Our last mock draft was nearly 50 days ago, and it’s amazing to see how much has changed — and think how much will change in the five-plus months before the 2017 NFL draft.
The biggest changes come at quarterback, where Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (who said this week he’d declare for the draft, as expected) slides down toward the bottom of Round 1 in this rough projection. We’re still bullish on his chances to go high if he plays the way he did down the backstretch of last season and was routinely mentioned as a possible top-three pick. Check out the reasoning for the slide — do you think it’s plausible?
We also had to keep some very talented players — including two from the Pac-12, UCLA pass rusher Takkarist McKinley and Stanford RB Christian McCaffery — out of our first-round stab, even though both have lots of NFL attention. That certainly could change too.
Here’s version 2.0 — and our final mock draft of the 2016 calendar year.
Author’s note: Draft order is determined by reverse of teams’ records, with the first tiebreaker being opponents’ winning percentage. And though the final two picks of Round 1 go to the Super Bowl runners-up and winners, we are not projecting the Dallas Cowboys to beat the New England Patriots, for instance; they just have the stronger opponents’ win percentage of the two 7-1 teams.
1. Cleveland Browns — Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
When I reassessed the Browns’ draft status after the Jamie Collins trade, what I saw was a wealth of picks that could allow the team to take the best player available, regardless of position. That would be either Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, and lord knows the Browns need more defensive reinforcements.
I also look at the praise Hue Jackson has issued 2016 third-rounder Cody Kessler — as well as the traits the Browns valued in him coming out — and believe they are not done trying to develop him as a possible starter. His physical skills, after all, might even be considered below-average by NFL standards.
But for now, let’s defer to my smarter, well-connected colleague, Charles Robinson, who surmises that the QB-needy Browns might opt for Kizer and his enticing skills over a defensive tone setter. With four more picks in the top 65 selections (as of now), the Browns have the means to improve the defense further down the line, where quarterbacks are harder to find.
2. San Francisco 49ers — Texas A&M OLB Myles Garrett
With a defense that has been unsightly this season, the 49ers cannot afford to bypass a rare talent such as Garrett, a defensive end who easily could transition to a standup position. Yes, he’s an edge player and one of the finest rushers in the country. But he also plays the run with great leverage and can be a three-down defender from Day 1. Aaron Lynch’s suspension and health questions make the edge need even greater.
3. Chicago Bears — North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky
We’re still doing work on Trubisky, who is this year’s Carson Wentz in terms of an unexpected in-season stock spike. Trubisky is by no means a perfect prospect, and another year in school might help his development. But Trubisky, who turns 23 in August, could come out now and be drafted in the high first round with a strong finish and good postseason performance through the draft cycle, a la Wentz.
They’re different players but could have similar draft paths. The Bears have no developmental QB on the roster and could move on from Jay Cutler without a big financial hit.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars — LSU S Jamal Adams
The Jaguars’ direction at season’s end is unclear, but we know this much: A talented roster needs a dose of leadership and stability. Whichever coach comes on to replace Gus Bradley likely will see a secondary that often is flailing around and rife with communication errors.
Safeties can be a tough sell in the top five picks (the last one to go that high was Eric Berry in 2010), but Adams has the tangibles and intangibles to warrant being picked this high. From NFL.com: “Scouts at the Alabama-LSU game were buzzing about Adams’ leadership and the influence he can have in a locker room.” That’s what the Jaguars need.
5. New York Jets — Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
I can’t believe the Jets will draft another quarterback — that would be five years in a row they’ve taken one and two of those in the top 50 picks — here unless they absolutely were in love with the player.
Maybe a quarterback such as Watson would charm them throughout the process — imagine the buzz that pick would make with this team? But while another Alabama corner might not endear the fan base, we’re not going to let a whiff on Dee Milliner (from the previous regime, no less) veer us away from Humphrey, an NFL-ready talent at a need position.
6. Tennessee Titans (via Los Angeles Rams) — Alabama DT Jonathan Allen
One of the most impactful players in college football, Allen would be an ideal complement to Jurrell Casey and a huge building block the Titans could add because of the 2016 trade with the Rams involving Jared Goff. Allen would fit the pattern that general manager Jon Robinson wanted to toughen up on the interior and help build up what could be a very good front seven in short order.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
Barnett was overlooked in in my first mock draft. My initial feeling: he was a good, well-rounded but perhaps not special, edge talent. However, Barnett has shown a very diverse game and has moved around well at 265 pounds. He’s not in Garrett’s class, but he could be a nice end to pair with Noah Spence in a division where attacking the quarterback is additionally important.
