Mike Tanier's Pre-Combine Mock Draft: Where We Stand Before Everything Changes
Ah, the pre-combine mock draft: the boardwalk tarot-card reading of NFL content. We don't know how big or fast the rookies are, don't know how free agency will shake out and aren't even totally clear about who is getting franchise-tagged just yet, but let's make bold predictions about the futures of individuals and franchises anyway. Because it's fun!
This particular first-round mock draft features:
• Three quarterbacks landing in unexpected places
• Eighteen defenders to harass, mangle or otherwise hinder those quarterbacks
• A theological explanation why the defender-to-quarterback ratio is so high this year (it was more interesting than talking about the Falcons)
• Three Clemson players and three Alabama players, and two Ohio State and two Michigan players, because we're all about balance
• Two Iowa tight ends...somehow
• A trio of Raiders selections to provide instant help on both sides of the ball
• A pair of Packers selections to provide instant help on both sides of the ball
• An off-the-rails (or maybe brilliant!) comparison between a college committee running back and an NFL legend
• An exclusive look inside the Jets war room
...and much, much more!
So read on. These picks may not predict the future accurately, but they'll get you pumped up for all of this week's combine action.
1. Arizona Cardinals: Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State
The Cardinals are a glorified expansion team with critical needs everywhere, so they must select the best available players regardless of position in just about every round.
They also needed to select the best available coaches last month, but hey, maybe Chip Ke—oops, we mean Kliff Kingsbury—will do things in the NFL that he never came close to accomplishing in the Big 12.
Anyway, Bosa is reportedly fully healthy entering the combine. He'll participate in some capacity, and even if he skips most of the workouts, all NFL decision-makers really need to see from him are the MRIs of his core-muscle injury (or whatever medical tests you do on a core-muscle injury).
Once everything checks out, the Cardinals can insert Bosa across from Chandler Jones on their defensive front to form a pass rush that will keep them in games while Kingsbury figures out what to do with the offense.
What, you were expecting Kyler Murray? Don't worry. We'll get to him.
2. San Francisco 49ers: Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama
The 49ers have a long and complicated draft history with players a lot like Quinnen Williams.
Remember Solomon Thomas, taken third overall in the 2017 draft? After two seasons, the 49ers are still trying to figure out if he is an interior lineman or edge-rusher. They are also still waiting for his fifth NFL sack.
What about Arik Armstead, the power forward-sized athlete taken 17th overall in the 2015 draft? Like Thomas, Armstead has slid all over the formation in search of sacks (he has just nine in four NFL seasons). He also missed large chunks of two seasons with injuries.
And then there's DeForest Buckner, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft, who...oh wow, Buckner broke out with 12 sacks after everyone stopped paying attention to the 49ers last season! But before that, he was another end-tackle tweener who spent two seasons not quite getting to the passer.
Williams, a quick-footed, active interior lineman, could be another can't-miss defender who somehow misses—or turns out to be ordinary—if not developed and deployed properly.
So why mock him to the 49ers instead of a pure edge-rusher like Josh Allen? First of all, the 49ers clearly love this kind of defender. And secondly, competing in the NFC West means loading up on big linemen who can stop the run.
The Rams want to hammer opponents with their running backs to set up play-action passes. The Seahawks are the same way, without the setting up or passing parts. The Cardinals don't have an offense yet, so they don't count.
Anyway, the 49ers also can't let past disappointments dictate draft strategies. Williams is a high-impact disruptor. If San Francisco collects enough players like him, opponents won't be able to block all of them.
3. New York Jets: Josh Allen, Edge, Kentucky
The Jets' general manager is the guy in your fantasy league who blows up your phone with silly trade offers during lunch hour. Their coach is the college roommate who keeps inviting you to Laser Radiohead at the planetarium. Their defensive coordinator is your wacky uncle with the shirtless Facebook profile.
So let's make this selection as simple as possible for them: Allen is a prototypical pass-rusher for a team that produced just 39 sacks last year and needs an infusion of talent on both sides of the ball.
What do you think guys?
General manager Mike Maccagnan: "Shh, I can't pay attention to the draft right now. I'm the only bidder for Le'Veon Bell, and according to my crackerjack negotiating instincts, that means I must make him a really, really, really big offer."
Head coach Adam Gase: "Whoa, we could draft Josh Allen to sack Josh Allen of the Bills? That's, like, sacking Josh Allen squared!" (Stares at his own wiggling fingers for 20 minutes.)
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams: "Great idea! I love a little of the ol' quarterback ultraviolence! Oh, not you, Jamal Adams. There's a spot 38 yards behind the line of scrimmage where I want you to line up."
