Predicting the Most Surprising Picks of the 2018 NFL Draft
The 2018 offseason has already brought plenty of excitement for NFL fans. We've had blockbuster trades, big-name signings and enough free-agency suspense to last an entire year. Yet it's only a preamble to the NFL draft.
The draft is the biggest event of the offseason, and for good reason. Franchises gamble on their futures, while the lives of NFL prospects are changed forever, and we get to watch it all unfold live. Plus, we almost never know what is coming until draft cards are turned in.
In 2017, the Chicago Bears traded up for Mitchell Trubisky, the Kansas City Chiefs moved up for Patrick Mahomes and two running backs went in the top 10. It was no mystery when the Cleveland Browns scooped up Myles Garrett with the No. 1 overall pick, but the rest of the draft's opening night was a roller coaster.
The 2018 draft is likely to be just as full of surprises. There are a few blue-chip prospects, a half-dozen potential first-round quarterbacks and a plethora of teams with large roster holes to fill. What will this year's big shockers look like?
We'll have some fun predicting the surprises to come, but we're going to stay within the realm of realism and justify our choices.
Cleveland Browns Take Josh Allen First Overall
The Browns have struggled to find a franchise quarterback since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. There are several intriguing quarterback prospects in this draft class, but USC product Sam Darnold appears to be the best combination of a sure thing and a high-upside prospect.
"Darnold has the tools to thrive in any system and doesn't have to have perfect protection to succeed," NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote. "His floor is solid starter, but he has the ceiling to be one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the game as he gains more experience."
Darnold seems like the perfect choice if Cleveland wants to finally get its quarterback choice right, but the first surprise in the draft comes when the Browns pass on Darnold in favor of Wyoming's Josh Allen.
Allen is unpolished and completed just 56 percent of his passes as a starter, but he has prototypical size (6'5", 233 lbs) and rare arm talent. According to radio host Dan Patrick, one current NFL scout compares Allen to one of Cleveland's biggest foils.
With Tyrod Taylor set to start for at least a season in Cleveland, new general manager John Dorsey decides to pull the trigger on a raw prospect knowing he won't start right away. This paves the way for the Giants to snag Darnold at No. 2.
ESPN's Jordan Raanan believes Darnold is the only quarterback the Giants would take in this year's draft.
Denver Broncos Take Quenton Nelson at No. 5
Assuming the New York Jets didn't trade up to No. 3 for running back Saquon Barkley, three quarterbacks will likely be off the board by the time the Denver Broncos are on the clock at No. 5. We'll send UCLA's Josh Rosen to the Jets and Barkley to the Browns at No. 4.
If Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield is sitting there, Denver would pull the trigger, though, right?
There have been signs that link the Broncos and Mayfield for some time. The Denver coaching staff requested to have him on their team at the Senior Bowl. According to NFL Media's Gil Brandt, the Broncos also sent seven people—including general manager John Elway and coach Vance Joseph—to Mayfield's pro day.
Some will be shocked when the Broncos pass on Mayfield to secure guard Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson.
By scooping up Nelson, the Broncos would tell us two things. For one, they'd show they believe in quarterback Case Keenum. Denver signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal. He'll now have a chance to show he's more than a short-term solution.
Adding Nelson also shows Denver is still trying to win now. Instead of planning for the future—though Nelson is definitely a long-term asset—the Broncos are adding a piece that can support Keenum, improve the running game and help take advantage of a defense that is still playoff-caliber.
Passing on Mayfield leaves the next few spots ripe for trades.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Draft Denzel Ward at No. 7
Numerous mock drafts project former Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick as the first defensive back off the board. Fortunately for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the league's worst pass defense last season, he's still on the board at No. 7. We're sending pass-rusher Bradley Chubb to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 6.
Surprisingly, the Buccaneers won't put Fitzpatrick's name on their draft card. Instead, they'll go after a cover corner with the skills to make a difference in the NFC South.
Ohio State product Denzel Ward isn't the biggest defensive back in this class (5'10", 191 pounds), but he's a polished defender who can provide close coverage on the outside or in the slot.
"Ward is very sticky in coverage," ESPN's Matt Bowen said, per Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com. "He uses a technique that is called a 'motor-mirror-shuffle-scoot,' where you line up, square up on the receiver and quick-pedal. It's very hard to teach. It's very hard to execute. A lot of pro guys can't do it. He's excellent at it."
Ward also has elite speed for the position. He ran a blazing 4.32-second 40 at the scouting combine and should be able to keep up with any receiver in the division.
Aside from a premier pass-rusher, a lockdown cover corner is the most valuable piece a team can add to its defense. With this in mind, the Buccaneers make Ward, not Fitzpatrick, the first defensive back off the board.
