2018 NFL Mock Draft: Mike Tanier's Guesstacular 1st-Round Predictions

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2018

2018 NFL Mock Draft: Mike Tanier's Guesstacular 1st-Round Predictions

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    SPOILER ALERT: Neither the Browns nor the Broncos select a quarterback in the following one-round mock draft.

    That's because free agency is going to be an eight- to nine-figure financial tug of war over Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, AJ McCarron and any other unrestricted quarterback who ever started a few games without accidentally beaning himself upside the head with a football.

    Free-agent stars at other positions, like Jarvis Landry and DeMarcus Lawrence, are also going to change hands in a few weeks, skewing the draft strategies of teams like the Buccaneers and Bears.

    So this mock draft calibrates its crystal ball past both the NFL Scouting Combine and free agency to provide a snapshot of what the draft will look like after the Cousins dust settles. That's why familiar faces like Baker Mayfield fall into some unfamiliar locations.

    February mock drafts are mostly speculation anyway. So let's speculate spectacularly.

1. Cleveland Browns: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

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    This mock draft is built around two powerful NFL offseason forces: the Garoppolo Ripple Effect and Front Office Slingshot Principle.

    The Garoppolo Ripple Effect (or Garipple Effect) states that the 49ers priced everyone out of the quarterback free-agent market except teams with gee-golly gonzo cap space when they forked over $42.6 million in first-year cash to Jimmy Garoppolo two weeks ago. The Browns are now one of the few teams that can afford Kirk Cousins since they can drop a salary-cap depth charge on him in 2018 without any long-term financial consequences.

    The Front Office Slingshot Principle states that new regimes always veer as hard as possible in the exact opposite direction from the previous regime. So general manager John Dorsey and his all-star cast of Real Football Guys (TM) will make the least analytical decisions possible, despite the fact there is still a Moneyball faction in the Browns front office. Or, more accurately, because there's still a Moneyball faction in the Browns front office.

    Drafting a running back first overall is the least Moneyball thing a rebuilding franchise can do; overpaying for a quarterback who has proven he needs top talent around him to succeed ranks a close second.

    Still, a Cousins-Saquon Barkley backfield has plenty to offer. Barkley gives Cousins a security blanket, head-coach-by-December Todd Haley a Le'Veon Bell surrogate to build the offense around and the Browns a clear direction and identity. And while it's possible to parlay the Browns' draft-pick bushel into a much cheaper Sam Darnold-Barkley backfield, Cousins takes the developmental guesswork out of Hue Jackson's hands.

    Yep, the Cousins-Barkley ripple-slingshot backfield will immediately catapult the Browns toward 8-8. And there's nothing Real Football Guys (TM) enjoy more than proclaiming success after an 8-8 season.

2. New York Giants: Sam Darnold, QB, USC

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    This year's quarterback class is a lot like the 2011 class. There's a Cam Newton lurking in the draft somewhere, with all the career highs and lows you'd expect from a second Cam. There's an Andy Dalton or two in the bunch. But there are more Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker-types in this year's crop than NFL evaluators or those of us in the Draft Infotainment Industrial Complex would care to admit.

    Sam Darnold is the consensus No. 1 quarterback by default entering the combine, partly because no one really seized the mantle from him after his charmed 2017 performance and partly because many experts pretend that fumbling a gazillion times (20 times, actually) in college doesn't count against a quarterback prospect for some reason.

    Darnold has a Carson Palmer ceiling and a Matt Leinart floor; that makes his arithmetic mean Mark Sanchez, so any team that drafts Darnold (or any other 2018 quarterback, or any top quarterback prospect ever, really) must prioritize maximizing his potential.

    Pat Shurmur's track record as a quarterback guru is spotty unless you give him gobs of credit for "developing" Case Keenum and/or early-career Nick Foles. But Eli Manning provides Darnold with both a mentor and someone to absorb hits and criticism for a year while the Giants rebuild their offensive line and reestablish their identity. Come 2019, Odell Beckham Jr. will be contentedly wealthy, Darnold will have learned to secure the ball in a collapsing pocket, and the Giants will be back at the top of the standings.

    That's the plan, anyway.

3. Indianapolis Colts: Bradley Chubb, Edge-Rusher, North Carolina State

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Colts drafted Dwight Freeney 11th overall in 2002 and Robert Mathis in the fifth round in 2003. That edge-rushing duo combined for 248.5 career sacks for the Colts and powered the defense of a perennial contender.

    Since then, the only player drafted by the Colts to notch more than 8.5 career sacks was Jerry Hughes, who did nearly all of his damage after he went to the Bills. The only player not named Freeney or Mathis to record double-digit sacks for the Colts in the last 15 years was Erik Walden in 2016.

    The Colts love to roll the dice with edge rush projects like Hughes, Bjoern Werner, Jonathan Newsome and Tarell Basham (who could still pay off), but past regimes lacked the patience and/or developmental capabilities to see those projects to completion.