Eh, even these guys can't possibly screw this up.
4. Oakland Raiders: Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
The Raiders are so desperate for help on the pass rush that it's easy to overlook how desperate they are for help at nearly every other position on the field, too.
Take cornerback, for instance. Gareon Conley ended up having a fine season last year, so the Raiders have one of them. But Rashaan Melvin and Leon Hall, who had seven and four starts, respectively, last season, are free agents on the wrong side of rebuilding age, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who started one game, retired. Youngsters Daryl Worley and Nick Nelson are still on the payroll (Worley as a restricted free agent), which is good news for anyone who hopes to see Patrick Mahomes throw for nine touchdowns when the Chiefs play the Raiders.
So the Raiders need a potential shutdown cornerback like Greedy Williams almost as much as they need an edge-rusher. With Nick Bosa and Josh Allen off the board in our mock, and with the Raiders picking two more times in a first round teeming with pass-rushers, it makes sense for them to take the long, quick-hipped and blessedly fast Williams now and address other needs later.
Of course, if the Raiders did things that made sense, they wouldn't be desperate for talent in the first place. But it's hard to go wrong with this selection.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Devin White, LB, LSU
The Buccaneers have the veteran nucleus of a great defense in tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David.
Wait...haven't McCoy and David been around for, like, 20 years? They've been in Tampa for so long they played alongside Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, right?
It only seems that way. McCoy was drafted in 2010, David in 2012. They have patiently waited through the Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter eras for help. But the Buccaneers tend to focus on offense (or, um, kicker) early in the draft, filling out their defense with mercenaries like Jason Pierre-Paul and Brent Grimes who provide varying degrees of impact and enthusiasm.
Let's kick off the Bruce Arians-Todd Bowles era by upgrading the Buccaneers defense before McCoy and David are too old to rock 'n' roll. Devin White is the player the Bucs hoped Kwon Alexander (a free agent) would become after his promising rookie season: a big-hitting blitzer with range and thump to take pressure off David. But Alexander has dealt with injuries, and his development stagnated. And White is an all-around better athlete.
Vita Vea, last year's first-round pick, came on strong late in the season, so McCoy now has some help on the interior line as well. Before you know it, folks will start talking about the Buccaneers defense again. In a good way.
6. New York Giants: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston
If you need a huge, toolsy, aggressive defensive or offensive lineman, the 2019 NFL draft is the draft for you.
But if you love "can't-miss" quarterback prospects who have earned the right to be handed the keys to NFL franchises, this is not your kind of draft at all.
Which brings us to Dave Gettleman, well-known connoisseur of Hog Mollies and War Daddies along the offensive and defensive fronts, and to the New York Giants, a team in denial about its need for a franchise quarterback who can take over a starting role more or less immediately.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins is the popular Giants selection in many mock drafts. But all the Giants need is an excuse—a less-than-stellar Haskins scouting report, straight A's from driving school for Kyle Lauletta, Eli Manning strutting through team headquarters looking extra jaunty and spry—to talk themselves into another year of Eli and letting Gettleman wallow in this year's nutrient-rich broth of impact defenders.
Ed Oliver is a big, quick, physical, frenetic defender who fits the Giants scheme as a 3- or 5-tech lineman. Giants fans looking at this selection and growling should think Justin Tuck. Would you pass up a less-than-sure-fire quarterback to select the next Tuck? Gettleman and the Giants would.
After all, they won with a great defensive line and Eli in 2007 and 2011. Why won't the same tactic work in 2019? (Don't answer: The Giants aren't listening.)
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
Haskins' upside is somewhere between a focused-and-dialed-in version of Jameis Winston and early-season Jared Goff. His downside is somewhere between an early-season interception-spree version of Winston and the cold-weather/Super Bowl/everything-is-not-100-percent-ideal version of Goff.
That's a mighty wide range. But both Goff and Winston were first overall picks, and here's Haskins—a gifted-but-erratic pocket passer with a few refined skills and some mobility—sitting at No. 7. And the Winston-Goff performance range is an upgrade over both Blake Bortles' upside (maybe we can win a playoff game if the defense goes full 1985 Bears) and downside (let's stop passing altogether and see if anyone notices).
The Jaguars are likely to be major players for Nick Foles in free agency, the Giants may have more interest in Haskins than the last segment suggests, and Kyler Murray remains in play. But however the next few weeks shake out, the Jaguars will have a new quarterback, and Haskins won't be on the board after this spot.
