2016 NFL Mock Draft: Matt Miller's Initial Projections
The NFL regular season hasn't even started, and yet every day I'm asked countless times who teams should be looking at, where college prospects will be drafted and who the quarterback for the Chicago Bears will be next year (I really wish I knew this one, too). Well, today, some of those questions are going to be answered.
A mock draft the day of the draft isn't going to be 100 percent accurate, so a mock draft nine months before the first round definitely won't be. This isn't about being accurate in late April, but about highlighting top players as of Week 1 and pointing out some perceived team needs on paper before the games start. It's equal parts fun and educational, zero parts predictive. If you can read this with that in mind, you'll be better off.
And before the comments even start—the draft order is based on Super Bowl odds via Vegas Insider, just in reverse order. Vegas thinks the Jacksonville Jaguars have the worst chance to win the Super Bowl, so they get the first pick, and so on.
Now that the ground rules have been laid out, let's do this.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Pick: DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a lot of the pieces to the puzzle already in place. Quarterback Blake Bortles, running back T.J. Yeldon, wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Julius Thomas just on offense alone figure largely into the rebuilding plans of the team. On defense, there is talent, but this is where the Jaguars can look to improve the nucleus as they try to get over the hump in the AFC South.
Dante Fowler Jr. was the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, and we won't see him until 2016 due to a knee injury, but imagine Fowler and Joey Bosa bookending the Jaguars defensive line? Bosa, at 6'6" and 275 pounds, has the athleticism to play defensive end and the strength to slide inside to the 3-technique. If you want to draw a line from Gus Bradley to Seattle, then Bosa is their Michael Bennett.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Pick: CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
A cornerback going No. 2 overall would be a big surprise given the talent in the 2016 draft class, but the Tennessee Titans don't have a need at quarterback, left tackle or for a big 5-technique edge defender like Robert Nkemdiche. What they need is a ball-hawking cornerback.
Vernon Hargreaves is special. He's quick, tough, instinctive and shows technique that is advanced beyond his two years and change at Florida. And playing for the Gators, he's had to play in press coverage against players like Amari Cooper while also playing zone and proving he can react to the route or ball.
Hargreaves, unlike so many top corners we've seen in previous years, is NFL-ready. Cornerbacks are never a sure thing, but Hargreaves looks like a can't-miss prospect.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Pick: QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State
Save your $100K, Cleveland Browns. This info is free. Draft Cardale Jones.
Sure, he's only played four games, but if the NFL draft were today, Jones would be the most intriguing and talented quarterback available. His arm strength, his running style, his ability to constantly perform on the biggest possible stages. Cardale is the man, Cleveland.
The Browns are in quarterback hell, and Jones has the tools to resurrect them. With a great offensive line and some crafty drafting to boost the talent at wide receiver, an offense led by 12-Gauge is just what the Browns need.
The Pick: QB Jared Goff, California
Jared Goff is the anti-RGIII. No ego, no dramatic personality, no Subway commercials. He's just a dang good passer with smooth footwork and the vision to make plays off his first read.
Goff, playing in Cal's Bear Raid offense, will put up amazing numbers—he threw for almost 4,000 yards last season with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions—but that's not what is most important or what matters most when projecting him to the NFL. It's the little things like sliding in the pocket to evade the rush and keeping his eyes downfield to process through reads. Goff does that—consistently—and looks like a five-year NFL veteran while doing it.
The folks who hated on Teddy Bridgewater won't like Goff—he's skinny at 215 pounds on a 6'4" frame and plays in a wide-open offense—but don't be surprised if No. 16 is putting on a Bridgewater-like performance in the NFL next year.
5. New York Jets
The Pick: T Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
The New York Jets showed in the 2015 NFL draft that they will take the best player on their board. That's what they did by drafting Leonard Williams with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson already on the team at his position—and it's a move that's panned out well with Richardson being suspended to start the year.
Don't let things like the guy currently on the roster talk you into or out of a pick for the Jets, because they'll take the top guy regardless of position. And in this mock draft, that's left tackle Ronnie Stanley. It just so happens that he's a position of need as the team preps for life after D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Pick: T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
Protect Jameis Winston, or add a pass-rusher? That's the dilemma with pick No. 6 in the 2016 draft, and the smart money for Jason Licht—the team's general manager—is protecting his investment at quarterback. Blue-chip left tackles rarely come around outside the first round, but pass-rushers can be found in subsequent rounds.
