left tackle for the next 12 years. Heck, we all thought they did too. But they don't, not unless the Vikings coaching staff knows how to fix Kalil's abysmal play the last two seasons.
What the Vikings must do now is start to build the offense around quarterback Teddy Bridgewater after he was very impressive in a bad situation in his first season. That starts by adding talent to the offensive line—as 2015 will be Kalil's final year in Minnesota unless he makes a huge improvement on the field.
Ronnie Stanley is a true junior at Notre Dame and many haven't heard of him. You will. He's athletic, long and very fluid moving off the line of scrimmage either in pass protection or the run game. He's Day 1 NFL-ready and still has upside. And in the interim, if Kalil stays at left tackle, Stanley is athletic enough to come in at guard for a year.
12. Cleveland Browns
The Pick: WR DeVante Parker, Louisville
The Cleveland Browns enter the 2015 draft with two first-round picks, and they're going to need both of them. Here's hoping the players they draft in Round 1 this year are ready to work.
Louisville's DeVante Parker is a worker, and the type of no-nonsense, high character wide receiver this team needs. Parker can replace Josh Gordon and give whomever the quarterback is a high-pointing threat who is successful working down the field or on intermediate routes. Parker can make money both after the catch or in the air—and that's what the team lacks without Gordon.
13. New Orleans Saints
The Pick: Edge-Rusher Dante Fowler, Florida
The 3-4 defense requires pass-rushers to work, and the New Orleans Saints have one (Junior Galette) when they need at least two. Look for Sean Payton and Co. to work hard to change that early in the 2015 NFL draft.
Florida's Dante Fowler is a beast off the edge. He's loaded with wingspan, quickness out of his stance and the instincts to track the ball all over the field. He's only 6'3", but his 261 pounds are jacked with muscle and he'll test as well as anyone at the position at the scouting combine.
The best way to fix this defense? Turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks. That's what this pick does.
14. Miami Dolphins
The Pick: DT Malcom Brown, Texas
The Miami Dolphins are pointed in the right direction and have the quarterback to lead them to the postseason. Now they must draft to get younger and better on the defensive line. That starts in the trenches.
The Dolphins head into the offseason with Jared Odrick set to become a free agent and upgrades needed across the board as the team is still using some 3-4 personnel in a 4-3 defense. Adding a big defensive tackle to occupy rushing lanes is great, but finding one who can also rush the quarterback is key.
Malcom Brown can do those things. The Texas junior is a freak athlete for his 6'2", 320-pound frame, and he can both collapse the pocket and stop the run. He's game-ready, too, and he could make an impact between Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon in 2015.
15. San Francisco 49ers
The Pick: WR Kevin White, West Virginia
There will be big changes in San Francisco now that Jim Harbaugh has left to become the head coach at Michigan. Many changes are expected to come at wide receiver, as Michael Crabtree is a free agent.
Crabtree never quite lived up to his predraft stock, and in 2014, he was often a forgotten man in the 49ers' struggling passing game. What the team must find is a wide receiver with the size and speed to stretch the field, as that would take pressure off Colin Kaepernick and prevent teams from blitzing as often as they did in 2014.
West Virginia's Kevin White isn't a 4.3 guy in terms of speed, but he's fast enough to take the top off a defense with his combination of burst and size. He'll out-jump defenders for deep balls and is excellent in the red zone. Kind of sounds like everything the 2014 wide receivers for the 49ers were missing, doesn't it?
16. Houston Texans
The Pick: CB Marcus Peters, Washington
The Houston Texans have a good defense in place and an offense ready to take off—they only need a quarterback. Unfortunately, there isn't one worthy of drafting at No. 16 overall (at least not at this time). That means looking at other options, including players already on the team, to fill that role.
So where do they go with pick No. 16? Filling holes on defense is a great start, and at cornerback, the team can stand an upgrade opposite Johnathan Joseph while also working to get younger and add more talent to the depth of the roster there.