8. Detroit Lions: Clelin Ferrell, Edge, Clemson
The Lions drafted Ezekiel Ansah fifth overall in 2013 and somehow decided that they were set at defensive end for the rest of the decade.
Ansah has mixed great, inconsistent and injury-marred seasons since his rookie year, but the Lions have never done anything wacky like sign or draft a high-impact pass-rusher to complement him. Ansah was hurt most of last year, so the Lions made do with long-range project Romeo Okwara (just good enough to get to quarterbacks who hold the ball forever) and Giants castoff Devon Kennard (three early-season sacks before he mostly disappeared).
Whether Ansah leaves via free agency or returns under the franchise tag or a new contract, the Lions need to get more out of their pass rush. Clelin Ferrell has the size, athleticism and motor, plus impressive technique and a well-developed battery of moves, to be a double-digit sack producer.
Whether Ferrell supplements Ansah or replaces him, he's a necessity for a team with a bad habit of waiting for years to solve its most obvious problems.
9. Buffalo Bills: Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama
The Bills need to build a supporting cast now that they have found their quarterback in Josh Allen.
Yes, Allen is the Bills' quarterback. He may not be your quarterback...or mine...or Bill Walsh's...or the quarterback of any team that wants to take part in the offense revolution that started in 1978 and is still going on (despite what we saw in the Super Bowl). But Allen is athletic, has a huge arm, runs around a lot, makes one or two impressive throws per game and generates polarizing opinions. That makes him a worthy successor to Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, J.P. Losman and Rob Johnson. He's the platonic ideal of the 21st-century Bills quarterback.
Anyway, Allen has almost no one blocking for him and no one to throw to, which contributes to all the running around and lobs to nowhere. This isn't a great draft for early-round receivers, so let's upgrade his protection. Jonah Williams is a smooth, quick-footed technician who can also clock defenders as a run-blocker on the second level. He's perfect for the Bills offense, which consists of handoffs on first and second downs and dealer's choice bombs or scrambles on third downs.
Kidding aside, the Bills expect Allen to take a big step forward in the offseason. Williams can help make that happen.
10. Denver Broncos: Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
The Broncos just agreed to trade for Joe Flacco, because team president John Elway thinks they have a great defense and can reach the playoffs with a competent veteran quarterback.
The Broncos are expected to part ways with linebacker Brandon Marshall, because their core defense has gotten old and expensive since leading them to the Super Bowl in 2015.
The Broncos are also letting starting center Matt Paradis leave via free agency, because they need to be cap-conscious, because they must pay Flacco and still owe money to Case Keenum, the last "competent veteran quarterback" who was supposed to lead the once-great defense that has been shedding talent for four years.
This is not a mock draft segment. It's a ransom note from a Batman villain. The Broncos are at the mercy of Elway's tormented dream logic.
Elway drafted Bradley Chubb last year to keep his crumbling defense viable while Keenum served as offensive custodian. Rashan Gary will do the same thing, replacing lost defensive parts and keeping the defensive line formidable while Flacco takes shots behind an offensive line pieced together on a tight budget so the Broncos can pay him.
Three years from now, Elway will pay $25 million per year for Andy Dalton and draft a replacement for Von Miller, and he'll believe his roster is so stacked that he will expect Dalton and head coach Klint Kubiak to win immediately.
Hurry up and solve this riddle, Caped Crusaders. The Broncos can't take much more of this.
11. Cincinnati Bengals: Yodny Cajuste, OT, West Virginia
The Bengals tried to solve their longstanding offensive tackle problem last offseason by trading for Cordy Glenn and signing Bobby Hart away from the Giants.
Glenn played reasonably well. Hart showed why a team that built its offense around getting the ball out of Eli Manning's hand in 0.5 nanoseconds was willing to try to replace him at right tackle with Ereck Flowers.
Hart is a free agent, as is Andre Smith. Yodny Cajuste can step in at right tackle immediately to provide help both as a pass protector and a run-thumper who excels at second-level and pull-trap blocks. Cajuste can then eventually slide over to left tackle to replace Glenn.
The Bengals have a variety of needs and a new coaching staff that may be eager to do something splashy. But Cajuste is a safe pick, and the Bengals became the franchise they are today (you know, the one that picks between ninth and 25th in the draft every year) by making just this kind of safe pick.
12. Green Bay Packers: Brian Burns, Edge, Florida State
The Packers defense recorded a respectable 44 sacks last season, but 13 of them came in two games: seven against early-season Josh Allen (who looked at downfield coverage like he was trying to interpret an abstract painting) and six against Brock Osweiler (a statue the NFL keeps moving from location to location for decorative reasons).
