We’re about to hit the quarter-season mark of college football, which has started to help shape the 2017 NFL draft picture a bit. Is it still terribly fuzzy? Yes, but we can start to make out some big shapes and colors of the top prospects from a distance.
Likewise, we still don’t know which teams truly are good and bad in the NFL, and even which direction they might need to head in — gasp — roughly seven months when the draft rolls into Philadelphia.
We’ve had a few broad-sketch conversations about the potential draft field with people in the league, but fair warning: This requires a lot of slightly educated guesswork. Here’s a draft order that’s the inverse of Frank Schwab’s Week 3 power rankings, so don’t get too frisky about that right now. (Yes, we know the Steelers and Patriots can’t meet in the Super Bowl.)
Here’s our first mock draft for 2017 — and, of course, we will enjoy looking back in the spring and see how much has changed.
1. Cleveland Browns
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer
Even if Robert Griffin III hadn’t suffered an unfortunate injury in Week 1, it’s very likely the Browns — well-armed with draft ammo — would want to handpick their successor. What, you’re expecting Cody Kessler to steal the show? The allure and upside of Kizer (a Toledo native, for what that’s worth … football’s LeBron James?) might tantalize the Browns’ new regime more than Deshaun Watson, who is off to a so-so start this season. It feels like a Jared Goff/Carson Wentz type situation again, albeit without the trade fireworks as the opening act.
2. Chicago Bears
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
The Bears might be regretting passing on a quarterback in 2016 given the solid depth of the class and the sudden need of a developmental prospect with Jay Cutler hurt and Brian Hoyer currently operating as a one-year fill-in. Cutler is owed no guaranteed money beyond this season, so moving on from him would be easy. Welcoming Watson, a big-play artist with skills developmental needs, would be the biggest QB story in the Windy City since the Cutler trade nearly eight years ago.
3. Miami Dolphins
Texas A&M LB-DE Myles Garrett
Cam Wake is a part-time player who might be in his Miami swan song. Mario Williams and Jason Jones are thirtysomething players being asked to play a lot of snaps. The Dolphins need a jolt of energy off the edge to complement Ndamukong Suh, and Garrett is just that. The Von Miller comps are not that outlandish. Garrett is an absolute monster and a candidate to be the first pick of the draft, depending on how the chips fall.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Clemson WR Mike Williams
They’ve drafted a defender first each of the past four years and are in dire need of some elite offensive talent to help make Chip Kelly’s system go. The natural spot to start is at quarterback, and Kizer and Watson would have to be very much in play if they end up drafting in this range. Right now, this feels very high for Williams, but he is every bit the type of talent that the Tigers have produced in recent years. A clean bill of health could ensure his spot in the top dozen or so picks. Kelly loves big receivers with the ability to high point and win in the air. The 49ers currently have no such receiver.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Alabama DL Jonathan Allen
The Jaguars continue to frustrate when it comes to results, and there could be a coaching change at season’s end if things continue down the same road after an 0-2 start. Imagine the coaches who would jump at the chance to work with a defense that could feature Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue and Allen? The latter is a multi-technique force who can fit any scheme and wreck blockers with his rare size-quickness combo. Jared Odrick carries a big salary cap number in 2017, and Sen’Derrick Marks carries injury questions.
6. New Orleans Saints
Michigan S-LB Jabrill Peppers
The hybrid “star” safety/SLB position is all the rage right now, and Peppers is raging on the field playing that role. He’s maybe college football’s most diverse defender and would be a threat on returns as well. It would be a sight to have Sean Payton drawing up an offensive package for him. But Peppers’ main calling card is defense. Want Peppers checking the Greg Olsens of the world? He can do that. Spy Cam Newton? Key on Doug Martin? Check, check. A special talent goes to a defensive-hungry team.