Marcus Peters is an interesting story, and some of that story depends on who you believe. The Huskies dismissed Peters in November after multiple altercations with the coaching staff, per The Seattle Times' Adam Jude, including one incident in which he attempted to strangle an assistant coach, according to NFL.com insiders Daniel Jeremiah, Bucky Brooks, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein. (Huskies' defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski denied the latter report, per Jude.)
People I've talked to say Peters is misunderstood and that the truth will come out in due time. For now, I'm evaluating him purely on football skill, and there he's the best cornerback in the draft. That's something the Texans can afford to roll the dice on with strong leaders like J.J. Watt in the building.
17. San Diego Chargers
The Pick: OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa
The offensive line in San Diego was, at times, a huge liability in 2014. That'll get fixed in 2015 as the team tries to load up for another playoff run while quarterback Philip Rivers is still in the game. With a mid-Round 1 pick, look for the offensive line to be a priority.
Brandon Scherff entered the year as my top-rated offensive tackle, and he's still my top-rated offensive lineman, but his future may be at guard in the NFL. Much like Zack Martin coming out of Notre Dame last year, Scherff can be an All-Pro player at multiple positions. The San Diego Chargers should invest in that type of talent.
Scherff is an athletic freak, but teams will have to believe his 2014 season was less impressive due to injury and not a lack of skill. If that happens, he could be off the board way before pick No. 17.
18. Kansas City Chiefs
The Pick: WR Devin Funchess, Michigan
Not one wide receiver in Kansas City caught a touchdown pass this year. Now, you can take that and assign the blame to Andy Reid's scheme or to quarterback Alex Smith, but the team clearly needs more talent at wide receiver.
After passing on wideouts in the 2014 draft, the Chiefs need an infusion of talent at the spot this year. Michigan's Devin Funchess is a player Reid and his scouts could come to love given his versatility (he played tight end and wide receiver at Michigan) and the way he uses his body to out-position players for the ball.
Funchess will get the Alshon Jeffery comparison from many, and it does fit in some ways. But what I see from him is a player willing to fight for the ball, and I didn't see that often from the Chiefs' wideouts this year.
19. Cleveland Browns (from Buffalo)
The Pick: DT Danny Shelton, Washington
With their second pick in the first round, the Cleveland Browns can turn an eye toward improving the defensive line after a year in which the back eight on defense was more disruptive and more reliable than the front three.
Danny Shelton from Washington is a unique player in that he has the body type to handle the nose tackle position, but his movement skills are good enough that he can play on the edge of the line, too. Shelton would excel in a one-gap defense (where he's asked to simply stop or shoot one gap instead of two), but I see him make plays with strength that lead you to believe he can be a two-gapper if needed.
The Browns have a stout, stingy defense, but Shelton is the type of player that pushes them from very good to elite if he reaches his ceiling.
20. Philadelphia Eagles
The Pick: CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State
The Philadelphia Eagles are at home watching the playoffs instead of participating in them in large part because of their struggles at cornerback. They cannot enter 2015 without making big changes here, and those changes could start even before the draft in free agency. If not, though, Round 1 of the draft is a great time to land a cover corner.
Trae Waynes may not be as well-known as his former teammate and 2014 Round 1 pick Darqueze Dennard, but I view him as a better pro player because of his skills in coverage without using his hands. Dennard was a grabby, handsy cornerback, where Waynes is more fluid and likes to shadow his man.
Given his size, length, speed and instincts, Waynes will quickly impress scouts and coaches. He's a Round 1 lock for me and would be a starter in Philadelphia as soon as he learns the playbook.
21. Carolina Panthers
The Pick: OT La'el Collins, LSU
The Carolina Panthers are in the playoffs in spite of their offensive line, not because of it. Once the season is over, expect general manager Dave Gettleman and his scouts to do a ton of work on the offensive tackles available in this draft class.
The top senior tackle may be La'el Collins at LSU. A former guard, Collins is a massive man (320-plus lbs) with the power and toughness to excel in the run game and also in the trenches as a pass protector. He's nimble for a big man, too, and he will surprise people with his ability to cut off the edge and protect the corner.