Clay Matthews is a long-in-the-tooth free agent. Nick Perry was ineffective last year and is coming off a knee injury. Kyler Fackrell is fine, but you can't build a playoff-caliber pass rush around Kyle Fackrell. It's time for the Packers to invest in some pure edge talent.
Brian Burns is an old-school 3-4-style pass-rusher: long-armed, quick off the snap and slippery to block because of his swim and spin moves. He's not a guy you want taking on right tackles in the running game, but the Packers have Fackrell, Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and others for that.
Burns can step naturally into Mathews' old role and help the Packers put pressure on every quarterback—not just the ones with no idea what they are doing.
13. Miami Dolphins: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
The Dolphins appear to be in rebuilding mode under new head coach Brian Flores and recently promoted general manager Chris Grier. That means their to-do list for the offseason goes something like this:
• Draft the best available athletes at high-leverage positions
• Shed salary while spending judiciously
• Pivot from Ryan Tannehill to a quarterback of the future
That may sound like an obvious agenda, but it's very different from the Dolphins' typical offseason to-do list:
• Release the ultra-expensive veterans signed two years ago, opening a gaping hole in a position group
• Let affordable, improving young players leave via free agency
• Sign some ultra-expensive veterans to replace the affordable, improving young players
• Trade draft picks for a journeyman veteran
• Use remaining draft picks to fill the gaping hole
• Hope no one notices you have been running in circles for over a decade
The Dolphins could pursue Kyler Murray, but it's unlikely that an old-school Bill Parcells disciple like Grier will hitch his rookie coach's fortunes to an outlier quarterback. Parcells types are all about benchmarks and measurables.
Drew Lock is the safer choice: bigger and more battle-tested after years of starting in the SEC, with plenty of talent and athleticism. He handled the pressure of playing for Jon Gruden in the Senior Bowl with aplomb while Murray was providing Dan Patrick with cringe comedy. Guess which one a rebuilding team will feel more comfortable with as a likely day-one starter.
Don't worry, dear readers: Murray is coming.
14. Atlanta Falcons: Deandre Baker, CB, Georgia
Whenever a baby boy was born into our family, Great Aunt Marguerite used to say: "So many boys! The good Lord must be getting us ready to fight a war someday!"
Great Aunt Marguerite was rather...eccentric (she once threw all our Led Zeppelin albums and Dungeons and Dragons manuals into the fireplace), but this year's draft class reminds us of her old neonatal theology. So many edge-rushers, cornerbacks and defensive tackles: The Lord almighty must want to put a stop to all those 51-45 games!
No team is in more dire need of defensive divine intervention than the Falcons, frequent losers of 43-37 and 37-36 games. The Falcons already shed linebacker Brooks Reed and cornerback Robert Alford at the start of the offseason (both were signed by the expansion Cardinals) and will be trying to rebuild and galvanize a defensive identity they lost midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.
Deandre Baker is a quick, heady defender who is most effective in off and zone coverage. He'd provide an upgrade over Alford and can team with Desmond Trufant to form a cornerback tandem that keeps opponents from racking up over 26 points per game.
Washington's Byron Murphy or Clemson's Trayvon Mullen would also be fine fits, but Baker has the best chance of the three of covering Michael Thomas one-on-one. When preparing for a future war, it's wise to pick your battles.
15. Washington Redskins: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Kyler Murray is a sure-fire, can't-miss quarterback prospect.
As long as you ignore the fact that he will be the shortest and smallest quarterback drafted since Pro Football Reference started collecting combine results.
And the fact that he was locked into playing major league baseball less than two months ago.
And the fact that he mumbled and stalled like Shoegaze Hamlet when asked whether he would play baseball or football during what should have been a triumphant Radio Row speaking tour.
And the loud murmurs that his father is going full V-22 Ospery helicopter parent, talk which was backed up by Murray's mumblecore behavior.
And the fact that he was a one-year starter in the playground-like Big-12, the perfect environment for making a speedy guy with a good fastball look great despite significant (ahem) shortcomings.
Murray is fun to pound the table for in internet arguments, because folks like us don't lose money or our jobs if he turns into a bust, injury case or outfielder. But it takes a special kind of general manager to invest first-round resources in an outlier like Murray, one that's either willing to slalom through lots of yellow flags on the courage of his conviction or blithely play a hunch because he needs a quarterback and knows he can blame his mistakes on someone else.
Enter Washington's Bruce Allen, who thinks he's the courage-of-convictions guy but is really the play-the-hunch guy.