8. Carolina Panthers — LSU RB Leonard Fournette
There’s a correlation between the Panthers’ success offensively and the presence of a healthy Jonathan Stewart taking pressure off Cam Newton. With Stewart set to turn 30 next year and with a body that has taken a beating, adding a big back such as Fournette could add a new dimension to this system.
GM Dave Gettleman has eschewed backs high in his four drafts with the Panthers, but the common denominator for what he has sought with his top picks has been a rare physical skills, whether it was Vernon Butler or Kelvin Benjamin or Shaq Thompson. All were almost unique athletes, and Fournette’s size-speed combination fits that bill as a way to loosen defenses aiming at taking out Newton.
9. Arizona Cardinals — Alabama LB Reuben Foster
Others might disagree, but Kevin Minter looks like a good two-down player and eminently replaceable. Foster might not reach Patrick Willis levels in his NFL career, but he has some rare ability and could add another versatile and game-changing defender to this unit. The Cardinals need to think about life after Carson Palmer, and Calais Campbell might need some help up front. But we love Foster and believe he’ll be special.
10. Cincinnati Bengals — Michigan S-LB Jabrill Peppers
The Bengals never have shied away from elite, versatile talents — even those who do not fit perfectly in a box. That’s why Peppers is here, even if his pro position might not clearly be defined. The Bengals have coverage liabilities, especially against running backs and tight ends, and could stand to upgrade over both safety Shawn Williams and linebacker Rey Maualuga in that regard. If you saw the Bengals try to cover Rob Gronkowski earlier this season, you’ll know what we mean.
Peppers might have the ability to track more physical pass catchers in a playmaking/hybrid role and add elite athleticism to that side of the ball. He also could add much-needed juice to the return game and give the offense an occasional trick-play artist that the team has lacked since Mohamed Sanu left town.
11. Tennessee Titans — USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Smith-Schuster and Clemson’s Mike Williams are starting to heat up at the right time after uneven starts to the season, and though bordering on the top 10 feels rich for either right now, we could see the WR-needy Titans wanting to help Marcus Mariota with a player who fits the profile of a No. 1 target. They currently have nothing resembling that on the roster.
12. Indianapolis Colts — Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
We’ve argued the past few years that no team has ignored its needs in the trenches more than the Colts … and yet here we are. Cook might not provide the Colts with the impact of an Ezekiel Elliott, but Cook’s ability as a runner and receiver would be a terrific addition for Andrew Luck, who has played well but needs more help. Cook has taken pressure off a freshman quarterback this season and might be the most explosive playmaker in this draft class.
13. San Diego Chargers — Alabama OT Cam Robinson
It hasn’t served the Chargers well to bypass tackles high in the draft in recent years, and this pick feels more need than commensurate talent fit. Robinson might be the best offensive line prospect in the draft, although there is debate whether he deserves to go this high. The flip side is that he will be long gone by the time the Chargers pick again. With Philip Rivers in his twilight, and starters King Dunlap and Joe Barksdale average-to-below-average performers at their positions, Robinson would fill a big need.
14. Miami Dolphins — Stanford DE Solomon Thomas
The Dolphins could cut ties with Mario Williams (even with some better play of late) and make him a salary cap casualty in the offseason, but even if they don’t, Thomas fits the same mold of a power end capable of rushing the passer. This is the kind of player who can help contain a quarterback such as Tyrod Taylor in the pocket and also pressure a Tom Brady with his length and athleticism. Thomas is a fast riser who could keep trending upward in the coming months.
15. Buffalo Bills — Ohio State S Malik Hooker
A raw player who could remain in school beyond his third-year sophomore season, Hooker nonetheless might be the most exciting, raw secondary player available in this draft. He’d be a perfect fit to be mentored by Bills secondary coach Ed Reed and provide another playmaker for Rex and Rob Ryan’s defense. Hooker has range, hitting ability and terrific instincts, even if his game needs a coat of polish to it.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers — Auburn OLB-DE Carl Lawson
The Steelers need another cornerback a year after drafting Artis Burns in Round 1, but they also need edge talent. Jarvis Jones was not offered a fifth-year tender and likely is gone, and James Harrison can’t keep on keeping on forever. Lawson has filled up the stat sheets with sacks and tackles for loss this season and could be a nice fit in a 3-4 scheme where he wouldn’t be caught up in the trash as much and can rush the passer freely.