    Chubb isn't a prospect in Freeney's class, but he's a no-brainer as a plug-'n'-play, instant-impact threat for a team that recorded just 25 sacks last season. Colts general manager Chris Ballard shouldn't overthink this one. And new head coach Frank Reich knows how important the Eagles defensive line was when it came to giving his offense the opportunity to win games.

4. Cleveland Browns (via HOU): Minkah Fitzpatrick, Safety, Alabama

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When the Browns made Jabrill Peppers their second first-round pick of 2017, tape-grinders of the world waited with eager curiosity to learn how Gregg Williams would deploy the raw, but versatile, defender. Slot corner? Nickel safety? Hybrid Elephant Leo Money Joker? Would Hue Jackson use Peppers as a Wildcat quarterback? Oh, the tactical innovations we yearned for.

    Williams then plopped Peppers at deep safety, guarding a patch of turf somewhere between 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the super-talented rookie could watch plays develop like a redshirt freshman watching a scrimmage.

    Now here comes Minkah Fitzpatrick, who combines near-Peppers-level talent with Malcolm Jenkins' mind and a Nick Saban internship.

    The Browns may not need two hybrid slot defenders, but Real Football Guys (TM) don't draft for need. And when Williams gets sacrificed in Hue Jackson's doomed bid to save his job in mid-October, his replacement will inherit a chessboard with two remarkable pieces. Throw in Myles Garrett and the other pass-rushers acquired in recent drafts, and the Peppers-Fitzpatrick combo can give the Browns the best nickel package in the NFL. Which, in modern football terms, will give them the best base package in the NFL.

5. Denver Broncos: Quenton Nelson, Guard, Notre Dame

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Silence, lowly mortals! 'Tis I, John Elway, Angry Storm God of Ancient Babylon! Tremble as I reveal the omniscient wisdom behind my decision to draft Quenton Nelson instead of a quarterback.

    The accursed 49ers hath prevented me from anointing Kirk Cousins my Chosen One by wickedly making Jimmy Garoppolo richer than King Midas. Meanwhile, my servants again disappointed me by failing to return from the Senior Bowl with a quarterback worthy of my divine munificence. Lo, if only a family emergency did not befall Baker Mayfield. Alas, if only Josh Allen could reliably strike water when casting his nets upon the open ocean!

    With no rookie worthy of my favor, I demand a veteran sacrifice in the form of Case Keenum, who shall affordably do unto my Broncos what he did for the Vikings. But Keenum requires protection, and my people cry out for interior linemen. Wilson shall be the bedrock upon which I build a new altar to my own transcendence! In subsequent rounds shall I look with favor upon a Luke Falk or Kyle Lauletta, that the eternal quarterback controversy may endure.

    Dost thou suggest that Mighty Storm God Elway has lost the ability to identify good quarterbacks, has allowed his Broncos to wither at the skill positions or has deluded himself into thinking that the Super Bowl window remains open? Such impudence! I have selected the best player available! Watch with reverence as the Broncos both runneth and passeth better! The Super Bowl window dares not close until I decree that it be closed! Look upon my works and despair!

6. New York Jets: Josh Rosen, Quarterback, UCLA

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Josh Rosen has the potential to become the Millennial Joe Namath.

    The NFL is full of millennial quarterbacks, but few quarterbacks are stereotypical millennials. Carson Wentz, for example, is basically a hero from a 19th-century novel who goes to an escape room every once in a while. Skeptical, free-thinking, outspoken representatives of the current ruling generation don't really fit the NFL quarterback culture, because coaches who parrot seventh-hand Don Coryell wisdom fear quarterbacks who think for themselves.

    The primary knock on Josh Rosen is that he's not the grim-and-determined, do-or-die quasi-military cadet teams prefer in a quarterback prospect. Rosen would be a personality clash waiting to happen in many organizations because he actually possesses a personality. Imagine him questioning orders handed down from John Elway, adding even more friction to the Hue Jackson-Todd Haley dynamic in Cleveland, or taking the Giants a teensy bit beyond the comfort zone they established in the late 1950s: It just wouldn't work.

    But the Jets rose to football and cultural relevance in the 1960s by looking past Namath's rebellious spirit and embracing his talent and dedication. Rosen is just what the current Jets need after years of fiddling with marginal talents at quarterback: not just a gifted passer, but someone willing to do things a little differently and re-energize the whole organization.

    Rosen can finally free the Jets from the escape room they've been trapped in since Woodstock; ironically, all they have to do is make the most obvious choice and select the best quarterback on the board.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derwin James, Safety, Florida State

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    The Buccaneers recorded a league-worst 22 sacks last season and could earn an A-plus draft grade by just selecting seven edge-rushers. But Bradley Chubb is off our board, and the next-best pass-rusher (Marcus Davenport) is the kind of raw prospect who only achieves his potential after the coach, GM and defensive coordinator who drafted him are fired.