Assuming Murray measures out to be at least as big as your typical middle school small forward and can look GMs in the eye and say "I'm passionate about football" without needing cue cards this week, he has the on-field tools to develop into a cross between Baker Mayfield and Russell Wilson. And Washington certainly needs a quarterback with Alex Smith's professional future in doubt.
Yep, Murray could make just as big a splash in Washington as undersized Big-12 megastar Robert Griffin III did in 2012.
Try not to think about how that turned out.
16. Carolina Panthers: Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss
The Panthers are at a crossroads. It's time to either solve all their problems on offense or blame them all on Cam Newton.
Yes, we know which option our angry fathers-in-law have already chosen. But the Panthers really need to fix their offensive line before it's too late, assuming that Newton's shoulder injury isn't a sign that it's already too late.
Greg Little doesn't quite grade out as a top left tackle prospect for me. His feet are a little slow, his finishes are sometimes passive, and his punch isn't quite punchy enough. But he's massive (6'6", 325 lbs), with the tools to be a road-grader at right tackle and good enough technique to keep Newton from getting creamed if he takes over immediately for free agent Chris Clark.
Once the Panthers fix right tackle, they can work on center (Ryan Kalil retired), wide receiver, edge-rusher (Julius Peppers retired), outside linebacker, the secondary...gosh, if Newton spent a year in the top-secret Andrew Luck skunkworks to get totally healthy while the Panthers rebuilt the roster, who could blame him?
Oh yeah: our angry fathers-in-law, that's who.
17. Cleveland Browns: D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss
How this selection would be perceived, old Browns version:
OMG, those silly Browns just drafted an Instagram model! They must think they are casting the next round of Marvel movies, not putting together a football team! And Metcalf is coming off a neck injury, no less!
How this selection would be perceived, new Browns version:
The omniscient, infallible Browns have pulled off yet another coup! Metcalf is an incredible athlete. He looks like a superhero on Instagram! And even if his stock has slipped because of concerns over a neck injury, his arrival will guarantee Baker Mayfield an MVP award and solidify Freddie Kitchens' status as the next Bill Walsh. Don't forget to give former GM Sashi Brown credit for this selection, too, for some reason!
How this selection should be perceived, firm-grasp-of-reality version:
Metcalf is a toolsy deep threat with high upside who fills a need for a team that, despite the optimism generated by their new coach/quarterback and 5-2 finish, still has many needs. The Browns need an offensive tackle even more than a receiver, but we already mocked away the three best, and if Metcalf's medicals check out and he times as well as we think he will this week, he may be the best available athlete.
18. Minnesota Vikings: Cody Ford, OG/OT, Oklahoma
One big drawback to overpaying for a fancy car is that you end up paying lots of dough to protect that fancy car: extended warranties, comprehensive insurance, premium fuel and synthetic oil, valet parking so it doesn't get dinged in the lot and so on.
It's all worth the expense for a snazzy new high-performance vehicle that brings you thrills and prestige, but you know darn well this is a Kirk Cousins metaphor, so we are talking about a pre-owned midsized sedan that the Vikings are building a custom garage for.
Cousins' protection was awful last year, and it's not like he's going to get better at handling pressure up the middle, so it's up to the Vikings to upgrade the offensive line and make the most of things. Cody Ford, who could be an immediate starter at right tackle or either guard position, has the right combination of size (6'4", 338 lbs), quickness and nastiness to keep defenders away from Cousins and open things up in the running game.
Once Cousins can safely hand off and drop back, the Vikings should leap all the way from last year's 8-7-1 record to a more Cousins-like 9-7 finish.
19. Tennessee Titans: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa
Tight end Delanie Walker was one of the Titans' most consistent offensive weapons from 2013 through 2017, quietly producing a string of 60- to 94-catch seasons for a team that often looked like it was running a 1970s college offense.
Walker turns 35 in August and missed most of last season with a gruesome ankle injury. His time is short, which isn't good for the Titans, as they looked lost in his absence—trying some unfortunate things with their other tight ends, like giving Luke Stocker a goal-line carry (the first of his career) on 4th-and-short.
Fortunately, T.J. Hockenson is Walker 2.0: a tough, compact blocker who is faster than he looks (that No. 38 makes him look slower; yeah, that must be it) and runs some quick, crafty routes.
Hockenson will be catching 60 short passes for years and contributing as a run-blocker before you know it. Then the Titans can start to figure out how to bring the rest of their offense into the 21st century.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Jachai Polite, Edge, Florida
The Steelers are in deep denial about the fact that their entire franchise is dysfunctional, their method of player management isn't suited to the modern NFL and they are on the precipice of a free fall into an epic rebuilding cycle.