Laremy Tunsil is the best left tackle in the SEC, and he's also faced Robert Nkemdiche in practice every day for three years. Those two factors are huge when considering his NFL readiness—something the Buccaneers need from their 2016 first-rounder.
7. Chicago Bears
The Pick: DE Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
The Chicago Bears are in rebuild mode, but the one thing general manager Ryan Pace cannot afford to do is reach and miss on a quarterback in the upcoming draft. And in this scenario, there's no quarterback on the board at pick No. 7 that makes sense from a value perspective.
Yes, it'd be nice to have someone behind Jay Cutler that is ready to take over, but it would be better to build a talented team and be patient waiting for the quarterback as you go through a two- or three-year rebuild. Kind of like what they did in Seattle.
Robert Nkemdiche is a great cornerstone to the new Bears. He's athletic, powerful and scheme-versatile. And in Vic Fangio's defense, he's Justin Smith. Plug him in at right defensive end and let him eat as left tackles try to combat his power and speed off the snap. It's not a sexy pick, but Nkemdiche in Fangio's defense is a tone-setter for how this team will draft, how they'll play defense and how they'll win ball games.
8. Oakland Raiders
The Pick: CB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
The D.J. Hayden experiment has not gone well in Oakland, and a team in good position to turn around their misfortunes has a huge hole at the cornerback position heading into the 2015 season. A man named Jalen Ramsey could fix that for 2016.
Ramsey, who played a kind of hybrid safety role for Florida State with 2015 draft picks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams at cornerback last year, is one of the most impressive athletes in college football. At 6'1" and 202 pounds, Ramsey already has the body type NFL scouts look for, and with his track background—he has a long jump of almost eight meters and a 10.61-second 100-meter dash time—Ramsey has the explosive quickness you want in a man-coverage cornerback.
9. San Francisco 49ers
The Pick: WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
The San Francisco 49ers are at a crossroads. Three straight years of deep playoff runs put expectations at a high level, but with so many departures, this looks more like a rebuild than a reload. Obviously a big part of that is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and while some 49ers fans would like a new quarterback, the value isn't there at pick No. 9.
Instead of replacing the quarterback, continuing to fill out the offense in Round 1 makes the most sense for a team that hasn't used a first-round pick on offense since they missed on A.J. Jenkins back in 2012. Laquon Treadwell—although he plays the same position as Jenkins—is a safe bet in Round 1. He's big (6'2", 210 lbs) and plays like Josh Gordon in his routes and after the catch. And with Anquan Boldin getting closer to the end, Treadwell is both a need and a value.
10. St. Louis Rams
The Pick: WR Tyler Boyd, Pitt
Tyler Boyd is slippery. Get him the ball in space and he's gone. Boyd is one of the best route-runners and one of the best yards-after-catch runners in college football. And the St. Louis Rams have to get serious about surrounding Nick Foles with that kind of talent.
There are concerns with Boyd. He received probation and a suspension following a DUI, according to CBS Sports' Jerry Hinnen, but the Rams haven't been shy about bringing in talented players with off-field question marks since Les Snead became the general manager with Jeff Fisher as his head coach. Boyd's talent is undeniable, and if he spends the next nine months cleaning up his imagine, he'll be in the running for a top 10 pick.
11. Carolina Panthers
The Pick: T Jack Conklin, Michigan State
The Carolina Panthers are rolling Michael Oher out at left tackle this year, a move that should by itself explain to you the drastic need for a left tackle. Protecting Cam Newton has to become a priority for general manager Dave Gettleman—or at least you'd think it would—and spending an early draft pick on Jack Conklin would do just that.
Conklin is a bruiser, but he's also athletic enough to protect the blind side (no pun intended, Oher fans) and give the Panthers' run game a kick in the seat. On the field he's similar to Taylor Lewan in that he's quick enough to catch speed-rushers but strong enough to lock down the power rush and fuel the run game.
12. New York Giants
The Pick: LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
My No. 1 player for the 2016 class at this time, Jaylon Smith falls to No. 12 overall, where the New York Giants finally spend an early pick on a linebacker.
Smith is, at least in my opinion, the best pro prospect among the eligible players in college football. But playing a position like middle linebacker, he's not likely to be the first pick in the draft. That's just the nature of the beast as teams try to fill premier positions like quarterback, left tackle and pass-rusher early in the round.
But Smith has the tools to be the best pro out of this class. He's fast, strong, instinctive and shows the range to make plays all over the field. In fact, Notre Dame uses him as both a pass-rusher and a coverage linebacker on slot receivers.