Collins may not have a seamless transition to the speed of the NFL, but I see him as a future starter at left tackle in the NFL with a plan B of playing either guard or right tackle at a high level if needed.
22. Baltimore Ravens
The Pick: CB Jalen Collins, LSU
The Baltimore Ravens were patient with cornerback Jimmy Smith, and that paid off now that he's one of the better young cornerbacks in the league. But opposite Smith the team needs help, as Lardarius Webb has been injured too often.
If general manager Ozzie Newsome liked Smith, he's bound to like Jalen Collins, too. The big LSU cornerback is physical at the line, fluid for a big man in transitions and can dominate in phase down the field. He's also a smooth ball hawk and has shown an ability to find the ball and make plays in the air.
Some will want a running back or wide receiver here, and either position could be in play, but the value at cornerback offers the most talent.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
The Pick: FS Gerod Holliman, Louisville
When a player has 14 interceptions in a single season, scouts take notice. And that's what Gerod Holliman did in 2014. The Louisville center fielder has experience at cornerback but found his groove as a free safety in his redshirt sophomore season. Now he's headed to the NFL, and a team like the Cincinnati Bengals could definitely use his skills attacking the ball.
Some will complain that Holliman isn't a good tackler—or they'll exaggerate that into saying he can't tackle—but I'm withholding judgment on that until I see a full library of game film on him. What I have seen in four games of All-22 (coaches tape) viewing is a smooth, fluid, instinctive zone coverage safety with the experience to lock up in man coverage against tight ends and slot receivers.
The Bengals have two young cornerbacks (Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard) they can build around. Holliman will complete the secondary.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pick: CB Alex Carter, Stanford
The development of left tackle Kelvin Beachum has been one of the major underrated stories of the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team has its man at left tackle, which frees up room to be more aggressive in filling other needs. Up first, cornerback.
Stanford's Alex Carter has the tools to be an instant-impact player on the boundary. He's big enough to play outside, but he has the footwork and hands to do well if pressed into slot duty. And while he doesn't have great deep speed, he makes up for that with quickness and route anticipation.
With Ike Taylor and the rest of the secondary aging quickly, Carter is a move in the right direction for the future of the defense.
25. Detroit Lions
The Pick: DT Eddie Goldman, FSU
Ndamukong Suh? Free agent.
Nick Fairley? Free agent.
The Detroit Lions enter the 2015 offseason with a shot at losing both starting defensive tackles to free agency. Given the astronomical amount it would cost to place the franchise tag on Suh (around $26.7 million for one season, per ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein), that becomes an unlikely option.
Accordingly, the Lions are likely to use a draft pick on a defensive tackle. Florida State's Eddie Goldman is the best man on the board, and he has shown the ability to take over ball games from his spot inside the FSU defensive line.
Goldman is ideal for Teryl Austin's defense as he's a penetrator but also stout enough to stop the run. He's a three-down tackle, and those generally go early in Round 1.
26. Indianapolis Colts
The Pick: Edge-Rusher Vic Beasley, Clemson
Fixing the Indianapolis Colts isn't as easy as it might seem given their quarterback and weapons on offense. General manager Ryan Grigson needs to hit a home run this offseason, and using his first-round-pick on a player who can spark the defense is a must.
Vic Beasley has fallen some in the draft process because of a lack of size and questions about his first-step speed. We'll see soon whether those concerns are warranted, but Beasley is a scheme-specific edge-rusher best suited to a stand-up position only. That's perfect for the Colts' defense, though, and it would allow him to play the edge opposite Bjoern Werner.
27. Arizona Cardinals
The Pick: Edge-Rusher Eli Harold, Virginia
The Arizona Cardinals battled through an injury-filled season to make the playoffs, a credit to the coaches and the healthy players. In the 2015 offseason, they must build with an eye on the Seattle Seahawks. How can they catch their big brothers in the NFC West?