Buffalo Bills Take Lamar Jackson in Top 10
With only three quarterbacks off the board, the bottom of the top 10 is likely to see at least one trade. The Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders all have franchise quarterbacks. The Miami Dolphins, who own the 11th pick, could be in the market for a new one.
The Buffalo Bills are still searching for a franchise signal-caller and will trade into the top 10 to secure theirs. They'll jump ahead of Miami, but they won't go after Mayfield, as some might expect. Instead, Buffalo will snag Louisville's Lamar Jackson.
Jackson would be a great fit for the Bills for a number of reasons. He needs to add some mass to his frame, but at 6'3" he has the size and the arm strength to survive the Buffalo weather. He is the kind of dual-threat quarterback head coach Sean McDermott has been around—Taylor, Cam Newton and Donovan McNabb—during his time in the NFL. He played in a similar offense at Louisville to the one Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is schooled in.
"He's got a great attitude, tremendously competitive," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said of Jackson, per Matthew Fairburn of NewYorkUpstate.com. "I think Arizona or Buffalo in the first round. Like I said, no different than the other guys, on the shelf for a year or two and then the starter after that."
Miami will then add Mayfield to compete with Ryan Tannehill. Surprisingly, it can do so without having to trade up thanks to Buffalo's decision to take Jackson.
Arizona Cardinals Take Mason Rudolph at No. 15
The Arizona Cardinals signed Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal this offseason, but they need a long-term answer at the quarterback position in the wake of Carson Palmer's retirement. Arizona will pull the trigger in the sixth quarterback in the top half of this year's draft.
Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph has the size (6'5", 235 pounds) teams want in a pocket passer. He has adequate arm strength and accuracy. He passed for nearly 5,000 yards last season and completed 65 percent of his passes. He'll probably remind Cardinals general manager Steve Keim a lot of Palmer. However, Rudolph is widely viewed as belonging to the second tier of quarterbacks in this class.
"Rudolph could be an early backup with the potential of becoming an average to below average starter in the league," NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote of Rudolph. Zierlein views him as a second- or third-round pick.
But Keim doesn't seem to care about outside opinions.
"If you believe a guy is the franchise quarterback, take him and don't look back," Keim told reporters at the NFL combine. "Don't worry about where he is projected to go. That position is so important it doesn't matter where you take him. Two years from now, no one is going to remember that."
The Cardinals gamble on Rudolph, and six quarterbacks are gone by pick No. 16.
Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Guice at No. 28
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the league's top running backs in Le'Veon Bell, though he has yet to sign his franchise-tag tender. While this wouldn't preclude the Steelers from drafting a running back, they surely wouldn't spend a first-round pick on one, would they?
Considering Bell has already logged 1,229 regular-season carries, wants a long-term contract Pittsburgh apparently isn't wanting to offer and could fetch quite a bit via trade—assuming he agrees to sign his tender—they just might. LSU's Derrius Guice would likely be his replacement.
Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller has touted Guice as the best back in this draft class not named Saquon Barkley. Pittsburgh has also shown interest.
According to Jon Ledyard of NDT Scouting, the Steelers have had a formal interview with Guice and will have a private dinner with him before his pro day. A few draft analysts have mocked Guice to Pittsburgh, including NFL.com's Charles Davis.
To be fair, Davis' mock came out before the Steelers gave Bell the franchise tag, but even if Bell is in Pittsburgh this year, drafting Guice makes sense. By the time Bell hits the open market next year, the Steelers will have had him for six seasons—possibly the best seasons of his career.
Guice would give the Steelers a reliable backup in 2017 and a top-tier starter beyond.
Cleveland Browns Take Courtland Sutton at No. 35
SMU's Courtland Sutton was one of college football's most prolific receivers over the last two seasons, amassing 2,331 yards and 22 touchdowns. He has tremendous size (6'3", 218 lbs) and enough strength to win on 50-50 balls. Miller recently labeled Sutton this year's best boundary receiver and the receiver prospect with the best potential.
Would such a receiver fall out of the first round in today's pass-driven era? Given the recent struggles of first-round receivers, it's certainly possible.
In 2016 and 2017, seven wide receivers—Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross—were drafted in the first round. They combined for just 1,900 yards receiving last season. That's an average of 271.4 yards per player.
Teams may be wary of taking a wideout in Round 1—though Alabama's Calvin Ridley should go in the first 32 picks.
The Browns, who traded for wideout Jarvis Landry this offseason, scoop up Sutton with the 35th pick. He'd be a good fit alongside Landry and across the field from Josh Gordon.
The surprise is that Sutton lasts until Round 2 and the Browns don't even draft him with their first second-round pick (where they'll be focused on an offensive tackle).
*All contract information via Spotrac.com.