    So let's pencil in free agent Tank Lawrence as the best solution to Tampa's pass-rush issue, then address the Buccaneers' needs in a different way with this pick. Derwin James is an all-purpose safety who is at his best when attacking the line of scrimmage from the box. He can upgrade the run defense and provide a blitz threat. He can also upgrade pass coverage which ranked 22rd against tight ends, 26th against running backs and 27th against third to fourth receivers, per Football Outsiders. It's hard to sack a quarterback who can dump the ball to his slot receiver at the first sign of trouble.

    The Buccaneers safety corps currently consists of Chris Conte (fine in deep center field, useless elsewhere), T.J. Ward (an undersized Sam linebacker who is also a free agent), Justin Evans (solid prospect who plays a lot of slot corner) and Keith Tandy (the fourth safety on a 5-11 team). James and Evans give the Bucs an interchangeable pair of do-it-all safeties, allowing them to jettison the veterans and use the extra cap space to make Lawrence happy and address some other needs.

8. Chicago Bears: Calvin Ridley, Wide Receiver, Alabama

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    You may have noticed the similarities between this year's Bears and the Eagles entering last offseason. There's a high-upside quarterback coming off a so-so rookie season (Mitchell Trubisky instead of Carson Wentz). There's an Andy Reid disciple with a subtle, tricky offense calling the shots (Matt Nagy instead of Doug Pederson). There's better talent on defense and the offensive line than you would expect from a last-place team. And finally, there's one of the worst receiving corps in the league.

    The Eagles built a powerhouse offense by taking chances on Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, rebuilding Nelson Agholor's confidence and adding some depth and competition through the draft. Look for the Bears to take a similar approach to upgrading their biggest weakness. They will be major players on the free-agent market for Jarvis Landry types, but they will also look to the draft as former Chiefs offensive coordinator Nagy searches for (drumroll, please) His Very Own Tyreek Hill.

    Calvin Ridley doesn't look much like Hill on tape. He looks more like a gifted deep threat forced to stalk block 50 times per game and use his speed to set up comeback routes because of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts' skills as a runner (and limits as a passer). But Ridley's acceleration and open-field ability are obvious (look for him to rock the combine), even in an offense full of read-options. He can start as a screens-and-reverses threat and then grow with Trubisky into a role as an all-purpose receiver.

    Ridley won't transform the Bears into immediate Super Bowl champions. He probably won't even have Tyreek-like rookie impact. But we've reached the point in the mock draft where teams are good enough to launch themselves into the playoffs with one or two smart moves. Ridley is a smart move for the Bears.

9. San Francisco 49ers: Courtland Sutton, Wide Receiver, SMU

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    Note: A coin toss at the combine will determine whether the 49ers or Raiders will select ninth overall, with the loser of the toss picking 10th. The exact order has no real impact on this mock draft.

         

    Now that Jimmy Garoppolo is a one-man federal reserve bank, it's all about surrounding him with weapons. So the 49ers have two choices here: Draft a safe bell-cow running back like Derrius Guice and address wide receiver in free agency, or grab a potential No. 1 wide receiver here and look for running backs in later rounds (and also possibly address wide receiver in free agency, because they need a lot of bodies there).

    We chose Courtland Sutton over Guice because the Garoppolo contract whispered its secrets to us. John Lynch crashed an armored truck full of $100 bills into Garoppolo's garage this year because the 49ers are building for a 2019-2020 Super Bowl window. The upcoming season will be all about building infrastructure, developing talent and pre-paying for future success.

    With that in mind, the 49ers will pluck a solid running back committee from the middle rounds of a deep draft and spend the 2018 season developing Sutton, a 6'4" prototype with iffy hands but an almost limitless upside. Kyle Shanahan will live with some growing pains to get a receiver with Julio Jones capabilities in the near future.

    Garoppolo will be just fine next year throwing to a healthy Pierre Garcon and whatever all-purpose backs (think N.C. State's Jaylen Samuels, who caught 202 career passes and lit up the Senior Bowl) are available on Days 2 and 3. In 2019, Garoppolo and Sutton will take the 49ers from good to terrifying.

10. Oakland Raiders: Roquan Smith, Linebacker, Georgia

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    The Raiders need middle-of-the-field defenders and Roquan Smith is awesomeburgers, so this pick is a no-brainer. So much of a no-brainer, in fact, that responsible mock drafters must self-scout to make sure we don't "stack the deck" to make sure Smith falls into the perfect landing spot. Is it possible that some other team selects Smith before the Raiders get a chance?

    Browns: The Browns could be like shopping-spree winners who just forearm-clothesline whole racks of items straight into the cart and worry about exactly what they end up with later. They might take Smith with the No. 4 pick. They might also just buy up the whole free-agent wire. Anything's possible, but some things are unlikely.

    Giants: The Giants never invested major resources at linebacker before lineman-loving Dave "Hog Mollies" Gettleman took over as GM, and they won't now that Eli Manning has gotten old(er) and the offensive line collapsed like an old barn.

    Colts: They could draft Roquan, leaving Bradley Chubb for the Buccaneers and dropping Derwin James into the Raiders' lap. Not a bad scenario for the Raiders.