And what do organizations do when they are in deep denial? Why, they do the same things they always did back when everything was A-OK. In this team's case, that means drafting an edge-rusher from the SEC to recapture a little of that Steel Curtain glory.
Not that Jachai Polite is a bad pick by any means. He's a frenetic hustle monster on the edge with the quickness to spin away from blockers and the speed to pursue running backs down the line of scrimmage. He and T.J. Watt could form one heck of a pass-rushing tandem.
It's just that, you know, the Steelers are basically (cue the creepy circus music) Arkham Asylum these days: The best players all hate each other and want out, the organization wants to keep them around out of what appears to be spite, and Mike Tomlin has as much authority and credibility as a junior high stairwell monitor.
But one draft selection isn't going to change all that. So let's give the Steelers the kind of player they really like and keep them comfortable until they are finally ready to cope with some real issues.
21. Seattle Seahawks: Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson
The Seahawks jettisoned (or lost to injury) the entire Legion of Boom and still went 10-6 last year. That means their secondary is in great shape, right?
Not really. Tre Flowers played well on the right side, but Shaquill Griffin was overmatched as a starting left cornerback, and slot cornerback Justin Coleman was fine but is now a free agent. The safeties were nothing special after Earl Thomas got hurt. And at times, it was hard to tell when effective play by the Seahawks secondary ended and the inexperience of opposing quarterbacks like Josh Rosen began.
Trayvon Mullen has a little bit of that old Legion of Boom vibe going for him: He's big (6'1", 195 lbs), physical and competitive. He's a good system fit for the Seahawks, a player who can press at the line of scrimmage but also reacts quickly to what happens in front of him when playing Cover 3 zones.
The Seahawks can't be lulled by last season's record into thinking they are contenders; they're a .500-caliber team that caught a few schedule breaks. A cornerback tandem of Flowers and Mullen will make them look a little more like the team they used to be, which is also the team they want to be.
22. Baltimore Ravens: Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
Here's a look at the thought process behind this selection:
Mock draft bad cop: The Ravens need a center. Plop Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins or North Carolina State's Garrett Bradbury here, and then we can move on to a team with a wider national audience.
Mock draft good cop: But I have Day 2 grades for Jenkins and Bradbury. And the Ravens rarely reach or draft for need.
Bad cop: Fine, but make sure you pick for offense, so we can tie the pick to Lamar Jackson. The capsule should mention Jackson as much as possible. He clickety-clickety click click clicks!
Good cop: I dunno. There's a lot of defensive talent still on the board. Byron Murphy may be a top-15 guy, and the Ravens will be looking to replace the aging and expensive Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr soon...
Bad cop: Oh, come on! At least pick an Alabama guy, like Deionte Thompson, so we can do the "Ravens are obsessed with Alabama players" gag. Eric Weddle isn't getting any younger, either, you know.
Good cop: I rate Thompson as an early Day 2 guy, too—just like Landon Collins a few years ago. Also, Ozzie Newsome has retired and was never as Alabama-obsessed as we made him out to be. If we want to make a joke about an organization swallowing Crimson Tide pods, it should probably be Washington.
Bad cop: Argh! This pick is so boring!
Good cop: Dude, the Ravens are boring! And new GM Eric DeCosta, like his mentor Newsome, will probably continue to draft for value at high-leverage positions and for needs a year or two down the road. If a defender like Murphy slips to this spot, that's who the Ravens will draft.
Bad cop: Fine. But you'd better have the Patriots doing something controversial with the last pick, like drafting a quarterback of the future or trading the pick to the Steelers for Antonio Brown or something.
Good cop: Eh, that's probably not going to happen either.
23. Houston Texans: N'Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
N'Keal Harry is a lot like Jarvis Landry.
That's meant as a compliment.
Cool football hipsters hate Landry, not so much for the player he has become but for what he represents: Hue Jackson's value system, empty fantasy PPR calories, three-yard wide receiver screens on 3rd-and-27. But strip away the inflated stats and associations with some of the NFL's least-respected coaches and quarterbacks, and you see Landry is a pretty effective possession receiver.
Landry went 21-346-2 with Baker Mayfield in December last year, adding a rushing touchdown and a 63-yard pass on a trick play. Does that sound like domestic beer to you, oh finicky wide receiver IPA snobs?
Harry, like Landry, is going to make his living getting open over the short middle and (ideally) generating yards after the catch on slants, drags and screens. That makes him the ideal complement to DeAndre Hopkins and safety valve for Deshaun Watson.