7. San Diego Chargers
Michigan State DT Malik McDowell
At some point they’ll need to start beefing up an offense that has suffered a slew of injuries and will be replacing Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers before you know it. But the board gives them a long-limbed, powerful and tenacious 5-technique who can be an anchor up front alongside Corey Liuget, Joey Bosa and Co. If you watched any of the Michigan State-Notre Dame game, you might have come to see Kizer, but you couldn’t help but notice McDowell.
8. Tennessee Titans
LSU S Jamar Adams
We saw hard-hitting safeties go high last season with mid-first rounders Karl Joseph and Keanu Neal, and though the jury very much is out on both of them, we have noticed a league-wide trend for marking up this type of defender. Adams is a tone setter for the Tigers’ defense and has the size and athleticism to play enough roles to justify the pick. There are quality skill-position players throughout the AFC South whom the Titans know they need to eliminate.
9. Buffalo Bills
Alabama OT Cam Robinson
Assuming Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland have smooth recoveries, the defense was addressed thoroughly early in this year’s draft. The Bills’ needs are not crystal clear, but they certainly could upgrade over journeyman Jordan Mills at right tackle — and protect franchise QB Tyrod Taylor — with a player in Robinson whose character questions are worth monitoring but whose talent is pretty evident. The talent appears to drop off precipitously in what appears to be a slimmer class at tackle.
10. Titans (from Los Angeles Rams)
Florida CB Teez Tabor
A double dose of DBs in Round 1? Why not? Jason McCourty will be entering the final year of his deal, and last we saw of Perrish Cox he was getting steamrolled by Matthew Stafford. Tabor, who changed his name from Jalen over the summer, played in the shadow of Vernon Hargreaves III the past few seasons but might have even better upside. He’s a four-down player, too, with great special-teams ability, which will appeal to general manager Jon Robinson, who cut his teeth in a New England Patriots factory that placed added value on that element.
11. Washington Redskins
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Don’t overlook the possibility of, say, Alabama’s Reuben Foster here over the glaring need for a playmaker in the backfield. But even GM Scot McCloughan, who incessantly preaches a best-player-available approach to the draft, can’t deny the game-changing ability of a back such as Cook, who could be the fire to Matt Jones’ ice (or something) and be a weapon as a pass catcher in Jay Gruden’s short passing game.
12. Indianapolis Colts
LSU RB Leonard Fournette
Fournette after Cook? Well, it’s one pick later — and again, this is all very fluid. Think in terms of ballparks, not seating sections. We’re trying to match talents with teams, systems, coaches and needs. Wouldn’t Fournette be a nice addition for a team that badly needs a counterpunch offensively? Yes, the needs on defense and the offensive line have not disappeared. But there’s some sense to this pairing.
13. Atlanta Falcons
Alabama LB Reuben Foster
Neal was drafted for his toughness and to fill the Kam Chancellor role in Dan Quinn’s defense. Couldn’t you see Foster filling that same role at linebacker? The Falcons drafted Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell at the position, and they appear to like both. But neither offer the explosiveness that Foster does as Quinn keeps adding nastiness to his defense. Foster has been on fire early this season. He is, as one of our favorite scouts likes to say, “a dude.”
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stanford WR-RB Christian McCaffery
Yes, McCaffery is listed as a receiver first here, but he is a do-it-all weapon. (We’ll spare you the Reggie Bush comp for the 713th time.) Perhaps McCaffery can be viewed as a bit of a rich man’s Adam Humphries (it’s a joke, chill), but the Buccaneers want to continue insulating Jameis Winston with as strong a support staff as possible. Dirk Koetter had a tremendous runner/receiver/return man a generation ago in Maurice Jones-Drew, and though he and McCaffery are different players, we could see that type of hybrid role being exactly what the Bucs could use more of.
15. Detroit Lions
Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
Humphrey has been a steady riser in the early part of the draft process, and his size (6-1, 201 pounds) and strong tackling ability would make him an ideal fit across from Darius Slay. The handsy Nevin Lawson might not be an ideal starter, and Humphrey (the son of former Tide running back Bobby, in case you were wondering) would make a lot of sense being the pick of second-year GM Bob Quinn, who made some safe, smart picks in his first crack this past draft.