17. New Orleans Saints — Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham
The Commodores’ do-it-all playmaker has been all over the field this season and has been one of the best college players few are talking about. He blocked a field goal against Auburn in a Jamie Collins-esque display of athleticism and could project to that kind of four-down player in the NFL with his rare blend of athleticism, length and toughness.
— Zac Ellis (@ZacEllisVU) November 8, 2016
18. Green Bay Packers — Iowa CB Desmond King
This is a pure guess, and if you tell us you believe the Packers would be better off addressing the offensive line (Indiana OG Dan Feeney?) or adding another playmaker (such as McCaffery or Alabama TE O.J. Howard) we might nod along with you silently. But guessing which direction GM Ted Thompson might go this early in the game — or, heck, 24 hours before the draft even — is a fool’s errand.
King is a smart, savvy ballhawk who would fit the Packers’ zone-heavy scheme (and a good returner candidate) and fill a position that has been gutted by injury and departures.
19. Browns (via Philadelphia Eagles) — Ohio State CB Gareon Conley
Given that we mocked Kizer first to the Browns, the emphasis quickly shifts to the defensive side of the ball. Conley is a well-built savvy cover man who could be the next in line of Buckeyes corners to fit into the first round of the draft. The fact that he played his high school ball down the road at Massillon in a stadium named for Paul Brown is a cool connection to the franchise’s glory days of yore.
20. Detroit Lions — Michigan State DL Malik McDowell
There’s still the question of whether he’ll declare early, but McDowell has acquitted himself very well even as the Spartans have struggled. He has been a consistent force, playing multiple techniques on the defensive line, and figures to fit a pro mold for a defense that could use a few more bodies up front. Even with an ankle injury against Illinois, McDowell is trending toward being a top-20 pick if he comes out. He’ll score well in GM Bob Quinn’s scouting department and would be a nice addition here.
21. Baltimore Ravens — Florida CB Teez Tabor
The Ravens know they need more young talent on defense, and Tabor would fit the bill of a gifted player with some warts whom GM Ozzie Newsome might be willing to roll the dice on. Tabor can man up with speed receivers and had shown a knack for making big plays, but his overconfidence has been noted by more than one evaluator. However, on a defense such as the Ravens, that might be viewed as a positive. At times, he has been overshadowed this season by teammate Quincy Wilson, but Tabor has big-time ability.
22. Washington Redskins — Michigan DL Taco Charlton
Charlton is the type of fast-rising, lower-mileage player who could fit into the late first-round mix with continued momentum, as the 6-foot-6, 285-pound force player has expanded his game with a big influx of reps. He has played as both 3-4 end and 4-3 end and has the wingspan to be a disruptor in a division that suddenly has added two franchise quarterbacks this season. GM Scot McCloughan won’t cease seeking help in the trenches.
23. Philadelphia Eagles (via Minnesota Vikings) — Clemson WR Mike Williams
The Eagles desperately need playmakers who can either gain yards after the catch or go up and high-point the ball. Williams can do both, and that would be a huge asset for Carson Wentz, who right now is limited by the talent around him. The Eagles can’t open up the offense without more talent outside, but adding Williams would be a nice first step as he has WR1 potential.
24. New York Giants — Florida State DE Demarcus Walker
The Giants have two potential big free agents on their defensive line, end Jason Pierre-Paul and tackle Johnathan Hankins, and likely can’t re-sign both given all the money they committed to that side of the ball this offseason. JPP, as good as he is, might be the one they let go, which would open up a pass-rush spot (if Owa Odighizuwa continues to underwhelm). Walker had two sacks against N.C. State this past weekend, has matched his 2015 total (10.5) and is chasing the FSU school record for sacks. His decision to come back to school was wise, and he has been the best player on the Seminoles’ defense and a noted leader.
25. Houston Texans — Florida LB Jarrad Davis
Finding a perfect match here is tough. The Texans loaded up on skill-position players, and though they could use a bit more offensive line help, the right prospect doesn’t pop off the page here. So we went with Davis, whose sideline-to-sideline range is impressive and who could add a much-needed dose of speed to the Texans’ LB unit.