No Texan besides Hopkins caught more than 32 passes last season. Harry can diversify the passing game and soak up some targets when opponents roll all their coverage toward Hopkins. He may be what the Texans need to finally push through their playoff also-ran glass ceiling.
24. Oakland Raiders: Montez Sweat, Edge, Mississippi State
Montez Sweat dominated Senior Bowl practices but was an enigma off the field. He skipped a scheduled media session at the last minute (no biggie, though I personally plan to harbor a grudge through his Hall of Fame induction ceremony) and was the subject of some very loud whispers regarding a prickly, difficult-to-get-along-with personality.
You know who else has a prickly, difficult-to-get-along-with personality? Jon [deleted expletive] [another deleted expletive] Gruden, that's who!
Gruden didn't coach Sweat's squad at the Senior Bowl, but he coached the other squad, so he surely got a sense of what Sweat is really like. Gruden took a character risk with Arden Key and a health risk with Maurice Hurst last year, so he's not going to shy away from a challenge, assuming Sweat really is a challenge.
After recording just 13 sacks last year, the Raiders have to take a few risks in search of elite talent. Sweat has double-digit sack potential. And if the whispers are true, that might mean he's not just the ultimate Gruden guy but also the perfect old-school Raiders defender.
25. Philadelphia Eagles: Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama
Josh Jacobs reminds me a little bit of Emmitt Smith.
It's unfair to compare a draft prospect to a Hall of Famer. It's also ridiculous to compare a committee running back at the college level—Jacobs split time with Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Bo Scarbrough and others during his Crimson Tide career, rushing for just 1,491 yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons—to the NFL's all-time rushing leader.
But Jacobs has that early-Emmitt rushing style: punishing finishes, sudden cuts, shredded arm tackles and surprising receiving chops, all in a compact frame (5'10", 216 lbs) that doesn't look all that fast on tape until you see him streak past a linebacker. And it's not unusual for Alabama to have several future NFL starting running backs (plus about 40 defenders and, nowadays, two quarterbacks) backed up in its queue and splitting snaps.
The Jacobs-Emmitt stuff may just be pre-combine hype getting the better of me. So let's just say Jacobs is a great replacement for free agent Jay Ajayi who can solve the running back dilemma that limited the Eagles offense last year and that he could be a terror when running downhill against six-man defensive fronts after RPO handoffs.
But if he runs a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash this week, I'm going whole hog on the Emmitt stuff.
26. Indianapolis Colts: Johnathan Abram, S, Mississippi State
Johnathan Abram plays like Donte Whitner with road rage. He'll either develop into a Derwin James-like safety-linebacker enforcer or cost his team 45 yards per week in penalties and end up eating ramen dinners after he gives most of his salary back to the league in fines.
I got to speak to Abram during Senior Bowl week—an injury kept him off the field, but he gave some interviews—and he came across as a confident, thoughtful student-of-the-game type who will find ways to lay off the dive-stick tackles, late hits and other errors in judgment that got him, um, kicked out of an intrasquad spring game, all while remaining physical and aggressive.
Mike Mitchell, Clayton Geathers and J.J. Wilcox are all free agents, so the Colts need a safety to complement rangy free safety Malik Hooker. Other safeties are ranked ahead of Abram on many boards, but I predict he will blow teams away in interviews this week by convincing them he won't blow teammates onto injured reserve in minicamp drills.
27. Oakland Raiders: Hakeem Butler, WR, Iowa State
We helped the Raiders defense with their first two first-round picks. Now let's upgrade a receiving corps that consists of the 33-year-old Jordy Nelson, 2018 seventh-round pick Marcell Ateman, third-receiver-for-life Seth Roberts and, once free agents are removed from the roster, just about no one else.
Hakeem Butler is 6'6" and known for his Odell Beckham Jr.-style acrobatic catches. He also drops more passes than he should and doesn't create all that much separation. There are times when he looks like Michael Irvin, but there are other times when he looks like Dorial Green-Beckham. We are past the "sure things" point in this mock draft.
The Raiders might consider A.J. Brown of Ole Miss or Senior Bowl standout Deebo Samuel of South Carolina. But new general manager Mike Mayock is a tools guy, and Jon Gruden likes his receivers big. Assuming Butler tests well this week (his 40 will be fine, but keep an eye on the short shuttles), he'll be in demand as a high-upside pick. And the Raiders need as much upside as they can get.
28. Los Angeles Chargers: Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
The Chargers are at their best when deploying speedy hybrid players like Derwin James as multipurpose defenders in six- or seven-defensive back base personnel packages. But the Patriots revealed one (obvious, in hindsight) drawback of going with the basketball-style "small lineup" on early downs: It left the Chargers vulnerable to smashmouth tactics.