16. Oakland Raiders
Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan
Ben Heeney and Malcolm Smith are solid players, but not game changers. Jack Del Rio has been disappointed in his defense’s performance thus far, and too much damage is happening in the middle of the field. Drafting a middle linebacker this high might feel a bit rich, but Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. (if he’s still the coordinator in 2017) are two throwback linebackers who will warm up to McMillan quickly once the tape rolls.
17. Dallas Cowboys
Missouri DE Charles Harris
The Cowboys can’t count on Randy Gregory going forward and have to assume anything he provides is a bonus. Harris, who is starting to heat up following a big game against Georgia, is an edge rusher with exciting pass-rush potential. Coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has been working minor miracles without a lot of talent up front, badly needs more help. With the right teaching and refinement, Harris could be special.
18. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia Eagles)
Alabama linebacker Tim Williams
They need help everywhere. After finding a QB with their first pick, the Browns’ analytics team lands on Williams, who is perhaps college football’s most effective player on a per-snap rate. He’s a flashy, explosive edge rusher who has terrific upside to hunt down the quality passers in the AFC North. Assuming the Browns’ scouting staff watched the Cotton Bowl closely to scout Connor Cook this past draft, they surely saw a lot of Williams heating up the edge. He must, however, continue proving himself as a three-down player.
19. Baltimore Ravens
Illinois DE-OLB Dawuane Smoot
Smoot starred at the “Leo” pass-rush position a year ago for the Illini and is still warming up in Lovie Smith’s defense, but he has opened things up for bookend DE Carroll Phillips while seeing extra blocking attention. GM Ozzie Newsome doesn’t overly care about production (although the Ravens’ scouting staff tracks and places some emphasis on sacks) as he does about traits and ability. Smoot has them and could heat up soon. The Ravens need down-the-road replacements for Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
20. New York Jets
Iowa CB Desmond King
The Jets’ defense looks fantastic so far — except for all those darned big plays they allow. Cornerback is a short- and long-term need (Revis Island sinking before our eyes?), and King is a battle-tested and instinctive corner who can play the field as a ballhawk and a willing tackler. He had eight interceptions in a Thorpe Award-winning 2015 campaign and has stood out so far this season against the run, shedding blocks and making tackles.
21. New York Giants
Oregon RB Royce Freeman
It could come down to a late first-round spot between Freeman and Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who had a fantastic opener but has been held relatively in check since. If Freeman’s leg injury checks out, he could prove to be a lead back prospect with a lot more value in this system than Rashad Jennings, who turns 32 in March and has been average the past few seasons. Imagine the power of Freeman complementing the spread formations with Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard.
22. Kansas City Chiefs
Miami QB Brad Kaaya
Andy Reid is constantly looking to upgrade at quarterback, and he could land a very good fit for his rhythm offense in Kaaya, who is accurate and poised with good mechanics. The ideal progression here would be to start Alex Smith this season and next, and hand the ball to Kaaya in 2018. (What, no Nick Foles?) Reid has drafted a Mark Richt-coached quarterback before, too, in Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Kaaya just turned 21 after starting as a true freshman and might have his best ball ahead of him.
23. Green Bay Packers
Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Perhaps Mike McCarthy doesn’t care for two-TE formations or doesn’t plan to feature the position without the requisite mismatch piece in place. But Howard has a high ceiling if he can hone his game even more. Keen evaluators will notice the obvious traits Howard possesses, even if it’s hard not to notice that he suffers occasional concentration lapses, isn’t a dominant blocker and coordinator Lane Kiffin tends to forget about him for maddeningly long stretches. But boy, that upside.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota Vikings)
Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey
Jason Peters has been a rock for a decade but is approaching his expiration date. Lane Johnson is a great talent but could be down to his final strike despite the Eagles giving him a contract extension. Carson Wentz looks like the real deal in the early going, so building a wall — and the 6-foot-7, 314-pounder can easily be compared to that — around their franchise QB makes a lot of sense. McGlinchey is a serious-minded team leader who would be a nice addition to the new-wave Eagles.