    Broncos: ANGRY STORM GOD ELWAY DOTH DEMAND A QUARTERBACK...FOR HIS DEFENSE! Don't put anything past Elway if he nabs a Kirk Cousins or Case Keenum in free agency. If the Broncos drafted for obvious and glaring needs, they wouldn't be in their current predicament.

    Jets: Address the middle of the defense and ignore a franchise-crippling need at quarterback? That was last year's draft strategy.

    Buccaneers: Relatively set at the linebacker positions.

    Bears: The lure of a Butkus-Singletary-Urlacher heir apparent might have been too great for John Fox to resist, but Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace will address other needs.

    In summary, the Raiders will draft the best defender on the board here, and Smith is likely to be that guy.

11. Miami Dolphins: Josh Jackson, Cornerback, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The start of the offseason finds the Dolphins in their familiar habitat: hovering around .500, up against the roof of the salary cap, top-heavy with veteran contracts and desperately paddling their canoe in both the "complete overhaul" and "WIN NOW" directions simultaneously.

    The fact that there are convincing arguments for both the Dolphins drafting a quarterback to replace Ryan Tannehill and trading down so a quarterback-hungry team can select one typifies the annual Dolphins dilemma: All roads lead them back to the same starting place.

    The Dolphins need linebackers, but Roquan Smith won't last past the Raiders and it's too early to select one of the other prospects at that position. The same logic applies at defensive end; just replace Roquan with Bradley Chubb. That leaves the Dolphins to pick the best available athlete at a premium position. Josh Jackson has the size, speed and quickness to be a shutdown cornerback and has big-play potential in coverage, on returns and as a situational blitzer.

    Insert a Tremaine Edmunds or Denzel Ward here if you like. All of them can play, but none will make a difference until the Dolphins figure out they've spent a decade building their rosters as if a 10-6 wild-card season was the ultimate prize.

12. Cincinnati Bengals: Mike McGlinchey, Tackle, Notre Dame

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Having dragged the Dolphins across the draft board in the last segment, it's time to check in on the AFC's second-favorite also-rans. The Bengals never quite aimed for the moon and fell well short of the stars, though they did achieve low orbit for a few cycles. They are now a team hopelessly trying to pry open a window of opportunity that slammed shut just after 11 p.m. on January 9, 2016.

    The Bengals need a pair of offensive tackles to return them to what they consider their glory years. Mike McGlinchey is the best available option at left tackle. McGlinchey is huge, quick-footed, has a mauler's mentality and has actually lined up in a three-point stance often, so his mechanics won't have to be rebuilt from the ground up like those of about 95 percent of tackle prospects these days.

    Pairing McGlinchey with a certified road grader at right tackle in the second round will make the Bengals offense functional again. Of course, the Bengals drafted tackles with their first two 2015 picks and came away with Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, which led directly to their current predicament. The treadmill teams of the AFC always seem to be climbing out of ruts they dug for themselves. But the only alternative is a complete rebuilding cycle, and the Bengals—like the Dolphins—keep putting off the inevitable.

13. Washington Redskins: Da'Ron Payne, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

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    Washington's attempt to build its defensive line out of other team's failed prospects backfired last year. Phil Taylor got hurt in the preseason, while both Ziggy Hood and Terrell McClain battled injuries and ineffectiveness. Factor in rookie Jonathan Allen's Lisfranc injury, and Washington became overreliant on players like A.J. Francis and Anthony Lanier to soak up meaningful snaps. The team needs an influx of both talent and depth on this unit.

    Da'Ron Payne gets the call over Washington's Vita Vea because of his first-step quickness, versatility to play in multiple gaps and because Washington may be wary of Vea's 330-plus-pound injury potential after a season when team trainers nearly dropped from overexertion. Payne and Allen will give the Skins defensive line a noticeable Alabama flavor, which is never a bad thing.

    This is a good time to note that there are a lot of quarterbacks on the board and some quarterback-needy teams like the Cardinals and Bills (with back-to-back first-round picks to barter) in the queue. Washington can trade down and still grab a Payne or Vea. That option will appeal to a team that had its roster depth obliterated by injuries last year and lost a third-round pick in the Alex Smith trade.

14. Green Bay Packers: Denzel Ward, Cornerback, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Packers ranked dead last in the NFL at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers and 26th at stopping their No. 2 receivers, according to Football Outsiders. Injuries at cornerback were a huge part of the problem, but projected starters Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have never been consistent, Davon House is about to enter free agency and the bottom of the depth chart is full of names like Lenzy Pipkins.

    Denzel Ward is a mighty-mite type: undersized at 5'10", 191 pounds, but with the physicality of an enforcer on the edge of the defense. Drop him in the slot, and he'll throw his body around against the run while demonstrating range and alertness as an underneath defender. Move him outside and he can grow into a shutdown corner, albeit one who will have to be moved around to avoid size mismatches against Julio Jones types.