The most questionable position on the roster is at outside linebacker, where Sam Acho and Alex Okafor have been solid but may not be the best long-term options for the team. At least at this stage in the process, this looks like the most viable upgrade on the depth chart.
Eli Harold doesn't get a ton of national draft publicity, but he should once the draft class is set. He's explosive off the ball and has both the traits and production to back up his status. In a defense like Arizona's, he'd be free to crash the edge and get to the quarterback—a perfect fit for both player and team.
28. Dallas Cowboys
The Pick: OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M
The Dallas Cowboys have bigger needs than a right tackle in the first round—and most of them come on defense—but Jerry and Stephen Jones no longer draft based purely on need. They're looking at talent, value and scheme fit. In the last two drafts, they bypassed need for talent and added two studs in Travis Frederick and Zack Martin on the line. This pick would be in that same vein.
Instead of reaching for a defensive end here, grabbing the best player available gives them Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. Imagine a Dallas line of Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Ogbuehi. That's the best line in football, folks.
Ogbuehi's stock has slid some this year since he didn't play as soundly and moved around the line some, but at the Senior Bowl, he has a chance to prove he can play the left side in the pros. That could move his stock out of the Cowboys' reach.
29. Green Bay Packers
The Pick: DT Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
B.J. Raji's run in Green Bay could come to an end this year as his contract is up. If so, or really even if he's back, the Packers have to invest in getting bigger and better on the defensive line. It's tough to get bigger and more athletic than Oklahoma's Jordan Phillips.
At 6'6" and 334 pounds, Phillips can play any spot on a 3-4 defensive line. But unlike many big men, he's able to compete with a low enough pad height to man the nose tackle spot very well. And he's like a dancing elephant with nimble, light feet and unreal agility.
There are few players in the NFL with Phillips' raw ability. The Packers would have a beast on the defensive line with this pick.
30. Denver Broncos
The Pick: OT Ereck Flowers, Miami (Florida)
Entering the 2015 offseason, the Denver Broncos could have many needs to fill with players like wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas set to become free agents. However, it seems like John Elway will use the franchise tag, if needed, on Demaryius, while Julius may be expendable in free agency.
It's tempting to have Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams coming off the board here to Denver to replace Thomas, but the team's biggest need and a great pick at the end of Round 1 comes at right tackle. The offensive line has been a mess throughout the 2014 season, and what the roster truly needs is an anchor on the right side to balance out the line.
Ereck Flowers is a physical freak coming out of Miami, and he's experienced as a tackle on the left side with the strength and athleticism to handle a move to the right side to at least begin his career. With Ryan Clady on one side and Flowers on the other, a returning Peyton Manning should feel good about his protection.
31. Seattle Seahawks
The Pick: RB Todd Gurley, Georgia
How much longer can Marshawn Lynch last in Seattle—both due to his on-field beatings and off-field oddities? That's a question everyone in the organization is likely wondering, too. And with the importance of the run game in Seattle, it's smarter to draft his replacement now instead of waiting a year too long.
Todd Gurley was a top-five player on my board before he tore his ACL. Post-injury, he's a mystery. Until medical re-checks can be done on his progress in February and again in mid-April, it's tough to know how NFL teams will view him. He was a unique talent before injury, and ACL surgery isn't the career-ender it once was, but can he bounce back? If so, he's a steal at No. 31 overall.
32. New England Patriots
The Pick: WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
The New England Patriots have had more success than any other NFL team over the last 14 years, but one area that eludes them is drafting wide receivers. For whatever reason, Bill Belichick has not done well in this area. Bill, I'm here to help you.
Arizona State's Jaelen Strong would give Tom Brady a type of wide receiver he's not had since Randy Moss. Strong is big, physical and able to run past defenders, and he has the size to out-position defenders for the ball. Brady may not have the same arm he did in the Moss days, but he can still sling it downfield, and what he needs in those opportunities is a wide receiver capable of attacking the ball and making a play post-catch.