26. Seattle Seahawks — Indiana OG Dan Feeney
One of the best pass-blocking interior players to be available in recent years, Feeney nonetheless had some midseason concussion concerns that he had to work through. Assuming he suffers no further issues and tests out medically, he has a chance to work his way into the late Round 1 mix. No better team to land with than the Seahawks, who have mixed and matched their way to mediocrity up front, even if tackle might be the more concerning OL need.
27. Atlanta Falcons — Washington CB Sidney Jones
The Falcons know they must re-sign Desmond Trufant but could lose Robert Alford to some team willing to overpay him. So why not pair Trufant with another former UW corner in Jones, who might lack elite athleticism but has done a good job battling with Pac-12 receivers. He’s physical, which matches what this coaching staff seeks in a tough zone corner.
28. Denver Broncos — Washington DT Elijah Qualls
It’s back-to-back Huskies here in Round 1 as the Broncos seek to replenish the depth up front. They could use a talented run stopper and sneaky good penetrator such as Qualls, who moves well for his reported 320 pounds and has a personality to match this colorful defense. Qualls has played multiple techniques and possesses more talent, even as a junior, than some defensive linemen the Broncos currently rotate in.
29. Kansas City Chiefs — Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Yes, we’re ready to defend this. Are you ready? Here goes: If Kizer and Trubisky go 1 and 3, respectively, we’re not sure there’s a team from there to here who absolutely has to draft Watson, where fit and need match well.
Could the Cardinals or Redskins think long and hard, contingent on where they are with Carson Palmer and Kirk Cousins, respectively? For sure. And there’s always a trade-up possibility that can’t be predicted — maybe the 49ers, in a Paxton Lynch-like deal, from the top of Round 2 somewhere higher in Round 1. But teams such as the Giants and Steelers, as much as they might need to develop young quarterbacks, are unlikely to pull the trigger earlier on Watson.
If there is a team that could, it might be the Chiefs and noted QB collector Andy Reid. Alex Smith’s contract likely keeps him the starter in 2017, and Nick Foles appears to be in the team’s plans in some form. But Watson might be the type of rare combination of arm talent, athleticism and mental toughness that is too hard for Reid to pass up here. Again, that’s if Watson slides, which would not be stunning given his hot-and-cold season and questions of durability and accuracy. He’s a high-ceiling prospect but not one without warts and concerns.
30. Oakland Raiders — Florida CB Quincy Wilson
Some believe Wilson is actually better than Tabor, so landing a potential No. 1 corner at this portion of the draft would be a steal for the Raiders, who have had productive drafts in recent years. There’s a good chance Wilson continues to rise to where falling to this spot would be unlikely, but he has the size and skills to upgrade a secondary that could use some more youth.
31. New England Patriots — Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk
A late bloomer, Ramczyk has opened eyes this season after falling below scouts’ radars until recently. He has been an anchor at left tackle for the Badgers after transferring from Division-III Wisconsin-Stevens Point and sitting out last season. Other than a tough game against Taco Charlton and Michigan, Ramczyk — tough, athletic and smart — has been nothing short of outstanding.
One area scout we talked to who has written up Ramczyk said there’s already a debate in scouting circles over whether he is a better pass blocker or run blocker, so he certainly has their attention now. If he declares early, Ramczyk could be an almost ideal Patriots offensive lineman in the Nate Solder-Logan Mankins-Joe Thuney mold from an intangibles and athleticism standpoint.
32. Dallas Cowboys — Alabama pass-rush specialist Tim Williams
We debated keeping Williams in Round 1, as he remains something of a specialist, reportedly has a personality that has turned off at least one scout and must answer questions about his in-season arrest. But having watched him contribute to a defensive dissection of LSU last week, we feel better about Williams — and could see him rise back up into the top 20 picks with more momentum.
Most impressive was Williams’ play against the run, helping stop Fournette in his tracks. Run defense had been his biggest on-field question, but Williams is starting to show a more well-rounded game and boost his NFL stock again. The Cowboys would be thrilled to add an edge rusher of his explosion this late in the draft.
Best remaining players available:
UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley
Stanford RB Christian McCaffery
Ohio State RB-WR Curtis Samuel
Michigan CB Jourdain Lewis
Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Miami (Fla.) QB Brad Kaaya
Michigan TE Jake Butt
Missouri DE Charles Harris
Washington S Budda Baker
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