    This is a safe, down-the-middle choice by the standards of the Packers, who often listened to the music of the spheres when Ted Thompson ran the draft. Look for new GM Brian Gutekunst to be a little more conventional as the Packers try to rebound from a season that exposed their reliance on Aaron Rodgers.

15. Arizona Cardinals: Josh Allen, Quarterback, Wyoming

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Gosh, wouldn't it be swell if Bruce Arians were still in Arizona? He could straighten Josh Allen's footwork and stance just so, mutter some profanity-laden quarterback wisdom into his earhole and presto! Allen instantly becomes Ben Roethlisberger 2.0, throwing 65-yard strikes to the dozen or so deep-threat receivers Arians always kept on the roster, with the occasional 97 mph fastball to Larry Fitzgerald on a slant peppered in.

    Alas, Arians is retired from coaching, so central-casting offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will be the one developing the next Cardinals quarterback. Under the circumstances, the more game-ready Baker Mayfield might make more sense; the Cardinals will be drafting their opening day starter, after all, and Mayfield is less likely than Allen to overthrow his assistant coach by 15 yards during a September pregame warm-up.

    But NFL evaluators never think about circumstances! One live look at the Wyoming QB throwing the ball will make GM Steve Keim and head coach Steve Wilks believers that Allen can be Brett Favre once McCoy fixes his targeting computer.

    Allen could easily complete 45 percent of his passes and throw 25 interceptions if forced to start as a rookie, then be league MVP by 2020 with proper development. Arians could have made Allen a superstar. Let's see what the new Cardinals regime can do.

16. Baltimore Ravens: Isaiah Wynn, Guard-Tackle, Georgia

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    Ozzie Newsome is getting ready to step down as general manager. Soon, we will no longer be able to just pencil in the biggest, meanest guy on the Alabama roster as the Ravens top draft pick.

    Let's celebrate Newsome's final season by penciling in the biggest, meanest guy to face Alabama as the Ravens top draft pick.

    Isaiah Wynn is a huge, ornery thumper of a run-blocker for a team that has issues at both guard positions and may lose center Ryan Jensen to free agency. Wynn played tackle at Georgia but worked out as a guard during Senior Bowl practices, dominating most of his one-on-one reps. He can fill an immediate guard need, then eventually move outside to replace Austin Howard.

    Wynn feels like a bit of a reach at No. 16 overall, and teams will have their eyes on this pick if Baker Mayfield is still on the board. Maybe Ozzie can trade down for some late third-round picks. Ozzie loves late third-round picks. We're gonna miss you, Ozzie.

17. Los Angeles Chargers: Vita Vea, Defensive Tackle, Washington

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    The Chargers gave up 2,098 rushing yards and allowed 4.9 yards per carry last season, and much of that damage came straight up the gut. Once a formidable interior defender, 33-year old Brandon Mebane is now a $5.5 million blocking sled, and there is no quality depth behind him.

    Vea is not just a 330-pound hay bale to clog up double-teams the middle of the field. He's quick-footed, athletic and relentless when he's fresh. He'll make it harder for quarterbacks to step up and away from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram while shutting down running lanes in the middle of the field.

    The Chargers defense has another set of problems once running backs burst through the line: There are a lot of guys up the middle of that defense who simply cannot tackle. But that's a problem to be solved in later rounds. Vea is one of the best players on the board, and missed tackles by safeties are much less of a problem when no one reaches the safety level in the first place.

18. Seattle Seahawks: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

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    It used to be so easy to mock draft for the Seahawks:

    • Select the highest-rated offensive lineman
    • Cite a depressing Seahawks offensive line statistic (for example: running backs averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last year and were stuffed on a league-worst 29 percent of runs, according to Football Outsiders)
    • Make another Tom Cable joke
    • Repeat for rounds 2 through 7 as needed

    Now Cable's gone, the Legion of Boom is getting old and injured, there are holes all over the roster and, while the offensive line is still a catastrophe, there are no surefire solutions left on the board. What's a mock drafter to do?

    How about we address the fact that Seahawks running backs averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last year by giving them an exceptional running back?

    Guice is an all-purpose workhorse for a team that got carried away with converted receivers and reclamation projects over the past few seasons. He's great at creating space for himself and is a punishing finisher at the end of runs, so Guice will find extra yardage while the Seahawks line enters year four of its journey of self-discovery. And once he finds a crease, Guice can do real damage in the open field.

    Once the Seahawks offense is a little more balanced, life will get easier for Russell Wilson, and the Seahawks can stop playing NFL Blitz and starting playing NFL football again. Even the offensive line will start looking better. Maybe. Theoretically. Hopefully.

19. Dallas Cowboys: Tremaine Edmunds, Linebacker, Virginia Tech

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Tremaine Edmunds has been a tricky player to slot in this mock draft. He has limitless upside, but at a position (off-the-ball linebacker) that few teams prioritize in the first round anymore. He should be a Bobby Wagner/Luke Keuchly-caliber contributor by 2019, but whoever drafts him will experience some growing pains as the not-yet-20-year-old Edmunds learns not to get sucked into play action or get caught flat-footed in coverage.