25. Denver Broncos
Michigan TE Jake Butt
Butt is not Gronk 2.0 as some have suggested; his blocking isn’t up to that level. There might never be another, after all. But Butt is a tall, fluid pass catcher and route runner who would be an ideal seam weapon in Gary Kubiak’s offense. He can line up wide, used in motion, as a slot receiver and as an in-line tight end, and being coached up by Jim Harbaugh is only a plus in NFL evaluators’ minds. Give Paxton Lynch a target this long and skilled to throw to, and the transition becomes that much easier.
26. Houston Texans
Utah DL Lowell Lotulelei
The Texans can’t count on Vince Wilfork forever, and they’ll want to find a gap-eating replacement who can free up single blocking (as much as possible, anyway) for J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. The younger brother of Carolina Panthers nose tackle Star Lotulelei plays with power and a strong base. An unsexy pick but one who would fit in nicely with Bill O’Brien’s budding machine.
27. Cincinnati Bengals
USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Bengals could use another outside threat to complement A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Tyler Boyd and Gio Bernard in the passing game. There’s a concern with how slowly Smith-Schuster has started this season, but few receivers possess his natural ability. He might not be super fast, and maturity questions have bubbled up after his early season tantrum, but Smith-Schuster has a high ceiling.
28. Seattle Seahawks
Ohio State OG Pat Elfein
The Seahawks can’t mess around with the offensive line too much longer. They used two draft picks to help the unit this past spring, but they need more. The hard-nosed Elfein could fit at any of the three interior spots and has the pedigree to be a Day 1 starter on a group that has played musical chairs for far too long now.
29. Arizona Cardinals
Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges
Not everyone is convinced he belongs in the first-round discussion, but Hodges has rare dimensions (6-foot-6, 242 pounds) and could be a tough cover in a vertical passing game. He also could help offset the eventual retirement of Larry Fitzgerald in the next few seasons. Bruce Arians rolls the dice on another former Hokie to add a new element to his offense.
30. Carolina Panthers
Auburn DE Carl Lawson
Lawson might not be an elite pass rusher, per se, but he has the motor, ability to transfer speed to power and the violence needed to thrive in Carolina’s system. Those are all the kinds of things that allowed Charles Johnson to post 52.5 sacks in a five-year span. But that was a few years into his career, and Lawson might need some seasoning to reach that level. The Panthers have the DL talent to wait it out, but they need to generate more pressure overall.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers
USC CB-PR-KR-WR Adoree’ Jackson
The Steelers long have sought versatile, highly athletic players, and Jackson has the perfect makeup to continue rebuilding Pittsburgh’s secondary and return teams — with the potential to be sprinkled in as an offensive weapon. He played 657 snaps on defense last year, plus 157 apiece on offense and special teams. Jackson is far from a finished product, but he is an elite athlete worth grooming. He already has a 77-yard punt return touchdown and an interception this season, and is expected to have an expanded role on offense in the coming weeks.
32. New England Patriots
North Carolina WR Mack Hollins
His traits as a receiver with great speed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds are obvious, especially when you look at his eye-popping 24.8-yard receiving average and eight TDs last season — despite a mere 30 catches. But what will open the eyes of the Patriots’ staff just as much is his special-teams ability. He has been a three-year captain there, playing all four core units, and the former walk-on has stressed how important he views that element of the game. Many might view teammate Ryan Switzer as the next Welker/Edelman/Amendola, but Hollins has a perfect Patriots makeup and fills a need as a big outside receiver they can groom. Hollins in Round 1 too rich for you? The Patriots seldom care about such things; besides, they’ll probably trade down anyway.
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