Enter Lawrence, a 350-pound gap plugger, double-team occupier and run stuffer with the athleticism to be more than just a stationary obstacle between the guards. Lawrence would be an instant upgrade over Brandon Mebane, who has been an overpriced blocking sled for years and is now a free agent.
Lawrence was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs at the end of his college career; he vowed to "just tell the truth" to teams at the combine, while Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has suggested that, heck, maybe the team gave some of its players a little ostarine by accident somehow. Oh, those wacky NCAA powerhouses; aren't they something?
Swinney may not be able to pay his players or guarantee that no one slipped a little something special into their oatmeal, but it was nice of him to provide plausible deniability. The NFL won't hold PEDs against Lawrence. And he'll keep the Chargers from getting run over in next year's playoffs.
29. Kansas City Chiefs: Nasir Adderley, S, Delaware
If you like Alabama's Deionte Thompson or Washington's Taylor Rapp better than Nasir Adderley, you can personalize this mock draft by replacing him with one of them for no additional charge.
Either way, the Chiefs need an upgrade in the secondary or they will be doomed to losing shootouts when it matters most.
Adderley, who had an excellent Senior Bowl week, looks like a better fit than Thompson in both the Chiefs defense and the current NFL. He has exceptional speed and instincts, making him more of a safety-cornerback hybrid than a traditional free safety. He could have Malcolm Jenkins potential once he ramps up from FCS competition to the NFL.
30. Green Bay Packers: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa
Remember how excited you were when the Packers signed Jimmy Graham last season? Hooray! A weapon in the middle of the field for Aaron Rodgers! Rodgers won't have to roll his eyes in disgust because no one is open and roll to his right while directing downfield traffic anymore!
Well, it turns out Rodgers might just enjoy approaching his playbook with contempt. And Graham's skills have deteriorated to the point where he's not much more than a king-sized, slow-footed slot possession receiver who blocks like he doesn't want to make any enemies.
The University of Iowa somehow found itself with two first-round-caliber tight ends and not much else at the skill positions last year. T.J. Hockenson, the more polished all-purpose tight end, was mocked to the Titans with the 19th pick. Noah Fant generated more big plays (19 career touchdowns to nine) and is likely to test better this week.
Fant is lot like Eric Ebron: a toolsy seam stretcher who could be a touchdown factory if deployed creatively (as the Colts did) or could just become a disappearing decoy if used predictably (as the Lions did).
The new Packers coaching staff is expected to be more creative than the last one; after all, the folks who select motel paintings are more creative than the last Packers coaching staff. That should make Rodgers a little less skeptical of his own game plans and more eager to get the ball to his new tight end.
31. Los Angeles Rams: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
The Rams defense looked pretty darn good in the Super Bowl (let's not talk about the offense) but spent most of the season failing to live up to its billing or price tag. It needs an influx of speed and energy, particularly at linebacker, where Mark Barron, a converted hybrid safety, has never had the size to be an interior thumper and appears to be winding down.
I'm a bit of a Devin Bush skeptic, because he lacks sideline-to-sideline range and could end up a liability in pass coverage against Alvin Kamara or James White types. But he's a big hitter between the tackles and a nasty blitzer, and he fits the style and tone of the Rams defense.
Alabama safety Deionte Thompson and Washington safety Taylor Rapp are also options with this pick if the Rams move on from free agent safety Lamarcus Joyner. Basically, look for them to scoop up the best defender who slips to the end of the round.
32. New England Patriots: Jeffery Simmons, DL, Mississippi State
Hey, it's just the Patriots doing Patriots stuff: drafting for value instead of need, sifting for bargains at the bottom of a round, zagging when the rest of the NFL zigs.
Jeffery Simmons earned early-first-round grades before tearing his ACL in mid-February. The Patriots like to scoop up defensive line talent at the end of the first round (Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones) and aren't afraid to take a chance on an injury case (Easley).
Another player to keep an eye on is Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown, who suffered a Lisfranc injury while preparing for the combine. Brown is tiny (5'10", 168 lbs) but has exceptional speed and quickness. Can you think of a team that makes the most out of receivers who fit that profile?
Or maybe the Patriots can trade down, nab two picks in the second round and draft both Simmons and Brown. It will be like getting three first-round picks in 2020!
Hey, it wouldn't be a first-round mock draft if it didn't end with speculation that the Patriots would pull some galaxy-brain maneuver on the rest of the NFL.