    Edmunds could easily go to the Colts third overall (they need impact defenders), the Browns fourth (upside remains king in Cleveland), the Niners, Raiders, Dolphins (Tremaine's father, Ferrell Edmunds, was a star tight end for them) or Packers. If he slips this far, Jerry Jones will pounce on him, because Jerruh loves both super-athletic players and the chance to look like a visionary genius for drafting someone who's a little bit outside the box. (Can't you just hear Jerruh explaining that younger athletes have greater growth potential, like someone who just read an excerpt from a 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract and now thinks he invented sports analytics?)

    Wherever Edmunds ends up, pencil in a string of 100-tackle seasons, a healthy dose of sacks off the blitz and plenty of Pro Bowl berths as soon as he grows into his potential. The Cowboys make some good decisions for silly reasons, but they remain good decisions.

20. Detroit Lions: Ronald Jones, Running Back, USC

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Angry that Derrius Guice is off the board (and Saquon Barkley is long gone), Lions fans? Don't be. Ronald Jones may be a better fit for your offense.

    Barkley is the most complete back in the class. Guice has the best size-speed-power combination. But Jones may the quickest and smoothest when it comes to attacking the line of scrimmage from the shotgun formation. Jones achieves full speed in just a stride or two, yet can still make jump cuts and adjustments when he reaches the line. And he's both dynamic and explosive when maneuvering through traffic in the open field.

    Place Jones next to Matthew Stafford in the backfield, and those handoffs netted a league-low 3.4 yards per carry. last year will become much more productive. Jones will also add big plays to a running game that has provided just one run longer than 40 yards in the last three seasons.

    Of course, if Guice or Barkley is here, they'll do just fine. But Jones is much more than a consolation prize.

21. Buffalo Bills: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

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    To summarize for those of you who skip down to their team without reading the rest of the mock: We're assuming that the Browns sign Kirk Cousins and the Broncos pursue some other veteran, thereby moving the top quarterback prospects down a few notches from where they appear in other mocks.

    We're also assuming that Baker Mayfield will rank fourth out of the top four prospects after the combine—because Josh Allen will look like a human missile-launcher throwing inside a windless dome, and both Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold will pass every eyeball test, while Mayfield will be the shortish dude whose spiral has a little wobble to it who spent the whole week explaining to a certain segment of the NFL media that he's not just another Johnny Manziel.

    And yes, it may take some finagling with these back-to-back picks for the Bills to move up and land Mayfield once the selections start flying. But Mayfield is the best quarterback for a team that (for better or worse) is overeager to move on from Tyrod Taylor. Mayfield is a highlight machine who can make plays with his legs (like Taylor) but isn't afraid to force passes and take risks to make things happen (unlike Taylor).

    Mayfield dropping to the Bills may look unlikely on the surface, but once you do the quarterback math and factor in all of the prospects and free agents, it's entirely possible. And if the Bills do manage to keep both this pick and the next one, they can make the changes they want on defense as well as offense.

22. Buffalo Bills (via KC): Taven Bryan, Defensive Tackle, Florida

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    The biggest mistake Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane made last year, of course, was letting the bottom of a #BillsMafia message board briefly take over the team and inserting the tragically unprepared Nate Peterman at quarterback in place of Tyrod Taylor.

    Their second-biggest mistake was trading Marcell Dareus while the Bills were still in the playoff chase. Dareus' replacements weren't up to snuff, so the Bills run defense collapsed, nearly taking the team's postseason chances with it.

    McDermott and Beane should learn an important lesson from those two mistakes: Sometimes you have to look at what a uniquely talented player can do instead of fixating on what he cannot do. That's especially true at hard-to-fill positions like quarterback and defensive tackle, where it might not matter how hard the next guy up tries or how much he "wants it."

    Taven Bryan is a uniquely talented player with an explosive first step and the quickness to slice into the backfield and cause chaos. He is raw and a little lean, but let's not focus on what he can do. Rotate him at the 3-tech next to Kyle Williams, slide him to the nose in pass-rush situations and let him wreak havoc while the rest of his game develops.

    So Bryan can bring an instant upgrade to the front seven, fill a position of need and erase a 2017 mistake. Not a bad way to use a spare first-round pick.

23. Los Angeles Rams: Orlando Brown, Offensive Tackle, Oklahoma

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Welcome to the "best available athlete" portion of the first round, where teams with relatively few needs can address long-range problems or upgrade positions of strength.

    By selecting Orlando Brown, the Rams get Andrew Whitworth's replacement at left tackle a year early instead of waiting for the 36-year old to decline. Brown (son of the great Browns/Ravens left tackle of the 1990s) has Jonathan Ogden-caliber measurables, ideal bloodlines and an ornery streak. He's also the typical raw Big 12 spread-offense tackle, so it will take a year as Whitworth's understudy before he can reliably protect Jared Goff's blind side.