13. Detroit Lions
The Pick: DL DeForest Buckner, Oregon
DeForest Buckner is the kind of defensive lineman NFL teams are in love with. He's 6'7", weighs 290 pounds and was the most impressive Oregon defender from his right end spot last year. With his size, strength and agility in space, Buckner is an ideal fit for the Detroit Lions defensive line.
The Lions let Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley walk in free agency, and while the trade for Haloti Ngata will help in the short term, he's not a long-term solution. Buckner is, and he's the ideal athlete for Teryl Austin's defense since he can play inside or outside on the defensive line and give the Lions a second pass-rusher next to Ezekiel Ansah.
14. Houston Texans
The Pick: QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
I personally like to avoid the "college quarterback follows head coach to the NFL" angles—didn't Doug Marrone and Ryan Nassib teach us anything—but this one seems way too good to be true. Hackenberg has struggled since Bill O'Brien left Penn State after his true freshman year, and in Houston the new head coach has Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage on his depth chart.
Hackenberg hasn't put great film out since O'Brien left Penn State, and some of that is definitely on him, but he's playing in an offensive scheme with no rhyme or reason. Instead of getting the ball out quickly behind an awful offensive line, Hackenberg is asked to wait for combination routes to develop. Instead of using his arm strength for quick strikes down the field, Penn State asks him to attack the field horizontally on bubble screens. And if you're looking for a run game to keep safeties honest, you won't find it here.
Hackenberg will be a fascinating player to evaluate because his talent doesn't match his production. But will O'Brien be tempted to reunite with a player he recruited to Penn State? It makes sense.
15. Cincinnati Bengals
The Pick: LB Myles Jack, UCLA
The Cincinnati Bengals lack for athleticism at the linebacker position, and even if they get Vontaze Burfict and Paul Dawson on the field at the same time, Rey Maualuga is still a weak link at middle linebacker in an NFL that's increasingly about speed. Myles Jack would bring speed, instincts and playmaking skills that the team desperately lacks right now.
Jack has range, and he can play outside the numbers from his "Mike" position. The biggest questions on his resume right now are related to size (he's listed at 6'1" and 230 pounds) and the fact that he double-dips at running back. Other than that, if you're looking for the best player on the field to help the Bengals, Jack would clean up many weaknesses in their defense.
16. Buffalo Bills
The Pick: T Taylor Decker, Ohio State
The last time the Buffalo Bills needed a quarterback in the first round, they rushed a pick of EJ Manuel and it's been biting them in the ass ever since. This time around, general manager Doug Whaley cannot allow the Bills to be backed into the quarterback corner. Drafting Michigan State's Connor Cook would be tempting here, but playing the draft board is so much smarter.
Looking at the Bills' upcoming free agents, the team has to find a way to keep Marcell Dareus and Cordy Glenn, the two anchors of their lines. Glenn is the lower priority of the two, and this draft lines up perfectly for Taylor Decker to become the new left tackle in Buffalo.
17. San Diego Chargers
The Pick: OLB Kemoko Turay, Rutgers
By the time the 2016 draft gets here in late April, Kemoko Turay could be a top-five pick. He's seriously that good, and he's only a redshirt sophomore. The 6'6", 240-pounder has unreal speed and agility off the edge. When you think about the pass-rushing moves that work in the NFL—hip flexibility to drop his shoulder and roll through the edge, hand quickness, explosive power in his legs—Turay has them. And he's only getting stronger.
The Chargers have a very talented roster, but they lack a premier pass-rusher that can strike fear in offensive coordinators' hearts. Turay brings that, and in front of a potentially great secondary, he could easily transition from Rutgers to a 10-sack player in the pros.
18. New Orleans Saints
The Pick: DL A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
The fans in New Orleans may not like this pick, but let's talk about it first.
The Saints have a top-tier quarterback for a little while longer, but they should be (and are) planning for life after Drew Brees. They have some pieces on defense—Kenny Vaccaro, Keenan Lewis, Stephone Anthony, Cameron Jordan—and two good, young tackles in Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat. There is no position they must draft here, so a best-player-available pick is what's best for the Saints now and in the future.
A'Shawn Robinson has the tools to become a household name as a 5-technique defensive lineman. He's powerful, but shows awareness and instincts to attack the offense as both a run-stuffer and a pass-rusher. Robinson wrecked the Wisconsin offensive line all game long in Week 1, giving a glimpse of what he could be opposite Jordan on the Saints defensive line.
19. Arizona Cardinals
The Pick: DL Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
Calais Campbell is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, but the Arizona Cardinals have lost Dan Williams and Darnell Dockett to free agency. The D-line will be fine for this year, but long term, the Cardinals have to reload the defense through the draft as they use up salary-cap space to keep their talented secondary together.
The ideal draft pick for the Cardinals defense is a player who can come in and contribute right away, and Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington can do just that. We saw him dominate Virginia Tech on Monday night—showing the burst and power to split blockers or beat guards one-on-one. And at 6'4" and 290 pounds, he has the size to be a star at defensive end in the Cardinals' hybrid scheme.
20. Kansas City Chiefs
The Pick: LB Scooby Wright, Arizona
What will life after Derrick Johnson look like for the Kansas City Chiefs? As the former Texas Longhorn enters the final year of his contract with the team, they may find out sooner rather than later. And they are not prepared for that reality.
Let's take a second and assume Johnson is back with the Chiefs and plays out his career there. A second inside linebacker is still a need for this team. Look at New England, San Francisco and the Philadelphia Eagles as examples of how two athletes at linebacker can completely change a defense. The Chiefs don't have that. They need it.
Scooby Wright is another of those super athletic, smaller (6'1", 246 lbs) linebackers. He's fast, he's smart and he runs alleys to attack the run behind the line of scrimmage as well as anyone in the country. Wright is a plug-and-play Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker.
21. Atlanta Falcons
The Pick: EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
Vic Beasley will help fix a lot of the problems with the Atlanta Falcons defense. Adding Emmanuel Ogbah will do even more.
Head coach Dan Quinn wants to run an attacking, versatile defense in Atlanta (like what he did in Seattle), and right now the pieces aren't there to do that. Beasley and Brooks Reed are part of the new additions—and Desmond Trufant is the key existing piece—but the need for more pass-rushers is real. Adding a beast like Ogbah would be another huge piece.
Ogbah is a beast at 6'4" and 270 pounds, and he has pro-ready quickness and strength coming off the edge of the Oklahoma State defense. And with that size and the power that comes with it, Quinn can move Ogbah all over his defensive front while unleashing him and Beasley on the NFC South.
22. Minnesota Vikings
The Pick: RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
Adrian Peterson is the best running back of this generation. He's also 30 years old and set to earn $12 million dollars in bonuses if he's on the team's roster on the third day of the new league year after the 2015 season. That's a lot of cash for a 31-year-old back. Peterson may be back at a reduced rate, but the Vikings can't be blamed for preparing for the future.
Elliott is the bruising, fast, three-down star running back at Ohio State; and he's good enough to make a seamless transition to the NFL and become an impact back. The Urban Meyer offense is a lot of read-option, but it's also a lot of zone blocking that Elliott has to navigate and find daylight through. That bodes well for his NFL future—and should prevent him from becoming the next Trent Richardson.
Former Buckeye Kirk Barton told me once that Elliott was the next Marshall Faulk. Right now, he definitely looks to be in that Faulk-LaDainian Tomlinson mold.
23. Miami Dolphins
The Pick: CB Keivarae Russell, Notre Dame
The need for a young cornerback is big in Miami—where the drafts have focused on bolstering the offense and the defense has been fixed largely through free agency. But now, with Brent Grimes at 32 years old and the depth behind him average, general manager Dennis Hickey has to look to the future.
Keivarae Russell, who didn't play in 2014 as part of a suspension for academic fraud investigation, shined when back on the field against Texas in the season opener. And while beating up on Texas at this point shouldn't make a person a great prospect, Russell was able to show the year away from football didn't hurt his athleticism, instincts or technique.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pick: CB Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain one of the NFL's best franchises from year to year, but eventually the lack of speed and youth on defense will catch them. Drafting athletic, NFL-ready defenders has to remain the priority in Pittsburgh given the talent on the offensive line and in the skill positions.
Cameron Sutton is exactly the kind of speedy, rangy cover man the Steelers need. He's listed at 5'11" and 186 pounds, but has shown himself to be a great open-field runner in coverage and as a punt returner. The junior corner is making a case as one of the best in the nation, and his five interceptions show he can flip the field and make plays when tested.
25. Baltimore Ravens
The Pick: WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State
Michael Thomas broke the Internet with his domination of Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller in the Week 1 opener, but he's not just that one great route. He's a 6'3", 210-pound junior burner with the size and speed to be a major threat down the field or on routes over the middle. Oh, and he has a nasty stop-and-go move.