    The Rams are likely to lose pieces of the secondary in free agency, so Alabama's Ronnie Harrison or Ohio State's Denzel Ward (if he drops) are also possibilities here. But we've come a long way since the Rams had to draft guys and toss them straight into the starting lineup—particularly on offense. What a difference a year makes.

24. Carolina Panthers: Leighton Vander Esch, Linebacker, Boise State

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    The Panthers need receiving weapons and could opt for a Deon Cain or James Washington here; if Courtland Sutton slips this far, he may be too hard to pass up. But the Panthers always need receivers, so they might just ask Norv Turner & Sons to coach up Devin Funchess and the other odds and ends on the roster while trying to figure out how to wring more than 5.5 yards per touch from Christian McCaffrey.

    The Panthers also need an eventual replacement for Thomas Davis and an insurance policy against Luke Kuechly absences. Leighton Vander Esch is an a high-upside prospect with Davis/Kuechly-caliber instincts when off the ball and in space.

    The Panthers know how to cope when desperately thin at wide receiver; they'll just order Cam Newton to run around in circles until Corey Brown arrives from the bus depot to reclaim his role in the offense. But if the Panthers find themselves desperately thin at linebacker, their entire defensive philosophy is shot. Vander Esch allows Ron Rivera's Panthers to retain their identity.

25. Tennessee Titans: Harold Landry, Edge-Rusher, Boston College

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    The Titans were a 12-4 team on paper, but Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau coached them down to 9-7 with schemes that were branded as retro-chic but were really just out of date. There's underused and undeveloped talent all over the roster, making mock draft selections for the Titans tricky.

    It may look like they need wide receivers, for example, but Corey Davis came on in the playoffs and Mularkey wasn't a huge fan of the forward pass, so it may turn out that the 1999 Rams receiving corps (or at least a very good receiving corps) is already on the payroll.

    So let's play it safe by giving Mike Vrabel something every defensive-oriented head coach loves: an edge-rusher with exceptional first-step quickness. Harold Landry can join the edge-rush rotation with Derrick Morgan and Brian Orokpo, provide some cap and injury insurance against the pair of pricey veterans and give Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees some flexibility as they shift from LeBeau's wood-paneled 3-4 defense to a more hybridized scheme.

    And if any pair of coaches can find ways to get three edge-rushers involved at the same time, it's Vrabel and Pees.

    A speedy, high-motor pass-rusher could go a long way toward getting the Titans over the wild-card hump. So can coaching concepts from this century. Let's see what happens when we put the two of them together.

26. Atlanta Falcons: Will Hernandez, Guard, UTEP

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Falcons need a pair of guards, and Will Hernandez is so big that he's practically a pair of humans.

    The 348-pound Hernandez moves well enough to handle zone-blocking and pass-protection assignments at guard and has a hitter's mentality. Insert Hernandez at left guard and the only thing that can stop the Falcons from rushing for over 120 yards per game will be Steve Sarkisian forgetting to call running plays.

    The Falcons could also go into best-available-athlete mode for falling players like Taven Bryan or (despite the lack of obvious need) a receiver like Deon Cain. The great thing about being in the Falcons' position is that there are few needs to draft for. The bad thing about being in the Falcons position is that the marginal gains that lead back to the Super Bowl aren't easy to identify, and the few that are obvious (THE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR IS AS PREDICTABLE AS A SCOOBY-DOO PLOT) are the ones that won't be addressed until it's too late.

27. New Orleans Saints: Mike Gesicki, Tight End, Penn State

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    A peek at other mock drafts has South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert going to the Saints in this spot. We love Goedert and think he will be a high pick and a great pro. But Mike Gesicki tore up Senior Bowl week, demonstrating smooth athleticism, wide receiver-caliber quickness and exceptional hands.

    Gesicki is going to test unbelievably well at the combine, and while Goedert will also put up some strong numbers, Sean Payton will opt for the more polished product to insert into a lineup that's one or two upgrades from the Super Bowl.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ronnie Harrison, Safety, Alabama

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Steelers drafted Sean Davis as a hyrbid safety-cornerback-nickel specialist two seasons ago, but he has never really settled into any of those three positions. Davis whiffed on a ton of tackles, was a liability in coverage and didn't offer much as a box defender against the run. He may still fit as a situational dime cornerback, but the Steelers need to sort out their secondary if they want to get over the Super Bowl hump next year.

    Ronnie Harrison is more of a pure box safety than Davis. He's big, fast, experienced, smart and polished. Harrison also overruns some tackles, but that's an easier habit to coach out of a rookie than a third-year pro.

    Some mocks have the Steelers selecting an heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger here. But if we are going to stick a surprise quarterback selection at the end of the first round of a mock draft, we're gonna make it count, gosh darn it!

29. Jacksonville Jaguars, Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, Louisville

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    What, you think Blake Bortles earned complete job security by having a Tim Tebow game against the Steelers in the playoffs?