Put Thomas on the roster with Breshad Perriman on the other side of the field, and the Ravens have the speed and size to stretch the field for one of the best deep-ball throwers in the game.
26. Dallas Cowboys
The Pick: SS Vonn Bell, Ohio State
Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Christine Michael have all shown flashes in their NFL careers, but none has that "it" factor that will let Dallas fans sleep easy at night when thinking about this run game. With the season almost here, the biggest hole in the Dallas depth chart is at running back, and that's an easy fix in the 2016 draft.
The bad news? There isn't a running back of value on the board. In fact, only Ezekiel Elliott is ranked in my top 50 at the position, and he's off the board here. The Cowboys have shown they won't reach for need, but will solidify positions through the draft and wait for the right values. Filling a need for a young, aggressive, rangy safety at pick No. 26 feels like the Cowboy way.
27. Denver Broncos
The Pick: G/T Vadal Alexander, LSU
The Denver offensive line is being remade as we speak, and that's not a short-term project that will be fixed anytime soon. The key for GM John Elway and head coach Gary Kubiak is in continuing to add talent as they prepare this team for life after Peyton Manning, and the big man from LSU would be a starter for them right now.
Vadal Alexander has played guard and tackle for the Tigers, but his best pro projection as of now is on the inside. That's great for Denver, with Ty Sambrailo and a healthy Ryan Clady the future at tackle. Alexander has the agility to operate in Kubiak's stretch zone run scheme, but he's powerful enough to push the pile on the interior when the Broncos need tough yards.
28. Philadelphia Eagles
The Pick: DL Kenny Clark, UCLA
There are not many holes on the Philadelphia Eagles roster—especially if Sam Bradford works out at quarterback. The one area where they could get better in, and may have some turnover due to free agency, is on the defensive line.
Fletcher Cox is a mainstay, and someone getting close to blue-chip status as a 5-technique, but Cedric Thornton has been average on the other side of the line. And while Vinny Curry is there in a depth role, the need for a starter of a higher caliber is there. Kenny Clark has the look of that higher-caliber starter.
Clark is a massive run-stopper for the Bruins and does a great job getting the initial push off the snap. He's athletic, he's big (6'3", 310 lbs) and is on par with Cox in terms of athleticism. The best way to beat Dallas? Get the athletes up front to compete with the best line in the game.
29. Indianapolis Colts
The Pick: EDGE Leonard Floyd, Georgia
What's next for the Indianapolis Colts? Predicting what general manager Ryan Grigson will do in the draft is never easy, but the smart money is on improving the front seven on defense after addressing their depth at wide receiver in 2015's first round.
Leonard Floyd is a versatile pass-rusher at Georgia, and he'll even line up some at middle linebacker in 2015 as the Bulldogs attack offenses from a more varied look. Floyd has been a star since arriving at Georgia, and with great length and speed to turn the corner, he's now showing the power to counter offensive tackles.
Plug Floyd in on the Colts defense today—or in a year—and they're one step closer to being the best team in the NFL.
30. Seattle Seahawks
The Pick: WR Leonte Carroo, Rutgers
Russell Wilson's ability to elevate the talent around him at wide receiver is an underrated aspect of his play, but he can only take them so far before some natural ability has to come into play. The Seahawks have a good stable of talent, but no No. 1 receiver. They would if Leonte Carroo was on the team.
Carroo has amazing leaping ability and the run-after-catch skills to make plays on the go. That's an ideal fit for the Seahawks given Wilson's deep-ball arm ability and the crossing-route offense they love to lead. Carroo, with Jimmy Graham distracting safeties, is the type of talent to open up what's been a very elementary offensive scheme in Seattle.
31. New England Patriots
Sorry, guys. No first-rounder in 2016 due to the Deflategate penalties.
32. Green Bay Packers
The Pick: LB Reggie Ragland, Alabama
The linebacker position has been a revolving door in Green Bay outside of what Clay Matthews has brought to the table. Even recent draft pick Carl Bradford, a 2014 fourth-rounder, was cut this past week. The need for talent at linebacker is real in Green Bay.
Many draft experts wanted Eric Kendricks (UCLA) going to Green Bay at the end of Round 1 of the 2015 draft, but they opted for Damarious Randall to bolster the secondary. But the need for a linebacker is still there, and an Alabama linebacker could fill that void. Reggie Ragland has the range and speed to make the plays many of Green Bay's linebackers can't right now.
The struggles to stop the outside run game, or mobile quarterbacks, won't be solved by drafting one player, but Ragland would be a huge add in Green Bay.