    What, you think Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone are too "old-school" for the scrambling, freewheelin' Lamar Jackson?

    All Bortles earned with his (admittedly impressive) playoff run was the $19 million option year in his rookie contract. And Coughlin goes back so far that he's in front of NFL groupthink. He knows value when he sees it, and a quarterback of Jackson's abilities is an incredible value with the 29th pick in the draft.

    As for Marrone, he nearly took the Jaguars to the Super Bowl by letting Bortles scramble at the first sign of trouble. If Bortles regresses or flakes, Marrone can insert Jackson, let him run for glory if the first read isn't open and let Leonard Fournette and the defense take care of the details. It will be easy for Jackson to improve his loosey-goosey footwork and fine-tune his decision-making on the job when a dozen completions per game should be sufficient to win the division.

    Not buying Jackson to the Jaguars with this selection? Fine. But teams may start jockeying to trade up for him if he's still on the board late in the first round. The Broncos won't wait to see if he's available on Day 2 if they passed on a quarterback earlier. Teams like the Ravens and Dolphins who may be seeking a quick quarterback pivot in 2019 will also be tempted to move up.

    But Jackson is essentially a more talented Bortles who didn't spend three NFL seasons reinforcing his own mistakes. If the Jaguars don't see his value as a developmental project, some other team will.

30. Minnesota Vikings: Connor Williams, Offensive Tackle, Texas

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    The Vikings offensive line improved considerably from 2016 to 2017, but there is still plenty of room to get better. The Vikings allowed the third-worst pressure rate against their quarterbacks in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Right tackle Mike Remmers spent a lot of time at both guard positions, with ineffective linemen like Nick Easton and Rashod Hill getting far too many snaps as the Vikings searched for a healthy, reliable five-man combination.

    Connor Williams has the quickness and technique to develop into a solid left tackle in a year or so. In the meantime, he can provide depth and competition across the line, allowing Remmers to settle into his best position (which may be guard) and reducing the amount of juggling the Vikings are forced to do.

    The Vikings' biggest offseason upgrade will be the return of Dalvin Cook. Their biggest decision is the multiple-choice quarterback dilemma. But Williams can help upgrade the line from good to great, which can mean the difference between a playoff run and a Super Bowl run.

31. New England Patriots: Isaiah Oliver, Cornerback, Colorado

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    The Patriots defense looked slllllloooooowwwwwww in the Super Bowl. Part of the problem was that Malcolm Butler spent the game in super-secret double probation. But the Patriots have also grown reliant on older veterans and specialized defenders (Eric Rowe, Patrick Chung) in the back seven. If Bill Belichick deploys everyone perfectly or Tom Brady throws three fourth-quarter touchdowns, no worries. Otherwise, someone is going to run free in the secondary.

    Isaiah Oliver is a decathlete and the son of an NFL cornerback/NCAA decathlete. He's got arms like Doctor Octopus and excels at not just running with deep receivers, but constricting them to the sideline, whipping his head around and swatting the ball away. Oliver has the potential to lock down No. 1 receivers, replacing Butler and giving Belichick a worthy bookend to pair with Stephon Gilmore. Given a pair of shutdown corners, Belichick will have more leeway to play mix-and-match in the middle of the field.

    Taven Bryan and Harold Landry are fine options if they fall here. Leighton Vander Esch won't escape Belichick's notice if he slips and Rashaan Evans could appeal to the Patriots the way Dont'a Hightower did a few years ago. The more athletic and dynamic the Patriots get on defense, the less likely they are to find themselves on the receiving end of dramatic big-game comebacks.

    And of course, there's a roughly 99.98 percent chance that the Patriots either trade up or down from this position.

32. Philadelphia Eagles: Tim Settle, Defensive Tackle, Virginia Tech

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    The Eagles front office did a fine job locking the nucleus of their Super Bowl championship roster into long-term deals. But the periphery of the roster is going to take major hits in free agency. Top rotation tackle Beau Allen is likely to accept a tasty offer elsewhere, leaving the Eagles with little depth behind Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. And decision-makers Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas like to mix Moneyball with old-school Bill Parcells reasoning: 330-pound defensive tackles who can move are rare commodities, so draft them whenever you can.

    Settle is a 330-pounder who can move. He battled conditioning issues at Virginia Tech, but the Eagles will only need him for a 30-snap rotation role in the short term, and Cox and Jernigan (and line coach Phillip Daniels and others in the tight-knit Eagles organization) will keep Settle from getting carried away with second helpings.

    Speedy, undersized South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard could also fit here, as the Eagles grab best available athletes and compensate for the likely loss of Nigel Bradham. Georgia running back Sony Michel could replace LeGarrette Blount. Dallas Goedert could team up with Zach Ertz for a team that loves two-tight-end attacks but may lose Trey Burton to free agency and Brett Celek to retirement.

    But Settle is a top prospect remaining who would look great dressed as a Mummer on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With the Eagles parade still fresh in our minds and this mock draft rapidly descending into speculative foam, that matters as much as anything else.